Conjunctions:25 The New American Theater

Nina in the Morning


(Scene: A beautiful room in a rather elaborate household—a chateau, a small castle. At Manhattan Theatre Club they had floor-to-ceiling sheer curtains in front of a beautiful azure blue scrim. The sound of the ocean. The curtains gently move to a breeze.

There is a beautiful chaise. And in front of the chaise, a tall, gilt-edged mirror. (The mirror should be only a frame, with nothing where the mirror glass itself would be. Thus an actor can sit or stand behind it, and still be seen by the audience. Seeing a reflection in the mirror is mimed.)

Beautiful, mysterious music is heard. A lovely, haunting soprano aria perhaps.

NARRATOR is onstage. He is dressed in a tuxedo and looks elegant.

As the music is finishing, 
NINA enters.

She is dressed beautifully. (At MTC the designer put her in an off-the-shoulder red gown, with a very very long train. However she is dressed, it should be elegant and flattering to the actress. And a little extreme.) Her age is indeterminate—definitely over forty, though—and her face is on the white side, with perhaps too much makeup. She walks towards her chaise with great regalness, as if she’s in a procession, on her way to be crowned.

When the 
NARRATOR speaks, he is speaking her thoughts, usually. So her facial expressions change with his comments. She does not otherwise look at him or relate to him (with a couple of noted exceptions.)

NARRATOR. The mist hangs heavy over the ocean today. Nina woke from an uncertain sleep and walked to the chaise in her dressing room and sat in front of the beautiful, cherished mirror.
(NINA sits on her chaise, and looks out to her mirror and gasps.)

Her facelift had fallen during the night, and her cheeks were held in place by straight pins.

NINA. (Looking in mirror, touching her face delicately.) Oh, Lord. Oh, Lord. How dreadful.
(Enter JAMES, her child, dressed in short pants and a white shirt. He looks like a well-dressed prep-school boy. Played by an actor somewhere in his twenties or young-looking thirties.)

JAMES. Good morning, mother.

NINA. Don’t kiss mommy today, her face is precarious.

JAMES. I don’t want to kiss you anyway. I hate you.

NINA. Please don’t upset me, James. My plastic surgeon is in Aruba.

JAMES. What’s this pin for? (Reaches for her face, pulls out a pin.)

NINA. James, stop that. Stop it. Foote! Foote! Come quickly, James is at my face again.

NARRATOR. But James kept reaching for Nina’s face, over and over.

NINA. Stop it, you unruly child.
(JAMES keeps trying to pull pins out of her face. NINA keeps trying to protect her face. All the pin business is mimed. FOOTE, the family manservant, enters. Dignified and in a tuxedo.)

FOOTE. You called, Madame?

JAMES. I want to pull your face off, mother!

NARRATOR. Foote, seeing Nina’s predicament with her son, pulled James away from her, pushed him to the ground and sat on him.
(FOOTE pulls JAMES away, pushes him on the ground and sits on him.)

NINA. Gently, Foote, gently.

JAMES. (Struggling with FOOTE.) I hate you, mother, I hate you.

NARRATOR. Foote took out a hypodermic from his jacket pocket, and gave the misbehaving child a shot.
(FOOTE does all that.)

JAMES. I hate you. I’m sleepy. (Passes out.)

FOOTE. Will that be all, Madame?

NARRATOR. Foote was the family manservant, and often gave the children general anesthesia whenever they became unruly. Foote had once been a dentist.

NINA. Thank you, Foote. James was pulling pins out again. I must have done something wrong raising them. I thought I often smiled. I wonder if they wanted anything else.

FOOTE. Do you wish me to remove any teeth while he’s out?

NINA. No, no. Leave his teeth alone, Foote. I just want quiet for a while. Look at how peaceful James is, curled on the floor. I always liked my children best when they were unconscious.

FOOTE. If madame needs me further, just call.

NINA. Thank you, Foote. You’re a jewel.
(FOOTE exits.)

NARRATOR. Foote withdrew, leaving Nina with her thoughts. She thought about her face. She thought about James. Psychotherapy had been no help for James except perhaps in helping him to express his anger more freely, and how useful had that been.

