29 March 2017

Berlin Memoir, Part 7

[This is the second-to-last installment of my “Berlin Memoir,” the chronicle of my 2½ years in military intelligence in Cold War Berlin in the 1970s.  Part 7 covers some of the trips I took out of Berlin (after my two-part stint at the German military intelligence school in 1972, which I wrote about in Part 6), both for leave and for temporary duty.  There are also a couple of operational screw-ups at the end of this section.  Once again, I have to suggest that readers who are just being introduced to “Berlin Memoir” go back and read Parts 1 through 6 to catch up not just with the narrative (which to be truthful is fairly haphazard anyway), but the definitions and explanations of terms, concepts, and other references I toss around once they’ve been introduced.  (The earlier parts of “Berlin Memoir” were posted on 16 and 31 December 2016, 20 January 2017, 9 and 19 February 2017, and 6 March 2017.)]

The MAD-Schule I attended in the summer and fall of 1972 wasn’t the only course I had to take while in Berlin.  I got designated the Station NBC Officer—that has nothing to do with radio or TV broadcasting; it’s Nuclear-Biological-Chemical, what used to be called CBR—and I had to go down to Oberammergau for a class at the U.S. Army School, Europe.  O’gau, as it was known to us GI’s, is a small Alpine town near the Austrian border in Bavaria not far from Munich, and the Army had a school there for various courses.  66th MI, whose HQ was just up in Munich you recall, had several programs there.  The course itself was unremarkable—just like any Army course you can imagine—but it lasted two weeks, and we got some time off now and then.  Since I didn’t have my car—I took the train there and back—I palled around with a couple of my classmates from other units, and we drove up to Munich one afternoon and poked around.  I remember we drove out to the Olympic Village—the one where the 1972 games were held (26 August-11 September) and where the Israeli athletes were kidnapped on 5 September and later murdered, later the subject of Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich

I don’t remember exactly when I was in O’gau, sometime in ’72, but considering when I was in Bad Ems, it must have been a couple of months or so before the Olympics.  I recall that the place was pretty empty—not a big tourist draw.  (I had been in Berlin when the kidnapping occurred.  I went to bed that night thinking that the athletes had all been saved—remember that the erroneous report was issued before the truth was revealed—but when I woke up the next morning, I found out that they had all been murdered and that the German police had killed all the kidnappers.) 

Aside from skiing, O’gau is also famous for its woodcarvers.  The most popular souvenirs from O’gau are little figurines carved from wood in the distinctive style of the town and painted (sometimes they’re left unpainted).  They’re usually figures of people in various Bavarian dress—and they’re all over town in every size imaginable.  (There are also a whole range of religious figurines available, including crèches.  Remember that Bavaria, like Austria, is very Catholic.)  However, the USARSCHEUR PX, which also carried a line of the O’gau figures, had commissioned a special version of the traditional carvings.  It was a “Spook”—a man in a black cloak and a big, black slouch hat, holding a silver-bladed dagger.  Think “Spy vs. Spy.”  (The band on the hat is “oriental” blue, the primary color of MI Branch.)  Well, of course, I had to have one of those!  What a hoot.  I have it still, on the bookshelf in my study—one of my best souvenirs of Germany and the Army.  

(I also bought a “real” O’gau carving.  My grandmother had made a trip to Bavaria—I don’t know if she actually went to O’gau, but she probably did—and had given me a little figurine, which I also still have on the other end of that shelf, so I decided to get something slightly less traditional.  I shopped around all over town and saw that the artisans also made other kinds of carvings, including reliefs, which were much less common.  I got an unpainted high-relief panel of four men around a tavern table, slightly impressionistic in style and about 15”L x 12”H.  It hangs over the inside of the door to my study.  It’s one of my favorite pieces.)

My trip to Oberammergau wasn’t a vacation, of course, nor was Bad Ems—though I did take advantage of being away from Berlin to do some recreating.  O’gau, in the Bavarian Alps, was like Garmisch-Partenkirchen nearby—an Army recreation center for skiing in the winter.  There were Special Services hotels in both towns; my family’d even done a ski vacation in Garmisch when I was a kid.  I wasn’t in O’gau during ski season, of course, but it’s still a cute little Alpine town, very picturesque, with lots of Stuben and little restaurants where you could sit and nurse a beer or glass of wine and people-watch or nibble on some cheese or a pastry.  And Bad Ems, frequented by the Kaiser and the Tsar, among other European dignitaries of the 19th century, was a former Imperial spa.  Germans were very devoted to their “cures” and doctors often prescribed spa cures and the patients took this very seriously.  In other words, both towns, though small, were substantial in terms of basic amenities because of the visitors they attracted.  I mean, they weren’t Muldraugh, Kentucky! 

I did get to go on vacations occasionally, too.  As hard as it could be to navigate the paper maze that was necessary to get out of Berlin, I did manage a few times.  There was that Christmas-New Years trip to my friends in France, for one—the one where I took the Train Militaire to Strasbourg.  (I don’t know how I managed to get leave for both holidays—I found out after I got back that SOP was to give personnel one or the other holiday off, but not both.  Just got lucky—someone was asleep at the switch.)  I spent Christmas 1971 with the Humiliens, our French friends from the days in Koblenz, in Villefranche-de-Lauragais, their little town in the Haute-Garonne near Toulouse, and took the train to Paris for New Years 1972 with their son, Marc, who was my age, for a party by the daughter of his godparents.  (I guess that made her his god-sister!)  On Christmas morning, I cooked French toast for my hosts—we had to do a little shopping around to find appropriate bread; I was afraid to try regular French bread.  This was a great astonishment for the Humiliens on two counts: first, the idea that I would (or, I suppose, could) cook for them was a surprise; second . . . well, French toast isn’t French!  They’d never heard of such a thing.  (That’s not so strange: the French, like most Continentals, don’t eat a big breakfast—just coffee and a roll.  That’s why it’s called a continental breakfast, don’cha know.)  Anyway, they were so thrilled, they talked about this event for years to come.  (I have photos of that visit, including one of me at the stove with Ninon Humilien, la mère de famille, kibitzing over my shoulder!)  I also remember that the Humiliens’ housekeeper, an old family retainer who’d worked for Mme. Humilien’s family for years, was incensed that not only a man, but a stranger would be invading her kitchen!  (The housekeeper was pretty old and nearly toothless, and spoke the local langue d’oc patois, so not only I but also Ninon and her family could barely understand her.)

(The trip to Paris wasn’t particularly remarkable, except for one anecdote.  Marc and I stayed at a pension near his godparents’ house, and after we had arrived and were having some dinner in the pension restaurant, he decided he ought to call his parents.  That’s not so strange, of course, but it’s what he said that still tickles me.  We were at the table and he said matter-of-factly, “Je dois téléphoner en France.”  “I have to call France,” he said—as if Paris were not France, but his hometown was.  In his head—this had not been an intentional joke, but a disingenuous utterance which I had to point out to him after he said it—Paris was a strange foreign land.  Of course, he wasn’t totally off base on that.)

Strasbourg (where the French military train from Berlin terminated), by the way, is an odd place in its own right.  It’s the capital of Alsace, which is a French province that was previously German (called Elsass), and has changed hands so many times it’s impossible to untangle the cultural history of the area.  Today, it’s solidly and staunchly French politically.  (During WWII, you may know, when Strasbourg was under German occupation, the display of the Tricolor was forbidden.  The Strasbourgeois, however, knew a way to get around that.  Beds in most European homes were covered not with blankets or bedspreads as we do in the States, but a kind of quilt the Germans call a Steppdecke and the French, a duvet.  It was common practice to air these out every morning by hanging them from the balconies and windows of the houses.  The Strasbourgeois just made sure their brightly-colored quilts were all hung out to air in the right order: blue-white-red.) 

In their cultural identity, however, the Strasbourgeois suffer from MPD.  They make and sell pastry that’s as French as anyone’s (German pastry looks terrific, but is tasteless).  But they make a wonderful wine that not only tastes German, but is sold in bottles that look like German wine bottles.  Even its label is schizophrenic: the name is Gewürztraminer, which sounds German (because it is), but it’s designated vin d’Alsace.  When I went into a shop there—I had a layover between trains—all the shopkeepers, many of whom have German names, spoke French. (I understand that they will refuse to speak German with customers—presumably even tourists from Germany.)  But on the street and among themselves, they speak German!  (In a Beckettian scene, if you order something in French at a counter, the counterman will turn and shout the order to the back in German!)

