Monday, May 27, 2013

Mac Wellman wanna-be

The most recent NYCPlaywrghts Play of the Month is the wackiest play we've done yet. I don't know if the author meant to emulate the work of Mac Wellman but if you put this play up under Wellman's name I'd wager that nobody would ever suspect it wasn't him. It has all the hallmarks of Wellman's work: referencing socio-political issues without ever saying anything coherent or incisive about society or politics; lots of repetition - the "hearts beating" phrase comes up a lot in this play; little or no emotional connection between characters, and excessive verbiage.

I originally was going to say that this play indicates that the author has the same problem that so many other writers of 10-minute plays have - he couldn't be bothered to go back and re-work the draft. This is probably the first draft of the play - maybe with a few tweaks here and there. One of my edits in the video recording helped tighten things up - and all I did was leave out the first two sentences.

Why was the edit so helpful? Because the "Dirty Beauty" character starts off talking about how she saw "one of them little buggers." And yet Joseph's first line is: "looks like a bad case of moles to me." Well if she already saw one of them, what's the point of saying that line? Other than it's always better to leave nothing unsaid, and the order in which things are said doesn't really matter.

Cause and effect mean nothing in the universe of postmodernism, which is why it leads to such extremely unsatisfying drama.

An excerpt from the first page of the script:
Thanks. Life's full of surprises. Isn't it. The front lawn's a big surprise. Oh Geez. The neighbors are going to talk about this one, aren't they? I'm sure. My front lawn looks like it has a bad case of acne. It just makes me so sick. It looks like somebody's face. Full of pus. Pus filled chicken poxes. I'm trapped. I don't know what to do, it's like I feel like I'm paralyzed.
Now I happen to like the "bad case of acne metaphor." And the goofy "chicken poxes." And I think it would be better if the passage pretty much stuck to that metaphor instead of throwing in the neighbors and feeling "like I'm paralyzed."

I was originally going to say that the author has a "problem" with not going back and tightening the script, but is it really a problem? Mac Wellman has made a very nice career out of flabby and incoherent and non-dramatic work. Why couldn't this guy?

Although I did discover one reason why Wellman has been able to devote his life to work that most people outside of Academe are not interested in - the New York Public Library inventory of Mac Wellman papers 1959-1999 includes a biographic note that says: The Wellman family already included several inventors, and Mac grew into an inventor and innovator of language.

I'm guessing that, like so many people in theater, Wellman can do whatever he wants because he has a trust fund. And what he wants to do is not actually theater, although he is allowed to call it that:

