The action of Cold Storage takes place in the roof garden of a cancer hospital in Manhattan. A newcomer, Richard Landau, admitted to the hospital for exploratory surgery, is confronted by Joseph Parmigian, who is in an advanced stage of the disease. The arena of discovery and conflict in the play resides within the personalities and histories of these two characters, and defenses and pretensions are peeled away like the layers of an onion as each man faces his inevitable deterioration and death and hence must assess the meaning of his life.
In the first act of the play, the focus is on Parmigian, a prosperous produce dealer of Armenian descent. Parmigian is naturally garrulous, and his colorful conversation is peppered with hyperbole, metaphor, and gallows humor. The merchant is a more accessible personality than Landau to begin with, and perhaps because of his terminal condition, he is more actively confronting his demons. Initially, Parmigian seems obnoxiously aggressive, seeking instant intimacy with the more reticent Landau. He launches a seemingly bigoted assault upon Landau’s Guatemalan private-duty nurse, who, it is later revealed, had earlier tended Parmigian. She had, in fact, read to him the entirety of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590) and, despite his illness, had inspired lust in the dying man. In reaching out to Landau, Parmigian lays bare elements of his own beliefs and fantasies, dreams and limitations.
Early in the first act, Parmigian asks Landau to help him commit suicide by pushing his wheelchair off the edge of the roof garden. Parmigian explains that the anguish of his physical deterioration is exacerbated by the expiration of his medical insurance. He now must sacrifice the assets accumulated throughout a lifetime to pay his medical bills, and if he lives much longer, he must risk leaving his wife, who shared thirty years of work and love with him, impoverished after his death. Parmigian’s extraordinary request opens a dialogue of growing intensity between the two men as Parmigian moves from mocking self-revelation to asking Landau invasive personal questions to which he receives resentful responses. Throughout the play, Parmigian treats Landau like his protégé in this house of death, and he offers him some guidance in coping with the hospital bureaucracy and managing his caretakers throughout the ordeal to come. As he reveals himself, Parmigian also reaches out to Landau. Initially, the younger man appears to be deceiving himself about his prognosis. “Death is knocking like a recruiting officer on the front door and you still persist in lying to yourself,” Parmigian tells Landau, and he launches varied verbal assaults upon the art investor’s formidable defenses.
Landau’s responses to Parmigian’s nervous chatter are typically tactful and cool; there is some justice in Parmigian’s labeling Landau’s responses as banal. In the second act, however, their conversation adopts a more deliberate focus and eventually elicits a more intense response from Landau.
Already in the first act, Parmigian made references to Landau’s Jewishness. He began by asking whether Landau is “of the Hebrew persuasion”; he followed up with the comically insensitive cliché, “Some of my best friends are Jewish”; and at one point he even whipped out a B’nai B’rith membership card. Again in the first act, Parmigian invoked racial stereotypes by suggesting that “Jews are filled with secrets, all kinds of oriental cabala,” and that his own admixture of Arab blood equips him for a special understanding of Jews. When Parmigian attributes to Landau an instinctive knowledge of Jewish mysticism “from the bones,” the younger man retorts, “I’ve heard that kind of garbage before!” This strong response opens floodgates of memory.
Landau’s history is haltingly revealed, a tale of fragments and half-memories, some painfully acute, some dim and dreamlike. It is clear that he was born Jewish, the son of a man studying to be a doctor whose hands were broken by the Nazis. When Landau was not yet eight years old, his parents and younger sister perished in the Holocaust. He cannot forget a day in a Portuguese police station when he waited with a Jewish man who was manacled to a chair and who, after he loosened the handcuffs from bleeding wrists, chose deliberately to refasten them. Since that time, Landau himself has never really been free. He is preserved forever as an eight-year-old, helpless in an unresponsive world of “faceless people who had no pity.” Life has no joy for him, for he is haunted by survivor’s guilt and perennial exile.
For Parmigian, the cancer ward is a desolate finale to a good life, and he will exit fighting against death and all that it means. For Landau, the cancer ward is but a repetition of the Portuguese police station where he lost his family, his freedom, and his illusions about life. At the end, the two men become friends when Parmigian admits his need for companionship and Landau shares his history.
The audience’s first impression of a play comes from its title, and the title Cold Storage immediately distances the audience, produces discomfort, and draws attention to the inert core of the play. The discomfort is appropriate, for neither the surface subject—a conversation between patients in a cancer unit—nor the underlying metaphysical alienation and hopelessness are meant to be particularly comfortable. When the specific phenomenon of cold storage is finally mentioned, it evokes the devastation of the Holocaust.
The inertness implied by the title is as significant as the discomfort. This is a drama of revelation, not of action; almost nothing happens in the play. Even the occasional disagreement between the characters is not true conflict; rather, it is a verbal dance as they attack and parry, changing rhythm and tempo and direction but never focus. Their argument is with the conditions of existence, and it is a most unequal battle. Near the end, Landau breaks out in rebellious rage against God: “He’s killed everything. . . . You sit in your chair waiting, and you know Him. You die in a concentration camp and His hand reaches into your mouth for the gold teeth and you know Him.” His friend answers, “There is no Him, Landau, just us.” The play even ends without resolution: The audience never finds out whether Landau has cancer or how much time remains for Parmigian.
In performance, the first dramatic device is the visual impact of the setting. The stage set is the rooftop garden of an expensive teaching hospital in midtown Manhattan, located inside a fin de siècle structure. It is furnished in quiet good taste, but sparsely, since simplicity curtails the spread of infection and facilitates maintenance. As the meanings of the play become clear, the institutional functions become perceptible below the surface good taste of the furniture. With the help of the dialogue, the audience notes that even the flowers are artificial, and that the wheelchairs, glucose bottles, and X-ray machines are the tightly controlled realities of the setting, lurking just below the pleasant veneer. The stage is decorated in a style intended not to offend anybody, but this uncluttered facade will soon reveal its monotonous and anonymous nature, and the perceptive viewer will come to recognize it as another incarnation of the familiar park bench of modern drama.
The discomfort of the title, the absence of action, and the monotony of the stage set operate as counterpoints to the warm humanity of the characters. The more fully the audience comes to value them, the more outrageous seems their fate in cold storage. The most overtly theatrical element of the play is the personality of Joseph Parmigian, full of passion and spontaneity, determined to go out “like a knight from the Faerie Queene—with everything I got sticking straight up in the air!” And Richard Landau, more reserved and tactful than Parmigian, reluctantly reveals the dark and distant sorrows that robbed him of a capacity for joy and confidence and left him so civil, so sensitive, and so vulnerable.
Sources for Further Study
Kelly, Margot H. “Life Near Death: Art of Dying in Recent American Drama.” In Text and Presentation, edited by Karelisa Hartigan. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988.
Klaver, Elizabeth. “Ronald Ribman’s Buck, Unsolved Mysteries, and the Television Simulators.” American Drama, Fall, 1997, 82-98.
Marks, Jonathan. “Ronald Ribman.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism. New York: Longman, 1989.
Weales, Gerald. The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960’s. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
Weales, Gerald. “Ronald Ribman.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.