NEW YORK PRESS columns Part 5

 
“Craig Lucas’s Fractal Symmetries”: Blue Window

In her book about Sylvia Plath, *The Silent Woman*, Janet Malcolm -- a writer at the peak of her powers -- confronts her frustration with the limitations of narrative storytelling, its inability to contain the universe, the elusiveness of The Truth. "At the end of [Jorge Luis] Borges's story 'The Aleph,' the narrator goes to the cellar of a house, where he has the experience of encountering everything in the world. He all at once sees all places from all angles: 'I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet....I saw the circulation of my own dark blood.' Writer's block derives from the mad ambition to enter that cellar; the fluent writer is content to stay in the close attic of partial expression, to say what is 'running through his mind,' and to accept that it may not -- cannot -- be wholly true, to risk that it will be misunderstood."

One of the most impressive things about playwright Craig Lucas is that he's definitely a fluent writer with a lot "running through his mind," and yet he manages in his plays to suggest, at least, a headcount of all the ants on the planet. *Blue Window*, his 1984 play currently being revived at Manhattan Theatre Club, ostensibly portrays seven yuppie-ish Manhattanites before, during, and after a casual Sunday-night dinner party. The characters aren't a random assortment -- they're all white and around the same age -- but they're not a fixed posse, either. Everybody knows the hostess, Libby, better than they know each other, but they don't necessarily know her very well either. Tom is a high-school chum who brings his girlfriend Emily. Alice and Boo live upstairs. Norbert is her sky-diving instructor. Griever's in her therapy group. A pretty tiny slice of life, right?

But if the surface of the play seems mundane -- New York partygoers eating and drinking, talking smart and silly, being awkward and disagreeable -- the structure is dizzyingly complex. The same chic apartment set serves as home for all seven characters, so in the pre- and post-party scenes we witness multiple overlapping conversations, fragments of one echoing off another. Lucas writes plays as a form of chaos theory. He's the Benoit Mandelbrot of American drama, adapting to the stage Mandelbrot's practice of fractal geometry. *Blue Window* is at once a microcosm -- the grain of sand in which Blake invited us to see the world -- and a world unto itself. Each piece, each character, accomplishes in miniature what the whole play tries to do.

Here's an example. The first lines we hear are Tom, who's sketching out a new song on his guitar and describing it to Emily: "I like the fact that it doesn't go anywhere...Like I did this (*chord*) and I did that (*chord*) and then this happened (*chord*) and this happened (*chord*) and so what?" He's talking about his song, but Lucas is also letting us know what he's up to. By the end of the play Tom has finished composing the music but is still sketching out the lyrics to the song. In the interim, though, at the party Emily has been very quiet, listening and deflecting attention; she's a secretary at "just a company" and feels intimidated by the brainy, insecure party-chat about Eugene O'Neill, Cecil Taylor, and the corpus callosum. Someone passes a joint. Emily takes a hit, suddenly the light changes, and the rest of the party fades away while she gets up and sings a song. It's Tom's song, but she's telling the story of her life, her mother's bad marriage, her own unsatisfactory affairs with men. It resembles one of what Frank O'Hara called his "I-do-this-I-do-that poems," from a woman's point of view: honest, matter-of-fact, downbeat. She finishes the song, sits down, and we don't hear a peep out of her for the rest of the party.

That moment in *Blue Window* always blows me away. I saw the original production and the *American Playhouse* TV version, both directed by Norman Rene, and I still can't believe a playwright would have the audacity to stop a play dead in its tracks, a play that's not a musical, and have a character sing a song that tells the audience things the other characters never find out. But it's brilliant. It shows us something theatrically, makes us feel something, that can't be told narratively. How many times how you encountered that kind of still-waters creature at a social gathering and wondered what's going on inside that noggin? Or clammed up yourself, in a marijuana haze or not? And then at the end of the play you realize the song stands for -- but doesn't explain, because it's inexplicable -- some man/woman thing, something Tom's trying to figure out that Emily already knows.

On top of that, it's not even Lucas's song. It's an obscure number by art-song composer William Bolcom called "The Same Thing" that his partner Joan Morris sang on one of their live albums. In the play Lucas offers both a critique of the song -- taking it apart to see how it works -- and an homage to it. The narrative compression and emotional tone that Bolcom achieves in a two-minute song, Lucas attempts to sustain for a 90-minute play.

