Odd items in the newspaper have set many a modern writer to thinking. Matthew Arnold was struck by the brutal phrase, “Wragg is in custody,” used by a journal to refer to a woman from a workhouse who had murdered her infant. He opposed its “short, bleak and inhumane” cadence to some sonorously complacent fatuities by two Victorian politicians. Masterworks like Madame Bovary and An American Tragedy have been, in part, set going by their authors’ chancing on an article. And much pioneer theatrical Naturalism—early Ibsen like Pillars of Society; Buchner’s Woyzeck—had an air of being ripped from newspapers. A freak incident, reported in dry journalese, has sometimes served in centerless times the function of ancient myth—shaping, connecting, and interpreting life.
Nothing novel then in that John Guare, struck by a clipping, has from it fashioned a play, Six Degrees of Separation, now at the Lincoln Center Theater. The real story was about one David Hampton, a black youth of nineteen from Buffalo who in 1983 gained admission to certain influential New York homes by posing as the son of Sidney Poitier and as the college friend of his hosts’ children. He proceeded to steal some items and, in at least one case, introduce and bed “a scruffy young man.” Turned in by one of his dupes, Hampton was in custody and did time. His hosts included the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, the president of Channel 13, and the actor currently starring as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
It appears a promising anecdote, and Mr. Guare has concocted a clever drawing-room comedy. Six Degrees of Separation (the title refers to the six mutual acquaintances that can supposedly connect any two people on earth) is a ninety-minute, one-act piece centering on an art dealer and his wife, Flan and Ouisa—the wife is by far the fuller character—upon whom conniving and convincing Paul intrudes for a memorable evening. Though they hang a Kandinsky and a Cézanne, their heart is really in manipulating the currently inflated market in masters and they are about to entertain a rich South African mine owner in hopes of extracting two million dollars to seed a deal. Aquiver with greed, Flan and Ouisa see their courtship of this obviously (to Mr. Guare’s audience) “tainted” money interrupted by Paul, bleeding from a “mugging” and asking a night’s shelter on the basis of his evident familiarity with their collegiate children. Paul cooks pasta, charms the Boer, and orates at length—to the applause of the audience—upon his “college thesis” (lost in the “mugging”) that treated Catcher in the Rye and the commercialization of the imagination in America. He has everyone eating out of his hand until he gratuitously imports a hustler, is discovered (much nude scampering on stage), and flees with an inkwell, a watercolor of a dog, and the favorite pink shirt of his hosts’ son (the last a gift from Ouisa).
The play parades a gamut of expressionist devices: time dashes back and forward at will.
The play parades a gamut of expressionist devices: time dashes back and forward at will; cast and crew recline at the edge of the stage when idle; the hostess’s smooth social chat is interlarded with her avaricious private thoughts in a droll parody of Strange Interlude’s interior monologues. Jerry Zaks’s brisk direction and Tony Walton’s minimalist set are at one with the script’s elisions and telescopings; the production is a pleasure.
After Paul’s irruption, an inconclusive rush of events flings forward such sketchy characters as: more society victims; the petulant, tantrum-addicted college kids (a welcome touch, this); their homosexual classmate who had “discovered” Paul and, as a sexual bribe, schooled him in the relevant protocols of social climbing; and, most importantly, a poor naïf would-be actor from Utah whom Paul, now living in Central Park and claiming to be Flan’s son, befriends, robs, sodomizes, and drives to suicide. It is to Mr. Guare’s credit that he dilutes the glamour of Paul with this cruel and in no conceivable sense “politically correct” behavior. But to complicate Paul is not to resolve the play’s unfaced problems, as we see in the long last scene consisting largely of a phone call from Paul to Ouisa. She pleads with her former guest to clear up his legal problems and then more or less allow himself to be adopted, for “we love you.” The pasta evening was “magical,” an “experience”; even Paul’s sexual behavior constituted a valid critique of the joylessness in her life. She is profoundly touched by Paul’s desire to enter into “this petty thing, our life.” She ends fearing he will hang himself on Biker’s Island with a pink shirt. The dazzling Stockard Channing has brought to the character the full armory of an assured American high-comedy style, segueing deftly from salon wisecracks about “striking” (in the Vogue sense) coal miners and “cruelty-free cosmetics” to the woman’s sad spots; but we remain unconvinced that this woman would be brought to an examination of conscience, to an agenbite of inwit, to saying to herself in Rilke’s words, “You must change your life,” by this particular sleazy smoothie.
