Pulitzer Prize

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.

Theatre Review – ‘night, Mother at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

Intense. Marsh Norman’s drama allowed an audience to share the final hour-and-a-half of a young woman’s life with her. Jesse (played by Stevie Neale) accepted her impending passing with quiet reservation. ‘night, Mother began with her informing her Mama (played by Phyllis Josephson) of how quickly her end approached; opting to share her last moments with her. This set-up alone would have made for a powerful dramatic performance. The cause of Jesse’s death made it intense: she’d planned on committing suicide before the evening’s end.

In my experience with theatre, I’ve found that the fewer the characters in a given performance, the more challenging the roles. With only Jesse and Mama in this case, ‘night, Mother proved it. Fortunately for theatre fans, director Tim Sagges, selected two extraordinary talents for this Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage production. I attended the opening night performance this October 7th.

Stevie Neale deserves immense credit for playing the role of Jesse. The character had failed as a wife, raised a criminal son and couldn’t keep a job due to poor health. She explained various household miscellanies to her mother such as the arrangement of silverware, the location of spare fuses and how to order groceries from the local store while discussing terminating her life. That’s quite a challenge.

Ms. Neale selected an exceptional voice for Jesse. She used a calm, almost whisper-like tone containing a trace of anger. It really conveyed Jesse’s emotional state, or lack thereof. She described suicide with the same passion as someone reciting passages from the National Electrical Code book. This inflection demonstrated how Jesse viewed life as a bus trip that she “wanted to get off.”

But Jesse’s character possessed more dimensions than the surface showed. When Mama brought up Jesse’s ex-husband, Ms. Neale stared into the distance. Her facial expressions displayed a pining for the past coupled with immense sadness for the present. It illustrated why taking care of Mama just “wasn’t enough” to inspire an interest in living.

Upon getting to know Mama through Phyllis Josephson’s exceptional interpretation, I could understand why. I credit the playwright for pairing a suicidal character with the worst possible person to talk her out of it. It made for great conflict. When Jesse asked Mama if she’d loved Daddy, a pause and a matter-of-fact “no” followed. While Jesse believed a fall from a horse in adulthood caused the epilepsy which thus fractured her marriage, Mama rebutted that she’d had “fainting spells” since childhood. (She’d never thought to take Jesse to a doctor because of them.) Then she expressed jealousy towards Jesse’s relationship with her father, a man Mama admitted she didn’t love. I wrote that this show was intense, right?

I’ve watched Ms. Josephson play comedy as Grandma in the Addams Family Musical. I also attended a performance of the dramedy Kimberly Akimbo, in which she played the title character. I really enjoyed watching her take on a role this much more complex. Mama ran the entire range of grieving emotions from denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance in less than 90 minutes. At the same time she struggled to give her troubled daughter reasons to live. In the course of doing so, she reflected on her own life. That’s a very demanding role and Ms. Josephson portrayed it brilliantly.

In terms of the play itself, I thought the playwright could have written it better. While an intense drama I thought it lacked emotive depth. Jesse had already resigned herself to her, if self-inflicted, fate. Mama experienced myriad emotional states during the show, but they passed quickly. By the time I understood her feelings she’d already moved on to another. No doubt, the show’s time frame necessitated this. It encompassed a consecutive 90 minutes of these two characters’ lives. It also lacked an intermission which required the drama to progress quickly. With that acknowledgement, both performers and the director did an exceptional job with the material.

At the show’s conclusion the audience sat silently for several moments. No one seemed exactly sure how to respond until the woman next to me cried. Due to the unsettling subject matter ‘night, Mother may not be for everyone. The phenomenal performances by Ms. Neale and Ms. Josephson certainly made it worth seeing, though. I can summarize the quality of their performances in one word: intense.

Book Review – The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk crafted the most brilliant bildungsroman I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The Caine Mutiny traced Willie Keith’s development from his pampered beginnings, his commissioning and early years as a naval officer through his participation in the most insubordinate act an armed services member can commit. To add even more drama to the later incident, it took place in the eye of a typhoon during World War II. If there’s a better war novel out there, I haven’t experienced it.

While the novel traced Mr. Keith’s maturation, three articles delineated in the Navy Regulations served as the cohesive theme holding the story together. These rules described the conditions under which a subordinate may relieve his superior of command. One has to credit Mr. Wouk for combining these disparate elements into a single story.

