In my last post I dumped a little on the critical herd for film reviewers. They ain't the only ones.
I've seen a lot of theatre, this year I added a second off-Broadway subscription because it looked like a very good season at Playwrights Horizon. I'm glad I did, not so much because all those plays have been wonderful but because the Broadway season -- there isn't a show on Broadway which I really want to see and haven't yet, so if not for the off-Broadway stuff I'd be going without.
Recently, I've seen a lot of plays that have had varying degrees of critical fawning but to my eyes are falling a little bit or a lot short, though unlike things like Harper Regan, which I walked out of, or Detroit, which collapses into inanity if it doesn't start there, are interesting failures.
The Whale by Samuel Hunter. So you've got this really really fat guy brilliantly played by Shuler Hensley. We're talking 600 lbs fat. At first, it's hard to appreciate the performance because you're focusing on the fat suit, but once you get accustomed to the suit you focus on the face. Why is The Whale so whalish? It's some kind of reaction to something that happened several years ago when he and his boyfriend went to church and heard something that caused his boyfriend to shrink away into nothingness and death. Getting super fat is a reaction. So the Whale waddles around his home, teaching English over the internet. Into this mix comes a Mormon Elder, the guy's estranged daughter who's teenaged into being a real fire-cracker, then his ex-wife, and a friend who also happens to be a nurse and might be the one person who cares about the Whale as a person instead of an embodiment. There's a lot of stuff being stuffed in here, if you haven't noticed, and it's all very very very well acted. Cory Michael Smith as the Elder, he's good. Reyna de Courcy as the daughter, she makes an overwrought role seem very real. There's a lot of really good writing. But there's a but, or a few of them. For one, if you know anything about Mormon missions, you know you don't have "an elder" visiting someone. It's always two of them. So the fact that there's a lone Elder constantly popping in is like a huge flashing klieg light that there's something up here. Too far into the play, he's asked why he's alone and he gives and answer that doesn't entirely satisfy, and then, of course, like the gun in the first act that needs to be fired before the end of the play you soon enough find out there's something more going on with this character. The teenage daughter isn't just a firecracker but is bordering on if not actually mentally ill, and she'll be doing things that take the play up to 11. There are revelations about the finances, about the relationship between the man and his ex-wife. It might be possible to write a play about the main thing, this 600-lb guy who's intent on wasting away, Samuel Hunter decides to write a play about a great many things. Too many, really, and to connect them all together he drowns the play in endless metaphors. There's this essay about Moby Dick which the guy had graded years and years ago, and he keeps on reading from it. And it's not enough that the essay is about Moby Dick, so there's this whale, see, and the name of the play is The Whale. No, there's something else about the essay as well to tie it together in the double secret probation of plot knots. And there's so much going on that the most important thing, whatever it is that happened long ago at that church service, ends up hidden amidst everything else. This is a good play, but it should have been a better one, if nothing else, just find some way to have "an Elder" showing up that tackles the "an" part in a convincing enough way that you can be a Mormon or know something about their missions and not spend the entire play wondering if either the playwright doesn't know about these things or if that klieg light is shining on something.
