Friday, February 12, 2010

There are Bad Times Just Around The Corner

I've long wondered why "relationship plays" are so popular. If you're not familiar with this category in theater, let me enlighten you: a central character—usually a woman, but occasionally a man—in a long-term, monogamous relationship has some unexpected experience that ignites a spark of doubt about that relationship and in the choices s/he has made in life. Very often, it's meeting someone of the opposite sex (or of the same sex, in a few instances) who arouses dormant feelings that this character had suppressed or thought were being met by their partner or by their career or family or what-have-y0u. Our hero/ine attempts to ignore these feelings but eventually the recognition that life is not as fulfilling as s/he once believed it would be is overwhelming and a dramatic, perhaps even drastic, event occurs that changes the character forever. The details may differ but I find the basic plot points to be fairly consistent.

As a rule, Catherine and I are not fans of these sorts of plays. The central characters in them tend to be whiners of the "I can't believe my life turned out like this" variety (read: annoying). The spouse/partner is usually completely—even blissfully—unaware of the other's disaffection, which only makes the whiner more whiney (even when the partner is actually nothing to complain about, unless you're really nit-picking... or trying to find something to complain about). There's a whole family of stock characters that go into these works: the male friend (usually heterosexual) who is boorish and uses hateful, sexist remarks to mask his deep, personal insecurities; the male friend (usually homosexual—and usually partnerless, to make him "safe" for mainstream audiences) who is witty and clever and always ready with a shoulder to cry on; the female friend who is the foil to the boorish hetero—urbane and sophisticated with a wicked sense of humor but who is also dissatisfied with her life.

I just don't know why anyone writes these plays—is it therapeutic for them? Do they actually like this sort of thing? More to the point, I don't know why people want to see anything like this (for Catherine and me, it's usually an assignment or a friend in the cast). And I'd say I don't know why anyone produces them but, actually, I do: because audiences turn out for them.

In the past month, Catherine and I saw two plays that, I think, qualify as relationship plays: one that reinforced my dislike of them and another that made me realize, "No: it can be done well!"

The reinforcer was Lucinda Coxton's Happy Now? at Primary Stages. Ironically, there are many things I liked about this production and even about Coxton's writing: the dialogue is well-crafted and the characters are quite funny; I might not have cared for this particular play but I would be interested to see something else by her. The cast is all quite good and, in many instances, I felt that their characterizations glossed over some of the weaknesses in the script; I especially liked Mary Bacon in the lead role (she brought a quirkiness and energy to the character that made the whininess bearable, for the most part) and C.J. Wilson as the middle-aged, schlubby pick-up artist who sets the action of the play into motion—the most conventionally pathetic individual onstage, Wilson brought out the character's unexpected sagacity and charm that Coxton's script requires. While director Liz Diamond did a good job with the staging and using the minimal set pieces to create a variety of different locations in the play, the pace was quite slow—the production came in at two and half hours and I think it could easily be 15-20 minutes shorter. I was a little surprised by this because Diamond brilliantly directed one of my favorite productions of all time—Suzan-Lori Parks' The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World at Yale Rep; her ability to realize the fantastic imagery, beautiful poetry and frenetic energy of that play absolutely blew me away. Ultimately, Happy Now? is one of those plays that inspires me to offer the pretty obvious response to its title: no, not really.

Kneehigh Theatre's Brief Encounter, by contrast, proved that it is possible to do a play about people second-guessing their lives and the choices they've made without falling into the cliches of the contemporary relationship play. To be fair, it helps to start with a script adapted from Noël Coward's 1945 film classic (which was itself expanded from his short play, Still Life). It also helps to have Emma Rice, Kneehigh's exceptionally talented artistic director, adapting Coward and manning the production; I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a huge fan of her and her company. Here, they've artfully blended theater, live music and film into an unconventional and highly theatrical performance. Why does Brief Encounter work better than other relationship plays? Perhaps it's the emotional heights the cast is able to scale—their performances are that 1940s-style movie naturalism/melodrama exaggerated to operatic levels. Perhaps it's the theatricality of the production in which the cast of 10 actors play a number of roles, supply the musical underscoring on various instruments throughout the performance, as well as the spontaneous breaks into classic Coward songs* between scenes—an homage to Tonight at 8:30, the evening of one-acts in which Still Life premiered. Or perhaps it's because the tragedy in this play is that most people will never experience the kind of intense passion and romance that the central characters do, let alone have an opportunity to bemoan its unfortunate timing. They may be sadder by play's end but they're also wiser: an old-fashioned conceit, to be sure, but it felt to me like a breath of fresh air.

Kneehigh Theatre's Brief Encounter photo by Steve Tanner.

*Although not the one from which this post takes its title


Scott Cargle said...

Your description of a relationship play makes me think they are all basically Othello. How's that for weird? Was Othello the first relationship play?

Barry said...

Sorry for the delay in approving this comment, Scott: I have to remember to check on that more often. I'm happiest when this forum is more dialogue than monologue, I'm just surprised when it actually happens like that!

You bring up a very good point: yes, Othello is a play about a dysfunctional relationship. There are probably other good examples of this in classical theater: Medea, in some ways (although I don't think it fits the criteria I've used in my definition as closely as Othello does). A few of Ibsen's plays, most notably A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler, are also appropriate and many other modern theater classics—plays written after the mid-nineteenth century in the naturalistic style that has come to dominate our art form.

I suppose I should more correctly label the plays I mean as contemporary relationship plays, to differentiate them more specifically. I don't have a problem with plays that explore the psychology of partnering and the complexities of romantic relationships; I get irritated when I'm watching a new play and have the distinct feeling that its something I've seen before. It happens more often (and more blatantly) in films than in the theater (or, at least, that's been my experience) but this is one sub-genre/style that I have seen playwrights replicate more frequently and I'm just not sure why.