Thomas Burns Scully
Charles Manson. Even to this day, nearly forty years after the events that made him infamous, the name still speaks to media outrage, the decrying of humanity, and sheer unheeded brutality. Manson has been immortalized in pop-culture as an ultimate boss-fight villain, be it by Duchovny, Harrelson or Marilyn, we all know the name and we all know what he did. But we often forget that he wasn’t a solo act. Manson was an intensely charismatic man who garnered a devout phalanx of zealots around him. He may have been the centre that couldn’t hold, but he never did what he did alone. This is where new play ‘You Are Perfect’ picks up the story, in the jail cell of Manson’s own ‘Sexy Sadie’: Susan Atkins. Her real-life story, historically, is very interesting, and this new play aims to tell it. She testified originally that she had never committed murder during the ‘Helter Skelter’ killings, but later, after a meeting with Manson, recanted her testimony and insisted that she did. Then later re-confirmed that she had been present and assisted in detaining the victims, but never actually committed murder herself. She spent forty years in prison, appealing regularly for parole on these grounds, but never won it, even at her final appeal when she was in the final stages of terminal cancer. So what does the play lend to this story?
‘You Are Perfect’ is a fictionalized account of Susan Atkins, in her jail cell, alone with a good samaritan, an older women encouraging her to stick to her original testimony. They spend hours talking and trying to get to grips with Susan’s decision to recant her testimony and, in doing so, earn a life sentence. Susan tells the stranger the story of her seduction by Charlie, life with the Manson family, and why she could never betray them. All the while, the apparition of Manson (and occasionally Jesus) appears to Susan, and pushes her right back in to the pit of her loyalty. The unidentified woman keeps trying to convince her to betray the family, but Susan’s attachment to them is strong. Gradually the world of the play dissolves more and more into the unreality of Susan’s mind, and the conclusions seem to reflect more on the mysterious woman in the jail cell than they do on Susan, or even Manson…
There’s a fair amount to like here. The performances, on the whole, are good, made more profound by the casting choices. The young Susan Atkins (ably performed by Carlotta Brentan) faces off against Nancy Wolfe as the mysterious woman. Nancy Wolfe may be know to some of you as the woman who played Susan Atkins in the 1970s TV movie ‘Helter Skelter’. So onstage you, quite literally, have two Susan Atkins facing off against each other. That’s juicy for a start. Brad Burgess is suitably sinister and koo-koo-bananas as Manson, but the meat of the play is between the two women in the jail cell. Manson, for once, takes back seat. The set is also interesting, though a little underutilized. The jail cell is minimalist and placed on a slightly raised rostrum. It is marooned amid a sea of red sand, with white projection panels in the back and to the sides. It all looks good, but the panels are used actively a precious once during the play, I was expecting a ‘Natural Born Killers’ ode of moving rear-projection and dystopian imagery, but alas. It all still looked good, but, oh, the possibilities…
Cyndy A. Marion’s writing of the play is interesting. She has clearly researched the material thoroughly. If anything, maybe a little too thoroughly. She assumes a level of knowledge that the audience may not necessarily have. I was certainly behind on a few of the events preceding the play, and could have done with a few more cliff-notes. That said, her knowledge allows an entry level of understanding in to the characters as people (and not historical figures) that perhaps a more educationally concerned production wouldn’t allow. It’s all about balance, and, while not wrong, I feel like the balance of fact and inference could have used a slight shift for the audience’s benefit. That said, all that was on stage I found engaging and interesting, if occasionally confusing. So there is that.
On the whole, I would say the play works as a 21st century look at the Manson story, and the female presence involved therein. I think it explores some territory narratively in a way that hasn’t quite been done before. Mainly by, as I said before, taking the focus of Manson, who, Jesus and Sonic the Hedgehog knows, has already had far too much of the limelight for anyone’s taste. I definitely found that refreshing about the play. That said, my main complaint is that, while it is good, it doesn’t go far enough. Despite its movement to probe deeper in to the mind of Susan Atkins and the mentality of someone brainwashed by a charismatic psychopath, it didn’t leave me with a particularly fresh insight into manipulation or cult mentality. I really wanted the play to twist what my sense of right and wrong was. I wanted, for want of a better phrase, for the play to make me believe in the message of Charles Manson, so that I could really, truly empathize with a woman who had her life ruined life by a flagrant psychopath. However, Susan’s relationship with Charlie is never portrayed as anything other than toxic, occasionally sexy, and obviously sadistic. There’s nothing wrong with that, and certainly I’m not looking for someone to write a story that makes Manson out to be a hero. But a little more moral ambiguity would have just offset my internal organs enough to make me feel uncomfortable looking myself in the mirror, and I like it when plays make me do that.
So, the overall verdict? ‘You Are Perfect’ is not perfect, but it is also far from bad. There’s certainly enough drama here for a regular theatergoer, certainly enough tainted hearts for a nihilist to enjoy, and definitely enough weirdness for the freak in most of you. It occasionally lacks in providing historical context, and where I wanted it to go full ‘Clockwork Orange’, it instead only went ‘Da Vinci Code’ (Controversial in theory, but in practice fairly tame), but I can forgive that for the intrigue it stirs up regardless. More could have been done visually, but it is also not visually dull. Worth a punt if you’re into murder, Manson and muliebrity. If you’re not, you might still get a kick out of it, try it and see.
‘You Are Perfect’ runs at the WorkShop Theater (312 W 36th St), produced by White Horse Theatre Company, until February 19th. Tickets start at $18. For more info see: whitehorsetheater.com
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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