Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Triple play

What has the Annie Baker festival told us about its playwright?
The boys from New York, Charles Isherwood and Ben Brantley, just love playwright Annie Baker. Isherwood called her most recent opus, The Aliens,"a gentle and extraordinarily beautiful new play" when it opened in Manhattan. And colleague Brantley seconded that emotion when he journeyed north (What?? He left the five boroughs???) to see the festival of her work currently filling the Calderwood Pavilion. After viewing Company One's production of the same script last week (it runs through this weekend), Brantley gushed that Baker was "seriously gifted" and thrilled to her "bittersweet sounds of silence."

But when I saw The Aliens, I . . . well . . .

I fell asleep.


So maybe I missed the extraordinarily beautiful part. But you see, a third of The Aliens is performed in silence (as Baker dictates).  Which comes to, oh, almost 50 minutes of stage time. Longer than a lot of plays.

During these periods of being-but-dramatic-nothingness, we listen to the grass grow, or distant birds sing (even they twitter sotto voce, as if they were in a library).  Meanwhile the main character, KJ (Alex Pollock, below, with Nael Nacer) grows steadily more stoned. He smiles a lot, and sometimes hums to himself, lost in some reverie that we imagine has to be more interesting than what we're watching.

And if you're me, well, after about ten or fifteen minutes, you start drifting into your own reverie, just like KJ, and . . . well . . . all I'm hoping is that I didn't snore as loudly as a certain critical éminence grise often does. Because then I would have completely drowned out all those distant little birds!

Not that I can fault the production much in any detail for my slumber; from what I saw, I'd say it's easily the strongest thing I've seen Company One do.  The actors are all excellent, and make every melodramatic turn fresh and truly poignant.  I'm serious.  I gave a Hubbie to Alex Pollock when I first saw him about two years ago, so I wasn't surprised by his tour de force here - and it's nice he got his picture in the Times (below)! I've never seen Nael Nacer before, but he too seemed just right.  As the teenager drawn into their orbit, Jacob Brandt was perhaps slightly mannered, but was still basically fine. Director Shawn LaCount, of whom I'm not always a fan, has done well by all three actors (although I think Baker intends a trace more irony to cling to the show's final rendition of "If I Had a Hammer").  Meanwhile Cristina Todesco - who has designed the entire triumvirate of plays at the Calderwood - pulled off another subtle trick with a set that was just about perfect in every detail.

Alex Pollock and Nael Nacer in The Aliens.
So - why am I complaining?  After all, I got a good nap, didn't I?  Well, I'm sorry to get quite so snarky about Brantley and Isherwood, but there's only so much gentle afflatus of Baker's reputation that I can stand.  So let's turn back the critical clock to pre-millennial standards of awesomeness for a moment.  Why not - play along with me.  And perhaps I'll start the deflation of Baker's critical balloon with something that has been bugging me about her plays, and that's all this "Shirley, Vermont" crapola.  I mean, it's a cute marketing hook, yes - and I know it's all about "butts in seats" - but there is just no way anyone can truly believe Ms. Baker conjures an imaginary town in these three plays.  Not that anyone truly has believed that.  Brantley, for instance, in a classic example of his trademarked doublespeak, writes on the one hand about "assessing more fully the dimensions of a town called Shirley," and even half-compares Baker's hamlet to Wilder's Grover's Corners, but simultaneously backpedals with lines like, "But for all their specificity of locale, these plays are as notable for their sense of displacement as for their sense of place."  Translated from Brantlese, that means: What I just said?  Total bull!

Egg-zactly. Because Grover's Corners is, indeed, a fully-fledged "imaginary place," with a deep sense of  artistic reality - like Bedford Falls, or Maycomb. "Shirley, VT" doesn't rank with any of these - the overlaps between Baker's plays give them roughly the same amount of resonance that Petticoat Junction had with Green Acres. Because Baker isn't writing about a town, she's writing about a class - why can't we admit that? She writes highly attenuated, sentimental comedies of manners about a certain liberal, moneyed demographic. If you want to pretend there's a virtual "Shirley, Vermont" in Williamsburg, and Cambridge, and Berkeley - fine. But Baker hasn't bothered giving her fictional village nearly enough detail (her minimal technique prevents that) for anyone to claim that she has created a mythological place.  So let's all just stop pretending she has. Okay?

Okay.  So what we have with Annie Baker is a smart and highly skillful writer of sentimental material.  Very sentimental material.  In a word, she's kinda sappy, and The Aliens in some ways may be her sappiest work yet.  But she gets away with her Hallmark-card-level pathos by whispering it, or insinuating it through various gambits-at-one-remove, in tiny little blips; sometimes it feels like she's texting her well-wishers a sweet, sad little play. Which gives her themes the appearance of a sophistication they don't really have.

