Friday, May 20, 2016

Feel-Bad Theatre

I should say upfront that I do try to go to a range of theatre, and I definitely do prefer more challenging theatre to comfortable plays.  On the other hand, done well, a really good comedy, such as The Importance of Being Ernest, can be extremely welcome.  In general, however, I do tend to prefer novelty (i.e. plays I haven't seen before) and tougher pieces in general.  The reverse is true for my classical musical listening, where I do gravitate to more familiar pieces and certainly towards pieces with melody, though I still carve out at least some time for contemporary composers.

All that said, I basically avoid plays that are primarily about the horrors of war, about drug use and inner city violence or about serial killers and/or rapists.  I don't think there is anything useful I am going to get out of these plays, since I've seen enough of them to last a lifetime.  While they fall slightly outside of the above categories, I have not wanted to see Tracey Letts' early works, Bug or Killer Joe, because the plots sort of weirded me out.  So I passed up recent productions of both here in Toronto.

In the spirit of still occasionally challenging myself, I have seen three plays recently that have all been real downers: Dreams of the Penny Gods by Callie Kimball (at Halcyon in Chicago), Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced (covered in the second half of this post) and Donald Margulies's The Model Apartment.  All three left me dispirited in different ways, though I suppose they all could be described as black comedies of a sort.  Having seen them (and suffered a bit through them), I would still go to 2 of the 3, but I probably would have passed on Disgraced.  I'll write a bit about the other two in my somewhat scattered way.

Be warned, there will definitely be SPOILERS.

Furthermore, while I generally pooh-pooh TRIGGER WARNINGS, in the case of The Model Apartment, if you (or more likely someone you care deeply about) suffered through the Holocaust, you may want to avoid this play.  At the very least, be aware that references to the Holocaust come up repeatedly -- and that Holocaust survivors are not uniformly portrayed as saintly.

I will start with Dreams of the Penny Gods, which is relatively unlikely to get further stagings, but you never know.  As I mentioned, the set was quite impressive, with all this junk all over the place.  It turns out that Bug and her mother live in a storage warehouse, more or less scavenging through all the abandoned stuff.  I found out after the play, that the setting was supposed to be Maine, whereas I thought (based on the accents) they were slightly outside of Boston.  In several ways, I think the Boston setting makes more sense (isn't there so much empty space in Maine that people wouldn't need storage lockers?), I suppose the pending separation of Bug from her only real friend in the world, Sister Gloria, seems even worse when the distance from New York City jumps from 200 miles to 300 miles, though as Gloria says it is still just a bus ride away.

When the play opens, Bug is trying to summon a god of the dead, using some spell book she has apparently cobbled together from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and an encyclopedia set left behind in one of the storage lockers.  Over time, we learn that she has been home schooled by her mother, Kitty, who is a real piece of work.

Kitty was really the hardest thing to swallow about the whole play.  She is obviously a total monster, who loves tormenting anyone weaker than her, particularly Bug and Sister Gloria.  She is a former grifter and small-time drug dealer, who has joined the Jehovah's Witnesses. It isn't entirely clear if she actually is a believer or just thinks of this as another sort of a scam.  In the first case, she is so far from any kind of genuine joy that it is really hard for me to believe the Witnesses wouldn't eventually have kicked her out.  She is just nasty all the time, and that is one thing that they (generally) don't put up with.  In the second case, the financial return from running rummage sales (even from things she had stolen from the storage lockers) just doesn't seem worth it, even for a petty crook like her.  This disconnect of not believing she would have maintained her position of authority as an Elder member of the Jehovah's Witnesses kept undermining my interest in the play, since I just didn't believe it.  I mean all kinds of things can happen with religious cults, but for me, this character was too much.  I guess my line is that while quite a few religious leaders are actually troubled individuals, they at least can hide this fairly well.  Kitty's veneer of pleasantness (or even normalcy) is tissue-thin, and I simply couldn't buy that she could maintain her facade long enough to be elected as an Elder.  (Note: apparently, the author's mother was a lapsed Jehovah's Witness, which could explain a lot.)

