by Everett Goldner · August 16, 2014
Hot Steams is a play that’s particularly hard to classify. A quick look at cellardoortheater.com shows me that it’s been called “classic absurdist theatre,” but that’s a gimme. It’s a three-character play set in prison, in an unnamed place, in an unnamed time, and its characters speak in extemporaneous, logistically-perfect streams of neurotic prose literature that make them sound like Kafka channeled through the HAL 9000. (To wit: “It seems my assumptions have me lost in a bureaucratic map of malpractice.”) To call this “Absurdist” is like calling a Volkswagen a “Bug.”
I can’t wholly say that I understood this show after one viewing. (And I can definitively say that you should not see it, as I did, while running on zero sleep.) Would I see it again? Certainly. Would I understand it on a second go? I’d put that at 50/50.
Here’s the basics: a man in solitary confinement, accused of unseemly acts in a graveyard, is suddenly given a cellmate. The newcomer is dressed in a Santa suit and for the first ten minutes of the play, is unconscious. (The two are nameless, referred to in the program only as ‘The Sleeping Man’ and ‘The Man Awake.’) The Man Awake has a mysterious box (“I have a penchant for oddities,” is all he will reveal about the contents) and a stockpile of books: classic novels, philosophy, poetry. (The play’s title is taken from To Kill a Mockingbird.) Throughout the show the two discuss the meaning of imprisonment, the meaning of women, the meaning of character, of literature, of letter-writing, of lawyers, of graveyards, of escape. (The meaning of Christmas is notably absent.) These trawling conversations are periodically punctuated by nightly visits the Sleeping Man receives from a prison officer, who prevents Sleeping Man from doing what his name implies and wants to know what’s in The Man Awake’s box, which will somehow prove Awake’s guilt to the prison’s satisfaction and expects Sleeping to inform on Awake in exchange for… something… that is bigger than a breadbox, smaller than a Santa suit and isn’t likely to give Sleeping his freedom any time soon.
Sleeping’s role as an agent for the prison is about as far as the show wants to go toward a plot to hang its prose on, and takes up no more than about 15 minutes of stage time in all. The bulk and heart of the show is the intellectual, intricate, Nesting Dolls-discourse between Sleeping and Awake, which is sometimes very funny and sometimes inspired. The playwright, Zach Wegner, plays Man Awake, and his belief in Awake’s prolix mouthfuls of “hot steam” is evident.
It’s puzzling, it’s engaging. Is it classic absurdism? Only Saint Nicholas knows for sure.