Saturday, October 26, 2013

'Domesticated’: Backstabbing, American Style

Playwright Bruce Norris, who most effectively skewered issues of racial politics in his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play Clybourne Park a couple of years back, has turned his eye toward a new target—that of gender politics—in Domesticated, now on view at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.

Domesticated gives us Norris’s take on the war between the sexes in a way that places the play in a most interesting juxtaposition to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, currently in revival on Broadway (link to review here). 

Both deal with infidelity. But whereas Pinter’s approach is to peel back the characteristically British layers of reserve and repression to reveal the pain beneath the surface, Norris opts for the American in-your-face route, where emotions and opinions are out there for everyone to inhale like so much second-hand smoke.   

Mr. Norris has drawn his inspiration from the sexual shenanigans of real-life public figures like Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, and Eliot Spitzer. In doing so, he has run the risk of offering up an evening’s entertainment that could be viewed as little more than an all-too-easy comedy skit. The truth is, there is a good bit of that (how could there not be, given the target?), but Domesticated is also a provocative work about the inability of men and women to ever understand one another.  

As the play opens, we find ourselves listening to a dry presentation by a teenage girl, Cassidy (Misha Seo), who is showing slides of various representations of sexual dimorphism within the animal kingdom.  She will continue to do this at several points during the play, providing more and more unusual examples that serve to make sly reference to her “men are from Mars; women are from Venus” adoptive parents, the clueless and self-justifying Bill (Jeff Goldblum) and the hell-hath-no-fury Judy (Laurie Metcalf). 

The very first scene following the brief slide show is one that will be quite familiar to pretty much anyone who owns a television set.  Bill, a physician-turned-politician, is holding one of those confessional press conferences with his loyal wife at his side.  It seems that a prostitute with whom he was having an assignation lies in a coma brought on by a head injury she sustained while she and Bill were together—and covering it up is not an option.    

Judy’s silent show of support quickly dissipates when the pair are alone and more details of his escapades emerge, including the fact that he has been a long-time customer of the sex-for-hire industry.  Bill, who is inordinately gifted at finding ways to make a bad situation worse, rationalizes that he has lied about everything out of respect for Judy.  Later, when he is forced to step down from office and cannot find work as a physician (he is, ironically, a gynecologist, unlikely to engender much trust from any would-be patients) Judy suggests he can always find work as a pimp—a bitter but very funny line when delivered with Ms. Metcalf’s perfect timing.

Throughout all of these travails, Bill is not only castigated by his wife, but also by the couple’s other daughter, Casey (Emily Meade), an avowed women’s rights advocate with a teenager’s unerring capacity for holding her parents accountable to an unreachable level of perfection.  Between Judy and Casey, Bill does not get to utter another word until the end of the first act, when he declares he is leaving because he is “not happy.”  (Mr. Goldblum does a stellar job of expressing himself through pained facial expressions during the long period of his character’s enforced silence).

If Judy has her say in first half of the play, Act II belongs to Bill, who seems to have taken as his role model the totally clueless idiot played by Larry David in the long-running HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Bill tries to make a life for himself, even managing to talk his way into a low-paying job at a medical clinic.  But he spends much of the time shooting off his mouth, and subsequently shooting himself in the foot as well, as a self-appointed guardian of men in their never-ending battle with “women!” 

This is not a play that ends with any great breakthrough or epiphanies.  In the end, Bill and Judy share a ceasefire, which may as good as it will ever get. 

In the capable hands of Ms. Metcalf and Mr. Goldblum, as well as the rest of the excellent cast and director Anna D. Shapiro, Domesticated is a strong follow-up to Clybourne Park, in which cluelessness, misunderstanding, and miscommunication also served to trip up the best efforts of the characters to get along.  Perhaps this is Mr. Norris’s great strength as a playwright, the ability to help us to see how difficult it is for any of us to empathize with those who are dissimilar—in terms of race, gender, socio-economic status, or any other cultural indicator. 

Wonder what he could do with the red/blue political divide that has ensnared this nation in recent years. 

