American Playwright

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

Drama Review – Three Tall Women by Edward Albee

It’s never easy to write a show with four characters with three being the same person. Edward Albee did so. After crafting such memorable shows as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? and Seascape he added the extraordinary Three Tall Women to his catalog. It provided the perfect vehicle for the playwright to exhibit the range of his genius. In addition to the creativity involved in the concept, he crafted a moving meditation on the physical and psychological effects of the aging process.

The play contained three main characters. The playwright chose not to name them; settling instead for the appellations A, B and C. It turned out that each character played the same “tall” woman at different points in her life. A was an old woman in her nineties. In the list of characters, Mr. Albee described B as “looks rather as A would have at 52; plainly dressed.” C “looks rather as B would have at 26.”

The drama commenced with A on the verge of death. The three characters discussed the key events from her life and how they led to this conclusion. The disparity in their views concretized the ways people evaluate the same events at different points in their lives.

The author animated this point very well. I especially enjoyed the exchanges between A and C on pages 104 and 105. Both admitted to each other, “I don’t like you.” I found that very interesting for two characters that were, in essence, the same person.

I liked how the author worked A’s difficulty remembering things into the story. With the way the narrative progressed I wondered if the character lacked this ability intentionally. With some of the unpleasant events that occurred during her life I could understand why. A good example took place when B expressed hatred for her own son.

(Rage) He left! He packed up his attitudes and he left! And I never want to see him again. (To him) Go away!! (Angry, humiliated, tears.) (Page 92)

I found the portion where C discussed their future husband with characters A and B the most interesting section of the play. The playwright made C a young lady of 26 years. A and B informed her that she married at 28. The characters derisively described the spouse as “little and he’s funny looking—a little like a penguin.” (Page 82) B even called him, “The little one; the little one-eyed man?” (Page 79) She added that they went on to spend forty years with one man: “more or less.” (Page 79) Under C’s questioning, she acknowledged a torrid affair during the marriage. I enjoyed how C became disgusted by the description of the husband along with her (future) behavior towards him. Of course, we know that she’s the character who went on to marry and cheat on him shortly afterwards.

I did have some issues with the dialog. I found a lot of it repetitious. I can understand that since all three characters played, in essence, the same person the playwright would choose to show that by having the individuals speak in similar ways. It did get a little tedious to read after a while.

Characters B and C also recited a line made famous by Kurt Vonnegut. They both used the expression, “And so it goes.” It really grabbed my attention. I didn’t understand if the Mr. Albee deliberately referenced Vonnegut or if he had a meaning more endemic to the play in citing him. I would’ve appreciated a clarification.

On an episode of The Simpsons, Marge told Lisa, “You could write a depressing Broadway play. It could be about people coming to terms with things.” That would serve as a good general synopsis of Three Tall Women. While a very cerebral and unhappy story, it’s still an extraordinary exploration of aging and its effects on the human psyche. If you don’t believe me, and you’re young enough, try reading it when you’re 26, 52 and 91.

Drama Review – How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel

During an interview playwright Paula Vogel expressed her debt to Vladimir Nabokov. His Lolita inspired her to craft a similar story written from the Lolita character’s point-of-view. The superb play How I Learned to Drive resulted.

I found the play’s structure outstanding. The author instructed that during the show a voice over recite messages as though coming from a driver’s education film. These included expressions such as, “Safety first – You and Driver education” (Page 9), “Shifting Forward from First to Second Gear” (Page 16) and “You and the Reverse Gear.” (Page 45) The playwright cleverly inserted these messages into places where they corresponded with the scene. As disturbing as I found the one on “Implied Consent” (Page 44), the following expressed the most troubling message.

Before You Drive.

Always check under your car for obstructions – broken bottles, fallen tree branches, and the bodies of small children. Each year hundreds of children are crushed beneath the wheels of unwary drivers in their own driveways. Children depend on you to watch them. (Page 32)

No play would be presentable without the addition of quirky and memorable characters. How I Learned to Drive didn’t lack any. This family had a very unique tradition. As the protagonist, Li’l Bit explained.

