A brief pause in the drumbeat of new openings left me time last week to catch up with two Off Broadway plays I’d missed earlier in January. Both had gotten mixed reviews — not just varied but ambivalent; they also had short running times (like most new plays) and long titles. More tellingly, both were written by women and were being produced in deeply subterranean theaters called Stage 2. If it’s too much to say they are buried treasures, they are both unambivalently worth the descent.
A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes, by Kate Benson, is the more overtly experimental of the two, which is to say its concept appears, at least at first, bigger than its content. The story is as ordinary as theater gets: The Wemblys, a large multigenerational family, gather to prepare for Thanksgiving amid tensions, disappointments, and culinary near-disasters. The storytelling apparatus, though, is baroque. From a glassed-in booth above the stage, two announcers “call” the action, employing a mishmash of metaphors drawn from golf, football, baseball, figure skating, and the generic patois of TV sports. (“For those of you just joining us, The Round Table is arriving now here at Wembly.”) Actors portraying the family meanwhile perform the described activities on the stage floor below, which looks like a basketball court superimposed with markings from a dozen other games. Complicating the concept further, the cast does not so much embody the announcers’ descriptions of the action — the setting of the table and the preparation of the gravy and the wounding of the egos — as accompany them with often comical interpretive dance. (There are no props.) The performance style, under the canny direction of Lee Sunday Evans, is flat and presentational, deliberately less affecting than the brilliant stream of clichés and banalities, including the title, that emerge from the booth.
But the play has more up its sleeve than wicked satire of sports announcing. Benson and Evans signal this early: The characters’ names (Cherry Pie, SnapDragon) are outré; the excellent cast, despite playing blood relatives, is almost aggressively multiethnic, and not merely as an expression of good politics. Is that aroma I smell from the kitchen a larger statement? You bet your giblets it is: What begins as ordinary in-house bickering (the matriarch, who is blind, is so passive-aggressive, she claims to hear her daughters screwing up the roux) metastasizes to the point that even the announcers are infected. Unwilling to describe the horror they’re witnessing, which involves the “uncountable herd of great-grandbabies,” they bail. By the time one character refers to “the ravages of time and motherhood,” we understand that the clan’s attempt to bind itself through ritual and memory (“The Gravy Boat Episode of 1979”) is always working against a force of chaos and decline at least as great. A last-minute Hail Mary pass at advanced surrealism is probably a mistake on Benson’s part, but the play is largely successful anyway: deeply serious (as befits its chthonic setting) and riotously entertaining. Talk about color commentary!
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A Beautiful Day in November is a co-production of the Women’s Project Theater and New Georges. WP is dedicated to “promoting the work of female theater artists at every stage in their careers”; New Georges, named for those old Georges Sand and Eliot, says it “invests in artists (who are women).” However they thread their definitional needles, they’re both important, risk-taking organizations. Still, I wonder what either of them would do with a risky young actress turned playwright like Ella Berryman. In the course of the five years covered by Halley Feiffer’s I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, now at the Atlantic’s deep-underground black box, Ella transforms herself from an unnoticed Masha in an avant-garde Seagull into the Times–profiled star of a one-woman autobiographical hit. (Naturally, that hit is performed in a deep-underground black box.) Sounds like a WP or New Georges success story, but unless those theaters also run a rehab facility, I’d advise them to keep as far away from Ella as possible.
It’s not entirely her own fault that Ella is a vicious, entitled, narcissistic monster. Most of Feiffer’s play is in fact devoted to the backstory of her monstrosity. For the first 60 of its 90 minutes, we see her absorbing it like father’s milk from the vicious, entitled, narcissistic David Berryman (née Bergenstein), a playwright with two Tony awards, an Oscar nomination, and a lifetime of bitterness to his credit. (I sincerely hope I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is not autobiographical; Feiffer’s father is the cartoonist and playwright Jules.) Over a late-night repast of cigarettes, wine, pot, and cocaine, he goes on an epic and often hilarious tear about everything that’s wrong with the theater, which is to say, everything but him. Critics are rage queens with micropenises, Tennessee Williams is a lightweight, Arthur Miller a hack. Nor is Ella safe from her father’s criticism: She is ugly and weak, he tells her, and likely to fuck up whatever she tries. (He even points out her blackheads.) Ella nevertheless hangs on his every word, treating as if they were deathless koans of wisdom his self-righteous bloviations. “Be trangressive … Be upsetting … Be bewildering! … Be anything but safe.”
Ella eventually turns this advice into revenge in her one-woman play, which is largely about David. (We get samples of it in the last 30 minutes, when father and daughter have basically traded places.) To the extent I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is a debate about (or an expression of) different ideas of what theater should be, it is indeed transgressive, upsetting, bewildering, and unsafe. It’s also cleverly structured and, at least in the writing for David, whose tyranny eventually flips into tragedy, an actor’s feast. (Reed Birney is simply brilliant in the role.) But Ella, both as a character and as a notion about the theater, is basically a nonstarter, despite Betty Gilpin’s vivid attempts to inhabit her; seeing her struggle with this impossible construction is like watching someone try to button a shirt that’s on backward. Surely it’s laudable that Feiffer has abjured (as Ella puts it) “wistfully hopeful, well-made endings,” but unfortunately a lot of what comes earlier is too jury-rigged to support any argument. Yes, the theater drives people crazy, and can often be cruel, especially to women. But Ella isn’t a fair example. She was crazy to start with.
A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes is at City Center Stage II through February 7.
I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is at the Atlantic Stage 2 through March 1.