It would be hard to imagine more serious topics than those chosen by the author. I found it quite interesting that he began his career as a comedy writer. The entertaining way he managed to add humorous quips to the narrative made the reading much more enjoyable. Here’s Mr. Wouk’s depiction of Willie’s first meeting with the then skipper of the Caine, Captain DeVrees.

“Collared him did you? Nice work,” said a voice full of irony and authority, and the captain of the Caine came to the doorway. Willie was even more startled by him. The captain was absolutely naked. In one hand he carried a Lifebuoy soap, in the other a lighted cigarette. He had a creased old-young face, blond hair, and a flabby white body. “Welcome aboard, Keith!”

“Thank you, sir.” Willie felt an urge to salute, to bow, in some way to express reverence for supreme authority. But he remembered a regulation about not saluting a superior when he was uncovered. And he had never seen a more uncovered superior than his commanding officer.” (Location 1437)

Thomas Keefer, one of Willie’s shipmates and a budding novelist, observed: “The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.” (Location 2020)

When Willie expressed his admiration for Keefer’s writing ability, the later provided him with a tutorial on how to write an official Navy report. It read like a passage out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

“Are you kidding?” said the communications officer. “I wrote that as fast as I could type it. Probably a minute and a half. You just have to develop an ear for Navy prose, Willie. For instance, note that split infinitive in paragraph three. If you want a letter to sound official, split an infinitive. Use the word ‘subject’ very often. Repeat phrases as much as possible. See my beautiful reiteration of the phrase ‘subject man.’ Why, it’s got the hypnotic insistence of a bass note in a Bach fugue.” (Location 3398)

The author included one conversation with semi-comic effect. Here’s part of an exchange between Willie and Ed, the captain of another ship, regarding the rules governing a commanding officer’s removal.

“…Want me to tell you something? One night down in Noumea I got drunk with the exec—under the Iron Duke (Captain Sammis), this was—and he quoted Article 184 to me by heart. And he said he was just waiting for the Duke to do that one really impossible thing, and he’d nail him. But he never mentioned it to me again. You should have seen the way Sammis made him crawl, too—“

“They never do that one thing, Ed. That’s the catch.” (Location 9703)

Mr. Wouk crafted the novel in a way that stimulated my curiosity for what would happen next. He wrote the events leading up to the mutiny against Captain Queeg brilliantly. The subsequent court martial also read well. I found myself wavering on whether or not the captain deserved to be removed. In the events leading up to his displacement, I agreed with the officers’ analysis of his behavior. During the court martial I agreed with the JAG that Willie and the executive officer acted improperly. Now I’m not sure. That makes me want to re-read a book I just finished.

I found Willie’s development absolutely outstanding. His father wrote him a letter stating:

It seems to me that you’re very much like our whole country—young, naïve, spoiled and softened by abundance and good luck, but with an interior hardness that comes from your sound stock. (Location 1237)

The author did an exceptional job animating these traits in his protagonist throughout the novel. Marcel Proust once wrote, “We don’t receive wisdom. We must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us, or spare us.” Willie embodied this sentiment. I liked the ways he came to discover and struggle with his personal shortcomings on his own.

I’d classify this 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel as a masterpiece of historical fiction. Willie Keith’s development amidst the backdrop of real events made an outstanding read. At the book’s conclusion, I found myself wanting to learn about the next stages of Willie’s life. Mr. Wouk celebrated his 101st birthday in May. Would he be open to writing a sequel after all these years?

Book Review – Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

By this time I’m sure that even those who’ve never even heard of theatre are familiar with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s, Hamilton. This musical has expanded the boundaries of theatre unlike any show in recent memory. Critics have recognized it as such and their praise has been “non-stop.” In addition to the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it’s also received several Tony Awards along with a variety of Drama Desk awards. That’s just the short list of its accolades as of this writing.

“We know” Hamilton is a show that would “blow us all away” like a “hurricane.” Unfortunately, I’m “helpless” to “take a break” and see it in “the room where it happens.” I didn’t want to “wait for it” to pass me by since I may not get “my shot” to see it performed on Broadway. Fortunately, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter “satisfied” my curiosity about “what’d I miss.” They crafted a remarkable book exploring both the show’s content and its history. How could I “say no to this?”

