Midway through Act 2 of Terry Johnson’s “Insignificance,’’ a character identified as the Ballplayer, inspired by Joe DiMaggio, confronts the Senator (Joseph McCarthy) after discovering him in a New York hotel room with the Ballplayer’s wife, the Actress (Marilyn Monroe).
“You a man of honor?’’ demands the Ballplayer in the Nora Theatre Company production, to which the Senator replies: “I’m a solipsist.’’ Ballplayer: “OK. What’s a solipsist, remind me.’’ Senator: “I believe that only I exist. All the rest of you exist only in my imagination.’’ Ballplayer: “That’s stupid. I exist.’’ Senator: “Sure you do, but only in my head.’’
A few seconds later, the Ballplayer thinks he spots an opening. “If I don’t exist, how come I’m arguing?’’ he demands. Responds the Senator: “I like to argue.’’
By the end of their exchange, the Ballplayer’s head is spinning. That may be a familiar sensation at the moment for Boston-area theatergoers, because intricate mind games are playing out all over local stages.
Psychological manipulation designed to knock someone off balance and gain a tactical advantage is central not just to “Insignificance’’ but also to Huntington Theatre Company’s “Venus in Fur,’’ New Repertory Theatre’s “Imagining Madoff,’’ SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Color Purple,’’ and ArtsEmerson and Company One Theatre’s “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.’’ Even “Once,’’ recently staged at the Boston Opera House, employs the device, albeit in a benign form.
More often, it’s dog-eat-dog — or, more precisely, dog-outwit-dog — when it comes to mind-games theater. For audiences, it can be engrossing to watch one character lead another through a verbal and psychological maze whose destination is known only to the first character — and guessed at by us. A drama like David Ives’s “Venus in Fur’’ messes with your head and your pulse rate alike, combining the step-by-step mental challenge of assembling a jigsaw puzzle with the visceral, bated-breath, what’s-gonna-happen suspense of a crucial series of downs in the final two minutes of the Super Bowl.
In “Venus in Fur,’’ the actress Vanda subtly manipulates the arrogant, sexist playwright-director Thomas into performing more and more scenes from the play for which he is reluctantly auditioning her, about a 19th-century masochist and the woman who dominates him. The once-powerful Thomas becomes more and more submissive until he’s finally forced into a reckoning with the truth of his real self. When the actress he had formerly belittled decisively turns the tables on him, Vanda has also exacted a kind of revenge on behalf of all women in all times who have been condescended to and misrepresented by artists.
Dramas like “Venus in Fur’’ — built on wheels-within-wheels machinations, hairpin plot turns, and an ongoing war of nerves — play to one of the core strengths of live performance, which is probably why mind games have been such a longtime staple of theater.
Shakespeare deployed them to memorable effect in “Hamlet’’: the eloquently elusive prince toys with the other denizens of Elsinore like a cat with a ball of yarn, and contrives to “catch the conscience of the king’’ via a finger-pointing theatrical performance that sends the king reeling guiltily away.
Harold Pinter demonstrated his mastery of mind games as an element of drama with works like “The Caretaker’’ and “The Homecoming,’’ as did John Osborne with “Look Back in Anger’’ and Sam Shepard with “True West.’’ Edward Albee is of course no slouch in this department: Think of the deadly, barb-by-barb power struggle between George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ (recently revived on Broadway, where it won several Tony Awards), complete with arguments about their fictional son.
The cutthroat tension inherent to mind-games theater might resonate among audiences in a shock-of-recognition kind of way because it holds up a cracked mirror to the deviousness of which humans are capable. As for those on the receiving end of these verbal and psychological maneuvers, they are often forced to quickly adapt to changing circumstances, try to think a couple of steps ahead, and generally live by their wits.
We seldom come away from mind-games theater feeling sanguine about human nature. Quite the contrary. What is often revealed, lurking beneath the surface geniality, are layers of venality, cruelty, and other base instincts. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “We Are Proud to Present . . .’’ is a play-within-a-play about six actors — three white, three black — who are rehearsing a “presentation’’ about Germany’s merciless slaughter in the early 20th century of the Herero people in what is now called Namibia.