In most families relatives get names like “Junior” or “Brother” or “Bubba.” In my family if we call someone “Big Papa,” it’s not because he’s tall. In my family, folks tend to get nicknamed for their genitalia. Uncle Peck, for example. (Page 12)

The playwright provided great insights into Uncle Peck’s character through his behavior. As he taught Li’l Bit to drive, the occasions became a metaphor for their illicit relationship. He took Li’l Bit out for oysters and cocktails after she passed the driving test. (Page 17) When she was 13, he had her do a sensual photo shoot for him. He told her:

Peck:…You’re doing great work. If we keep this up, in five years we’ll have a really professional portfolio. (Li’l Bit stops.)

Li’l Bit: What do you mean in five years?

Peck: You can’t submit work to Playboy until you’re eighteen. — (Peck continues to shoot; he knows he’s made a mistake.)

Li’l Bit: –Wait a minute. You’re joking, aren’t you, Uncle Peck?

Peck: Heck, no. You can’t get into Playboy unless you’re the very best. And you are the very best. (Page 43)

It seemed very eerie to me that an adolescent girl would still address a man as “uncle” when he talked about sending erotic photos of her to a men’s magazine. I credit the playwright for crafting this scene so well. It gave readers an insight into Uncle Peck’s true nature.

But this was just warm-up depravity for Uncle Peck. He had more despicable conduct to commit. In the play’s most dramatic scene, Li’l Bit expressed her disgust in the following exchange.

Peck: — They were gifts! I just wanted to give you some little perks for your first semester—

Li’l Bit: –Well what the hell were those numbers all about! Forty-four days to go—only two more weeks.—And then just numbers –69—68—67—like some serial killer!

Peck: Li’l Bit! Whoa! This is me you’re talking to—I was just trying to pick-up your spirits, trying to celebrate your birthday.

Li’l Bit: My eighteenth birthday. I’m not a child, Uncle Peck. You were counting down to my eighteenth birthday.

Peck: So?

Lil’ Bit: So? So statutory rape is not in effect when a young woman turns eighteen. And you and I both know it. (Page 49)

The playwright added another distressing bit of realism to this story, too. In the end, Aunt Mary blamed the teenaged Li’l Bit for seducing her husband. It’s always terrible when a victim gets blamed for the crime committed against her. It’s even more awful when that sufferer is a child.

While the nature of the story made for a somber read, the playwright managed to work in some fantastic humor. My favorite occurred when Li’l Bit shared a “Mary Jane joke” with another character.

“Little Mary Jane was walking through the woods, when all of a sudden this man who was hiding behind a tree jumps out, rips open Mary Jane’s blouse, and plunges his hands on her breasts. And little Mary Jane just laughed and laughed because she knew her money was in her shoes.” (Page 37)

For Ms. Vogel’s extraordinary work, How I Learned to Drive received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama. To those not familiar with it, I’d encourage these people to get in their cars. Adjust the seat. Fasten the seatbelt. Then check the right side mirror – check the left side. Finally, adjust the rearview mirror. And then—floor it to your nearest theater or bookstore.

Drama Review – The Flick by Annie Baker

What cinematic aficionado doesn’t long for the days when film was just that: film? Playwright Annie Baker crafted a semi-humorous take on the subject. The Flick told the story the end of an era. Avery, Sam and Rose worked in one of the last 35mm movie theaters in Worcester County, Massachusetts. They struggled to cope with an abusive boss, changing times and even each other. A charming dramatic work resulted.

The playwright selected an excellent array of characters to tell the tale. Ms. Baker made Sam a disgruntled 35 year old theater employee with a secret. The free-spirited Rose worked the old projector. Avery served as the newcomer to the group. This character wasn’t “into” movies: he “loved” the movies. (Page 12) In fact, when Sam challenged his with a host of “six degrees of separation” games, he solved them all; sometimes in less than six degrees. With that passion for cinema, a reader would suspect he’d fit right into this ensemble. Not so.

