Sunday, June 21, 2009


Larry Bryggman, Souleymane Sy Savane, David Lansbury

In playwright Ian Bruce’s note in the program of the New Group’s production of Groundswell, he addresses the intractable politics of the new South Africa. He describes how blacks are desperately finding their way through administrating a new government, trying to undo decades of damage from apartheid, while whites struggle to find their place in the country’s new cosmology.

Bruce says, “While most blacks and some whites maintain hope and sanity by remaining loyal to the older liberation structures or ideas, this loyalty is no longer a given. As it should, the political pressure is building around bread and butter, rather than ideological issues. For the very poor, which is the majority, the more that is offered, the more they become discontented about what they still lack.”

I visited South Africa a few years ago, and witnessed the bitterness of native Afrikaners who feel disenfranchised for the first time, as well as the unbearable poverty of Black South Africans still living in the corrugated tin shanty towns that line the country’s highways. People walk on those interstates, waiting for jitneys to deliver them to jobs, and selling fruits, vegetables, and other wares, as though these major roads are extensions of the marketplace, the thin threads that connect one poor community with another.

On our trip through the country, our Afrikaner driver disparaged what he believes to be an ineffectual new government, and could barely conceal his antipathy for the regime under which he now lives. The black South African trackers and guides in the game preserves we visited told stories about their fathers and grandfathers, who knew the land we traveled intimately. These men passed down their knowledge of the animals we drove to see, to sons now employed by large corporations that own and organize thousands of acres of land with herds of elephants, giraffes, cheetahs, zebras, and other amazing species. We visited shanty towns, where we were introduced to hopeful residents, determined in their faith that their turn would come to move out of their jerry-rigged tin shacks into the concrete bunkers that represent a step up into real housing.

The country’s contradictions are confounding and upsetting. Bruce manages to capture these paradoxes in Groundswell, his poignant, intense play about three very different South African men confronting their positions in the nation’s chess game of a future. Meticulously directed by the New Group’s artistic director Scott Elliott, the play carefully portrays the hopes, dreams, and frustrations of men whose relationships to South Africa’s new structure of power and possibility couldn’t be more different.

The play’s narrative spins out through generic realist conventions. The men confront each other in an isolated guest house along South Africa’s desolate West Coast, acting in a gorgeous box set designed by the ubiquitous Derek McLane (who designed Our House at Playwrights Horizons and 33 Variations on Broadway as well as Groundswell, with all three productions running simultaneously). The one-set design depicts in detail the living and dining room of the small guest cottage on the ocean, with its slightly shabby nautical décor, its knotty pine walls, colonial wooden tables, chairs, and sideboard, and carved pictures of the sea lining the walls.

Jason Lyons’s lighting evokes the sun gradually setting on the water; from the cottage’s windows, the sky can be seen deepening into azure hues tinged with pink as the play progresses. Shane Rettig’s sound design also textures the production, with elegiac tolling bells and fog horns, constantly reminding the men of where they are as they wonder, for very different reasons, whether or not they’ll ever be able to leave.

Deep-sea diver Johan (David Lansbury) and his black friend Thami (Souléymane Sy Savané), who runs the guest house in its owner’s absence, cook up a scheme to get Thami’s guest, Smith (Larry Bryggman), to part with some of his obvious wealth to fund their application for a government empowerment scheme for small business owners. With Smith’s help, the two men believe they can move out of their relative poverty and dependence on employment from others to make their own way.

Smith has arrived at the guest house somewhat by accident, under the impression that he was traveling to a golf resort where he could relax on holiday. Instead, he finds a much smaller, simpler lodging than he expects, and the setting more intimate than anonymous, and much more remote. Golf isn’t an option; Smith can’t get a signal for his cell; and he’s obviously accustomed to finer food and drink. Bryggman does a fine job establishing Smith’s pretensions. When he comes from his room for dinner, he wrinkles his nose at the wine Thami and Johan have carefully chosen to honor his arrival. What for them is a top shelf choice for Smith is barely drinkable, although he’s pleasantly surprised to find his first taste adequate.