All this would be just so much clever technique if it weren't also terribly moving. Without saying it in so many words, *Blue Window* conveys the same idea put forth by Jungian psychology and Emersonian philosophy, chaos theorists and environmental activists: Life seems random but everything is connected, even if we don't know how. As Whitman put it, "A vast similitude interlocks all." Simultaneity and interconnectedness are the themes Lucas returns to again and again in his small but exquisite body of work. In *Missing Persons* a woman obsessively relives her casual last glimpse of her runaway husband. In *Reckless* a woman on the lam keeps landing in towns named Springfield. Three women live their entire lifespans over lunch in *Three Postcards*. The souls of a young woman and an old man swap bodies in *Prelude to a Kiss.* Watching these psychic overlaps reappear in Lucas's work is a pleasure in itself, like tracking Harvey Keitel through a string of Scorsese movies.

I enjoy plays as puzzles, the kind you have to piece together retroactively after you leave the theater. Not everybody does. All three daily newspapers trashed *Blue Window*. What fools these mortals be. All I can imagine is that they weren't able to see the brilliance of the play through the haze of a just-okay production. I had high hopes for Joe Mantello's staging at Manhattan Theatre Club after the exhilarating opening sequence. To the beat of a jazz-funk instrumental counted off in Italian, the seven characters wordlessly whirled through their Sunday afternoon routine, activating the stage space and establishing independent characters in short order. As soon as they started talking, my enthusiasm leveled off. This may sound like an odd thing to say, but the actors' voices bothered me, two of them especially. David Warshofsky as Tom started off with a booming voice that sounded blustery and forced, at odds with his laconic musician talk. And Ellen McLaughlin as Alice, a very talkative lesbian writer, got on my last nerve. McLaughlin played the angel who crashed through the ceiling, as well as a weary dyke nurse, in Tony Kushner's epic *Angels in America*. When I first saw it in San Francisco, McLaughlin gave a fine, touching performance, but by the time the play got to Broadway she'd acquired a harsh, brittle edge. She'd turned into Nurse Ratched. The same shrill, keyed-up delivery crept into *Blue Window* so I found myself cringing when it came time for her to speak. Manhattan Theatre Club is a pretty intimate space, and you wouldn't think the actors would have to shout to be heard. On the other hand, the subscriber audience is full of alte kockers, so maybe they do.

The original production of *Blue Window* was developed in collaboration with director Norman Rene and a company of wonderful actors, who are indelibly stamped on my memory, especially Brad O'Hare as Griever, Matt Craven as Norbert, Maureen Silliman as silent Emily, and the great Randy Danson as Libby (I saw her in the MTC audience at the matinee I attended). Facing such stiff competition, the MTC actors that come off best are the trio who ultimately form the heart of the play, if such an aggressively decentralized play can be said to have a heart. J. Smith-Cameron plays Libby, the neurotic hostess for whom, we learn later, the party was a painful but effective healing ritual. David Aaron Baker inhabits Norbert, who says almost nothing but turns out to be the perfect container for Libby's pain. John Benjamin Hickey (who went unacknowledged for his excellent performance, under Mantello's direction, in Terrence McNally's *Love! Valour! Compassion!*) plays Griever, the fag who's kidding himself into thinking he and Libby could be an item. Hickey is sexy dancing in his underpants, hilarious imitating Diana Ross while blowdrying his hair in the bathroom mirror, and agonizing to watch as his fantasies about Libby shatter in a post-party phone call. Rather than playing the hell out of their roles, these actors almost back away from them. They get out of the way and let the delicacy and strength of the play radiate through them.

February 21, 1996

 

“High Rent, Low Rent”: Rent

The first act of *Rent*, Jonathan Larson's rock musical version of *La Boheme*, takes place at an East Village squat on Christmas Eve. The second act opens on New Year's Eve and ends the following Christmas Eve. *Rent* will forever be known as the musical whose 35-year-old author died of a heart attack on the eve of its first public performance -- on the eve, clearly, of his breakthrough as a shining star in mainstream musical theater, which needs all the new talent it can get. Near the end of the show, in the pileup of characters and accelerating plot twists and romantic reunions and melodic reprises, the young filmmaker who more or less narrates the story flips on a projector showing footage he shot in the opening scene. As it flickered against the back wall of the stage, visually saying to the audience "Remember how all this began?", I had the eerie sense of the author's presence, conjured like a genie from a bottle. This hovering wraith only added to the show's sickening sense of interrupted trajectory, broken hourglass, down in flames. It's a feeling all too familiar to New Yorkers, especially in the theater, especially in the East Village, haunted by the Huck Snyders and the Ron Vawters and the Harry Kondoleons, gone too soon.

