Confessions of an American Amateur Theater-Reviewer
PRELIMINARY CONFESSION #1: Continued…
A wiser man than me once said that “we never do anything consciously for the last time”—that is, anything which we have long been doing—“without sadness of heart.” (If ever there was a saying more soothing to the creative Soul than this one—only the universe knows.) This truth I felt intensely, when I came to leave filmmaking behind, a career option I had fallen madly in love with, and where I had thought I would find fulfillment and happiness. (Just be patient; even I am so over talking about this. The TL;DR version that will eventually dead this matter is coming this summer.) On the night I left film forever (Yes, I remember!) I grieved in my room all by my lonely, and may or may not have shed a few tears. (No, I don’t remember—or do I?); and that night, while looking over a healthy pile of rejection letters from literary managers and agents, and film festivals (I do it to myself honestly, holding on to ish like this), I rolled over in bed, and, catching a glimpse of my face, my reflection in the mirror as if on standby, I locked gazes with it, and looked myself intently in the eye, thinking to myself, “What now, G? What now? How in the hell are you gonna come back from this one? Of all the stupid things you’ve ever done in your life this one hurts the most. Now you’re stuck here—in Los Angeles of all places. And you don’t even have enough money to get your ass back home… I want out of this goddamn town! I want out of this industry! I’m not even IN this industry! I don’t want anything to do with film ever again!” And I was right: I never did have anything to do with it—until recent. Still at the mirror, I looked at myself self-righteously and proudly (Hey, we all do in that moment—am I right?), smiled resolutely, nodded my affirmation (or rather, my goodbye), and I parted ways with the movie business forever—or so I thought.
Moring came—so dramatic; I know—and under normal circumstances I would’ve been ready to launch into my day. I’m thankful for my up-and-at-‘em approach to life, and, in many regards, I’ve benefitted greatly for having this outlook—though it wasn’t on showcase in that moment. As for my residence: it’s a spacious, second-floor, balconied apartment (occupancy four), and I have been blessed, from my first moving in, with a cast of supportive roommates and “a room of my own room” just like good ol’ Virginia, which I use—then and of course now—as an area of leisure and study. At about six-thirty or so I got up, and stared with hazy contentedness at the treeless skyline of S——, the now gentrified L.A. enclave cloaked in a gray sunlight and slowly beginning to tinge sky-blue with the gloomy dullness of a typical, cloudless December morning. (Told ya I know the date!) Again, I agreed that I would be unwavering and overwhelmingly fixed in my decision: but yet I was vexed by the looming possibility of setbacks and obstacles; and if I could’ve foreseen the shit-storm that my life would become over the next two years, and quite the back-breaking, soul-crushing shit-storm of pain and misery at that, which wasted no time in starting up around me, I would’ve… Well… Well, I don’t have the heart to jot it down here…
To this vexation the calm peace of morning presented a disturbing comparison, and in some degree a mild stimulant. The moment was more profound—or at least it seemed to be—than that of any other time in my life here on the West Coast: and to me the stillness of morning is more moving than any other stillness, because the city (L.A.) hasn’t come alive yet; and thus, I’m able to sit quietly and introspect and think freely, unabated. I put on a pair of sweats, moped about, and did nothing of importance. Up to this point in time my room had been my “meditative tower”: here I read, and typed, and poured over notes through all hours of the day well into the wee hours of the night: and, painful as it is to admit, that for what remained of 2014—and 2015 and 2016, respectively—I, who was about as easy-going as they come, had lost my joyful vigor and stanch optimism upon ending the violent and contentious see-saw battle with my chosen career path; yet, on the other hand, as a “creative type” (loosely), so passionately fond of books, and visual art, and stage plays (Yay!), and dedicated to all sorts of intellectual endeavors, I recall not sitting for too long an interval in the caustic stew of dejection, and sought out random activities from time to time. Still moping about, I was a bit teary-eyed, I think, as I looked around on the floor at all of the crumpled-up sheets of paper, underneath my stool at a stack of dusty notebooks, at the dog-eared novels stacked at the base of the wall, and other relevant items of my former trade, knowing for certain, that I looked upon them for the last time—or so I thought. Even as I write this today, it has been three years since enduring the worst of it: and yet, at this moment, I can picture the scene quite vividly as if it were yesterday. The lost look on my face: pitying and abominable; my eyes and mouth of which had prior operated with great animation, and the whole of my face once so radiant and jolly, had been completely debased. A thousand times over I avoided the mirror, seeing as there was nothing to gather as consolation from it…
Damn, here I am once again putting the cart before the horse. The summer needs to get here in a hurry. And try as I may: I don’t want to spend precious hours during this portion of my life reminiscing. Admittedly, I have yet to arrive at something definitive in regards to Preliminary Confession #1. Well, it should be painfully obvious to you now that my casual avoidance of the question is by design, hence the protracted lamentation (and teaser). Hell, any salesperson worth his or her salt is constantly thinking of ways to drum up business; they have to get you, the customer, to come back somehow… I think you see where I’m going with this. Anyhoo, and without further ado, we now jump to March’s stageplay, In the Summer House.
