04 July 2012

“I’m So Confused . . . !”

[In my recent ROT report on John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church (published on 16 June), I commented on three performances I’d seen in the past where I couldn’t really understand what the writers were trying to say. In the Shanley report, I said, “Sometimes I’m just not the optimum audience for the material; sometimes, I’m just not in a very receptive frame of mind (or I’m plain obtuse) and I miss it all; and sometimes the production just doesn’t work for me.” I named three shows that fit the circumstances I specified, and I’ve decided to post those two reviews and one performance report on ROT, mostly as curiosities but also as examples of one way to handle covering plays a reporter or reviewer doesn’t fully comprehend.]


[The first review, The Rug of Identity by Jill W. Fleming, staged at the Village Theatre, was part of my column entitled "Family Problems" in the New York Native on 15 May 1989. (I would have seen the show a few weeks earlier.) I was assigned to cover the performance, but as soon as it began, I realized that I was not the intended audience for this material. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable writing a critical appraisal of the play, so I acknowledged my position and tried to describe my experience and allow the readers to form their own opinions of the production.]

It’s hard to know what to say about Jill W. Fleming’s Rug of Identity, not because it is innately bad or even badly played, but because its intentions are so confounding. Though I’m possibly not the best judge of this material, it may very well mean something more to committed feminists or lesbians—however, I have doubts about that; Rug isn’t a play for, say, the WOW Café [RICK: Women’s One World, a lesbian venue]. Perhaps if I try to summarize the plot, you can draw your own conclusions.

On “Death Row” a half hour before her hanging, Mona (Yvonne Clifford), a convicted murderer, receives a visit from her daughter, Joanna (Deborah Wren), a writer of thrillers. Since she has not seen her daughter for a long time, Mona reveals, rather matter-of-factly, two startling facts about Joanna’s life, pulling the “rug of identity” out from under her feet. First, the murder for which Mona has been convicted is not her first. She is a hired assassin for women who have been dumped on in life. In fact, Joanna’s stories, which she heard as a child from her mother, were accounts of Mona’s jobs.

Joanna’s second discovery is that she was not conceived by artificial insemination, but is the product of an anonymous quickie in the “Gents’” (the play is British) at Charing Cross Station. Never having known she actually had a father, Joanna determines to find him. Mona, however, wants her daughter to write her, Mona’s, story and sends her to find the client who turned her in, a woman who wears around her neck “the middle finger of a left hand rolled in gold.”

In her search for her identity, both sexual and familial, and her mother’s betrayer, Joanna moves in with a friend, Laurie Proctor (Anne Capron), whose mother (Joyce Sozen) isn’t sure whether she wants to be a man or a woman—she has been saving for a sex-change—and is clearly not welcome in Laurie’s life. Mrs. Proctor’s confused sexuality is an extreme counterpart of that of Joanna, an avowed but unconsummated lesbian; Mona, a heterosexual who doesn’t like men and has fallen in love with her female jailer; and Laurie, ostensibly straight, but after one night of passion with Joanna is so fulfilled she is ready to become her slave. The final scene, in the Charing Cross “Gents’,” provides a confrontation of Mona’s ghost with her betrayer and Joanna with her father. Gender identities and affiliations have shifted several times and promise to shift more after the play ends.

There is some humor pervading all this—a kind of attenuated, sexually explicit Tracey Ullman sketch. An example is Mona’s remark to Joanna, “I’ve always known you had a limited imagination. You had trouble with Tampax as a teenager.” Also, for reasons unclear to me, director Pat Golden has the sound effects—ringing phones, slamming doors, creaking prison gates—spoken by the actors while they mime the doors and gates (the phones are real).

While the performances and the direction all seem competent and, even, apt, I wonder why Rug has been brought from England, where it apparently received good notices. The production, in the style of conventional farce, isn’t outrageous enough to be theatrically dynamic, and the script, with all its variations on the theme of confused sexuality and lost identity, seems to have forgotten its point in its search for comedy. I’m sure a good, funny play could be constructed around gender confusion and the search for identity, but, from my perspective, The Rug of Identity isn’t it.


[The second play I mentioned in the Storefront Church report was The Cezanne Syndrome by Normand Canac-Marquis, produced by Soho Rep at Greenwich House in the West Village. This was a relatively conventional play, certainly by comparison to Rug of Identity, but I still couldn’t grasp the writer’s point. I see this as an instance of my just not being tuned into the playwright’s mindset. This assessment was part of the column "Drinking & Driving" in the New York Native on 13 February 1989.]

As part of its New Wave of Québec Festival, a series of French Canadian works, Soho Rep is presenting the U.S. premiere of Normand Canac-Marquis’s The Cezanne Syndrome, translated by Louison Danis. In keeping with Soho Rep’s tradition, the play is anything but a straightforward narrative and is not easy to follow or interpret. The events, characters and even time-line fold back on themselves as the play progresses through flashbacks, dreams and imaginings.

The Cezanne Syndrome, directed by Liz Diamond, purports to be about an auto mechanic, Gilbert (David Strathairn), whose common-law wife, Suzanne (Caris Corfman), and infant son have been killed in a car accident which Thomas Wancicovski (Edward Baran) of the Quebec provincial police is investigating. The play takes place in Gilbert’s kitchen, where he does his auto repair work on the table and counter tops, and in Wancicovski’s office, where a graphic of the accident scene is painted on the wall like a Pentagon situation map. The kitchen is a cluttered, realistic set whose back wall is a scrim behind which is Wancicovski’s giant map.

