"I sing of the pain. The pain is real." Maggie
Frisby, rock singer and central character in David hare's Teeth
'n' Smiles, says that so often in interviews that her
roadies have taken to muttering, "Mostly in the arse."
Beautiful, talented, self-destructive Maggie has amassed a
minor cult following in England singing the songs of her
former lover-mentor Arthur. "She'd prefer not to,"
advises her press agent. "She'd prefer to get up there
and scream." Maggie's habit of dragging her band around
on profitable provincial tours has landed them all at Jesus
College, Cambridge, playing for a dreary undergraduate ball.
The gig starts hours late. Arthur pays a surprise visit.
Maggie gets drunk and passes out onstage. The band gets
busted. Their sleazy but likable manager, Saraffian, arrives
to fire Maggie and replace her with his new discovery. Maggie
takes a bum drug rap and goes to jail. Life goes on and, as
the play's memorable (and meaningfully ambiguous) closing song
goes, "The music remains the same."
Written in 1975 and set in the summer of 1969, Teeth 'n'
Smiles is the best play about rock 'n' roll that I know.
Besides recreating the numbing boredom that engulfs many
performers, it knowingly captures the mixture of nihilistic
excess and romantic illusion peculiar to "the pop
life." While Saraffian conducts his dirty business and
the musicians line up for blowjobs from groupies, a subtle and
touching love story unfolds almost wordlessly between Maggie
and Arthur. The choice to portray a good but second-rate group
on a grungy gig, rather than pampered superstars at their
peak, is a wise one; the ho-hum reception the band gets at
Cambridge is a far cry from the "star treatment" the
rockers have dreamed of and obviously expect. And Nick and
Tony Bicat's half-dozen songs, created for the play, are
suitably raunchy, rousing and routine, by turns.
Because David Hare (Fanshen, Plenty) is a well-known
political playwright, Teeth 'n' Smiles raises a number
of questions about the state of England and the world. Is
Maggie a symbol of ridiculous royalty, of a once-great nation
robbed of its power, or is she merely herself? Do the band and
its hard-driving music represent the "sound and fury,
signifying nothing" of disaffected British youth? And, as
Arthur asks, in an unusually heavy-handed moment, "Why is
everyone so frightened?" However, because Hare is
political but not polemical, the play doesn't necessarily
supply answers to the questions. Events and their details are
fixed, but the meaning is in flux. Near the end, Saraffian
tells a seemingly significant tale about being in a
World War II London nightclub when it was bombed. Lying
helpless among rubble and human wreckage, he became aware of
looters moving through the dark, stealing jewelry from the
dead and dying. His first thought, he says, was "I'm with
you, pal." Maggie, outraged at his smug, complacent
cynicism, tells him he's full of shit and resolves to
"keep on the move." The ideological split between
Saraffian and Maggie, business and art, age and youth would be
nice and tidy, even cliched, except that Maggie's
"move" is an empty gesture, that of going to jail --
in search, perhaps, of a new kind of suffering. There is a
lesson to be found, Hare suggests, in the gap between what
people say and what they do.
The "Rock n' Rep" production of Teeth 'n' Smiles
(directed by David G. Watson) at Stage One Off-Broadway lacked
some of the toughness, the hard edge the play requires. It was
at times soft when it should have been crisp, sentimental when
it should have been coolly brisk -- the result, you might say,
of traditional differences between American and British
acting. But in most other respects, the production was fine
indeed. Most gratifying was the excellent use of real rock
music, which I'd never seen, or rather heard, in the theater
before. To be watching a play and then suddenly to be thrown
back in your seat by a rush of power chords is to rediscover
the power of rock 'n' roll. A superb cast included guys who
could not only sing, play, and act, but could also act as
though they'd been together for years. only Kenneth Ryan
seemed miscast as Arthur; his blandness contributed to the
production's soft center. Cabaret chanteuse Ellen Greene (she
was also in Next Stop, Greenwich Village) may seem a
strange choice for Maggie, a role originated by the fine
British actress Helen Mirren. But appearing here (as the New
York Times put it) "disguised as a blonde" and
without her shrieky vocal mannerisms, Green was astonishing
credible -- outrageously self-dramatizing and yet vulnerable.
I only hope Bette Midler does as good a job playing Janis
Joplin in The Rose.
Boston Phoenix, September 1979