American Drama

Drama Review: Oslo by J. T. Rogers

A social scientist and his diplomat wife decided to change the world. While embarking on the quest to do so, they expanded the boundaries of the word quixotic. After witnessing the fear in eyes of two child soldiers firsthand, Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul chose to seek a lasting peace in the Middle East on their own. Now here’s the really bizarre part: their back-channel efforts led to the Oslo Accords of 1993. J. T. Rogers’ Tony Award Winning play delivered a fictitious take on their efforts.

To borrow an expression from the musical Hamilton , Oslo presented readers with a seat in “the room where it happens.” The playwright allowed his audience to witness for themselves the negotiation process that takes place with international agreements. Mr. Rogers selected a very unconventional back-channel, in the forms of an idealistic couple and some unorthodox diplomats. That made the story much more interesting and engaging.

The author described his work as, “a scrupulously researched, meticulously written fiction.” (Page X) I enjoyed the inclusion of such famous historical figures as Ahmed Qurie (the PLO’s Finance Minister) and Shimon Peres (the Israeli Foreign Minister). Although not actually a character in the play itself, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s presence injected itself into the narrative.

I enjoyed the way the playwright humanized his figures. Simon Peres liked to begin conversations with a story. Ahmed Qurie expressed his love for his daughter. Terje and Mona’s marriage felt the strain of their seemingly naïve quest to end hostilities between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

I also liked the witty way the author injected humor into the narrative. He included a few jokes that while referencing other cultures, didn’t come across as offensive or objectionable. That’s quite a delicate balance, but he executed it extraordinarily well.

The play’s major strength also became its biggest weakness. At times I found it difficult to read through 115 pages of diplomatic exchanges. Mr. Rogers varied the pace as well as he could by bringing in new characters to serve as negotiators. Through them, he interjected new sources of conflict into the story. Still, a few hours reading about the intricacies of international diplomacy may not appeal to some booklovers.

J. T. Rogers presented a realistic description of history’s perhaps most unconventional diplomatic undertaking. While the Oslo Accords didn’t achieve an enduring peace in the Middle East, the playwright still found a hopeful lesson from the entire process. Perhaps, someday events will provide the author with a more positive ending for a sequel. After all, no one thought an idealistic Norwegian couple could’ve come this close to ending the conflict less than 25 years ago.

perhaps

Theater Review – Of Mice and Men at Bridge Players Theater Company

Finally an American has produced a drama on par with Shakespeare. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men animated the concepts of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations in a way that made them distinctly American and, yet, universal. He interwove the freedom to “live off the fatta’ the land” with the quest for love and companionship. At the same time he explored the individual’s place in a society he’s no longer of value to. The cast and crew at the Bridge Players Theater in Burlington, NJ turned in performances commensurate with such high-minded concepts.

I admire director Gabrielle Affleck’s choice of projects. Several months ago I enjoyed watching her lead a production of Kimberly Akimbo; a challenging play written by Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist David Lindsey-Abaire. For her follow-up endeavor, Ms. Affleck decided to “up her game”, if you will, and selected another story with difficult and controversial material. This time a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who also received the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote the script. This show also featured a dog (Ladybird “Lady” Ezell) in the live show. One can only respect this artist’s courage.

I found the interplay between Breen Rourke (as George) and Paul Sollimo (as Lenny) outstanding. A year-and-a-half ago I watched Mr. Rourke play Shelly “The Machine” Levine in Glengarrry, Glen Ross. I still recall the masterful way he voiced the role in a shrill, whinny voice. It made me wonder how he’d play a drifter from 1930s California. His authentic delivery of George’s diction and locution surprised me. As the show continued I realized I shouldn’t have been. He possesses superb acting abilities. He showed his character’s descent from rugged idealism to disillusionment very steadily and believably.

I also have to give Mr. Rourke credit for his performance in the opening scene. The playwright assigned most of the dialog to his character. At times I thought the scene a soliloquy. He impressed me for remembering all the words, let alone for the genuine manner he delivered them.

I found the casting of Paul Sollimo in the role of Lenny as somewhat ironic. The dialog described the character as “dumb”. Mr. Sollimo is a genius in the field of acting. I’ve watched him play several “sophisticated “characters extremely well over the years. I wondered what he would bring to the role of Lenny. It allowed him to exhibit his craft at its pinnacle. Mr. Sollimo brilliantly transformed himself into the character. He crawled around on the floor, giggled childishly and spoke like someone slow of mind. He pronounced words in the identical way I imagined the character would have when I read the novel. This outstanding performance led me to sympathize with Lenny more than I’d expected to.

I’ve always believed that no amount of histrionic prowess can rescue bad script writing. Rachel Comenzo’s performance of “Curley’s wife” proved me wrong. I’ve always believed, to put this as politely as I can, Mr. Steinbeck’s development of “Curley’s wife” in the novel was the worst character portrayal in the history of the English language. Seriously: Steinbeck couldn’t have even given her a name? (See my earlier review of the novel version of Of Mice and Men.) I thought the character description in the play version a bit better. Curley’s wife seemed misunderstood and longed to seek a better life. The author still failed to fully develop it.

Ms. Comenzo deserves immense credit for animating such a poorly written character so well. In her final scene with Lenny, she delivered an emotional exposition of Curley’s wife’s background leading into her desire to escape her unhappy surroundings. Ms. Comenzo’s pining facial expression and soft voice modulation actually made me empathize with the character. That’s difficult for a performer to do with a strong character. I never would’ve thought it possible with a weak one. It shows the immense level of her acting skills that she achieved that with so little assistance from the playwright.

