Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 6.2 (Spring 2013)
I wrote last time about the contemporary ecology of the drama, particularly the serious drama, about a theater where tryouts have been replaced by “rolling premieres” in regional theaters or festivals, and where the point of bringing a show to New York is mainly to garner the all‑important writeups in the New York Times and other papers as calling cards that the show can then use in marketing itself to the larger body of regional theaters. Paradoxically, however, the more important the New York reviews in this ecology, the smaller the welcome mat extended to the reviewers who produce them.
The Endless Preview
In most other places press nights occur one or two weeks into the production, because the hope is that good notices will help shoo the ticket‑buyers into the seats. The show is given just long enough to gel, and then the reviewers are invited. In New York, by contrast, the seasoning of the show is taken very, very seriously, and premature critical comment is discouraged. The publicity agents keep the reviewers away for a month or two (no tickets, no .pdfs of scripts, no press kits) , and this does not change even when, as is more than typical — especially off-Broadway– the official run of the show, i.e. what happens after previews and before the show closes, is only a couple of months. And even on Broadway nowadays, the endless preview is becoming more common, much to the annoyance of the theater scribblers, who are darkly suspicious that producers are trying to substitute word-of-mouth for the dicta of critics, who view themselves as the official arbiters.
There is an economic impact to all this, but the system is built to absorb it. Obviously, if reviewers are positively discouraged until so late in the run, they cannot help ticket sales early. To fill the seats, there is much discounting before a show “opens.” The hoped-for tradeoff will be that the resulting reviews, when they do arrive, may be more enthusiastic, based as they are on the most refined state of the production, and amp up sales during the official run, as well as long‑term royalties from future productions.
Things that help in this strange universe: rolling premieres (already discussed), black box theaters, foundations, and residuals. “Black box” is not a term of precise signification, in New York or elsewhere, but generally implies small (off‑Broadway — 100-to-499 seat) scale and spare performance spaces, often arranged in multiplex format. This translates into lower production costs. Most of the best stuff off-Broadway also has one or more non-profit producing foundations behind it. And part of the payoff for the foundations may be some residual rights in the plays they produce after the plays leave the New York greenhouse. This stretches the financial reward beyond the New York production.
From a reviewer’s standpoint, though, this system becomes far too much about windows of opportunity. If a reviewer’s window of opportunity does not coincide with the window of opportunity the producers and publicity agents decree, the reviewer may need to turn guerilla, live off the land, buy his own tickets and attend when he will. And two of the three plays discussed here were seen guerilla-style.
These plays were also products of the above-described kind of greenhouse: rolling premiere, black box theater off-Broadway, and foundation support. Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit had had a 2010 premier at Chicago’s Steppenwolf, en route to Playwrights Horizon, both a foundation and a black box venue. Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver had been produced at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles and the Long Wharf Theatre in 2010 before turning up at Signature Theatre in Pershing Square’s simple but elegant space. (Signature too is both a foundation and a black box venue.) Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman’s Bullet for Adolf had been produced in Toronto in 2011 before its New York opening at the black box New World Stages. (I saw no discernable foundation support for Bullet.)
Detroit: No 694 But Plenty of Plywood
I suppose that one reason I wanted to see Detroit was that I had grown up not far from the title city. But D’Amour’s own stage directions make clear that, the title notwithstanding, this play is not specific to that town. Even the limited geographical hints won’t work, e.g. references to “Highway 694.” (I-694 graces Minneapolis-St. Paul, not Detroit, and there is no State Route 694 in Michigan.) Instead, we are — and I quote the stage directions:
… in a “first ring” suburb outside of a midsize American city. These are the suburbs that comprise the first “ring” of houses outside the city proper. They were built in the late 1950s, smaller houses of outdated design. The kind of house many people today would consider a “starter house,” or a house you would want to purchase, live in, and keep your eye on the lot next door so you could buy that, knock both houses down, and build a double-lot house.
