Theater October 2019
West End diary
On Bitter Wheat at the Garrick Theatre, The Son at the Duke of York’s Theatre, and A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic.
Aspects of the Harvey Weinstein story are grotesque and disturbing. But other aspects are simply funny. Consider the mea culpa Weinstein issued two years ago when he was first accused of sexual misconduct by many women: He asked us to consider that times had changed since he started out. He quoted the rapper Jay-Z. Then he started talking about his anger. He was angry he’d been caught:
I am going to need a place to channel that anger, so I’ve decided that I’m going to give the nra my full attention. I hope Wayne LaPierre will enjoy his retirement party. I’m going to do it at the same place I had my Bar Mitzvah. I’m making a movie about our President, perhaps we can make it a joint retirement party. One year ago, I began organizing a $5 million foundation to give scholarships to women directors at usc. While this might seem coincidental, it has been in the works for a year. It will be named after my mom, and I won’t disappoint her.
David Mamet’s brilliant satire Bitter Wheat is an entire play of a Weinstein stand-in named Barney Fein sounding like that—a self-pitying idiot frantically trying to avoid censure by reminding us that he’s liberal, Jewish, rich, and has a mother. He’s also quite the feminist, need he remind us? Think of all the scholarships for women he, er, got other people to pay for. He hardly needed to add that he was also a major fundraiser for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, having hosted parties at which the price of admission was a large check. Some would prefer that we forget all this, but Mamet hasn’t. Nor has he forgotten that this Lothario needed chemical assistance to aid his depredations: assistants told stories of Weinstein getting mysterious injections and fueling up with Viagra. He wasn’t merely a disgusting lecher, he was a comical one.
Directed as well as written by Mamet, Bitter Wheat—which closed in September after a four-month run at London’s Garrick Theatre and awaits its New York premiere—is very nearly perfection, cutting and hilarious and mordant. It’s a breathtaking vivisection of not just Weinstein but everything Weinstein represents. Producers should bring it to this side of the Atlantic without changing a thing. It takes a great artist to find a breathtakingly novel approach to a story that is so deeply entrenched in the culture, and Mamet has not only done that but has come up with his funniest and most entertaining play in many years.
Critics mostly seemed outraged, though. Two years after Weinstein’s offenses first began to be revealed in a series of news reports, the accepted range of reactions is a narrow one. We are meant to be angry about what Weinstein and others like him did, then aver that we think women who tell stories about the sexual misbehavior of men should automatically be believed, then pivot to the agreed-upon antidote, which is a massive affirmative action program for Hollywood women and a concurrent purge of anyone tainted with a hint of bad behavior. David Mamet, being averse to cliché, isn’t interested in any of this.
Since Mamet can be brutal, as in his 1992 sexual-harassment play, Oleanna, a sharp intake of breath came with the news that he was writing about Weinstein. It’s a relief to report that Bitter Wheat depicts no sexual violence at all. Rape isn’t funny, and Fein, the Weinstein-like producer robustly played with a kind of rageful focus by John Malkovich, doesn’t lay a hand on a woman in the play. The character Mamet creates, and Malkovich portrays, is inspired by the pitiful Weinstein, not the gruesome one. For each of the cases in which the film mogul allegedly attacked women, there were apparently many others in which he begged them like a dog, asserting his importance, promising them film roles, trying to be their best friend, or, if all else failed, lamenting that no one could ever love him because he’s fat.
At the outset of the play, Fein is berating a forlorn screenwriter who has evidently poured all of his heart into a script that is far too subtle for Fein’s tastes. Fein reminds the writer that he is contractually obligated to do a rewrite since he has been paid $200,000 for his services. When the writer objects that he has in fact been paid nothing, Fein changes his story instantly. His lawyers advised him not to pay, he claims, because then he would have been a party to fraud for paying for such an obviously unusable script.
