“Confronted with a crisis, what is the artistic impulse?” Jordan Harrison asks us two-thirds of the way through his new play, The Amateurs, now at the Vineyard Theatre under the direction of Oliver Butler. Sometimes it’s tricky to pinpoint the Big Question a playwright is wrestling with; other times, he just comes straight out and says it.
“Is it to dive headlong in, and record suffering for future generations?” he continues, “Or is it to make us forget the crisis? To fill us, either by beauty or laughter, with the will to live. Or or or, is it a rejection of art entirely, a mere fight for survival? A turning away from the luxury of fiction?” As we’re daily reminded, it’s a scary time, and Harrison is far from the only artist grappling with his job description in the face of such scariness. His play is set somewhere in the 14th century, during the Black Plague, and it chronicles the misadventures of a morality-play troupe as they haul their wagon of rough-hewn biblical scenery across Europe, trying to outrun the Grim Reaper. But it’s also set now, in a theater, where an actor embodying Jordan Harrison the Playwright steps out of the play to chat about the utility of art.
If you’re currently thinking, “Oh, it’s one of those plays,” Harrison has anticipated your groans. “Hopefully you aren’t allergic to these sorts of shenanigans — some people are, which is okay,” says actor Michael Cyril Creighton — whom we’ve come to know as Gregory, the traveling troupe’s scenic carpenter — as he trades in his hempen homespuns for a plaid flannel and introduces himself to us as “the playwright.” Creighton, as a proxy for Harrison, serves as a kind of maestro for the the second movement of The Amateurs, a meta-theatrical break in the medieval action in which we’re treated to a lengthy meditation on where exactly this play came from, what writerly preoccupations propelled it into being.
I admit to cringing when Creighton stepped bashfully downstage and requested that the house lights be turned up so we could all “look one another in the eye.” At first it seemed like the easy way out, a playwright’s escape hatch: Hmm, I have some important stuff I’d like to talk about, but I’m not sure how to get it into the narrative — well, I’ll just push pause on the story and do the talking myself.
But as Creighton went on, I found myself won over. A clever performer whose “Who, me?” affect masks a meticulous control of the stage, he gives Harrison’s personal meditations a generous sincerity that outweighs any sense of archness in the breaking of the fourth wall. We’ve traveled all the way through irony and come back around to earnestness. As Creighton tells stories of Mr. Shear’s sixth-grade health class (where gay 12-year-old Jordan was taught to be terrified of AIDS) or of the boys’ tennis coach, Mr. Goldsworthy (a closeted young teacher who eventually came joyously out, only to die of that modern plague soon after), he gently forges a real connection with us, not to mention a bond between us and Harrison. The stories are vulnerable, raw, funny, sad, and they allow us intimate access to the patchwork of experiences that shaped both playwright and play. “The question playwrights are always asked,” quips Creighton/Harrison, “is, ‘Where did the play come from?’ And we are annoyed at this question. Probably because we’re afraid that the minute we start answering it, we’ll be making the whole thing smaller.” Harrison might be afraid, but it turns out The Amateurs is a play about facing our fears, and so attempting an honest, face-to-face answer to this ever-present question ultimately becomes a modest act of bravery. Not a way out, but a way through.
Despite its allergy warning, Harrison’s heartfelt meta-monologue is the most affecting part of The Amateurs. The play on either side of it is charming enough (it’s almost always entertaining to watch good actors playing bad actors acting badly) but less anchored in terms of its tone. When they’re not performing clunky rhyming snippets of morality plays like “Noah’s Flood” or “The Seven Deadly Sins,” the pageant actors are suspended somewhere between contemporary banter — they say “fuck” a lot — and a clipped, semi-poetic mode of speech. It’s as if Harrison is searching for a defamiliarized-yet-still-accessible medieval vernacular and hasn’t quite nailed it yet. The result is that the characters feel rather … character-y. Apart from Creighton’s Gregory, who’s given a long monologue to the audience early in the play, and Hollis — Quincy Tyler Bernstine in a spunky, skeptical turn as the actor who starts questioning the status quo — the troupe is made up of archetypes. Larking, the pompous director; Brom, the diffident do-gooder; Rona, the acerbic harlot. Even Greg Keller, doubling as the ghost of Hollis’s plague-dead brother Henry and a newcomer to the troupe, feels a little stock: the mysterious stranger with a secret. It’s not a matter of what we learn about each of them — in that sense, with the possible exception of Larking, each one is fundamentally fleshed out — but of the actual language they speak. Their words don’t have the grounded, open fluidity of Harrison’s mid-play digression, which is where both play and playwright start to breathe.
Of course, the rub is that Harrison may well want it this way. Part of the play’s central monologue deals with its writer’s fixation on the birth of character — “the beginning of ‘I’”— that he postulates might well have occurred in just such a troupe, with just such an inquisitive, rebellious actor as Hollis. We’re on the cusp of the Renaissance here; the sun of humanism is about to rise on the Dark Ages. In The Amateurs’ version of events, Hollis, who has a tendency to “go other places in her head” while she’s onstage in her role as Noah’s Wife, is essentially in the process of inventing modern naturalistic acting. She’s staring to ask “Why?” She’s starting to step out of Type to become Human.
Harrison is juggling several ideas here — from fear and mortality to the origins of theater as we know it — but what keeps it all together is his heartfelt questioning of his own art form. In the first third of the play, Keller’s character — he’s known as “the Physic” — gives Gregory a nail “from the one true cross,” explaining that if you pray for someone’s healing, the nail will bleed for the person “so they don’t have to.” Though it feels a little out of character for the otherwise rational Physic to be peddling holy relics, Harrison gets away with it because of his eventual, and wonderful, return to the image. “Which is art,” Creighton asks us in his role as the playwright, “an ark to carry us over the waters? Or a nail that bleeds for us, so that we can be healed?”
It’s a beautiful piece of writing, and in the play’s third and final movement (the whole thing’s only 90-minutes long), its makers pull out the stops to give us some truly beautiful stagecraft as well. David Zinn’s spare, evocative set suddenly opens up like a storybook, revealing hidden enchantments inspired by the ingenious cart the players have been using to create their own modest backdrops. In this moment of sheer theatrical joy, Creighton — now he’s both Gregory and Harrison at once — wrestles with a scenery rope and wonders aloud about the problem of catharsis. Do we deserve it? Does it leave us complacent? Is beauty useful? Should we be allowed to leave a theater these days feeling hope? We’re literally witnessing the modern playwright’s struggle, and as shared with us by Harrison and company, it’s an inspiring thing: playful, doubtful, a little painful, a little magical, and very human.
The Amateurs is at the Vineyard Theatre through March 18.