I must tell you about the Humiliens’ house in Villefranche-de-Lauragais.  It’s amazing.  It was actually Mme. Humilien’s family home and it’s the third oldest building in the little town—about 3,000 inhabitants.  (Villefranche is an old designation for a town that has been declared tax-exempt for services rendered to the king.  There are scores of Villefranches in France—though I suspect they all pay taxes these days.)  Only the Hôtel de France, a few yards up the Rue de la République (and which serves a renowned cassoulet, the regional specialty), and the mairie are older.  The house—what we’d call a townhouse today—was 700 years old in the 1960s.  That’s seven centuries—can you dig it?  That house was already two centuries old when Columbus sailed for the New World!  Much of the house had been redone over the centuries, of course, but there were lots of very old bits here and there: a Louis XII  (reigned 1498-1515) banister on the stairs (the stairs were newer, thankfully), Directoire (1795-1799) and Empire (flourished 1800-1815) furniture.  (I’m not positive, but I believe the basement was part of the 13th-century foundation.)  There was a sedan chair, the age of which I’m not sure though it looked to be 17th- or 18th-century or so, that sat in a nook at the foot of the stairs in the vestibule and which the Humiliens used as a sort of closet/cabinet for their stash of cigarettes and candy and such.  None of these objects had been bought as “antiques,” of course; they had been new when Ninon Humilien’s family got them. 

The Humiliens were carefully restoring things, all in the styles of their original periods.  I don’t know exactly when Mme. Humilien’s family acquired the house—they may have been the original owners—but they had it for at least several generations.  On the second-floor stair landing, there was two glass-enclosed étagères displaying family heirlooms.  Over the cases hung two portraits from the Napoleonic era—Mme. Humilien’s great (or great-great) -grandmother and -grandfather.  Her portrait depicted a cameo broach and his a Légion d’honneur—and those same objects were in the étagère below the paintings.  Neat!  When we first visited the Humiliens, right after Dr. Humilien retired from the army and they had just moved back, they had barely begun the restorations.  In one room, when they stripped off the Victorian-era (early Third Republic in France) wallpaper to refurbish the walls and repaper them, they discovered a small closet that had been papered over.  Inside were old family documents from Napoleon’s day.  Can you imagine having a family history that you can not only trace back that far—not just the early 19th century, but even earlier—but which is all still around you where you live?  Stuff like that just gets me.

I went back to Villefranche in September 1972 to attend Marc’s (first) wedding.  Weddings, actually.  Most French couples get married twice.  This is not just some weird cultural tradition—it’s a national necessity born of the French Revolution.  The First Republic (1792-1804) was so anti-clerical, a tradition that remains till this day, that priests were forbidden to perform legal marriages.  The only legal marriage in France is a civil ceremony.  But most French are still Catholic, so couples get married in a church with all the trappings, then rush off to the mairie or the hôtel de ville (both terms for the town hall) for a civil wedding.  (Sometimes they do it in reverse—either way, it’s the same deal.)  Anyway, I went back for the “event” (and wore my army dress blues to the ceremonies: boy, were they impressed—though mostly with my big, red American car!). 

I also took two trips where I met my parents someplace.  They also came to Berlin a couple of times—once on their way to Eastern Europe.  My dad was a little concerned, first because of his former status as a diplomat and his name having been published in an East German book, Who’s Who in CIA; and second because of my position in Berlin.  It was a little hypersensitive, I guess, but when Dad was at the embassy, a secretary had taken a trip to the East and had written a postcard home joking that she had seen the light in the workers’ paradise and wanted to join the party.  She got pulled off a tour bus somewhere!  Sometimes paranoia has a basis in reality.  You never knew with those guys.

(When it was published in East Germany in 1968, Who’s Who in CIA created quite a stir in the circles of official Washington, especially among foreign service officers.  Who’s Who in CIA purported to name everyone who worked for the spy agency—but it ended up naming almost everyone who ever served overseas, even privately.  In fact, it left out actual CIA people: Richard Helms, the Director of Central Intelligence in those days, is in there, but the woman who was the embassy spook in Bonn isn’t.  If you were anybody, you were in the book.  In fact, if you weren’t in the book—you weren’t anybody.  There was a rush on copies to see if your name was listed—and my dad is in it.  Believe me—or don’t: it’s really too late now, anyway—my dad was not in the CIA.  Though until the day his father died, he thought his son was a spy.  Because my dad’s employer had been the U.S. Information Agency, and Grandpa Jack was born in Europe where, in most languages, ‘information’ and ‘intelligence’ are the same word—Nachrichten in German, for instance—the information service was the intelligence service.  The ‘information’/’intelligence’ overlap was probably part of the reason that the book listed my dad.  Not entirely, though: he had served in the CIC during the Occupation of Germany and, in the Soviet Bloc, all diplomats were "spies" at some level or another—they just assumed all of ours were, too.)

The first time I met my parents for vacation was in England.  We toured the Lake District and the Cotswolds, and it was fun and interesting, but not worth reliving here.  We did stay in an inn in Salisbury or someplace like that which had hosted Charles I (reigned 1625-1649).  Like I said, stuff like that gets me.  We visited Stonehenge on that same trip—you could still walk among the megaliths then—and I was so flabbergasted because that place was already ancient when the Romans occupied Britain.  And no one knew then any more than now what the circle was really for or how it was built.  (I had a similar feeling when I was at Jericho—the overpowering sense of being in the presence of ancientness.) 

The other trip like that was to Greece.  My folks were booked on an Aegean cruise, and we met in Athens a week earlier to tour the mainland.  That was the trip for which I used the Air Force hop out of Berlin—Athenai airport is also an airbase—and on the return flight, which included a leg from Ramstein to Berlin, Gail Halvorsen, the Candy Bomber, piloted the plane.  We had been chatting in the waiting area, walked out to the plane together, boarded, sat down, and buckled ourselves in.  The plane took off, and then Colonel Halvorsen turned to me and said, “Excuse me.  I’m going to fly the plane now.”  I thought he was joking at first—till he got up and walked into the cockpit.  My little brush with actual history. 

The tour of Greece was great fun and very interesting—we hit all the main spots like Delphi and Epidauros, and so on—and we had some wonderful Greek food (acquiring a taste for ouzo and taramasalata along the way), but there’s not a lot to retell otherwise.  I did see Mycenae, Agamemnon’s city, and stood on the ruin of the Lion Gate and looked out over the Plain of Argos toward the sea—the view the watchman in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon sees when he spots the signal fires from Troy telling the Greeks that the war was over.  Two years later, when I was at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, I was assigned to do that monologue—and I pictured that view as I had seen it on this trip and imagined it at night with the signal fires appearing in the distance.  That was a trip—if you know what I mean.

The thing about this trip at the time—as opposed to later resonances—was that it was in the fall of 1973.  After I went back to Berlin, my parents boarded a Greek ship for an island-hopping cruise in the Aegean.  The Arab League attacked Israel on 6 October to start the Yom Kippur War and there were reports of attacks on ships in the Mediterranean and Aegean.  I was nervous, of course, and then I heard a report of a Greek cruise ship attacked in the Aegean.  Now, I knew the name of my parents’ ship, Epirotiki Lines’ MTS Argonaut, but I didn’t know its itinerary or the name of the attacked ship, so I immediately started calling the American Embassy in Athens to find out what ship was attacked and who had been on board.  Of course, no one knew anything yet, so I kept calling every day, even several times a day—all U.S. facilities in Europe where there were also military bases were on the same phone system; calling the embassy in Athens was no different from calling Frankfurt or Ramstein—until I finally learned that the ship in the attack was not the one my folks had been on.  Of course, my ’rents had no idea I was panicking—and their ship’s route was diverted to avoid the trouble area.

I’ve related some of the incidental things that were part of working intel in Berlin—many of them routine occurrences.  The walk-ins and phone-ins, records-checks on acquaintances, surveillances and demo coverage, SAEDA briefings, and so on.  I told you we kept a low profile, somewhere between clandestine and overt.  But we did have to do some standard spook things—like keep our phone numbers unlisted (both in the Berlin Brigade phonebook and the regular Berlin directory).  Of course, we had regular military ID’s, which we used to get on the post and into the ’X, and so on, and we had our MI creds—the “box tops”—for official duty.  But we had to have other ID, too—with fake names.  Each of us had at least two cover names, one of which was backstopped with some simple ID docs.  (We couldn’t get fake military ID’s or passports—except for an operation—but we had things like a fake Army driver’s license and some German papers.)  When I arrived at the Station, one of the first things I had to do was submit a list of a few names for potential cover ID’s from which Munich would select two, one of which would be on those low-level docs.  The idea was to choose names with the same initials as our own real names—so anything we carried with a monogram like a key ring or a billfold wouldn’t give us away.  I made up my list; I don’t remember all the names I submitted, though I do remember wanting dearly to put down Rudyard Kipling—but I didn’t.  I can’t remember both names I was assigned—I never used but one and that only once or twice, and never with any papers—but my cover name was Robert Klein.  An homage to the comedian—I guess the Army didn’t recognize his name.  (I think the other name I had, the one I never used, was the name of a high school classmate who had had the same initials as I did—but I can’t remember his name now.)  Anyway, cover ID’s weren’t something you needed for doing background investigations or as a glorified accountant, so most of the time I was in Berlin, I had no need for this.  It’s just part of the spook world I inhabited once for a while.