NINA. (Sort of to herself.) Not very.

NARRATOR. Nina’s hands shook as she lifted a coffee cup to her face. Her perceptions were off, and she poured hot liquid down the left side of her face. She put cream and sugar on her face, stirred it and then rang the bell for Foote.
(NINA mimes the actions the NARRATOR says above while, or shortly after, he says them. She uses a real cup, spoon, cream pitcher and sugar bowl, but no actual liquids or sugar.

She does all the gestures without emotion. She feels the heat of the coffee and the mess of the liquids 
after she has done all of them. Then she makes a face of pain, and confusion.

Then she rings the bell.

NINA. Foote, I need you. Bring a wet cloth. I’m sticky.

NARRATOR. Foote brought a basin of warm water and a roll of gauze and sponged her gingerly.
(FOOTE enters with a MAID as the NARRATOR speaks. The MAID has a tray with a silver bowl and a wet cloth. FOOTE starts to pat NINA’s face lightly with the cloth.)

NINA. Do you think I’m beautiful, Foote?

FOOTE. You once were very striking, Madame.

NINA. Yes, but now, what do you think of me now?

FOOTE. (Looks at her.) You have quite a nasty burn on your face, madame. Would you care for a shot of novocaine?

NINA. Go away, Foote. I want to think.

NARRATOR. And again, Foote withdrew, dragging James after him.
(FOOTE drags JAMES out the door, while the MAID curtsies and follows after them.)

NARRATOR. Nina racked her brain, trying to remember what she wanted to think. The colors of her wall were beige. She had wanted burnt orange, but the designer had run through the house screaming “Beige! Beige!” and they finally had to give him his way.

NINA. (Out, to the imagined designer.) I wanted burnt orange, but you have given me beige.

NARRATOR. Later the designer turned against her too, like her son James. No, no, Nina wanted pleasant thoughts, nice things. Flowers, butterflies ...

NINA. (Hopefully.) Little duckies.

NARRATORThe Little Prince by Saint-Exupéry. That was a nauseating little book, she had never finished it. Some monk gave it to her when her car had been stopped at a traffic light.
(The NARRATOR sits stiffly at the bottom of the chaise. He holds his arms as if holding a steering wheel. He stands in for the chauffeur now.)

NINA. Drive on, Lance.

NARRATOR. (To the audience.) But Lance, the handsome chauffeur, insisted on the necessity of obeying the red light. (Speaking as LANCE, to NINA.) “I must obey the red light, Madame.”

NINA. Laws are for other people, Lance. Not for me.

NARRATOR. (Speaking as LANCE.) “I’m sorry, Madame. I don’t wish to lose my license.”

NINA. I said, drive on, Lance.

NARRATOR. (To the audience again.) But the Mercedes just sat there, and the monk had a chance to pass the stupid book through the car window.
(MONK scurries across the stage, stopping just long enough to drop a copy of The Little Prince on NINA’s chaise-car. He then scurries the rest of the way off.)

NINA. Kill that monk, Lance.

NARRATOR. (To audience.) But Lance was selective in what commands of hers he followed, and eventually he had to be fired. (The NARRATOR stands, no longer playing LANCE. He returns to his narration role.) A long succession of chauffeurs followed, none satisfactory. Finally she gave up riding in the car. She stayed at home, hoping for visitors. NINA rings the bell. FOOTE appears immediately, and waits for her bidding.)

NINA. Foote, if any Jehovah’s Witnesses come today, show them in, will you?
(FOOTE exits.)

NARRATOR. But no Jehovah’s Witnesses came. And Nina found she had to fill the time with thinking and reminiscing. Nina had once been beautiful.

NINA. I am very beautiful.

NARRATOR. Men would stop on the street to stare at her. She caused traffic accidents. Jealous women would rush up to her in their homeliness and try to kill her.

NINA. Homely women were always trying to shoot me. It was flattering really.

NARRATOR. Everywhere she went, her eyes would anxiously seek out the mirrors. Sometimes she would bring her own mirrors with her.

