Sunday, July 26, 2009

Play Review: The Seafarer

Play Review

The Seafarer

By Conor McPherson

My copy of The Seafarer isn’t really mine. It belongs to all of us. I picked it up from the New York Public Library in anticipation, even a hope, that I will be invited to audition for a production of it at a regional theater this fall. I had never read it and am only an actor and thus could not afford a theater ticket when it played Broadway.

I almost don't want the part.

On the back cover of this glossy edition NY Times critic Ben Brantley effuses that McPherson is “quite possibly the finest playwright of his generation.” Times theater coverage is never far from its own deserved critiques, and Brantley has never impressed me as a deep thinker. But the fact that this play was so celebrated during its New York run—and has been predictably licensed by the average TCG theater since—depresses me to the degree that I don’t care to do the google search at present. I’m just willing to assume Brantley’s quote was in response to The Weir and not this hackneyed, regurgitated slop.

We always nurse this impulse to elevate Irish writers, especially when they challenge us with obstinate ideas, brimstone politics, dense text, and especially unhealthy personal habits. But if the American theater is overdue in anointing the latest St. Patrick of the Boards, why can’t we just settle on Martin McDonough? A native Irishman, theater professional, supremely popular, and unlike the characters in The Seafarer, McDonough’s plays seem to showcase actual human beings undergoing experiences that ring as both universal and original.

McPherson, by contrast, spends 107 pages showing us five middle-aged Irishmen drinking., arguing, gambling, swearing, and regretting the past, all in heavy brogue. I half expected a Polish neighbor to drop by seeking help with a light bulb.

These stereotypes never have a chance at redemption, as they are left to struggle with a plot that has been told and re-told for ages, and in just about every medium starting with Dr. Faustus.

I am unable to say whether any production of the play has risen above its script, as I haven’t seen one. I suspect there are many reasons I has been so sought after. In addition to its stereotypical Irishness (which we praise as the grit of truth when penned by an actual Irishman), it has a small cast, a unit set, and roles for five men of a certain age who will get to put their energies into the Stanley Kowalski they never got to play (ah, there’s the Polish neighbor).

McPherson’s rather by-rote method of storytelling even includes the “monologue-that-will-make-sense-of-it-all- for-you” dropped somewhat obviously and indulgently in the middle of the play. As Sharky (what grown man of any age intent on respect and redemption would answer to such a name?) is harangued by Mr. Lockhart, the Mephistopheles/Scratch/Devil character, he learns that Hell is exactly like being

“… locked in a space that’s smaller than a coffin. Which is lying a thousand miles down just under the bed of a vast, icy, pitch black sea. You’re buried alive in there.”

And he goes on. And on, and on, much as my wife’s three year old nephew could with the same string of words and punctuation style. But McPherson’s desperate ploy to inject some meaning into his half-assed play is far less entertaining than watching the nephew do the monologue would be.

Now far be it from me to come off as politically correct. The Seafarer is not offensive. It is, however, extremely boring and tired. It will make you and everyone else wish you were in that little sub-coffined space instead. If The Seafarer had been the first play like this it might have been brilliant. But after a thousand times (at least), it is utterly unsurprising or insightful.

Come to think of it, Ben Brantley could be right that Conor McPherson may be the finest playwright of his generation. Because our finest playwrights don’t really have to try anymore once they reach the level of "finest." Williams wrote dozens of plays, but might as well have stopped after Glass Menagerie, Streetcar, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Arthur Miller had said all most people wanted him to by 1960. And Tony Kushner? Well he just had a celebratory season in his honor at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, as well as the premiere of his latest play. I don’t remember the name of it, but I bet Angels in America—all nineteen years ago of it—was more talked about.

So The Seafarer was likely—hopefully—composed in the shallow luxuries we afford today’s great playmakers. Conor McPherson told somebody he wanted to write another play. And somebody said they’d produce it, and they fully intended to. It wouldn’t matter what the subject matter was. So why not lift a morality tale that even Charlie Daniels tackled and recycle a bunch of characters from a third-rate nightclub act? I just wish it came with free peanuts.

Still, I hope I get the gig.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Play Review: Detective Story

By Sidney Kingsley

I must confess—and this is not an apology—that I am an enormous fan of Law & Order. Law & Order “old school” I suppose you’d have to say, as I prefer the vintage that featured Michael Moriarty (Sam who?). And I refuse to acknowledge the headliners reenacting the headlines today, ever since Fred Thompson decided to resign from a show about reality in favor of doing a reality show and ultimately waste everyone’s time.

Dick Wolf has never seen me, and none of his underlings have ever cast me on the program—if Mr. Moriarty shall never return, what chance do I have? So I’ve spent more nights than not (and a few afternoons, and even, thanks to A&E, USA, and TNT, entire weekends) mulling over L&O reruns and musing over Jerry Orbach’s quips, Chris Noth’s haymakers, Moriarty’s moralizing, and marvelling that Sam Waterston actually looked almost young once upon a time. And I’m glad a cousin of mine finally accepted the fact that he is a dead ringer for Jesse L. Martin, except for the fact that my cousin is a white guy living in Georgia.

And to think without Sidney Kingsley’s 1949 play Detective Story, I might have spent the last twenty years soaking up some vitamin K in the sunny outdoors instead of spending it in the exercise of running to fat.

Well, who am I kidding? I’d still be husky and pale.

To read Detective Story now, one is most reminded of the classic Dragnet, the other favorite crime drama of mine, but for completely different reasons. Like Jack Webb, Kinglsey’s cops of the 21st squad in New York City live in a very anachronistic world—one in which phrases like “hand job” and “kinky” have a complete, total, and utterly different meaning than they must have had in 1949. Like both shows, the play is a more or less ensemble drama, and showcases incidental and quirky characters who make one-off appearances. If you need proof of this, consult the breakdown offered by Dramatists Play Service, which lists 24 male characters, 8 females, and several extras. Then reflect that in 1949 a staright play with that cast size, and a new one at that, managed to get produced on Broadway.

The main character is Jim McLeod, the original hard-boiled detective who plays by his own rules. Disgusted by the criminal element, merciless in his approach, and contemptuous of anyone who takes a softer touch (and always of his superiors), I wonder if anyone would ever have had the idea for Dirty Harry, Lethal Weapon, or any of the other cookie-cutter hardnoses handed down by Hollywood without him. McLeod gives his imitators tenure when his boss Lt Monaghan tells him “I don’t like you any more’n you like me,” and then follows it up with the absurd and vague rationalization, “but you got a value here and I need you on my squad. That’s the only reason you’re not wearing a white badge again.” Italics oh so deliciously mine.

