America’s self-declared conscience speaks up
?Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead,? reads the press leaflet, ?is a daring monodrama based on the monologues of an American playwright [Eric Bogosian], declared a provocateur, an offender and a scandaliser, but also the conscience of America.? Bogosian has a resume that is filled with big-name contacts, from Oliver Stone to Steven Spielberg to Frank Zappa, and he is apparently also starring at the moment in a popular American sitcom. His play is being presented as one of the Ludowy Theater?s English-language summer performances for tourists.
A cash-grab surely, but one a good bit less ostentatious than the ?Entertain the Dragon? English-language sketch-comedy night with buffet meal being offered by Moliere for a jaw-dropping 140 zl.
It is no doubt a full-time job being America?s self-declared conscience. To gauge by Bogosian?s drama, what is torturing the American psyche these days?
Well, Americans are worried that their suburban environments are sterile and soulless places where their children are being turned into idiots, and where the adults are bacteria-obsessed worker drones who have forgotten how to show physical affection unless they have video cassettes to instruct them.
Americans are worried about their own helpless sexual obsessions, about the religious right-wing preachers stirring up hatred and violence, about the spread of dead-end poverty, and finally Americans are worried that the people who are meant to be helping them — the doctors and the above-mentioned preachers — are in fact only making things worse, dragging the society down to a deeper level of the ethical and physical grotesque.
None of this will come to the reader as any surprise. Bogosian has not exerted himself particularly in finding the roots of the American malaise, and the moral reckoning here is about as penetrating as what can be found on daytime television.
Assumedly Bogosian wrote a theater monodrama and not a television sitcom because he wanted licence to be extremely vulgar — and it is this vulgarity and the stripped-down aesthetic of Pounding Nails that might give some viewers the impression that what they are watching is somehow more artistic than, say, The Cosby Show.
But there is also the performer/director to take into consideration here. A monodrama performed by a non-native speaker, where so much depends on language and intonation, is a harrowing prospect. But Tomasz Obara exceeds all expectations in most of the roles he creates here, and even adds layers to the script that save the evening from being mere ham-fisted societal criticism.
Obara somehow manages to pull off a nearly perfect impersonation of an American immigrant, putting a different spin on, for example, the homeless man still convinced he is living the American Dream. When Obara incarnates himself as the sex-obsessed man at a psychological help group, there is extra pathos in his struggling to use the mawkish cliches of contemporary American language culture (?I think Dan has shared a very important problem with us?). And his doctor listing the revolting side-effects of prescribed medication in a sing-song voice combines the nauseating speech habits of American and Polish doctors to very good comic effect. There is nothing awkward, for the most part, about his performance.
When he creates the American television evangelist in the final part of the play, however, he reveals his lack of cultural familiarity. The American mass-audience preacher is a very particular blend of chummy solidarity, hysterical enthusiasm and condescending good-will, punctuated with bursts of fiery thundering at society?s evils and temptations. There are modulations of voice and ways of speaking that are instantly recognizable as coming from this sort of television evangelist.
Obara?s preacher is half gangster and half Lucifer, his voice reverberating across the stage through an echo microphone. It is an interesting reading of the part, certainly, but one that has nothing to do with the reality Bogosian is pointing toward. And without the preacher?s occasional affability, Obara simply comes across as a ranting lunatic, scarcely someone who would be persuasive to a middle-American audience.
All in all, what saves Pounding Nails then is some inspired acting from Tomasz Obara. The words themselves are only passably entertaining, but Obara carries this one-man show through by the very sweat of his brow, making for an evening that you will not regret, though you may struggle to remember a week later on.