Smith’s colonialist class status is first established in these bits of business. After their dinner, for example, Smith asks for another glass of whiskey, waiting for Thami to pour for him even though the bottle is close at hand. Elliott and Bruce underline that Smith’s privilege is so deeply ingrained, he wouldn’t think of pouring for himself if a Black server is at the table. While the three men sit in apparent camaraderie, their class and racial differences lurk not at all far beneath the surface.

Johan’s relationship with Thami proves even more delicate, because their class affinities make a real friendship seem possible. Johan has been injured in a dive; Lansbury plays him clutching his upper arm in apparent discomfort through most of the play. He finally admits that he’ll no longer be able to dive, which means the end of his only source of income. Johan speaks in a thick Afrikaner brogue, but he also practices broken Xhosa, Thami’s native language, asking his friend to teach him new words and to correct his pronunciation.

Johan at least tries to understand his Black friend, to approach him as a full human being. Johan, in fact, argues most vociferously, when the three men’s relationship becomes strained, that Smith owes Thami reparations for apartheid, that part of Smith’s wealth rightly belongs to the Black man. Even Thami can’t quite get behind Johan’s protestations. Although he doesn’t say so outright, Thami’s eyes and his behavior indicate that he’d rather not blame one individual for decades of racial oppression.

But Bruce’s play asks who, then, is responsible for the long years of apartheid, and how should Black South Africans’ plight be redressed? After all, if it’s not Smith himself, it’s certainly more his kind’s fault than it is the working class seaman Johan’s. But the play complicates even Smith’s position by making him relatively sympathetic. He defends his own propriety, insisting when pushed that he contributed his money to all the right causes, that he, too, was against apartheid, and that he, too, is distraught over the country’s disrepair.

Smith’s second act monologue describes being let go from a government position, only to be called back to consult when the people who replaced him had no idea how to do the job. Bruce’s play proposes that Smith isn’t the source of all evil. He’s a decent, wealthy man who’s lived through an untenable situation differently than Thami and Johan, but who sees the inequities clearly. Still, Smith’s hubris is his inability to see that although the course of history hasn’t been in his control, he’s benefited in ways that bear consideration. Groundswell ultimately accuses him of a smug avoidance of blame.

Director Elliott and his cast carefully build the evening’s tension. The play opens with Thami reading out loud in Xhosa a letter he’s writing to his wife. The lyrical language—full of clicks and mouth-tongue positions alien to English speakers but musical to hear—is left untranslated. But it’s clear that Thami is describing something beautiful, as his face is full of a mixture of joy and longing.

When Johan later tries to translate the letter, it seems Thami is constructing an edited version of his life for his wife, painting a much more hopeful scene than the one in which he’s living. Gracefully played with a welter of conflicting emotions by Savané, the tall, slender Thami is an elegant man, whose simple black pants, white shirt, and apron mark his servitude. But he holds himself with regal dignity, and takes very seriously his position as the absentee owner’s landlord.

Johan arrives on a gust of wind, all vim and vigor, filling the air with the imagined scent of salt and surf. He’s a seafarer on land, boisterous and physically unsteady, as though he can’t quite find his footing out of the water. Even when he cleans up and changes his clothes for dinner, Johan’s skin retains its moisture, as the saltwater seems to seep from his pores. Lansbury’s wonderful performance keeps a tight hold on Johan’s volatility, but his imminent violence and unpredictability courses just under the surface of his florid face. He and Thami provide a study in contrasts, not only of personality, but of lifestyles and responses to lives of hardship and deprivation.

On his entrance, as he peels off his wet clothes, Johan removes a long fishing knife from its sheath at his belt and puts it in a drawer in the sideboard. The knife amounts to a symbol as potent as the gun in Hedda Gabler; the rules of theatrical narrative dictate that at some point, the weapon will be used. Groundswell’s plot acquiesces to tradition. Our knowledge of the knife haunts the exchanges that follow, and gives Johan a powerful secret that puffs him up beyond his class status.

Hearing that a well-off guest has registered, Johan decides that he and Thami should persuade Smith to sponsor their application for a small business loan that will buy them a lease on an area in which they can mine diamonds. The two men become excited at the prospect of persuading Smith to bankroll their plans, and put together what for them is a special meal over which to convince him.

