Tuesday 8 October 2019

#ReadaPlayaWeek - September

The Big Meal (2011), by Dan LeFranc

‘You think this is dysfunctional?
God, you’re spoiled, you know that?’

Remember that BBC Licence Fee advert from a few years ago? The one where a man and woman zip through an entire relationship in the space of 30 seconds over a fancy restaurant meal? Well, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that advert when reading LeFranc’s The Big Meal. The premise is pretty similar: four generations of family history is played out in the microcosm of various gatherings at diners and restaurants in the American Midwest – all separate yet occupying the same space. We begin with Nicky and Sam’s first meeting and then chart their entire relationship, as well as those of various parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. LeFranc encapsulates the mundane aspects of suburban family life with touching empathy: bickering siblings, young love, extra-marital affairs, and everyday tragedies.

The text is presented as a tapestry of dialogue, with overlaps mapped out on the page and scenes often featuring secondary, and even tertiary, conversations in tandem with the presiding action. 8 actors of varying ages play all the characters over the decades-long timeline. This creates a great sense of the uncanny, as parents eventually play their children and brothers and sisters play lovers. LeFranc eschews scene breaks and the play is performed as a linear episode wherein any initial confusion is soon dispersed as the ‘everyman’ quality of the family drama takes centre stage. The themes are universal, and the shifting ownership of the characters allows them to embody all of society (albeit a western, middle class society) in a manner both generalised but specific enough to create a strong emotional impact during the denouements of certain plot points. Thematically and structurally The Big Meal draws many parallels with Stephen Karam’s The Humans, and it’s a play that I’d love to see in performance.

Published by Methuen

Jitney (1982), by August Wilson

I look around and all I see is boarded up buildings. Some of them been boarded-up for more than ten years

In 2016, Jitney became the last play in Wilson’s American Century Cycle (or Pittsburgh Cycle) to be performed on Broadway, putting in place the last jewel in the crown. Each one explores the black American experience in a different decade of the twentieth century, and two of them, Fences and The Piano Lesson, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This one is set in a Pittsburgh ‘jitney’ (taxi) office on the brink of being boarded up and torn down to make way for new developments. To this extent, it appears to be set in the same world as Two Trains Running (currently playing on tour) which sees the closure of Memphis’ diner putting a community at threat. In Jitney, someone even says ‘that’s how they put Memphis Lee out of business’. The effect is to highlight the pervading issue, based on reality, of the local authorities’ misgivings on a diverse part of the city for a number of years. The issues represented in one play are not isolated, they impact other characters in other decades in other plays.

The characters in Jitney may not be as richly captured as in Two Trains Running, but it does have the fascination of a work play. We see a range of characters not necessarily together by choice negotiating the dramas of their lives. We meet Youngblood, a young Vietnam veteran working long hours to try to get his young family a steady home even though his girlfriend Rena thinks he’s out all night with her sister; there’s Turnbo, a slightly unhinged mainstay of the office who’s in everybody’s business thinking he has the moral high ground; and Fielding, an alcoholic driver nostalgic for his ex-wife and a life that could’ve been. At the centre of this, there’s the boss of the office, Becker: a well-regarded man whose son is released from prison. Their relationship, although it’s rendered mostly through a couple of conversations, goes to the core of what Booster did to end up in prison and how that impacted on their relationship. But through those feelings of betrayal and an 11th-hour plot twist comes something which might galvanise the group to save their community.

Jitney feels quite an episodic play but each scene crackles with personality. And for all of the trials the vivid characters face in Jitney, like in Two Trains Running, Wilson is keen to build to a climax which is verging on the hopeful.

Published by Overlook

Tom and Clem (1997), by Stephen Churchett

I suppose it boils down to bread for all before cake for some’

A sticker has been placed over the page which lists the performance history of this Olivier-nominated play. Holding it up to the light to see what’s been replaced, the only difference I can see is the addition that Michael Codron produced it. All those stickers printed for presumably multiple copies for a non-event of a play.

The play is set in 1945 Germany. The war may be over but world leaders (Attlee, Truman and Stalin) have met in Potsdam to negotiate peace. Clement Attlee (Alec McCowen), the newly elected Prime Minister, and journalist and new Labour MP Tom Driberg (Michael Gambon) both feature in the play. But where you might expect a great meeting of minds, a sparring political and personal relationship, or even a friendship, we don’t really get any of that; the two don’t even have much stage time together. What we do get, or so it seems, is a good third of the play wasted on fellatio jokes!

There are some interesting bits, not least to think of the political backdrop onto which this was staged in 1997. What comparisons were drawn to Blair when audiences were confronted with an uncharismatic leader who looks like a dentist and is cautious of leading a social revolution? And any themes of political and personal compromise don’t have much time to flourish, with more of the meatier conversations squeezed into the play’s last moments.

Published by Faber and Faber
Pullman, WA (2005), by Young Jean Lee

‘As I walked to my waiting rainbow-coach, squashing a mermaid baby-head with each step,
I realized how fortunate I truly am’

The setup is a black box theatre, void, but for a sin bin zone, otherwise known as ‘the giving up area’. Three characters/actors use this platform to present a twisted self-help seminar, directing their words, for the most part, directly at the audience.

‘Pete’, ‘Tom’ and ‘Tory’ take turns to advise us on ‘how to live’. Lee’s text is stagnant mush of intentionally banal and cheesy self-improvement jargon – eat healthy, don’t do drugs etc. – childish fantasy, quasi-biblical sermonising and nonsense mantras. This is all interspersed with flashes of brutal imagery (one character likes to repeatedly imagine paper slicing into human eyeballs – that made me wince!) alongside frequent, violent tirades of abuse. The actors, eyeballing various audience members systematically berate them for their faults: ‘You’re a loser because you were born that way’; ‘You are incompetent’; ‘Why don’t you go home, you fucking hypocrite!’.

As a highly experimental piece of theatre, perhaps the play is more effective in performance, but I found reading Lee’s work – while never dull – a bit of a headache. I’m unsure of her intent, but Pullman, WA to me seems to be a post-meta take on the theatrical experience itself (and that doesn’t just include attending ‘traditional’ plays, or stepping foot inside a ‘theatre’ at all). Much of the dialogue is formed of quaint in form (while not necessarily quaint in nature) soundbites. As such, any grains of truth are buried beneath the overarching refrain of clichéd, synthetic hokum. This is reinforced by the various digressions into the imaginary land of ‘rainbows’ and ‘unicorns’. The overall effect is jarring. I confess I did not like Lee’s play while reading it, but having ruminated on its themes I’m warming to it slightly. Pullman, WA is a curiosity, but certainly not one for the faint-hearted.

Published by Methuen  

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