Monthly Archives: February 2012

How I Learned to Drive at Second Stage

Anecdotally, I’ve found that How I Learned to Drive is a play that most people – or at least, most theater students – read before seeing. One reason for that: from an organizational standpoint, it’s an incredibly well constructed play that anyone pursuing theater should read to understand the brilliance of playwright Paula Vogel’s dramaturgy. Ms. Vogel takes a linear story – of Lil’ Bit, the protagonist’s, relationship with her Uncle Peck – and restacks its scenes out of chronological order. Lil Bit is 17, then 11, then 19, etc etc etc.

One of the first handouts I got in one of the first grad school classes I took re-structured the scenes, putting them back into chronological order. The result was a play that was utterly different, and the lesson – that structure is everything – was well learned. And in the case of How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel needed all the structural help she could get to make her story palatable. Which leads me into the second reason this play is more often read than seen: it’s just not staged that often. Because my god, is it a “tough” play. It’s one of those plays about one of those issues that people just don’t like to spend 90 minutes of their Friday nights dissecting. It’s a play about pedophilia.

Any play that attempts to tackle such a Big Issue must do so with great sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Even plays that “succeed” to any extent, like this one (which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), will inevitably be attacked as being too SOMETHING – insensitive, sensitive, “favoring” of a certain character, sensationalist…the list goes on and on. Because going to a play like How I Learned to Drive is never “fun”, or entertainment in the way a blockbuster musical would be. Rather, it’s an experience that’s much more difficult, but ideally still provides some sort of catharsis while packing a hell of an emotional punch. In the case of this Second Stage revival of How I Learned to Drive, this is true on both counts.

Elizabeth Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz in the Second Stage Production of How I Learned to Drive

I’m sorry to say that How I Learned to Drive is not the only theatrical production I’ve ever seen about molestation and pedophilia. On the other end of the spectrum, I once saw a very, very unfortunate musical on the topic. Yup, you heard me: musical. No, it wasn’t bright and flashy and offensive in the way you might be fearing, but at it’s worst, it was surface level, a bit crass, and entirely alienating.  God knows the actors worked their hearts out, but somehow breaking into song before engaging in a horrifying act of sexual incongruity just didn’t seem to strike the right emotional chord. Ever. For better or worse, this musical (which will remain unnamed in this post, I think, for the sake of propriety), is now a benchmark and point of comparison on all my current and future Big Issue theatrical excursions, and proved a good foil to my experience watching How I Learned to Drive.

As I mentioned, the play revolves around a story between Lil’ Bit and her Uncle Peck, who start a sexual (or at least, sexually inappropriate) relationship when she’s 11 that extends until she goes to college. In skipping around between the years, How I Learned to Drive attempts to provide emotional respite between the darker scenes with comedic monologues and scenes featuring Lil’ Bit’s wacky family; moments that struck me as hollowly ironic and depressing given the intensity of the sexual crime Lil Bit’s family was willfully ignorant of.

In the case of this Second Stage production, too, I found the play’s moments of comedy awkward and uncomfortable, although I might have been in the minority in thinking so. The audience around me certainly laughed; but again, don’t get me started on obnoxious and incongruous audience reactions to crap, ugh. In the same way, the design choice to have a colorful – and at times almost cartoonish – set came across as bizarre and discomfiting, but perhaps on both counts this was actually appropriate and well executed. After all, we are talking about a protagonist who’s under 15 for half the production; a child who is tragically thrust into an adult world. If the bright colors of the set or the charicatured portrayal of Lil Bit’s “wacky” family is meant to remind us of her “stolen” youth, then good on you, Second Stage. (Although in that sense, I suppose I’ll be giving them credit for anything about the production that came across as weird or uncomfortable…because uhm…pedophilia is WEIRD AND UNCOMFORTABLE.)

