Letter from New York: The Dope on How We Cope, or, The Theater Cure




THE TEENAGE Heidi Schreck earned her college tuition in American Legion Halls, where she won oratorical contests on the subject of the US Constitution. Three decades later, she finds herself performing a similar task on Broadway in her autobiographical play What the Constitution Means to Me. “For some reason,” she says, her voice quivering for a comic nanosecond, “a few years ago I started thinking about the Constitution again.” We laugh, we are with her, we know what she’s saying. But where are we exactly? And what is she saying?

Attending 12 plays in 10 days, I wove through and around the human sardine-tin of Times Square at showtime, where a speeding bicyclist knocked the eyeglasses from my hand, leaving them shattered on the street. Not one to let a good metaphor go to waste, I would like to say that the theater restored my vision, or at least handed me a roadmap of our location, emotionally and psychically speaking — one that extended beyond Manhattan, the country, and the curve of time. I sat down with people to contemplate the troubles of King Lear, Tom Robinson, and Socrates, recalling that, though the common cruelties of the day may be unique, how people cope with them is not. I also thought a lot of the adage “grief shared is grief halved” and left each theater with my shoulders squared.

Blonde, tall, and 47, Heidi Schreck conveys a statue-of-liberty-like fortitude — when she strides across the stage, in imitation of her great-grandmother driving logs down a river, it’s clear she’s actually quite strong. Her play is half autobiography and half lecture; the presence of two other actors and a wee bit of audience participation helps lift the work halfway from a performance piece to a play. The headlines do the rest. Our founding document, Schreck reminds us, states that no person can be denied life, liberty, or property without due process, noting, “it uses the word person, not citizen.” She pauses, then: “Which means if you are an undocumented immigrant, you must be given all the protections of the due process clause. You cannot be locked up without a fair trial. You cannot have anything, or anyone, seized from you.” Her slight emphasis on “anyone” causes some of us to moan internally, while others do so out loud.

Schreck focuses on how the Constitution and our legal system fail women, particularly in cases of domestic violence, including within her own family. When her grandmother was too frightened to do it, Schreck’s mother, aged 15, testified against her own stepfather at his rape trial; he fathered two children by her mother’s older sister, Schreck’s aunt. Sentenced to 30 years, he served two. Among the broader statistics Schreck shares: every day three women are killed in this country by men who supposedly love them, one out of every three women will be sexually assaulted, one in four raped. She takes us through the case of Jessica Gonzales, whose new restraining order did not prevent her husband from kidnapping the couple’s three daughters one summer evening in 1999. In four increasingly frantic phone calls, Gonzales begged different members of the Castle Rock, Colorado, police department to track down her daughters, but they declined to do so. Their reasoning was that Gonzales’s now-estranged husband had had custody of the girls, ages 10, nine, and seven, in the past. Gonzales arrived at the police station around midnight, just hours before the girls’ bodies were found. Her husband had shot them with a gun he bought that same day, while they waited in the car (Schreck does not recount that detail). When Gonzales’s case against the police department went before the Supreme Court in 2006, she lost. Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion, and Schreck plays for us the audio of the Justice arguing that the word “shall” — as in the phrase “you shall use every reasonable means to enforce this restraining order” — does not mean “must.”

How are we possibly buoyed by this evening? Schreck’s writing abounds with humor and an energized clarity. And she wisely brings in a teenager with dazzling oratorical skill near the play’s end (this part, which could be billed as “the hope of the future,” is performed by three different young people on different nights). It also helps that Schreck performs at the Helen Hayes, Broadway’s smallest house, with only 597 jammed-together seats. When it opened in 1912, it was called the Little Theater, in homage to the idea (popularized by German director Max Reinhardt) that theater is most powerful in an intimate space. Of the 35 remaining Broadway theaters built before 1928, virtually all of them are the right size — 1,200 seats or less — for molecules to move in a way that allows numinous connections to occur. How many such connections occurred under these vaulted ceilings, faded frescos, and ornate moldings, their palettes a soothing combination of ivory, terra cotta, and gold (though the Helen Hayes is light blue)? These stages were built with the idea that there should be no bad seats, a democratic impulse made less comfortable over the years by expanding bodies and the demands of capitalism (the Little Theater started with 300 seats in the same space). In any case, the Helen Hayes is the perfect spot for this play, hospitable to Schreck’s thoughts and themes.

