Theatre Nova's "Clutter" explores the traps of false memories
Much like a plaster casting mold, most modern American plays squeeze themselves into ready-made stylistic and thematic models that have a good track record. The styles can often be pinpointed back to one or two particularly significant behemoths that are scattered throughout the history of the American theater.
One such theatrical prototype is the Memory Play. It was initially popularized by playwright Tennessee Williams in the preface for his 1945 drama The Glass Menagerie. As Williams described it, “When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn’t be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.”
The playwrights Pinter (Betrayal), Friel (Dancing at Lughnasa), and Leonard Jr. (The Diviners) are all known for their Memory Plays. Each examined different subjects, but all used the power of characters retelling their memories and dreams to exaggerate details in order to increase the emotional impact of those stories.
Clutter, the new show at Theatre Nova written by Brian Cox, is a world premiere Memory Play about the traps of false memories that we set for ourselves by taking part in nostalgic rumination.
The narrator, Me, directs a man and a woman who play younger versions of himself and his wife over the course of their relationship and the gradual erosion of their marriage. Although Me starts out in control of the action, as he continues to relive his memories through the younger actors they begin to debate with him about what exactly happened and the reasons why his relationship faltered.
This is a highly ambitious project to undertake, especially in a 90-minute piece that runs without an intermission. Considering this is Cox’s first full-length script, it’s entirely understandable that a few of his ideas occasionally become somewhat muddled. Most of the concepts driving the action are deliberate and powerful, although certain phrases get repeated too many times whenever the focus of a scene begins to wander. More problematic is the 10-minute interlude that goes on for nine minutes too long, when all of characters onstage are crying and screaming at one another in a cacophony of noisy distress. The young man’s portion of the 10-minute rant verges on becoming emotionally and physically abusive when he screams at his wife to shut up and shoves her. While the audience has already been led to understand that the young man is deeply flawed, in this moment we lose a great deal of our empathy for him despite the solid and previously charming acting by Artun Kircali.
Those 10 minutes aside, Clutter is an inventive play with countless elegant moments that are orchestrated throughout by director Diane Hill, and acted capably by all three actors who shift tonally from comedy to drama and back to comedy with finesse and grace. This is most notably true of the two younger actors, Tory Matsos and Kircali, who are given the difficult task of creating characters who have ever-adjusting backstories and personalities. Phil Powers in the role of Me is likable and embodies the Everyman nature of his character well, effectively acting as a lens for the audience to peer into his mind.
Clutter fits neatly into Theatre Nova’s commitment to producing new plays that are relevant to modern audiences. As Hill put it, “this play will touch anyone who sees it that has ever been in a relationship, failed or successful.” I’m inclined to agree with her completely. It is an admirable effort and I look forward to seeing what Cox comes up with next, and how this play continues to evolve.
Toby Tieger has directed, acted in, and written plays over the last 10 years, and sees theater as often as he can. He is a bookshelver/processor with the Ann Arbor District Library.
"Clutter" runs Thursday-Sunday through April 16 at Theatre Nova. Visit [https://www.artful.ly/theatre-nova/store/events/11194|artful.ly/theatre-nova] for tickets and times.