Postcard from New York 3
Sleep No More, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Hand To God, The Flick, David Greenspan/Gertrude Stein
My final week in New York was overshadowed by the email I had received from my wife in the cinema on the Sunday, and the flurry of communications that followed over the next five days.
Without going into details: after ten years, my marriage was over, much as my previous marriage had ended fifteen years previously. Once again I was completely blindsided, although in retrospect I should have seen it coming. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: to lose one wife may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. This is not the place to expand further on the immediate circumstances or the underlying causes of either separation, except to say that both were to some extent unconsciously self-engineered if not exactly self-inflicted. Now I veered from one emotion to another as the total and irrevocable nature of my current loss gradually became apparent.
In what follows, I make no effort to separate my impressions of the city itself or the theatre I saw there that week from my somewhat unhinged state. It had indeed become a hell of a town, and my vision was as clouded by shock, pain, grief and despair as one who wanders through the underworld – like Orpheus, to emerge at last alone.
In the words of Clive James’s recently published translation of Dante, which I carried with me on my travels:
How harsh and bitter that place seemed to me –
Merely to think of it renews the fear –
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possbily be worse. As you shall hear
It led to good things too, eventually.
After a sleepless night in my sweltering third-floor box room in Williamsburg, I decided to head into Manhattan and spend the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If nothing else, continuous access to free wi-fi would at least keep me in potential communication with my wife, from whom I hadn’t heard since tentatively replying to her still somewhat veiled email the previous day. This led to a morning of torture, as delays in the subway saw me stranded underground and in a state of mounting panic and paranoia about my marriage (all my fears being subsequently confirmed when I finally heard from her again).
When I got to the Met, its glories were imbued with a dawning sense of loss. I wandered the Greek and Roman galleries, and then the even more spectacular Ancient Egyptian wing, overwhelmed by feelings of regret, remorse and grief: how my wife would have loved these collections; how I should have asked her to come to New York with me; how we would never share such experiences again. I had taken too little care of this – and other things. And now it was too late.
Just before five o’clock – upstairs in the Italian Renaissance rooms, but unable to take in the paintings around me – I received another email from her, this time spelling things out with terrible clarity. I hastily composed a reply, attempting to bargain with her, while an amplified voice overhead announced that the museum was now closing.
Outside on the crowded steps I could no longer access wi-fi, so I dialled her number and began leaving an incoherent voicemail message, before my voice and words failed me. Then my phone battery died.
I got into a cab and began heading blindly downtown.
That night I had a ticket to see Sleep No More: the famous long-running immersive production by English company Punchdrunk at McKittrick’s Hotel. Despite my increasingly frantic state, I decided to go ahead and see the show.
This turned out to be a disastrous mistake. To be honest, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it in any event. As the title would suggest, it’s based on Macbeth, and takes place over multiple floors in the hotel (in this respect, much like Then She Fell, reviewed in my last Postcard). Unlike that show, however, Sleep No More plays to a much larger crowd (there were at least a hundred of us the night I saw it), and is much more chaotic: the audience, left to its own devices, rapidly fragmented and followed the action, chased the actors or explored the floors, rooms and their contents at will. Moreover, every audience member was issued with a neutral mask, which had the effect of encouraging a level of display and irresponsibility which I found irritating, as people pushed past each other, interposed themselves as part of the action and got in the way of the actors. I had the impression that there was an in-crowd of afficionados who came regularly in order to hog the limelight and show off in front of the other spectators.
Conversely, unlike Then She Fell or other more properly interactive works, the audience didn’t seem to have any designated role, and were largely ignored by the performers. In other words, it could have all happened without us; there was a kind of conventional ‘fourth wall’, which seemed to cut through the heart of the work and disconnect us from what we were watching. I found this lack of connection frustrating, and felt it added to the level of hyperactivity among certain members of the crowd.
