Dec 19, 2007

Moishe's, Mama's Families

Writing about theater doesn't get much better than John Lahr's profile of Pinter and The Homecoming, in the current New Yorker, in which he identifies a specific inspiration for the play's premise: the return of Pinter's old Hackney friend Moishe Wernick from a job in Canada with his wife and family to meet his family for the first time, including a certain patriarch described as a "tough old bugger." There are many quotable insights in Lahr's piece, some from David Mamet and Peter Hall, but many, as usual, from Lahr's artful knitting-together of his subject and his perception, as in this passage:
When the characters finally arrive on the page, Pinter knows no more than what they tell him. As he told a group of drama students in 1962, “You and I, the characters which grow on a page, most of the time we’re inexpressive, giving little away, unreliable, elusive, evasive, obstructive, unwilling. But it’s out of these attributes that a language arises. A language, I repeat, where under what is said, another thing is being said.” In this sense, Pinter took the actor’s understanding of subtext and turned it into a metaphysic. This discovery allowed him to distill and reconfigure the inspiration of Samuel Beckett--he was reading Beckett from 1950 on--into his own distinctive rhythmical, alliterative idiom, which made a drama of utterance, not explanation, and where the appearance of reality was an uncompromising dissection of the unknown. Mamet, speaking of Pinter and Beckett, said, “They did what few dramatists have done in modern times: they construed the drama not as the interplay of ideas but as the interplay of sounds. That is, they understood the drama as a poem, which had the capacity to move, as does a real poem, musically—to affect on a pre-rational level.”

I haven't finished the piece; I hope it goes on for pages and pages more.

Unfortunately, at the other end of the spectrum in America's finest magazine is Lahr's colleague, Hilton Als, who coolly dismisses Tracy Letts' much-praised August: Osage County with incisive comparisons like the following:
As a character, Violet is a meaner, more logical Collette Reardon, the hopeless pill-popper whom the former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Cheri Oteri played so brilliantly...Seated at the dining-room table, Violet’s daughters all roll around in the thick mud of their shared narcissism--a scene that reminded me of the awful daughters in the old Carol Burnett sketch routine “Mama’s Place,” which was itself a parody of Tennessee Williams at his most hysterical and derivative.

And finally, Als' baffling, bottomlessly condescending coup de grace: his Broadway début, Letts clearly intends to prove himself a “major” playwright. To do so, he parodies his roots, rather than revealing them. Letts could very well end up winning prizes for “August: Osage County.” But so did the playwright Preston Jones, with his “Texas Trilogy,” in the mid-seventies. Like Letts, Jones was a provincial writer of promise who was pulled onto the Broadway boards too soon for his own good. Now his work is rarely performed at all.

If The New Yorker were not as widely read and as influential as it is outside of New York, with people who may never see the plays it covers (not as true of its film, TV, book and music reviews), I wouldn't mind this crap so much. For a magazine of record, though, this is a disgrace.

(Photo by Cecil Beaton.)


Anonymous said...

Yes, Letts is a "provincial" writer (what the hell does that mean -- he's not from Manitoba for god's sake) whose work has played in extended runs in New York and London (and he was also a Pulitzer finalist for "Man From Nebraska," a play about which Als apparently knows nothing, because it hasn't been produced in New York, and therefore isn't worthy of consideration). And of course he also wrote the screenplay for this year's film version of "Bug," but apparently that also doesn't get him out of the Provincial Playwright Special Ed classes Als advocates.

And how clever of Als to figure out that Letts has merely been using his ensemble member status with Steppenwolf all these years as a means to springboard his way onto Broadway. Because if someone is looking for a production on the Great White Way these days, obviously the easiest way to do it is to write a 13-character, 3-act, 3-and-a-half hours' long play, and write those parts with particular actors in mind, none of whom are big-name stars.


Playgoer said...

Ansolutely right, Anon.

Als is basically, by extension, calling Steppenwolf "provincial," no? His whole framining of that criticism in terms of "is it right for Broadway" totally blows off the significance of it being done at (and very much FOR) Steppenwolf initially--kind of a major company in the heritage of the modern American theatre, we might add.

His random comparison to that 70's "Texas Trilogy" (really reaching back!) is dated in so many ways. For one--we should really stop to think what Broadway has become NOW before judging something not up to its standards. "Osage Country"--however White Trashy--would certainly have to count as one of the more literate entertainments currently up on the great white way.

Anonymous said...

Al is a fool. Letts and Steppenwolf have hit a Home run and there are the jealous detractors. Broadway was dying for a show this good. AND, that it came with most of the original cast intact "no stars" is a testament to the company and power of the Play.