Saturday, June 27, 2009

Plays of the 00s: Jar the Floor

Another play of the 1990s, this one written in 1991 and produced most famously as part of the Second Stage's 1999 season, that nonetheless scoots into this series based on awards recognition: co-lead Lynne Thigpen, a then-recent Tony winner for Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter, copped an Obie for her no-doubt invigorating comic performance as Lola in Cheryl West's Jar the Floor, a rowdy comedy played over the painful conflicts and striations among four successive generations of one family in the Chicago suburbs. Though Thigpen was barely 50 when the play opened, her Lola is already the grandmother of a sometime college student named Vennie, whose mother Maydee, also Lola's daughter, is an African American Studies professor awaiting a tenure verdict. The women have collected on for the 90th birthday of the grand matriarch MaDear, now of limited agility but hardly qualified in sternnes or force of expression, even if the play slightly loses sight of her once the sparks start flying among her daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter. The only other member of the dramatis personae is a white Jewish woman named Raisa, who appears jovially and all but unannounced at Vennie's side, setting off much speculation among the rest of the family that there won't, as it were, be any further generations.

I say that MaDear gets a bit short-shrifted dramatically, and again I suspect that her interpreter (at Second Stage that was The Ladykillers' Irma P. Hall) would need to find ways to generate a dynamic character out of MaDear's surreptitious clocking of conversations that don't include her and by bringing into focus the play's wispy ideas about the old woman's senile pining for dead husbands and absentee sons whose departures she either refuses to admit or is genuinely confused about. But then again, especially because the play starts with MaDear, gives her some early hijinks to play with a new electric wheelchair, and uses her birthday as its organizing event, one can imagine how easily Jar the Floor could have tipped into the kind of generic "Mama on the Couch" Play that George C. Wolfe so memorably skewered in The Colored Museum. West isn't willing to turn old age into zany or pathetic burlesque, and her play isn't about the imperious wisdom of the elderly. In fact, given how much the play respects the very different choices, personas, and goals of its very different characters, but also how frank it is about each woman's different fallibilities, West couldn't afford to imply that Mama or Grandma or Great Grandma knows best. Who ever learns anything in this life? Who's in the best position to lecture anyone else, to give or deny them anything, to talk or to listen?

These aren't the most earth-shattering questions, or at least they aren't novel questions, but I think it's rare for a script to spin them with as much comic verve as West finds in the overlapping dialogues and boisterous idioms of her characters. These women are persuasively related despite being archetypally different; West's dialogue smartly zeroes in on the compressed quips and broken exchanges in which people who really know each other deliver their barbs and jests and reassurances. Family doesn't usually need big monologues or spit-polished, sophisticated badinage; it thrives, for better and for worse, on laser-targeting and quick flashes of tone, not the kind of heavily-worked dialogue that sells the playwright more than the play. If it's fair to paint Jar the Floor as an occasional laundry list of women's grievances with each other and with the world, I don't share the Village Voice's sense that the best way to honor West's achievements is to fit the deliciously round peg of her play into a pedantically square hole of Greek "anagnorisis," or the NY Times' implied conviction that intramural disputes among women are the stuff of "well-made television movies," undeserving of praise as stage drama. Jar the Floor resembles, increasingly, a sort of Dancing at Lughnasa for the Sisters, and line for line, its dialogue strikes me as funnier and more richly playable than Brian Friel's is, and without all the mopey sanctifying of a "memory play" device. Yes, the women talk a lot about the men who have left or disappointed them, but this emphatically is not The Women: absent men do not structure this piece, and it's lunacy to pretend that the women aren't mostly talking about themselves and each other.

And vividly at that: Lola's coloratura riffs of profanity, annoyance, tough love, and goodtime-gal hedonism yield at least one memorably tangy line per page, and West repeatedly nails "small" scenes or actions that often elude the Simons and Wassersteins who are so punchline-driven that they don't let their episodes breathe with human detail. When West shows us a mother's maladroit purchasing of clothes for her daughter, or a daughter's doling out of irritatingly cheap gifts, or the queasy outer-limits of a cancer survivor's brazen self-confidence, or a reluctant grandmother's repeated insistence that she isn't going to say nothin' about anything (and then keeps talking), or the tin-eared comparisons that a white guest draws between these black women's intramural dynamics and those of her own family, she compellingly sketches the moment and the women involved. She's a bit stronger, I think, with these smaller, character-revealing moments than with big cruxes related to large caches of money, and there's a last-minute revelation of affronts from the past that surely would have been better served if revealed a bit earlier in the play, and worked through a bit longer. I'm not blind to Jar the Floor's limitations, but I'm heartily entertained by its zest and vitality, and engaged by its insights and astute observations of human behavior, however heightened.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Plays of the 00s: Blue/Orange