This play contained outstanding conflict. Sam and Rose informed Avery that they skimmed money from the box office. They gave this theft the more benign appellation “dinner money.” Due to the scant wages they made, these funds would help them afford meals. They expressed their expectation he would take his cut. Avery battled his own aversion to a changing society manifested through his affection for old style movie making; even calling digital film “immoral.” When a new owner purchased the theater, he wrote a letter imploring him to retain the 35mm projector. Sam felt he’d been passed over for promotion too often. I enjoyed reading how the characters coped, or didn’t, with these issues.

In addition to the drama, the playwright included a sold dose of comedy. While cleaning the theater Sam complained about all the outside food people would bring in and leave there. While visiting family out of state he caught himself doing same thing. He later lamented his hypocrisy to Avery.

I’m that douchebag who brings in random weird ethnic food into a movie theater and then forgets about it and leaves it there!

I am my own worst nightmare! (Page 73)

Ms. Baker resolved this complex story rather well. The playwright brought the points of the “dinner money”, the references to Pulp Fiction and the debate over a digital versus 35mm project to proper resolutions. It surprised me that she managed it so well.

I’ve read some criticism of the play regarding banal dialog and the characters performing too much “sweeping.” I found both appropriate for the story and characters. Both Sam and Avery enjoyed movies. The discussions allowed Avery to demonstrate his passion for them. Plus, the two men performed custodial work at a movie theater; the latter serving as the lone set in the show. Other than sitting in the seats and talking, what else could they have been doing?

The Flick entertained on both a humorous and dramatic level. It takes an extraordinary playwright to balance the two while keeping the overall narrative cohesive. For Ms. Baker’s efforts, this work received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s well worth a read. Don’t wait for the movie.

Drama Review – All the Way by Robert Schenkkan

What Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did for film, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way did for the theatre. Both works followed the journeys of American Chief Executives in the quest to pass revolutionary civil rights legislation. Mr. Schenkkan selected a much more controversial public servant for his story. While today Lyndon Baines Johnson takes the majority of blame for escalating the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam Conflict, the playwright chose to focus on the pinnacle of his domestic achievements: the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As the child of a Vietnam Veteran, I grew up exposed to a negative take on America’s 36th President. Robert A. Caro’s four-volume (to date) biography of Johnson introduced me to his myriad complexities as both a politician and a person. I read Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award winning play All the Way curious to discover his take on the nation’s most significant post-war leader. It didn’t disappoint.

This biographical work explored Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first year as the nation’s chief executive. It encompassed his first moments in the Presidency following the Kennedy assassination through his election to the office in 1964. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill served as the main story line. The play contained myriad conflict. It illustrated Johnson’s superb managing of civil rights leaders, his subordinates and reactionary Southern Democrats to get the proposal enacted into law. This made for a very engaging and tense read.

The playwright clearly performed his research. I found the portrayal of his protagonist accurate. Several times I felt like I was sharing a drink with the former President at the Johnson Ranch. I could envision LBJ saying things such as, “You can tell that Liberal crowd of yours, I’m gonna out-Roosevelt Roosevelt and out-Lincoln Lincoln!” (Location 523) and “’Politics is war by other means.’ Bullshit. Politics is war…You’re not running for office. You’re running for your life. You’re trying to cheat death.” (Location 1729)

The rattlesnake story sounded like vintage Johnson, too.

Knew a good ole boy once, caught a rattlesnake bare-handed on a dare. Stood there with that big ole thing wrapped around his arm, head snapping this way and that, with this stupid look on his face, saying “Wow! It’s a whole lot easier to catch one of these critters than it is to let it go.” (Location 605)

In Caro’s biography he quoted one person as saying, “Some people read books. Johnson read men.” Mr. Schenkkan incorporated this uncanny understanding of human nature in the drama. Here’s the President’s assessment of Senate Minority Leader Republican Everett Dirksen as told to the Floor Manager of the Civil Rights Bill: Senator Hubert Humphrey.

