Two Times Two: Some Notes on Our Contemporary Theater
"Our American theater sucks," declared Michael Cunningham in an interview with Tony Kushner at the height of Angels in America's popularity. Kushner had to agree that there probably was, in percentage terms, more bad drama produced in our culture than bad prose fiction, bad poetry, or even bad film. And playwright Suzan-Lori Parks makes the same point in her essay "Elements of Style": in no other genre these days, she laments, is the writing so awful.
Why should this be? Kushner offered the plausible explanation that money lures the talented away to other fields; only the chronically unemployable continue to plug away in theater. But Parks faults the slim intentions of the artists: the entire institutional apparatus of theater encourages works intended not to delight, fascinate, or awe the audience but rather to elicit a safe political reaction--"to discuss some issue," as Parks puts it. The buzz from a topical play can catapult the work, the playwright, the production, even the theater company involved, out of obscurity. There is every professional reason, then, to write bad drama of this particular issue-oriented sort.
Rebecca Gilman, a successful Chicago playwright, is riding a national wave of buzz generated by two recent works--Spinning into Butter and Boy Gets Girl (both published by Faber and Faber in 2000)--that each discuss an approved contemporary issue: liberal racism in the first case, violence against women in the second. By way of contrast, Kenneth Lonergan took a different route from obscurity, and I believe it spared him the necessity of writing bad plays. Lonergan worked with various theater companies in New York--Second Stage, the New Group, Naked Angels--but finally rose to prominence by following the money trail to film. His screenplay credits include the Hollywood comedy Analyze This and the independent feature You Can Count on Me, which he also directed, and which deservedly won him wider praise than any single stage production could.
Like Gilman, Lonergan has two plays currently published in trade paperback editions. Both works display the acumen and modesty of a truly gifted artist. The Waverly Gallery (Grove, 2000) chronicles the final undignified months in the life of Gladys Green, who--hard of hearing and losing her memory--just likes to yammer. "Everyone needs someone to talk to," she explains, "otherwise you'd just go nutty. I love to talk to people." A one-time lawyer, but now the naïve proprietress of a money-losing art gallery in Greenwich Village, Gladys is provided with the gratuitous résumé of a political radical who found herself in Germany just as the Nazis were consolidating power. But there is an aura of the playwright's autobiography clinging to Gladys and her family that may account for stock elements of her personal history.
A basically endearing woman, Gladys alarms those with responsibility for her well-being when she invites an unknown artist to sleep in the backroom of her gallery. She compounds that error, in the eyes of her daughter Ellen and grandson Daniel, by imposing her hospitable inclinations on them and also, for good measure, misplacing Ellen's Vermont cabin in a neighboring state.
ELLEN: She's getting worse.
A play about a character with a frustratingly disordered mind, who is in a frustrating and combative relationship with her family, could have been itself a frustrating experience. But The Waverly Gallery is not frustrating--it's an unusually pleasurable juggling act of overlapping, misdirected dialogue. The grandson, Daniel, addresses the audience at regular intervals. That works to good effect, in part because we need some order imposed on the narrative, but also because the author's language is precise and deft. This is the case in his stage directions and character descriptions as well. Don, the possibly talentless artist, is described as "a careful, hardworking and detail-fixated person who devotes a lot of his mental energy to very slowly and carefully arriving at the wrong conclusion." As much an author surrogate as grandson Daniel, Don feels compelled to reproduce on canvas the image of a macramé decoration his mother once made, to preserve for posterity the domestic details of his family history.
With its gestures toward autobiography, its painfully humorous representations of dementia, and Daniel's apt if obvious conclusion--"it must be worth a lot to be alive"--The Waverly Gallery reminded me of Christopher Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo, as well as Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a stark, horrific play dismissed as soft by those with faulty memories. Like those works, The Waverly Gallery confronts honestly the unpleasant aspects of its subject matter. Gladys, with her fumbled insulin injections and incessant word salad, ends up completely alienating her grandson, who lives in the same building and wishes to preserve memories of an unfaded, robust Gladys. "She rang my doorbell so much I stopped answering it all the time," Daniel confesses. "Instead I'd just go to the door and look through the peephole to make sure she was okay, and then I'd watch this weird little convex image of her turn around in the hallway and go back into her apartment." For her part, Daniel's mother, Ellen, wishes her own eighty-five-year-old mother peacefully dead. "[B]ut Dr. Wagner says there's nothing wrong with her physically," she tells Daniel. "She could go on like this for another ten years."
