Thursday, October 27, 2011

May divorce be with you

I'm not quite sure what to make of You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents' Divorce, the latest from The Civilians, at ArtsEmerson through this weekend. But then to be honest, the show's very concept sounded perverse to me - adult children of divorce interviewing their parents about their failed marriages, and then impersonating them on stage as they related their travails.  Divorce - and its effect on children - just seemed too agonizing and intimate an experience to ask anyone to re-live in front of other people; I wondered if the resulting performance would feel like the theatrical equivalent of those horrifying moments on TV when callous cameramen zoom in on hapless innocents stricken by tragedy.

Yet strangely enough, tragedy feels worlds away from You Better Sit Down.  As the Civilians recite their recollections in a kind of suburban echo chamber (see above), no really painful exchanges occur - the emotional blows never land - because you rarely hear any of the kids' reactions, and in only one case do you hear both partners' side of the story; and at any rate, all four of the divorces under consideration occurred ages ago.  Perhaps as a result, you never feel the need to sit down; you can handle all this standing up, and you never really identify with either the parents or the children in question (who somehow feel, oddly enough, like separate entities from the actors themselves).

Thus nothing in the show feels devastating, although dishonesty, theft, emotional abuse, and the calmest alienation imaginable are the basis of the evening.  Indeed, as it unfolds you slowly realize that You Better Sit Down is coming off as a jaundiced, slightly morbid comedy, with plenty of laughs, but few, if any, shocks or squirm-worthy silences.  Some really bad stuff may have happened, the parents admit with a shrug and a smile, but hey, you know, it's not like anybody died.  By now it's all water - or maybe blood - under the bridge.

I'm divided at the moment, therefore, as to whether the performance represents a success or failure for the  "devised" theatre techniques that are the Civilians' trademark.  Certainly if an actual "investigation" of the emotional and psychological effects of divorce was the troupe's intent, then You Better Sit Down is an abject failure.  But if their real interest was in the limits of their own technique - and perhaps the limits of emotional communication itself - then I'd say it counts as a weird kind of small success.  You leave it wondering what it means that parents can't communicate the actual pain of divorce, and what it means that their children can't relate to it.  You may also find yourself pondering the narcissism of both yourself and those you love, and whether even the most intimate of relationships ever leads to true intimacy - indeed, whether the very closeness of a relationship may prevent real intimacy!

Or you may just chuckle at some of the unintentional stand-up these parents deliver; indeed, plenty of their lines sound as if they've been consciously structured as punch-lines.  "All I really wanted to do was go to bed with your father," one mother abruptly chirps to her horrified daughter.  "Which is really hard for me to talk about!" she adds.  And she's not alone in those feelings.  Sex, which for this generation could only reliably be found within the confines of marriage, surfaces again and again as a foil to actual intimacy between these couples - as it wasn't simply shared but traded, bartered.   Indeed, the one father who sat for an interview confesses to his son that after he and his wife (who was having an affair) had decided to separate, he still demanded sex while he was living in the house - in between her sessions with her lover, I guess - and she was happy enough to comply.  As both saw it, sex was part of the deal. "I hope this doesn't send you to a shrink or anything," Dad says to his son with a smile, "but she was like, 'Sure, whatever.'  I mean we were socialists.  We didn't sweat the small stuff."

Is married intimacy even possible?
Just btw, if you can't tell from that particular line, there's a sly satire of the 60's - when all these parents hooked up - banging around in this piece as well.  These divorcées are the type who met at cocktail parties for César Chávez, who felt that they and the world were on the brink of a social revolution, and that marriage was some kind of grand experiment in personal fulfillment.  And it's also clear that these political ideals mapped rather obviously to an unconscious narcissism; that fan of Chávez babbles to her daughter that now she realizes her children exist not as personalities in their own right, but "more as pictures hanging in the living room of my life."  Uh-huh.

Still, it's also true most of the divorces contemplated here happened for a good reason - one deadbeat dad, for instance, was an outright thief (and his wife's sarcastic Southern drawl counts as some sort of flag of victory); others were emotionally abusive, distant, or unfaithful (some of the wives were, too).  I often longed, however, for these crimes of the heart to have more impact in performance; in fact one moment limned in a single flash the broken heart that seems to be missing from the show.  "I remember you used to snuggle up to your court guardian on the couch," one mother muses to her daughter in a puzzled tone of voice.  "So - was that something you were missing?  Was that like something you never had?  Because you never used to do that with your father."

