‘Sweatermakers’: dramatic tension, loose ends

Playwrights West's Andrew Wardenaar's world premiere is short on exposition, but full of humor, suspense and empathy.

Brin and Henry are siblings, roommates, and the only two workers in a mysterious bespoke sweater factory. They’re constantly teasing and tickling each other, sharing memories and cookies, sleeping and waking and working side by side.

Henry (J.R. Wickman) also seems to be falling in love with Brin (Jen Rowe), which is freaking her out; she dreams of escaping their isolated snow-globe of a life by traveling to Europe and falling in love. Brin and Henry are haunted by a tragic past, but we never learn specifically what that means.

Jen Rowe and J.R. Wickman play a full-grown brother and sister with childish ways.

Jen Rowe and J.R. Wickman play a full-grown brother and sister with childish ways.

That’s just one of many expositions that emerging playwright Andrew Wardenaar leaves out of his engaging, absurd-ish thriller The Sweatermakers. The impulse to compliment the play’s unique feel while challenging its vagary tempts a whole skein of knitter puns:

A gripping yarn! But full of holes. Many unexpected twists, but soft on the details.

Knitted brow, itching to know, being strung along, purls of wisdom…

Ahem. Moving on.

The story starts at a sweater factory, where Brin and Henry have become aware that the sweaters they make are exclusively for the recently bereaved. They don’t seem to know what divine authority demands this craft or who orders the sweaters: the bereaved parties themselves or some benevolent meddler?

Furthermore, is the factory where Brin and Henry work a real brick-and-mortar place, some sort of Sympathy Sweater Foundation that distributes order forms at area funeral homes? Or is it a specialty department of the Twilight Zone, taking orders from somber angels who’ve decided to intervene in humans’ life-lessons? Though Wardenaar never tells, the current staging shows a sweater-making process so comically, flagrantly fake that “symbolic” is the only way to read it. Major props mismatches and seemingly zero understanding of the craft may get a light laugh but will needle real-life knitters. Lest this seem knit-picky (I know!), consider how The Royal Society of Antarctica at JAW (in which Rowe also performed) provided the polar opposite of this slapdash pantomime: intensely realistic descriptions of a specialized vocation. It can be done, and it can be intriguing.

But here, in the absence of expertise, heavy machinery sound effects and more carefully selected props could have at least left the factory open to the intended poetic implication rather than relegated to it by incompetent realism.

Besides the siblings, there are two other characters: Charming, enigmatic dandy Shaun (Ben Buckley) and one unctuous woman (Sharon Mann) who plays several bit parts with a suspicion-inducing sameness. She’s a newscaster, she’s an airline host, she’s most notably a psychologist named Dr. Morn…but at the same time, she’s always herself. (Think Olivia Newton John at the end of Xanadu, or the Wizard of Oz, when played by the same actor as the gatekeeper. Going much farther back, think Zeus when he’s being a cuckoo or a bull or a swan.) This woman seems mythic, or even deistic: omni -present, -scient, and -potent. But her demeanor makes it clear that she’s no benevolent overlord. She tampers with the siblings’ lives, facilitating some events and sabotaging others.

“We’re all horrible people, each in our own way,” she shrugs. Whether this dominant composite role was the writer’s intention or a side effect of the show’s minimal casting never becomes clear—and it almost doesn’t matter. The story has an overseer, and we’re left to wonder why.

Sharon Mann (top) and Ben Buckley (right) as an omnipresent deity and a mysterious dandy.

Sharon Mann (top) and Ben Buckley (right) as an omnipresent deity and a mysterious dandy.

It’s almost unfair for a play to set up this many knots that it fails to unravel, but Sweatermakers entertains along the way with cartoonish prop comedy (magnifying glasses, flippers)  and a burgeoning state of suspense that eventually eats the comedy alive. Tricks of light and sound are to thank for the thriller ambience, especially echoes, clanks, and abrupt lights-outs. One device—an oft-repeated, eerie whistle a la Kill Bill—is quite familiar, but no less effective for it. As comedy turns to drama, the characters reveal compelling, relatable yearnings…

…if somewhat inaccessible personalities. Who are these people? And what is this plot? Sweatermakers‘ circumstances and characters abide in a liminal ether between the absurd, the symbolic, the real and the surreal. Henry and Brin are wildly childlike, almost embodiments of their own characters’ “inner children” rather than the characters themselves. Hence, their plights (Brin’s daydreams, Henry’s inappropriate crush) invoke the same “aw” reaction the audience might give a pair of “hang-in-there” kittens, but not authentic empathy. “I’m super-weird!” Brin admits. (You said it, Sister.)

Their fondness for going to the bar (like grownups) to drink martinis, and their apparent ability to drive and travel unchaperoned, serve as the only context clues that they’re even supposed to be depicting adults; otherwise, Rowe and Wickman are raw, expressive id kids.

There’s a precedent in place for sets of symbolic naifs, confounded by the big world. One could spend all next weekend studying such pairs, catching this show and the closing weekend of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, then streaming any number of the ’90s whackadoodle rom-coms: Benny & Joon, Eternal Sunshine, or my personal recommendation, Toys—an obscure but perfect complement to this play, with Robin Williams and Joan Cusack as equally childish adult boy-girl siblings working in an equally fakey factory (RIP, Robin).

Opposite these Hansel and Gretel stand-ins, Shaun and Morn are, at turns, seductive, conflicted and sinister—in a similarly symbolic, inhuman way. Though Morn’s motives remain unknown throughout, we do eventually learn Shaun’s Big Secret. And as much as one hates to break up a set, by curtain, one of the sweater-babies must remain forever young, while the other will have to grow up fast.

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