09 July 2009

'The Connection'

[15 July is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the original Living Theatre production of The Connection. The play ran for years in the Living's rep, accumulating 778 performances between 15 July 1959 and 31 March 1963. In view of this historic moment, I’m now posting this report, which I wrote a few days after seeing the revival, in recognition of the importance of the event.]

I took the opportunity of the revival of the Living Theatre’s landmark production of Jack Gelber’s The Connection to go down to Loisaida on 5 February and check out this bit of theater history. Charles Isherwood had given the revival of The Connection, which ran from 8 January to 13 February, a decidedly mixed review in the Times, but it happens that I wrote the entry for the play in The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre (1993), so I wanted to see it myself. It's not often that you get to go back a little in time and check out a theatrical experience that had such an impact, perhaps even changing everything that came afterwards. (No less a figure than Edward Albee, who made his own successful Off-Broadway debut the next year, asserted, "I was so affected and energized by 'The Connection.' It was exciting, dangerous, instructive and terrifying . . . .") You can go back and look at the paintings and sculptures that redirected the Dark Ages into the Renaissance or launched Impressionism. You can read Zola's Thérèse Raquin and see how literary realism began, but you can't go back and witness the time Sophocles stunned Athens by introducing a third actor to the stage or recapture the astonishment in the audiences the first time they saw Hair in the late '60s (despite its popular, Broadway-bound revival just now). Sure, there are revivals of Ibsen’s Doll House and Osborne's Look Back in Anger, but they are usually re-conceptions or modern interpretations. Few directors want to reconstruct their predecessors' results; they want to create their own. But here was the Living attempting to recreate the production that, in its way, defined mid-century American avant-garde theater, and Judith Malina, the original director, was going to stage it again herself. I sure had to take a shot at that.

Of course, no one can really turn the clock back, and the times have gone by: the original actors are dead or retired, Julian Beck (who designed the original set) is gone, and none of us is as theatrically naïve as the spectators were in the summer of '59. The Living Theatre's old building at 6th Avenue and 14th Street is still standing (it's an eyeglass store now), but the company's moved many times since then, including a five-year self-exile in Europe, so the performance space is different and the Lower East Side in the 2009 isn't Greenwich Village at the end of the 1950s. But maybe something of the old atmosphere remains hovering about the city, like that sweet smell New Yorkers experienced last January, when the revival opened, but couldn't identify until a month later. Maybe there's still a little Proustian magic in the madeleine, and a glimpse of that remarkable experience is possible even in 2009. (And it's not like I can't get lost in a theatrical world, either. I still remember seeing Pat Carroll in GS3 back in June 1980 and literally thinking, as I was watching the performance, "Gee, Stein's a fascinating person. I'm so glad I met her.")

Well, as theater history, a so-called museum production, The Connection was fine, and I'm more than glad to have seen it, even half a century after the fact. I'm trusting Malina, who is 82 now, to have recreated the basic theatrical mise-en-sène of the original staging as much as is possible with a new cast (only one of whom could possibly have even been alive in 1959!) and a different performance space. I have enough of an imagination to conjure up in that little theater offering the whopping great experience with the prompting of Malina's backward glance. I think I can also put myself in the mindset of the less-jaded and theatrically less-well-traveled spectator who sat there in 1959 and had never seen anything like it before. (To be honest, I was a little primed before I walked into the theater on Clinton Street. Having read something of the production when I did the research for the CGAT article--and having pretty much grown up with the notion of the famous Connection because it is part of theater lore--I may have been projecting the show in my imagination onto the one at the Living last winter. What can I do?)

I'll assume that most people know the outline of Gelber's Connection, that "it focused on the lives of heroin-addicted musicians listlessly awaiting their 'connection,' Cowboy" (as I wrote for CGAT) and that a jazz ensemble jammed on and off during the play. The audience is an "invited" bunch allowed to eavesdrop on this bit of "real life," which is an improvised play with producer and playwright in attendance, and a film crew on hand to record the experience. (Now it's a video crew.) The Connection, of course, was never actually improvised: Jack Gelber, who died in 2003, wrote it, after all (and it's published), though some of the dialogue might have been spontaneous‑‑or developed from spontaneity during rehearsals. (The Living had never been an improvisatory troupe up till then, though they later did engage in audience-interaction in some of their performances.) The "real life" witnessed by the spectators on 14th Street wasn't real--the characters were actors, not junkies (though, of course, being both wasn't impossible). There were, in fact, rumors that the cast were real addicts and that real smack was shot up on stage; it wouldn't surprise me if Julian Beck had started those rumors himself to keep the curious coming downtown. There were also reports of spectators fleeing the theater, finding the spectacle a bit too real and too hard to take; in London, audiences booed and shouted. Nothing like that happened down on Clinton Street (but, once again, I could imagine it that way 50 years ago).

