Thursday, June 20, 2019

Arriving in Vietnam

On the morning of the fourth day the dawn light daubed our faces as we came down the skies of Cochin-China*.  The passengers were squirming in their seats, not sleeping and not waking, and the air-hostess’s trained smile came stiffly.  With engines throttled back the plane dropped from sur-Alpine heights in a tremorless glide, settling in the new, morning air of the plains like a dragonfly on the surface of a calm lake.  As the first rays of the sun burst through the magenta mists that lay among the horizon, the empty sketching of the child’s painting book open beneath us received a wash of green.  Now lines were ruled lightly across it.  A yellow penciling of roads and blue of canals.
A colonel of the Foreign Legion awoke uneasily, struggling with numbed, set facial muscles to regain that easy expression of good-fellowship of a man devoted to the service of violence...
      - Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China (1951)

* Vietnam

Thursday, June 13, 2019


Most people go through life using up half their energy trying to protect a dignity they never had.
   - Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953)

Friday, June 07, 2019

Seattle Rep: Tiny Beautiful Things

I recently saw Tiny Beautiful Things at the Seattle Repertory.  It was awful, just terrible.  Between 2010 and 2012 author Cheryl Strayed worked as an advice columnist for the website The Rumpus; her nom de plume there was Sugar.  She was very good at this job and soon developed a big following.  In 2012 she published a collection of her advice-column correspondence under the name Tiny Beautiful Things.  That book is the source for this adaptation by Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

The play is set in Sugar's apartment, where she reads the letters which pop-up on her laptop.  Three people on stage act as the letter writers; they go in and out of various characters.  Sugar is a winning confidant.  When people present her with their life problems - adultery, depression, miscarriages, etc. - she usually responds with a story or confession of her own.  Her advice is exactly what one would expect - upbeat, affirmational, heart-felt, etc.  

If you are (or were) a fan of those confessional daytime TV shows - Jerry Springer, Maury Pauvich, Sally Jesse Raphael, etc. - then this play is for you.  It has the same earnest banality.  Someone tells Sugar their problem.  Then she relates an anecdote from her own life and delivers advice of TED-talk-esque depth - believe in yourself, you have more strength than you know, you inspire me, etc.  Then on to the next letter - and so on for an hour and forty minutes.  It's all very easy, neat, simple to digest.  But the more I thought about this play, the more I disliked it.  In no other art has the human condition been put forward more starkly than in theater, yet this play is little more than a parade of pat and facile answers to the difficulties of life.  And if you believe that theater has something important to say about being human (and I do) then there's something off-putting, even offensive, about Sugar's ultimately shallow responses in the face of suffering.  No doubt if we dropped her into the end of King Lear she'd tell the old duffer that his courage under his misfortunes is an inspiration to her, that his love is greater than his grief, etc.  If she popped in at the end of The Iceman Cometh she'd let everyone in the saloon know that the resilience they'd shown over the past few days fills her hope and optimism, and that, deep down, all of them, especially Hickey, need to learn to forgive themselves.  And I'm sure she'd have some uplifting words for Oedipus: "Don't be so hard on yourself.  So you have a thing for MILFs..."

Julie Briskman, Charles Leggett, Chantal DeGroat, and Justin Huertas (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

Sugar is very candid and open about her own life but I'm not sure that serves her well.  At one point she admits that her grandfather sexually abused her.  Apparently he made her give him handjobs when she was between the ages of two and five.  This obviously fucked her up.  Years later, she dealt with this trauma in an unusual, and for me a very questionable, way.  One day when she was outside she came across a newly hatched bird that had fallen out of its nest and onto the ground.  She picked it up (which she knew automatically meant that its mother wouldn't acknowledge or care for it).  Then she put the little birdling in a paper bag and smothered it to death.  The writhing of the struggling creature against her hands somehow recalled grampy's flaccid penis.  Eventually the bird stopped moving.  This experience was cathartic for Sugar (though, one imagines, less so for the bird).  Although at this point, if I, too, may be candid, I had to ask myself "Is this really someone I should be taking advice from?"

The most powerful letter is one from a man whose 22-year-old son was killed in a car accident.  It’s a missive of pain, grief, and anger.  Effectively it constitutes a long confessional monologue, and it’s a genuine tour de force for the actor performing it.  Charles Leggett plays it in this production and, like a dog with a bone, once he gets hold of it he ain't letting go.  He stammers, hems and haws, pauses very pregnantly.  He's very good - and I do mean that seriously.  As the letter goes on, he starts blubbering.  Then everyone in the audience starts blubbering too.  How could we not?  Sugar starts to give him her advice, and soon there's more waterworks in the audience. It’s so sad.  And yet - thinking about it later - there was something cheap about the whole thing.  Cheap and sordid.  Like when they shot Old Yeller in the movie just to get a roomful of kids to cry.  Ultimately, it felt very manipulative.

Charles Leggett and Julie Briskman (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

So, with the writers I find fault, but I don't find any with with the actual production itself.  The actors are all very good.  It would be hard to imagine a better Sugar than Julie Briskman.  The moment she walked onstage the entire audience warmed to her.  I've already praised Charles Leggett as one of the letter readers; the other two - Chantal DeGroat and Justin Huertas - are equally good, even if they don't have quite the show-stopper that he has.  The set design by L.B. Morse wonderfully captures the ordinariness in which most of us live our lives (no matter how messy), and the lighting by Robert Aguilar manages to sculpt the action and provide a sense of variety to what is essentially a very static play.  Despite this play's shortcomings director Courtney Sale did a commendable job.

Tiny Beautiful Things will play at the Seattle Repertory Theatre until June 23rd.