The mess onstage at the Delacorte Theater this August is almost as imposing as the mess of the Thirty Years’ War it depicts, or the mess of the Middle Eastern war to which it refers a little too explicitly. Mother Courage may or may not be the greatest play of the twentieth century, as the Public Theater’s Artistic Director, Oscar Eustis, claims at several points in his program notes, but it is certainly one of the hardest to produce effectively; even Brecht admitted this. George C. Wolfe, the most overrated director in the American theater, has responded to Brecht’s calls for an “epic” theater by creating something epically bad.
“This year, we are at war,” Eustis writes; “in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in a vaguely defined war on terror. Both of the productions in the park this summer (Macbeth and Mother Courage) speak to a country and a world at war; both create opportunities for thrilling dialogue about the state of our nation.” With this mandate in mind, Tony Kushner has come up with a new translation of Brecht’s masterpiece that positively resonates with un-Brechtian rhetorical blatancy.
Mother Courage, which deals with the tragic comeuppance of a small-time war profiteer, was set during the Thirty Years’ War and written on the eve of World War II. Its unsparing depiction of the human cost of large-scale or “total” war is universally applicable, and its parallels with the current situation—profiteering, “reconstruction,” unscrupulous military recruiters—are only too obvious; there is no need whatever to hammer them home to a New York audience. But Wolfe has his actors milk every comparison shamelessly, smirking and all but winking at the audience, flattering its collective ego by presenting the whole play as a sort of risqué in-joke. And the audience (which perhaps could use a little flattery after having spent seven or more hours in line for tickets) plays along, giggling knowingly right on cue.
If this audience seemed unusually idiotic —the kind of group that laughs delightedly when a dirty word is uttered onstage —this is perhaps because it came to see a movie star rather than a play. Meryl Streep, a genuine screen goddess, is seldom seen on stage any more, and this is indeed a good opportunity to check her out. Undoubtedly one of our finest actresses, she is by no means always good—sometimes, as with Out of Africa and The Hours, she simply relies on stock facial expressions: soulful, radiant, beatific, whatever. But never, so far as I know, has she been really terrible as she is in this production.
Not that it is all her fault. In directing Streep, George C. Wolfe has made the stupidest blunder in the book: he has mistaken busyness for energy. Working under this delusion, he has given his star so much unnecessary stage business that she can’t possibly have time for thinking, and without thought there can be no felt emotion. The actress functions as a sort of one-woman band: she runs around the stage, juts her body out in mannered postures, shoves her hapless children this way and that, delivers Kushner’s cheesy gag-lines at patter speed, and when all other invention fails, schleps her everlasting cart from one side of the stage to the other. (Surely Brecht has created, with Mother Courage’s cart, the most cumbersome stage prop in history.) Especially irritating is the corny stage pose Streep assumes whenever she remembers to: a four-square stance, feet spread on the earth, hands on hips, shoulders back, the plucky little woman taking on the big bad world.
Streep achieves only two or three moments of genuine emotion during this apparently endless evening, and each of them comes at a moment of relative peace on stage, with Courage still for a moment and free, for once, of mannerisms. Then we get a quick glimpse of Streep’s customary intelligence, so conspicuously missing during the rest of this frenzied performance. Otherwise it’s all carnival barking and tap dancing, screeching and yelling, and when Streep wishes to heighten a particular moment her usual method is simply to ratchet up the volume. (The fact that the actors are earsplittingly overmiked doesn’t enhance the subtlety of the piece.) The apotheosis of Wolfe and Streep’s concept of Mother Courage comes at the close of the first act, with Streep’s performance of “The Song of the Great Capitulation.” The great words and the great actress, enhanced by Jeanine Tesori’s serviceable melody, are apparently not enough, and the hapless Streep is compelled to punctuate each line of the song with violent bodily gestures, jumps through the air, flailing acrobatics. At one point she even gets down and wallows in the sand that surrounds the thrust stage; the rain the night I was there turned the sand to sludge and made this desperate bid for attention rather poignant and pitiful.
Other performances, while not very good, at least lack Streep’s epic awfulness. Austin Pendleton plays the Pastor with a borscht-belt touch of drollness; it is not particularly appropriate to the play, but at least he doesn’t try to match Streep’s mania. The usually charismatic Kevin Kline, as the Cook, seems hardly to be there at all; maybe he is pretending he’s not. As the prostitute Yvette, Jennifer Lewis gives the most accomplished performance and has a glorious singing voice, but stylistically she is, like Pendleton, rather out of sync. But then the entire production lacks a unifying style. The costume designer Marina Draghici has dressed the various characters in military outfits from different eras—World War I officers, World War II privates, swashbuckling cavalry men from the Franco-Prussian War—too obviously a “concept” to be really effective.
