Friday, September 23, 2005

Between Scenes ...

... I have been reading as much as I can. It's difficult with a show like mine. Often, when playing ensemble parts, I find myself with nice manageable chunks of backstage downtime. Not the ultra-cushy kind where I can completely clock out, but enough time to, say, fashion a canoe out of some raw wood in the shop. Or chew a chapter off a book between appearances. But Passion Play is so tightly woven that I spend my time either on stage or changing into whatever bizarre ensemble is required for the next time on stage. It's great because I'm always working -- no disenchantment from us non-marquee characters because we're moving too much to feel out of the action completely. But I'm left with these useless dollops of time (3-4min max) throughout the night. This is a bad thing for an already-scatterbrained actor who's trying to quit smoking next week.

Nevertheless. I read Brooklyn Boy by Donald Margulies and Stuff Happens by David Hare backstage this week.

Brooklyn Boy

I've complained about Margulies before, so I'll leave my snotty generalization in the archives where it belongs. Brooklyn Boy seems to me a loose post-Pulitzer grab-bag of dropped quotes from Collected Stories, Sight Unseen, Dinner with Friends, and Found a Peanut. Unlike those earlier plays of his, he remains almost suspiciously linear in his storytelling. I'd like to think this newfound respect for the rotation of the earth is born of a) general maturation, outgrowing the superficial pretentious flair that time-shifting created for Sight Unseen, or better yet: b) an actual desire to mirror the play's message about mortality and aging with a plot that lurches, like Man, fitfully to its natural conclusion. Who knows.

Like Sight Unseen, this play centers around an artist who has "arrived" and must now shrug his way through the scornful, jealous eyes of his unfamous friends, family, and lovers. I find such protagonists tedious because, as problems go, this isn't too bad. I didn't give two shits if Waxman found his inspiration again after hitting it rich. I'm sure it's a phase that all ultra-successful artists go through (Margulies himself admits as much in his preface to Brooklyn Boy -- post-Pultizer life in New Haven being pretty rough on the soul, apparently). The whole play worked overtime to make Waxman sympathetic but all I saw was a lucky, talented guy surrounded by insecure jerks whose only real crime was being placed in the same scene as each other.

In Collected Stories, Sight Unseen and Brooklyn Boy, we see the same rarified conflict: art vs. the art-maker. In Collected Stories, it was "Look what happens when you appropriate someone's life for your fiction!" In Sight Unseen it was "Look what happens when your muse is no longer useful to you!" In Brooklyn Boy it's "Look what happens when your art doesn't make daddy love you more!" To be fair, I think this latest woe-is-me struggling (yet famous) artist story is his most honest to date. Maybe because it's got less clever, unearned non-linear time fuckery going on. I didn't find many of my original judgements abated by the needlessly labrythine context-shifting Margulies pulled in Sight Unseen. And I simply didn't find the predictably savage interplay of tutor-and-mentor to be emotionally signficant for anyone who wasn't a neophyte writer or venerated elder craftsperson. Look at the string of heartaches Margulies throws at his latest rich artist protagonist:

  1. Father doesn't understand because I'm so unapproachably literary and smart. This makes father's death hard to deal with.
  2. Old best friend resents me because he's stuck in the same neighborhood working in his dead father's deli while I'm on the New York Times Bestseller List.
  3. Old best friend moves from petty jealousy to pitiful plug for fame-by-association.
  4. Wife, also a writer, is divorcing me because she can't stand how friggin' successful I am. She's also had a handful of miscarriages, so you can imagine her discomfort at being around such a rich, renowned, virile writer as myself. What's more, she knows this is a silly reason for divorcing someone you supposedly love, but nevermind. Her divorce is presented as another casualty of blinding fame, to be endured, for the most part, by the main character only.
  5. Flakey girl from the book reading only wants me for my fame. I just want to cuddle ... why can't she understand how noble I am and how superficial she is?
  6. Flakey movie producer and her flakey pet star want to de-Jew my story when it moves to screen. Apparently, those Hollywood types only think about money! It sure stiffles art-making. Have I sold out? I sure didn't think about "just money" when I sold them my book, that's for sure. I needed the option money to buy my new apartment now that my wife (see#4) is leaving me! Man, the West Coast is pretty far from Brooklyn!
  7. What do I do with all dad's shit now that he's dead? Should I be more Jewish or something?
  8. Wow. My dad just materialized and told me everything I wanted to hear. Too bad it never happened when he was alive. But isn't that just like life?
Would you feel sorry for this guy? I find it hard. Of course the death of the father is tough. But I don't see any new deathbed regrets or remedies for old deathbed regrets here. And the rising action is just a string of episodes about how hard it is to be a bestselling author these days. Boo-frickin-hoo. The first and last scenes respectfully address the issue at hand, but the rest ... oy.

Stuff Happens

I bought this with Pirandello's Henry IV adapted by Tom Stoppard and they make lovely companion texts for each other. Stuff Happens gets its title from a Donald Rumsfeld quote. When asked to explain the chaos in Iraq, he said something to the effect of "stuff happens." The Bush kiddies have spit forth so much quotable corruption, it's hard to keep up. I'm just thrilled a British playwright honed in on one absurdity to guide a Situation Room drama about the build up to the Iraq War. Sure, a lot of history has happened in the eleven months since the publishing of his play. But the thing crackles along, dodging between speeches we already know and speculated backstage conversations that sound really juicy when given the studied stage treatement of David Hare. Colin Powell, in particular, belts out a couple arias about the nature of war and you have to stop and wonder if the man was capable of such focused expression. But Shakespeare was doing the same thing when he gave words to kings long dead and less eloquent. Exciting.

The play stars everybody. The whole Bush Administration is featured, as well as the whole Blair Administration. The French government hops in. As do Saddam, McCain, and countless other journalists and side players. I have no idea how you'd produce this thing with less than thirty actors. But again, it's an allowance we'll make for any Plantagenet family drama -- why not for the dynasty next door?


Che said...

hmm.. no time for a quick xbox game between scenes, either? :)

dominique23julien said...

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SAS said...

Reading your Margulies rant made me want to recommend books.

My favorite jewish-artist-at-conflict-with-his-family-and-the-world story is Potok's MY NAME IS ASHER LEV. Not arch or sardonic, but a beautiful story.

My favorite jewish-writer-at-conflict-with-his-family-and-the-world story is Malaumud's THE TENANTS. Dark, arch, sardonic, all of that.

They are not plays, but they are worth reading.

arcticactor said...

Hey, thanks for the recommendations. For every crap story I find, it's great to find two that are better.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reviews. I feel compelled to offer one to you. OK, I havent finished it yet, but Christopher Moore's book "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal" has made me laugh out loud at regular intervals... a feat generally reserved for Arthur Dent and Company. As for "Passion Play" I love the way you've described the play, though I'm curious as to whether you think it ended up being very good.

Washington Cube said...

...and my favorite Jewish-Writer-At-Conflict-With-His Family is The Chosen by Chaim Potok which is a novel about two sons and two fathers and the son's rejection of parental expectations to seek their own paths toward adulthood. This book was also made into a play.