Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why can't playwrights climax anymore?

As I pondered the latest news about Sarah Ruhl's vibrator play (it's going to feature Michael Cerveris naked, even though I thought women bought vibrators precisely so they wouldn't have to see Michael Cerveris naked), I began to wonder why, exactly, Sarah Ruhl can't climax.

I mean onstage, not in the bedroom, or even The Next Room, as it were. Ruhl brought The Clean House to something of a synthetic climax, I suppose, but that's the best she's done. Eurydice petered out, and Dead Man's Cell Phone can't even get its narrative up, much less off.

But Sarah Ruhl is not alone. It seems nobody can climax onstage anymore. Christopher Durang can't (Miss Witherspoon), and neither can Tony Kushner (Intelligent Homosexual, etc.). So much for the gays as well as the girls, I guess - but the straight boys aren't doing much better. Ronan Noone can't seal the deal, either (Little Black Dress, The Atheist), and you can forget all about Noah Haidle (What is the Cause of Thunder?, Persephone).

In fact, the only really satisfying dramatic climax I can think of in a recent play is the finale of The Seafarer.

(Maybe that's why I like it so much.)

Of course I'm sure there have been other cases, but still - why can so few playwrights finish what they've so cleverly started? I'm not sure - but the sense of artistic coitus interruptus is often all the more frustrating because Mama can see the climax coming, but the playwright refuses to actually bring it home. Ronan Noone, for example, seems to be steering Little Black Dress toward a piquantly Oedipal climax between mother and son - but then suddenly he goes off-road, and slams into not one, but several, narrative trees. Likewise, Ruhl seems to be aware that Dead Man's Cell Phone should wrap with some sort of face-off over her dead man's organ-donatin' ways; but the playwright all but shreds the space-time continuum to avoid her date with narrative destiny.

Indeed, there seems to be in many latter-day plays a curious new structural feature; let's call it the climax denial - followed by the anti-climactic branch. In this maneuver, the playwright seems to decide, just when it's time to rise above the current plateau of dramatic development, that instead he or she wants to shrug off the central conflict (often the only obvious conflict, due to limited cast sizes) and pursue some new, ironic avenue of commentary. "See, that's not what I was getting at, not at all!" the playwright seems to giggle, as new narrative strands branch around where the climax should be, and lead us into various ironic or phonily whimsical dénouements.

So do these playwrights simply choke at the moment when everything seems to hang in the balance? Do they actually fear the dramatic orgasm? Or do they, like Internet avatars, simply not want to be pinned down to a single, determining - and therefore identifying - resolution for their play?

But all I can say is, that's all well and good for them - but what about us, the audience? Sheesh! It's enough to almost make you want to see Michael Cerveris naked.

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