Sometimes, no matter how well trained you are or how carefully you plan, things go haywire.  The best-laid plans and all.  (And sometimes people are just incompetent.)  We had a phrase to describe the little mess-ups and unplanned distractions that occurred with sporadic regularity: The Five-To-Five Friday Flap—because they always seemed to occur at 4:55 on Friday afternoon, just as we were all leaving to go home for the weekend.  While I was in Berlin this happened a few times, at least once to major effect on the city and the Forces as you now know.  I’ve already recounted the big one; the other two incidents were related to each other because they happened during the same operation—though the incidents themselves weren’t connected.

One of my colleagues was running a CE investigation of an American civilian who was known to be buying popular and rationed items from the PX and selling them on the black market.  This was illegal for numerous reasons, not the least was that PX merchandise is sold tax- and duty-free.  Reselling them to Germans or others not entitled to shop at the government-subsidized stores was against both U.S. and German law, not to mention Army regs.  Illegality, however, wouldn’t have made this case one of interest to Military Intelligence; there had to be some other aspect to it.  The black-marketeer under investigation was also suspected of using the same contacts he made for his merchandise enterprise to sell sensitive and classified documents and information to anyone who’d pay for it. 

The investigation, in which I had had no part, had proceeded to the point where the agent in charge decided it was time to set up a stationary surveillance of the subject’s apartment in Kreuzberg.  The agent had arranged to rent a vacant apartment in a walk-up across the street and a few doors down from the subject’s, and Tech Support set up a whole slew of electronic surveillance equipment: video camera, monitors, VCR’s, microphones—whatever was state of the art in the early 1970s.  Then the Ops Officer recruited all available agents to man the surveillance 24/7, each pair of us taking an eight-hour shift.  My partner and I had the red-eye shift—midnight to 8 a.m.

Kreuzberg isn’t close to the Dahlem district where our office and residences were located, so we drove to the surveillance location.  However, since an American car (especially my candy-apple red Torino) or even a German car with green POV plates would be immediately recognizable and draw attention to our presence in the area, we drove to the HQ compound where we signed out one of the Station’s indigenous GOV’s—German Fords or VW’s—and a set of German license plates (the cars all had dual registrations—one for a POV and one for an indigenous vehicle; the plates were quickly exchangeable depending on our need).  We drove the GOV to a spot a few blocks away and around the corner from the apartment and walked to our post.  Our POV’s were parked back at the HQ area, of course, and it was common to park in the auxiliary PX lot across Clayallee from the compound.  There was insufficient space for POV parking on the compound grounds, and the POV lot was at the far rear of the compound, a distance from our offices at the front of the main HQ building.  During the day, leaving our cars in the PX lot was no problem, but in this instance there were complicating circumstances.

As I said, I had the midnight-8 a.m. shift, so I parked my POV at about 11 p.m. or so.  The ’X was closed at that hour, of course, and the lot was empty—except now for my big, red Torino.  Now, because of the spate of bombings and sabotage attacks by the likes of the RAF, some of which, as I’ve noted, had been fatal, the U.S. Forces had increased their security procedures and vigilance.  Cars entering the HQ compound, for instance, were thoroughly inspected, including using a giant mirror on a dolly to inspect the undercarriage.  A car left unattended in the PX parking lot well after hours attracted suspicious attention from the MP’s, and they attempted to identify the registered owner and find out why it was sitting there after midnight.  As I’ve noted, for security reasons, Berlin Station’s POV’s were all registered in Munich, not in Berlin, so the MP’s weren’t able to identify the car from the local records.  There were no computerized records available in the early ’70s, so determining after hours that the car apparently abandoned across from the U.S. HQ in Berlin was registered in Munich and then finding out to whom it was registered was a slow process, and it was taking too long for the MP’s sense of urgency.  They decided they had to blow up the car on site rather than take a chance it might be loaded with explosives. 

I don’t know how it happened, but the DA at the Station got wind of this impending action.  Because the 66th MI offices were right at the front of the building and compound, and the DA’s office was potentially vulnerable if the explosion was a large one—no one knew what was in the car—perhaps he was warned by the MP’s what was about to happen.  In any case, the DA knew the car in question was mine and got the MP’s to abort their plans.  Of course, due to the security measures in place for the surveillance operation, there was no way the DA could get in touch with me to tell me what had almost happened, so I never learned that I almost lost my car big time until after I returned to the Station after 8 in the morning to sign the GOV and the German plates back in.  I was mightily relieved that things had turned out the way they did instead of the way they might have.  (The Torino had been a college-graduation present from my parents—and Road and Track declared it their 1970 Car of the Year.  I really loved that car.)

That was a close one—but the next slip-up went over the line into disaster.  I was still on the red-eye shift at the surveillance, and we’d been at it for a week or so.  As I said, I was just a recruit on this gig, so I didn’t know anything about any of the arrangements that had been made—or hadn’t been made.  I just reported for duty at midnight and went home at 8 the next morning to get some sleep.  One night, after parking the GOV around the corner from the apartment, I had no sooner entered the room when someone out on the sidewalk started shouting and screaming.  The previous shift hadn’t even left yet, so there were four agents in the apartment still.  (That, actually, turned out to be part of the problem, as we were about to learn.)  Now, the tech set-up in the surveillance apartment included video cameras aimed at the subject’s apartment across the street so we could watch on monitors without posing in the window.  But this yelling was coming from right below our apartment on the sidewalk out front so we rushed to the window to see what the commotion at such an hour was all about.  It was the landlady of the building, screaming and pointing up at the surveillance apartment, gathering a crowd and, pretty quickly, a couple of Berlin cops.  We immediately radioed into the Station and got our police liaison officer to come out and help us handle whatever the matter was.  Whatever was going on, it was obvious we were in some kind of bind—the attention on our apartment alone was certainly a bad development, aside from whatever else might be happening.

It turned out that the landlady had begun to suspect something nefarious and probably illegal was going on in her apartment.  Her clue was that though the apartment had been rented by one young man—the special agent in charge of this operation—she had been watching as a parade of different men kept coming and going at all hours of the day and night.  She never saw the guy who had rented the place, but she noticed that there were half a dozen other men, and no women, who entered and left the apartment and no one seemed to be living there.  She concluded that there was a brothel operating in the apartment, or maybe a smuggling ring, and she wanted it out of her building.  Well, we managed to keep the cops at bay for a while until the liaison officer arrived, and then we pretty much had to let them in. 

As soon as they looked inside, they all knew what had been going on: all that high-tech equipment and the lack of any other furniture or other amenities—no fridge, no stove, no food except for thermoses and bags of food brought from home—told these savvy cops that they’d spoiled an intel operation of some kind.  (Berlin’s being spy central, the local cops were fairly cognizant of what was happening around them.  Besides, as I’ve said before, these guys were pretty competent anyway.)  Everyone pretty much laughed—there wasn’t much else we could do.  We knew we had gotten caught—the Army expression is very vulgar, but very apt: stepping on our dicks.  It hadn’t helped that the SAIC had neglected to inform the police liaison what he was setting up so the cops could be briefed if it became necessary.  As I said, I was just a hired hand on this one, so, after the SNAFU, I just went on home after returning the GOV and the local plates.  End of operation.  (I don’t remember if we ever caught the guy, or even if we even proved he was passing info.  He certainly would have discovered he was under surveillance after this public exposure of our little spook operation on his block.  As I said, it wasn’t my gig.)

(Berlin Station had had one female agent when I arrived, but she’d left Berlin by this time.  Women were only in the process of being integrated into Army operations in the early ’70s and female MI agents were rare—and highly prized.  The Women’s Army Corps, the WAC’s, to which most female soldiers were assigned, didn’t disband until 1978, after which women were assigned to the same branches as men.  If MI took only the best of the available talent, you can imagine the level of the women in its ranks because the pool was so much smaller to start with.  The agent at Berlin Station, an NCO, was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and one of the top agents I ever served with.  While she was still at the Station and I was just starting there, she acted as an unofficial mentor to me for the practical aspects of the job, the part you only learn OTJ.)

[In a few weeks, I’ll post the final section of “Berlin Memoir.”  In it, I write mostly about the theater group we started at the air base and some of the events, not just the performances, that grew out of that.  I hope you’ll come back to read Part 8.]

24 March 2017

'Wakey, Wakey'

A dying man making an appearance in a theater?  Whoaaa!  That might well be your reaction—it was mine—when you twig to what Will Eno’s come up with in his new play Wakey, Wakey, having its world première at the Signature Theatre Company’s Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row.  But don’t be put off by my very skeletal characterization: though it did seem to affect some spectators—a few, like the woman sitting in front of me, even profoundly—it’s not morbid or depressing.   Think Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape with humor.