What Rhymes With America stars Chris Bauer, who plays Sheriff Bellefleur on True Blood. You wouldn't know that he's a Yale Drama School grad with extensive theatre credits, but just for The Atlantic Theater he has a handful. He was good a few years ago in Parlour Song, a bad Jez Butterworth play. He's very very good in What Rhymes With America. He's recently divorced from his wife, quite bitterly, and still clinging to visions of reconciliation even though things are so bitter that his daughter won't let him into their old house. The opening scene, brilliantly written, is him and his daughter talking, the door is imaginary so it takes a bit to realize that he's standing outside and she's inside. He does ham acting and there are several scenes of him talking to another of the actors in the play, comic relief but often revelatory about the character. The comic highlight of the play is an overdone sex scene which is coitus interrupted when his ex-wife calls, and practically with his thing still in hers he starts telling the ex-wife how much she loves her. From the perspective of the other woman, the one he's screwing when the phone rings, this isn't the best way to end the encounter, and the fact that the man starts saying this over the phone in the same room as if he's completely forgotten what he was doing is indicative of his overall common sense and self-awareness. But as good as the play was, I was also dozing a bit in the middle of it, because it's ultimately just another play about a failed marriage, and in this one, the more you know about Chris Bauer's character the less you're inclined to want to spend too much time watching a play about him. He's hopeless. In the opening scene you're sympathetic, by the time we get to the sex scene you want to walk out of the room with the lady he was screwing because he's hopeless. And while the writing is often well-observed there's only so much you can say, big picture, about this topic. When playwright Melissa James Gibson mines the depths of the topic, she uncovers things that make us less interested in the proceedings, instead of things that might make us more interesting.
I loved Annie Baker's Body Awareness, which was part of the same Atlantic Theater season as the awful Parlour Song. I was quite pleased that I had an excuse to be in DC while the Studio Theatre was performing another play of hers, The Aliens, Washington Post review here. Which, sadly, was nowhere near as good as Body Awareness had been. Like most of these plays, it has some good dialogue and nice observation and you can see why everyone considers all of these playwrights to be hot and new. The outstanding performance in this production was Brian Miskell's as Even Shelmerdine. He's a teenager working at a coffee shop in Vermont who finds a couple of driftless perpetual teenager characters hanging out in back where the aren't supposed to. Under their tutelage, he grows from being so very, very, very teenager to being a more confident adult, you see it in his bearing and his tone of voice, it's almost like the transition the lead character undergoes in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, or at least requiring that same set of skills from the actor. But, with all of these plays there's a but, a note in the playbill says that the instructions in the script are for one-third or even one-half of the play to be silence. It's not the pretentious and artificial silence of Pinter, it's that natural silence of people just hanging around and being silent. But you can get that point across when you start the play with two minutes of characters on the stage being silent, believe me when you're waiting for a play to start and the lights have come up, having an extended silence makes its point pretty quickly. Does your character need to have a last name like Shelmerdine that can hammer home the fact that this is a young teenager with nothing much going for him in life, and if he's going to start out with that name shouldn't he change it by the end of the play, or do we see him blaring out his last name with pride and excitement before the end of the play to complete the arc? We'll be hearing more from Annie Baker early in 2013, a new play The Flick is part of my Playwrights Horizons subscription.
Flashback: I never reviewed 4000 Miles, a highly regarded play by Amy Herzog from two years ago. Young adult moves in with his grandmother after a trauma, both of those performances are excellent. The scenes between the two of them are spot-on, full of people saying and doing just the right thing. And they take place on a brilliantly designed set of a New York apartment that could probably have been done from pictures of the one my great aunt had on Ocean Ave. in Brooklyn. Neither my sister nor I liked it quite as much as the general consensus. It was a little on the slow side, the kind of thing where every scene seemed to drag on just a beat or two too long, which over the course of a long play starts to add up. There are JABberwocky clients like Brandon Sanderson who do that, but the thing is, Brandon's last step in writing a book is to go in and take out all of those extra beats in the final revise before sending the book to myself and his editor. 4000 Miles needed that. Didn't get it. I also felt that the ultimate revelation about the trauma that had the grandson moving in with his grandmother was a little underbaked for having an entire play lead up to it, but I might not have minded that as much if the length of the entire play had been ten or fifteen minutes less.
