Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What not to do this weekend

I should have told you this before now, but better late than never: Saturn Returns, the new play by Noah Haidle now entering its last week Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center, is terrible. Just terrible. If you're entertaining the thought of going, please do yourself a favor and don't.

I loved Haidle's breakthrough play, Mr. Marmalade, when I read it in American Theatre magazine. I didn't think it was profound, but I did think it was hilarious, and I didn't see why it should have to be more than that. (Not everyone agreed, as we'll see below.) I passed on seeing the Roundabout production because I heard it was lousy and didn't do justice to the script. But I was excited about Haidle's talent and looking forward to this one... And I was extremely disappointed.

Saturn Returns has a relatively promising concept, as laid out in the program notes: "In astrology, Saturn is associated with three crucial turning points in a person's life: first at 27-30 years of age, then around 58-60, and the third and usually final time around 86-88." A good playwright might be able to build something really interesting on that idea. But there's nothing the least bit interesting about what Haidle did with it in this play. It feels like the first draft of a hastily written assignment for an undergraduate playwriting seminar: earnest, pleased with itself, totally underdeveloped and badly in need of revision.

Mr. Marmalade was a black comedy with a bracingly zany sensibility. This is not a comedy, alas; it's apparently supposed to be a romance, but there's nothing authentic about its sentimentality. There are occasional, distracting flareups of Haidle's quirkiness -- like one character's fondness for launching into setups for jokes that couldn't possibly culminate in satisfying punch lines. But none of that fits into the world of this play, which seems to want to be realistic (the staging, under director Nicholas Martin, certainly tries for naturalism), and all of the more straightfaced dialogue is tedious and patronizing. Even at a mere seventy-two minutes, Saturn Returns feels way too long. You will leave feeling sorry for John McMartin, who makes a heroic attempt to do something with his completely lifeless character, and for yourself for having wasted more than an hour hoping the play would come to life. There's a moment in the final scene, when the three actors who play the central character are onstage together, that seems poised to breathe life into the concept at last. But it's false hope. There's no payoff to this play.

I knew Saturn Returns had gotten an unfavorable review in the NYT, but I was surprised to find that Charles Isherwood had actually been far too indulgent. This play is slight and insignificant; it didn't deserve a handsome Lincoln Center production, and it didn't deserve as much attention as Isherwood gave it.

I am pleased, however, to see Isherwood is still asking the important questions:
The climax of the scenes between Gustin and Zephyr, who is encouraging her father to date because she is planning finally to leave home, on the cusp of 30, is undeniably wrenching but not quite believable. (And did people in Michigan really name daughters Zephyr in 1948?)
Why, no, they didn't! What an insightful criticism! Way to poke holes in the conceit of this play! Nothing gets past you, Ish! (Except perhaps the fact that Zephyr's father's name is "Gustin." How many Gustins do you know?)

The reason I paid no attention to the NYT review before I saw Saturn Returns for myself was that I remembered Isherwood's review of Mr. Marmalade. As I mentioned, I heard from other people that the Roundabout staging of that play was poor, so I skipped it. But I loved the play itself, and I thought Isherwood's review was astonishingly unfair, built entirely on criticisms like the one I just quoted. It was a classic example of Isherwood's tendency to criticize a play for not being what he thinks it should be, instead of considering what the author wanted it to be. In the case of Mr. Marmalade, Ish basically objected to Haidle's decision to write a comedy.
The play conjures in bright Crayola colors the precociously adult mindscape of little Lucy (played by the adult actress Mamie Gummer), a pigtailed New Jersey tot whose fantasy companion comes accessorized with personal assistant, bipolar disorder and cocaine problem. But Mr. Marmalade... never truly capitalizes on its provocative conceit...

Lucy's interior world is so patently incredible as the creation of a 4-year-old mind, however marinated in the scream-fests of daytime television and episodes of Law & Order: SVU, that the author never really even dips his toe into the painful emotional undercurrents beneath the play's antic comic surface. Instead, he settles too easily and too consistently for cheap laughs.

Lucy's lexicon is too sophisticated to suggest random imprinting from endless hours of television consumption, to begin with. ...With her knowledge of interns and brunch and the menu at Nobu, Lucy's vocabulary is littered with such references planted to serve as punch lines. How to explain this urbanity, when her distracted single mom appears to work as a waitress in a diner? (Never mind the distasteful implication that neglectful mothering is endemic to the working classes.)
That last line is itself a completely unfair criticism (and you're one to talk, Mr. "People in 1940s Michigan were obviously pedestrian and uncreative"). But I'd like to focus on the central complaint here: 4-year-olds don't know about Nobu! They don't use big words! Oh, and people in the 1930s didn't name their kids "Zephyr"! Oh, and hello, Eugene Ionesco, human beings can't turn into rhinoceroses! And, AND, if Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona, how come everyone speaks English?!

Obviously Charles Isherwood is not completely unfamiliar with the conventions of the stage. So how to explain what possesses him to write nonsense like that? To me it reads as an arbitrary dislike of the playwright.
In between the tea parties and naughty games of doctor, Lucy carries on so many complex conversations about concepts (suicide, infidelity) blatantly beyond a 4-year-old's intellectual capacity that her nightmare world retains no grip on our imaginations or our emotions. It is too palpably shaped by the playwright, not by his character.

...In exaggerating Lucy's self-inflicted emotional torture to spark spasms of nervous laughter, Mr. Haidle sacrifices the chance to explore his dark subject matter honestly. And you don't have to be a prig to wish that a playwright dealing with the idea of children's suffering would demonstrate an awareness that the subject is sadly not as far-fetched as the loopy tone would suggest.
No, you don't have to be a prig. But Mr. Marmalade is a comedy, and you do have to be a pretty perversely irresponsible critic to write your entire review about how you would have prefered it to be something else. It may be legitimate to criticize a play for being "too palpably shaped by the playwright." But Isherwood is really criticizing this play for being "too palpably shaped by the playwright instead of by ME."

Maybe someone gave Ish a talking-to about this, and maybe that's why he went out of his way to take Saturn Returns seriously when it deserved nothing more than a disapproving finger-wag.

Michael Feingold, on the other hand, gave Saturn exactly that, and instead of waiting till I had ten minutes to write about it myself I should have just linked you to his review weeks ago. It says all that needs to be said:
If Noah Haidle's Saturn Returns... has any dramatic point, it's hard to perceive. Saturn, a slow-moving planet, supposedly produces a changed consciousness of life when it enters your astrological chart, about once every 30 years. But Haidle's hero—played by three fine actors at 28, 58, and 88, respectively—remains the same stodgy, sardonic, otherwise traitless person throughout, while one appealing actress, Rosie Benton, tries to nudge change out of him as his wife, daughter, and home health aide. Short (75 minutes), slight, and sentimental, the play's tidy cleverness seems as vapid as its hero, making the resources expended on it seem a more shocking waste than those poured, however erratically, into Faust or Billy Elliot.
For what it's worth, Feingold hated Mr. Marmalade too, and his criticisms weren't so different from Isherwood's. But they were far more intelligent.

No comments: