Sunday, September 23, 2012

Biting the Hand that Feeds You: The 1% vs. 99% Onstage

Depression-era audiences rushed to the theater and movie houses seeking escapist entertainment in the form of high comedies and lavish song and dance extravaganzas. Whether through the wit or opulence of a Raphaelson or Coward play or the sheer elegance of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' pas de deux, audiences of this time decidedly chose to live vicariously through these decadent tales of the very rich. For the most part, these plays and movies were written by "members of the club" who, by birth or marriage,   knew the inner-workings of the upper class. As a result, even those works laced with satire, lampooned the aristocracy with love and fondness and, in the end, upheld status quo.

Nearly a century later, with the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements making national headlines, the  "1%" still graces our stages, but are being portrayed with very different brushstrokes. This time around, playwrights are not elevating the have-nots to lives of leisure (a least for a couple hours), but instead, are aiming to bring the haves down a notch or two. Not since mustached villain Ford Sterling charged toward a distressed Mabel Normand in Mack Sennett's Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life, has American audiences seen a more accepted public enemy than the fiscally well-to-do. In an era where CEOs are making 231 times the average worker's pay, this select demographic becomes an easy target for today's contemporary playwrights and screenwriters. In fact, recent villains that have graced the boards have included Joseph Pulitzer (Newsies), Jeffrey Skilling (Enron), and Bernie Madoff (Imagining Madoff). Cosmopolitan theater-goers would be hard pressed these days to find a regional theater that isn't producing at least one new or contemporary work where the tension-filled relations between  the 1% and 99% doesn't fill  the stage. Boston audiences have to look no further than the Huntington Theatre's Southie-based Good People and the American Repertory Theatre's Marie Antoinette.

Soulless on Stage

Good People's protagonist Margie (tackled by spitfire Johanna Day) has recently lost her job at a Southie neighborhood dollar store due to habitual tardiness caused from accommodating her disabled, adult-aged daughter's babysitter's unreliable schedule. Can a girl catch a break? As bleak as a life behind the a dollar store register sounds, at least Margie has escaped being employed by the Gillette factory where every other dead-end Sally is stuck. Upon hearing that her high school sweetheart, Mike Dillon (a rather dull Michael Laurence), is once again local, she decides to hit her "lace-curtain Irish" old flame up for a job. Now a reproductive endocrinologist (don't bother asking Margie what that is), Mike has distanced himself from the old neighborhood and its blue-collared residents having moved to the affluent suburbs of Chestnut Hill.  Speaking in an obnoxious Bryn Mawr-ish accent, Mike does not intend to go out of his way to help Margie get back on her feet. Nor is Mike willing to entertain the possibility that Margie's daughter may, in fact, be his own as such a revelation could threaten the "comfortable" lifestyle he has built for his wife, Kate (Rachael Holmes), and their daughter.

One interesting question that Good People poses is whether or not success is a product of luck or hard-work. Taking a page from Sophocles, Margie believes Mike's accomplishments are essentially a product of luck - or fate, if you will. After all, unlike Mike, Margie never had parents who "watched from the window." Mike, on the other hand, has no empathy for Margie's state as he proclaims, "It's not my fault you can't find a job." Mike believes hard work, and hard work alone, has made him what he is today. While Mike's childhood may not have exactly been the Upton Sinclair-esque upbringing he makes it out to be, the fortunes of an attentive and loving family does give one certain advantages in life independent of the socio-economic background one is born into. And in Margie's case, one should not underestimate the power of personal accountability to overcome the perceived impotence of the disenfranchised.  Free-will vs. fate may be as old as the nature vs. nurture debate - but in all cases the truth is not as black and white as each character defends it to be.

Playwrights are often given two points of advice when brainstorming ideas for new plays: write about your greatest fear or write about what you know. Lindsay-Abaire tackled the former when he wrote about the loss of one's child in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Rabbit Hole. As someone who grew up in Southie, it appears, at least on the surface, that Lindsay-Abaire was ready to tackle the latter suggestion in his latest Broadway outing. Interesting enough, he decides to keep the focus on Margie - the Southie gal who can't seem to move past the deck of cards she's been dealt. Assuredly, he would have been more equipped to tell a Southie story from the perspective of someone who has risen above it all but is forced to face the ghosts of his past (Hello Ibsen!). After all, Lindsay-Abaire was educated at Milton Academy (alma mater of the Kennedy boys - yes, those Kennedys) on scholarship prior to attending Saint Lawrence College and gaining notoriety as a playwright. Not surprisingly, some of the plays most amusing moments come from Lindsay-Abaire's intimate knowledge of the quirks (push presents) and dysfunctions (marriage counseling) of this upper-middle class world.  Perhaps, if he was telling this story more from his own perspective, success would be portrayed with more sensitivity, gratefulness, and nuance - characteristics that are decidedly missing from Dr. Mike and I would hope belong to the playwright and others like him.

In Marie Antoinette, playwright David Adjmi and director Rebecca Taichman give the court of Versailles the royal treatment with sets of gold, pastel gowns, and macaroons aplenty. Much like Sofia Coppola's visually stunning biopic of the same name, the ART's production uses a modern pop soundtrack full of energy and angst. Adjmi and Taichman go a bit further in this post-modern production with their Queen bearing a closer resemblance to Lady Gaga than French royalty. At the heart of the court lies the title character who remains out-of-touch in every sense of the word. Not only does the Queen dismiss the threat of revolution ("I hear of talk of Revolution, but not around here [Versailles]," she can't even remember her husband's birthday. Marie's disregard goes not without warning as she is repeatedly told that she should be careful, "the people are angry. They're hungry. They're overtaxed." Sounds familiar, no? Even Louis XVI,  the child-like and overwhelmed monarch played superbly by Steven Rattazzi, is fed up with her extravagant spending ("Why do you [Marie] bother speaking to me, just send me  [Louis] an invoice."). While her husband criticizes her ("You never think of anything but your own amusements"), her subjects disgrace her ("To them I'm just some bitch from Austria who gives everyone a blow job.") Even when her life is in danger and her personal jewels are being confiscated, all Marie can think about is who will draw her baths in her post-Versailles existence. In her defense, Marie proclaims, "I didn't know the value of money. I was a Queen." Though the play was originally written during the Bush administration, the creative team obviously wants audiences to draw parallels between the French aristocracy and America's 1% as well as the 18th century revolutionaries and our 99% Occupy Wall Street-ers. In case these parallels were not obvious enough for you, the French peasants spoke with American Southern accents indicative of our rural poor. It's never a good sign when your production relies so heavily on forced relevance.

Comedy in lieu of Compassion

Lindsay-Abaire wants us to sympathize with the hardships faced by his down-on-their-luck Southie clan in Good People.  In the second act, while life is handing his heroine, Margie, both set-backs and self-realizations, I was longing for the first acts constant stream of hard-boiled comic one-liners poking fun at their ignorance, 'white trash' taste, and vulgarity. Boston-based actresses, Nancy Carroll (Dottie) and Karen MacDonald (Jean) are exceptionally good. As tacky as their settings and actions are, they are smart enough actresses to play the comedy straight. From competitive Bingo games in the church basement to Dottie peddling her googly-eyed, bunny statuettes, this duo provides earnest comic relief. The greatest comedies of modern times have a layer of melancholy just underneath the surface. Lindsay-Abaire's comic zingers, though funny, are too broad, formulaic and calculated to achieve such layered greatness. Think of a more polished version of the sitcoms My Name is Earl and The Jeff Foxworthy Show. Lindsay-Abaire hasn't quite found the balance between wanting his audience embrace  the raucous community bond between his characters dead-end existences and root for his protagonist to pull herself up from her bootstraps to find a better life for herself and her daughter. In the world of Good People, a lot is lost (at least as illustrated by Mike), in terms of spirit, camaraderie, and decency when a comfortable lifestyle is gained. Lindsay-Abaire would have been far better off to stay the course with the hard-boiled comic structure of the first act instead of launching into the melodramatic stickiness of its second act.

Marie Antionette has major tonal problems. Tone, or the director's and/or playwright's attitude toward the material, is one of the most basic, though essential, elements of drama. In interviews, David Adjmi states that he sees Marie Antoinette as a sympathetic figure. The compassion that Adjmi attempts to impart on Marie comes, unfortunately, far too late in the game. Following a first act characterized by obvious satire, extravagant costumes (three foot powdered wigs) objets (perfumed sheep), questionable silliness, midget servants, and cross dressing comtes gyrating to techno punk, the audiences' distaste for the French royalty's naivete and inaccessibility to the poor man's blight has been solidified. As the tone shifts in the second act following Marie's dissent, the audience is not prepared to journey with the Queen through lectures on Rousseau and moments of self-discovery. Adjmi admits that he did not set out to demonize the wealthy, but instead, to critique the political structures that allow for incompetent leadership and an unjust distribution of wealth. While the second act supports these intentions, audiences can't ignore or forget that the satire of the first act focuses on Marie as an individual and the Versailles she has created. Someone must remind Adjmi that he can't have his cake and eat it too.      

Biting the Hand That Feeds You

Bad dramatics aside, I can't help but be aggravated by the hypocrisy of regional theater companies committed to "thought-provoking" works that portray the wealthy as a monolithic group of selfish capitalists. Flipping through the Huntington's program for Good People, I found nine (over 20% of the program) pages highlighting individuals, corporations, and foundations who have supported the theater, its operating budget, and its educational programming over the past fiscal year. When you walk through the lobby at the ART, the first thing you notice is a mounted honor roll of donors recognizing those individuals and groups who have made leadership contributions to their last campaign. For better or worse, the 1% are the leading supporters of the American theater both as patrons and large benefactors. While Lindsay-Abaire's latest works have commercial appeal due to their crowd-pleasing melodramatic plots of the kitchen-sink variety, I think it would be fair to say that Mr. Adjmi's Marie Antoinette would have never received such a highly visible and ostentatious production without the financial support of the ART's donors (or the 1% as I like to call them) and the ART's  partnership with Harvard University. Note: Harvard's Endowment reached $32 billion in 2011. While I fully support theater that advocates social  and political change in a subtle, intelligent, and entertaining manner, regional theaters must be careful not to bite the hand that feeds them with their two-dimensional portrayal of class contentions. And if your theater is full of individuals who believe, at least on some level, in a just and necessary distribution of wealth through their support of your programming and capital projects, aren't you just preaching to the choir?