Lil' Bit's "hilarious" family

Without question, for me, the most devastating moment of How I Learned to Drive comes at the end. Ms. Vogel waits until the play’s penultimate scene to show us the first sexual encounter between Lil Bit and her uncle – on a road trip when she is only 11. After hours of driving, Uncle Peck asks Lil Bit if she wants to drive (the theme of driving, and driving as delivering agency and power, is pervasive throughout the play….you know, if the title didn’t already give that one away). When she excitedly says yes, but bemoans the fact that she’s too small for her feet to reach the pedals, he offers to sit her on his lap – so that he can control the accelerator while she holds the wheel. As she keeps her hands dutifully on 9 and 3, grinning ear to ear at the thrill of the experience, he sneaks his own up her shirt, pawing at her chest. Her excitement instantly dissolves to panic, and when she asks him to stop, he insists on a few more moments. It’s a disgusting and disquieting scene. But it’s actually not the “most devastating moment” that I was referring to.

No, the scene that hurts me the hardest comes right before that one, when Lil Bit, still 11, is begging her mother for permission to go on that ill fated car trip. In maybe the only scene where the mother comes across as a reasonable human being, and not an overblown charicature, she refuses Lil Bit’s initial whining, insisting that she “doesn’t like the way your Uncle looks at you” and that it’s “inappropriate” for a young girl and a grown man to be on a car trip alone for so many hours. (By the way, if its any consolation to those of you who don’t know the play, Uncle Peck is related to Lil Bit only by marriage – he is not a blood relative. If that makes it…uhm…”better”?)

Anyway, Lil Bit insists. I mean – she’s 11! Her uncle, who she loves, offered to take her to the beach! Of course she wants to go! And, with persistent whining, she manages to wear her mother down, but before her mother consents, she turns and delivers the line that will make my gut wrench in horror literally every time I hear it. “Alright, but I’m warning you – if anything happens – I’ll hold you responsible.”

Without a doubt, this line is for me the most awful of the play, and provides the genesis for so much of the complicated guilt and love Lil’ Bit struggles with perpetually throughout How I Learned to Drive. When a mother quite literally pre-warns her 11-year-old daughter that the crime that is going to be committed against her is HER FAULT…yikes. For me, this line certainly helps explain the comic characterization of Lil Bit’s family, as well as the awkward humor of the play and the crayola aesthetic of the Second Stage production – if we are to see this play as “created” by an older Lil Bit (her older self narrates throughout) – the entire tone of frozen but skewed cartoonism is evidence of a psyche that is forever trapped in the confusion and guilt of an 11 year old who has experienced a lifetime’s worth of emotionally manipulative trauma.

The set's bright colors and almost cartoon-y aesthetic felt...incongruous, to say the least

When it comes to this play, certainly the performance of the actress playing Lil Bit is important, but even more so, the performance of the actor playing Uncle Peck is crucial. After all, it is his character that is the most impossible to like, that is the easiest to dismiss and deplore. But, if he were meant to be so one-dimensional, why bother writing him into a play? Or, for that matter, why bother writing the play at all? “Pedophilia is bad” is not exactly a lesson that I think we NEED from our theater. It’s more a Captain Obvious Statement-Of-The-Month. Elizabeth Reaser, who plays Lil Bit, is good — she grows on you, for sure, but honestly, it was the performance of Norbert Leo Butz that I was most curious to see.

Yes, for those of you who recognize the name, that is Norbert Leo Butz, Broadway “darling”, of Catch Me If You Can and Wicked fame. This is a guy who sang a song about farts in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I just did a google search for him, and one of the first articles I found, about his role as Fiyero in the original cast of Wicked, bore the headline “Fiyero’s Tight Pants Led to Norbert Leo Butz’ Love Connection.” Basically, this is not a bro you’d expect to perform a serious role. Especially this serious role. Also, for literally no apparent reason, I have a pointlessly aggressive hatred for Norbert Leo Butz. Again, no reason for it. He annoyed me in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and, for funzos, I have dutifully harbored that annoyance ever since. Basically, I was prepared to watch this play and then shit all over his performance on this blog. You know, it’s the little things…

And yet, I cannot. Unfortunately. After sitting on it for a few nights, I’ve realized that Norbert Leo Butz’ performance in this role was actually pretty exceptional. Any choices an actor makes as Peck are bound to annoy someone somewhere, simply given the controversial nature of the character, but Butz’ bold choice of playing a Peck who seemed awkward, even bumbling, and painfully self-aware of his behavior, is, I feel, just the kind of anxiety-producing performance this play thrives upon. He made himself somewhat hard to hate, I must say.

alright butz. you win this time...

