30 November 2014

Dispatches from Spain 1 & 2

by Rich Gilbert

[My friend Rich Gilbert and his partner, Sallie Strang, moved to Madrid in October to live there for a half a year.  (They expect to live another six months somewhere else in Europe, but haven’t picked where yet.)  It was a long-planned move and something both of them have looked forward to for more than a year.  This is purely a pleasure jaunt, prompted by the fact that Rich and Sallie have loved Spain—Rich has gone to Pamplona to run with the bulls for decades, ever since he first discovered that event when he was in the army in Germany in the ’70s and ’80s—and simply wanted to return there for an extended experience of the country and its culture.  I can’t say how much I envy them right now!

[I met Rich when we were both stationed in West Berlin during our military service.  (I’ve written about my time there in several posts on ROT over the years now, and I think Rich’s name—or at least an obscure reference to him—has come up once or twice.)  I’d say I knew him for most of my 2½ years in Berlin, though we were in different assignments.  We’d both decided to get out of the army around the same time, and Rich took the Law School Admissions Test in Berlin before he separated from the service and left just before I came home.  He went to Georgetown University Law School and became a criminal defense attorney in Washington, but he decided he’d get more courtroom experience as a JAG lawyer than as either a junior associate in some big firm or trying to start out on his own in private practice, so he re-upped and went back to Germany after graduation and defended and prosecuted criminal defendants in courts martial for several years, traveling in Europe on his leaves, especially Spain.  

[When Rich returned to Washington and set up his own law office, he eventually met Sallie.  They traveled together a lot, including to Spain, I believe, but they also traveled separately.  I don’t recall if Sallie ever accompanied Rich on those trips to Pamplona—maybe she went along once, but that was something he did on his own most of the time.  This move to Madrid probably started as an idea generated back then, but it became an actual project maybe two tears ago or so when Sallie and Rich actually decided to sell their house in Washington, rent an apartment in Madrid, pack up, and actually decamp for the Iberian Peninsula.  

[Rich has been writing e-mails back to his friends and family here in the U.S., and he’s given me permission to run them on ROT, even though Sallie is posting her own blog, Rambling Solo (http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es), which includes photos as well as some of this same material.  Rich sent me the first four reports all in a brief period, so I’m posting them in two pairs now, then I’ll post the new ones, maybe still two by two, as they come in.  I know you’ll enjoy reading about Rich and Sallie’s adventures—and you may feel a twinge of the same jealousy I feel as well.  ~Rick]

Madrid – October 17, 2014

Dear Friends,

Well, we made it. Sallie and I got into Madrid yesterday morning. We mostly got out of the DC apartment (left some work for a cleaning crew), and to the airport on time. Weather delayed our flight to JFK, so that we made it to the international gate as they were boarding. (Here’s a new one –  we sat at the runway at National for 20 minutes while they reversed the landing/takeoff direction.) Anyway we made it, and finally got our 200 lbs of luggage up the three flights of stairs, not to be moved again for at least six months.

Yesterday was spent sleeping (without waking up thinking about what we had to do next), unpacking somewhat, walking around the neighborhood, and eating. We were pleasantly surprised to find several new restaurants which look like they might be nice. Lots of simpler restaurants with reasonable prices. Next project – take on grocery shopping (and learning to use the stove). Project after that – getting phone service down. There is a landline in the house – #xxx-xx-xx-xxx-xxxx from the states [I’ve deleted the phone number and the address below. ~Rick]. The street address is 

            Xxxxxxx xxx Xxxxx
            Passaje de San Martin de Valdeiglesias xx,-x-X
            xxxxx Madrid Espana

Obviously, we have access to the Internet and email.

There are three bedrooms, a modest master bedroom, and two guest rooms. One room has twin beds and one has a double bed. There is not much storage. Since this is Mari del Xxxxxx’s home, she has most spaces filled (unlike a hotel) and we are still trying to figure out where to put our stuff. So if you visit, you may still be operating out of suitcases. You are all still welcome to visit, of course. Just be aware that there is no elevator and we are on the third floor.

My Spanish is coming back, but we still need to actually do some studying. Sallie is planning an emersion program, while I am buying a Spanish newspaper each day and brought a couple of textbooks. The Castellano (the Spanish spoken in Madrid) is rapid, but seems clearer than the Spanish in Latin America (except of course the Colombians, Miriam). I think I will be able to get it in a little while. Of course that will not help with listening to Mexican wiretaps, but otherwise, I am hopeful of gaining some fluency.

We would love to hear what is going on with you all back in the States, so stay in touch.

Hasta la vista.


*  *  *  *
Madrid – October 23, 2014

Dear Friends and Family,

We have reached the one week mark in our move to Spain. Still getting used to the different rhythms of life here, but we are really enjoying it. We usually go for a long walk to explore the city around our neighborhood.  We are trying not to eat every meal out. We can make a salad and have some bread, ham or coldcuts and cheese at home, sometimes for lunch, sometimes for dinner. Breakfast is usually in. We go out for the other meal.  Lots of little places with good food, not too expensive, often with larger than necessary portions. Last night we just ate free tapas at three places in the neighborhood. The exchange rate is about 4 dollars for 3 Euros, but the prices are not too bad in Spain; it is probably a different story in Germany, for example. The weather here has been spectacular; sunny every day, moderate temperatures (T-shirts during the day). I guess the rain in Spain does not fall mainly in THIS Plain.

The neighborhood is an older, working class neighborhood. Not ancient or historical, but not modern either. The streets are mostly narrow. There is a local modern supermarket a couple of blocks away, which is pretty much like you would expect for an urban supermarket without the room to spread out like a Walmart. There are other smaller grocery stores, and lots of specialty shops selling fresh bread, fruits and vegetable, or meats. There is also a market like the Eastern Market, but only about half the stands are open. We mix up the stores we patronize, but are gravitating to the small shops.

We have found a few local places we like. They are beginning to recognize us at those places. When the Spaniards find out we have moved to Madrid for six months just to learn Spanish and their culture, they are uniformly pleased. This may explain the extra tapas we sometimes get. We have discovered that the closest bar is actually a great place to watch “futbol” (soccer).  Sallie and I are both soccer fans (Go DC United!), so when the Spaniards find out we like and understand the game, they are pleased. It gives us a chance to talk to locals.

Soccer is, as you may imagine, really big here – think the fanbase for baseball, basketball and (our) football combined.  There are three Spanish teams among the best in the world. Two are in Madrid and one in Barcelona. Real Madrid is like the Yankees, lots of money to buy the world’s best players and decades of success. (Their stadium is easily as big as FedEx Field and bigger than RFK.) Atletico Madrid is like the Red Sox, great success but only recently, and starting to accumulate the money to compete for good players. Barcelona is like the Dodgers, on the other coast but also with tons of money and equally good players and success as Real Madrid.  They are holding an annual tournament among the best clubs in Europe and this week all three Spanish teams easily beat teams from Holland, Sweden and even England. They really are very, very good (sorry DC United).  This coming Saturday [i.e., 25 October], Barcelona comes to Madrid to play Real Madrid; they call the matches between these two clubs  “El Classicos,” and it is all the sports pages talk about. Even Sallie and I are getting excited.

We have only been downtown twice. In both cases it was to shop for things we could not find nearby, like a really complete Spanish-English dictionary, and of course, Cuban cigars. We will probably buy a year pass to the Prado so we do not have try and see everything in a day or two. 

