Oyster Boy Review 10  
  January 1999
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Mr. Universe and Other Plays

Kevin McGowin

  Mr. Universe and Other Plays.
Jim Grimsley.
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1998.
300 pages, $17.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 1565122119

In his introduction to the title play, writer/director Romulus Linney observes that "['Mr. Universe'] must be not only just well acted, but brilliantly acted, or the underlying humanity will not emerge." Linney encourages the reader of the play to visualize it acted by "the very best realistic actors you know, from both stage and screen" for its true character and impact to emerge. He's right—this is difficult theater indeed, and must also be ingeniously directed: no easy task, and I'm not necessarily volunteering myself for the job. However, though I have never seen any of Grimsley's plays staged, reading them with the imagination Linney suggests is a powerful experience that somehow brings the reader into an interactive relationship with the work that goes beyond my normal experience in reading scripts intended to be presented on the external landscape of the theater.

Linney also calls Grimsley "a writer of many seasons." Each one of the four plays that make up the present volume bear this out, as "seasons" or emotions subtly shift and blend and change in the space of a pause or a single line, revealing Grimsley as a masterful and versatile playwright with a remarkably original and fertile mind. His themes and motifs can be reductively counted off: isolation in crowds, confusions in personal identity, failures of communication, blood, mortality, the motivation to action through fear . . . But these things don't explain the uniqueness of work that is at once accessible and funny, "postmodern" and terrifying. Grimsley is a Southern writer who sets much of his surface action in that region and writes in idioms readers of Albee, Horton Foote, Becket, and late Williams will be familiar with, while defining his artistic efficacy through his point of departure from his influences by his creation of a complex interior landscape that seems to operate parallel to yet in tandem with the obvious action imparted in the stage directions, words and gestures. What the plays are "about" is not what is shown on stage and is not even found in what is absent, but in the aspects of human experience they neither show nor tell but keep hidden from the characters themselves: "identity" in the title play, perhaps, or "motivation" in "The Lizard of Tarsus."

Such dramatic subterfuge, consciously obvious in a writer like Becket and deliberately accentuated in Albee, is handled by Grimsley with an incredible deftness and light touch that makes "The Borderland", the most conventional play in the volume, resonant with possibility beyond its theme and setting (nouveau riche misunderstand and feud with Tobacco Road laboring class folk in Atlanta suburb on stormy night). Its meaning and impact become universal experience and its real action takes place in the indefinite world of the title, a shadowy cosmic-souplike realm where distinctions are lost, and the reader is left with a sense of wonder and dark beauty.

My favorite of the plays, by far, is "Math and Aftermath," the book's final piece, which manipulates time, history and personal identity in a much more graceful way than in "The Lizard of Tarsus," a play that prompts Reynolds Price to ask in his introduction to it why more contemporary writers don't write plays about the Biblical Passion story. The answer is that they do, and that Grimsley does it in "Math," which is set on the Bikini Atoll just before the historic bomb testing. The story of the Passion and just about everything else, which is what the Passion is in the first place—not just some nebulous question about the nature of honesty and loyalty, motivation or fear, but about That-Which-Cannot-Be-Uttered save for between the shadows of a very successful play like this one. Or in "Mr. Universe," which is if anything even more explicit in its suggestions while retaining the possibility to be great theater as well.

And it's in the realm of this possibility that Grimsley writes and in which his work takes shape. And what a possibility. What a beautiful and real one—riveting, terrifying.