Lucas Hnath

Left to Their Own Devices

Review of A Doll’s House, Part 3, Wesleyan Center for the Arts

Those two video-theater boys are back! Michael (Breslin) and Patrick (Foley)—the duo responsible for This American Wife, a playful video-theater piece that debuted as a short at the Yale Cabaret’s Satellite Festival, then progressed to the Cabaret’s season 50, then made quite a splash at New York Theatre Workshop Next Door last summer—bring their second video-performance piece, A Doll’s House, Part 3, to the Wesleyan Center for the Arts for a one-night-stand. The show is part of a theater program, “Hyperbole in Performance,” hosted by Wesleyan. The play debuted at Ars Nova ANT Fest last June in New York.

Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley

Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley

Fans of This American Wife may feel a reassuring familiarity—yes, the show has Michael and Patrick and video cameras, and the show is abetted by their frequent collaborators, Catherine María “Cat” Rodríguez and dramaturg Ariel Sibert. But, unlike Wife, Doll’s House isn’t all about its creators. Michael and Patrick, in pageboy wigs and boyish shorts and bowties, play the two brothers abandoned when Nora Helmer famously walked out on her husband Torvald at the close of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Patrick is Ivar, the brunette, and Michael is Bob, the blonde. Ivar has issues, claiming to identify as Italian due to the month or so the family spent in Tuscany while he was a toddler. Voicing a reassuring mantra—“Feelings are facts”—Bob, after initially dismissing his brother’s difference, validates Ivar’s Italian identity. The argument is delivered with a very amusing—and very catty—invocation of hyper-sensitivity and the always fraught path to making one’s obsessions socially acceptable.

This is the third iteration of M+P’s Doll’s House and, from what I understand, the first and now the third include second-year Yale School of Drama actor Zoe Mann as the brothers’ younger sister, Emmy. The boys, naturally, are theater-struck and spend most of their time enacting choreography—a tarantella routine—they are at pains, with short tempers and abuse bordering on hysteria, to teach to Emmy. Off to one side of the stage at her own camera and laptop, Rodríguez, as Content Kween, operates some of the tech and breaks in from time to time with seemingly freeform reminiscence while applying make-up on camera. Kween’s narrative trades in the dark side of sibling rivalry as she recounts episodes of torture, involving waterboarding, between herself and her sister.

The notion of torture as a family event seems to be the main idea here, as the Helmer children torture themselves and each other with the glaring absence of Mom. Michael and Patrick assure the audience that they haven’t read nor seen Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 (he’s referred to a few times as “the writer with a ponytail”), but it’s entirely fitting that they should enact the two characters absent from “Part 2.” In the original A Doll’s House, of course, the children are little and if they appear onstage are played by child-actors. In Hnath’s revisiting, only Emmy, as a young adult, appears. The boys, clearly, have been suppressed, and that’s reason enough for Michael and Patrick to use their unique brand of video/performance art to bring Bob and Ivar to life.

The best bits have to do with the unreal world of theater as conceived by the brothers, all the while insisting on “realism.” Ivar lip-synchs on camera with impressive precision to “What’s the Use of Wonderin’” from Carousel and, early on, dominates a microphone to give us a sense of unsettling intimacy, attempting to trigger Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Foley plays Ivar as borderline psychotic, the most unstable of the kids and the one who needs things to be a certain way to support his sense of his own stardom.

Breslin’s Bob is a shade more unassuming. He has a knack for enacting a kid utterly caught up in a fantasy world, only to have to shake himself out of it for one of his brother’s tirades or something more mundane. His pet peeve is theater folks, particularly actors, but perhaps authors of new plays even more. His on-camera monologue as a hotel clerk bristling at a theater person trying to check in digs at the pretensions of actors and the kind of careerist moves a writer trying to cash-in on a classic might well indulge in. It’s scary and hilarious.

Near the end, Emmy gets her big moment, an impassioned speech at the camera, addressed to her brothers and, by extension, the sensibility of the two impresarios behind this piece. Mann runs deliberately in and out of character, or rather blends her own voice with her character’s—much as M+P do as well—in service to a wit’s-end protest at the way her character is construed by the play. She works through her ire, coming—with a benign though possibly tongue-in-cheek vision—to an understanding of what’s required of her. She’s forced to be Mom, and that’s a part impossible for her to ever get right. And so she gets to be the whipping-girl forever, unless she learns to dominate the scenario.