When the play opens, Gilbert, working with a blowtorch on a car fender, begins talking, first to himself in an extended, somewhat self-conscious monologue, then to a disembodied female voice coming over a loudspeaker, and finally to a voice over a telephone which is still on the hook. He seems disturbed and to want to be left alone, but it is not clear why. When Suzanne first appears, it is as if from nowhere; the kitchen has no visible entrances. Their conversation—really an argument—ranges, in a strained, formal language that sounds artificial, from topic to topic without apparent logic. There is an obsession with cigarettes and smoking and Gilbert constantly tips his cigarette ashes on his knee. The subject of cigarettes returns again and again, and though I thought I had figured out its significance at one point, I determined finally that I hadn’t.

During this conversation, both Gilbert and Suzanne talk to their child, who is apparently present but invisible to the audience. Not until the first scene of the policeman at his map does it become clear that both Suzanne and the child are dead. From this point on, the details of the accident are revealed bit by bit, along with selected details of the strange, obsessive lives of Gilbert and Suzanne. Finally, Canac-Marquis presents a revelation that, rather than making the play clear, piles on more questions.

Over the 75-minute performance, I reinterpreted the play and pieced together its convoluted logic no less than three separate times. In the end, however, I was not only wrong, but was left with insufficient clues to decipher the experience. Other spectators seemed equally puzzled, and I noticed one or two leaving before the end. Soho Rep does not do theater for the masses.

[A word about the reviews above: the Native, a gay-oriented weekly newspaper in New York City, commonly ran columns by writers like me, stringers, containing reviews of two performances. I’ve excised the companion piece in each case here as those reviews were unconnected to the ones I want to revisit. The curious can find the archived copies of the paper in a library and look up the columns to see what other play I covered that week. My editor was Terry Helbing, who had run a theater in Chelsea in the 1970s when I was trying to break into acting. (I knew who Terry was, but didn’t actually know him. I never acted at his theater, though I auditioned there the same way I did at scores of other little theaters in those years.) He made the reviewing assignments without regard to the reviewer’s potential connection to the material.]


[At the end of the period when I was taking graduate courses at NYU, I worked with a former teacher who was hoping to form a playwrights’ theater run by dramaturgs. The new company would focus on new plays from the U.S. and the U.K., with facilities and staff in both New York City and London to make exchanges of scripts, productions, and talent, possible. (An early name considered was Theatre Exchange, but I believe someone else was already using that.) Theatre Junction, known among the incipient staff as TJ, never launched (money, don’t you know), but while my former teacher, the founder and artistic director, was exploring all possibilities, she often asked me to scout out performances, performers (I saw Danitra Vance do stand-up before she hit SNL), scripts (I spent months tracking down the English translation and the stage adaption of an Israeli novella by the only Nobel laureate in literature who wrote in Hebrew, S. Y. Agnon) and writers (lots of readings, staged and otherwise). Working from a tip, which was typical, my boss asked me to cover what we thought was a reading but turned out to be a showcase production of Energumen by Mac Wellman presented by Soho Rep at an auditorium at Bellevue Hospital. (I had a bit of a time finding the place. The troupe had lost its original home in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan and was wandering in the wilderness, not for 40 years but long enough.) I saw Energumen, the first Wellman play I’d ever seen, on 29 March 1985, and couldn’t make head or tails of it. I’d heard of the playwright, an important emerging theater writer at the time, but the play confounded me totally. I confessed my confusion in my memo, and I present it here as an example of an attempt to report on a play the viewer can’t really sort out.. (Please remember that this report was never intended for public consumption—just my boss. You’ll notice that I’m a little more direct—ummm . . . honest?—than in a conventional review, or even an ROT report.)]

This was not a reading as you thought, but a fully mounted showcase production. That means, of course, that any production by TJ would be a revival, not an original. In my estimation, that's no loss.

Giving a plot synopsis would be both difficult and fruitless. The story has to do with the attempt by two "deprogrammers" to take a young woman away from the religious cult called The Seat of Bliss and Perfect Understanding run by a phony guru named The Master of Many Perfections. The problem is that the man who hired them, claiming to be the young woman's father, isn't, the guru is a former computer genius and an old friend of one of the deprogrammers, and the girl is really a communist revolutionary. That's the best I can do—the rest is either too convoluted or too silly to relate.

My feeling is that this is puerile inanity masquerading as high art. The only two moments of any theatrical interest to me were a brief bit in which four Santa Clauses (!) sang "The Internationale" and a recorded bit of a dog barking "Jingle Bells." In a production of only an hour and a quarter, this was precious little to keep my interest—and it didn't. In this case, 1¼ hours was far too long, and I kept looking at my watch hoping I could get out soon. If there had been an intermission, I'd have left at it. Soho Rep was smart not to schedule one.

Just to be complete about this, the best I could do with the theme is that Wellman is somehow saying that the following are really all the same: communism, revolution, Santa Claus (possibly the Volunteers of America), demonic possession, intrigue (poli¬tical, diplomatic and industrial), capitalism, government(s), religion(s), cults, business, and the establishment. The "ener¬gumen" of the title, as the program points out, means "A fanatical enthusiast," referring, I presume, to the relation of the characters to the things on my list. Unfortunately, as far as I could tell, they were neither "fanatical" nor "enthusi¬astic." I got the feeling that none of the actors could really get up a head of steam for this nonsense. I don't blame them.

I heard members of the audience deploring the show in very explicit terms as we exited. Betty Osborne, Jim Leverett [RICK: staffers at the time at the Theatre Communications Group] and Robert Blacker from La Jolla [RICK: dramaturg of California’s La Jolla Playhouse at the time] were there if you want additional reactions. (I didn't ask them what they thought; I just said goodbye and came home.)

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