Thursday, March 31, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Lyndon"

Originally published in Girl With Curious Hair. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 22.

[Continuing the countdown to whenever my copy of The Pale King arrives from Shipping Limbo.]

An odd semi-history of a story that doesn't feel like Wallace at all, mainly because so much of the story is spent dealing, in a straightforward fashion, with a sidelong depiction of the actual Lyndon B. Johnson, through the eyes of an invented, gay confidant, David Boyd. There's no identification of which supposed aphorisms in this story were actually used in later speeches, nor is there any distinction between actual news quotes and made-up "transcriptions" regarding the curious relationship between Boyd and LBJ; as a result, this story is likelier to have a greater effect on those who knew the man (and for whom this could be seen as a "peeling back of the curtain"), as opposed to someone like me, who is coming into this story with a character-based handicap. Complicating things, or perhaps complicated by one's lack of familiarity, is the downright cryptic final section, in which Boyd visits Lady Bird at Lyndon's deathbed, and the two share words on love, distance, loneliness, and their husbands, with some allusions being made to Lyndon's sexuality through the disease he, Boyd, and Boyd's husband, a Haitian named Duverger, all share (and which is probably AIDS).

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

THEATER: La Cage Aux Folles

"We are what we are," goes the bold-for-1982 anthem of La Cage Aux Folles. That lovely music still holds up for this 2010 revival, but it's challenged now by the Broadway sensibilities of another line, "It's rather gaudy, but it's also rather grand," in that the show -- especially under the mute direction of Terry Johnson -- often confuses panache and flash. In other words, as fun as the six transvestite dancing Cagelles may be (and Matt Anctil, Logan Keslar, Sean Patrick Doyle, Karl Warden, Terry Lavell, and Yurel Echezarreta are all a hoot), it's not until the Act I finale that the show rings true and provides some real dramatic stakes.

On behalf of his son Jean-Michel (an indistinct A. J. Shively), Georges (Christopher Sieber) has asked his lover, Albin, to leave for one day so that they might pretend to be straight for the rigidly conservative family of his Jean-Michel's fiancee, Anne (Elena Shaddow); Albin, feeling rightly betrayed sends away the limber Cagelles, pulls off his wig before the audience, and personalizes the show, singing "I Am What I Am." And though Douglas Hodges won the 2010 Tony for this part, it's hard to imagine this meaning more to or being performed better by anyone other than Harvey Fierstein (who wrote the book and has now, almost three decades later, assumed the role), a man who makes no apologies -- nor needs to -- for his unique, gravel-pitched voice and impish, tongue-wagging presence. He, and his believable chemistry with co-star Sieber, are not at all gaudy, though they're sadly not a grand enough reason to revisit La Cage on their own.

As impressive as the new Georges and Albin are, they're still stuck in an unbalanced musical (in which a solid first act is marred by a hasty second) that's been unambitiously directed by Johnson, who perhaps feared so much of being gaudy that he -- and the limp set designer Tim Shortall -- have left the stage mostly empty. This, in turn, results in a lot of hammy attempts from the actors to fill that space, none more egregious than that of the butler/maid Jacob (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), who appears to be doing a bad impression of Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen . . . doing a bad impression . . ., although Anne's one-dimensionally blustery father, M. Dindon (Mike McShane) comes close, especially compared to his manically mousy wife (an exceptional Allyce Beasley). When Georges and Albin are alone together, they're charming; too bad they're surrounded by farcical characters in a show that never builds up enough steam to become a farce: instead, they're stuck playing dress-up, wasting their time with instantly forgettable songs like "Cocktail Counterpoint" and "The Best of Times" instead of the comedy of "Masculinity" or emotion of "Look Over There."

If you've never seen one of the adaptations of Jean Poiret's farce La Cage Aux Folles, either this musical or the film comedy The Birdcage, and if you can find a discount of 30-40% on tickets (that's about how much is aesthetically missing or unpolished in the current Broadway run), then you should rush to the Longacre. For everyone else, cross your fingers for a re-recording of the cast album, so that you might hear what Fierstein and his buttery counterpart, Sieber, bring to the table.

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Girl With Curious Hair"

From Girl With Curious Hair (1989). Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 61.

[Apparently, The Pale King has already been released through some online pre-orders. Regardless, I will continue to count down to my own encounter with the novel by re-reading Wallace's short stories.]

