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SAMUEL R. GATES and MALCOLM MORANO in "Three Seconds in the Key"
Courtside Drama
By Rebecca Fried Weisberg


Three Seconds in the Key
By Deb Margolin
Baruch Performing Arts Center


Three Seconds in the Key, a new play by Deb Margolin, opens a window into the inner life of a housewife dying of Hodgkins Disease. But the play is no syrupy Terms of Endearment clone. Rather, in Margolin’s moving one-act, the main character -– known only as the Mother -– shares her raging emotions and racing thoughts in an intimate shared hallucination. The play is a series of vignettes that rise out of the confused caverns of the Mother’s mind with a paradoxical crispness, like scenes from a sharply real dream where the oddest things just happen to occur. At the heart of the play is her imaginary interaction with a fictional black basketball player from the New York Knicks, which escalates into a series of verbal tournaments where she confronts her deepest crises of faith, identity, and strength.

The New Georges theater company recently presented the first full production of this evolving work -– which began as a solo piece in Deb Margolin’s well-known downtown idiom. Its latest incarnation incorporated an unusual setting that vividly merged the Mother’s real life and fantasy life. The theater was structured to resemble a small basketball stadium, with arena-style seating arranged in three-quarter round. The center of the floor was an orange and blue rubber court, encircled by glossy wood, with a basketball net mounted on the front of a monitor that later served as both a scoreboard and a television. In the center was an orange print couch and coffee table, making up the living room where most of the drama happened. This design meshed the two worlds of the play very well: the Mother’s house and the television world of basketball, with the basketball action increasingly melded with the Mother’s everyday experiences.

All of the acting was strong, with a powerful and nuanced performance by Catherine Curtin as the Mother. Evoking hilarity and grief in equal measure, Curtain led the audience on a sometimes random and bizarre journey, and she was so captivating that one agreed to go along for the ride, following wherever the Mother’s mind went. Alexandra Aron’s directing also clearly shaped the character development and helped unify a somewhat mismatched ensemble. Aron skillfully molded the dramatic architecture (as designer Lauren Halpern did the physical environment), enabling the sweat of the basketball game to infiltrate the Mother’s living room without ridiculousness. It was Margolin’s writing, however, that left the strongest impression.

Three Seconds in the Key begins with a twenty-minute monologue, in which the Mother pads into the spotlight in bathrobe and fuzzy slippers and ruminates on her depressing inability to smoke marijuana, despite its curative effects on the nausea that comes with her chemotherapy. “I can’t smoke pot,” she half giggles, half drones in a kind of hammy deadpan -– making us wonder if her disordered yet acute mental state is supposed to illustrate the veracity of her statement. Her barbed, darkly comic monologue is rooted in the absurd and often sad physical and psychological situations that arise when the body fails. The comedy is marbled with a startling poetry woven into the very conversational speech. The Mother describes how in the night shadows of her balcony, the joint she recently smoked resembled “a star that had dared to come close to my face; a little minnow in the darkness.” As her words paint the pictures in her mind for us, the Mother draws us in, and we begin to feel a certain communion with her—enhanced by the knowledge (which most of the audience has gleaned from the program or from reviews) that the piece is semi-autobiographical, based on the playwright’s own experiences battling cancer.

The Mother tells of an evening when she formed a striking spiritual connection with a black Preacher who seemed to speak to her directly via public access television. Her narrative bursts into theatrical life as a tall, dark-suited black man (played by Avery Glymph) appears in the flesh in front of her, back to the audience, not quite in the spotlight nor quite out of it as he hovers at the entrance to the stage near the center aisle. Together, they fervently recite a litany of beliefs about the Lord. “The Lord does not care for your fancy clothes… your jewels… your car.” Essentially, he sees right through you, to your very essence. Although she has no firm religious beliefs, the Mother is mesmerized by this man: both by the image he creates of God stripping a person down to his most basic self, and by the Preacher’s own passion and honesty in revealing his deepest, rawest beliefs for all the world to see. However, at the very moment of the Mother’s rapture, the spiritual, almost mystical nature of the experience is quickly punctured by a too-human absurdity. The Preacher has been counting his central beliefs on his fingers, raising each finger one at a time, and the Mother is shaken from her reverie as she realizes that in his unworldly innocence he will enumerate a sacred spiritual belief with the ultimate vulgarity: the middle finger, raised with force. That, says the Mother, is the last thing she remembers, having then floated off into intoxicated laughter at the ludicrous contrast between the Preacher’s beautiful faith and his unknowing “Fuck you” to the faithful.