I’ve spoken to several people who, for that very same reason, took issue with Mr. Butz’ performance. It’s easy to talk abstractly about Paula Vogel’s presumed goal of depicting Peck in a frustratingly sympathetic way, but it turns out that gets pretty hard to take when its real bodies in real time performing such really terrible actions. I, too, initially wanted Peck to be dirtier, meaner, less conflicted and more awful and thus, importantly, easier to dismiss in disgust, but that would have made for a How I Learned to Drive that was a whole lot easier to take overall. Throughout the performance, I heard a few audience members clucking self-consciously in disapproval of various scenes, but not that many, because honestly, every scene in the play is the awful confluence of two sadly desperate, desperately sad characters finding a weird, conflicted peace with each other while at the same time hurting each other deeply. It’s fucking complicated, man! And Norbert Leo Butz, god love him, works hard to make us feel the depth of that complication as much as possible.

A few people have asked me what I “thought” of How I Learned to Drive since I saw it on Thursday night. It’s been a tough question to answer. I mean…I thought it was awful. But that’s mostly because pedophilia is awful, and watching emotional manipulation wrap its vicegrip around a victim is never “fun”. I wouldn’t say, in that sense, that my experience at the show was by any means “enjoyable”. However, it sure was cathartic – Ms. Vogel gives her protagonist some redemption. As I mentioned before, for Lil Bit, learning to drive (which, ironically, is something her Uncle teaches her – and teaches her well), represents the ultimate in empowerment. Whenever she talks about driving – “flooring it” – she gains a confidence and agency that is truly satisfying to watch. A small moment of victory in an otherwise terrifically challenging play. So no, I didn’t have “fun” at How I Learned to Drive, but I sure am glad I saw it, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

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Outside People at the Vineyard Theatre (Naked Angels)*

There’s this great bit in the NBC show 30 Rock (yeah…tried to find the clip for y’all, but as people who know me know, I am an epic fail when it comes to this new-fangled “internet” thing the young people are all excited about these days). Anyway, it’s Season 1, Episode 10 (“The Rural Juror”, for the true fans), and Tina Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, is struggling with how to deal with the fact that her good friend Jenna (Jane Krakowski) has just made a terrible TV movie. When Pete asks her what she’s going to do, she explains: “Same thing I’ve always done when she’s in something terrible. Think of one thing nice to say and then … hug her.”

Cut to three flashbacks: 1996: Jenna has just performed in The Jenna Chronicles: A One Womyn Show. “You looked so beautiful!” Liz says.

1997: Jenna has just performed in Con Air: The Musical. “The lighting was REALLY neat!” Liz says.

And in 2000, when Jenna is leaving a Freestyle Rap Contest, Liz gushes that “the programs were REALLY easy to read!”

This clip rocks. Mostly because it’s SO TRUE. Historically, I’ve always known when my productions haven’t been home runs because generally my poor family will, upon seeing me after a show, generally lead off with a pointlessly specific question (“Hey! –Why’d you have that character enter AFTER that other character but then not say anything for 5 or 6 lines before sitting on that chair in that part right before the end of Act 1?”), or go the Liz Lemon route, and compliment something obscure and random (“LOVED that one character’s name.”)

Now, the important clarification for me in all of this is that I’ve always felt that initial, random burst of specificity to be indicative, not just of dislike, but, more dangerously, of boredom. What I’m not talking about here is offensive theater. Or offensively bad theater. Offensively bad theater leads to awkward Jenna/Liz encounters, but also hilarious 30 rock clips.  Or, if you’re me, offensive theater leads to great passionate bursts of verbose raging to whatever poor schmuck happens to be within shouting distance.