Title: In the Summer House (1953)
Playwright: Jane Bowles
Time Period: Middle to Late Modernism
Plot: A middle-aged woman of good carriage becomes an overbearing presence in her young daughter’s life who is just entering into adulthood. Over the course of a year, the two women confront and avoid one another—at times to the detriment of those around them.
[Act 1, Sc. 2]
. . . Even my griefs and my sorrows don’t seem to belong to me. Nothing does—as if a shadow has passed over my whole life and made it dark. . .
[Act 1, Sc. 3]
I don’t know where to go or what to do next. I can’t seem to tear myself away from you or Mr. Solares or Mrs. Lopez or Molly. Isn’t that a ridiculous reaction? I feel linked to you. That’s the only way I can explain it. I don’t ever want to have any other friends. It’s as if I had been born right here in the garden and had never lived anywhere before in my life. Don’t leave me please. I don’t know where to go. Don’t leave me.
[Act 2, Sc. 1]
After a while I could sit in that booth, and if I wanted to I could imagine I was home in the garden . . . inside the summer house.
As the great philosopher Forrest Gump once said: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you gonna get.” *heavy sigh* Boy, I absolutely had no idea what I was in for with this one. Which reminds me: it’s Women’s History Month. Helloooo, Ladies! This one’s for you: In the Summer House by Jane Bowles. What’s that? Never heard of it? No worries; perhaps in the past is a great place to keep this one.
You know, after reading such an odd play like this one I figured that it would be best if I let you in on the process. In the initial blog post announcing this series I mainly hit the bullet points, but now might be a good time for me to go a little past that, seeing as it’s still early in the series and my style, tone and format aren’t completely locked down yet. Oh, and I also don’t want you guys to think that I’m a d**k and doing this series just to crap on other people’s work as a way to feel good about myself.
Okay, for starters: there are just too many stage plays to choose from—millions possibly. 2017’s lineup is already locked in place and isn’t at random. Each play is in essence a tie-in—at least for this year—to whatever is in observance (Black History Month, Women’s History Month, etc.) for that particular month which is why I went with In the Summer House, a play that was written by a woman, features a group of women, and is set during what I thought would be an interesting time period showcasing the lives of women: the decade before the Sexual Revolution (1960’s) and the rise of 2nd wave Feminism.
It’s a given that my style is unorthodox (undisciplined); no fancy words and academic analysis here, or paragraphs boggled down by theater jargon. And since this is my slice of the internet, I’m not going to hold back saying how I feel about something I’ve read. And with readership as low as it is, what need is there for me to swab clean my initial reaction to something? However, I do try my best to keep an air of professionalism just in case someone from the print media ranks stumbles upon this blog, likes what they’ve read, and then tasks me with critiquing a current theater production. What I’m saying is: I’ll zip it up for by-lines and dinero. Other than that: the beat goes on.