Throughout there are digs aplenty at the Yale School of Drama, as the program that has fostered everyone involved with the show, and one of the more beguiling aspects of Doll’s House, Part 3, is the tantalizing glimpse of the fractious world “behind the scenes.” Not only backstage at plays, but in the rehearsal and workshop rooms, the spaces that, as a kind of dollhouse world of make believe, seem to suggest the possibility of remaking the world in one’s own image while being subjected, at each step of the way, to the dominant focus in the room.

As a form of child’s play—acting out to cope with trauma and loss—the piece has its therapeutic gestures; as a form of critique, written to cope with the unnerving path to theatrical success, A Doll’s House, Part 3, is both funny and sad, vicious and vulnerable, a routine and a ritual where tragedy means forever going unseen by the one viewer you want desperately to reach. As dramaturg Ariel Sibert writes in the show’s notes: “All claims to the Real are pleas for redemption.”

 

A Doll’s House, Part 3
By Michael + Patrick
In collaboration with Catherine María Rodríguez, Zoe Mann, and Ariel Sibert

Producer: Rachel Shuey; Stage Manager: Devin Fletcher; Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Krista Smith; Sound Design: Michael Costagliola; Beats: Ashley Jean Vanicek

Cast: Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley, Zoe Mann, Catherine María Rodríguez

Hyberbole in Performance is a collaboration between the Center for the Humanities, the Center for the Arts, and the Theater Department at Wesleyan University

Ring Family Performing Arts Hall
Wesleyan University
February 14, 2019

Look Who's Back

Review of A Doll’s House, Part 2, TheaterWorks

Lucas Hnath’s popular revisiting of one of Henrik Ibsen’s best-known plays—A Doll’s House—receives two productions in Connecticut this season. First up, it’s at TheaterWorks, directed by Jenn Thompson, through February 24, and as the season closer at Long Wharf in May (the two productions are not related).

Alexander Hodge’s set for A Doll’s House, Part 2, at TheaterWorks (photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Alexander Hodge’s set for A Doll’s House, Part 2, at TheaterWorks (photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

On the intimate stage at TheaterWorks, on a set by Alexander Hodge that combines Ibsen-era furnishings with a modernist design of neon frames, a series of encounters that mark the return of the former Mrs. Nora Helmer (Tasha Lawrence) to the home she walked out of—so defiantly, memorably, and, one thought, irrevocably—are front and center. The force of the knock upon the door that opens the play relies on our grasp of how final that very door’s slam, back in the 1870s, had been. What follows brings to light all that was never said between the Helmers before, and much that serves to fill in the blanks of what has happened since Nora’s last appearance in the house.

The knock is answered by the housemaid Anne Marie (Amelia White), shocked and surprised to see her old mistress, and the way the two navigate the great gaps in what they know of each other gets us off to a vivid start. Nora, who is dressed expensively in Alejo Vietti’s period costume, has much to pride herself on. She is a success—an author of novels for a dedicated female readership. When she treats Anne Marie to a quick précis of how her books attempt to blow the lid off the inequities of marriage, we’re glad of the housemaid’s subtly caustic responses. Nora has become rather pedantic, and it’s up to Anne Marie to express our lack of amazement in her views. White turns in a finely modulated performance: as the first character to use the profanity so automatic in our day, she deftly takes up a contemporary view that feels earned—and armed against Nora’s rhetoric.

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Anne Marie (Ameila White)

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Anne Marie (Ameila White)

The question that would nag at an audience of Ibsen’s day (and ours)—what of the children?—shows up almost automatically as we listen to Nora justify her moves and her total remove from the lives of her two sons and a daughter, an infant when Nora left. Nora doesn’t want to make their acquaintance and wouldn’t be paying this visit at all but for a major complication. Though freed of the tasks of motherhood and the duties of a wife, Nora has recently found out to her dismay that she is still legally married to Torvald. This makes her guilty of fraud, to say nothing of being liable to charges of moral turpitude, for having conducted herself as a single woman all these years. When Anne Marie rebukes Nora for the fact that it fell to her to be the caregiver to her absent mistress’s children, we glimpse the class element in Nora’s privilege, a factor that doesn’t always surface in more celebratory receptions of Nora’s act of abandonment.