Indeed.  At such moments the po-faced performances of the cast - the poised Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris, and Robbie Collier Sublett - seem to be remarkably on target and yet missing something, too.   And yet I wondered to myself, if open feeling were suddenly allowed to surface in You Better Sit Down, would the piece suddenly fall to the floor itself, collapsing into raw, angry bathos?  The Civilians, and their director, Anne Kauffman, are clearly walking a kind of tightrope here.

Along which, I think, they are still finding their way.  The last Civilians piece to appear at ArtsEmerson, In the Footprint, swung with a confident satiric swagger, because their investigatory style mapped well to its public political thrust. Now divorce is a political issue - that reminder is part of what's worthwhile about this production - yet where the political becomes the personal, I think the Civilians are less sure of themselves. This is also a newer piece than Footprint, so perhaps it's still in some phase of development.  Right now, for instance, the backdrop of a suburban tract home feels only half-integrated into the show - actors sometimes go off to the kitchen to make tea, or wander over to the foyer for no real reason; better to fully use the set, I think - or lose it entirely.  But then how best to integrate the projections the troupe often favors - which again, felt a little half-hearted here?  All these issues feel as if they're still being sorted out.  Which is fine - there's more than enough finished performance here to make up a full evening of theatre.  But it's always best for audiences to know what they're getting into, I think, before they sit down.


  1. I thought this was a very slight, superficial work. My 10-year-old son sometimes gets assignments to interview his grandparents about what it was like in the old days and this had that kind of feel to it. Certainly, none of the actors gained much insight into their parents from the exercise. It seemed to me like verisimilitude for verisimilitude's sake. I felt angry that I had gotten so little for the price of admission.

    Also, I'm no fan of holding theater to standards of political correctness, but it would have been nice if at least one of the stories wasn't about someone white and middle class. I am not saying this because I believe theater needs to be diverse or tell the stories of all Americans, only because I think it would have made for a more interesting contrast between the stories if they came from different milieus.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Lawrence. I agree, btw, about that odd quality of a "kid's book report" that you describe - I wish I'd made that aspect more clear (I think I only put in one reference to the fact that the generations couldn't relate).

    I do want to re-iterate, however, that I think that lack of insight - both from the children and the parents themselves - was part of the piece's point (oddly enough). This gap in self-awareness is bound up with their artistic M.O. somehow. My impression is that the troupe is groping toward a larger, subtler vision they haven't quite nailed yet. But your encapsulation of their effort as "verisimilitude for verisimilitude's sake" I think is a valid reaction.

    (And just btw, while I understand the point you make in your last paragraph, I do want to say that the Civilians usually grapple with differences in race and class.)

  3. "I think it would have made for a more interesting contrast between the stories if they came from different milieus"


    There was a huge class gap between Frinde and John, the upper class socialists and Janet, the Texas working class woman with the criminal husband. And one of the marriages was clearly mixed class, between a working class Jewish woman (with upper class pretensions) and an upper class WASP man. And this was explicitly discussed in the piece.

  4. Good point, Monica, and thanks for commenting. It may also be worth noting that the "working-class" divorce revolved openly around theft and financial chicanery, and that the "lower class/upper class" marriage devolved into a tussle over a rather explicit upper-class symbol - a Tiffany lamp. The other divorces seemed more linked to sexual or personal fulfillment issues. I'm just thinking aloud here - but were these social and economic subtleties intended to land as thematic statements about class distinctions? Was the political matrix of the piece as well worked out as that of In the Footprint, for instance? I'm not sure.

  5. I'm really happy I saw this for free. Disappointing. I was one of (yes I counted) three Black people in the audience and I couldn't stop thinking, "was there any attempt to add some color?" And I don't mean the wallpaper. Divorce, separation,and strife is a universal practice with a variety of repercussions. I'm a "divorced kid" and this piece from The Civilians meant nothing to me. I was expecting my heart to FEEL as I listened to the stories but, alas, nothing.

  6. Well, as I said, I expected to be put through the emotional mill, and I definitely wasn't. As I'm not a child of divorce, this struck me as strange, but I could still parse the show for its ironic political content. I can certainly see that for someone who has actually lived through a divorce, however, the production's alienated, bleakly humorous tone could leave a bitter after-taste.

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