Preliminary Confession #1 — How did a nice and easy-going fellow such as myself get it in his mind head to want to want to write criticism on stageplay? — isn’t fully answered but I did allude, even before this question, to the fact that I come from a film background. And a lot of the jobs I took early on required that I read and evaluate screenplays (for free!) which get their DNA (formatting) from stage plays because—guffaw—Hollywood’s first wave of filmmakers were theater directors and playwrights. (The style of screenplay still being used today is called the Master Scene Format which was created by Thomas Ince in 1911.) So, in essence, I’ve been reading stage plays for a minute now (2006) and that’s why I can’t help but give such a strong opinion on how to “correct something” in them. That part of me won’t go away. Another part that won’t go away is how I go about picking what to read. Again, I trust film senses: I read theater websites, see what plays my favorite writers have read, ask people I know what they’ve read (this is actually how Hollywood finds new material), seek out lists of classics—but the main thing I do is look at the title. Just about everyone in the film industry is guilty of it. And for the undiscovered, that is really your only sure shot: the title—which explains how out of hand they’ve gotten as of late. Personally, I’ve read over 1,000 screenplays. (This is a very, very low number; some who get paid to read scripts average 700 scripts a year.) Nowadays I’ll read maybe three or four new ones start to finish if that, and skim maybe the first 15-to-20 pages of another four or five more but I don’t consume them in high volume like I once used to. Much of what’s written on spec today won’t get produced thanks to sequel-itis and comic book-itis currently squatting in our movie theaters. The scripts floating around Hollywood at the moment are basically one-hundred-page calling cards to do work-for-hire on studio tent-pole projects. So when it came to narrowing down my list for the inaugural twelve—and the year following—some made the cut just on their titles alone as well as my own subjective tastes. I’ve also held off reading them in advance so that whatever I have to say about them happens in the moment… Look, not all of these plays are going to be stellar—just go back one month. I knew going in that I’d see some peculiar ones, and that I had to do my best in trying to be fair and honest and open-minded as possible when critiquing them. It’s just that on back-to-back months here at the very beginning I’ve really been caught by surprise.
This particular work came recommended from a blog I read where a follower asked the blogger what plays should she consider for her young, all-girl theater company and this play was listed in her response—which brings me to why I brought up my script-reading background. This play falls into the not-so-rare situation of where the title caught my eye. In the Summer House—it has a nice ring to it. It sounds profound yet ominous and tragic, metaphorical… As a script-reader I gravitated towards stories that are set in one location—which the title implies. Horror, which is all the rage right now (Get Out), benefits significantly from this. One location means smaller budget which in turn means more money for P&A (prints and advertisement), and for a filmmaker constricted to just one location, it’s a true test of his or her creative ability. This, on title alone, would’ve been added to my reading pile back in the day. Now reading it would’ve been an entirely different story because there are a few variables to consider. Like, did this come into the office through an agency, or on spec? If it came in on spec, I would’ve set this aside after page five. No way would I waste my time or risk getting fired from my non-paying job by investing time in reading this. And if it came in through an agency, I’d just bite my tongue as best as I could but still articulate to the boss man in the comment section on the coverage page that this script was a chore to read and heavy, heavy revisions would be needed before this could be seen by a paying audience. Now some readers go further, getting down right vindictive with their comments, but that never really suited me. I’m not a malicious person; I just want the story to be good. I’m not out to destroy a writer’s career before they even have a chance to get it started.
About my tastes: I like ensembles, one-location settings, and short timeframes (an afternoon, over the course of a night, three days; nothing more than a week), well-written monologues. Stuff that drives me up the wall: “You’re late!” scenes, narrative time jumps (one year later, five years later, TEN YEARS LATER!!), grandstanding (I’m not sure of the actual term but it’s when a woman tells a man, or vice versa, to “Leave!” either verbally or silently and just as the man starts off she yells, “Wait!”), casually-racist jokes or racist stock characters (Magic Negro, Gay Best Friend who’s a party/wedding planner, broken-English Asian actor; Seriously, is every Latino male over the age of 40 a lawn mower, and is every Latino male under the age of 40 a gangbanger? Better yet: what are Americans’ understanding of Muslims before 9/11? Seems like they’re all depicted as either hopeless or criminal and the only way to save them is to continue occupying their land and dropping bombs on them, ignoring their pain and suffering because only our troops are the ones dealing with PTSD. [Is that too political for you? Oh well!]).
