by Loren Noveck · July 4, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #125 Loren Noveck comments on 16 Words Or Less at The Wild Project
Peggy Stafford’s 16 Words or Less is a delicately loopy play—loopy in two senses, both structurally and tonally. Both the writing and the actors (directed with a light touch by Portia Krieger) show a gentle screwball wit that pops out in moments that mix absurdity with emotional grounding: the array of doctors weighing in on problems large and small, the officious cancer-care worker and earnestly self-absorbed cheerleader, the recurring games of “Jinx.” In its construction, the piece also loops back on itself constantly; moments and phrases recur and echo, pieces of language and fragments of events and characters’ obsessions return, in a way that is both wry and oddly haunting.
One of these recurrent patterns is the refrain of “16 words or less”—the arbitrary word limit set by flower shop My Fair Lilac for the cards that accompany its bouquets. (Like many other tropes in the piece—hair, mothers, birds-nest material, cancer—the number 16 also pops up in other ways: the number of questions on a form; the number of days a character’s father has to live; the age of another character.) Crystal, the flower-shop clerk, feels the need to hold the line and respect this rule, but she also wants to accommodate the customers who call and stop by, trying to negotiate ambiguous and complex emotional situations with the prop of flowers and only a few words to express their feelings in: people like Jonathan, whose father has died and who wants to send flowers to his mother even though his parents were long divorced, or Karen Carly, a cheerleader who doesn’t know how else to reach out to a grandmother mourning the loss of a decrepit, aged cat.
Crystal feels like she’s stuck standing still while everyone around her transforms—re-finding their old selves or moving in new directions. She’s paralyzed by a single decision: whether to cut off her long hair and donate it to Cancer Care (employer of the self-righteous Nick). She enforces that sixteen-word limit because she sees the importance of order and structure, yet she’s also easily drawn in by the events and emotional needs of people around her. Yet she is in fact going through a lot, without perhaps the perspective to see it: over the course of the play, she caroms from serious illness to an unexpected marriage; from complications in that marriage to romantic overtures from unexpected directions; from a terrible accident to a new beginning. She becomes involved in ongoing situations in Jonathan’s family (his loss of his father, his recent divorce) and of Karen Carly’s grandmother—and is somehow even drawn in to the complexities of Nick’s life. She’s beset by doctors and customers and the ever-ringing phone, and sometimes she just wants her hair back.
And all of it is done with a delicate touch and delight in the weird nuances of character. The actors all seem to find not just humor but joy in these characters: Clayton Dean Smith’s oily indignance as Nick; Crystal Finn’s striving for equanimity as Crystal; Jessica Rothe, as Karen Carly, proudly reciting her haiku; Mia Katigbak as Karen Carly’s Bubi (grandmother), finding herself anew in a hamentaschen cookie. (The entire ensemble is very good, but Rothe is something special, filling the blithe cockiness and self-centeredness of an adolescent girl with sincerity and sweetness.)
Stafford uses language almost like literal threads of color that run through the fabric of the play—and, in a fanciful way, there’s something about the use of space (Daniel Zimmerman’s set, with a flower shop in its square central playing area and wall phones lining the perimeter of the space at measured intervals, as well as the physical patterns of entrances and exits) that makes the movement through the whole piece feel like the shuttling of a loom or the weaving of intricate lace.
The play negotiates a complicated balance between change and stasis, between balance and discordance, between progress and regression. The flower shop becomes a plant shop and then a strange hair therapy center. Characters soldier on through cancer and drug addiction and divorce and grief—and celebrate marriages and births and getting off drugs—but somehow keep their core sense of self, and retain a fragile optimism as they move on into the unknown. As Bubi says, “What is, is”: they can’t escape themselves and so they must try, over and over, to transform themselves—but also to embrace themselves.