Infertile Ground


I wish I knew who encourages plays like Rajiv Joseph’s All This Intimacy, the second entry in Second Stage’s summer “New Plays Uptown” season. I don’t mean that the results are so dire—Joseph has talent and is presumably young enough as a playwright to be entitled to make the many kinds of mistakes that All This Intimacy commits, all over the stage, practically every time it draws a breath. Nor do I object, particularly, to the inflicting of such an immature play on adult critics with better things to do, or contrariwise, to the infliction of their resentment on the author: Baptism by fire may not be the most pleasant way for a young artist to learn, but it has its informative side, especially in our cuckoo-headed culture, which offers artists constant encouragement to repeat their worst mistakes. Some of Joseph’s elders and should-be wisers have built entire careers on such encouragement. But I digress.

And I do so with good reason. Joseph’s play is a specimen of the contemporary genre of seriocomedy in which, whenever anything tolerably serious starts to happen, the playwright dodges it by either ending the scene, freezing the scene while somebody steps outside of it and talks to the audience, or making the whole thing suddenly lurch into sitcom mode. In All This Intimacy, the sitcom mode gets a degree of justification from the subject, one that in the old days would have been played strictly for farce. The hero, a poet (of all improbable occupations), has been cheating on his girlfriend with both the unhappily married older woman next door and one of his 18-year-old students, and has managed to make all three women pregnant. To complicate matters, his girlfriend’s sister, a thoroughly tough-minded person, is about to marry his best friend, and he is supposed to be best man at the wedding, by which time his girlfriend, the maid of honor, will be seven months pregnant.

You can tell that Joseph and his director, Giovanna Sardelli, believe the play is at least partly serious because David Newell’s set, an ingenious arrangement of sliding panels appropriately decorated with spermlike squiggles, has no slammable doors.
Feydeau would have made sure that the dinner party scene in which the three women meet (it would have been the second of three concise acts in his version) had at least six slammable doors, with the hero barricading himself in either the bathroom or the kitchen, possibly both.

Joseph, who has a mild knack for comedy, doesn’t scant the humor of the situation, but he doesn’t get much mileage out of it, either; he’s always sliding away from it into the quasi-serious. Worse still, his seriousness conveys no seriousness at all, merely a what-can-you-do helplessness, as if the hero had had no choice in the matter, the only feelings involved were those of the four understandably outraged women, and the whole event were just an abstract problem in situational ethics. Apart from a momentary flush of gratification when the three expectant mothers collide, the hero takes no particular pride in his prolificacy, nor does he seem to feel any guilt or any but the dimmest sense of responsibility over his many betrayals and the upheaval they cause. He doesn’t even convey any particular affection for any of the three women: Though he repeatedly declares that he “loves” his girlfriend, there’s little dramatic evidence of any concern to back up the statement. His sexual connections seem to be a purely mechanical matter of proximity, convenience, and organ grinding. The women themselves are oversimplified figures of no particular interest, despite the efforts of four excellent actresses: Gretchen Egolf, Amy Landecker, Kate Nowlin, and Krysten Ritter.

Daily reviewers of Joseph’s play described his poet-hero as a “cad” and a “lout,” but the real problem is that he’s a cipher, sitting there stealing dramatic focus at the play’s center. He doesn’t learn anything, assert anything, or arrive anywhere. Yet he’s supposed to be a poet, i.e., someone whose entire life’s work consists of scrutinizing and expressing the connections between self and world. Though given a great many chances to address the audience directly, he rarely conveys any attitude beyond a hapless shrug. Thomas Sadoski, a capable actor with an intriguing sad-clown quality, solves the problem of playing this traitless enigma by constantly looking as if he’s waiting for the playwright to feed him more lines.

The one character who takes the situation most emotionally, at least in Sardelli’s staging, is the hero’s best friend, scripted as a permanent visitor from Planet Sitcom. This presents a severe problem for Adam Green, the gifted young comic actor who plays him: The funnier Green gets—and he’s often very funny—the less believable the play becomes and the more implausible it seems that either his fiancée or the hero could tolerate having this flibbertigibbet around for more than eight minutes at a stretch. The idea of the no-nonsense woman who is the hero’s toughest antagonist wanting to spend her honeymoon, let alone her whole life, with a schlemiel who reacts to every situation like Chicken Little is untenable in the extreme.

But then tenability—the notion that the parts of a play all belong together and support each other in making a complete statement—seems very far from the minds of the playwrights favored by our nonprofit theaters these days. In its inconsequentiality and inconsistency, Joseph’s play isn’t that far from the two disastrous duds with which Second Stage ended its mainstage season or from many other recent instances of the allegedly up-and-coming. Not for the first time this year, I was reminded of an antique playwright whom I imagine few living people except myself and some theater historians have bothered to read: Frederick Reynolds (1764–1841), probably the worst writer ever to have been a huge success in the English-speaking theater. Mainly famous for having saved Drury Lane from bankruptcy by inventing “dog drama,” the canine-centered melodramatic genre that paved the way for Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, Reynolds churned out plays that are alarmingly incoherent in plot and every other regard, mixing the stale dregs of 18th-century comedy of manners with splodges of every then current pop form from Gothic horror to mortgage melodrama. His plays stink of mass marketing. The name of his most successful comedy, How to Grow Rich, even sounds like one of today’s self-help titles.

Reynolds wrote for a time when, like today, the world was going through enormous upheavals—never expressed in his work, only reflected in its jumble of uninflected gestures. Back then, like today, intelligent people had largely lost interest in the theater, which was gradually losing its status as a branch of literature. It recovered its footing (sensibly turning its back on Reynolds) in the next generation: Boucicault, Gilbert, Robertson, and the early Pinero may not exactly rank at the top of the list with Sophocles and Moliére, but each of them perceived, as Reynolds hadn’t, that a play must be all of a piece, whatever shocks of cognitive dissonance its components offer, and that its characters, however streamlined or two-dimensionalized, must convey that their life extends beyond the bounds of what we see. Without these elements, there’s hardly any point in writing a play at all. But our theater seems largely indifferent to them. If it doesn’t collapse of its own inanition first, expect a return to the basic elements of playwriting soon. The time of Frederick Reynolds is a fleeting one.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 25, 2006

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