Of course, the audience is not privy to these directions; instead what the audience sees is the fragility and degeneration of the housing stock. It reads, in the program, an excerpt about the limited lifespan of plywood from a New York Times article. (The excerpt also serves as an epigraph to the play.) One sees a character’s attempt to build a deck, an attempt which produces a platform so flimsy another character falls through and injures himself. One sees lawn furniture broken up for kindling to burn down a house.
If the audience had read further in the quoted article, it would almost see the thesis of the play. Its author, Herbert Muschamp, writing principally about the original Levittown, observed:
What planners call the first‑ring suburb, the belt of single‑family houses built between 1947 and 1977 around metropolitan cores, is fast wearing out. But some planners believe that the recycling of the first ring is the key to determining the way that Americans will live in the next 50 years. The social glue in these communities has also weakened. The population of the first ring is aging. The parents of the baby‑boomers, the Depression Era generation that pioneered what the historian Kenneth T. Jackson called the crabgrass frontier, are long retired. Houses are not only physically decrepit; their designs are out of date. As recently as 1978, 79 percent of the residents in the first‑ring suburbs of Minneapolis were members of one‑job, two‑parent nuclear families. By 1996, the proportion had declined to 28 percent. Zoning prevents the redesign of suburban houses and the subdivision of lots to meet the needs of the new population.
In other words, this “ring” of suburbia is not only architecturally but socially prone to extreme degeneration. And that is what we see: a kind of death spiral in which the degenerating surroundings bring people down, and their having been brought down in turn invites further degeneration.
Thus Mary (Amy Ryan) and Ben (David Schwimmer) have just passed their peak of solidity as a couple and as economic actors. Ben has lost his job as a banker, and is trying to establish a new means of earning a living as a web-based financial planner — something he has neither talent, skills, or initiative to pull off, and Mary, a paralegal, is beginning to lose her fight with incipient alcoholism. The shady new neighbors Kenny (Darren Pettie) and Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic) are fresh from rehab, uncertainly dedicated to recovery or to any other kind of respectable pursuit. It also turns out that they are firebugs. Yet Mary and Ben’s remaining genteel values are exactly what render them particularly susceptible to intimacy of a sort with the new neighbors, and, ultimately vulnerable to the further loss of economic footing and self-possession that the neighbors invite them to incur.
D’Amour is very good at this; she does not show Ben and Mary making themselves vulnerable by letting slip too many dangerous disclosures of their own, especially at first; instead, the peril seems to lie mainly in allowing disclosures to be made to them: that Kenny and Sharon met in rehab, that one of them is falling off the wagon, that Sharon is clueless about how to pull together food for a social gathering (clueless in a way that implies that she was raised off the grid), that Kenny and Sharon have no furniture at all. You can only ignore these hints so often, D’Amour suggests, before you are condoning what they reveal.
And meanwhile, not too deeply buried in Kenny and Sharon’s discourse, are clear signs their momentary gentility is not fated to last. For instance, upon being told about the rehab facility, Ben comments (“still chipper” according to the stage notes):
BEN Oh, so that’s why you don’t drink.
KENNY Yes, and that’s why we don’t smoke crack or shoot crystal meth or snort big fat lines of cocaine at four in the morning for the third day in a row.
The right way for Mary and Ben to respond would have been to emulate Kenny and Sharon’s other neighbors:
SHARON [E]verywhere else we lived we hid from our neighbors and they hid from us, because nobody wanted to interact with us ever. I mean they knew, they could see. And they could just ignore us — la la la la la — that’s your space this is mine, no I don’t hear the screams and moans of a drug addict. No, I don’t see those junkie friends with blood caked in their hair la la, that’s your space.
When genteel people allow others into their lives, it is generally on the basis of an implicit bargain that the others will behave genteelly. Here, as intimated by the passages just quoted, that implicit bargain is violated again and again.
If Ben and Mary were at a stronger moment in their own lives, they could withstand the effects of that breached bargain. But they are not. And so Sharon gets Mary drunk on an abortive camping trip, while Kenny persuades Ben to visit a strip club with him: “We’re just embracing our human nature, man… We’re just relaxing after a hard week’s work.” (Only the unexpected arrival of the women thwarts the junket.) And when Ben and Mary’s standards are sufficiently worn down, there comes an orgiastic moment when Ben’s and Mary’s lives are nearly destroyed.