Hamilton: The Revolution contained all of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics. As a bonus it included his personal commentary on them. His witty observations enhanced the book. When Alexander Hamilton sang the line “I may not live to see our glory,” Mr. Manuel Miranda explained, “Yes, these lyrics are foreshadowing, but they’re no more dire than most pub drinking songs.” (Page 35)

In a later scene Hamilton ordered his men to remove the bullets from their guns. He didn’t want anyone to prematurely alert the British to an attack. Mr. Manuel Miranda wrote:

This seems so counterintuitive but it’s what happened: Leave it to Hamilton to make his men remove their bullets to ensure no one would give away their sneak attack. That’s some control-freak realness. I can relate. (Page 121)

Mr. McCarter’s portions of the book described the many facets of putting together the first Hip-Hop musical. The author performed extensive research by interviewing myriad people involved with the show. In addition to the foundations of Hamilton, he included insights on casting, the choreography and costuming. I appreciated reading about all these different components of the show. I marveled at how these diverse aspects all came together into a cohesive unit.

The book contained a number of memorable quotes. One participant expressed the following trenchant take on Hamilton. When reflecting on its predominantly minority cast members he called it, “A story about America then, told by America now.” (Page 33) Mr. McCarter observed, “The past places no absolute limits on the future.” (Page 88) An artistic director gave Mr. Manuel Miranda the highest compliment imaginable for a playwright. He said, “Lin does exactly what Shakespeare does…He takes the language of the people, and heightens it by making it verse.” (Page 103)

Hamilton: The Revolution contained a host of photographs. I found them an excellent supplement to the text. Many original cast members have moved on to other projects. The pictures allowed me to feel like I was with the show from the beginning. Since I haven’t watched it performed, yet, I got a sense of how magnificent it must appear on stage.

“What comes next?” readers may wonder. Mr. Manuel Miranda’s and Mr. McCarter’s book made me even more interested in watching the musical performed. I may not be able to escape it. In a few years, community theatre groups and high school drama clubs will be able to stage Hamilton. This means that for those who’ve already seen it performed on Broadway, “You’ll be back” “one last time.”

Theatre Review – Proof at Burlington County Footlighters Second Stage

Based on data accumulated over the years, I’ve developed a hypothesis that Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage possesses a formula for excellent shows. This derivative is congruent with the mode of an outstanding theatre company. I figured the probability of them continuing to do so variable in proportion to their locus of material. Their operation has proved my theory many times, but the outcome usually defies logic. The product they delivered in the form of Proof took their reputation to another plane.

I had the opportunity to evaluate this event on its opening night June 17th. I’m pleased to write that my reflection will not be a mean one. That’s a good ‘sine.’ Director Jillian Starr-Renbjor’s translation of the text into a stage production made for a terrific outcome.

I enjoyed the plot’s complexity. There seemed no limit to the quantity of conflict. Catherine (played by Rachel Comenzo) struggled to cope with her father’s death, her abrasive sister’s badgering her to move to New York, and the professional and possibly personal interests of one of her father’s former students. All this drama may seem unequal to the boundaries of a two hour show. But there was more. At the midpoint the play centered on Catherine’s revelation of an oblique proof of unknown origin: one that could revolutionize the field of mathematics.

When I discovered that Rachel Comenzo would be playing the role of a ‘math geek’ it didn’t add up. Much to her credit, the moment the show opened, she became the character. While the large glasses, sweat suit and hair worn back fit Catherine’s appearance, Ms. Comenzo became her. I liked her utilization of quick dialog and snappy swearing. The way she’d pause and with a wry smile sarcastically reply to Claire’s (played by Betty Moseley) strained questioning showed exceptional artistic aptitude. In the scenes prior to Catherine’s father passing away she adjusted her speaking to a more deliberate pace. Emile Zola once observed that: “To be an artist requires the gift. To have the gift requires hard work.” Ms. Comenzo showed me that she took the time to really understand and immerse herself in the character.

Watching Ms. Comenzo in a role this complex was the key feature of this run. In the past I’ve watched her play Bonnie (in Bonnie and Clyde), Morticia (in The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy) and Curley’s wife (in Of Mice and Men).  I found all of those characters to be one-dimensional, but the strength of Ms. Comenzo’s performances made every one of them interesting and memorable. I wondered how she would play a strong, multi-dimensional character. Her performance proved she was equal to the task. It’s a struggle for me to find the proper superlatives to describe how well she brought Catherine to life.

