I had trouble staying awake during Theatre on Fire's production of Jordan Harrison's Act a Lady (at left, which I took in just before it closed), because it was quite apparent to me that I was watching something more like a graduate thesis than a play. True, it was a funny graduate thesis; we were all invited to chuckle along with jokes and tropes with which we knew, going in, we were sure to agree. And there was a cozy buzz to the show that derived from the fact that you had to have gone to college to understand what said thesis was even about. You had to know that gender is constructed, which means that in a way it's a form of literature, and that of course repression of that awareness is based on fear, and - oh, who the hell cares, really.
It would be one thing if playwright Jordan Harrison had attempted to reveal these trendy academic ideas - actually, they were trendy a decade or more ago, but again, who the hell cares - through something like dramatic construction. Or even a passing semblance of naturalism. Or ironic post-naturalism. Or something, anything, remotely connected to what used to quaintly be called "real life."
But nooooooo. Sure, there's a gesture toward a plausible frame-story at the top of the show: three average guys in some dustbowl town in the 20's agree to put on a Hasty-Pudding-style drag show for charity, and they all seem a bit too eager to raid the ladies' "delicates" drawer for their roles. So far, so good. One is obviously a repressed gay man, one is trying to escape his constricting role as husband, and one is a horn dog willing to do anything to get close to a gal backstage. Again, so far, so good - if you're into clichés (I'm not, but anyway). These various conflicts aren't so much conveyed by the action as telegraphed, however, and the drag pantomime turns out to be not nearly as much clever fun as what we're used to from Ryan Landry, or, yes, the Hasty Pudding.
Alas, the playwright also has his sights on "experiment" and "exploration," so like Sarah Ruhl, that other famed alumna of his drama school (Brown), Harrison soon has his dramatic finger paints out, and the "play" - or rather the long-form skit masquerading as a play - heads south. Harrison begins to deconstruct the sexual personae of his three big lugs by having the women in their lives step into their shoes, literally - in some scenes, while the men are playing "women" up on "stage," they themselves are being played by "women" in "real life." Gosh - isn't that interesting? Right - it's not; in fact, it's like replacing a characterization with a Power Point bullet. OMG, I tried to tell myself as I watched these drag queens face off with their inner drag "kings," this is fascinating, it's like a hall of mirrors, it's like what's real and what's not, and is "gender" "real" or "constructed" - or is even its "construction" "real"? Zzzzzzz . . . .
Oh, man. I'm not sure how many times I pinched myself, but I did manage to hang on to consciousness somehow. That's how I know that before the finish, Harrison had even un-tethered the drag show from its actors - so its "characters" could run around like avatars, independent of the actors playing them, not to mention the actors playing the actors playing them. To be honest, it struck me, briefly, that this set-up had possibilities as a kind of stage-bound Purple Drag of Cairo. But Harrison simply doesn't have the dramatic chops to pull that off; this final development doesn't go anywhere at all, it's just stated. As we realize everything in the play has been. He hasn't been writing a play - he's been checking off little boxes on some sort of chart of the post-graduate zeitgeist. And then waiting to be patted on the head by Paula Vogel.
Ah, yes - Paula Vogel, the woman who unleashed both Ruhl and Harrison on the world from her position as head of the Brown playwriting program (she's now at Yale). I've suffered through three plays by Ruhl and two by Harrison (the other, Kid-Simple, was like listening to nails on a chalkboard for two hours). After that experience, I told the little fringe company that had put it on that I had hated it so much I wasn't going to review it. I just didn't want to drag them through such a pan.
Should I have done the same with Theatre on Fire? Maybe so. The show definitely kept moving, and the troupe got their laughs from the audience, even though generally they were doing what's known as "indicating" rather than acting. There was smart, lively work from Craig Houk (even though his character doesn't make much sense) and broader-than-broad, but still effective, playing from Greg Maraio. Crystal Lisbon threw herself into the role of the gender-bending directress of the play-within-a-play, and like her male cohorts, definitely got her share of laughs. The only person doing any internal work, however, was Lisa Caron Driscoll, as the stick-in-the-mud wife who just can't see what "art" there is to be found in a drag show. (By the finale, we kind of saw her point.) The script's failure was certainly none of these people's fault.
But of course it is Jordan Harrison's fault, as well as the fault of a whole cult within the theatrical world today that encourages this kind of thing. It seems strange to say, but once academic theories were constructed to explain the latest drama; now, the latest drama is constructed to explain academic theories. And I do want to say to Paula Vogel: I know you mean well, but you're killing our theatre, so please stop. I'm sure you loved mothering these immature talents, and that was fine as long as everything stayed within the classroom walls at Brown. But what you have done by propelling your protégées onto the professional stage is create an entire genre of juvenilia in American theatre. The juvenile is now a state to be aspired to - one in which 'closure,' and even development, is scorned; one in which the rules of time and space are pointlessly bent, and characters appear and disappear at will, and babble about "a philosophy of hats." And we are expected to be just pleased as punch that little Sarah and Jordan actually finished another play! Please, please, please stop.