Part of the problem is the nature of what Ouisa and Flan have to feel so guilty about. It’s dat ole debbil greed. They are clearly intended to personify the quantification of art, the ordure of trade encroaching upon the temple of the Muses. On greed, I can do no better than cite John Vincent in a recent TLS: “[W]hat is greed? Greed is what others pay for themselves; my wants, on the other hand, are needs, parts of a ‘wider social concern,’ otherwise known as something for nothing . . . . The cry of greed is little more than an excuse for not thinking; hence its effectiveness.” Mr. Guare has, alas, in just this way let that overworked drudge greed do too much unpaid labor for him. It is revealing to contrast the victims of the real hoaxer, very icons of the liberal culture, with Ouisa, Flan, and their pigeon from the Rand. Life disdained to obey the radical script; that has been fixed.
But if the victims are straw (or at least strawish), Paul is a fatally ambiguous challenger, despite James McDaniel’s shaded and touching performance. What is the point of his being black? Nothing, for he himself wants avidly to assimilate to his hosts—never, for instance, confronting the South African. What is the point of his homosexuality? Only, it seems, flagrantly to facilitate his self-destruction and his destruction of another. But this judgment is never discussed; it is left to be inferred. And it rings untrue to me that such types would need a Paul to slake their thirst for celebrity by casting them as extras in his “father’s” movie of Cats. Paul is inept as an intruder, opaque as a person, and inarticulate as a critic. Mr. Guare has done too little reworking and rethinking of his raw material.
Mr. Guare’s difficulties here recall earlier and not wholly dissimilar intruder-into-society comedies like Philip Barry’s 1929 Holiday and S. N. Behrman’s 1936 End of Summer. In Holiday the rich Setons (“Money is our god here”) are challenged by mildly unsettling Johnny Case, who wishes, after marrying a Seton daughter, to take a few years off from business to be “free.” Harrumphs father Seton: “I consider his whole attitude deliberately un-American.” But the rebel daughter sides with Johnny: “He can’t quite believe that a life devoted to piling up money is all it’s cracked up to be. That’s strange isn’t it—when he has us, right before his eyes, for such a shining example?” What works in Barry comes from his real familiarity with the real rich. What’s hopeless is the powder-puff vagueness of Johnny Case’s assault upon their values. In End of Summer Behrman shows us “the verandah-living room of the Frothingham estate, Bay Cottage, in Northern Maine” invaded by an ornery young leftist (1936, don’t forget) hot to found a magazine that might become “a forum for intercollegiate thought . . . the organ of critical youth as opposed to the R.O.T.C., the Vigilantes and the Fascists.” Society dame Leonie Frothingham, an ancestress of Ouisa, comes to hate her own money: “It’s worked against me. It gives you the illusion of escape—but always you have to come back to yourself. At the end of every journey—you find yourself.” Behrman’s play is inert and absurd, but it did manifest the danger, not avoided fifty-four years later by the much more intelligent Mr. Guare, of a petty, irrelevant, or incredible antagonist to wealth. (I note in passing that Leonie Frothingham was played by Ina Claire, whose sophisticated artistry, by all descriptions, was much like Stockard Channing’s today.)
The most powerful and thorough drama about the assault of a transvaluing intruder upon a closed society remains Euripides’ Bacchae.
The most powerful and thorough drama about the assault of a transvaluing intruder upon a closed society remains Euripides’ Bacchae. Euripides, of course, had the inestimable advantage of having as his uninvited guest the truly dangerous god Dionysus.