The tension between the satisfactions of Nora’s rebellious act, in the original, and her status as a matter-of-fact business woman trying to get on with her career, in the sequel, lands as a look askance at how far she still has not gotten. That aspect of Hnath’s script plays believably as sequel, as Torvald (Sam Gregory), when we meet him, is as completely self-absorbed as ever. Gregory gets in a few nicely deadpan non-reactions to the new Nora, and, by the end, there is a grudging kind of rapport. That’s the note that resonates longest after the play ends; like a fulfillment of how children might wish their separated parents would find closure.

Emmy (Kira Player), Nora (Tasha Lawrence)

Emmy (Kira Player), Nora (Tasha Lawrence)

Which brings us to the Helmer’s child, Emmy, featured in the play, in Kira Player’s strong performance, as a very self-possessed and decisive young woman, much more so, we should see, than Nora was at her age. And yet what Emmy is determined to do is marry, as if in contempt of all her mother has learned and achieved. While not quite a battle of wills, there is a sense that the two women are facing off over a vision of what fulfillment means and how to attain it. The subterfuges proposed on how Emmy might aid her mother in getting around her father (Torvald has no interest in giving Nora a divorce) give us more a sense of strategy than of character.

There’s an odd tension between Hnath’s script and the naturalistic style of Thompson’s direction. The script’s rhythms, one senses, could be delivered without so deliberate a sense of a plausible social space somewhere between Ibsen’s time and ours. Any awkwardness in that overlay should be intentional but in the TheaterWorks production significantly abrasive tones rarely surface. Not even Torvald entering with a gushing head wound upsets the even-handed mise en scène.

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Torvald (Sam Gregory)

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Torvald (Sam Gregory)

Tasha Lawrence plays Nora as a strong-willed woman with scant sympathy for what others might expect of her. She has struggled to attain her self-possession, so that relinquishing it for a more emotionally needy version of herself is not in the cards. Lawrence sheds tears only once, late in the play, and the brief loss of composure is telling. Nora has realized she’s freer than she had imagined, that—in the manner of a modern woman of the 21st century—she must make her way without the sentimental attachments that still cling to her in the Helmer household. The fact that Torvald, after all this time, is finally able to accept her departure doesn’t arrive as quite the heavy-handed moral it might have. Gregory does fine work as a man who, almost too old to care, can still be amazed by the way a woman—and that his wife—can shake him. Their closing dialogue is the best part of the play, which at times can feel like a scene trying to stretch itself into a full-length play.

An interesting revisiting of familiar territory, Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 is never as striking or illuminating as one might like. It seems at times to run a checklist of possible complications while making sure its heroine’s heroism is never compromised by anything like regret.

 

A Doll’s House, Part 2
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Jenn Thompson

Set Design: Alexander Hodge; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Director: Eric Ort; Associate Set Design: Ann Beyersdorfer; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Sam Gregory, Tasha Lawrence, Kira Player, Amelia White

TheaterWorks
January 17-February 24, 2019

No Request Is Too Extreme

Review of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, New Haven Theater Company

New Haven Theater Company’s current offering is the kind of play that intrigues almost as much as it amuses. Why Walt Disney?, we might ask. The answer seems to be that he’s larger than life—or at least his legacy is—and everyone knows his name, whether or not they know anything else about him. And name recognition is the name of the game, in show-biz.

It’s also the case that author Lucas Hnath includes some choice bits from the rumors circulating about “Uncle Walt.” Like that bit about the lemmings being catapulted off a cliff by turntables for a nature documentary. Or his interest in the ability of cryogenics to freeze a human head and resuscitate it after a synthetic body could be created for its use. Or the way he treated his brother Roy, or daughter Diane and her husband Ron. Or the problem of the tree that had to remain on the site of Disney World.

In A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, Disney is a colorful character, to say the least, and, as enacted by J. Kevin Smith, he’s a hoot. Not a figure of fun so much as a figure for something we might imagine to be indicative of American tastes and interests. He’s a wry example of our need to be the best at something, and to make our achievements seem important and unprecedented.

