One unexpected effect of live theater is that it makes writing accountable to speech, in a way reading fiction aloud doesn’t. Watching people interact as characters means that a theater writer has to recreate human interaction to some extent, and in a lot of plays the first thing to “get past” is the total non-resemblance of the script to real speech. In what world do people always say exactly what they mean, or at least the exact right thing for a set of clearly devised situations? Plays make the inner workings of fiction — plot, “characterization,” narrative structure — visible (and audible) for the viewer.
Of course, there’s a very good reason why most playwrights don’t try to replicate speech. Speech is frequently illogical and often bizarre, carrying with it highly detailed shorthands that demonstrate people’s relationships to each other. If people are unsure of their relationship to each other, verbal communication frequently doesn’t work at all. The 2018 play “Wheelchair” by Will Arbery demonstrates this in its style, which saturates the page with tics, half-sentences and whole conversational threads that don’t go anywhere. It can be frustrating to read.
How does that feel?
Good, I love wine. Thanks sorry, I had the
craziest day, so when I saw the wine, I was just
What was crazy about your day?”
This is a completely contentless conversation that continues in this fashion for pages and pages, but try reading it out loud! It’s not only recognizable as speech, it captures a subtle and rather common feeling of being stuck in a weirdly transactional situation, trying to bridge a gap between people who are unsure of their relationship to each other.
Gordon, a Jewish man in his sixties, is giving away all his furniture to Devon, a 19-year-old Black man, for free. We find out later that this is in advance of Gordon’s eviction from the building in West Williamsburg, which is being redone as “artist studios.” Gordon first has a strangely intimate interaction with Devon and later with his niece Sascha, who is evicting him.
The nervous impersonality of the overall tone is coupled with the instability of the whole scene. The stage directions at the beginning of the play indicate that the action should be underscored both with the sound of construction and a low hum which is “enough to get in our brains.” There’s a Beckett-esque sense that the theater the play is staged in is some kind of limit: at one point Gordon says, cryptically, “Going out there — I will dissolve.”
The characters seem either anxious to leave or to be left alone, and they sometimes seem to not be directly addressing each other. This makes it that much more jarring when characters declare their love for each other, apologize for long-standing hurts and speculate about religious concerns and the nature of correct action. Additionally, two vaguely-related monologue-rants that Devon and Sascha embark on completely shred the discursive fabric of the play. They read like emotional vomit, like a torrent of thoughts that burst some kind of dam.
“What am I doing? I hate talking. Everyone always cuts me off mid-sentence or replies with ‘Oh.’ or ‘Yeah.’ and I hate it, damn it. I’m scared to go outside. I’m scared all the angry old people can’t see how free I am … I can’t even do drugs, and can’t do anything right.”
To this Gordon replies “That feels like an error. What you did just felt like an error.” In a way, the overcorrection for the nervous tics of everyday life constituting its own kind of solipsistic fake-ness. There’s no easy way out of the awkwardness of the situation, no good way to institute “normal” human interaction given the banal inhumanity of the situation. The long rants and confessions of various kinds that the characters give to each other land them right back where they started.
The discursive dead end “Wheelchair” depicts points to the larger context that frames the play. Devon taking Gordon’s furniture for free on the brink of his eviction can be read as an allegory for what’s happening in New York City as well as cities around the US, as long-standing residents of cities get evicted to make way for younger and richer people.
The journalist Peter Moskowitz describes gentrification as “a theory of governance that places the needs of capital over people.” While gentrification in the United States is usually talked about in terms of individual gentrifiers and, much less often, the people it displaces, the frameworks that hold it up are less commonly discussed. Moskowitz shows that to understand gentrification, you have to understand the history of urban planning, real estate speculation and the almost half-century-long legacy of neoliberalism in the United States. “Wheelchair” recognizes that Gordon, Devon and Sascha are swept up in a process largely outside of their own control, and it’s sympathetic to all three of them without excusing their faults and flimsy justifications.
The play seems, at times, to be approaching the question of how to continue living in a world like this, rife with alienation and at times downright cruel. All three characters largely fail at this: Sascha starts out by excusing her callous behavior with the folding of her nonprofit and devolves in her monologue to rapid-fire and contradictory buzzwords. Devon has so thoroughly internalized competition and individualism that he’s terrified of other people. Gordon makes recourse to lying about his past and proclaiming that he’s a “lamed-vavnik,” one of the 36 righteous people for whom God preserves the world. The play seems to suggest that these failures are all very human, and it doesn’t make sense to punish people for them. The question of justice just out of reach, the play settles for a question of empathy.