New York

Jeff Weiss

The Performing Garage

For over two decades Jeff Weiss has been presenting his self-produced playlets on a shoestring budget, often in his Lower East Side tenement basement. Occasionally he ventures into a quasi-theatrical space with an ambitious program. This time out he produced a Nicholas Nickleby of performance-art theater, a work of unprecedented scale—four and a half hours in running time, complexly plotted with some two dozen episodes calling for a dozen major characters and as many minor ones, and featuring an encyclopedic acting style which runs the gamut from camp to sincere melodrama. As producer, director, and star player of this amazing work, Weiss steps beyond his cult status as a brilliant but circumscribed performance phenomenon on the order of, say, Jack Smith, and into the pantheon of true theatrical wizards. And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid (or the Confessions of Conrad Gerhardt) is an ideal demonstration of what a theater of our time could be: mocking and moving, hilarious and earnest, cheap to produce and rich to experience, freewheeling and moral, and always inventively entertaining.

Like all Weiss’ work, And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid is true “poor theater”: the set is a sheetlike canvas backdrop behind two platforms, different rooms are suggested by rearrangements of the same chairs, flashlights are used as spotlights. This literal make-believe is played both knowingly—for laughs, as when two coffee cups are used as a pair of binoculars—and matter-of-factly, and Weiss’ Dickensian script fills the spare setting to overflowing. To barely hint at its plot, this convoluted, wordy tale tells the story of a failed playwright, Conrad Gerhardt; his murderous double, Bjorn Zoltan; and the police investigation that jeopardizes Gerhardt’s efforts to stage a successful homecoming show at the art center in "Krautstown, Pa.” The play’s picaresque episodes are punctuated by spoken titles; a narrator who sometimes explicates the action, sometimes sings old standards which comment, choruslike, on it; and song-and-dance skits of pure vaudevillian relief. The tone of the work ranges from the seriously scatological—it begins with an argument about dingleberries and ends with Gerhardt being awarded a dildo as a prize to the wildly comical, as in the pseudo-audition scene for Gerhardt’s rewrite of The Cherry Orchard (a rewrite itself a comic masterpiece), and the baldly emotional: a repeated refrain in the numerous love scenes runs “Kiss me, tell me that you love me.” Not the least startling aspect of the work is that it’s a thoroughly, explicitly gay epic, one in which every encounter, whether male or female, turns on homosexual attraction. It is a real accomplishment that Weiss renders this viewpoint so insistently and straightforwardly.

Beyond the bizarre humor of the piece, Weiss and company also genuinely act through emotions from anger (in some terrifically physical fight scenes) to mourning—there’s a weepy death scene which equals Little Nell’s for pure pathos. Like the Jacobean melodramas it most resembles, And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid ends with everyone dead at the hands of a mysterious assassin (read “Death”). But the scenes and characters are so vitally alive, so bursting with a theatrical energy which is part guileless melodrama and part knowing performance, that Weiss’ original hybrid has an unquenchable life of its own.

John Howell