Walt Disney (J. Kevin Smith)

Walt Disney (J. Kevin Smith)

In Hnath’s play, directed by Drew Gray, Walt is a successful man who is remarkably insecure, a family man who is remarkably alone, a creative person who feels that his trademark works—that famous mouse, for instance—aren’t really serious or enduring, a creator of films known for their emotion and humor who often seems unfeeling and lacking in any sense of humor. He’s complex and a spout of words and attitudes, and Smith’s rendering is a high-water mark in this actor’s work with NHTC. Smith often plays a bristly type and here he gets to take that as far as it can go. Smoking, drinking, pill-popping, pacing, Smith’s Disney is a wreck waiting to happen.

The play isn’t really about finding out what makes Walt tick so much as it’s about seeing how Walt winds down bit by bit, his health failing and his will to go on causing him to flail about, seizing upon his staunchly stoical brother Roy (Steve Scarpa, mostly poker-faced or pained) or his servile son-in-law Ron (Trevor Williams, a cipher trying to be whatever Walt wants him to be). Of course, Disney’s insistence on a male heir apparent means he passes over his daughter (Melissa Smith, tensely tried by her ties to the old man). Her refusal to name any of her sons—she has three—after her father pretty much says it all, but then there’s her reasoning about it, which liberally rubs salt into the wound. We could say she has some issues with her dad, but it’s more like being his daughter is simply a test, always.

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Ron (Trevor Williams), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Ron (Trevor Williams), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

We might, reasonably, wonder why we should care about a man so long gone. His brand went on without him, hit the skids a bit and then revived to, basically, conquer all of entertainment in our time. Besides owning all those lucrative properties originated by Disney and his studios and affiliates, the company now also owns the Star Wars franchise and the Marvel Comics franchise. Which means that the company Disney founded generally commands the top three, or more, of the top grossing films in just about any year.

And that may be Hnath’s point: we can’t escape him, if we care at all about American filmed entertainment, and so there must be some way to cut him down to size, to humanize him, to get his blood—literally, as we see him cough mouthfuls into hankies—and guts on the stage. Disney comes across as a relentless striver, driven to do what only he can do. His list of who watches his films includes the all-American actress Doris Day and fascist enemies like Mussolini and Hitler. He’s proud of it all. It’s not about Right or Left, or right or wrong, it’s about global reach.

The conceit that we’re watching a reading of a screenplay means that, first of all, everyone is still “on book,” ostensibly, and it also means that there’s plenty of use of phrases like “cut to”—not a stage direction but a screenplay direction. And yet the “cuts” aren’t really cuts and the film that may or may not be in Walt’s head rarely resorts to visual language. There are a few moments, most notably the close, where the screenplay idea works best. Otherwise, it just seems an odd tic of the dialogue; at best, a way of helping the actors keep the pace, at worst a gimmick.

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Roy (Steve Scarpa), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Roy (Steve Scarpa), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

Smith and Scarpa get the rhythmic patter dead on, a kind of snappy overlapping of verbal cues and reactions where the comment of one often gets finished or deflected by the other. With the younger generation, Smith’s Disney is more contentious because more determined to have his way. As Disney’s daughter, Melissa Smith gives as good as she gets, seeming to be a sore spot for her father and able to use that to advantage. Williams’ Ron seems mostly to be trying to keep his head above water, finding himself primed for the job of studio head when Walt needs to use Roy as a fall guy.

Somewhere in all the give-and-take, we may suppose a lesson about the carnage that lurks behind even the most beloved accomplishments. And yet the play isn’t a character assassination of Disney, it’s more like a cartoon treatment, comparable to his early creations. Disney is as irascible as Donald Duck, as flighty as Goofy, and as challenged as Mickey’s generally chagrined efforts at control. In other words, Disney gets the Disney treatment and, to quote the creation of a rival studio, “th-th-that’s all, folks!”

 

The play has four more showings, this Wednesday through Saturday. Wednesday's show is "pay what you can."