Schreck opens the evening saying that the constitution is “a living, warm-blooded, steamy document” — which of course is true of every worthwhile play witnessed by a breathing audience. The day I saw Constitution, a New Jersey judge was suspended for asking a woman seeking a restraining order against an assailant if she had closed her legs to prevent the attack. And so it goes.

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Hades:
Who do we call the enemy, my children, my children?
Who do we call the enemy?

Townsfolk (mechanically):
Who do we call the enemy?
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free.

Composer-lyricist Anaïs Mitchell is not a prophet. She wrote this song a decade ago, and it brings a hypnotic fatalism to her Hadestown, which opened last week at the Walter Kerr Theater. The musical merges the tales of two couples from myth, Orpheus and Eurydice, who dwell in Hadestown, and Hades and Persephone, who rule the realm of Hades (with Persephone going back and forth as she is wont to do). In Hadestown, work is hard to come by and a lot of people are poor and are cold, but when they party it is with the abandon of folks living on the edge of an abyss, in this case, the original abyss. The score is a lovely marriage of New Orleans jazz and mournful Irish love songs, with early Tom Waits as best man. Like What the Constitution Means to Me, Hadestown was produced multiple times before arriving now, at the right moment, as we navigate a moral landscape as broad and dichotomized as in a fable.

Persephone:
In the coldest time of year
Why is it so hot down here?
Hotter than a crucible
It ain’t right and it ain’t natural.

Again, not a prophet, and, yes the seasons are out of whack. It’s the fault of Hades, who, impatient for his wife’s company, comes to town early to fetch Persephone from her six-month sojourn on earth and thus throws the weather off. The giant foundry he’s built below ground, run by an army of slaves in leather overalls, doesn’t help either. In what is probably a career-defining performance for Patrick Page, Hades is the personification of absolute power and unlimited arrogance, his voice a seductive Lee Marvin growl, his movements as unhurried as the moon. He wears a tattoo of brick wall on his forearm and keeps his hair the color of his soul — steel.

Persephone, embodied by Amber Gray, hits Hadestown in the spring like a divorcée set free at Mar-a-Lago. Her dual existence as imprisoned queen/party girl has driven her to drink and to hate her husband. Their apparently once beautiful liaison is so strained that Hades goes in hunt of fresh prey, bringing the waif Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) to the underworld. When her love, the songwriter Orpheus (soulfully sung by Reeve Carney), looks up long enough from his compositions to notice she is gone, he is crushed and journeys to Hades to fetch her.

In Hadestown, the gods have more personality than the mortals, and why shouldn’t they? They are gods. Btw, the story is narrated by an unparalleled song-and-dance man, André De Shields, an icon of elegance, whose smallest gestures convey enormous knowledge and skill. He is Hermes, which we know by the gray wings on his stylish cuffs, and also because he tells us. He’s assisted and encircled by three diaphanously feminine fates who mingle with the characters and flow in and out, as fates will do in a Greek myth. Director Rachel Chavkin here refines the surround-sound theater experience she created for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Containing the ensemble’s movements to just a medium-sized proscenium stage, she conveys the bounty and diversity of a universe bursting with story. Her production invites your eye to roam and always rewards it for doing so.

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If #MeToo has emphasized the urgency of What the Constitution Means to Me, the movement has had an opposite effect on Lincoln Center Theater’s ravishing, pastel-colored My Fair Lady, the 1956 Lerner and Loewe musical based on G. B. Shaw’s Pygmalion. For Henry Higgins, the arrogant linguist whose misogyny in no way includes inappropriate touching, or any touching, time’s up. In 1956, tickets for this show were as hot as Hamilton in 2016, and Higgins was seen as an avatar for Shaw himself, a man who used his brilliance as a shield against what used to be called the opposite sex and their unsettling ways. A friend’s daughter, age 33, said she would skip My Fair Lady because she did not wish to see a show about a woman’s subjugation, just as last year I heard several people say they would skip a musical about a man who hits his wife, meaning Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. And, indeed, Higgins’s insults were met with soft gasps of disapproval at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, an audible discontent I’d not heard in my many visits to this show over the years, not even when I first saw this production a year ago.

As it happens, director Bartlett Sher has made a career of blowing dust off of classics like South Pacific, The King and I, and now My Fair Lady. He spotlights Eliza Doolittle’s decision to approach Higgins and keeps the focus on her feelings under his emotionally ungenerous tutelage. The director also cuts certain of Higgin’s harshest lines, such as this lyric from “A Hymn to Him”:

Why is thinking something women never do?
Why is logic never even tried?
Straight’ning up their hair is all they ever do
Why don’t they straighten up the mess that’s inside?