NINA. Put this up, would you?

NARRATOR. ... Nina would say, lugging a large mirror, and few could deny her. Her love affairs were unpredictable and random. Sometimes it would be royalty, other times it would be the men from Con Edison. (The NARRATOR turns his back, pretending to look at a power box. He is now the CON EDISON MANNINA comes up to him, stands close and seductive.)

NINA. I don’t really know where the power box is, I’m afraid. Would you care to lie down?
(The NARRATOR reverts to his narrator role, and addresses the audience again.)

NARRATOR. Sometimes when she was especially lonely, she would try to seduce her children.
(JAMES enters, dressed as before as a prep-school boy. He, though, also carries a lunch box. He sits on the chaise and looks at NINA.)

NINA. Don’t you find mommy especially attractive today?

NARRATOR. She would ask James ...
(JAMES looks startled.)

... and Robert.
(The actor playing JAMES puts on black-rimmed glasses and becomes ROBERT. His posture changes, and he looks at NINA also surprised, but somehow more adult, more jaded.)

... and occasionally poor La-La.
(The actor now opens the lunch box, takes out a simple skirt that wraps around in one gesture and clips a large yellow bow in his hair. All the while he makes the following sounds:)
LA-LA. (Happily and monotonously singing to herself.) La-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la, la, la, la, la ...
(The actor finishes his costume change and sits back down; and with a rather foolish and sweetly imbecilic expression, he becomes LA-LA, staring at NINA.)

NARRATOR. La-La was retarded, and Nina hated her.

NINA. (Firmly.) La-La! Pay attention!
(LA-LA turns away, opens up her lunch box and starts looking through it happily.)

LA-LA. La-la-la-la-la, la-la-la ...

NINA. Uhhhh. You’re willfully retarded.

NARRATOR. Nina would shout this at La-La, and then hit her.
(NINA swats LA-LA’s head. LA-LA hits her head on the tin lunch box, and sort of stumbles offstage, happy but disoriented.)

But Nina mustn’t think of the past now. The present was what held promise. Her plastic surgeon was due back in several days.
(NINA rings the bell.)

NINA. (Grandly.) Foote, I want a cruller!

NARRATOR. She heard what she presumed were Foote’s footsteps, but they belonged to her second son, Robert, who fired two shots, one of which grazed her shoulder.
(Enter ROBERT, dressed the same as JAMES but with the addition of the glasses. He shoots a pistol twice at his mother. On the second shot, NINA moves her shoulder as if hit.)

ROBERT. I hate you, mother!

NARRATOR. Then he ran into the garden.
(ROBERT runs off. NINA holds her shoulder and rings the bell again.)

NINA. Foote, bring the gauze again, please.

NARRATOR. Nina had been presented to the Queen twice.
(NINA forgets her pain, and reenters memory again. She lets go of her shoulder, and stands proudly to meet the Queen.

Then during the following, 
NINA moves back to her chaise, and ROBERT enters and sits close to his mother.)

It had been shortly after the second presenting that Nina, having been spurned by a member of the Royal Guard on duty, successfully seduced Robert, who was fifteen and seemed to enjoy the activity for a while but then became hysterical.
(NINA and ROBERT lean in as if to kiss; suddenly ROBERT starts to scream hysterically. He stands in upset, looks at her, then screams again, running off.

NINA looks after him, unconcerned, feeling slightly incomplete.)

The school psychologists were highly critical of Nina’s behavior, but she was uninterested in their judgements. And then when Louis Malle made Murmur of the Heart, she called them up and said:

NINA. There you see! The critics thought it was charming, so I don’t know what all the fuss was about my behavior.

NARRATOR. Nina quite liked the film, which had to do with a mother seducing her son one afternoon, but she felt that the actress Lea Massari was more coarse-grained than she was. 

NINA. My features are more delicate, more lovely. I thought Lea Massari was a bit too earthy. I may be sensual, but I am never earthy.

NARRATOR. Neither Robert nor James would agree to see the film, but La-La sort of liked it.
(Enter LA-LA, happy, in her own world.)