I have to admit, I was hoping for more from Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange, a diverting but schematic and rather limply "provocative" play that purports to delve into definitional vagaries and social tensions pertinent to mental illness, race, health care, and professional turf-wars. "Schizophrenia" is a much-bandied term as one junior and one senior doctor haggle out the case of Christopher, an Afro-British patient due either to be released from institutional care or ratcheted up to more open-ended confinement and intensive study on the day the play begins. The play's truest claim to schizophrenia, though, derives from its critical reception, which on the one hand was strong enough to elevate Penhall's name significantly in the U.K. and, in rather narrower theater circles, over here in the U.S., earning him the prestigious Evening Standard and Olivier Awards in back-to-back years, but also sufficiently mixed to earn the play an unqualified pan from the Daily Telegraph in 2000 and a tepid notice from the New York Times two years later.

Penhall, who later wrote a wonderful screenplay adaptation of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, has certainly hit the target of the kind of "taut" three-character chamber play in which the intense focus on a few characters, the triangulated tensions between each pair of them, and the gradual overlaying of themes, treacheries, and open-ended questions often furnish a kind of potboiler pleasure in and of themselves. The appeal of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, which Blue/Orange supplanted from the Duchess Theatre when it made its West End transfer, inheres partly in these same tropes, although (a huge although) Frayn's play radiates a scrupulous knowledge about its facts and contexts that Blue/Orange rarely achieves. One gets the feeling less of Penhall studying and diagnosing what's wrong with the National Health Service, its "ethnocentric" biases, and its cash-strapped prioritizing of clearing beds over curing patients and more of him working himself into an aloof, targeted, opportunistic lather about these notions by reading lots of inflamed Op/Eds in the city paper. There's a Paul Haggis-ness to the way in which key characters unleash the slimiest epithets in particularly maladroit moments, as a way of achieving dramatic climaxes that the intricacy of characterization and the attempts at articulating personal, professional, and social stakes within the play don't seem able to incite on their own merits.

In truth, a closer structural and intellectual paratext for Blue/Orange is probably John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, which also sparks a clash of local titans around an aggrieved character all but defined by his dark skin and by the play's oblique but insistent construction of him as a figure of epistemological enigma. Shanley, a less trenchant writer than Frayn, at least has the smarts to admit his lack of interior or genuinely empathetic access to Donald Miller, his posing of him as a riddle and a timely phenomenon more than as a character; that's why, in the play unlike the movie, he doesn't appear in the piece. Penhall, however, builds the unstable, surprising, unknowable Christopher right into the play's delimited contest of wills. He thus makes himself responsible to show more of the character, to push past the tortured rhetorics he elicits from others and the racist cultural dysmorphia he both exposes and emblematizes. A strong actor might connect deeply enough with Christopher to make use of the strongest stuff in Penhall's dialogue, including his built-in silences, and thereby make the character dramatically viable: he can hardly have asked for better original-production ambassadors than then-unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor in the U.K. and Harold Perrineau, Jr. of Smoke and Lost in the U.S. Still, the script is finally more interested in blaring contradictions and muddying waters in relation to Christopher than in resolving him, even as a man in crisis. Idi Amin! Patois! Drugs! Righteous anger! Aggression! Suicidal tendencies! Muhammad Ali! Distorted perceptions! Public housing! This erratic chain of signifiers goes way above and beyond the call for "discontinuous"; again, it's the play as much as the character who invites a diagnosis of borderline personality. A smart production would have to underscore the nasty paternalism with which the two white doctors keep asking Christopher to leave the room so they can talk about him and decide his fate. Even here, though, Blue/Orange feels like a "problem play" less because it's articulate and inventive in its evocation of social stalemates than because the script is a promising but jerry-rigged and immaturely conceived series of problems to be worked out in the staging. A successful production would involve saving the script from its own most slickster tendencies and stalled metaphors (including the eponymous one), but the attainments of the piece don't seem worth the labors of working around its deficits.

