Strange Places

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Strange Places

Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 7.4 (Fall 2014)

Some plays are born strange, some achieve strangeness, and some have strangeness thrust upon them (or upon their characters, at least). We consider one of each type herein.

All with the Surname Jones

Born strange is certainly a fair characterization of Will Eno’s play The Realistic Joneses, recently at the Lyceum. The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood was up in arms that the play, which he called “the most stimulating, adventurous and flat-out good play to be produced on Broadway this year,” received no Tony nominations, but it’s pretty clear why that didn’t happen: to borrow a phrase from Frank Zappa, it just “looked too weird.” The surface is all the blandest-sounding conversation, studded with a few jokes, among four white middle-aged, middle-class denizens of some exurban-to-rural residential lane, all with the surname Jones. This bland surface challenges the audience to be on the lookout for minuscule conversational ripples possibly hinting of some kind of drama going on unseen, down beneath. But the little ripples might just as likely be meaningless, and Eno is nearly mum as to the real depth of any ripple. A sample from the early going, where new neighbors Pony (Marisa Tomei) and John (Michael C. Hall) are paying a first visit to residents Bob (Tracy Letts) and Jennifer (Toni Collette):

PONY

Hi. We’re Pony and John. You must be the Joneses. It’s on your mailbox. We’re Joneses, too. We’re renting the house at the end of the road with the blue shutters and the–

JOHN

(Interrupting.) It’s like two-hundred feet from here. It’s right over there.

BOB

Sure, we know that house. Someone else used to live there.

JOHN

Wow. Who knew the place had such an interesting history.

PONY

Look at these salt and pepper shakers. Cute.

BOB

(Picking one up:) These were made at a factory.

JENNIFER

Bob is filled with fun facts like that. (To PONY and JOHN:) Can you sit down?

JOHN

I practically invented sitting down. Actually, that’s not true.

There could be all kinds of aggression going on in this exchange. John might be poking fun at Bob for his vagueness about the previous residents of Pony and John’s house. Bob might be putting down Pony for purporting to find anything interesting in the mass-produced salt- and pepper-shakers. Jennifer might be chastising Bob that cheap shot at Pony (if it was one). John might be engaging in self-criticism for recumbent inertia or in self-pity for whatever drives him to sit. Or he might be acknowledging that his remark about sitting down was simply idle conversation reflective neither of the truth nor of any deeper meaning. Or there might indeed be deeper meaning and truth that John is trying to walk back because he is not ready to share.

Not Telling Us Much

Eno is not going to tell us much for sure. He is going to force the audience to turn its analytical gears endlessly but to little definite end. There is only one untold secret that will definitely be revealed concerning these two couples: both husbands are suffering from the same (fictive) rare degenerative disease, and both couples seem to have moved to this unnamed purlieu to be close to one of the few specialists who has any idea how to monitor and perhaps treat it. This of course places similar strains on their wives and marriages. Each husband seems to flirt with the wife of the other couple, but maybe not. Each husband seems to be in some kind of denial, but maybe not. Nothing changes much in their lives because of any of these things as the play progresses.

At the end, the four of them are sitting outside staring at the night sky in a state of relative contentment, very little having changed since the beginning of the first act. Each of the men tries to put into words how he feels about living with the disease. First Bob: “I have my days. Sometimes, I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. Except for the late Lou Gehrig.” We know on one level what the wisecrack means, a reference to the signature remark of the most famous man ever to suffer from a degenerative disease. But Gehrig’s sense of luckiness is quite debatable in view of the end the disease took him to. And Gehrig’s life up to that point had been brilliant, unlike Bob’s, and hence arguably lucky overall, notwithstanding the worse luck rapidly approaching. Even if Lou Gehrig’s remark made sense coming from Gehrig, then, it makes a lot less sense coming from Bob Jones. Bob’s remark, moreover, is prefaced with the qualifier “sometimes.” How does Bob sum it up when summing up for all times? We aren’t told.

Then John tries.

JOHN

Okay. If you took the night, if you somehow took all the darkness of the night, and then, like, if you have the ocean, or, if you took all the people… wow, this is a hard one.

PONY

You’re tired. You can finish it later. (Very brief pause. JOHN is shivering.) Are you cold?

JOHN

I’m all right. (PONY rubs his arms or shoulder.) That feels good.

JENNIFER

I do love the sky. The night sky.

JOHN

Yeah. That’s my whole contribution. Yeah.