Let me tell you about Senator Everett Dirksen. That man is in love with himself; in love with his voice. Did you know that every day he gargles with warm water and Pond’s beauty cream? I shit you not. Now, a man like that wants one thing—he wants to be a “Great Man.” And you’re gonna give him every opportunity to do just that. Every chance you get, you praise Dirksen, you thank Dirksen. You’re gonna kiss his ass so much, he won’t be able to sit down. He wants the spotlight? Give it to him. Six months from now, all anybody will remember is that the Democratic Party passed a historic civil rights bill. (Location 1324)

The author included several famous figures among the characters; FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover among them. I enjoyed the following exchange between him and LBJ. It took place following a male Presidential aide’s arrest for lewd behavior with another man. As the scandal occurred so close to the election, Johnson worried it would impact him at the polls.

LBJ: CLEAN UP YOUR MESS! I worked with that man for twenty-five years. Not a clue. (A threat.) How do you know when somebody’s that way?

J. Edgar Hoover: Well, well, there are certain signs; mannerisms. The way a man dresses or combs his hair. Or walks kind of funny.

LBJ: News to me. I’m not questioning you; I’m sure you’d know—In your line of work, I mean. Take care of this. (Location 2707)           

LBJ noted during the play: “What’s the point of bein’ President if you can’t do what you know is right?” (Location 1414) Later he added, “People think I want great power, but what I want is great solace; a little love. That’s all I want.” (Location 2433) Abraham Lincoln once commented that upon serving in the Presidency he found only “ashes and blood.” After reading All the Way, the same could be said for Lyndon Baines Johnson. Instead of adapting LBJ’s 1964 campaign slogan for the play’s title, a version of the Chinese curse “may you get what you wish for” may have been more appropriate.

Drama Review – Ruined by Lynn Nottage

You will not fight your battles on my body anymore. (Location 1906)

Lynn Nottage captured the horrific nature of war in her 2007 masterpiece Ruined. This drama elucidated the true tragedy of armed conflict by exploring its effects on civilians. This story focused on how women became its true victims during a civil war in the Congo. It explored the aftereffects of sexual assault as a weapon and its subsequent relation to social taboos. A disturbing yet unforgettable theatrical opus resulted.

I’d classify Ruined as one of those rare works of art which contained both an extraordinary setting along with compelling characters. In addition, they complimented each other very well. The drama took place at a brothel located in a small mining town in the Congo. The playwright made the woman running this establishment, Mama Nadi, a well-developed character. She protected ‘her girls’ while running the ‘business’. In the course of doing so, she balanced the careful accommodation of rebel soldiers as well as those fighting for the government. I liked how with some charm she corrected Sophie upon their introduction.

Sophie: Madam.

Mama: (Defensively) It’s “Mademoiselle.” (Location 371)

While the author made all the characters believable, I found Sophie and Salima the most remarkable. Both women had been victims of repeated sexual assaults by soldiers. Sophie’s uncle described her as physically “ruined” from her recurrent attacks. Salima’s assaults ruined her as well, but in the sense that they made her a social pariah. She delivered this heartbreaking description of her husband’s reaction to her brutalization.

He called me a filthy dog, and said I tempted them. Why else would it happen? Five months in the bush passed between the soldiers like a wash rag. Used. I was made poison by their fingers, that is what he said. He had no choice but to turn away from me, because I dishonored him. (Location 1382)

Her outcast status forced Salima to find work in the only field open to people in her situation. Later in the story her husband appeared at the brothel looking for her. She added the following thoughts on what brought her life to this point:

I walked into the family compound expecting wide open arms. An embrace. Five months, suffering. I suffered every single second of it. And my family gave me the back of their heads. And he, the man I loved since I was fourteen, chased me away with a green switch. He beat my ankles raw. And I dishonored him? Where was he? Buying a pot? He was too proud to bear my shame…but not proud enough to protect me from it. Let him sit in the rain. (Location 1428)

The fact these assaults forced victims into lives of prostitution made Ruined even more tragic. Mama Nadi delivered a somewhat ironic response to this occurrence.