P.S. Say this for Penhall: he may be onto something with those Crashisms. The raves in both the Sunday Times ("I came out of Joe Penhall's new play in a state of hot, black excitement!") and the Independent ("Provocative, blackly funny!") adopted the most dubious possible language in expressing their enthusiasm, and then Methuen made the obnoxious choice of selecting these blurbs for the jacket-copy on the paperback. Sometimes all you can say is, "...Really?"

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Plays of the 00s: Goodnight Children Everywhere

I happen to have read Richard Nelson's Goodnight Children Everywhere while re-perusing Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's seminal theoretical opus Anti-Oedipus, in which the authors maintain that post-Freudian culture insists upon incest as its founding prohibition in order to privatize our contexts for thinking about law, taboo, and possible anarchy within the framework of the individual and the family, instead of framing these notions more lucidly in the social terms of power, capital, production, and domination. Furthermore, by positing incest—something very few people desire—as that which must be avoided at all costs, we overcompensate with discourse about scapegoated desires we may never have harbored, displacing coherent attention away from more foundational threats to modern culture that might actually rally an angry crowd of insurrectionists: social revolution, radicalized sexual desire, and demolitions of false ideas of "personal" identity, individual fantasy, discrete subjectivity.

Goodnight Children Everywhere, though it's tense, moody, and delicate enough to prompt an involving production, is the kind of art that, in exploring the "dangerous" idea of incest, may actually avoid exploring what's more deeply at issue in the stories of four siblings, now ages 21 to 17, who have spent five years apart after three of them were evacuated to different sites to escape London during the Blitz of World War II. Now it's 1945, the war is over, their parents are dead, and the most distantly deported of their brood—young Peter, shipped off to Canada—is returning to live in the old family flat with his three sisters, and with the husband of the middle sister, Ann. Ann's husband, Mike, is 30 years older than she is, a doctor, and a friend-provider to all three sisters, including 21-year-old Betty, who works as one of his nurses in surgery, and 19-year-old Viv, an attractive would-be actress. You can hardly fault the sisters for not quite knowing how to pick up the threads of their former life, or whom to recognize as an adult and whom to indulge or instruct as a child. You can see that Nelson has worked out from the idea that, in the wake of a national trauma, the naturalized relationships of parent/child, elder/youth, brother/sister, and father/employer are badly scrambled, and the dynamics of family and sexuality stop feeling like shared, stabled geometries, diffusing instead into a spooky, unsettling, unbounded question.

Still, I have to agree with the Village Voice reviewer that Goodnight Children Everywhere "feels like a conceptual working-out of this question, rather than a play drawn from actual life." When Ann makes her first erotic advance toward Peter, in a scene that might work better as heightened ritual than as spontaneous reality, the script seems on the cusp of a stage direction like, Audience gasps, in the way some films and performances pause for a few self-satisfied beats after a punchline that seems sure to score. Much of what follows in Goodnight Children Everywhere is so handed over, subliminally but hardly subtly, to the frissons around the Peter-Ann relationship and to the riddle of how this pairing will affect the rest of their close, tiny circle that almost no other relationship in the script breathes or fills out as much as it could. It's not a question of missteps but of steps not taken, and perhaps of Nelson investing more in broadly conventional figures of Abandonment, Transgression, and Confusion than in the particulars of his own imagination. In a way, Nelson's success in writing four complexly playable and basically plausible youths—a welcome rarity on any stage—makes us crave comparable specificity and detail in story development, historical context, or thematic and psychological undertones. He has contrived some artful dialogue and some interesting palimpsets of overlayed emotion, but he hasn't followed through on any of these needful frameworks. The play has fewer emotional ramifications than it might (the finale doesn't help) and even fewer intellectual implications. What creative "give" there is in the script would fall mostly to directing careful, exacting turns from young performers, to fixing on the proper pace and range of moods, and to the overall atmosphere of the stage: portentous, I would imagine, but not obviously or overbearingly so. A cracking production might well have the audience leaving with an insinuating vibration under their skins; it's harder to imagine a production good enough to get the audience gripped in the who's, what's, and why's of these particular people and this particular scenario.