The comedy in the play brings laughter that is excruciating: even while finding humor in the Mother’s escapades (and admiring her ability to do so), we feel her anguish. Also, as she tells us, laughing is like bleeding -– "cleansing, painless, fatal." While this idea may seem perplexing at first, our language is replete with analogies between laughter and death: “I died laughing” or “That kills me.” Like bleeding, laughter destroys our physical control, seemingly draining our life force. As the words spill out of the Mother, it is not just the laughter that provides relief; she exults in words, spilling them liberally, and the hemorrhage of poetry purges her demons while renewing her strength. This dichotomy is the play’s fundamental irony: sometimes salvation lies in isolating and embracing the regenerative qualities of our most destructive moments. Indeed, the play’s meditation on the nature and purpose of faith is its focal point, and it is drawn out more deeply as the Mother develops her relationship with yet another unnamed character, the Player.

The Player is introduced along with his equally anonymous teammates immediately after the Mother’s first monologue. In an abrupt segue, the audience is transported to a live basketball game. Fluorescent light glares, hip-hop music blares, and five tall, muscular basketball players come running onto the court, dribbling and passing the ball while pictures of their faces bob across two monitors on stage.

At the same time, the Mother’s little boy enters, and mother and son gaze at an imaginary television, experiencing this basketball game as the TV audience. The blissfully technical sport provides a short respite from illness and pain. For a moment, all that matters are the speedily accumulating points, the sheer athletic power of the players’ bodies, the emotional but ultimately unimportant hairsplitting interpretation of the rules. The Mother’s obsession with her inner life and the words that swirl around there contrasts starkly with her participation in this display of mainstream sports culture. Her unlikely affinity for the sport makes the team chant resonate even more loudly; it comes to serve as a metaphor for her battle for her life.

I refuse! I refuse to lose! I refuse to fail! I refuse to die!
I refuse to be afraid! I refuse to be taken! I refuse!

Frequently, sports metaphors seem trite: in applying the lessons of everyday activities like baseball and football to life’s deeper struggles, they can detract from the weight -– and the tragedy -– of individual stories of hardship. In this case, the unusualness and physicality of the situation refreshes the metaphor and transforms it into a powerful artistic tool.

As the team breaks off the chant and the other athletes recede into darkness, the Player (played by Samuel R. Gates) walks straight into the living room, breaking through the imaginary boundaries between the Mother’s home and the surrounding realms of fantasy. When the Mother catches sight of the Player, she is arrested, breathless, and slaps him to prove to herself that he cannot be real. The sound of skin on skin reverberates, its sharp echo symbolizing a turning point for the Mother. Suddenly, her mental extravagances have created a channel for salvation to help her to escape from the dark chambers of her mind.

CATHERINE CURTIN and SAMUEL R. GATES in "Three Seconds in the Key"The Mother’s dialogues with the Player are interspersed with her solo musings and conversations with her son, as well as the team’s conflicts as they stumble through a losing season. These dialogues are central and, interestingly, they mirror her spiritual experience with the Preacher. In their first spoken exchange, the Player tells her, “I got your call, Mother,” and we are reminded of the way the Preacher came to her in a moment of need, alone in a scary, smoked-out stupor. As the Mother said earlier, God comes to you when you’re alone, and while God does not have a tangible existence in the play, we have a sense that He has sent two representatives to help the Mother through her pain. Also, the way the Player relates to the Mother recalls how the Preacher urges his followers to strip their souls down to their most essential being. It is the Player who calls her “Mother,” and when she objects that she is more than just a mother, he violently disagrees: “That’s all you are –- Mother,” in a tone of voice that brooks no argument. His statement is not meant to be derogatory; while harsh, it is intended to remind her of her most important function, and hopefully remind her that it is not just an identity, but also a calling. Also, in refusing to recognize her by name, the Player maintains a certain distance, like a surgeon or an undertaker, as if it were unseemly for him to get involved in the specifics of her life. She, in return, calls him only “Sir.”

