“Crabs at Dawn” from Coffee and Cigarettes, playing this week in Hong Kong

“Coming back to a more subdued Act 2, opening with Crabs at Dawn by Edward Nilges, McGurgan’s direction eased us back into Coffee and Cigarettes with nicety and tact. The poetic language explored with monologist technique and low key set was both fun and sensitive.”

Becky Proudfoot

The lovely and talented Meaghan McGurgan as director, and the lovely and talented Liz Stone, and the (oh what the hell) lovely and talented Damien Barnes as actors, have this week done a wonderful job of staging my inconsequential little one-act agon, Crabs at Dawn.

In it an older man and younger woman decide not to have a relationship. Isn’t that rich, isn’t that queer, and isn’t that not ready for prime time. The best thing about this work was the pinheaded lunacy of the poetic language. The jokes brought some laughs but are forty years old, from the graffitti scrawled in the stalls at the School of the Art Institute.

I shall henceforth write in verse. My next play shall also be an Agon, a one act play about Hong Kong.

I am moved by the openness of experimental theater in Hong Kong. How beauteous mankind (inclusive of woman-kind) is, o brave new world: to put Coriolanus through the mangle, there is a world elsewhere, in a common cry, not of curs but of players.

Here is the playtext.

Crabs at Dawn, a Comic Interlude

Edward G. Nilges June 2011

Edward is a man in late middle age or early old age. Jane is thirty two, ish. They are under a flyover in Hong Kong.

The Stage is bare except for a projected display

Edward

The strip of red cellophane, the clear plastic, the camel, the foil, the blonde and the black, the tabac, the scratch of the match in the morning, the fire, the firing squad, the smoke. Quite complicated, and evocative of what we should have been, I a soldier and you, a siegourner, Gitana, Roma, Gypsy.

The way the synapses almost immediately start firing off jolly messages to each other. Instant gratification seldom seen in a world of private health insurance and pension plans in which the clock-god groans.

Jane

The tarry smell I could never escape when we were a we.

Edward

Were we a we?

Jane

In a former life.
Maddeningly attractive and disgusting at the same time. You. We never were together in this world but I have a vivid imagination. I see ashtrays overflowing, books, a typewriter like my father’s. Men of my father’s and grandfather’s generation always smelled of smoke: cordite, wood, and tobacco was their element until you Americans came.

Edward

Where?

Jane

Lisboa. I have never been there but I see us, shellfish, wine, music, DC-3s landing in the rain.

Edward

You have tasted liquor never brew’d. An imagined place is better than the real thing. I transformed Palatine, Illinois, to Paris. The Chicago and Northwestern railway tracks were the Seine.

Addiction destroys this ability to transform.

Addiction resolves a lot of questions, narrows your choices to a manageable set. Like marriage. Addiction and marriage belong together like peas and carrots, the heavy tread twixt bar and aging bride.

Jane

This conversation is trite.

Edward

Got a cigarette?

Jane

Yes.

Edward

They will not see us down here, under the flyover, on the landfill, there are no helpers down here today, taking Communion at Mass.

Edward pulls out a pack of Gauloises, Jane, a pack of Marlboro Reds. Edward pulls out a three dollar lighter and lights Jane’s cigarette first. She touches his hand to steady it. With the big flame, with the gas turned all the way up, he then lights his own. They both inhale and the music reflects their temporary gratification: Coltrane? Monitor switches to a picture of Marlboro reds but with advertising copy in a strange language (Cyrillic or Thai?)

Jane

Fuck. Shit. Piss. Cunt. This feels great…

Edward

For now…we can never defer our gratification. And why should we?

Jane

What the hell do you mean? My life is deferred my life is on hold, my life is the kids and their school and trying to get the Monster to pay child support. I never do anything out of the blue, I am on a treadmill I am for-another. I, who slept on the beach. I, on whom crabs did skitter at dawn.

Edward

I ain’t touching that with a ten foot pole.

Jane

Exhaling another cloud of irritation You ain’t touching what with a ten foot pole, and stop flattering yourself while you’re at it.

Edward

Crabs. At dawn. On you, on me, on him…the HIV of my generation, what we all passed around in the late Sixties and early Seventies. His, hers, mine, ours, frisky little devils, saw graffiti in the can at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, don’t leave toothpicks here, my crabs polevault. Little did we know, little did I know.

Jane

Oh ha ha (strikes him). No, they come out at dawn to spawn.

Edward

Lovely rhyme, (sings) I come out at dawn to spawn, I skitter at dawn to feed, ‘Tis thee I’d crawl upon, For I am a crab and that’s wot I need, I need to feed on thee my darling, I need to feed on thee.

Jane

Shut UP! What I’m saying is from being completely irresponsible I am now Miz Responsible, a domestic goddess, who never has a moment to herself.

Edward

But you choose all the same. Are there no grandmothers back in England?

Jane

No, you idiot, because I’m Australian. Fuckin’ Yank, canst thou not tell? And my mother is useless.