Its limitations notwithstanding, Goodnight Children Everywhere impressed enough people to win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2000—basically London's equivalent of the Tony, and as narrowly West End-focused as the Tony is Broadway-restrictive, which means that Children, like many a Tony champ and nominee, reached this apogee of critical awardage years after several audiences had already experienced it. Because they are awarded in March, the Olivier Award in a given year, like the Oscar, also tends to celebrate work that really made its impact the year before; the production that earned Nelson his gong opened at the Barbican Theatre in February of 1999. Consequently, by most counts the most esteemed new play on English stages in 2000 wouldn't qualify for the Olivier Award until 2001. It won, and it constitutes the subject of my next write-up.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Plays of the 00s: Copenhagen

Art about science, even terrific art about science, and especially art about scientists, faces the same lurking threats as art about artists: that the promised engagement with the principles, the complexity, the mystery, and the urgency of the science will be totally sunk into a frustratingly stolid and anthropomorphic dumb-gaze at the man or woman who performed all the famous labor. Working to avoid that pitfall of boring externalization can lead into a different but potent problem of how to avoid twee correlatives where the structure or the narrative of the piece mirrors the structures of the science. These kinds of mimetic devices are often smart at communicating what's at issue in the story, but they teeter on a very slippery slope leading to derivative or diagrammatic art.

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen is a ghostplay in which the posthumous spirits of Danish physicist Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and Niels' notorious pupil and mentee Werner Heisenberg rehash the particulars and debate the implications of Heisenberg's tense and mystery-shrouded 1941 visit to the Bohrs' home in Copenhagen, amid his country's wartime occupation of theirs. Heisenberg is most famous for his "uncertainty principle," a theorization of how even the most empirical studies of particle behavior are essentially destabilized by the contexts of human observation and by the necessarily refractory modes of observing the particle's behavior via the traces or reflections it yields with respect to some other surface, usually light. I'm sure many people could offer a superior thumbnail sketch of Heisenberg's famous claims, but few would do it as deftly as Michael Frayn. Though his script brims with high-level scientific and theoretical discourse, Frayn makes this talk not just lucid but dramatically punchy and ethically provocative: it's a major accomplishment of his play that its rare slips into clunky exposition stand out so pronouncedly from a general field of persuasively impassioned, implication-heavy arguments about what, to most of us, is the head-scratching arcana of electron behavior, uranium processing, subatomic measurement, and jockeying for institutional prestige.

Still, with Heisenberg as a protagonist, you just know the play will delve into Uncertainty as a larger paradigm and conundrum. This kind of thematic extrapolation transpires at a range of levels in Copenhagen and in a multitude of ways that are not always as congruent as the play might suggest. Amid the velocity of dialogue and the gripping density of suspense, it's easy to confuse narrative gaps (what really happened? what did these men, especially, really say to each other?) with psychological enigmas (what could motivate these characters to act as they did?) with philosophical quandaries (can we ever really grasp our own behavior, or can it only be read as it impacts others or dictates events?). Frayn tackles such a prodigious set of riddles—physical, molecular, biographical, ethical, temperamental, historical, domestic, procedural, pedagogical, lexical, cultural—and streamlines them into such a fluid, economical structure of three characters in triangulated conversation, occasionally opening out with asides to the audience, that it feels somehow stingy to carp at all about Copenhagen's achievements. The play endows a truly meaningful contest of wills and ideas with a vital dramatic structure; it presents scientists not as walled-off esotericists but as morally invested and historically pivotal figures who feel deeply about what they do. Marvelously, though a live audience wouldn't know this, the script has the astonishing dramaturgical grace to forego almost a single stage direction. How's this for uncertainty: with almost every line in Copenhagen weighted with so many meanings and possible inflections, batted among three characters who have every reason to love, defend, pity, resent, and abjure each other, Frayn refuses to tell his actors how to speak a single utterance or mark a single emotional transition. He also frees his directors and designers to visualize this three-way standoff however they see fit, emphasizing either the Huis clos boundedness of the exchange or the worldly contexts of what's historically at stake or the numinous backdrop of rumination from beyond the grave. (From heaven? From hell? From oblivion? One wonders...) Put another way, Frayn confers remarkable dramatic freedom upon material that might easily have tilted into micro-managed and relentlessly footnoted diorama.

