Play Time

I couldn’t have been much more than 7 or 8 when I discovered plays. I remember that the Saratoga (California, not New York) library had a shelf with maybe 8 or 9 volumes of “plays for children.” I also remember that most of them were kind of stupid; I was a voracious reader and even then could tell when dialogue read tinny.

There was, however, one book that I checked out over and over, called, if memory serves, A Treasury of Children’s Theatre. There was only one play in it that I deemed worthy, and I read it again and again, an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, called simply by the protagonist’s name, Sara Crewe. I would read all the parts out loud, whispering so that I wouldn’t be taunted by my older sisters, whose job as older sisters was, naturally, to taunt. Of course I gravitated toward the lead, but I also enjoyed trying on Becky, the maid, whose dialogue was written out in one of those bizarre attempts at approximating some kind of patois. And Miss Minchen’s lines gave me the first delicious frisson that bad guys really do have most of the fun.

Not long after, I became convinced that my family was perfectly able to produce our own productions; why, Little Women had four sisters, just like us. My oldest sister Julie was sophisticated and marriage-minded like Meg, Becky was a tomboy like Jo, Lisa played the piano like Beth, and I was creative and bratty just like Amy. My brother, despite being three and a half years younger than I, would have to do as Laurie – if, of course, I managed to get past the first chapter, which was a tall enough order. I transcribed it onto a yellow legal pad in play form – then of course chickened out. My sisters were never going to be in my dumb play.

I started over with a Winnie the Pooh story, drafted in a few of my brother’s hapless friends who were young enough to boss around. As fraught as Briony’s attempt at theatrics in Atonement – how I adore that book, partly because that kid is me – the children were soon completely out of control and nearly as quickly, out of the room. Only slightly daunted, sighing resignedly to the fact that artistic genius is a lonely road indeed, I stuffed the play in a drawer, but not without vowing that one day, I’d find that stage, that audience, that thrill and rightness that, for some reason, the theater promised to me.

I started acting in high school and loved it. I had good stage presence and was a hell of a cold reader. I just never could really develop a role beyond the initial read; it was too hard for me to stop analyzing things and just feel, which is the acid test for good American acting. I also had a fairly immobile face that didn’t read from the back row. By the end of college, I knew I just wanted to be in movies, anyway; my subtle expressions and planar face photographed well on video, though to this day I hate still shots. Additionally, an acting teacher at Cornell told me that I had the misfortune of being a character actress; no matter how pretty I was, or maybe because I was pretty, I really wasn’t going to hit my stride until 40.

I did get some comedy work in NY, with a group called Firing Squad; we were originally Oral Six, a much better name, I always thought. I got singled out in reviews, got noticed by a casting director, started to get a little career traction – and then Karl, my first husband, got sick and nothing else mattered. It’s because of his sickness that I started writing, as I could hardly run around auditioning and follow him from doctor to doctor up and down the eastern seaboard. And when I started writing, I went….oh. I didn’t particularly like writing, not for decades; it was tortuous and frustrating, like any practice. But I realized that I was much, much happier behind the scenes, creating. All that strutting about as a poor player had just been my way of expressing myself, always in someone else’s words. I started to sing with my own voice, and it was tough, but sweet, like a rosebush you’ve managed, against brutal opposition from nature, to nourish.

I wrote one play, and haven’t attempted any more, mainly because I think it’s one of the hardest forms to master. In fact, the only reason I could write what I wrote was that it was intended to be a serial, sort of a live soap opera, for a friend’s theater; I wasn’t stuck with the dilemma of plays, which is to contain and capture an incident. Somewhere, I have it, printed on my old dot matrix printer. In Segment 1, my protagonist, Deck-o, a pacifist, non-racist skinhead inspired by the late great Russ Reilly, goes to his mother’s house in New Jersey to do laundry on a Sunday, his fetish model girlfriend, Wilmachik, in tow. The scenes depended on the current edition of the Weekly World News, the paper of Bat Boy, being read out loud by Mom. Fisticuffs nearly ensue over the proper way to fold socks in an otherwise silent exchange. I have always been partial to this bit of dialogue, which occurs as Deck-o is leaving.

