Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sadder But Wiser Girls

On September 16, 1925, when  No, No, Nanette opened on Broadway at the Globe TheatreI Want To Be Happy (music by Vincent Youmans and lyrics by Irving Caesar) quickly became one of the show's hit songs. Eight decades later, its lyric reads like a theme song for codependency:
"I want to be happy
But I won't be happy
Till I make you happy too. 
Life's really worth living
When you are mirth giving
Why can't I give some to you? 
When skies are gray
And you say you are blue
I'll send the sun smiling through 
I want to be happy
But I won't be happy
Till I make you happy too."
By May 11, 1965, when Flora the Red Menace opened at the Alvin Theatre some 40 years later with an exuberant 19-year-old Liza Minnelli making her Broadway debut, women were growing weary of having their hearts broken. The show's final number (written by John Kander and Fred Ebb) contains the following lyrics:
"Sing me a happy song about robins in spring
Sing me a happy song with a happy ending.
Some cheerful rondelet about catching the ring
Sing happy.

Sing me a sonnet all about rolling in gold
Some peppy melody about rainbows blending
Nothing with phrases saying you're out in the cold
Sing happy.

Tell me tomorrow's gonna be peaches and cream
Assure me clouds are lined with a silver lining
Say how you've realized an impossible dream
Sing me a happy song.

Play me a madrigal about trips to the moon
Or some old ballad about two eyes shining
It can't be loud enough or a moment too soon
Sing happy.

No need reminding me that it all fell apart
I need no lyrics singing of stormy weather
There's quite enough around me that's breaking my heart
Sing happy.

Give me a hallelujah and get up and shout
Tell me the sun is shining around the corner
Whoever's interested helping me out
Please keep it happy.

I'm only in the market for long loud laughter
I'll let you serenade me till dawn comes along
Just make it a happy
Keep it a happy song."
Whereas popular romances usually focused on a perky young woman (played by someone like Doris Day), one of the surest signs that virginity was losing its dramatic clout could be detected in this number from Meredith Willson's 1957 hit, The Music Man. Listen carefully as Professor Harold Hill (Matthew Broderick) explains why it's "The Sadder But Wiser Girl For Me."

Today, sadder but wiser girls dominate the landscape. In some situations, the stress of trying to maintain a career while raising a family has left them numb and exhausted. In other situations, intelligent women have found their futures compromised not just by their relationships with men, but by the imposition of strict gender roles by religion and society.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
The Marin Theatre Company recently offered Bay area theatregoers the West Coast premiere of Lucinda Coxon's dramedy entitled Happy Now? Set in modern London, the show revolves around the following characters:
  • Kitty (Rosemary Garrison), a young female executive whose husband has assumed primary care for their two young children. When the play opens, Kitty (who works for a pharmaceutical firm seeking a cure for cancer) has just finished  speaking at a convention where she was a last minute substitution for her boss, who is dying of cancer.
  • Kitty's mother (Andrew Hurteau), an aging and thoroughly narcissistic woman who has driven her husband and children up the walls for years.
  • Johnny (Alex Moggridge), Kitty's husband. A former lawyer, Johnny changed careers to become an elementary school teacher on the assumption that, by doing so, he could contribute something "meaningful" to the world.
  • Carl (Kevin Rolston), Kitty's best gay friend who is always available when needed but prefers not to call attention to his own emotional needs.

Kitty (Rosemary Garrison) and Carl (Kevin Rolston) 
prepare for a birthday party. (Photo by: Ed Smith)

  • Miles (Mark Anderson Phillips), an alcoholic attorney who is Johnny's best friend. After a domestic dispute with his wife, Miles suddenly moves in with Johnny & Kitty while Kitty is away on a business trip.
  • Bea (Mollie Stickney), married to Miles at the beginning of the play, but happily pursuing an independent life by the final curtain.
  • Michael (Andrew Hurteau), a married bureaucrat who tries to pick up women at conventions held out of town. As the play opens, Michael is making a pass at Kitty. When she declines his offer, he shocks her by stating that she'll be ready for him at some point in the future.

Michael (Andrew Hurteau) and Kitty (Rosemary Garrison)
relax in Michael's hotel room. (Photo by: Ed Smith)

Using a unit set by the ever-reliable Melpomene Katakalos that includes series of projection screens, director Jasson Minadakis explains what attracted him to Coxon's script:

"What struck me about the play was how completely Lucinda had captured the insane pace of modern adult life. She had written a play starring my friends, colleagues, and neighbors with their faults, quirks, loveliness and passion.  I felt she had captured me as well.
She understands driving home from work wondering how you managed to pass the last five exits without seeing them. She understands looking up from the dinner table and asking yourself: 'Who exactly is that sitting across from me?' And she has brought those questions and feelings to the stage with incredible humor and compassion.
One of the hardest things about contemporary life is finding a way to forgive ourselves for being human and making mistakes. Our society demands we be perfect at everything, all the time, without pause. With that kind of pressure, I wonder how we stay sane and find happiness and joy in life. Hopefully, we can learn to forgive ourselves, and each other, and find the happiness that is out there."
What most surprised me about Coxon's play was how little I cared about any of her characters. My initial reaction was to label it as another drama about bored and boring breeders.