DJ Hedgepath once again showed why the theatre is his prime domain. As expected, this thespian displayed his superior range as a performer. Hal’s character required him to display the traits of a nervous suitor, a studious mathematician and a person with questionable motives; at least in the other characters’ perceptions. Mr. Hedgepath convincingly depicted them all.

As they function so well together, I welcomed the opportunity to watch Ms. Comenzo and Mr. Hedgepath share the same stage again. The contrasts between their characters allowed their reciprocal skills to feed off one another. She playing the intellectual struggling with powerful inner demons, he as her father’s ambitious former student. In Proof these opposites became an ordered pair. Their enactments showed why these two masters are fast becoming icons on the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.

Becky Moseley delivered a solid performance as Claire. Her character couldn’t seem to get along with anybody except a few partying mathematicians, but I really enjoyed watching her. I liked her performance best during her first scene with Ms. Comenzo. The way Ms. Moseley established tension through her delayed delivery and short questions made the dialog reminiscent of Harold Pinter. I felt uncomfortable listening to her interrogation. That’s the kind of emotional response great performers bring about in audience members.

Bernard Dicasimirro took on the challenging role of Robert: a brilliant mathematician who deteriorated into a mentally imbalanced man. I always applaud performers who select these types of characters. In a sense one has to play two distinctly unique personalities during the same evening. Just like a well-educated intellectual Mr. Dicasimirro spoke very professionally and calmly in his lucid scenes. Then he ranted like a madman while explaining his groundbreaking proof to Catherine. I’d read the play, but I even jumped when he ordered Catherine to read it.

Some unnerving statistics bothered me about this show. The set had a smaller surface area than the mainstage at Footlighters, but it still seemed unequal to the lack of people in the audience. Aside from myself, I noticed only two other people who aren’t community theater performers in South Jersey. I read Proof before I saw it on the stage. While the prospect of going out on Friday or Saturday night to watch a play about math may not sound like a great option, it does explore a great human drama.

A dedicated cast and crew with the addition of a great director factor into all of BCF Second Stage’s presentations. Upon reflection I’ve found that in all probability a normal show for them will contain great emotional power; the origin of which will be the degree of talent from the combination of the performers. Their presentation of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize Winning play wasn’t an outlier. The frequency Footlighters’ Second Stage puts on such dramas is the difference. The volume of their quality of work gives them a unique angle. The $10 price tag made this showing an absolute value. For those needing an entertaining evening out in the Cinnaminson area this June, I’d rate seeing Proof the best solution to that problem.

 

Drama Review -The Young Man from Atlanta by Horton Foote

A menace lurks below the placid surface of Horton Foote’s brilliantly crafted drama of an aging couple coping with a son’s suicide. The menace is the unspoken secret connected with the young man from Atlanta, their former son’s roommate, and neither Houston businessman Will Kidder nor his childlike wife, Lily Dale, will name it or discuss it.

So read the blurb on the inside jacket of my edition of the play. It led me to explore this Pulitzer Prize winning drama with extraordinary expectations. How fast the story failed to meet them astonished me.

The first issue I had concerned the drama’s poor pace. The play opened with Will working as a successful businessman at Sunshine Southern Wholesale Grocery. He and his wife, Lilly Dale, recently lost their son and wanted a new start. To that end, Will was in the process of having a larger home built for them. After the dialog revealed this tiresome exposition, Will lost his job. From my reading of the exchange I thought he accepted the news very fast. The guy was cocky and planned on starting his own business, but I still couldn’t accept his reaction. After all, the son of the person who hired Will terminated him. This whole sequence seemed contrived and, dare I write it, cliché to me.

Another example of poor writing occurred when Will asked his wife, Lilly, to return all the money he’d been giving her as gifts over the years. He needed the capital to start his business and the banks wouldn’t give him a loan. During that discussion Lilly’s stepfather Pete was present. In a long, drawn-out back-and-forth, Lilly revealed that she no longer had the money.

One of the key tenets of any writing is to get to the point. This scene dragged on far too long. The fact that Lilly already told Pete what she did with the money before Will’s entry made this section even more insufferable.

Aside from extending scenes longer than he should have Mr. Foote also included unnecessary exposition. Here’s how Pete introduced his relative, Carson.