The perpetual eve-of-destruction, though only occasionally glimpsed in *Rent*, provides an authentic foundation for what is otherwise an unabashedly romantic update on the scenes from bohemian life that inspired Puccini's opera. Musician Roger, fresh out of rehab (his girlfriend April left him a suicide note saying "We've got AIDS"), shares the attic of an abandoned building at 11th and B with filmmaker Mark upstairs from Mimi, a 19-year-old junkie who "dances" at the Cat Scratch Club when she's not handcuffed to the bar. Their pal Collins, black anarchist professor of computer-age philosophy, gets rescued after a mugging by Angel, a drag queen and drumming master. Roger and Mark's former roommate, Benny, has been buying up East Village real estate, including the squat and a nearby performance space. A protest concert is staged by Maureen, Mark's ex-girlfriend who left him for a black lesbian lawyer.

Not well-versed in the standard repertoire, I only figured out afterwards how closely Larson followed Puccini's scenario. Watching the show, I kept getting irritated at the way Larson persisted in using scenes from real life to tug my emotions and then betraying them with leaps of ill logic. If Collins is an MIT professor, how come he's homeless? If Benny brings his Wall Street investor to Life Cafe, how come the guy is shocked when Maureen moons him? In real life the guy wouldn't be satisfied unless someone shot up in front of him. Mark's agent keeps bugging him to come in and sign those contracts with ABC -- do you know how hard it is to get an agent? But this is why I'm not very good at musicals -- I'm way too literal-minded. You can't ask those questions. This isn't a documentary. Larson hasn't created gritty, rounded characters, he's manipulated types, in the grand tradition of French farce, Broadway musical comedies, and TV sitcoms. And he's done it well, if you like that sort of thing.

Much more to my taste is Larson's score, positively abundant with melody. A lot of what tries to pass for rock music in the theater is pretty embarrassing. The best music in *Rent*, especially the songs that spell out the relationship between Roger and Mimi, draws on the emotional pull of classic rock ballads -- some cross between hormones and us-versus-them, "Thunder Road" and Ashford and Simpson crooning "Is It Still Good to You?" What really makes the music work are the arrangements by Steve Skinner and Kenny Brescia, which center on lyrical rock guitar rather than the staccato keyboards that usually signify "rock & roll" in the theater. And the vocal arrangements, especially when the entire 15-member ensemble lines up across the front of the stage and lets go, are overpowering.

Director Michael Greif has assembled a cast of new faces whose passion and energy become *Rent*'s secret weapon. Individually but especially together, Adam Pascal's Roger and Daphne Rubin-Vega's Mimi tear down the house. Jesse Martin as Collins is a terrific singer, simple and unjive. I couldn't help feeling that Anthony Rapp was a little white-bread as the Jewish filmmaker-narrator, and Idina Menzel's Tori Amos posing was one more version of let's-make-fun-of-pretentious-performance-artists. For me the runaway star of the show is Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Angel, who alone transcends the schematic outline of his character and, underneath a ton of makeup and fun drag, exudes both natural warmth and a sense of secrets-held-back. At the curtain call I felt the vicarious excitement you get from seeing young companies in shows like *Hair*, *A Chorus Line*, and the movie *Fame*. But did the show really move me? Look, my eyes are dry.

February 28, 1996

 

“The Unbeloved Country”: A Fair Country

Judith Ivey has been a reputable New York stage actor for more than 15 years. She made a big splash in the mid-'80s and won Tony Awards playing hilarious, potty-mouthed strumpets in *Steaming* and David Rabe's *Hurlyburly* on Broadway. She did some movies and spent time in TV-land building up a nest egg without ever quite hitting syndication paydirt. Now, with her devastating and mercurial performance in Jon Robin Baitz's *A Fair Country* at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, she has served notice that she's hit a new level of acting mastery. It's thrilling to watch her move into position as the next generation's successor to legendary performers like Gena Rowlands, Shirley Knight, and Geraldine Page -- artists whose extraordinary power derives from the chemistry between a disciplined intelligence, messy emotion, and radiant theatricality.