For example: I have a temptestuous relationship with David Mamet. He doesn’t know this, of course, because we’ve never met, but in my mind our relationship is fraught and passionate and mostly angry. I don’t especially like him, mostly because I’ve always labored under the assumption that he doesn’t like me (what with my vagina and all)…and a few years back, when I saw his play Race on Broadway, boy did I have things to say about it. Unfortunately, Blogpocalypse (the nickname I just came up with for this blog and that I will probably never use again after this moment) was on hiatus at the moment, because MAN could I have done some damage on a review. I fucking HATED that play. I found it offensive on so many levels. As soon as the curtain closed, I was ranting. I don’t think I came up for air until a few days later – I would literally go to sleep and wake up with new ideas or ways of explaining why I thought it was terrible.

If I can say one thing for Mamet, which has ALWAYS been the case with my tortured relationship with Mamet, he gets me going.

And in theater, to a certain extent, that’s as important as the cathartic, beautiful, invigorating stuff. Well, if not “as important”, at the very least “of importance.” It’s GREAT to be provoked sometimes. It’s all a part of the convoluted, chaotic conversation that is theater ($5 alliteration there!). It ensures that we “stay awake”, if you will, in a cultural conversation. It often inspires us to create some of our best work – it certainly pushes us creatively. If we’re not challenged – if someone doesn’t show up and shove all of the things we find sacred and important in our faces – we’ll never be forced to defend our views and can risk becoming … complacent. The deadliest of things.

Honestly, in the world of theater, I’d rather be infuriated than bored. Or unmoved. Or, as I like to call it, “meh”ed.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of theater out there that qualifies as solidly “meh”. This is the theater that would prompt a pointed but useless question from my mom about blocking or program order. When watching it you tend to spend more time sneaking glances at your watch than looking at the stage (or, if you’re me, cursing the fact that you no longer wear a watch and instead use a cell phone which is ACTUALLY illegal to access during a show in NYC.) As Peter Brook would say, this is Deadly Theater. And it is the worst.

Can you tell where I’m going with this yet? Can you tell I don’t want to get there? I think I realized a few paragraphs ago that I make a pretty lame “reviewer”. The thought of trashing someone’s performance is painful to me, because I get how much blood, sweat, and tears goes into a show. In fact, I’ve already ranted about this very issue. In truth, Outside People at the Vineyard theater was a solid show. There was nothing wildly offensive about it, and the production values were pretty great. The actors worked hard. The writing was tight. The story was a solid narrative that moved nicely. The “issues” that it dealt with were important. And yet. And yet. And yet.

this was a show. i saw this show. those are things that happened.

I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy post to write, because Outside People, for me, wasn’t an easy show to talk about. And THAT’s a big deal for me. Normally, as you know, I can go on ad nauseum on the subject of theater. Like, any theater. And yet, when this show ended, I distinctly remember that my first thought was finding a bathroom, my second thought was finding dessert, and my third, tepid thought, which arrived much later than the first two, was talking about the performance.  And what did I have to say?

Mostly, I was impressed by a lighting cue in the first scene. Yup.

The 4-character play takes place in China, where Malcolm has just arrived to ostensibly help out his former college friend David with a new business. Things get complicated, however, when he falls for Xiao Mei, one of David’s employees, and a lot of pressing and compelling issues of citizenship, loyalty, personhood, connection, cultural/gendered/class barriers, and ethnicity are raised.

David, who is trying to recruit his buddy Malcolm

So why, then, was all I could think about the lighting cue from the first scene? It takes place in the back room of a club, where David, Malcolm, Xiao Mei and David’s pseudo-girlfriend Samanya are kicking it. From time to time, characters would exit to the main room of the club, and immediately after leaving the stage, this fantastic side light would illuminate, perfectly giving the impression of light spilling out from the club as though a “door” were being opened. Great “magic”, to reference the discussion from my previous post. It was cool.

the scene of the Cool Light Cue

But it was also specific. And random. And not especially pertinent to the rest of the play.

