The people in Our Lady of 121st Street caught my interest early on, and they never stopped interesting me, albeit mildly. They never interested me more, and they never interested me less. When I left the Union Square Theatre about two hours later, nothing in their lives or mine had altered to any noticeable degree. I might just as easily have been sitting, protected from interference by an invisible shield, on the corner of the street itself, watching people go and return and suffer and argue. I didn’t have a bad time, and, thanks to my peculiar line of work, I didn’t have to pay for my ticket. I can’t complain. All I’m puzzled about is what I was doing in a theater.
I mean, you go to the theater to see something happen, don’t you? Lives or events come to a climax and then resolve. We don’t have to be literal-minded about this—a play isn’t a literal picture of the world—and we don’t have to be formalists or pedants about how it’s done. Yet a play still has to be and do something that a set of pictures from life isn’t and doesn’t. It has to answer some inner need of the audience’s, otherwise that audience goes away empty. Proponents of this or that current version of nonsequentialism may object, but the history of the last century’s theater is full of isms, from futurism down to postmodernism, that strove to wipe out the audience’s interest in what happens next. All they managed to do was set the audience’s interest in theater on the wane, though it came rushing back eagerly whenever some new artist ingeniously managed to smuggle the old what-happens-next into the chic outfits of the latest ism. You could probably write an entire history of 20th-century aesthetics based on this premise: What marvelous artists the last 10 decades have produced—and what reams of jargon-ridden cowflop academic critics and scholars have poured out in their effort to convince the public that the artists’ theoretical leanings were the source of the marvels! No wonder, after a century’s worth of institutionalized apologetics, the number of artists who feel they can give audiences short shrift is larger than ever.
Which is not to accuse Guirgis of cheating his public. On the contrary, his dramatic tasting menu is a very full plate, though not much of a meal; the items on it just don’t digest well together, one or two being downright hard to swallow. The scene is a funeral parlor. Sister Rose, a teaching nun equally loved and feared by her former students, has died. Her body has been stolen, as have the pants of the foulmouthed relative, from another borough, who has been sleeping overnight beside her coffin. Though we never find out who stole the corpse or why, there is ultimately a sort of half solution to its disappearance, which may be taken as a sort of emblem for Guirgis’s dramatic technique, since it refuses to satisfy our curiosity and adds an extra puzzle to what’s already inexplicable.
Most of the other characters are former students of Sister Rose’s, and they all have some comment or other to make about her, but this tenuous unifying factor is only an excuse to look in on a variety of lives going nowhere and a variety of relationships never likely to be resolved except by subsequent deaths—presumably to be mourned with similar unmournfulness in the same funeral parlor. Life, apparently, is a random continuum with little hope, no sense of closure, and no focus, no matter where you wind up, except your good old bad old home. One of Sister Rose’s former pupils is now a high-flying L.A. radio DJ; back on 121st, he’s only the guy who cheated on his ex-wife with her best friend. Another, who has become a pricey gay lawyer in the Midwest, has dragged along his neurotic spouse equivalent, and spends his onstage time torn between restoring his street creds and trying to maintain domestic tranquility. One of the women, a bad egg, sees every encounter, even with a polite total stranger, as another instance of her ongoing victimization. For comic pathos, there’s the futile romance of Sister Rose’s niece, a walking anthology of sitcom neuroses, and the massive super of a nearby building, burdened not only with his own inarticulate rage but with his little brother’s mental disability. For tragedy, there’s the equally futile life of the local cop, whose own son was the victim of a hideous crime, years back, that probably has nothing to do with the missing corpse.
Sister Rose’s presence has presumably meant something to all these people, though it’s hard to tell what, since neither her loss nor the absence of her corpse seems to affect them except as the day’s customary portion of disaster. Nor does anything, particularly, emerge from their encounters with each other. Some money gets stolen, somebody has a good time, a few people leave feeling more than usually rattled, a few get to let loose some long-bottled-up feelings, and maybe one relationship cracks up, though it’s hard to tell and even harder to care. Guirgis’s writing never seems blatantly false—maybe the story of the unhappy cop has an overfamiliar ring—and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s assembled actors, although fond of excess, play it believably enough. Still, both script and acting are the kind of work that tends to set off alarm bells in performance. The characters’ flavorsome, street-noisy confrontations always carry a faint tinge of tourism, inviting us to goggle in condescension at their oddity. Then, too, each piece fits its actors so snugly, yet has so little resonance with the rest of the evening, that you start to wonder whether you’re watching a play appropriately cast or a set of display pieces written around the talents who happened to show up for a workshop one evening; maybe different actors would have resulted in an altogether different script.
Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton offers a kind of same-only-different antithesis to Guirgis. In Wright’s soft-spoken non-event, gorgeously lit by Peter Mumford to evoke a pre-electrified era, there is a story, only it’s a hoarily familiar one. A young man finds love with an older woman, tires of her as he learns more about himself, and goes on his way, leaving her heartbroken. Wright’s tactic to liven up this ancient sleeper is to make the young man a Famous Artist not yet aware that he’s going to grow up to be one; for British audiences there’s also the frisson of the artist being a continental and the love affair taking place during his comparatively obscure and brief sojourn in England. Americans may not feel so enthused about waiting all evening long to see if Wright’s character will turn into Kirk Douglas’s rendering of Irving Stone’s idea of van Gogh.
Wright’s script comports itself with great discretion. There are no glaring jokes about ears or sunflowers; apart from a comic character’s philistine sneer at the budding Impressionist movement, there’s no arch foreshadowing. There is a little discussion, obligatory in tone but a nice change for Broadway, about what art does or doesn’t mean to working people as opposed to the rich. The lovemaking, though the usual hogwash, stays strictly within the bounds of the believable; the comedy of moral priggishness that interrupts it when Vincent’s sister arrives from Holland rarely goes more than a step or two over the line. The problem, of course, is that discretion and believability can’t make an exciting evening from such predictable stuff; camp, exaggeration, and free-form wildness would probably impart a stronger sense of how and to what degree love and England made the fastidious, repressed Dutch minister’s son into the extraordinary painter whose images are permanently glued in the public brain.
In lieu of outrageousness, Richard Eyre’s production settles for scrupulously detailed realism, especially during the first scene, a homage to Mrs. Beeton in which the preparation of the Sunday roast is made far more exciting than the dramaturgic preparations for the passion and disillusion to come. Like the meal, Eyre’s menu has a toothsome centerpiece: Clare Higgins as the widow whom van Gogh woos, wins, and ditches. Though inevitably a little studied after a year’s run in London, Higgins’s performance is an original, complex in detail and appealing in substance; her presence is fresh and strong. She deserves a less Cartlandish work. Jochum ten Haaf, opposite her, has apparently been directed to play Vincent as a matinee idol rather than a preacher’s troubled son. He stalks like a cat (did van Gogh take jazz class with Bob Fosse?), gazes meaningfully, smiles, and generally behaves as though inviting the audience to come upstairs and look at his etchings. Sarah Drew and Pete Starrett, as the widow’s daughter and son-in-law, join Higgins in staunchly resisting this slide toward kitsch, while Liesel Mathews makes what she can of the unbearable sister’s comic relief.