Here's the second scene from his play CLEVELAND.
Scene 2
(The kitchen. MOTHER is trying to unclog the sink with a  plunger. The sink makes strange noises. JOAN is trying to do her homework at the kitchen table. More nice music.)
JOAN. Mother, how can I concentrate on my homework with you making that noise?
MOTHER. I'm sorry dear. It doesn't drain. Mr. Barfly the plumber was supposed to come fix it, but he never did.
JOAN. But I'm trying to do my homework.
MOTHER. Joanie, there's nothing I can do.
JOAN. Mother, what's the largest moon in the solar system?
NARRATOR. Why, Triton, dear. A moon of Neptune. Not a very hospitable place. My this sink is hopeless. Miranda's much prettier.
JOAN. Thanks. Mr. Delaplane's science class is really hard.
(Loud crash outside.)
What's that noise?
MOTHER. (Going to look:) Just some commotion in the street.
JOAN. Who is Pope Joan? Bet you don't know.
MOTHER. Haven't the faintest, dear.
(Phone rings.)
JOAN. Oh, God, what if it's Panda Hands asking me to the prom.
MOTHER. I thought we weren't fashionable enough to be invited.
JOAN. Well, I still want to go. It depends. You get it.
MOTHER. Silly girl.
(She gets the phone:)
Hello? No, he's dead. That's right. Dead. No, we don't need any. Thank you. Good bye.
(Hangs up. Pause.)
Well, it wasn't Panda Hands.
(Knock at the door.)
Who could that be?
JOAN. If it's Panda Hands I'm not here.
MOTHER. (At door:) Yes? Can I help you?
(A MAN enters.)
MAN. Lady. Your front porch. It ah. Fell into the street. Somebody's underneath. In a car. One of those imports. Squashed flat.
MOTHER. Oh, how terrible. Well, come in.
MAN. Thanks. All you can see is the hubcap.
MOTHER. The phone's right there.
JOAN. Mother?
MOTHER. It's all right, Joanie. The front porch fell into the street and it seems there's a car underneath.
MAN. What's the police number?
MOTHER. Haven't the faintest.
(He reads it off the phone and dials.)
JOAN. Mother, what if Jimmy asks me and not Panda Hands?
MOTHER. Then I expect you should go. Even if we're not fashionable.
MAN. No one answers at the police. Strange. (Hangs up.)
MOTHER. That is strange.
JOAN. Very strange. Hey, can I go look?
MOTHER. If you're careful.
(JOAN skips out.)
MAN. I'll call the wrecking company. You got a Yellow Pages?
MOTHER. Sure, right here.
(Shows him. She goes to the sink and plunger.)
You know, I think I want to go back to school. Learn a skill. I'm tired of being a drudge. And since my husband died. It's rough being alone.
MAN. You're young to be a widow.
MOTHER. He was a Trotskyist.
MAN. (On phone:) Acme Wrecking? Yeah, part of a house's fallen across River Road near Willougby. Traffic's already backed up pretty far. And I think there's someone trapped underneath. Yeah, in a car.
(Hangs up.)
MOTHER. He was a Trostkyist.
MAN. So am I. Thanks, lady.
(He goes out. She goes back to the sink. JOAN enters.)
JOAN. Oh, you should see it. Everything's all smashed. It's real neat. Say, do you suppose someone's dead under all that pile of rubble?
MOTHER. Could be, darling. Could be. Wash up, it's dinner time.
JOAN. If Jimmy calls I'm here. If Johnny calls I'm not. If Panda Hands calls I'm dead.
MOTHER. Yes, dear.
MOTHER. You know, Joanie. I think I want to go back to school.
JOAN. You'd be a great student. And I'll do the grocery shopping. We'll trade.
(They giggle.)
MOTHER. So. What's the biggest moon in the solar system?
JOAN. Miranda.
MOTHER. Miranda's the prettiest. Triton's the biggest.
JOAN. Darn. Well you tell me who is Pope Joan.
MOTHER. Never heard of her.
(They giggle.)
JOAN. I want to be like Pope Joan. Only I want to be a Trotskyist.
MOTHER. This sink is disgusting.
(The MAN enters again.)
MAN. Lady, can I use the phone again.
(He dials. Pause.)
JOAN. If he's on the phone all the time how's Jimmy going to call me?
MOTHER. Ever think it might be Panda Hands?
(They giggle.)
Absolutely typical Wellman. It's like a dream - bizarre things happen like a front porch suddenly flies off and lands on top of a person in a car. Except that unlike most people's dreams, there is no emotional resonance from an act of violence. The characters can barely summon up enough interest in an injured or dying person to stop talking about Panda Hands for two minutes. So it's a dream dreamt by a sociopath.

You know how you love to hear some random stranger tell you about his dream, in which implausible violent things happened and nobody cared and they just kept making inane small talk?


Now you may say: "but Nancy, you moron, of course Wellman did this on purpose. He's making A Statement About the Way Things Are in These United States Today. Don't be such a sucker for "Sentimental Melodrama*!"

But the problem is that just presenting humans - in virtually every play he writes - as if a bunch of unfeeling robots isn't enough - there has to be something more. And there never is. What a great job Wellman has though - just throw random sociopathic bullshit on the stage and people - smart people from the university - will invent meaning for it.

And of course being a "Trotskyist" means absolutely nothing in socio-political terms in CLEVELAND. Wellman just name-drops Trotsky, probably because the people who come to see his work will congratulate themselves that they have a vague idea of who Trotsky was - he was the guy who had an ice pick buried in his head by a Bolshevik. They saw that in a short play by David Ives.

