You always learn something new when you watch somebody drink. Not that vino leads to veritas in any literal way—but, over the span of a long, soggy night, small, revealing details, often more gestural than verbal, accumulate. How your fellow-partygoer holds a glass, or how often she takes a drink, or what counts, in her world, as a cocktail: all of this helps you to know her better, to figure out where she’s really coming from. Two recent productions—“Des Moines,” the final play by the late Denis Johnson, from 2007, and a revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer-winning “Between Riverside and Crazy,” from 2014, in its Broadway première—feature alcohol as a spur and a guiding presence, a conduit to otherwise fugitive knowledge.
The central event of “Des Moines”—directed by Arin Arbus, for Theatre for a New Audience, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center—is an impromptu gathering that quickly becomes a drink-fuelled bacchanal. Dan (Arliss Howard) and Marta (Johanna Day) are an aging couple further aged by sorrows that they find hard to articulate, and by a stubborn but unspoken ambivalence about the substance and meaning of their lives. At the beginning of the play, whose main setting is their kitchen, they’re talking past each other in a way that makes their anomie plain. Dan, a cabdriver, has recently come into contact with Mrs. Drinkwater (Heather Alicia Simms), whose husband died in a plane crash. Dan’s cab was the last car the poor guy ever rode in. As he tries to relate this story to Marta, she’s more worried about whether he plans to eat a full meal. “So is this new diet some sort of spiritual thing?” she asks. “Because I made spaghetti. Is this a spiritual pilgrimage you’re on, Dan, with the cereal?”
That’s a funny question, but as the play wears on it seems like the key to something. Here, as elsewhere in Johnson’s œuvre—his short-story collection “Jesus’ Son” being the prime example—the characters are desperately sad and live lives that feel almost willfully marginal, but their psyches are shot through with deep and often numinous yearnings. Dan goes to confession, spilling his beans to a priest he doesn’t totally respect. Marta hates when Dan curses and is always inviting over that priest, Father Michael (Michael Shannon, in a first-name coincidence that, in this case, feels fated). This pocket of Iowa is full of Polish Catholics. “We’re as Polish as sausage and—something else that’s Polish,” Father Michael says. From the outside, Dan and Marta might seem like simple people, but they’re both reaching for some kind of unseeable light.
The plain kitchen shows signs of working-class wear. Their most used cooking instruments seem to be the hissing coffee maker and the microwave where Marta heats up the much discussed spaghetti. In an oddly thrilling sight gag, the couple stop talking for a whole minute and watch the glowing microwave while the food warms up—that’s one way, plate by plate, to watch your whole life zapping past you.
Some of the mysterious mismatch at work in “Des Moines”—between outer affect and inner striving, between surfaces and soul—…….