You men kill me. You come in here, drink your beer, take your pleasure, and then wanna judge the way I run my “business.” The front door swings both ways. I don’t force anyone’s hand. My girls, Emilene, Mazima, Josephine, ask them, they’d rather be here, than back out there in their villages where they are taken without regard. They’re safer with me than in their own homes, because this country is picked clean, while men, poets like you, drink beer, eat nuts and look for some place to disappear. And I am without mercy, is that what you’re saying? Because I give them something other than a beggar’s cup. (Location 1731)

The civil war raging in the background added to the play’s tension. One of the characters assessed it as such.

The man I shake hands with is my enemy by sundown. And why? His whims. Because?! His witch doctor says I’m the enemy. I don’t know whose hand to grease other than the one directly in front of me. At least I understood Mobutu’s brand of chaos. Now, I’m a relative beginner, I must relearn the terms every few months, and make new friends, but who? It’s difficult to say, so I must befriend everybody and nobody. And it’s utterly exhausting. (Location 1784)

“…What those men did to me lives inside of my body. Every step I take I feel them in me. Punishing me. And it will be that way for the rest of my life.” (Location 695) It’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of trauma inflicted on women in war zones. Thanks to Lynn Nottage, the world community possesses a keener awareness because of Ruined.

 

Drama Review – Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon

Writing either comedy or tragedy challenges any playwright. Few possess the skill to pen either of these genres well. Rarer still are those dramatists with the proficiency to combine the two in the same work while concurrently creating compelling journeys for the characters. In his Pulitzer Prize winning masterwork, Lost in Yonkers, Neil Simon executed all these daunting feats.

The play delivered an original take on a “coming of age” story. While Jay’s and Arty’s mother suffered with terminal cancer their father, Eddie, accumulated a large debt to pay for her treatment. In order to pay it off, he accepted a job that required him to travel throughout the country. After some cajoling and begging he talked his mother, whom he rarely visited after his marriage, into taking his sons in his absence. Since the grandmother and Aunt Bella operated a candy store, this would seem like a boy’s dream. Grandma’s strict temperament made it otherwise. Their interaction with eccentric characters such as the mysterious Uncle Louie, Aunt Bella and Aunt Gert added to the play’s appeal.

Mr. Simon developed a unique ability to express humor in otherwise tragic circumstances. It’s one feature that set him apart from other playwrights. Eddie explained that the loan shark he borrowed the money from sent flowers to his wife’s funeral. He had the following witty take on his own situation. (All the ellipses appeared in the original text.)

Eddie: …There is no way I can pay this man back…So what’ll he do? Kill me?…Maybe …If he kills me, he not only loses his money, it’ll probably cost him again for the flowers for my funeral. (Page 23)

I also liked the amusing way Eddie explained how he got into financial trouble.

Eddie: …I couldn’t go to a bank because they don’t let you put up heartache and pain as collateral…You know what collateral is, Arty?…You have to give them something to hold that’s worth eleven dollars…That’s for their interest…A Shylock doesn’t need collateral…His  collateral is your desperation…So he gives you his money…And he’s got a clock. And when you get your money, the clock starts…And what it keeps time of is your promise…If you keep your promise, he turns off the clock…and if not, it keeps ticking…and after a while, your heart starts ticking louder than his clock…” (Page 22)

As with Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost in Yonkers contained an emotional confrontation scene towards the end of the play. During an argument with Grandma, Bella angrily asserted that she envied her two deceased siblings. In the denouement from this exchange, Grandma reached a painful moment of self-realization.

Bella: I’m sorry, Momma…I didn’t mean to hurt you.