But unlike his decscendants,. McLeod is so absolutist we know the score and can see the setup for his downfall coming before the end of his first scene. And it is a scene which introduces a very edgy subject for 1949, that of abortion. Apparently the termination of a pregnancy was illegal in New York state back then, and McLeod spends the play both roughing up and getting the goods on a repeat offender, and tryng to get each to stick. But when he learns, through a very elaborate and not altogether plausibe ruse orchestrated by Monaghan, that the abortionist’s hands have operated a little too close to home, McLeod’s life spirals into a very quick and crumbling tragedy that would have unnerved the Greeks.

The plot is clunky, and its ingredients have not been well blended. Mcleod’s wife Mary could only have been named for the mother of Christ given how her goodness and purity are touted throughout the play. She finally makes an appearance on page 57. In short order weare asked to believe that the saintly Mary McLeod had a former life frequented by various underworld figures, including a vile gangster boyfriend who once knocked her up. We are further instructed that his happened about two years before she met her policeman husband and he has never known about it. Confronted with the fact hat his golden bride had once given herself to the type of man McLeod washes his hands after merely looking at—and used the services of the abortionist he’s trying to put away to boot—their marriage breaks up and Mcleod is shot dead in the station.

If I have broken a critic’s code by spoiling the plot, know that the plot cannot be any more spoiled than it already is. The pleasure of reading Detective Story, aside from its typeset noir world inside a black and white big city, is Kingsley’s craftsmanship I go on and on about.

More than thirty characters populate this two act drama, phones ring constantly and the set is a station house with multiple office spaces that carry on simultaneous scenes and sub-plots (including an eventually effective one about a young war hero who embezzled for love). A full production woud confuse the eye if Kingsley hadn’t made sense of it all for us. And if McLeod and Mary seem a bit cut and dry, perhaps it is because the playwright has used most of his talents giving us a rich array of characters in those smaller, incidental parts. Sims, the attorney for the abortionist, is the highlight of his pages, and the female shoplifter who is being booked at the top of the ply is the very fingerprint of humanity. Her tactical and aching telephone call to her brother-in-law is funny and sad at once, and in her we recognize every stupid mistake we’ve ever made, and the times we got caught doing it.

Detective Story sets its own terms in the sense that it can only exist in the world Sidney Kingsley has given us, a world that existed more in the imagination than in reality anyway. Unless John McCain somehow wins, steals, or inherits the Presidency, or if Barack Obama pays off his debt to the devil by appointing the 700 Club to the Supreme Court, abortion will remain legal in New York. So any revival would require the play to retain its 1949 setting, unless it were adapted/rewritten significantly. And the admirable frankness of the script in terms of topic, tone, and language would seem so light and cipherous if regurgitated by a modern writer to whom vernacular were cliché.

Besides, anyone who’d dare to try whould have to answer to McLeod.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Play Review: Epitaph for George Dillon

by John Osborne & Anthony Creighton

I’ve had a paperback copy of this play on hand for many years. I purchased it in a used bookstore in some long-forgotten state south of the Mason-Dixon line. Doubtless I was an Angry Young Man myself when I bought it, but the first pages reminded me why it has taken at least a decade for me to crack the cover. I was also a Lazy Young Man.

Reading should be its own reward, and I’m happy to affirm I started reading for pleasure at an early age. But until at least The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare (Abridged) was published, stage directions were not very pleasant to read. They had none of the verve of the rest of the play (at least one hoped) and were less entertaining than a cereal box (which is a too-neglected branch of juvenilia).

There were exceptions before the send-up of Shakespeare, of course. O’Neill’s stage directions were often very entertaining, all the more so because he rarely meant them to be. I had an undergraduate professor who insisted that if you failed to clinically implement every one of Bernard Shaw’s stage directions, your production would never be any good—this made me put off reading Shaw for far too long, and this teacher will never be forgiven for that. And of course today we are often bombarded by the whimsy of Paula Vogel’s protégées. You wouldn’t know it, but sometimes they are telling an entirely different story on the page than what you see on the stage.

But I was intrigued by a recent NY Times article about a group of California actors stretching themselves thin to present a showcase production of Epitaph for George Dillon over on 45th Street. I missed their production, which closed on June 15, but thought I should at least (and finally) read the play, block after block of italicized text and all.

Before I do that, however, let me just say shame on the NY Times for running Patrick McGeehan’s article on the 28th, almost two weeks after the curtain went down on Epitaph. Shame on them for their condescension, describing a group of older-than-average performers with West Coast careers and an astonishing threshold for sacrifice as “aspiring actors.” Imagine the uproar from readers, editors, and advertisers if the paper of record were to run a single feature about a commercial run—and only after it closed. Suppose it suggested that one of the prepubescent moppets of Broadway—one of the Lion King cublets, perhaps—were of less than professional grade.   

Moving on…

The first play by either John Osborne or Anthony Creighton, and written together, Epitaph for George Dillon reads almost like a first attempt—a first attempt by at least one gifted writer and two men well acquainted with the theater—but a first attempt. While engaging, it lacks the basic craftsmanship I lauded in previous posts regarding the likes of Somerset Maugham and Ben Travers. Osborne was something of a revolutionary of his day, so you wouldn’t expect him to take after the old timers. Inspired by postwar American writers, he embraced kitchen sink realism and sought to put morbid comedy and searing drama center stage. But his nuts and bolts are at sixes and sevens in Epitaph.   

I know it sounds nitpicky and minor, but the entrances and exits in this play mean that whoever stages it must have a bit of the choreographer in him. Just figuring out where the front door must be in Mrs. Elliot’s house makes her floor plan seem like an amusement park. Characters appear suddenly at French windows and from around the stairs, sometimes with the benefit of not being seen, that it often appears that this is all a contrivance in service of convenience so that the speaking order can make sense. I realize that lower-middle class homes of 1950s London were rather cramped and ingenious exercises in making the most out of living space, but… please. If Travers and Maugham had been given a crack at advising on Epitaph, perhaps it wouldn’t have so much dust on it today.

What makes it worth dusting is the unflinching factual basis that the story draws upon—well, mostly. George Dillon is a struggling actor. But not the kind of struggling actor you see in movies or even in most plays. He is actually a real struggling actor. He is in his thirties, he is well educated and even “posh,” and he is not especially attractive. And like most actors, at least those without connections, he often has to survive on the kindness of strangers.