In *A Fair Country*, Ivey plays Patrice Burgess, who gave up a promising career as a museum curator to marry Harry (Laurence Luckinbill), who works as a sort of cultural diplomat in one of those international arts agencies that are little more than a CIA front. It's 1978, and she's stuck in Durban, South Africa, hating her life. Hating the heat, hating having to squelch her intellectual ambitions to play hostess for an endless stream of polite receptions, but mostly hating the moral agony of enacting this grotesque charade while pretending not to be propping up an unjust and repressive society seething with racial tension. She's not on any kind of preachy high horse. She's simply having a nervous breakdown in public.

Patrice likes to see herself as victimized by her devotion to serving her husband and her two sons. Meanwhile, she's got her high-strung gay son Gil (Matt McGrath) hopelessly hot-wired to her emotional needs. She's frosty as hell to her pugnacious college-age son Alec (Dan Futterman) who's visiting from Columbia Journalism School, and she's got her husband tiptoeing around in fear of sparking her next ragefest. She's stunningly insensitive without ever being stupid. Just because she can't help her bad behavior doesn't mean she's not aware of it. As she tells a visitor, "I lost a lot of credibility when I beat the shit out of our African maid." She attempts to rationalize that particular altercation, which ended with the girl being dragged away by the police, as a simple disagreement between tempestuous human beings, rather than a black-white thing. But her protests only underscore the feebleness of well-meaning white Americans' efforts to impose the happy-face of tolerance on a society build on race hatred.

Surveying this household on the verge of a meltdown, Harry knows he has to do something. It seems that the quickest way to transfer out of his job schlepping Burl Ives around Somalia is to agree to his Washington superior's pressure to perform some "very low level of non-covert activity." Namely: taking notes on Alec's friends, underground organizers for the African National Congress. Next thing we know, the Burgesses are celebrating New Year's Eve in Holland, and the radio broadcasts Harry's smarmy "Voice of America" commentaries. Shades of Lawrence Welk. Is everybody happy?

You can guess what happens. The play's conclusion is a litle predictable and philosophically lightweight. But I don't hold that against the playwright. Most political plays go heavy on the good-guy/bad-guy drama. The oppressors are bad! Those who struggle against them are good! In *A Fair Country*, as he did with *The Film Society* and *Three Hotels*, Baitz brings us inside the lives of people caught between intentions and consequences with no easy moral markers. Baitz spent his adolescence in South Africa living the kind of life portrayed in *A Fair Country* (including, apparently, blowing the neighbor's son in the bike room), and I'm grateful to his plays for providing a window on that peculiar, privileged existence. They're both tough and compassionate.

As a theatrical experience, I found *A Fair Country* to be almost continuously surprising. The characters' emotional volatility and their fast-paced sophisticated conversation kept me off-guard and listening hard. I loved Baitz's use of minor characters -- Alec's blonde girlfriend who spouts all the usual platitudes about the "natural beauty" of South Africa, and the black servant who sees Patrice's blowup with the maid only as a potential job opportunity for his cousin Ginger. Teagle Bougere plays this role deliciously, moving among the fractured Burgess family crooning "Gin-gah! Gin-gah!" as if to hypnotize the family into hiring her. The whole cast is excellent. Under Dan Sullivan's direction, they don't spend any effort trying to make the audience like them, and I like that.

The show, like the family it depicts, revolves around the mother, a role that offers many temptations to play a strident, cliche monster-mother. Judith Ivey's flesh-and-blood performance is a gift to Jon Robin Baitz, and likewise his play is a gift to her.

March 6, 1996

 

“Up in a Hole”: Floyd Collins and The Green Bird

Tina Landau and Adam Guettel's musical *Floyd Collins* at Playwrights Horizons is based on the true story of a Kentucky farmhand whose hobby was exploring caves until the fateful day in 1925 when he got trapped in a narrow underground passage. A local reporter's on-the-scene story got picked up by newspaper syndicates so for a couple of weeks strangers all over the country followed every minute detail of the rescue operation, which failed to pull Floyd Collins out alive. When the show was over, I felt certain that writer-director Landau and lyricist-composer Guettel meant for this story to stand for something, to have some larger significance, and I worried that I was too dense to figure out what it was. I could swear I'd just seen a two-hour musical about a guy who got stuck in a hole.