It's a curious thing; not the curious girl with the curious hair whom the punkrockers and their disturbed yet well-dressed Young Republican friend obsess about in "Girl with Curious Hair," but curious in that Wallace would choose Girl with Curious Hair as the title of his collection, given how different this story is from most of his other work (though he will play with altered first-person narrators in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and, memorably and successfully, in the yrstruly section of Infinite Jest). Curious, too, in that it's not a particularly good story, so much as it is a means for Wallace to show us some far-out characters (in what should be a rigid setting -- the upscale Irvine Concert Hall -- that has been given over, for the night, to pianist Keith Jarrett and his improvisatory music), one of whom -- the narrator, called Sick Puppy by the group, because he likes being fellated and lighting things, including stray dogs, on fire -- we'll gain some small level of empathy for, when we learn that his military father caught him imitating some porn magazines he'd found as a eight-year-old . . . on his ten-year-old sister . . . the punishment for which involved his penis being slowly burned with a gold lighter.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR"

From Girl With Curious Hair (1989). Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 91.

[The Pale King will be released in 17 days. I'll be re-reading Wallace's short stories until then.]

Though many of Wallace's ideas recur -- and you'll see thematically similar stuff to this story as we pass to Oblivion -- the mode of each story is fresh; knowing what's going to happen, he seems to be saying, doesn't make the need to hear it or seeing the how and why of it and less important. So yes, while the title basically describes the entire story -- in which the junior, newly divorced Account Representative and the senior, still married Vice President in Charge of Overseas Production, leave their Building after a late night -- it also hints that there is far more to this story than the actual event itself. No, what this story speaks to is the extreme circumstances that must occur in order to bring two people together, or as Wallace puts it with his mathematical elegance: "There were between these last two executives to leave the Building the sorts of similarities enjoyed by parallel lines." People as parallel lines -- similar, but never intersecting: the thought is devastating, especially considering the similar, quiet pains each one is filled with:

He was preparing to feel that male and special feeling associated with the conversational imperative faced by any two men with some professional connection who meet in nighttime across an otherwise empty and silent but fragilely silent underground space far below the tall and vaguely pulsing site of a long and weary day for both: the obligation of conversation without the conversational prerequisites of intimacy or interests or concerns to share. They shared pain, though of course neither knew.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Little Expressionless Animals"

From Girl With Curious Hair (1989). Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 97.

[In honor of David Foster Wallace's pending, posthumous novel, The Pale King, I'll be spending the weeks until then re-reading his short stories. Read a lengthy excerpt of this story in The Paris Review.]

Griffin whispers and the shiny man rises. "Merv posits that this force, ladies, gentleman, is the capacity of facts to transcend their internal factual limitations and become, in and of themselves, meaning, feeling. This girl not only kicks facts in the ass. this girl informs trivia with import. She makes it human, something with the power to emote, evoke, induce, cathart. She gives the game the simultaneous transparency and mystery all of us in the industry have groped for, for decades. A sort of union of contestantorial head, heart, gut, buzzer finger. She is, or can become, the game show incarnate. She is a mystery."

Actually probably definitely maybe one of my favorite stories of Wallace's, and that quote above helps to capture the essence of what he does here, and in all of his writing (essays included). He takes mere facts, poignant observations about the world, what have you, and gives it import. He is a man obsessed, from his tennis and mathematical and philosophical days, with limitations, and the ways in which we might step outside and escape them. It is no surprise that Julie Smith and Faye Goddard, the central lovers of this story, one a three-year Jeopardy winner (take that, Ken Jennings) and the other a question researcher for the show, both love the straightedge: "It makes worlds. I could make a world out of lines. A sort of jagged magic." These are women who have been trapped, the latter in a literal house of glass, but who are looking for a way to transcend or escape their fears. And over the course of this story -- which jumps from 1976 to 1970 to 1988, where we know Julie will be unseated by her autistic brother, before going back to connect the dots -- we will come to understand, to realize along with them, the ways in which they have been caught up and shaped by events that they could not control. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

THEATER: The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G

Photo/Jim Baldassare
There is nothing inexplicable about The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G: for those who have been following the growth of the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, this is merely their inevitable next step forward. That is not to imply that long-time collaborators (and co-founders) playwright Qui Nguyen or director Robert Ross Parker need redemption, by the by, but rather recognition that as good as 2007's ultra-campy comic-book send-up Men of Steel was, 2008's sci-fi spectacular Fight Girl Battle World, which pushed new ground in Nguyen's fight choreography, was better. And that where those shows succeeded, 2009's samurai grindhouse epic, Soul Samurai, was an incredibly polished work -- not just of geek art, but theater in general. This is particularly good news for fans of 2010's horror mash-up, Alice in Slasherland, which, although terrific, showed a few signs that the company might be plateauing: where could they go from those puppets, those costumes, all that blood?

