‘The Rose Tattoo,’ Marisa Tomei Is Tennessee Williams’ Fiery, Sensual Serafina, in a Stellar Performance
Atmosphere, heat, the heavy scent of roses, candles, mysticism, undulating waves, torpid rhythms, steamy melodies, fantastical rows of pink flamingos, a resonant altar of the Catholic Madonna. These elements combine to form the symbolic backdrop and evocative wistful earthiness that characterize Roundabout Theatre Company’s The Rose Tattoo at American Airlines Theatre.
Tennessee Williams playful, emotionally effusive tragic-comic love story written as a nod to Williams own Sicilian lover Frank Merlo, is in its third revival on Broadway in a limited engagement until 8th December (the Catholic date of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception). Reflecting upon Marisa Tomei’s portrayal of Serafina in The Rose Tattoo, this is an ironic, humorous conclusion in keeping with the evolution of her character which Tomei embraces as she exudes verve, sensuality, fury, heartbreak and breathtaking, joyful authenticity in the part.
If any role was made for Tomei, divinity and Tennessee Williams have placed it in her lap and she has run with it broadening the character Serafina Delle Rosa with astute sensitivity and intuition. Tomei pulls out all the stops growing her character’s nuanced insight. She slips into Serafina’s sensual skin and leaps into her expanding emotional range as she morphs in the first act from grandiose and joyful boastfulness to gut-wrenching impassioned sorrow and in the second act to ferocity, an explosion of suppressed sexual desire and its release. All of these hot points she elucidates with a fluidity of movement, hands, limbs, head tosses, eye rolls which express Serafina’s wanton luxury of indulgent feeling and effervescent life.
The contradictions of Serafina’s character move toward a hyperbolic excess of extremes. When speaking of her husband Rosario and their relationship, their bed is a sanctum of religion where they express their torpid love each night. She effuses to Assunta (the excellent Carolyn Mignini) how she mysteriously felt the conception of her second child the moment it happened. A rose tattoo like the one her husband Rosario wore on his chest appeared like religious stigmata without the dripping blood. And it burned over her heart, a heavenly sign, like others she receives as she talks to the statue of the Madonna, and remains a worshipful adherent to Mother Mary, praying and receiving the anointed wisdom whenever necessary.
Rosario’s family is that of a “baron,” though Sicily is the “low” country of Italy and an area fogged over with undesirables, thieves and questionable heritages as the crossroads of Europe. We know this “baron-baroness” is an uppity exaggeration from the looks on the faces of her gossipy neighbors and particularly La Strega (translated as witch) who is scrawny, crone-like and insulting. Constance Shulman is convincing as the conveyor of Ill Malocchio-the evil eye. Her presence manifests the bad-luck wind that Assunta refers to at the top of the play and to which Serafina superstitiously attributes the wicked event that upends her life forever.
Williams’s characterization of Serafina is brilliant and complex. Director Trip Cullman and Tomei have effected her intriguing possibilities and deep yearnings beyond the stereotypical Italian barefoot and pregnant woman of virginal morals like Our Lady. It is obvious that Tomei has considered the contradictions, the restraints of Serafina’s culture and her neighbors as well as her potential to be a maverick who will break through the chains and bondages of her religion and old world folkways after her eyes are opened.
We are proud that Serafina disdains the gossiping neighbors with the exception of Assunta and perhaps her priest. Though Serafina’s world does not extend beyond her home, the environs of the beach, her daughter Rosa (Ella Rubin) and Rosario, a truck driver who transports illegal drugs under his produce, she is a fine seamstress. And in her business interactions with her neighbors and acquaintances, we note that she has money, is industrious, resourceful and a canny negotiator.
It makes sense that Rosario (whom we never see because he is a fantasy-Williams point out) treats her like a baroness filling their home with roses at various times to reassure her of her grandness. And the poetic symbol of the rose as a sign of their love and the romance of their relationship is an endearing touch, reminiscent of the rose tattoo on his chest signifying his commitment to her. At the outset of the play, a rose is in Serafina’s hair which she wears waiting for Rosario to come home. As she does, we believe she is fulfilled in their love and the happy status of their lives in a home on the shores of paradise, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.
What is not manifest and what lurks beneath becomes the revelation that all is not well, that her Rosario is not real, but is an illusion. Typical of Williams’ work are the undercurrents, the sub rosa meanings. The rose is also a symbol of martyrdom, Christ’s martyrdom. And it is this martyrdom that Serafina must endure when word comes back that Rosario has been killed, burned in a fiery crash which warrants his body be cremated. Unfortunately, the miraculous son of the burning rose on her chest that appeared and disappeared, she aborted caused by the extreme trauma of Rosario’s death.
The rose as Williams’ choice symbol is superbly complex. For Rosario’s rose tattoo also represents his amorous lust for women, one of whom is Estelle Hohengarten (Tina Benko) who asks Serafina to make a gorgeous, rose-colored silk shirt for “her man.” When Estelle steals Rosario’s picture behind Serafina’s back, we know that Rosario led a double life and we are annoyed at Estelle’s arrogance and presumption to ask his wife to make such a gift shirt. But in William’s depth of characterization for Estelle, most probably Rosario is also philandering on Estelle who, to try to keep him close, gives him expensive gifts like hand-made silk shirts.
Williams clues us in that her faith and passion for Rosario has blinded her judgment and overcome her sharp intellect and wisdom. In fact it is an idolatry. Her religion stipulates that no human being should be worshiped or sacrificed for. Serafina’s excessive personality has doomed her to tragedy, betrayal and duplicity with Rosario. Ironically, his death is her freedom, but she must suffer his and her son’s loss ,a burden almost too great to bear, even for one as strong as Serafina who does become distracted, unkempt and uninterested in life.
Because Rosario, the wild rose with thorns is not worthy of Serafina’s love, after his death there is only pity for the cuckholded Serafina and a finality to her exuberant life until the truth of who Rosario really was lifts her into a healthy reality. Tomei’s breakdown is striking and Williams creates the tension that in weeping for the “love” of her life who indeed has betrayed her, she will be wasting herself. He also affirms the huge gulf between her ability to live again and her lugubrious state which continues for three years as she mourns an illusion.
The question remains. Will she come to the end of herself? The romantic fantasy held together with the glue of her faith and the enforced, manic chastity of her old world Italian mores must be vanquished. But how? It is in the form of the charismatic and humorous Alvaro Mangiacavallo. But until then Serafina withers. Isolating herself, she implodes with regret, doubt, sorrow and dolorous grief, as well as anger at her daughter Rosa who wants to live and find her own love like her mother’s.
The mother-daughter tensions are realistically expressed as are the scenes between Tomei and Jack (Burke Swanson) Rosa’s boyfriend, which are humorous. Altogether, the second act is brighter; it is companionable comedy to the tragedy of the first act.
When she meets Alvaro, in spite of herself, she responds with her whole being to his attractiveness. As they become acquainted, she accepts his interest in her for what she may represent; a new beginning in his life. It is a new beginning that he tries to thread into her life to resurrect her sexual passions and emotions of love. Thus, he pulls out all the stops for this opportunity to win her, even having a rose tattooed upon his chest in the hope of taking Rosario’s place in her heart.
Emun Elliott is spectacular as the clownish, emotionally appealing, lovable suitor who sees Serafina’s worth and beauty and attempts to endear himself to her with the tattoo. Along with Serafina’s discovering Rosario’s betrayal, Elliott’s portrayal of Alvaro solidifies and justifies why Serafina jumps at the opportunity to be with him. He is cute. He is real. He is as emotional and simpatico as she is. He is Sicilian and above all, he is available and interested in her. It is not only his steamy body that reminds her of Rosario’s, but she is attracted to his humor, sensibility and sensitivity of feeling which mirrors hers.
After discovering Rosario’s duplicity, understanding Alvaro’s concern and care for three women dependents and his honesty in admitting he is a buffoon disarms Serafina. Alvaro’s strength and lack of ego in commenting that his father was considered the village idiot is an important revelation for her as well. Indeed, as she views who he is, she senses that his humility and humorous self-effacement is worth more than all of Rosario’s boastfulness that he was a baron which he wasn’t.
As the truth enlightens her, Tomei’s Serafina evolves and sheds the displacement and her sense of confusion and loss which was also a loss of her own imagined “secure” identity as Rosario’s “wife.” Wife, indeed! Rosario’s mendacity made her into a cuckhold and a brokenhearted fool over a man who was not real. At least Alvaro is real. The comparison between the men reinforced with Rosario’s unfaithfulness, which she can now admit to herself, prompts her to reject the religion that kept her blinded and the antiquated mores that made her a fool and kept her alone and in darkness.
Shepherded by Cullman, Elliott and Tomei create an uproarious, lively and fun interplay between these two characters who belong together, like “two peas in a pod” and have only to realize it, which, of course, Alvaro does before Serafina. Tomei’s and Elliott’s scenes together soar, strike sparks of passion and move with the speed of light. The comedy arises from spot-on authenticity. The symbolic poetry, the shattering of the urn, the ashes disappearing, the light rising on the ocean waves (I loved this background projection) shine a new day. All represent elements of hope and joy and a realistic sense of believing, grounded in truth for both protagonists.
Tomei, Elliott, Cullman and the ensemble have resurrected Williams’ The Rose Tattoo keeping the themes current and the timeless elements real. Duplicity, lies, unfaithfulness, love and the freedom to unshackle oneself from destructive folkways that lead one into darkness and away from light and love are paramount themes in this production. And they especially resonate for our time.
I can’t recommend this production enough for its memorable, indelible performances especially by Elliott and Tomei shepherded with sensitivity by Cullman. The evocativeness and beauty of the staging, design elements and music add to the thematic understanding of Williams’ work and characters. Kudos goes to the creative team: Mark Wendland (set design) Clint Ramos (costume design) Ben Stanton (lighting design) Lucy Mackinnon (projection design) Tom Watson (hair and wig design) Joe Dulude II (make-up design). Bravo to Fiz Patton for the lovely original music & sound design.