LA-LA. La-la-la-la-la, la-la la-la la-la ... (LA-LA sits next to NINA and, as if they’re watching a movie, stares out with a scrunched-up, interested face.)

NINA. (To audience.) Yes, La-La loved the movies. Murmur of the Heart she liked. And that other Louis Malle film about suicide, The Fire Within. And that early Jeanne Moreau film where she makes love in the bathtub,The Lovers. Also directed by Louis Malle. La-La really seemed to like the films of Louis Malle ...
(LA-LA leans forward in particular concentration.)

... which just goes to show she’s only retarded when she wants to be. No retarded child is going to like the films of Louis Malle. So I’ve proved my point, La-La is willfully retarded.
(NINA pushes LA-LA away; LA-LA meanders off. NINA’s thoughts return to the present, and her wounded shoulder.)

NINA. Where is Foote with that gauze, my shoulder is bleeding. Foote! Foote!

NARRATOR. James’s father had been a tax lawyer, but Robert’s father had been one of twenty men; and La-La’s father had been one of fifty-six men that busy summer she had the beach house painted. After a brief burst of self-judgment, she searched the thesaurus for alternatives to the word “promiscuity.”

NINA. (Miming looking in a dictionary.) Synonyms include “debauchery.” “Salacity.” And “lubricity.” “Lubricity.” “Loooo-bricity.” “Loooooo-briiiiiiii-ci-teeeeeeeeeee.”

NARRATOR. Nina liked the sound of “lubricity” and that summer she would climb up the ladders and whisper the word into the house-painters’ ears. (The NARRATOR finds himself near NINA. She stands and seductively whispers in his ear, as if he’s the house painter.)

NINA. (Whispering into his ear.) Lubricity.
(Enter FOOTE with some more gauze.)

FOOTE. Has Madame been shot?
(NINA’s thoughts return to the present, and ROBERTs recent attack on her.)

NINA. Yes, Foote. Robert said something to me, something mean, and then he shot me. What took you so long?

FOOTE. I’m sorry, Madame. I was giving La-La a hypodermic shot to calm her down. She was complaining about something and acting retarded, and now she’s quiet and good as a lamb.

NINA. She is good as a lamb. (Suddenly remembering; stern.) Foote. I asked for a cruller. How many times must I ask for a thing before I get it?

FOOTE. We don’t have any crullers. Would you like sausages?

NINA. Go away, Foote.

FOOTE. Sorry, Madame. I’ll ask Cook to bake some crullers for tomorrow morning.

NINA. Tomorrow morning? Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Who knows if I’ll want a cruller tomorrow, Foote. It doesn’t matter. Leave me now, please.

FOOTE. Yes, Madame. (FOOTE exits.)

NINA. Oh my life, my life, my life. What has become of my life? (Looks in the mirror anew.) And what has become of my face? Oh my. Pins are for curtains, not for faces.

NARRATOR. Nina stared at herself in the mirror and tried to decide whether or not to kill herself. She stared a long while. She didn’t look well. Slowly she took the pins out of her face.
(NINA mimes taking pins out. Then she pulls her cheeks downward, and stares tragically at herself in the mirror.)

Her cheeks drooped downward, and her eyes filled with tears. She looked like Simone Signoret. Late Simone Signoret. Of course, when the doctor returned from Aruba, he’d make Nina look substantially better. And she didn’t know how to kill herself, unless one of her children shot her. She rang for Foote.
(NINA rings the bell.)

NINA. (Without force; slipping into despair.) Foote. Foote.

NARRATOR. In lieu of crullers, Nina decided to have sausages and general anesthesia. And if Robert shot her while she was passed out, so be it; and if she woke from her sleep, she’d have a proper lunch.

NINA. Yes. Death or lunch. Death or lunch. One of the two. (NINA continues to look in the mirror, touching her face lightly. Lights dim.)

Christopher Durang is a playwright and actor. His plays include Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeSister Mary Ignatious Explains It All for You, and The Marriage of Bette and Boo.