It is the strongest praise I can give the playwright that these acts of disloyalty, hurtful and selfish as they are, can be read as tragic signs of both hopelessness and, ultimately, love.
Like The Waverly Gallery, Lonergan's previous play, This Is Our Youth (Overlook Press, 2000), features characters trying to evoke a less corrupted, more energetic past. But, aged nineteen to twenty-one, they are only just embarking on the young adulthood they are trying to reclaim. Their current misadventures are self-conscious attempts to manufacture fond memories before they ineluctably mature into the roles currently held by their impeccably responsible, upper-middle-class parents.
The characters themselves are completely aware of their impending metamorphoses. Warren, the younger of two male characters, is told by his mentor and abusive friend Dennis, "I'm like a one-man youth culture for you pathetic assholes. You're gonna remember your youth as like a gray stoned haze punctuated by a series of beatings from your fuckin' dad, and like, my jokes. God damn!" Jessica, whom Warren has designs on, offers an equally clear appraisal: "[R]ight now you're all like this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but ten years from now you're gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be."
The story is this: Warren has stolen $15,000 from his estranged father who, though not a criminal himself, is in business with criminals. Dennis hatches a plot to use the stolen money to finance a quick drug-selling scheme, return the stolen cash before the theft is detected, and walk away with a neat profit. (Even as they stall at becoming their parents, it is clear that they already are their parents.) As the plot unfolds, Lonergan includes a few half-hearted nods to nihilism:
DENNIS: What is gonna happen to you, man?
But the more prominent authorial tone is caution: characters play with fire, hoping not to get burned. Still, some do. Dennis's dealer friend, Stuey, dies of a drug overdose, and we are told that Warren's older sister was murdered years before at about this same age, as she passed through her own rebellious stage.
Set in 1982, This Is Our Youth owes a lot to Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis's novel from that era. Both feature a set of young, privileged characters whose self-inflicted injuries are only as severe as they themselves permit. Family wealth acts as a safety net but, alas, some characters choose to stretch the weave too far and slip through.
Lonergan's play also pays homage to American Buffalo, David Mamet's own three-character drama involving petty theft, the pawning of useless goods, and other vague dealings in a half-assed criminal underworld. And like American Buffalo, Lonergan's play concludes with a consideration of male friendship, which trumps family as the major concern of characters caught in this Peter Pan world of extended adolescence.
The play's theme gets punctuated perhaps a bit too hard when Warren, to cover his debts when the drug deal falls apart, is forced to sell his collection of mint-condition toys; Dennis's panicked conversion to sobriety after Stuey's death also seems to me too easy (I thought the author might have been setting up a joke--that Dennis resolves to "totally stop" with drugs every month or so); and the ghost of Warren's sister, meant to provide depth and poignancy to her brother's antics à la The Catcher in the Rye, is a bit too convenient. But the play's most basic elements are sturdy. And regardless of how pleased David Mamet claims to be with the structure of American Buffalo, it is actually the characters and his famous dialogue that form the strength of that play. The same is true here, whether it is Warren explaining to Jessica that he's never been into the cigarette scene himself ("But I hear great things about it") or Dennis putting Warren in his place: "Listen. You're a fuckin' idiot. You never have any money. Nobody can stand to have you around. And you can't get laid. I mean, man, you cannot get laid. You never get laid."
Dennis is, in fact, a rare creation: a powerful, confident, amoral personality who doesn't seem too precious or too much adored by the playwright for his naughtiness. Lonergan gives Dennis significant blind spots that undercut his slacker bravado and slyly reflect on the playwright's own hubristic forays away from theater. "I should totally direct movies, man, I'd be a genius at it," Dennis brags. "Like if you take the average person with the average sensibility or sense of humor or the way they look at the world and what thoughts they have or what they think, and you compare it to the way I look at shit and the shit I come up with to say, or just the slant I put on shit, there's just like no comparison at all. I could totally make movies, man, I would be like one of the greatest movie makers of all time."
As it turns out, You Can Count on Me established Lonergan as one of the most intelligent movie makers of recent years. And his two published plays suggest he is one of the few prominent contemporary playwrights worthy of significant notice. Though I can't say Lonergan really belongs in the theater, I would be delighted if he should choose to remain there. Still, if he can continue to produce films of a quality equal to his plays, and for a much larger audience, more power to him.
Rebecca Gilman belongs in television. Boy Gets Girl, her melodrama about a magazine writer stalked by a near stranger, features a lead character who watches a lot of made-for-TV movies in which imperiled women inevitably shoot their relentless attackers. "At first I was disgusted," Theresa admits of her television addiction, "but I found I kept watching the stupid things, because, at the end, I felt this real sense of satisfaction when the stalker got it in the head."
