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.
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.
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.
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?