What struck me was that the least selfish character onstage was Carl who, despite the turmoil in his own personal and professional life, was able to put his own needs on hold so he could tend to the needs of others. A key moment occurs when Kitty calls Carl at work to tell him what a miserable day she is having. "You called me out of a meeting with a very important client just to tell me THIS?" he asks.

As the play ends, we see Kitty sitting on a couch with Johnny on one side of her and Miles on the other. Both of them have fallen asleep while watching an episode of Will and Grace, leaving Kitty to look after two grown men in addition to her two children. In all honesty, I found the ending less poignant than pathetic.

Miles (Mark Anderson Phillips ), Kitty (Rosemary Garrison),
and Johnny (Alex Moggridge). Photo by: Ed Smith

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Curiously, a movie that screened at the Eighth Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, Bollywood and Beyond captures a woman caught in a much more dramatically interesting situation. Set in Dhaka, IndiaThird Person Singular Number makes Kitty's problems look like a piece of cake.

Like many middle class women in Dhaka, Ruba (Nusrat Imroz Tisha) is a modern, educated young woman. Although she has lived with Munna (Mosharraf Karim) and is in love with him, she has chosen not to go through with a traditional wedding. The result is that, when Munna (who works for an NGO) is arrested and thrown in prison, she is at the mercy of an older, more conservative generation.

Like the United States, Ruba is bogged down fighting two wars. In her battle to remain free in a conservative Muslim society, she must deal with constant refusals to rent an apartment to a single woman (not to mention the Muslims who won't even allow her to visit her mother's grave). Internally, she is battling the 13-year-old and six-year-old incarnations of herself who don't like -- or can't understand -- what Ruba is doing with her life.

Ruba as an adult, a 13-year-old, and a six-year-old child.

Written and directed by Mostofa Sarwar Farooki (and based on a novel by Manzoorul Islam) Third Person Singular Number follows an emotionally strained path to a surprisingly modern ending. In the past, Farooki's films have addressed such themes as middle class angst, romance among urban youth, the deception, hypocrisy, and frailty of the individual, and frustrations about his own culture and conservative Muslim concepts of guilt and redemption.
In his director's statement, he writes:
"Do our society and religion allow a middle class, single woman to live alone?
What do we really mean when we say 'men and women are equal'?
Do we actually live in present time only?
Or does our past also live with us, walk hand in hand?
Can we ever be alone amidst the eloquence of our past?
Or can we ever be together amidst the engulfing solitude of caged soul?

These five questions chased me to the making of Third Person Singular Number. I tried to attempt the film from a humane point of view. I opened the film with the single woman out on the street, all alone at night. I could have opened the film in hundreds of ways. But I opened it like that just to see whether our streets and nights are safe for a single woman. This reflects a major motivation behind making this film. The motivation is that I tried to scale the sanity (or insanity) of my society and religion and see how they respond when it comes to handling women's issues."

Nusrat Imroze Tisha as Ruba
Third Person Singular Number benefits from some beautiful cinematography by Subrata Das Ripon and an original musical score by Rezaul  K.Leemon. After Ruba tires of her family, trying to find an apartment, trying to find work, and struggling to cope with having a husband in jail, she is rescued by a close childhood friend who has become a popular music star.

As the most modern person in the film, Tupo (Rashed Uddin Ahmed Topu) is more than willing to share his wealth with Ruba. When he is not in the recording studio (or busy chatting with girls on Facebook who would love to date him), his generosity and patience are quietly overpowering.

Tupo's gentle nature, life-long devotion to Ruba, and unending kindness offer a sharp contrast to the repressed, conservative old Muslim (Abul Hayat) who refuses to a rent an apartment to Ruba but still wants to have her around as a mistress. When Ruba keeps threatening to call the man's wife, he doesn't know how to deal with such a modern woman.

Cell phones play an important role in the plot of Third Person Singular Number, whose story follows a long and often surprisingly modern arc. Nusrat Imroz Tisha is brave, resourceful, and resolute as Ruba. As Munna,  Mosharraf Karim bears an uncanny resemblance to New York's outgoing Governor David Paterson. Here's the trailer:

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