What's wrong with reinventing the wheel? Every artist has to do so in her search for the medium that will best express her angle of vision. Now matter how traditional the medium, the artist has to invent it all over again. And in doing so, she may make some changes.
Karen Finley, for instance, has written a play. Until now, Finley has been a solo performer--the banshee woman of the 1980s. We can feel her heat when she sits down at the end of "The Theory of Total Blame" at LACE and gives us a three-page rap about the "black sheep" of this world, her lambs. Watch out, Janis Joplin.
Until then, "The Theory of Total Blame" has been a play, and even a sitcom. Here's Mommy at the Formica table, slopping together her special ketchup-oatmeal meat loaf (Finley in a snood, looking and sounding like Phyllis Diller). Here's Daddy on the sofa, taking his traditional snooze.
Oops, it isn't Daddy. It's brother Tim (Michael Overn), filling in for Daddy. Daddy killed himself in the garage years and years ago, an event the family never gets tired of discussing.
They talk a lot, this family, and they talk \o7 very\f7 loudly. A late reference to "You Can't Take It With You" suggests this as Finley's inspiration, but we might also think, if we're old enough, of a wonderful old radio show called "The Bickersons," a couple whose marriage seemed about as bad as a marriage could get.
The Bickersons, however, were lucky enough not to have children. Here the children have come home to roost. And there's nothing too private for them to discuss as they seek revenge on Mom and Dad and the world for not having loved them enough--which, of course, is Mom's complaint about \o7 them\f7 . (And Dad's complaint, presumably, if we could hear him.)
I found this helplessly funny stuff--outrageously raunchy, in the Finley tradition, but not that bizarre in essence. Even families who limit themselves to superficial conversations (actually this play is a good argument for them) will recognize the dynamics at work here--the mother-son thing, the mother-daughter thing, the sister-brother thing, the brother-brother thing, the whole stew of tensions and attractions, accusals and denials. Freud didn't make up this family-romance business. It goes on.
Finley is a splendid cartoonist, a pessimist who knows how to draw funny. She also knows how to create private moments. We never see the family draw together, the way families do on sitcoms. The play is too honest for that.
But each member is allowed to find individual solace before a strange candle-lit mound to the side of the family's living room. The altar is symbolic, not of religion (although the play is steeped in Roman Catholic images), but of the place that people go to when they need to comfort themselves--a severe need in this family. In the Finley manner, the rituals are fairly weird (a shaman dance, some strange doings with a fabric-softener bottle), but the gist is within everyone's experience if he's honest about it.
If Finley's solos pieces are about purgation, the play continues the tradition. Some viewers will find the process too messy for comfort. I thought it a healthy, truth-seeking play, full of concern for its characters--laughing at them, but not laughing them off. There is something ridiculous about our infantile need for total appreciation at all times, but who ever outgrows it?
As a writer, Finley tells it like it is, and as a comic actress she's a hoot. But so are all the other black sheep in her company--Gary Ray, Chazz Dean, Tom Murrin, Carol McDowell and even Overn, lying comatose on the sofa as the family war rages around him. The set for this show was provided by the Salvation Army, but the performances are brand new.
\o7 At 1804 Industrial Street, 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and Wednesday through Dec. 10. (213) 624-5650.