The meal goes badly from the start. Thami and Johan try to ingratiate themselves with forced jollity, jolted by nerves taut from the high stakes of the interaction. Smith is at first oblivious to the subtext coursing under the meal. Bryggman beautifully executes his dawning understanding that he’s being played. If the three men begin their repast at least performing as equals, Smith’s practiced power soon becomes evident, as Johan can’t get him to see the potential in the government’s assistance plan.

Smith’s own political analysis suggests that the government scheme into which Thami and Johan want to buy is nothing but a sop to the poor, a way to appear to be sharing opportunity that hasn’t been adequately considered or tested. Smith intimates that the land they want to lease has already been thoroughly mined, that there are no diamonds left, and that the government’s empty gesture is meant to provide a false sense of ownership and only fabricated hope.

As Johan becomes more and more desperate and Smith becomes increasingly rational and cynical, the obvious disparity in their power and knowledge is painfully clear to all three men. Thami watches, occasionally interjecting but often simply moving his eyes from one white man to the other, as he observes the contretemps play out. Savané’s face registers his dawning disappointment, as he realizes earlier than Johan that Smith will refuse to contribute to their future.

But Johan won’t let Smith off the hook. As his convoluted proposals become increasingly desperate against Smith’s cool refusal, Johan turns to the bottle to maintain his strength. At the top of the play, he reassured Thami he wouldn’t drink, setting up, like the knife, the inevitability that liquor will arrive in his near future. Over the painful dinner, as Thami clears away a course and moves into the kitchen for the next, Johan pulls a bottle of wine from the shelf and quickly drains it. His belligerence grows with his alcohol consumption, until finally, he’s threatening Smith with the knife he’s pulled from the sideboard to hold at the rich man’s throat.

That the two white men enact the play’s most violent confrontation clarifies how much class is at issue, along with race, in the new politics of South Africa. The comfortable colonialist might be threatened temporarily, but inevitably, he can pack his suitcase, pick up his wallet and his keys, and move on to a more luxe, more impregnable resort. Johan and Thami, trapped in their circumstances, try to build common cause. Johan genuinely wants to learn Xhosa, and his affection for the Black African seems real, even if his demonstrativeness appears alien and discomfiting to Thami’ physical propriety.

But finally, Thami is forced to reject Johan’s gesture of brotherhood. The diver’s methods aren’t his own, and the prideful Thami painfully points out that although Johan tries to learn his language, he can’t truly understand his life. Thami’s commitment to his family outweighs his camaraderie with Johan, whose dreams are larger but less realistic than Thami’s, who wants a small piece of land and a home in which to gather the family from which his work keeps him separate.

Thami’s isolation comes from an economic structure that requires him to leave his village to survive; Johan’s lack of opportunity derives from his alcoholism and his belligerence, along with his class and his place in an economic system with no room for aging divers.

By the play’s end, as the bell by the sea rings mournfully, nothing has changed. But the three tired men, now isolated by their intractable differences, have gained an even deeper understanding that solutions to their awkwardly shared conundrum will be very slow in coming.

The production is beautifully calibrated, as Elliott orchestrates the three men’s emotional trajectories like a conductor leading a trio through a complex musical score. As the tension among them builds and their affiliations subtly shift, each man reveals vulnerabilities only to cover them up once again. They know they can’t be open or honest with one another, that their mutual survival depends on maintaining the roles history has crafted for them, despite their surprisingly mutual, fervent wish that the future will be different.

The Feminist Spectator

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Our House

Stephen Kunken, Morena Baccarin, Christopher Evan Welch,
Haynes Thigpen, and Jeremy Strong. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Theresa Rebeck has worked in television on and off, writing for, among other series, NYPD Blue. She's currently developing an HBO series called Women's Studies with actor Julie White. To say she’s seen the dark side of the medium would be putting it mildly. Her latest satirical play about the industry is Our House, at Playwright’s Horizons, smartly directed by Michael Mayer and beautifully performed by a cast that successfully communicates its difficult tone. Everything works in this production. At times, Rebeck delivers her warning message about the confusion of reality and television with too heavy a hand. But since the matinee performance I saw (6/6/09) was a preview, that kink will no doubt get worked out during the run.