There's little, if any, plot in The Connection: the characters wait in Leach's loft for Cowboy to arrive; he arrives; they get high. The end. The drama in The Connection is what everyone does while they wait--first for the dealer, then for the high to take hold. (Malina says that everyone's on a "search for the ecstatic," which the musicians look for in their music, Sister Salvation looks for "in the promise of Redemption," and the junkies in "the flash of the heroin.") They bicker, they philosophize, they confess--often to us, since we're "there"--and each character gets a soliloquy, delivered directly to us. I don't think that was a brand-new concept even in '59--the idea of the audience being literally present for the characters--but it wasn't common. And married to the edginess of the jonesing characters, the doping, and the general seamy alienness of the life they're witnessing up close, it's easy to see how a middle-class audience at the end of the Eisenhower era might find this experience exciting, even disturbing--but The Connection became the Living's most successful and, after Paradise Now, its most iconic performance and, as I noted, has gone down in theater history. (It was also filmed in 1962 and the music, composed by Freddie Redd, was recorded in 1960.)

In 1959, some critics rejected it, some embraced it. Louis Calta of the Times called the play "a farrago of dirt, small-time philosophy, empty talk and extended runs of 'cool' music"; and Walter Kerr in the Herald Tribune said that "the evening produced in me a restive feeling that we are at the end of the road, now, and faced with a choice: We must either return to believing in the possibility of art, which was the point we started at, or abandon the pretense to art altogether." Kenneth Tynan of Harper's Bazaar, the New Yorker, and London's Observer called The Connection "the most memorable theatrical experience at present accessible in New York," while Brooks Atkinson declared it "an engrossing piece of theatre in an obsessive style" that "cannot be ignored" in the Sunday Times. (In 2009, the critics were more united in their dismissal.)

Okay, all that's sort of prologue. As a contemporary theater experience, we got problems. Most of them are predictable and probably insurmountable, given the passage of time. As for the script, for example, it's hard to get exercised about junkie artists in our midst. After the '60s, with the deaths of so many from overdoses (Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison) and the celebrity junkies of the ensuing decades (Amy Winehouse, anyone?), it's just not shocking anymore. We've all lived too much since the '50s. The wasted lives, the days spent waiting for a fix or a high--well, even broadcast TV has that story in prime time a couple of times a week. (Hell, there's been a dope-dealing suburban mom on cable once a week for the past four years! Another cable net has a reality show of addiction interventions--though I can't imagine why anyone'd want to watch it!) Nothing anyone says in The Connection is shocking anymore. We've heard it all, sometimes in our own homes. Nothing Malina could have done, short of rewriting Gelber from scratch, could have changed that. (The characters don't shoot up on stage, by the way; it's done off stage, in the bathroom. That kind of mid-century squeamishness has passed, too: even the BBC's Sherlock Holmes series showed the great detective injecting himself with cocaine on screen.)

Then, theatrically: the concept of the "improvised" play, even the fake-improvised play, isn't new anymore, either. Plays with music aren't innovative now; they're commonplace: Sam Shepard did it in 1972 in The Tooth of Crime, for instance. Playing to a real audience is also a technique many companies have used or experimented with (Leo Shapiro, an avant-garde director I’ve written about, made it a hallmark of his work), just like confessional direct-address--on which entire Broadway (and HBO) performances have been based. All of the scary-fascinating new ideas for theater that Malina and Gelber originally incorporated in their production concept have become standard (which, of course, is why The Connection is historically significant). I don't know if you can go home again, but you can't run the clock back for real. The Connection is no longer an experience of unique impact; it is just a tribute. It's a little like comparing the first time I heard The Beatles sing "Hello Goodbye" in 1967 and hearing the current cover of the song by the Jonas Brothers: they sound a lot alike, but the impact isn't there.

Unhappily, though, it's not just the passage of the decades that damaged The Connection. Malina intended the current production to be present-day, not a glimpse into the late '50s. There were references to Starbucks, cell phones, and the current resident of the White House (unnamed, but clearly alluded to), not to mention the appearance of the afore-mentioned digital video camera. So, on top of all the other lost flashpoints, we have some anachronisms that drain the play of its full power. First, in 2009, the drug the junkies are waiting around for probably wouldn't be heroin--or at least not exclusively heroin. My inclination would be crack or meth, considering the demography of the group. (Cocaine would probably be out of their financial reach, as would pharmaceuticals.) Second, the music that would surround a bunch of 20-something dopers would less likely be jazz these days than rock. (The ensemble was a bass, a sax, drums, and a piano. Today there would probably be an electronic keyboard and electric bass in for the piano and strings. And, by the way, I'm not even gonna start wondering where the piano and drum set came from. Okay, maybe Leach has a piano in his pad, but does the drummer carry all his drums with him when he goes to someone's place to wait for his dealer?) Jazz is almost too high-toned now to fit the atmosphere of Gelber's world. The Man with the Golden Arm was 1955; if they made it today, the Sinatra character would be a rocker (and he'd be doing coke, crack, or meth). If you're gonna update, I think you hafta update, man. No half measures.