But Higgins remains Higgins, or there would be no play. He regularly refers to Eliza as some variation of a squashed cabbage leaf, a guttersnipe, or a brazen hussy. When he sings a little love ballad to himself, “I’m an Ordinary Man,” we are meant to laugh at his self-image, so far from our experience of him and yet, in its hubris, so right. “Just a very gentle man,” he croons, enraptured. A soft but distinct group guffaw erupted at his definition of “an ordinary man” as a person who lives “exactly as he likes” and does “precisely what he wants.” He is the poster boy for white privilege.

As Eliza comes into her own, her natural courage and strength surpasses Higgins’s, and, when she acquires poise, she also proves to be his intellectual equal. Eliza is now embodied by Laura Benanti, who is stunning in a classic, Vivien Leigh–type way (she regularly plays a pouty Melania Trump on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert). Harry Hadden-Paton is deft at the comedy of rattled confidence, and his Higgins undergoes more of a transformation than is traditional. Shaw himself believed that Eliza could not stay with Higgins, though audiences do not always agree. The musical is ambiguous on the subject. In the 1964 film ending, Audrey Hepburn smiles serenely as Rex Harrison demands, “Where the devil are my slippers?” before pulling his Harris Tweed hat over his eyes, on his lips a cat-got-the-canary grin.

In 2019, Higgins cannot retreat to his old ways, and yet doesn’t know what to do without them. Confronted by a reborn Eliza, Hadden-Paton’s Higgins seems to undergo an existential breakdown. He reaches for the words — “Where the devil are my slippers?” — but seems to be speaking phonetically, with no sense of their meaning. He is undone, unmoored, pinned to the spot. Eliza touches his face but her thoughts remain her own. Higgins watches her exit as regally as she came in, his mute bedevilment transforming, slowly, into the smile of a man discovering that the world is larger and better than he knew.

Defending classics during a time of canonical upheaval — Bartlett Sher may have this printed on a business card somewhere. He is at the helm also of this season’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which Aaron Sorkin adapted from Harper Lee’s novel. Like every playwright, Sorkin writes for his time, and his time demanded some changes to the book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 and was a staple of English classrooms for 30 years. Through the eyes of a young girl named Scout (played by adult actress Celia Keenan-Bolger), it tells the terrible tale of Tom Robinson, an African American accused of rape by a white teenager in a small Alabama town in the mid-1930s. Tom’s lawyer and Scout’s father, Atticus Finch (the redoubtable Jeff Daniels) lays out overwhelming proof of his client’s innocence. The all-white jury cannot acknowledge the real story right before them: that 19-year-old Mayella was beaten and raped by her own father, Bob Ewell, played by Frederick Weller less as a drunk and more as a lean zealot fit to lead Unite the Right.

The book was adapted for film by Horton Foote in 1962. An eloquent reflection on the idea of justice as seen through the eyes of a child, Mockingbird did not seem as germane after the racial violence of the late 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s the issue of assigning to schoolkids novels that make frequent use of the n-word, as well as the problem of the narrator and the author seeming to insufficiently condemn racist characters, meant that it started falling off syllabi.

Sorkin tries to accommodate these concerns while keeping the storytelling true to its time. To do that, he elevates two characters: Bob Ewell and Calpurnia, the maid in the Finch household (Finch’s sister is disappeared so that Calpurnia can be more active in raising the kids and in arguing with Atticus). Scout believes the relationship between her father and Calpurnia resembles her close one with her brother Jem (Will Pullen).

Sorkin’s earlier play A Few Good Men (1989) depicted the court martial of two marines who killed one of their own. He is a master of the courtroom drama, as the perfect first act of Mockingbird attests. Searing and heavy with inevitability, it pits the drama’s two most vulnerable characters, the doomed Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and his tiny, pale accuser Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi), whose only defensive tool is the one she’s learned — venal racism. The slim hope that she might have some humanity left in her keeps us riveted, no matter how many times we’ve seen the outcome.