Originally commissioned, workshopped, and produced at the Denver Center Theatre, the play describes Wes, a New York, shark of a corporate network television honcho; Jennifer Ramirez, his ambitious news-anchor mistress; and Stu, the dubious, conscience-prone head of the network news division, as their wheelings and dealings overlap with a household of down-at-the-heel roommates somewhere in St. Louis. The play’s intercutting structure reveals its plan and purpose just before the end of the first act, which meanders a bit as Rebeck unspools the relationships and issues that drive the eventual crisis.

I won’t reveal the necessary surprise of that first act’s explosive ending (although I should also say: Spoiler alert!). Suffice it to say that four oddly matched roommates comprise the shabby household in St. Louis. The characters are lightly drawn; Vince (Haynes Thigpen) is a computer nerd who rides a bike to and from work; Grigsby (Mandy Siegried) is a med student intern at a hospital ER; and Alice (Katie Kreisler) newly arrived from Vermont, is a strident, politically correct woman who grates on the others’ nerves.

The fourth roommate is a couch potato graduate student named Merv (Jeremy Strong) who owes the others $4,000 in back rent, but lives blithely unconcerned with his responsibilities or the niceties of a shared household. He raids the refrigerator, poaching his roommates’ food; he stares at the tv for hours, talking back to vapid reality tv shows; and he appears to have the emotional and intellectual constitution of an adolescent. His roommates do little to provoke his eventual violence, which he enacts as spontaneously and thoughtlessly, as he might play a video game.

In fact, Merv’s behavior illustrates Rebeck’s point, which is that network television is in cahoots with an increasingly banal culture that elevates “reality tv” to the status of real-life urgency. Merv looses his ability to discern what’s real from what’s not and can’t grasp the consequences of his actions, which prove dire and irreversible. Instead, when he finds himself in trouble, he asks for help from the only heroine his blinkered broadcast world regularly offers—Jennifer Ramirez (Morena Baccarin), the network news-reader who seems more real to him than his flawed, ordinary, live roommates.

When Merv asks that Jennifer come to negotiate his situation, Wes (Christopher Evan Welch), the crass network head whose machinations provide the counterpoint to Merv’s actions, smells an opportunity for publicity and the fabricated drama he’d much rather program than real reportage. “Who needs news?” he scoffs, as he insists that staying informed in America is optional. Rebeck uses Wes’ response to her contrived events to satirize the networks’ self-serving self-importance and their social irresponsibility.

When Jennifer arrives at the St. Louis residence to interview Merv live on national television, the other roommates urge her to intervene in what’s become a life-and-death crisis. She firmly demurs, insisting that members of the press can’t interfere with the events they cover. Trotting out this chestnut of journalistic ethics in this situation provokes one of the play’s biggest laughs, as Rebeck demonstrates how the presence of the press creates as much as it reflects on the news as it happens.

Jennifer is mouthpiece with an ear-piece, her life-line to Wes and his instructions. When her interview with Merv doesn’t generate enough heat, he tells her to “juice it up,” which she does without hesitation, further illustrating how journalists are agents, as much as archivists, of the events they cover. After Jennifer’s shocking intervention, Wes crows that “the numbers are through the roof,” as he and the anchorwoman/reporter lock lips in the sensation-fueled desire that brought them together in the first place.

Rebeck’s plays sometimes come uncomfortably close to sexism in her portrayals of women. Although most of her work satirizes current events and values, it’s occasionally difficult to tell where her gender stereotypes end and her social critique begins. She draws those lines much more clearly in Our House, and Mayer’s sharp direction and the actors’ clear choices clarify her critique of how gender is used to help networks jockey for position.

Jennifer works her body much more than her mind to move up the corporate tv ladder. She and Wes have sex on his desk as he schemes about cutting 700 jobs from the news division. She’s happy to be his puppet to improve her career, and gleefully participates in her own objectification. One of the production’s many sight gags has Jennifer popping in and out to report short news briefs, each time in a different, increasingly more revealing outfit. The series of costumes changes ends with the anchorwoman in her bra and a skirt, refusing the cowl-neck sweater sent to her from Wardrobe.

