In 1913, five years after he had moved to London, D. H. Lawrence was a schoolteacher in Croydon with two little-read novels and two unproduced plays to his credit. Turning further towards drama, he poured memories of life in coal country in Nottinghamshire and his socially mismatched parents’ dynamics into another play, The Daughter-in-Law, but it was never performed, nor even published, in his lifetime. That’s a shame. The play is plangent and finely drawn, a deeply imagined attempt to limn all of the interconnected woes of a life of Vicwardian poverty. The Mint Theater Company, which specializes in the neglected and the forgotten, staged a well-received New York debut in 2003 and revived the work at City Center Stage II in February and March this winter.
The playbill included a glossary that proved to be critical to comprehension: the entire play is written in a difficult, sometimes opaque East Midlands dialect, and the cast members speak in an accent that my ears found difficult to pierce, at least in the early going. (“Tha pleases thysen. Tha can sleep by thysen for iver, if ter’s a mind to’t.”)
Reading the play would be more challenging than seeing it performed, though. Gradually, the audience learns via context such words as “morm” (wander aimlessly) and “slorm” (flatter obsequiously) and “chunter” (grumble) and “butty” (supervisor of a small team of miners), and the purpose of the linguistic barrier becomes clear. Lawrence is walking us through a gate to force us to enter an alien world, one whose language is both ours and not. The maturity and depth of sympathy for his characters Lawrence evinces here is startling: he was twenty-eight. Later the same year he published Sons and Lovers.
Lawrence didn’t go in for frivolity, and so the play is a somber, even tortured affair, comparable to the most harrowing works of Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller. Joe Gascoyne (Ciaran Bowling), a jovial young miner with a broken right arm, settles down for supper in the modest but proud home of his widowed mum (Sandra Shipley) and reveals that, as the injury was suffered off-duty at the coal mine, he won’t be receiving any compensation for his misfortune. He isn’t particularly peevish about the situation, and Lawrence eschews pressing a point about the exploitation of workers in favor of honest portraiture of the kinds of people he knew in his hometown of Eastwood.
Attentions turn to clat-fart (gossip). Joe’s older brother, Luther, we learn, has made a life-altering error. Though married, he has impregnated his mistress (unseen in the play), and the girl’s aggrieved mother, Mrs. Purdy (Polly McKie), is coming around to seek a settlement. Forty pounds should do it, and the girl will agree not to shame Luther in public. These men earn seven shillings a day. Forty pounds means months of slaving. But there is a treasure chest to be clawed open: thanks to an inheritance, Luther’s wife brought £120 to the marriage, and Mrs. Gascoyne urges Mrs. Purdy to march right over to Luther’s house and obtain her due from Luther’s wife, Minnie, the titular figure.
Minnie is a sweet, gracious girl, but the Gascoynes don’t much like her: having inherited a decent sum, she has climbed a rung or two above the others, and they resent her for it. As written by Lawrence, and touchingly played by Amy Blackman, there is not an ounce of condescension in her. But she does have the air, and the accent, that indicate a little education, and she has scurried above manual labor to be a governess to the family of a widowed gentleman in Manchester. These things earn her suspicion, and the Gascoynes also take it amiss that she twice turned down her husband Luther’s wedding proposals. They finally wed when she proposed to him.
Staging the action in long scenes on a single set that, with some alterations of furniture, serves as both Mrs. Gascoyne’s house and the slightly more genteel residence of Luther and Minnie, who have accumulated such niceties as a tablecloth and a set of good china, the director Martin Platt and his excellent cast plunge us into a cold existence in which people are desperate without realizing it. Though there is much chuntering about shillings and pounds, Lawrence doesn’t suggest that woeful socioeconomic straits are the core problem. Instead, the push and pull between Luther, a charming, robust man, and the eager-to-please but put-upon Minnie illuminates how painful circumstances manifest in interpersonal toxicity.