The Rose Tattoo runs with one intermission at American Airlines Theatre (42nd between 7th and 8th) until 8th December. Don’t miss it. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,’ a Stirring Adaptation of the Titular Rick Riordan Novel
It’s even in the Bible. Gods hung around with humans and children were born to them. Of course this caused issues for the children and the parent who was human, just like in real life single parent homes. But in mythology the god often went about his or her business coupling with other humans and abandoning each family he or she created. The parent who was a “god” was too busy to care for the “demi-god” who grew up feeling unwanted, confused, unloved. Thus, a whole race of weird “demi-gods” wandered among humanity and caused chaos because they had been damaged by their “god” parent and had the DNA (magic) to realize that they were “different” and could take it out on humanity when they were “pissed” off.
Some of these elements are the basis of Rick Riordan’s popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians series of books of which The Lightning Thief is the first novel and launching pad for the fun characters in the remaining Riordan books. Many of them are tied in to Greek Mythology. Riordan’s fantasy-adventure novels gave rise to two films with the titular Percy Jackson identifying as the demi-god protagonist: Percy Jackson and The Olympians, The Lightning Thief (2010) and Percy Jackson, Sea of Monsters (2013). When word got out that a theatrical production was being considered and TheaterworksUSA was involved, the rest is history.
Collaborators Joe Tracz who wrote the book and Rob Rokicki who wrote the music & lyrics, fashioned an already successful story-line to titillate and enthrall theatergoers. Their initial hour show evolved with more songs and extended book which morphed into the current production on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre, The Lightning Thief, The Percy Jackson Musical.
If you and your children are fans of Riordan’s work, you must see this Broadway show whose adaptation of Riordan’s novel parallels many of the book’s elements. The production reinforces vital themes about life, purpose, goodness and evil working to create soul strength and character, ethics, and personal accountability. Indeed, the characters learn that they may have been left with a flawed creation warped by even more flawed gods when they war with each other. However, all is well because the demi-gods, have the talent and ability to rise above the chaos, and with determination, correct and perfect the world and themselves, teaching the gods a lesson or two.
Tracz and Rokicki evolve these notions to an uplifting conclusion in The Lightning Thief, The Percy Jackson Musical which emphasizes that the principal characters and all of us must leave safety and security to face the unknown. Then, exercising their inner spiritual/magical powers, they must fearlessly overcome the real monsters that are out in the world. In the final song that the Company sings, “Bring on the Monsters,” never were truer words spoken for us today about the “monsters’ in human form roiling social currents and effecting chaos. That it is up to all of us to stand against wickedness and with hope, courage and wisdom thwart evil intentions wherever they may be, remains the mission for young and old, now and forever.
The production’s adaptation is a fine one with segments of theatrical spectacle (i.e. lighting design by David Lander and hair wig & makeup design by Dave Bova, costumes by Sydney Maresca) brilliantly effected. The show is choreographed by Patrick McCollum’s who uses his talents to generate excitement. With joy and exuberance Stephen Brackett’s direction steers the production to emphasize valuable lessons to comfort, to uplift.
Magnificent is the energy and vibrance of the ensemble who don various wigs and costumes, accents and upper or lower register “voices” to portray gods, monsters, enemies and friends. The cast appears to be a multitude, however, only seven actors take on key parts. These include Jorel Javier, Ryan Knowles, Chris McCarrell, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, James Hayden Rodriguez, Sam Leicht, Jalynn Steele, Kristin Stokes, and the understudies whom I saw on Sunday evening, 20 October, T. Shyvonne Stewart and Izzy Figueroa.
The actors’ versatility is just grand and some are particular standouts investing their will and being to apply their full-throated vocal talents. One standout is Jorrell Javier who portrays both the hell-raising god of the Half-Breed Summer Camp (god of wine- Dionysus) and the friend and protector satyr-Grover, a character who is both lovable and self-effacing. For example Grover endearingly talks to squirrels in a segment during the protagonists’ hero quest. Since squirrels are ubiquitous, Grover’s talent proves invaluable as he, Percy and Annabeth move on their journey to discover the lightning thief, find where he has hidden the lightning BOLT and save Percy’s mother Sally from Hades and the underworld.
The male and female leads played by Chris McCarrell (Percy Jackson) and Kristin Stokes (Annabeth) have powerful, sonorous voices, though sometimes their enunciation is wanting. For those adults unfamiliar with Riordan’s books and the films they spawned, this may be problematic. Indeed, the fans will breeze through the familiar humor, fun mythological modernization, and melodies sung with joy and verve by the actors. For those unfamiliar with the plot, themes and characters, clarity is crucial. To receive the greatest enjoyment and a resounding response from the audience, all of the words must be clearly sung as they were clearly spoken.
McCarrell’s Percy Jackson is wistful searcher, investigator, educational ner-do-well, sometime whiner. He’s upset that he is always expelled from school, initially for his challenging condition (he’s ADHD and Dyslexic) and secondarily for being in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” However, his mother (Jalynn Steele, u/s T. Shyvonne Stewart) encourages his furtive yearnings and he and she sing the uplifting “Strong,” keying in the theme that undergirds Percy throughout the play.
As events steer Percy to his destiny (“The Minotaur/The Weirdest Dream”) and growing self-revelation, he learns that his trouble-maker status is caused by Poseidon’s enemies who scape-goat him and create havoc precisely because he is his father Poseidon’s son. His growing realization of the evil undercurrents around him augments throughout the production until he steps into his hero mantle in “Son of Poseidon,” confronts the real “lightning thief” and does battle in the present “The Last Day of Summer.”
The quest teaches Percy, Grover and Annabeth that life is filled with trials, but attitude and how you confront obstacles makes the difference so you are not the victim but are the hero. He and the effervescent Kristin Stokes as Annabeth (Athena’s daughter) go to battle with courage, grace and strength. They elicit the power to confront whatever the gods/monsters throw their way. The production concludes with the excellent “Bring on the Monsters.” Percy, Annabeth, Grover and the Company have matured to understand their true purpose on earth: confront the powers of evil that inhabit human nature and thwart their actions.
The plot twists are intriguing, born on the wings of the music and lyrics. Especially strong are “The Oracle,” “Good Kid” and “Killer Quest!” which are sung by Percy and the Company and in the last number of the first act, (“Killer Quest”) by Percy, Annabeth, Grover and the Company. The themes of betrayal, true friendship, loyalty and the importance of the journey revealing one’s nature and identity are ripe and relate to all ages. Kudos to Tracz and Rokicki for touching upon the timeless verities of Riordan’s work as well as adding salient concepts that especially resonate today in our world of real human monsters.
The creative team deserves recognition for their designs. These coalesce around the lighthearted fantastic tenor of the production which reflects and symbolizes “the roadshow” genre in its rough sets, puppetry and effects in the realm of rustic illusory suggestion. Do not expect the wild, technical phantasmagoria of Beetlejuice. The show’s simplicity is charming and intentionally not “over the top” Broadway. It keeps one foot on the ground and melds the concepts of gods and monsters evocatively, not believably. Creatives are Lee Savage (scenic design) Sydney Maresca (costume design) David Lander (lighting design) Ryan Rumery (sound design) Achesonwalsh Studios (puppetry) Dave Bova (hair, wig & makeup design).
The Lightning Thief The Percy Jackson Musical runs with one intermission at the Longacre Theatre (220 West 48th Street). It closes on 5 January and tickets will be hard to come by as we near the holidays. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Games the multi-award winning play by Henry Naylor directed by Darren Lee Cole codifies a time in history that resonates with us today. The play exposes the noxious practices of discrimination, racism, injustice and inequity during the backdrop of the 1936 Berlin Olympics held in Germany.
At that time Hitler was in power and was establishing his Aryan race laws against Jews who were being discriminated against in every aspect of society and government, from civil service positions to university jobs and private businesses. Hitler’s destructive social policies led to untold misery and horrific genocide. The ultimate tragedy was in the loss of human talent, brilliance and genius that most probably would have added to music, culture, the arts, sports and scientific advancements for the betterment of the world.
To explore how the initial race laws could impact a particular arena, Naylor highlights the world of sports and the Third Reich in the early stages of Hitler’s rise before the conceptualization of the Final Solution (the organized conspiracy to exterminate “undesirables,” specifically Jews, Gypsies, communists, etc.). Naylor indicates how the race laws destroyed the careers of two Jewish women who were incredible athletes and deserved the glory they should have gotten if not for Hitler’s wickedness.
The play, currently running at the Soho Playhouse, explores the true story about world class athletes, one in fencing, Helene Mayer, and the other in the high jump, Gretel Bergmann. The fascinating production, through interchanging direct address narratives, familiarizes the audience with another example of how Nazism not only harmed others but nearly annihilated the once venerable German culture and society.
The minimalistic production briefly chronicles the exceptionalism of Mayer and Bergmann and reveals how they worked with assiduous effort to achieve a greatness in their chosen sports. Mayer portrayed by Lindsay Ryan and Bergmann depicted by Renita Lewis take turns sharing their stories engaging the audience as their confidantes. Each woman discusses how she endeavored to become the best. Both share salient details about their struggles to excel at a level not achieved before by women in their respective fields.
Helene Mayer, a German Jew was a phenomenon at 10-years-old. She sparred with male fencing partners after she sneaked into an all-male fencing class and convinced the teacher that she could best whomever she went up against. Encouraged by her father who was a doctor, Mayer achieved such a mastery in her skills that she won awards in competitions across Germany. Eventually, she won an Olympic gold medal at 17 at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, representing Germany. She won 18 bouts and lost only 2, bringing glory to Germany and receiving accolades from President Hindenburg.
Mayer’s story dovetails with Bergmann’s who was younger and who looked up to Mayer as her hero and inspiration. Indeed, she had a Mayer doll and was overwhelmed when she had the opportunity to meet with Mayer at her school where Mayer encouraged her to continue to excel as a track and field athlete.
During her segments of the play, Mayer discusses how she is ready to secure the Olympic gold medal a second time. However, when she receives disturbing news, her dedication and focus blows up and she doesn’t fulfill get the Gold. Sadly, by the time she worked to compete in the 1936 Olympics, she was banned from being on the German team because she was Jewish. The only team the Third Reich allowed her to be on was the equivalent Jewish team. She could not mingle with the “Christian” team, though she was well liked and spoke to everyone.
