Program Note for HALF OFF at Woolly Mammoth Theater

Harry Kondoleon is one of our nation’s most original playwrights. In a heightened, whimsical style that fuses comic and tragic elements, he attempts things few playwrights dare.

For nearly five years Harry has been living with AIDS, and the experience has had an impact on his writing. In earlier plays including Christmas on Mars (1983) and The Vampires (1984), the characters struggled to connect with one another but were ultimately defeated by their dysfunctional personalities. In plays of the past few years, however, including Love Diatribe (1990) and The Houseguests (1993), the characters are even more blind and lost, but miraculously find their way toward last-minute expressions of love. Ironically, as the universe in Harry’s plays becomes darker and more tragic, the heartbeat at its center grows stronger.

Among these recent plays, Half Off is the most mysterious, complex, ambitious, and joyful. Here, love’s triumph is not a last-minute miracle, but a gradual unfolding that proceeds in waves – allied with honesty, forgiveness, and a dose of righteous anger. Layers of denial must be peeled away one at a time, and finally the characters reveal their truest selves.

What makes Half Off so ambitious is that it embraces the theatre as a place of communion and genuine art, not a forum for TV storytelling. The basic situations and conflicts are established with lightning speed, but these are merely a springboard for an array of delicate relationships, provocative attitudes, poetic insights, and odd rituals. In Act II, the play becomes more and more improvisatory, the “fourth wall” less and less present. As in Pirandello’s best-known drama, the characters are cut adrift from any simple narrative thread – something like “six characters in search of a family.” The audience must keep finding new levels on which to relate to the play, as the actors sift through questions of love, hate, life, death – the big topics.

For the first time since Zero Positive (1988), the theatre itself returns as a central metaphor in a Kondoleon play. The theatrical “bridal pageant” that opens Act II is only one of several artistic happenings in Half Off. Songs, paintings, dances, theatrical displays – all have healing powers. The arts are everywhere, begging a comparison to a late Shakespeare play, The Tempest, which shares with Half Off a melancholy sense of farewell to the theatre and to life.

The place Half Off reaches is not simple, but ambiguous. Love triumphs over hate, but it is love with severe limits. The characters come close to truths they can barely glimpse.

Uncertainty reigns in the final image.

What emerges, however, is a statement about human solidarity. Alone, we are lost. Together, we can overcome the inevitable sadness of human existence, and perhaps discover the enormity of our spirits.

Howard Shalwitz