Afterwards, there comes a dialogue with an older neighbor, Frank (John Cullum), who provides (too late) something like an authoritative background briefing on Kenny and Sharon, a bit like the psychiatrist at the end of Psycho, which also doubles as a theme statement:
FRANK To be honest it hurts my heart to come back here. Half the houses falling apart, the others so fancified they seem untouchable… This is not what the developers intended. They wanted you to have neighbors. They wanted you to be in it together.
Because the play is so good at conveying the squickiness of a situation in which deserving losers tempt undeserving ones to join them, and because of the usually sharp dialogue, the play is usually spot-on. The one place D’Amour seems to lose it is in the orgy scene, which is too loud, goes on far too long, and may evince unintended confusingness in addition to the deliberate portrayal of the confusion which always attends such moments.
The cast, of course, was superb. I found it particularly interesting watching Ryan, whose work I had so appreciated in The Wire, where she played a somewhat marginal character whose life grows more solid as we watch, here show somewhat the same character going in the reverse direction. And Darren Pettie, who seems born to play shifty and unreliable men (known to me best as the tobacco heir who pulls the plug on Don Draper’s ad agency in Mad Men) nails it again.
Detroit is a good play but not a great one, and not merely because of the momentary lapse in pacing. Perhaps the distinction is tied up with the coyness about where the play takes place. Detroit-but-not-exactly is not exactly constrained by the particulars of one place, not infused with the information and data that add a final degree of certainty and assurance to the statements such a play makes about our society. Generalities generally work best when reduced to cases. There is a certain fuzziness here.
The Train Driver: Three Questions
Athol Fugard does not make that mistake in The Train Driver, which is anchored in the surroundings of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. References to the Mount Road Mortuary, the Perseverance and Despatch stops on the Metrorail line, the strong Afrikaans-accented English liberally sprinkled with Afrikaans and Xhosa words, all give a strong sense of place, even if the place is slightly displaced. The newspaper story that formed the creative nucleus of the play reported on a suicide-by-train that happened in 2000, three hundred miles away in Cape Town. The early creative process chronicled in those notebooks also was centered completely around Cape Town. According to the newspaper story, there are 400 such suicides in Cape Town annually, and the landscape that the train in question ran through was, in Fugard’s words, one “of soul-crushing squalor,” lined with “miserable shanties and pondoks,” i.e. shacks. I have, and perhaps Fugard has, no statistics about such suicides in Port Elizabeth, but the soul-crushing shanty-towns from which the action springs are reportedly to be found there too. So the story seems completely transplantable.
As Fugard frames it, there are three essential questions that Roelf Visagie (Richie Coster), the engineer, is left with: a) Who was the woman who stood in front of his train with her child? b) Why did she do it? and c) What is Roelf to do about it? The partial answers the play comes up with to those questions limn a great deal of what Fugard makes of the whole situation in South Africa today.
As to the first question, there is no definitive answer. The suicide is unnamed and unclaimed, and she and her child are therefore eventually passed along through the system and buried in a squatter town outside Port Elizabeth, in an unmarked grave. Simon, the Xhosa gravedigger (Leon Addison Brown), cannot recall where he placed her remains and those of her child. All we will ever know about her identity is thus bound up in what she did. She is the women in a red doek (headscarf) who strapped her baby to her back and walked into the path of Roelf’s train with her eyes open, looking up at him as he looked helplessly down at her until a locomotive he could not stop rolled over her.
The answer to the second question becomes clear to Roelf as he putters among the bleak unmarked graves, distinguished not by headstones but by castoff auto parts, communing with the dead. A life amidst those soul-crushing shanties would eventually drive out the hope essential to keeping a woman alive. Roelf, addressing the woman’s spirit, says:
I got some good guesses going about your world and why you stood there on the railway line, waiting for me and my train. One of my guesses is that I think it’s all about hope. You know what I mean — hope! — hoping good things are going to happen to you, that tomorrow is going to be better than today, which was terrible. And there you have it. (Pause.) I don’t know what it is like to live without hope, to give up. Because you did, didn’t you? That is why you did what you did because you didn’t believe anymore that good things was going to happen to you and your baby.