During the Bergmann exchange in the production, we discover that the same happened with Bergmann. Encouraged by her parents, as Bergmann, Lewis declaims enthusiastically that she eventually went to London and studied at London Polytechnic, where she became the British high jump champion. She also discusses how she was brought back to Germany to compete in the Olympics and save face with the Western World who received condemnation for discriminating against Jews. It is when she was preparing for the 1936 Olympics that the climax of the production occurs, Bergmann meets Ryan once more. They hadn’t seen each other since Bergmann’s high school years and Mayer’s visit.
At the last minute, in fact two weeks before the Olympics, Bergmann was prevented from competing because of her religion, though it was given out that she had physical ailments that prevented her from competing. The irony is that the Third Reich was so rabid in its annihilating policies, the Nazi party gave up the advantage of a good chance to win a medal only in order not to have to accept a Jew onto their team. For the Third Reich, it would have been more of a disgrace to have a “Jew” be recognized as a great star athlete, a fact that would have disproved the Nazi FALSE FACT that Jews were an “inferior race.”
Things fared differently for Mayer. As a token gesture to mollify the United States, German authorities allowed the half-Jewish fencer to represent Germany in Berlin primarily because she was on record as having won an Olympic medal in 1928 and was venerated nationally. She had been studying at Mills College in California and returned for the games. No other athletes of Jewish ancestry competed for Germany, except Mayer who was forced to compromise and give the Nazi salute as did the other athletes. Interestingly, in the play, Naylor has Mayer affirm that she is apolitical and cannot be branded. Above all she swears that she is a fencer not supporting or working against Hitler. However, fact checking reveals that she was used by Hitler and that is why she saluted, a compromise for her to compete in her love of fencing.
Games is largely expositional with character actions of fencing moves and graceful running moves threaded in by the very fit actors. It may also be viewed as two largely solo performances for there is little interaction between Mayer and Bergmann which is why their meet up in Bergmann’s high school and at the Olympics preparation was dynamic. Ryan and Lewis do a fine job in relaying the angst that Mayer and Bergmann went through in their emotional trials to shore up their determination against the Third Reich and in their struggle to compete and be the best.
The themes are exceptional. And Naylor rings out a siren call for us today in regard to holding on to the following tenets so as not to fall into the abyss that Germany fell into under Hitler’s Third Reich. We must strongly affirm our democratic values by upholding a free press, and upholding what makes our government strong- checks and balances. This is especially so against a current failing White House executive that smells of fascist-type dictatorship and one-man rule of the nightmare that led to Germany’s downfall, and can lead to the dissolution of our nation if allowed to go unchecked. Finally, Naylor decries that ultimately the discrimination meant to hurt the group discriminated against, ultimately destroys the discriminators.
Kudos goes to the actors, director and writer for capturing history for us and translating it into a vital remembrance that resonates for us today. Kudos also goes to the creative team of Jared Kirby (fight choreographer) Carter Ford (lighting design) Hayley Procacci (sound design) that helped bring Mayer’s and Bergmann’s stories into the present.
Games is a must-see if you enjoy learning about incredible world class athletes largely unknown today, but who should be recognized for their pluck, drive and accomplishments. Games runs at the Soho Playhouse (15 Van Dam Street) with no intermission. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Steppenwolf’s production of Linda Vista by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award® winner Tracy Letts is a wild ride through aging masculinity receding in a “heady” pattern like one found in male baldness. Once it begins, the decline is precipitous and unwieldy if not ragingly unattractive. Letts takes the “older” concept for a separated, licentious boy-man and runs with it to its hysterical, one-liners climax of symphonic madness. Then he concludes with a searingly poignant, light-shining breakthrough of hope for the protagonist who at the last shot becomes appealing and sensitively human.
Letts’ Linda Vista, with well time and paced direction by Dexter Bullard sports exceptionally crisp, crackling dialogue. Letts’ characters are mundane and real. However, Letts engages us by giving them sardonic, self-effacing, humorous lines and ripping authenticity. The protagonist, the soon-to-be-divorced philanderer Wheeler (Ian Barford builds warmth and humanity with evolving emotional grist) is just this side of the sad-sack in the titular film Marty (1955) about a guy who is single, alone and has high expectations of hooking up with a beauteous gal. What diverts Wheeler from the more empathetic Marty-type is his arrogance and his self-depricating humor which reveals he doesn’t think he isn’t “all that.” In fact he believes himself brilliant and quite the “ladies man,” though he avers the opposite.
Wheeler’s humor is a double-edged sword. It prevents him from blowing his brains out during the holidays or becoming a psychotic and isolated Incel. On the other hand it also prevents him from self-revelation and self-intimacy. He does not reflect on the source of his inner devastation and self-loathing which leads him to repeat destructive patterns and crash and burn up relationships.
Letts’s characterization of this self-enfeebled boy-man who refuses to grow up pings of all the isms (ageism, sexism, chauvinism, etc.) which Wheeler buys into surreptitiously though he would be loathe to admit it up front. As a Caucasian male from a middle class background adhering to his demographic mores, he is manipulative and macho; empathizing with women is not “his thing.” Understanding is only to be exhibited to get somewhere with a woman. It never goes beyond skin deep!
Letts clues us into Wheeler’s basic flaws and male-privileged machismo attitudes at the top of the play as he comes on to his co-worker Anita (the excellent Caroline Neff). After she rebuffs him by stating she is trying to get herself together and can’t be involved with a “mess,” he quips manipulatively, “Thanks for saying ‘mess’ instead of ‘hot mess,’ which is a phrase I can’t stand.” Then Wheeler further adds, after thanking her for her honesty, “And he was humiliated.” Regardless of how forward and inappropriate his “come on” to a co-worker is, his humor endears and propels him into a seeming humanity. This is a blind as Letts adroitly underscores throughout the play.
Wheeler’s and Anita’s boss, Michael (the fine Troy West) is a foil to whom we compare Wheeler. Indeed, there are men who are so much worse than Wheeler. An unattractive and uber gross lecher, Michael ogles Anita’s breasts and makes demeaning, scurrilous comments about having sex with her. Thus, Wheeler’s light interaction and lunch invite shows him to be the proper angel with Anita. On the other hand Wheeler doesn’t chide or reprimand Michael for his salacious, untoward comments and indeed, is his sounding board and encourager behind Anita’s back. He has to learn better. In these scenes the LOL quips are proportionate to the EWW of West’s soul crippled Michael. Letts’ dialogue is masterful.
Even though Wheeler tosses out sardonic replies that Michael accepts as good-natured ribbing put-downs, he doesn’t bother to call Michael out for his snide and self-damaging ridiculousness. Wheeler’s silence is agreement. It indicates that what Michael expresses, Wheeler thinks. Objectifying women doesn’t make for healthy male-female relationships. Indeed, it reflects an uncontrolled sickness of the soul. Boys will be boys turns into sick men will become sicker men. By the end of Linda Vista, Letts clarifies this theme roundly.
It is this graceful attempt at “being real” to avoid being honest and sincere that entrances Jules, a date/friend that Wheeler’s friends, couple Paul (Jim True-Frost) and Margaret (Sally Murphy) set him up with. Initially, Wheeler and Jules (the superb Cora Vander Broek) get along swimmingly and, naturally, after her own “hot mess” breakup, Jules falls hard for Wheeler and is intimate with him almost immediately. Their sex scene is hysterical (Vander Broek in particular) and surprisingly on point as they both try to complete their satisfaction. It is also revealing. Wheeler apparently as a fifty-something doesn’t need Viagra. But Jules in her thirties (a peak age for women’s sexuality) “needs something” because of her emotional issues.
The twist is humorous and we begin to understand that underneath Wheeler’s “unrestrained libido” which brought him to betray his wife during an affair is a lurking fear. He needs to go deep but remains shallow and sex is an easy diversion. On the other hand Jules is authentic as she attempts her own “thing.” Clearly, they need to talk, but they don’t.
Letts’ Wheeler progresses toward some moment of epiphany by way of an episodic journey through women which he underestimates and relates to only as those he bounces across his intelligence and couples with sexually. He does not seem to perceive women as an opportunity, a ready and understanding help-meet with whom to learn and grow. Though the possibility for this occurs with Jules who encourages his photographic artistry, he eschews her attempt to go for the complicated. Conveniently, around the time that his relationship with Jules is about to take a turn into the profound, he throws her over for a twenty-something whose boyfriend dumped her and who initially needs a place to stay.
The scene where Wheeler breaks up with Jules is a cut-out of the “ending a relationship” break up scenes: the male blames himself for not being good enough for the female. This in itself is an ironic send up of the lies that human beings groove themselves into without thought or introspection. Naturally, the return cut-out appears. Jules confronts Wheeler with her suspicion that there is “another woman.” We understand that Wheeler most probably has repeated this scenario again and again before his marriage and during it. And perhaps Jules has repeated such a scene during her previous break-up. For the male, there is never another woman! However, with Wheeler (the irony of his name becomes more pronounced as Letts propels his character driven by his own blindnesses as a typical wheeler dealer in his relationships) as with other men, of course there is that other woman!
The “other woman” and unfaithfulness are the macho lines that men roll down. They must be unfaithful and encourage each other to do so. This is their ancient more, birthright, legacy, folkway; they can’t “leave home without it.” Then, what would “being male” turn into? The unthinkable, the impossible. Letts’ characterization of Wheeler slams all the tropes and to the seeing audience member, the sardonic quips that Wheeler employs schmooze him past any redemptive efforts to do the work to self-correct.
His friend Paul senses Wheeler’s avoidance and though Wheeler affirms at the top of the play he shouldn’t get involved with any woman as his divorce is being settled and he has been cut up about it, Paul ignores Wheeler. He understands his friend’s “needs” and more importantly, understands his machismo is at stake. What??? Is Wheeler going to join an Ashram and meditate to heal himself? Heaven forbid. He’ll move into the next relationship as unwhole, unhealthy and flawed as he is to once more be bowed and bloodied afterward. Perhaps Paul isn’t Wheeler’s true friend after all. Perhaps he too, like Wheeler, is blind.
