Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Must Miss

I make a few treks every year to New York to see plays.

Last weekend I saw August: Osage County. If you google this play you will see that it is a hands down favorite to win the Tony this year for best play. I don't when a new American play has been so celebrated. By Tracy Letts, the play started in Chicago, and then was transplanted to New York with the original cast mostly intact. I had such high expectations for the play, which makes me think of another verymarkmccormick axiom about theater (and movies ususally): the amount of enjoyment you get out of a cultural experience is very often (not always, just often) inversely proportionate to your expectations. That is, if you think think you're really, really going to love a movie or book or play it will often fail to live up to your expectations, but just as often you can be dragged to something kicking and screaming only to find out: hey, I'm having a great time. I don't know why this is.

The play is an epic length exploration of a highly, highly dysfunctional family in Oklahoma. There's not a problem this family does not have: drug addiction, alcoholism, cancer, estrangement, secrets, lies, violence, money, and even (watch out! just when you thought things were looking up) incest.

The play centers around the mother, Violet Weston. This role has been described as a new "great role" along the lines of Martha in Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire. This role is like any great diva role you can think of, magnified to cartoonish proportions. She's a monster. If you like dragons, Tasmanian Devils, or the human embodiment of Hurricane Katrina, this is the play for you.

So I had high expectations, very high, and so it should have been no surprise that I absolutely loathed the play. I cannot remember having a more unpleasant experience in the theater, or my expectations so dashed. I was absolutely astounded at how the people around me were laughing at the production, which I found professional and glossy, sure, but the script left me absolutely cold. And so unfunny (one line--the mother berating the daughter for dressing in a pantsuit toa funeral: "you look a magicians assistant"--and the audience guffawed. Huh? Sitcom humor at best!!)

The characters were insufferable, and the play offered no redemption at all and not single likable character (really, I will not be moved from this point--the characters were really quite literally hopeless, with the possible exception of the Native American maid Johnna, the nephew Little Charles and his cousin/sister/lover Ivy). I suppose I was expecting (from reviews) a combination of Caroline, or Change (a Tony Kushner musical that I loved) and Six Feet Under: that is, dysfunction made meaningful, but what it was instead was some bad post-modern Tennessee Williams (or Faulkner) with possibly one decent brooding theme ("I've got the Plains. . . ") of how we've raped the (Mother) land and must find our way back (thus the final, forced, Pieta image).

If you're going to New York, don't see this, see Spring Awakening.

Yes, Master

Over the past few years when someone has asked me for a book recommendation I usually recommend two Irish writers and two Brits. The latter are Alan Hollinghurst--his best book is The Swimming Pool Library, and Ian MacEwan, most recently famous for Atonement (although Chesil Beach is a gorgeous novella). On the Irish side, its Jamie O'Neall (At Swim Two Boys) and, most eminent of all of these, Colm Toibin.

His book called The Master, about Henry James is a masterpiece. Written in the style of Henry James which makes it once challenging and rewarding it is original, insightful, and at least emotionally accurate, based on everything I've read about James. He paints a portrait of the artist equal parts repressed and brilliant.

I've just finished his short story collection called Mothers and Sons. It is stylistically nothing like The Master, meaning that the diction is not elevated in any way; but it is like The Master in that Toibin has a way of getting to the soulful depths of his characters, and he does favor the shadow side of his characters: that which cannot be said interests him most. The title is intriguing, and I wondered if the conceit of stories about mothers and sons could sustain a collection. Indeed, it seemed almost accidental that each story happened to have a mother and happened to have a son. My guess is that he didn't set out to write a book about mothers and sons, but that he suddenly realized: oh my, look at that, a unifying motif.

I savored every story, especially the novella called The Long Winter which is the only story not set at least partially in Ireland, but rather in Spain. It's the wrenching tale of a young man whose mother disappears into the snowy fields one day. She has gone in search of alcohol, her family having staged a rather hasty intervention. Months pass before the snow melts and proper search for the body can begin. In the meantime the protagonist absorbs hard lessons about loss and longing. This sounds so sad, I know, but in each of these stories there is a strong and subtle feeling of reconciliation with the way things are, and--even in the story of the mother dealing with the shame of her son the priest who is about to be de-frocked--there is hope.