Feb 14, 2012

Looking Back

If I've got one pet peeve in criticism, both in print and in water-cooler form, it's the "not likeable" canard. I don't mean to dismiss what people experience as sincere aversion to fictional characters they encounter in films, plays, etc., but I think they mislabel their revulsion; what people really mean when they say they don't like a character is that they don't find them interesting; they don't care what happens to them; they don't feel they're worth their time.

I don't think I need to trot out a list here of despicable or egregiously flawed characters who sufficiently compel us to keep watching or reading (from outright juicy villains like Richard III to anti-heroes like Macheath). I'm also willing to admit that results may vary with people's tastes and tolerance; the eminently hate-able jerks churned out by Neil LaBute, for instance, mostly leave me cold, since they seem like stick-figure straw men for his monotonous enterprise of moral flagellation, while Pinter's gallery of louts and degenerates is more often compelling because they're unpredictable, and this gift of surprise makes them both genuinely funny and genuinely scary, sometimes both at once.

All of which is another way to say that I consider this largely a question of craft, or put still another way: the play's the thing, and if we're turned off because the people onstage seem to us unpleasant, the flaw is more theatrical than characterological. And all of which is preamble to my thoughts about two revivals currently presenting less-than-charming leading men to New York audiences: the Roundabout's self-consciously hard-edged Look Back in Anger and Encores!'s warm but clear-eyed Merrily We Roll Along.

In John Osborne's culture-rattling screed from 1956, Jimmy Porter is a sputtering misanthrope, rendered all the more bilious in director Sam Gold's severe, minimalist new production, on a narrow landing strip of stage. This approach leaves the play's bones exposed, so that it seems closer than ever to a Cockney remix of A Streetcar Named Desire. While I don't think that this more vein-opening approach ultimately works to the play's advantage, it's certainly watchable, in no small part thanks to the actors, particularly the peculiar but powerful main trio, Matthew Rhys, Sarah Goldberg, and Adam Driver. And I'd argue that, in any production of Look Back, what makes us keep watching an abusive, manipulative shit like Jimmy is the suspense of waiting for someone to respond or fight back—Will it be his put-upon wife Alison, or their awkward-bystander friend Cliff? Anyone?

And while Osborne's play has been justly knocked for its shaggy-dog form, I quite admired the way Gold's brittle conception reframed some of its odd jolts and unexpected reversals; they felt true to the irreducible mystery of human relations rather than boiled down to a mere psychological or economic case study.

Merrily has a kind of reverse suspense, as it rolls the tape backward on the disintegrating professional and personal three-way friendship among a composer, a playwright, and a novelist. Like many Sondheimaniacs, I've loved the score for years but had never seen a good staging; I shared the conventional wisdom that the show doesn't "work," and more or less believed the complaint, which I've heard again even regarding this pretty marvelous new staging by James Lapine, that the show's leads, particularly the ruthless sellout Franklin Shepard, are so unlikeable at the show's start that it's a chore to watch them through to the end.

I just didn't see or feel it that way at Encores!; it's true that at the opening, when we meet latter-day Franklin and Mary, an alcoholic novelist who's pined for Franklin all these years, they're both compromised wrecks who've made a shambles of their lives, but neither are villains beyond redemption. And there are enough seeds planted in this new opening—what happened between Franklin and his collaborator Charlie, exactly?—that we're interested enough to get to the next scene, and the next, and so on.

I would concede that this is mere plot-driven curiosity, which isn't the same thing as emotional involvement. But that's my point: We don't need to like characters, we just need to care what happens next, and as long as we're curious enough for a show to get its hooks in us, the emotions will often take care of themselves. And that's the case with Merrily, whose backwards structure gives the knife a few extra twists. Our sense of what these three people lost when they went their separate ways doesn't really begin to kick in until near the end of the first act—how could it? That's when we first glimpse the remnants of Franklin's first marriage and see him tempted into cheating with the diva Gussie and, perhaps more importantly for him, tempted into a worse infidelity: to his muse.

The show's sucker-punch effect snuck up on me in the divorce-court-steps scene when Beth (the terrific Betsy Wolfe), who we've only just met, delivers "Not a Day Goes By," the resentful cri de couer of someone who knows she won't be able to forget the lover who's wronged her. This is our introduction to Beth, which feels perilously late for such a major character, not to mention a character bearing such huge emotions—until it dawns on us, as it does viscerally in this knockout of a song, that in the run of the story this is of course Beth's wrenching final scene, and she's giving us the very good reason she hasn't appeared in the rest of Franklin's story. The kicker is that we know we're about to see more of her, pre-disillusionment, and it's going to hurt.

Once they start, these inverted, delayed-action emotional implosions keep detonating, until the show reaches its core sequence, the openly autobiographical "Opening Doors," which, like the brilliant "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" from Follies, represents a microcosm of the show it sprang from. This roundelay of aspiration, rejection, and determination is Sondheim's most ebullient, precisely remembered tribute to youth and hope—not subjects he's known for celebrating, but there they are, shining bright. Even colored by the knowledge that these hopeful dreams will be dashed or cramped, they gleam here with a purity that can't be taken away. (It doesn't hurt that Colin Donnell, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and especially Celia Keenan-Bolger are a near-ideal trio for this production.)

Storytelling craft can only take you so far, of course; in the case of this Merrily, it takes us far enough for empathy to pick up the baton and work those violins.


Thia said...

. . .at least Charley Kringas ends up with a Pulitzer prize winning play and a solid marriage . . . "tend your dream" . . .

Joy M. said...

The "unlikable character" criticism drives me crazy too! Whenever someone brings it up when we're talking about a play, what I hear is "I didn't bother to actually think about this play before I dismissed it." So annoying.