One of those strangers is Kate Elliot. She works in an office from which George recently quit and took a shine to him. Bowled over by his charm and high manner, and optimistic about his future as an actor and playwright, she invites him to stay in her home, much to the initial chagrin of her husband Percy, two daughters, and her sister Ruth Gray. Kate is the type of character many actors have come to know and rely on. They often take the shape of teachers, aunts, parents of friends, or even employers in the real world. Motherly and never less than supportive, you always feel torn between your need for their company and help and your guilt and fear that you are taking advantage. They are willing to do almost anything and trumpet any semblance of success their charge has won.

And because of this they actually symbolize a type of vicious circle. To them, background work is just a few steps away from being a movie star. But you know it isn’t. They think your headshot is so handsome, and inquire whether they can order a wallet-size. Oftentimes they’ll clip an ad out of the classifieds, one that is seeking models and talent, and pass it on to you in good faith unaware that such ads have nothing to do with the serious road you want to hew. And with each act of their kindness you hate yourself a little more through the smile. Heaven forbid you confess to them the poverty and loneliness, the sleepless nights and depression and risk having them realize their faith in you would have been better spent on a 401K or little league team. And so you must go on and allow them to believe, unwilling to disappoint, and sinking an inch or so deeper into hell by the month.

But unlike Kate Elliot, most of these emotional benefactors do have their limits. George is able to borrow substantial sums of money from her and live in her house, dally with both sister Ruth and daughter Josie, and Kate supports him. Kate supports him even when it revealed that George has been married. Osborne and Creighton attempt to justify this by giving Kate a son about George’s age who died in the war. They also give her a dysfunctional relationship with husband Percy, which doesn’t make complete sense. Percy is never shown to be drunk or abusive. His only crime seems to be being middle-class and set in his ways. Still, a deeply unsatisfied woman has always been a key ingredient of great drama.

So all right, she would toss out her husband in favor of an admittedly dishonest lodger and self-loathing sponge. But would she alienate her sister because of him, or ensnare her youngest daughter? Kate seems willing to. She’s not so much ignorant as she is looking the other way. And this says more about Kate than it does George.

The fact is George is not such a bad person. But someone who is stuck in life usually views himself as at least inadequate, so how can he be good? The real tragedy is that Kate may be the only person in the play who sees George as being altogether worthwhile. The best advice he gets is from Ruth, who says to him, leave the house and “be with your own kind.” But of course he can’t. Because when you live your life through the cracks, as most actors do, there are very few of one’s own kind.

A nomadic, bohemian life is fun and socially acceptable until about 25 or so. After thirty you really have no place left to go. By then the kids think you’re creepy, and you wouldn’t like most of them anyway. Your peers have moved on, and anyone who would employ you expects you to be stable—yes, even in the theater. Twice in my life I have landed jobs after sleeping in a park or a car the night before. But if I had said so at the time, I never would have been hired.

This is the life we have chosen, and we don’t make apologies. But there comes a point when you realize it is futile to try to make the rest of the world understand. And so you wind up living in extraordinarily unpredictable ways. No matter what happens to me later in life, no matter whether every day hereafter brings me untold success, there are certain things I shall never forget. I will never forget getting married and taking my new bride home to a single room we rented from week to week from a Spanish family in Washington Heights. I will never forget washing a shaving in public sinks before auditions because I had no place else to go. I will never forget walking 200 blocks home in the middle of a winter night because I had no money for the subway (struggling actors may be prolific debtors, but most of us don’t steal).  Once you reach George Dillon status, the question of talent is beside the point. The older you get the fewer your options, and the harder it is to turn back even if you want to. Most of us don’t.

But what is George’s epitaph of the title? What is it that kills him, if not defines him? Don’t let that innocent cough peppered throughout Act One fool you. As desperate as George is financially and in matters of the very soul, there is one thing he has got—the National Health. Being British, George can be treated for any disease for free. If he had been an American actor shy of his 12 Equity weeks, well this may have been a tragedy indeed. No, it seems that George’s death is unexpected success.

Barney Evans bursts onto the stage in Act Three in one of the most entertaining and enjoyable scenes, if wholly disjointed. He comes out of nowhere, smashing the established tone of the play to pieces to inform George that he caught wind of his latest play, staged in a ratty out of the way hole on a nonexistent budget (basically a showcase or weekend engagement at the Producer’s Club—or perhaps something not unlike what the California actors put up). If George is willing to tart up his play with some cheap and titillating changes, then Evans thinks it can be a hit out on the circuit. George agrees, and before you know it he is pulling in more money than Percy down at the firm.

And it is understood that in addition to living on with the Elliot family George is going to marry in to it. With sheer luck he’s had the opportunity to make more money than he thought possible—despite frequent bravado. And all he had to do was rape his play. And so in some respect George Dillon, the Artist, is dead. And if he is no artist, what is he? How do you sum him up? And is it an entirely bad thing?

In the best scene of the play, the scene between Ruth and George, George movingly recounts an army story. While under heavy German bombardment, he admits to his fellow soldiers that he is an actor. And with the very mention of the word, he feels no more fear of the bombs… but instead feels shame at how trivial and meaningless his path in life is. Such a passage could only have been written and relayed by someone who has lived an actor’s life.

If anyone out there is too afraid to live the life for themselves (and this means pursuing it well after thirty), there is no shame in that. But if you would like a glimpse of it, or to wonder what it probably would have been like if you hadn’t gone to law school at 28, Epitaph for George Dillon is your best bet.

Because let’s face it, you probably don’t talk much to struggling actors. You can only trust them to be honest with you on stage.   

Monday, June 30, 2008

Theater Review: Palace of the End

Since witnessing Palace of the End recently, the Epic Theatre Ensemble’s production of Judith Thompson’s screed against the current war in Iraq, I have been wrestling with how inadequate the word “classic,” really is. This trio of riveting monologues is a classic to be sure, but not in the way a Shakespeare or a Dostoyevsky or even—and this is prophesying—a JM Coetzee will be regarded.

A classic in the traditional sense of the word is something that is timeless, something that will resonate with all the audiences that come after forevermore. It will be applicable to their lives and experience, even if it takes a small leap to get there. And of course Harold Bloom would have to flap his jowls about it.

Palace of the End, like the Iraq War, like Vietnam, like every divisive conflagration of any age, will also fade away into a forest of footnotes and memories. For the good of mankind let’s hope it doesn’t take a hundred years for its topicality to evaporate. But the play will hold a special poignancy for all who see it now. It has to be the most viscerally effective production north of Coney Island.

Alas, much like the flavors of a fine meal can later lead to heartburn, a little time away from the play reveals a few garnishes that fail to digest. This is permissible for a classic, or you’ve never read The Taming of the Shrew.

