Attributed to Aristotle, unity of action is one of the most established and discussed rules of playwriting. The rule states that a play should have one unifying action, or series of cause and effect events that are linked to the protagonist’s journey. The unified action should have a clear beginning, middle, and end; though, as Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “not necessarily in that order.”
Will Arbery’s Plano quickly reels in its audience with richly drawn, complicated characters. The play’s dreamlike structure enhances the characters’ emotional states and desires. For instance, the characters are able to push the action forward into a new scene without leaving the stage by simply stating that time has moved. This clever dramatic device serves the urgency of characters’ storylines. However, the playwright never decided what story was being told.
In the first half of the play, the three sisters seem to all be dealing with their damaged relationships with the men in their lives. Arbery provides great emotional insight into what the sisters are feeling and how they are complicit in their partners’ neglectful behaviors. This could have led to a satisfying resolution, but the play makes an abrupt turn.
As the storylines with the sisters’ partners devolves into pointless circles, the sisters’ mother shows up and the play is suddenly about a mother that never appreciated her daughters. This deus ex machina does nothing to resolve the conflict set up at the beginning of the play.
The author may contend that the bait and switch storytelling is deliberate and is actually part of the characters’ arcs. In this way, the play becomes an ouroboros, in that the end feeds back into the beginning. Anne, the eldest sister, states at the end of the play:
ANNE: Oh, well, it’s actually kind of good news, actually not really, I mean it’s just different, I mean whatever, I feel all this pressure to declare a transformation, but I’m so tired, honestly it feels like one thing too many, doing the labor of declaring my transformation, which is here, which I do feel, I’m just fucking exhausted –
ISABEL: What is it?
ANNE: Oh I’ll tell you later. It’s later. Oh, Lord. Fuck. Okay.
(They’ve reset to where they started.)
End of Play
While it may be a clever idea to resist a clear resolution, the play still remains fractured. Is this a story about three sisters dealing with their absent partners, or their unloving mother? Arbery subverts the unity of action and instead of a beginning, a middle and an end, we are given a beginning, a middle, and a beginning.
The play is available for purchase from Concord Theatricals.