Plays of our Lives
I want to wish the best of luck … well, the best of broken legs ... to Abe who has his final audition for NYU today. I think he has a genuine chance, and I think he would prosper there. But, damn, if everybody is gonna be on the east coast, why am I thinking about moving back to LA?
I saw Abe in a play last night. It was the Brown production of Moliere’s THE MISANTHROPE. My feelings about it were somewhat similar to the way I felt about DON QUIXOTE at Brandeis. It was thoroughly entertaining, but … man was it over my head.
Now keep in mind, I’m not a dunderhead. I’ve been to good schools. I have a degree in Drama and another one on the way. I’ve read more plays than the average educated American, and even a decent helping of criticism.
But that didn’t prepare me for what Spenser Golub did to MISANTHROPE. He decided to fuse the original with a bunch of material from Jean-Luc Godard. The result was a Moliere play set in 1960s Paris cafe culture with frequent Godard quotes, ironic references to American popular culture, dance breaks, and other audio-visual bombardment.
I’m sure if I had read every word Godard ever wrote, and seen all his films, and I spoke French, and I’d prepared by reading MISANTHROPE over again … eight or nine times … I would have understood the play fully. But you see the issue here.
MISANTHROPE is likely the most challenging play in the Moliere canon. It doesn’t have as easy a high-concept hook as A DOCTOR IN SPITE OF HIMSELF (a guy pretends to be a doctor) or THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES (a rich old man hides a young woman away to train her to be the perfect wife for him). It’s a tricky, intellectual treatise about genuine intellectualism versus false intellectualism and how it’s impossible for honest people who see the world as it is and speak their minds about it to get along with anybody, including their fellow honest intellectuals.
Now, right there, I can see how that goes with a mid-century continental ennui. For us over here in the states, it sounds like something out of one of Woody Allen’s less-accessible movies (ie the ones he made after watching foreign art films). I mean, isn’t “the misanthrope” basically the character Allen has played in pretty much every movie? It didn’t help that the lead actor, playing Alceste, looked a bit like a young Allen, especially in the thick-framed glasses he wore.
And look, all the additional stuff was really fun – the fake machinegun fights, the throwing decks of cards around, the dancing waitresses. But it was awfully hard to concentrate on the story and the themes of the play when three very attractive undergraduates in black mini-dresses are doing The Monkey on the other side of the stage.
So it bugged me for two reasons.
One, Moliere wrote a great play with great characters and a great story. I had never seen the play on stage and really I still haven’t. As a playwright, it bugs me a little to see plot and character given such short shrift compared to theme. After all, Aristotle ranked Action and Character quite a bit higher than Thought and Spectacle in The Poetics and he was a pretty smart guy … maybe even smarter than Spenser Golub.
(And then in the second half (I’d say "second act," but the play really has five and I just mean "the part after intermission") when the extraneous stuff settles down a little and we really get to see the pain of Alceste and Celimene, we should be thoroughly invested in them, but I think a lot of us were saying … But where’s the dancing girls?)
Two, My ongoing crusade is to make theatre more accessible to the public … and this did not do that. Imagine if this was the first play somebody ever saw. Would they ever come back again? … Well, maybe they would, since, as I said, the product was thoroughly entertaining.
Now, of course, both are forgivable, since this is college theatre. College is the place to do bizarre experimental things to classic works. And since your audience isn’t Joe Average off the street, it’s okay to risk alienation a little bit. The real purpose, after all, is to educate the students in the audience, yes, but moreseo those in the play itself. And, for a crash course in acting, theatrical construction and, yes, theory, you’d be hard pressed to find something better.
Two weeks ago, I saw something which was the exact opposite of this ... an attempt to take a classic play and make it far more accessible to modern, mainstream sensibilities.
This was the Broadway-bound revival of SLY FOX, Larry Gelbart's adaptation of Ben Jonson's VOLPONE which moves the action to Gold-Rush era San Francisco. Gelbart wrote the play in the mid-70s, not long after A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, his rewriting of the even older comedies of Plautus. For his jump to Renaissance England he decided "who needs this Sondheim hack?" and wrote a straight play. We caught a Boston tryout of the show which will open on Broadway any minute, if it hasn't already.
The cast for this is packed with stars at that certain point on the downward arc of their fame: Richard Dreyfuss, Eric Stoltz, Bronson Pinchot, Elizabeth Berkley, Rene Aberjonois, Professor Irwin Corey, and Peter Scolari. This isn't to say they aren't talented (well, the jury's still out on Berkley), but it can't help but smell like a casting stunt to bring in box office. This is a big-budget show, with a huge cast, multiple sets, and period costumes. With the notoriously bad financial track record straight plays have had on Broadway of late, it seems likely that they wanted to pack a famous name into every role in hopes of drawing audiences. I wonder if that will work. Are there really huge Peter Scolari fans?