The inarticulacy of this summation, almost the last speech in the play, would not do at all in a conventional well-made play, but it may be close to the point in this work. We don’t know much, there is no objective order or meaning in what we can see, and there are no big statements to be made about it, seems to be what Eno is driving at. That is the realism of The Realistic Joneses. But art, dramatic art not least, typically aspires to present both order and meaning, even if it courts less realism in the process.

As Frank Zappa Put It

This combination of indeterminate action, dramatic formlessness and thematic drift can only be called strange. If it belongs to any tradition, it is surely the Theater of the Absurd, yet it feels more uncanny than, say, the archetypal Absurd work Waiting for Godot, which combines many of the same elements and outlook in the same apparently inconsequential way. But even in Godot there are things happening; there are quarrels and a reversible master-slave relationship, and a mystery about footwear. There is provocative symbolism. And even the point about maintaining some kind of positive attitude in the face of objective pointlessness seems more poignantly realized.

The all-star casting contributed to the sense of disappointment I felt (also expressed by many members of the online community). Four versatile actors, each capable of expressing the largest range of emotions, called upon to exploit so little of that potential for so long (ninety whole minutes)! Of course they could deliver the occasional wisecrack expertly. But it hardly seemed enough. Apart from the aforementioned Charles Isherwood, there were those who were more impressed than I. The play and the ensemble received 2014 Drama Desk Special Awards. That said, it “looks too weird” to be produced much.

Headed for the Dinner Theaters

Heathers, by contrast, is headed for every dinner theater in the country (at least those that allow blue language and simulated sex), after its off-Broadway run at New World Stages. It is a tuneful and canny reworking of a challenging ur-work, the 1988 movie of the same name that starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. And one might say that it is an exercise in strangeness achieved. There is a tradition of “horror musicals” (Little Shop of HorrorsCarrieSweeney Todd among them), and they all tend to earn their strangeness as they proceed.

The uncomfortably familiar subject here is school bullying, specifically the kind of bullying carried out by those universal fixtures of high school life Tina Fey memorably labeled simply Mean Girls, young women with the looks, the clothing, the money, the social capital and the casual malevolence to make other young women feel unpopular and second-rate. Unfortunately there is nothing strange or unfamiliar about Mean Girls, or in the wish of those the Mean Girls bully to see their tormentors dead.

That is not to say it should not be strange, this hegemony of the hated. As Veronica, the heroine (Barrett Wilbert Weed), observes: “I don’t know anyone who actually likes Heather, but we still allow her rule over us. Heather is our reality and reality sucks.” But it is so universal an experience, it amounts to business as usual.

Moral Equivalence?

What’s unusual is the bloodlust of the underdogs, topped by the willingness of the show at least to entertain the notion that there is a moral equivalence between desiring that kind of revenge and being the tormentors against whom revenge is taken. Of course the common-sense correct answer is that there is no proportionality between the sin of being a Mean Girl (bad as it is) and the crime of murder. But the working-out of this answer in the dialectic of the show does not feel much like the accession of common sense; it is more grand guignol than happy resolution.

I don’t mean to suggest that these are serious ruminations; though dark in tone, this is still light entertainment. Yet exploring lethal revenge, however comically, is going to a dark place, the more so since the real-life rise of suicides and school shootings that the perpetrators seem to view as a response to just such garden-variety high school and college provocations. (These words are being written three days after sorority girls were among those targeted by a young killer who explained his actions by saying he felt sexually rejected.)

The plot, for those unfamiliar with the movie, follows Veronica, the heroine, as she apprentices herself to the Mean Girls (each named Heather) and joins in their gratuitous cruelties, and then graduates to being the sidekick of rebel J.D. (Ryan McCartan), becoming an accomplice after the fact as he does away with one of the Heathers as well as two dim rapist-jock boys with whom they associate – and helps prompt two suicide attempts.

“The Weirdest Fucking Thing”

It is not that Veronica fails to notice she’s left everyday existence. When she witnesses an encounter between J.D. and his dad in which each says the other’s lines, the stage directions advise: “This is the weirdest fucking thing she’s ever experienced in her young life.” But even stranger than what she witnesses is what she becomes. We see her change from a reasonably well-grounded girl who loyally hangs with her unfashionable grade-school friend to someone who participates in a scheme to humiliate that friend to someone who sings with J.D., as the campaign against the jocks heats up: “We’re what killed the dinosaurs. / We’re the asteroid that’s overdue.” In momentarily sharing J.D.’s zest for nihilistic destruction, she has worsted the Heathers’ worst. She is herself the nightmare.