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Monday, October 21, 2013

'How I Learned To Drive': Many-Layered Play In An Excellent Revival by Tongue In Cheek

Jake Lipman and Lynn Berg
Photo by Maeghan Donohue

There are just a handful of playwrights who have been successful at finding something to laugh at within the confines of family dysfunction and emotional pain. Think of Christopher Durang, who chronicled disordered lives in such works as The Marriage of Bette and Boo. That play, which included multiple episodes of stillborn babies, one alcoholic parent, and another brutishly abusive one, was remarkable for its playwright’s ability to mine the material for a rich vein of genuinely funny moments.

Another playwright working this same vein is Paula Vogel, whose 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive is now having an excellent revival by the Tongue In Cheek theater company at the Bridge Theatre.

Tongue In Cheek could not have chosen a better vehicle to serve its mission of producing “thought-provoking comedies.” Ms. Vogel not only travels most comfortably in Durang territory, she actual ups the ante by giving us complicated characters whom we get to understand only slowly over the course of the evening. 

How I Learned To Drive is a memory play, narrated from the safe distance of time by a woman who was a victim of sexual molestation and a decade-long pursuit by a beloved uncle, the only family member who ever gave her the attention and affection she longed for. 

The play unfolds in flashbacks, covering the time when the girl, nicknamed Li’l Bit by her family (the nickname itself has a sexual connotation), is between the ages of 11 and 18. The brilliance of the writing is that the relationship between Li’l Bit and her Uncle Peck takes on many levels of meaning that challenge easy analysis or judgment.  Uncle Peck is obsessed with Li’l Bit, who, at times, uses that obsession to manipulate him into giving her what she wants. She, of course, doesn’t really know how to handle him, and she grows increasingly confused by his attention, her own feelings, and even the power she thinks she has over him. 

Uncle Peck is, in short, a pathetic pedophile, but because he is so lost and needy himself, and because for most of the play he straddles but doesn’t cross the ultimate line, he becomes a surprisingly (and disturbingly) sympathetic character.  We believe Li’l Bit’s contention that she can handle him.

The playwright’s sharp humor comes out mostly in the actions of other family members, who serve as Greek chorus to the goings-on.  Li’l Bit’s grandmother, who we learn was married at the age of 14, constantly makes sexual comments and responds to her misogynistic husband as if he were a naughty boy. Li’l Bit’s mother and her Aunt Mary, Uncle Peck’s wife, both know that something untoward is going on in between them but choose not to intervene.  “He’s so good with them when they get to be this age,” says Aunt Mary. 

And when Li’l Bit turns to her mother, she is offered advice on such things as how a lady should order and drink alcohol, along with the value of using the bathroom at a restaurant to vomit or to soak one’s head in the sink.  “A wet woman is less conspicuous than a drunk woman,” she advises. That’s before we learn that Uncle Peck is an alcoholic, and we witness Li’l Bit starting to drink under his tutelage. 

Mimicking the unpeeling of buried memories, the play reveals its secrets gradually and without regard to strict chronology.  The deepest layers are withheld from us, and we are drawn in—“seduced” might be a better word—by the humor and the gentle tone until we realize we too are being manipulated, and it becomes challenging to side with anyone. This family is a mess through and through.

The Tongue In Cheek production is well served by its cast of six, with Jake Lipman—the company’s artistic director—in the role of Li’l Bit, and Lynn Berg as Uncle Peck.  Both of their performances give us richly realized complex characters, and when one must be sacrificed to spare the other, it’s difficult not to wish for a different solution.

The lead performers are nicely supported by the rest of the cast—Shelley Little as Mother, Joan D. Saunders as Grandma, Holland Hamilton as Aunt Mary, and Michael Edmund as Big Papa. They serve as the primary source of the darkly comic tone that keeps the audience off guard.  