Edward

Why?

Jane

Well, for one thing, she’s born again.

Edward

No shit…I thought we only had that in the USA.

Jane

No, we have in Australia too.

Edward

OK. But you still choose not to let your kids have to watch Veggie Tales and Bible stories on the DVD in place of Supergirl, Wonder Woman, and Xena, Warrior Princess. That’s what you let them watch, right?

Jane

Yes. Because I like it too and it’s a good role model.

Edward

You still choose. Those choices and not some unseen ding an whatever constitute you. You are not known until you die, the owl of Minerva flies at midnight, last plane out of town.

Jane

OK, whatever, Jean Paul Sartre. I am but the Beaver, Simone de Beauvoir and because I lack a penis (furious drag which diminishes her remaining smoke to a tenth of n inch) you must be right.

Edward

Indeed. Man is born free and Rousseau’s yer old man. But why do we smoke?

Jane

A vacation from choice in which we make objects of ourselves for our own pleasure.

Edward

(Phony old fashioned German professor accent) Prezizely, mein Gnadige Frau, der Mann ist Frei undt zis Freiheit is a bur-den. (Normal voice) We can’t always be Serious. To smoke is to joke in a world in which the joke’s on us.

Edward and Jane have been moving closer and closer during the dialog.
They now toss their smokes carelessly on the floor, form a chorus line and sing, doing a high kick. The tune is “Bonnie Dundee”:

Edward and Jane:

To smoke is a joke when the joke is on us
When we’re late with the payment or late for the bus
(Jane only) When our period’s late or (Edward) we’re stood up for a date
When we lack ready cash or are left by our mate
To smoke is a joke when the joke is on us!

To smoke is a joke when the joke is on us
When the alternative is to kick up a fuss
Here in old Hong Kong where it’s accounted quite wrong
To make angry faces to sing a sad song!

O, to smoke is a joke when the joke in us
Ashes to ashes, dust unto dust
Asses and lasses like chimney sweeps must
Smoke up a smoke when the joke is on us!

Edward and Jane twirl about madly, temporily forgetting their pain and find each other looking into each others’ eyes, but of course they break out of their cinch for this is a family play and they’ve been there, done that

Edward

Been there

Jane

Done that.

Edward

Hope you don’t think I am square

Jane

No, you’re just a twat

Edward

No fair!

Jane

No, it is not you, my dear. If you were thirty years younger but you’re not, and you can jog your butt off, but the fact remains that your frame of reference, as it were, is Altamont and moon landings, and mine is Mom, doing aerobics as desperately as you to Jane Fonda in 1985, me clamoring to keep up with her in my leg warmers.

Edward

Indeed. “For life’s time’s fool, and time, which takes the survey of all the world, must have a stop”.

Jane

Oh how I love it when you quote Shakespeare, it’s so…intelligent.

Edward

Thanks. We didn’t have to read him in American schools, so when I read his collected works, I didn’t have a teacher breathing down my neck. My granny gave me a book, Stories from Shakespeare, and it had the plot of each play, so I could sort of make out what was being said in the actual text.

Jane

Whereas when I did A levels I was forced by my tutor to keep rewriting my analysis of Coriolanus until it matched what he thought.

Edward

Coriolanus! O how I love that hardassed play. (Recites)

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere.

Jane

God I hate that play, and I hate that fucking guy. But I wrote what my tutor wanted and I am now an A level, and you’re not (playfully gives Edward a raspberry) Pffthhlt!

Edward

And here we are living on our wits
A parcel of actors, things of patches and shreds
Amusing Asians for our daily bread
Saying not what we feel, but what comes off the tops of our heads.

Jane

Raising Arizona, raising Cain,
Raising children and that is their name,
Tattoo’d on our buttock irreversibly
Damn’d if I can pay for laser surgery

Edward
Can I see?

Jane

Why certainly (undoes her trousers, lets them down just a bit)

Edward

Ah ‘tis a beauty.

Jane

Now yours may I see?

Edward

Unmark’d I am I am sorry to say

Jane

No way

Edward

Way. I could never decide what it might be
The Victory, and “kiss me, Hardy?”
The HMS Dreadful, burning in the sunset on the roads,
In the bay of Biscay when Villeneuve thought he’d get gay?
Born to lose? Born to raise hell?
USMC? No, not for me. I am an actor, not a warrior.
So I am unmarked.

Jane

A kind of virginity. If I didn’t know thee
I’d smile at your innocence, your naivety.

Edward

Smile if you must. I just never got around to it. Haven’t tried everything.

Jane

Nor I.

Edward

Some things are overrated. Like smoking.

Jane

You’re not joking. Now I feel like shit, slightly under the weather. Toasted as opposed to baked.

Edward (tenderly puts his arm around her) There there. (“Gay” voice, like Sassy Gay Friend) You’re a stupid byotch for smoking, (normal) and so am I.

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