Nobody has written for the stage with as much power and verve as ABC/ESPN, and yet the venerable playwright has been for some time now regarded as a relic of the past. This seems only fitting given a recent output whose high water mark is Comin’ To Your Citay, or, A(n) (A)Moral Tale (2006), an odious play which still featured the signature rat-a-tat dialogue made so famous in years past.
“ABC/ESPN,” wrote David Mamet in a guest review of Citay in The Economist, “may be slumming it right now, but the rest of us could only wish we were so gloriously dilapidated. This may be bad, but it’s still viscera. It’s blood and guts. It’s bone marrow. I wanted to smash my own face in shame knowing that even in repose, even in winter, ABC/ESPN could put this on a stage. Some day the truth will flare out and expose us all for the hacks we are, but until then I will continue going to the theater because I have no choice: it’s either ABC/ESPN, or the ledge.”
Though Mamet was a bit effusive in his praise of a minor work, he struck the chord: we were wrong to ever doubt ABC/ESPN’s ability to again seize the stage. Witness What Happened On The Sideline Between Stacey Dales and Chris Long (Nederlander Theater, 208 W. 41st St., 212-921-8000), a return to form so stunning in scope and audacity, so replete with energy and abandon, so utterly ABC/ESPN it makes the entire preceding decade’s worth of theater gray and dull in comparison. This new work is nothing short of the finest piece of American drama since we lost Arthur Miller to Marilyn Monroe. It demands to be seen. Like all great drama, it insists.
At times its blatant sexuality is overpowering, a kind of unctuous musk that leaves the theater dim and ungraceful. But that is rare. For the most part ABC/ESPN handles the scenes between Dales and Long with a light hand, letting the tension build slowly until even the audience is practically gasping for release. It is a pleasure to watch and be a part of: a vision so audacious one wonders how a nation founded by Puritans could possibly countenance this kind of out-and-out carnality in a place the Greeks considered sacred. But don’t let the talk of angry protesters fool you: this is art, High Art, and we can only be grateful that at long last ABC/ESPN has returned.
An excerpt from What Happened On The Sideline Between Stacey Dales And Chris Long:
DRAMATIS PERSONAE, in order of appearance
BRAD NESSLER, a perfum’d Rasputin with the voice of Bacchus.
STACEY DALES, the golden haired Amazon of the sidelines and daughter to the king of the WNBA.
CHRIS LONG, the number two pick of the draft and herald to Teri Hatcher.
BOB GRIESE, deposed king of Florida and father to the son of Bob Griese.
PAUL MAGUIRE, a crazed pauper.
PRINCES, COUNCILMEN, BARONS, GUARDS, MEN-AT-ARMS, SOLDIERY, SQUIRES, CITIZENS, LAWYERS, MUSICIANS, FISHMONGERS, etc.
Act One, Scene One
A stirring war-like processional is sounded. A video montage lights the back of the stage, showing CHRIS LONG in sudden, shocking violence: decapitating a quarterback, bending iron to his will, holding aloft the skulls of his enemy. It is impossible to turn away from this spectacle. Enter BRAD NESSLER. He is wearing a purple chiffon bath robe, with the belt only halfway done. We can see his gleaming mahogany chest and his dark curling chest hair with ease, and he knows we can. NESSLER takes his time in lighting a long black cigarillo. The theater is filled with the smell of week old bananas and coco butter, and something darker and sinister underneath. He inhales and exhales luxuriously, watching the brutal footage of LONG. NESSLER seems to approve.
NESSLER: Well, Virginia lookin’ for stars like they had last year. In Chris Long they certainly had a super star last year. First team All-American. Number two draft choice in the NFL draft. He was Mr. Everything, Mr. Hustle. And he created havoc in a lot of ACC backfields last year as he led this team in sacks. And he’s here on the old stompin’ grounds with Stacey.