What else: no plot (as in a story with no goal; people just standing around yakking), bodily fluids (semen, fecal matter, urine, etc. whether visible or mentioned) and mutilation (perverted sexual acts, animal cruelty, slicing of the epidermis, stuffing of objects into the orifices, extreme violence and gore whether realistic or CGI, etc.). I’ll go one step further and say that writers who write scenes in their script/play showing or mentioning the acts of defecation and urination in an unnatural way, or showing a character slicing open their own skin just for the sake of “shock value” should be brought in for psychological evaluation. These people clearly need proper medical care & attention and shouldn’t be indulged. I’m mystified as to how they manage to get into rooms with people who make films for a living and convince them that they should fund their projects. It’s absolutely mind-boggling… Now that’s just a small selection and by no means extensive even though it looks that way. It might even give you the impression that I’m no fun. No. A man can’t just dine on caviar alone. There are some exceptions; I pray that they come up along the way. I’m usually good at avoiding a lot of the cons when it comes to movies. But stageplays ain’t like movies. I can see movie trailers and steer clear of the bad ones. I’m going into a lot of these plays blind because the synopses for the majority of them make no damn sense at all. They’re like trying to read a book on anthropology on Stone Age civilization; two paragraphs in and you’re clueless as to what any of it actually means. Whew! I’ve said a mouthful. Now that that’s off my chest, on to our stageplay…
I try to dig up little tidbits on each of these and it appears that Mrs. Bowles left planet Earth at the age of 56 leaving behind a fairly light body of work (one novel, seven short stories and this stage play). My take from reading up on her can be surmised in two words: proud bigot. Sorry, not sorry. She had a stroke at age 40, developed a limp because of it, and then took out her frustrations on the rest of the world, feeling that she can say whatever she damn well pleases. In her own words: “I’m Jewish, homosexual, alcoholic, a communist — and I’m a cripple!” Then again, maybe she’d fit right in considering America’s current social climate. So as you can see, she was known more for what she did away from the stage, that is, her being abrasive, in an open marriage and her being a “homosexual” (again her words, not mine; besides gay had an entirely different meaning back then) — but that sort of stuff barely moves the needle nowadays, not when people can change “transition” to a new gender (Caitlyn Jenner) or become so color struck (Boom! Another monthly tie-in, though hella forced this time.) that they would want to change “transition” into an entirely new racial identity (Rachel Dolezal). So her alternative lifestyle only gets a meh and a half nod from me. If you want to wow me, you have to do it on the page—something she couldn’t even do in real life. Summer House’s stint on Broadway was insignificant, and critics then (1953) were split 50/50.
In her story: Gertrude Eastman Cuevas and her daughter Molly are the owners of precious, beachfront property in southern California that is footsteps away from the Pacific Ocean. At opening curtain we are in the garden and just off of it and the main house sits a “round summer house covered with vines.” Molly is in and out of this summer house constantly, using it as a place to hide from her overbearing mother. Oddly, Gertrude’s behavior comes at you right out of the gates. Some of the things this lady espouses wouldn’t even be said in polite company. She has an acerbic remark for just about everything: men, women, brown people, children, work, money, life. Nothing misses a lashing from her tongue. It being the 1950’s and all, it’s interesting to note the difficulty Gertrude has had in raising a child on her own. She now finds herself debating on whether or not to marry Mr. Solares, a Mexican(-American?/-immigrant?) suitor who has been courting her for some time. Her reasoning isn’t that drawn out and seems to be purely financial:
[GERTRUDE: I’m thinking of seriously marrying Mr. Solares, after all. I would at least have a life free of financial worry…]
Besides that there isn’t much in the way of conflict here. But a series of characters are introduced, so many in fact that I just plain stubbornly don’t want to list them. And I like stories with characters but here there are so damn many, none of which are all that distinguishable, nor do they do anything interesting. I’ll just focus on these three: Lionel, Vivian Constable and Mrs. Constable. Mr. Solares and his sisters and the other random characters that pop up from time to time are a non-factor. Vivian and Molly are roughly the same age (15 and 18, respectively) and this, if any, is where the play gets its central conflict from. Allegedly the theme of this play is about mother/daughter relationships and you can kind of see that here and there, but those moments are so fleeting, and what you get in between them are unfunny, senseless pratfalls, random character walk-throughs, on-the-nose musical numbers, way-out-in-right-field navel gazing, and random time jumps (ten months here; two months there). After reading this play, I wanted to throw the book at the wall. But that course of action is reserved only for that special bunch that successfully manages to get underneath my skin. Throwing the book is an act I consider to be on par with a complement, good material or bad…
Vivian too is constantly trying to get from out underneath her mom and has made her rent her a room in Gertrude’s house. Mrs. Constable allows it but is staying close by at a hotel up the coastline and stops over sporadically to check in on her daughter. I wrote in my notes that Vivian and Molly, based on the dialogue given to them, must be mentally retarded disabled because the ish they say, man… I guess the implication here is that Gertrude and Mrs. Constable have stunted their daughters’ growth. Well, if that’s the case, where the hell is Child Protection Services or the local law enforcement for that matter, because something happens to one of these young ladies later on and I’m amazed that the adults involved were able to keep their freedom. I’m even more amazed that the two young girls have managed not to walk into traffic, especially Molly.
