Hollow Albee; Rebecca Gilman’s Boy Gets Girl; A Couple of Plays About Outrage and Disgust

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


Drama lives
or dies on suspense. That may seem like a hopelessly dated or nostalgic remark
in an era whose dramatic heroes include Beckett, Albee, Mamet and innumerable
others who sometimes seem to throw out all the old rules. It’s true even
of them, though. Suspense isn’t just a sticky relic from the "well-made
play." It has to do with a dramatist’s basic ability to raise interesting
(and better yet, enduring) questions that the audience, for all its seasoned
psychological insight and practiced cleverness, can’t answer satisfactorily
without witnessing the outcome of the play. Usually, those questions are about
plot, but they can also be about emotion, character, ideas, life processes,
even potentialities, the mere possibility of new twists on age-old patterns,
stories, myths and more. No matter what the game, though, if the audience is
consistently ahead of it, then it isn’t as fun, effective or profound as
it should be.


Over the past
month, I’ve watched in bewilderment as many of my more intelligent critical
colleagues have lionized Edward Albee for what was, for me, one of the most
disappointing, irritating and unsuspenseful theatrical experiences in recent
memory. I hesitate to accuse anyone of disingenuousness, but it has seemed to
me that much of the praise for The Play About the Baby has stemmed from
a reluctance to perpetuate the presumably unfair critical drubbing he has received
over the years–which is tantamount to patronizing him–and perhaps
(in some cases) from a schoolish confusion of intentions with results. This
author has written some important and wonderfully powerful plays during his
long career, but The Play About the Baby isn’t one of them. Both
on its mischievous surface and in its self-important depths, the work is obvious
and trite.


Directed by
David Esbjornson, the play is about a young couple, called simply Boy and Girl
(David Burtka and Kathleen Early), whose cozy new-parental idyll is destroyed
by an older couple, named Man and Woman (Brian Murray and Marian Seldes), who
enter out of the blue and take their baby away. That the baby may not have existed
in the first place (the only concrete evidence is the girl’s offstage birthing
screams and onstage nursing of a swaddled doll) is part of the play’s newfangled
but consistently stodgy convention of admitting that it’s a play. The idea
of the fictional baby has no psychological weight, because the younger characters
are basically cartoons, their occasional nude romps across stage notwithstanding,
and the older characters are too inanely self-involved to care about it much
one way or another, even though they purport to steal it.


Albee’s
more credulous fans seem convinced that the Man and Woman are truly creepy and
menacing as they fill time with digressive stories, declamations, gags, direct
addresses to the audience and other vaudevillesque setpieces. Their exaggerated
banality just reads as double-digested Beckett, Pinter and even Albee to me,
though, with Murray and Seldes pretending to existential crises their characters
haven’t really arrived at, and affecting a fiendishness they seem to know
is vitiated and derivative. They’re neither actually scary nor actually
entertaining, partly because Albee has dispensed here with the bitchy, charged
dialogue he’s best at, substituting an emotionally blank, insincere politesse
that makes every remark sound like dithering. Similarly, the brazenly allegorical
set–a giant pacifier and alphabet cubes with an oversized pram and rocking
horse hanging overhead (design by John Arnone)–pretends to an eccentricity
and provocative power it doesn’t possess. It’s a nostalgic throwback
to one of Arrabal or Beckett’s premieres in Paris, circa 1961.


Albee writes
here as if he were the first modern to think of adapting the Garden of Eden
story, even blithely topping off his pseudo-self-mocking allegory with a nifty,
sententious moral (Man: "If you don’t have a broken heart how can
you know who you are, have been, can ever be?"). If this sounds familiar,
well, just Try to Remember (as a friend of mine did walking out of the show).
Maybe you caught the opening of a famous little sentimental musical called The
Fantasticks
in 1960, which is still less predictable than The Play About
the Baby
and is still running: "Without a hurt the heart is hollow."


Century Center,
111 E. 15th St. (betw. Park Ave. & Irving Pl.), 239-6200.