Luther (Tom Coiner), who has no intention of rising above his station as a miner, is trying his best to deserve his dainty wife—he spreads a newspaper on the sofa before sitting on it—and she is determined to do her duty and make the marriage work. But when he has a few beers and lets slip his secret about the mistress and the financial settlement, the relationship threatens to dissolve. Minnie shouts, in a vengeance-minded moment, that she married Luther only “because I could get nobody better.” It’s a remark issued under stress, in a hot temper, but he knows it’s the truth.
In this and several other early works Lawrence sought to honor, or at least make sense of, his parents: his miner father was barely literate, his mother had been a teaching trainee, and the Lawrences were poor. Though the writer was closer to his mother, and deeply scarred by her death in 1910, Lawrence draws Luther generously. The sense that he doesn’t quite deserve his wife causes his unease: “I thowt tha despised me,” he says. She howls, in a devastating response, “You wouldn’t let me love you.” Two people are trying to make the best of a cramped and shabby life, and Lawrence creates a devastating portrait of their sorrow and endurance. The Daughter-in-Law eschews the cheap dramatic trickery, the melodramatic soliloquies, and (most of all) the self-pity of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, and it’s a far better play. It should be far better known.
Space Dogs (which closed last month after a brief run at the Robert W. Wilson mcc Theater Space) answers a question you might never have posed: how amusing would it be to watch two grown men play with stuffed animals for an hour and a half?
Not very: the two-man show is performed by its authors, the pals Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire, who begin the evening by tossing stuffed dogs into the audience and spend the rest of it exhibiting more enthusiasm than skill as they rip through a series of dull original songs about the chief designer of early Soviet rocketry and the various mutts he launched into the ether. In a typical example of the wit on offer, the most famous of the canines is introduced as “Like, uh, like, uh, Laika” while one performer wiggles the head of a stuffed dog. Hughes and Blaemire do everything—sing, act, do impressions, play musical instruments, and practically make themselves the audience’s lapdogs. Space Dogs has the frisky spirit of an undergraduate fringe show or cabaret act meant to be performed in front of a few friends. It’s far too amateurish to be at home in a substantial off-Broadway theater.
Hughes and Blaemire’s thin jokes and weak songs are plumped up by the director Ellie Heyman via a hectic application of lights, archival footage, and live video projections of the actors portraying, say, Nikita Khrushchev, or supplying the voices of dogs making friends in an all-female barracks at the Soviet space center, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Because all of the dogs selected for the Soviet program were female, the show describes the kennels as a “healthy lesbian community.”)
So much secrecy attended the program that the name of its chief designer, Sergei Korolev, was classified until a decade after his 1966 death. Plagued by ill health for years, he might emerge as a compelling character if the show were written with more depth than a really long sketch-comedy routine. As it is, the libretto is jocular without being amusing (a dog’s thoughts about being placed in a capsule, as verbalized by an actor holding a small plush toy, are, “No way! I’m not going in that thing again! Doesn’t look fun at all!”). The lyrics are, if anything, even worse: “I got an itch/ I’m society’s bitch.”
The show’s opening, in February, was poorly timed; the millennial actors lean heavily on a once-dominant comic cultural take that there was not much of a moral difference between the United States and the ussr during the Cold War because both sides were a bit silly and hysteria-driven. Us, them, what’s the difference? Nikita Khrushchev is portrayed as a harsh taskmaster instead of a murderous thug propagating a heinous ideology. Meanwhile, Hughes and Blaemire depict the American side of the rocket competition as trigger-happy yahoos in ten-gallon hats dressed as though competing in a campy televised professional-wrestling spectacle. Lyndon Johnson and Co. shout, “maga! maga!” when they realize the Russkis have edged ahead of them in the rocket wars.
