“Delicacy of a Puffin Heart,” is a new play going on now as part of the Corkscrew Theater Festival in Manhattan at 64 East 4th Street in the Lower East Side from July 25th to August 5th. The play was written by Stefani Kuo and directed by Theo Maltz. This production stars Diane Chen, Dominique Brillon, Cleo Gray, Drita Kabashi, and Olvia Abiassi, with an especially heart-wrenching and emotionally resonant star turn by Cleo Gray as Hadley. This production features excellent set design by Jessie Chen, and a beautiful costume design by Iliana Paris. A special mention is deserved for Sammy Ross, who created lighting effects, which illuminate the set and expand the audience’s imagination based on the scenes.
The blurb on the Corkscrew website says, “Meryl and Ana Sofia, a lesbian couple, attempt to conceive a child through in-vitro fertilization while managing Meryl’s bipolar disorder II. Two decades later, in the same apartment, their daughter Robyn and her roommate Hadley are forced to navigate their friendship through Robyn’s cancer treatment. As they struggle to take control of their lives, all four come to experience the unique weight and loss of female friendship.”
The plot concerns two couples and a fifth friend as they reconcile the problems of sickness – cancer for Robyn, and bipolar disorder for Meryl. Hadley is the best friend and roommate of Robyn, who has cancer, and the other couple are a lesbian couple trying to conceive a child and dael with manic bipolar disorder. When Hadley discovers Robyn has lied about her cancer treatments, she leaves her apartment to stay with her other best friend, Paula.
Manipulators and smooth operators happen from time to time in fiction. In Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Iago famously uses various strategies to sabotage Othello. Closer to this production is Jonathan Franzens Freedom, where that author constructed a main character who, thinking she’s helping a social outcast victim, ends up furnishing and feeding her drug addiction. In the end of that chapter, the abuser’s parents come out and explain their daughter’s drug addiction as if the drug addict was a broken robot who couldn’t do any better. Oops.
This story plays with ghosts. The lawyer and her girlfriend walk around and argue even while Hadley and Robyn are fighting. It’s fun for the viewer when these ghosts turn out to be memories of Robyn’s memories, because this turnabout changes the meaning the audience is working to puzzle out. Instead of being ghosts, the couple parallel to Robyn and Hadley turn out to be Robyn’s parents, and thus formative – that these memories of the abusive couple are sui generis for Robyn’s abusive lies.
Between these two betrayals – Robyn’s abuse of Hadley, and the ghosts who turn out to be real memories – the play also has questions of religious faith. The set includes a portrait of Christ, Hadley is a churchgoing Jesuit Catholic who is in love with her priest, and references to East Asian Buddhism and Christianity are made throughout the play. Hadley’s expression of faith is spurned here, because Robyn is a liar. However, faith is certainly important in terms of medicine and the problems of death. Signifiers like a cross on a necklace or a Jew’s yarmulke are symbols of religious humility, that beyond a person’s control, there is much that is not in a person’s control.
The best abuser story of all time has to be the movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” by Stanley Kubrick, when the astronaut Dave shuts down the computer Hal 9000. Hal has a warm, caring voice, and he is the steward for the astronaut’s mission, but when he sees Dave’s team of fellow astronauts as obsolete, he kills them. When Dave has to shut Hal down, he slowly removes Hal’s memory cartridges, and Hal begs him not to. This is great for the 1970’s stoned audience, because Hal says, “My mind is going, my mind is going.” The symbols are alive, however, in the critical lens of an abusive relationship – Kubrick made a schematic here, because Hal was an abuser. Hal is a monster who doesn’t seem like a monster because of his warm, caring voice. What does one do with an abuser? The victim has to shut the abuser down.
In this play, as in “2001,” the victim versus the abuser pits subjectivity versus objectivity. Hal is cool, calm, and rational, against Dave’s passionate, desperate individuality. Likewise Hadley has to liberate herself from Robyn not because Robyn is cancer-free, but rather that Robyn lies to Hadley for the sake of manipulating her. This certainly has to do with Hegel and Freud, and yet closer to home one doesn’t need a PhD in Philosophy to kill a vampire. Following that logic, one needs a clean break and direct action, like a wooden stake to the heart of the matter. And the emotional rewards are real, so that when Hadley’s friend Paula consoles Hadley at the end of the play, and tells Hadley she dumped her boyfriend and made just such a clean break, the audience of this play feels a sigh of relief, too.
Breaking free from an abuser may feel like a subjective versus objective battle because relationships have their own logic. This is not the same as Bertrand Russell’s mathematical logic, but maybe something closer to Michel Foucault’s idea of logic as logos, or a narrative of people. Relationships each have their narrative, and everyone uses their friends to help them understand what happens in life. Breaking away is illogical to relationships because it kills relationships, and suffice to say Hal 9000 and Robyn wouldn’t understand why such a break is necessary.
There’s another perspective on this abusive relationship Paula articulates at the play’s end. Paula says to Hadley that Robyn isn’t thinking of Hadley. The audience, having seen the relationship and experienced Robyn without the emotional blackmail and guilt, knows this is true. When humans treat other humans as objects, the situation is awkward. The audience knows Robyn will go on to manipulate another person like Hadley. True friendships mean reciprocity, that Roby would recognize Hadley, but that’s not what happened in this play. Right or wrong, Robyn will go on to manipulate another victim again, and it’s not Hadley’s fault.
The play connects Robyn and the lesbian couple together by establishing the latter as memories by Robyn – so that her formation in an abusive relationship leads to her status as an abuser when she is an adult. Thus Robyn is an Asian American by genetic heritage, which is a chosen heritage by nature of her parent’s willful actions. Hadley’s affinity for Robyn is a straightforward friendship, and nevertheless Hadley has guilt guiding her decisions with Robyn. In the play Hadley’s family is Korean, and Hadley reveals her mother has gone back to Korea and is estranged. Hadley has to figure out whether to care for her parents and brother or to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, and this is important because her guilt leads her to care for Robyn in lieu of her own mother. In a primordial way, Hadley lacks a familial friend who can cut the baloney and tell her Robyn is an abuser. Thankfully, this play closes with Hadley’s friend Paula fulfilling that role.
Blaise Pascal has particular significance to this play. The philosopher was an Elon Musk of his day, because he made contributions to mathematics and he was personal friends with Rene Descartes. Pascal’s philosophy was a sort of proto-existentialism because he thought all people were putting on an act, and he was skeptical of all fame and fortune because he had been to the top of the mountain, and he had fame, riches, and accomplishments. Pascal’s philosophy is marked by a skepticism of all people, therefore. In terms of Robyn’s terminal cancer diagnosis, the audience knows certain people can handle their prognosis with grace or cowardice. Pascal recognized that even bravery here can be a lie, because the idea that one transcends death doesn’t have any proof, and a matter of faith. The cancer patient lies and fools her family into thinking somehow cancer doesn’t hurt, that somehow she will be preserved after death. Everyone dies, but instead of being bitter and cynical about death, Pascal thinks faith can be redemptive of ordinary living, and he thinks that the grace that dying people show is honest in this way.