If I can be clear and ask for complete agreement with any one thing that follows, let me say that any flaws I reveal about Palace of the End are not attributable to the cast. A finer ensemble does not exist at present anywhere else on the New York stage. I have yet to see August: Osage County, but would still take that bet. The three characters in this play are tight and in tandem, and have an interconnection that comes full circle and resonates. And yet they never directly interact.

As an American, I often feel guilty about pursuing the theater while my nation is at war. I will flip through BackStage or the Theatrical Index or check my Actors Access account, and wonder why it matters given that someone has recently died either for or because of our country.

We’ve all heard the pseudo-60s claptrap that the art of creation is a response to these times, that the theater can be a salve for the troubled soul and a clarion call to civil protest. Out of our collective low self-esteem we turn to an overcompensation that allows us to believe we can change the world with our iambic pentameter. But wrap that sentiment in a blue jacket, prop it before an American flag, and you have a book cover worthy of Bill O’Reilly.

Perhaps I’d be more prone to believe it if the theater we were making now were important. But nothing feels worse for a civilian with an artistic bent than applauding a stage full of young people for their singing, dancing, or polemics while a less than lucky group that looks just like them are risking everything anonymously on the other side of the planet.

Wallace Shawn would have a field day with me.

You can’t spit into a subway track without spattering a liberal, and a play about Iraq is almost certain to be against the war just by virtue of its being a play. Palace of the End knows the audience it is going to attract—so many others pretend people will take their seats with an open mind—and it skewers them. But I say that this is a classic not because it is so effective and so well written (and the performances even better) but because it is better than its audience. And being better than the audience must certainly rank as one of the prerequisites for being a classic.

Let me scale back the hyperbole just a bit and confess that I don’t think it means to be. Judith Thompson probably wanted to motivate people and express her own anger and frustration. She is Canadian and therefore blameless for anything happening in the world today. But I suppose she still has to live with it. The Epic Theatre Ensemble takes as its mission to facilitate a community experience through its work. And the audience doubtless finds itself empowered by the play (or, if part of the minority that opposes the production’s slant, superior to it, which is its own kind of empowerment).

In a divided democracy, if one is against the war, it is his responsibility to stop it. If one favors the war, he must persuade the other side to favor it too, not start a second “culture war.” But a stalemate is the result of impotence on both sides. Say what one will about Palace of the End, it does not lack virility. If you are at political liberty to see it—at this moment, not years ago or years from now, but unimpeded this moment—it is better than you are. Given its subject, its time, and its medium, that also makes it better than any production of Hamlet, of Moliere, of Chekhov, or even my beloved Holberg being done right now. It is probably the most accidental classic in history. And let’s face it, nobody is doing Holberg anyway.

But Ludwig aside, we all have our flaws…

Thompson’s begin with the first monologue, “My Pyramids.” It is a solo piece written for the character of Lynndie England, the US Army Private jailed for her role in the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib. Teri Lamm’s performance is arresting in its frankness, and captures the wonder of an undereducated country girl Forrest Gumping it through life. Going from a West Virginia Dairy Queen to war-torn Iraq within a year would have to be a jolt for anyone. To be the headliner of a scandal that gets international play on top of it is an experience that only Lynndie England can lay claim to.

But Lamm captures it as best as a third party could hope, and imbues her performance with an insight that England herself has seemed unable to at least communicate in a spate of interviews. The self-justification is there, the parallel to martyrdom is made clear—if you’re caught with someone else’s pants down and the entire civilized—and uncivilized—world can identify you, I suppose that is martyrdom of a sort. Where is it written that being a martyr requires the cause to be righteous?

A peripherally related insight for me is how squeamish an audience can be when it comes to language. The vocal disturbances expressed by some members of the audience as Lamm read out sexually insulting emails directed at England made me realize fewer people than I had thought are acquainted with the oeuvre of Internet Literature. Surely it is laden with as many “cunts,” “cocks,” emoticons, and misspelled ethnic slurs as the Bible has “Thou shalt nots.” This kept the keel uneven for the first several minutes as I wondered if the audience were trying too hard to be offended by language or whether Lynndie England would transform into a feminist hero(ine) within the next thirty minutes.

But this does not happen as we might think. Instead, we meet a young woman whose life has oddly prepared her for this course. By the time Lamm retakes her desk chair and the lights change, it is implied we should have been surprised had England not found herself in the Middle East communicating with a naked man via a leash. And with a good night’s sleep under my belt, I can say that this is disappointing.

There is a note in the playbill. While the play is based on real people and taken from the research of historical record, Thompson tells us that “everything other than the real events spring from my imagination.” I don’t know what the rules are in Canada, but I doubt this is a disclaimer that would stand up in any court of merit. And at the risk of appearing on the wrong side of Abu Ghraib, let’s not forget it is still possible to slander someone we don’t like.

In Palace of the End we are told that Lynndie England had a remarkably dysfunctional upbringing that could only have designed her for those five pictures she posed for at Abu Ghraib. She viciously tormented an amputee as a school girl, she says, and once grotesquely disposed of a housecat with her bare feet. It’s nauseating stuff; it keeps you spellbound and cold with the fear that you may throw up or she may go on. But just as bad, it becomes as unnecessary as killing a flea with a cannon. As the images England recounts pile up and fester, some of them begin to reek with a whiff of artistic license.

I promptly did Judith Thompson’s bidding. So moved was I by the play, I read up and tried to learn more. I tried to research some of the events recounted, because by the end I felt there was too much to be true. Everything Thompson put into the mouth of Lynndie England may very well be true, yet my brief but earnest google search could not find any verification for the story about the amputee or the housecat. And if these episodes are in fact made up, I have to wonder why. The photos of Abu Ghraib are real, and… well… aren’t they enough, Ms. Thompson?

Turning people we don’t like into monsters makes them digestible. But the whole quandary about Iraq right now is that it can’t be swallowed easily. Manufacturing a Lynndie England that is a monster-in-waiting isn’t just legally incautious, but counter-dramatic. Indeed, the true horror behind Abu Ghraib is that it was perpetrated by people who were otherwise normal; perhaps not wholesome, but by no means preordained to lie in wait for helpless prey and then pounce with glee.

The real Lynndie England has steadfastly claimed that she “went along with” the culture she found being practiced by her friends and lover at Abu Ghraib. Pressed by reporters that such a justification isn’t good enough, she invokes martyrdom and reminds us that she’s certain those prisoners were American-killing terrorists.

We don’t know if she’s right about the status of any of those prisoners in Abu Ghraib. And most of us might say it wouldn’t make a difference. But England is at least being honest in telling us what she believes (why lie about it since we won’t accept her motives anyway?).