Obsessed with Minnie who is pregnant and lives with him, Wheeler throws himself into her youth and off-beat, exotic, defensive curtness. Also, with hysterical “cool cat” aplomb, he gets a tattoo, wears leather and chains and limps a lot because of the “amazing” sex (too funny). Paul, without encouraging or dissuading him has massaged him with the middle age, male menopausal meme to “enjoy” your life, “you only live once,” yada yada, which is precisely what Wheeler shouldn’t embrace. His life is within and why he is placing himself in situations which will result in further self-recrimination and self-loathing makes little sense. But Letts has chosen this as Wheeler’s path, for he is the American white “everyman.” God help him!
What Wheeler seeks is not in Minnie who is the apotheosis of a “hot mess.” Nevertheless, Wheeler becomes the convenient lump of clay she molds with sex and no strings attached. What is attached becomes heightened obfuscation, confusion and depression. Minnie is the perfect object, for with her Wheeler will batter his soul to oblivion which Minnie helps him do in a particularly poignant scene. On his knees Wheeler worships his idol like an oblivious and scorned mendicant.
Ian Barford pulls out all stops emotionally in the climactic scenes with Jules and Minnie who are equally superb. Indeed, after Jules delivers a spurning I am “strong” speech to Wheeler, women in the audience applauded and cheered. That scene in particular resonated as the actors hit the emotional notes beautifully. During these scenes for the first time, we understand Wheeler’s desperation. He is not seeking forgiveness from Jules or the need to be with Minnie or any woman. In his pleadings, Wheeler is looking for the last vestiges of escape and distraction from himself. But both women close their doors. Wheeler will have to confront his aloneness and ask the hard questions without his wall of humor to hide behind. Will he be able to do the work? It’s a completely different cycle for him.
Letts has crafted a brilliant, hysterical and ironic expose of the male-female dynamic and social ethos engineered by our culture. The play hot buttons the seminal issues of the gender divide. Fear guides talented men and women toward using sex or gender as a distraction away from their core understanding of themselves. It is the key way human beings use humans as shiny objects to displace the looming inner abyss of misery and sadness. But eventually the morass of emotions rears its horrific head if individuals do not heed the storm warnings.
With memorable humor (the one liners are so incredibly, rhythmically honed to needle points that fly to their mark) nuanced characterizations and a refined episodic arc of development, the audience remains clear-eyed and engaged to note the varied themes. Letts’ good will evolves and reminds us to what is the salvation for many souls: employing the artist within each of us. Affirming that vital theme as true, I wholly applaud Linda Vista, the director-Dexter Bullard, and the moment-to-moment skills of the ensemble who have rendered this comedic, thought-provoking play into a meaningful evening of delight.
Kudos to Todd Rosenthal for his utilitarian scenic design, Laura Bauer for her costume design, Marcus Doshi for lighting design and Richard Woodbury for sound design (the irony of the jet fly-over was pointed and humorous). Linda Vista runs with one intermission at the Helen Hayes Theater on 44th Street between 7th and 8th until 10th November unless it is extended. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘Slave Play’ by Jeremy O. Harris, An Explosive, Archetypal Look at Power, Sadomasochism and Oppression Through the Mythic Lens of “Black” and “White”
Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris is a mind-bending, brain-slamming earthquake which will strike your soul and disturb you emotionally. Despite your desire to remain unaffected, you will react. Good live productions stir us. The finest plays rock us off our complacency and shatter our intellectual stasis. Slave Play, directed by Robert O’Hara, currently at the Golden Theatre, does that and more. Memorable and profound, it is the epitome of its sardonic genre. And in its ancient modernism, it rises to a level that melds tragedy and comedy.
The searing truths that run through Harris’ themes confound to a new clarity, especially if you see yourself as color blind and gender blind. Harris gouges out our assumptions and parades them in front of our unwillingness to perceive our hidden feelings about race, sex and power, teasing us in the process. By gaming his audience, Harris is all about stopping the games and taking off the masks. And he achieves this through the gyrations of his characters, three mixed-race couples who have sought therapy for their anhedonism (inability to feel pleasure-a symptom of depression and other ailments) with their partners.
The three couples sign up for “Antebelleum Sexual Performance Therapy” in order to expurgate their conflicts concerning race and sex that are ancient unconscious impulses or lesions borne from centuries of oppression in America from before the Civil War. It is an oppression that is in “black” and “white” unconsciousness that transcends skin color because the current society has historical remnants of the degradation of the “peculiar institution” which deformed the psyches of both masters and their slaves, the oppressors and the oppressed. Each couple suffers from these hidden twisted notions that they have ingested from living in American society. It has impacted them and they want a release from their suffering which manifests as alienation from their long-term partners.
This is a spoiler alert!
Only, you don’t know that at first. Indeed, initially as the play opens, we believe we are watching a scene from the antebellum South involving the abuses of the master slave relationships via sexual sadomasochism. With these scenes highlighting the sexual “play” of the marriage partners, Harris hits us between the eyes and in the core of our presumptions in the hope of laying bare the psycho-sexual racial myths that lurk in our souls.
Thus, everpresent in the scenic design by Clint Ramos is the plantation mentality: the desire to oppress and degrade employing the vehicles of sex. Using mirrors Ramos reflects the white southern archetype of the white antebellum plantation of Master MacGregor’s mansion that encircles the proscenium. Throughout most of the production, the projection of the white plantation remains in the background, symbolizing that we may think we have been released from our history, but it resides just below the surface of consciousness in our relationships and especially in our relationships with members of another race concerning issues of true intimacy and honesty.
It is in this plantation setting that the characters dig in to expose their sadomasochistic impulses from a racist past that they have unconsciously internalized and must expiate to heal their marriage relationships. Harris humorously twits the audience’s assumptions about black sexual prowess and sensuality in the opening scene with each mixed race couple as they play out their fantasies to free themselves of the bondages that hamper reaching a satisfying closeness with their partners.
Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) portray the gay couple who cannot please each other. They engage in the fantasy of master/slave verbal abuse donning fictional characters, Dustin as an indentured servant and Gary as a slave who has been put in charge of him. Through the play acting, Gary reaches fulfillment but in his response to this, he upsets Dustin. There is only a partial breakthrough, tenuous at best. They have not exorcised the notions that harm them.
Phillip (Sullivan Jones) and Alana (Annie McNamara) portray a married couple who cannot achieve a hot intimacy until they enact their antebellum sex play. In their fantasy Alana is Master MacGregor’s wife and Phillip is her house slave who does what she wants. What pleases her is to take over the masculine role while he takes on the feminine role during a sexual encounter, something which makes her freer for intimacy with her partner. However, they too have issues because of Phillip’s race identity problems which he is loathe to admit and which to him are invisible.
The couple Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) and Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan do not progress on this fourth day of the sexual fantastic. Jim finds the therapy ridiculous and demeaning. Ironically, it is Kaneisha who has engineered the roles and takes the lead in their improvisation. She portrays the slave and Jim (who has a British colonial accent-another irony) is the overseer who commands her unjustly, then sexually uses her as she uses him. But Jim finds her fantasy an impossibility and will not subject himself to it. Is this not a case of subliminal control and domination over his wife Kaneisha?
With each of the couples’ fantasies, there are strong elements of sadomasochism which are supposedly exorcised in the service of removing blocking psychic layers that impede the couples’ pleasure with each other. Unfortunately, Jim has stopped the process for all the couples. A condition of the therapy they have all agreed to is that if one cannot continue, all must not continue. When the couples meet to discuss and analyze what they felt during their fantastic sexual exploits exposing their sub rosa “plantation” mentality, the conflict is on. And Harris’s characterizations continue on a profound and humorous track as problems arise. Each couple ends up confronting their partner with results that are both humorous and poignant.
At this juncture social scientists and therapy guides Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) and Tea (Chalia La Tour) attempt to analyze and reaffirm their subjects’ positive changes as a result of the antebellum sexual play therapy. That the researchers do this in a controlled, manipulative way is an irony considering that all seek freedom from their internalized racial oppressions (the predator/prey elements of human behavior). Harris sardonically reveals these individuals, including the scientists, may be duping themselves into believing they’re getting closer to a “clear,” when what they seek cannot be achieved in a week-long process, regardless of how extreme the interventions. Perhaps, what has been internalized must be overthrown with individual introspection on the part of both partners after a long period of time. There is no quick fix except sustained love, growth, patience, understanding and the will to be close which eventually, through loving practice, will manifest. Maybe.
The “liberal” posture which infects the “white” characters who are coupled up with their “darker” equally infected counterparts Harris explodes by the play’s end, as he disintegrates the notion that racism’s complexities may be dealt with through extreme interventions and quickie therapies. Especially for couple Kaneisha and Jim there has been a break through in their relationship at great cost to Jim who upon facing himself, dislikes what he perceives himself to be. Whether they continue together after this turning point doesn’t matter. Each have understood a soul revelation and will never be the same again.
Harris’ Slave Play instructs us about our perceptions, our attitudes and our willingness to go to that place that is uncomfortable to shed the pretense and stop pandering to faux racial equanimity and justice. That is why the curtain mirror that reflects the audience’s faces effected by Clint Ramos’s superb scenic design is a clever touch in keeping with Harris’ themes. The more visible reflections are for the audience members who are down front in the expensive seats.
Shouldn’t we examine our own proclivities and assumptions about sex, race and power dynamics? Or should we just ignore that there is a confluence of currents roiling in the subterranean waters of our souls about race? How do we overthrow our past and live freely without internalized cultural oppressions: misogyny, paternalism, institutional racism, body objectification, appearance fascism, sexism, chauvinism, reverse racism and impulses of white supremacy which move along a continuum from faint to furious? All of these oppressions impact our intimacy with ourselves and others, whether we are in mixed race relationships or not. Harris suggest we investigate these tantalizing questions which are not for the faint of heart.