How I Learned To Drive is a significant play dealing with one of life's ugly little corners, and it does so with sly humor and without histrionics. This type of play can be a real challenge to pull off effectively (even Durang doesn’t always get it right) without venturing into Theater of the Absurd territory.  Much credit goes to Tongue In Cheek and its fine company of actors, who will be continuing the play’s run until November 2 at the Bridge Theatre, 244 West 54th Street.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

‘Betrayal’: Backstabbing, British Style

American audiences tend to like their domestic dramas to be…well…dramatic.  George and Martha going for the jugular in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or perhaps the monstrous Violet Weston spewing venom at her loved ones in Tracy Letts’s August:  Osage County. 

Against this backdrop, what to make of the celebrity revival (Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz star; Mike Nichols directs) of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, now in an all-but-sold-out limited engagement at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre? 

Betrayal, which was first produced in 1978, lacks the vicious bite of the aforementioned works.  It lacks, as well, the air of menace and mystery that Pinter had come to be associated with from his earlier plays (The Homecoming is perhaps the best example).   And even though Pinter fiddles with the passage of time, mostly working backward over a period of a decade in the lives of the characters, Betrayal is quite straightforward and unexpectedly easy to follow. 

Because of this, you may be lulled into thinking there is not much to it, the deconstructing of a now-ended affair, where menace and mystery have been replaced by subtlety and style.  Yet eschewing the sturm und drang embraced by the likes of Albee and Letts, Pinter still manages to show us a world that is every bit as ugly and hurtful as those other playwrights conjured up in their far noisier works.

Indeed, it is the characteristically British repression of feelings and the silences born of determined pride, upbringing, and social constraints, that contribute to the sad tale this many-layered play brings to the fore.  

Betrayal is written in 9 short scenes, the first of which takes place in 1977 as Emma (Ms. Weisz) and Jerry (Rafe Spall) meet for a drink two years after their seven-year affair has ended, and the last in 1968 when it begins. Each scene is self-contained, yet each provides a piece of the puzzle that needs to be combined with the others in order to make sense of the whole.   

Mike Nichols has directed the play as if it were a musical composition with nine interlaced movements—theme and variations—a concept that is helped along by the performance between scenes of actual piano and cello music composed for the production by James Murphy.  (I pause to note that at the performance I attended, members of the audience clapped at the end of each scene, much as some concertgoers clap at the end of movements in a classical musical performance). 

The play’s title is informative enough about the main theme, although a better title might be Betrayals, since there are many such little murders taking place.  Apart from the obvious one of Emma and Jerry’s affair (both have been married to their respective spouses for the entire time), we find that Emma’s husband Robert (Mr. Craig) has been having affairs himself over the years, and that Robert and Jerry, reportedly the best of friends, have betrayed each other as well through lies and secrets. 

What is especially striking in all of this meshugaas is the play’s reflection of the place of women in the societal hierarchy—at a time when, at least in the U.S., the women’s rights movement was at its zenith.  Emma seems to have fallen into her affair with Jerry only because he has paid attention to her in a way her husband hasn’t, yet far from feeling empowered, or at least feeling like the equal to her conniving spouse (sauce for the goose, etc.), she steps into the same domestic role with Jerry that she has led at home. 

The playwright makes much use of domestic imagery when it comes to Emma--how she looks in her apron, the tablecloth she brings to the rented room where she and Jerry meet, and her cooking of dinner.  Robert also casually mentions hitting her on occasion, and he makes it clear to her that women are not invited to tag along when he hangs out with his male friends. The play’s most overt act of cruelty takes place in a scene in which Robert, on vacation with Emma in Italy, coerces her into admitting to the affair—although it is the opportunity to display the power he has over her rather than any real dismay at the revelation that drives his behavior.  The rules, it seems, have been written by the men. Women play the game at their own risk.

Betrayal offers a striking commentary on the age-old battle between the sexes, and it could certainly lead to some interesting post-play discussions among male/female couples who attend together, especially around concepts like blame and responsibility.

One imagines that Mr. Craig and Ms. Weisz, a couple in real-life, had such conversations while preparing for their performances.  Both actors are excellent in their respective roles, as is Mr. Spall as Jerry—a feckless man’s man whose own motivations remain as unclear as those of his counterparts.  He plays the game because that’s what men do.

