by HAYLEY HUNTLEY
set for Sheila Callaghan’s Bed, playing now at the Echo Theater Company, is a total mess. From the second you walk into the theatre, the set and all the play’s props are exposed — not tucked behind curtains or stashed away on prop tables in the wings — just sitting out naked under harsh house lights, like someone forgot to clean up the night before.
A slept-in white bed sits atop a platform that’s ringed by a moat of stuff: blood spatter, or paint spills; panty liners and bikini tops; a bag of gummy worms and loose cigarettes. (I’m channeling a game my mom once taught my elementary school class: you get thirty seconds to look at a tray of objects and memorize them before the tray is taken away, and then you get thirty seconds to write down as many objects as you can remember.) Bic lighters, Barbie parts, Red Vines, and a scarf. Sheet music, a keyboard, a child’s toy saxophone, a loofa. Some of these objects, the actors pick up, use, and discard throughout the play. They find, throw on, and peel off items of clothing to delineate scene changes in the hour-and-a-half-long play, or life changes in the central couple’s decade-long relationship. The set isn’t filthy or grimy, there’s nothing offensive or vile or even gross, but it’s not easy to look at, either.
I’ve been hunting for a new apartment the last few months, and when the Cragslistsphere posts photos of an apartment that’s still occupied, it makes me uneasy. I’ve even physically toured a few houses that were still homes to real people, but the current tenants were never present, only their property manager and the multitudes of their stuff: cigarette butts on the porch, baby toys on the carpet, toothbrushes in the sinks. They were like crime scenes missing live bodies. Something happens here, but to whom? I detected that a musician lived in one (instruments), a family growing too large for the space in another (toys and a cramped kitchen), hippie female roommates in a third (celestial decor, scarves, smoke). I’m no clairvoyant (because those aren’t real), but every time I visited a home full of stuff, I felt a sense of the emotional lives it contained, and each time, I couldn’t drive away fast enough. I couldn’t imagine living my own life in spaces that were still stuffed full of other people’s lives. All that stuff made me feel stuff.
In Bed, before we even meet lovers Holly and Cliff (Kate Morgan Chadwick and TW Leshner), we meet their stuff (first crime scenes, then bodies). Then the play begins with the loud slamming of the theatre door, penning us literally “behind closed doors,” and it’s from this up-close position that we behold the characters’ most private stuff — the emotional stuff. We’re thrown into into Holly’s bedroom the first night she and Cliff meet, which is also the first night they have sex (in front of us). We watch them break up in their bedroom, decide to get married in their bedroom, celebrate their wedding night in their bedroom. We hear Holly say a prayer for her baby in her bedroom, have an affair in someone else’s bedroom, beg for forgiveness (or punishment) in her bedroom. We peek into two people’s most private lives and hear the things they say when they’re at their most most tired, drunk, vulnerable, drugged, passionate, furious, wounded. They don’t know we’re there, so they hold nothing back.
Of course, most characters in most plays don’t behave as though the audience is there, but there’s a heightened privacy to these scenes between two people, always in and around a bed. Every conversation is pillow talk. Every sex scene is explicit. Even casual movements from one side of the bed to another reveal bra straps or butt cheeks. Everything is on display, except for the way the characters present themselves to the outside world: that part, we don’t get to see. (In one scene, Holly conducts her end of an interview, which is either an outlier example of how she represents her life to the public, or something supremely private: a one-sided rehearsal, alone in her room.)
How could we even explain our bedroom moments to the world? I’m reminded of the times I’ve heard people chat about their relationships, or heard of a couple breaking up or getting back together. I’m reminded, then, too, of the times I’ve answered other people’s inquiries about my own private life with an answer so simple it’s laughable: I’m good. We’re fine. We’re taking a break. It’s complicated. News of other people’s inner lives reaches us like the final echo from what was originally a much deeper, louder noise, born in a hidden cavern we’ll never visit.
Can you imagine if someone heard the things you prayed for, back when you still prayed? The sobs in between lines of a letter you read aloud but never sent, or the wailing to a song that’s so perfect for you, you should have written it? Can you imagine people hearing you whisper something “sexy” to a first-time partner, or the raw-throated voice you reserve for fights and apologies after midnight? The dense breakup language you didn’t mean to speak until you spoke it, or the abbreviated stories you utter to a new lover to obscure, or preserve, who you were with the last one? The scenes that play out in our most private spaces would shock our friends. Or maybe that’s giving our drama too much credit. Maybe our friends would feel exhausted, unsettled, eager to drive away from our cluttered apartment.
But even if you speed away, part of witnessing someone else’s private life is becoming hyper-aware of your own. Cliff and Holly’s awkwardness, anguish, terror, and bliss behind closed doors reminded me of my own intense experiences of the same names. The fears I take to bed each night, the tearful conversations I can repeat by heart, and the stories only I and a few other characters will ever really know — if I make myself an audience to those memories in my own mind, it’s a lot to look at.
When Bed was over and the lights came back up, nobody came on stage to clean. The sheets stayed tangled, and the stuff stayed scattered. I spotted a naked and haggard Barbie staring at me from beneath a seat across the aisle: I guess she’d been there the whole night. And by the time I left the theatre, any anxiety or self-awareness I’d felt evolved into a feeling that surprised me: pride. I felt like my having related to any of what I’d seen made me kindred. That private room and all its stuff is survivable, beautifully inexplicable, and doesn’t require cleaning.
NOW PLAYING: BED, through March 13 at Echo Theater Company.
The world premiere of a funny, sexy and unconventional romance with music. Raw, racy, spanning 10 years in less than 90 minutes and featuring original songs, BED explores issues of love, abandonment and betrayal through the unique and inimitable lens of playwright Sheila Callaghan.