Photo/Jim Baldassare
After seeing Agent G, I'm not just a believer again, I'm a thoroughly obsessed fan: Nguyen's latest is not just a tale of Vietnam, filtered through war movies, noir drama, and spy flicks, but the tale of an artist daring to find his voice without compromising his aesthetic. In the end, it's a play in which Katy Perry getting parodied ("Oriental girls, we're inscrutable/Communists with rice hats on top"), ninjas showing off their dance moves, and a rapping, un-PC muppet called Gookie Monster (from the always impressive puppet designer David Valentine), all manage to stand on equal footing with a tragic (and true) story of two young boys -- cousins of Nguyen's -- stranded at sea. Though Nguyen acknowledges that his device -- which involves the playwright himself (played here by the terrifically indignant/frustrated William Jackson Harper) being abducted by his unfinished "Gook Trilogy" protagonist, Hung (the ever-reliable Paco Tolson) -- may owe a debt to David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face, it would be just as easy to favorably compare Agent G to the Pulitzer-nominated The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which also aggressively plays up stereotypes in a genre setting, knowing that it takes a lot of noise before the quiet truth can be heard.

One might also look to the recently translated Invasion!; or better yet, one might just embrace Agent G as the culmination of a work Nguyen started with his 2006 Trial by Water, a story so important to the playwright that it forced itself through the western shadow-play and the impromptu alien invasion and the motorcycle chase and the "Psycho Killer"-scored moment of cannibalism until finally being heard. Perhaps it might help to mention the South Park-animated portion of the show, which invites yet another pleasing comparison to a work that manages to be both obscene and sincere; over-the-top and on-the-level. (And while we're talking Broadway: Dear producers of Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark, you couldn't find a better company to save your show than the Vampire Cowboys: "That's right, Tiger. I think you just hit the jackpot.")

Photo/Jim Baldassare
Yes, Agent G panders with horrible Vietnamese accents and cheap stereotypes (hilariously rendered by the malleable Jon Hoche): "There is an old Vienamese man playing a one-string Vienamese guitar as we see a slew of other Vienamese do Vietnamese things under some Vietnamese paper lanterns." However, because a constantly criticized Qui appears within the play -- as a willfully ignorant writer who considers himself more Black than Asian -- the show manages to justify its "limitations," and even turns them toward mocking professors, "research" ("You've just been wikipedia'd bitch!"), and the theater's dead-ending developmental process, in which a "good play" -- what will commercially succeed -- is considered more important than a truthful one. ("I failed because I listened.") "The-writer-finding-his-voice" arc may be a literary trope, but never in such an explosively funny way, as a pop-culture-laden action-adventure. (Heck, it even manages to defend its character choices with a Star Wars-referencing defense that would make Kevin Smith proud.)

For the sake of expectations going into future Vampire Cowboys shows, I have tried (and failed) to find something, anything, to criticize in this production. At first, Amy Kim Waschke, who plays Hung's potential redeemer, the brothel's maid, San, looks like a weak link, but no, she's merely written into a submissive role, one that she subverts with each dual-cast opportunity (particularly as a literal Dragon Lady). As for Bonnie Sherman, who plays the familiar Strong Woman archetype that this company adores, she's consistently up to the challenges of the various genres she's thrown into -- particularly the gangsta scenes -- and is also impressive in her role as the voice of reason, a k a Abby, Qui's wife. The aesthetics -- especially given the tight spaces of the Incubator Arts Project -- are equally fault-free: Nick Francone's letter-block set (which spells out V-I-E-T-N-A-M) is surprisingly adaptable and fittingly exclamatory -- particularly when Matthew Tennie's video projections turn them into trees or sultry narrators --, Shane Rettig's sound design lays down the requisitely sick beats for Nguyen's fight sequences, and Jessica Wegener Shay's nerd-chic costumes convey Nguyen's obliviousness to Vietnamese culture while still being inventive. And though it goes without saying, it's worth repeating that director Robert Ross Parker's hand in all of this -- and the fact that he's collaborated with everyone on this team before -- is both invisible and prevalent.