There is another important, if subtle, link between the Player and the Preacher. The Player, whose spirituality is evident in his exchanges with the Mother, will not join in the brief prayer that his teammates share before their games. On several occasions, he declines even to stand with them, despite their pleas and occasional harassment. Yet he humbly gets down on his knees with the Mother to pray for her. Similarly, the Preacher has foresworn all organized religious activity. “I do not trust myself to that Church,” he intones, speaking of the place where some congregants pay attention to clothes, jewels, and cars. Both men are deeply spiritual, but they call out to God only when in the presence of those whose souls call out to them.

That both the Preacher and the Player are tall, lean black men helps to bring out the similarities in their functions for the Mother, while creating interesting questions about why African-American cultural and religious values speak so strongly to her -– a secular Jewish woman who believes in God, but only because it “takes too much energy not to.” This cultural contrast is highlighted by the Mother’s discussions with the Player on Jewish attitudes and practices, and by his snide questions and comments about Jewish racism. He takes note of the way certain Jewish people mumble “schvartze” (pronounced “Sh’vah-tzah”) under their breath when a black person walks by -– he knows that the word must be the equivalent of “nigger.” As the Mother defends her culture -– noting how everything sounds derogatory in Yiddish –- the Player insists on the destructiveness of these attitudes. Yet, just as his reduction of her character to “Mother” was not sexist, these comments manage to skim the surface of anti-Semitism. In fact, they effectively underscore how faith, whether religious or secular, depends upon a basic respect for the self and others. In addition, as two of society’s most noticeable “others” -– and as two peoples acutely aware of having been slaves in former generations – Jews and blacks have a great deal of common ground that can unify them in spite of cultural differences. These associations provide texture for the relationship that develops between the Mother and the Player, and also provide opportunities for the Player to share some of his own personal history and identity: his childhood poverty, his intense focus on “learning [his] game” as he grew up, his children that he never sees.

This fascinating exploration is conducted through the Player’s efforts to instill the Mother with the will to seize control of her life in spite of her illness. In offering her a life perspective so vastly different from her own, he attempts to help her find a true appreciation of the time that she has already spent on earth, which will liberate her to make the most of the remaining days -– however many or few they may be. This is where the title of the piece comes into play. Three Seconds in the Key refers to the amount of time that a basketball player is permitted to stand near the net waiting for a pass. The Mother at one point asks the Player, “How do you take a shot when you’re so worried about where you stand?” He answers, “Three seconds is a long time, Mother, a long time. You know when you’ve had your three seconds in the key, and you just dance in and out.”

The Player’s frequent hostility seems designed to provoke the Mother to fight back, and hence rediscover and rebuild her forgotten strength. In a climactic moment, as he’s pushing her to rise above her pain and exhaustion, they engage in a battle of wills underneath the scoreboard. Both fall back on racial and ethnic bigotry in expressing their anger, but as they volley insults back and forth, with ten-second countdowns for each on the scoreboard, the conflict becomes a confrontational debate about the Mother’s weakness of spirit. “I’m fighting for your life,” cries the Player, “and you’re barely raising your arm! Use your body, Mother! Use your arm! Arms up on ‘D,’ Mother!” (“D” stands for “defense.”) This emotional shock treatment ultimately penetrates the Mother’s self-destructive defenses, and in the end she achieves a peaceful resignation that frees her to dance in and out of the key with each three-second moment that is allotted to her by the divine Scorekeeper.

A few minor structural problems disrupt the flow of the play at times. For example, the son's presence is not completely integrated, and the Mother's other immediate family members -- a husband and a daughter -- are casually mentioned but never appear in the play and serve no dramatic purpose. According to an interview with the playwright, the addition of the son was one of the last changes to the piece. Further, the intense chemistry between the Mother and the Player was sabotaged towards the end when their relationship awkwardly developed romantic and sexual overtones. In the New Georges's production, melodramatic staging and performances in the last scene between the Mother and the Player contributed to this awkwardness, which somewhat undermined the momentum that had been building. Thankfully, these were trivial fouls that did not significantly detract from our experience of the drama. Perhaps they even heightened it by exposing the raw humanity of the theatrical player who created the whole game and provided us with three very worthwhile seconds in the key.


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