Friday, March 07, 2008

opening-night review of *Crimes of the Heart*

at the Civic’s Studio Theater, through March 30

BLACK Comedy

*Crimes of the Heart* as exaggerated Southern Gothic: For too long, Beth Henley’s 1979 play (and 1981 Pulitzer winner) has been performed as a gathering of Mississippi freaks to gawk at. Lordy, those three Magrath sisters — they play the fool around the men folk, then wonder why their lives are so ridiculous and end up by sticking their heads in ovens. Somebody ought to whomp them upside the head, knock some sense into them. Laughable little ladies, is what they are.
In his director’s notes in this production’s program, George Green talks about “avoiding stereotypes” and about his desire to bring out the “sincere” emotions of the “real people” whom Henley has created. Green evidently wants to prevent audiences from dismissing the good-hearted if wacky residents of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, as little more than oddballs. And his intentions are good: The Magrath women, and their beaux, and their pursed-lips society girl of a mean-spirited cousin are more than just cartoons.
But the attempt to restore gravitas to a play that’s been seen as mostly comic creates a serious imbalance in the Studio Theater production at the Civic (through March 30): It’s an overreaction, resulting in a show that’s too heavy on the depressing details and too light on the comedy of bizarre contrasts that Henley wrote in.

Early on, a sheepish ex-lover (Doug Dawson) of one of the sisters shows up briefly to scope out if Meg (Nancy Gasper) — the one who’s gone off to L.A. to pursue a singing career — might still be available. His interview with the responsible, borderline-spinster eldest of the three Magraths, Lenny (Chasity Kohlman) is played at a somber pace, with heads bowed and movements slow. Without any guidance from the actors in the early going that *Crimes* is going to be a black comedy or tragicomedy, the scene translates as overly gloomy.
Lenny, meanwhile, is sad because she’s turning 30 and she’s alone. There’s a little running joke about how her pathetic attempts to celebrate her own birthday by herself keep getting interrupted — but by not highlighting the scene’s comic potential, the audience’s main impression is one of loneliness.
A woman singing “Happy Birthday” to herself while staring at a single candle stuck in a cookie could be funny, could be sad. The early minutes of any play, after all, need to set its tone. If Kohlman displayed more frantic gestures — more exaggerated sadness — about Lenny’s turning 30, then the audience would have a guide: Tonight we’re going to see both moods, both seriousness and comedy. But there’s no guidance given here — with the uncomfortable result that for long stretches of Act One, it felt like a funeral inside the Studio Theatre. The audience was quiet; they weren’t sure whether they could laugh or when; it was all so depressing.
The Magrath women confront Big Problems: murder, addiction, abuse, suicide, adultery, divorce, disappointment, loneliness, depression. Henley’s achievement was to give those their weight, but in an absurd and amusing way. Again and again, Green’s directing choices override the comic potential to emphasize the pathos and the seriousness instead — making a black comedy mostly all black and without much comedy.
If, instead, Green’s cast confronted death and disappointment with more frantic mannerisms, audience members would feel as if they’d been permitted to laugh at sobering material. It’s sort of like this: Confront death, but with comic mannerisms. That way, we’ll feel reassured that Henley’s characters, who are likeable, after all, aren’t going to be overwhelmed by their grief.

The description of the exact circumstances of the mother’s suicide (16 years ago), for example, should arrive as an absurdist jolt. The report of her death needs to seem faintly ridiculous; instead, here it’s just depressing. And there are too many lost comic opportunities as the evening wears on. The accumulation of depressing details — instead of leavening the sadness along with a few jokes — makes this version of *Crimes* feel, often, like something to be endured and not savored.
It’s almost as if somebody forgot to account for the presence of the audience, as if somebody proposed doing *Crimes of the Heart* all serious without recalling that viewers need some signals about how some portions are meant to be funny.
Baby sister Babe (Ashley Cooper), we learn, has shot the most powerful man in town. And she has her reasons, we’ll discover. But when she shares the news with one of her sisters and they both seem awestruck instead of excited. “Awestruck” impresses listeners with the gravity of the offense: This must be serious stuff indeed. On the other hand, frantic “excitement” would expose a gap between an attempted murder and somebody being rather proud of herself that she had the gumption to pull off such an outrageous act. (And gaps like that lead to comedy.)
Later on, Babe starts pasting the local newspaper’s coverage of one of her misdeeds into her scrapbook, as if it were an accomplishment to be proud of. The gap in attitudes is there again — but the sequence, at least on opening night, wasn’t played for laughs at all.