Not all art needs to be a struggle to communicate, and even if it does, Nguyen has done all the work for us, decocting the essence of his dual Vampire Cowboys and cultural identity into one ninety-minute blast of a show. Agent G doesn't go nearly as deep as Hwang and doesn't get as emotionally shocking as Young Jean Lee (whose indelible The Shipment is still a benchmark for debunking stereotypes), but then again, he's not trying to be anything other than himself (and he damn well kicks more ass than the two of them combined). No, The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G isn't all that inexplicable; but yeah, it's pretty damn incredible.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Short-a-Day: Alice Munro's "Pride"

Originally published in Harper's, April 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 70.

In a town "where nothing is forgotten (any town, that is, any town is a place like that)," our harelipped narrator points out two different types of people: those who get things wrong but remain silent and prideful, never showing weakness (like him); and then those who embarrass or unsettle those around them by blatantly getting things wrong, and continuing to do so, like Oneida, who came from a well-off family and yet wound up alone and unable to properly manage her own estate. The meat of this story is not in the plot, which spans seventy years, but rather in the way these two continue to cross paths, and how that affects our protagonist, who has worked so patiently to maintain his personal pride, shaken only briefly in the light of a tragedy during World War II: "The blowing away of everything, the equality [of death]--I have to say it--the equality, all of a sudden, of people like me and worse than me and people like them."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Short-a-Day: Daniel Mason's "The Miraculous Discovery of Psammetichus I"

Originally published in Harper's, March 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 92.

In each issue of The New Yorker, there's a one-page section called "Shouts & Murmurs," in which a comic writer attempts, through exaggeration, to mock some bit of recent news or a cultural norm/stereotype. It's rarely any good, so imagine my surprise to find that Mason had written a decent four-page story in this style, opening by paraphrasing the truthfully ridiculous linguistic experiment of Psammetichus (as recorded by Herodotus and translated by G. Rawlinson in 1858), and then going on to imagine more ludicrous extensions of said experiment. The structure is solid, as are the jokes:

He selected a pair of newborn children from two fisherwomen and gave them to his aviarist to raise amongst his flocks with these instructions: No one was to utter a word in the children's presence; they should be given birdseed for their hunger and perches for their sleep, and so be raised to think that they were fowl. .... [After three-and-a-half years] they were brought before him and he inquired, What now do the birds speak of? The boys crouched and blinked, and one licked a flea from his armpit, and the other scraped his teeth back and forth against the floor. Whereupon Psammetichus asked again, and the boys replied that the song sparrows spoke nostalgically of the berries in Ethiopia, and the peacocks of their own beauty, and the parrots of what the aviarist did with the queen. From this Psammetichus learned of memory and vanity and not to trust Lydian wives, nor aviarists from Krokodilopolis.
This is generally held to be a lesser discovery than the first, but one with more practical application.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Short-a-Day: Ben Marcus's "Rollingwood"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Mar. 21, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 51.

It must suck to be the one guy in the room who actually cares. The story opens with  "It's still dark when the weeping erupts, so Mather knows it's early," so right from the start, we can see how calm and rational our protagonist is. He'll need such cool, for the story consists of the world slowly but consistently screwing him with dispassion and incompetence: his ex-wife saddles him with their fussy, asthmatic one-and-a-half-year-old so that she can start a new life with her boyfriend (pretending that she'll just be gone for a few days); the nursery at work inexplicably closes; instead of telling Mather's boss that he's taken a personal day, she reports that he has quit his job; his car pool just stops picking him up; he always misses the bus by a minute; it's winter. We get things like this: "Mather demonstrates the ventilator to the sitter, but it clear that she has already decided that it is too complicated for her to operate."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Short-a-Day: Haruki Murakami's "U.F.O. In Kushiro"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Mar. 19, 2001. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 8.

[Translated, from the Japanese, by Jay Rubin.]

A bit of an opportunistic reprint, here, by The New Yorker's fiction editor Deborah Treisman, an openly empty story (though I feel -- or rather don't feel -- that about most of Murakami's writing) that just happens to be loosely related to the 1995 earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan. In a series of tangents and anecdotes, Komura's wife grows obsessed with disaster footage and leaves him; an aimless, grieving Komura agrees to deliver something for his co-worker, flying all the way from Tokyo to Hokkaido to do so; while there, the friend of the person he's delivering the package to, Shimao, seduces him with the telling of a personal story involving sex in a bear-populated forest; finally, the story ends with Shimao pointing out, "But really, you're just at the beginning."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Short-a-Day: Saïd Sayafiezadeh's "Paranoia"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Feb. 28, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 93. 

