Turning Off the Morning News

Turning Off the Morning News

photo: T. Charles Erickson

For the subject of his latest play, Christopher Durang has reached into the stewpot of Americans’ current malaise and plucked out one of the most difficult of all: gun violence. This challenging, yet comic new 90-minute production had its world premiere at McCarter Theatre Center May 12 and runs through June 3. McCarter also premiered Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, 2013 winner of  the Tony Award for Best Play.

The new play features Kristine Nielsen as Polly, endlessly talkative, whose dialog is pure stream-of-consciousness. John Pankow plays her underachieving husband Jimmy. He announces at the outset that he’s depressed and considering killing himself, his family, or perhaps strangers at the mall. Nicholas Podany is their 13-year-old son. These bizarre parents have never told him he’s adopted, and when he inadvertently learns it, he’s relieved.

Rachel Nicks (Salena) and Robert Sella (Clifford) play the couple’s new neighbors. They’re meant to be the sane ones, but they have secrets too. And Jean Harris plays Rosalind, a new friend of Salena’s, in a role right out of the theater of the absurd catalog: to avoid skin cancer, she wears a pillowcase over her head and does a manic dance when tension becomes too much.

The underlying story—Jimmy’s threats to kill people—will make this play difficult for some audiences. It was for me. Still, I could appreciate much of the excruciatingly dark humor, and the cast puts it over well. It may be funny, but it isn’t fluff. The play’s director, Emily Mann, says the play not only exposes today’s personal and societal anxieties, “it also gently reveals the antidote—reaching out beyond ourselves to find connection with others.”

Important in the play are what is seen and not seen. Polly introduces this idea when she misplaces a potted plant that is in full audience view. Subsequently, several characters see Jimmy leaving the house in disguise, they don’t see the semi-automatic weapons protruding from the duffel he carries. Polly sees the guns but dismisses their importance. For me, this device directly echoes the typical speculations after a mass shooting: “Why did the shooter even have a gun? Didn’t they (whoever ‘they’ are) see he was unhinged/angry/writing in his diary he wanted to kill people?”

All the performances are solid, but the cast standout is Kristine Nielsen, who keeps her knees slightly bent, ready to move in any direction—physically, mentally, emotionally—and brilliantly captures the play’s lightning-fast changes in mood and tone. Jean Harris is also a gifted physical actor, filling her portrayal with well-realized gestures.

Beowulf Boritt’s set conveys a suburban community of overwhelming—and totally  misleading—sameness. On the outside, the houses are all such a buttery yellow you could spread them on toast. Mark Bennett (sound design) has created jaunty sit-com music to introduce scenes in Polly and Jimmy’s house, which differs sharply from the classical music and cool grey of Salena and Clifford’s residence. In different ways, both households have turned off the morning news and Durang suggests that hasn’t worked well for either of them.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, MissouriOn a drive through the American South some years ago, British writer-director Martin McDonagh saw a set of billboards that challenged the authorities similar to the way the sheriff of Ebbing, Missouri, is challenged in this film (trailer). The rage they embodied stayed with him, and although this film is billed as a black comedy, don’t go looking for belly laughs. Its true subject is heartbreak.

With an intelligent script that’s perhaps a few minutes too long, McDonagh’s characters’ actions impinge on others like billiard balls knocking about on the table. Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand—a genius at portraying tough, uncompromising women) intends for her actions to affect others when she pays for three billboards to be pasted up on a remote stretch of road outside town, blood red and anger-filled: “Raped While Dying. And Still No Arrests? How Come, Sheriff Willoughby?” Guilt and anger are written just as clearly on her unsmiling face.

The sheriff’s deputies, accustomed to have their way in all local matters, great and small, are offended. They want her to take them down. Of course she won’t. One of them, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is an overgrown boy, prey to his every violent whim and McDonagh gives him a complex character arc.

Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has other troubles on his mind and, while it’s true he hasn’t made progress in solving Angela Hayes’s murder, it isn’t true that he hasn’t tried. Although his place in their world is the slipperiest, he has the best sense of what that place is.

Several supporting roles are equally powerful (I especially liked Mildred’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend), and there are some laughs—people being their natural selves can be hilarious, usually without realizing it. Though a broken heart manifests itself differently in all three main characters, it’s Sheriff Willoughby who points the way to healing. Already the film has received numerous awards and nominations, including the Golden Globe for best motion picture drama, with Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Martin McDonagh (screenplay) winners too. Well worth the time.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 87%.

****Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths about Police Shootings

NYCity police officer

photo: scubacopper, creative commons license

By Joseph K. Loughlin and Kate Clark Flora – Laughlin, a former assistant chief of police in Portland, Maine, and Flora, a true crime writer, teamed up to produce this remarkable non-fiction book, which, for all its limitations, is a must-read for people concerned about gun crime and police violence, as well as for those who write about these matters.

The book is based on interviews with dozens of police officers (mostly on the US East Coast) involved in deadly shootings. They recount how and why they reacted as they did during the event and the impact on them afterward.

Citizens often wonder why police don’t just shoot weapons out of suspects’ hands. Or shoot to wound them. Television and movies would suggest that police have plenty of time to make such calculations, take careful aim at their suspect, and are accomplished marksmen. In real life, the compressed timeframe in which police actions typically occur does not allow for a carefully aimed shot. The situation may be confusing, people are moving, and armed suspects may be charging the officers or putting nearby citizens at risk.

The public also wonders why so many shots are fired. They may not realize that suspects high on drugs or adrenaline or both aren’t stopped by a single bullet—even if that bullet would eventually prove fatal—they keep coming. The officers’ goal is to eliminate the hazard, to themselves, to other police, to the public. A single bullet doesn’t achieve this.

No fictional account could be more powerful than the book’s second-by-second reconstruction of the confrontation with the Boston Marathon bombers by Watertown, Massachusetts, police officers. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was hit nine times by bullets from a .40 caliber Glock and still ran toward the police, firing. When his gun was empty, he threw it at an officer and kept coming. The police thought he might have a bomb strapped to him. Nevertheless, they tackled him, and he went down. He was still fighting them when his younger brother ran over him with an SUV, in making his own escape. Tsarnaev was dragged 20 feet down the street and still struggled with the officers.

The interviews with the police officers are truly moving. Killing another person is not something good officers take lightly. Often they are off patrol work for many months afterward. Some can never return to duty.

The book might have been stronger if some of the interviews were with police whose actions were more ambiguous (impossible because of legal liability), or if there were greater acknowledgment that sometimes there are “bad-actor” officers. In the closing chapter’s list of 10 ways the public can support the police, one might have been improving methods for weeding such individuals out of a department.

Reading this book, you’re likely to develop a greater appreciation for the split-second decision-making skills police are routinely called upon to deploy and the inevitability of errors. You also will have greater appreciation of the investigatory process—the news media blasts officers’ actions within hours—even minutes—of a shooting event, whereas a full investigation takes time. While the terrible occurrences in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Staten Island, and elsewhere are high in the public consciousness, how many Americans are aware that in the decade from 2003 to 2012 there were more than 575,000 felonious assaults against police officers, almost 200,000 of which involved a weapon?

Readers will come away with an appreciation of the need for greater police training and education too. Training not just to deal with police issues, but the fallout from drug abuse and alcoholism, poverty and unemployment, homelessness, the underfunding of the mental health system—all of which produce social problems that wind up in the laps of public safety personnel on a daily basis.

While this book tells one side of the story, it’s a side too rarely discussed in inflammatory news stories and a rush to judgment. It’s an exciting read, and one that will give every person who reads crime stories—and the daily newspaper—a new perspective on unfolding events

Saint Joan

Saint Joan

Andrus Nichols & Eric Tucker in Saint Joan; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Bedlam Theater Company is presenting, in rotating repertory productions, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through February 12. Each of the plays is done with the same four cast members playing all the parts, which makes for some quick persona changes.

Due to scheduling difficulties, I’ve seen only the Saint Joan—a difficult choice, because Hamlet is always revelatory, and the experience of each is meant to shed light on the other. As with any Shaw, a good twenty minutes near the end could be ditched. Good old G.B.S. seems determined to bang audiences over the head with his messages. Still, you’ll never see a more vigorous interpretation of this work, one that easily keeps you going through a full three acts (in direct contradistinction to the growing trend for one-act, 90-minute affairs), as religious dogma and divine inspiration cross swords.