Wakey, Wakey, Eno’s final production in his five-year, three-play stint as STC’s first graduating Residency Five playwright, started preview performances on 7 February in the company’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, the small, 191-seat proscenium house, and opened on 27 February; after two extensions (from 19 and 26 March, respectively), the play’s scheduled to close now on 2 April.  My subscription partner, Diana, and I met at the Signature Center on Friday evening, 17 March, to see the 7:30 performance.

Eno, who also makes his stage-directing début with this production, has been represented at STC with Title and Deed, his freshman outing in his residency in 2012, and The Open House in 2014 (see my report on the latter play, 16 March 2014, which also includes a brief bio of the writer).  2014’s The Realistic Joneses was Eno’s Broadway début; his breakout play was 2005’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), a film version of which, co-directed by Eno, is currently in post-production.  A Helen Merrill Playwriting Fellow, Eno has also received many other accolades for his writing: he’s a 1996 Edward F. Albee Foundation Fellow and a 2004 Marian Seldes/Garson Kanin and Guggenheim Fellow; he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2004; Thom Pain was nominated for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; and he’s the recipient of the 2012 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award.  In addition to the Pulitzer nomination, his plays have won numerous honors as well: Middletown won the Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play in 2010, Title and Deed received a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for Outstanding Solo Show in 2013, and The Open House won both the Lortel for Outstanding Play and the OBIE Award for Playwriting in 2014; also in 2014, the Drama Desk gave Eno a Special Award “For two extraordinary casts and one impressively inventive playwright” for The Open House (Off-Broadway) and The Realistic Joneses (Broadway).

Wakey, Wakey is inspired in part by Eno’s friendship with James Houghton, Signature’s late founder and a mentor to the playwright who died in August 2016 at age 57, and also the September 2016 death of playwright Edward Albee, a former writer-in-residence at STC who remained a loyal friend and supporter.  (“I was thinking of Jim and Edward a lot as I worked on the play,” Eno acknowledged to Theater Pizzazz cyber journalist Carol Rocamora.)  As Eno tells it, his third residency play “was supposed to be something else,” as his main character says of his presentation.  About a year before Houghton’s death, he and the playwright began texting back and forth about ideas for Eno’s last STC script.  “So, we started working on that play,” Eno relates in an interview, “and he was going to direct it and that was really exciting to me.”  But then Houghton went into the hospice where Eno spent a lot of time talking with his mentor while he was dying.  “And then Jim died on August 2nd,” said the dramatist, and he put aside “Jim’s play.”  “I started writing this thing a little while after,” Eno explained. 

The writer was thinking a lot about his friend and mentor while he wrote Wakey, Wakey, but, he insists, “it’s not a play about Jim.”  Eno adds, however, “I hope it’s a little bit with him, somehow.”  

He’s a guy who, I don’t know how to say this, but, he lived with such clarity and integrity and directness, and so you always knew where he stood, and if I’m thinking about something now, I feel like I have a good idea where Jim would stand on it, so it feels like the conversation continues.  I really hope this will feel like a thing that happened, not a play you went to.

What the playwright took from this experience was how Houghton “lived with more reality, on one hand, and more lightness, on the other,” even “in the last week of his life.”  Eno summed up his vision for Wakey, Wakey: “So all these things are qualities I hope—and again it’s not a play about Jim in a biographical way, at all—but I hope the play might have some of his personality.”  As the main character in Wakey, Wakey says, “It’s important to honor the people whose shoulders we stood upon.”

At preset, while the audience filters into the Griffin, Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” is playing.  After the usual announcement about turning off phones and checking listening devices, the music switches to the theme music for the 1960s-’70s TV show The Dating Game.  A recorded voice, the playwright-director’s I believe, comes up and repeats the customary announcement about cell phones and so on, and there’s a kind of rumination about children, accompanied by the voice of a little girl, possibly Eno’s own daughter (who’s just shy of 3), and a reference to eating a banana.  When the lights go down and come back up, a man in pajamas is sprawled face-down on the floor.  He lifts his head and asks, “Is it now?  I thought I had more time.”  Was he passed out?  Did he just wake up from a nap on the carpet?  The lights dim again.  A lighted sign admonishes: “NO APPLAUSE.”

When the lights return, the 60-ish man (Michael Emerson; TV’s Lost and Person of Interest, Off-Broadway’s Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde) is sitting in a wheelchair, a suit jacket over his pajama shirt, and, referring to note cards, offers his insights in a casual, gentle, humorous stream of consciousness about life and death.  The man, whom the program calls “Guy” (though that may not be his name—he doesn’t have one in the script—just his label), is in a characterless room with no furniture, possibly at his home, surrounded by packing boxes and a pile of clothes (the set is by Christine Jones), and is apparently dying.  There’s a door up left, never used as all entrances and exits are made up right: death’s door, do you suppose?  The play’s decidedly Beckettian (to connect to Krapp’s Last Tape, there’s that allusion to a banana!) as Guy meanders through various and sundry topics.  There are slides (starting with two of a toddler who looks remarkably like he could be Emerson as a child—and one of a little girl eating an ice cream cone that might be Eno’s daughter) and home movies, YouTube videos, word puzzles, distant sound effects—a siren (police or an ambulance, he wonders), a cell phone ringing, crickets chirping—and Guy always acknowledges the audience (unlike Krapp and his tape recorder). 

About three-quarters of an hour into the 75-minute performance, Guy’s caregiver, Lisa (January LaVoy), an attractive, stylish younger woman, enters. (Costumes are by Michael Krass.)  Carrying a small picnic cooler—and her own chair—Lisa patiently attends to Guy’s needs and even anticipates some—she brings a kit for making soap bubbles, which Guy admits he loves, and a bag of fortune cookies.  Little by little, Guy loses the thread of his recollections, shows signs of physical weakening, and loses focus as he quietly passes away.

Then the theater erupts in a montage of slides and videos, disco lighting and strobe effects, rock music,  bubbles, and balloons (projections designed by Peter Nigrini, lighting by David Lander, and sound by Nevin Steinberg).  Stage hands bring out baskets of fortune cookies which they place on the edge of the stage, signs inviting us to help ourselves, and the audience goes out into the Griffin’s lobby for refreshments in what can only be called a wake. 

(Going in, I assumed that Eno’s title,  Wakey, Wakey, referred to waking from a sleep, but this final bit makes me realize the playwright’s evoking a wake for the dead as well.  In his STC interview, he confirms this: “I wanted something that sort of has that sense of ‘time to get up’ in it, and also of a ‘wake’—as in an Irish wake, but also has a silly, nursery rhyme thing to it.”)

I enjoyed Wakey, Wakey, and even Diana seemed to have liked it even though it’s an idiosyncratic play.  It’s also slightly metatheatrical—Guy not only addresses us directly but seems to acknowledge that we’re in a theater.  It’s a very quirky play—Eno’s a very quirky writer, and it seems he comes by that naturally (as opposed to putting it on from the outside, like a suit of motley).  He’s clearly not everyone’s cuppa; I don’t say he’s an acquired taste—I don’t think you acquire a taste for Will Eno—but rather you either take to his idiosyncrasies or you don’t, as can be surmised from disparate responses from two reviewers.  “Wakey, Wakey never manages to quite transcend [its ‘seemingly insignificant’] moments; as lovingly as they are described, they just don’t build into a play,” wrote  Elizabeth Wollman on Show Showdown, characterizing the performance as “a bit half-baked.”  On the other hand, Lindsay Timmington acknowledged, “The beauty of Will Eno’s work is that there is always so much more to what you’ve seen and that something will linger with you long after you leave,” on OnStage.  Timmington summed up by reporting, “I leave his shows feeling a tiny bit befuddled, a little exhausted by the marathon of experienced emotions and totally in love with his work.”  I wouldn’t wax as hyperbolic as Timmington, but I fall closer to that end of the continuum of Eno appreciation.  (I enjoy his quirks—they’re like the bubbles in champagne.)

I said I liked the play, but this is another case of my not being certain what the writer’s trying to say.  Eno’s writing about “life and death” (really, the process of dying), obviously, but I haven’t decided what he’s saying on the subject.  (This is my second play in a row at  Signature whose subject is passing from one plane of existence to another.  Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everyman adaptation, Everybody, treated the same idea in an entirely difference style.  See my report on 6 March.)  I found it intriguing both theatrically and thematically.  (I can tell Eno’s saying something, perhaps very personal, even if I haven’t figured out exactly what that is yet.  Does that make sense?)

The theater’s promo puts it this way:

What are we here for?  Is time a friend or an enemy?  Do we all eventually end up in the same place, but take different routes to get there?  ‘Wakey, Wakey’ challenges the notion of what really matters and recognizes the importance of life’s simple pleasures.  (All of which might sound dreary, but there’s a chance this will be a really good experience.)  

