Phoenix, set in the Arizona city in the summer of 1961, requires five men and four women on a simple unit set
representing all locations, but “all we need to see are a piano and a few tables, chairs and benches.” There are three couples: Kermit, 48, a piano player who runs an accordion school, and Mona, 38, his second wife; Rutger, 40, a German who owns a bowling alley, and his wife Doris; Ned, who manages the bowling alley, and his wife Lea. The other characters are Tanya, 19, Kermit’s daughter by his first wife, Mickey, 52, “big and beefy,” who teaches accordion, and Ray, 26, “rather small,” who also teaches accordion. In darkness we hear the sound of an accordion playing “La Golondrina,” and when the lights come up all the characters except Ned and Tanya are on stage at a picnic area by a lake. Kermit thinks that he remembers Mickey from Chicago, but Mickey denies ever having been there. Tanya, giggling and squealing, wearing a two-piece bathing suit, runs in chased by Ned, also in a bathing suit, who catches her and picks her up from behind, but she manages to escape and run off. Lea, Ned’s wife, leaves, unhappy, and Doris follows her. Kermit moves to the piano and the action shifts without a break to his living room where he plays an “elegantly sad old whorehouse piano version of ‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen'” as Mona complains about their smoking and drinking. He stops playing only when Mona calls Tanya a slut. When Mona goes (after telling Kermit to be afraid), he closes the piano lid and our attention shifts to a short scene with Tanya and Ray. Tanya says how much she likes to go to the movies, but when Ray asks her to go with him she says she is busy. The light fades on them and comes up on Ned and Lea in their bedroom. Ned denies any involvement with Tanya and tries to console Lea as the lights fade on them and come up on Rutger and Doris on their back patio drinking with Kermit, Mona, and Mickey. Rutger and Kermit are having a discussion about truth possibly being a woman, while Doris keeps asking if anyone wants more avocado or bean dip. Doris describes how she met Rutger at the dog races and how her first husband died after being kicked in the head by a horse. She inherited the bowling alley that Rutger saved with his business acumen. The scene shifts to Tanya and Ray talking in the bowling alley lounge late at night. Tanya tells Ray that she named her breasts Ladmo and Wallace after her favorite characters on a children’s tv show. She says her life is like being stuck on a rock from which she cannot descend, that almost everybody in Phoenix is from some other place. Ray kisses her, twice, and she says she has to leave. He asks her what she sees in Ned, reminding her several times that Ned is married. Lea comes in saying that she wants to close the alley, and Tanya leaves. Ray asks Lea if she is lonely because her husband won’t be home when she gets there and Lea asks him if he wants to join her, leaving the keys on the table for him to lock up. Our attention shifts to Kermit, Rutger, and Mickey drinking on Rutger’s patio as Kermit explains his theory that Rutger and Mickey are both trying to blend in, pretending that they are just ordinary people, Rutger, well educated, running a bowling alley, and Mickey teaching accordion when it is clear that music has not been central to his life. After Kermit leaves, Rutger tells Mickey that he has done some research on him and wonders if his old acquaintances in Chicago would like to know where he is. Rutger suggests that perhaps Mickey could arrange to have the bowling alley burn down for the insurance money. Mickey says he has to give an accordion lesson and after he leaves Rutger takes out a lighter and lights a cigar. Then, in Lea’s living room, Mona, Tanya, Doris, and Lea are drinking coffee and talking about the men in their lives. Ned enters to ask Lea to lock up the bowling alley because he has things to do. He tells her not to wait up for him, kisses her, and leaves. Mona is impressed by Ned’s kissing, but Lea says that Judas was also a good kisser. The lights fade on them and we hear “stripper music” and see Mickey and Ray at a table in the Carnival Room, drinking and watching a stripper downstage (we don’t see her). Ray wants Mickey to give him some tips on how to appear more dangerous to Tanya. Mickey says he knows nothing about women and suggests a hooker, then a trip to the Virgin Islands. Before finishing his drink and leaving, Mickey tells Ray that if he wants to love he should get a dog. In their living room, Doris tries to get Rutger to tell her about himself. She wonders why, when she mentions the war, he always changes the subject. He says the memories are too painful and suggests that she be grateful for what she has and enjoy life while she can. He tells her that she is the dearest thing in the world to him and asks her to make some sausages. The other characters, drinking on Kermit’s patio, listen to Ned and Lea bicker until she leaves. Ray and Tanya follow her, and, after Ned says he thinks he could be a tough guy, Mickey leaves and Kermit tells Ned that he knows what he is capable of. In the last scene of the first act, Rutger and Mickey wonder if they might find starting over in another place a difficult task. Mickey remarks that a fire in which no one was hurt might be a possibility. But Rutger has decided that he wants the bowling alley and his wife Doris to disappear. With the insurance money, after compensating Mickey, he would retire to a banana plantation in the Virgian Islands. When Mickey says that he just wants to be left alone, Rutger says that he has discovered that Mickey has a daughter in Vermont. Mickey puts a hand around Rutger’s throat, choking him, as Rutger explains that people die every day and it’s not as if Mickey hasn’t done this kind of work before. When Mickey lets go, Rutger assumes that they have a deal and that he will be receiving some very bad news in the near future. Mickey says he can always count on bad news and leaves. Rutger says he thinks he has an erection and the lights fade, ending the first act.
