Sunday, September 14, 2014

Romantic comedy and theater

As we discussed, in the movies the romantic comedy has been taken over by dude-bro sensibilities, replacing the concept of the man and woman as quirky individuals who come to terms with each other as equals, with the concept of schlubby man-babies winning hot women.

But what about in the theater? Well in theater there is a different problem. In the theater the romantic comedy is problematic because by its nature it can't be portentous or cynical about love.

I knew playwright Annie Baker was golden when they started comparing her work to that of Harold Pinter, whom theater people revere as a god in spite of (or, I would argue, because of) his utter portentousness. If you google "Harold Pinter" and portentous you will see how often his work is described that way. One example:
And, as befits the first opportunity to see a Harold Pinter play in the Harold Pinter Theatre, Old Times is laden with the playwright’s trademarks: scattergun dialogue interjected with pauses and silences; menacing undercurrents of manipulation; portentous lines that remain utterly unexplained (the repeated “I remember you dead” being a memorable instance in this play); and a niggling feeling that underlying it all is just abject, aimless misery. You leave the theatre feeling confused, dejected and more than a little unsatisfied – for the Pinter fan, it has everything.
Ah yes, abject, aimless misery. The nectar of the gods for contemporary theater folk.

Here's what a positive review (they were overwhelmingly positive) of Baker's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick had to say:
At the end of the play, Sam begins to train Avery’s replacement, Skylar, using a version of the same script that opened the play. We return to the beginning and a somewhat dulling sense that this will all happen again. After the repeated failures of these three to become more deeply connected to one another, Sam confesses to Avery: “There’s a lot of good stuff in my life. Maybe I never told you about it. Sometimes, people you fall in love with, fall in love with you.” Sam recounts a typical scenario of an unrequited love ultimately reciprocated as something that “really” happens outside the cinema walls. Avery barely acknowledges this faith, another cinematic promise. He ignores the last bid to restore a friendship and leaves, holding cast-off 35 mm reels in hand.
How nice for Annie Baker to show us a bunch of losers in a dead-end job, who fail to connect with each other. A Pulitzer Prize-winning hot new thing whose parents were academics (...her father had been an administrator for the Five Colleges consortium and her mother worked toward a doctorate in counselling psychology - New Yorker) no doubt never had, and never will have to worry about working a crappy dead-end job. But it's nice that she can spend three hours showing us how much life sucks for the 99%. It's fun for the 1% who can afford theater tickets to wallow in loser-land - they can leave at the end of the play. And they can tell themselves that they've experienced the authentic, and the gritty, including all those realistic long-ass pauses.

Don’t let the sycophants get you down. I walked at intermission. The show was boring, arduously paced, and painfully mundane; like my life. I go to the theater to get away from it all, not to amplify my fatigue. I’m so amazed when supporters tell me how fresh and new this play is supposed to be. I watched a character scrape gum from a chair for five minutes. OK, I get it, they have tedious mundane jobs. But come on, is this a training skit parody for a janitor school?
But the commenter needs to consider the perspective. If you've never had to make a living through menial labor, and few of Baker's colleagues or target audience members have, watching someone scrape gum from a chair for five minutes absolutely is fresh and new.

That's another thing in fashion these days - complete self-indulgence on the part of the playwright. The thinking goes that you must be truly blessed by the muses if you can say fuck you to the audience and make them sit through your portentous pauses.

A proper romantic comedy is the opposite of all these things - it caters to the audience instead of saying fuck you; it takes out excessive "realism" to serve the heightened reality of its world; it does not take itself seriously; it doesn't wallow in squalor; and it doesn't deliver this message to the 99%: life sucks and then you die, alone and miserable after a hideously banal life.

As Andrew Romano said:
Sure, (romantic comedies) can be conventional. But pop songs tend to be conventional, too, and that doesn’t dull the dopamine rush of a perfect chorus. A well-made romcom—It Happened One Night, Sleepless in Seattle, Say Anything…, Groundhog Day, The Apartment—works in much the same way. It’s a dazzling machine doing exactly what it was designed to do.
A "dazzling machine" is an apt description. A machine built expressly to provide people - no matter their socio-economic status - with emotional gratification.

