Dramaturgy 90210


Like any polyglot culture, America’s full of stories; the hard part is knowing how to tell them. Try to contrive something neat, and a dozen or more elements will come crowding in to muddle it up. Try, in contrast, to embrace all the disparate elements, and you’re liable to find yourself with a work that comes dangerously close to having no coherence at all. American literature’s full of these all-purpose nannies’ reticules of works—Leaves of Grass, The Making of Americans, Gravity’s Rainbow. Their quintessence, perhaps, is the cacophonous quodlibet at the end of The Iceman Cometh, with every character singing his or her favorite song, in total contrapuntal anarchy. (It sounds not unlike the more densely scored symphonic pages of that most American of composers, O’Neill’s contemporary Charles Ives.) American playwrights who prefer their work more tidily organized can’t take such liberties; for them, every action is a move in an increasingly ornate chess game—all the more so if they try to make it resemble reality.

David Marshall Grant’s Current Events illustrates the paradox almost classically. Grant is an intelligent, inventive, and sympathetic writer. He knows the people he writes about (maybe knowing the teens among them a little less well), the places they inhabit, their activities and dreams and frustrations. And he has something to say about the falsities of the society they end up constructing. It ought to be easy enough for him to whip his material into a solid dramatic shape. But no dice. Instead we get secrets, in a family that you’d think was long past having secrets; we get contradictions and what-ifs and teasers, as if Grant thought the people themselves weren’t enough to hold our interest. And a play that ought to be exploring the weirdness of our politics ends by printing out the usual glib indictment of same for crimes of which, aesthetically, the play itself is guilty.

Grant’s would-be hero is a California pol, launching his debut U.S. Senate race, who drops in on his Connecticut-based family for a prerace visit. The family is a tangle of unresolved conflicts, including some the new candidate has left behind him on his move west. His mother is an unappeased parlor radical; his sister a former fashion model escaping the Manhattan frenzy with her adopted son; the boy a 15-year-old bundle of pubescent gender confusion, made worse by his inability to find out anything about his birth parents. The candidate himself, eagerly adapting to whatever’s expected of him in every situation, has long since lost all sense of right or wrong in his search for ends to justify his dubious means, and the staff assistant he brings along—the muddled son of the millionaire couple whose soft-money foundation is keeping the state’s liberal wing afloat—has the blurriest identity of the lot: a heterosexual male crazy for Barbra Streisand. Though thick with manufactured incident and even thicker with talk—like the characters in so many of these plays, Grant’s people are blessed with a seemingly infinite range of references—Current Events has a near-total absence of event: The adopted son almost finds out who his biological father is, the assistant almost sleeps with a family member, and the candidate has to explain a minor family hassle to the press. The bustle and charm with which Grant tells this non-story don’t conceal its factitiousness—for starts, you have to believe that a Senate candidate from California would think his public image might be loused up by the behavior of his nephew in Connecticut. From this point of view, the script’s blizzard of ideas, issues, and motifs is as much a cover-up as the glossy phrases to which the candidate reduces everything. One can be sympathetic, because Grant clearly means so well, and is fighting so hard to fit everything in; but he might have given a much clearer picture of our contemporary political circus if he had simply stripped away all the gimmicks, the chitchat and cell phones and manufactured crises, and sat his characters down to confront each other and the issues.

They do so anyway, to some extent, in David Petrarca’s production, simply because they’ve been cast with such good actors. Barbara Barrie, as the unreconciled old-left mother, gets the lion’s share of both the play’s rhetoric and its gag lines, and handles both with stinging, breezy clarity. The slippery candidate and his beleaguered sister are more vaguely drawn roles, but Jon Tenney and Christine Ebersole glide over every bumpy improbability as if actors’ “through lines” came with built-in shock absorbers. And the evening is virtually stolen out of all these highly professional hands by John Gallagher Jr., whose picture of the 15-year-old carries the total plausibility that normally comes with 20-plus years of stage experience.

Not that years of experience automatically mean something in themselves. Take Richard Day, for instance, who has 10 years of writing and producing sitcom episodes to his credit, with three Emmy nominations. And what does Straight-Jacket, his first stage play, reveal? That in sitcom today, you don’t even need coherence, let alone any notion of dramatic consequence. In 1953 Hollywood, a flamboyantly gay male movie star’s attempt to conceal his sexuality through a mariage blanc with a producer’s secretary turns into a born-again wedding from hell, complicated by exposure, a Red smear, a rival star who wants both the gay man’s wife and his roles, and even the lowest degradation imaginable in Hollywood—a love affair with a screenwriter. Depending on approach, any of nine good plays might lie buried under Day’s material. He doesn’t write any of them because, apparently, in sitcom you don’t need to bother getting from point A to point B; you just need to get a laugh and move on, assuming the audience will never notice. Where Grant was too busy forcing events into a mold to explore them dramatically, Day simply drips them randomly across the evening, not bothering much about which ones fit where. It’s the sort of play in which the hero’s career as a star is rescued after he’s been exposed as a homosexual and named before HUAC as a Red.

In other words, both Day’s jokes and his lack of consequentiality belong to our own scattershot time, when everything’s irrelevant; of the tension and frenzied secrecy that built up in the closets of the 1950s, there’s not a trace. The ditz-brained secretary, who adores the star uncritically before their marriage, turns into a God-babbling slave driver afterward with a speed that suggests the couple spent their honeymoon at Don Pasquale. The Communist screenwriter, a working-class boy who’s written a big novel about striking coal miners, casually admits to being gay as if it were no more important than the difference between jockey shorts and boxers. (As you might expect, he doesn’t have much Communist doctrine to offer; he’s strictly a sit-Commie.) And the absence of fear, though probably a wonderful sign of how we’ve progressed, invalidates the action from any point of view: Day simply doesn’t convey any notion of how terrifying it was to be in the position of any of his characters, facing bankruptcy, betrayal, blackmail, blacklisting, gay bashing, police brutality, public execration, prison, and one’s own sense of shame, guilt, and paranoia.

Day would be welcome to ridicule all this, to trivialize it, to turn it into a free-form fantasy, or to use any other approach that would tell the story he’s attempting to tell. The one thing he can’t do is leave it out: You can put together an automobile any way you want; the one thing you can’t do is omit the engine—at least, not if you want the car to move. To which one might add, from a moral standpoint, that it’s perfectly okay to make fun of a cause people died for, but you can’t deny that they died. Hollywood homophobia and Red-baiting between them were responsible for a lot of corpses, and the failure to acknowledge their existence makes Day’s harmless little comedy creepily dishonest, as well as nerveless, in its underpinnings. In which respect, of course, it’s just like television, that ultracool medium with its don’t-care random exploitation of everything.

Not—to be fair—that sitcomland is without its charms, at least in the area of laughs. If Day can’t write a scene, he can write a tolerable string of jokes; when the latter are delivered by a comic actress with the sharp timing of Jackie Hoffman, as the star’s tough-minded agent, even the weakest jokes on the string get loud guffaws. Day has compounded his script’s flaws by directing it himself, in a lavishly clunky production—the one thing that really evokes the 1950s is set designer Ray Recht’s use of twin revolving stages, a device that came in with My Fair Lady. Day can no more stage a scene than write one, but he’s had the sense to cast likable people in his key roles, especially Hoffman, John Littlefield as the blandly narcissistic hero, and Ron Mathews as the tightly wound HUAC investigator pursuing him. Credit Day, too, with the discovery that Carrie Preston, liberated from the burden of Shakespeare, has great potential as a screwball comedienne.