Jules Feiffer’s latest play, Elliot Loves, which ran recently at the Promenade Theatre, was directed by Mike Nichols. These two first collaborated in the theater almost thirty years ago. According to the program, Feiffer’s “first work for the theatre, The Explainers, a revue based on his cartoons, opened Playwrights at Second City in Chicago in 1961. Later that year, Mike Nichols, in his American directorial debut, directed a revised version called The World of Jules Feiffer in summer stock.” And there was and is a palpable community of sensibility between the two men. There is a certain 1950s tonality that comes at once to mind when one thinks of the great old Nichols-and-May routines and of the early Feiffer cartoons in the Voice: urban, Jewish, smart, Freudian, mother-fixated, relationship-thwarted, sexually frustrated, self-dramatizing, puckishly liberal, alienated . . . and funny. They were the imps of the Eisenhower years (falsely defamed, but that’s another story . . .). When the social consensus cracked in the 1960s, so did the critical voices of Nichols and May and Feiffer. The 1950s remain their golden years, ironically. In 1971, Feiffer wrote and Nichols directed the film Carnal Knowledge, a sour jeremiad about two guys who never, from college to the edge of male menopause, get the hang of women. Plus ça change. Welcome to Elliot Loves. It opens with a long monologue by Elliot, a Chicago gentile in his thirties who has found the perfect woman in the person of a divorced, mother-of-two real-estate broker who likes him. But . . . Elliot cannot cope with his happiness, cannot relate, cannot commit, cannot . . . love! So he whines a lot: “Look, I know I’m not unique in bed; mostly I try to please, and that’s still a mystery to me. I mean I’ve read all the books . . . . I have to admit I liked it better when it was repressed . . . . I don’t mean that AIDS is God’s judgment. It’s more my mother’s judgment . . . . I don’t have women friends. Never have. I was taught that women wouldn’t go to bed with men who were friends.” He fixates on his lover’s nervous use of the phrase “piece of cake” and vows to marry her if only she’ll stop using it.
So we see little has changed in Feiffer/ Nichols land from the late 1950s. Same anxieties; same obsessions; same defensive humorous strategies. (The sole new note is false. AIDS does not fit well into a dominantmother joke.) It’s comforting to sit through Elliot Loves; it’s like picking up a childhood classic—say, Little Women—and relishing its eternal innocence. The play develops little beyond the initial monologue. Elliot gets together with his best buddies: a black Playboy editor; an alcoholic who dreams of drinking with the great (“Can you imagine me peeing off a balcony with JFK? Teddy maybe, not Jack. Jack was a classy drunk. I’m more like Teddy.”); an embittered divorcé who now prefers his VCR to women (“The VCR is better. A chicken-and-pasta takeout. I open a brew, I rack up the VCR. No regrets, no recriminations, no consequences.”). This is funny stuff, but it amounts, formally, to little more than a string of stand-up turns. Wisps of plot drift about the evening: Will the guys call hookers? Will Joanna, Elliot’s lover, show up to meet the guys? But the play soon reverts to a more comfortable format in the final scene, which consists of a long telephone call between Elliot and Joanna. (Another phone call as dramatic closure. Symbol of alienation or of lazy dramaturgy? When Forster urged that we “only connect,” he wasn’t thinking of AT&T. The telephone is a hackneyed and sentimental device fit for melodrama or melodrama-mocking farce. Let serious playwrights imagine bolder stage images, better objective correlatives, for what they have in mind.) After much anguishing, Elliot sort of says he loves Joanna, and she sort of doesn’t say anything. It is not a scene, exactly; it’s an emotional situation. And the emotions on display are almost exclusively Elliot’s; Joanna is a remote character, held by the author at a respectful (ignorant?) distance. Joanna is, though, considerably enlivened by the warm, fluid grace of Christine Baranski’s playing, just as Anthony Heald’s earnest decency saves Elliot from the worst of the writing’s whining.
A bad habit of Feiffer’s, and of much recent writing in all fields, is characterization by brand name.
A bad habit of Feiffer’s, and of much recent writing in all fields, is characterization by brand name. In an early Feiffer play, a woman prated endlessly about New York stores. Here people refer to other plays to define themselves: the black man describes his relationship to his father by mentioning Fences; Joanna contrasts herself to the real-estate salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross. These tics are a shortcut to characterization, and a shortcut that quickly dates.
Mr. Nichols as director is a master at inducing the dappled play of emotions upon the waters of his actors. We feel the currents of humor, of anxiety, of anger like sheet lightning across his stages. But he needs a fully written, a roundedly good play to operate with. One remembers what he did in 1984 with Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, which was a rich and adult dramatization of the very complexities and seeming impossibilities of love that stay so undramatized here.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 1, on page 65
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