Friday, January 12, 2007

Cleanliness is next to emptiness

I am a great believer in drama-as-literature, but I am nevertheless suspicious of playwrights who are unusually fussy about how their work looks in print. I would say Sarah Ruhl is one such playwright. Her stage directions, for example, tend to break down the page, in semi-verse, so that in publication,

A scene from one of her plays
looks like a page
from an undergraduate literary magazine.

In my opinion,
this is annoying.

I guess there's nothing wrong with poetic stage directions, or whimsical scene titles, or highly individualized spelling and punctuation—a playwright is entitled to embellish his/her work with rickrack as much as any other writer. But after a certain point, I start to think all this attention to how the play looks on the page might mean the author is paying too little attention to how it works on the stage. Which is, after all, the point.

As I say, this may not be a fair assumption, and Ruhl has a good reputation as a playwright (to put it mildly). On the page, The Clean House struck me as lightweight and a little too pleased with itself, but even the most carefully edited manuscript can't recreate a performance, and I've had plenty of experiences where something that seemed pedestrian in print translated to a powerful experience in the theatre. So I thought maybe all these idiosyncrasies were actually beneficial to the actor and director, in some way I couldn't anticipate; at any rate, I figured, the textual tics wouldn't get between me and the play if I saw it in production. So I was excited about the Lincoln Center production of The Clean House; this was a chance to evaluate the play in its proper context, on the stage, where the stage directions were someone else's problem entirely.

Unfortunately, Bill Rauch, the director of the play's New York premiere, seems to have made it his goal to retain the self-conscious cuteness of the written script in the stage production. He acheives this partly by taking Ruhl up on her suggestion that some of the more ponderous scene titles and stage directions—e.g., "Virginia has a deep impulse to order the universe"—be projected onto screens so that the audience may read them as they apply, and partly by having the actors speak stiffly and artificially at all times, as if they're afraid you won't notice how very poetic and profound it all is if they speak like normal people. I feel like I'm repeating myself here, and maybe this tells you more about my personal preferences than anything, but when a work is characterized by artifice to begin with, I don't think more artifice is a good interpretive approach. I think it's fair to say "magical realism" comes into play in The Clean House, and for magical realism to work, I need to feel like the play is giving me a privileged glimpse into a world where what seems magical to me is just plain realism to the inhabitants. In this case, I felt like I was watching actors read self-consciously cute dialogue in a self-consciously cute way. And that wears thin really fast.

Too bad, because there is some real poetry scattered throughout this script, and some solid jokes, too. Allowed to stand on their own, they might add up to a reasonably rewarding theatrical experience. But there isn't enough comedy, drama or insight here to fill 2 hours, or 2 acts. The division of labor is uneven; Act I feels insubstantial, and Act II feels overlong and overloaded with plot. The whole play felt, to me, like a collection of half-baked, loosely connected "concepts." A lot of those concepts could make interesting plays, if they were explored in any depth, but here they're just tossed together into a salad of pseudo-profundity. And while most of the ideas that interested me felt underdeveloped, I could have done without all the emphasis on "the perfect joke" and the burden of being funny and so on; every time Matilde started in with "This is how I imagine my parents," I was rolling my eyes, all "Here we go again..."

This is a very good cast, and there are a few moments in Act II when the drama of the story allows them, however briefly, to cross over from "performing" and actually act. (Of all the unfortunate performers, John Dossett comes off the best, but in the interest of fairness I should point out that he doesn't have to say anything in Act I—and, also, I think John Dossett is wonderful in everything.) But it's too late, by then, for the play to build up enough good will to keep the audience onboard through all its "magical" twists and turns. Long before the unfortunate cell phone incident on Wednesday, the audience was already restless, most of us wondering how much longer this would go on, and whether we would mind if it ended right now.

Was I right, then, that the play is lightweight and far too pleased with itself? Or is it still possible that, with down-to-earth direction, it might prove to be a work of understated genius after all? I can't say for sure; all I know is that this production, with its stilted line readings and back-wall projections, felt more like a multimedia poetry reading than a play. Theatre offers an artist lots of ways to communicate an idea to an audience, and if the best way you can come up with to communicate that, for example, "Virginia has a deep impulse to order the universe" is to project the words onto the back wall, then maybe you are paying too little attention to what's happening on the stage.

Also: My blog is only a few weeks old, but perhaps word has gotten around, because "restricted view" doesn't begin to describe my seat. I was in the front row, lefthand section, last seat (here's a diagram). Which worked out okay during Act I. Sure, I could see into the wings backstage left, but I did my best to ignore that. The supertitles were more of an issue—screens had been set up to face the folks in the side sections, so I didn't have to lean way out to read what it said on the back wall, but I had to keep checking the screen, since it was so far above the stage, and you just never knew when one of those wacky scene titles was going to show up to explain what was happening! So that was annoying, but the real problems started in Act II, when whole scenes took place on a balcony directly above my head. I guess Bill Rauch gave up on pleasing the left side of the theatre, but I'm not sure that those seats are even labeled "restricted view," which they definitely are. So consider yourself warned.

Also, as long as we're complaining: As much as I love Lincoln Center, I'm not a James McMullan fan. His work is often pretty, but the images seem static and profoundly untheatrical to me. That said, I think the poster art for this play may be his worst ever. And what's with the lettering? Is that Arial Narrow? I guess he didn't like the play, either.

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