As Americans steeped in a social history of racial power dynamics that continue today, though many are loathe to admit it, one cannot view this play as a light observer. To have the themes resonate, one should follow the characters to the most profound levels and then consider the myths, the conceptualizations about being black, white and gradations of both culturally. One must see with new eyes what has not been seen before at this crucial time when leaders speak to and embrace racist hate groups (KKK, Neo Nazis, etc.) curry favor with the likes of David Duke and Richard Spencer, and give political advisors like Steven Miller great power and moment over US Immigration policy with the precise intent to discriminate, promote fear and abuse for political purposes.
Harris intends to shock us into a dialogue to confront our own assumptions on whatever level we can, so we might grow as Americans who recognize their rich yet horrific social, political and cultural history. As Harris’ characters recognize they are stymied and self-harmed by their own misconceptions, depressions and failures to deal with the historical, ancestral folkways and noxious human behaviors they’ve internalized, at least they attempt to overthrow them. Shouldn’t we, Harris suggests? But are we up for this? We should be! Look at the gun shootings at synagogues and black churches.
Until there are conversations about such controversial topics as Slave Play raises, the country’s divisiveness may be exploited by pernicious leaders and malevolent foreign intelligence services who foment racial hatreds to satisfy their own personal agendas. Our culture’s current divides are toxic. To mitigate them requires a complexity of understanding and introspection on a personal level. Harris indicates dealing with this on an interracial, mixed couple level may be the way to get there if there is love, patience, understanding and will. The issues are hyper complex and are not adequately answered by quick fixes and exotic hyperbolic interventions which themselves represent the internalized predator/prey, oppressor/oppressed remnants of racism.
The ensemble is wonderful and acts seamlessly together with a comfortability at behaviors which appear impossibly raw. The therapy session is particularly acute, funny, authentic and smashing. All the actors are standouts as is required with such an amazing play. Kudos to the director who shepherded them. Each couple ends up confronting their partner with results that are both humorous and poignant.
The design team also shines: Dede Ayite (costume design) Jiyoun Chang (lighting design) Lindsay Jones (sound design & original music) Cookie Jordan (hair & wig design). Conceived at New York Theatre Workshop where it ran in from November 2018 to January 2019, Slave Play has come to Broadway where it is provoking consternation, confusion and revelation. It runs with no intermission until 19 January. There are too many reasons why you should see this play if you are an American, and especially if you have a bit of residual racism within and are adult enough to laugh at yourself. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Sunday by Jack Thorne, directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans is a striking look at youth in its misery and glory. Thorne, best known for his success with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, doesn’t take the easy road in this play which melds narrative, action and dance sequences to reflect all that we need to know to understand Thorne’s characters and the events that happen one Sunday evening to impact their lives. The dance sequences representative of the energy and vitality of the characters provide a much needed contrast throughout thanks to Lee Sunday Evans (Dance Nation-Obie, Lortel awards) who also directed.
The active narrative by Alice (Ruby Frankel) summarizes a catch up history of the characters in the opening scene and particularly focuses on protagonist Marie (Sadie Scott shines in the second half of the play) an outlier and self-conscious, introvert. Alice comments on choice tidbits during the extended evening of drinking, talking books and sniping sub rosa insults, prefacing her commentary to shore up the audience’s attention about a character’s particular “defining moment.” She concludes her narrative with an epilogue reviewing how each character “turned out” decades later as a fascinating exclamation point.
As we reflect on their interactions in present time, we have a superficial glimpse into how they may have evolved to their final result in the future. But this is in retrospect; hindsight is an exact science. We learn what they “have become” at the play’s conclusion.
The only character who has substance so we may empathize with her is Marie. But between the past and the future which Alice relates is the shadow of present time, a Sunday evening party among “friends.” As we watch the “major” event unfold, Thorne relates an important theme of the play. Human beings rarely live in the present moment to understand how that moment has a particularity all its own. Nor do they understand how it leads to the next and next in the series of the rest of the moments of their lives. Only when there is acute pain and a shattering soul earthquake do they turn on an axis to remember the jump off point into another development in their life’s journey.
On this particular Sunday evening, Marie experiences an event and responds to create a sea change in her life which she propels in one direction, a return to home for solace and comfort. Thorne shows us the how and why of it. Meanwhile, the other characters, especially Bill are the backdrop against which Marie batters herself into an awakening to change the direction of her life.
Evans has staged Alice above the fray to comment on the action and characters as she sits with a lone spotlight in the dark on piles of books, then comes down to join the others for the party. The books are a quasi dividing wall in Marie’s and Jill’s apartment n New York City where they live and work and have their book sessions. Perhaps the book wall is an intellectual symbol to keep others out. It is an intriguing set piece. On this evening right before they gather, Bill (the excellent, Maurice Jones whose vibrance carries the second part of the play) the neighbor stops by and tells Marie he can’t join her for the party since he works the next day. He also asks Marie if she can keep the music down.
From the time the others join in and have their discussions about the book of the evening and more, we learn salient pieces of information about each of them. The conversation is not earth shattering, the wisdom is not in abundance and the self-indulgence is obvious. Jill and Milo are an item and express their affection. Marie doesn’t appear comfortable. As she recently lost her job because she doesn’t “fit in,” it seems that she now carries this mantle into the party. Though her strong friendship with Jill (Juliana Canfield) is a boon, Milo (Zane Pais) appears to be jealous and resentful, especially toward the end of the evening as he insults Marie. Keith (Christian Strange) rounds out the group of drinkers adding his opinions.
The most pleasant session of the first segment of the production is the dance sequence. A few times the group break into a dance to express their inner emotions, yearning to escape from their lives of boredom and sameness. The actors have convinced us outright of the stasis and purposelessness of their lives. Thus, the dances are a breath of fresh air. Indeed, more could be added to break up the monotony of talking heads who slide past each other without really looking for the uniqueness or resonance of each other’s humanity.
As the evening comes to a close and the others leave, Marie falls apart and weeps for her miserable self. Her self-recriminations spiral her into an emotional refuse pile of self-loathing. For solace she calls Jill to come back and spend the night with her away from Milo. When the knock comes at the door, we are relieved to see it is the interesting Bill who makes his way into her apartment stating he couldn’t sleep.
The scene between them evolves with humor (Maurice Jones’ timing is spot-on). And there is a sensual tension that holds promise stoked by Marie who is desperate to make human contact so that she won’t feel so alone. Ironically, it is she who is the one who pushes the sex on Bill. And it is he who avers and attempts to slow the situation down to get to know her better. A writer, he eventually shares his novel’s plot. Indeed, he is one with whom she could, if she is ready, establish a lasting, sensitive relationship with. Thorne gives us this clue when Bill responds to her question what is it that he likes about her. Bill’s answers are poetic, profound, lovely. However, Marie in loss and confusion pushes the sex, demeaning Bill’s ethos and being. Clearly, her devastation and emptiness cannot recognize who Bill is and the soul clarity he can offer her.
The ending and the epilogue follow fast and we are disappointed. We understand that the human factor takes over. Marie fails to seize the opportunity for love that stands in front of her. Allowing the morass of self-loathing to overwhelm her, she chooses a path of retreat. In the epilogue that April matter-of-factly delivers, we discover how she lives the rest of her life from then on, materially. Whether her soul spark resurrects, April does not delineate. The sense of loss of human creativity and opportunity for something marvelous in the lives of these characters, regardless of their bank accounts, overwhelms.
Thorne’s play is about so much more than youth grappling with identity in a chaotic world. It is about the soul and the spirit missing the tremendous chances offered which are not taken up or recognized. Fear and self-restriction in the protagonist Marie as everywoman looms in everyone’s lives. To break beyond self-loathing, purposelessness, misery and disappointment takes courage and persistence. It is easy to return to a place of comfort which neither challenges nor stimulates us to be different. Thorne’s themes resonate not only for this age group, but for every stage every age group. Boredom is not an option, nor is self-loathing as long as there is life. As Thorne suggests, we define the moments in our lives when we control the narrative. It is when we allow others to define who and what we are that we become lost.
The play is slow moving in the beginning to exact Thorne’s themes and for the dance scenes to represent the great contrast in the inner souls of the characters who find dance their purpose and form of expression. Also, the contrast between the younger characters’ callowness and Bill’s wisdom, likeability, sensitivity and grace (so beautifully rendered by Maurie Jones) pops because the ensemble is by nature invisible emotionally with the exception of Marie. The scene between Jones’ Bill and Scott’s Marie is smashing and worth a look see for the acting, writing and direction.
Sunday features scenic design by Brett J. Banakis, costume design by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, lighting design by Masha Tsimring, sound design by Lee Kinney, original compositions by Daniel Kluger
Sunday runs with no intermission at Atlantic Theatre Company (West 20th Street between 8th and 9th) until 13th October. See it before it closes. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
What do you do when 7 few years after you’ve graduated from college, you are adrift, emotionally miserable and/or in physical pain? What if cocaine, alcohol, social media obsessions, abstinence from sex, indulgence in sex, and your Catholicism isn’t helping you find your way? Do you find something else to believe in to help you escape from the labyrinth of conundrums and foreboding demon thoughts plaguing your life?
Will Arbery in Heroes of the Fourth Turning ably directed by Danya Taymor discloses the inner world of the right wing religious. In his entertaining and profound examination of conservative-minded friends-alumni from a small, Catholic college who gather for a party, we get to see an interesting portrait of conservative “types,” who are akin to liberals in dishing the rhetoric. To his credit Arbery gives grist to the argument that beyond the cant are the issues that pertain to every American. Whether liberal or conservative, all have the need to belong, to care and love, and to make a way where there is no apparent way to traverse the noise and cacophony, creating the social, political divide currently in our nation.
How each of the friends attempts to survive “out there” in the cruel, “evil” world fascinates. During the evening mini reunion on the occasion of celebrating Emily’s mom’s accepting the presidency of their alma mater, Emily (Julia McDermott) Kevin (John Zdrojeski) Justin (Jeb Kreager) and Teresa (Zoë Winters) explain who they’ve become or not become in the seven years since they’ve graduated. Teresa, a rebel during her college years, has become more right-wing conservative than ever, embracing Steve Bannon, Breitbart and Trump with gusto. The others have “laid low” in retreat in Wyoming and Oklahoma holding jobs they either despise or “put up with” until they get something better.