And that is why it is not considered serious theater - and that is why critics and Serious Theater People hate romantic comedies.

And then of course there is the notion that romantic comedies are for women - and the theater is already terrified of losing status due to its association with females. But that will be addressed further in my next rant.

But I think Romano is wrong to only consider romantic comedy a "machine" - because any good story-telling observes conventions that create a narrative reality that is different from ordinary reality. That's exactly why people want to hear stories crafted by gifted story-tellers of any medium -it takes them away from conventional reality. And that's why audiences hate post-modern novels and post-modern plays - which Theresa Rebeck has ranted so delightfully against. But in the theater, pleasing a broad swath of humans is not what counts - it's impressing awards judges and other theater gate-keepers that truly counts.

I was gratified by one of the reviews that Julia & Buddy received, which called my romantic comedy "unconventional" - not because I agree with her, but because I knew this would be perceived as a high compliment by most theater people - conventional anything, but especially conventional romantic comedy is perceived as, essentially, shit for the moron masses.

But you can see why she thought J&B was so unconventional by the way she describes romantic comedies:
Many romances have a predictable mold. It’s easy to tell exactly who is going to get the girl (often the underdog best friend) or how the girl is going to get the boy (usually via some sort of mistaken identity and then a full, happy realization by the end). However, with Julia and Buddy, there is a quality of unconventionality about it. It opens on Julia, a fledgling philosopher (played by Claire Warden), locked in her room and having a panic attack. Finally a maintenance man named Buddy arrives (played by Matthew DeCapua), and we begin to see the inherent ironies these two people come with. Julia, a philosopher, tries to understand Buddy and “put together the pieces of the puzzle” as she puts it, while at the same exact time Buddy seems to realize that Julia knows very little about herself: Just as Buddy figures out that Julia is calling for a maintenance man to unlock her door, when she is actually afraid of leaving the house, Julia simultaneously realizes that even though the maintenance man is supposed to fix the ills of an apartment, Buddy quite literally can’t do any of the things in his job description. 
This "underdog best friend" getting the girl as a standard rom-com trope is news to me - this must be the result of the dude-bro/nerd boy influence on romantic comedies.

But in fact J&B is so conventional by pre-dude-bro standards that it was modeled on the 1965 off-Broadway romantic comedy The Owl and the Pussycat. In O&C the "owl" named Felix (which of course should be a cat's name) is failing as a writer and the "pussycat" named Doris is failing as an actor, although both keep insisting that's who they really are. And they each see through the other's delusion. And aid and comfort each other.

But the reviewer is young (I looked her up in Facebook) and so to her the dude-bro standard in romantic comedy IS the convention. She isn't even aware of the classic rom-com conventions.

And this lack of awareness of pre-dude-bro romantic comedies is, I suspect, one of the reasons why the reviewer who trashed my play hated it so much. Well, OK, I have no idea why he hated it so much, calling it "agony" but when I read this part, I knew this was someone who didn't understand romantic comedy as I did:
The play gives no reason for Julia to actually like Buddy aside from his ‘cute butt.’ (mentioned ad-nauseum) McClernan is content to slap acting a few seizures onto Buddy’s backstory and call it a day, but what he and Julia actually do or want for one another (aside from very good sex) is non-existent. With no compelling reason for the pair to be together, McClernan gives us no desire to watch her lightly-camouflaged philosophy lesson unfold.
This reviewer is just out of college, but the other reviewer, in spite of also being young, got what Julia and Buddy give to each other - they see through each others' delusions, as in the Owl and the Pussycat - and they help each other in spite of their own problems.