In Pinter’s world, there is no end to the cycle of treachery.  No one learns any lessons, and the game goes on unabated.  In its own relentlessly quiet way, Betrayal is far more disturbing than any of its more confrontational counterparts.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

‘The Glass Menagerie’: A Consideration

The Cast of 'The Glass Menagerie'

Let me begin by confessing that I am less enamored of the current Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie at the Booth Theater than pretty much everyone else in the entire universe.  
I’ve thought about this a lot, and so I am offering up this consideration in lieu of a review.  

I’ll admit to being stuck a bit because of how much I liked the production of the play mounted by the Roundabout at the Laura Pels in 2010. Here is what I wrote about it back then:

One of the reasons it works well is because it is well-acted. Judith Ivey captures Amanda Wingfield in all of her complexity: abandoned wife, overbearing mother, flirtatious Southern belle, and practical and sacrificing breadwinner trying to hold things together. The fragile Laura, as portrayed by Keira Keeley, seems to exaggerate her crippled gait as it suits her purposes; in her own way, she is as self-serving and self-protective as the rest of her clan. Patch Darragh imbues Tom with layers of restlessness, anger, self-deprecation, social awkwardness, a strong sense of the absurd, and a sharp tongue with which he lashes out at Amanda. 

I especially liked the way that production, directed by Gordon Edelstein, treated the play as a piece of manipulated memory—that is, as a piece of writing that was prepared for public consumption, with the playwright’s actual memories reinvented, shaped, and polished to suit his ends.  

The current Broadway production, under the direction of John Tiffany, is also well acted by Cherry Jones as Amanda, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura, and Brian J. Smith as Jim, the “gentleman caller.”  But Mr. Tiffany’s take, which admittedly is clear-eyed and smartly presented, changes the characterizations in ways that I find off-putting, even when, on occasion, it elucidates parts of the play in ways I hadn’t thought of before.  

To begin with, the play seems more dreamlike than memory-like. There are bits of stage business that make sense only if we think of them as elements of a dream:  Tom’s initial lurch onto the set, Laura’s unusual entrance and exit, the miming of the setting of the table, and, my favorite having to do with a lit match.  I think all of this is overdone, however—bits of trickery that draw too much attention to themselves and away from the play.  Yet, as Tom tells us right off the bat, “the play is memory,” and not a dream.

As much as I admire Ms. Jones as an actress, I can’t say I am taken with her portrayal of Amanda, who seems far too strident and as socially inept as Laura—in her interaction with Jim, yes, but even more so in her scenes on the phone.  It’s hard to believe she would ever be able to sell a magazine subscription (whereas in Judith Ivey’s interpretation, I had the sense that Amanda was a hard-working woman who at least managed to eke out a living).

Even though I do not like the tone of bitter disappointment and disapproval that colors everything Amanda says, what I do like is the way that she and Tom seem perfectly matched.  This is the first production I’ve seen where I believe that Amanda and Tom are mother and son, peas-in-a-pod whose lives have been irredeemably altered by the abandonment by Tom and Laura’s father.  For the first time, I understand why Tennessee Williams has both characters use the same joking remark about the missing father, the line about the telephone man “who fell in love with long distance.”

The Glass Menagerie has always struck me as two plays somewhat awkwardly sewn together.  I find this to be particularly true with the current production.  One play is about Amanda and Tom, locked in a Strindberg-like relationship of mutual battle.  The other play is the one that unfolds when Laura and Jim are together.  It is as sweet as any work I’ve ever seen, and, in a different milieu, it could serve as the basis for a romantic comedy in which Laura learns that she is worthy of being loved for herself. Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith are perfect together, and this is the part of the play that represents the best that the playwright has to offer—as delicate as the other part is harsh.  
What is clear in all of this is that I simply do not care for the interpretation that the director has brought to The Glass Menagerie. I look for less determined planning and more subtlety, with room for the audience to mull things over.  This production is just too packaged and hermetically sealed.

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.