"Why aren't you eating?" he asked.
"I saw a fly land on it," I admitted.
With irritation he said, "You are opulent," and he took the sandwich from me and bit into it, a huge, obvious bite, so that I could see the food in his mouth. "And I am indigent."
Which was true. I'd had a DVD player for ten years.

How silly all the terrible, unbearable things in life are, things we cannot imagine and yet which others undergo on a continual basis. We argue about an undercooked dish and send it back, and millions starve. We complain about a leaky faucet while countries deal with a lack of running water or, worse, actual flooding. And in America itself, we snipe at illegal aliens for the "damage" they do to this country -- without admitting that they are often the only ones willing to do the things that we, inanely, will not. Has it come to this? That we would pass up a sandwich because, at one time, a fly landed on it? That's the difference between Roberto, who at seventeen, refused to follow his family home, and Dean, a relaxed white dude who once played football, but now has what his former teammates call an "essential" job. Although these two can be friends, and although Dean can hang with Troy and Quincy down in the otherwise no-(white)-man's-land of Maple Tree Heights, they're worlds apart, and though the title of this story is ostensibly about the coming war that America is gearing up for, it's really about the paranoia Roberto lives with -- when will the INS come and ruin his life?

Saturday, March 19, 2011


We first meet Anna (Kristen Bush) as she, a stony and/or stoic adjunct, is being dumped by an older professor, Simon (Matthew Rauch), who we will never see again. That's fine: in the next hundred minutes of Bathsheba Doran's Kin, nearly a decade of similar moments -- both crucial and tangential to Anna's life -- fly by, ultimately illustrating, under Sam Gold's brilliant direction, how "seemingly insignificant details indicate beauty" (the central thesis of Anna's esoteric book about Keats's punctuation). Very little happens in the final scene, a wedding between Anna and the Irish personal trainer Sean (Patch Darragh), and yet it oozes significance: Anna's artsy best friend, Helena (Laura Heisler), gives a speech that is informed by her own chance connection with a wild bear; Anna's father, Adam (Cotter Smith), has successfully re-entered his daughter's life (after a disastrous Christmas); and Sean's mother, Linda (Suzanne Bertish), has come to see them off, a decision made all the more momentous due to her agoraphobia -- and the fact that the wedding is taking place on the foggy cliffs where she was raped so many years ago. It is a scene dripping with history, or moments, and isn't that, after all, what connects us? What really allows us not only to know one another, but to call each other kin?

Doran's relaxed dialogue -- which has very little urgency behind it -- is reminiscent of Annie Baker's hyperrealism, and is well-suited to Gold's light touch, which uses Paul Steinberg's rectangular prism of a set to essentially "frame" each scene as a photograph (which one might then insert into, say, a memory palace). Only rarely are these moments out of focus, though the jumps between time and character make it hard to get a bead on people like Kay (Kit Flanagan). More often, the scenes are crisp and precise: Rachel (Molly Ward) only shows up once, but in that moment, we understand both why Sean longs for her, his former flame, and why things between them -- she was a bottle-a-day alcoholic -- fizzled out. Moments like those serve as hinges for the play's drama, showing us not only the possibilities, but the realities; they allow Doran to easily shift between showing us the fully in love Anna and her counterpart, a panic-attacked girl with second thoughts, without the table-setting scenes that a drama usually uses to segue between these points.

Kin resembles a highlights reel assembled by someone who wasn't always watching the game: Rachel Getting Married, say, but over the course of ten years. It's a humble and quiet play that manages to scream the magnificent beauty of life to its audience, and despite a few garbled moments, we get the picture, loud and clear.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

THEATER: Cactus Flower

Photo/Carol Rosegg
Stephanie Dickinson (Lois Robbins) is a prickly nurse, which is to be expected: for years she's been reduced to nothing more than a potted fixture beside her boss, Dr. Julian Winston (Maxwell Caulfield), a dashing dentist with a penchant for "drilling" the ladies. In fact, she's a lot like the cactus she keeps at her desk, and if you can't guess by the title of the play -- Cactus Flower -- or the far-from-subtle hints playwright Abe Burrows keeps dropping, even dour Ms. Dickinson will eventually blossom. However, the same can't be said for the rest of this production, a choked and clumsy affair aridly directed by Michael Bush, a man with one too many screws loose in this altogether forgettable screwball comedy.

