Saturday, October 23, 2010

Baker's Plays

I think it occurred to me the second time I found myself listening to the air conditioner run (above) in Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation (produced by the Huntington at the Caldwell Pavilion through November 14):

At what point does mumblecore become inaudible?

Now by that I don't mean to suggest this up-and-coming young playwright has nothing to say; far from it, in fact. She's a very intelligent and thoughtful - although perhaps not all that original - dramatist. My friend Art Hennessey has already admonished me, "Now don't go all Sarah Ruhl on Annie Baker's ass, Tom, she's a real playwright!" And she is a real playwright - whether she warrants a three-play retrospective here in Beantown I'm not yet sure, but I'll keep an open mind.

Certainly she has been given a superb production by the Huntington. Director Melia Bensussen is almost too attuned to Baker's don't-say-anything-aloud-that-would-like-not-be-cool aesthetic, and has capably drawn from Circle's circle of actors a suite of performances that are just about perfect in their nuanced indirection. I'm actually in awe of how much was suggested, vs. how little was stated, in this show; only a mime troupe could have said less. And, as with mime, we're suddenly impressed when we perceive - or rather piece together - the shape of dramatic incident moving behind the play's utterly nondescript surface.

This, of course, is an old trick. It's basically the same ploy as Chekhov's gambit of having someone's life smashed up casually, over breakfast; although to be honest, Baker more often reminded me (wait for it) of William Inge - indeed, Circle Mirror Transformation is essentially Bus Stop redux, set in a rehearsal room instead of a snowbound diner: a group of ordinary characters are thrust together (here, in a community drama class) and over time we learn everything about their emotional and sexual lives. Baker's gimmick is that we discover almost all of this "inadvertently," through theatre games the class repetitively plays.

Again, this is hardly a new idea. But Baker has a very precise ear, so we often enjoy hearing old tropes updated into the precise hesitations of millennial newspeak. When one of Baker's characters says a line like "Oh, yeah - no. Yeah. No," the context has been so carefully set up (and the performances here are so specific) that we know exactly what she means. And when the characters "play" each other, or trade "secrets" in class, we get to read two sets of tea leaves (at least) - both what the characters understand at this point about each other, and what they don't: in short, whether they're ahead of or behind us as their own audience.

Of course it helps in appreciating all this (as it did with The Method Gun) if you're a theatre geek; otherwise you may wonder sometimes what's going on - when the class launched into the "counting" exercise for the umpteenth time, for instance, my partner whispered to me, "What the HELL are these people doing???" Even he, however, began to get into the mumblecore groove, as Baker's poignant hidden drama made itself steadily clearer. Lives are, indeed, smashed up casually in Circle Mirror Transformation, and this is inevitably moving.

Still, it's worth pointing out, I think, that in the end this is elevated melodrama - indeed, Baker's script is at least as melodramatic as Bus Stop, it's just at infinite pains to disguise that fact. Not that there's anything wrong with that.  And if I like Inge, I should therefore like Baker too, right?

Well, maybe.  I was certainly touched by Circle Mirror Transformation, but doubts still gnawed at me about its author. She's certainly better than Sarah Ruhl, but she's also being "launched" in much the same way, and by some of the same people.  And Baker's smart, but she's hardly Chekhov, and sometimes I felt the reverent subtlety of this production was designed to fool me into thinking she is. And I found myself working hard to feel any sense of real discovery about the fictional New-Age Grover's Corners (dubbed "Shirley, VT," although it's no secret it's actually "Amherst, MA") in which her shy young slips of plays occur. I felt shocks of emotion whenever one of the sad arcs Baker's characters trace came clear; but then I quickly realized, "Oh, yeah - I already like, um, knew that, Annie. Yeah; no.  Yeah."

And there's a certain lack of self-awareness in the play's seeming confidence that the drama-school techniques it depends on "make you a better actor;" certainly as the theatre games grow more and more personal, it strikes us that Baker's crunchy class leader should know better than to play with the kind of emotional fire that's only appropriate to committed actors (don't try these tricks at home!).  In a way, the problem with the play is summed up unwittingly by the authorial factotum Baker places within it - the smart but withdrawn "Lauren" constantly, if self-consciously, questions the madness of the class's method ("Are we going to like do any real acting?" she finally asks).   It slowly dawns on us, though, that Lauren kind of serves as an inadvertent metaphor for the play she's in; like it, she draws attention to herself by struggling to disappear into the woodwork.  Yet  she comes around in the end; in a sweet, flash-forward coda (expertly limned by Marie Polizzano, in a performance that steals scene after scene from this polished ensemble) Lauren admits she now sees the light about the awesomeness of the class and how, like, everything changed but in the end everything turned out for the best, you know?  Hmmm. I'm not sure a great playwright would be so sure; in the end, Circle Mirror Transformation seems to validate rather than challenge its audience's quirky world view.  But I'll soon get two more chances to adjust that opinion.

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