In the interview with Signature Literary Manager Jenna Clark Embrey, the author gives a clue to what he’s thinking about:

It’s a play that is kind of about . . . people you love and people dying and how do you think about that and what is, uh, what is a person’s—what remains of a person.  Things like that.  And how do we think about our own death and all that—not to be glum because all these things are things you ask yourself or you ask about other people for the purpose of trying to live a more grand and a meaningful, helpful life.

We’ll see if I can figure out Eno’s point by the time I finish this report!  It’ll be interesting to see how close I can get.  (I don’t think Eno, or whoever penned the blurb above, was intentionally echoing Tennessee Williams, but his 1959 play Sweet Bird of Youth started out as a one-act entitled The Enemy—Time.  Guy, and probably Eno, is ambivalent about our relationship to time—that is, aging—but Williams was adamant that time was not man’s friend, leading inexorably to decay and diminishment.)

Michael Emerson’s performance is remarkable, too.  (He was Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency Off-Broadway in 1997-98; earning an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination.)  I believe he should at least get an OBIE nomination for this work.  He’s so completely natural and organic in a very odd circumstance, he made me think it was entirely reasonable—despite all the evidence to the contrary.  Astounding work.  (His partner, January LaVoy, is equally good, but in a much less tasking role; she’s only on stage for half an hour of a 75-minute play.) 

The acting of the character of Guy here is immensely important, more than for most other lead characters, because handled badly or misguidedly, the play will slip into maudlinness or pretentiousness.  With Eno himself at the helm, the guidance is clearly in good hands—he knows exactly what the part needs to make the play work.  (The tyro director either learned from observation how to work effectively with an actor, or was fortuitous/discerning in his casting.)  As writer, Eno wanted to capture some of James Houghton’s spirit, especially in his last days, and as director, he seems to have guided Emerson toward the same goal.  “If Emerson is not playing Houghton, per se, he is certainly channeling his spirit and perhaps some of the wisdom he left behind,” suggested Hayley Levitt on TheaterMania

Emerson approaches the role with a quiet sincerity, but not without humor—a light touch that never leaks over into preachy or pedantic.  (“Jim . . . had a way with being funny that—since it didn’t seem like it was his first priority—it just made things funnier.” recounts Eno.  “I don’t know how a person can be an incredible leader and a sort of class clown and prankster, but he was a little bit that.”)  He keeps the monologues conversational, as if he were really talking to us and making up his spiel as he goes along, taking cues from the visuals or his memories—or occasionally his notes, which seem to have mostly become irrelevant after he assembled them.  While LaVoy is a tad more actorly as Lisa, Emerson never seems anything but natural, as if he were improvising the whole performance.  (What might look like improvisations or accidents aren’t, as proved by the published reviewers—which I’ll get to at the end of this report as usual—who all comment on the same moments that drew my own attention even though we each will have seen different performances.) 

Furthermore, the actor strikes just the right tone—not quite diffident and not quite in command—to make Guy not only sympathetic as a character, but the regular guy his label identifies him as.  Like the title character in Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody, Eno’s—and Emerson’s—Guy is all of us.  (I don’t know if Eno would have objections, but I think Guy could easily be played by a woman; there’s nothing really gender-specific in the part—aside from its designation in the program.)  Maintaining this balance convincingly—and I found it totally convincing—is why I assert Emerson is earning an OBIE nod.  It looks simple, but it’s far from it—as actors and acting students will immediately recognize.  (Given Emerson’s past roles, we can also know that this is work, not just his natural behavior.  He just does it in a way that looks like his normal demeanor.)  Let me just add that this is one of those rare occurrences in theater: the perfect alignment of role and actor.  Kudos to both Eno (for casting Emerson) and Emerson for his stage work!

By the way, one additional remark: this is a play that should appeal to small companies and college theaters—it has the most minimal of sets, two actors, and easy tech (slides, recorded music, and a few simple light and sound FX)—plus it’s very short, a good student-directing candidate if the student can handle the acting style.  (Apparently it’s already in press by Oberon Books for publication on 30 March; the Drama Book Shop is advertizing it now.)

On Show-Score, Wakey, Wakey accumulated an average rating of 72 based on a survey of 34 notices.  The site tallied 68% positive reviews, 12% negative, and 20% mixed.  Show-Score's highest rating was 95, of which there were two, with five 90’s; the lowest score was a single 35, with one 41.  (I’ll be reviewing 19 notices for my round-up.)

In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz characterized Wakey, Wakey as an “odd but gently urgent play” in which “the going gets curious.”  Guy’s reminiscence “tends to be elliptical, cryptic and trails off into dead ends,” added the Newsman.  “No matter,” wrote Dziemianowicz: Emerson plays Guy “with a magnetic open-hearted humor, so we stay connected.”  For the suburban Bergen County, New Jersey, Record, Robert Feldberg asserted that Wakey, Wakey “isn’t really a play.  It’s an accounting of the things that matter in life.”  Wrote Feldberg, “Presented with quiet authority and a soft, ironic humor by the remarkable Michael Emerson . . ., observations that might otherwise seem random, and sentimental, coalesce into a painful but brave last embrace of ordinary pleasures.” 

“Though the man telling the jokes is sitting down (he’s in a wheelchair), dying is a stand-up routine in ‘Wakey, Wakey,’” observed Ben Brantley in the New York Times, dubbing it a “glowingly dark, profoundly moving new play” and a “short, resonant tragicomedy.”  Comparing Eno’s work to Albee’s, Brantley also asserted, “‘Wakey, Wakey’ retains a Beckettian sense of human existence as an absurdist vaudeville, a slapstick of failing and falling, despite all aspirations to dignity.”  The Timesman continued, “But Mr. Eno’s play is warmer and less magisterial than most of Mr. Albee’s work.  You could even call it cozy, which is not to say it doesn’t chill.”  The playwright and Michael Emerson “together tap into the show business in the business of breathing your last,” reported Brantley, praising the actor’s portrayal “with a master’s blend of pretty much every emotion there is.”  The Times reviewer declared, “The astonishment of Mr. Emerson’s performance is how universal and particular it is,” characterizing him as a “magnetic presence” and “the show’s most dazzling special effect.” 

The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” reviewer described Wakey, Wakey as “theatrical games” and pronounced that the “script’s perfect unpredictability” is “for a long while . . . thrilling.  But, as the protagonist’s energy flags, so does the show’s.”  Emerson, though, “makes for engaging and funny company.”  In the Village Voice, after characterizing the play as “chatting desultorily about life,” Michael Feingold asserted, “It all sounds absurdly trivial and random, which is part of writer-director Eno’s intention,” and then added, “But Wakey Wakey’s sharp writing, heightened by the easygoing asperity of Emerson’s performance, stirs deeper feelings.  Granted, the truth it conveys is small, rarefied, and overly hedged with decorative distractions.  Even so, it’s genuine.” 

Opening his notice in New York magazine with the statement, “The first half of . . . Wakey, Wakey . . . is a neat summary of everything theatergoers either love or hate about Will Eno.  I will write from the latter perspective,” Jesse Green described the play as “a rambling monologue of no apparent consequence.”  After presenting a list of the play’s deficiencies, all emblematic of Green’s complaints about Eno’s dramaturgy, the man from New York concluded, “The topics, however absurd on the surface, all collapse into meditations on mortality; to bring home the point Eno even gives us a YouTube video of animals screaming.  I may have been among them.”  Then LaVoy’s Lisa, “so radiantly warm onstage,” enters and Green reported, “The struggle between insincerity and urgency that Guy has been enacting gives way, under Lisa’s gentleness, to something more direct and beautiful.”  He acknowledged, “I felt my hostility toward the first half of Wakey, Wakey, with all its dull cuteness, beginning to melt.”  Emerson, said Green (in contrast to most other reviewers),”though technically excellent, cannot get so far with his character.”  (The New York review-writer suggested that Eno’s direction is in part to blame for this failure.)  Acknowledging that “the physical production . . . is ideal,” the New York reviewer caviled that “the play as a whole does not yet reward so much care.” 

Comparing Wakey, Wakey with that other Signature production about death and dying, Frank Rizzo labels Eno’s play “a work of humor, humanity and grace that makes you want to hug your lover, your neighbor and maybe an usher on the way out” in Variety.  Emerson “offers a captivating, playful and deeply moving performance” as the dying man, “a loving transition, theatrically told in a sui generis style that is Eno’s own.  As Guy would say, ‘Wowee.’”  Dubbing the play “quietly beautiful,” Time Out New York’s David Cote explained that Eno “makes a spectacle of vamping and false starts, awkward yet deeply felt pauses, as the keen, funny, transfixing Emerson reads from index cards, gets his slides confused and bathes the audience in his gentle, beatific fussiness.” 

