Tourette, With Lemon


After the giant lemon came down, as a back-drop for the wedding finale, most members of the theater press realized that it was no use cracking jokes about
In My Life: The show makes itself ridiculous faster than you can zing a one-liner. Making itself ridiculous is In My Life‘s stock-in-trade; it doesn’t have any assets beyond your constant realization that nobody would bother to tell such a story or perpetrate such inane ways of keeping it going without being a self-important, out-of-touch idiot. If they had revealed at the end that Joseph Brooks was a pseudonym for George W. Bush, no one would have been at all surprised. Left unchecked, ineptitude can strike anywhere.

Not, mind you, that evangelical lunacy would find much to rejoice over in In My Life. The show’s idea of heaven, where much of its action takes place, is a vast bank of filing cabinets where nobody does any actual work—come to think of it, that does resemble George Bush’s crony-packed Washington—and where God, who likes to be called Al, is a doofus who arranges to have operas produced and directed by very effeminate British angels so that He can audition for them, singing commercial jingles by Joseph Brooks. You see what I mean? What would be the point of ridiculing that—it would be like watching children in a cafeteria play with their food for several hours and then making fun of the results. It seems superfluous somehow. But then, marketing the results proudly as an artistic achievement, at Broadway prices, seems pretty superfluous too. It just shows you what money can buy these days, and is encouraged to buy, thanks to a society that has given up all sense of meaning beyond sentimental hokum and the old profit margin.

About two-thirds of In My Life‘s plot, if its perfunctory narrative can be called a plot, consists of sentimental hokum, clinical variety. A girl with obsessive-compulsive disorder accosts a boy with Tourette’s syndrome in a diner because she’s heard him sing on the radio. There’s up-to-date New York realism for you. Naturally, they fall in love. His mother and kid sister died in a car crash; so did the leader of the rock band she was managing. Naturally, she gave up music management to process personal ads for The Village Voice, though, despite having priority access to every SWM who writes in, she can’t find a guy. There’s dramatic irony for you. Up in heaven, the relevant dead look down with concern, since that very swishy opera- directing angel has decided that Mr. Tourette’s and Ms. OCD would make optimal leading characters for his new heavenly opera. Why he has to write it himself, instead of calling on the multitude of dead talent up there, is never explained. Maybe Mozart and Boito were taking a long lunch break.

At any rate, the angel tries to whomp up some dramatic tension for his opera by having the Tourettian develop a tumor on his optic nerve, which if left unchecked will apparently cause total blindness, although most human beings have one optic nerve for each eye, and you would think that the angel, who seems to associate opera with pirates (must be all those revivals of Bellini’s
Il Pirata), would be ecstatic over a one-eyed protagonist with Tourette’s—Long John Silver and his parrot in one, as it were, and no messy problems with bird handlers. But no, the prognosis must be total blindness, and the spluttering compulsive rhymester must go into denial and refuse to have it seen to, giving Brooks a great chance to preach—apparently his favorite musical pastime—that everyone’s got a skeleton in the closet, an image that he literalizes by having the angel take a skeleton out of a closet and tango with it, while dancing skeletons in a kick line are projected on the back wall, in an uncalled-for tribute to Disney’s early Silly Symphonies. Talk about reviewer-proof. What can you do but quote Anna Russell’s famous comment on Wagner’s Ring? “I’m not making this up, you know.”

Not that Joseph Brooks should be equated with Wagner just because, in both cases, trying to summarize their plot material can reduce a critic to helpless stupefaction. Wagner, after all, was dramatizing a world-class, epic myth that had been embedded in Northern European culture for a thousand years. When you have finished being dumbfounded at its absurdities and contradictions, not only is the myth still there, strong as ever, but the four music dramas that Wagner made of it are still there, packing a powerful operatic punch; even those, like me, who find the results overblown and can’t abide sitting through them complete have to concede that they carry the stamp of greatness. Manifestly, the same can’t be said for Brooks’s meandering little medico-metaphysical soap opera, with its clodhopping false-rhymed lyrics and the instantly forgettable Hollywood-pop whine of its tunes. The giant lemon and dancing skeletons are merely proof that a fire sale of the vanities is likely to turn up some very odd lots. It would be unkind to name anyone involved other than its author-director-producer. I hear, though, that many Broadwayites are searching for his anonymous backer, probably in the same spirit as the railway staff in the movie version of Twentieth Century hunting down Etienne Girardot.