Set in 1950’s Philadelphia, Sylvan Oswald’s Profanity is an enigmatic, seemingly oracular piece, in the quaint disguise of a fable. Two Jewish brothers (all the characters are Jewish) Gersh and Leo run a small real estate firm, established by their dad, while Whitey, the third brother, barely gets by, addicted to smack and using the office as a crash pad. Leo is something of a nebbish, but he makes a determined effort, while older brother Gersh holds everything together, trying to take “the high road.” Into the mix comes Vivian, and her precocious, prepubescent daughter, Esther. Leo needs a secretary and Vivian lands the position by chutzpah and cunning. Esther is preparing for her Bat Mitzvah and ill-at-ease in her school. She is fascinated by the tawdry glamour of the adult world, with its intense vulgarities and dangerous possibilities. She’s still innocent enough to miss the very real hazards that come with navigating the realms of responsibility.
When their house is flooded, Sylvia and Esther must seek refuge in the office, where Esther hides and tries to stay “invisible.” Leo and Gersh are both falling in love with Sylvia. But Gersh handles it as the alpha dog, and despite his repugnance, Sylvia confesses her attraction, describing him as “a monster.” Does she mean this in the sense that all men can be monsters or (at least perhaps) Gersh is comfortable with his “shadow side”?Like many biblical stories, parables, allegories, Profanity (the opposite of the sacred?) begins rooted in verisimilitude and then goes off on tangents of the bizarre and fanciful. Oswald proceeds to demonstrate that the grown-up world is no more valid or satisfying than the relatively untainted world of childhood. And this is important : no more authentic. There’s a scene in which chaos erupts, in response to the unfortunate triangle between Leo, Gersh and Vivian. Then, abruptly, it’s 5 o’clock, quitting time, and the three plunge into dancing, cocktails and recreation.
Oswald takes the premise of Profanity, the sacrifices we make to subsist in a vicious, predatory world, and subsequent damage to our souls, and uses it to spin off into other conflicts. Male versus female, idealism versus relativism, charity versus desperation. Profanity swings back and forth between understated comedy and absurd pathos. Whitey ambles around like a drowsy prophet, Esther is incorrigible in her need to uncover the buried and unresolved, Sylvia is a viable tabby and tiger and Leo and Gersh are engaged in a perpetual death match. Oswald piles on the mystical, religious rhetoric where he can, it’s not always easy to keep up, but he earns it. The net effect is curiously giddy and somber. The impulsive turns in Profanity are entertaining in strange ways. As the title gradually suggests, perhaps the relationship between corruption and purity is more symbiotic than diametric. Or perhaps Oswald is simply trying to help us find our way out of the cynical jungle of adulthood?
Undermain Theatre presents Profanity playing September 12th-October 12th, 2013. 3200 Main Street, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-747-5515. www.undermaintheatre.org