There were several things I really admired about the show. It was very oddly shaped, for one thing. After an expository opening "Ballad of Floyd Collins," the next 20 minutes consisted of a single sustained musical solo for Floyd (played by the appealing, open-faced Christopher Innvar) as he explores underground, finds a gigantic cavern, and fantasizes about how rich and famous he's going to be when he turns the place into a big tourist attraction. It's a kind of bravura setpiece for actor and composer, like Billy Bigelow's "Soliloquy" from *Carousel* (written by Guettel's grandfather, Richard Rodgers) except at the top of the show instead of closing the first act. I liked it that Guettel had the guts to do that. He also uses the cave setting to build musical passages around echo effects, which I've never seen before.

While some of the score hovers in the vicinity of generic hoedown, much of it shoots for an ambitious hybrid of opera (Virgil Thomson), Broadway (Roger Miller's *Big River*), and folk ballad (a la Kurt Weill's tiny folk musical, *Down in the Valley*). The music is beautifully arranged and sung. One singer in particular stood out for me. As an actor, Theresa McCarthy, who plays Floyd's sister Nellie, recently released from an insane asylum, is shrewd: she plays Nellie as smart, not simple, too smart for her surroundings, but she signals her off-ness by never quite making eye contact with anyone else. As a singer, though, McCarthy is awesome. Whenever she sang, I couldn't believe I was hearing such liquidly perfect singing. I felt like I was on drugs. Martin Moran also distinguished himself as the cub reporter, Skeets Miller, whose big scoop engenders not careerist conniving but a surprising love and concern for the doomed Floyd.

What to make of the show as a whole? When I think Landau and Guettel are trying to "say something" about media circuses and how they exploit human tragedies for profit, it seems melodramatic, obvious and tired. When I think the creators are intent on stretching musical theater form, I respect the effort but I don't really care. The more I think they're just trying to tell this particular story with all its peculiar shape and inconclusiveness, the more I admire it the way I admire Paul Schrader's film *Patty Hearst*, as a subversive narrative. No happy ending, no thus-we-see conclusion. Things happen, we search for meaning, and sometimes we have to stretch our minds to deal with lack of meaning. That's a lot more lifelike than most conventional stories.

A couple of blocks farther east on 42nd Street, the extraordinary director and designer Julie Taymor has mounted another one of her spectacular productions, an adaptation of Carlo Gozzi's commedia dell'arte piece *The Green Bird*. It's the first splashy opening at the New Victory Theater, whose gorgeous renovation is also the first successful step toward making the Deuce safe for Disney. Any doubts I had that the Times Square cleanup is part of a plan for strict social control flew away when an usher insisted that I spit out my chewing gum. How insulting.

*The Green Bird* is an elaborately plotted fairy tale about royal-born twins raised by a poor couple. The twins magically regain their riches, yet they're not satisfied until they can own certain otherworldly treasures: singing apples, dancing water, the mysterious green bird. The show is ravishing to look at. Steeped in the masks and puppetry and magic-making of Balinese theater, Taymor creates a stunning picture, sweeps the stage clean, and creates another and another, all night long. I don't think I'll ever forget the Singing Apples: three women suspended in midair, their bodies sheathed in long green tunics, with shiny red plastic apples for heads. Taymor doesn't simply manipulate her actors like figurines, either. They are kinetic bundles of joy, especially -- in this production -- Derek Smith as the insecure king, Kristine Nielsen as his long-lost wife, Andrew Weems as his comic servant, and Erico Villanueva who, as Dancing Water, performs an acrobatic one-man *Swan Lake* in act two.

The formal beauty of Taymor's designs and the conventions of commedia-style acting sometimes work against dramatic immediacy. *The Green Bird* is essentially a sly adult fable about greed, and one extremely applicable to 1996 America, where the richest one percent of the population has more money than the bottom 94% put together. The production didn't really drive this point, or any point, home. Sitting in the cozy new playhouse with an opening night audience full of happy, well-meaning benefactors, I couldn't decide if pulling its punches was the production's way of being cowardly or clever.

March 13, 1996

 

 

“The Mark of Greatness”: Hot Keys

What becomes a legend last? An Off-Off-Broadway star, that's what. To the downtown people who know who he is, Jeff Weiss *is* a wizard, a true star, a legendary writer and performer who's been doing it for 30 years and has amassed a devoted cult of audiences who can't wait to see his work and actors who are thrilled to be in it. Meanwhile, there are queens who can whistle the overture for every musical that ever opened and closed on Broadway who wouldn't know Jeff Weiss from Mahmut Celalettin.