I loved the play. I admit to having turned the pages pretty breathlessly, especially through the first act and toward the end of the second. The third quarter of the play is prone to a fair amount of repetition, and it's laden with a lot of encyclopedic reconstruction that occasionally falters as dialogue, but even then, you never lose the heartbeat of the piece. Still, there is something slightly coy, maybe even flattening, about the implied parallels between particulate behavior and human interaction, and between the mysterious whats of the Bohr-Heisenberg encounter and the even more profound whys. These vulnerabilities in Frayn's conception tend to emerge most worryingly in relation to Margrethe, partially because she's such an obvious audience surrogate and convenient dramatic device as the resident non-Nobel Laureate. "But put this in plain language for Margrethe!" the scientists repeatedly remind each other, telegraphing just why Frayn needs the character, and cargoing some uncomfortable shivers of dumb-it-down-for-the-girl chauvinism. I also had my doubts about the interpolation of a belabored skiing metaphor and, even more gratuitously, of a terrible sailing accident that cost the Bohrs one of their children. This latter invocation embodies such a cheap way to condense the riddles of cosmic uncertainty and molar regret into the maudlin archetype of the dead child; eventually it invites qualified but still risky connotative analogies with the deaths of millions (of Jews, of Europeans), possibly with the apocalyptic death of everyone, via the atomic bomb, which is more thematic freight than this private calamity can possibly be asked to support.

But let me follow those caveats with a statement of how brave and richly satisfying it feels to read a story that furnishes itself such a detailed and specific platform for asking the terrible, cosmic, nuclear-age, "What does it all mean?" questions that lie at the heart of Copenhagen. Many a mopey, narcissistic drama has invoked these kinds of questions on infinitely flimsier premises, as though a short-cut to dignifying one's own navel-gazing or private fears is to link them to nightmares of annihilation or the specters of genocide. Frayn's characters, both because of what they did (and didn't do) and because of how they think and how they argue, put compelling human frameworks around the kinds of gigantic questions that can so easily sink a play, or fire it off irrecoverably into the realm of pure abstraction. Like its three personages, Copenhagen is smart, articulate, and disciplined, subtly humorous but appropriately sober about its subjects. It might be a little too neat, even in its expressions of unknowability and of abyss; not every passage has been fully translated out of the kind of lab-speak and historiographic diction from which Frayn has mined his sources. But the famously successful London and New York productions proved what the script augurs so powerfully: that Copenhagen makes ethics compelling in their very severity; that stories of science offer fertile grounds of drama and mystery, partly because the motives and protocols of science have been so disastrously marginalized and mistranslated into popular consciousness that a portrait this taut and this real has the kick of revelation; that the vagaries of history are fundamentally connected to the vicissitudes of human behavior and self-consciousness, even if I'm nervous about them being dramatized as something close to the same thing; and that audiences are deeply responsive to unabashed moral argument and intellectual history when they aren't slagged off as the preoccupations of eggheads and stuffy effigies, and when an artist as gifted, tactful, and disciplined as Frayn is in charge of relaying them for our benefit.

It's now a very close three-way question in my mind whether the elegant depths and historical urgency of Copenhagen, the exuberant deconstructions and nuanced burlesques of Dirty Blonde, or the claustrophobic compression and haunting archetypes of True West most deserved that 2000 Tony Award for Best Play, but two things seems clear: that it was a pretty banner year for that category and for spoken drama on Broadway, and that plays this rich and strong don't need to be seen in the flesh to be powerfully suggestive and deeply enjoyed.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Plays of the 00s: Dirty Blonde

Misconceptions: that because star Claudia Shear also wrote this play about Mae West, the piece is a one-woman show; that biographical plays are doomed as a genre, particularly on the page, where they lack even the diversion of a virtuoso mimic; that because I've never heard anyone mention Dirty Blonde in any context beyond the Tony roster, it was a "filler" nominee.

I thought all of it, and I thought wrong. What a fleet, energetic conception Dirty Blonde is, what a hilarious and engaging read, and what a joyous surprise—a perfect example of why poking around old awards ballots is a worthy endeavor. Dirty Blonde is somewhere around a 20-character endeavor, though all 20 parts were played by three actors in the off-Broadway and Broadway production. Sure, it's still Mae West's show: her story's at the center, she gets a boatload of delicious comic lines, and everyone else in the show loves her, idolizes her, works for her, pines for her, or takes motivated exception to her. You can see how an actress, and particularly a kind of actress who's hard to cast at the center of most Broadway shows, could both have and create a doozy of a good time in this plum part, and not least because the script has her spinning in and out of character on a dime, obligated as she also is to play a modern-day fan who's not without spunk but who dreams of being the full-on powerhouse and provocateuse that Mae was.