Deck-o: Well. It’s time to go.
Mom: You can’t go. I made a ham.
Deck-o: Mom. I’m a vegetarian.
Mom: It’s a large ham.
(silence)

In a later scene, Deck-o and his sister get in a huge fight over the words to the Banana Splits theme song, which he insists was ripped off of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier.” (Think about it.)

Gang, I loved that freaking play. Oh well, maybe someday I’ll figure out how to do another one.

Anyway.

I never aspire to write anything profound. I leave that to the pros. A Brit friend tipped me off to two playwrights I hadn’t heard of, and doubtless would never have discovered otherwise. Plays are such fun to read, at least good ones (and as for bad ones, an Arthur Miller post is in the works, nudged by James Wolcott’s very funny comment on an ioz post on Kushner’s latest). In this case, by “fun,” I mean marvelous, immediate, the shock of the new in Robert Hughes’ wonderful phrase. Here they are:

Joe Penhall’s play Blue/Orange takes a subject that in a lesser playwright’s hands would be a TV movie. Two psychiatrists wage a cold war over a paranoid schizophrenic who is clearly not ready to face the ugliness that is the world. Naturally, there is a bad guy, originally played by Bill Nighy, the epitome of evil’s banality in The Constant Gardener (a favorite movie). He speaks for all that is reasonable, logical, and lethal in bureaucracy; he’s insidious and insinuating, a chilling reminder of the jovial, bloodless corporate decisions that underly health care. Against him, or more, what he stands for, the protagonist hardly has a chance to inject any reason – and yet, desperately, he tries, tries as if his life depends on it. Because, of course, it does. It’s riveting. It’s also inextricably tragic.

It’s a very good play. Pornography, by Simon Stephens, may be a great one. 7 sections – the directions specifically indicate that the play can be performed by any number of people – depict lives that will be affected by the 7/7 London bombings in 2005. For New Yorkers who never recovered from 9/11 – I count myself one, despite being in Michigan at the time and since – reading is a profound and melancholy experience. No one knows. Life and its curve balls seem so disastrous until there’s a disaster. Stephens captures life unaware of the impending catastrophe; it’s reminiscent of Emily’s heartbroken attempt to re-experience a day in her life in Our Town, where the most trivial act is a snapshot of beauty forever consigned to the past, forever gone.

Pornography‘s final set piece is simply a list of brief bios of the 52 people, minus the 4 suicide bombers – one of whom is profiled in the play – who were blown to bits on that hot summer day, the air already thick and humid in the wake of the announcement that London had won the 2012 Olympics. One, number 43, is, hauntingly, blank. The details here are the flip side of evil, the banality, the mundane beauty of life simply lived.

Pornography is different in form from the plays I fell in love with as a kid. But it’s a piece that, while it could be adapted for film, easily – as could Blue/Orange – lives and breathes first as theater, and will reach in, like an Aztec priest, to rip out your heart when performed simply and evocatively on a stage, for an audience that inhabits the same air as the performers, whose hearts can beat in synchronous time.

Live performance remains the only environment in which a shared intake of breath, a glorious collective gasp, can occur. Those moments, old as time itself, are as deeply encoded into our DNA as the will to persevere against staggering odds. Art is survival, life itself. Fuck everyone who says it’s dead. All you gotta do is look.

2 thoughts on “Play Time

  1. Sweet! We’re a couple weeks away from our annual theater orgy in Ashland. Some plays read well, and are worth the investment in the libretto, but even those only achieve 3 dimensions when performed, those crucible moments devoid of sturm and drang, when the whole enterprise hangs on the delivery of transcendent words by one or two actors, the HVAC system almost apologetic in the background.

    I thought of Briony as I read your opening paragraphs šŸ˜‰

  2. Did you ever see or read Lonely Planet by Steven Dietz? I bring it up because of your ordeal with Karl, and how the subject matter resonates. If you haven’t, this is a play that can stand on its own if you just read it. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, chronicles a couple’s 80s-era immersion in the wheelhouse of the AIDS crisis.

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