There is nothing glib or cheap or frivolous about Talbott’s plays. There is no slick, witty banter or easy irony to distance you, no gentle exposition to ease you into the world. His deeply damaged characters greet you head-on, pulling you into the deep water with them. Talbott’s work is bracing. I imagine some would call it challenging because he presses you right up against his characters, so close you feel their yearning and pain on you, like the dampness of their foreheads leaning into yours. Talbott’s attack doesn’t allow you to sit on the sidelines but drags you deep into the heart of the matter, like it or not. I can only speculate how this achievement—and it is a remarkable achievement—comes to pass. But to my mind, it is because he successfully taps into one of the most essential human traits—the yearning for human connection; to be known, seen, and loved. This is often made manifest in the yearning for connection between terribly wounded people, a yearning that is portrayed honestly, sometimes harrowingly, and always in all of its brutal complexity.
My first experience with Talbott’s plays—and a great example of what I’m talking about—was seeing the extremely moving production of Slipping at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in 2009 under the gorgeous direction of Kirsten Kelly. The play follows Eli, an isolated, friendless high school senior, navigating a new life in a new town following the death of his father. His relationship with his mother is distant. We see him in what seems like a promising new friendship with a baseball jock, Jake. But this glimmer of hope is counterbalanced by the haunting memory of a deeply troubling relationship with a boy named Chris, a young man who is desperately attracted to Eli but filled with loathing at this desire and at himself for feeling it. He finds an outlet for his pain by punishing and emotionally abusing Eli, who, although conflicted and tormented by the relationship, returns to Chris again and again:
Eli’s room, late. There are no lights on.
Eli sits on his bed.
Chris sits on Eli’s desk.
Chris wears a hoodie with the hood up.
Are you pissed?
I was just fucking with you.
We were just fucking with you.
We were just fucking around.
It was just a joke.
My dad gave me that camera.
You pissed in my locker.
Chris stands up, slides the hood off his head. Takes a new EOS Rebel Camera out of his backpack and puts it on Eli’s bed and stands in silence.
It’s got the same lens and everything.
I want to hurt you.
Every time I see you at school I want to just rip you apart.
I don’t like thinking about you.
I don’t like wanting you.
You make me fucking sick.
I see you look at me and I just want to strangle you.
Eli slowly moves to Chris, takes his hands out of his pockets and gently takes his hands and places them on his throat. Eli waits, and then slowly begins kissing him.
Chris begins to cry.
The image of these two struggling young men—clinging to each other as they simultaneously push each other away, yearning for each other over the deeply painful gulf of confusion and impossibility and intractable ways of seeing the world—is seared into my memory and beautifully exemplifies Talbott’s exploration of human longing. Talbott, in this play and others, very movingly explores the pain that motivates an act of cruelty—to oneself, to others—which doesn’t excuse or mollify these acts, but does illuminate them and builds an empathetic bridge from us to these wounded characters and to people in our lives who are like them.
One of the other things I find most affecting in Talbott’s plays is how genuinely vulnerable he allows characters to be. He constructs arresting moments when characters emerge totally unprotected, totally without armor and show themselves to one another in all their naked human need and want. This is a great example from his evocative short play, Hold My Hand Please.
1 (HIM) Do you wanna dance with me?
1 looks at her for a while. He doesn’t take his eyes off her. She looks down and back to him. They stare. She tries not to look away.
He gets up and crosses over to maybe an iDock system or a stack stereo or something and pushes play. Kanye West’s ‘Hell of A Life’ begins to play.
He turns the music up and keeps looking at her. He begins to dance. A really seductive slow, mesmerizing, almost hip-hop like mating dance or something. He’s actually good and if he’s not he’s fucking fearless about it and isn’t fucking around. He does it for her. She watches and can’t look away. Light begins to grow in and around the room from odd places like the floor, through the carpet, the windows, coming in from the dark and filling the room. It’s dark light though, almost like the light from a sandstorm obscuring the sun. It grows with him. He closes his eyes and continues, like he’s inside her, moving in, through and around her.
She can’t stop watching him. The song stops and so does the light. It’s dark again. Silence. Breathing.
I find this moment of total abandon—and the world altering in relation to it—so powerful. To see a character so exposed and armorless is thrilling and unnerving.
Another example of his use of vulnerability is the brutal and heartbreaking Yosemite, now in a gorgeously realized, deeply moving production at Rattlestick. When I first read it, I almost threw up. The play begins with three children, Jake, Ruby, and Jer, out in the woods digging a grave for their dead baby brother, who is wrapped in a plastic bag being cradled by the sister, Ruby. Their absent mother, whose neglect resulted in the baby’s death, is in a trailer out of sight and for much of the play the children talk and yearn for the long vanished, happier life when their father was alive and their mother hadn’t lost herself to grief or pain or whatever it is that has made her dead behind the eyes.
These emotionally abandoned children are so trapped, so wounded, so brutally, painfully vulnerable, and so unable to extract themselves from the horror of their situation that it literally made me nauseous. Out of this reality, their yearning for escape is shattering:
Jake turns back, taking in the forest, the mountains, the snow.
It’s beautiful here.
It’s like some old picture.
Like one of those pictures…?
Those pictures of Yosemite?
The black and white ones?
Of the snow and Half Dome?
I wish the world looked like that.
That it was like…
Like one of those pictures.
Beautiful and easy.
I loved going up there on school trips.
I used to hide in the bathroom and hope they’d
That they’d like…
That I’d come out and the bus would be gone and it’d be like sunset or about to get dark or something and I’d just… Just stand there.
And it would be like. Like. Like my old life was over. Like…like the new one, the next chapter or something was beginning.
And I’d imagine…
Just like walking into the hotel, or one of the gift shops or something and like giving a fake name.
A new name or something…
And just starting over.
Get a job up there.
Work. Maybe, I don’t know. Just like…sleep in the back of the store or the janitor’s closet at the hotel or something.
To grow up some.
Let go of shit.
Be new or something.
Silence. Trees. Wind.
Yosemite deeply affected me. The end of the play produced in me great relief, not just when hope emerges for the children towards the end of the play, but upon leaving the bleakness of the environment and the unrelenting tragedy of these children’s vulnerability in the face of neglect and emotional abandonment. The play to me felt like a call to appreciate beauty when it comes because there is so much ugliness, to celebrate the sublime moments even if they are fleeting, to value being safe and free, when we are safe and free, in a world that traps so many in ways we can’t even imagine.
Without a trace of irony or snarkiness or a shadow of superficiality, Talbott boldly and bravely expresses through his richly realized characters both the danger and the exhilaration of facing the world unprotected. The affect is nothing short of devastating. I think this ability is one of the hallmarks and highlights of his work.
There’s so much more to say about Talbott’s extraordinary plays, but I’m out of space. But do yourself a favor and go see the stunning Yosemite at Rattlestick and support the work of one of the bravest, most powerful voices out there.