Here's the plot: Winston has been sleeping with the adorably high-pitched Toni Simmons (Jenni Barber) for the last year. But she, wanting more, attempts suicide -- she is saved by her nerdy neighbor Igor Sullivan (Jeremy Bobb) -- which leads Winston to realize how much he loves her after all. This, however, is a problem, since to avoid a clingy relationship, he's been pretending that he's already married, and the one thing Toni hates is a lie. Enter Ms. Dickinson -- now masquerading as Mrs. Winston -- and cue the complications, like Harvey Greenfield (Anthony Reimer), a lecherous college friend of Winston's who is hired to be the other man in this "unhappy" marriage. Except it's not all that complicated at all: in an orderly and easily resolved fashion, Burrows introduces one-note characters like Senor Arturo Sanchez (John Herrera), an unctuous diplomat with the hots for an uninterested Ms. Dickinson, and Botticelli's Springtime (Emily Walton), the sort of witless floozy who falls for someone as sleazy as Harvey. Each enters, cracks bad jokes, and leaves, leaving no ripples in their wake, just wasted time and opportunity . . . unless, of course, you thought the only thing missing from this travesty of a play was a rich older woman (Robin Skye) flirting with her dentist.

For a show whose main character is a dentist, Cactus Flower has surprisingly few teeth, and Caulfield's utterly ungrounded performance doesn't help matters. Manic from the first moment we meet him, and many decibels above the rest of the cast, it's hard to take him seriously: he doesn't pivot from tactic to tactic so much as he bullishly charges with every line. Then again, at least he's consistently bad; Robbins, who should be the sharp spark at the center of the play, appears convinced that changing her clothes is enough to transform on stage; she gets more lines toward the end of the play, as she gives her boss the ol' what-for, but she delivers them in a half-hearted "What for?" In this way, the performances resemble Anna Louizos's bland set, which attempts to multitask the same bedroom backdrop for scenes that occur in the doctor's office, a cocktail bar, and record store: it all disconcertingly blends together, as if none of it matters.

One "witty" exchange in the play goes as follows: "I'm an actor." "Isn't acting an insecure position?" "Only financially." In the case of this shriveled Cactus Flower -- $75 a ticket -- it's safe to say that the acting's far more insecure than the money going into it.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Short-a-Day: Robert Coover's "Going For A Beer"

Originally published in The New Yorker, March 14th, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 53.

Coover, he of the experimental concept stories. Here's a life, told through the vague and gauzy view of a drunkard, always lapsing in and out of consciousness, years passing by in a flash, and perhaps that's not so much different from our own sober lives, in some respect, in that suddenly days, weeks, years have passed, and what of it? "Well . . . you know . . . life, he says to the nurse who has come to pull the sheet over his face and wheel him away," ends this one-page story. I can't help but compare this, unfavorably, to Jonathan Safran Foer's "Here We Aren't, So Quickly," which ran last June. The sentences there were rich with details; here, because of the character, they're sort of muddled and shrugged off. Which is, I suppose, one way of looking at life, but perhaps I'm a beer half full sort of guy, and this is a half empty sort of tale. Still, it succeeds at what it (unambitiously, perhaps) wants to do, and the jarring jumps in time are at least an interesting device:

He decides that it's time to call the affair off -- she's driving him crazy -- but then the brawny dude turns up at their wedding and apologizes for the pounding he gave him.

Life is sort of funny that way, all things considered, once you compress it. There is, however, one weak section in which the protagonist

decides to check whether he still has the job that he had when he first met her. He does. His absence, if he has been absent, is not remarked on, but he is not congratulated on his marriage either, no doubt because -- it comes back to him now -- before he met his wife he was engaged to one of his colleagues and their co-workers had already thrown them an engagement party, so they must resent the money they spent on gifts.

This is a bit confusing, and petty, and perhaps redundant in the scope of what the rest of the story is already achieving in its narrow focus on bars and beds. But later, when I don't remember this story, will it matter? In any case, for those interested in just how diverse Coover's style is, check out his story from Harper's last July, "The War Between Sylvania and Freedonia," which was, incidentally the first of these posts I made.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

THEATER: Feeder: A Love Story

Photo/Jill Steinberg
Jesse (Jennifer Conley Darling) lies there in a hospital bed, sipping lime water through a straw. In flashbacks, her husband Noel (Pierre Marc-Diennet) enters through the door and lovingly feeds her; in the present, a gaping hole in the wall reminds us what it took -- after years of their food-fetish relationship -- to excavate all seven hundred and three immobile pounds of her from their apartment. Far from a condemnation of "feederism," however, Feeder sticks to the tragedy of its subtitle ("A Love Story"), and playwright James Carter succeeds in sincerely shedding (or gaining) light on a subculture most of us know nothing of. "To me," says Noel, "obesity isn't gruesome, it's gorgeous," and if the seventy minute play doesn't quite convince you of that (it's a lot to take in), their incredibly detailed pre- and post-show blogs ( has posts dating back to 2008) help both to blur the lines of reality and to continue the story.

