People old enough to remember the heyday of summer stock may dimly recall a comedy titled Personal Appearance, in which Tallulah Bankhead tromped across the country provoking giggles in the role of a man-hungry movie star temporarily stuck in a small-town American home, where she inevitably raises havoc and male temperatures. I mention this because Brooke Berman, a gifted young playwright, has unconsciously recapitulated many of the elements of Lawrence Riley’s 1934 hit (filmed by Mae West as Go West, Young Man in 1936) in her new play, The Triple Happiness, being produced by Second Stage as part of its New Plays Uptown series. Berman never specifies whether the female celebrity who drops in on a befuddled Larchmont family is a movie star, supermodel, or serial killer, but the results are similarly chaotic. The only trouble is that Berman, who’s equipped with all the doctrinal gadgetry of postmodernism, takes her work far too seriously to realize that what she has in hand is the matrix of a cheap, cheerful commercial comedy. For her, the next stop on the improbable-intruder line is Pasolini’s Teorema, and once you’ve hit Teorema, fun ceases to be possible; the next stop is the end of the line—deconstruction.
Berman’s play is set at the millennial pivot point, in December 1999, so the household into which she drops her transient madcap is far from the old-time notion of a family. Mom and Dad (Betsy Aidem and Mark Blum) are undergoing a midlife marital rift, though we never learn enough about their life to understand why. Their son, Mike (Keith Nobbs), is a breathlessly ingenuous Vassar freshman with dreams of being a writer; he goes about with a notebook, asking strangers, “Who do you want to be in the new millennium?” The inexplicably visiting star, Tessa (Ally Sheedy), doesn’t want to be anyone but herself, but she thinks a college boy who can teach her English literature—in her mind it consists of Dickens and Moby-Dick, presumably as interpreted by Morris Dickstein—would make the ideal Christmas present for a high-strung, gin-sozzled celebrity.
The only obstacles in Tessa’s way are the mixed vibes she gets from Mike’s parents and the sudden arrival—didn’t Lady Bracknell say, “Two sudden arrivals in one play looks like dramaturgic carelessness”?—of the girl (Marin Ireland) who sits next to Mike in his Fiction 1 class. Mike barely knows she exists, but her name is Hope, which is, as Tessa says, “perfect.” This being a contemporary serious drama, things don’t work out perfectly, of course, and Hope—who intermittently seems to be writing the play we’re seeing—ends up Mikeless. But don’t worry; in this kind of postmodern foolery you can tinker with narrative openly, at leisure, and Berman’s evening concludes with everyone neatly paired off except Tessa, who goes wistfully back to whichever celebrity hell she sprang from.
Berman’s writing is always intelligent, even when she shows her hand most blatantly; what makes her play maddening is that it’s stuck in the uncommitted middle ground between one kind of work and the other. Too ponderously self-conscious to be a harmlessly cheesy laugh-getting diversion, it’s also too innocent—and way too oversimplified—to be anything else. It’s a peculiar misfortune of young writers who’ve come out of the university system in the age of critical theory that they feel compelled to write in service of their theories rather than to the stage. (Melissa James Gibson, who smothered a few good laughs under several tons of theoretical structure in last year’s suitcase, would be another instance to place alongside Berman.) To which I can only say that, if Shakespeare had striven to emulate the university wits instead of expressing his sense of life in a narrative form suitable for the stage, we would probably rank him today a little above John Lyly, and only produce his plays as curios.
I’m not suggesting that Berman should emulate Neil Simon—Dionysus forbid!—only that, if she wants to write a play, the way to do it is not to write a play about writing a play about two budding playwrights. The better way is to leave all theoretical self-consciousness behind and simply write the play. The theory and the self-awareness, already lodged in the writer’s brain, will sneak into the script anyhow. Besides, the world is suddenly so full of people eager to dismiss the theater as a pedantic pastime for overeducated theory wonks that we don’t need anyone inside the profession confirming their opinion. And Molière, who set the pattern for intrusive-guest plays when he created Tartuffe, long before George W. Bush started pretending to be Christian, still has more to say to us than Derrida; if you don’t believe me, check the stats on copies sold.
The frustration’s heightened by Michael John Garcés’s production, on a bright, simple box of a set by Andromache Chalfant, which uses postmodernism’s shattered vocabulary briskly, and for the most part unfussily (though you do wonder about an upscale Larchmont living room with only one chair). Despite the script’s maddening lack of character detail, Garcés gets good, lively performances out of his whole cast (including Jesse J. Perez as the improbably forthcoming stranger Mike talks to on a bus). The standout is Nobbs, who makes the freshman’s stupendous naïveté not only convincing but touching. He and Sheedy so clearly enjoy their seduction scenes that, at one or two moments, they even make recollections of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson disappear.