Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates’ “Tone Clusters” is one of those theatrical programs that improve with distance. Comprised of three short mood pieces, it is backed up by a long dialogue between a husband and wife and a radio interlocutor who is brutally questioning them about their son, who has been accused of raping and murdering a young neighbor.

The clusters are single free-form poems rather than plays. In the first, “I Stand Before You Naked,” Jonathan Blandino, Cynthia Kania, and Sarah Lyddan introduce the theme: the secret anguish of each player as he reveals his story in a piercing monologue.

In “The Secret Mirror,” Blandino admires himself as he undresses, substituting a bra, stockings, high heels, a “wedding dress,” and a long curly wig for the masculine tie, trousers, and shirt he was wearing when he entered his private sanctuary. He applies lipstick, eye makeup, and rouge over his stubble, all the while talking soothingly to himself in the mirror.

Kania reacts to a gut apprehension in “Slow Motion” that leaves her moving inexorably toward a situation that will change her life forever.

And in “The Orange,” an anorexic girl (Lyddan) fantasizes about the orange she will eat in just a few minutes, when “the time is right.”

Each of these characters is removed from the usual “norm” that we live with every day, and so we view them as interesting curiosities. Thus it comes as somewhat of a surprise when we discover that they are still with us, tossing around in our minds, days later, becoming more real over time and distance.

The second half of the program is a long, insistent one-act play in which a mother and father vehemently deny the accusation that their son has murdered a neighbor girl. The couple is played by real-life married couple Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James, and they couldn’t be more earnest if it were their own real son they were defending.

They are being pinned down like trapped butterflies by Jeff Wiesen, whose brusque questions are both intrusive and detached. As the disembodied voice of a radio interviewer, Wiesen is out to “get the story,” but you know his interest is as ephemeral as most gruesome stories of this sort are. For a reporter, there will always be another murder to cover and other families to badger. He is so removed from this story that he keeps mixing up the couple’s names.

Meanwhile, Frank and Emily, the harried couple, are protesting the accusation against their son. He is a “good boy” and they are a “decent family” and as they repeat their protests they get tangled up in their stories, forget details, charge that somebody else — not their son — must have brought the dead girl’s body into their basement.

The story has the ring of truth because it is filled with non-sequiturs and bewildered comments and unquestioned loyalty in the face of what they refuse to accept as a fait accompli.

Director Mike Peebler has dressed the outdoor second stage of Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum with a riveting assortment of props. Two television cameras recording Frank and Emily’s every move and twitch on separate screens; a large screen in the background which broadcasts relevant scenes leading up to the murder, including shots of the victim, as well as innocent baby movies and little-boy-growing-up shots of Frank and Emily’s son.

This brutal drama leaves you with unanswered questions about the role of the media and its non-stop coverage of sensationalized news.

Oates, who was on hand to participate in a Q&A with the audience, was gracious in answering their questions, but was most curious about the choices that the director and the actors made in presenting her work. One of the most prolific writers working today, she was charming, articulate, and the spitting image of Lillian Gish.

“Tone Clusters” will continue at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum,

1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., in Topanga, with performances on Thursday, Sept. 12, 19, and 26 at 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 4 at 8 p.m., and Saturday, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m. A Q&A with the actors will follow each performance. Call (310) 455-3723 for reservations.



Cynthia Citron can be reached at

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