Zoë Winters portrays Teresa, the feisty, determined, “assured,” conspiracy-theorist supporter with annoying certainty and hyper- vitality as she explains the next phase of American history to the others. She does this by summarizing a book which posits the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory. Emily, Teresa and Kevin fit into the millennial segment which lends its title to the play: the fourth turning/hero cycle. As she insists that her friends are the hero archetypes laid out in Generations: The History of America’s Future: 1584-2069, she suggests they must embrace their inner/outer hero and get ready for the coming Civil War.
For different reasons Emily and Kevin find Teresa’s explanation of the “Fourth Turning” conceptualization doubtful for their lives. Kevin’s self-loathing and miserable weaknesses belie heroism. He is too full of self-torture and denigration to get out of himself to help another or take a stand for a conservative polemic to fight the liberal enemy in a Civil War. Emily is crippled by the pain of her disease. We discover later in the play that she has questions about the conservatism she once embraced. The Civil War polemic only seems possible for Justin (Jeb Kreager) who was in the military. Though Justin is not the “Hero” archetype, but is a “Nomad,” he later in the evening expresses that he thinks the conspiracy mantra “there will be a Civil War” leveled by alternative right websites will happen.
Arbery has targeted their conversations with credibility and accuracy and the actors are authentic in their nuanced portrayals. As Kevin, John Zdrojeski becomes more drunk, humorous and emotionally outrageous as the night progresses. His behavior shocks for a supposed Catholic until we understand Kevin doubts his religion’s tenets, especially abstinence before marriage. To a great extent he has been crippled emotionally by this doubt, double-mindedness and abject boredom he experiences with his job in Oklahoma and addiction to Social Media. Zdrojeski projects Kevin’s confusion and self-loathing victimization with pathos and humor. But we can’t quite feel sorry for him because he is responsible for his morass and appears to enjoy reveling in it to his friends, which is a typical M.O. as Teresa suggests.
As the friends wait for the arrival of Gina (Michele Pawk) Emily’s mom’s to congratulate her becoming president of their old alma mater, Catholic Transfiguration College of Wyoming, they drink and get drunk. While they catch up with each other, they reaffirm their friendships from the past and discuss and reflect what brought them to Catholic Transfiguration College to begin with. We note their conservative, religious views about life, family, politics and identify their confusion, sense of impending doom and lack of hope for the future. This is an irony for Catholics whose hope should reside with the birth of Christ and the resurrection. Clearly, they are not exercising the spiritual component of their faith, alluded to in Gina’s speech and in Kevin’s quoting of Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much With Us.” They’ve allowed the material and carnal to overtake the spiritual dimension and thus are depressed and filled with doubt.
In representing the conservatives views of these individuals, the playwright culls talking points from right-wing media and blogs which Teresa references to Gina when Gina finally arrives. The fact that right-wing conservatism construes violent fighters as heroes is a conflated, limited view. Indeed, to see oneself as a hero and embrace that role is not even an act which true heroes (i.e. firemen, doctors in war zones) saving lives perceive for themselves. It is rhetoric. And Teresa, to empower herself to her old friends, speaks it as polemic. Her discussion is not really appropriate to inspire comfortable light conversation at a party. Indeed, her talk is done to solidify herself in the firmament of fantastical belief and remove any oblivion of her own doubts about her life. She and Justin who was in the military particularly range against liberals, the LBGTQ community, Black Lives Matter, etc.
Interestingly, Gina blows up Teresa’s cant when she finally arrives to receive the friends’ congratulations. However, they are not quite ready for Gina’s rhetorical response which is a convolution of conservative and liberal ideas that loop in on themselves again and again and defy political labeling. But Gina separates out the illogic of each of their positions. She disavows Justin’s need for guns on campus and decries the conspiracy of the upcoming “Civil War.” She implies that Bannon and his like-minded are hacks, and disavows Trump to the shock of Teresa. She pronounces toward the end of the evening that she is disappointed in the education they have received at their school, indeed, believing the college has failed them.
The night of celebration becomes a night of upheaval for Emily, Justin and Kevin and even the staunchly “certain” Teresa who will in the next decade most probably change her views a number of times to suit her determination that she has a handle on the great narrative of “reality.” But in truth as we watch these friends founder through the morass of sublimely complex political, social and cultural convergences they discuss and refer to, it becomes obvious that they have been dislocated from their comfortable conservatism that categorically defined the world for them when they began college.
The irony is that when Gina comes and joins their conversation and smacks down each of their beliefs, especially Teresa’s, we settle back watching the imbroglio that Arbery has wrought. Indeed, we wonder at Gina’s convoluted logic and justifications. That she would give Kevin a job in admissions is a sardonic irony of misjudgment. He appears the least directed to help others in the admissions process. Though they say their goodbyes with love, Justin and Emily remain in darkness. There is no comfort to be found only a continuation of a foreboding reckoning.
The strongest dynamic of the play resides in the conflicts when Arbery has the friends go at each other after their initial easy reaffirmation of friendships. Ironically, the community they attempt to create falls apart driven by what is devouring each of them inside. It is then that personal flaws they’ve discussed manifest and the hell they face within spills out. Justin’s is humorously eerie. Emily’s comes in the form of fury at whom she deals with in her job and the resident demon of pain in her body. Teresa fears she is making a mistake getting married and Kevin can’t come to the end of himself.
The tempest between the individuals and their inner conflicts reflects a currency for our times and is welcome fodder for entertainment. Arbery with the direction of Taymor has succeeded in extending a hand across the divide of national uproar between left and right with his human, flawed characters. The actors in this ensemble are superb and hit powerful emotional notes with spot-on nuances between humor and profound drama.
This is a play you must see for its shining performances, its topics, the rhetoric exceptionally fashioned by the playwright and its surprises in characterization. The conclusion is chilling. Noted are the design team: Sarafina Bush (costumes) Isabella Byrd (lighting) Justin Ellington (sound) J. David Brimmer (fight director).
Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs with no intermission at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street between 8th and 9th). For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Dublin Carol by Conor McPherson directed with just the right tone and irony by Ciarán O’Reilly is a seminal play about the spirit of Christmas that is bestowed upon the principal character John, superbly portrayed by Jeffrey Bean. McPherson chooses this self-hating alcoholic protagonist to reflect humanity’s hope of redemption from broken promises, regrets and soul sins lathered with guilt and remorse.
McPherson’s John, like many, reveals an overarching longing for change from the boredom of self-loathing, loneliness and recriminations. During the course of the play we see how the playwright elucidates that such change never happens quickly, but does come with subtle, gradual almost unnoticeable shifts when least expected. In John’s instance it is the visit from his daughter Mary (Sarah Street) whom he hasn’t seen in ten years that fans the flames that have been ignited by his boss the mortician Noel who saved him from one stage of himself. When she comes to tell him about the condition of his wife, her mother whom he abandoned long ago, the conversation prompts his movement to admit his miserable state when he left the family. He was in hell.
Above all McPherson’s work is about love and forgiveness. Such love is given by John’s daughter. And it is an irony that John is so over-bloated with guilt and remorse that he cannot forgive himself and thinks himself completely unworthy of it. But it is her expression of love and respect (she admits she also hates him) that helps him make a final determination. The decision moves him toward a kind and thoughtful resolution with his family which by the end of the play portends a new door will open in John’s life that may lift him up from his self-hatred into self-forgiveness.
Though the setting is Dublin Christmastime, in the office of a funeral parlor where life and death sit side by side, the title references a widow Carol who lived in Dublin that John mentions he had a long-time affair with. The title also alludes to a Carol as a song heralding the good news of the celebration of Christ’s birth. Of course, Christ’s birth symbolizes that redemption, reformation, forgiveness and love are possible for the great and small and even someone as “rotten” as John perceives himself to be.
The characterizations are drawn clearly and we become engaged in the simple interactions between Mark (Cillian Hegarty) and John in the first segment, John and his daughter Mary in the second and John and Mark in the third. The arc of development grows out of these interactions and the nature of the conversations which become more revelatory and intimate bring about a change in John’s character.
As Mark and John sit down for tea and a respite from their labors assisting Mark’s sick Uncle Noel (a mortician) with the external arrangements of a young person’s funeral while Noel is in the hospital, we first learn about John and a bit about the twenty-year-old Mark. John shares his self-perceptions and generally blames his lack of discipline and care for his family because of alcohol. He enjoys drinking. But when Mark’s Uncle Noel gave him a job to help in the office with the funerals, John’s life improved and he lifted himself up from the bad state he was in when Noel met him.
John’s character grows on us because he holds little back and digs down into the depths of his self-loathing in each segment, taking off on a racetrack in his confession and heart-to-heart with daughter Mary to whom he apologizes for his miserable treatment and abandonment of the family. It is clear that there was no physical harm. Indeed, his own father beat his mother and John does not follow in his footsteps. Nevertheless, he lands on the fact that he didn’t stop his father and was a coward and felt self-hatred for selfishly, brutally not intervening because he feared getting beaten along with his mother.
However, even after John apologizes profusely for his behavior to Mary, he knows it isn’t enough. Clearly, he despises himself and wishes he could erase the memory of who he is along with his former identity and behaviors with his family. The self-disgust moves him to say he wishes he had never been born. Of course the more he admits fault, and makes such profound declarations, the more we identify with him and find his authenticity human, real and poignant. Jeffrey Bean is truly adroit in the role. He strikes all the notes clearly. He manifests John’s self-disgust with the nuance that John longs to be a different person, but is afraid he will let himself down by letting his family down once more.
For their part Mary and Mark become John’s sounding boards, yet he clearly engages them and asks about their lives. When he discovers the news that Mary brings and the subsequent request that goes with it, the situation becomes a way that he can make up for his behavior in the past. He and Mary confess each other’s faults to one another, an important step toward forgiveness. But can John trust himself to do the right thing and stick to his decision? The irony is this: if he fulfills the request he will have to confront his past with the one he most abused and hurt, his wife from whom he never obtained a divorce. His guilt is overwhelming!
