By Alex Miller
Acid jazz blares into the darkness. Then, a green light. The figure crawling across the floor is Catherine Waller (Bertie’s sister in Judd Apatow’s “Love”). Her movements suggest a snake. But no. She plays a creep with a wild, twitching tongue that flicks out of his mouth. “Isn’t she pretty, everyone?” The snake-like weirdo asks, indicating an audience member.
“What’s your name, cutie?”
“Jennifer,” the woman shyly replies.
“Jennifer… so Jenny for short.”
Immediately, we recognize this guy as every catcaller who has ever lived to catcall. The cringe sets in, and we are nervous to see where this goes. The pronounced Brooklyn accent. Those wide eyes. That grin. a tilt of the head makes the irises’ upward stare even more disturbing. Plus, something else. Something so sinister, we can’t quite put our finger on it yet…but horror will ensue. “You like to party?” The catcaller asks the audience. We are unsure. Some of us answer in the affirmative. Most are quiet. “All right, then. Follow me!” The weirdo gives us 5 rules:
1. Turn off devices.
2. You can talk.
3. You can wander around and get lost, if you dare.
4. You can talk (this is especially important).
5. Once you’re in, you’re in.
And then the lights go black, plunging us into darkness once more. Soon, sad stringed instruments play and a pulsing red light awakens the night. A man, more hunched than the Catcaller, greets us. He’s a New Zealander with a voice as gruff and tortured as his life has been. “I’m Bill.” Someone in the audience says hello. Bill nods. “Ya lost, are ya? Are ya lost? Ya lost? Nawr? Okay. Not many people down here.” Bill describes people dancing and partying upstairs, in the three-story apartment building where he is the janitor. He is a lonely fellow with only his memories to keep him company in a dank basement. He asks someone in the audience what they do.
“I work for a group home.”
“What’s that?” Attentive, Bill must hear the answer.
“I help people who have a hard time helping themselves.”
“You truly are a special human being. Nobody ever helped me.”
And then the grim details emerge: His daughter was sick. He brought her to the doctor in the building, but she still died—not from her sickness, but from the doctor’s torture.
We soon learn this is the story of the fringe of society even criminologists would have difficulty digesting. All have been tortured and are in need of psychological help. A woman leans against a wall, illuminated by a lamp. She is an exotic dancer, and from the looks of her rolling eyes, a dope fiend. She speaks to a baby who isn’t there, lost too soon. There are stitches around her belly.
New characters appear, all so memorable we never get confused. There is a little girl who had her arms amputated and stitched up by The Doctor, because she “used her fingers too much,” meaning they were always sticking to people’s valuables. Stumpy, she says her name is. In the basement, with other victims of this sadistic man, one can almost smell the despair. Of all the sufferers we meet, she is the most disturbing because of her age and dark humor.
Few plays have captivated me as this one did, from the ominous music to each character who seems so real, it hurts. When The Doctor finally appears, whistling a tune, his derby hat and slow stride suggest he must be related to Jack the Ripper.
I was glued to my seat. Ms. Waller is everything a true master of art should be. She is original, intense, and commands a level of skill that makes you forget she’s only one person. Fifty minutes went by so quickly, I could hardly breathe. At no point did my mind wander. This is a play with so few flaws, I never spotted them. The characters’ improvised engagement with the audience shows Ms. Waller’s genius and range. The psychological-thriller aspect is reminiscent of “Sweeney Todd,” but the depiction of the squat, Gollum-like creeps slinking around the stage— the child who makes dead baby jokes; the vacant stripper; the man who tortures himself as penance for offering up his sick daughter to a mad scientist—provides us with a truly unique experience you must see to believe. See this show…or else…
Written and Performed by Catherine Waller
Oct. 23 at 7:30pm, Nov. 10 at 6pm
Producer & Technician: Elle Shaw
Photo: courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
ALEX MILLER, a Chicago native, has been a professional writer and editor for 6 years. He joined the Navy in 2004, and served for four years in such places as Haiti, Iraq, and Somalia. He has a degree in Public Engagement from The New School, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, The New York Daily News, and QZ, among others. He lives in Harlem.