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney
By Lucas Hnath
Directed and designed by Drew Gray

Cast: Steve Scarpa, J. Kevin Smith, Melissa Smith, Trevor Williams

New Haven Theater Company
NHTC Stage @ EBM 839 Chapel Street, New Haven
November 8, 9, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, 2017

Exhuming Walt Disney

Preview of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, New Haven Theater Company

What does the name “Walt Disney” make you think of?  Cute little animated figures? The Mickey Mouse Club? The founder of a vast entertainment conglomerate? An affable old gent on Sunday night television? Architect of state of the art amusement parks? Eccentric who wanted to freeze his corpse for eventual resurrection? A cipher behind a brand?

DSC_0092_preview.jpeg

To J. Kevin Smith, playing a guy most people call “Walt,” in the New Haven Theater Company’s latest production, Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, brings to mind the phrase “creative genius.” Walt, for Smith as for most of us, is the figure behind “beautiful animation, classic films, and also a fatherly figure” on The Wonderful World of Disney, which ran for decades but, if you were alive before Disney’s death in 1966, chances are you saw Walt himself on the show.

That kindly view of Disney is one Smith shares with most people; he fondly mentioned the Mouseketeers and those great theme parks. But Smith, who for years in the 1980s worked as a sales rep/manager/director handling video-cassette distribution, the Disney company stands for a very “aggressive” approach to protecting copyrights and maintaining “the image of the brand.” “And for good reason,” Smith pointed out, “Disney lost the rights to some of his early cartoon shorts,” so the need to protect his intellectual property from theft by his studio’s many competitors was quite real.

For Smith, though, it’s important to see how that level of commitment “permeated his creative life, and caused fall out with his family,” making Disney “not always the most likeable guy.” Smith sees him in the company of other of our favorite “driven” success stories, men like Steve Jobs, Nicholas Tesla.

J. Kevin Smith as Walt Disney

J. Kevin Smith as Walt Disney

Lucas Hnath, an up-and-coming playwright who won an Obie award for his best-known play Red Speedo, grew up minutes from Disney World in Orlando, Florida. His play gives us a comic take on a family drama in which Disney gathers relations together to prepare them for his death. “In a sense,” Smith says, “the play is about Disney, as written and performed by others, and it’s also a script as if written by Disney for his family.” The cast consists of Smith as Disney, Steve Scarpa as Walt’s brother Roy, Melissa Smith as Walt’s daughter, and Trevor Williams as her husband Ron Miller.

The script, Smith said, is “mostly dialogue in which characters speak back and forth and past each other in short bursts.” The challenge, he said, is “to get and keep the rhythm, to figure out how to make the stylized speech natural to [the characters] and keep it consistent.” The conceit of the play is that Disney is actually reading the script with his family, but the audience may not be sure when something is in the alleged script or not.

The play is directed by the NHTC’s resident playwright Drew Gray who did a great job directing Trevor, the troupe’s most off-beat offering thus far, last spring. The kinds of plays that attract NHTC can’t really be pigeon-holed. They’ve had great success with classics like William Inge’s Bus Stop, with more contemporary plays like Will Eno’s Middletown and Rachel Axler’s Smudge, and with small-cast plays like Proof and Doubt and Speed the Plow. They’ve also succeeded with big cast plays like Our Town and Urinetown. Last fall, the troupe gave a special staged reading of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, an aptly chosen offering. Now, they are back with another “reading” of sorts. The focus on a rich, successful man, something of a megalomaniac, may seem all too apt as well.

Disney, as Smith reminded me, “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and expressed his view that the union that tried to mount a strike at Disney Studios was organized by Communists. Smith called Disney “a complicated guy,” and said the play shows “the downside” of his success “but does not limit its view to that.” Smith mentioned that “things included in the script are not necessarily factual” but derive “from the folklore” of “Uncle Walt.”

Smith said his performance is not a mimicry of Disney and that he’s eager to have a lead role in a production, which hasn’t been the case since his performance as the satanic stranger in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer. Steve Scarpa read Hnath’s play two years ago and said it was “like nothing I’ve ever seen before” and “something we could do really well.”

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work they go.

 

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Drew Gray
New Haven Theater Company
November 8th, 9th, 11th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th
The NHTC stage @ English Building Markets, 839 Chapel Street