As his daughter leaves with the understanding that John will go with her to visit her mother who is dying, she importunes him not to drink any more and to be ready at a later time when she will drive him to the hospital. Of course, flashing lights go on. It is as if the request to not drink triggers John with perverse reverse psychology. The segment closes leaving John contemplating what to do. To drink? To make it up to his wife, daughter and son? Or just to escape somewhere out of their reach?
At the top of the third segment we discover John caves to self-loathing and guilt. He has been celebrating “Christmas.” Mark interrupts him only to discover John was too overwhelmed with drink to pick up his money at the bank. During the course of their interchange, John lays down a rant which is pure McPherson replete with irony and sardonic humor as he relates how his affair with Carol and her unconditional love drove him to the end of himself and the dregs of barrels of alcohol. At this point it is apparent, especially when he begins to put away the Christmas decorations that he has no intention of making it up to his family or going with his daughter. He is back to square one and will be on another bender and into the abyss without Noel to save him a second time.
McPherson’s characterizations and themes are spot-on. Throughout, this work is filled with dark humor which resonates in truthfulness. And in the hands of Jeffrey Bean guided by O’Reilly, the ironies spill out with fervor, especially in the last section of the play when John attempts to counsel Mark not to feel guilty about ending it with his girlfriend. John’s groveling diatribe about the stages of his drunks is also humorous. But the confession and John’s setting a terrible example for Mark does both characters good. Hearing the pain and misery of the stages of drunkenness would give anyone pause about drinking to oblivion.
The ensemble work is tight and O’Reilly keeps the production resonating with the wisdom and revelations that McPherson suggests in his themes. Kudos to the creative team who bring it all together: Charlie Corcoran (scenic design) Leon Dobkowski (costume design) Michael Gottlieb (lighting design) M. Florian Staab (sound design) Ryan Rumery (original music).
See Dublin Carol for the uplifting performances in this subtle and different McPherson work. It is running at Irish Repertory Theatre (22nd St between 6th and 7th) with no intermission. For tickets and times go to their website: CLICK HERE.
What is the impact of experiencing a genocidal civil war when one’s ancestry, bloodline and religion are used as targeted excuses for extermination? If one survives, is it possible to overcome the wartime horrors one experienced? Or is the sufferer doomed to circularly repeat the emotional ravages of past events that erupt from the unconscious and imprison the captive forever in misery? How is such a cycle broken to begin a process of healing?
In ‘runboyrun,’ Mfoniso Udofia, first-generation Nigerian-Amerian playwright through poetic flashback and mysterious revelation with parallel action fusing the past with the present explores these questions. Majestically, in her examination of principal characters Disciple Ufot (Chiké Johnson) and his long-suffering wife Abasiama Ufot (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) we witness how Disciple overcomes decades of suffering with the help of Abasiama during a night which is a turning point toward hope and redemption.
A bit of backstory is warranted. In 2017 New York Theatre Workshop presented two of Mfoniso Udofia’s plays in repertory (Sojourners, Her Portmanteau). runboyrun and In Old Age are two of Mfonsio Udofia’s offerings which are plays in The Ufot Cycle, a series of nine plays in total which chronicles four generations of a family of stalwart women and men of Nigerian descent. Though the plays currently presented at NYTW are conjoined to elucidate similar themes, they do not run in sequence. Nevertheless, both plays spotlight Mfonsio Udofia as a unique female voice of the African diaspora in the United States. Both represent the particularity of her exceptional work from a maverick’s perspective.
The first play directed by Loretta Greco begins with a flashback of a sister and brother. The setting is January, 1968 Biafra, the southern part of Nigeria that attempted to gain independence from Nigeria during the three year Biafran Civil War. During a lull in the shelling by the government in a hideout in the bush, the sister comforts her brother with a metaphorical story about the foundation of humanity and life. Then she encourages him to run as a game. However, it is the one activity that will save their lives as they escape the Nigerian soldiers at every turn, until they reach a safe place in a compound with their mother and brother.
This setting alternates to the present January, 2012, where we become introduced to the Ufots, transplanted Nigerians who immigrated to the United States, became citizens and eventually settled in the ramshackle interior of their colonial house in Massachusetts. However, from the moment Disciple enters their cold, dank home and with bellicosity relates to Abasiama, we understand that their estrangement is acute. For her part Abasiama, who lies on the couch in the center of the living room wrapped up in layers of clothing with blankets and sheets thrown over her head, disengages from his behaviors, attempting to stay away from his weird, oppressive antics.
Disciple attempts to control her every move, berates and blames her for the bad spirits in the house. However, it becomes obvious that it is he who suffers derangement and is stuck on the perception that everything outside him and especially his wife are the source of his bad luck and the wickedness that plagues him and threatens to upend his life and his writing. In what we learn has become a ritualistic practice, Disciple uses a thin stick to circumscribe areas as safe to prevent evil spirits from disarranging and unsettling his peace. Abasiama, used to this behavior, plays Christian music; Christianity was a part of their Igbo ancestry. However, after Disciple’s exorcism when he attempts to begin work on a new book, the past erupts and once more the playwright creates flashbacks which establish and explain Disciple’s instability and borderline insanity.
Udofia’s structure interlacing the past with the present is particularly strengthened by Andrew Boyce’s scenic design which threads the action, symbols and themes. The house is divided in a cross section symbolizing the division in Disciple’s and Abasiama’s relationship and marriage so we see how both conduct their lives in separate parts of the house: Abasiama upstairs, Disciple in the basement. They do not communicate nor are they intimate with each other’s thoughts and feelings, sharing little if anything of their histories, a tragedy which has led to the disintegration of their marriage. Their lives are separately lived; they buy food separately, use different refrigerators. Disciple cooks for himself and they take their meals separately because he believes she may poison him.
The separation extends even to the different churches they attend and Disciple’s cruel treatment of Abasiama which she sustains because to take a stand against it would rain down more abuse. Disciple begrudges Abasiama warmth for the upper floors which have insufficient heat to brace up against the cold Worcester, Massachusetts winter. This behavior of keeping the upper floors cold reflects Disciple’s abusiveness and penuriousness not only with finances but with emotional intimacy and love.
The division/cross section symbolizes a number of elements which define the characters. It represents the compartmentalization of Abasiama’s and Disciple’s minds, especially Disciple’s as it relates to his unconscious memories which he’s suppressed, and on this night erupt with great ferocity. For Abasiama, she compartmentalizes her rage and anger against Disciple; to express them will result in violence so she must be stoic. The events that play out from the past take place in the “basement” area then move upstairs when Abasiama extends grace to Disciple and he relives the flashback that has shaken his soul and increasingly knocked on his heart to be released as he has aged. If he does not, surely he will damage and destroy everything he has, most importantly his relationship with Abasiama.
It is in the “basement” of his being on this particular night that Disciple confronts the spirits that have haunted him for decades as he finally by the play’s conclusion revisits the blood soaked memories of his childhood during the horrors of the Biafran War. The spirits rise and their energy drives him to the brink of irrationality which he takes out on Abasiama who finally proclaims “enough” and tells him she wants a divorce. In shock he returns downstairs and she hears him raving against the energies that roil him (his unconscious terror and guilt).
Mfoniso Udofia expertly weaves in concurrent flashbacks which reveal seminal events that shattered Disciple’s consciousness and emotionally freeze him in time. We learn why he is psychotic in recreated scenes of his family: sister (Adrianna Mitchell) mother (Zenzi Williams) Benjamin (Adesola Osakalumi). Karl Green portrays Disciple as a boy. And on Abasiama’s encouragement and love, he finally reaches the core event to expurgate it and grieve thus beginning the healing process.
Chiké Johnson is acutely, sensitively invested in his portrayal of Disciple. Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Abasiama is expert and uplifting at the conclusion of runboyrun. And in the seque to the next play, we see her transformation into a withered, dried up old woman living with the rage and fury bestowed upon her by Disciple who has died by the opening of In Old Age.
It is Abasiama’s rage and fury that has carried over from her time with Disciple that Mfoniso Udofia examines in the play In Old Age. The stoicism we see in ‘runboyrun’ blossoms into full on anger against herself for “putting up with” Disciple and not leaving him. Whether such anger manifests when we age, so that we have no tolerance for ourselves and are grumpy and angry with others is an interesting question that Mfoniso Udofia posits. Yet, it is in Abasiama’s interactions with Azell Abernathy the workman (Ron Canada) that the emotional abuse she never discussed or confronted Disciple about is now coming to call. And likewise, the tragic alcoholic fueled abuse that centered around Abernathy’s marriage that Abasiama intuits harmed his marriage becomes a focal point of their interactions.
Abernathy and Abasiama clash and their expressed annoyances with each other are sometimes humorous. However, because they are both Christians, they attempt to bear up with one another. Indeed, Abernathy is much more determined to do so than initially Abasiama seems to want to. How Mfoniso Udofia brings these two together to establish the beginnings of a loving relationship is a lesson in grace and the spiritual need for forgiveness and emotional healing.
The plot development of In Old Age is simple. Azell Abernathy must persuade Abasiama to allow him to repair her house, the same house that she lived in with Disciple. However, the house is in more than need of repair. Abasiama hears what she believes is Disciple ranging and banging around in the basement. Just like in runboyrun when Disciple projected his terror and hurt onto Abasiama, now Abasiama projects her rage and anger onto the house and in magical realism fashion, it manifests in banging and noise.
One of the problems is that Abasiama subverted her own healing and empowerment to help Disciple redeem himself. Now she regrets her sacrifice and unselfishness. As a result, when Abasiama is forced to deal with Azell Abernathy (Ron Canada in a highly nuanced, sensitive, clarion performance) whom her daughters have paid to repair the house, the rage has so swelled inside her she drips bile. Toward Abernathy, she is provocative and she riles him to the point where he nearly becomes abusive. However, he has learned. He leaves, goes outside and prays for her.