And you know what? It's one of the things that makes living in New York exciting. You can show up at midnight on a chilly street corner in the East Village, and there's a line down the block of people waiting to get in. People from other shows, people from the neighborhood, people you've seen for years, people you've never seen, and nobody is clutching the *New York Times* review or some critic's choice saying run-don't-walk. You've heard Jeff Weiss is doing his show again, and you've got to be there.

The first time he did the show in August of 1966 at La Mama, he called it *That's How The Rent Gets Paid.* The following year he did it at Caffe Cino under the name *A Funny Walk Home*. He won his first Obie Award in 1969 for *The International Wrestling Match*, again at La Mama. But these were all variations on the same show -- "The Confessions of Conrad Gerhardt," a performer who likes to pick guys up pretending to be a Finnish gymnast named Bjorn and who gets suspected of being a serial killer. Weiss eventually started calling the show *And That's How the Rent Gets Paid Part 2* or *Part 3* or *Part 4*. The first time I saw it, at the Performing Garage in 1980, he played all the parts himself. The next time I saw it, at the Garage in the late '80s, he had a full cast of downtown stars mixed with unusual non-actors. All these shows were done in collaboration with his life partner, Carlos Ricardo Martinez. When they didn't have bookings at other theaters, they would put on shows at their storefront on E. 10th Street for anyone who showed up.

Around 1990 the show evolved into *Hot Keys*, a long-running comic serial with multiple continuing storylines, episodes that change every week, and a fixed set of musical numbers composed by Carlos. The unabashedly queer sitcom sketches Weiss writes are perverse, filthy, and played for laughs, like the "I Love Mallory" sequence in Oliver Stone's unnerving *Natural Born Killers*. Eros rules in this universe. Every human action turns out to be driven by some sexual fetish, some humiliating desire, some outrageous passion. And yet the tone of the show stays unswervingly sweet, like an East Village version of Garrison Keillor's *Prairie Home Companion*, complete with tall tales and special guests.

No matter how over-the-top the stories get, they remain deeply human. Partly it's his game-for-anything casts. Brilliant Off-Broadway actors Mary Shultz and Jonathan Walker go way out on a limb for Weiss, playing a runaway suburban wife and a detective who likes to have his pink panties ripped off by men of color. And when Scott Hudson plays Quince, the tutor for a Southern family who falls into frenzied foot-worship around the albino servant Willy (Sturgis Warner), Hudson's ability to maintain dignity with a giant naked foot in his mouth takes the audience far beyond easy laughs to the depths of sweaty obsession.

Weiss asks just as much of himself. In one skit, he plays Mocky Seibert, who runs a mail-order business in soiled underthings. The heart of the sketch is a gross-out exchange among him and his boys about what's the easiest shit to bag (answer: rare steak and baked potato). The real point of the scene, though, is when the aging queer/father-figure has to deal with the moment when his straight boys won't kiss him goodbye anymore. In another scene Lester Battersall -- most often found staging drug-sex-and-drag orgies in his Jersey basement with wrestlers from his son's junior-high school -- goes shopping in Soho. Ken Leung is riotous as the ever-accommodating store clerk who's willing to fill Lester's special order: canary yellow longjohns with appliqued semen dribbles and shit stains. Or as Lester puts it: "underpants that say, 'I'm here, I'm queer, and nothing works.'" The pathos of aging has rarely been rendered with such a disturbing mixture of poignance and hilarity.

I could go on for a long time telling Jeff Weiss stories. His free-flowing inventiveness explains why *Hot Keys* can go on for three or four hours. It always ends, though, with the "love theme," a gorgeous ballad that sounds like a happy ending until you pay attention to the words: "Please, let love pass me by/Love is not nature's golden rule/Fall in love and play the fool." So true!

March 20, 1996

 

“Bland Injustice”: Sleep Deprivation Chamber and Getting Away with Murder

I knew in advance that *Sleep Deprivation Chamber*, the play Adrienne Kennedy wrote with her son Adam, was based on a true story -- an ugly incident in which Adam was stopped by a Virginia policeman for a broken taillight, brutally beaten, and then charged with assaulting the officer. How could such a thing happen to a nice Irish family? (*Not*.) I almost didn't want to see the play at all, since I figured I knew "what happened." In the event, I was on the edge of my seat most of the time, and I left feeling upset and shaken. *Sleep Deprivation Chamber* is the kind of brave, terrible social document that changes your body chemistry like a blood transfusion. Your cells are different afterwards.

