I mentioned here that I had gone to DC to see some theatre, and I'm overdue to talk about what I saw.
Why do I go to DC to see theatre when there's so much in New York? Well, it's hard for me to make time for it when I'm home because there's so much else calling on my time, and then when some show I really regret not seeing makes its way to DC, I see it as my little last chance theatre and try and see if I can force myself to take advantage of the opportunity Before It's Too Late.
So this trip was a BITL for The Four Of Us, a show about writers and writing that had played off Broadway and of course has some professional relevance. And then I decided to add in a well-reviewed show called In the Red and Brown Water at the Studio Theatre, which is my favorite DC venue, and then added in a second show at the Studio that was just opening called That Face, about which I knew very little, but in for a dime in for a dollar.
In the natural way of things I liked most the show I knew nothing about.
That Face is written by the Christopher Paolini of British playwrights, someone named Polly Stenham who was 19 years old when she wrote it and ended up on the West End. It's very oedipal, thank you to the Washington Post review for giving me the word which was eluding me on my own after I saw the show. You've got a drug/alcohol addled mother of two, the father having escaped to a rich banker job in Hong Kong, a daughter in prep school, and a son who's essentially abandoned his life entirely in order to "care for" his mother. When the daughter's schooling is endangered by her involvement in a hazing incident, daddy is called back from Hong Kong to help resolve the situation. There's very little I'd disagree with in that Post review, except to say that on balance I tipped toward rather enjoying myself while the tenor of the review is mixed. The writing is sharp. The acting is good. The dynamic between the son and the mother is totally weirded out. My main objections are to that weirded out relationship, which I bought into near to totally while watching the play but kept resisting in the discussion with self afterwards. Ultimately, if I can buy into the Harper/Tolliver relationship in the Harper Connelly books by Charlaine Harris, then I should let myself buy into this weird relationship, and if I let myself do that I can let myself recommend the play. That being said, the cast really does have to be on top of their game, and if you stumbled across another production of this where the actors weren't walking the tight rope as adroitly as the Studio cast does...
In the Red and Brown Water was quite nicely reviewed by the Post and has been a popular show at the Studio with a multi-week extension, but the best I can say is that I kind of admired it but in no way liked it. It's like the Fish Tank of plays. Another young girl, this one a track star with the potential to get a scholarship, but tied up in all sorts of family drama and boyfriend drama and other drama. As with that movie, the character's thrust upon us without a lot of motivation or explanation for the choices she's making. The writing style is rather arch. The characters constantly break the third wall to announce things like "Oya cries" or "I walk in like a cat in the jungle ready to pounce." Not my cup of tea.
And then there's The Four of Us, NY Times review here. From what I've seen of the critical response, it's been up and down. Even just in Variety, the original review and the NY review aren't entirely in agreement. But it does have that professional resonance. You've got two young writers, one a playwright and the other a novelist, who are friends. The novelist sells his novel -- doesn't just sell it but sells it for $2 million when all of the global and foreign sales are accounted for. This causes some tension in the relationship, though the play isn't just about that. It moves back in time to show some of the pre-success relationship. It moves forward in time to show how the playwright ultimately resolves his own feelings toward his friend.
One of the risks you have when you're watching this sort of thing and know something about the subject is the easy ability you have to find every little flaw in what's being presented. Think the Pelham 123 remake from last summer. The good news on this play is that I can assure you all of the little details are dead-on. Maybe not a surprise; the playwright Itamar Moses is known to have known the author Jonathan Safran Foer. Examples: One scene is set in a music camp the two writers attended as teens and one of them talks about how he likes to go into record stores and go to where his CDs would be and envision them sitting there on the shelves in their proper alphabetical order. I've gone to bookstores with writer Andrew Gudgel and seen him put his hand in that space between Simon Green and Peter Hamilton, thinking this exact same thing. We get little snippets of the questions asked of the writer while he is on book tour, and they are very much the kinds of questions and answers that you get on book tour. He talks about moving from an agent who submitted the book to one publisher at a time to one who sends it out to many people at once, thus getting the auction fever going. Not once did I find myself shaking my head at some really silly piece of something in the play.
But I wasn't totally a big fan of the play, either. All the little details were right, but when they were added up together I wasn't sure if the play's big picture reveals about life were anything special. The play uses a very specific milieu to come to a much more general and perhaps more generic view of friends and friendship and the writing process. I wish the play had been insightful on something big as it was on all things small. Since I didn't think the play was going anywhere special on the macro side of things, I found the writing to be a little too leisurely. If I know where you're going, why not get there? Most of the scenes went on a beat or two too long than I thought they needed to. It was a 1:40 play which probably could have come in ten or twenty minutes shorter. I was seeing with a Sunday matinee crowd that skewed old, your 40-something blogger one of the younger attendees. I was getting a little bleary-eyed during the play, it looked like the man next to me was getting a little bleary-eyed, and somebody a row back and a seat or two over. Maybe I was tired, maybe that's what happens when you're 60% older than I am, or maybe it's what happens when every scene could be just a little bit tighter.
Not a bad play. It's a two-person play that travels well and could easily enough show up somewhere where you are. It will give the real goods on some parts of the creative trade. But I do wish it had been just a little bit better.