Monday, February 16, 2009

metaDRAMA: What To Write?

Having already dealt before with the question of what to review, here's something else to consider: once you've decided to review something, what exactly do you write? As in, how much information do you give, especially if you're constrained by a word count, that most insidious and snake-like of things? And, even if you're not, how do you process and reprocess what you've written--filtering away your darlings, so to speak--in an effort to convey a clear "something" to the reader?

I thought that since Itamar Moses's new collection of one-acts, Love/Stories (or, But You Will Get Used To It) gets so self-referential, why don't I do so as well? The actual review is posted here, but what follows is most of the stuff that I cut. What's informative is that what I removed is mostly plot and references to actors (that didn't actually talk about their performance and were therefore simply perfunctory). I also ended up cutting a lot of my own embellishments, a habit which I happily admit to. There's a time and place for everything--to compensate, I added more quotes from the actual script. After all, it's his voice I want you to hear, not mine.

Also cut, to a large extent, were instances of name-dropping: I think it was Taylor Mac, in the opening to The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, who pleaded with critics to avoid comparing one work of art to another, and instead to simply speak of the work on its own merits and existential qualities. I can't always do that, but in places where it might be distracting, or might take attention away from the play itself, I am happy to oblige. Interestingly enough, my first line--that burst of inspiration, so to speak--rarely changes for me. If I don't have that starting point, I find it almost impossible to translate the notes I've made; that first line (or paragraph) is the Rosetta Stone of my criticism.

I don't expect that this will particularly useful or enlightening to any of you--who out there is giving a critic a close read (who watches the watchmen indeed)? But, as Foreman has said, if you've got even only an audience of one that you affect, you've done your job, no?

------------------------[The following is ROUGH DRAFT material; do not pull-quote any of this.]------------------------

The danger of writing, after that first initial flash, the flush of an idea, is that what you create will never be as close to that vision of perfection. And so you take to studying craft, learning how to hone and perfect your skills, which in turn carries another risk--that you will know so much that you will no longer be able to enjoy it. Itamar Moses, whose The Four Of Us proved that he was no stranger to meta-drama and post-modern conventions (in which art comments on itself), is back with a collection of five short plays--Love/Stories (or, But You Will Get Used To It)--that attempt to work through these post-modern worries by, appropriately enough, getting post-post-modern with them, something that will come as no surprise to fans of David Foster Wallace. What's delightfully surprising is how seriously Moses takes this opportunity, attempting (and rarely failing) to expand his range (unlike Will Eno's redundant one-act series Oh The Humanity).

His first play, "Chemistry Read," is a throat-clearing example of a modern ten-minute play; it's shallow, but the twist is that it's demonstratively so. A writer (Felipe Bonilla) sits with a director (Maren Langdon), using a reader (Laurel Holland) to try and find an actor with some modicum of chemistry. (As John Russo proves with his gleeful parody of smug, arrogant actors, this can be difficult to do.) However, the writer panics when one auditioner (Michael Micalizzi) turns out to be the guy who stole the girl that he wrote the play for. "I am not then obliged also to employ him, am I?" he says, looking to the reader for help.

It's not a bad start, but it's all uphill from there. In "Temping," a Guy (Micalizzi) sits at a desk, half-collating, half-listening to the Girl (Langdon) at the next desk talk to her ex-boyfriend, a series of trailing-off sentences that don't end well. Not only is the scene a reminder to actors that even monologues require partners, but it's an opportunity for Moses to play with intent; her second phone call, to a sympathetic friend, clarifies what brought her to tears in the first.

It's also a brilliant segue into "Authorial Intent," a three-scene one-act that begins with A breaking up with B, after she discovers--in parallel with the central metaphor of the play--that because she let him move in, he's no longer the man she loves (the "you who doesn't live here"). The actors then replay the scene, framing each segment with the literal subtext: "INSTRUMENT: Costume. DEVICE: Costume Change i.e. 'B returns without his jacket and tie.' OBJECTIVE: Permission To Tell Lengthy Story TACTIC: Insistence Upon Lack of Desire to Tell Lengthy Story." Then, suddenly, the actors are playing themselves, Laurel Holland and Michael Micalizzi, as they reflect upon the nature of acting itself. By nature, post-post-modernism is a send up of itself, though Moses misses the chance to go one step deeper by making a fourth scene, in which that scene is part of the same play (all of which, remember, is still part of the overall evening of Love/Stories).

The next piece, "Szinhaz," completes a different sort of metaphor, equating theater with love as a Soviet director, Istvan (Bonilla), speaks through his translator, Marie (Langdon), to explain how he has suffered for his art: "It was like being punched. Again. And again. And again. Into his face. By a train." But through all of this, he has found that you get used to it, much like the affair he is having with Marie, an affair that has become an all-consuming love, one that can only be adequately expressed by a frozen painful silence.

Finally, "Untitled Short Play" allows the evening's narrator (Russo) to interject, mirroring the author's worry and indecision in what is an entertainingly long series of scene-delaying clarifications. After all, although a man and woman (Bonilla and Holland) sit at a cafe table not looking at one another, the "avoidance [is] borne not of unfamiliarity but more of something like the opposite," a frisson that exists "like a dense fog." Which is, of course, a simile that must be elaborated on, for it's not the outside that he's concerned with, but the unknowable inside.

--------------------------[The above is ROUGH DRAFT material; do not pull-quote any of this.]--------------------------

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