In the play, the mother is called Suzanne and the son is called Teddy. She is teaching in Ohio when he, a student at Antioch, is stopped, beaten, and arrested in the driveway of the family's suburban home. The first half of the play focuses on her frustration and panic at not being there. She composes letters to Gov. Wilder and any other politician she can think of, begging them to intercede, sending them pictures of Teddy as a child in Ghana, telling them about her family's history of working for justice. Asked to write two letters, she writes 17. She can't help herself. But it doesn't help her son's case. Trazana Beverley beautifully portrays Suzanne as an intelligent college professor who lectures on Aristotle and *Hamlet* and who also goes uncontrollably hysterical when her child is threatened.

The second half centers on Teddy's trial. Suzanne stays in her hotel room, banished lest her hyper emotions get on people's nerves. Although the trial seems to proceed straightforwardly, Kennedy masterfully toys with interruptions and reveries that keep the heat of tension going and widen the picture of what's at stake. You keep waiting for someone to say, "Wake up, America! Racist white cops are always stopping black motorists and beating up young black men and pretending they're not!" But things like that are never said in courtrooms, they're only said in corny courtroom dramas that want to skip over the grueling minutiae and go straight for the flashy conclusions. Jonathan Fried is fantastic as Officer Holzer: he does that big, blond, open-faced thing that miscreant cops and fag-bashers like to pull on the stand. "I was frightened for my life. He tried to look at me. He touched my sleeve. I had to batter him beyond recognition."

The play is a deceptively simple poetic documentary. It spells out in minute detail what happened to the Kennedy family while the ordeal was going on, without the tranquillity of hindsight. Adrienne Kennedy structures her plays like diaries. Thoughts and dreams and emotions perpetually spin in midair, and the qualities she captures best are unsettling ones: confusion, panic, fear, and hysteria. This makes for an oddly shaped piece of theater, one that seems "wrong" by conventional theater "rules." Yet the script, and Michael Kahn's microscopically attentive direction, artfully reflects the psychic jumble of lived experience. It made me realize how much of the time we walk around naively expecting our lives to have the tidiness of Sunday-school stories where people are nice to each other and things work out fine.

Teddy gets acquitted, but it's not a happy ending. At the end of *Sleep Deprivation Chamber*, the whole driveway incident -- which we've seen in snatches -- is acted out from beginning to end (Rodney King live?). You get it that this is what the family is left with, not a sense of triumph but a nightmare they just can't shake.

*

Murder mysteries occupy their own universe, and my spaceship doesn't go there. Because detectives supposedly rely on their deductive powers, crime-solving stories are supposed to be extremely logical. But they never are. They always stray into a contorted kind of cleverness that depends on the suspension of disbelief, and I just end up irritated.

Check out the setup of *Getting Away with Murder*, the new "comedy thriller" by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth that opened and closed on Broadway last week. A retired Manhattan shrink has reduced his practice to seven clients, whom he sees *for free* because they're guinea pigs for his new book. They have individual sessions with him *on Saturday*, at his office in an otherwise *abandoned building on West End Avenue*, and then return for *group therapy Saturday night*. The whole group shows up, but the shrink is missing. After walking in and out of his office for half an hour, they finally discover him on the couch, beaten to death. Their first thought is: the tabloids will have a field day with this. All seven turn out to be *New Yorkers terrified of media exposure*. So rather than report the murder, they decide to solve the crime themselves, since the culprit is clearly among them. When they find out whodunnit, these New Yorkers are all *willing to shut up in exchange for political favors*.

On a plane ride or curled up at sleepytime, a reader might overlook such a pileup of improbabilities and take the story as a mindless diversion. In the theater, more is required. Improbability, of course, can also signal a departure from literal reality into the symbolic realm. The authors clearly believed they were making a symbolic statement about power and corruption. The play ends literally with a bonfire of the vanities and someone yelling, "What's happening to this city?!" It's so shallow, though, the audience cringed and left the theater snickering.

March 27, 1996

 

“Private Lives, Unseen Lives”: No One Will Be Immune

Think about a guitar. A hollow gourd on a stick with a hole in it, several strings fastened to knobs that stick out. It's an awkward-looking wooden box. Now picture a musical score, some pieces of paper full of lines and black dots. Nothing sings until someone picks up the instrument and plays the notes. If the player stumbles or the guitar is crude or the notes are dumb, you're aware of each element as separate. But if all three are pretty good, what comes out is a heavenly sound produced by player-guitar-notes but transcending all of them.

