Stuck: the Right to Atrophy

Is the pursuit of the right to atrophy a dramatically compelling one? This is the question that continues to occur to me as I reflect on playwright Jessica Hatlo’s Stuck, up now at Washington Ensemble Theatre.

Described as “career underachievers,” the play’s two central characters, Amy and Danny, (Kay Nahm and Alex Matthews) are stubbornly, insistently lazy. They vegetate to the constant drone of mind-numbing television. They get high. They subsist on a diet of potato chips and orange soda. Towers of detritus accumulate around them, an insidiously oppressive condition they don’t consciously encourage, but continually contribute to, and then bemoan. They are profoundly unmotivated.

Amy stagnates to such an extreme extent, it would ring as unfathomable if it wasn’t based on true events: Having not left the bathroom of the apartment in weeks, Amy’s skin grows affixed to the toilet seat upon which she has stationed herself with remarkable endurance. At one point she is described as a “barnacle.” With Amy quietly resigned to her shaming position, it becomes incumbent on Danny to care for her, to pay the bills, effectively to run the household.

But Danny is not up to the task. Hardly scraping through life working a dead end job, Danny neglects to pay bills, he neglects to check the mail, he neglects to care for his home even so much as to prevent it from reeking of filth. With a penchant for enabling and resigned to what he regards as an inescapable squalor, Danny exerts the least possible effort necessary to allow Amy or himself freedom from doing, let alone pursuing, anything.

When Danny fails to do even that, when the building manager (Jill Snyder-Marr) becomes concerned over so many signs of neglect and its compounding effects, the outside world begins to invade, to impose itself on the couple and place demands on their time, attention, and energy.  Only then do Danny and Amy begin to face the possible necessity of a lifestyle change.

This is where Stuck fails to stick with me: While Danny and Amy do undergo an eventual change in circumstance, it is a change forced from without. It’s the functioning but external world which renders their daydream haze finally unsustainable. Though resolutions to rectify their condition are made, they originate from a place beyond the moldy walls of the apartment. The changes that amount to the climax of the play don’t betray a deep-down change of perspective. The two characters are the same when the play ends as when it begins, save a few superficial shifts.

One problem the text encounters is what to do with Amy while Danny is away, bearing in mind that she can’t go anywhere. Watching her watch television, while there is a good deal of this passive activity in the play, fails to hold attention. The dramatist’s solution is to show us what may be discomfiting dreams, vivd imaginings, or impossible manifestations. The personalities she spends her life watching–Dr. Phil, Simon Cowell, Miss Cleo, others–appear in turn to chide her, to offer advice, or to compel her to sing. Some spot-on impressions are turned in by Qadriyyah Shabazz and Chris Maslen, both of whom capably handle several roles, but roles that do not contribute to or affect Amy and Danny’s relationship, which is the heart of the narrative. So the celebrity ‘cameos,’ while fun and done well, lag and are not necessary to the drama. They are a winking device.

All told the production does very good work with the text. The cast is moving (given what they’ve been given), and the set design is clever and apropos. The foremost snag in the show is that characters, while rendered with sensitivity, are very difficult on a textual level to sympathize or identify with. As I hear myself articulating these thoughts, the revelation becomes clear to me that two peoples’ struggle to stand motionless might not be an ideal foundation for gripping drama.

Thursday through Monday at 7:30 p.m., through April 9 // 608 19th Avenue East // $10 – $25, tickets available through Brown Paper Tickets

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