This is not necessarily existential despair, but keyed directly to the woman’s individual situation as a poor person in today’s South Africa. Fugard comments in his notebook:
The story of South African poverty, like the story of poverty anywhere, is made up of a few very stark elements, starting with hunger and ending … with a loss of hope… In her case [the] variables most likely included the loss of the breadwinner, her man, the father of her children. It could have been a death — those “informal settlements” are violent worlds — it could have been a desertion, a man looking for his “way out” when the burden of a wife and … children became too much.
Having worked this out, Roelf comes to the toughest part of the catechism: what will he do about it? It is too simple, though it is certainly true, to say that he must deal with post-traumatic stress. In Cape Town, according to the article Fugard was relying upon, 15 engineers a month are treated for it. What happened to Roelf has a spiritual component too — at least from his perspective. To him, when Red Doek stared serenely into his eyes as the locomotive bore down on her, she was making a claim to be claimed, to be owned as someone’s connection. Roelf responds.
But now you are lying here in the place for the ones without names because nobody wanted you. Well, that is not the way it is anymore, because now I hold up my hand and say: “I Claim Her!” Me … Roelf Visagie … the driver of the train what killed her … wants her to be his.
This climactic speech obviously has a particular resonance in the mouth of a white South African like Roelf — and like Fugard. As an engineer being treated for PTSD, he has been given all the reasons the death was not his fault; the therapist has reminded him that it takes 50 meters to stop the train, and the woman stepped in front of the train only 15 meters out, has reminded him that he could not swerve, and that he jammed on the brakes so hard “the wheels was screeching on the tracks.” Similarly a white man of good will like Fugard did not create apartheid, courageously opposed it, and did what he could. But apartheid still gave him white privilege, as the railway gave Roelf his cab in the locomotive, and neither can completely disavow what happened despite them.
And if the white man does take responsibility, what then? In Roelf’s case, at least, the acceptance of that claim to be claimed will lead first to his exile from his own life and into the woman’s world, and then to his death at the hands of that world’s denizens, the amagintsa (youth hoodlum gangs). Although blacks are now at least as responsible as are whites for worsening disarray in South Africa, the initial disarray remains the legacy of white rule.
And it needs to be mentioned, because this is surely deliberate, that Roelf’s suicide-by-amagintsa is as heedless of the consequences for others as was Red Doek’s suicide-by-train. Almost (but not quite) casually, the last line makes clear that Roelf’s exit has probably destroyed Simon’s livelihood. The black man keeps paying, even when the white man tries in a desperate and not well-thought-through way to seize the burden of all those past wrongs.
As this discussion reveals, Fugard has put much into this play, and I am far from having unpacked the whole thing. While spare and short, and almost bereft of action, it qualifies as both profound and satisfying, and will surely appear frequently in regional theater.
Bullet for Adolf: Shaggy Dog Story
There is nothing profound about Bullet for Adolf. Also little that is coherent. That incoherence is either the primary defect or the heart of its charm, depending on your perspective. From the perspective of most critics, it was excessive. But most also professed a sneaking enjoyment of the show, which is also my reaction.
As has been well-publicized, the show is a riff on the marijuana-hazy memories of Woody Harrelson (here appearing as co-author and director rather than in his more familiar role as actor) and his 1983 Houston roommate and fellow construction worker (now co-author) Frankie Hyman. Woody and his alter ego Zach (Brandon Coffey) were/are white, Frankie and his alter ego Frankie (Tyler Jacob Rollinson) black, enabling instant racial humor, humor amplified by their concatenation with two strong and not very approving black women, Jackie (Shamika Cotton) and Shareeta (Marsha Stephanie Blake), and also with a very sweet white young woman approaching her 18th birthday, Batina (Shannon Garland) and her Nazi-era German father Jurgen (Nick Wyman), the roommates= bricklayer boss. There is also as a character known as Dago-Czech (Lee Osorio) who, seemingly oblivious to the heritage denoted by his name, acts completely black. Finally, Harrelson and Hyman have fun with the another look-one-way-act-another character, Clint (David Coomber) a roommate who flounces so baldly he swishes yet is unaccountably straight.