Dirty Blonde cycles constantly but nimbly, with tremendous delicacy and with zesty comedy, between an exploration of slowly, deeply, flagrantly constructed stardom and a snapshot of two very different latter-day fans who may or may not be that different, though they sure peg each other wrong, and the audience probably does, too. The relations of stars to fans, of pop-culture consumers to manufactured icons, are never cheapened or flattened by Dirty Blonde; a play about Mae West has no business "flattening" anything, but Shear makes these bonds contagious without denying their complexity, serious and poignant without denying the burlesque appeal of her chosen star. And it matters that the star is West: you couldn't build the same script around just any old Hollywood star. The Mae of this play, persuasively close to the Mae of New York and Hollywood record, might well be a garish, ambitious, unlikely, saucy pastiche—one who knew a lot of things, except when to quit—but she's still uniquely her own creation. I suspect it's the seam-flaunting, boundary-testing bricolage of Mae's own star-image, a shockingly ahead-of-her-time gal in ostentatiously outmoded dress, that makes that persona so encouraging of participation. It's so easy and savory to mix and match her parts, even while you watch her or listen to her, even on the surface of your own body, or in the leering lilt of your own voice. When the other characters in Dirty Blonde swap Mae stories or don Mae's garments or impersonate her choice lines and legendary walk, you can see what an open invitation Mae embodied, and not just sexually. There's more insight and dexterity in this play with regard to gender, sexuality, identity, masquerade, and self-performance than in more "highbrow" fare like I Am My Own Wife. Just because it's a peach to read and, undoubtedly, a pip to watch doesn't mean it isn't good for you. And it gets the stage, and what you can do with some savvy blocking, smart lighting, crisp writing, and a proscenium space. Certainly the eloquence, ease, and suggestive power of the flashbacks and flash-forwards as well as the savvy doublings of the actors at several moments run rings and rings and rings around what Arthur Miller's doing with comparable devices in Mt. Morgan.

Still, Dirty Blonde probably would feel like one actress-writer's opportunistic grab for convenient impersonation if the modern-day plot between film archivist Charlie and sometime-actress Jo weren't so colorful and layered, surprising in ways that mostly avoid seeming "forced" or boringly refractory of the same ideas breathing out of Mae's scenes. Their talk is just as vivid as Mae's, even if they themselves are pretty average folk: Jo has reason over the course of the play to profess just how fond and unjudgmental of Charlie she is, and she doesn't mince words, any more than Mae does when she launches a blistering attack on Ernst Lubitsch ("Why you Dutch bastard! Why don't you go back home and stick your finger in a dike!"). Their odd, unexpected process of getting to know each other pertly but tenderly reveals what's complex about all of us, without pretending that almost any of us are as "big" or as suggestive of greater meanings as Mae was. Dirty Blonde captures what the moments feel like when we get away with something we shouldn't (whether by scoring with a lewd joke or by sneaking an iced coffee into a controlled-air library vault), and what moments feel like when they're so rare and so beyond our power to see them coming that we know they'll dictate the rest of our lives, for better and for worse. The Sunset Boulevard-ish cuts to Mae's decrepit years are pitiful, funny, but refusing of dewy idealism, but best of all, they're even more interesting about Charlie than they are about Mae.

If you were an actor, you'd be lucky to land any part in the play. Imagine what a rarity that is in a piece of biographical theater. If you're a belter or a big girl or a talented tease, start taking acting lessons now, since the singing, shimmying, sassing role of Mae could be the chance of your career. If you're a director, you have so much material to play with in Dirty Blonde, and so much convincing, tempered humanity to pull out of all the bright play. If you're a fan of old movies, the play could be heaven, and it could as easily change your mind as it did mine about Mae West, whom one character aptly calls "the Venice of old Hollywood stars," since there's not another one remotely like her. If you're a reader, good luck: this thing's out of print, for who knows what ungodly reason, but it's the kind of script you want to send to all your friends as soon as you've read it. Three cheers to Claudia Shear, even ten years late. You done her right.

(And no, he wasn't Dutch.)

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Plays of the 00s: The Ride Down Mt. Morgan

Too often when conversations turn to the seminal greats of American theater, you hear people saying "Oneillwilliamsmiller" as though it's some German compound word and as though it names some indivisible, uncontested trifecta of major artists. I beg to differ, and if The Crucible is pretty stunning and The Price, at least in memory, was a tautly compelling push-pull among family members sifting through their own debris, I often find Miller raging awkwardly against Big Ideas that elude the ambitions of his intellect or the poetry of his words. I appreciate enormously the vitality of his best writing. He's as unashamed as Philip Roth—his partner in self-canonizing, red-blooded literary expostulation—to push angrily lofty speeches into the mouths of his characters, and to limn them with clear allegorical gestures to The Deeper State of Things. But for the same reasons, he can be embarrassingly overwrought, often at the same time he's being astonishingly clichéd, particularly given how complacent he often seems about White American Guyness as an Olympian vantage for diagnosing the ills of the soul and the forces of the world.