The cast members manage to be simultaneously energetic and nuanced, and they wring every bit of humor out of the play’s early scenes. Bedlam founder Eric Tucker was terrific in Saint Joan, especially as the Earl of Warwick, but then all the actors (Andrus Nichols as Joan), Edmund Lewis and Tom O’Keefe (both in numerous parts) keep your interest and your intellect on their toes. I’m as much a fan of gorgeous sets and inspired costumes as anyone, but Bedlam’s stripped-down, bare-stage version has the virtue of showing how brilliant actors can conjure people and relationships to life unaided.

Bedlam has a commitment to using “all the house,” and for Saint Joan, the first few rows of audience seats were on the stage, and a cast member occasionally emerged from somewhere in the main house. Not to worry, audience members aren’t called upon to do more than observe.

Despite having been a patron of the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Shaw Festival for more than 20 seasons I’d never seen Saint Joan. And, if you also feel this classic is worth getting to know, you might never find a more approachable and engaging mounting of it than this one.

For tickets, call the McCarter box office at 609-258-2787, or visit the box office online.

*****The Sellout

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Paul Beatty, narrated by Prentice Onayemi – I write, knowing this review cannot do justice to this stunning satire—winner of both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—which tackles a tricky subject: U.S. race relations and the essential absurdity of the human species. I can only urge you to read it for yourself as a journey to important places, dark and light.

Near the end of the story, Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me comments on a black comic who m.c.’s the Dum Dum Donuts open mic nights. He says the comedian “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Beatty has just spent 285 pages doing exactly that with his readers’ every racial attitude and carefully buried prejudice, whether toward blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, or whites.

Perhaps the only way for Americans to approach this difficult subject is with the tools Beatty wields so well: wicked perceptiveness and devastating humor. He slaps them down like a bricklayer troweling thick mortar, building his case brick by brick.

At first I thought his approach was to come at racism obliquely, like an artist using negative space, rendering everything around an object, not the object itself. Draw all the plants and trees, the shape of the dirt patch, the rocks, the pond, the lines of fencing, and every other feature surrounding an elephant and, when you’re done—voilà—out pops the pachyderm.

His descriptions of his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood, his administratively erased home town of Dickens, his father and his friends, with their intellectual floundering and frustrations as members of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “the local think tank.” All seemed designed to produce that elephant.

We meet unforgettable characters, not least Bonbon himself: erudite, fearless, hell-bent on offending and sure to succeed. Bonbon’s father was a psychologist who subjected his son to bizarre experiments growing up, which the boy’s psyche was lucky to survive. His slave (yes) Hominy Jenkins, was a minor celebrity in his youth as a member of the Little Rascals cast; on-again girlfriend and city bus driver, Marpessa, tries to talk sense to him. And more. Much.

However, as the story proceeds, Beatty brings the hammer down. As a joke, Bonbon puts a temporary sign inside a bus that reads “Priority Seating for Whites.” When it’s inadvertently left in place, behavior on the bus becomes exemplary. People are treated with respect. Marpessa says, “Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids go do their homework? Not home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.” The sign is just the start of a Bonbon crusade. If there’s a word for “this is sooo crazy, it just might work,” Bonbon must have had that word in mind.

The book’s Prologue at the U.S. Supreme Court was a little slow for me, but when Beatty starts to roll, you are in for an amazing, hilarious, heart-breaking ride. Bonbon never breaks character. But at some point, all the comedy flips and you see it for what it is, the mask of tragedy.

It’s also a feast for people who love language. Beatty’s talent as a poet shows up in the rhythm of his prose; in multi-meaning slant rhymes, like the name of his lawyer, Hamilton Fiske; in direct rhymes, like the reference to his father’s farm, “forty acres and a fool”; and his imagery, “he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark.”

I’m sure reading this book in print would be transformative, with the advantage of being able to go back and reread and pause to reflect. Yet, Prentice Onayemi’s narration of the audio version was pitch-perfect. His Hominy addresses Bonbon as “Massa,” with just the right combination of obsequiousness and insolence; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals bloviate convincingly; Marpessa keeps her wits about her. You see each of them in front of you, just like you cannot avoid seeing the elephant in the middle of our collective living room.

Paul Beatty is coming to Princeton on February 8, 2017, and will appear at the Berlind Theater, 4:30 p.m., sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Open to the public. Free.