Beyond this, the performances and choreography were much less impressive than Then She Fell, and in comparison with the latter the whole production had less to say. In short, the immersive form was more like a gimmick that had been imposed on the ghost of Shakespeare’s play – whose plot, scenes and characters were diluted to the point of cliché. The overall atmosphere, mood and design also felt clichéd: a kind of contrived decadent 1920s world that, again, seemed to have no intrinsic connection with the material.
After an hour of mindless to-ing and fro-ing in search of something interesting to watch, I’d had enough. I was also feeling increasingly trapped in my own internal immersive nightmare. It took me another fifteen minutes to find my way back to the floor I’d entered from and escape. I re-entered the underworld of the subway, and made my way back to my box room in Williamsburg, where another sleepless night awaited me.
The next morning there was another painfully honest email from my wife. I replied straight away, and we arranged to meet in London on the weekend to talk things through. Then I went out for a walk, found a park and lay down under the trees, letting my body and mind catch up with the events of the past two days.
That night for a treat I took myself out to see Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall, on tour after their recent album Cheek to Cheek. They delivered a solid set of jazz, swing, lounge and cabaret standards from the 20s to the 60s, backed by two separate bands and a shared orchestra. At 88, Bennett ruled the stage like an old king, relaxed and comfortable but still in great voice and more than capable of belting it out, especially in the big solo numbers, the lion’s share of which fell to him. In this context, Gaga somewhat uncharacteristically played second fiddle, but still held her own as a Broadway-trained baby, shifting as effortlessly from idiom to idiom as she did from frock to frock during Bennett’s solos. I let the onslaught of sentiment wash over me, enjoyed the grandiose sense of occasion, and admired the effortless artistry and stylishness of two very different but eminently compatible master-performers. We shall not see their like again.
Wednesday proved more challenging again, emotionally and theatrically. Once more I braved the subway to midtown Manahttan, to see a matinee of Hand to God: a Broadway revival at The Booth Theatre of Robert Askins’s dazzling new play, which was originally produced at The Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011. As with Fun Home, this was a revival of the original off-Broadway production, energetically directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel and featuring a central tour-de-force from Steven Boyer as the nerdy teenager Jason and his foulmouthed handpuppet alter-ego Tyrone, who apparently becomes possessed by the devil, leading to scenes of mounting chaos – sexual, aggressive and finally bordering on the psychotic and even supernatural.
To an even greater degree than Fun Home or Hedwig, Hand to God is both a challenge and a tribute to Broadway’s capacity to confront Middle America. Mostly set in a Christian puppetry workshop in a school basement room in Texas, the play mocks not only religious and cultural hypocrisy but the entire human project to subdue, civilize or demonize our shadow-selves. In short: it gradually transforms from being a hilarious black comedy to a terrifying satire of truly Swiftian proportions.
Boyer’s facility with the puppet and his capacity to play two opposing characters (or dual aspects of the same personality) simultaneously had me spellbound – and finally covering my eyes in horror during a final scene of frenzied mayhem, when Jason took a hammer to his own right hand in an attempt to save himself and others from its increasingly deranged clutches. This was preceded by a graphic handpuppet-sex-scene between him and his equally mild-mannered girfriend (wearing her own insatiable handpuppet for the occasion), which the audience found side-splitting but I found almost unbearable to watch, now firmly in the grip of my own demons.
I sat in the auditorium shaking until everyone else had left, then stumbled out into the crowded streets. I had nowhere to go, but I couldn’t face the maelstrom of people and traffic, so I headed back into the maw of the subway, feeling like a drowning man being dragged down by the undertow.
I finally emerged again on the Lower West Side in the more peaceful ambience of Greenwich Village, not far from a small off-Broadway venue where I had a ticket to see another play a few hours later – although at this point I couldn’t imagine ever setting foot inside another theatre again. Instinctively I headed for a park in Washington Square; as I entered its green haven, the tears came, and I sank down onto a lawn under the trees. People were sitting around me on the grass listening to a jazz trio busking nearby; no one seemed disturbed by the man weeping uncontrollably in their midst. It felt like a river that would never run dry; words, images and thoughts dissolved in the flow of feelings. Eventually this too came to an end, and I stopped crying, got up, dropped a five-dollar note into the trumpet-player’s instrument case, and walked off to find something to eat before the show. Life goes on.