The Ride Down Mt. Morgan—like True West, another play that took its sweet time landing on Broadway—does a good deal of spouting about, but also from the vantage of, a bullish, philandering narcissist of a certain age who's landed himself in a full body cast while speeding down a snowy mountain in his Porsche, racing to get home to his wife. In context, a pressing question, though less so than it might be, is, "Which wife?" This is because Lyman Felt has spent the last ten years keeping two conjugal spheres in play, one in New York City and one upstate, one child apiece. You will not be astonished to hear that one wife is an acerbic Protestant who's often self-conscious about her truculence and her deep familiarity to her husband of several decades, and the other is a Jewish sexpot who kept a surprise baby at Lyman's own encouragement and has held things down in Elmira ever since the kid, named after two of Lyman's ancestors, was born. You could say plenty about the stock binarization of these gals, about the hazily sketched dotingness and vituperation of his grown daughter, about the fact that Lyman's intense and recently sustained injuries are the first, immediate tip-off that Mt. Morgan really wants us to worry about his pain as the grand dishonesties of his life come to light (with increasing media attention, though this is reported rather than dramatized). One might well complain about Miller's insistence that Lyman's nurse be a black woman, and that she console him, even kiss him on the forehead when everyone else has stamped off in righteous indignation—this despite his purple fantasies about "white thighs" and vaginas commemorated as "cathedrals," and despite his smarmy quickness to share a likely double-edged compliment he once scored from James Baldwin, back when Lyman used to write. Two flashback scenes involving a man-eating shark and a man-eating lion have to be read to (not) be believed, and even they are less dismaying than lines like, "I am human, I am proud of it!—of the glory and the shit!" or a recurring thread wherein the ghost of Lyman's father passes through his hospital room to smother him or beat him, accompanied by seismic reverberations from beneath the stage, pitched to rattle the whole theater.

The Ride Down Mt. Morgan is a desperate play, knocking around with real fury at its own indulgent conceits, besotted with its lead character both despite and because of his enormous flaws but struggling nonetheless even to glimpse almost any other character. The dialogue often sounds like badly translated Ibsen or Bergman, and the nomination for Best Play in 2000 was likely an inevitability of a thin Broadway season or a chance to honor a key American figure whose work swelled to a remarkable popularity on Midtown stages in the late '90s and early '00s. But it's too easy to shrug the play entirely, whatever its arrogance or its shortcomings. One can imagine a careful, vitriolic actor, maybe a Frank Langella (though not, I would guess, the Patrick Stewart of the '00 production) redeeming Lyman into a fascinating enigma of self-love and self-excoriation. If the right director got deeply interested in the tough problem of Lyman's truth-telling even amidst a life's work of lying—he's a shit, but he's not wrong that every lover will eventually lie to their beloved, or that magnificent happiness is often dependent on subterranean dishonesty, or that the outrage of victims can be just as preening as the convenient self-exoneration of traitors—you might find a stirring night of uneven but unsettling theater inside The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. If you found some ways to give the women more to do with their silences, if you dropped the incongruously macabre dreamscapes, if you cast the nurse as a white man so that Lyman had to seek solace from someone unexpected, you could shave a lot of crust off of Morgan and release a lot of the ferocity and verbal force of the play's best moments, and of what Miller clearly wants to get at and worry over. I don't trust Arthur Miller, and I wish that playwrights twice as subtle and talented didn't have to fight four times as hard for comparable prestige. When it comes to uncomfortable waiting-room dirges, I'll take Albee's All Over over Mt. Morgan any day. Still, even when his premises seem self-serving and his images and his language lack for grace, you can't say that Miller's plays aren't about anything. There's often, as there is in this one, a tough, muscled heart inside that it's worth trying to hear.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Plays of the 00s: True West

This always happens in June: I feel glum about the mediocrity of what's spilling out of Hollywood, and, post-Tony Awards, I start pining for more theater in my life. Crabby and contrarian to the last, I still prefer reading plays to seeing them: the possibilities seem so much more endless, simultaneously multiple, while you're staging the script in your mind, mouthing and timing different line-readings as you go. They're also incredibly commute-friendly. 45 minutes northbound in the morning, 45 southbound in the evening, and you've absorbed a whole tale, a whole style and imaginative orientation.

