Sep 18, 2012

How We Live Next

Sarah Sokolovic, Darren Pettie, David Schwimmer, and Amy Ryan in Detroit (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

As much as I share Charles Isherwood's love for Playwrights Horizons, which in so many ways is an exemplary theater and a powerful counter-argument to anyone who reflexively dismisses either new American writing or institutional support for same (or both), I'm starting to get the sneaking worry that it's typing itself a bit too much as the default home for the "how we live now in America" play, and/or that it feels that that is its mission—to be the kind of furrowed-brow liberal conscience Spy magazine once memorably parodied the NY Times Magazine for being (it's great that Google has digitized all the old issues of Spy, but I don't have time to track down that particular issue at the moment).

From Maple and Vine to Rapture Blister Burn to the new Detroit, which I saw this past weekend, I feel like we're witnessing a trend-let of serious state-of-the-culture plays, which is a mixed blessing. This is the kind of play Terry Teachout too handily dismisses (as he did in the case of Jerusalem, albeit in re: a different national culture), and the kind of thing John Lahr gives too much of a pass to (Labute, I'm lookin' at you).

I guess this trend would be a better thing if I'd felt more moved than instructed by these well-crafted, thoughtful plays; Lisa D'Amour's Detroit, which my employer published last year and which I've been looking forward to seeing ever since, may in fact be the juiciest and rawest of the three I've mentioned. But I can't help feeling that Anne Kauffman's well-wrought, well-acted production now at Playwrights has drained some of the play's unpredictable, volatile energy.

It's about two couples in a crumbling exurb of the title city, one barely hanging on to the lower middle class, the other essentially squatting uncertainly in their orbit, and the ways these four broken people mingle aspiration, despair, and other substances into a toxic, explosive stew. I fear I've made it sound dreadful, far more portentous and less nimble than it actually is; though an air of inevitable doom does hang about it like secondhand smoke, it is a very funny, lively play, and I'd still very much recommend seeing it; every actor has a chance to shine, in particular Sarah Sokolovic as a waifish rehab-rebound dreamer.

And for all my issues with the how-we-live-now genre, it does earn its keep with well-turned observations and subversions of, well, how we live now. It was true of the priceless Google-map/porn analogy in Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, it was true of so much of the mesmerizing first half of Maple and Vine. And it's no less true of D'Amour's work.

I was struck especially by this exchange between Sharon, the waif played by Sokolovic, and Ben, a laid-off financial services guy slowly laboring on his own web-from-home-based business (and played with a sort or riveting blankness by David Schwimmer). It starts with Ben's wife, Mary (played with a pinched soulfulness by Amy Ryan) questioning his business model:
MARY I still don't understand how just a website is going to attract customers. I mean it is just hanging out there in the ether. Is someone just going to decide they need a consultant and then—poof—find your website?

BEN I've got it, baby—

MARY No, I just mean there are like what, a gazillion bazillion websites out there—

BEN I've got it.

SHARON Anyway, I heard the "next Internet" is coming out soon. Something that we can't even imagine. This superfast thing that will change everything. Change everything so much that like we won't even have to own things anymore.

BEN Do you mean—I don't understand. I mean, what will happen to websites? I just don't understand.

SHARON That's just it. I can't explain it, and it's outside of our understanding at this time—

BEN I mean I'm sure there'll be some sort of conversion, a way to convert the website into—

SHARON Ben. No worries. Our tiny brains can't conceive of it, it's totally new, like finding out...this table is actually alive, and has been for a long time. We can't understand it yet, but the inventors of the "next Internet" are doing that part for us. So you, Ben, should just unfurrow—is that a word? Unfurrow that forehead and enjoy some bean dip and Delta caviar.
The way that moment plays onstage encapsulates the best of this kind of play: The ground shifts a little under Ben's feet, and ours, until we're gazing at an abyss of insignificance with only wisps of words to hold onto. It's bracing, and it's the kind of moment that plays like this are shooting for—moments in which we feel the free-floating dislocation and anomie of our 21st-century American lives and aren't simply either shown or told about it.


Julie said...

Did you just use the word trend-let?

I think it's more than a trend, and has been for awhile. And as far as PH is concerned: while I love them, I feel if I see only one play per season, I'll have seen them all.

David Cote said...

If how-we-live-now plays were actually so common, or as engaging as Detroit, I'd have more sympathy with your (always perceptive) contrarian misgivings. But I liked it. It transcends the suburbia-bashing genre to reach a deeper weirder place. We need more of them (and as big as Jerusalem, too). Shows like Detroit or Good People are too rare not to be encouraged. My review for Time Out New York: