Between Dreaming and Real in DES MOINES

Photo by Gerry Goodstein

In Des Moines (running through Jan 8 at Theatre for a New Audience), Jimmy, an eerily ebullient trans woman who was paralyzed in an instance of medical malpractice during gender affirmation surgery, repeatedly tries to stand up from her new wheelchair. Played with raw abandon and studded with moments of effervescence by Hari Nef, Jimmy first hoists herself up from the wheelchair like performing a tipsy party trick. Jimmy’s guests — a disparate huddle that includes a cross-dressing priest, a Black woman whose favorite era was the 1950’s, and Jimmy’s battered, grieving parents — drunkenly encourage Jimmy’s antics throughout their impromptu night of revelry. But as the evening haphazardly careens into the darker corners of the group’s psyches, Jimmy’s repeated attempts to stand up from the wheelchair accumulate an increasingly Sisyphean lack of resolve, a quality that defines Denis Johnson’s textural, moving, and intentionally unsettled final play, situated in an American realism that’s scaffolded between heaven and hell. 

Like Hari’s Jimmy, Riccardo Hernández’s perfect scenic design evokes a kind of fucked-up purgatorial miniature levitating between its unsophisticated metal underpinnings and a vague promise of something else in the vacuous negative space above. Here, in Hernández’s floating, claustrophobic apartment, the ensemble gossips, drinks, microwaves spaghetti, and torments one another. In Johnson’s play, the group circuitously degrades — and then with equal force attempts to preserve — the Elmer’s Glue-like social bonds that barely hold them together. 

This Des Moines, as a production, has been described as “ridiculous” and “senseless” by a critic at one major publication. While the play certainly depicts an America that’s chaotic and unresolved (the dialogue chock full of misunderstanding and non-sequiturs), the staging and performances are palpably deliberate. 

Arin Arbus’s direction of Johnson’s play is particularly incisive and clear-eyed. The writing she’s dealing with embodies what I’ll describe as a challengingly lateral Death-drive dramaturgy, wherein the characters do not express linear motivations, and wherein the collective emotional arc is oriented toward destruction, giving the impression of a slow-burning, circuitous narrative collapse. Arbus plays into that structural challenge beautifully, manufacturing an ensemble-driven energy of genuine mayhem without jeopardizing crystal clear stage compositions.

When held up against other plays that deal with and depart from the tradition of kitchen sink realism, Des Moines might seem like a failure as a piece of writing. It has certainly been classified as such, in recent reviews, by theater critics writing for prominent publications. But it’s easy to miss the point of Des Moines if one refuses to look at the play in the context of a writer whose entire point was to showcase a Poetics of Failure, who made a meaningful and prolific career for himself writing about America as an unfinished, discombobulated, beautiful tragedy. The critical mistake here is to probe the play for some kind of successful pressed-and-pleated message, because that kind of thing is precisely anathema to what Des Moines, and Johnson, stood for. 

Johnson’s play asks its audience to think about his text as a painting. To arrive at meaning in Des Moines, we might speak about its arrangement of textures, strokes, negative spaces, U-Turns, traffic jams, and indentations as representative of the playwright’s perspective. We might also look at his moments that chafe against the codified, tried-and-true brand of fourth-wall American realism, in search of a queerer, more curious description of reality that might ring true, if we can remain desirous of — or at the very least open to — the opportunity to question the underpinnings of life as we know it, or how we think we know it. 

Des Moines’s demands are decidedly rare in the context of the traditional American capital-P Playwriting landscape, which tends to favor plays that (a) engage tiresome ideological debates, (b) ultimately arrive at an even more tiresome platitudinal thesis, and (c) pat the audience on the back for ‘getting it,’ when the play’s message was all but pureed and force-fed to us through tubes implanted in the backs of our throats. New York audiences are inundated with these types of reductively moralistic talking-head plays, which are ultimately unmoving in their commitment to signaling ideas everyone already knows from the Internet. And worse, clunky heavy-handed messaging is frequently (and mistakenly) redefined by critics as a virtuous embodiment of ‘narrative or thematic resolve.’ 

But playwriting is not journalism, and that is exactly why the presence of Johnson’s Des Moines is refreshing. In a landscape of contemporary American plays that view the effort of dialogue as a practice of puppeteering characters to vomit opposing views about politics, identity, class, race, and policy — which then only serve to corroborate the audience’s preconceived understanding of the world — Johnson’s play confidently sits back and lets its characters throw tantrums, roughly paint each other’s faces, lose interest in soggy bowls of Cheerios, and sing with unfettered passion into the bedazzled community microphone. The mess and vulnerability and pointlessness of being alive is the point, is the politics. 

In Denis Johnson’s well-known short story, “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking,” originally published in The Paris Review in 1989, an unnamed hitchhiker wakes up on the side of the road sopping wet, realizing a torrential downpour broke out over him only after he drifted off. As the recent facts of the narrator’s life come into focus within a gouache-y Midwestern reverie, he finds himself surviving a car-crash, and then witnessing the aftermath of that crash, while holding a baby who also survived the accident, who is not his baby. 

At the end of the story, Johnson’s narrator describes a victim of the crash: “His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.” In a way, I take this particular passage as Johnson’s thesis, in all its enigma and unruliness. 

In Des Moines, as in “Car-Crash…,” America is a failure, an incompletion, an inability or unwillingness to effectively learn from the most disadvantaged and battered members of society. The play compassionately positions itself in the half-paralyzed horror of Jimmy’s wheelchair, while humorously hounding the surrounding pedestrians with an ominous reminder to be thankful they’ve still got the ability to stand. It’s a deeply humanistic play that asks us to listen to each other in ways we usually wouldn’t. Des Moines encourages us to find its meaning in physical states of uncertainty and devastation, those situations which are perhaps easiest to criticize or dismiss, mostly because they remind us too cuttingly of our own precarity. It’s hard to reckon with the fleetingness of a life, which is exactly why Johnson wants us to sit with that idea, and all its unknowns. 

Our American situation is one in which we’re caught trying to stand up from our wheelchairs just as the stage lights begin fading to black. It’s an eternal search for life’s meaning, muffled by the ever-widening gap between our hard realities and our walking fantasies. We’re all cut short by rogue car crashes, blindsided while hitchhiking, after spending most of our lives dreaming about something else, something more. 

Perhaps Johnson’s play confronts us with his fixation on life’s incompletion as a kind of prompt. After Des Moines, one might leave the theater with a sense of un-resolve, and easily give into frustration or dismissal. Or worse, one’s personal confusion might calcify into a process of blaming the play for being incoherent, and therefore not representative of reality. 

Or, alternatively, one might frame their feeling of un-resolve as the symptom of an intentional prompt from the writer. Maybe Johnson’s play is asking us how we might narrow the gap between our dreams and our realities while we have the time to do it, while we’re still standing. 

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