Tuesday, June 11, 2013

REVIEW: 3 Kinds of Exile

Typically, I don't enjoy writing a negative review -- I try to find the positive in the production, or I don't write a review at all. I figure that usually a bad play -- if it made it far enough to be seen -- is either a good idea trying to climb out of poor execution (in which case I focus on engaging with the idea and how to better present it), or a bad idea that I don't engage with (in which case I don't feel like a bad review would contribute much.

I also don't write bad reviews because I try to approach reviewing with a semblance of humility. I have only just read Isaac's self reflection on the rush to make harsh judgment, and I worry about stepping over the line myself.

So why am I about to write bad words about John Guare's 3 Kinds of Exile, now playing at the Atlantic Theater Company? Because, as a fellow theater producer (albeit a much less successful one) I have honest questions about how this reached the stage on front of a paying public, in one of New York's premier theaters without anyone raising an eyebrow.

This Goes Beyond Bechdel
Suppose you and one of your friends get together and decide to write a staged biography about a striking actress you knew (Elzbieta Czyzewska). Would you really decide that the best way to present her life would be to have two men talk about her, occasionally imitating her, rarely quoting her, and instead rattling off a series of facts about her life in chronological order? (For 40 minutes?).

The theme of the biography is (so near as I can tell), that Elzbieta was given short shrift by directors and producers who constantly promised her big come-back roles, but never delivered. (Included in that number is a young playwright named John Guare, who seems fairly sad that he was forced to cut her from a play he wrote specifically for her).

And here she is, one more time, being presented to an audience without truly bringing her voice in the space. A few moments of imitation, but otherwise, she is quite literally an object, a portrait invoked at the beginning and end of a long story.

That's the content of the second of the three acts. (The first is a monologue by a man about himself, so there's not really much room for a woman there, apparently).

What about the third act? There are female actresses in there. They get two moments:

1) A moment where the lead character is pronounced to be attractive by two ladies, and they try to sleep with him.
2) A bride whose only line of dialogue, repeated, is "Fuck me."

Seriously. There's a female character who can only say "Fuck me." And yes, it's in context of a criticism of traditional marriage. But I really don't think that's enough! Not when it's basically a punchline in a long series of gags.

Somewhere, in a full 100 minute piece about exile in which there are female characters -- one of which is about a real-life female person -- there has to be more than three lines to encapsulate their experience, more than a few quick gags to capture their voice.

Am I the first person to ask this question? How did this play make it all the way to a major venue in New York today without someone along the way raising an eyebrow?

The Magical Other
The third act is basically the story about how a sexually repressed Polish exile finds his way to Buenos Aires, and a tempting Latino seduces him away from that rigidly structured world. This tempting Latino is presented as being magical -- hypnotic, satanic.

Guys, I'm not crazy here, right? Did nobody wikipedia this?

It's Kind Of Hard Out Here For an Artist (What?!)
So, that's already two big problems that seem to me that should have been huge liabilities before this play made it to the stage. There's another one that sticks out to me, which is that both the second and third acts are tragic stories of unrealized, victimized artists.

Don't get me wrong -- if you're a true master, you can make a good tortured artist story. Amadeus is probably a good example in that genre. I'm willing to let Sunday in the Park with George slide, mostly on the back of its music.

But for the most part, the staggering majority of "tortured artist" stories tend to be exercises in self-indulgence; here, the self-indulgence goes so far that John Guare, as an actor playing the role of John Guare in the play written by John Guare, refers in the third person to a character in the story who is John Guare. At which point a projection of John Guare is visible, as though we don't get that the person standing in front of us describing the story is the same John Guare.

Both protagonists in the second and third acts are presented as will-less victims, buffeted by their fate, misunderstood by their peers and family and lacking all agency in the world around them. Which is as negative an impression of artists as you could devise. And very little that is sympathetic is provided about them either. Instead, we are simply asked to connect to their suffering because it is suffering, and because artists are noble creatures that should not be in pain, I guess.

All of this, as well as the overly long span of time that the three pieces take up and the repetitive, over-explanation of the messages and morals in each of the pieces (replete with unending rhetorical questions), indicate to me that John Guare was basically allowed to do whatever. It has a very unedited feel; my play-going companion detected a distinct "undergraduate thesis" vibe. 

I don't know how it got here. I don't know how it edged out the thousands of equally competent playwrights and plays that are circulating out in the world. I'm not sure how the bizarre casting, the uneven acting styles, the offensive choices, etc. were allowed to stand in a venue with those kind of resources.

My god, what Taylor Mac or Aaron Landsman or Sarah Ruhl or Susan Lori-Parks or a thousand other people could have done.

I want to end my review by honoring the people who worked on this. Genuinely. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth to trash a production, knowing the time and dedication that came from a talented group of performers and designers. I'm just baffled how this incredible wealth of resources came to be marshaled for this production.

(As required by law, here is a disclaimer that I got the tickets for free.)