A Suggestion of Not-Quite-Right: In response to COOP

Photo by Maria Baranova

When you first see the set of Coop, you might feel as though you know where you are. The stage is dressed with typical farmhouse fodder: country dishes, a panel of fuddy-duddy floral wallpaper, a jug, a bell, some Quaker furniture, and wood grain, wood grain, wood grain. Dirt borders the stage, and a child’s drawings finger-painted in mud creep up the walls from the place where they meet the floor, which is the only real suggestion of something not-quite-right. Over the course of the play, this place becomes increasingly foreign, although it never actually changes at all. By the end, I felt I had no idea where I was.

The central premise is stated simply in the program: “A girl raised in complete isolation on her family’s fenced-in farm compound hires a moonshine delivery boy to torture and kill her parents, who have kept her locked away for her own safety.” This is not a play for which revealing the outcome of the plot has any real impact on your experience of it.

The playwright and director, Sam Max, creates a foreign language out of English words. They use them in a way that makes them look new, makes us reconsider their meaning, and sometimes makes them look strange coming out of an actor’s mouth. Everything here is familiar, and yet everything is othered from our assumptions of what things typically are. An egg. A nightgown. A lollipop. A Big Gulp. All of these things look different in the light of this strange fever dream of a show, whose characters are stuck in a maddening loop of daily routine. The protagonist, Avery, is the broken result of a domestic prison sentence and an extreme embodiment of the sheltered child, a character who might seem gimmicky if crafted in less skillful hands.

I didn’t find myself laughing as much as many others in the audience—and there was quite a lot of laughter—but I did laugh genuinely. What is particularly strong about this show is that it doesn’t ask you to like it, and that strength faltered only in the few moments I felt I was being baited to laugh or to marvel at something. In those moments I found myself too aware of where I was. The comedy can be found in odd delivery, unexpected choices, and off-kilter timing, all of which are in large supply. Coop is remarkable in that it feels as if it could exist without an audience, like it’s an animatronic tableau at a theme park that moves and sings whether it’s being watched or not.

You become trained to a certain thread of tension over the course of the show, but the horror snuck up on me. I felt most scared during stretches of relative calm, when things were plodding along and we were all okay—then bang! Someone crashes into a wall. I found myself horrified by certain props, too; a few times I fixated on an object onstage whose presence somehow worried me. There’s horror as well as some cathartic comedy in the grotesque expulsions of feeling and raw energy that the actors dole out without a trace of interfering self-awareness.

Without limiting its scope, the play is ultimately about trying to connect with other people. It’s about the devices we have to forge those connections, like language and touch, which are perhaps inadequate, but more importantly, are often knowingly and unknowingly misused and mistaught. The playwright is concerned with empathy. They are questioning, and taking us back to the fundamentals. How do we experience the world if we have become numb to it?

It reminded me how much my existence is mediated and abstracted away from me, so much sometimes that I’m barely here. The audience can relate to Avery in that our routines and our obsessive self-regard may drive us either to numbness or madness. (I feel the need to clarify that the word audience here means a very particular sliver of New Yorkers and experimental theatergoers.) The way Avery mindlessly hammers at the floor, miming her daily farm work, reminded me of the way I stare dead-eyed at the subway map on the train to work every day, blasting my music loud enough to dull my other senses.

But Coop seeks to remind us that we are here, together, and that “the piles of things we’ve forgotten” are scattered everywhere around us. It made me wonder whether just being here is as horrific as we might suspect, or if perhaps the horror is in realizing what we don’t see, and becoming aware of all that we are missing. Coop prods us to shake out the Novocain: to sit up and, if not to take responsibility, then at least to feel something.

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