Eventually, Veronica rebels against J.D. as well, foiling a Columbine-scale act of carnage he had planned, except that J.D. does fulfill his own obvious death wish for himself. But the world she returns to after this denouement remains savage because the adults who should be in charge are all distracted by their own preoccupations. If anything objective has improved because of Veronica’s journey to the moral underworld, that is not made clear. High school is about over for her and her class, so there would be little scope for any enlightenment she had acquire to enjoy any practical effect, and it is not even clear that Veronica, even with her newfound insight, intends to do anything other than rule the roost herself. She sings:

War is over.
Brand new sheriff’s come to town.
We are done with acting evil,
We will lay our weapons down.

This sounds good, but just before she sings it, she has seized the red “scrunchie” that was the badge of the alpha female from one of the surviving Heathers’ hair. That accessory, as we have seen, could be as dangerous to the wearer’s moral constitution as Tolkien’s One Ring. Thus, for all the peppy music at the end, the audience does not feel as if a safer or more familiar world has necessarily been established. There could be worse than the Heathers yet to come.

Almost Good Enough to Eat

This would be a little too unsettling tonally to make a conventional hit musical, especially one with the “legs” to get played in all the dinner theaters. Changes were required, and they have been made. The biggest are simply a matter of the standard craft of musicals: music, lyrics, dance, lighting and costume. While in the original there was also a deliberate primary color scheme for the three Heathers and for Veronica, as well as basic juvenile delinquent black for J.D., here the whole color scheme is amped up, and everyone looks almost good enough to eat, as echoed by the second number in which the Heathers exult in their controlling lives, CANDY STORE.

The casting helps too, particularly Barrett Wilbert Weed as Veronica, the role Winona Ryder played in the original. Although Ryder’s face has grown more expressive with age, Ryder was only 17 when the movie came out, and her features seemed unformed, which worked well for a sort of female Candide let loose in the worst of all possible worlds. Weed, perhaps five years older now than Ryder was then, has a more adult face, with a seemingly permanent ironic half-smile; in some sense her Veronica is always in on the joke, which gives the audience permission to be in on it too.

Time has also been on the side of one of the principal jokes. The two rapist jocks, before their demise, were given to voicing homophobic putdowns, and ironically, in both movie and musical, J.D.’s murder of them is covered up by making their deaths look like a homosexual suicide pact. But a consensus has formed in the years between movie and musical that homophobia is not only contemptible but probably hypocritical (often affected by closet cases) and in any event certainly comical on some level. So homophobia is now as conventional a target for mirth as homosexuality used to be, a development the musical fully exploits, with the two bereaved fathers singing the song MY DEAD GAY SON and revealing their own past relationship.

You Can Still Travel Back

Finally, J.D.’s motivations have been slightly reworked. In the movie and the musical, there is a bit of an explanatory backstory (traumatic loss of a mother), but Slater’s J.D. is always simply using Veronica. In the musical (book, music and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe), it seems that J.D.’s love for Veronica, however twisted in conception or execution, is sincere. (“Our love is God,” J.D. explains, as he hatches mayhem, including a faked suicide for Veronica.) The manipulation of Veronica and the Columbine plot at the end are in service of his vision, demented though it be, of dying as one with her, and he may actually believe it would leave a better world. (“Just wait till you see the good that comes of this.”) So the stage Veronica hasn’t traveled quite as far into the world of strangeness as the cinematic one, and the way back, necessary to create the right tone at the end, isn’t quite so much of a stretch for her, nor, by extension, for the audience.

In any event, one goes to a horror musical, as one goes to a horror movie, to be wrenched out of a sense of comfort. The restoration of comfort may not come entirely or even partly from within the work, but simply from the fact that one can and must get up and leave the auditorium at the end. After two hours of frisson, normality is there whether we like it or not.

The Old Normal

To shift one’s gaze from Heathers to The City of Conversation is to move from a fictional and exaggerated strangeness to one that was historical, and tremendously unsettling to those it affected. Anthony Giardina’s play, recently at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre in Lincoln Center, recounts a sea change in the nation’s political atmosphere that caught the inhabitants of the old order unawares. The old normality – or at least its upholders seem to have felt it so – was the civilized life of Georgetown, the social hub of Washington from the 1930s to the dawn of the Reagan era. It was normal in that time and place for powerful men to lock horns in the glare of the day on Capitol Hill and then to retire in the shade of evening to certain select salons, ruled by certain select hostesses, to drink and dine and make decisions and deals. A discreet flag of truce flew over these evening gatherings so that the business could be done.  The system was based on sometimes unacknowledged friendships and mutual respect across the aisle which enabled compromises. It was normal for the nation’s business to be transacted in this way, so that the business could be transacted and for today’s new norm, gridlock, to be avoided.