1983 was an interesting moment in popular culture, a point established first by the multimedia show (courtesy of Imaginary Media) projected onto the set at the beginning of the acts and during scene transitions — Reagan, Sally Ride, and Rocky III, and dreadful, boxy-looking cars. It was also an interesting moment in race and in matters of sexual orientation. There’s something very 80s about the interactions between the cheekily-seductive Frankie and the upward aspiring Jackie; they meet as she interviews him for a job, and her ambivalence about falling for someone who is potentially under her supervision and also most likely of no account is the kind of dilemma that seems to have sprung into prominence around that time. The other characters’ speculation as to Clint’s orientation is also very 80s, as are Dago-Czech’s ambitions to be black.
Yet this play could never be thought to be “about” any of these things. Critic after critic labeled it a “shaggy dog story,” and that seems correct. The play is about nothing of particularly greater consequence than the joy of throwing odd things together, squeezing out jokes, and letting the storylines — not to mention character continuity and consistency — fall where they may. There’s a Hitchcockian McGuffin (a gun that was used to try to kill Hitler) to structure the action a little bit, and maybe a secondary McGuffin in the form of a frozen placenta (don’t ask). But the structure is like the stake for a tomato vine: maybe necessary to the enterprise, but not the enterprise itself.
I mentioned earlier that this show, atypically, made it to off-Broadway without discernable foundation support, obviously on the strength of Harrelson’s Hollywood appeal. But despite the lackluster reviews, its run was extended, which would not have happened unless audiences approved. I think I know why. Audiences like stoner farce: irreverent, profane, inconsequential, and good-natured. Stoner farce should be recognized as a distinct and by now staple comedic subgenre: think Cheech and Chong or Harold and Kumar or The Big Lebowski. But it hasn’t been brought to the legitimate stage much. That may have been the elevator pitch for it: Stoners on Stage.
It’s more than stoner laughs, though. There is also a sweetness at its core that comes from one thing it does far better than many more pretentious works (Hair, say, or Rent): it captures pretty well the real way groups of young people form tribes in those precious times before they go off to live more adult lives. This group — including Zach who (the audience knows) is bound for Broadway and Hollywood, the two black women to all appearances headed for solid careers, Clint with an acceptance to Juilliard in his pocket, Frankie an amiable past and likely future jailbird, and other assorted former and future lovers, presided over by Jurgen, the improbable troop leader — spend an enchanted summer or two together fighting, making love, drinking and toking together, stealing from each other, and in the process calling each other on their several shortcomings, and thereby jointly acquiring the insight and steadfastness to aspire to more permanent things. It is, in fact, a bildungsroman in the form of a thinly-disguised idyll.
Both elements can be clearly seen in the final tableau. The entire cast is seated around the hole three of the men are digging as a sort of chain gang, the law having handed them over to Jurgen for various petty criminal involvements, and Jurgen having put them to work constructing a community children’s swimming pool. The men are allowed out for a lunch break, and the women have met them with a picnic. Batina offers up a prayer of thanksgiving, fractured by the usual flurry of wisecracks from her pals. Batina comes close to quelling it by saying “I love you guys.” There is one last spasm:
And actually, that last line is precisely the point: that a summer of shenanigans has really matured this crew. They have a lifetime to be grownups; this wisecracking dejeuner sur l’herbe is something like a closer to their extended childhoods. There is a detectable elegiac note here.
Theater always was and always will be what George Kaufman and Moss Hart called a “fabulous invalid,” no more susceptible to being killed off than to thriving. Surely the bizarre dance of the producers and the critics which has led to hypertrophied New York previews and ostracized reviewers will not damage it. And a system which serves up works like the ones just discussed has a lot going for it. Even if it forces the critic to go guerilla from time to time.
. Published edition at 5-6 (2011).