Len Jenkin, Like I Sayby Brook Stowe
The lemur zombies. Staggering Night of the Living Dead-style through an exclusive Italian spa, this pack of rapidly-aging Beautiful People desperately craves the retreat’s pampering specialty: an elixir of eternal youth, a beyond-botox concoction extracted from a cute-looking little African primate and administered by the mysteriously sinister Dr. Moto.
But now the last monkey has been drained, the magic potion depleted, and the youthful-looking but ancient clientele of the Strella Nova Spa is desperate for a fix. Desperate to evade the inevitable. Desperate to beat death. To be eternally young. Forever beautiful.
They stagger through the spa, past Coconut Joe from Kokomo (Indiana, that is) a stoically prototypical American fruit company employee on a business trip to Europe to find the perfect coconut. Coconut Joe literally rolled into the spa down the side of a mountain after escaping a prison detail where he had been forced to shovel radioactive sludge after being double-crossed and left for dead by his treacherous German coconut connection.
"I’m hallucinating!" Joe exclaims at one point.
Watching Like I Say, playwright Len Jenkin’s new "sober-minded comedy" opening at the Flea Theater in TriBeCa November 5th, you may often feel as though you are hallucinating as well. Or at least under the profound influence of, if not lemur serum, the demonically twisted, explosive theatricality that is Jenkin’s singular vision, a vision that is by turns gleefully chaotic and wistfully reflective.
What’s more, the story of Coconut Joe from Kokomo is just a subplot.
The "real" story in Like I Say takes place in the Hotel Splendide, a once grand, now "barely habitable wreck" situated somewhere on the American coast. The tale of Coconut Joe is spun from the fragmentally fertile mind of Isaiah Sandoval, whom Jenkin’s script describes simply as "a dreamer"— a destitute, self-loathing writer shacked up at the Splendide with his lovely young caretaker, Rose.
As Rose struggles to keep Isaiah on his medication and off attempts at suicide as she receives complimentary tattoos from resident Hotel artist Mr. Schwarzberg, Isaiah spins tales of Coconut Joe’s harrowing through-the-looking-glass quest for the perfect coconut. And, just as the wicked Baron Dramer bashed Joe over the head with a nine-iron and left him for dead in Germany, so has a mysterious foreign couple checked into the Hotel Splendide with designs upon a certain red suitcase rumored to be stuffed with cash and in Isaiah’s possession.
On a bare Flea Theater rehearsal space transformed for the moment into the luxurious Strella Nova health spa, Len Jenkin the director translates Len Jenkin the playwright’s words into action for his cast of fourteen actors drawn from The Bats, the Flea’s ebulliently effervescent resident acting company.
Right now, Jenkin is working with Matthew Dellapina as Coconut Joe and Paula Ehrenberg, a diminutive powerhouse of an actor, as Dr. Moto, as the two extract bodily fluids with a large hypodermic from deceased lab lemurs.
"Ah," says Ehrenberg in an assembly-line monotone, jabbing her needle into imagined monkey carcasses. "Next."
Jenkin paces nearby. He directs on the stage, amidst the action, rarely sitting.
"More sexual pleasure from the ‘Ah’," he suggests. "More anger from the ‘Next’."
"Ahhhhhhh…" Ehrenberg responds, immediately immersed in the intense pleasure of monkey blood extraction before whirling to bark at Dellapina, "Next!" like some severely petite dominatrix.
As a director, Jenkin works quickly and decisively and while open to suggestions from his cast, his rehearsal style is more one of communicating a vision than group discovery. When Ehrenberg experiments with the Japanese tendency to swap English "l"s with "r"s, creating the line, "These are the rast remurs anywhere," it cracks up Jenkin and Ehrenberg’s fellow cast members, but Jenkin nixes the idea, concerned the meaning will get lost in the mangled pronunciation.
Later, during the first read-through of a new section, another actor spontaneously invests a character with an over-the-top Brooklynese inflection, prompting Jenkin to abruptly admonish her to "just read it straight."
During a cigarette break out on the Flea’s front stoop, Jenkin reflects upon the schizophrenia inherent in a writer directing his own work, about the trade-off that comes from producing a work of singular vision.
"There is certainly a loss of attention purely to the text," he concedes. "There’s little time for rewrites."
As a writer and director, Jenkin is the recipient of three Obie Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, four National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and an Emmy nomination. Currently, he teaches graduate playwriting at NYU. He has written for both stage (Dark Ride, Careless Love, The Dream Express) and film (Blame it on the Night, Welcome to Oblivion) and at one time insisted upon directing the first production of all his plays. Now he no longer feels bound to that, preferring to direct his own work or not on a per-project basis, determining his directorial involvement more by feel than by parameters he could easily articulate.
He is equally taciturn about what he hopes people seeing Like I Say will come away with, concerned that his true intent might be deemed "too corny."
"It’s a Candide type of tale," he allows. "A journey through darkness, through failure, disease and death to a kind of hope. A survivor’s hope."
The journey Like I Say takes is a dreamlike one as well, with stories within a story spun by a dreamer by turns nightmarish and heavenly. A cinematic mist hovers over much of the play’s action like dust in the Splendide’s musty air, with the decaying hotel and its renegade denizens invoking the brooding ghosts of John Huston’s Night of the Iguana and Key Largo, while the spunky resolve of Coconut Joe is reminiscent of countless steadfast, gee-whiz heroes of Depression-era Hollywood.
Yet these familiar types and icons are tweaked and twisted as in dreams, and underneath the frenetic surface zaniness lurks an underlying melancholy and muted hope that gives Jenkin’s work its weight and resonance, enveloping the play’s heart just as Mr. Schwarzberg’s ongoing art project (a mural that serves as the play’s visual über-metaphor) embraces the Splendide.
"How can you think about death so much?" Rose asks Schwarzberg as she watches him work.
"One eye sees death over your shoulder, maybe you live life better," he replies.
"We need a reminder that we’re gonna die?" Rose wonders. "Even I know that."
It is the inevitability of death that gives life its immediacy, its nuance, its flavor and color. Without death, life would have no meaning. Without life, there could be no death. Like the Hotel Splendide, we make our way through it: survivors, clinging to the shreds of our youthful dreams as our bodies become less and less habitable, hoping that somewhere, this all has meaning and somehow, we may find it. Paint peeling, wires fraying, foundations sagging, we make our way through it. Through darkness, failure, despair and disease, we keep going, keep hoping. Through it all, like Coconut Joe of Kokomo and Jenkin’s shadowy Hotel occupants, we survive.
Like I Say, presented by the Flea Theater,
41 White Street, TriBeCa. Wed-Sat at 7pm,
3pm Sat. October 23–November 22.
Opening night scheduled for November 5. $20.
Rush tickets $15 available a half-hour before curtain at the door only.
Tickets can be reserved through
www.theatermania.com or by calling 212.352.3101. For further information,
call the Flea Theater box office at 212.226.2407
or visit the Flea online at www.theflea.org.
Brook Stowe is a playwright and theater writer. He runs the theater website, theater2k.com
Brook Stowe is a playwright and the editor of the annual New York Theater Review.