As chronicled in City of Conversation, however, the Nixon presidency, the Reagan revolution and (though it isn’t named because the action ends before the name for it emerged) the Tea Party insurgency have progressively anathematized compromise and substituted mutual contempt for the old friendships and respect. The play recreates the arrival of this savage new world by following its impact upon the life of a Kennedy-era hostess named Hester Ferris (Jan Maxwell) and her family. Hester initially struggles to believe, against growing evidence, that the change is only temporary. But it is not.

The New Normal Begins

We come upon Hester after the first of these three shocks, the Nixon presidency, has already occurred. Although the play does not reference it, obviously the Watergate burglary and coverup were sterling examples of the kind of demonizing of the opposition diametrically opposite to the mutual respect under which the old Georgetown had functioned. Nixon’s approach to Georgetown’s tradition of government-by-dinner-party is discussed.

HESTER

Nixon did away with all that.

COLIN [her son]

Vietnam did away with all that.

HESTER

Fair enough. But Nixon killed it by deciding to be afraid of us …

Nor is the Carter administration is viewed as what the situation requires: “[T]his band of mugwumps in the White House, this southern cabal,” Hester calls them. But Hester is scheming to help engineer a Kennedy restoration under Teddy. “We’re an arm of the government, you might say. Georgetown. Dinners in Georgetown. Or we were. And will be again.”

So what was it about the Kennedy and Johnson years for Hester? For such a dyed-in-the-wool royalist, she is not given lines that explain it fully. Her most direct remark is: “Say what you will about the Kennedys. They know how to use us to move a social agenda forward.” Elsewhere, though, playwright Giardina has made it explicit that that agenda was both liberal and assumed to be permanent, even if subject to temporary interruptions. He speaks of “the great sixties assumption that there was a permanent Washington, that liberalism would always triumph, that all those unpleasant Republican attempts to undo the great progressive agenda were only brushfires, to be put out as soon as Democrats were in the majority again.”[1] A further implication of this outlook would be the expectation that when conservatives broke bread with liberals, the outcome would generally be the cooptation of the conservatives.

Guile or Maybe Contempt?

Of course, to a conservative who was aware of these assumptions the lesson would be to beware of attempts by liberals to forge personal ties or even to break bread. At best, the liberal sociability would mask guile, at worst contempt. And many of the people who came to power with Nixon and Reagan were convinced that guile and contempt were all that did lie behind the Georgetown conviviality. Partly it was a matter of Georgetown’s elitist roots.

Hester seems initially oblivious to either the wariness or the resentment this causes outside the charmed circle. Anna (Kristen Bush), Hester’s brilliant young Minneapolis-born Reaganite daughter-in-law-to-be (in the first act), daughter-in-law (in the beginning of the second), and former daughter-in-law (in latter half of the second), explains her rejection of this world:

Oh yes, the Georgetown rules. I think that would be a lot easier for me if I didn’t find your side so repulsive. The tortoise shell glasses. The grooming of the liberal intelligentsia. The pinhead look. I like a sexy man. I like rough Republicans. I like drinking with them and I like their fuck you attitude and the fact that they come from places like I come from and played sandlot baseball and worked after school. I understand them, and when they pour me a drink it’s filled to the brim and they look at my ass and don’t apologize-

Much the same comes from the wife of a Kentucky senator explaining why Hester is not invited to join a Congressional wives’ book club:

We started it, Congressional ladies from places like Kentucky and Iowa and Nebraska, to defend ourselves from people like you, Mrs. Ferris, who might think that because we come from backwater places, that we are backwater people.

Although the revenge of the Reaganites has surely brought to Washington the ascendancy of money the likes of which was not seen since the Gilded Age, and hence of an elitism, albeit one of a different stripe, it seems that part of Reaganism’s original power was the resentment of people ostentatiously omitted from the elite, people that Hester and her colleagues deemed of no account.

Not Taking Responsibility

Nor have Hester and her ilk truly taken responsibility for their signature act of arrogance: Vietnam. As Anna says: “Look where [President Johnson] took us. Deeper into a war he refused to win. Into an enormous defeat that left us devastated as a country in terms of purpose. No one respects us in the world anymore.”

In Act One, Hester does not get it. Reagan she dismisses as “that washed up movie star governor,” even as Anna and then Colin try to tell her how her world has run up quite a tab of resentment with a major portion of the electorate, a resentment for which Reagan has become spokesman. The balance of the play is devoted to the exposition of how the Hester’s part of that initially unrecognized tab is paid.

