Watching Joyce Carol Oates' supremely odd theater piece, "I Stand Before You Naked," you wonder if Oates took note when the late, great writer Donald Barthelme, remarked that collage is the 20th century's great art form.
Unlike Barthelme's fiction collages, Oates' novels and short stories are more traditional narratives. But for her only play, in its Los Angeles premiere at American Renegade Theatre, she's opted for collage.
The play's characters speak in monologues directly to the audience--partly, it seems, because Oates is uncomfortable with drama's traditional rise and fall of action, partly because she's not keen on the give-and-take of dialogue.
There's a case to be made for theater in which characters speak only to the audience, not each other. Brian Friel's "Molly Sweeney," now at the Mark Taper, argues that case well. "I Stand Before You Naked" also makes the case, but not very strongly.
Part of the danger of collage theater--as with collage art--is that some pieces might overwhelm others, or that the pieces won't fit together as a conceptual whole. Oates is bedeviled with both problems here as she presents 10 women, all sharing wounds of the body or soul, some more compelling than others.
A woman who announces herself as dead (Susan DeCenzo), then explains how she got that way, is very interesting because we sense her doom. Another woman (Cathy McAllister), in the work's briefest and most brilliantly written section, describes how a moment with her sobbing husband marked the beginning of the end of their relationship. There is the mystery of poetry here, and it's unsettling.
In other sections, mystery gives way to obtuseness, leaving the actors with very little to grab hold of. The first woman we see (Lydia DeLuccia) complains of a "blood button" on her face, which may or may not be a sign of AIDS, or a hickey, or nothing at all. A woman in a mental hospital (Jillian McWirter) verbally jumps from adoration of Jesus to Hiroshima and nuclear war, and not a second of it rings true.
That's the problem in other sections as well, where the acting goes loopy: Elizabeth Jaeger's manic Betty, newlywed to a convict; and a bulimic teen with excessive Sturm und Drang by a too-healthy-looking Debra Henri.
Interestingly, two of Oates' less obviously disturbed characters--a wealthy lady craftily played by Leslie deBeauvais, and a homely office worker fleshed out with rich charm by Lois Weiss--leave much deeper impressions because Oates' writing is specific and personal.
Director David Cox clearly has tried to help his actors over the rough spots in the writing. But his addition of a man cloaked in black like a medieval executioner (Kurt Sinclair)--something not in Oates' script--just adds a new rough spot. And though Oates specifies a disembodied voice to represent a baby in the final scene with a pregnant woman (Sylvia Klein), Sinclair actually plays the baby onstage, making no visual or emotional sense.
Cox's set of black furniture, blocks and modules makes no visual sense either, though Vincent DeCenzo's lighting works to keep us focused on the actors rather than the stage world around them.
But in the end, "Naked's" unevenness is the product of a writer unused to writing for the medium of the actor. And it's Oates' collage that ends up out of focus.
* WHAT: "I Stand Before You Naked."
* WHERE: American Renegade Theatre, 5303 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 15.
* HOW MUCH: $10.
* CALL: (818) 763-4430.