Last week I saw the film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and enjoyed it. I was surprised to discover, though, how much it had in common with the later film The Trip. Both are Michael Winterbottom films that allow actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon to improvise fictional, unflattering versions of themselves.
In Tristram Shandy, though, their banter serves their exploration of the novel they are supposedly trying to adapt. In The Trip, the banter is the entire point, and that quickly becomes unpleasant to watch. It doesn’t matter if Coogan really is fame-hungry and self-absorbed, as long as we can look away from him and see something else. We can’t do that in The Trip.
I found the Jesse Eisenberg play Asuncion dull for the same reason: we aren’t given the opportunity to see anything else in the play besides Eisenberg’s clueless central character. It’s perfectly valid for Eisenberg’s Edgar to be pathetically narcissistic, but that’s all we get. I know some people will sit through a bad play to see a great performance, but Eisenberg gives us neither. (Asuncion isn’t bad, just flimsy.)
Then again, I have the opposite problem. I’m juggling a few projects right now that that require strong characters, but I’ve written no one who isn’t even-tempered. I should be so lucky to have an obnoxious, abrasive character that threatens to take over the entire play. I want that threat, I just don’t want that result.
While they bother no one else, I loathe the period in a play between when one scene ends and another begins.
Scene changes! They all happen the same way: the sound designer plays a flaccid jingle, the lighting designer shows off, the man down the aisle coughs, and the woman in front of you nudges her husband. Maybe you see some stagehands.
It’s awful. In these precious seconds, the theatrical spell is broken and must be re-cast in the following scene. The play dies in the minds of you and everyone else in the theatre. I can feel it dying. I don’t want to feel that.
Every time I write a play that has scenes, I write in damage control—something that might keep the play alive and its pulse regular. The scene changes in The Cloak Of Horus! are essentially fictional. In As You Wish, the stage rarely goes completely dark; during most of the first act, Aladdin is together with the Princess only during scene changes.
I’m writing something now with transitions that I want to be As You Wish-style, but it isn’t as easy with a play that only has one storyline to follow.
But I have to do it. My plays must live unbroken lives, and that means no man in the audience can be permitted to clear his throat. Basically, I want to engage in breathplay with the entire audience. If my fingers aren’t gripping your neck, why even bother to write anything?
When I see a terrible play about angsty Caucasians who are wealthier than me, I usually walk out of it muttering one thing:
“Kill all white people.”
Healthy thoughts! And that’s why I have to avoid most off-Broadway and Broadway work.
I’ve heard good things about David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish from my friends (and Lieutenant Sulu), so I might give in and see it. After all, the play has a cast of five Chinese characters and two white guys.
So if I see it and hate it, the worst I can say is, “Kill those two white guys. And kill all Chinese people.”
Wait, that’s not any better….