In a series of twinned monologues, we learn of Noel's earliest fantasies -- of Bertha, the fat lady in a circus coloring book -- and how, when they first met at Carmine's, Jesse was the confident, sexual master of their relationship. From Jesse, we learn how she felt overshadowed by her successful, younger sister, but found a welcoming community of people like Noel who embraced her own beauty ( "He loved me inside and out." Magic happens as the play turns to scene work between the two: it really is a love story, a relationship as normal as any other with the exception of its daily, page-long grocery lists. How different, ultimately, is Jesse's reliance on Noel than that of Noel's grandfather caring for his stroke-victim wife: "He bathed her . . . changed her catheter . . . read to her. It's the truest love I've ever seen." It all boils down to how you view it, and Feeder, lovingly directed by Jose Zayas (and never overboard with the sexual details or masticatory mechanics), has us accepting their relationship, even after we hear of Rosalie Bradford (who has lost over 900 pounds) and Carol Yager (who, at one point, hit 1600 pounds).

The tragedy, of course, comes from Carter's narrative, which begins with Noel vlogging about his wife's "abduction"; we'll spend the rest of the play learning what led Jesse to abandon their mutual goal of hitting the elite thousand-pound goal. These shifts are assisted by Peter Ksander's scenic design, which conflates the present and past locations into one, and Alex Koch's video and projection design, which enables us to view the live footage through a YouTube filter. One of the more effective portions of the show is a normalizing montage that a heartbroken Noel posts to the web, a "best of" clip-show of Jesse's weight gain, set to Wayne Fontana & The Mindbender's "The Game of Love."  But the purest bits of the show are those most simply communicated by the truly impressive Darling. Watch how the lovestruck twinkle in her eyes slowly begins to fade -- especially after a small fire and a creaking crane remind her of her immobility -- and collapses into a disappointed regret as she looks back on abandoning her lifestyle for a liquid diet.

The one downside to Feeder is that it's so carefully structured that it seems more documentary than drama. Because the "villain" of the piece -- diet witch Judith Angel -- never appears, and only one scene occurs after her notorious "intervention" interview, the play mostly focuses on how these two wound up living together. This somewhat submissive-dominant relationship leaves room for only one argument -- presented as a mild disagreement -- and the final scene offers a too-pat resolution. Still, so far as details and quirky romance go, Feeder will leave you more than sated, and for those who already follow this community, that may be catharsis enough.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Short-a-Day: Mary Gaitskill's "The Other Place"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Feb. 14 & 21, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 11.

I never thought of killing Jenna. I didn't think about killing anyone I actually knew--not the girls I didn't like at school or the few I had sex with. The first time I had sex, I was so caught up in the feeling of it that I didn't even think about killing--I didn't think about anything at all. But I didn't have sex much. I was small, awkward, too quiet; I had that tremor. My expression must've been strange as I sat in class, feeling hidden in my other place, but outwardly visible to whoever looked--not that many did.

I suppose, if you wanted to, you could read Gaitskill's short as being about the suppression of the violent urges we know most people to have (at some point in their life), or as an attempt to describe a certain type of character, the unrealized psychopath. But given leading paragraphs like the one above, Gaitskill seems to be using the hints of violence not to warn of the next Columbine, but to explore the isolation that some people feel, the cold disconnect from this reality that threatens to leave them stranded in the "other" place, a place that they can only exit through acts of measured violence. (After all, neither the narrator nor his son Doug, actually break in the story, and he even points out that "You have to go pretty far afield to find something people would call abnormal these days.")

Personally, I think Gaitskill handles the subject matter rather clumsily -- first, in attempting the male point of view, and second in her descriptions of this "other" place: "I would go invisibly into an invisible world that I called 'the other place.' Where I sometimes passively watched a killer and other times became one." Why the repetition of "invisible"? It's already stressed by the rest of the story and blatant descriptions. Additionally, our narrator needs someone to be speaking to -- or a reason to be speaking, like a Raskolnikovic confession, a Humbertian remembrance. Here, our narrator vaguely uses his own thirteen-year-old son's obsession with toy guns to passively consider the "other place": "How did this happen? The way everything does, of course. One thing follows another, naturally."