This season, Amy Herzog is back on the NY stage with The Great God Pan at Playwrights Horizon. Perhaps more than any of these other promising new playwrights, she is showing incredible promise. This new play starts off with a 30-something journalist meeting a childhood friend, the two had a babysitter together in their elementary school days, for the first time in many years. After the obligatory small talk, the two get down to business: the friend is suing his father for child molestation which he's discovered took place when he was very young, the journalist is the first person he's reaching out to because things said by the father suggest that the journalist, might have been victimized as well. From the opening minutes of the play, you know you're in the hands of someone who can write a scene, and the entire first scene is as vivid and real and spot on as if I was having the conversation myself. And unlike in 4000 Miles, the scene doesn't go on for an extra beat or two, it's taut and lean. The problem with this play is that, once the initial scene is held, you can guess for yourself what many of the scenes that follow will be like. The journalist doesn't remember anything happening, but with the suggestion that something did he will begin to grasp at things that may or may not lead to a recollection being unearthed. His parents will have to come into the picture to shed some light on the scenario. And of course, it's a play, the thing that may or may not have happened 25 or 30 years ago will have some parallel to something that's happening today. And all of those scenes that you might expect to see if you were writing the play, well, they happen in the play Amy Herzog has written. When he was 5, something happened at home which led to the journalist's sleeping over at his friend's. The journalist is in a relationship and is about to find out that she's pregnant, quite unexpectedly, and she is dealing with her own issues as a therapist treating a teenager with an eating disorder. Now, if you were writing the play, would you end it with a resolution, or would you leave the whole question of what did or didn't happen up in the air? The play is worth seeing to find out how Amy Herzog answers that question. It's worth seeing for each perfectly realized scene with spot on dialogue. It's certainly worth seeing for this cast. I was distracted a bit from Jeremy Strong's performance as the journalist; couldn't the writer or director or costume designer have had him changing his shirt at some point during the play (in The Aliens, it's like Annie Baker wrote the play with extra scenes just so Evan could change shirts more often, talk about opposite ends of the spectrum...). But it's a very good performance. The way the journalist's father halts when revealing the past to his son, spot on in both writing and performance. I've had a thing for Keith Nobbs, who plays the childhood friend, from when I first saw him off Broadway some ten years ago, and he holds the stage, holds the theatre, every moment of the two scenes he has on stage, absolutely fabulous. And yet, for all that's good about the play, the fact that it can't overcome the logical consequence of its opening resolution, that you can diagram the scenes before they're played out, keeps the play from being truly great.
The frustration to me in all of these things: My goal as a literary agent, one of them, is to take good books from my clients and help them shape them into great books. It's very difficult to do that when the world is willing to settle for good where it might be possible to achieve great. When that happens, when too many critics elide problems in their criticism, it makes it too easy for the recipients to fall short of what they can achieve. I'm not sure that The Great God Pan could be a better play than it is, any attempt to shake up the expected consequences of the opening scene would create more problems than it would solve. The fact that Amy Herzog is writing so much tighter in this play than in 4000 Miles does say something good about her internal drive or of someone else involved in the process of Great God Pan. But The Aliens, The Whale, 4000 Miles, all of those could have and should have been better plays.
The final piece of theatre on my plate in recent months was Hearts Like Fists, which played at the Secret Theatre. This little space is tucked on a dark street beneath the el between my home and my office. Written by Adam Szymkowicz. Superhero play. Got some good press when it opened in LA. And got some decent press in New York, too. It's hard to describe the plot, but basically you've got this bad guy, you know he's bad because he's called Doctor X and he skulks across the stage in classic super villain fashion delightfully played by August Schulenburg. He likes to take people's hearts out, especially when they are locked in one another's arms in romantic sleepful bliss after making love. Some kick-as superheroines are out to stop him. I'm not 100% sure I fully understood the plot, but I knew the play was a lot of fun, that the cast was fun, that everyone involved seemed to be having a lot of fun. The NY Times reviewed this play and liked it, but it's a little tiny review by some stringer who does off-Broadway. A pretentious bore like Harper Regan gets an even more fawning review and articles before and after and many many column inches. I would love it if the genre fun, the pleasurable hour-and-a-half, of this play, would get the respect and attention that the pretentious bore does.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.