In the middle altitudes of the Serengeti, the greenery perks up in the wake of the wet season. After the long rains of April and May, the herbivores of the African savannas relax and in huge numbers feed on the plentiful clumps of short green grass that cover the northern hills. These disappear in the following weeks, and the animals head south, subsisting on less-palatable but hardier tall grasses, like the red and bitter themeda triandra, as they try to catch the rains that will fall over the southern grasslands in October.
Many make it, and many don't. Starvation is an issue, as is dehydration and the simple limits of animal constitution. Weaklings are weeded out of the ecosystem by the crude and effective eugenics of the long migration — the reason a wildebeest is almost as strong as the average American bull stud even though it's only a third of the size.
There are few weak wildebeests and even fewer slow ones. Hungry herbivores are not the only animals seeking food among the tall grasses of the dry season. There are lions too.
Brian Harris' Tall Grass seems to be about the lions stalking the tall grasses of modern America, about the way the familiar signs of 21st-century Western life can be upended in a moment of violence. If you like that kind of thing — surprise, horror, grotesquery — then Tall Grass is your kind of play.
If, on the other hand, you like your plays to be full of moving human drama, look elsewhere. Tall Grass operates on the plane of pulp and film noir, where the dramas are amoral and reptilian — brief and angry clashes of people moving swiftly and in accordance with their own inscrutable motivations. Since you need know only the barest of particulars about these people to understand the life-and-death struggles that erupt out of their workaday lives, Harris holds back a lot. This would be necessary in any case, since Tall Grass is a series of three short one-acts enacted by the same three actors, but it fits nicely with Harris' M.O.
Besides being full of secrets and violence, the inhabitants of the one-acts have little in common. The first follows a troubled couple through their attempts to reconcile their identities with their professions. The second brings us into the home of another troubled couple as they catch a burglar in the act of stealing their china. The third shows what appears to be an untroubled couple, late in their old age, as they try to determine whether the nice young man who's come to visit is really as nice as he seems. All of these playlets begin prosaically; all quickly lead you to expect psychic or physical violence from a certain direction; and all subvert those expectations in a way that remains surprising, even through the end of the third — by which point you'd think you'd know better. The fact that Tall Grass retains the power to surprise from beginning to end is a sign that Harris has succeeded in the general thrust of his mission, even if he failed in the particulars.
Because Tall Grass deals exclusively with quick and dirty snatches of animal humanity, it should unwind breathlessly, staying one step ahead of the audience at all times. The second and third playlets do so; the first does not. It unfolds so slowly that you often think you're one step ahead of it — and even if that's a ruse, you do want it to hurry. The problem is that Harris wanted to give us too much story. While the second and third one-acts unfold in real time, the first skitters across half a year in the couple's relationship. Filled with a great many short scenes that seem obsessed with setting up a story that never gets told, Harris' first playlet becomes tangled in an accidental McGuffin.
I wish I could explain more clearly how this transpires, but I can't. To offer almost any specifics about the play would be to ruin one of the many nasty surprises that await anybody who goes to see it. And see it you should for the work of the actors and of director Kim St. Leon as much as for Harris' Discovery Channel aesthetic.
Since the three one-acts feature different characters, the actors have a lot to do — especially Reiss Gaspard, who in the first ten minutes plays a flamboyant corporate hack named "Larry," a Jamaican maintenance man, a cranky old executive, a Malay girl's answering machine, an Indian customer-service rep, a computer, and a waiter. Baby-faced Gaspard then becomes a burglar and a convincing retiree going slowly soft in the head. At the same time, Jim Ballard (who recently chewed the scenery all to hell in the great Urinetown at the much larger Actors' Playhouse) is a nerdy, underachieving corporate slave, a Mafioso, an imperious senator, a cutlery salesperson, and a friendly government worker. Stacy Schwartz is a workaholic, a gun moll in training, a harpy, and an ancient macramé enthusiast. As Tall Grass runs a mere 90-ish minutes without an intermission, all of this happens fast. The actors must develop their characters in time-lapse, relying on pure physical instincts as much as any refined dramatic sensibility. Physical instincts they've got — especially Schwartz, whose hypermobile face can communicate everything from teenaged lust to incipient senility without relying on a single scripted word.
The physical comedy, and there's a lot, creates a nice bed for the dirty work that Harris means to do and that director St. Leon probably delights in. Watching her work, one gets the feeling that St. Leon would be just as happy directing horror movies: mystery, gloomy atmospheres, sustained dissonances, and sudden bloody developments are her strongest suits, and her touch can improve even a great play (theaterfolk should remember how she turned Brian Friel's great drama The Faith Healer into an otherworldly terror). Here, she makes the soft bits very soft, savoring the contrasts with the hideous developments that arise in the script, looking for maximum impact and finding it.
Apart from their considerable fun factor, there is probably great meaning in those hideous developments, and it's worth talking about. I wish I could do so here, but it would be a cheat. We'd like the tall grass to remain tall for as long as it likes.