Neither of us have started studying Spanish in earnest. We said we would take the first two weeks here to relax and get settled. Sallie is considering an immersion course. I probably will not do that. I have a couple of good textbooks I can study. I have, however, been buying a Spanish newspaper each day. It is expanding my vocabulary (why I need the complete dictionary), but I am also getting a feel for the political situation here. The big papers here are national papers, which is fine since we are in the capital. The biggest news story in the impending referendum in Catalonia, the region which includes Barcelona. There is a strong independence movement. Unlike Great Britain and Scotland, the Spanish government has refused to sanction the vote as having any legal effect, but the Catalans are going ahead with the vote. It is quite confusing, and I do not think that is simply due to my poor Spanish. It does not seem like the Spanish (and the Catalans) really know what will happen or how to proceed.

The Spanish papers cover Ebola (there was a case in Spain who is apparently cured), the fight with the Islamic State, Ukraine, and, of course, European economic news.  Almost no coverage of U.S. elections, although I am sure they will cover the actual results.  I have been trying to follow things through the Washington Post online, but it is funny how when you get away the details become less important. I am not saying the elections are not important, but I gather it looks more and more like two years of even more divided government nationally.  (Guess we will have to host an election night party in 2016.)

For those of you we have not seen or spoken to before we left, the last couple of months were an ordeal. Sallie sold her house the first weekend it was on the market for considerably more than the asking price – which is good. However, getting there and then getting out was very stressful. Remember we were going from a three story townhouse with a furnished basement apartment to – nothing, except a Mayflower container and a U-Haul storage room. We sold, gave away, even just threw out so much stuff. Plus I had to wind up my cases (I still have a few open appeals), which involved moving my office out of the house to a temporary office then to two more storage rooms. I tell you this only to explain why we were so hard to stay in contact with and to explain how liberating it has been this first week in Spain.

We are still planning on staying a year in Europe. Our current lease runs out in May, and we are not sure what will do after that.  We will likely push a lot of our travel, such as to Greece, into that period. We may try to travel the entire time, find another city or even country to stay for a couple of months, or find another place in Madrid. We are not sure what we are doing when we come back to the United States, but will undoubtedly settle back in Washington, D.C., hopefully on Capitol Hill again. I plan to restart my practice.  I will probably have to come back to the States on at least two occasions to argue some cases before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and to see my specialist at Johns Hopkins. I am not sure of the dates yet. Sallie has no plans to come back before the year is up.

There is a landline in the house – #xxx-xx-xx-xxx-xxxx from the states. I know it works because I have gotten one call already. My cellphone number xxx-xxx-xx will only be forwarded to my office, so do NOT use it. We plan to get some local cellphones, but have not done so. Amazing how liberating being without any phone connection is. The street address also works, as we have gotten a package. It is 

            Xxxxxxx xxx Xxxxx
            Passaje de San Martin de Valdeiglesias xx,-x-X
            xxxxx Madrid Espana

It will be expensive, however, so, since we obviously have access to the Internet and email, that is the best way to reach us in an emergency or just to stay in touch.

Hope to hear about anything important in your lives while we are away.


[For readers who’re not from the Washington area, the Eastern Market to which Rich refers above is a cooperative food market in the Capitol Hill area near where Rich and Sallie and lots of young office workers live in D.C.  It sells both fresh produce and prepared food, and is very popular and often crowded, especially at the lunch hour and with breakfast- or brunch-eaters on weekends.  Sallie, by the way, is not only a soccer fan, as Rich observes, but she played on a team in D.C.  I wonder if she’ll find a woman’s futbol team with which to hook up in Madrid.

[FedEx Field is the (American) football stadium in Washington, home of the Washington Redskins.  RFK (for Robert F. Kennedy, for those too young to remember) Stadium is a multi-purpose athletic field in D.C., home of the DC United soccer team Rich and Sallie root for.  The Prado which Rich names above is one of the world’s most prestigious art museums, located in downtown Madrid, the counterpart to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or Paris’s Louvre.

[The vote on Catalan independence to which Rich refers above took place on 9 November.  It was not a sanctioned vote, so the results are no more than an unofficial referendum.  Rich is right that it’s complicated because it wasn’t just a yes-or-no proposition on Catalan independence. Voters were asked to decide if Catalonia should be a state, but then also to vote their opinion on whether that state should be independent.  There were essentially three choices a voter could make: Yes-Yes, Yes-No, No.  80% of the voters (about 2.3 million) voted Yes-Yes, another 10% voted Yes-No, 4.5% voted No, and a little over 1.5% voted either Yes-blank or blank altogether.  (I don’t know how to account for the missing 4%.)

[The specialist at Johns Hopkins Rich mentions has to do with a personal medical issue which I won’t detail. As you all see, I’ve edited out some of Rich’s personal details such as telephone numbers and street addresses to maintain some of his and Sallie’s privacy.  (Remember, these e-mails were originally intended for friends and family, not necessarily you lot!)]


25 November 2014

'Bad Jews'

I was visiting my mother in Maryland again and I caught a matinee performance of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews at Washington’s Studio Theatre on Sunday, 16 November.  The 90-minute one-act, under the direction of Serge Seiden, Studio’s producing director, is presented in the 218-seat Mead Theatre, the largest of Studio’s three spaces; it began performances on 5 November and is scheduled to close on 21 December.  

The première of Bad Jews was directed by Daniel Aukin at New York City’s Roundabout Theatre Company in October 2013.  (I’ve reported on two previous productions staged by Aukin: Sam Shepard’s Heartless at New York’s Signature Theatre Company, posted 10 September 2012, and the Atlantic Theater Company’s What Rhymes With America by Melissa James Gibson, 3 January 2013.)  Roundabout’s sold-out run of Bad Jews garnered nominations for the 2012-2013 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, the 2014 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, and the 2014 Off Broadway Alliance Award for Best New Play; Harmon was nominated for the Outer Critics Circle’s John Gassner Award.  This was Harmon’s first major professional production, and it turned the young writer into a phenom.  The U.K. première was staged by the Ustinov Studio at the Theatre Royal in Bath in August 2014, and that production will transfer to London’s St. James Theatre next January.  Regional and local premières have been staged in San Francisco (Magic Theatre, September 2014); Columbus, Ohio (Gallery Players, September 2014); Philadelphia (Walnut Street Theatre, October 2014); Boston (SpeakEasy Stage Company, October 2014); Kansas City, Missouri (Unicorn Theatre, October 2014); and Coral Gables, Florida (GableStage, November 2014).  Productions are also scheduled in New Haven, Connecticut (Long Wharf Theatre, February 2015); Houston (Black Lab Theatre, April 2015); Chicago (Theater Wit , April 2015); and Los Angeles (Geffen Playhouse, June 2015).  The text of Bad Jews was published by Smith & Kraus Publishers in December 2012. 