 


Boy
Gets Girl
By
Rebecca Gilman


Suspense is
at the heart of Rebecca Gilman’s talents. Her playwriting ambitions are
much more conventional than Albee’s, but within her chosen idiom of topical
social drama, she’s handling her tools better than he is at the moment.
In interviews, Gilman has counted August Wilson among her heroes, and that comparison
is telling. She focuses on catchy, movie-of-the-week themes (such as racism
and white guilt, child abuse and serial murder, stalking and objectification
of women) and, like him, consciously traces the detailed repercussions of such
"big issues" within specific cases. The basic pattern is really that
of a sermon–exemplification lending personal power to a predetermined argument
or teaching–and there’s a knack to handling it without sounding like
a preacher. The knack involves parceling out character and background information
gradually and cleverly to seduce the audience into considering tendentious ideas
they may have no inclination to accept. The danger is that that calculation
goes wrong and the idea-driven crisis or impasse comes to seem wholly pre-chewed,
as happened in Gilman’s Spinning into Butter (produced last summer
at Lincoln Center). In that case, the drama seems dryly formulaic in the end
regardless of its psychological insight or integrity.


Boy Gets
Girl
is better than Spinning into Butter. It toys with the audience’s
expectations more entertainingly and pertinently, disguising an intellectual
thriller about stalking as a romantic comedy. The dead-on depiction of a blind
date in the first scene, in which ominous hints about a man’s pushiness
are chalked up to nervous discomfort, is a terrific opening gambit since (especially
given the play’s seemingly bland title) one’s mind rushes to figure
out how the mismatched couple will eventually prove compatible. When the behavior
of the man, Tony (Ian Lithgow), becomes inappropriate and aggressive, your memory
of your own early reactions to him mingles with the serious questions about
pop-culture conventions of "chasing" women that Gilman has shrewdly
woven into the plot, and the effect is intense and sobering. I can’t imagine
Boy Gets Girl being more effectively cast than in this superb Manhattan
Theater Club production, originally directed in Chicago by Michael Maggio (who
died in August 2000) and "supervised" at MTC by Lynne Meadow. Mary
Beth Fisher as the female lead, a journalist named Theresa Bedell, is the picture
of clearheaded independence and attractive intelligence; with her Hillary Clinton
hairdo and hard-edged demeanor, she seems strong enough, to begin with, to defeat
Tony by dint of pure professionalism. Lithgow, in contrast, is the perfect question
mark, a nasal-voiced, pompadoured, plaid-jacketed nerd whose quirks no one would
consider criminal–until circumstances reveal that they are, of course.
Everyone else is excellent as well, particularly Howard Witt as a potbellied
soft-porn film director whom Theresa is sent to interview. And Michael Philippi’s
turntable set is a transformational marvel, capturing so many different New
York locations so precisely that the audience gasps at each new one.


In fairness,
I ought to report that this play has the audience in a tight thriller’s
grip at intermission. My reservations about it have entirely to do, again, with
Gilman’s habit of serving the needs of her controversial subject at
the expense of the character psychology she has worked so hard to probe. At
one point, this happens at the expense of basic plausibility: when two of Theresa’s
magazine colleagues, both worldly, intelligent men, suddenly become sophomoric
idiots in her ransacked apartment, disturbing the crime scene just so Gilman
can show them both handling Theresa’s clothes and one of them confessing
to the most ordinary sexual fantasies like a naive, guilt-ridden seminarian.
The worthy fictions she takes the trouble to invent deserve a better fate at
her hands.


Manhattan Theater
Club, 131 W. 55th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 581-1212, through April 8.


 


Race
By
Ferdinand Bruckner


Force
Continuum

By
Kia Corthron (closed)


Particularly
if you aren’t as facile with suspense as Gilman, another common attitude
toward topical drama tacitly asserts that the issue at hand is so urgently important
that nice considerations of consistent characterization, plausible situation
and the like should take a backseat to the reporting of naked, quasi-documentary
truths. This is the attitude of outrage and disgust at a perceived social emergency
that essentially drives two plays premiered in New York this past month: Kia
Corthron’s Force Continuum at Atlantic Theater Company and Ferdinand
Bruckner’s Race at Classic Stage Company. These works were written
67 years apart. Corthron’s subject is the strained relationship between
blacks and the police in contemporary New York. Bruckner’s is the still-shocking
moral collapse in 1933 Germany across the spectrum of human relationships from
official, public encounters to intimate discussions behind closed bedroom doors.
Both works displayed the same occasional impatience with the very veneer of
fiction, with the authors often convincing themselves that their characters
were earnestly interested in red-herring statistics and digressive analysis,
and both were consequently painful to watch at times. I also found myself haunted
by both shows for weeks, though, no doubt because, after all is said and done,
even the clumsy manipulation of real rage (as opposed to the affected kind)
carries its own terribly "actual" suspense long after the depicted
events have faded into posterity.


Race, at the
Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. (betw. 3rd & 4th Aves.), 677-4210,
ext. 2., through March 11.

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