And yet, Jennifer isn't stupid; when she mispronounces "Shi'ite" as "shite" in a newscast, she catches her humiliating mistake and wants to fix it. She also hosts a reality tv show, as well as serving as a news anchor. When Stu (Stephen Kunken), the head of the news division who in some ways serves as the play's however ineffectual moral anchor, balks at the combination of “lite” and serious duties, Jennifer and Wes protest that reality tv is just as important as news-making events. The line between contrived and real, serious and stupid, smart and dumb is continually crossed in Our House, so that they finally blur indistinguishably.

Merv, the hapless villain of the play, isn’t supposed to be stupid. He’s a graduate student in an unnamed field, a character point that’s repeated with increasing sarcasm throughout the play. Yet even the presumptively smart guy spends his time glued to the screen, in awe that “tv makes people look so real,” saying he’d like to climb in and live among those he sees reflected.

That desire doesn’t make him particularly crazy, Rebeck intimates. After all, doesn’t “reality tv” invite spectators to consider themselves integral to the proceedings, asking them to vote on their favorite singer, or their least favorite member of the house,or to hear the testimonies of survivors and dog owners and other contestants in pre-arranged conflicts carefully scripted to seem real? Doesn’t even “real” news invite spectators to participate in the judgments its producers devise, posting phone numbers to call to register opinions? What’s crazy about believing what you see and hear broadcast?

Heroes rarely prevail in Theresa Rebeck’s plays, which makes her an equal opportunity playwright. While Wes and Jennifer’s corruption qualifies them as evil purveyors of material Rebeck believes poisons the national psyche, the oblivious roommates of Our House are equally culpable in their inability to note, diagnose, and prevent Merv’s breakdown. None of the characters establish a clear bead on reality or what compels people to continue living it; the dialogue in St. Louis sounds as banal as the repartee at the network.

Rebeck doesn’t pit a well adjusted, authentic heartland against a dishonest, mercenary corporation. Instead, the entire American landscape of time and space, knowledge and truth—as Wes intones at the end, backed by music reminiscent of the all-American soundscape of composer John Williams—is revealed as illusory, banal, and bereft, empty of meaning and driven only by the hollowest pursuits of fifteen minutes of fame and fortune.

Our House takes a moment to get out of the gate, but once the inciting incident occurs, the play runs as fast, furious, and unpredictable as the Kentucky Derby. Mayer uses set designer Derek McLane’s evocative environment to beautiful effect. Wes’ corporate office is drawn in grays, blacks, and transparent, hard materials that move as a unit on and off the small stage.

The disheveled St. Louis house, which rolls out from behind the closed metallic blinds that decorate Wes’ office, is filled with mismatched, stuffed sofas and chairs, and the clutter of four unrelated, not at all wealthy young people living together in a small, untidy space. The television into which Merv stares without blinking is of course positioned in the audience, so that spectators both witness and are implicated by his unnerving fascination for the illusions created for him.

The acting in Our House helps deliver Rebeck’s critique with the necessary satirical panache. Welch beautifully embodies the oily, slick Wes, who’s unaware of his own idiocy and proud of what seem to him shatteringly original and creative ideas (one of which is that Jennifer’s cleavage should be enhanced by a bra with pumps that push together her breasts). Baccarin proves a stalwart Jennifer Ramirez, bringing a bit of intelligence to a character that exists to be used and abused in exchange for the doubtful achievement of television fame.

But Jeremy Strong’s performance as Merv clinches the production’s success. Without an actor capable of shading and modulating Merv’s excesses, Our House could slip over the top into meaningless parody. Instead, Strong brings nuance and a necessary humanity to a character that could quickly become annoying. In his clear-sighted portrait of Merv’s damage—his own and the harm he inflicts—Strong reveals Rebeck’s cautionary tale: if you believe in what television broadcasts as reality, you quickly lose touch with your own.

The Feminist Spectator