When he first started writing plays, David Mamet was seen as a super-duper tape recorder who captures the fumbling, repetitive, incomplete, evasive way that "people really talk." On closer examination, it was necessary to recognize him as a poet whose plays come to life through a carefully selected language that you'd never get just transcribing two guys in a bar or a junk shop. *No One Will Be Immune*, the evening of five one-acts at Ensemble Studio Theatre through April 7, conveys a strong impression I hadn't experienced before of Mamet the musician.

Mamet's is not a theater of spectacle. You almost never see the set change in his plays. He writes for actors. He knows actors. He teaches actors. He marries actors. He loves actors. Most of his major plays have enough plot and conflict and quotable lines to work as dramatic literature. His short plays, on the other hand, including the five not-so-easy pieces at E.S.T., are radical experiments that start and stop *in medias res*. They would probably seem pretty baffling and inconsequential if you read them. They're like lines and notes, they're flat sheet music. It takes actors to unleash the music.

Really, though, it's the other way around. They unleash the actors. Mamet's plays spend almost no time trying to create the illusion of some other time or space. They focus intently on the inner lives of the characters, which allows the actors to do what they do, which is...a mystery. What is acting? It's not explaining. It's not illustrating. It's not mime. It's really living, under very specific conditions, with a minimum amount of pretending. It's pretty mysterious, really, just like music. The composer writes the notes, but good musicians don't play notes, they play music. A playwright writes the words, and the actors don't just say them, they live the life that the words come out of, which in Mamet's case often have surprisingly little to do with what the words are saying.

Case in point: in *Joseph Dintenfass,* the title character is having a late-night chat with Claire, who's just arrived for a visit along with Joseph's son Michael, who is upstairs asleep. She's nervous, he's shy, she's tired, he's curious, they're attracted to each other and afraid of their attraction -- you get all these things even though they never say any of them. They're having a somewhat pretentious philosophical conversation. They say things like "People have a horror of existence" and "We insulate ourselves about a new experience" and "He's not sensitive, he's expressive, that's what I'm like, sensitive."

James Murtaugh isn't an old hand at Mamet; his Joseph sounds a little stiff and formal. Kristina Lear as Claire is a natural. She takes to Mamet like Kiri te Kanawa doing Mozart. A torrent of talk flows out of her, and it all makes sense, even when she's doing her best to cover up her feelings. Mamet throws in a lot of hesitation and repetition. "And then, and then, and then he told me where he went." Lear doesn't physically act out the pause or mental wheel-spinning that the repetition implies, anymore than a river stops and tries to move a pile of rocks in its way. She flows right over them.

The ultimate David Mamet actor is W.H. Macy, a deceptively mild-looking little redhead behind whose goofy face lies a killer Bugs Bunny who's mastered the evasion and control-freakiness inside Mamet's staccato dialogue. He is to Mamet's plays and movies what Woody Allen is to Woody Allen's movies. (You can witness his sweaty-palm perfection onscreen right now in the Coen Brothers' *Fargo*.) Under the impeccable direction of E.S.T.'s Curt Dempster, though, David Rasche proves himself in Macy's class. In fact, if Rasche's mother had wanted to arrange a showcase of her son's dazzling talents, she couldn't have done better than *No One Will Be Immune.*

I started paying attention to this underacknowledged comic actor when he first did Mamet's *A Sermon* in an E.S.T. one-act marathon years ago. The play is nothing more than a hilarious string of homiletic non sequiturs. "And what of love? Love is the mucillage that sticks the construction-paper pumpkins in the scrapbooks of our lives." But I've never forgotten how Rasche delivered it with a preacher's jovial self-satisfaction and a standup comic's hair-trigger sensitivity to audience response.

The current show at E.S.T. opens with *A Sermon* and closes with *No One Will Be Immune*, the longest of the five pieces. Rasche plays a guy who had a premonition the plane he was on was going to crash, so he made a fuss and got off. Then the plane did crash, and now he's undergoing a relentless, rather cryptic paranoid inquisition by some kind of official (played by the also-brilliant hatchet-faced Byron Jennings). Confessing, backpedaling, defending himself, digressing, he switches among 17 different emotions without transition, inducing in spectators a bewildering mixture of laughter, sympathy, and fear. The only word for his performance is virtuosic.

April 3, 1996

See other NYP columns: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-27

  
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