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

THEATER: Invasion!

A famous tragedy once wondered, "What's in a name?", but it's doubtful that Shakespeare, a master of double-talk and other precise tricks of English, ever thought that question would come so far as it has in Jonas Hassen Khemiri's Invasion!, a brilliant play that uses aggressively overt scenes about the dangers of language to mask the subtler implications of politics -- or, in a clever twist, vice-versa. For the producing Play Company, it is also a culmination of their tireless work to find voices from around the globe: their work here, potently directed by Erica Schmidt and translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, utilizes the meta-theatrics of Bad Jazz, the narrative distance (and, as a result, closeness) of Enjoy, and the intensity of Rainbow Kiss.

After a surprising opening that pokes fun at the old-school formality of the romantic era (a near-unintelligible scene from Carl Jonas Love Almquist's Signora Luna), Invasion! continues to mask its true intents by following two rough kids, Arvind and Yousef (Debargo Sanyal and Bobby Moreno), casually hanging out at school, and then -- smoothly cutting to a few years later -- at a bar, where a nervous Arvind attempts to pick up the very attractive Lara (Francis Benhamou). A running gag quickly changes into the play's thematic gist, as the name "Abulkasem" (appropriated from the Almquist) is used as a catch-all for the kids (e.g., "Shit, I'm mad Abulkasem, I was up watching movies all night..."), and as Arvind's more "confident" alias. All of this, of course, works in favor of the abrupt tonal shift that comes with the second scene, in which a panel of experts discuss Abulkasem's birth.

Instead of these shifts being off-putting, they're engrossing: given the innocence of Abulkasem's origin, we're as eager as the experts are to find out how this character became -- as we are led to believe -- a dangerous terrorist. That sound, incidentally, is Khemiri's intellectual trap swinging shut: a third scene, which plays in parallel to both the first and second, focuses on Lara's perspective of Arvind's tic-filled flirations, and her subsequent conversations with her own panel of "experts," a bunch of know-everything graduate students, who are presented here as all too easily obsessed over the merest of scraps of information, driven to lie (or agree) in an attempt to posture for intellectual superiority. It becomes more about saying things than about meaning things, which gives Khemiri ample opportunity to aggressively distort his initial scenes and turn more directly into affecting satire. The panel refers to all the previous incarnations of Abulkasem as one and the same -- resolving the differences in sex and location as disguises, pointless as they may be: "And once, when he wakes up in a damp, stained hotel room in Arizona, he goes so far as to cover the original birthmark with makeup and to put the fake one in EXACTLY the same spot!"  And it's here that the trap clamps down a degree further, for are we even sure at this point that Abulkasem is a threat, much less a terrorist?

The play is only seventy-five minutes long, but captures the deeper implications of a play several times that length by jumping so easily between characters and scenes, touching on each just long enough to throw our perceptions out of the window. We first meet A (Andrew Guilarte) as Yousef's uncle, an actual Abulkasem who struggles to make ends meet as an exterminator so that he can dress up and attempt to make it as a drag dancer, Lance. He's a real live version of the American Dream, but his short vignette ends with soldiers taking sharpies to his face, telling him to "Go Home," a far from welcoming treatment. As the host interviewing the panel, he'll slowly betray his own doubts -- particularly as the "experts" begin to pull their facts out of thin air, referring erroneously to slide after slide. Most effective, however, is his appearance as a soon-to-be-deported (and possibly tortured) apple picker: he calls in a translator (Benhamou) to assist him, only to realize that she is literally putting words into his mouth, culminating with a hopeless series of exchanges in which he says nothing, only for her to translate them anyway: "When the video tape was ready, I put on the dynamite belt and left my home."

When words are cheap, when ideas can be made to mean anything, when we can point to empty statistics ("Abulkasem has crossed the Atlantic and we immediately see an increase in the number of rapes") and laugh, then what good is reality? The play ends with a lengthy monologue by Bobby (Moreno), an actor portraying the playwright's younger brother, who stands there, remembering his inspiration for Invasion!, and though his emotions are gripping and real, so too is the great potential for misunderstanding and misrepresentation. If a war on terror can, in fact, be fought, then we must acknowledge that the war's ammunition is verbal, not physical. Invasion!, then, should be the shot heard round the world; open your ears and grab your tickets now.