Manufacturing a super-demented childhood for her is not honest. It comes off as cheap and manipulative. And it is an ironic failing in a theater production about politics, two professions that are ostensibly searching for truth. Thompson would have better served her muse by taking a page of her homework from noted psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the famous Prison Experiment at Stanford in the 1970s. In addition to pioneering research into the susceptibility of the human personality, Dr. Zimabardo was also an expert defense witness for one of the soldiers charged with wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib.

Because the only sense of truth we can be sure of regarding Lynndie England comes from the expertise of Teri Lamm’s performance, let it be noted that according to a recent interview for a German magazine, England is serving a military prison term until September of 2008. She is currently on parole, and will remain so as long as she gets a job pretty soon.

Since being paroled, her only income has been a tax refund, and she lives with her parents and young son in a trailer back in West Virginia. The father of her child is the disgraced Charles Graner (of course, that adjective presupposes that he actually had grace to begin with). Graner married another of the criminal soldiers implicated at Abu Ghraib and has no contact with his son. England has no car, I wonder if she could afford the gas for it today if she did. So far she has been turned down for entry-level employment by Wal-Mart and Staples. Despite putting a defining stamp on a chapter of American foreign policy, keep in mind she is still just 25 years old. Those are the facts, no artistic license needed. Until someone else commits international sin and has the talent to broadcast his face with enough success to eclipse hers, and is socially vulnerable enough to be punished for his crimes, things are unlikely to change for Lynndie England.

If it sounds as though I am making excuses for a young woman who should have known so much better, please do not forget something. Donald Rumsfeld walks free and he will never run out of money. So if Terri Lamm makes you feel—sometimes despite the overkill of her text and knowing what we know about Abu Ghraib—that Lynndie England is indeed a type of victim, don’t be too hard on yourself.

It is Rocco Sisto’s amazing performance from which you should take your cue for self-loathing. As the British weapons inspector David Kelly, who committed suicide after exposing intelligence manipulation in the run up to the Iraq invasion, Sisto is mesmerizing as his story weaves its way through the head into the heart. There is more reason than pity in this piece, subtitled “Harrowdown Hill.” But don’t think it is anything less than emotionally gripping. Of course, its pathos is helped along with the by this point obligatory relaying of horrors committed by Americans against the Iraqis; in this case the victims are a charming bookseller family.

Sisto’s eyelids literally and instantly glow red as he connects to whatever inner resource this actor brings with him on stage. It is one of the most transcendent performances I have seen.

And it is probably the most effective piece of the triad. Sisto’s character connects with the audience in a way the others can’t. I doubt anyone in the room with me had been a prison guard engaging in a sick idea of torture al la Lynndie England, or the victim of very sickening, very real torture like Heather Raffo’s Iraqi character. I doubt there were any weapons inspectors or suicide victims the night I attended either. But I would go so far as promise you it was filled with people who hate this war and are convinced it is wrong, and yet have gone along with it. And they hate themselves for it. They assuage their consciences by looking the other way. We are told that David Kelly did this too, and found only one way out. If not a martyr like England, he likens himself to a soldier—one who dies in an unnecessary war, a lie of a conflict. His rhetorical questions elicit very real, audibly sniffled responses from the audience in a fashion that theater at its best was designed to do.

Heather Raffo, as Nehrjas Al Saffarh, seems as though she is performing simply for whoever she is looking at. Unafraid of her audience, she stares them directly in the eyes, but not as a confrontation. There is a warmth and humor, and an offer that her strength can be yours. And what strength it is. She plays an Iraqi mother, and for once the atrocities recounted are by the Ba’athists, not the Americans.

But in a prolonged grocery list account of the horrors she and her sons suffer, the play dips from a preoccupation with violence, into a kind of prurient and pornographic fascination with it. And the audience continues to squirm. Am I suggesting that the violence be toned down? No, but redundancy is redundancy, and too much repetition of anything eventually becomes numbing—not unlike the child she speaks of who is beaten until he can’t feel it anymore.

To find fault with the inexhaustible physical suffering of people—or people based on real people—risks the accusation of callousness and cruelty. But subjecting a captive audience to a blow by bludgeoning blow of said same is all but evidence of it. It denies the audience credit that they were against rape, torture, humiliation, murder, and general sadism anyway. I find myself wondering, if we were to eliminate the violent element from Palace of the End, what would the characters have left to say?

I must also make this observation, and it is one that cannot be blamed on the production, but I must say there were times when I was actually sympathetic to the concept of torture. And how I wanted to subject many people in this audience to it—the stupid little girl on the aisle playing a video game on her ipod (yes, you little she-troll, the headphones may have been in, but it still gave off light and you were sitting in the second row—shame on you, and twice as much on your mother who was with you); the lady who just had to fish for those tic-tacs while Heather Raffo was being metaphysically gang-raped; and the owner of that bizarre velcro noise towards the back of the house that punctured those 90 minutes at the most inappropriate times. If at least those philistines could have traded places with the suffering characters on stage and lived through what they described, maybe it would have been a sufficient warning to the other adenoidal, sinus clearing, cell phone checking, tooth-sucking masses that have nothing better to do than ruin plays in this town for the rest of us.

This crowd had the chance to redeem itself after the show. But it failed because Epic Theatre Ensemble insists on pushing ahead with that well-intentioned slow death known these days as the talkback. The talkback, or “post-show discussion” (when was the last time you had a “discussion” in which you had to raise your hand to be recognized?), is a theater fad that is spreading at virus pace, and it is determined to make itself into a tradition—much like a fruitcake or hangover.

While they sound good on paper, to paraphrase Al Pacino in And Justice For All, “in practice, they suck.” Especially when led by a Director of Audience Development (what does that title even really mean?) who starts off his questions by asking the patrons what images or lines of text are likely to remain lodged in their minds two weeks from now. Immediately the crowd is coaxed into a litany of complimentary if not fawning recollections of favorite images and phrases—in many cases, images that didn’t really happen and phrases that are hopelessly misquoted. Suddenly we are in school again and broccoli is good for you.

The guest of honor at this talkback was a young Iraqi student, Haider Hamza, who appeared in a too-tight T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Talk to an Iraqi.” Apparently these are clues to his most recent claim to fame, an appearance on This American Life, in which he detailed his project of setting up a booth in 35 cities in the American Midwest and Deep South, and engaging the locals in conversation about their feelings on the Iraq War. His impressions are sad but unsurprising.

Feeling at once superior to their brethren in the slower-paced climes, the New York audience began to insist that Palace of the End belongs in front of the people in Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, and other such places. This dose of reality-based art would do them good, and maybe they will understand. But the great question was, could it be done?

