September 21, 2019

"Wives" is a Tale Too Sketchily Told

Falling out of love is no fun. I fell hard for Jaclyn Backhaus and her audacious play Men on Boats when I saw it four years ago.  It cleverly reimagined the real-life Powell Expedition of 1869 with an ethnically diverse cast of female actors assuming the roles of the 10 white men who set out to chart a path through the Grand Canyon. It was a smart and funny meditation on gender and a reminder that the primary beneficiaries of America’s devotion to manifest destiny have almost always been white guys (click here to see my review). Like any besotted lover, I could hardly wait to see another work by Backhaus.

Alas, I now have. Three times.  And none have lived up to that initial thrill. Her Folk Wandering, a meandering musical whose book she wrote, over zealously tried to combine the stories of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the 1934 disappearance of the southwestern artist Everett Ruess and the 1955 death of the actor James Dean.  

Inspired by the playwright’s own Indian relatives, India Pale Ale focused on the intergenerational clashes between a family of Punjabi-Americans but collapsed into little more than a sitcom. And now comes the even more frustrating Wives, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons this week.

Wives is particularly disappointing because the description on the Playwrights Horizons website promised “remarkable stories of Great Men! — and their whiny, witchy, vapid, vengeful, jealous wives.” Which suggested a return to the subversive feminist territory of Men on Boats but quickly ran aground.

As Backhaus has noted in several interviews (click here to read one of them) she has knit together four different plays that she started over the past few years. The seams show. 

The obvious mission of Wives is to illustrate how circumstances have always forced women to become rivals or background players in the chronicles written by and about men. It wants to imagine how different things might have been if the women hadn’t had to filter their ambition through the males in their lives and instead could have become allies or at least to have controlled their own narratives.

It’s an appealing premise, particularly at this time when so much discussion about toxic masculinity is in the air. But the play is more a series of sketches than a cohesive argument.

A patchwork of locales and time periods, it opens with a scene set in the 16th century court of Henri II where loyalties are divided between his wife Catherine de’ Medici and his favorite mistress Diane de Poitiers. Then it skips to the 1960s where three of the novelist Ernest Hemingway’s four wives gather after his suicide to drink, dish and diss their shared spouse.

The remaining segments are set in a maharajah's palace in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan during the early 1920s and in an Oxbridge women's studies classroom in modern-day England. That’s a lot to cram into 80 minutes. A tighter focus on any one of these tales might have been more rewarding.

The real-life women Backhaus has chosen to highlight are worthy subjects but she gives so little information about each that it’s hard to appreciate or root for them. Instead we get cartoonish versions of who they were and the imagined resolutions to their problems ring false and improbable.  

Even worse, when stuck for a laugh, Backhaus throws in some anachronistic patter and a smattering of profanity (“u fakeass bitch, I know he loved me more than you,” her Diane de Poitiers tells Queen Catherine.)  

Director Margot Bordelon and her game four-member cast, particularly the increasingly invaluable Adina Verson (great every time I’ve seen her) do what they can to keep things hopping along, with supportive backup from Valérie Thérèse Bart’s witty costumes and Reid Thompson’s malleable set.

And there are entertaining moments. The opening scene in which Verson portrays a 16th century version of Julia Child was a crowd-pleaser the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show.  But it has little to do with the overall theme of Wives

At other moments, Backhaus resorts to telling (instead of showing) the points she wants to make. “I am told by the world that I do not exist but I stand here trying to see myself,” one character orates in the final section of the play. 

I suppose all this griping is making me sound lke a jilted lover but having once been so beguiled by Backhaus, this last disappointment really has left me kind of heartbroken.  

September 14, 2019

"American Moor" Confronts the White Gaze

Just about every theater company is wrestling with the questions of how to increase the diversity of their audiences and the representation on their stages. In the meantime, though, a growing number of black and brown theater makers are grappling directly with the white gaze that results from having predominantly white audiences view their work and mostly white arts administrators vet it.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview cleverly confronted its largely white audiences and won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And now American Moor, a meditation on how to interpret Shakespeare's Othello that played at the Wild Project five years ago, has returned in a Red Bull Theater production that is running at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Oct. 5.

I recognize that as a black woman, I'm probably not the target audience for these shows but they have caused me to think yet again about how complicated it can be to have these discussions about race. American Moor is written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb, an actor whose program bio suggests that he’s been most successful doing TV but who, he makes clear in this autobiographical show, has a longstanding love for Shakespeare.

Cobb, now 57, tells us that since his early acting days, he has yearned to play Hamlet, Romeo, Richard II, even A Midsummer Night Dream’s fairy queen Titania (click here to read more about the actor). But others have seen him differently.

Cobb’s tall, impressively chiseled physique (including cannonball-sized biceps); a resonant voice that reflects his classical training at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the fact that he is black have made casting agents and directors for Shakespeare productions want to cast him almost solely as Othello. This nearly one-man show pivots around the fact that their vision of the character often conflicts with his.

American Moor simulates an audition in which Cobb nervously prowls the stage before the show actually begins. Once it starts, he performs bits of Othello’s speeches as he tries out to play the Moor in a production helmed by a white director (Josh Tyson) who is embedded in the audience and full of ideas about how the part should be played. 

But most of the action takes place inside the auditioning actor’s mind as interior monologues that, aided by Alan C. Edwards' lighting and Christian Frederickson's soundscape, he delivers to the audience, comparing Othello’s life to his own and fuming about a young white guy telling an older black guy how to portray one of the most famous black guys in the theatrical canon.

Many of Cobb’s observations are insightful. He draw parallels between Othello and contemporary African-American achievers like Colin Powell and even Barack Obama, who simultaneously recognize their own strengths and that those strengths—be they physical or intellectual—may be seen as threats to the whites who surround them and who have expectations about the behavior of black men.

Meanwhile, the director wants Othello portrayed as an insecure man whose feelings of inadequacy and a compulsion to prove his manhood eventually boil over into murderous rage. It might seem a subtle difference but it’s a significant one: the tension between the way black people see themselves and the way white people, even well-meaning ones, see them.

Some critics, all of them white men, have complained that the actor’s response is out of proportion to what the director asks him to do. Having often been in similar situations myself, I understood what the actor was feeling. I just wish that Cobb had found a way to make his point more concisely. Instead under the direction of Kim Weild, who is, ironically, a white woman, he repeats the same arguments over and over, making the show’s 85 minutes seem far longer than they are.

Not that the audience seemed to mind. More integrated than is often the case for small off-Broadway shows, the audience at the performance my husband K and I attended was still majority white. And some of them seemed to be competing with one another to show how much they were in on the message that Cobb was trying to get across. The white woman seated behind me kept uh-huhing her approval as though she were at a church revival. Others leapt out of their seats to lead the curtain call.

It seemed to me as though they hadn’t really thought through what Cobb was saying, hadn’t fully considered whether they’d ever “othered” black or brown people themselves, hadn’t realized that Cobb might be describing their behavior. But I suppose I could be accused of the same kind of pigeonholing as I write here about them. As I said, talking about race is complicated.