by JK Clarke
Once upon a time a lot of people were fascinated by the Manson Family. Charles Manson and his followers epitomized, for many, the breakdown of the 1960s hippie culture when, in August of 1969, they murdered nine innocent, random people in the space of a few days as part of what they called “Helter Skelter,” a drug-fueled, paranoid race war. But in today’s world with multiple television channels dedicated to real-life domestic murder stories (with names like Nightmare Next Door and Scorned!), sadistic murder has become its own sub-genre, even garnering it a stomach wrenching nickname: “murder porn.” An evening’s programs on the ID Channel alone puts the Manson Family murders to shame in terms of intrigue and outrage. It’s not that there’s more murder, it’s just that it’s televised more because that’s the lesson the Manson Family wrought: people are fascinated by this stuff. However, the nearly fifty-year-old Tate-LaBianca slaughters have largely passed from vogue so much that any new production about them would have to be unearthing some new and intriguing information. Unfortunately, White Horse Theater Company’s You Are Perfect (playing through February 20 at the Workshop Theater Company), does nothing of the kind.
You Are Perfect begins with Susan Atkins (Carlotta Brentan), one of Charlie’s girls who participated in the murders, sitting in a jail cell on a metal frame bed and wearing a denim dress, presumably prison-issue, though not unflattering. Beside her sits a woman (Nancy Wolfe) in her sixties, mid-length gray hair and a peaceful, though worn regard. Around their wall-less “room” is red desert sand. The older woman appears to be a social worker and she’s encouraging the younger woman to come to terms with, and be honest about, the crimes she has committed; and to testify as such in the forthcoming grand jury hearing. Susan resists and dissembles, occasionally drifting off into reverie, during which time Charles Manson (played cooly by Brad Burgess) comes to visit (hence the desert setting, where Susan goes for her encounters with him). Susan is a nice, generally beatific woman, albeit a little spacey—perhaps as a result of countless LSD trips (not to mention any number of other mixtures of drugs and alcohol) and some heavy duty mental illness. In her flashbacks—as she time travels back and forth like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five—she has dreamy eyes for the abusive Charlie that only a cult member could have. Charlie is psychotic, idiotic, and hardly charming, except to the vulnerable Atkins, who was raised in a broken household. As her conversation with the older woman, who practically begs her to abandon her youthful folly, continues more is revealed about Susan’s relationship with both Charlie, the older woman and herself.
The problem with this play’s completely speculative dialog and inferences (written and directed by Cyndy A. Marion) is that Charles Manson and his followers have been studied ad infinitum. As have the reflections of prisoners in general contemplating the grand mistakes of their past. If you’re a Manson-family devotee there’s really nothing new here. And if you’re intrigued by real-life horror then there are plenty of cases to delve into on a daily basis. You Are Perfect adds nothing to either genre and there’s nothing in the play that stands out in any particular way. Thirty or forty years ago this might have been an interesting topic to tackle, but it lacks purpose today.
You Are Perfect. Through February 20 at The Workshop Theater Company (312 West 36th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). www.whitehorsetheater.com