As someone with personal knowledge of the American south, I would like to reassure cosmopolitans that if this play were performed in a place like Alabama, people would go and see it. However, they would be the same type of people who would go and see it in New York. They do exist there. Let it be known that if a Manhattanite found himself relocating to either the Bible or the Corn belts, rest assured he would make friends. He would find people whose company he enjoyed, and who enjoyed his in return. Yes, he would find kindred spirits in any political, spiritual, artistic, or personal pursuit he chose to follow. The fact that they could be in the statistical minority in such a region doesn’t change a particular fact: Alabama did not lead us into this war. A few prominent New Yorkers did help pave the way… but if Alabama had been the only part of America leading the charge, does anyone think we’d have gone?

Perhaps Palace of the End should stay in town but move to Broadway, as another patron talked back, “so everyone can see it.” Obviously this person has never been to a Broadway show, as most of the patrons there are imported from—the Midwest and the Deep South. If Epic has any thoughts about following that suggestion, I would not advise them to expect the producers of The Little Mermaid to quake in fear that you may siphon off their swarming ichthyophiles.

Cynicism about scripted communal engagement aside, Hamza did mention one thing that bears repeating. “If you are a citizen of a democracy,” he said, “a citizen of the United States, you are responsible for what’s happening in Iraq right now.” Essentially, I believe this is true, regardless of which side of this fight one occupies. It was a statement that underscored the squirming we’d all done during the performance, and was received much by way of mental applause (thankfully no hands clapped until the end) and echoed with excuses. We blamed the media, we blamed the government, one person even supposed it was because Palace of the End was not listed in the New York Times for a week.

The lady in front of me shook her head in shame as Hamza (very good-naturedly, he is a student here) pointed his finger at the war crimes of the U.S., and then shook her head in something close to shame as he mentioned the personal loss his family met at the hands of Saddam Hussein (yes, the back of her head was that expressive). And her shaking head was, I think, a metaphor for the bind and paralysis many anti-war Americans feel about the whole mess. Intellectually we know it’s on us. But how do you answer for presiding over a global catastrophe that may be on par with a second Rwanda?

Imagine you’ve had a little too much to drink, and you get into a car. Then you smash into another car carrying an entire family—parents, children, grandparents. And you kill all of them. The next day you sober up and learn what you have done. And then someone says to you, “Now fix it. Make it right. Make it better.”

Where would you start? How could you do it? How could you begin to fathom the blood on your hands, let alone atone for it? I think most people could only just keep drinking. And that’s what a lot of us in this country are doing. We’re drinking.

But we are not happy drunks. No, if there is one emotion that stays with me regarding Palace of the End, it is anger. But not necessarily a healthy one. Because what I am most angry about is that the play was written by a Canadian. This is not a dig against a country that resisted membership in the “coalition of the willing”—it is a dig against the people that have been strong-armed into one and have nothing but blank paper and wasted stages to show for it.

Palace of the End

By Judith Thompson

With Terri Lamm, Rocco Sisto, and Heather Raffo

Directed by Daniella Topol

Presented by the Epic Theatre Ensemble through July 13 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Theater Review: Slavey

Once upon a time I was having dinner with a somewhat well-known theater critic from a rather notorious New York City paper. We had just seen a very bad play by a famous writer. In between forkfuls and conversation lulls I had the feeling this critic was hitting on me. With a twenty-something’s attempt to discourage him with subtlety, I talked about the actresses in the production that I thought were hot (which took some doing, as there were only two and one was 78).

I also attempted to pick apart the play. It was then this critic said something that has stayed with me ever since: “By discussing it we grant it legitimacy.” I assumed he meant the play, so I went back to telling him how much I loved breasts.

The last thing I want to do is grant legitimacy to a play like Slavey, Sigrid Gilmer’s exercise in pointless scribbling, which is part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks 2008 series.

But here we are.

It runs at the Ohio Theater until June 28, and it is a shame that Clubbed Thumb, much lauded and beloved by downtown actors and enthusiasts, must close its Summerworks project with such a dud.

Set in the not-too-distant future (one in which MP3 players aren’t yet obsolete, anyway, and a couple thousand dollars can get you safely underground), we meet Robert and Nora, a sexually frustrated couple who have just purchased a new slave (or “slavey”). In this part of the world (America?), when a company is sold, the employees are sold with it. Ted, their bondservant, has spent his whole life working construction jobs. The fact that Robert thinks Ted would make a fitting domestic immediately calls into question his managerial skills and the premise of this play.

The couple also has a young son, unimaginatively named Sonny, who is portrayed by Edward Nattenberg in a strong but—given the play he’s in—negligible performance. The child is in mourning for a lost pet, and spends most of the play behaving like a petulant dog. He easily and endlessly annoys his parents with this behavior which makes it all the harder to understand why they would have gone out and bought a giant dog suit for him to wear.

When one of the spouses commits an infidelity with Ted, the slave is then subject to torture. Before long he exacts revenge, egged on by his friend… a stick.

There are ten actors in this play. Ten uneven actors to be sure, and half of them appear to be under-rehearsed, but ten people. All under the direction of Robert O’Hara. That’s eleven people. Add Sigrid Gilmer herself, and that’s a minimum of twelve people, all working on putting this play up, applying their minds, talents, and energies to it. And yet after all this artistic collaboration, it seems no one thought to point out that the script contains a host of half-baked ideas and is potholed with logical gap after logical gap. Even the twelve apostles were willing to ask a few tough questions before opening night.

But Slavey does represent a miracle in that it has been produced at all. Even by Clubbed Thumb.

Here’s the bottom line. Whether a piece of theater is intended to be whimsical, abstract, kitchen sink, or avant-garde, for it to be worthwhile it must be able to do at least one of two things: entertain or communicate an idea. Slavey does neither. To reduce it even further, a successful work of art must be able to simply compel my interest. Slavey fails at even this—and I’ve stared at static, read Ayn Rand, and seen every episode of The Brady Bunch. It’s not that hard, especially if I’m already in the room and the lights are out.

Tim Frank as Ted is a likable actor, and one with a respectable range. He easily navigates his character’s arc, from wisecracking smartass to wisecracking psychopath. The fact that we’ve seen this type of character in just about every movie since the invention of the antihero isn’t his fault. Frank provides a strong anchor for a production that doesn’t know which port it wants to pull into.