Mr. Rourke, Mr. Sollimo and Ms. Comenzo put on an acting clinic. The rest of the cast delivered great performances, as well. I’d especially note that Greg Northam played a very moving Candy. His gingerly gait and slumped over posture added to my empathy for him. Richard Priest (as Crooks) and Fred Ezell (as Carlson) utilized memorable voices for the roles they played.

I would warn theater goers that some of the dialog contained racial epithets. The playwright had an ulterior motive for including it, however. Later in the show Mr. Steinbeck expressed his animosity towards this sort of racial bigotry. In a moving scene between Crooks (played by Richard Priest) and Lenny, the lone African American character discussed his disdain with the other characters for excluding him simply because of his race. As the original play premiered in 1937, I admired the then progressive view on race relations.

I’d also liked to give a shout out to Jeff Rife. The man did a phenomenal job with the set design. I also give him credit for engineering the set in such a way that made the intricate changes between scenes more manageable for the cast and crew.

The story in Of Mice and Men has become iconic in our culture. Mr. Steinbeck’s tale is a masterpiece of the highest order. It’s still well worthwhile to revisit; especially, when performed by such an outstanding cast and crew. The Bridge Players Theater Company’s presentation brought to mind a line from Henryk Sienkwiewicz’s epic novel Quo Vadis: “I only wish it was worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” The show runs through May 14.

Drama Review – Proof by David Auburn

Someone postulated that I should read this play. With this theorem in mind, I set out to prove it. After reasoning my way through the text, I came up with the following axiom: David Auburn’s play Proof is a work of genius that readers can appreciate on many levels. As I always strive to write professional reviews, allow me to show the work that went into my proof.

Given: David Auburn wrote Proof.

Prove: Proof showed what the best playwrights can do with complex subject matter.

Statement: Proof possessed many literary techniques that lesser playwrights could debase into banality. David Auburn crafted them with the proficiency of a conductor orchestrating a symphony.

Reason: Even in the opening pages, the dialog made me uncomfortable. The story began as Catherine’s father presented her with a bottle of champagne. How to write this delicately? This party wasn’t as upbeat or as festive as the one Harold Pinter described in The Birthday Party. (Yes, that’s saying something.) The tension in this conversation between Catherine and her father jarred me. Here’s an excerpt.

Robert: A girl who’s drinking from the bottle shouldn’t complain. Don’t guzzle it. It’s an elegant beverage. Sip.

Catherine: (Offering the bottle) Do you-

Robert: No. Go ahead.

Catherine: You sure?

Robert: Yeah. It’s your birthday.

Catherine: Happy Birthday to me.

Robert: What are you going to do on your birthday?

Catherine: Drink this. Have some.

Robert: No. I hope you’re not spending your birthday alone.

Catherine: I’m not alone.

Robert: I don’t count.

Catherine: Why not?

Robert: I’m your old man. Go out with some friends.

Catherine: Right.

Robert: Your friends aren’t taking you out?

Catherine: Because in order to for your friends to take you out you generally have to have friends.

Robert: (Dismissive) Oh-

Catherine: It’s funny how that works. (Page 7)

I almost had to close the book and walk away from it. The tension made me that uncomfortable.

Statement: Auburn’s proficient use of foreshadowing set a new standard for it.

Reason: I won’t give away spoilers. I will comment that on several occasions in the text, seemingly innocent lines or obscure observations became clever harbingers of things to come. In fact, a veiled one appeared in the lines I quoted above. I’d hope people reading Proof for the first time experience the same astonishment that I did. It made the story that much more engaging.

Statement: In the midst of a complex plot, the playwright still managed to connect with his audience on an emotional level.

Reason: This story had some parallels with the book and film A Beautiful Mind. Robert was a brilliant mathematician with schizophrenia. Unlike John Nash, Robert’s disorder rendered him incompetent and unable to practice his craft: for a time. Then his mental health improved. He expressed great optimism about his being “back in the game” in the following exchange with Catherine. She, being the dutiful daughter, had sacrificed her personal happiness to take care of him. This discussion took place after he insisted Catherine read a “major result” for which he’d just written a proof.

Catherine: Dad. Let’s go inside.

Robert: The gaps might make it hard to follow. We can talk it through.

Catherine: You’re cold. Let’s go in.

Robert: Maybe we could work on this together. This might be a great place to start. What about it? What do you think? Let’s talk it through.

Catherine: Not now. I’m cold too. It’s really freezing out here. Let’s go inside.

Robert: I’m telling you it’s stifling in there, goddamn it. The radiators. Look, read out the first couple of lines. That’s how we start: you read, and we go line by line, out loud, through the argument. See if there’s a better way, a shorter way. Let’s collaborate.

Catherine: No. Come on.

Robert: I’ve been waiting years for this. This is something I want to do. Come on, let’s do some work together.

Catherine: We can’t do it out here. It’s freezing cold. I’m taking you in.

Robert: Not until we talk about the proof.

Catherine: No.

Robert: Goddamnit, Catherine, open the goddamn book and read me the lines.

(Beat. Catherine opens the book. She reads slowly without inflection.)

Catherine: “Let X equal the quantities of all quantities of X. Let X equal the cold. It is cold in December. The months of cold equal November through February. There are four months of cold and four of heat leaving four months of indeterminate temperature….” (Pages 73 – 74)

I’m not an emotional person. When I read Catherine’s recitation of the “proof” I could almost feel my heart breaking in my chest. Kudos to the playwright on crafting this scene so well.

Statement: Proof showed what the best playwrights can do with complex subject matter.

Reason: The story contained many plot twists. They revolved around the personalities of intricate characters. The playwright also managed to work in standard literary techniques and apply them brilliantly. In acknowledgement of these efforts, Proof received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2001.

Q. E. D.