Act Two concerns a Hester who no longer regards her era as an interregnum; she now understand herself and her friends to be waging a long twilight struggle with the forces of reaction. In 1987 these forces are personified by Robert Bork, whose Supreme Court nomination she is lobbying against (an effort which will succeed, as the audience knows). Both she and Anna comment on how many fights the liberals have lost in the intervening years. The two women are trying to keep their personal relationship from being derailed by their political antagonism, as there is now a grandson for whom Hester sits.

Unfortunately for them both, and perhaps inevitably, Anna stumbles upon hidden evidence of Hester’s carefully-targeted activism against the Bork nomination, a nomination which Anna, from within the Department of Justice, is trying to see through. Anna being the uncompromising soul she is, she insists that if Hester does not stop, Anna will cut off access to the beloved grandson. Hester, being the principled soul she is, will not relent, be the cost what it may. But she hopes the cost will not be what Anna stipulates. “[A]fterwards, we will forgive,” Hester says, harking back to the old ways. Anna responds: “Hester, the stakes have changed. We are in this because we want fiercely to protect people…, [p]eople you believe do not need protection, and we will not stop- or temper the fight just to get along. Colin will not forgive you and neither will I.” The family irretrievably fractures over this dispute.

Moral Equivalence? — Again

One question the play poses is whether these choices are morally equivalent acts. Certainly in each case, the woman is placing political rivalries above human and family ties. It seems to be Playwrighting 101 doctrine that in a play about ideas, both sides will have equally good talking points and, if possible, equal moral plausibility. As already illustrated, Giardina is willing to give Anna some of the good talking points, but he is not willing to stoop to what President Obama recently called false equivalence, as to either national or familial politics. We know that, for all of her side’s failings, when the catastrophe that Hester did not see coming struck, her actions were justified politically and personally, and Anna’s were not.

If anything were needed to make this clear, it occurs in the second half of the second act, set on the night of the first Obama inauguration. Ethan, the boy from whom Hester was separated in 1987, is now a young man revisiting his grandmother for the first time since the split, in the company of his gay black lover. They (like Hester) worked for Obama’s victory through MoveOn. Clearly Anna’s indoctrination of Ethan has “taken” no better than did Hester’s of Colin. The existence of this couple stands as a living affirmation of Hester and her politics, though with a slight edge, in that Donald, the lover, is writing a dissertation at Columbia on “American Liberalism in the late Vietnam years under Nixon-Ford: The decline of a class.” Hester’s prickly response (“Did we decline? I wasn’t aware.”) is clearly untrue; Donald is correct about the decline.

Sufficient at Last

As the young men warm up to Hester and her sister, and encourage them to join the couple at an Obama inaugural ball, it is clear that Hester’s vindication is in the air. But before Giardina rewards the audience with that fadeout tableau, Ethan asks Hester point blank what caused the rift. Her explanation starts off sounding contrite, but does not end that way.

A very small argument. One we never should have had. But we did. And it led to a larger one we could never find our way out of. Sacrifices had to be made in those days. It’s hard to see how every small thing mattered in order to come to this moment, but it did.

Ethan demurs that it was knocking on doors and ordinary electoral politics that led to Obama’s election; this time he is the one who is wrong. Clearly the old battles that the Hesters of this world waged with the Annas had something important to do with it too. Hester also points out that if Ethan and Donald choose to marry, they will be doing one of the things that the liberals had to fight so hard for. That, she says, is a result significant enough to justify her surrender of her former relationship with Ethan. And with his final gesture, he seems to signal that he finds the explanation sufficient.

Hester’s long voyage into this strange political and familial landscape has been chastening, in that she no longer looks for a permanent liberal ascendancy. (“If you think having elected a black President, all our battles are over, think again.”) But she has stuck by her guns, and with the reestablishment of ties with her grandson, has fundamentally prevailed. Moral order has in large measure been restored.

This is hands-down the most satisfying theatrical experience of the three mentioned here, and largely because it dares to follow a somewhat conventional dramatic arc, dares to return the audience at least part way back to a place of familiarity and equilibrium, dares (unlike The Realistic Joneses) to be about real and intelligible issues in which real emotional stakes are likely to be recognized.

As theatergoers, we want to be taken places we have not seen before, places that make us shiver, perhaps. As I have written before in these pages, edgy is good. It is good for audiences, good for the characters with whom audiences might identify. But there are reasons why the conventional became conventional; the uncanny, the frightening, the unintelligible, the esoteric, had all better justify themselves, emphatically. If we’re being taken strange places, it had better be worth the ride.

__________________

[1]. A. Giardina, Putting the Personal Aside, Lincoln Center Theater Review (Spring 2014 Issue No. 63).

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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