Looking at the titles of past productions of the Living Theatre is like following a history of the American avant garde. Early on, they staged works by Auden, Brecht and Ezra Pound, but it was their 1959 production of Jack Gelber’s The Connection that really put this company on the map. A sprawling mess of a play, it traps the audience in a space with four anxious junkies waiting for their heroin fix; four jazz musicians play periodically throughout, and the junkies themselves take “solo” turns to the audience, confessing their sins and sometimes just stalling for time, as a cameraman films them for a documentary. The play seeks to implicate us in the exploitation of this filming and give us a taste of the junkie’s drive for transcendence, all the while laying out the ugliness and sheer boredom of sitting around and getting strung-out.
The Connection is a text for theater historians; it was an event of its time. In 1959, drug addiction was still a fairly daring subject, and it was shocking to hear words like “fuck” and “shit” in the theater. In this 50th-anniversary production of the play, directed by the company’s estimable founder, Judith Malina, there’s been little attempt to update the attitudes or the lingo; the junkies say things like “come off it” when they’re irritated, rail against “squares” and keep asking us if we “dig” this or that. A hipster-ish looking guy brings out a small record player and spins some scratchy Charlie Parker before the jazz group on stage starts to jam, and when they actually play, we keep waiting for echoes of Parker, just as we try to imagine the impact of the original production when the actors speak.
Being an audience member at The Connection is an arduous experience; the play lasts close to three hours, much of which is spent listening to jazz and watching the actors self-consciously “listen” to the music when they aren’t staring off into space, also self-consciously, or acting jittery (in the first act) or ecstatically wasted (in the second act). The first twenty minutes or so are disastrous, filled with stilted line readings and aimless fidgeting, but most of the performers improve as the play goes on. And on. In the second act, especially, the audience began to seem as restless and tired-out as the actors on stage; one blond girl in front of me kept changing her seat and rearranging her coat, and I felt more for her agony than for any of the mostly pretend agony of the actors.
Malina sat in the first row for the first act, her sensual face alive to the pulse of the music. She comes on in the second act as Sister Salvation, a religious woman out to save some souls; her eyes sparkle with childlike belief in what she’s doing and she manages to be quietly touching when she speaks of the expense of her funeral. When one of the junkies does a heroin fix on stage at the end, and the saxophonist blares out some music as he starts to feel the high, The Connection itself hits a high level of identification with music and drugs and the search for satisfaction, but this new production only proves that the play and the experience of it hasn’t held up, or at least cannot be replicated for us now. What’s left is an idea of unstructured, Beat-type theater that might still have some juice if the actors involved were more convincing in all the endless moment-to-moment tableaux.