Boy Gets Girl is like a made-for-TV movie without an honestly acknowledged formula. Theresa is not attracted to a scoundrel who later shows his true colors. Rather, she is set up on a blind date by a friend who barely knows the guy. Under the circumstances, Theresa has no reason to hold herself accountable when things turn ugly; she possesses no faults (poor judgment, infidelity, a kind heart) that lead to her predicament. Tony, the stalker, simply turns psycho after their first dinner date goes sour. He sends flowers, leaves long telephone messages, shows up at her workplace unannounced, makes violent threats, trashes Theresa's apartment, and finally quits his job so he can dedicate himself full-time to stalking. Tony just exists, like the monster in a horror movie. But this is horror-movie melodrama bereft of suspense: most of the action takes place off-stage, and Tony himself is absent from the entire second act. That leaves room for a lot of scenes examining, commenting on, or illuminating Theresa's plight. But what is there to say? Her plight is bleak.
There are signs that the playwright had more ambitious aspirations. "I was wondering," Tony asks Theresa after an early rebuke, "are you afraid of intimacy or something?" The line is meant to put Theresa on the defensive, but Gilman wants us to see more than just Tony's tactical maneuvering. Theresa has no intimate relationships in her life: she hasn't dated in a while, her parents are dead, she maintains no contact with her only sibling, she throws herself into her work. Lack of a personal support network usefully heightens Theresa's sense of isolation and helplessness once Tony's behavior turns threatening, but it also creates an aura of unchallenged emotional detachment.
It makes sense, then, that Tony fails his first-date audition not by seeming ignorant (he doesn't know who Edith Wharton is), but by opening up emotionally, relating too soon a disaffection for his father and a sense of betrayal by his mother. This is the closest thing Theresa gets to a warning sign that Tony may be willing to chuck his salary and freedom for the chance to intimidate and threaten an unattainable woman. "Most of the time," a policewoman explains to Theresa, "if somebody's being stalked, it's by somebody they had a substantial relationship with. Or a coworker or somebody who sees them every day and has been harboring a secret obsession." Well--not this time. Tony risks going to prison for stalking a woman he has manifestly not been obsessing over.
The implications of the play are odd. In the world Gilman sets up, any emotional attachment--indeed, any gesture of sociability a woman makes, no matter how small--leaves her wide open to disruption and dislocation, and to threats of sodomy and murder. This is Looking for Mr. Goodbar, minus the sexual moralism. The point gets confused, though, when Theresa is assigned by her editor--against her will--to interview an aging B-movie mogul patterned after Russ Meyer, whose sexploitation films feature unusually large-breasted women. When this film producer, named Les Kennkat, grows impatient with one of Theresa's anecdotes about journalism school, he tries to bring the discussion back into focus and the interview to a close; but Theresa attempts to stall. Later, Les tries in vain to cut off their relationship ("I don't want you writing anything about me") and Theresa counters with creepy insistence ("Well, you can't stop me").
We are meant, it seems, to register the dichotomy between Theresa's role in the professional world (stalker) and its reversal in the private world (victim), but to what end? Further confusing matters is the reading Theresa's male colleagues give her article on the lecherous Kennkat: it's about Tony and Theresa, they conclude. It illustrates how men are trained to view women as objects, and how women are trained to accept that role. (They've got the Theresa-Kennkat relationship reversed here, or the playwright has, but what follows from this mix-up remains undetermined.)
In a narrative about a stalker, it seems to me, there are two options, neither of which is particularly promising. The play can observe how simple it is for one person to violate another's security, or if the stalker is a man, it can emphasize the special vulnerability of women. If the author pursues the second option, she runs the risk of downplaying female aggression and ignoring the experience of every closeted gay man I've known (of being stalked, harassed, and groped by women, from junior high on). Gilman acknowledges Theresa's aggressive side, but in a fitful way that she ultimately nullifies. The other elements of the play--Tony's abrupt personality change, Theresa's unaccountable bad luck, the obediently crude or sympathetic secondary characters--release a veritable tsunami of feminist self-righteousness that drowns all gestures toward depth or complexity.
Particularly unfortunate is the playwright's handling of Les Kennkat and Madeleine Beck, the police officer working on Theresa's case. Leering and vulgar, Kennkat is an unimaginative caricature who talks the way male actors do in pornographic movies. This seems to me precisely how dull women who would bother to get upset over Russ Meyer's obscure, campy films might imagine Russ Meyer. Officer Beck, on the other hand, is all business until she recounts how her parents gave her five brothers a free ride through college, but never offered to pay for her education. She concludes her story by giving Theresa "a big hug." This surprises Theresa, but she relaxes and accepts the gesture.
