Plays often have two counterbalancing qualities: a consistently focused, driving plot and a slow, meandering examination. A cursory glance at the set of The Gurney, however, makes it clear that the latter is the show’s focus. The set consists only of a one-room, rundown apartment with very little possibility for intricate setting changes.
Yet this limitation does not weigh down The Gurney. Chicago playwright David Hauptschein’s deceptively complex characters and Julio Maria Martino’s restrained directing complement one another wonderfully, providing a chillingly humorous investigation of how four different people deal with a seemingly catastrophic situation.
The Gurney provides a short glimpse into the slowly deteriorating world of Wesley, a newly-afflicted Hepatitis C patient and recovering drug addict. Hauptschein gives little concrete information regarding past events that led up to the current crisis, or any sign of what the future holds.
The first scene provides the best example of this swift introduction to the characters’ lives: Wesley’s brother Cliff visits his apartment, worried because his brother hasn’t contacted him in a month, only to find an Eastern European squatter named Lulu who can’t give Cliff any solid details about Wesley. She herself doesn’t seem to understand what details she can give. Opening the play with such a chaotic and jarring scene is a bold technique, and it pays off; it allows Hauptschein to be as creative as possible within the confines of the bare-bones plot, and he uses this license to its fullest extent.
Despite this bewildering opening scene, the audience gets the feeling that more highly developed and complex concepts will emerge as concrete facts do. While few straight facts are presented in the play, its thematic complexity lies not so much in the breadth of its subject matter but in the natural contradictions within all people’s characters. At one point, for instance, Lulu speaks to Cliff about Wesley, saying, “I love him for his honesty,” even though Wesley is anything but honest and forthright.
The main strength of the play is its ability to highlight seemingly mundane inconsistencies and paradoxes in its characters that could be accepted as compatible with their other qualities on a superficial level. This aspect dawns on the audience slowly but surely. At first, the play presents an absurdly funny caricature of those ridiculous qualities we would probably rather forget or ignore in the characters. These first impressions, however, eventually darken under the recognition that if such humorous observations are true, then it means that we either don’t understand or are unwilling to acknowledge the true motivations and meanings behind the characters’ actions—and perhaps even our own.
The Gurney is riddled with such signs of self-delusion and uncertainty. Though he boasts several times that he owns a karaoke bar, Cliff has a minor breakdown near the end of the play when all the pride in his achievements melts away. This kind of certainty, however, seems best embodied by the character Barbara, a motherly neighbor of Wesley’s who constantly offers to take care of him and make food for him. Despite this good-hearted, neighborly attitude, actress Marssie Mencotti’s unsettling performance underscores the feeling that there is a great deal of insecurity and emptiness in Barbara’s life, one which can’t be filled with macaroni and Italian soup. Instead of making the characters feel incomplete, Hauptschein’s ability to manipulate this overarching sense of ambiguity provides greater depth to the characters and is the undeniable strength of the play.
The play’s main weakness, on the other hand, is Lulu’s character. Though the audience knows little about the characters’ lives, some illuminating details can be gleaned from their words and actions. With Lulu, however, there doesn’t seem to be any coherent or compelling explanation for her actions. Perhaps her brain is simply burnt out from years of drug abuse; maybe she simply has nowhere else to go other than Wesley’s apartment. But such archetypal reasons are extremely unsatisfactory, even though they seem to be sufficient for Lulu. While Tiffany Joy Ross’s performance fits the apoplectic nature of the character, it cannot make up for Lulu’s overwhelmingly ambiguous character, which doesn’t fit with the tightly woven intricacies of the other characters.
On the whole, however, the play succeeds in presenting a comically disturbing portrayal of four characters trying to find meaning in their own lives and in their actions.