On A Clear Day I Can See How Artificially High My Blood Pressure Has Climbed: A Conversation with Eliza Bent
Upon first entering the Five Guys on 7th Ave in Park Slope, I noticed that the usually ubiquitous pictures of salt shakers, to indicate when a dish is high in sodium, were not present on the menu. The simple menu instead featured a warning that some of these foods in combination will provide more than the daily allowance of sodium intake. So Eliza Bent and I ordered two cheeseburgers and a regular order of fries, which, it turns out, is actually a medium sized brown paper bag filled nearly to the brim with perfectly fried and heavily salted quarter-inch cut potatoes. Sitting down, Bent classified this particular serving of French fries as “obscene.” I was in heaven.
Beyond overconsuming electrolytes, our purpose today was to discuss the upcoming production of Bent’s play On a Clear Day I Can See to Elba, which runs at the New Ohio’s Ice Factory Festival August 3-6. It is being directed by Knud Adams and stars Eboni Booth and Noel Allain.
Bent and I attended Brooklyn College together, a reputed bastion for the experimental, though I’ve heard from sources high in the BC MFA program that the plays written there are nothing but “foul abortions.” It’s therefore no surprise that Elba had its genesis in the now infamous Mac Wellman prompt to write the worst possible play that you can. “I might have actually succeeded this time, in which case I apologize to the actors, the director, and to the audience,” said Bent. “Well, actually, if it were the worst play of all time, there’d be an Iraqi war veteran and a lost inheritance…. Oops.” Ah, those sweet, sweet regrets. Bent continued, “Truthfully, part of the experiment with this was to see how little I could experiment. By the fact that it is just these two characters who have a relationship. At the time, I was watching a lot of Louie and unsure about where my relationship with a man was going. I had to write a play for workshop, so I thought that the worst possible play I could write would have two people, because those are always terrible. And if they were in love, that would make it even worse.”
Bent had kindly provided me a copy of the script, and I noticed in my perusal that scenes appear to be triggered by specific events, not unlike how a deep memory can be triggered by a familiar taste or smell. In a particular scene, M is in the middle of writing a letter to W from his plush perch on the island of Elba. He makes a reference to getting drinks when back in NYC, only for there to be a quick cut to a scene years after the letter writing when W exhaustedly returns from an AA meeting. It’s as though W is rereading this old letter from M and immediately recalling when she returned home to M after her AA meeting. Oh, I thought, It’s clearly a memory play. Did this memory structure contribute to the play’s claim to being the worst of all time? Bent, hastening to swallow a large bite of cheese-draped ground beef wrapped in a decidedly not gluten-free bun, snarled, “Hell no. I just made it jump around because I don’t know how to write linear stories.” I laughed. After a moment of contemplation, perhaps in which she slowly adjusted to the massive dose of cholesterol-rich beef she had just consumed, Bent said “It’s really freeing to speak like this, Paul. Your laughter makes me think you understand.” Only too well, Bent. I’d always felt like my own experimental dramaturgy was nothing but a cover up for some basic ineptitude. And now I have a known compatriot.
Hoping to move beyond the fundamental failures all playwrights experience at one time or another, I asked Bent how the process of staging was going in the fascinating space that is the New Ohio. Bent said, “It’s a very large theater. It’s a loud theater. We wanted to make a radical choice that would force some intimacy. So it’s being staged in the round on the risers. Which is pretty insane. There’s probably a reason that many plays aren’t staged like this. But if anyone is up for the task it is Knud Adams, the enfant terrible of the downtown and downtrodden… The playing space is about 8 ft by 8 ft. The actors are compelled to make bold moves, but even small moves, you can see everything better when it’s so contained.” I thought that was very interesting. It sounded like Bent was talking about something akin to film acting. “Yes, I’d say it’s closer to film acting than theater acting. There are still big, bold choices, but there is also room for quieter, interior beats. Eboni and Noel soar at both. Of course, the scenes that happen in silence are some of my faves. #thatwhichwecannotsaywemustpassoverinsilence.” That can’t possibly be the first Wittgenstein hashtag, but it’s certainly the most charming.
And that particular bit of Wittgenstein brought us to a discussion of blurbs. How the hell can one blurb a play? I decided to pose that impossible question to Bent, after a brief warmup.
Paul: So you wrote this play?
Eliza: I did.
Paul: Previously, I read in a blurb that Elba was about self-actualization in a relationship. What is self-actualization?
Eliza: I don’t know! People want to know what they are going to see, so you try to do something, but it’s just all fake. Not all fake. It’s just not the play. I tried to make it sound a little mysterious.
Paul: Is there any amount of self-actualization in the play?
Eliza: Maybe in the sense… you know how you meet someone and they seem like they’re fully realized as a human?
Eliza: Ugh. Well, in some ways I think the only way to actually BE self-actualized is to ride a bike at night through Austin. Or swim in the Mediterranean. OR to fully commit to one’s present state and not compromise your ideas or activities to another human. To feel free with one’s life choices, fashion mishaps, and bad jokes.
That was definitely something I had seen in the play. Additionally, I wasn’t so sure that it was a lie to say the play was about self-actualization. Elba has the peculiar quality of showing moments between two characters that are so intimate the characters begin to show their most offensive and repulsive thoughts. M admits to W at one point that his wife hates it when he does his “island accent” and that she won’t let him do his “slow person voice.” What those are exactly is a mystery on the page, but it’s clear from the stage directions W thinks he shouldn’t be talking in those ways even though she laughs when he does so. We only ever see M and W together, or thinking about each other in solace, so these intimate moments are legion. It’s almost exhilarating to see M get caught in expressing a prejudice to W in a moment of acute comfort, as though some tightly held cloak was allowed to slip away and reveal the ridiculous outfit underneath. Whether M allows this to happen in non-intimate moments is not revealed, but perhaps this is the self-actualization that Bent referenced in the aforementioned blurb. M has a carefully constructed persona that hides the more unsavory parts of his self, but when he is around W, when he knows that she will laugh when he talks in his “island accent,” he allows those facades to fall down, becoming more self-actualized. These moments generally follow some gentle prodding from W: she tells him she regrets laughing at his offensive accents and he immediately begins talking in them. Maybe this play really is about how relationships effect self-actualization: through the passive processes of relaxing barriers rather than through pushes to be better people. But relaxed barriers are the best starting place for the building of proverbial bridges. Whether M and W’s bridge gets built is a mystery to be revealed only to the lucky souls who see Elba.
I can’t help but think of an anecdote of self-actualization through gentle prodding from years ago that Bent shared with me in confidence. While moseying about the plush green lawns of the Great Plains Theater Conference in Omaha, Nebraska, Bent said to an esteemed playwright of a previous generation that she was unsure if she wanted to be a playwright anymore. No doubt festooned in a hat one would picture best placed on the head a crotchety Louisiana shrimp boat captain, the esteemed playwright replied, in a mocking voice, “Waaaaa, I don’t wanna be a playwright anymore.” Our meal finished, we parted ways agreeing that if we haven’t won an Obie in the next 15 years, we would reconvene at the 7th Ave Five Guys in Park Slope to break further daily limits for sodium intake (which is 2300 milligrams).