Pete: Carson brought along a picture of my sister, who was his grandmother. I wouldn’t have recognized her. She married a Mr. Stewart. She had four children, including Carson’s mother.

Lilly Dale: Oh? Sit down, Carson.

Pete: Carson says they’re all dead except his older sister Vivian and his youngest sister, Susette.

Carson: Vivian never married. Susette married and has six children. Two of them not quite right. It’s a real burden for her. (Page 54)

There’s a reference at the end of the play that may tie in with some of this information. I’m not sure, though, as I found the later dialog unclear on the subject. Beyond that, I didn’t see how the majority of this information Pete and Carson delivered had anything to do with the overall story.

Speaking of the “overall story”, now I come to the young man from Atlanta. The figure never appeared in the text. The reader learned about him through the other characters’ descriptions. In essence, a big secret about Will’s and Lilly Dale’s son came out through the discussions regarding him. I won’t give away spoilers, but while audiences in the mid-1990s may have found it slightly out of the mainstream, a modern audience would think it blasé.

Which brings me to the biggest issue I had with the play: as any writer knows the protagonist’s journey must be shaped by the choices and decisions he makes. In this case, all Will Kidder’s decisions were contingent on things beyond his control. He decided to start a business when he lost his job. He couldn’t do so because the banks wouldn’t loan him the money. He sought other sources, but neither his wife nor his family had enough to help. Then he had health issues. When the story resolved Will did end up making a choice; but he selected the only option available. This made for a very poor character arc.

I’ve read reviews where critics compared Will Kidder to Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. I disagreed. Arthur Miller showed how Willy’s personality directly influenced the choices and decisions he made. He shaped his destiny, albeit, very poorly. As I wrote in the preceding paragraph: Will reacted to events. A strong protagonist would have shaped them. This one was even weaker than the writing.

 

 

 

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.

 

Drama Review – Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies

What better topic to use for a lachrymose tale of tragedy than marital problems? Donald Margulies served up a chilling meditation on just that in his 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Dinner with Friends. This play showed how two pairs of friends coped (or struggled to) with the disintegration of one of the couple’s marriages. The atrophy of the one gave the remaining couple doubts about the state of their own union.

This play moved me. Gabe and Karen were the “perfect” couple struggling with doubts about their marriage. Following that, they discovered their friends Tom and Beth decided to divorce. It led to a deep introspection of their situation. Afterwards, then they had to listen to them explain how their lives improved without each other.

The realism in Dinner with Friends impressed me. Beth lived a bohemian life style. I thought her behavior and dialog believable for that type of person. All the dramatis personae conducted themselves like I’d imagine people in their situation. I felt Gabe’s and Karen’s shock when Beth explained that she and Tom separated. Karen’s reaction to the reason for the breakup also came across as reasonable. As did her callous behavior towards Tom. The playwright also presented the latter’s anger towards his estranged wife in a believable fashion. “Don’t underestimate rage; rage can be an amazing aphrodisiac,” Tom said. (Page 38)

In keeping with the realism, the dialog didn’t contain any great lyrical flourishes. The playwright still worked in some memorable lines.

Karen: I spent the first twenty years doing whatever the hell I could do to get away from my family and my second twenty years doing everything I could to cobble together a family of my own. I thought if I could choose my family this time, if I could make my friends my family…

Beth: Congratulations. The family you’ve chosen is as f—-d-up and fallible as the one you were born into. (Page 68)

            Here are Gabe’s thoughts on marriage in light of Beth’s and Tom’s break-up.

Gabe: (Looks at him; a beat): I guess, I mean, I thought we were in this together. You know, for life.

Tom: Isn’t that just another way of saying misery loves company? (Page 77)

Here’s an exchange between Karen and Beth. This took place after Beth mentioned she had a new boyfriend.

Karen: You didn’t want to be alone for a while? You haven’t been alone in a dozen years.

Beth: I’ve always been alone, don’t you see? I spent my marriage alone. (Page 65)

That’s a harsh observation.

I don’t normally comment on this, but I liked the book’s cover. It summed up the play’s content non-verbally. It showed a dinner plate flanked by a knife and a fork. A large crack extended from the top of the dish all the way to the bottom. I found that very clever.

