Chasing Stories

If you took a census of all of the characters who are alive in my mind, it wouldn’t surprise me if the number reached into the thousands. Sherlock Holmes and Mama Rose, Clytemnestra and Walter Lee Younger, Jackie Brown and Zatoichi – leading, supporting and cameo characters reside uneasily in an ever-expanding repertory company and can be called forth instantly. Not to mention multiple versions of some characters. (Which Sherlock Holmes? Whose Mama Rose?)

The most vivid characters drive the countless stories that also live in my mind. I consume stories at a furious rate. I plow through novels, biographies, histories and memoirs relentlessly. One of my current projects is reading through a three-volume set of 170 short stories published in The New Yorker from its founding to 1960. (I hope to finish by spring.) I subscribe to several streaming services and devour Danish thrillers, the National Theater’s videos, classic films and genre entries from Criterion and TCM, and much of the product of HBO, Showtime, Hulu and Britbox.

And plays. I vote for the Tony, Drama Desk and Hull-Warriner Awards, so I am invited to the theater a lot. There is no way to see everything, but I frequently catch four or five shows in a week.

So I read or see a lot of stories. And I think a lot about stories. About their power. About their purpose. (And about why I also write them.)

It’s a commonplace observation that we tend to understand our existence better when it’s organized in narratives. When we try to figure out why this or that happened, we are looking for causality – why this choice led to that consequence, how character influences result, or, conversely, how this event shapes that character. We understand much of our reality from patterns we absorb from the stories we encounter. Freud named the Oedipus syndrome after a Greek play. Reagan believed Miss Jane Pittman was a historical character. I would guess the understanding many of us have about legal procedure has been gleaned from endless hours of watching the different editions of Law and Order.

This is a roundabout way of my saying I think stories matter. And I think how you tell stories matters. To create a story is to attempt to fashion a pattern or order out of the onslaught of seemingly random events and impressions we get battered by in reality. Even a story that devastates offers the comfort that at least what happens makes sense.

So I get cranky when storytellers don’t bother to tell a story coherently.

Which brings me first to the Bedlam Theater. I’m a fan. I mark their productions of Saint Joan, Sense and Sensibility and Pygmalion among the more exciting events in my career of theater-going. So I was delighted to be invited to their recent brace of offerings, Hedda Gabler and The Winter’s Tale. Their Hedda rang a few changes on traditional stagings, but it still told of a woman living in a society in which she has few rights and outlets who turns her frustration into destruction. Susannah Millonzi’s take on the title character reminded me of Christopher Walken’s take on Iago in a Central Park production of Othello. Early on, he signaled to us he was a modern guy whose values were more in synch with the contemporary audience watching him and further, “I mean, really, isn’t pretty much everyone else in this play kind of a square? Ya know? Don’t they kind of deserve what they get?” Millonzi’s Hedda similarly was a woman born in the wrong time period, and with her slouchy body language she carried herself differently than everybody else on the stage. It was a strong choice and it worked.

I had a problem with The Winter’s Tale. As much as I enjoyed aspects of all of the performances and many of director/actor’s Eric Tucker’s choices, I knew that if this were my first encounter with this play, I probably would not be able to follow the story. (I felt similarly about his take on Peter Pan.) I think it’s a storyteller’s first responsibility to tell the story clearly. Tucker certainly can do it when he cares to.

Sometimes the problem is in a production. For instance, Ivo Van Hove’s take on The Crucible made no damn sense. If witches aren’t real, then what the hell was that girl doing flying on a chair in mid-air?

(And while I’m talking about things that fly, what in the hell happened to Doctor Who during Jodie Whitaker’s tenure? She is such a joyous and engaging performer, it was infuriating to see her stuck in the muddle of Chris Chibnall’s chaotic scripts. OK, detour over.)

A story that doesn’t quite make sense is like a carpet that refuses to lie flat. It might almost make sense, but if there is a chunk that still doesn’t lie flat, no matter its virtues, it still annoys. As charmed and diverted as I was by much of The Gett by Liba Vaynberg (presented by the Rattlestick Theater), her carpet refused to lie flat.

The Gett is about a Jewish-American woman who is haunted by the presence in her mind of the husband she has recently divorced. The central question of the play is if she’s going to get over him and how. After the prologue, in a flashback, Ida (pronounced Eeda, which is important) gets stuck in an elevator with a smart guy with a motormouth carrying a take-out order of Chinese food who calls himself Baal. For some reason, within two minutes he’s telling her he’s circumcised (more or less). Why she finds this so attractive as to swiftly move in with and marry him is beyond me. (Most people I know stuck in an elevator with someone who started talking about their genitalia would probably move to the far corner of the elevator and hope they had the foresight to pack pepper spray.) By the second scene, they are divorced. I was mystified by what brought them together, and I was mystified by what tore them apart.

Ida keeps being haunted by Baal as she deals with a variety of other men, including a couple of boyfriend possibilities. He keeps popping up as a fantasy figure in her scenes with other people. You would glean from this that her objective might be to figure out a way of getting rid of him. But instead, it is he who, for reasons insufficiently articulated, suddenly contacts her with the announcement he wants to get a gett. There’s a real-world reason for this as a plot development Vaynberg would employ: a gett (a kind of emphatic spiritual divorce for Jews) may only be initiated by the husband. But, as a matter of dramatic logic, this doesn’t make much sense as Vaynberg has written it. We haven’t seen him haunted by her, after all. Now, if she persuaded him to seek a gett and he acquiesced, that would track with what Vaynberg has established.

I deal with this at length because, in spite of this reservation, Vaynberg strikes me as a real talent, both as a writer and performer (she plays Ida). For those of us who felt cruelly deprived when Wendy Wasserstein was abruptly taken from this world, Vaynberg has some of Wasserstein’s strengths. It’s not just that she writes a beautifully specific Jewish mom reminiscent of Wasserstein’s Isn’t It Romantic?, it’s that she possesses a similar wit and a grudging affection for the people she satirizes. Mom, by the way, is played by Jennifer Westfeldt, herself a gifted writer-performer. As irritated as I am by aspects of The Gett, Vaynerg is on a list of writers I’m eager to follow.

While I’m on the subject of storytelling, I’d like to mention how gratifying Mike Birbiglia’s new show, The Old Man and the Pool, is. I have heard people laugh harder, and I have heard comedy that cuts deeper, but I don’t know when I have witnessed a performance in which an audience has laughed more. Quite an accomplishment given that it’s ultimately an essay on mortality, a subject that doesn’t usually prompt me to chuckle.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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