At first, the tensions stem only from the inevitable actor-ish clash of egos and ideas about how the piece should be performed and competitiveness over who gets to play what role. But the mind games fatefully escalate when they begin to improvise, with the white actors portraying the German soldiers and the black actors playing the Herero. Bit by bit, the white actors fall into a frenzy of verbal and physical brutality against the black actors, getting a glimpse into their own minds and learning things about themselves they’d rather not know, about what they’re capable of under certain circumstances.
TV and film also rely heavily on mind games, of course, as do online series like Netflix’s “House of Cards,’’ starring Kevin Spacey as a Machiavellian congressman. Theater holds no monopoly on the notion that life is one long game of poker, where you must be careful not to show your hand.
But the you-are-there intimacy of theater removes a degree of separation, enhancing our sense of personal investment in the outcome. Mind games can generate extra voltage onstage, where audiences are seated just yards away from the web-spinners and their prey. Because we look where we want to look, not where the camera allows us to look, we can think along with the characters, as it were, and even feel complicit in the action, as if we have a vital stake.
In “The Color Purple,’’ we have a distinct rooting interest: We desperately want Celie to survive the cruel mind games to which she is subjected. It’s the early 20th century in rural Georgia, and Celie has been forced to a marry a man, known only to her as Mister, who emotionally brutalizes her: calling her ugly, sealing off her contact with the outside world by forbidding her to go near the mailbox, and generally doing everything in his power to convince her she is worthless and to destroy her spirit.
That makes Celie’s eventual triumph, signaled in a joyous shower of letters, doubly uplifting. It illustrates the limitations of even the harshest mind games; Celie bends but she does not break.
All drama depends on the suspension of disbelief, and live performance allows audiences to go one step further — albeit on a subconscious level — to the suspension of rationality. Though the onstage action is of course scripted, mind-games theater exploits that irrational, fleeting sense that the outcome is not preordained. So when we watch Deborah Margolin’s “Imagining Madoff,’’ featuring an intellectual fencing match between Bernard Madoff and Solomon Galkin, an 80-year-old poet and Holocaust survivor, a silent “No!’’ involuntarily wells up inside us when Galkin pleads with Madoff to invest his personal funds. We breathe a sigh of relief when Madoff, apparently clinging to what’s left of his conscience, refuses. We know what will happen if and when he says yes.
There’s an intriguing undercurrent in “Imagining Madoff.’’ Over the course of a long night, the two men match wits and exchange ideas. They range across issues of poetry and death and desire and religion and philosophy. Madoff’s criminality is not then known, to either Galkin or the general public. Yet you get the sense that Galkin knows he is dealing with a deeply flawed figure, and, more, that his arguments are designed to rescue Madoff from his own worst instincts, to help him see that distinctions between right and wrong do matter, to persuade him to be a better man.
Connecting a man with his best self is the goal of the gently coercive mind games practiced in “Once’’ by Girl, a Czech immigrant. She meets Guy, a Dublin singer-songwriter who is ready to abandon his dreams and surrender to a job repairing vacuum cleaners. But Girl refuses to allow the demoralized Guy to give up on his music, on his ex-girlfriend, or on life. Withholding, for a while, a key detail about her personal life, she engages in subtle maneuvers designed to get him to rejoin the land of the living.
“Insignificance’’ is one long game of verbal volleyball and psychological jiu-jitsu that ranges from the vaguely sinister (that Senator-Ballplayer exchange above) to teasingly playful. In one extended scene, the Actress manipulates two tiny trains on the floor of a New York hotel room to illustrate the General Theory of Relativity to the Professor (Albert Einstein), who after all knows a thing or two about the subject. In a further bit of role reversal, she then asks the Professor to show her his legs. He obliges.
But the high spirits soon dissipate. The Professor is haunted by guilt over the role his research might have played in the development of the atomic bomb. “We burned children,’’ he says brokenly to the Actress. The man is synonymous with genius, possessed of an unparalleled ability to comprehend the secrets of the universe, but a jolting image near the end of “Insignificance’’ strongly suggests that he’ll never win the battle unfolding within his own mind.