Joshua Harmon, 31, is a recent graduate of Juilliard’s Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program.  (Bad Jews got him accepted after two previously unsuccessful applications.)  Born in Manhattan into a conservative Jewish household, Harmon grew up in New York City’s Westchester County suburbs after a “formative” year living in Brooklyn.  He wrote poems and short stories in middle and high school that were frequently published in school magazines.  After graduating from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, with a BFA in drama, Harmon returned to New York and worked as a film and theater assistant for several years before attending Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for an MFA in playwriting.  In December 2010, Harmon went to the renowned MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where he wrote the first 30 pages of Bad Jews.  In 2010, the incipient dramatist won a year-long fellowship from the National New Play Network to be a playwright-in-residence at the Actor’s Express and moved to Atlanta, where Bad Jews had a workshop.  Following the début in March in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Ernst C. Stiefel Reading Series of Harmon’s next play, The Franco-Prussian War, a romantic comedy “about a [gay] guy and his three best girlfriends, and the girlfriends are all getting married,” the playwright is now working on commissions from the Roundabout and the Lincoln Center Theatre Company.  

Bad Jews, a caustically humorous domestic drama about Jewish identity in the modern world, centers on an emotional battle among three cousins.  A “bad Jew” is what Jews call themselves or co-religionists when they contravene traditional Jewish behavior such as not keeping a kosher kitchen or working on the Sabbath (or, as Harmon relates in the script, eating cookies on Pesach); one reviewer described his idea of a bad Jew as “someone outside of the Klinghoffer family who tried to shut down John Adams’ ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’” at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera in October.  The setting for Bad Jews is a cramped New York City studio apartment on the Upper West Side where the three young Jews—Daphna Feygenbaum (Irene Sofia Lucio) and brothers Liam (Alex Mandell) and Jonah Haber (Joe Paulik)—have gathered to sit shiva for their grandfather Poppy, a Holocaust survivor; Daphna’s aunt and uncle bought the apartment (down the hall from theirs) for Jonah.  Daphna (formerly known as Diana), a brainy Vassar senior, and Liam, a University of Chicago postgraduate, are less kissing cousins than bitter antagonists; “They are their own worst enemies,” says Harmon.  For Daphna, who wears her religion on her sleeve, her Judaism links her to a tradition stretching back five thousand years.  Liam, the ultimate assimilated Jew, is a self-proclaimed “Bad Jew” who missed Poppy’s funeral because he lost his cell phone while off skiing in Aspen with Melody (Maggie Erwin), his gentile girlfriend.  He’s skeptical about religion and is pointedly devoting himself to the study of Japanese culture.  (His previous girlfriend was a Japanese-American, as Daphna insists on pointing out.)  Not only that, but he has brought Melody, the “American” girl, with him to the family gathering.  Jonah, in contrast (and probably by consequence), is so detached that he doesn’t want to enter Daphna and Liam’s “ugly, unvarnished, and hilarious” battle over “family, faith, and identity politics.”  

The resulting clash is the center of the play, a confrontation over possession of their grandfather’s cherished gold Chai, a symbol of life (chai is the Hebrew word for ‘life,’ spelled with two Hebrew letters that are often worn as a pendant) that Poppy had worn ever since he left the concentration camp.  He’d hidden the Chai under his tongue during his time in the camp and when he came to America, too poor to buy a ring, he proposed to his wife with it.  Daphna feels the amulet’s rightfully hers because she’s the only “real” Jew among the grandchildren, the sole “True Believer” of the three.  She discovers, however, that Liam’s already taken the pendant on the claim that he’s the oldest male grandchild.  (Chais are customarily worn by men, though that’s not a rule.)  Daphna becomes frantic with grief, anger, and bitterness, demanding the Chai from Liam, who, of course, isn’t going to give it to her.  (He’d planned to use it himself to propose to Melody in Aspen.)  Under the gaze of Melody and the noncommittal Jonah, Daphna and Liam attack each other, raising significant questions about what it means to be Jews today. 

Bad Jews was inspired when Harmon was a college sophomore after he attended a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) service in which grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were invited to speak.  I found it really unmoving.  I think there’s just something that happens when you’re an eyewitness to something that imbues you the power to tell that story . . . .  So to hear the story from someone who wasn’t there.  It just didn’t carry the same kind of weight, and it scared me.”  Further, Harmon realized “that in my lifetime the people who were actual eyewitnesses to the events of the Holocaust were going to be gone.”  The playwright continues, “A year or so later I came up with the title Bad Jews and started taking notes about the characters during my senior year, but then I put that notebook away for many years.”  He was 21 then, and in December 2010, he found himself at the MacDowell Colony.  After abandoning a script about “gay bullies and whales” (go know, right?), he looked around for a more likely project.  Bad Jews, Harmon explains, had been hanging around on his “Plays I Want to Write Before I Die” list for six years by then, so he pulled it out, wrote the first 30 pages at MacDowell, and completed the first draft in April 2011.  

Harmon fully expected to have problems over the title—his grandmother even asked him to change it—and some critics and spectators have complained.  So when the producer of the Roundabout series in which Bad Jews was to be presented called him, he assumed it was about the title.  I sorta instinctively knew it was the right title,” he recalled, “but I had no intellectual justification for it . . . .”  Not to worry, though: Robyn Goodman, that Roundabout producer, loved the title.  (One of my companions at the Studio performance said, however, that she has a friend who won’t see the play because of the title.  Contrarily, a friend to whom I recently described the play remarked, “It’s a catchy title, that’s for sure.”)  A question could be (and, in my reading, has been) asked, however, why Harmon makes his title plural when only Liam professes himself a bad Jew.  I think Harmon’s saying that all of the cousins, in their own ways, are a kind of bad Jew, even (or maybe especially) fruma Daphna with her recriminations, scolding, and bad-mouthing of anyone who disagrees with her.  Even Jonah, the middle-of-the-roader, is a bad Jew because he won’t take sides and make a stand.  (Only goyishe Melody is exempt.)

The first time Harmon says he heard his “very strange little Jewish play” read was around his family’s dinner table the night he returned to New York City from Atlanta.  Near the end of dinner,” Harmon recounts, “my Dad asked, ‘So, is this play any good?’ and . . . I reached into my backpack, pulled out the copy I'd printed and said, ‘I don't know, Dad.  You tell me.’  And somehow, my lawyer-father and psychology-grad-student-sister morphed into actors, and we began to read.”  (Harmon’s very clear that none of his fictional characters are based on members of his family.  However, “I see a lot of me in it, all over the place.”)

Though he admits his play “comes from a very personal place,” Harmon won’t elucidate on what he thinks Bad Jews is about.  My job as the writer,” he insists, “is to tell a story and then get out of its way.  What resonates with the audience is for them to discover for themselves, not for me to dictate.”  He asserts that he did no research for Bad Jews: he “just lived my life and thought about the world around me and the world I know and then I wrote about it.”  (In his conversation with the dramaturg at the Roundabout, Harmon invoked such writers as Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Wendy Wasserstein—his “favorite” playwright, he says—and Alfred Uhry, whom he sees as “heroes.”  He also cops to admiring Kenneth Lonergan, David Lindsay-Abaire, Annie Baker, “and many others” like William Inge and Stephen Karam.)  He decided that the play should take place in one room over an hour-and-a-half in real time in order to “let the audience feel like they’ve really gone on some kind of journey, without any tricks or magic or scene changes.  Just, come sit in this living room and watch what happens.” 

