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Church and State 

Wednesday, Mar 1 2000
The Archbishop's Ceiling is a companion piece to Up Your Ass -- both running now at George Coates Performance Works -- and if you're wondering what a stolid Arthur Miller play about writers in Cold-War Russia has to do with Valerie Solanas' scatalogical and sometimes funny farce about sex roles in America, well, you just haven't been paying attention. The connection lies in the congressional charter governing the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 1990, the NEA's charter has included a "decency clause" that asks judging panels for the Endowment to consider "general standards of decency" before throwing taxpayer dollars behind an artistic project. The clause was the target of Karen Finley's famous lawsuit, and it's what the Supreme Court upheld -- as not representing a threat to freedom of speech -- in 1998.

George Coates relies on the NEA. When he realized a project called Up Your Ass might flunk the decency test, he applied for a grant instead with an Arthur Miller play that examines the effects of surveillance and censorship on a group of Soviet and American writers. He's staging the two plays in repertory to see if one might "inform" the other by throwing light on the atmosphere of repression we (or at least nonprofit arts outfits like Coates') breathe every day.

Coates' success has been patchy, however. Both shows feature pretty good casts laboring under dull material. Up Your Ass is amusing but ultimately monotonous, and The Archbishop's Ceiling is mostly talk -- lots of banter about society, very little dramatic juice. It does have some good ideas about falsifying yourself for the KGB's microphones, but these illuminate the decency-clause issue with only a very dim light.

The story takes place in the lavish living room of a Moscow novelist named Marcus, whose house functions as writers' parlor. Crimson curtains, Persian rugs, a Japanese screen, and a ceiling painted with happy cherubim give it an Old-World bohemian flavor. The house was built long ago for an archbishop, who commissioned the ceiling, but the writers who visit it now suspect it's bugged.

An American writer, Adrian, makes an unexpected visit, and the only person in the house is a glamorous Russian writer, Maya. She pours drinks; they discuss old times. But Maya's accented voice is staccato and stilted, and seems to irritate Adrian. "Too -- many -- unrelated -- objects -- in this room," she remarks. "The eye can't rest."

Adrian: "Am I interrupting something?"

He admits to hearing a rumor that "the house is bugged and that you bring in girls to compromise writers with the government," which Maya denies. When they step outside, though, in the rain, she talks more easily, and the question dominates the rest of the play. Is the house bugged? Is Maya a KGB agent? Is Marcus? Soon Marcus shows up with another writer, Sigmund, and they learn that Sigmund's latest manuscript has been confiscated. He's a heavy-bearded, melancholy man in shabby tweed, mulling over whether to leave Russia. He also seethes with anger at Marcus, and eventually pulls a gun.

A pall of confusion and paranoia obscures the writers' real motivations, which is interesting, but also slows the play to a leaden pace, so that not even the pistol perks things up. The least interesting scene has Adrian challenging his Soviet friends to recognize their atmosphere of numb, repressed "unfreedom." Marcus bites back with the suggestion that Adrian has his own unfree habits: American-style money-grubbing, for instance. Or using his friends for material. "To whom am I talking?" Marcus wants to know. "The New York Times, your novel, or you?"

All the actors here are women. Sara Moore does especially clear work as Adrian, in glasses and '70s-style sideburns; she seems melancholy, pokey, whiny, and glum. Karen Ripley is even better as Marcus, the slick, unreadable, Asiatic playboy -- she resembles a young Boris Yeltsin. Susan McManus is an appropriately seductive Maya, but Annie Larson's Sigmund never comes alive; during fits of anger he raves in a phony low voice.

Coates' two-play project is risky, because fundamentalist anger about the NEA can flare up anytime. I'm sure the paranoia in The Archbishop's Ceiling reflects a palpable shadow on the nonprofit arts community since hate politics nearly killed the Endowment in the mid-'90s. But a decency clause is not the same thing as censorship. The image of a miked, formerly sacred ceiling suggests not just the replacement of the Vatican with the KGB but also the replacement of God with government, and these conditions don't apply in the United States.

What's replaced religion here is a pantheon of vapid media heroes who influence popular "identity" in real but slippery ways. Watching The Archbishop's Ceiling I could only think of that David Foster Wallace essay on the culture of irony (E Unibus Pluram), in which Wallace tries to grasp how young writers slaughter their own true sentiments in a TV-encouraged refusal to be serious. Archbishop's playacting writers have more in common with the self-conscious young novelists skewered in Wallace's essay -- who mug at each other for approval, torturously aware of their own vanity -- than they have with most government-supported arts organizations. And in that sense it's valuable: Archbishop makes an interesting show.


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