Friday, February 19, 2016

What Makes a Bad Play Bad

Last night I walked out on a play at intermission.  I really so rarely do this -- this might be the second time ever, with the other time also being here in Toronto.  I think part of it is just finally valuing my time more, and no longer feeling obligated to stick things out if I think a production is fundamentally misguided and/or the acting is bad or grates on my nerves.  Anyway, I left George Brown's production of The Suicide, and I thought I would take just a few minutes to write down where I think they went wrong.

I actually didn't feel all that invested in the play.  I only wanted to see two plays at George Brown (Lady Windermere's Fan, which was quite good) and the upcoming The Beaux' Stratagem.  But you needed to pick a third show to make a subscription, so I picked Nicholai Erdman's The Suicide, which is a black comedy personally banned by Stalin.  So it certainly has the same credentials and a bit of the same sensibilities as Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog.  It also had a bit of the same manic energy (and episodic quality) of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

There were some really great aspects to this show, but they couldn't overcome the fact that it is simply too long.  I generally do feel three hours is too long, but if all scenes are essential, that is different story and I will stick it out (though somewhat grudgingly).  In this case, the intermission actually didn't even arrive until 1 hour 45 minutes into the play, so I felt like I had seen a full play (and certainly gotten my money's worth), which was another factor in leaving.  I just wasn't interested enough in the ending to stick it out, but I should be able to borrow a copy of the play and see how many more twists and turns there were before the final curtain.

Here, there were too many scenes focusing on Semyon Semyonovitch and his disappointing home life and the chaotic Moscow apartment he lives in. Erdman really should have cut out several episodes early on that just distracted from the main theme of the worn-out man's suicide (or the director should have negotiated further cuts from the translated version).

Instead, the director blew everything up, making everything a big farce, with little to no variation in tone (or volume).  That's a big mistake.  Then there was some ridiculousness of moving a door around on casters, so that each person knocking on the apartment door entered in from a different part of the stage.  But it was the same apartment.  It could have been just as effective to have a clown car effect with a fixed door.  I think close to 10 minutes were wasted just on moving the door around and later spinning the room so that the bed was oriented 90 degrees differently.  And for what reason?  It wasn't that the bedroom scenes were handled any differently from this perspective.  (Just pointless wankery from a director who focuses too much on the set.  One thing I have never quite understood is that actors and directors never quite get that just because they get a kick out of doing something on stage, their infectious enthusiasm doesn't automatically translate into a good time for the audience.  If something is pointless, like moving a door around on stage, then it will just bore the audience regardless of how fun it is for the actors.  If it doesn't serve the story or actually illuminate something about the play, then don't do it.)

I had actually been willing to give a student director a bit of slack, but it turns out that George Brown brings in these wunderkind directors to give the students the experience of working with a professional.  That's great, but in my mind, that means that the director then should be judged as a professional, even if allowances are still made for the students doing the acting.  It's interesting that the director (Mitchell Cushman) cares a great deal about "space" and sets, but to me, this is largely a distraction from telling the story well.  I realize I am not in step with the prevailing received wisdom, but, on the basis of this production, I think Cushman is overrated and frankly not a very good director.  I'll think twice or thrice before seeing anything else directed by him.

As an aside, I have been reading Tess Slessinger's The Unpossessed (which clearly merits its own review when I can carve out the time...) and I was thinking that a manic scene inspired by the delivery of a file cabinet (in this book) might go over well at SFYS.  I had something in mind like the inspired lunacy of the Marx Brothers.  Maybe that was what Cushman was going for here as well, but this production points out how hard it is to sustain and that you need truly amazing performers to pull it off.  Also, if one thinks back to the Marx Brothers films, they still have down time.  And they didn't try to make domestic violence funny, as Cushman does here.  He clearly lost some of the audience at this point.  The person next to me left about 10 minutes into the play (a pretty stunning departure from protocol), and throughout, I could see a lot of people looking at their programs and not at the action on stage.  While most of the audience may have returned after the intermission, they just were not engaged a lot of the time.

This is definitely a shame, since there were some really great set pieces, including the representative of the Russian intelligentsia wanting to use the suicide to promote his agenda and the debate between the butcher and the artist.  (But even here, the bitter feud between the two women was boring and could easily have been cut to improve the flow of the play.)  I generally thought the big banquet scene at the end of Act I went over well.  But I really disliked the main character, Semyon Semyonovitch.  The actor had him put on this weird hysterical laugh/nervous tic.  He was generally an unpleasant sort, and almost all his scenes had too much clowning that just dragged.  All of this could have been cut back and streamlined, and it would have made the play so much better.  When you can hardly bear to stick around to watch the main character of a play, and you are only interested in the side characters, that to me is the sign of a badly directed play.  It's a shame, as The Suicide certainly had a lot of potential, but it was just wasted.  So definitely a thumbs down from me.

Coda: I was able to check out a copy of the play from Robarts.  First, I was a bit surprised that there is no hint at all of the mute boy looking a bit like Semyon Semyonovitch.  That is something that the director must have taken from Dostoevsky's The Double, which then allowed him to engage in more self-indulgent theatrics -- one of those mirror exercises that work a lot better as a warm up exercise than as something to put up on stage.  (This is why I think Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation is really aimed at theatre insiders and is not that interesting to a general audience.  Well, at least not interesting to me.)  I will say, however, that it was already obvious that Semyon Semyonovitch was trying to weasle his way out of fulfilling his end of the bargain (committing suicide) and the doubling made me wonder if he was going to try to pull the old switcheroo, but that would have been too much a departure from the text.  Reading over the last two acts, I am a little sorry I missed out on the mute boy seeing Semyon Semyonovitch in the coffin, as they might have been interesting, though I personally think that the director undercut the effectiveness of this scene due to the doubling.  Again, I'm not quite sure what he did do, though it was probably over the top.  The remaining two scenes have lots more hysterics and overacting for the character playing Semyon Semyonovitch, and I am glad I missed that.  The ending is nicely ironic, but I kind of doubt it really landed as well as it should have, given how big everything was played throughout the play.  In my case, leaving early was definitely the right decision, since I already saw the most interesting scenes up to and including the banquet, and I was spared another hour of over-acting and poor directing.  Again, what a shame.

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