(Despite the updating, Gary Brackett--variously designated Director of Production and Director of Design--put a hula hoop on the wall of the loft, much to the consternation of the Times's Isherwood, who wondered why no one hula'd. Also, in the one truly absurdist moment--well, two: it was repeated in the second act--an unnamed man strode into the loft carrying a small case. Everyone stopped talking and watched as he opened the case to reveal a Victrola, plugged it into a light socket, and played a jazz 45. It wasn't an iPod, a CD-player, or even a tape-player, but an old-fashioned portable turntable. And a 45, to boot! So, is it real--present day--or is it Memorex--the '50s?)

I don't know if a '50s setting would have worked better--we spectators having been invited up to see an improvised play set a half century ago--but there might have been less time-bending that way. Other problems wouldn't have been so easily solved, and Judith Malina has to take responsibility for these. It's the acting, folks. Now, none of the actors was bad, but none was really more than competent. (I won't single out or name most of the actors because this was an ensemble performance and it was the group as a whole that failed. Isherwood did mention a couple of the cast members specially, but I don't feel that's warranted.) I imagine they'd all have done well enough in a conventional play, even a classic. But the fake improvisation and the audience-engagement didn't come anywhere near off. Everyone was so . . . well, actorly. This was especially so in the soliloquies each character has, when he (there are no women in the gang; the only female character is Sister Salvation, played by Malina herself) addresses us, and we're supposed to feel he's talking to us straight. But nothing in these moments seemed the least spontaneous or organic. The "producer," Jim Dunn (Tom Walker), was perhaps the worst: he seemed exactly like an actor playing a director in a sketch. As the "playwright," Jaybird (as in "naked as a . . ."?), Gelber's stand-in, Eric Olson was awkward and uncomfortable, as if he didn't know his lines or his cues or something. One of the cameramen (Isaac Scranton) kept saying, "That's the way it is. That's the way it really is." It's supposed to be a true expression of realization and bare-faced reaction but it sounded more like the mantra of the painter George Frederick Watts in Virginia Woolf’s Freshwater (which I saw a few weeks earlier last winter by the Women’s Project): "The Utmost for the Highest"--a hollow, meaningless phrase. The musicians were good as a band, but as characters, they were no better than the actors. (Their musical performances were terrific, but that was a problem for me, too. They weren't jamming while hanging around waiting for their fixes; they were performing. I never decided if they were supposed to be just noodling on their instruments because that's what musicians do when they're idle or if the virtuosity of their playing was another of Gelber's absurdist aspects, like the Victrola man and Sister Salvation. To enhance the improvisatory dynamic of the play, I think I'd have gone with the jam-session approach. Although, the absurdist take might "explain" the availability of the piano and the drum set . . . .) I don't know if Malina cast actors who couldn't handle the style of the script, or if she misdirected them. Either way, it's her fault.

The rest of the production went along with the foregoing: The set was too neat, and I don't mean in the sense of cleanliness. Leach says he keeps his place clean, but the walls weren't worn or marred, nothing was especially distressed; a tablecloth he spread on a table to cut up a pineapple looked as if it might have just come from K-Mart. (By the way, aren't pineapples slightly expensive as far as fresh fruit goes? These guys have no money--few of them have jobs.) The costumes were the same. Sam wore open-laced combat boots, but they didn't look like they ever touched pavement. Everyone was suitably sloppy, but more like frat boys than wasted junkies. (They were all clean-shaven, too--an anomaly in these days of the scruffy look even in the chicest of surroundings!) Nary a wrinkle could be detected, much less a tatter or a stain. (Mom may not like her boy's wardrobe, but she keeps it laundered, ironed, and mended!) I've seen pictures of the MAT's production of The Lower Depths that looked grottier than this set and its inhabitants. It all just supported the sense that this Connection was all fake. Whatever the problems inherent in the 50-year-old script, this was unnecessary.

So, as a piece of theater history, okay; as a piece of theater, what a downer. I guess nothing's authentic anymore, not even the Living Theatre.

[There was one line that has been annoying me since I saw the show. I wasn’t sure if it was an author's error, an actor's error, or a character's error. (Later I had a look at the published script, and that’s what Gelber wrote. So it’s either a playwright’s error or a character error.) Solly, the group's philosopher and thinker, played by Anthony Sisco, goes on in two bits about the speed of light. He says several times that it's "186,000 miles per second, per second." Now, I haven't taken physics or anything like it since junior year in high school (don't ask when that was!), but I remember that "per second, per second" (or "per second squared") is not a measure of speed; it's a measure of acceleration. It's not how fast something goes, but how fast it goes faster. Anachronisms are one thing; factual mistakes are something else again.]

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