Enter STACEY DALES. She is impossibly tall. She wields a triangular mace with ease in one hand. At her back is a retinue of naked Amazonian HONOR GUARDS, their hair cropped short and their nakedness contrasted with the spears and shields they wield. They dance slowly behind her, a warrior dance: aggressive, dangerous, razor-sharp. DALES is unconcerned with their movements. She is focused.
DALES: Well Brad I’ve got Chris standing here with me. Now Chris, obviously you’re an integral part of this program. How has life changed though going into the NFL?
The center stage pit opens and, as Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra plays, CHRIS LONG emerges from beneath. LONG is wearing the half beard of a warrior gone to ground, unsure when his next respite may come. He is also, for some reason, wearing a backpack.
LONG: You know, it’s changed a lot. You know, I’m adjusting to it pretty well, uh, but having a weekend off and being able to come back here is really great.
DALES: What adjustments would you make with the defense right now, up 21 points for USC?
LONG, clearly irritated: Well you know, they’re doing their thing in there, running some zone plays. But, uh, I think the offense just has to get ‘em out of the hole a little bit. They’ll catch up.
DALES: Alright Chris, I have something. I always come bearing gifts. It even has a little grass in it.
Fire shoots up from the back, and the lighting focuses on DALES’ hand as her HONOR GUARD writhe like serpents, undulating and bowing to what she holds. It is a SANDWICH. It is glistening unhealthily. Enter BOB GRIESE and PAUL MAGUIRE. GRIESE absentmindedly kicks MAGUIRE whenever the latter gets too close. MAGUIRE is dressed in tatters, and is very obviously unhinged. They both stare at the SANDWICH and the HONOR GUARD hungrily. LONG is trying not to stare, but he can’t help it.
DALES: Now this is Little John’s Chris Long sandwich.
NESSLER chuckles. It is an unpleasant chuckle, and he makes it even more uncomfortable by undoing his bathrobe even more. Now there is only the tiniest of material between the audience and NESSLER’s flesh.
DALES: Yes, that’s right folks: he’s got his own sandwich, the twelve inch steaker.
Everyone freezes and stares at DALES. The light turns a voluptuous crimson and the music acquires a low bass rumble. From here on in everyone moves with a slow lushness, a knowing kind of half samba, half tango.
DALES: Um. Well first of all, do you want the sandwich?
LONG: Uh, uh, I don’t eat the sandwich before ten at night. It tastes better late at night.
NESSLER, MAGUIRE and GRIESE cackle, throwing their hands up in supplication and delight. A thudding basso drum is struck once, twice, three times.
DALES, slightly unbelieving: It tastes better late at night.
LONG grins and gyrates.
DALES: Now, what happens if I give it to you? Do you think a fan might want it?
LONG: I think I can find a fan. I mean there’s 60,000 people, somebody’s hungry. We’ll give ‘em a sandwich, yeah.
In the background is the low sussuration of 60,000 voices desirous of a sandwich, of the SANDWICH and all it represents. DALES cannot help but be affected. She moves in the trance state of the hunter and the hunted.
DALES: And lastly, did you choose the ingredients? Because I gotta be honest with you: I dunno if I’m eatin’ this.
LONG: I didn’t choose the ingredients, but hey Little John’s they make good sandwiches. Uh, you know a lotta people tell me it’s actually alright.
DALES: Alright, thanks for taking the time, Chris. Back to you Brad.
NESSLER bows to DALES. He swishes his bathrobe belt, and sticks his hip out to one side.
NESSLER: Somebody would probably want him to autograph the bun, if he took it out in the crowd.
MAGUIRE and GRIESE giggle uncontrollably. MAGUIRE begins scratching himself as if he’s covered in a thousand bugs, but GRIESE is there to slap him and return him to the present world. NESSLER turns to them as if to ask, “Do you want something you wretches?”
MAGUIRE and GRIESE: [Indecipherable mumbling.]
MAGUIRE: Put, put some mayonnaise on that baby!