We tried – my companion and I – we really tried to stay on topic and discuss the play like Smart Adults. I brought up how grateful I was that, despite a “comical” (and yes, quotes used deliberately there) moment in Scene 2, the whole play did not become a herpes farce. He lauded the impact of one very cool scene between David and Xiao Mei that was delivered entirely in Chinese. (Despite the impressive language barrier, we “got” it. Another great theatrical moment.) But, almost without realizing it, we constantly wound up digressing – suddenly we were speculating on the cost of the show, then the cost of renting a space around union square…the number of lighting instruments in the theater, etc. (OK, the light stuff was mostly me. I’m kind of a lighting nerd these days).

The truth is, Outside People is a show that, objectively speaking, I would concede is “important”. It represents a stream of solid, contemporary, “youthful” (to apply a bland generalization) theater that probably appeals and would ring significant and important to a vast group of people. But for whatever reason, this one just didn’t do it for me. I don’t know exactly what it was – hard to pinpoint one fault. Just a matter of taste, I guess, of chemistry between show and audience. All of which I say with absolutely no disrespect to the doubtless countless people who worked very hard on this production. Sometimes…it doesn’t happen. I left the theater completely unaroused one way or another. To which I can only say: ah well.

Can’t win ’em all.

And so, simply: on to the next theatrical adventure…

*My apologies. Another show that is no longer running, reviewed for your…benefit?

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The Ugly One at Soho Rep

I am going to start this post by doing something ever-so-slightly out of character*:  Imma quote someone else’s article. Is that just too gauche? Well, regardless, when I was doing a bit of internet browsing to find good pictures for this post on The Ugly One, which opened February 1st at Soho Rep, I came across this great NY Times article about the show, which had a fantastic quote from director Daniel Aukin. When asked about The Ugly One, he said the following:

“This is not a play you would watch and say, ‘Oh, this should be a movie,’ ” Mr. Aukin said. “He’s playing with so many things that are unique to theater, that aren’t available in other media.”

For those of you who don’t know (who am I kidding…there can’t be many of you who don’t, given that I’m fairly certain the population of my readers is composed entirely of friends), I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 6 months thinking about plays and movies. Individually, as separate entities, sure, but also together. As in, what defines them? What makes each its own unique art form? What does each have to offer the viewer/spectator that the other cannot? Has the sudden prevalence of one (film) in culture made moot the longer standing, and some would say, now archaic and inaccessible existence of the other?

It’s very hard to want to be a writer. It’s also pretty stupid, given the insane challenge that playwrights face, as well as the cuthroat nature of the film industry. And yet, I and a couple dozen other passionate idiots just couldn’t leave well enough alone, and find ourselves knee-deep in the challenges of a 2 year dramatic writing program in the fantastic city of New York. What’s great about this program is that we get to write all the time. What’s terrible about this program is that we have to write all the time. While the program is 3-fold, teaching and refining skills in writing for TV, Film, and Stage, it’s film and theater that most often come into conflict with each other, given, I guess, the inherent similarities between the two. And even as a die-hard theater nerd (till the day that I die, yo!), it’s hard not to see the appeal in film as a medium. For one, there’s its seemingly limitless visual potential and uh, OH YEAH, there’s also the fact that sometimes people give you money to write movie stuff. Or so they tell me. And then you can use that money to do things like pay your rent and buy food. As someone who’s sunk more of her own money into self-made theatrical creations than I’d care to admit, the idea of a writing career in which the writer is PAID reaches the realms of Xanadu-like fantasy.

And let’s face it – film is affordable and accessible in a way that theater simply isn’t. Those who call theater a dying art, while officially and forever my worst enemies, aren’t coming up with this hateful theory out of thin air. Theater’s appeal is…sometimes harder to grasp, let’s say, than that of its sister, Film, or its super cool cousin TV.

And that, my friends, is why when a show like The Ugly One comes along, which, as Mr. Aukin so eloquently describes, so perfectly grasps onto those urgent, fabulous things that make theater theater, I get happy. Just…happy. Happy that plays like this are being produced, and happy that people are paying money to see them. Because those people are in for some of the most delightful treats theater has to offer.