Unfortunately, the acting styles are as various, and as discordant, as the costumes. This production—especially Streep’s overamped performance—emphasizes the aspect of the play that dissatisfied Brecht himself: Courage’s emotional appeal to the audience. Brecht conceived the character as a villain and was disgusted when his audiences identified with her:
Numerous discussions with members of the audience and many notices in the press show that many people regard Mother Courage merely as the representative of “the little people,” who are “involved” in the war and “who can’t do anything about it,” who are helplessly at the mercy of events, etc. A deeply ingrained habit induces the audience in the theater to pick out the more emotional aspects of the characters and to ignore the rest.
The habit is no less deeply ingrained now than it was in Brecht’s day, and Wolfe and his company have done a disservice by pandering to it.
A. R. Gurney, skillful, intelligent, and restrained, has become possibly the most prolific playwright in America. The sheer volume of his output, as well as the easy accessibility of his writing and the narrow, privileged social range he depicts (upper-middle-class WASPdom) has made people take him not quite seriously. The problems of the rich, genuine as they might be, are faintly ridiculous to lots of folks, and an essential gentleness in Gurney’s approach can take the edge off of his plots. As a friend of mine (a provincial WASP, like Gurney) commented, “He gives us a little slap on the wrist in the second act, but then lets us off in the end.”
But this is not true, I think, of his latest play, Indian Blood, which recently appeared under the auspices of Primary Stages. Reviews of the play have unaccountably described it as a light comedy, a charming valentine to a vanished world (1940s Buffalo). Perhaps they are reminiscing about some previous Gurney confections. The play I saw, while certainly both funny and nostalgic, is essentially a grim, sad portrait of a mismatched family whose members take refuge in humor, not out of joie de vivre but because humor helps us to resign ourselves to unsatisfactory and unfulfilled lives.
Gurney reminds us of Our Town with his play’s minimalist production values; he even makes specific reference to Wilder’s play in the text, adding a few caustic remarks about how the current cost of scenery, actors, and other theatrical ingredients has necessitated such a style. But Indian Blood is really more reminiscent of two Neil Simon plays. Its structure and tone recall Brighton Beach Memoirs, with the family life presented to the audience through the narration of a teenage boy on the verge of adulthood. The fresh-faced actor portraying Eddie, Charles Socarides, even bears a more than superficial resemblence to the young Matthew Broderick. But Indian Blood also recalls Simon’s darker play, Lost in Yonkers, with its controlling matriarch and the children and grandchildren who seem unable to escape her malevolent thrall.
In this case, the matriarch, Eddie’s grandmother, is played by Pamela Payton-Wright. She looks harmless enough: powder, pastels, pink-and-white complexion. But her wish to control and her need for homage and attention has enslaved her family. Her husband, played by the wonderful John McMartin, is too wily a fox to give in to her; a man of easy authority, he has developed clever coping mechanisms. But her sons are pure victims. The middle-aged Paul (Matthew Arkin), who lives with his parents, is what used to be known as a “confirmed bachelor.” His brother Harvey, Eddie’s father (Jack Gilpin) has been emasculated and emotionally stunted; the greatest part of his energy goes into an endless and fruitless quest for his mother’s approval. Harvey’s wife Jane (Rebecca Luker), who misses no emotional nuance within her husband’s family, is saddened by Harvey’s bondage but not, at the outset of the play, quite resigned to it. “Grin and bear it,” she advises Eddie when he complains about the atmosphere at his grandparents’ house. “Which is what I do when I’m there. And here, too, sometimes.”
Gurney and his fine director, Mark Lamos, have assembled a dream cast. McMartin dominates the scene as the humorous, attractive grandfather. Jack Gilpin personifies the look and sound of Gurney’s world and has appeared in eight of the author’s plays; his performance as the young protagonist in The Middle Ages (1982) was especially memorable. His Harvey is simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating: by the end of the play we realize, somewhat to our surprise, that he has the brain and the sense to understand his position, which only makes his failure to assert himself and to be a proper husband and father more sad.
Rebecca Luker, a beautiful lyric soprano who has played leading roles in several Broadway musicals, is a surprising but inspired choice for Jane. Her gentle, and genteel, demeanor might have kept her from major stardom on the musical stage, but these traits combined with a gift for quiet irony make her a perfect Gurney heroine, and her expressive but economical body language tells us a great deal about the character’s inner life. The only false note in the cast is struck by Payton-Wright, who doesn’t seem to get to the essence of her admittedly demanding role. When we come to understand the grandmother’s nature, it is thanks to Gurney’s dialogue and not to Payton-Wright’s unrevealing performance. The scenery, by John Arnone, is an attractive, vaguely classical white frame; it functions equally well as the grandparents’ dining room, Harvey and Jane’s living room, and Eddie’s Latin classroom—and even has a vague look of Uncle Paul’s beloved steam room.
Accusations of sentimentality on Gurney’s part are understandable, but, in this case, unfounded. The world Gurney portrays, the mid-1940s of his youth, has now retreated so far into the past that we can love its beauties—the decorous manners and unhurried pace, the lovely elm trees along the streets—without having to endure its discontents, such as the era’s knee-jerk anti-Semitism and the sort of unreflecting prejudice that warped lives like Uncle Paul’s. While Gurney clearly feels love for his characters, this is not an affectionate family portrait. The bright, questioning Eddie, we know, will get away from all this—and a good thing, too.
