by Robert Venosa
Prior to attending the latest event hosted by the Center for Italian Studies, I had never realized the relative extensiveness and hominess of the Center’s headquarters. It is, for the most part, smartly and comfortably accoutered. The screening room is furnished with numerous comfortable chairs, the hallway to the conference room adorned with hundreds of large tomes and videos, and the conference room also comfortably adorned. In the conference room, several very nice grandmotherly women from the Center offered such delectables as panettone and a dizzying array of different types of coffee. Then, we were abruptly, yet somehow simultaneously, politely ushered into the screening room.
The lights went dim, and the audience, which included the playwright of the monologue, Enrico Bernard, who incidentally sat directly to the front and slightly to the right of me, was treated to the quite able performance of Big Bang. The monologue lasted for what I estimate to be nearly an hour and a half, and Frank Marzullo, the monologist, with a typical New York accent, which I have been unable to determine to be natural or theatrical, treated his audience to an intriguing performance.
Set in Brooklyn, the play revolves around the mental breakdown of an anonymous, lonely apartment dweller in an unnamed, yet apparently highly populated, part of town. Except excursions into town to purchase food and other necessities of life, he is effectively self-quarantined in his apartment most of the time, because he fears being tracked by anyone and everyone. To ensure he leaves as little a trace of his existence as possible, he deals only in cash payments for his necessary purchases and makes sure to talk to no one.
When we first see the man, he is having what appears to be a heart attack and frantically panicking he calls 911. After a few moments of conversing with the unseen emergency operator, he becomes visibly and audibly aggravated, raising his voice, gesticulating and verbally abusing the emergency operator because he had told the man he was not having a heart attack, but rather, an apnea. Dismayed and angered by being informed that he was having “a simple apnea,” he turns his attention to his cat (a constant refrain) simply named “Kitty” and usually invoked in a gentle, baby-like manner, asking it if it is hungry. Noticing the cat food, which was corned beef, smelt like fish (or at least it seemed so to him). Intrigued, he checked the mailing label on the cat food, and saw what he thought was an odd mistake. All of this leads to a deliriously dizzying series of events and connections he seems to pull out of thin air.
What follows plot-wise is highly complex and convoluted. It will suffice to say, however, that the convolution and confusion of the plot is a direct correlative to the descent of the man from seemingly mere neuroticism into pure, unabated, unalloyed psychoticism set to the background of a complex conspiracy he imagines is aligned against him. In his mind, he inflates both a juvenile “crime” – tagging a bathroom stall in Orlando, Florida – he had committed over 20 years earlier on a high school trip, as well as a “moral crime,” in which he had recently glanced up a girl’s short skirt while walking up a stairwell, which he thought was caught on camera. He constructs in fevered bouts of monologue and eventually, an argumentative split-personality dialogue with himself – an implausibly complex, constructed reality in which the government’s agents are closing in on him for his misdeeds, rearing not only to arrest him, but to make the mental anguish he was suffering as drawn out and acute as possible.
Like his cat, another constant refrain is the man’s repeated inquiries into whether he has shut off the gas. The invariable answer is always that, yes, he has and yet, he constantly asks the question. I shall not divulge the ending of the play to you, or many of the details in between that I have left out partly because I do not want to ruin the play for you, but also because I simply cannot recount the dizzying array of events that transpired. It is better to see this neurotic stream of consciousness, borderline Eugene Ionesco-Theater-the-Absurd play for yourself than have me delineate the intricacies of the plot.
When I asked the playwright what the inspiration for this odd story, and if it was based on an actual person’s life, he said it was simply an idea he had gestating in his head. Furthermore, he explained it was inspired by the type of place the world had become after the September 11th attacks – a world marked by intense fear, loneliness, seclusion, and psychosis. I wouldn’t expect anything less from a European playwright obsessed with the psychotic.