As Lucille, one of Ted’s fellow slaves, Amanda Duarte has taken it upon herself to provide much of the play’s comic relief. As she warms into her performance, she gets funnier and even appears to have the makings of a young Carol Burnett. But overall her schtick doesn’t work here (her stress-induced sneezing bit works even less), and much of the eventual laughter comes as a response to the effort rather than as effect. Giving us such a contented, happy-go-lucky slave ultimately serves to further confuse the tenor of the production.

Moderately more successful are Spencer Scott Barros, Paco Tolson, and Gita Reddy as three of the slave owners. Though Robert O’Hara’s direction permits their scenes to drag somewhat, these actors bravely fight against the undertow with some bold choices and charisma.

Most of the effort (and, presumably, money) has gone in to the set, wardrobe, and lighting designs (how much hazard pay, for instance, could Nattenberg have received if they had given him the money instead of spending it on that suffocating dog costume?). The lighting is the most striking and impressive of all, but falls victim to its own wantonness. The final, predictable and obligatory pseudo-nude scene is packed so tightly with symbolism that it fails to be symbolic of anything at all.

Perhaps all of this could be justified. Perhaps the lack of a sensible plot, perhaps the one-dimensional characters, perhaps even the muddy paced and overly episodic progression of scenes could all make sense and pay off if Gilmer had given us a point. But what is it?

One is tempted to wonder whether Slavey is intended as a commentary on race relations. Many names and locations in the play are riffs on the word “white.” But if I choose to count colors in this production, I notice that not only are the slaves ethnically mixed, but so are the slave owners.

So what is Gilmer trying to get across? That slavery is bad? Welcome to the 19th century. That if you exploit the workers they become resentful and rebel? The 20th century figured that out by the time it grew pubes. Is she maybe trying to say that the insensitive rich wear too much make up and dress like blind golfers on an episode of Laugh-In? Maybe—and this is stretching it—she’s telling us that social standing defines us more than genetics do, and in the end people are… well… people. Sorry, Sigrid, but Depeche Mode already covered that and you could dance to their version.

The only thing I know is that if I prod any further into it, I risk giving Slavey a legitimacy it doesn’t warrant. The subject of breasts would be far more deserving.


Written by Sigrid Gilmer

With Spencer Scott Barros, Glenn L. Cruz, Amanda Duarte, Tim Frank, Hasani Issa, Jocelyn Kuritsky, Edward Nattenberg, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Gita Reddy, and Paco Tolson

Directed by Robert O’Hara

Presented by Clubbed Thumb at the Ohio Theater through June 28, 2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Theater Review: How Theater Failed America

There are two things that disappoint me about reviewing Mike Daisey’s latest monologue performance, How Theater Failed America. First, the show closes tomorrow, so no matter how much I praise his work, it will do him no good. And second, this blog is only two days old and nobody reads it yet. So it will help him even less.

Having worked in theater in a variety of performance, writing, and yes, administrative jobs, I was surprised to learn how common my experience must be, judging from Daisey’s own trajectory. Less surprising is how universal the desire for a Reformation Movement in the American theater is… or at least a very public gossip session. It’s too early yet to say whether Daisey will be the industry’s Martin Luther, but it is impossible to confuse him with Thomas More, and he’s certainly no gossipy hen.

The fact is How Theater Failed America is more sophisticated than any manifesto, far funnier and more entertaining than an excommunication, and unlike the average Union Square zealot or university stowaway, Mike Daisey knows what of he speaks. Many times his performance made me think that if South Park’s Eric Cartman grew to adulthood and used his powers for good instead of evil, this is what it might look like.

At 35, he draws on over 15 years’ worth of theatrical experience, and seems to equate each gig he’s had with the other: from joining five college classmates to run a rat-infested ramshackle summer rep in western Maine (where the moose to person ratio is twelve to one), to masturbating pro bono at a garage theater in Seattle (seating capacity 17), to performing his acclaimed monologues at some of our nation’s most prestigious venues. And that is as it should be.

If one defines himself as a lover of the theater, he doesn’t see each gig as a building block on the way to a career but rather as evidence of one. And although he’s been at this for nearly two decades yet most of us have only heard of him around that same time we heard of Obama, Daisey’s thesis is not hard to infer: his recent success is part of our problem.

In a refreshingly honest evening, Daisey starts off by telling us many of his bookings come when theaters/institutions/machines have had to cancel a larger, more expensive show and must now find something relevant and efficient/cheap and easy with which to fill the season/slot. The fact that more than one artistic director/CEO have greenlit Daisey while having no firsthand knowledge of his work comes as rather shocking.

But the piece is surprisingly non-confrontational. Indeed, the fact that Daisey performs at the very type of theaters he calls to task is an irony I suppose we’ll have to live with. They won’t blacklist him for this. He isn’t really attacking the status quo, but tries his best to explain how it came to be. American theater is being attacked primarily by one thing in Daisey’s view, and it has nothing to do with politics, money, audiences, or the way things are done in Europe. Instead, it can be boiled down to fear.

Artistic leaders are rebels at heart, says Daisey, but they are saddled with administrative jobs. Can we imagine Che Guevara changing the water cooler or submitting his receipts to Fidel? But whether these revolutionaries have it made or are barely making it, they know they could have less. And though we know that to corporations, job one is self preservation, we neglect to realize that our institutional theaters are corporations (in fact, nonprofit corporations). If they fail, Daisey wonders, then what will that say about the time, effort, and people that were invested all those years? Better to keep the concern going so we never have to find out. Hence, serious theaters spend more time hiring marketers, fund raisers, and architects than they do putting on good plays.

But this is a personal issue for Mike Daisey, not an exercise in forensics, not an essay, not, ahem, a blog post. In an extremely touching episode a little over halfway through, we learn how theater once saved his life. He doesn’t say it like that, he doesn’t even begin to. But that is one of the special hues that punctuate How Theater Failed America.

You see, Daisey is a loquacious man. To make a forte out of the self-composed monologue format, I guess it helps. One can see how with a little beer, a bad breakup, and some time to kill, he could be absolutely grating. But he has the kind of vocabulary that a democratic version of the English language would give to all of us (though he’s a tad redundant in his choice of profanity). He drops metaphors and fifty-cent words like he’s bailing water. But he talks around some of the most poignant, perceptive ideas and images one human being can ever communicate to a room of others, and you can't help but be nudged in a rather sublime direction. If he spelled out these sentiments we’d all feel embarrassed. But the way his narrative is structured is what separates this from a lecture and elevates it to some of the highest and most moving art.

It also doesn’t hurt that Daisey is hilarious. Absolutely hilarious. Just sitting there, he’s funny. Talking, not talking, scrunching up his face, or showing us a thin-lipped but billboard size grimacey grin scrawled onto his head.