Dinner with Friends reminded me of another Pulitzer Prize Winning Drama, Rabbit Hole. In David Lindsay-Abaire’s work, a husband and wife struggle to keep their marriage together following the death of their four year old son. Donald Margulies’ portrayal of marital disintegration was comparable to a death. As in Rabbit Hole, the ending left more questions than answers.

Book Review – The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

But the story of leukemia—the story of cancer—isn’t the story of doctors who struggle and survive, moving from one institution to another. It is the story of patients who struggle and survive, moving from one embankment of illness to another. Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship—qualities often ascribed to great physicians—are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them. If the history of medicine is told through the stories of doctors, it is because their contributions stand in place of the more substantive heroism of their patients. (Page 148)

In the prologue to The Emperor of all Maladies, Dr. Mukherjee wrote:

 In 2010, about six hundred thousand Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer. In the United States, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer during their lifetime. A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer. In some nations, cancer will surpass heart disease to become the most common cause of death.

The author quoted journalist Paul Brodeur who observed, “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.” (Page 267)

That statement’s accuracy resonates with me. My mother passed away from cancer. Her brother passed away from cancer at the age of 49. My paternal grandmother survived cancer twice. Myriad acquaintances of mine have battled the disease. Because of this, I felt compelled to read Dr. Mukherjee’s book.

The author is a cancer physician, researcher and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. He’s also a gifted author. I thank him for writing such an accessible work about one of the most complex medical challenges to afflict human kind. While he lost me with some of his bio-chemical explanations and descriptions of how various drugs function, I found the overall work understandable.

Instead of presenting a dry scientific tome, Dr. Mukherjee chose to present his story as a “biography” of cancer. He called this scourge “possibly the oldest disease among humans.” (Page 43) Throughout the story he described the (sometimes quirky) physicians who made breakthrough discoveries. He also detailed the innovative ways researchers sought new means to combat this “emperor of all maladies.”

The most intriguing revelation I found concerned how the Ancient Egyptians may have identified the disease. He included the physician Imhotep’s chilling description of the treatment: “There is none.” (Page 41)

The author began each chapter with quotes. As someone more grounded in the humanities than the sciences, I liked that he chose to include some from literary figures. Here’s a poem from Hilaire Belloc.

Physicians of the Utmost Fame

Were called at once; but whence they came

They answered, as they took their Fees,

“There is no Cure for this Disease.” (Page 11)

The doctor apparently had a good background in verse. He included “The Fall” from Czeslaw Milosz.

The death of a man is like the fall of a mighty nation

That had valiant armies, captains, and prophets,

And wealthy ports and ships all over the seas

But now it will not relieve any besieged city

It will not enter into an alliance. (Page 116)

In one of the sections where he discussed drugs he referenced the Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Wit by Margaret Edson. The play detailed a woman’s battle with cancer; especially, her cancer treatment and the effects of the drugs prescribed to her.

These references helped to round out the narrative. They balanced out the technical sections nicely.

While the author presented a host of concrete scientific details, he did allow his personal views to permeate the text. He made no effort to conceal his disdain for the tobacco industry. Numerous times he described smoking in the same way most others would recount heroin addiction. He included the following statement when explaining a meeting that took place at the National Institute for Health in the 1960’s.

Ashtrays with cigarette butts littered the tables. (The committee was split exactly five to five among nonsmokers and smokers—men whose addiction was so deep that it could not be shaken even when deliberating the carcinogenesis of smoke.) (Page 261)

His comments on the passage of the Federal Cigarette Labelling and Advertising Act of 1965 were much harsher. He wrote:

…it changed the FTC’s warning label (on cigarette packs) to Caution: Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health. The dire, potent language of the original label—most notably the words cancer, cause, and death—was expunged. To ensure uniformity, state laws were also enfolded into the FCLAA—in effect, ensuring that no stronger warning label could exist in any state in America. The result, as journalist Elizabeth Drew noted in the Atlantic Monthly, was “an unabashed act to protect private industry from government regulation.” Politicians were far more protective of the narrow interests of tobacco than of the broad interest in public health. Tobacco makers need not have bothered inventing protective filters, Drew wrote dryly: Congress had turned out to be “the best filter yet.” (Page 265)

Obviously, The Emperor of All Maladies does not have a happy conclusion. Towards the end of the book, the author included an anecdote about a lab sample he worked with.

The cells, technically speaking, are immortal. The woman from whose body they were once taken had been dead for thirty years. (Page 339)

Sadly, even with the vast advancements in the diagnosis and treatment of the disease, the war on cancer may last just as long.