The show? Quite good. A little creaky, as are a lot of the newer things created by the writers from that "Your Show of Shows" gang. Hey, don't get me wrong. That writers room had more comic masterminds in it than anyplace this side of the Algonquin Round Table -- Gelbart, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, etc. (I keep hearing conflicting reports about whether Woody Allen was there ... he would have been awfully young). But these guys are all old men now and their comic sensibilities are very much of a time.
The only place this really shows in SLY FOX is in the second act when Foxwell Sly (get it?) is on trial for attempted rape. Yep. It's a hilarious trial-for-attempted-rape scene.
I should say here that the actual "rape" scene is really more of a sedution, and it doesn't get anywhere near actual violation. But I'm sorry, I just can't endorse rape humor. Am I being a PC prude for thinking it's just wrong to try to get any humor out of rape? No, I'm being a human being with some sense of decency who understands that maybe male playwrights don't exactly have sufficient insight to find the humor in the trauma. I don't see a gaggle of female comedy writers with huge sexual assault hunks in their repetoire.
- There is one instance I can think of. In the recent book Live from New York, Tina Fey says, in an interview:
"Certain words chill the audience regardless of context, 'rape' being one of them. There's a piece that Adam McKay wrote for Rachel Dratch to do on "Update" that was so funny to all of us, it was about some guys who had written a book about how rape is natural and was just part of the caveman mentality that lives within all of us and it's part of nature. And Rachel did this "Update" feature as herself talking about how she agreed with the book and how she loved to rape dudes and graphically described these rapes that she had done on men and how she was going to rape the two male authors of the book. And Rachel is, you know, pint-sized and adorable -- but the audience, even though it was her saying those things, they just could not, did not , go with her on that."
They don't say it, but I think that bit never made it to air -- cut in dress rehearsal. Not surprising. I was surprised, on reading this again, that the bit was written by a man ... clearly a pretty hip one. I wonder if the idea would ever have struck Fey herself, or one of the other female writers.
Anyway, SLY FOX is quite entertaining. The supporting cast is excellent and Dreyfuss is pretty good as Sly ... he did blow his last line of the whole play the day I saw it, which tainted it a little.
The only disappointment for me was Eric Stoltz as Able, Fox's indentured servant. The part is, pretty much definitively, a clown role ... definitely the Harlequin "tricky servant" character. This is a straighter clown than most -- his trickery requires him to play the perfect, elegant servant. It strikes me that this would be a part for a great physical clown, someone like Bill Irwin or Buster Keaton -- maybe even Roberto Benigni-- who can turn every movement into a dance. My uncle Brian would RULE in a part like that.
But casting a leading man in the part ... Look, Stoltz can be very funny in movies like Kicking and Screaming where the humor comes from reality. But in a schtickfest like this, he's kind of out of place. Not for nothing was he cut from the role of Marty McFly in Back to the Future.
Of course we did the stage door thing afterwards. Stoltz is one of Amanda's favorites, due to her fondness for redheads (his being in love with a girl named Amanda in Some Kind of Wonderful helps, too). Stoltz and Dreyfuss probably took their own Batcave exit, but she did get signatures from Scolari and Berkley (very strange seeing someone in person when you've seen them perform graphic nude scenes on film). Scolari was especially affable, willing to talk to audience members for several minutes. I was quite intrigued how most people told him they liked his work on "Bosom Buddies." I mean, he was fine on that, but much funnier, I thought, on "Newhart," which was also a much better show. And on that one, he got to play a more comic character, whereas he usually played straight to Tom Hanks on "Buddies." Well, as straight as you can be in drag.
Auberjonois and Pinchot made hasty exits and didn't do autographs. Also, for some reason Mark Summers from "Double Dare" was hanging around, trying not to look familiar. I don't mind that -- they've given us a performance and aren't really required to give more. And Auberjonois and Pinchot must be tired of people constantly calling them "Odo" and "Balki."
I'm just glad to see Pinchot working. When Alison was working at a casting agency, she told me this story: Pinchot came in to audition for Snoopy in the revival of YOU'RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN. Apparently it didn't go well and as he was leaving he passed Alison emptying a wastepaper basket.
"Hey, what's that in there?" he said, "Oh. It's my career."
So, like I said, I'm glad he's working. In fact, I am so happy, I do the dance of joy.