New York

Ron Vawter

The Performing Garage

Throughout the ’80s, the likes of Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, Karen Finley, and Holly Hughes developed a genre now referred to as performance monologue. With his current work, Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, Ron Vawter joins this group. In retrospect, Jack Smith (1932–89) can be viewed as the progenitor of these contemporary monologuists, with their emphasis on the performer’s own writings, and on personal or larger cultural references that provoke rather than amuse their audiences.

Smith’s hesitant monologues, delivered from self-made sets, were as seemingly haphazard and individualistic as a heap of street debris that might be called home by a bag person. Objects became animated by his constant touching and prodding, as he willed meaning from them by sheer concentration. Clothing seemed to refuse to sit properly on his body, and he would redirect beads, or ties, found toys, or bottles. Then he would stop, suddenly laugh, and you felt rebuked for staring. If you seemed uncomfortable, he might glare at you. questioning whether you were strong enough, interesting enough, or worthy enough to be there. Musical accompaniment was treated in the same skittish way; old records would be placed on, and taken off, old record players. Then, he might ask someone to get him a cup of coffee.

Which is exactly what Ron Vawter did. He captured Jack Smith’s madness and his courage, his intensity and his frailty, and he even generated the same painful frustration in the viewer that came from watching Smith work so hard at getting a performance off the ground. On a set that was part bedouin tent, part Bowery hole-in-the-wall, Vawter, head swathed in a neo-Egyptian headdress, eyes circled in blue glitter, lay draped like a well-fed sheikh across a chaise longue designed by the painter Elizabeth Murray. He fussed and fidgeted for forty minutes with the beads and fabric strung across his chest, with metal candlesticks, and with a platter of onions, some of which he extricated from and put back in a toilet bowl, placed at his elbow like a genteel coffee table. The text stopped and started, interrupted as it was by this endless rearrangement of objects.

In this reconstruction of a performance from the Theater for the New City (October 10, 1981) which, for those who know Smith’s work, came close to reincarnation Vawter used the monologue form to interpret and translate an idiosyncratic and richly talented individual, and a period in history: the ’60s and ’70s. Impeccably controlled, the acting was so emphatic and voluptuous as to be moving and obscene at the same time.

In contrast, Roy Cohn, which opened the evening, was a mere slice of an individual, though the performance focused on Cohn’s potent and shockingly hypocritical speech ridiculing and reviling homosexuals—to the American Society for the Preservation of the Family. Vawter’s performance, based not on the actual text, but on a fictitious rendering of Cohn’s speech by the poet and writer Gary Indiana, possessed neither the verisimilitude of detailed reconstruction, nor the personal empathy for the artist and his work of Jack Smith. Moreover, an unnecessarily realistic rendering of the front segment of a hotel ballroom, with three actors at two tables, hands around their coffee cups, made Cohn’s “after dinner” speech appear as though it were being given to an almost empty hall. With Vawter behind a table and podium placed at a raking angle, the theater audience, according to this floor plan, would have been listening to the speech from the kitchen doorway.

This awkward staging prevented the audience from coming face-to-face with Roy Cohn—with his lies, his paranoia, or his power. Nevertheless, crammed as it was with details of Cohn’s long public career, the performance was conscientiously informative at the same time. Back-to-back, Vawter’s important biographical monologues have added an original dimension to the field. Unlike Gray’s highly personalized narratives, Bogosian’s fictional ones, or Finley’s uncompromising social critiques, Vawter has used two intensely fascinating “real-life” individuals as vehicles for his own political and artistic ends.

RoseLee Goldberg