We’re meant to find all of this irrational rage and free-ranging cruelty amusing because, after all, the writers are beta males and Hollywood producers are titans. “Let’s count houses. I have five,” says Fein. Then Mamet springs the trap: the amusing status quo in Hollywood is considerably more disturbing when the other person in the room with the mogul is a delicate, unspoiled young beauty. Mamet himself must have been on the receiving end of abuse from producers like Weinstein on many occasions and concluded that anyone who behaves so dishonorably in his professional capacity wouldn’t hesitate to use the same bullying tactics in a more personal context. So it is with Fein. The bulk of the play consists of Fein’s increasingly ludicrous efforts to lure a British-Korean starlet (Ioanna Kimbook) into bed. He promises to make her a star if she’ll sleep with him. Is that not a possibility? Well, then, he promises to stop her from becoming a star if she won’t sleep with him. Still she refuses. Well, then, how about if she just watches him take a shower? No sale.
All of this takes place within the madcap whirl of a number of other schemes Fein is trying to enact with the aid of his deadpan assistant (Doon Mackichan). There’s a board meeting at which Fein’s mother is meant to preside as chairman, but her health is failing and in order to prop her up Fein calls in a doctor to give her illegal injections. It’s also his mother’s birthday, meaning he has to arrange some sort of gift, plus he’s preparing humbly to accept yet another award for his human-rights work. He needs a speech that doesn’t sound like a speech, since he is supposed to be unaware that the award is about to be bestowed on him. Meanwhile he continues to weigh important Oscar-scented scripts about veganism and civil rights even as he keeps up with such worthy causes as a foundation for illegal immigrants.
Though his business is apparently to make saccharine liberal message movies for the purpose of lining his trophy case at other people’s expense, when he asks the assistant what purpose his company really serves, she is baffled. “Money laundering,” Malkovich says, impeccably emphasizing all syllables, as though addressing the mentally challenged. The savvy audience member can hardly help laughing, given that Weinstein, contra his reputation as a shrewd filmmaker, mostly produced flops that kept him forever on the hunt for fresh sources of capital. Even his successes were mostly dreck like Chocolat, The Reader, and Silver Linings Playbook that were custom-designed to flatter the sensibilities of Academy Awards voters.
Malkovich, who wears a fat suit that shapes him into something resembling a beach ball, keeps getting stuck in his chair or stranded on his back like an immense turtle as he plots and glowers and harangues, knowing that he can get away with almost anything as long as he keeps producing movies that make liberals swoon. His Weinstein doppelgänger is not just a sex pest but the hilarious incarnation of all of Hollywood’s virtue-signaling hypocrisy, its self-congratulation for all the subjects of its preaching that it fails spectacularly to practice. Of course the critics hate Bitter Wheat; they wanted to boo the villain of the month, not have their own tastes and ideals lampooned. But they can’t say that. Instead they’ve been calling Mamet lazy. Lazy has become critical shorthand for “striking targets I think should not be hit.”
Just around the corner in London, The Son (the Duke of York’s Theatre through November 2) completes a trilogy of plays by the Frenchman Florian Zeller. The best of these, The Father (which played in the West End in 2015 then on Broadway the following year), was a devastating exploration of age-related dementia portrayed from the viewpoint of a sufferer brilliantly played by Frank Langella. An unrelated family story, The Mother, starred Isabelle Huppert as an exasperating old bat refusing to let go of her youth, rowing with her husband, and flirting increasingly pathetically with her own grown son. It debuted off-Broadway last winter and was poorly reviewed. Exploring the travails of a third family, The Son is much less abstract than the other two, which broke the consciousness of their protagonists into jagged shards and often elided the distinction between reality and imagination. This one plays like an extended episode of a television drama about a disturbed teen boy. How disturbed? Early on, after the teen in question, Nicolas (played by a twenty-five-year-old actor named Laurie Kynaston), has been raging about a pristine white room, scribbling on the walls with a black marker and hurling objects all over the space while others in the cast remain oblivious to his actions, his mother says she fears something bad is going to happen. At that point the entire trajectory of the play came clearly into view. I did a lot of checking my watch while I waited for things to play out exactly as expected.
The teen boy is depressed and has been cutting his own forearms. His father, Pierre (John Light), has left his mother, Anne (Amanda Abbington), and is raising a newborn with a new girlfriend, Sofia (Amaka Okafor). The entire play consists of scenes of Nicolas being anguished while everyone flutters around trying haplessly to rescue him from his depression. I couldn’t see the point of any of it. Did anyone come into the theater not knowing that teens can fall into suicidal despair?