Take The Aliens.  Actually, a better name for it might be The Walking Clich√©s.  KJ, the gentle pixie at the center of the story, is a harmless stoner, who hangs out all day behind a coffee shop, and is also (maybe!) a mathematical genius.  But he's poignant because he has OCD, and maybe other, you know, psychological stuff wrong with him.  But he's cool to talk to.  (That is, when he talks.)  His buddy is different - he's like mad at the world, and even a little scary!  But you know, his girlfriend left him, so you have to cut him some slack.  And he plays guitar, and is writing this awesome novel, just like his hero, Bukowski - he, too, could be a secret genius!

Oh, Jesus Christ.  I mean seriously.  Two secret geniuses in a single backyard?  Isn't that pushing it?  But wait - there's more; enter Death, stage left!  Yes - one of our lovable friends is mown down in the prime of life. Just like in Arcadia, et in Shirley ego!

Well, that's one way to get around the fact that you haven't devised a plot for your characters. But to be honest, the actors actually make this out-of-left-field development touching, as shamelessly tear-jerking as it may be.  So why do I feel, somewhere deep inside, that I'm being taken for a ride?  Not by Ms. Baker, I should say - even though sometimes when I contemplate her, I imagine her with those big, sad eyes that waifs have in paintings on black velvet (only this time the waif has an iPhone).

No, I agree that Baker's talented, and a genuine craftsman - she has potential; someday, I think, she might begin to grapple with some real themes and write a great play, as Lydia Diamond suddenly did with Stick Fly.  And maybe I should count my blessings; yes, she's much better than the gratingly fatuous and self-indulgent Sarah Ruhl, who has been queen of the white-girl playwright hive for far too long.  Indeed, in some ways Baker is everything that Ruhl's not: she's disciplined, and self-deprecating, and even takes on political correctness, to some degree (in Body Awareness).

I don't think Baker has written a really great play, though - not yet; she has demonstrated her technical ability, and even developed a thoughtful technique that seems to map to her generation's attitudes. And she has written three pretty good plays in a row.  That's saying something.  She should be produced.  But should writing three good plays mean she should already have a career retrospective? I'm not so sure.  Because Baker seems unable to directly engage with the dark sides of her characters (they just don't have dark sides) or really with anything like the moral or political compromises (or other vicissitudes) of actual life.  (Even her big gambit in The Aliens happens off-stage.)  This struck me with all the more force as I was watching Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular in Providence this weekend.  Compared to Baker's plays, Singular seemed singularly layered and deep, and calmly savage with its character's flaws and failings.  Yet we're still arguing over whether Ayckbourn has any lasting value!

But then Ayckbourn critiqued his culture, while Baker subtly celebrates her own.  Indeed, sometimes she feels more like a symptom of that culture than an observer of it - I mean, we're going through the Great Recession, we've become a nation that tortures, a nativist-facist movement is on the rise, and in our theatres we're listening to Annie Baker sing a little song to herself about the Starbucks crowd?  Something about that seems - well, just wrong.  What's more, if this festival has done anything, it has shown a clear arc in her work - only it's in the wrong direction, toward smaller canvases and ever more distant delicacies, and perhaps more and more self-involvement.

Although somewhere (and I realize I'm beginning to sound like Ben Brantley here!) I'm aware that yes, these are desperate times artistically, so maybe I should just count my blessings with Baker. In a way, she's more than a poster child for the millennials - she may be the best they've got, and you can feel on the blogs a kind of rising tide of frustration with the fact that us grown-ups aren't as impressed with this generation's artistic achievements as they are themselves. Actually, they kind of know they're under-achievers, but to their minds, that doesn't matter, they should just be produced anyway! The recent dust-up over the Wasserstein Prize gives you some idea of what a pickle we're in - a prize specifically set up to honor young female playwrights literally couldn't find a script good enough to give the money to. That tells you something, doesn't it - only it wasn't what the millennials wanted to hear; their collective tantrum was swift, and damning. And almost immediately, the Wasserstein people backed down - they'll find something they can give that prize to, even if it kills them! Given that kind of environment, yeah, maybe Annie Baker counts as some kind of genius, and fluffing her makes perfect sense.

1 comment:

  1. Having seen The Aliens last night, I'm wondering if Shirley, Vermont is more comparable to Cicely, Alaska from Northern Exposure? Could it be that these plays are sort of a back-door pilot for a television series? We have a range of well sketched out characters with well crafted dialogue, episodic scenes in which very little drama takes place, and very little that is so edgy that it can't be shown on cable TV.

    All that is needed are some establishing shots of the town, some of the characters who are only mentioned in the dialogue, scenes portraying events that happen off-camera, (oops, I mean off-stage) and a few scenes that where the characters from the different Shirley, VT plays interact and you've got an entire season of Shirley, Vermont.

    The big "events": the teenage deflowering, the drug overdose, et cetera can be stretched out over the course of the season. It's quite telling that one of the stickers on the guitar case read "What happens in Vermont stays in Vermont: Nothing happens in Vermont."

    It's a really brilliant marketing move, actually.