About two hours into the 24-hour marathon performance titled The Second Woman at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space, I found myself increasingly focused on odd details. How many bags of Chinese take-out waste would fit in the tiny wicker trash basket? Would the liquor bottles be depleted by too generously pouring? Would I ever get Aura’s ’70s disco tune “Taste of Love” out of my head? Two hours later, those questions had been subsumed within the oscillating rhythm of the same scene played over and over. I was nearing the trance-like state that durational art — think Marina Abramović, Ragnar Kjartansson, Christian Marclay — aspires to induce in audiences. A state in which otherwise slight shifts in behaviors or patterns are experienced as near-detonations.
The premise for The Second Woman is deceptively simple: one woman — the actress Alia Shawkat, best known as the character Maeby from Arrested Development — repeats the same scene with 100 men over the course of 24 hours. Nat Randall and Anna Breckon, the show’s Australian creators, put out an open call for men that only required their willingness to show up at their appointed time, memorize a few lines and directions, and step through a door onto the stage. From what I saw during the several hours I attended, they were a somewhat varied bunch — but mostly young and middle aged, and mostly white. The performance took place in a partially transparent box-like structure; a diaphanous scrim separated the action from the audience. Two videographers assumed positions outside the box and their live feeds of close-ups were displayed on a screen to the right of the box. We were invited to feel more like peep-show voyeurs than typical theater-goers.
Each man followed the same basic script and movements: he approached the woman as she stood with her back to us and kissed her hair or shoulder; he made drinks, opened a Chinese take-out bag; she expressed self-doubt and professed her love; she threw food at him; they danced; she collapsed on the floor; and she told him to leave while offering a 50-dollar bill. He said either “I love you,” or “I never loved you” as he closed the door. This all took place within several minutes. Since there had been no rehearsal, performers met for the first time on the stage.
In essence, then, we watched an interaction between strangers. Yet the script and stage directions transformed what had aspects of a random encounter into something recognizable from any number of films or plays about troubled, volatile affairs and marriages, particularly as depicted in the 1960s and ’70s. Indeed, the necessarily slap-dash blocking, the alternately flat or over-dramatic line readings, the role of booze as a catalyst to confession put me in mind of high-school auditions for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That’s not a criticism but likely Randall and Breckon’s point: we are always auditioning (badly) for the roles in our relationships.
The repetition of the movements, the dialogue, and the dance tune were enlivened by minor variations introduced by both the actress and the actors. For instance, the choice to say “I love you” or “I never loved you,” to slam or merely close the door, was left up to the actor. After the first several iterations the audience knew the story well enough so when, say, one of the men improvised on his given line or delayed unbagging the take-out a certain of kind of excitement was felt. Not the excitement that might follow a well-turned bit of acting in a conventional play, but rather a feeling more akin to anxiety, the sort that arises when something goes amiss in our real-life routines and interactions.
To assuage the woman’s concern about her being beautiful and funny, the man served up a laundry list of praise: she’s great, hilarious, outstanding, talented, and so on. She added “And I love you.” When he merely concurred — “And you love me” — she found various ways of covering him in noodles. Sometimes she plucked them from her container with chopsticks to place them in a shirt pocket or behind his ears. Other times she just tossed the contents of the container at him. (It was difficult to read the act as motivated by anger at his lack of reciprocation; Shawkat’s performance overall was purposefully devoid of “acting.”) The reactions varied—some of the men appeared annoyed as they brushed food from their shoulders; others responded with laughter.
We’ve seen this gesture — the thrown drink, the upended dinner plate — countless times in films and on stage and here they were affectionately satirized and put to provocative use. However stock, the dialogue and action were experienced as both simulacra and actual occurrences. The blurring between artifice and reality grew especially salient after Skawkat threw the Chinese food. She put on loud music and retreated to a private reverie in a corner, her back to the audience. The actor draped his arms around her and they began to dance, sometimes apart, sometimes in an erotic clinch.
The dance often concluded with Shawkat wrapping herself around her partner or going deadweight in his arms. The emotional choreography — sudden gesture, retreat, reconciliation — may be a dramatic commonplace, but we weren’t watching a tightly scripted and rehearsed play. We were spying, it seemed, on two strangers as they intimately, awkwardly held and clutched one another. Their physical entanglement appeared designed to generate unease for the men and spectators alike. A social psych experiment along the lines of Milgram’s came to mind; we were all being tested. There was a sense that anything could happen.
When I returned the morning of the second day, somewhere around the 17th hour, Shawkat was still going strong. This despite the fact that in between each scene on her hands and knees she meticulously picked from the floor every speck of food, during which time the weary audience talked and checked phones, inattentive — after their first several viewings — to the abject ritual on taking place on the stage. In the wake of emotional tumult, the creators make clear, the clean up is always left to a woman. The performance in its totality is really Shawkat’s alone — the men so much passing flotsam, a few amusingly embarrassed, others eager to impress, still others too stiff to make an impression.
Second Woman is the title of the fictional play featured in John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night in which Gena Rowlands plays a middle-age actress whose erratic behavior sabotages the rehearsals. Inspired by the film, Randall and Breckon have softened the alcoholic angst while retaining Cassavetes’ meta-theatricality. They have also accentuated the theme of gender roles. Shawkat is plausibly presented as a mistress, the dialogue is ambiguous on that score. Yet her final gesture — offering a 50-dollar bill to the man and asking him to leave — flipped expectations and stirred uncertainty into the performance’s take on sexual politics.
After several hours I wanted to stay longer. If each scene began with the promise of the unknowable they all receded — as life often does — into the all-to-familiar. That initial moment’s tiny elation, when a fresh face appeared at the door, may not have sustained me enough to lose a night’s sleep, but it was sufficient — witnessed over and over — to keep me hooked on the possibility of everything or maybe nothing about to happen. If The Second Woman bore some resemblance to an experiment, I’m not sure what was being tested. The audience’s patience, of course; but perhaps also the strength of our desire for a different turn in the family or romantic relationship plot we’re stuck repeating.
The Second Woman took place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Ave, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) on October 18–19.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.