Wit and Follies this was not. (Yeah, I just linked my own posts again. I’m classy like that). Soho Rep has, well…a “rep” in this city for performing on the more cutting edge of the theatrical spectrum. They’re a “leading hub for contemporary theater in New York City….producing some of the most groundbreaking theater…a “hot house” for daring, intrinsically theatrical excellence.” (from their website, if you hadn’t guessed). For those of you who like your theater on the experimental side of things, this is a great place to check out…regularly. (I recall a performance of Sarah Kane’s Blasted there that was the Oscars of disturbing. Is that a coherent analogy? Probably not, but let’s put it this way: it was very, very, VERY disturbing. Like, a dude sucked another dude’s eyes out and then this person ate a baby disturbing….Whoops. Should I have said “spoiler alert”?)

the red "ugly one" is the ugliest one...

Anyway, as far as plays go, Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One is a very simple enterprise. It’s the kind of “story” that can be told in very few words – an “elegant” concept in that regard, almost fable or parable-esque. At the play’s open, the main character Lette discovers that, much to his surprise, he’s crazy ugly. He’s spent most of his life unaware, but when he’s denied the opportunity to present his invention at a conference, his boss is forced to admit to him that it’s his hideous looks that are holding him back. So, he does what any reasonable human being who just found out they’d spent the bulk of their life living in ignorance of their grotesque face would do – he signs up for dangerous, experimental facial reconstructive surgery. And it goes well! He’s super hot now! And yet – here’s the rub – turns out it goes a little too well. He’s so very good looking that men all over start electing to have the (his?) same face put on them, and suddenly he finds himself well, everywhere. And…hilarity, or chaos, or tragedy, (depending on your perspective, I guess), ensues. (Personally, I’d go with a bit of all three.)

It’s a simple enough concept. Done with four fabulously talented actors and one fairly stark set, in a fairly small theater. Period. Done. End of story. And here, my friends, is where the production values end and the theatrical magic begins.

Only in a space that small with a cast that small and a script that straightforward could such magic happen. And magic it was – Alfredo Narciso, who plays Lette, starts and ends the play with the same face. And, oh yeah, it doesn’t change in the middle, either. And yet, here’s what’s SO FREAKING AWESOME about theater (note to self: WHATS SO FREAKING AWESOME ABOUT THEATER = New blog title??) — we bought it. When Lette wraps his face in gauze while the doctor and his assistant, neither of whom actually act out “surgery”, but who rather stand by microphones, commenting as though they were performing surgery while hyper disturbing “surgical sound cues” play, the audience is there. We flinch at the trill of a hacksaw, even though there is no hacksaw to be seen on the stage. And, a scene later, when Lette finally removes the gauze, we sit on the edge of our seats, curious to see his “new face” even though logic insists – correctly – that it looks exactly the same as the face he’d wrapped up a moment before.

This dude: grotesque monster or the height of attractiveness?

But, because his wife and the doctor were besides themselves with joy, it was handsome. The same way we accepted it as hideous only a scene before when the rest of the actors said as much. Not because we’re idiots (well, OK, can’t speak for everyone in the theater), but because in theater, a good audience is fucking involved. Present. Active participants in their own experience. A good audience will work with the actors, with the playwright, with the director, to create whatever fantasy has been suggested. Such is the ritual of theater, of a bunch of people in a room sharing something with a bunch of other people. Such is its magic. And such is why, for me, theater can never be obsolete.

In a way, The Ugly One was the perfect show for me to see after Wit. To compare the two is to compare fire hydrants to lampshades (don’t ask, just the nouns that came into my head when I got to that part in the sentence), and that’s not my goal. Rather, it was a friendly reminder that even without the budget and the big names and the bright lights of Broadway, magical stuff can happen and is happening in small spaces with groups of people enjoying stories told by other groups of people. And to repeat: it makes me happy.


*Yes, I appreciate the irony of having a blog “character” when I have less than a dozen posts.

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