Since this is Harmon’s first produced play (his second one, The Franco-Prussian War, hasn’t even been staged beyond a reading yet), it bears some of the marks of a tyro playwright.  On the other hand, because Harmon’s into his 30’s now, his ideas reveal a maturity of mind that contends with some substantive ideas to which younger writers might not aspire at the equivalent stage in their careers.  In my view, the latter asset outweighs the former deficit, at least for Bad Jews.  This was an engaging performance of a provocative play, and Harmon was even able to use the Jewish elements of his plot and characters to outline a universal issue that must plague members—especially family members—of many other cultural, ethnic, or religious groups.  (In fact, as I think about it, Richard Nelson’s politically liberal Apples, the population of That Hopey Changey Thing—which I also saw at the Studio and on which I reported on 15 December 2013—and the other three Apple Family Plays, could be seen to negotiate a parallel dynamic.)  

Harmon’s play isn’t just about “Super Jew Daphna” versus “Nonbeliever Liam”  It’s also a family dramedy depicting a somewhat contrived dysfunctional extended family.  (Beyond the three youngsters, we learn second-hand about their parents’ issues and a few details about Poppy’s marriage as well.)  Daphna isn’t just hyper-religious, for instance, she’s obsessed with differences in wealth (her cousins’ family is richer than hers) and she’s something of an erotomaniac (her Israeli boyfriend probably doesn’t really exist).  Liam isn’t just an apostate Jew, but he’s wound so tight he’s likely to burst at any moment.  Further, as the Studio’s casting notice put it: he “[h]as as much of a sense of humor as an overdue library book.”  

Jonah isn’t just noncommittal or detached, he’s a dishrag, a doormat for his two stronger-willed peers.  That Backstage casting notice described him as “[s]ensitive,” with “[m]ore heart,” than his brother, adding that he “[d]oesn’t always speak up but when he does, it makes a strong impact.”  And poor Melody, the fish-out-of-water shiksa plunked down in the battle-royal among a family of millennial Jews: she’s also clueless and a little self-deluded (wait till you hear this “trained opera singer” try to belt “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess!  You’ll plotz.)  She’s not the blond bimbo she’s painted to be and Daphna wants her to be, however; she may be the closest thing to a grown-up in the room.  One local reviewer noted that Harmon “imbue[d] her with a surprisingly steely spine and an empathetic streak the others largely lack.”  So, Harmon has loaded the deck a little, to enhance the dramatic (or, maybe I should say, melodramatic) possibilities of Bad Jews.  

The trade-off, as I said, is that what Harmon’s writing about is more meaty and evocative than a 90-minute play about squabbling Jewish twenty-somethings probably ought to be.  Almost every reviewer, interviewer of Harmon, and director/artistic director/dramaturg of a theater that presented Bad Jews said the play is about what it means to be Jewish in contemporary America.  And it is—this is a debate that’s current not just here, but in Israel and around the Jewish diaspora, and it’s important—but it’s also a debate, with some shifts in diction, that almost certainly goes on in African-American households, gay communities, Italian-American homes, even Catholic groups, and so on.  I’d bet that Muslims in the U.S., Holland, Germany, France, or the U.K. are having a version of this debate right now, possibly just as heatedly.  (In one viewer comment on line, someone of Cuban background wondered, “[H]ow do I ensure my children are familiar with Cuban culture, especially if I marry a man who is not Cuban himself?”  Similar considerations were voiced by spectators of Nigerian, Korean, and Philippine heritage.)  Some of them feel strongly, like Daphna, that their identification with the group, the religion, the national homeland, the old-world roots, the family history, is vital to their identity, even the identity of the whole clan.  Others are assimilated and see their roots as a quaint residue of where their forbears stood before they became “American.”  Melody says her family has “always been from Delaware,” which incenses Daphna—but it’s the way a lot of Americans of every stripe and origin feel.  Mosaic or melting pot, we’re all “Americans” now—or we should be.  As Melody observes in the play, “People are just people.” She even points out that John Lennon said it: 

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace . . .

Harmon also has a wicked, slightly bent sense of humor—which makes the acrimonious flagellation, the flaying Daphna and Liam inflict on one another, bearable and, in a way, more effective.  He makes what ought to be either an unrelentingly brutal slugfest—or scalpel fight—or an over-the-top one-theme shouting contest into a thought-provoking and digestible argument enlivened by some outrageous one-liners and biting repartee.  (This part, especially, is significantly aided by the excellent cast.)  Without Harmon’s stinging humor, Bad Jews would be unendurable—sort of like a whole concert of Melody’s execrable singing.  

It’s inadvisable to make a judgment of a writer’s appeal, even a subjective one, on the basis of a single play, especially the playwright’s first.  So I won’t.  I will say that I’ll be watching for Harmon’s future stage work and I’ll put him on my list of writers whose work intrigues me, at least until I learn otherwise.  Unlike, say, Amy Herzog, whose Belleville was the last play I saw at the Studio (see my report on 11 October), I’m not ready to strike Harmon from future consideration.  There’s an interesting enough spark there, something that makes him stand out from other new theater writers.  If that continues and develops beyond Bad Jews (admittedly a somewhat parochial set-up for a Jewish playwright), I say Harmon’ll be someone to keep in sight.

Serge Seiden’s staging of the play is, as I suggested, part of the reason Bad Jews works so well.  Starting with his casting, this director has not only caught the spirit of the play and Harmon’s dramaturgy—which are not necessarily the same thing—but has put it into practical production with economy and restraint.  Confined not only by the 90-minute, real-time span of the episode but also the one-room apartment which makes the play work something like a cage fight, Seiden directed Bad Jews tightly and tautly, keeping the action controlled and the actors both on edge and on pitch.  I detected what looked like they might have been moments in the script that could have become artificial and brittle or precious (depending on the prevailing sentiment), but the cast managed to skirt those pitfalls and make the behavior of these four high-strung people just believably eccentric (rather than entirely contrived).  

We hear (via Daphna) that the Habers, who bought (and presumably furnished) Jonah’s studio apartment, are wealthy, but director Seiden and designer Luciana Stecconi have devised a set that is far from luxurious.  We hear (again from Daphna) that there’s a view of the Hudson from the bathroom, but we don’t see that.  The studio is small and sparsely furnished with the most basic and plainest pieces— essentially one fold-out sofa and a couple of mattresses on the floor—and the fridge is empty until Daphna fills it with bottled water.  So I have to wonder if Daphna’s jealousy over her cousins’ financial status is excessive, or if the Habers aren’t as generous with their offspring as their cousin imagines.  Is it part of her delusion or obsession?  Stecconi’s design adds to the impact of Harmon’s play and Seiden’s production.

Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lights were suitably bright, as if to suggest a spotlight on the issues on display, but Kelsey Hunt’s costumes, though simple and straightforward for the most part, were very telling.  Liam’s jeans-and-open-shirt and his brother Jonah’s non-descript slacks (he’s in “boxers and black socks” when the light come up, which prompts one of Daphna’s early jibes) are pretty simple character statements—sort of “Every-collegian,” but Daphna’s outfits, which she changes from time to time, seem to evoke the sort of “Earth-mother” I think she envisions herself, unflattering and comfortable, the pants-and-blouse equivalent of a muu-muu.  Meldody’s snow-bunny outfit, down to the pink anorak and snow-white (and hard-cased) wheely suitcase she brings with her, just sort of say non-ethnic American (a characterization Daphna verbalizes).  (Don’t ask me to explain that, because I can’t.)  She also wears boots with a short skirt, a look that always says to me “little girl” (or post-adolescent little-girl wannabe), especially when paired with long, straight (and, in this case, blond) hair (held back with a pink, plastic, bow-shaped barrette).  Melody’s picture illustrates the Yiddish encyclopedia entry for shiksa!  The theatrical point, of course, is that Melody (and the name only enhances all this) isn’t all that.  So Hunt’s contrived a false identity for the character so Harmon (and actress Maggie Erwin) can pierce it for us.  