His prayers work with power and change comes with revelation. Abasiama realizes she can no longer carry around past hurts and regrets. To expurgate them, she cleans out the “basement” (symbolic of her own soul and psyche) of all of the artifacts that Disciple kept there. As she throws them out she frees herself realizing she is responsible for her own happiness and cannot blame her misery on Disciple. Cleansed from a night of dealing with her own regrets about her life, Abasiama is ready to face a new day. In a great, symbolic gesture, Abernathy washes her feet as Christ did with his disciples, showing he forgives her and forgives himself. It is an act of sublime strength. She receives his good will, Christian love and faith. She removes her shackles represented by her headdress and shows Abernathy her true self. She is beautiful. In their old age they have found love after confessing their faults to each other to be healed.
In Old Age is a hopeful, redemptive encomium to our ability to grow and regenerate our souls if we face ourselves. Directed by Awoye Timpo, In Old Age is just lovely and the performances by Canada and Chevannes are sterling. Kudos to Andrew Boyce (scenic design) Karen Perry (costume design) Oona Curley (lighting design).
These are productions you do not want to miss for the profound beauty of Mfoniso Udofia’s work and the great ensemble acting. The tension in ‘runboyrun’ is truly striking. runboyrun and In Old Age are at NYTW on 4th Street between 2nd and the Bowery. The production runs with one intermission. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
The Height of the Storm written by Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother, The Son trilogy) translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Jonathan Kent will be poignant for those who have family with Alzheimer’s or parents with advanced dementia. After seeing the play, my experience having relatives with these devastating conditions darkly reminded me of the MO of how such folks live in existential time. The divide between past and present, fabrication and fact are filtered through unconscious impulses that make memories rise to the surface of consciousness like dead fish subject to random currents. In the tangled mind of those with dementia, hallucinations prevail. Memory co-exists with scenes in “present” time and all remains fluid, colored by the perceptions of the moment in whatever moment it is.
Living under such confusion remains frustrating for the sufferer and family who must bear up against the onslaught of alternating states of consciousness and melding realities. Family members sustain the disease. Forced to be complicit with the fantastical consciousness exhibited by their afflicted parent, they choose not to upset them with the facts of current time, place and circumstance which would be pointless. The afflicted wouldn’t accept what they say anyway, convinced of the truth of where they are, lost in their dreamscape of past perceptions. It is a cruel joke to try to make sense of the nonsensical.
And so it goes for the characters in Zeller’s The Height of the Storm which elucidates a marriage between André and Madeleine that has lasted amidst triumphs and conflicts for fifty years. And so it goes for the audience who arbitrates the “reality” in present time of what it experiences during the interactions of family members (André, Madeleine, Anne, Élise) though clouds of glorious time past intervene. And sometimes the clouds work themselves into a storm, the memory of which repeats and repeats in their conversation.
In this play the fog, confusion, the displacement of time present with time past are acutely manifested by writer André (Jonathan Pryce in a portrayal that is a tour de force) though the entire family manifests elements of the same as they relate to him and each other. Madeleine played with astounding, measured brightness by Eileen Atkins is André’s stoic, vibrant, organized, take-charge wife who floats in and out of his stream-of-consciousness as he fades in and out of her conversations with her daughters.
Zeller also focused on dementia in another of his plays, The Father (2016, The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre) starring Frank Langella who won a Tony Award for his performance. In The Father, another iteration of André must deal with the vicissitudes of memory loss, confusion, and his psychological responses of anger to that which is uncontrollable, his disease. Without the mitigating influence of his wife, André and his two daughters Élise and Anne must confront his worsening condition. The arc of development is explicit; we “get it.” We empathize and find catharsis in the tragedy of a family impacted by the mental disintegration of the patriarch. In The Father Zeller wraps up the characters, development and themes neatly; we are grateful, move on and generally forget what we’ve witnessed.
There is no such easiness in The Height of the Storm which is unforgettable because it is elliptical, abstruse and annoyingly so until we understand Zeller’s themes and the core of where he is driving this work. There is no clear arc of development in chronological story-telling. Time is defined by memory and that is the present consciousness. The amorphous, vague threads of conversation are filled with details chucked into the dialogue as we watch the daughters, Anne (Amanda Drew), Élise (Lisa O’Hare) father (André) and mother (Madeleine) interact, slip in and out of present and past moments, watch each other, are silent listeners. The moment we think we understand the concrete facts, for example that André won’t talk to Anne initially because he is caught up in a foggy Alzheimer’s reverie looking out the window, the axis of the scene shifts and he speaks to her and ends the interlude spouting, “Toll the bell, toll the bell. For all of you. Oblivion to the living!”
This is a pronouncement that seems incredibly profound. And though we may admit it to ourselves or not, we face an oblivion of belief. We presume we understand what is happening around us in our lives, but it is our own perception, what we choose to believe about aspects of reality. We have no way of proving we are right or wrong. That is a form of oblivion whether we accept it or not. Similarly, as the characters in the play progress with each other, we watch/soldier on attempting to grab hold of and make sense of the interactions of the family. Moments of wisdom fade. And another curious scene of convolution ensues.
Zeller’s work is replete with axis shifts that create staggering imbalances so we are confounded about what is happening because we are not grounded in time. That it appears to be mid morning in a stately Victorian kitchen with a study nook, hallway lined with bookshelves, a kitchen window overlooking a garden doesn’t help. Precisely when the events occurred and in what sequence remains opaque. This is one morning of one or two mornings in the consciousness of André and Madeleine and their grown daughters who visit at vital times. Then it appears the mornings meld together without particularity except for tidbits of “apparent” distinguishing details in conversation.
After Anne and André discuss the problem of his living alone in the house by himself, the scene subtly shifts and the atmosphere brightens with the truth or appearance of reality. The efficient, solid-state Madeleine comes in from shopping and lightly humors André. Is this present reality unfolding or someone’s memory from time past? Surely, this scene happened at some point in their lives. But when? We must sustain our confusion as uncomfortable as it is. But not for long because Zeller is constantly upending our former perceptions and muddling our attempt to make meaning. We experience André’s addled mind at work navigating the sea of confusion that is representative of those with dementia. And yet, we also experience Madeleine’s grounded, fact-based consciousness in alternate scenes after atmosphere shifts that randomly intrude, governed by a family member’s comment that joggles a memory and changes the mood once more from lightness to the austere and portentous.
Flowers arrive signifying someone has died. Who? It can’t be the characters present. As Madeleine and her daughters have a conversation about André in the past tense as he sits quietly in the chair, our certainty grows that he has died, physically, surely mentally. Then Zeller shifts the axis once more and in the next moments, André comes to life and he and Madeleine talk about what she is cooking (mushrooms). This subject brings up additional free associations from the past, i.e. André’s walks to look for mushrooms until he stopped when he heard another gentleman did the same and fell into the river and “died.” But we find out from André in another scene, that this man’s death was faked when André sees him years later with a woman. It is one more detail which we cannot deem with certainty is either credible or fictional or twisted threads of both.
With such convolutions in the characters’ conversations, Zeller demonstrates the randomness of consciousness, reality and memory. With each uncertainty prevails. In the scenes that follow, it appears that Madeleine has died as his daughters decide what to do with André, who for his part, is contented to stay in the gorgeous house and particularly the kitchen where he appears most comfortable remembering his lunches with Madeleine cooking mushrooms.
Zeller plays with our suppositions like a magician. He makes it untenable for us to choose what to assume is happening. In this we become like André and unlike Madeleine who remains assured, nonplussed and forward moving. An important theme Zeller emphasizes is that the nature of perception, choices, undercurrents that propel memories into the foreground may be wholly unreliable to begin with. If we are unlucky to have dementia, such expurgations from the unconscious force us to live in the memory we’ve edited as reality without the barriers of time. But that may not be so unlucky, after all. It is the epitome of existentialism, of living in the moment, whatever the moment is, whenever it comes, erupts, departs, until another “moment” arrives.
As a result themes of uncertainty of what consciousness is are reflected in each of the characterizations in the play. We cannot identity who has died, what the time line is, when the storm came and whether the scenes are the characters transformative memories or reflections of André‘s thoughts in his besieged mind which may not be as addled as we assume. An attempt to make sense of the “say what?” without outside evidence to understand whether André or Madeleine or both have died remains futile. Regardless, whichever parent has fled or will flee the planet first, the other is or will be left to deal with the memories, consequences and aftermath- for the daughters’ upset or consternation at the loss of a partner. Or something else. It appears that Madeleine is able to cope better than André whose lifeblood is Madeleine. However, that, too, is equivocal.
Finally, in the last scene, the daughters leave with all of their obstructions. The couple have the house and memories to themselves. It is a scene of pure consciousness with humor and heartbreak. Only then do we comfortably settle on the determination that when all was said and done, considering André‘s affairs, personality difficulties, and Madeleine’s wifely stoicism and love for her husband, their marriage was a fairly good one and they are together. Of course, Madeleine gets the credit for the unity of their marriage which André acknowledges. But for all our comfort, we may be witnessing the conversation of two ethereal beings in present consciousness, a sardonic irony that Zeller teases us with. Interestingly, with all of our assumptions about who dies first, after that storm, consciousness continues, a resurrection. And the unity the couple established and now share remains uplifted forever.
It seems that one of Zeller’s intents for the play as a series of reflections and vital vignettes that have little arc of development, is to place us in a consternation of misshapen realities that keep us off balance and frustrated until we relax. Such is the haphazard upside down world of those with dementia and those who must negotiate another’s dementia. But the theme also arises that those who live in their beliefs and certainties are not unlike the Alzheimer’s patient. They too may live in a fog of past memories, dreaming up what never happened, only they don’t know it. For both the ill and not so ill, Zeller affirms that glimpses of reality are fleeting; the past or future dominates. Living in the moment is a rarity. But if one is fortunate as both characters are at the play’s conclusion, one lives in a state of agreement and contentment “when the kids have gone.”
Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins make this dense work sing and vibrate it into life, infusing their characters with truth and authenticity. Kudos to the creative team: Anthony Ward (scenic & costume design) Hugh Vanstone (lighting design) Paul Groothuis (sound design) Gary Yershon (original music).
The Height of the Storm runs with no intermission at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.