Two people close to me have made it clear that from their point of view my principal duty as a critic is to tip them off when a story is about a child in deadly peril so that they may avoid such calculated tear-jerking. The people who create plays and books and movies along these lines are always quite coy about it, but a huge red sticker that says “warning: kid may die in this” seems appropriate. Such narratives usually strike me as a bit hollow: Why, yes, for a child to die is really horrible, you are absolutely correct. Was there anything else you wished to say? If not, why bother? These children-in-peril dramas tend to feel tawdry and exploitative, as though playwrights confusing misery and profundity simply reached for the bluntest possible instruments with which to make the audience cry. I didn’t cry; such transparent hackery simply makes me impatient.
Just as some diners seek the all-you-can-eat buffet, a certain kind of theatergoer ventures forth in search of quantity of theatrical experience. To such an audience Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison offers a whopping, indeed groaning, evening of theater on the South Bank of the Thames (the Old Vic through October 5).
A former Russian spy turned British refugee in London, Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in slow motion between November 1 and November 23 of 2006. It took doctors a number of days to figure out the source of his illness—he had ingested a massive dose of Polonium, a radioactive substance that could have come only from a single nuclear reactor in Russia—but before he expired he helped the police solve the mystery of his murder. Not that it did him much good; the two men who poisoned his tea at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair had long since returned to Russia, which to this day is disinclined to extradite them. Both governments proved less than eager to pursue the matter. Luke Harding’s exhaustive book documenting Litvinenko’s life, written with the aid of his widow, Marina, is the source of a longish play by Prebble, who tells the story via physical comedy, folk tale, musical numbers, animation, and other forms of digression from the central mystery. The set changes are many; the props are colorful. We get an eyeful of a six-foot-tall bronze penis that was a centerpiece of the dance floor of the London nightclub where Litvinenko’s two assassins went in search of a good time. One minute Litvinenko (Tom Brooke) is suffering in his hospital bed; the next, three actors in evening dress dance with six life-sized puppets to the tune of Fleetwood Mac’s pop tune “Everywhere.” Apparently either Prebble or the director, John Crowley, thought it would liven up the evening’s murder and thuggery. At any rate, the audience seemed to enjoy the spectacle.
Amid all of the buffoonery, the sudden shifts to earnestness strike me as discordant, especially when MyAnna Buring, the actress playing the widow Litvinenko, breaks character to ask audience members to bear witness by reading portions of a London judge’s ruling on the matter, which arrived only in 2016 and only after considerable pushing on her part. It’s affecting that Marina lost her husband and must live with the certainty that his killers will never be brought to justice, but it seems odd to beg the audience’s sorrow in what is essentially a broad comedy. Vladimir Putin almost certainly knew about the murder and may well have ordered it, but, as played by Reece Shearsmith, Putin (whose name goes unmentioned until the last few minutes) is charismatic and amusing, spending the second act watching the play from the balcony heckling the cast, telling the audience “the only crime here is charging four pounds for a program” and casting doubt on Marina’s version of events. I could have forgiven a lot if the play had made me laugh. It rarely did, possibly because I was never unaware of how much effort was being made. I had the sense I was in a slightly desperate varsity revue.
Litvinenko’s gruesome death may have shocked the world at the time, but it becomes considerably less shocking when the details are brought forth. A longtime burr in Putin’s saddle who essentially became a traitor to Russian security forces (fsb), Litvinenko evidently made the mistake of thinking that when you sign up for the fsb, you’re allowed to let your personal sense of morality be your guide. In an early scene, he is seen declining to participate in the assassination of the tycoon Boris Berezovsky (Peter Polycarpou). “It is illegal, and also wrong,” he declares. Litvinenko was kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured for going public about this plot, and he would have been wise to get as far away from Russian thugs as possible. Instead, after winning asylum with his wife and son in the United Kingdom, he continued publicly to oppose and denounce the Putin regime while working with MI6. A fellow Russian warned him in 2002 that he was the target of an assassination scheme, but Litvinenko kept at it, going so far as to blame Russia for the July 7, 2005 Islamist terror bombings in London. The British government’s foot-dragging on the matter seems like a case of treating the Russian government and everyone who has worked for it as a kind of mafia: murders that take place within it are a grim but predictable reality.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 2, on page 44
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