Friday, March 30, 2012

Arrested Development

"Ask me if I care."

I first heard that statement from a teenager who had been invited to lend a hand to something outside his usual sphere of interest. This young man (who had a reputation for being blunt, but honest) had been raised to view everything from the perspective of "What's in it for me?"  His challenge was spoken with a noticeable air of defiance.

That incident happened back in a time when teenagers were eagerly forming rather than extinguishing their dreams, when ambition and hope had yet to become dirty words. It took place during a period when young people did not respond to any and all questions with a bitter, sarcastic "Whatever!"

It happened long before so many American youth became slackers.

Last weekend, while attending the West Coast premiere of Annie Baker's play, The Aliens, at the SFPlayhouse, I heard those words again: "Ask me if I care." This time, however, they came from a 30-something college dropout whose apathy and defeatism were evident in his slumped posture, lengthy silences and -- despite an obviously keen intellect -- his reluctance to engage.

Jasper (Peter O'Connor) and KJ (Haynes Thigpen) in The Aliens
Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

Baker's play takes place in the back yard of the Green Sheep Café in the small town of Shirley, Vermont over the course of a summer. Its three characters are:
  • Jasper (Peter O'Connor), a failed novelist who is thinking of visiting a friend who lives on a wind farm. A nervous smoker who just broke up with his girlfriend, he's protective of his former bandmate, KJ, to the point of making sure that KJ doesn't slip and have a drink while celebrating the Fourth of July.
  • KJ (Haynes Thigpen), the son of a New Age therapist who was pursuing a double major in  mathematics and philosophy until he suffered some sort of nervous breakdown. Although he can easily get lost in exploring the various permutations of calculitic equations like "If P is this and Q is that, then......," he is much more interested in brewing an hallucinogenic type of mushroom tea whose strongest ingredient is psilocybin. Now that he is, once again living, with his mother, any sense of urgency has evaporated from KJ's daily routine. His long silences are occasionally interrupted by brief periods of singing to himself. Unfortunately, when KJ drinks alcohol, he stops taking his medications.
  • Evan Shelmerdine (Brian Miskell), a high school senior who has just started working as a busboy. Although scheduled to take a week off to spend some time as a counselor-in-training at a Jewish "band camp," Evan begins the summer as a reluctant virgin in the awkward phase between having achieved puberty but having no sexual experiences to brag about. His speech pattern is mostly monosyllabic, with a vocabulary that focuses on such noncommittal words as "yeah," "um," and cool." As he prepares to speak, Evan's head often moves cautiously forward, like a chicken that has spotted a seed of self confidence in its path. However, all it takes is one nagging phone call from his mother to transform Evan from a seemingly spineless teenager into a determined young man with a clear sense of boundaries.
Brian Miskell as Evan Shelmerdine  in The Aliens
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

One of the hardest things for an actor to do onstage is nothing. Some people are great at it (in 1982, when Leonie Rysanek made her role debut as Ortrud in the San Francisco Opera's revival of Lohengrin, audiences were transfixed by her foreboding silence and menacing presence for much of Act I). Others struggle to break the spell and jump on a line. As the playwright explains:
"I worship at the church of theatre. It's where I go to experience ritual and take stock of my life. There are some really good TV shows and movies out there, but for the most part, it's crap to keep people distracted at home so they don't have to think about their lives and the choices they've made. There's a lot of silence in real life and that isn't represented in most so-called naturalistic theatre."
KJ tries to brew some hallucinogenic tea in The Aliens
Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli

Under the careful direction of Lila Neugebauer, the cast of The Aliens paces its pauses with such nonchalance that it seems as if style of recent Mumblecore films (which emphasize naturalism in dialogue) has taken over the stage. When TJ launches into a lonely aria about a childhood event -- in which he repeats the word "ladder" as if practicing a Philip Glass exercise in modulation -- the audience can easily find itself challenged by the temptation to count how many times he says the word "ladder" (more than 80), the desire to savor his emotional detachment, or to wonder about the depths of his depression. As SFPlayhouse's artistic director, Bill English (who designed the evening's set) notes:
"The Aliens reminds us a little of Chekhov's hidden plot, of Beckett's minimalist wordplay, and of course, of Pinter's tension-filled pauses. But Annie Baker has a truly original and prophetic voice, writing big ideas from tiny moments. I am spellbound by her deep empathy for the quiet struggles of ordinary folk, her ability to capture the essence of being alive in minute moments and silences, and her extraordinary ability to transform a tiny slice of life into a vibrant landscape. As we hurtle by on some urgent mission, we would be unlikely to give any of these characters the time of day. But with the lens of Baker's compassionate gaze fixing our attention on them, we recognize the universality of their struggles. Their stillness makes us study them carefully as their silences speak volumes."
KJ (Haynes Thigpen), Jasper (Peter O'Connor) and Evan (Brian Miskell)
in a scene from The Aliens (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Underplaying a role is much more difficult than emoting onstage with broad gestures. To his credit, Brian Miskell's portrait of Evan Shelmerdine is imbued with a rare, lackluster type of truth and beauty. Watching Miskell as he tries to appear cool and relaxed while self-consciously lighting one of his first cigarettes is a study in body language and dramatic pacing.

Although, going by the spoken word, The Aliens may have one of the shortest scripts on record, this SFPlayhouse production transforms Baker's play into a tender coming-of-age experience in which an impressionable teen finds the most unlikely of mentors in two directionless 30-something slackers: one, a burned out shlub with a sparkler, and the other a failed writer who, though he idolizes Charles Bukowski, has made the sorry mistake of calling his ex-girlfriend a cunt. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Over at the Curran Theatre, another two-act, three-character play is entertaining local audiences. Pinter's first commercial success (as well as his most studied script) is passing through town in a production of The Caretaker that was originally directed by Christopher Morahan in 2009 at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. This Theatre Royal Bath production will soon travel to Columbus, Ohio and then on to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Jonathan Pryce and Alan Cox in The Caretaker
Photo by: Shane Reid

When The Caretaker first came to America in 1961, I saw the original Broadway cast (Donald Pleasance, Alan Bates, and Robert Shaw) at the Lyceum Theatre.  At the time, I was much too naive to understand what was going on (although I was hardly the only member of the audience to be thoroughly confused by Pinter's script). Set in a rundown house in London, The Caretaker focuses on three strange men with exceptionally poor communication skills:
  • Davies (Jonathan Pryce) is a homeless bum who has been rescued from a fight by Aston, a kindly man who brings Davies back to his dilapidated room and offers him shelter for the night. Davies hates foreigners, blacks, and young people, smells terrible, and makes strange noises in his sleep.
  • Aston (Alan Cox) is a man in his early thirties whose personality was altered by electroconvulsive therapy while he was a patient in a mental institution.
  • Mick (Alex Hassell) is Aston's younger brother who looks after the building and has impressive dreams for his future.
Jonathan Pryce and Alex Hassell in The Caretaker
Photo by:Shane Reid

If The Caretaker gets off to a rocky start with American audiences, it is largely because most of the geographical references to London neighborhoods mean nothing. It can also take a while for American audiences to get used to the actors' British accents.

Pinter's play becomes increasingly comical and obtuse during the first half of the performance. While Davies is obviously someone with delusions of grandeur, it isn't until Aston's poignant soliloquy about the time he spent in a mental institution that the audience gets any insight into the relationship between the two brothers.

Jonathan Pryce in The Caretaker (Photo by: Helen Warner)

While Pinter's play provides a star vehicle for Jonathan Pryce, the tone of any performance (at least to my mind) is determined by how Mick is portrayed. What little memory I have of the original production is that the character was oddly menacing in a thuggish sort of way.

In this production, however, Alex Hassell's Mick seems quite a bit more mischievous and mercurial -- a young man with a panther-like agility who, as long as he is saddled with his brother's hopeless situation and the responsibility of maintaining a decaying house, seems eager to keep himself amused.

Alex Hassell and Jonathan Pryce in The Caretaker
Photo by: Shane Reid

In researching Pinter's play, I was surprised to discover that a woman (Miriam Karlin) had played Davies in a 1990 production of The Caretaker at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, Wales. That got me wondering what Pinter's peculiar drama about isolation and alienation might be like if cast with Elaine Stritch as Davies, Callista Gingrich as Aston, and Katy Perry as Mick! I also managed to find these two fascinating clips from the making of the 1963 film adaptation.

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