The play I saw that night at the intimate Barrow Street Theater was a sweetly subtle relief after the lurid horror show of Hand to God. Moreover, I was in Greenwich Village, and off-Broadway at last; it was almost like being in Carlton or Fitzroy, and going to a familiar Melbourne independent theatre venue like La Mama or Eleventh Hour.
Annie Baker’s The Flick was first staged at Playwrights Horizons in 2013, and won the Pulitzer Prize last year. The remount at the Barrow featured the same cast (Alex Hanna, Louisa Krause and Aaron Clifton Moten), designer (David Zinn) and director (Sam Gold), whose similarly understated approach to Fun Home distinguished him as one of that rare breed of directors who put their playwrights and actors ahead of their own creative egos.
Indeed, direction, writing and performances in The Flick were so understated that I felt like I could have been watching an off-Broadway equivalent to Tsai Ming-liang’s arch, slow-burning Taiwanese masterpiece of minimalist cinema Goodbye Dragon Inn, which like Baker’s play is set in a run-down old movie house. Unlike Tsai’s film however – the continuous action (or inaction) of which is set in a cinema in Tapei during its last 90-minute screening, during which it follows various patrons and employees in and out of the auditorum and elsewhere around the building, using long static shots and almost no dialogue – The Flick is set in a cinema in Massachusetts, consists of a discontinuous series of long and largely static scenes (almost all of which take place inside the auditorium after various movie screenings), focuses on just three characters (who are all employees), and is all talk (albeit of the most deadpan and desultory kind). Behind both works of course lurks The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s haunting cinematic ode to small-town life, growing up, nostalgia and indeed cinema itself – as crystallized in the form of the local independent, single-screen movie house, typically specializing in cult, arthouse or recent release re-runs. In the case of The Flick, this image was simply but brilliantly realised in Zinn’s design by putting a hyperrealistic auditorium onstage with rows of seats facing the theatre audience so that the fourth wall became a virtual movie screen.
Perhaps there’s something about the vanishing institution of the movie house, the medium of the moving image, and even the materiality of film itself that uniquely suits the theme of time’s passing as their privileged subject-matter. If so, Annie Baker’s play and Sam Gold’s production (the two seem inseparable) seize on this elective affinity between cinema and time, and bend it towards their own highly original theatrical ends. Certainly the studiously slow pace of this production apparently divided audiences and critics alike during its previous run. The first act alone ran for ninety minutes; the entire show including interval came down at just over three hours; but the real challenge and beauty of play and production lay in their quietly observational tone. For me however there was nothing gratuitious or enervating about this measured pace and tone, which perfectly captured the situation of three lonely people suffering from a very contemporary form of melancholia and trying to connect with each other in the context of a workplace and an economy that seemed to be relentlessly dissolving all traditional forms of connection, solidarity, value or meaning – a condition which the sociologist Durkheim analysed in the late 19th century under the concept of ‘anomie’, particularly in his study of suicide.
No doubt my own situation made me even more receptive to the mood of this work. Not that it made me suicidal: on the contrary I found it strangely restorative after the hallucinatory vortex of Hand to God. Paradoxically, it gave me a context for the loss of connection, solidarity, value or meaning which I was currently experiencing in the dissolution of my marriage, especially in the heightened circumstances in which I found myself – doubly alone, so to speak, and infinitely isolated in this vast unfamilar city where I knew almost no-one.
After the madness of the afternoon, I went home calmly that evening; but for the third night running, I still couldn’t sleep. The demons raised by Hand to God continued to torment me.
After the madness of the afternoon, I went home calmly that evening; but for the third night running, I still couldn’t sleep. The demons raised by Hand to God continued to torment me.