Grandma: Yes. You do…It’s my punishment for being alive…for not surviving my own children…Not dying before them is my sin…” (Page 113)

Grandma expressed quite a revealing statement here. Throughout the play she conducted herself as a rather unemotional person. Earlier she delivered the following thoughts on Eddie to his children: “Your father vants you to grow up, first let him grow up.” (Page 36)

While the comedic quips in Lost in Yonkers stood out the most, Mr. Simon added much more depth to the story than that would suggest. In spite of the tragedies and traumas affecting all of the characters’ lives, they all became better people by the end. It takes a very special playwright to fuse all these disparate elements into the same piece. It’s difficult to laugh at the playwright for that achievement.

Drama Review – The Humans by Stephen Karam

All those dreading Thanksgiving dinner with relatives should be thankful they’re not spending it with the Blake family. Stephen Karam presented readers the opportunity to sit in on this dysfunctional household’s holiday celebration in this 2016 Tony Award winner for best play: The Humans.

Due to the way this family presented themselves, several times I had to refer back to the title to clarify that I was reading about people. The Humans originated from Richard’s recollection of a sci-fi comic book he read as a child. In it the monsters told scary stories to each other. While Earthlings prefer to tell horrific accounts regarding monsters, these creatures frightened each other by telling tales about humans. After reading this play, I wouldn’t be surprised if this abnormal Blake family Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t among them.

The playwright constructed this piece brilliantly. He managed to translate normal patterns of speech and conversation to the page better than any I’d ever read. In the opening notes, Mr. Karam explained that the “/” in the text signified that the character with the next line of dialog began his/her speech at that point. This caused characters to interrupt and speak over one another quite often. With the nature of the conversations this made the discussions very believable.

I always look for non-verbal communication whenever I review a play. I liked how this playwright gave actors plenty of opportunities to exhibit their skills on the stage. Any dialog he bracketed by the symbols “[ ]” meant that the performer would express that line non-verbally. Here an example that would challenge any thespian:

Dierdre: Anything I say makes her [annoyed]… (Page 56)

This one is rather difficult as well.

Brigid: Ahhh….[will we make it through dinner?] Page 63

I’d like the opportunity to watch someone try and animate this line.

Erik: …coupla nights I’ve had this [recurring dream]…there’ll be a woman… Page 74

Mr. Karam also utilized this device to add tension to the narrative. Here are some fantastic examples.

Richard: What?

Erik: …[no, nothing important] Page 41

And

Erik: (Smiling, to Brigid) [Man you’re a piece of work.] Page 55

Here’s an exchange following Deidre’s comment about trying to maintain her diet during the holidays.

Brigid: Especially if you eat a bucket of ranch dip before dinner.

Aimee: [Don’t say stuff like that…] (Page 95)

The animosity expressed between Brigid and Aimee enhanced the subtext. Here’s another superb instance.

Aimee: (to Brigid) [Why are you being such a bitch?] (Page 99)

Towards the end of the play, Erik delivered the line that best summed up the narrative.

Erik: Hey, sorry this was…[a total fucking nightmare]…(Erik goes to embrace Deirdre.) (Page 139)

As one can guess from the examples cited, a lot of hostility flowed beneath the surface at this holiday meal. Mr. Karam’s inclusion of quirky characters struggling with both external and internal conflicts enhanced the stress. In the process of losing her job while failing to cope with her soul mate’s breaking-up with her, Aimee’s ulceritic colitis flared up at dinner. Her sister Brigid recently realized that her life’s sole professional ambition was about to elude her. Their grandmother “Momo” Blake’s progressive dementia rendered her more rambling and incoherent. Their parents, Erik and Deirdre, struggled with some underlying difficulties of their own. Brigid’s boyfriend Richard, twelve years her senior at the age of 38, provided the outsider’s view of this family.

