Review: "Sincerity Forever" is Sharp and (Still) Timely Satire

Sincerity Forever

Written by Mac Wellman

Directed by Dina Vovsi

Presented by The Flea Theater

20 Thomas St., Manhattan, NYC

August 24-October 7, 2019 [extended through October 13, 2019]

Amber Jaunai (left), Nate DeCook (center), Vince Ryne (right). Photo by Allison Stock.
The scene is of a familiar sort: two young people with crushes on one another sit together in a parked vehicle and discuss why God allows terrible things to happen and whether there is a divine purpose for everything. Less expectedly, they are wearing the robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Almost all of the young people who populate the town of Hillsbottom in Mac Wellman's satiric Sincerity Forever are so appareled, a visual signifier that forces to the surface what American society prefers to keep sublimated and unacknowledged. Sincerity Forever, along with the outstanding Bad Penny (reviewed by us here), makes up part of the Flea Theater's Mac Wellman: Perfect Catastrophes, A Festival of Plays, which celebrates the work of Wellman, award-winning playwright, novelist, professor, and co-founder of the Flea. In addition to Bad Penny and Sincerity Forever, the festival will feature productions of The Sandalwood Box and the premieres of The Invention of Tragedy and The Fez (this last on a double-bill with The Sandalwood Box). Festival passes are available and, judging by the productions of Bad Penny and Sincerity Forever, well worth it.

Sincerity Forever premiered in 1990, winning an Obie (which did not stop the National Endowment for the Arts from requesting that Wellman remove reference to his NEA fellowship from the published edition of the play). At the time of its debut, Sincerity Forever was sarcastically dedicated to North Carolina Senator Jesse Helmes for his work in destroying civil liberties, and the play's critiques are perhaps even more relevant now, given the current strategy of attempting to enshrine "sincerely held" religious beliefs as legal justification for discrimination, which can be seen a clear progression of the obstructionist, agreessively anti-equality conservatism that Helms did much to foster. With a pair of exceptions, the Hillsbottom residents whom we meet all hold sincerity to be the highest virtue and, consequently, an incontestable excuse as well. The play opens with Molly (Charly Dannis) and Judy (Malena Pennycook) having one of those conversations in a parked car, thinking about questions like why God made the world such a complicated mess, or, like Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, how each of them knows that she is herself and not the other. In the course of this conversation, they both establish the many, many things of which they are ignorant and decide that what really matters is not that they are ignorant but that they are sincerely ignorant. Tom (Vince Ryne) and Hank (Nate DeCook) touch on some of the same point in their own parked-car confab, with Tom avowing that his motto "never explain, never apologize" sufficiently justifies his refusal to accept everything from the spherical shape of the Earth to the historical existence of the Holocaust. Later, Judy has George (Peter McNally) for her conversational partner and Tom has Lloyd (Jonathan Ryan), and by the time the play pairs up Molly and Judy again, Judy worries that the turn their talk takes means that "something strange is trying to take over Hillsbottom."

Charly Dannis (left), Malena Pennycook (center left), 
Peter McNally (center right), Alex Hazen Floyd (right). 
Photo by Allison Stock.
This strangeness is related to the two exceptions mentioned earlier, the "Furballs," identified as spirits of negation, "of the tribe of Abaddon and Belial." The Furballs (Zac Porter and Neysa Lozano) are marked as apart from the others in Hillsbottom not only by their lack of a Southern accent but also by their appearance: instead of blending in with white robes and pointy hoods, they would be right at home as punks in a 1980s movie. (George, who opines to Judy that everything has a purpose and, no doubt relatedly, trusts in the authorities to do the right thing, reveals that his father died of a furball-related accident.) The second Furball ends a dizzying critique of Hillsbottom, masterfully delivered by Lozano in its delightfully delirious rhetorical overabundance, by calling it "deeply insincere." The first Furball's rebuttal to this in part foreshadows the climactic, all-encompassing challenge to the self-satisfied metric of sincerity by a mystery woman of color (Amber Jaunai) who arrives in Hillsbottom.

The woman remarks to Tom and Hank that Hell resembles Hillsbottom, and, indeed, when the words of some characters begin to intrude in the repetition of other characters' dialogue, one wonders if the whole thing is taking place in some redneck version of Sartrean hell after all. It is not not Hell, however—merely an America that proudly upholds as virtue and strength ignorance and incuriosity in all of their forms, even as, the play contends, the point of Christianity that the townspeople profess is to shake up belief and force people to confront and re-evaluate the mess of world in doing so. This contention is delivered by Jaunai to "America" but also directly and intimately to the audience, in a transfixing performance during which there is a notable change in the tone and atmosphere, helped by a change in the lighting (and capped with one final, wryly cynical joke). Frank J. Oliva's set, a loading dock behind the yellow-and-blue-themed "Super Center" adorned with plastic crates and garbage bags, nicely captures the feeling of the kind of place that kids hang out who are old enough to drive but too young or too lacking in funds to have their own spaces or frequent bars (in these reviewers' hometowns, those places were the CVS parking lot and cul-de-sacs in under-construction housing developments). The actors do a uniformly good job at playing naive teens who think that they're saying something really deep, and render them almost likeable, until the hoods go on or the idea of the Holocaust as fake news comes up; while their Southern accents vary in quality, and may seem unnecessary in terms of character (the KKK is just as active in Indiana as in Mississippi, and too easy identification of Southerners with bigotry risks suggesting that the two are interchangeable), they create a sense of place and serve as a way of distancing the Furballs and Jaunai's visitor from the rest of Hillsbottom.

Sincerity Forever shares with Bad Penny a concern, from a very different angle, with how we define "normal" thought and behavior and with the mythic, as well as a joy in occasionally piling up words in Miltonic concatenations, a sharp, absurdist sense of humor, and some legitimately surprising moments. Sincerity Forever is well-acted, timely, funny, and provocative, and we sincerely recommend it.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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