Thursday, May 19, 2011

THEATRE IS HELL

Saw two of the most eagerly anticipated plays of the year in the last week, the National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of something called WAR HORSE, and Tony Kushner’s latest play, THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL’S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES.

WAR HORSE is the story of Joey, a British horse brought to life via lifesize puppets manipulated by clearly visible operators. Through some kind of theatrical alchemy, the operators disappear, and you get remarkably lifelike and interesting creations. Alas, that's about all that's lifelike and interesting about the show. Joey’s story follows a terribly familiar trajectory -- he is purchased by a familiarly vaguely disfunctional family (Sweet Dreamy Son, mother who is Loving But Firm, Drunken Boob Father), sold to the British Army for use in WWI, familiar confrontation with the Horrors Of War, reconciliation with Sweet Dreamy Son who had joined the Army specifically to track down his beloved Joey. I’m not giving anything away here, there’s no doubt whatever where the trite story is heading; there’s not a single narrative surprise from start to finish, other than at the extreme clumsiness of a lot of the story-telling. At one point about 30 minutes in, after a lot of straightforward Boy/Horse Bonding and family drama, church bells are heard, prompting one character to announce out of the blue:“Well, you know what that means -- the German Kaiser has refused to withdraw his troops from Belgium! We’re at war!” It pretty much goes along from there.

As if sensing the thinness of the story, the show’s creators have gone to great lengths to keep the action lively at all times, and they just plain go too far. WAR HORSE is, ultimately, just a big honking barrage of THEATAH!!!! Sets! Lights! Music! Puppets! Sound Effects!! Projections! Annoying Folk Songs From Some Broad With A Violin! Guys with Bird Puppets on Sticks To Wave Over The Audience! Big Serious Message! It’s like some insane collection of all the Biggest Moments from 80s British exports like LES MIZ and NICHOLAS NICKLEBY and CATS. For example, Joey has a battlefield encounter with a tank that will bring back fond memories of MISS SAIGON. And so on. For all the energy and flash, the show is best when it settles down for a bit and lets us just watch those wonderful puppet horses. There’s a marvelous couple of minutes where Joey and another horse named Topthorn run around the stage together and engage in some Equine Bonding. But it is back to sound-and-fury business before long.

But what really makes the show unforgivable, for me at least, is the High Solemnity that the show cloaks itself in. Everybody’s working very very hard indeed, and the expectation seems to be that you will be a better person when it is over. This is Serious Theatre, even Medicinal Theatre -- Art That Is Good For You. It can’t be a surprise that Steven Spielberg has already bought the screen rights. His film will doubtless a masterpiece of taste and restraint compared to this bloated self-important all-out assault of gimmicks that have all been done better elsewhere.

The title of Tony Kushner’s THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL’S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES doesn’t exactly suggest that anything as base as entertainment is in store. And by and large, it isn’t. The unwieldy title, which brings echoes of works by Bernard Shaw and others to mind, is as unwieldy as the play itself, which brings echoes of other works by Shaw and Chekhov and Marsha Norman to mind.

So Gus, a Brooklyn longshoreman labor organizer and devout communist, has gathered his family together to announce his intention to commit suicide. The assorted family members talk it over, and then talk it over, and then talk it over some more. There are lots of subplots among the assorted children and their significant others and a male hustler with whom one of the family is having an affair (don’t ask). To be fair, there are moments of real warmth and passion, and some splendid big scenes during which Kushner just lets loose -- everybody’s onstage at the same time talking at once, and thanks to some fine direction and some fine performances, it miraculously manages to be exciting rather than exasperating.

But not for long. Now I don't usually have a problem with big overstuffed works for the screen, the stage, or the page. Some of my favorite things are big overstuffed works for the screen the stage and the page. The problem is that Kushner is so busy making all of his 1001 Serious Points about Capitalism and Socialism and the Scriptures that little things like story and character and even plain old plausibility get forgotten about. Big scenes involving Pill and his attachment to a hustler and the problems created with Pill’s partner of almost 30 years don’t add much to the play, culminating in a long scene where both the hustler and the partner declare their love for Pill in long and agonizing speeches, and all I could do was wonder what on earth either the hustler or the partner ever saw in the self-pitying Pill in the first place.

Kushner overloads the play outlandishly. The cast of characters include two, count em, two theologians and an ex-nun. Gus’s children are all given cutely ever-so-symbolic nicknames like Pill (for Pier Luigi) and Empty (for Maria Theresa). The characters are all ferociously articulate and launch into long windy speeches at the drop of a hat -- it begins to resemble a version of Marsha Norman’s ‘NIGHT, MOTHER as written by the combined editorial staff of some humorless gay alternative weekly. And at three hours and 45 minutes long, the play is quite simply indefensibly overlong.

Is this the same Tony Kushner whose ANGELS IN AMERICA held me spellbound in a fine revival earlier this year? Damn right it is. And after seeing both parts of ANGELS back to back in a dazzling marathon (one that felt like it flew by in an instant, as opposed to the current play’s agonizing tedium) I can testify to what Kushner can do when he’s really cooking. With INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL, Kushner is furiously boiling and stewing and roasting and stir-frying, but what winds up on the plate is not at all appetizing. I didn’t leave a tip.

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