Later on in the play Lionel, a fast-food employee at the local seafood shack, gets it in his mind to ask for Molly’s hand in marriage—and it was at this point that I broke down mentally. Imagine asking someone pointed questions about making plans to be together and what their outlook is on the future and them completely ignoring you, opting to chase ladybugs around a yard and speak ethereally about the moon and the stars and not wanting to feel pain… What the ever-loving f—k!
The men in this story. Hell, the women in this story!
I wrote the entire damn cast off. Mr. Solares is a pushover and is completely dismissive of Gertrude’s cattiness and racism. Lionel has no clue about life and proposes to a much younger woman than he his who is a complete ditz, and over time, will become a burden on him. Vivian too is a Dodo bird, and as for what happens to her, well… it happened and? (Spoiler.) Mrs. Constable is spineless and was made to be a lush merely for theatrics. Mr. Solares’ sisters and servants are just over-the-top stereotypes of Mexican immigrants that would in no way fly in this day in age. There isn’t even a sufficient amount of back story for any of them to justify these characterizations except for Gertrude who gets the tried-and-true “daddy issues” crutch.
I’ve come to grips with the fact that I may very well never make an impact on Pop Culture, but holy mother of Venus I know I’m better than this! Just exactly what was going on five or four or three decades ago for theater/literary critics to keep a light shined on this kind of material? Why would one of my favorite bloggers recommend this to a woman for tweens to perform?
Absolutely nothing happens in this story; there is no plot! And it doesn’t even take place in the summer house!! Let me clarify the no plot statement: I’m not against plotless stories, not if they are filled with interesting characters. None of these characters felt real to me. Just about everything they said was stilted and if it wasn’t stilted dialogue, it was underlined by music score. Furthermore, what hurts a plotless story are narrative time jumps. It makes a story feel disjointed because the minute something gets interesting, you suddenly are rushed forward to a new point in time and have to build up forward momentum all over again. Bowles, in trying to keep her story interesting, decides to add more characters but our connection to the original, main characters was never cemented, yet she just continues to pile more and more of them on…
Does this story hold up? Seems like a funny question considering all that I’ve said. But the crazy part is, falling back on my script reading days, I would place this story on the border of “PASS” (reject) and “CONSIDER” (re-read at a later date to see if it can change our minds on wanting to reject it). Consider has these varying degrees and after a while it becomes sort of like ordering steak. This could be something to “consider” but with what I said above: heavy, heavy revisions. The majority of the “conflicts/situations” (proposals, marriages, foreclosures) in this play happen off-screen—but not in a good way like Chekhov. They just randomly do for some reason. And none of what does happen on stage justifies all of the bizarre time jumps except Vivian and Gertrude’s marriages which happen together. Correcting this wouldn’t be all that difficult… I like the idea of a single mother being overbearing to her daughter, and juxtaposing that against the decade of the 1950’s could work beautifully, seeing as that was a stagnant time for all Americans. Deep-six the year long timeframe and just and have it all come to a head on their wedding day which could be over the course of an afternoon. This also would be one of the rare occasions where I would recommend flashbacks—but like salt, use sparingly. And, of course, get rid of the inane pratfalls, racism and bigotry—or at least be more subtle. Merge a few characters together and it would make for an explosive situation all under one roof, or all outside in the garden, rather, next to the ocean. Because undeniably, Gertrude Eastman Cuevas is an interesting character—speaking out the way she does considering the time period. And if given just a little bit more to go off of, she could truly be something special. Bizarre scripts like this one fizzle up out of the murk every now and then in the film business. A story like this one would be bought by A-lister’s production company than heavily revised beyond recognition. And as soon as the A-lister has the chance to put down the cape or machine gun, getting this kind of material made would be their top priority because main characters this challenging and this complex don’t come around too often. And on those days, your job as a script reader is difficult. Because you don’t want to be the guy who wrote “PASS” on a script that could potentially land Meryl her next Oscar® nomination. Add to that the fact that the industry is currently on a manhunt, er, I mean, womanhunt for stories with strong, female protagonists. Plus, we all know period pieces shoe-ins for Best Picture, so this one smells like “CONSIDER”. So, yeah, in a weird way: this story does hold up. The mother/daughter estranged-relationship that’s fully dimensional is a story not often told.
I’ve think I’ve exhausted my point. Hopefully, there’s enough here to last you until next month. I’m three weeks into a 30-day juice cleanse and I’m hella grumpy for typing and revising this much. One Love, boys and girls and aliens… I’m on my way to the kitchen to pour myself a bowl of vegetable broth.