But the concept of people helping each other get better is absolutely anathema to Serious Theater these days - it's considered naive if not flat-out a symptom of idiocy. I had a conversation online with somebody who adores Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and his description of it was basically: "they know they have a bad relationship and things will never get better." In The Flick nobody makes a connection. In another recent Pulitzer-winner August: Osage County family members hate each other and squabble and two family members are at each others throats at the end.

Cruelty, contempt and despair are hip. People helping each other is lame. Even in a romantic comedy, apparently.

But even without their helping each other, even if all Julia and Buddy had was good sex, that would be a noble end in itself. Perhaps this is another issue of perspective - a college student can't understand that for a single middle-aged woman, finding a partner physically attractive enough and personable enough and non-gay or non-married enough to only have regular good sex is fiendishly difficult. Finding a soul-mate is pretty much the impossible dream.

Yes, college boy, you have no idea how much life can really, really suck before it's done with you. You will be amazed to learn - and I admit I was pretty surprised to discover this for myself - that it's somehow possible to go on living, day after day, year after year, in a state of almost constant despair.

Enjoy yourself while you can.

 But college boy seems to misunderstand the purpose of mentioning Buddy's cute butt "ad nauseum" - this is what is known as a comedy bit - comedy being one of the essential ingredients of romantic comedy.

Maybe he didn't think it was very funny, but it's there for a purpose. Here is how it worked - Buddy expresses his resentment of what he believes is Julia's snobbishness:
You know what? My butt was on your radar. 
(Now he has her full attention.)  
Your butt was on my radar?  
It’s understandable. I’m known for having a nice butt. 
Then eleven pages later there's this:
Then why haven’t you fixed anything for me? You’re always around, in your very fashionable clothing. Pretty fancy for a maintenance man. I saw that designer label on your back pocket.  
That’s because you were looking at my butt.  
You and your damn butt. Maybe you should stop thinking about how good your butt looks and start thinking about fixing things. Why don’t you fix my light? 
Now it so happens that Buddy's one-upmanship - "she really did find me attractive" - in the sentence "that's because you were looking at my butt" pretty much always made the audience laugh. Which is good enough for me.

"Butt" is mentioned several times because repetition is a comedic device.

And the butt bit is used one last time, four pages later, for the sake of repetition, but also as the old switcheroo:

Can I ask you something? And I want you to answer honestly. 
OK.... go ahead... just don’t ask me if I want a... just don’t. 
My poor damaged brain wasn’t playing tricks on me, right? You really were checking out my butt. 
Yes. I confess. Your butt was on my radar. 

What happens here is that Buddy, thanks to his brain damage, has asked Julia three times already (rule of three and also more comedic repetition) if she wants a cat. So when Buddy says "can I ask you something?" Julia and the audience expects he's going to ask about the cat again - but instead he switches back into the butt issue again. This is there not only for the comedic value but also the romance value - Julia has to admit her attraction for Buddy, and right at this moment, so they can get speedily into a clinch and end the first half of the play with (off-stage) coitus.

And speaking of brain damage - I suspect that college boy was disappointed that the reason Buddy has brain damage is merely a dirt bike accident - my guess is that he wanted Buddy's back story to involved horrific sexual abuse at his boarding school. Which is a natural enough assumption about boarding schools but I declined to waste time in deep dark psychoanalysis for Buddy's back story seeing as this was a romantic comedy. And I wanted to bring it in under 90 minutes.

And one more classic rom-com convention I observed - I went to some lengths to find a very good-looking guy for the role of Buddy. Perhaps this added to college boy's displeasure. Probably his expectation was that Buddy should be played by an average-to-repulsive looking guy as in standard dude-bro "romantic comedies" and the notion that a woman would be portrayed lusting after an attractive man's ass offended his bro-honed sensibilities.

So there we have it - all kinds of romantic comedy conventions in Julia & Buddy.

So college boy reviewer is not overly-familiar with, or perhaps just doesn't like classic romantic comedy tropes. And admittedly rom-coms are not popular these days.

So romantic comedy is at a low point in our culture at the present time. Can romantic comedy be saved?