All plays, even the most abstract, are autobiographical. Pre-plan the structure however tightly, make the approach as abstract as you can, distance yourself from the characters as analytically as possible—still, some part of your inner self will slide into the text to give you away. Even having a strong social agenda is no escape: When O’Neill wrote a play about an interracial couple, he called them Jim and Ella—his parents’ names. Tapping the unconscious, as it must to have any strength at all, playwriting inevitably digs into all the personal matters that, in ordinary life, a playwright might happily leave buried. Some playwrights wear their autobiography boldly on their sleeves, while others use more devious means; every play is to some extent a self-revelation.
That fact poses a special challenge for playwrights in our peculiarly narcissistic time. Here in the culture of rehab, self-revelation has become our common currency; the pattern of action rising to climax and resolution has been replaced by the public confession, the charge of bad parenting, and the 12-step program. The pattern tends to be circular: Claw your way to success, come spectacularly to grief, do some modest penance, and tiptoe back to success by showing your shaky newfound self on Oprah, marketing the book about how you became such a mess. Such narratives have widespread echoes in American life, but little dramatic resonance, which is why most recent stage attempts at celebrity biography feel so lame; a circle has no closure.
The central characters of both Stephen Adly Guirgis’s new play, The Little Flower of East Orange, and Nancy Shayne’s new musical, Marcy in the Galaxy (from a story by Shayne and Michael Patrick King), are both artists manqué—a writer and a painter, respectively—whose stalled careers have something to do with their disorderly, unfulfilling personal lives. Knowing nothing about the authors, I can’t gauge the degree of autobiography involved, but both plays feel highly personal. And, in a variant of the usual problem with playing out artists’ lives onstage, both ultimately fail by sinking into a private, case-history tone of lament. The obverse of celebrity-bio solos with their and-then-I-wrote recitations, these are apologetic descriptions of why the protagonists didn’t write or didn’t paint. Except, of course, that if they’re autobiographically based, what we’re seeing refutes the apologias: Guirgis did finally succeed in writing a play about himself and his mother (if that’s who the characters are); the songs Shayne has written stand in for the pictures Marcy never got around to painting (if Marcy’s meant to be her avatar).
Dramatically static, such plays tend to reach backward in explanation rather than forward in action, putting the audience in the position of reluctant listeners in a deserted bar. It’s not polite to say “So what?” or “Get a life!” in response to these self-justifying narrations until you’re safely out of the raconteur’s company, but all the sympathy in the world can’t enable a stronger response. And as with people who attempt self-justification in real life, the inherently defensive tone arouses constant suspicion that salient (and probably more interesting) parts of the story have been left out. It’s noteworthy that both works’ titles contain a bait-and-switch element: Guirgis’s title character is the narrator’s mother, Therese Marie (Ellen Burstyn), whose backstory and behavior cause her son, Danny (Michael Shannon), such extreme angst; the “galaxy” that Shayne’s heroine (Donna Lynne Champlin) inhabits isn’t outer space but a drably earthbound midtown diner, operated by an alternately compassionate and oblivious Greek waiter (Jonathan Hammond). Location—the essence of drama as it is of real estate—has drifted out of focus. Despite its title, most of The Little Flower takes place on Riverside Drive or in a Bronx hospital; in Marcy‘s Galaxy Diner, what starts out as a grim New Year’s Day stock-taking seems to blur into other days there, as well as flashing back into memories.
Nor, as when lending an ear to some spaced-out stranger, can you ever be sure whether the driving force behind the tale of woe is the desire to confess or to boast. Guirgis’s Danny rants in the woolly, profanity-laden, imitation-Bukowski style that the playwright’s home company, LAByrinth (which co-produced Little Flower with the Public), tends to mistake for truthfulness, alternating gestures toward rehab with carefully inventoried accounts of drugging and boozing. It’s equally difficult to see what makes him so angry and where he gets the cash to pay his suppliers. (Though Danny’s described as a once-promising writer, Little Flower is literally presented as a narrative he’s asked to deliver as part of the rehab process following a drunken dispute that lands him in jail.) Marcy, broke and lonely rather than angry, spends most of her diner time riffling through the junk in her capacious handbag. Why, in midlife, she hasn’t found either a practical use for her talents or, at least, a practical way of surviving in a New York oversupplied with artistic wannabes remains obscure. She seems proud that her aggressive passivity sets her apart from her practical sister (Jenny Fellner) and her go-getter mother (Teri Ralston).
Undefined even when most assertive, these figures can’t hold center stage. Guirgis, having invented Danny, actively shifts the focus to Therese Marie, whose elaborate history—the physically abused hearing child of deaf alcoholic parents—serves as a tenuous excuse for both the play and Danny’s inexplicably intense rage. The highly specialized details of what ostensibly infuriates Danny only come out late in the evening and occurred decades before his birth; of his mother’s marriage and his upbringing, we’re told next to nothing. His grandfather, whom he never knew, is a significant presence onstage, his father barely mentioned. And although Danny declares at the outset, “This is my story,” the evening is full of scenes he couldn’t have witnessed or in many cases known anything about, like those involving a sturdy nurse (Liza Colón-Zayas) and a caustic-tongued orderly (David Zayas), both supplied with convenient hearts of gold. Lacking Guirgis’s family-therapy impetus, Shayne’s musical fends off Marcy’s stasis alternately with feisty attempts at intervention in flashback from her mother and sister, and caustic interjections from the equally adrift pair of female friends at the next table (Mary-Pat Green and Janet Carroll), whom the waiter neglects in favor of the hapless heroine.
Philip Seymour Hoffman directs Guirgis’s play, as always, with plow-ahead energy and a canny aptitude for switching on actors’ internal mechanisms; he has the advantage here of a script somewhat stronger on interaction than Guirgis’s usual loose anthology of actors’ party pieces. Burstyn, in a mainly reactive role, blends frailty and gutsiness with the practiced ease of a master chef whipping up his signature sauce. Shannon tackles his florid outbursts with equally consummate skill, particularly well abetted by Zayas, Arthur French as a genial elderly cop, and Elizabeth Canavan as Danny’s equally overwrought sister. Matters are less exciting at Marcy, where the steady, quiet exactitude of director Jack Cummings III’s approach, so useful in scripts that carry stronger dramatic weight, makes this already bland material seem downright sedated. Champlin works hard, with touching results; still, Green, Carroll, and particularly the vivacious Ralston—all skilled hands blessed with more assertive roles—can’t help but steal the evening from her.