As a long lead, then, on the deluge of "Best of the 00s" features that are bound to swell toward the end of the year, I've decided to orient my play-reading by revisiting as many texts as I can that were honored with major critics' prizes and nominations during the past decade: Tonys, Drama Desks, Obies, New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle, and, across the pond, Evening Standard and Olivier Awards. I am also following some inside tracks when I can to overlooked gems from each year, especially well-regarded works that push against the daunting whiteness and conservative theatricality that often prevails on Broadway and (I'm guessing?) the bulk of the West End. I'm always on the hunt for contemporary material to teach, so this spelunking serves a pedagogical purpose, too. Mind you, I'm giving myself plenty of time and not committing to any particular pace—which will, uh, hardly surprise my regular readers.

Given all that preface, it's both anomalous and strangely necessary to start with True West, a play first performed in San Francisco in 1980 but invisible on Broadway for 20 years. Starring the then-upwardly mobile Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, who famously alternated the leading roles, this production, guided by recent Tony magnet Matthew Warchus, earned True West a Best Play nomination in 2000. I'm not as big a Shepard nut as some people; anyone that prolific is bound to swing unpredictably above and below par. But True West is a pretty dazzling experience even on the page. I'm delighted to see a mordant statement about outer-Hollywood desperation that bends into unsettling opacities instead of cheap punchlines or dowdy, careworn pessimism. By the end of the play, Austin and Lee, the aspiring screenwriter and the restless gate-crasher, are wading through an indoor pond made of stolen toasters and smashed typewriters and smushed bread, and Shepard's text has walked a fine line between plausibly psychologized escalation and menacingly heightened theatricality to carry us into these weird tableaus. An Author's Note in the script disavowing exaggeration and insisting on psychological realism stands weirdly at odds with the strange conceits built into the stage directions (an Astroturf floor, a strictly red-and-white costume aesthetic for a key character), and you can imagine the actors having a field day in the best sense, a real calisthenic workout, honoring Shepard's edict for realism while toying with all of the script's suggestions of symbolism, gestalt, and stylization.

It's also a pleasure to see men, rather than women, cast in a scenario about uncanny slippages and overlaps of identity. The convincingly fraught fraternal rivalry between Austin and Lee holds down the "realism" angle while the metaphysical mysteries of the play keep tugging it into allegory and experiment. I didn't quite buy a pivotal monologue about chop suey and false teeth, but you could easily stage the piece such that you don't have to believe this story outright; you also have the option of making Lee's harebrained script ideas truly harebrained or Manny Farber-ishly gripping, and either alternative would excitingly redraw the flexible emotional lines of the script. One thing I wouldn't do is tamper a bit with the surprising, haunting understatement with which a semi-surprising character enters, hovers, and exits in the last scene. I was expecting some fireworks or revelations, maybe even a Guignol tableau à la Buried Child, but the cool, distracted indifference of this character is both funnier and scarier than more obvious dramatics could have been.

True West, like a lot of Shepard I've read, reads as rough-hewn and frontier-friendly Pinter, in structure and theme if not in language, but the play has its own dramatic, plastic, and verbal identity, and its occasionally blunt figures turn out to be more subtle and shiftable than they seem. How much of what's coming can Austin predict from the outset? Is a fourth character's unexpected partiality to Lee a reality or a false rumor, and is it earnest or bullied? Certainly Austin speaks more often in clichés than Lee does, and yet Lee is (or could be) the more familiar archetype of the id-driven lout. Where can we go with those observations? Are these men really "becoming" each other, in reviewer-lingo, by the end of the piece, or are we watching a single evening of recreational dabbling in each other's habits and life-projects? What backstory actually precedes what we see? What will possibly happen after? What does all this have to do with the vanished West, with America, or are those allegorical pressures as highfalutin and hollowly compulsory as the storytelling cheats that Austin and Lee haggle over in their script? True West manages the neat trick of carving out a strange, severe, and specific niche of its own while generously furnishing its interpreters, on the stage or on the page, with a wide and genuinely thought-provoking series of unresolved questions and viable possibilities. Shepard didn't win the Tony, and if it turns out he didn't deserve to, that means at least two great plays were Tony-nominated in 2000.

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