Anyway, Bug is trying to raise some god in order to bring on Armageddon, so it's not like she doesn't have her own issues.  She is interrupted by her mother and Sister Gloria, and we see just how dysfunctional this family is.  Kitty hands out harsh and unjust punishments for no reason at all, and she browbeats Sister Gloria constantly.  She won't even let Bug get the glasses she needs, which is the first sign that this abuse is really deep-seated.

After they leave, Bug starts up the spell again and summons her father, Bobby, who was supposedly dead.  This is actually a fairly creepy and effective moment.  I thought the story of Osiris was being referenced, since he was brought back to life by Isis.  I thought it was even more appropriate that Osiris and Isis were brother and sister, since when Bobby and Kitty meet, it becomes clear that Kitty is Bobby's mother.  It then takes a while to dispel the incest theme (it turns out that Kitty is actually Bug's grandmother not her mother), though it actually returns towards the end of the play.  Gross.  We find out that Bobby was simply in prison, largely for his role in the death of Bug's actual mother, but that Kitty had told Bug that he died in a construction accident.  In addition, we find out that Bobby is a different kind of terrible person than his mother, and that the two are certainly made for each other.

The playwright makes it clear that Bobby and Kitty are basically modern-life equivalents of Grendel and his mother, though Bobby doesn't have his arm torn off, at least during the events recounted in the play.  I won't detail the final twists and turns, but basically Bug is liberated from these two and sets fire to their living quarters and essentially hitches a ride down to New York City to try to meet up with Sister Gloria.  So one can see this as a positive ending, though she is a pretty messed up kid who will need a lot of therapy to get over this.  I really struggled with the simulated beatings that she endured from her mother, and overall this play dragged me down, even though one could view it as having a positive resolution.

Interestingly, the reason that Sister Gloria was going to New York City was to help them close down their massive property in Brooklyn and put it up for sale.  This actually occurred in 2016, slightly after the play was written.  Despite Kushner writing a bit about Mormons in New York City, I always thought that this big center for Jehovah's Witnesses in the heart of Mammon ought to be explored.  Will I ever do it?  Probably not.  For a take on L.A. based on slightly similar lines, i.e. a subplot about a religious cult organizing in the neighborhood, one can look to Thomas Sanchez's Zoot-Suit Murders, which I may get around to rereading one of these days.

Turning to a play still in production, Donald Margulies's The Model Apartment is running through May 29 up in North York.  Here if you still want to go after reading the rest of the post.

As I had mentioned, probably my main interest in seeing the play was that Eric Peterson was in it.  I'm happy to report that the universe didn't implode when we were in the same space (a bit of a running joke at RedOne).  He is quite good as Max.  In general the acting is strong, though I did tend to find the shrieking of the Debby character just a bit too much (presumably that was the point).  There will no doubt be some questions whether they could have found a starring senior actor who is actually Jewish, but I will leave that aside.  I will say his performance was very different from the irascible coot he played on TV.

The play starts off with this couple turning up at a condo development in the middle of the night.  Their place isn't ready, so they have to stay in a model apartment, and it turns out that basically everything is for show -- the TV and refrigerator don't work.  There are no knobs on the kitchen cabinets and so forth.  But they've made it to Florida, where they are retiring, so they can finally relax.  Fortunately, the fold-out sofa does work, so they do a bit of canoodling and get into bed.  Lights down.

When the lights come up, there is a stranger in the room.  It isn't a regular thief, but their daughter, Debbie.  After this the play swerves into totally different territory.  We have been lulled into a false sense of what this play will actually be about.  Now I had been prepared, but not everyone in the audience had been.  From time to time, there were actual gasps from the audience as the play gets darker and darker.

This piece is actually a pretty good exploration of the play.  It does feel like an even more claustrophobic Long Day's Journey into Night (there was far more breathing room in that play, also usually only two or three characters were on-stage at one time, and the gaps between each act were 2 or 3 hours long).  Here it is all one act and the action resumes only a few minutes after each blackout.  It becomes a nightmare that will just not end.  Even though it is only 80 minutes long, I could definitely have done with 10 or even 20 minutes less...