The four-actor ensemble works together marvelously.  (This is a hallmark of the Studio performances I’ve seen—the casts, as guided by their directors, seem especially adept at ensemble-building, an attribute by which I put great store.)  As I hinted, the cast works with Seiden to excellent effect to keep the script from deteriorating into an unrelieved shouting match by making sure their characters remain credible (if single-minded) human beings, handling the bitter humor with which Harmon provides them with, if not exactly restraint then control.  The additional traits with which the playwright endowed the characters— Daphna’s social obsessions and romantic fantasy, Liam’s high-strung nature, and so on—could easily spin off into absurdities, but all of the actors play them as integral elements of their characters’ personas which dovetail with the main characteristics (Daphna’s fanatic Jewishness, Liam’s adamant irreligiosity).  The hardest work has to be done by Lucio and Mandell, but all four actors carefully integrate their characters.

Jonah Haber is less fully drawn than brother Liam, but Joe Paulik nonetheless has the task of keeping the character from slipping into caricature, the wishy-washy nebbish.  Jonah’s not, and Paulik walks the line surely enough to make sure we see that.  (In a sense, Jonah is the audience’s surrogate on stage, and Paulik gives him enough intestinal fortitude to stand in stalwartly for us.)  He’s fed up with being in the middle of the epic warfare that’s clearly always fought out whenever Daphna appears on the scene (even when Liam’s not there to set her off).  Pushed too far, he can explode, too—to protect his noninvolvement: I said I didn’t want to get in the middle of it so don’t put me there,” Paulik spits out at one point.  This isn’t his battle, he’s not so much neutral as disinterested.  (Jonah, I noticed, is the only character with a traditional Old Testament—that is, “Jewish”—name, and we learn in the end that Poppy meant something special to him, too, which he shows in a unique, very personal, and disturbing way.)  Paulik shows us that he doesn’t want to antagonize either party by the way he appears to agree with one or the other combatant—without actually lining up with either one—but when forced to engage, Paulik lets loose with a will that can seem surprising but demonstrates he has a spine when he needs one.  Irene Sofia Lucio’s Daphna, on the other hand, is unrelenting: she never lightens up on anyone, whether she or he asks for it (Liam) or not (Melody).  Lucio never lets up, either, playing the role on a level of energy that seems to derive from near-pure adrenaline.  (In a longer play, I wonder if Lucio—or any actor—could sustain that level of performance.  It must be exhausting for her; it was for me.)  

As Liam, Alex Mandell looks like the classic nerd, with his Edward Snowden glasses and unhip haircut, but he’s passionate about his desire to assimilate and just be an American, not a Jewish American.  (He also seems genuinely to be in love with Melody, not just see her as some goyishe trophy.)  The way Mandell plays the role, it’s evident that Liam’s antagonism for Daphna is both knee-jerk—she has but to open her mouth and he’s off like a shot—and deeply felt.  I can understand his position on religion, but what Mandell demonstrates in his treatment of not just Liam’s cousin but his brother as well is that he can barely tolerate anyone who doesn’t.  Like Daphna, Liam is in danger of being a one-note role, but Mandell manages to find a few sharps and flats to keep the character from going over completely to a monotone.  His “American” girl, Melody, like Jonah, is underwritten, but Maggie Erwin, finds a few wrinkles to make her more interesting than she might otherwise be.  Foremost, she’s sweet—and it comes through as genuine niceness (just as Liam insists), not a kind of dumb-blond obliviousness.  Okay, Melody doesn’t really get that no family can always have been in Delaware—and when she says it doesn’t matter that Daphna’s Jewish, it sounds an awful lot like ‘Some of my best friends are . . . .’  But Erwin makes it clear that she truly doesn’t see people that way: “I really don’t see why any of it matters, you know?  Where people come from?  And then she essentially takes charge in the room.  At first, demanding that Daphna get to ask her question about Poppy’s Chai, Melody doesn’t know—but we do—that it’ll lead to an explosion and give away Liam’s intention to propose.  But first Erwin makes clear that the impulse comes from an honest place, and then she turns the resulting uproar into a moment of genuine personal triumph that momentarily outweighs the parochial pettiness of Daphna and Liam.  It’s Erwin’s total sincerity that sells this and makes it seem less contrived than it might have been in other hands.  

In the Washington-area press, Bad Jews got glowing reviews, all of them warning, however, that the ride will be . . . well, bumpy, to borrow a thought from All About Eve.  In the Washington Post, Peter Marks led with, “Just as you’re advised to stand back from an electrified third rail, you might want to maintain a safe distance from Daphna and Liam, the hazardous kibitzing cousins of Joshua Harmon’s devastatingly, acidly funny ‘Bad Jews.’”  He characterized the play as “brutal, hilarious, quicksilver” and declared that it has been “directed with a maestro’s keen powers of perception by Serge Seiden.”  “‘Bad Jews’ is,” Marks assured his readers, “for lovers of dramatic organisms truly alive on a stage, great fun: red-meat theater, marinated in fearlessness.”  With praise for the acting all around, the Postman almost lamented, “Like a sudden hailstorm, the play unleashes its ferocious energy and is gone.”  Of Harmon’s “blistering 2013 comedy,” Andrew Lapin of Washington City Paper said it’s “blunt and precise in equal measure,” and  “gleefully poses big and small questions about Jewish identity.”  Lapin’s one complaint (with which I don’t entirely agree—I think he’s making inappropriate demands) was, “The play probes but remains shul-appropriate.”  “There were moments . . . when the Studio audience . . . clapped while the work wanted them to squirm,” the CP reviewer felt.  “Something this raw shouldn’t go over like Fiddler” (a production of which is currently playing at the Arena Stage here).  “[F]or an evening of high drama and cutting comedy,” declared Washington Jewish Week’s Lisa Traiger, Harmon’s “volatile play” is “not to be missed.”  Said the WJW review-writer, “[T]his is comedy with the knives unsheathed,” especially for Jews, but for non-Jews, the play “still provides a remarkable amount of frisson, enough to make anyone with a family breathe a sigh that theirs isn’t quite that highly strung.”  The cast, “directed with a chef’s knife-edged accuracy,” Traiger reported, “has fully committed themselves to” the demands of the script.  In conclusion, Traiger asserted, “What works best here is the high-strung comedy intermingled with the seething undertones of jealousy, greed, pride and honor” we all recognize.  