Drama Review – Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire

The worst tragedy that any person can experience is losing a child. This 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning drama delved into the impact of such a loss on a young family. The result was a moving exploration of a couple struggling to cope with their grief and at times each other. While somber in tone, Rabbit Hole still served as an excellent read.

At first I struggled to get into the story. It began with Becca folding clothes while her sister, Izzy, prattled about her recent fisticuffs. It took several pages before the playwright made any reference to a child. He did so in a very subtle way. Here’s an exchange between Becca and Izzy. This took place after the latter announced her pregnancy.

Becca: I’m washing all these clothes to give to Goodwill. I might as well save them for you. In case you have a boy. No sense in my giving these away.

Izzy: I don’t know, Bec. They’re in baby clothes for so long, it’d be a few years before he could even fit into this stuff.

Becca: It comes up very quickly. You wouldn’t even believe it.

Izzy: Plus we don’t have a lot of room to…

Becca: That’s okay. I’ll keep them here. In the basement. You’ll be happy I saved them.

Izzy: But what if it’s a girl?

Becca: Then I’ll bring them down to Goodwill. What’s the big deal? You’re gonna thank me. A couple years worth of free clothes here. Think of the money you’re gonna save.

Izzy: It’s not about the money.

Becca: Well it should be. You need to start thinking about stuff like that, Iz. Especially if the dad’s a musician. It costs a lot to raise a child.

Izzy: It’d be weird, that’s all. If it’s a boy. To see him running around in Danny’s clothes. (Beat) I would feel weird. You would too, I think. (Beat) I’m sorry. (Pages 24 – 25)

A former screenwriting professor I know gave me some great advice. “The best way to drive exposition is through conflict.” The playwright nailed it here. Izzy kept trying to avoid the issue of Danny’s death while Becca inadvertently forced her to mention it. Later in the same passage, Izzy said “I know the timing really sucks,” in reference to her pregnancy. By contrast, the pace in this passage was exceptional.

At this point I realized that the story would focus on grief and bereavement. I liked the way that we never saw Danny. He passed eight months prior to the opening exchange. I applauded the playwright’s decision to avoid the hackneyed “hero dies after a valiant struggle” plot line. This gave Rabbit Hole that much more impact.

When the play began I assumed the drama would center on Becca’s efforts to cope. At one point when Howie suggested she return to work she replied, “No I can’t. That’s not who I am anymore. I left all that to be a mom.” (Page 46) That’s a pretty powerful line.

But Mr. Lindsay-Abaire had a twist in store. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of gender roles. Howie’s first scene introduced him using wine and Al Green music to seduce his wife. What a contrast to Becca’s! While the two battled grief in their own ways, Howie became the more emotional of the two. He spent his evenings watching a video tape of Danny and him. When Becca accidentally erased it, Howie became unhinged.

(Losing it.) It’s not just the tape! I’m not talking about the tape, Becca! It’s Taz (the dog), and the paintings, and the clothes, and it’s everything! You have to stop erasing him! You have to stop it! You HAVE TO STOP! (Page 86)

In another unique plot twist, the boy who accidentally hit Danny with his car contacted the family. Jason sent them a letter asking to meet them. Later he stopped by when the family hosted an open house. Howie threw him out. Later Becca met with the boy. That was the only scene in the play where she cried.

Rabbit Hole focused on the bereavement process and how people cope in different ways. Becca delivered the most trenchant observation on the subject. Here’s a comment she directed at Howie.

You’re not in a better place than I am, you’re just in a different place. And that sucks that we can’t be there for each other right now, but that’s just the way it is. (Page 87)

While an otherwise superb work of art, I did have one criticism of the play. I thought the playwright added some gratuitous references to pop culture. Izzy worked at Applebees. Becca worked at Sotheby’s before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Izzy had a Three Stooges shower curtain. While I understand any writer strives to make his work relatable, these examples were a bit much for my taste.

A few days ago, I watched a local community theater group perform this play. The show was very powerful and really affected me. It led me to remember times when I experienced grief and how I coped with it. I think all this led me to re-read Rabbit Hole as a form of closure. How many dramatic works can inspire people like that? While an uncomfortable subject matter, I’d still encourage people to try it. It’s a phenomenal example of brilliant writing.