Kiki and Herb, a.k.a. Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman, have been performing their edgy, demented lounge act for several years; aside from their usual venues in downtown clubs, they have appeared at the Westbeth (Kiki & Herb: There’s a Stranger in the Manger, 2001), the Cherry Lane (Kiki & Herb: Coup de Théâtre, 2003), and in a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert (Kiki & Herb Will Die for You, 2004). In other words, they have been slowly working their way toward a Broadway run. This apotheosis has finally come to pass at the Helen Hayes Theater, with Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway.
Justin Bond has described the birth of Kiki, which took place in a gay club more than a decade ago, thus: “I was in a really bitter mood and got stoned and started drawing lines on my face. I was like, If these fags want a bitter bitchy queen, I’ll give them a bitter bitchy queen.” He soon persuaded his friend Mellman, a master of pop piano, to join the act as Kiki’s partner, Herb. The result was a seedy, septuagenarian duo, with obvious greasepaint wrinkles and outrageous lounge clothes—an extreme version of Steve and Eydie.
Where Kiki and Herb excel, becoming more than just another drag act, is in their creative choice of music and their sometimes insane reworking of their chosen material. A few of the titles: “Same Old Lang Syne” (Dan Fogelberg), the nauseously sentimental “Someone’s House Always Burns at Christmas” (Benjamin Smoke), and “Forever Young” (Alphaville). I assumed that “First Day of My Life” (Bright Eyes), which I had not heard before, was created especially for the act, because literally every line was an idiotic cliché (“Yours is the first face that I saw/ I think I was blind before I met you/ Now I don’t know where I am/ I don’t know where I’ve been/ But I know where I want to go,” etc. etc.) But no, it is all in earnest. Kiki and Herb have dug up an endless supply of this dreck, which Kiki sings with loving gusto. The height of the evening was the really gloriously awful “One Tin Soldier,” which again I assumed was made up but which, my companion reminded me, had been a popular antiwar song in the late 1960s.
As performers, Kiki and Herb have fun with this stuff. Kiki has perfected every kitsch vocalization in the book, and every kitsch movement as well; Bond has clearly made a close study of his fellow chanteuses. His port de bras is as masterful, in its fashion, as Darci Kistler’s. But Kiki overplays her hand too often; she flourishes the Canadian Club bottle too often, overdoes the drunkenness, sings too long and too hard. Herb, however, turns in a performance that is close to genius: never, ever breaking character, he morphs flawlessly from flashing soulful moues at the audience to performing inspired pianistic acrobatics à la Elton John or Jerry Lee Lewis.
The problem with all this is that it is still a club act, not a Broadway show. What would have been great for an hour and a half palls after two hours and twenty minutes; there is no shape to the material, no arc, no movement. Worse, there is very little substance, apart from some standard, predictable political jibes and comments. Not that one necessarily looks to drag for substance over style, but in a show that lasts an entire evening there ought to be some of this. Justin Bond apparently abandoned the legitimate theater because he had a hard time working with directors. That is too bad, because Kiki and Herb need a director very, very badly.
Outrageous? Or just silly? Politically incorrect—or politically correct? Are Kiki and Herb really transgressive, or do they actually fulfill current clichés and tell us what we want to hear? Bond and Mellman told Time Out New York that their show would feature “political content far more pointed than the usual Broadway pabulum, on such subjects as religion and gay marriage,” and that its agenda of “queer visibility” would be “a bit more radical than what you see on television.” Only it’s not. I greatly enjoyed the show’s musical antics, but kept waiting for something truly clever, or truly subversive, to come up in Kiki’s monologue. That never happened.
Shout! The Mod Musical is a little piece of fluff that had a hit in England and has just come over to the U.S. An economical, unpretentious revue of popular tunes from the 1960s, it packs an unexpected punch with its lineup of memorable hits. It is often instructive to revisit an earlier period of one’s own life, and if Kiki and Herb’s rendition of “One Tin Soldier” reminded me how godawful a certain type of 1960s music was, Shout! made me realize how great another type was. Great?—dare one use that word about bubblegum music sung by girls in gogo boots and bouffant hairdos? Well, maybe. Shout features rousing renditions of such classics as “I Know a Place,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” “Downtown,” and “Goldfinger,” among many others.
The connective material, with which a feeble attempt is made to provide a story, is predictably silly but mercifully sparse. Philip George and David Lowenstein, who have created the show, have wisely cast five girls who are powerful belters, and the rather minimal orchestra has achieved good approximations of the songs’ original orchestrations; David Gallo’s scenery and Philip Heckman’s costumes manage to reproduce the psychedelic look without being condescending or even producing particularly ugly results. Shout! is infinitely preferable to some other shows to which one might take visiting relatives or in-laws, Phantom, Mamma Mia!, the soon-to-be-resuscitated Les Miz, or The Fantasticks. Only the most exigent highbrow will fail to respond to its easy charm.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 2, on page 34
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