A “must-see for everyone” is what Heather Hill called the Studio’s Bad Jews on MD Theatre Guide, reporting that it’s an “outrageously funny production [that] transcends race and religion.”  It’s “a seethingly witty commentary on the people we try to be versus the ways our identities are etched upon us,” said Hill, with praise for the four actors and the production staff both.  In perhaps the most personally effusive acclaim for the show, DC Metro Theatre Arts’ John Stoltenberg wrote, “Bad Jews is so over-the-top funny, so razor-sharp smart, and so plumb-the-depths profound that it left me gobsmacked in utter awe.”  Going on to call the play “a perfectly polished gem” and a “gift of exceptional theater” which “Serge Seiden directs with hilarious panache,” the DCMTA reviewer concluded that the play’s “a powerfully engaging experience.”  Pronouncing playwright Harmon “a young writer of uncommon emotional insight, rhetorical skill and giant brass balls,” Ryan Taylor wrote on DC Theatre Scene that he “has crafted the funniest American comedy of bad manners I’ve had the pleasure of falling in love with in a good few years.”  Though “[g]enerally thin on plot but huge on incident,” reported Taylor, the pay’s “thrilling stuff that barely ever pauses to catch its breath.”  Of the humor, the DCTS review-writer admonished us that “it’s not empty comedy.  It’s rich, and thoughtful and wonderfully challenging and so in love with big questions.  But,” Taylor urged, “don’t take my word for it.  Buy a ticket, prepare a questioning mind and investigate for yourself.”  Can you think of higher praise from a theater writer—an unabashedly positive recommendation?

The New York cyber press got into the act as well.  On CurtainUp, Susan Davidson started off bluntly: “Bad Jews is a good play.”  The “cacophonous quartet of perfectly cast actors” is directed, Davidson wrote, “with great intelligence and humor.”  Like DCTS’s Taylor, the CU reviewer ended with a recommendation: “Listen to me: it’s a terrific show and you should see it.”  Talkin’ Broadway’s Susan Berlin called Bad Jews a “riotous play” presented by the Studio in “a resplendent production.”  On Broadway World: Washington, DC, Alan Katz asserted that the reason to see Bad Jews is the confrontation between Daphna and Liam, “one of the most vitriolic confrontation[s] I've ever seen between two characters onstage.”  Katz saw a problem with this in “that it creates a one-note tone that can wear on the audience, aggravated by the conflict's expression mostly via monologue rather than true dialogue” (one of the few real complaints about the play that I read), although the cyber reviewer added that this situation allows “the leads [to] really shine.”  “Bitingly funny” is how TheaterMania’s Barbara Mackay described Bad Jews, but she went on to issue the harshest criticism of the show: “Given the way Harmon has written the play and Serge Seiden has directed it, Bad Jews veers precipitously away from a realistic analysis of faith and demonstrations of belief and toward an irrational demonstration of pure hate—an intense boxing match between cousins steeped in self-interest and greed.”  In production, though, “Seiden has wound up his actors into a tight, well-coordinated ensemble.” 

I’d guess that Bad Jews isn’t going to be every theatergoer’s cup of tea (or glezel tai).  There’s little doubt that it’s a disturbing play, one that makes spectators uneasy—but most of that’s because it makes you think and feel about ideas that aren’t easily dealt with or resolved.  (In fact, Harmon’s characters don’t resolve their argument.)  Bad Jews will discomfit some Jews who have problems with anything critical of Judaism and Jews.  (One reviewer even asked, “Is Bad Jews good or bad for the Jews?” a question not unheard in Jewish society.)  It’ll also put off gentiles who can’t translate the central point into a universally applicable debate about assimilation and loyalty to traditions because of all the Jewishness in Harmon’s text.  (I can remember someone reporting that when Fiddler on the Roof first played in Tokyo back in 1967, audiences embraced it because “it’s so Japanese”!  It became the longest-running musical ever to play in Tokyo.)  But if you don’t fall into either of those categories, I think the near-unanimity of the reviews will suggest that this is a play to see (it’s purportedly one of the three most-produced plays in the U.S. this season), and that Harmon’s a playwright to watch.  

[The musical classic Fiddler on the Roof is mentioned a few times in my report, perhaps a natural connection in an article about a Jewish-themed play.  But as several of the reviewers noted, right now in Washington, there’s a trifecta of Jewish plays on the boards.  Fiddler, marking its 50th anniversary this year, is in production at the venerable Arena Stage (until 4 January 2015), and Theatre J, at home at the DC Jewish Community Center, is presenting Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures through 21 December.  (I reported on the New York production of Kushner’s play, in which the characters are actually not Jewish, on ROT on 6 June 2011.)  One theater writer noted that with Bad Jews, this represents three generations of Jewish theater on Capital-area stages: Fiddler for “the bubbies and zadies” (by which the writer meant zaydas, for grandmas and grandpas), the Kushner for the Boomers, and Bad Jews for the millennials.

[A word or two about the Chai.  Like the other symbols Jews wear as a sign of their faith or culture, the Chai is not a religious object.  It’s not, for instance, the equivalent of the Christian cross many of those believers wear around their necks.  Jews who wear a Chai (or a mezuzah, Mogen David, or tablets of the Ten Commandments) are displaying a cultural object, not a sacred one.  In fact, Judaism has no comparable symbol to the Christian cross.  The closest there is is the oldest symbolic representation of Judaism, the seven-branched candelabrum, or menorah, used in the Temple that is also the symbol of the modern city of Jerusalem.  (The seats in the Israeli Knesset are arranged in the shape of the menorah.  The eight- or nine-branched candelabrum used at Chanukah, by the way, is properly called a chanukiah or, simply, a Chanukah menorah.  The menorah is a religious object.)  Poppy’s Chai has significance for Daphna, Liam, and Jonah because of its family connections and historical importance, not its spiritual meaning.

[The mezuzah, for those who don’t already know, is a sacred object, but not the little gold or silver ones some Jews wear as jewelry.  Mezuzot, which are actually little cases for Torah verses, are traditionally fixed to the doorframes of Jewish homes as a blessing for the house, the family living there, and anyone who enters.  Wearing one around the neck has no actual religious meaning.  Mogen Davids are a relatively modern symbol of Judaism, coming to popularity in the 19th century.  (The six-pointed star occurs in the iconography of many cultures, ancient and modern, and is not an exclusively Jewish symbol.)  The State of Israel adopted the Star of David as the national insignia, but it, too, has no religious significance.  The Ten Commandment tablets are even less sacred; their principal use is as the branch insignia for Jewish chaplains in the army.  (Christian chaplains wear silver crosses on their lapels; Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist military chaplains also have distinctive insignia.)

On 30 December 2015, my friend Helen Kaye sent me her review of Bad Jews from the Jerusalem Post.  I've published it below as a Comment (see 1 January 2016) so ROTters can see the contrast in our experiences of the play.]

20 November 2014

Beth Henley and 'Ridiculous Fraud'

by Kirk Woodward

[Frequent ROT guest-blogger Kirk Woodward this time contributes a rumination on the dramaturgy of Mississippi-born playwright Beth Henley, focusing in particular on her 2007 play, Ridiculous Fraud.  Aside from a discussion of the play itself, which Kirk believes is underappreciated by critics and theater artists alike, Kirk, a playwright himself and a native of Louisville, Kentucky, also examines what it means to be a “Southern playwright.”  As I usually promise in my prefaces to Kirk’s ROT postings, I know you’ll find his remarks informative and provocative.  ~Rick]

Some time ago I was invited to write an article about the playwright Beth Henley (born in 1952). The project never got past the draft stage, but it did introduce me to Henley’s plays. In particular, it introduced me to a play I think deserves more attention than it’s gotten, so I’m going to do my bit for it here. 

