Saturday, December 6, 2008

They Can't Get No Satisfaction

Several years ago I butted heads with a particularly obnoxious client who, when it became obvious that he was not going to get the results he wanted, demanded to know "Whatever happened to the customer always being right?"

"In this case, the customer is wrong," I replied.  

Customer satisfaction is an ongoing source of perceived misery in our culture.  For consumers, there is often the feeling that they are either intentionally being ripped off or that their needs are not being met due to a vendor's blatant negligence or malice aforethought. For vendors, there is often the nagging sensation that unless the customer leaves with a smile on his face -- no matter what the ultimate cost may be to the vendor -- the situation has not been satisfactorily resolved.

Satisfaction is a curious phenomenon.  In the 1960s, one form of rebellion against the status quo after another shook this nation's collective psyche.  After the idyllic, whitewashed vision of American family life popularized by 1950s television sitcoms such as I Love Lucy, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, and Leave It To Beaver began to deteriorate, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, rock 'n' roll and the drug revolution converged to dramatically alter perceptions about what life should be like and what kinds of satisfaction our popular American culture should bring to the living.

The counterculture movement had lots of branches.  When the Hippies landed on the Broadway stage in the Public Theater's production of Hair, it was a revolutionary moment in American theater. After the Yippies (including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin) rocked the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, national politics had to deal with new and radically different styles of confrontation.

Many songwriters and rock'n' roll artists criticized our obsession with commercialism.  In fact, one of the most famous songs of the Sixties (created by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1965 for The Rolling Stones) was (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction -- which went on to become one of the greatest hits of all time.

A dramatic voice which grabbed American culture by the throat and never let go was a young playright named Edward Albee (who will be appearing "in conversation" with Berkeley Rep's artistic director, Tony Taccone, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Monday, February 9).  San Francisco's Boxcar Theatre -- which specializes in intimate productions of relevant theatrical works -- recently decided to mount one of Albee's earliest hits, The American Dream, in a decidedly novel way: by staging it in living rooms around the Bay area.

First produced in January 1961, The American Dream offers strong hints of what was to rock Broadway the following year with the premiere of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  There is a dysfunctional family with a bitter, shrewish, domineering wife (Sondra Putnam as Mommy) and an emasculated, doltish husband (Donald Currie as Daddy).  Together, they have shared a lifetime of seething suburban discontent without any understanding of the kind of payoff that is supposed to result from a blind allegiance to conformity.  

Upon discovering that they were unable to conceive a child, they purchased one from an adoption agency.  Alas, that child didn't live up to expectations.  He "came up short."  He "sat on his hands."  After his mysterious death by various amputations and disembowelments, Mommy and Daddy decided to have someone from the agency visit them to make things right -- so that they could get the satisfaction they felt they deserved as consumers.

When a mysterious guest (Anne Hallinan's lusty Mrs. Barker) arrives at Mommy and Daddy's apartment she hasn't much understanding about who she is or why she is there.  A proud fixture in the community, she turns out to be a rich man's wife who cluelessly wields power on several nonprofit boards. Try to imagine the great character actress Marion Lorne (who portrayed Aunt Clara on Bewitched) running an adoption agency and you'll get some idea of the level of absurdity in Albee's play.

Add to this mix a feisty, uncontrollable Grandma (deliciously portrayed by Adrienne Krug), who is always being dismissed or ridiculed because of her age but who, in truth, is the only person in the family to have a desperate grasp on reality.  Not only does Grandma understand why Mrs. Barker has arrived, when an attractive young stranger enters the apartment, Grandma finds her salvation.

With the characters of Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma modeled on his own unhappy adoptive family, Albee originally described his play as: 
"an examination of the American scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen."
Nearly 50 years after its premiere, Albee's writing has lost none of its satirical bite. In fact, the play seems to have aged like fine wine. That could be because today's audiences have a much different handle on dysfunctional family life or because we now see the problems of the elderly through a very different lens. It could also be that we, as members of the audience, have aged sufficiently -- and undergone enough challenges in our lifetime -- to better understand the burning anger with which Albee was skewering society's more ridiculous values in his play.