It’s a very tricky balance, laughing at depressing behaviors, and while this show mostly drags and misses too many opportunities, there are scattered moments of success as well.
Kohlman has a couple of them, demonstrating how humor derives from a clash of perspectives. When Meg confesses that she’s merely had a clerical job out in LA., Lenny naively advises her sister that not having a show-business job is not going to do her any good at all. And in Act Two, Kohlman pulls off a nice comic surprise when her characters is angry at Meg for eating some of her food and for wandering off with another man again. Just when she’s about to yell at Meg for the adultery, she suddenly displaces her anger onto a nearby box of chocolates. The exaggerated arm-waving and refusal to face up to the more serious “crime” made Kohlman’s contribution here all the funnier.
This production needs more moments like that — and like Cooper’s coy encouragement of that cute lawyer (Luke Barats) who’s defending her and who is pursuing a “lifelong vendetta” against their legal opponent. She offers reassurance, he’s after vengeance, and the contrast is funny.
Some of the acting moments reach a high level. In the evening’s first example of exaggeration in the face of a serious threat, Cooper snaps her fingers disdainfully, dismissing her unseen, abusive husband just like that. (He bores her so much, she falls asleep, just like that.) Cooper’s account of how close Babe has come to suicide was persuasive: She really does understand the depths of despair in which her mother was trapped.
In the second act, when Meg and her ex-lover meet again, Dawson glares over the top of a bourbon glass with a look that’s a mixture of resentment and desire. Gasper and Cooper are effective in Meg and Babe’s final bucking-up scene, holding out hope even though lately they’ve gone through a string of really bad days. Barats seems too restrained in the early going, but he’s effective with his nervous tics and standing around at oblique angles whenever he’s around the Magrath sister he’s grown “fond” of.
And in general, the second act did a better job of mixing humor and pathos: With all the running around trying to commit suicide, and with all the sudden hilarity about characters (whom we never see) lapsing into a coma, it’s just a regular laugh-riot there for awhile.
As it should be. Oh, sure, Henley’s play is showing its age a bit: There’s too much exposition, for one thing — and that's deadly if, as in a production like this, we're overly concerned for the characters' happiness and not reminded enough of just what silly and absurd things they've made of their own lives. Also, too much is made of the lack-of-nourishment motif: What seemed, a quarter-century ago, like shorthand for Lenny's emotional starvation (she doesn't get to eat her cake, much less enjoy it too) now feels familiar from many plays since.
But the Henley's tale of the Magrath sisters — with their adulterous, violent, self-destructive, wandering ways — still combines serious commentary with laughable hijinks. The current Civic show emphasizes the serious side too much, shortchanging the comedy, and the result is that the sisters' recitations of their woes, minus the comedy, start to feel after awhile like a collection of soap opera scenes. While there are some scattered successful moments, the Civic's production of *Crimes* doesn't come near the difficult-to-attain peak of Henley's tragicomic outlook.

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At March 08, 2008 11:43 AM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Bobo really wanted to like this show more; he's sorry he didn't. He doesn't mean to be discouraging. Black comedy is tonally difficult. Bobo just thought that the direction over-emphasized the blackness at the expense of the comedy. An interesting experiment, but it distorts the show. One man's opinion. There are five paragraphs about how good the acting sometimes was; this is a mostly (but not entirely) unfavorable review.

He also hopes that no one expects that this 1,400-word blast is something publishable. Some nights he stares at blank screens, or can barely squeeze out a few hundred words, even on a second attempt. As it turned out, he had strong feelings about this production and wanted to explore them. This is sort of a long rough draft, and now it's time to cut it down to size.

At March 08, 2008 12:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just thought the whole thing was terrible,You disagreed with the directors choice, got it move on.You did a disservice to some very fine actors as well as the people who will have to read this biased critique.I thought your classes would have served you better,get ready for some strong reactions.

At March 09, 2008 11:55 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in the audience on opening and I read Jim's review (he was two seats from you). He got it right, Bobo. You have asked for opinion since going to the critic conference so this is my take for you (I hope you don't see this comment as punishable as well). You failed to see what this show truly accomplished. I think you completely misread the audience as well. The audience was engaged 100% of the time. I think Green took a very dated play that has been OVERPLAYED as a melodrama and turned it into an actor's piece. This blast on him sends a poor message to all artists. As artists we need to explore, we need to be daring and Green was just that. In my opinion this cast pulled it off perfectly. You have always reviewed shows on what you expect them to be rather than going in with an open mind and reviewing them for what they are or what they are striving to be. I think researching a show is important (obviously); but it is a weak point for you. You just can't seem to review a show properly if it is not what you expect to see - you tend to start turning negative instead of supportive. You are a pessimist - there's no doubt about that. It always seems that it's your way (what you expect the show to be) or the highway. Please take this constructively. Look, Green could have gone the melodrama route - this play is simple to direct that way / its simple to act that way... he and his cast chose the more difficult, challenging and rewarding route. I commend him and his crew for a job well done and as a talent in this area... I look forward to audition for him in the future!