Beth Henley was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1952. She is often referred to as a “Southern playwright.” Most, but not all, of Henley’s plays are set in the South, including the majority of works in her two volumes of Collected Plays, and two later plays, Ridiculous Fraud (2007) and The Jacksonian (2013). (Her most recent play, Laugh, first produced in 2014 and scheduled for its premiere by the Studio Theatre of Washington, D.C., in March 2015, seems not to be specifically related to the South.) Her best known plays, both of which have been turned into movies, are Crimes of the Heart (1978) and The Miss Firecracker Contest (1984), both, again, set in the South. 

I was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and when I was growing up, the idea of “regional playwriting” interested me. How would a play that reflected, say, life in Louisville differ from any other play, other than in its setting? That’s not to say that there was much regional drama around to experience at the time. Kermit Hunter (1910-2001) wrote one of his “symphonic dramas,” Bound for Kentucky (1961) for the city of Louisville, but it wasn’t a success. My father admired and introduced me to Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures (1930), a lovely play that tells the story of the Old Testament in what would then have been called Negro dialect – but Connelly was from Pennsylvania, and for decades Pastures has been impractical to mount, so I (and most people today) have never seen it. As for Tennessee Williams, he was only a slightly disreputable name to me while I was growing up. 

Today the situation has changed, and the South in particular is associated with a number of playwrights. Williams, Horton Foote (a Texan, actually), and Marsha Norman (from Louisville, Kentucky) come to mind; another is Beth Henley. What does it mean, exactly, to be a “Southern” playwright? We can try to answer that question while looking at Henley’s play Ridiculous Fraud, both because it provides a good basis for a discussion of what makes a play “regional,” and because I think it’s a worthwhile play, much more interesting and worthy of production than one would guess from its history and, in general, reviews. 

About the play: Ridiculous Fraud takes place in Louisiana. Its action moves from the family home in New Orleans, to a farmhouse in the backwoods, to a cabin deep in the swamp, hidden from civilization, and then, at the end, back to New Orleans, not to the crowded part of the city but to a cemetery. The plot of the play is a little complicated. In Act One Scene One, which takes place in the summertime, the Clay family, including brothers Andrew and Kap; Andrew’s wife, Willow; and their uncle, Baites (who has picked up Georgia, a one-legged homeless woman, that same day) are reacting to the collapse of the wedding of the youngest brother, Lefcad, who ran away before the ceremony. Lefcad turns up, and, scared that he’ll get beaten to a pulp for his cowardice, runs away again. Scene Two, set in the fall, finds Lefcad hiding out in his uncle Baites’s cabin, surrounded by plenty of other family turmoil: Willow is having an affair, Baites’s girlfriend seems to be robbing him, and nobody likes Andrew. 

Act Two Scene One finds the family still deeper in the woods, in Kap’s cabin. Georgia has left Baites. Kap and Andrew taunt him about it, Andrew accidentally stabs Lefcad with an arrow and has a fistfight with Kap, who also gets his face cut with a knife by Willow’s father. In Scene Two the family, gathered at its cemetery plot after the death of the brothers’ father, finds that Georgia has returned to Baites, Willow’s affair is over, Andrew has learned a bit of humility, and the brothers seem more determined to tolerate each other. Even Lefcad seems to be in a better mood. 

I wonder how this plot summary will strike someone reading about the play for the first time. Obviously I’m leaving out many details, but my description probably makes it clear why Henley’s plays are sometimes described as “gothic,” which can be critical shorthand for “violent.” I hope my summary also gives an idea of the complexity of the story and the importance of the relationships in it. What I can’t summarize quickly is the quality of the experience of the play, so I’ll try to describe that. 

First, though, about the history of Ridiculous Fraud: It was first performed at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, from May 5 through June 11, 2006. Later that same year, in November, it was performed in Costa Mesa, California. I haven’t found evidence of any other productions of the play, and the reviews for these two were mixed to poor, including the New York Times, where Charles Isherwood called it “confused… all cracks and precious little comedy” (May 16, 2006). On the other hand, Naomi Siegel (in the Sunday Times) did call it “splendidly acted and directed . . . an affirmation of Family with a capital F” (May 21, 2006). Similarly divided reviews greeted the Costa Mesa, California, production, and in general the play’s reception seems to have been grim. Emily Mann, the Artistic Director of the McCarter Theatre, wrote me in an email: “I think Beth is an authentic southern voice and except for a couple of her plays, northerners don’t get it. I love this play . . . It was in some ways a rocky first production with some cast problems so I think we would have gotten much further with the production if that had not been true.”  

I haven’t seen the play in performance. Just from reading it, though, I feel it more than deserves a further look. I find the elements of the play both interesting and deeply dramatic.  

First, something about the title. I’m not certain it’s appropriate, although Fraud does include an element of literal fraud – the unseen father of the family has gone to jail for it. There are definitely metaphorical elements of fraud – that is, deception or self-deception – in the actions of the three brothers, Lefcad, Andrew, and Kap, whose lives form the center of the drama. What I’m not sure about is how the term “ridiculous” applies to the mounting complexity of the relationships of the three brothers and their wives and in-laws, as they attempt to navigate their unfortunate family dynamics that drive them, both symbolically and literally, deeper and deeper into a dark woods, and ultimately to a cemetery, possibly the loneliest setting of all. The characters have ridiculous aspects to them, I suppose; but they and the play are by no means silly. 

Where does Ridiculous Fraud fit in the realm of dramaturgy? For any Southern playwright, comparisons with Tennessee Williams are inevitable; we seem to hear the cadences of Williams’ dialogue, for example, in this speech from another of Henley’s plays, Lucky Spot

An extravaganza! This was supposed to be an extravaganza! Instead it’s a farce, it’s a flop. A dream so shattered I can’t even remember what the pieces are.  

But Ridiculous Fraud brings one earlier playwright in particular to mind. It’s not the one I think of in connection with Henley’s better known plays Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest. Those both tell a more or less straightforward story, in the course of which at least one major secret is revealed. That’s a pattern of drama associated with the later “social” plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), and an extremely influential pattern in drama today – a climax in which something deeply hidden comes to light. This kind of dramatic device has been central to Western drama at least since the social plays of Ibsen were first performed; it informs the plays of writers as different as Eugene O’Neill and Noel Coward, and of course is a staple of television drama as well. 

Secrets are also revealed in Fraud, but not in the sense of startling revelation as much as of a developing understanding of the characters, as the action of the play carries them increasingly further into the murky places of personality. Secrets imply history, and the South is a land tightly linked to history, retaining memories of its formative years, of the Civil War, and of the period following that stretches all the way to today. Much of the resonance of Henley’s plays comes from a sense that history exists in close relationship with the present.  

The playwright that Ridiculous Fraud brings primarily to mind is the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). The form of Fraud is Chekhovian – definitely an American version of it, but still, like many of Chekhov’s mature plays, a family portrait, in which the events of the play do not overshadow the significance of the family unit itself, including the family’s comic elements and its inability to advance itself in the way it feels it ought.  

The Chekhovian tone in Fraud is unmistakable: 

I can’t believe I’ve lied to him. My own brother. Everything’s falling apart. I’ve been lying. I’m not a liar; so it’s impossible. But love makes you do the things you do. 