The next day, there was another sad but resolute email from my wife. I responded as best I could, bowing to the inevitable. Then I headed back into Greenwich Village and met up with the one friend I had in New York, an Australian actor who’d lived there for the last ten years. She sized me up, then announced that she’d meet me again that evening outside the theatre where she was performing and give me some of her husband’s sleeping pills. She also insisted that I move out of my box room in Williamsburg the next morning and spend the day at her apartment on the Lower East Side before I flew out of New York that night to meet my wife in London the following day.
We said goodbye, she left to pick up her son from school, and I went back to Washington Square Park and listened to the same jazz trio under the trees. A couple of hours later I met my friend outside the theatre a few blocks away and collected the sleeping pills as instructed. Then I walked a few blocks further through the heart of the downtown off-Broadway district to the Connelly Theater in the East Village, where Target Margin Theater were presenting a Gertrude Stein season. Tonight’s offering was Composition…Master Pieces…Identity: two lectures and a poem, all written by Stein, and presented by off-Broadway legend David Greenspan.
‘Composition as Explanation’ was a lecture given by Stein in 1926 about the paradoxical relationship between artists and their era. Greenspan recited it from memory, neatly dressed in a button-down shirt and pants, and sitting in a chair. His somewhat feline delivery and demeanour made no attempt to imitate Stein, but he held me captivated, even as my mind alternately wrestled and danced with her words.
Stein’s language typically combines a kind of abstract prose-poetry, biting wit, passages of lucid analysis and what might clinically be termed ‘perseveration’ – in this case the repetition of words and phrases beyond their apparent terms of reference, relevance, appropriateness, logic or even grammar. The opening sentences of the lecture, for example, read as follows (the entire text can easily be found on the internet):
There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it.
If this looks dry and even opaque, Greenspan’s playful delivery brought out shades of meaning and musicality that had me hanging not just on every word but every inflection and flicker of expression, from his voice to his face and hands.
The second piece, ‘What Are Master-Pieces, and Why are There So Few of Them?’, was a lecture dating from 1936, and delving more deeply into the psychology of creation, and in particular what might be called the antinomy between artistic creation and personal identity. As a striking passage from the lecture has it:
The thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything. I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognising that he knows, that is what destroys creation.
Greenspan simply read this lecture seated behind a table. As he read, though, the spirit of Stein and her words began to inhabit and intoxicate me, and I felt increasingly liberated – from myself and at least potentially from my own creative and psychological habits. I had a sense too of Stein as the great enabler, to whom the greatest Modernist writers and painters– from Pound to Picasso – were so singularly drawn.
The final piece, ‘Identity – A Poem’, also from 1936, was the only one actually written for theatrical performance (although of course lectures are also performances of a kind). Broken up into a series of randomly numbered ‘acts’ and ‘scenes’, it continued and developed the themes of the earlier lecture, including the repeated refrain: ‘I am I because my little dog knows me.’
This time Greenspan was on his feet, his whole body and voice fully animated, like a kind of marionette possessed by the soul of Stein herself. There was still not the slightest trace of impersonation or even ‘acting’, at least in the sense of ‘characterisation’; but I felt in the presence of a master performer who had timed the formal development of the show and the progressive revelation of his craft to perfection.
I found this final work, and the accumulated impact of the whole evening, exhilarating and deeply moving. The final ‘scenes’ and lines of ‘Identity’ spoke to me very directly, not just about creativity, but about life’s transitions:
Act 1 Scene 1.
The necessity of ending is not the necessity of beginning.
Chorus: How finely that is said.
An end of a play is not the end of a day.
With those abrupt and enigmatic last words, the performance itself was over; but as I walked out onto East 4th Street, I had the glimmer of a sense that things might not be over for me, if I could find the need to begin again.
Back in my box room in Williamsburg, I took a sleeping pill and blessed my friend. Tonight I would sleep; there would be no demons. Tomorrow I would pack my things, take a cab across Williamsburg Bridge to her apartment, and spend the day there, recuperating. And tomorrow night I would leave New York – wonderful town, helluva town – and fly across the Atlantic to face my wife, and my future.
Humph will be resuming his regular Postcards from Perth as of next week.