The Boxcar Theatre's cast for "An American Dream"
 (Photo by Peter Liu)

Previously, I was convinced that Berkeley's Central Works Theatre Ensemble offered some of the most intimate theatrical experiences in town.   That honor must now be shared with Boxcar, which crammed 20 audience members into the front room of an empty railroad flat on Broderick Street for an intense hour-long visit with one of America's most dysfunctional families.

A curious twist in Boxcar's production by director Peter Matthews was to change the gender of the visitor (the play's ultimate catalyst) who is supposed to embody the American dream. Although I never saw the original production of The American Dream, I was just starting to get in touch with my sexual orientation at the time of its premiere. Like many of the homoerotic photographs from After Dark magazine, I have fond memories of a production shot which showed an extremely handsome and muscular blond stud flexing his baseball biceps.  

The gender change works well in Boxcar's production because the character of Daddy has become so dependent upon women -- and so titillated by puerile thoughts of women -- that the arrival of a young woman claiming to have no marketable skills (but who will do anything she is asked as long as she is paid for it) matches the erotic fantasies of many middle-aged and sexually repressed married men.

I, of course, would have preferred the muscleboy with the baseball biceps.

* * * * * * *

Over at New Conservatory Theatre Center,  Andrew Nance has staged a fascinating production of Douglas Carter Beane's scathing look at a fast-moving female grifter: As Bees In Honey Drown.

A rapid-fire depiction of how desperate people can be manipulated in a culture based on instant celebrity, Beane's play takes a knowing look at the way bullshit masquerades as guarantees to struggling artists, how appearances and photo ops substitute for substance, and how some people's desire to get noticed can be used and savaged by a fast-moving, highly efficient predator.

Recently, while listening to Barry Humphries be inteviewed by Jan Wahl at the Commonwealth Club, I was struck by his comments about celebrities like Britney Spears.  As a performer who has survived five decades in the theater (as, among other things, Dame Edna Everage), Humphries bemoaned the sad lack of talent or anything unique demonstrated by many of today's  celebutantes.  There seems, instead, to be an overweaning desire to be famous just for the sake of being famous.  Underneath, there is often no "there" there.

That yearning for recognition is a key factor in understanding the motivation which drives a character like Alexa Vere de Vere to prey on blossoming "comers" with the hunting instincts of a velociraptor. Using the same technique that Melanie Griffith's Tess McGill employed in Working Girl, Alexa religiously devours the gossip press, searching the tabloids and magazine society columns for leads on new names who will be potential marks.  Only after Evan Wyler (her latest victim) becomes enraged enough to seek revenge, does Alexa get a taste of her own medicine.

Beane's play moves at a startling pace -- designed to match the increasing speed of our vacuous popular culture (where celebrities du jour are chewed up and spat out with amazing ferocity) as well as provide a raging pulse for a rapacious hunger which must be satisfied by an endless stream of new conquests. Anyone who has spent several years as a compulsive sex addict might be surprised to discover how relevant Beane's play is to the rise and fall of an all-consuming appetite.

Jonathan Bock and Juliet Heller (Photo by Lois Tema)

Special credit goes to Juliet Heller, for her sterling performance as Alexa (this woman could teach Professor Harold Hill a few tricks) and to Jonathan Bock's portrayal of Evan Wyler.  Ben Fisher, Dene Larson, Melissa Jones Briggs and Stefanie Goldstein portrayed a wide variety of characters in supporting roles.

These two plays offer audiences a curious contrast in how unrealistic expectations drive our behavior.  To see it in more musical terms, first watch Ellen Greene's rendition of "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop of Horrors:

Then compare that 1950s-style innocence to the unrelenting lust for "More," demonstrated by Ruthie Henshall in Stephen Sondheim's song written for the 1990 film adaptation of Dick Tracy.

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