Fraud tells a story unified by a movement from assumptions to reality. The characters make assumptions about themselves and their worlds, and they attempt to force those assumptions on others, but in the end they find that reality imposes different conclusions. This pattern also can be labeled Chekhovian. The resolutions of the play are not completely beneficent or healing, any more than it is in Chekhov’s major plays. But in general, Henley’s characters tend to retain at least a bit of hope as they move into the clearer realities of their futures, and as a result these plays may be categorized in some sense as comedies, bittersweet comedies, or semi-comedies. However, the movement from assumption to reality in these plays is arduous, and the realities are none too comforting. All these comments can be applied to Chekhov’s plays as well. 

Writers, it is frequently said, write about what they know. (Henley set her more recent play The Jacksonians in the town where she grew up.) One may be tempted to say that Henley’s plays criticize, or even make fun of, the South. This view is not necessarily fair. Any playwright is going to choose difficult moments to write about – that’s the nature of the art. Just because a play presents a particular group of people in a conflict situation, may not imply an unfavorable opinion; no one thinks of Hamlet as a critique of the Danes. A playwright may set a drama in a particular region, not for the purpose of criticizing that region, but for the purpose of using it to emphasize the humanity of its truths. I would say that Henley is writing about conflict among characters she has imagined, using whatever instruments are available to her, including locale, characterization, ways of speaking, and so on. In other words, she’s not a reporter but an imaginative artist.  

In Ridiculous Fraud Beth Henley does make its regional – in this case, Southern – character clear. Beginning with the obvious, the Southern settings of Henley’s plays give an occasion for colorful names that appear to be more likely to be encountered in the South than elsewhere: Lafcad, Willow, Kap, Georgia, and the child affectionately (perhaps) known as Little Butterball. Fraud is full of telling social details related to what we may assume is life in the deep South, like a practical joke in the play that involves “eating a bug,” or the duck hunts that Kap stages for people with money who want the primal feeling of hunting. We hear people refer to “Daddy” and “red neck bubba.”  

The South is not shown as a necessarily poor environment. However, the physical South that Henley portrays is not a financially upbeat area like the Atlanta suburbs, but a more primal area, less protected by social conventions, more representative of basic emotions. The family home we see in Act One of Fraud is genteel, although definitely not lavish. But the backwoods farmhouse in Act Two is a basic sort of structure, and Kap’s cabin in the woods in Act Three is downright primitive. This progression of settings suggests a reality in the play that becomes increasingly gritty. (Race relations however are only peripherally present in the play, as in a casual comment that Lefcad, the brother who fled his own wedding, will probably be “lynched.” Henley isn’t preaching about social problems. However, she is clearly aware of them.) 

Poverty is by no means unique to the South, but setting the play in that locale does add complexity to the social background in the sense that having almost no money may not be a barrier to social acceptance, as shown in the way Andrew is trying to win respect for his family through his political career. A character can be down at heel and still hope for social redemption and a return to an assumed deserved station in society. The importance of family is another significant social element in the plays under consideration. In many areas of the South, family can be a defining characteristic both of individual identity and of social standing. In Fraud the father is in jail, and as noted Andrew wants to raise the family’s prestige by running for State Auditor. If his family problems provide him with a goal, they also give him his burden, since no one else in the family, including but not limited to his father, behaves in any way like a model citizen. In particular his brother Lefcad, scheduled to be married to a woman he doesn’t love, abandons her at the altar and hides out with the family. “I must hold this family all together myself without glue,” Andrew says, but he can’t. 

Much of the energy, and the comedy, in Henley’s plays come from the unsuitability of family members for each other. She presents the South as a place where eccentricity can seem normal. Many of her characters simply seem unsuited for their chosen tasks. In Fraud we meet a duck hunter inept at shooting ducks, a bridegroom who is possibly homosexual, and a new girlfriend who seems to have no history and no trace of dependability. Some reviewers have suggested that Henley arbitrarily places her characters in inappropriate roles that they would not assume in real life. On the other hand, it may be the case that in the more marginal areas of the country, round pegs do not always have to fit into round holes. A relaxed social atmosphere may make it possible for people to exist for years in ways of living that are unsuitable for them. Henley’s characters frequently are not only unsuited for their states of being by their interests and ambitions, but also by their personal characteristics. The backgrounds of many characters include behavior that is worse than eccentric, but in fact is close to dangerous and destructive, as shown by the violence in Fraud

Every family has a history. In Fraud an important family member (the father) is in jail, to the distress and embarrassment of the others. That’s a major part of the family’s history. Behind family specifics, forming a background, is the history of the South, which Henley indirectly, by reference and evocation, in the sense of decline and decay that surrounds the characters, and the sense that something more worthwhile used to exist and that now “the storm’s coming.” There are suggestions that the past was more glorious, and that its remnants exist today, for example in the code of revenge that Ed feels he must follow when he cuts Kap’s face over Kap’s involvement with his wife, a sort of half-remembered code of honor. But those remnants are isolated, floating in space; they are not part of an intelligible code but strange survivals of a previous and more primal era that can now hardly be understood. 

A sign of the hollowness of history in Henley’s plays is the pretenses of her characters. A major motivation in many of her plays is the desire to seem different than one really is – in particular, to seem more socially prominent than one is, as if social prominence could somehow make up for a damaged past. Henley’s characters frequently let the past drive their behavior, rather than learning to live in the moment as much as possible. That past is often presented as problematic, yet it shapes the present, often in destructive ways. This kind of presentation of the hand of history on the life of people of today is surely easier to dramatize in a setting soaked in history like the South. Henley uses the tradition-remembering, family-linked South to evoke how heavy the hand of the past can be. 

On the other hand, a prominent characteristic of Henley’s characters is that in the face of grievous and overwhelming difficulty, they retain hope for a better existence. The family in Fraud that wants to hold up its name goes from bad to worse. Still the characters dream of and plan for a future. Obviously hope is not always realistic. The family in Fraud is not notably benefited by Andrew’s success in politics, which seems to have been made possible by voter indifference more than widespread acceptance of the family. But love, or what passes for love, can and often does bring hope, even if that hope is not likely to be realized. 

Why do people continue to fight and strive for a happy life against overwhelming odds? Henley’s play raises this question but doesn’t answer it. Instead it leads us to look at the mystery that lies behind our refusals to accept defeat and give up entirely. The play’s shadowy settings, like the forest where Kap’s cabin is located in Fraud, hint of mystery, and life at its heart, Henley seems to suggest, is most definitely a mystery. Mystery is mystery because it offers no pat answers. It may lead to confusion and bewilderment. It may lead to Andrew’s bewildered sense in Fraud that life is a dream. Sometimes, though, it may also lead to rebirth, as in the sense of giddiness pervades the last scene of Fraud despite all the disaster and the literal presence of death in the graveyard where the family has gathered. In the midst of death, we are somehow in life. We keep going. 

I hope this look at Ridiculous Fraud makes it clear why I think the play deserves further attention. I think the South provides a rich and useful background for a playwright who wants to capture the varied and contradictory natures of individuals struggling with the mysteries of life. Other geographic or cultural areas perhaps offer similar opportunities for a playwright; as already noted, Henley has written plays set in other areas of the United States. But the South, with its rich history and its evocative spaces, offers unique opportunities for a playwright like Beth Henley to give us provocative evocations of the strangeness of our existence. 

[Kirk’s last contributions to ROT are “Bertolt Brecht and the Mental Health Players,” posted on 21 October, and “Bullets Over Bullets Over Broadway,” 29 August.  He also has some work in progress for upcoming postings, so come back often to catch his latest.]