And when Wellman attempts actual political satire, well this is what happens:
...A satire about the hypocrisy inherent in right wing American politics, "7 Blowjobs" was written in the early 1990s as a response to senator Jesse Helms’s attack against the National Endowment for the Arts, when he accused the NEA of funding artists whose work he deemed obscene. With so many homophobic and anti-sex politicians scandalized in recent months, it’s no surprise that Theatre on Fire’s artistic director Darren Evans decided to revive the show. What’s surprising is that he imagined Boston audiences would find Wellman’s facile portrait of social conservatives entertaining. 
There are no actual blowjobs in this play, but when a package containing a series of ambiguous x-rated photographs is delivered to Red State senator Bob’s office, his staff of conservative aides is thrown into a sex panic. Their collective sex jitters as they spend most of the play trying to decode the political and sexual meaning of the salacious photos might have been funnier, if the verbal jabs of Wellman’s insipid stereotypes were able to rise above the level of playground polemics. Unfortunately, his dialogue merely sounds like a string of childish partisan text comments posted on You Tube. 
The premise that there’s a pack of horny Chihuahuas humping underneath the rhetoric of anti-sex campaigns is tempting if hackneyed, but the jokes are so bad you’ll end up feeling cheated and embarrassed for the cast, as I did. In the words of two insightful Edge readers I had the pleasure of sitting next to during the show: "This show is an utter waste of time... we were not amused."
Clearly the critic and the reader quoted above don't understand the Wellman play drill - you are not to expect the author to provide insight into the political scenario - just the fact that he used the word "blowjobs" in his title is supposed to be enough to impress you by what a daring maverick Wellman is. You are supposed to provide the political meaning yourself.

I'll let theater impresario Martin Denton demonstrate how it's done:
This is, in effect, all that happens in 7 Blowjobs. Senator Bob seeks advice from a television evangelist named Reverend Tom, whose reaction is pretty similar to Bruce's but whose broader experience in such matters enables him to provide the senator with some valuable strategic/tactical assistance—namely, to pin this and other conspiracies against decency on "fags." Bob, Jr., who one suspects may indeed be a bona fide member of that last-named group, is also interrogated, but to no avail.
The point of all of this non-sequitur lunacy is obvious: playwright Mac Wellman wrote 7 Blowjobs in 1991 in response to the flap on government funding supposedly obscene art by the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, and he dedicated it to Senator Jesse Helms. Hypocrisy in government not having gone away in the past decade, the play resonates resoundingly; the spectacle of seeing self-appointed guardians of the moral order salivate and drool over dirty pictures feels great and registers as hilarious, scoring points off its lascivious targets all the while.
The play's brilliance is mostly attributable to Wellman's astonishing language, which simply soars with glee as it dances around actually naming whatever it is that might be depicted in those seven pictures. Wellman delights in imprecision here: Reverend Tom declares them "photos of unnatural acts, capable of rendering a full-grown man happy," and that's really as much as we actually know about their content: how much apt commentary on the current state of morality and censorship in America is packed into that?
It should be mentioned that Denton's ecstatic response to Wellman is far more typical of critics than the negative response of the Boston critic I quoted.

So why, exactly, did NYCPlaywrights choose to do a video recording of a reading of a Wellman-esque play? Well first off, you should have seen the competition. And I would have picked the play that had the blow-up doll in it over this one, but I took a vote on the semi-finalists among the people who participated in the script-reading and majority ruled.

But most of all, because it is only ten minutes long. Postmodern plays are bearable in small doses, especially if there are some humorous bits. But as far as I know, Mac Wellman doesn't write ten-minute plays: all his plays are long enough to be considered an entire evening of theater. An entire, mind-bogglingly pointless, undramatic, postmodern evening of theater.


*Mac Wellman in a 2012 edition of the Dramatist Guild's magazine. He's talking to Annie Baker:

Theatre criticism is a remarkable one note only interested in what I call Sentimental Melodrama. They miss any intellectual sharpness, visual or physical acuity. They are only interested in what I call Face Value theatre. What you see is what you get, no time for reflection (incidentally they miss the sharp edges of your work.)