Review: We’re No Butchers by Rob Plath (Epic Rites Press, 2011; http://www.epicrites.org/)
The theme of the dysfunctional, self-destructive family runs through modern American drama like a sparking powerline. From O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night to McDonagh’s The Pillowman to Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, major American dramatists have illuminated the many ways that familial madness and violence lie hidden in plain sight; a craziness so well disguised, in fact, that a substantial American social movement can, without a trace of irony, claim to want to uphold and restore “family values”.
In Rob Plath’s short ten-scene play all the family values skeletons come roaring out of the suburban closet in the characters of the son, Butch, the uncle, Dante, and the parents, Otto and Mia. From the moment the action opens on a typical Sunday morning, we are blasted by their free-floating anger and resentments. And these people are terrifying, not just as hyper-anxious individuals shackled to each other by genetics and the sad symmetries of psychodrama, but as representative figures of a rot at the heart of the body politic. Here the mask of blandness is off and we are confronted by pure anti-kitsch, by violence, by a stunted vocabulary of second-hand obscenities, by infantilized relationships, by a world of shit.
There is something brilliant in the way Plath refuses us any real relief from the high tension exchanges in this play. The language itself grabs us, in a theater-of-cruelty way, and will not let us turn away from this slow motion carwreck of a family. Even those moments in the play when, as in Scene 7, with the arrival of Otto and Mia’s dinner guest Mo, the dialogue starts out tamely and superficially genial, Plath manages to foreground its frailty as a means of communication, of connection. Like the high energy exchanges between, say, Butch and Dante, these people connect only by cliché, by narcotizing cultural referents. And when these fail…look out; hell hath no fury like an adult infant.
Even though most of We’re No Butchers takes place in a fairly cramped domestic space and the plot involves a working through of the stunted personal relationships of the main characters, Plath’s play has, of course, a larger social and political dimension to it. To put it bluntly, if you want to know something of the inner lives of those people who voted for George W. Bush twice, who wield the cross of Jesus as a battle-axe, who think Norman Rockwell is a realist, and who sputter racist slogans as they chew on their barbecued chicken wings— this play will confront you with them. In the volatile atmosphere of a suburban living room Otto bellows at Dante: “WE’RE NO BUTCHERS. IF WE WERE BUTCHERS YOU’D BE DEAD, YOU MOTHERFUCKER.” And Butch, his name almost “Butcher”, like Otto and Mia is no literal butcher. But in the body politic, the psychology of this pesudo-intellectual, pseudo-libertarian man-child is writ large: it brings us Guantanamo, waterboarding, massacres, and a thousand casual cruelties. Rob Plath won’t let you escape from any of this. I hope that cutting-edge theater companies everywhere will consider adding this powerful work to their repertoire.
©Ger Killeen, 2012