On the night I saw the show, however, when Russian tanks were grinding mercilessly toward Kyiv and children in cancer hospitals were being forced out of their beds to hunker down in basements, the smirky comic dismissiveness about Russian militarism felt about as tasteful as portraying Bill Cosby as a lovable ladies’ man. The two actor-authors assure us in one of their asides that they’re Cold War buffs, but the libretto informs us that after 1945, a new war began but “only took place behind closed doors.” Oh, the Cold War was just a quiet chess match, eh? That’d be news to the thousands of people slaughtered and tens of millions immiserated by the Soviet regime in Europe alone. Did all of those people shot trying to breach the Berlin Wall die “behind closed doors,” or rather publicly? At the very least, you’d think millennials would revise their understanding of the various outrages of Russia now that we know Putin installed Donald Trump in the White House using Facebook memes.
English (which ran at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in February and March) is billed as a comedy about the struggles of four students and their teacher in Karam, Iran, in 2008. The adult students, who are getting ready to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language, are a likable, eager crew, while their teacher has certain regrets about her life choices. Everyone understands that they would be better off in the West because, well, this is Iran and the West is better. Not that you will hear anyone put it so forthrightly in the play.
The playwright, a Southern California–raised daughter of Iranian immigrants named Sanaz Toossi, is something of a hot ticket, under commission at Atlantic Theater Company, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Manhattan Theatre Club, South Coast Repertory, iama Theatre, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Judging by the strength of English, this enthusiasm is misplaced: the play is vanishingly slight. Are playwrights automatically interesting because they’re supposedly “marginalized” or “underrepresented”? And are they really to be considered pathetic figures when they grew up in one of the wealthiest enclaves on earth?
In a classroom presided over by a teacher named Marjan (Marjan Neshat) who spent nine years living in Manchester, England, where she was known as Mary, the four students gradually reveal what is at stake for each of them as they struggle to learn the new tongue. The entire play takes place in English, but in order to distinguish the two languages the characters deploy heavy accents when speaking their target language; when they sound like Americans, it means they have switched back to their native Farsi.
Roya (Pooya Mohseni) is a grandmother whose son lives in Canada and has insisted that only English be spoken in his home, so English is a bridge she needs to build back to her family. Omid (Hadi Tabbal), the only man in the classroom, is a bit of a cipher; he is already fluent in English (with good reason: the supposed big secret underlying the drama is that he grew up in the United States and holds an American passport, not that it makes much difference to the action, of which there is virtually none). Another student, Elham (Tala Ashe), lets slip that she has failed the toefl several times already before, but feels that she must keep trying because she needs certified fluency to attend medical school in Australia.
The play is exasperatingly slow and all but eventless; a mild flirtation springs up between Omid and the teacher, who take to watching Julia Roberts rom-coms together in English after class, but Toossi doesn’t bother to create any passion between the two, and so when nothing happens between them, we shrug. As for the other characters, Toossi dribbles out a few minor revelations here and there, none of much consequence, and, though the play is described as comedy, the playwright never comes up with anything close to a joke or a witty remark. The best she can offer is a few malapropisms for her tongue-tied characters, one of whom derisively refers to another as “Borat.” Long stretches of the play simply recreate the experience of being in an actual classroom; on several occasions, for instance, characters toss around a soft toy while taking turns coming up with English words in a given category: “Things found in a kitchen,” that sort of thing.
The play offers no subtext, no drama to speak of, and no laughs, merely a pedestrian lineup of characters doing ordinary things. In the second half of this interminable piece (which runs about a hundred minutes without intermission but had me checking my watch a dozen times), Toossi finally brings in some (slightly) interesting discussion of what it means to leave behind your mother country, and your mother tongue, but everything she has to say in this play could have fit neatly into a thousand-word personal essay about the immigrant experience. English is such a wounded duckling of a play that it’s hard to believe it is being produced by a major off-Broadway institution such as the Atlantic Theater Company. Toossi recently mused, in an interview with TheNew York Times, “there’s always the worry that I am in the person-of-color slot in a season. It starts to feel a little icky.” Those who parted with their cash, and two hours of their lives, to stand witness to her limp offering might feel worse than icky.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 8, on page 55
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