At March 09, 2008 2:16 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Thanks for writing in -- it's great to keep discussion of theater lively. I'm absolutely on the side of people who are passionate enough about theater to post to a blog about it, as opposed to the vast majority of adults, who are indifferent to it.
ALL my critiques are biased; thinking and writing subjectively is the only thing any of us can do.
I don't think it's VERY dated, just somewhat so.
I think we have a miscommunication or misunderstanding about melodrama and black comedy.
I'll look up melodrama soon, but I take it to be a form of drama in which there's an emphasis on exciting incident over subtle charaterizations; the characters are stereotypes, and it's clear who's wearing the white hats and the black. As a result, it can be very involving in the moment (what will happen next?) but it vanishes from the mind soon after because it doesn't teach us anything new about human nature: bad guys have mustaches; evil will be (supposedly) punished while good will be rewarded, etc. Melodrama can be comforting because it reinforces many people's view of the world, that they've got it figured out.
But I don't think *Crimes of the Heart* is or should be a melodrama. I think it's a black comedy -- which tries to arouse a humorous responses to events or people who would normally shock or offend us. Why? IF you can get a playgoer taking an arm's-length, unsympathetic view of someone else's misfortune or tragedy, you get her to acknowledge that she is capable of the same heartless indifference as liars and cheaters and murderers. IN other words, theatergoers, in laughing at others' sadness, discover in themselves a capacity for coldheartedness -- not to encourage more of the same, but to cause us to realize that we are not different in KIND from liars, adulterers, cheaters, thieves, etc., but only different from them in DEGREE. Bad guys aren't ENTIRELY distinct from me: I have a bit of capacity for evil in myself. And that can lead to greater empathy, to more doubt, to less absolutism -- in a world full of red/blue talking heads and Shia/Shiite extremists, that's a valuable lesson. Yes, there are moral absolutes; I'm just skeptical that fallen humans have a good grasp on them; that falls to God and to those who make it to the next spiritual dimension.

I DID go on way too long about my differences with the director's vision; but as I said, this is only a very LONG rough draft, roughly twice as long as the space I'll get to fill in Thursday's paper. This time, as an experiment, I just jotted down everything I'd taken notes on and wanted to say. I knew it was going on and on. (It seems that I go on and on even in comment postings like this one. Ha!)
On experiments: I really admire George for taking his shot. He deserves a lot of credit for that, period. The attempt is praiseworthy, very much so. Some will see the experiment as successful; I didn't. Experiments don't NECESSARILY succeed; that's why there are usually a lot of them before someone gets things right. But IF this is an experiment, it deserves much credit just for the act of trying it out. I don't know if
You're right about judging/speaking for the audience's behavior. The chief critic at the L.A. Times told me that he never does it. It WAS quiet in there in Act One; they may have been because of audience involvement. But sometimes audiences are silent during a comedy because the jokes just aren't funny. In my view, they were involved to a degree -- but in much larger proportion, they were quiet because comic opportunities were lost. (I think Jim K. used almost that same phrase in his review, though of course I had to go on and on and make a much bigger deal out of it.)
Again, thanks for expressing your views. There were many things to admire in this show; for me, there was much more that was missing. But we're not ENTIRELY at odds in our opinions. I hope more people will write in, because I have met and/or acted with five of the six cast members and with George, and I respect and like all of them, and I don't want to do them or the production a disservice. I'm glad they took a shot at it.

At March 09, 2008 2:16 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the show yet, however, with your stated desire for "frantic mannerisms", I can only say I'm glad you didn't direct it! Frankly, unless you are doing something like farce or Restoration Comedy, "mannerisms" are something we actors try to avoid.

At March 09, 2008 8:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quote from our own blog entry on how to be a critic:

"Don't criticize the show for what it isn't trying to do. Review the show you saw, NOT the show you wish it were."

At March 10, 2008 10:30 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where we in the same theatre? I saw the show on opening night and it was quite funny. The audience did not seem to have any trouble laughing during the first act. In fact they seemed to find most of the normally "inappropriate" areas of the play hillarious. Also, just wanted to let you know that I didn't agree with your opinion that the character "Doc" comes by to see if "Meg" is still available. I thought he came by to let "Lenny" know that her animal had died. Sorry, but for some reason that little bit of info made me wonder if you were paying attention to some of the content of the play.

At March 10, 2008 2:16 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again, I have to disagree. The show I saw was a very well- crafted production. This is some of the strongest acting this national award winning theater has to offer. It seems that maybe you miss the quality of production and audience response because you are busy formulating your "brilliant and insightful review" during the show.

At March 12, 2008 1:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


The opening scene is NOT with Doc it is with Chick (who was pretty ill that night by the way). The next scene with Doc is about him coming with BAD and GLOOMY news about a dead horse... so it was done perfectly. He is NOT there to find out about Meg being in town. He does not even know if Meg was in town until Lenny mentions she TRIED to call. Man, you must have really had a BLOCK in your head that night - too bad this went to press you are going to look very very foolish.

At March 13, 2008 8:59 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of reaction Bobo.Don't know if I agree with all of it but the one overriding theme that I believe is true and I think Kershner guilty of this as well, is reveiw the production.You may not care for the directers vision
and that is fine to comment on but remember to critique the individual production and not get stuck on your own internal vision.Save that for your own directing and playwriting projects.Of course you bring your own bias to it ,it would be impossible not to,just don't get off task.I saw the show and thought it was a strong production
but I did agree with some of your constuctive criticism but would have liked more on some of the individual performances.


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