This drama feels so huge and weighty that when the story shifts in act two to the Finch family and their mysterious neighbor Boo Radley, the play sags, its musings about morals and manners lacking urgency, until the attack on the children near the play’s end. Sorkin — and Sher — focus us on Atticus’s transformation, mostly taking place in an instant, from a by-the-book lawman into a co-conspirator in the cover-up of a murder. Atticus has grown and been radicalized, but not nearly far enough, and in the end Mockingbird becomes a story about two white lawmen who conspire to spare a guilty white man from the system that so spectacularly failed an innocent African American.

Sorkin sprinkles in a few contemporary signposts, as if we might miss the relevancy of Mockingbird to our own time. Bob Ewell looks like Timothy McVeigh and has the oratorical skill of a Richard Spencer or a Jordan Peterson; he’s engaged in a struggle to “ensure the existence of our race and our civilization.” Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) is also a more vocal presence, scolding Atticus when he instructs the children to be polite to the old lady next door who happens to be a virulent racist. When he insists on treating that lady with respect, Calpurnia reminds him that in doing so he disrespects others. Later, when the police shoot an African American fleeing from jail, Calpurnia demands to know how many times. “Five,” Atticus tell her. In the book the number is 17, but here it is five, the number of shots that killed Walter Scott (South Carolina, 2015) and Philando Castile (Minnesota, 2016). “Five times,” says Calpurnia, here eyes blazing at an audience who understands only too well.

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With able women in the top roles (Glenda Jackson as Lear, Jayne Houdyshell as Gloucester, and Ruth Wilson as the Fool), King Lear still turns out poorly for everyone. “Tis the times’ plague,” says Gloucester, “when madmen lead the blind,” and who are we to disagree? “When priests are more in word than matter,” prophesies the Fool, “And bawds and whores do churches build, then shall the realm of Albion come to great confusion.” Check.

Yes, we recognize this Kingdom, in which the head of state bows out to spend time carousing with sycophants, and the vacuum gets filled by the greedy and sadistic. Director Sam Gold frames the stage at the Cort in a dense and burnished gold (reminiscent of a flagship Trump Tower apartment featured in Vanity Fair) and dots the open set with chairs, a table, and two ceramic knickknacks that represent the kind of subjects who surround Lear, the faithful dog and the open-jawed lion. By the story’s catastrophic end, all the furniture is overturned, and a few dazed survivors remain. Albany observes:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Even as we know that the future may hold unparalleled destruction, it’s good to be reminded that our present calamities are not unique. And recognition almost always brings laughter — I particularly enjoyed Elizabeth Marvel’s Goneril, whose incredulity in the face of direct evidence of her venality reminded me of something — oh yes, it was this riveting video of Alex Jones defending his assertions that the killings at Sandy Hook were staged. Watch him try to fling off assertions that cling to him like electrostatic Styrofoam peanuts. There must be evolutionary advantage in studying the far reaches of human mendacity or it would not be so entertaining.

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Tim Blake Nelson, who you might remember as the title character in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and from other Coen Brothers’ films, has written a play about Socrates called Socrates, starring another Coen stalwart, the always good Michael Stuhlbarg, and a dozen men in togas. Nelson does not shy away from the philosopher’s personal defects, like his unbending nature or the fact that he is a terrible father and husband. In fact, Nelson seems intent on rescuing Mrs. Socrates, Xanthippe (the excellent Miriam A. Hyman), from history’s branding of her as a harridan, and he does. In 399 BC, the smartest man who had ever lived was a misogynist. He really pissed off the poet Meletus when the philosopher said the writer’s work appealed only to women, children, and slaves. Meletus is one of his three accusers.

Though Socrates is charged with corrupting the youth of Athens, his real crime is that he cannot hold his tongue when he hears men spout bullshit. He doesn’t get angry. He’s quite friendly about it, most of the time. He simply asks questions, and those questions do his work for him. Would this method work today? Journalist Isaac Chotiner demonstrates its absolute durability in this New Yorker interview with writer Bret Easton Ellis. With patience and timing, “Tell me what you meant” or “What did you think birtherism was” can unlock undercurrents that move history.

Questioning the leaders of Athens, Socrates found that those with the highest opinion of their own attributes were the most foolish. Clearly, he could not be allowed to go around pointing that out. And so, the worthies of Athens sentence Socrates to death, and he drinks the court-ordered hemlock among a nest of friends. In the end it came down to a vote of 220 for the philosopher, 280 against — imagine a divided Senate making the wrong choice for the wrong reasons, with consequences that reverberate for centuries.

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Laurie Winer is a longtime journalist who has been on staff at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. She is a founding editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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