Not timeless...simply annoying
Okay I’m lucky ‘cause recently I got to go to New York City, and I’m especially lucky because the group I went with was hosted by one of Vancouver’s best jazz musicians, Cory Weeds, who showed us all the secret jazz hot spots in the city. I even felt lucky when I wasn’t discovering jazz and instead was sneaking away one evening to watch a reprise of Wallace Shawn’s 1978 play Marie and Bruce. How fabulous to be seeing a smart New York writers’ play in the big apple itself, especially when it was starring the Oscar-winning actress, Marisa Tomei.
But by the time I was in the lobby of the off-Broadway Acorn Theatre reading some of the posters of past productions, I felt my luck begin to slip. The production I was about to see was being mounted by the New Group, and the posters revealed a history of productions by the New Group including several plays by Wallace Shawn, directed by Scott Elliott (who was also directing the play I was about to see), and which very often starred Frank Whaley (who was to play the part of Bruce). I started thinking cynical things like God, everywhere it’s a closed circle… even the greats have to band together … when do the little grunts like me get to have a show … why do Wallace Shawn and Frank Whaley need a group … I think you get the drift. A little more dread slipped in when they announced the production time was nearly two hours with no intermission and the lineup at the women’s washroom grew exponentially. The cynic in me nearly said out loud, Afraid to let us out in case we don’t come back?
Sometimes my inner voice is off, but not this time. The play that I had expected to be timeless was quite simply annoying. It wasn’t the actors’ fault. They were good actors trapped in an unpleasant play about old-fashioned Yuppie existentialism. I don’t want to spend time with these kind of people in real life, so what do I do when I encounter them in the theatre? I fall asleep. As did the man beside me, unlike the woman on the other side who started checking her text messages halfway in. When it was over, before the very brief smattering of applause had even finished, the people behind me stood up, and one of them said in her most out-loud voice, “That was appalling.”
It wasn’t until I was in the lobby afterward, milling about trying to eavesdrop, that the penny dropped on why even Wallace Shawn needs his group. Frank Whaley the male lead in the show came out into the lobby and everyone sort of cleared a circle around him. Finally an acquaintance of his came forward and shook his hand. Frank looked exhausted and he simply said, “That’s a really tough play to be in.” Of course it was, how could I have forgotten that? And whether it’s one of Wallace Shawn’s best plays or not, it’s really tough for him to put his words on the line and ask other people to stand up and read them, let alone ask an actor to breath life into them. We all need our groups. It’s something I learn every time I sit down with our Unblocked A group and one or the other of us trots out a new play. The writer almost always begins with some sort of caveat. “It’s not really finished… I’m hoping you can tell me if you get it … I’m even wondering myself what it’s about.” We all have to have a safe place to land.
Lenore Rowntree’s writing has been published in several Canadian literary journals and magazines. Her poetry was included in the anthology Best Canadian Poetry 2010 and her self-published collection of children’s poetry won a gold medal in 2007 from the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards. She was nominated for a CBC literary award in creative non-fiction in 2009, and her play The Woods at Tender Creek was produced in 2010 as part of the Walking Fish Festival. She is the co-editor of a collection of essays with a working title of Into the Bell Jar to be published by Brindle & Glass in 2012.