On the Stage: Doris to Darlene and The Homecoming
Please welcome Kevin Sessums, who last reviewed I wrote about The Seafarer and August: Osage County for Towleroad. You can also catch up with Kevin at his own blog at MississippiSissy.com.
Last week I wrote about The Seafarer and August: Osage County, two plays similar in their rave reviews, the disfunctional hearts of their familial narratives, and their stunning stagings. This week I’d like to report on a couple of plays that could not be more dissimilar — one by a young gay playwright from Seattle who recently graduated from Brown and the other by an English Nobel Prize winner — a rather legendary lady’s man of literature — who is married to the indomitable popular historian Lady Antonia Fraser. The former is just starting out in his promising career; the latter is, with all his own indomitability, in the twilight of his brilliant one.
Jordon Harrison’s Doris to Darlene: a cautionary valentine is a slight but rather lovely little play now off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons about how music can not only soothe the most savage of breasts, but also the most domesticated of souls. A kind of dramatic roundelay all its own, the play takes place over three simultaneous time frames _ 1960s in Detroit, 2007 in what appears to be the Seattle of the playwright’s teenage years, and the late 1880s in Germany. The characters include a Martha Reeves-like singer and her Phil Spector-like Wagner-loving Svengali; Richard Wagner himself and his own artistic patron, the mad young King Ludwig II; and a gay teenager, who has discovered an old tape of the Martha Reeves-like singer, and his mentor, a music appreciation teacher for whom Wagner is the epitome of angst-filled love as well as art and upon whom the teenager projects all his own angst-filled aspirations of sexual longing.
Harrison, director Les Waters, and the exemplary cast weave a sweet spell that falls just short of a magical night in the theatre. Standouts are Tobias Segal as the teenager and, as his teacher, Tom Nelis. The play runs for the rest of this week and if you love Detroit ‘60s music or Richard Wagner or, especially, your own teenage memories of your burgeoning gayness and how those early sexual longings can get all beautifully garbled together in your culturally cluttered head like the notes of Wagner’s “Lieberstod” when you’re trying to remember a Detroit Motown ditty, then make your way to Playwrights Horizons on 42nd Street before the play closes. You just might be touched by the tenderness of Harrison’s vision. His is a voice — musical in its own right — that I’ll be listening for in theatre seasons to come.
T T 1/2 (out of 4 posible T's)
Sir Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming has been revived on Broadway at the Cort Theatre on 48th Street in a production that had the New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley in fits of rapture. I’m afraid it just made me want to throw a fit — which could be finally Pinter's point anyway.
More AFTER THE JUMP....
The play was first produced in London in 1963 and won the Tony for Best Play in 1967. It, like The Seafarer and Osage County, is yet another play about familial dysfunction. Set in a North London working class living room of a family lacking a matriarch (the mother died years earlier), the family in the play consists of three brothers — a pimp, a boxer, and a philosophy professor — and their father, who is a retired butcher, as well as his own brother who works as a chauffeur outside the house and wears the apron inside it. Into this sea of blunted and blame-spewing testosterone, the philosophy professor brings his wife, who is one part bomb, one part bombshell. Her presence ignites incriminations and power plays and much sexual ugliness on the parts of all the inhabitants of the household. “The Homecoming is, I believe” Pinter has said, “a play about family. And about misogyny, certainly. And I truly believe it’s a feminist play.”
Hmm. One could have a debate about the person who holds more real power in the abstract vision of Pinter’s drama — the madonna/whore figure of the wife or the soulless rascals who surround and use her. Or does she use them for her own devious devices? Is Pinter simply using the audience for his? Whose reality is the most powerful — that of the characters, and which specific character while we're at it? That of the playwright? That of the audience? Or, moreover, are we left with this nihilistic — and, yes, Pinteresque — question above all others: Who the fuck finally cares?
For any Pinter play to work one must experience the real menace that he so artfully manages to imbue in the silences and sharpened slivers of his dialogue. But director Daniel Sullivan — whose work I so often admire — has slowed the action of this play down to a choreographed — almost statically diagrammed — lugubrious kind of dance instead of the visceral boxing match it calls for. In keeping with the musical references above in the other review, I was reminded while sitting through much of this production of the scene in the new film Juno — also over-praised to me — in which the older man insists the title character listen to Sonic Youth’s version of The Carpenter’s “Superstar,” the song coming out even more simperingly than Karen Carpenter ever sang it, an adagio of glibness. Many of the lines of dialogue in this revival of The Homecoming were slowed to the same simpering kind of glibness when they should glide into the audience’s collective gut more like a serrated knife. Maybe Eugene Lee's set had something to do with this; one never ceases to realize one is looking at an expanse of stage. There is never a sense of being in a claustrophobic North London flat so that the dialogue becomes too disclamatory and the family's discourse becomes too heightened even for the silence-sliced sentences conjured by Pinter instead of the more hemmed-in kind of harangues for which he is also so poetically known.
Again, Pinter: "One of the greatest theatrical nights of my life was the opening of The Homecoming in New York. There was the audience. It was 1967. I’m not sure they’ve changed very much, but it really was your mink coats and suits. Money. And when the lights went up on The Homecoming, they hated it immediately. ‘Jesus Christ, what the hell are we looking at here?’ I was there, and the hostility towards the play was palpable. You could see it.
"The great thing was, the actors went on and felt it and hated the audience back even more. And they gave it everything they’d got. By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated ... I thought it was a great night. And that was a real example of a contest between the play and the audience. There’s no question that the play won on that occasion., although that is not always the case."
In the case of this newest production of The Homecoming there is nothing as exciting onstage or off as that night Pinter is describing.The cast, however, gives it a gallant go. For once the great Raul Esparza doesn’t have to sing for his supper and infuses the pimp brother with equal parts self-pity and perversity. Ian McShane is a fireplug of a father when a bit more decrepitude is perhaps called for. Gareth Saxe is a taut calibration of muscles and neediness as the sexed-up boxer. James Frain has just the right amount of remoteness as the philospher. Michael McKean is giving the best and on-the-heartbreaking-mark performance as the apron-wearer in this bunch. But it is Eve Best — whose oddly slow-motion-like performance hypnotised me at times with its erotic power while narcotising me at others with its somnambulistic qualities — who confounded me. I will admit the final triumphant smile that wafted across her face as the lights went down was the one silent Pinter moment that stuck the serrated knife in — though the image on which the lights were dimming was of the limp boxer at her feet, his head in her lap, the pieta at the end of this evening of emotional pugilism that Pinter has foisted upon us less madonna/whorey than simply — forgive me, Sir Harold — hoary.
T T (out of 4 possible T's)
On the Stage: The Seafarer and August: Osage County [tr]
On the Stage: Trumpery [tr]
On the Stage: Make Me A Song, The Music of William Finn and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee [tr]
On the Stage: Bad Jazz [tr]
On the Stage: Things We Want and Peter and Jerry [tr]
(doris to darlene image: broadway world)