Sisterhood, then, succeeds in cracking the armor of emotional detachment. Already in the early 1980s, the comediennes on SCTV were skewering this sort of earnest narrative in a merciless theater satire titled, if memory serves, I'm Taking My Own Head, Screwing It on Right, and No Guy's Gonna Tell Me That It Ain't. In their final scene, Andrea Martin and Catherine O'Hara meet downstage in a tearful, triumphant embrace, while Joe Flaherty, their erstwhile romantic interest, dangles artfully upstage, hanging from a gallows. Gilman doesn't realize it, but Theresa and Officer Beck belong in an anti-feminist parody of this ilk, or in a depthless television world where men always have it coming and women can count on getting their violent revenge.
Gilman's previous play, Spinning into Butter, premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and was subsequently produced at Lincoln Center in New York. One got the impression from the buzz surrounding these dramatic projects that, if Boy Gets Girl was sanctimonious, Spinning into Butter was inflammatory, dangerous, almost downright irresponsible. This turns out to be true, but in a paradoxically safe way. For all the apparent controversy, Gilman isn't one to act brashly; she spoonfeeds her audience.
Spinning into Butter is set in the office of Sarah Daniels, Dean of Students at Belmont College, a bucolic New England institution. When an African-American student finds racist notes tacked on the door to his dormitory room, faculty and students alike react with self-congratulatory indignation and facile soul-searching. "If we handle this right, it could be a real learning experience for the students," notes one instructor. Race forums and discussion groups are held.
Gilman has moved into A. R. Gurney territory here. (One student suggests instituting a student group on tolerance, which he can then take credit for on his law school applications.) The playwright convincingly mocks the petty agendas of academics. But the faculty members here, while conniving, are really not very savvy. As an investigation gets underway, no one asks the obvious questions: Has the victim made any personal enemies on campus? Might the whole incident be a hoax?
By the time Sarah Daniels voices her belief that the brouhaha among her white colleagues is some sort of cheap penance, we are ready for the racial episode to serve as just one element in a play about something larger--but what? The obtuseness of intellectuals? The opportunism of self-declared victims? The arrogance of youths raised by baby-boomers? Nearly every university faculty member I know views today's undergraduates with a certain skepticism, if not disdain. Yet Sarah is unquestioningly cowed by a nasty-tempered student from New York City whose family is Puerto Rican. She offers him a minority scholarship; he accepts, then berates her for the demeaning categorization, which she in turn sincerely apologizes for. Neither liberal guilt nor the missionary zeal of a college administrator can account persuasively for her abjectly spineless behavior.
As it happens, Sarah worked previously at a traditionally African-American college in Chicago. Unhappy in that situation, in fact she fled to Vermont precisely to escape working primarily with black students. "It made me worse," she tells a colleague of her own experience as a numerical minority. "I mean, before I started there, I was just paternalistic. Now I'm fully aware that black people have agency and are responsible and can help themselves, but I think they don't do it because they're lazy and stupid."
Her full confession runs fifteen pages in the published script. In the end, it may not clearly explain why Sarah lets a white student of Puerto Rican heritage bully her into submission. (Like the female undergraduate in David Mamet's Oleanna, this "Nuyorican" male is presented in a way that would make brutal rejection seem too generous.) But Sarah's self-defensive tirade is legitimately eye-opening, and Gilman deserves credit for going out on a limb.
But only partial credit. For every line of Sarah's self-incriminating honesty there is a bit of backtracking ("There were plenty of nice kids"). Worse, the playwright interjects correctives provided by Sarah's colleague in a severely misguided attempt at ideological balance, the effect of which is to sabotage the dramatic moment. "But you were encountering them after years and years of privation and discrimination," he informs her--us--in the boring, implausible language of a dramaturgical mouthpiece. "After an economic and educational system had utterly failed them."
Gilman makes other missteps. For example, one character insists on a long, forced analogy between this story and the Little Black Sambo fable, an insistence meant to justify the play's title. Ultimately, though, the drama is done in by leaving us just where we began, with the same unruffled sense of our enlightenment and virtue. Gilman expects us to take away from the play the same simplistic truths we bring to it: no person is representative of an entire race, no one can speak for an entire race. Why is contemporary American drama so bad? Because playwrights are regularly rewarded for aiming so low.