In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney, calling Wakey, Wakey the writer’s “typically idiosyncratic little play” and his “latest existential inquiry,” asserted, “Will Eno’s plays tend to live more in his characters’ minds than in any experiences we witness them going through.”  The HR reviewer reported, “The hook that reels us into this abstruse, tricky, stream-of-consciousness contemplation of mortality is a beautiful performance from Michael Emerson.”  In “this unexpectedly affecting (almost) two-character piece,” Eno and Emerson create “also a sense of playfulness.”  There are moments, said Rooney, when “you wonder whether this is more of an inspirational seminar or a play.  In fact it's a little of both and neither.”   He noted, “While the thematic richness of Wakey, Wakey creeps up on you . . ., few will make the claim that this is a major addition to Eno's distinctive body of work.”  Rooney concluded, however, “Eno's unique voice—quizzical, perceptive, assertively compassionate—is one to be celebrated.” 

In the cyber press, Hayley Levitt on TheaterMania quipped, “Only Will Eno could find the playfulness in a dying man’s end-of-life ruminations.”  Levitt observed that Eno ends his Residency Five term “not so much with a bang, but with a wink and a knowing smile that patrons willing to listen intently will receive with warmhearted joy.”  The TM reviewer explained that “Eno’s dialogue remains stilted and aloof.  It serves the play’s purposes—and could not be given a more naturalistic performance than the one Emerson is delivering.”  She warned, however, that “if you require peaks and valleys of drama to keep you engaged in a story, you may get sleepy within Wakey, Wakey’s microscopic modulations and extended silences.”  On CurtainUp, Simon Saltzman dubbed the play “contemplative” and reported, “Never morbid, it is surprisingly illuminating and insightful, even revelatory.”  Of all Eno’s plays, Saltzman said, Wakey, Wakey, “sensitively directed by the playwright,” is “his most easily embraced and most deliberately accessible.”  In the end, she concluded, “The press release has this hopeful line: ‘. . . there’s a chance this will be a really good experience.’  It was . . . and more.”

“I’d love to tell you what Wakey, Wakey . . . is about, but it ain’t easy,” admitted Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray in the opening of his review.  He offered an explanation of what he says Eno thinks the play is about, then cautions, “But as with so many of Eno’s plays, what makes sense on paper makes nonsense in practice, with whatever points it might have the potential to make crushed beneath the weight of its creator’s enforced artifice.”  Murray then declared, “That it’s his best play since his New York breakthrough . . . is all but irrelevant: How much should any artist be praised for fulfilling the bare minimum of the challenges he sets for himself?”  The TB reviewer asserted, “Emerson does everything he can with” Eno’s script, but “[t]he shtick gets tiresome quickly.”  He continued, “Around its edges, however, Wakey, Wakey evinces more discipline than Eno has displayed in years. . . .   Your reaction to what happens will depend entirely on whether you buy what he’s selling and how he’s selling it.”  On TheaterScene, Joel Benjamin asserted, “Wakey, Wakey is Will Eno at his surreal, troubling, beautiful best, a play both challenging and easily absorbed.  

Theater Pizzazz’s Carol Rocamora opens her review by asking, “What’s this?  A stand-up comedy routine?” adding that the actor in the wheelchair is “not making sense.”  She determined that Wakey, Wakey is “initially mysterious and ultimately deeply moving,” and that Emerson delivers “a mesmerizing monologue that plays with your mind and ultimately with your heart.”  On Theatre’s Leiter Side, Samuel L. Leiter described Eno’s play as “an idiosyncratic, essentially plotless, seriocomic, elliptical, but heartfelt rumination on mortality.”  Yet Leiter warned that Eno “has a gift for unusual situations and quirkily delightful dialogue, and he knows how to get laughs with verbal surprises, but in Wakey, Wakey, he offers little new or revelatory about the human condition.”  Nonetheless, Emerson’s performance “makes you hang on every word, even if you don’t always know precisely what he means.”  Leiter’s concluding thoughts are:

As Wakey, Wakey moves inexorably toward its anticipated conclusion (climax is too animated a word), its unhurried pace slows . . . to . . . a . . . crawl, making its title seem a misreading for Wake Me, Wake Me.  Its acting and production elements score highly, but while some visitors will certainly be touched others are likely to find Wakey, Wakey  too wishy-washy for their tastes.
Emily Gawlak of StageBuddy labeled Wakey, Wakey “overwhelmingly joyous, moving, and unpredictable” and declared, “With Wakey, Wakey, Eno and Emerson achieve a stunning feat, compelling an audience of strangers to deeply mourn the loss of a man who is not only a stranger but a fiction.”  Gawlak concluded, “Wakey, Wakey is a truly great play, one that reasserts the unique power of theatre to create a space for catharsis and community building.  You’ll want to recapture the heart-bursting, life-affirming feeling again and again.”  On Broadway World, Michael Dale acknowledged, “Emerson makes for appealing company and Eno’s meandering text has its cute and funny moments.”  He then added, “But there’s also a redundant meta quality that gets tiresome.”  Echoing one of Guy’s lines, Dale finished up quipping, “As for any further descriptions, I don’t know exactly what to say to you.”

Tulis McCall started off by praising Emerson’s performance in Wakey, Wakey on New York Theatre Guide, then continued, “Would that the material itself held up as well.”  Emerson, McCall asserted, “is apparently very funny if you were to judge from the reactions of the audience the night I attended.  I found his work intriguing and introspective, but not funny in the least.”  The NYTG reviewer observed, “Eno writes with sly winks and nods and intellectual forays thither and yon.  It can be a pleasure to listen to, especially in the hands of Emerson who is both deft and grounded . . . .”  Then she lamented, “In the end, however, there is not enough ‘there’ there on which you can hang your hat.”  McCall’s conclusion?  “Wakey Wakey is an event that falls short of becoming a piece that hits you where you live, or, in this case, expire.”  On New York Theater, Jonathan Mandell, dubbing Wakey, Wakey “the latest ethereal, esoteric play by Will Eno,” referred to a line of Guy’s—“They say practicing gratitude can physically change the shape of the brain, in a good way”—which he actually looks up on the ‘Net.  (It turns out to be true.)  Then he added, “I doubt my brain is going to be changed very much by ‘Wakey, Wakey,’ but I did like it better than anything else I’ve seen by Eno, whose comic, cosmic, cryptic approach to playwriting has consistently charmed other people.”  Mandell went on to admit, “Too often, I’ve found his impish sensibility grating.”  Though the NY Theater review-writer found, “With gentle humor and a lack of fussiness, Michael Emerson manages to woo us through the deliberate vagueness, starts-and-stops, meta interruptions, of his monologue,” in the final analysis, he felt, “Much of what Eno’s script is trying to induce about the celebration and uncertainty of life and death has been done better and with more clarity elsewhere.” 

Okay, so what did I learn—about Eno’s point, I mean?  Leaving aside the tribute and homage to James Houghton, the playwright’s private message embedded in his play, I’m going to have to say that Wakey, Wakey is Eno’s lesson in saying goodbye.  “There’s always someone or something to say goodbye to,” says Guy, and Eno’s told us how much he learned from Houghton’s last days.  It’s not portentous last words that matter, Eno says, but first words.  Learning to say goodbye might help us learn to say hello better, says Guy.  Then we can talk about all the trivial small things that make up a life—our own and other people’s.  We don’t learn much about Guy’s circumstances—but we do learn something about his . . . well, what should I call it?  His soul.  Eno just called it “what remains of a person.”  Eno’s obviously not a subscriber to Dylan Thomas’s view on dying, for Guy chats with us, shares his thoughts and feelings, and then goes gentle into that good night.  What Eno wants us to understand, then, is how to do that with class.  What d’ya think?  How’d I do in the end?

19 March 2017

From My August Wilson Archive, Part 2

[This is the second installment of my 2-part series of archival August Wilson play reports, performances I saw before I started Rick On Theater.  Part 1, which included the linked plays Seven Guitars (1995), set in 1948, and King Hedley II (1999), set in 1985, was posted on 16 March.  I recommend checking it out before or after reading Part 2.]

Signature Theatre Company
New York City
13 December 2006

I saw the second play in the Signature Theatre’s August Wilson season on Friday, 8 December [2006]:  Two Trains Running, which, in a capsule, has both the pleasures and the problems of most Wilson plays, and it has them in extremis.  The production at Signature’s Peter Norton Space is generally excellent from both the directing and acting perspectives.  (Though, for some reason, several of the cast were still having line problems now and then, even though the play opened the previous Sunday, the 3rd.  Ben Brantley mentions this in his 4 December review in the New York Times; however, he saw the show in a preview and I saw it almost a week after opening.) 