In short, Debby is the daughter that they have tried to leave behind.  She clearly isn't institutionalized, but perhaps she is in some kind of group home.  Max can't understand how they didn't get notified that she had left Brooklyn, and Lola has to remind him that they don't have a phone with them and there isn't one that works in the apartment.  (The play was first produced in 1995, though it is set in 1988 when beepers would have been common but not cell phones).  While it isn't spelled out in a 40-point headline, Debby is essentially a dybbuk.  She was named after Max's daughter who died in a concentration camp while Max was hiding out in the forest.  While this renaming is bit of a cultural tradition in some parts of Europe, this play highlights some of the problems that come from layering on expectations upon newborns by giving them the names of the revered dead.  Debby herself explains that she is so fat because she is eating for all the Holocaust victims who were starving to death; she feels them all inside her skin.  Clearly, she has major issues.  (I can't remember if this rant happens before or after her mentally-challenged, homeless, Black boyfriend breaks into the apartment, and she introduces him to her parents before initiating a hot and heavy petty session with him.  Again, pretty gross and certainly inappropriate, but it is made crystal clear how few boundaries she has.)

Debby's mother Lola has her own issues to deal with, including the fact that she was forced to pretend not to recognize her own mother, just to live a few days longer in the camps.  What becomes quite evident is that she has been telling Holocaust stories to her daughter, almost as a bedtime story, since Debby can tell some of the stories along with her mother, word for word, including a fantasy that she befriended Anne Frank in Belsen, and that she encouraged her to write a second diary that unfortunately was never recovered.

Margulies makes some very good points that while one should never forget the Holocaust, dwelling on it obsessively, has been damaging to at least some survivors and particularly their families.  I suppose one sees the same thing in Spiegelman's Maus. Some people are simply not able to recover from such indescribable trauma and some are.  Max has considerably greater equanimity than Lola, and basically retreats into dreams of life with his perfect first daughter.  He is more than happy to walk away from his broken daughter, while Lola doesn't feel able to abandon her.  I can see both sides, but I'm probably closer to Max in that I can cut things out of my life, especially when it seems essential for self-preservation.

The Jewish Week piece had a few quotes from Margulies.  I think I read somewhere else that he was getting a bit tied of plays that danced around the topic of the Holocaust and the sometimes less than perfect actions of the survivors.  This would be the play that was so over-the-top that people would hesitate to tackle the subject again.  Perhaps I am imagining this.  It is clear that this is a hard play to take and a hard play to stage.  It is essentially a black comedy without a proper resolution.  One could really play up the comic aspects (like when Debby says she will reinvent herself as Deb-bor-ah, perhaps a bit like Barbra Streisand) or make it a bit absurdist.  I'd say this production plays it very straight, and there are just not many laughs to be had after Debby turns up.

This is a reasonable review, though I'd probably only go as high as 3 stars.  One thing that really continued to annoy me was how much Yiddish and German was spoken throughout the play.  It was quite alienating.  While I could basically make out what Max was saying to Debby (the first Debby), there were a couple of points I missed because the "punchline" was in German.  At some point, Debby actually shrieks at her parents to speak English, and it was the one time that I basically agreed with her.  This is definitely a tough play, and while I don't regret seeing it, I have trouble recommending it, since the ending is so downbeat.  Still, kudos to Harold Green for taking it on and doing a creditable job.

As a bit of a side-note, last night I saw another black comedy, though this is more a proper comedy leading to catharsis, since the outcome appears to be positive, for at least most of the characters.  This was The Anniversary by Bill MacIlwraithEast Side Players are doing this play through June 4, so there are two and a half weeks to go.  There are truly terrible things that are said about the various family members, and you have to think that these three browbeaten sons all have more than their fair share of Stockholm Syndrome.  My companion commented how a normal person really would leave the house (or at least the room) after being so insulted, and I said that the play seemed to be a riff on Sartre's No Exit where people are stuck together (and are actually in a kind of hell) or better yet Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel where guests just can't leave a party.  This isn't strictly true as occasionally some actors do go off-stage, but for the most part they cannot escape Mum's magnetic yet malevolent personality.

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