The second act opens with Doris sitting on a park bench at night. Mickey comes up behind her and she asks him to sit down, saying that she knows he has been following her. She says she loves the park although the word lagoon makes her think of the movie about the Creature with gills who lived in a black lagoon and dragged people into the water. She tells Mickey that she thinks people who don’t talk very much and people who talk all the time are both trying to hide. She tells him that if he is going to do “it,” then he should go ahead and do it. Mickey is not sure what she means but she says that if he wants to kiss her, then he should kiss her. She says she is going to close her eyes and count to three and then he should do “it.” She counts, Mickey looks at his hands, then at Doris, and the light fades on them and comes up on Tanya and Ray walking at night. Tanya talks about loving the Japanese gardens, about everyone being lost in Phoenix trying to be reborn, about a plague of grasshoppers, and about God being a serial killer. When Ray says that he wants to kiss her, she tells him that it will never happen, but she allows him to hold her as long as he doesn’t touch her boobs. The light fades on them and comes up on Rutger in the kitchen drinking coffee and rehearsing the speech he will give to the police, telling them of Doris not coming home the previous night. He spills coffee on himself when Doris walks in with a bag of groceries, explaining that he had fallen asleep on the sofa and she didn’t want to wake him when she came in late. She got up early and walked to the store to get waffles and sausages for Rutger’s breakfast. In the next scene, Mickey is in a coffee shop when Rutger approaches him, asking when Mickey plans to complete the “business” they talked about. Mickey says it may take a couple of weeks to find the right opportunity, but Rutger gives him three days before he makes phone calls to Chicago. Then, in the bowling alley lounge, Tanya asks Ned about dangerous people he knows in New Jersey, saying that she’s always been attracted to dangerous people. But when Ned suggests that they go someplace and do something a little dangerous together, she says she has to leave, that she is the girl who goes away. Ned calls her a tease and she says that to call a girl a tease is a “terrible, terrible insult.” She says she is very complex and that Ned has hurt her feelings. He holds her from behind and kisses her neck as Lea walks in and demands to know what is going on. She threatens Tanya, accusing her of teasing her husband, but Tanya says that Lea should talk to Ned and that she sees her with Ray all the time. Ned and Lea argue and Tanya leaves. When Ned goes to see if she is all right, Ray enters and asks Lea what all the yelling was about. He says that Tanya is not sleeping with Ned, and Lea says she would leave if she had someplace to go to and someone to go with. She asks Ray if he would like to go away with her, but Ray says that Ned is his friend, and Lea leaves as the scene shifts to the park bench where Doris tells Mickey that he has scars on his soul. She says she knows how sensitive he is and, though he looks dangerous, he has the soul of a poet. She wants him to walk with her by the lagoon and says that she trusts him to protect her from the creature, but Mickey says that he is the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In the bowling alley lounge Ray asks Ned if Tanya is all right and tells Ned that he has a nice wife in Lea and that Tanya is mixed up and vulnerable and it would be dangerous to all concerned if she were hurt. When Ned asks Ray if he is threatening him, Ray says that New Jersey “sucks elephant dick,” a disparaging comment on his home state that Ned says he will overlook this time but, if Ray says anything about New Jersey again, Ned will shove an entire accordion orchestra up his ass until it comes out his mouth. Then Kermit is playing on his piano as Mona, “a bit wobbly and disheveled,” comes in and tells him that she fell into a drainage ditch by an orange grove and couldn’t get out. She asks Kermit if he would care if he knew that she had been with someone else and then slams down the piano lid. Kermit tells her that if she ever touches the piano again he will strangle her and throw her corpse in a drainage ditch. As Mona turns to go she trips and falls to her hands and knees. Tanya enters, also a bit tipsy; Mona crawls off, and Tanya talks about wanting to kill the men who cut down a big old cottonwood tree next to their house years earlier. Kermit says he doesn’t know her anymore and Tanya says she dreams that her dead mother is telling her to go away and that Mona is a pig, screwing half the men in Phoenix. Kermit hits her, knocking her down, and is immediately apologetic. Tanya leaves, saying he could never hurt her, and sits on a park bench. Ray enters and she accuses him of following her. He says he is worried about her because she is vulnerable. He notices she has a bruise on her face and assumes that Ned has hit her. She tells Ray that she is never going to want him and that she will call the police if he doesn’t leave her alone. She leaves and Ray goes to a table in the strip joint where Mickey is nursing a drink. Ray wants Mickey to help him get rid of Ned. Mickey tells him that Ned is bigger, used to box, and will tear him to pieces. When Ray still wants advice, Mickey punches him in the stomach, telling him not to mess with anybody when he doesn’t know what they’re capable of. In the penultimate scene, Rutger, commenting that he thinks Mickey has run out on their business arrangement, wonders if Ned would be interested in a lucrative “piece of work,” a “grave matter.” Ned says that he is interested and accepts Rutger’s offer of a cigar, saying that he smells something. Rutger says he hasn’t been able to smell anything since he was a boy and flicks the lighter. The lights black out as we hear simultaneously the sound of a huge explosion, “very loud.” Then we hear bird sounds and the lights come up on the rest of the cast dressed in black at the cemetery. Tanya asks Ray if she can talk to him later, but Ray says he is helping Lea take care of some things. After Ray and Lea leave, Mona tells Tanya that they will be “naked, going at it like a couple of dogs” before the last shovelful of dirt hits the coffin. After Kermit takes Mona home, Tanya tells Doris that she has to get away, gives her a hug, and goes. Doris tells Mickey that she doesn’t know what to do with all the insurance money, that she didn’t ever like Rutger although she loved him, but she thinks she transferred her love for her first husband to Rutger. Mickey asks her if she has ever been to the Virgin Islands and we hear an accordion playing the last few bars of “La Golondrina” as the lights fade and go out.