Set in 1969 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Two Trains unfolds in the rundown diner of Memphis Lee (Frankie Faison), the locals’ communal hang-out. The neighborhood is slated for “urban renewal,” and the city intends to exercise eminent domain to raze what remains of the block that includes Memphis’s restaurant.  Memphis owns the rundown building that houses the diner, and the plot begins with his determination to make the city meet his price of $25,000—which he’s unlikely to realize.  But Memphis isn’t the only one wrestling with problems.  The diner’s replete with habitués, some regulars and some strangers, and employees who’re struggling to figure their lives out. Holloway (Arthur French), a bit of secular preacher and the play’s Wilsonian sage, scoffs at the white idea that blacks are lazy, pointing out that they toiled day and night as slaves for hundreds of years, and now that the white man has to pay them, suddenly there are no jobs.  West (Ed Wheeler), the undertaker whose funeral parlor is across the street from Memphis’s diner, has become the richest man in the neighborhood from selling his neighbors expensive caskets and “laying them out in style.”  Hambone (Leon Addison Brown), a mad and damaged soul, spends much of his stage time at the counter over a bowl of beans, periodically shouting, “I want my ham!  He gonna give me my ham!”  Risa (January LaVoy), the diner’s waitress has cut up her legs to make them ugly so men will leave her alone.  Sterling (Chad L. Coleman), a young man who recently got out of prison, just wants some money and a woman.  Wolf (Ron Cephas Jones), the numbers runner, is a dream peddler: his illegal business gives the players the hope of improving their material lives.

One of the chief pleasures of the performance is the ensemble work of the cast.  They really create the sense of a micro-community within that diner, even while each actor creates a character of eccentricity and precise individuality.  That, of course, is one of Wilson’s main strengths—he writes striking characters, each a sort of portrait of someone from Wilson’s life.  They are all actors’ dreams.  Even the most eccentric, oddball character, like Hambone in this play (and Hedley in Seven Guitars), is credible in Wilson’s world and fits right in with the other inhabitants.  Even though you know Wilson has contrived his population this way, it never seems contrived.  (In a coincidence, this is the second Signature company which features a member of the cast of the HBO series The Wire.  Frankie Faison, Memphis in this play, plays the police commissioner in that show and Lance Reddick—Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton in Seven Guitars—plays now-Colonel Daniels.)

The same is true of his language.  If the characters are all actors’ dream roles, Wilson’s dialogue is a great part of what makes that so.  Wilson writes vernacular poetry, and like other poets of the modern stage—Tennessee Williams, say, or Chekhov and Ibsen—his words never seem out of place even though they are extraordinary speech that sparkles the way no ordinary person could manage to utter.  There was plenty of this in evidence in Two Trains, especially since there is little action in the play so language shares the primary focus with character.  (In his Times review, Brantley called Two Trains one of Wilson’s two—with Jitney—“least eventful” plays.)

As I remarked, I think, in my comments on Seven Guitars [see part 1 of this Wilson archive series, 16 March], Wilson puts his characters into these wonderful little slices of life with each scene.  Two Trains is perhaps more episodic than other Wilson plays, especially Seven Guitars, so there are many, many scenes (separated by brief blackouts, just to emphasize this structure), and each of them could almost stand as a little one-act, a moment from Wilson’s world captured as if in some passing headlight.  And like a gem in a headlight, each one sparkles with life and truth and honesty.   Wilson, as I’ve said several times, draws an absolutely indelible and vivid portrait of a time and place.  It’s more than just photographs, of course, because it’s imbued with his impressions and insights—not to mention that prose poetry.  I imagine actors could mine their parts for months and keep finding new details and aspects.  (If acting classes aren’t full of August Wilson scenes and monologues, I’d be shocked.)

But, of course, this is part also of the problems evident in Two Trains—one of Wilson’s major dramaturgical faults: his lack of plot.  In Seven Guitars, there is the slimmest thread of storyline—and an end we know the play is aiming at.  The play starts with Schoolboy’s funeral, so we know he dies, and then flashes back to the weeks before his death.  We learn quickly that he’s been offered a chance to cut a record in Chicago, but he needs front money to get there.  The play’s not about that, but the story is, and we have that little chain of events to follow: what Schoolboy does that ends up in his death.  There isn’t even that much of a plot in Two Trains—we have no expected ending to pull us along, and no goal someone is trying to reach (except Hambone’s ham, really just a leitmotif, and Memphis’s deal with the city).  There is a theme, however: life and death—the two trains of the title.  Life is represented by, among other elements, the hustle and bustle of the activity in the diner and death is symbolized by the funeral parlor across the street, owned by the neighborhood’s richest citizen and a regular patron of the diner.  But that’s not enough to stitch a play together; as a result, even though the scenes are each golden on their own, it remains a collage of small glimpses of the life of the 1969 Hill District, unlinked causally to a whole.  The scenes don’t connect and there’s no throughline.  (I wonder if this has something to do with the line problems among the cast.)  The only structural connectives in Two Trains are, of course, the consistent presence of the same characters, the recurring references to various subjects—the ham that Hambone feels he’s owed by a local (white) storeowner; the upcoming rally in honor of Malcolm X; the discussions of the unseen (until a later play) character of Aunt Ester; everyone’s pursuit of money—and, obviously, the unvarying locale, Memphis’s diner. 

But the characters are also somewhat disconnected, though they all exist in the same small place when we see them.  (The characters in Seven Guitars are all tied to one another in various ways.)  Most of the men deal with Wolf, the numbers man, but he’s really a peripheral character except when Sterling hits the number and there’s a briefly extended drama of the winner seeking out the runner for his payoff while Wolf avoids him (because the numbers bosses cut the winnings in half when too many people hit it).  Sterling and the waitress, Risa, have a sort of connection—he pursues her, but she mostly resists, and the dance seems cold and perfunctory even though they do connect in the end.  Otherwise, the characters all have their own, private concerns—aside from Hambone’s ham, there is Memphis’s fight with the city to get his price for the diner building which has been condemned to make way for civic improvements, for instance—which they pursue pretty much independently and with little consequence for anyone else.  (In a somewhat odd turn, everyone gets what he or she wants at the end.  Even Hambone gets his ham—when Sterling steals it from the store after Hambone’s death.  Even that death, although unexpected and sudden, isn’t harsh—Hambone dies in his sleep at home in bed.)

Though Wilson’s dramatic worlds are often compared to Chekhov’s, I believe it’s Uta Hagen who replied to the common complaint that nothing happens in a Chekhov play by saying, “Nothing but the end of one world and the beginning of another.”  1969, when the play’s set, would seem like an apt time for such a shift in the lives of African Americans—the end of the era of sanctioned segregation and lawful discrimination and the beginning of the time of black empowerment and hope for a colorblind society, demarcated by the violent deaths of first Malcolm X (1965) and then Martin Luther King (1968) the year before the play takes place.  But Two Trains isn’t about that at all; it’s both smaller than that—local and personal concerns, not national ones—and larger—life and death as the characters experience them day to day, pretty much as we all do.  In the end, there’s no sense of upheaval in Two Trains, just a (very poetic) glimpse into Wilson’s world at one moment in its history.  It’s hardly Chekhovian.

The second dramaturgical problem that is exemplified by Two Trains is that Wilson isn’t a very good editor.  The play runs three hours (plus intermission).  Because the performance started a few minutes late, that meant we didn’t get out of the theater until almost 11:30—a long evening at the theater (and not a very good hour on a cold night to be hanging around far West 42nd Street waiting for a crosstown bus!).  I don’t know if any real damage might have been done to the play if Wilson had cut a few of the scenes, but since they aren’t causally linked to each other, the consequences would seem to have been minimal.  I remember some advice one of my teachers passed along from an editor she had had: “Kill your babies.”  In other words, be ready to cut the parts you really like—a problem I myself have.  (But, then, I don’t write plays—for which there’s probably a very good reason.) 

I remember saying that I saw the 1992 Broadway production of Two Trains but that I remembered seeing Laurence Fishburne (as the ex-con Sterling, played here by Chad L. Coleman—who also appeared in The Wire, though not as a regular) but that I have little recollection of the play.  Now I can understand why—it doesn’t hang together to amount to much as a drama.  It’s a series of moments—wonderful moments, but still just moments.  Wilson’s plays that I’ve seen all have these same problems, some more than others, and I remember saying when I left Fences in 1987, my first encounter with Wilson’s theater, that if it hadn’t been for the performance of James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson that the play wouldn’t be running because so little happened in it.  (Sure enough, when Billy Dee Williams replaced Jones, the play closed in five months.)  Happily, the pleasures of Wilson’s writing outweigh the deficiencies, and I was more than glad to have seen this revival. 

Arena Stage
Washington, D.C.
20 February 2007

I went down to Washington, D.C., last week to see the Arena Stage’s production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the play in Wilson’s Century Cycle covering the first decade of the 20th century.  I had missed it when it ran on Broadway between December 2004 and February 2005 because the production lost an investor shortly before opening and the producers postponed the opening date, canceling some early performances.  I had had tickets during the period of cancellation and couldn’t accommodate the replacement dates the show offered and had to settle for a refund instead.  When I saw while I was in D.C to spend the 2006-07 year-end holidays with my mother that Arena was mounting Gem, I decided to go back down and catch it.