If there is a call to arms, Daisey doesn’t express it as such, either. Instead it is a declaration that things are going to change in the American theater. It is a foregone conclusion, he tells us. They will change because all it takes to change it is to conquer fear. Just as great art is made by not caring what the critics will think, our American theaters must learn not to care whether or not they get new buildings or can afford the rent in the ones they’re in. The young are the only animals who know no fear, and Daisey assures us that they will step up and fill their role. He doesn’t think they’ll make the same mistakes, and come full circle. By the end of the show you almost believe him.

I reckon that Mike Daisey has known at least as much fear as the average person. And yet he survives. For as soon as you know you’ll survive, what is there left to be afraid of?

How Theater Failed America

Created and Performed by Mike Daisey

Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory

Runs through June 22, 2008, at the Barrow Street Theater

Friday, June 20, 2008

Play Review: Our Betters

by W. Somerset Maugham

My copy of Our Betters is contained in an anthology of Maugham’s comedies, a paperback that is missing both covers, and was actually soaked through to the fibers years ago when I was washing my car and got it wet (I believe I actually noticed mold growing on some of the wrinkled pages). More than once I’ve had the inclination to throw it out, but I had so enjoyed reading The Constant Wife, one of its other titles, that I would ultimately decide to keep the book.

Our Betters is probably not one of Maugham’s best plays, but that still says quite a lot. Maugham on his worst day was bound to be better than the average writer on his good one. After recently reading another British play by a writer of Maugham’s generation, The Bed Before Yesterday by Ben Travers, I have come to really respect the craftsmanship of playwriting, to some degree more than the “art” of it. And Our Betters has served to underscore that admiration.

Travers and Maugham seem to have excelled at the “nuts and bolts” aspect of storytelling, something we are often encouraged to laugh at and dismiss in our era of throwing off old conventions, grabbing an audience by the throat, and either shocking or boring them to death. But there is a certain nobility in being a practical citizen of the theater, and an inherent value to balancing the logic that goes in to making sure your entrances and exits make sense, that all characters can play their varied scenes on a unit set, and that at least one or two have time for the key costume changes.

I do not mean to praise any sort of formulaic “well-made play.” True, every play in my criminally mistreated little volume of Maugham takes place in a grand drawing room, each one is populated by representatives of the moneyed class, the demographic gaps filled in by small servant parts (possibly set aside for apprentice actors or the journeymen nearing retirement). And each character Maugham introduces to us is born as fully-formed as Adam, with a complete personality and value system that will change little and develop not at all.

But the satisfaction of reading (and I would presume watching) Our Betters rests not on discovery and surprise, but rather the joy of seeing how the predictability is fulfilled.

Set in England, the characters are almost entirely American. It centers on the practice of down on their luck aristocrats marrying foreign (American) ladies for their money. In exchange for financial security, the grooms bestow a title of nobility and what is left of the ancestral home upon their brides: an expensive transaction (does it even come with a piece of paper, I wonder), but one that is sure to impress the folks back home in Illinois. When and if the marriages prove to be less than romantically blissful, an assortment of less blue-blooded but more exciting lovers can always be found if one should look. If done correctly, the women just might succeed in forgetting that they ever were Americans.

The play is reminiscent of that ancient but delightful Royall Tyler comedy, The Contrast. The Americans more or less keep to themselves, perhaps because they are the only ones willing to reassure each other of their new European identities (some sly humor is suggested in the assertions that the Virginian Thornton Clay and Duchesse du Surrenes—aka “Minnie”—haven’t a trace of an American accent… but I rather suspect that characters who still refer to one another as Bessie, Flora, Minnie, and Pearl haven’t quite perfected the game).

If there is a “Colonel Manly” in Our Betters, it would have to be Fleming Harvey, a recent Harvard graduate who proves more than a little engaging once you get over the unfortunate moniker Maugham has saddled him with. He has come to visit his childhood fiancée Bessie in London, who has broken their engagement in order to marry an English lord (like her sister Pearl). Harvey still carries a flicker for Bessie but is genuine in his desire to grant her freedom, and genuine in his principles. The closest thing to a moral center, he never really moralizes. He’s proud of being an American, but doesn’t have enough stage time to let the sentiment ferment into jingoism (not that it would). Fair minded and mature beyond his years, the character is an understated standout (but alas, likely too young for me to play now).

The injection of Fleming into this mix is what really makes me think Our Betters would make for an intriguing revival today. Given the reputation of the United States around the world (or at least Americans’ perception of our reputation around the world), there’s just enough relevance to pull the play out of its 1930s vacuum without sinking into polemics, preaching, and boredom. And the fact that Maugham was about as British as one could be and yet chose to focus over a hundred pages on the American character would certainly offer plenty of insights for either side to mull.

The Duchesse is the most emotionally effective role. Everyone does exactly what is expected of them, but none do it better than she. Bad decision follows ill-conceived rationalization, which in turn follows sheer stupidity. But the genius of Maugham is how it never becomes tiresome. She lives entirely in those moments we’ve all had, those moments when we don’t want to believe something is true, and our only comfort is self-deception. The Duchesse as drawn by a lesser writer would come off as shrill and unsympathetic. Under Maugham, she makes your soul bleed. He may not move her forward, but he certainly digs deep.

I must also confess that while reading the play I couldn’t get the voice of actress Angelica Torn out of my head. I can’t imagine a more effective performer to embody the dynamic and commanding lead role of Pearl (without whom the play would be disjointed scraps of aborted promise). I’ve never been a groupie of any sort, and would rather die a slow and humiliating death than be likened to one of those people who throw themselves at the Mamma Roses of the world. But if there were any chance of Angelica Torn playing the role of Pearl, that alone would be worth staging it.

The play is surprisingly long given its content, and I suspect that a production would hover around three hours. So I was disappointed at the uncharacteristically pat ending. The plot, as such, is worthy of a Three’s Company contrivance (one of our ladies dallies with the lover of another—as we knew she would since the outset of Act Two). The plot alone is not worth staying after intermission for, but it does deserve a better resolution. In Maugham’s haste, hurt feelings are soothed and the two sisters break from one another (and perhaps Fleming Harvey even wins the day) all in the span of two pages. These same two pages also serve to introduce a minor character, the dance teacher Ernest, who has nowhere near enough time to justify his influence in patching everything up. But if the intermission proves too crowded to make you get up, perhaps your bladder wouldn't mind a quick ending.

In reading plays, I do always hope to find a role well-suited to me, and if I’m lucky, one with a good audition monologue. While I was most taken with the role of Fleming, I would point out that Bessie’s would-be husband, Lord Harry Bleane, would do just fine.