Thursday, February 21, 2008

Monologues against narcissism!

Georgia Lyman cues up her inner Nancy Sinatra in The Scene.

I was struck during Scott Edmiston's slickly entertaining production of Theresa Rebeck's The Scene (through March 15 at the Lyric Stage) by the fact that despite hearing what must be hours of monologue during the last few years, I haven't heard a soliloquy in, like, forever. Then, of course, I began to ponder what I meant by that thought - what was the difference between the two?

Well, I'm still thinking, but one clear contrast is that the soliloquy - at least as evidenced by its greatest practitioner, Shakespeare - is highly self-aware. Even the first of Shakespeare's great soliloquizers (Richard, Duke of Gloucester in Henry VI) voices acute, unsparing perceptions about his own moral and social status. And even the simplest of Shakespeare's characters plot and plan honestly in their soliloquies; they realistically size up their options, and what each option would mean - they're talking to us, but also to themselves, in as frank as voice as they can manage. Rarely, if ever, do we feel in a soliloquy that a Shakespearean character is fooling himself. When his or her real motivations seem to vanish in the psychological dark, as with Iago, we sense this is probably because our deepest urges defy analysis (if Iago were entirely self-aware, for instance, the problem of human evil would be solved).

But the post-modern monologue dodges self-awareness, much less realism, and generally operates in a mode of indigation. It is, in fact, the antithesis of the soliloquy, and derives, I think, not from the drama but from stand-up, in which performers secretly flatter their audience in a ritual of tacit mutual approval. The performer offers us a version of ourselves that's wittier than we could ever be, and we respond by agreeing with his or her observations and judgments: yes, you're absolutely right, that's just the way things are. But the stand-up is rarely if ever implicated in the gags and sketches he or she delivers, even when describing girlfriends, boyfriends, or bosses. The performer is careful to inflict insults on him- or herself, in deference to the audience, but is also always an observer, outside the dramatic frame, just as we are.

Television, of course, sensing the correlation between the emotional stance of the comic and the position of its audience, has long centered its dramatic structures on the stand-up: Roseanne, Drew Carey, and Seinfeld all operated as long-form variants of stand-up critique (famously, the ethos of Seinfeld was "no one grows, no one learns" - the essence of anti-drama, yet put forth, intriguingly, as its own brand of realism). And as monologue has suffused pop culture, it's begun to take over stage culture as well. True, monologue had long replaced soliloquy in the work of the absurdists - but there it still functioned as a mode of inquiry rather than indignation. Once transplanted to the stage, however, the stand-up monologue resisted such transformation - instead, it merely "flipped" in its effect. Whereas in stand-up, the monologue functioned as a mode of approval, on stage, it operates as a mode of critique. Now, we're invited to be indignant about the monologuist's own indignation, to appreciate their blindness and narcissism - while the character itself actually remains as opaque and uninvestigated as ever.

Meanwhile, Jeremiah Kissel and Julie Jirousek try to get the rest of The Scene to work.

Well; to get back The Scene - after my own inner monologue - these issues seem to be at the heart of the "problem" with playwright Theresa Rebeck. She writes very funny and observant television material (she's worked on and off in the medium); yet the dramatic constructions in which she sets her amusing rants are either obviously derivative (Mauritius) or under-developed (The Scene). She doesn't seem to understand that the stage isn't just smarter than the screen, but also different in its very nature. We expect not merely to think "ohmigod, she's a monster!" of a character, but also ponder that character's specifics - as well as his or her past and future. And said specifics should, at their best, feel originally conceived, rather than received from some other cultural source.

And I'm afraid Rebeck fails on these counts, even though The Scene is often a hoot, accurately skewers New York's demi-monde, and would generally be perceived as a good night out. To be fair, it's not as synthetic as Mauritius, and there's one striking scene where Rebeck's play suddenly catches fire - discovered en flagrante in an adulterous embrace, her anti-heroine Clea refuses to quit the field, and in fact begins to tell off the wife she's just wronged. It's a jaw-dropping moment, and encapsulates neatly the shameless sense of entitlement that's arisen in the younger generation: "I know this is like a horrible situation and everything?" Clea snorts indignantly in her best valley-speak, "but there's no need to be rude." Unbelievably, the situation is still all about her.

But alas, Rebeck doesn't get much beyond ringing changes on this (admittedly impressive) narcissism. She claims to have been inspired by Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, but the parallels don't feel all that close, and her story arc is pretty generic anyway: drifting middle-aged man (here called "Charlie") falls for party girl - who seems stupid but is actually alarmingly sharp (surprise) - which leads to the subsequent ruin of said middle-aged man. The End. Rebeck attempts to make her Mildred/Lola/Lulu surrogate, "Clea," somehow stand in for our age's general lack of moral integrity, but this never quite convinces; Clea may have her own weird kind of integrity for all we know - Rebeck never lets us in on what's going on inside her. Or inside any of the characters, really - why Charlie leaves his wife, why his best friend secretly loves her, and whether or not she's actually a bit of a "Nazi priestess" (as Clea calls her) all remain a kind of great undiscovered dramatic country surrounding Clea's and Charlie's rants, which are often memorably blistering. The drama might be more compelling if director Scott Edmiston had worked a little subtext into the action (particularly between Charlie and his wife) - but then he rarely does, despite his consistently smooth surfaces. As Clea and Charlie, Georgia Lyman and Jeremiah Kissel burn through their respective rants with passion and wit; sometimes, the play feels like a simple duel between their two performances. But whether a duet of monologues amounts to a play - or whether, even, the monologue is the best vehicle for dramatizing narcissism - is something I'm beginning to doubt.

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