My mother, who subscribes to Arena, and I went to the show on Thursday, 15 February [2007].  A spate of snow and sub-freezing temperatures in Washington had made nighttime driving, especially through Rock Creek Park, potentially treacherous, so Mother took a less direct route and a little extra time to get to the Southwest neighborhood of the Arena Stage.  We also needed to exchange the tickets, originally for the previous evening when bad weather had been forecast, which necessitated a stop at the box office.  Gem of the Ocean, the next-to-last play Wilson wrote in his ten-year cycle (his last two scripts—Radio Golf was Wilson’s last play in the series, written the year he died, 2005—cover the first and last decades of the 20th century), was staged in the Fichandler, Arena’s original theater-in-the-round.  Peter Marks gave the production a good review in the Washington Post ten days earlier (though mentioning its nearly-three-hour length) and despite the bad weather reports, the audience was fairly large at midweek.  (The Moonie Washington Times also came out positive for the production.) 

Marks calls Gem “a lesser achievement” in Wilson’s series, and he’s right.  Compared to Fences, Two Trains Running, and Seven Guitars, it’s less poetic and more preachy (Marks called it “tipped . . . toward the didactic,” another thing he got right).  It seems as if Wilson had planned this script to launch the panorama by introducing ideas and his general intent as if it were a kind of prologue.  Set in 1904 (precisely 100 years before Wilson wrote it), Gem focuses on the residual legacy of slavery on African Americans, both those born under it (several characters are old enough to have been born in bondage; two had been involved in the Underground Railway) and those born later (the focal character, Citizen Barlow, played here by Jimonn Cole, was so named by his mother to acknowledge his status as a free-born American).  Everyone in the play and those only mentioned are still facing the lasting effects of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, even as they have moved north to Pittsburgh.  (The play is set in the Hill District of Wilson’s native city, where most of the decalogue takes place.) 

There’s a lot of discussion about slavery and its history and its impact, both actual and metaphorical.  As Marks describes it, it’s a history lesson.  And right in the middle of the second act is a symbolic reenactment of the Middle Passage, induced by Aunt Ester (the 235-year-old sage, played by Lynnie Godfrey, who reappears as an unseen figure in Two Trains and in whose house Gem is set) so that Citizen can get right with himself.  Citizen had stolen a bucket of nails from the iron mill and another man had been blamed for the theft and died rather than take the blame for a crime he didn’t commit.  After the hallucinogenic experience, Citizen sets out with Solly Two Kings (Joseph Marcell) to return to Alabama where Solly’s sister is under such oppression that she cannot even leave the state to come north to escape the privation under which she and other blacks are forced to live.  The two men are going to function as a sort of latter-day Underground Railway (Solly is one of the two characters who had served the Railway during slavery), but when Solly is killed leaving Pittsburgh, Citizen sets out again on his own—a kind of penance for his part in the death of the accused thief and a symbolic connection to the slave past he is too young to have experienced himself.

Ironically, though Gem suffers from many of the same dramaturgical faults of Wilson’s other plays—extreme length, meandering structure, extraneous scenes and ones that go on too long—there is more of a plot here than in most other Wilson scripts.  It’s rudimentary, to be sure, but it’s there.  But this asset is, unhappily, balanced by the nature of Wilson’s language in this script: it is less poetic and lofty than his past writing and there isn’t the thrill of hearing his words roll out of the mouths of the street poets who are his characters.  The characters, though, are every bit as evocative as those that populate his other plays: Citizen, the young newcomer (he still wears “clodhoppers”) caught in the disheartening cycle of economic disenfranchisement that keeps blacks in an underclass from which they can’t escape; Solly, the local philosopher (there’s almost always one in Wilsonland—an American griot); Aunt Ester, the ancient seer and healer; Black Mary (Pascale Armand), the young woman who holds a promise of the future; Caesar Wilkes (LeLand Gantt), Mary’s brother and the local lawman appointed by the white authorities to keep the black ward under control (a kind of reverse scalawag). 

It’s all just too set-up, I think, though; Wilson seems to have contrived this play more to lead into the other nine than to stand on its own as a portrait of an actual time and place.  The circumstances he creates here are much less special and unique than in the other plays I’ve seen.  (After King Hedley II, which I’m booked to see at the end of March—if all goes according to plan—I will have seen all but two of the series: Jitney and Radio Golf.  [As readers will know by now, I saw Jitney in 2017; see my report on 24 February.  King Hedley is part of the first section of this series, posted on 16 March.])  That truly extraordinary sense that you are peeking back at a moment in time, like that episode from Star Trek where the crew watches bits of history unfolding—except that Wilson’s bits are tied to specific people of that time, not just “historical figures”—is missing in Gem, in addition to its more pedestrian language.  It’s as if Wilson was less inspired to write this play, to tell this special story, than that he felt obligated to create an introductory play to get the series started—as if he were not so much moved to write it as duty-bound.

The acting and Paulette Randall’s directing are fine in the Arena production.  The use of the Fichandler, while not inspired, is not a detriment in any way.  (I have seen one other Wilson play at the Arena, Ma Rainey [2002; no report], but it was staged at the Kreeger, the proscenium space.)  The space represents the main room of Aunt Ester’s house, designed by Scott Bradley, encompassing the kitchen, dining area, and sitting room, and the lack of complete realistic detail—it’s a fragmentary set, though what set pieces are present are realistic—doesn’t seem to have any effect on the play in comparison to, say, the totally naturalistic restaurant box of Two Trains or the realistically-rendered backyard setting of Seven Guitars, both at New York City’s Signature Theatre Company. 

Wilson’s plays, like those of Tennessee Williams or Chekhov, authors to whom I’ve heard Wilson compared, are not truly realistic anyway—they’re a heightened, lyrical form of that genre, I think: they look (and sound) like Realism until you examine them a little.  They don’t require realistic trappings to work.  (The only drawback to using the arena space is that the voms, whose floors are built up to be down-ramps into the room—instead of the up-ramps they are normally—make entrances and exits longer than the quick comings and goings of a proscenium box set.  The actors and director have to do a little surreptitious covering to justify the longer crosses in and out of the room.  I’m guessing no one but me and my ilk probably noticed this, however.)  In all other respects (well, that one, too—since the design of the theater isn’t her fault), director Randall, who has mounted several Wilson plays in London (including Gem) does a fine job. 

The cast, led by Jimonn Cole as Citizen Barlow and Lynnie Godfrey as Aunt Ester, is very good, if not as exquisite as the Signature casts I’ve been seeing this season.  (In a coincidence, one cast member, Clayton LeBouef, who plays Eli, Aunt Ester’s caretaker, has also appeared in HBO’s The Wire, in which several actors from both the New York Wilson productions I’ve seen recently have been featured cast members.  LeBouef’s main TV role was Colonel Barnfather, the careerist police commander in the Homicide series.)  If I had to name a standout in the cast, it would have to be Joseph Marcell as Solly Two Kings, the sort of conscience of the Hill District.  Without being flashy or idiosyncratic, Marcell seems to draw attention to Solly, who is always ready to take action in behalf of the community—from guiding slaves to freedom on the Underground Railway, to helping southern blacks escape north when the state authorities prevent it, to setting fire to the mill where the mostly black workers are striking in protest to the new kind of economic slavery they are subjected to now.  A close second, however, is the performance of Pascale Armand as Black Mary, Aunt Ester’s cook and housekeeper.  Armand (and Wilson) have created what must be the progenitor of the modern black woman, the pre-feminist, pre-civil rights independent woman who even stands up to Aunt Ester to do things her own way.  (Aunt Ester’s response: “What took you so long!”)

The single acting fault I saw is Godfrey’s habit of speaking awfully fast as Aunt Ester.  She didn’t overact the age (how do you act 235, anyway?) or, in my opinion, overdo the Southern accent (though Mom complained about that), but she spoke so fast that I had to concentrate on her dialogue just in order to hear the words.  No one else had this difficulty so it wasn’t the fault of the acoustics or the direction I don’t think.  That Aunt Ester is such a central role in Gem means that this is more of a problem than it might otherwise be.

Obviously, for all its problems and deficiencies, Gem of the Ocean still has its Wilsonian pleasures.  It isn’t the gem its title suggests (that Gem is the name of the slave ship that symbolically carries Citizen to his redemption), but it’s still August Wilson.  As I’ve said of other major playwrights, most notably Stephen Sondheim, even bad August Wilson—and this wasn’t remotely that—is still better than 90 per cent of everything else that’s out there at its best.  And even if his dramaturgy is flawed, this is still a writer with something on his mind, something provocative, interesting, and worthy.  God knows, not every playwright can claim that these days.

[For those interested, at the end of my 24 February report on Jitney, I appended a list of the 10 plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle with pertinent dates--setting, première, and Broadway début.  There’s also a brief discussion in the report on the decalogue as a theatrical and literary accomplishment.]