With all this drama within the drama, The Humans would seem like a very difficult work to read. The playwright’s skillful dialog and clever insertions of humor at the right times made it readable. I found the play very interesting, entertaining and difficult to put down. Part of the latter may have been an interest in seeing the magnitude of the impending “train wreck.” To be fair to the author: he penned a very engaging and well-written work for the stage.

Mr. Karam added some excellent lyrical passages to the text. The most memorable included:

Erik: (To Brigid who is still angry with him.) Hey, hey. I don’t want to see you bent outta shape over something you can fix. / The Blakes bounce back, that’s what we do. (Page 110)

I thought it clever how Brigid cut Eric off when he reached the part about the “Blakes bouncing back.”

Richard: I got to reboot my life. It was good…

Erik: I dunno. Doing life twice seems like the only thing worse than doing it once. (Page 113)

While these quotes reflected negativity, the author did include a somewhat positive observation. It’s a line that would apply to anyone in pursuit of a dream. Here’s Erik’s sound advice to Brigid.

Erik: -you’re lucky to have a passion to pursue, if you don’t care about it enough to push through this setback you should quit and do something else… (Page 109)

As Thanksgiving approaches I’m sure some readers are dreading sharing the table with someone (s)he doesn’t like. I’d advise such people to read The Humans beforehand just to understand the situation could be much, much worse. For those interested in exceptional drama, this play is a phenomenal read. Those not anxious about the upcoming holiday may want to wait until after Thanksgiving to peruse it, though. The writing made the play so realistic it could cause sensitive readers to lose their appetites.

Drama Review – The Goat, or Who is Sylvia by Edward Albee

“Something can happen that’s outside the rules, that doesn’t relate to the way The Game is Played.” (Location 1078) That one line serves as a good synopsis of Edward Albee’s Tony Award winning play, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Imagine, if you will, Martin’s wife Stevie discovering that her husband had been unfaithful. While marital infidelity would be an appropriate topic for a tragedy, the playwright opted to take the drama much further. The object of Martin’s affections wasn’t another woman; or even another man, for that matter. Instead, Martin had fallen for…well, let me allow him to describe his feelings.

(Slow; deliberate) “And what I felt was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It was so…amazing. There she was.” (Location 1496)

…She was looking at me with those eyes of hers and…I melted, I think. I think that’s what I did: I melted. (Location 1507)

I’d never seen such an expression. It was pure…and trusting and…and innocent; so…so guileless. (Location 1507)

Mr. Albee used this play as a vehicle for exploring social taboos. I only wish he’d chosen a less taboo subject with which to do so. The above lines came from Martin’s confession to Stevie that he’d fallen in love with a (ugh) goat.

In spite of the unorthodox nature of the story, the playwright managed to work in some humor. Here’s another exchange between Martin and Stevie. In this one Martin explained his (ugh) attraction to Sylvia.

Martin: …that she and I were…(Softly; embarrassed) that she and I were going to go to bed together.

Stevie: To stall together! To hay! Not to bed. (Location 1607)

The playwright added another complexion to this situation. He made the couple’s son Billy a homosexual. At one point he told his father:

…you’ve figured out that raising a kid does not include making him into a carbon copy of you, that you’re letting me think you’re putting up with me being gay far better than you probably are. (Location 1879) 

This enhanced the drama in that Martin didn’t feel totally comfortable with his son’s sexuality. This at the same time he pursued a (ugh) physical relationship with a goat.

In the text Martin noted, “So that’s what it comes down to, eh?…what we can get away with?” (Location 2060) Mr. Albee could’ve described the play itself with these words. While a very unorthodox work, even based on what I’d expect from Edward Albee, I enjoyed reading it. As I suspect many readers would, I found the situation bizarre. The playwright still crafted believable dialog. His deft interjections of humor helped make the unsettling topic a little easier to handle. It took a very gifted playwright to accomplish all this.

Obviously, this drama won’t appeal to all readers or theatregoers. I still applaud Mr. Albee for daring audiences to open their minds and to challenge social conventions. That’s what only the very best writers achieve through their work.

 

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.