This is the newest play from the British dramatist Jez Butterworth, and of special interest to JABberwockonians, one of the three actors in it is Chris Bauer, who will have a recurring role as Andy Bellefleur in "True Blood," the Alan Ball - HBO TV series based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by my client Charlaine Harris. I can't shed much light on how that will work out. True Blood: Southern police detective. Parlour Song: British blower-upper. The accents are, like, totally different.
I like to see plays during the end of previews, during the time the press might be taking a look to have their reviews ready to go at the official opening. So when the review of Parlour Song appeared in The New York Times on Thursday, I knew what I was reading about. I was rather dumbfounded to find out that Ben Brantley actually liked the play, but then reading on in the review it becomes a textbook case in picking up the little and big signs that tell you a reviewer is coming from a totally different place than you.
Brantley says the "considerable satisfactions are not unlike those of a type of short story The New Yorker has been publishing since at least the 1950s." Only problem with this statement is that most of the fiction in The New Yorker is unreadable. I try every week, and if I get as far as the second column of any short story in The New Yorker it is a bit of a miracle. Don't people realize this? Of course most of the people who can stomach the fiction in The New Yorker would probably find the pleasures of a Sookie Stackhouse novel or Brandon Sanderson's Elantris to elude them, every bit as much as The New Yorker eludes me. There must be some kind of genetic component to tastes in reading, and some people have genes which they think entitle them to look down on me. But that's a detour; the important thing here is that you can tell right away that Ben Brantley is coming at Parlour Song from a very very very different place than I.
Next, Brantley says "watching this, you're more likely to think of the creepy, devouring shadows that lap at the edges of Harold Pinter plays." Well, would you believe that Harold Pinter is every bit the same acquired taste as the fiction in The New Yorker? That this is an acquired taste that more eludes me than not. Pinter's done some OK stuff, but he's done so much overrated literary drama that just doesn't deserve its acclaim. And then Brantley continues "or the way Michael Frayn translates dangerously irreconcilable viewpoints into seemingly commonplace dialogue." I don't think Brantley is thinking of Michael Frayn's classic farce Noises Off (sardines, sardines, sardines) when he makes this comparison. Noises Off is one of the most inspired pieces of comedic writing ever given the theatre, and I think Michael Frayn for it. But no, Brantley is almost certainly comparing this to Frayn plays like Democracy (slept thru the whole thing; don't think I missed much) or Copenhagen (should've slept thru it, wouldn't have missed much), which like short stories in The New Yorker, like Pinter, are an acquired taste that I don't think people should bother acquiring. Does it matter what Brantley has to say next?
As it turns out, Brantley goes on to say "Parlour Song is occasionally too literary for its own good. Metaphors are bound to be thick on the ground..." Well, that I can finally agree with. Parlour Song is drowning in metaphors, and it's boring, and it's not worth it, and I felt it was a good example in the live stage of the kind of thing you can get away with for your 5th play that you would never get away with for your first. There are exercise metaphors and demolition metaphors and stolen thing metaphors. The stolen things reveal themselves toward the end in a Big Reveal that left me unmoved. The acting is fine; I think I was most taken with Jonathan Cake. But at the end of the day, I'm just left baffled that people take any of this seriously. Walking down the street after, I overheard a man telling his wife that he was sure it was a great play he'd seen that he was just too dumb to comprehend. The difference between him and me is that I am utterly confident in my own intelligence, and I don't think I saw a great play.
Marilyn Stasio in Variety gives the play lots of credit for its aspirations, but notices that "the piece sinks into its own symbolism."