Monday, July 4, 2016

Recovery: People, Places, & Things and Cost of Living

Jacqui Dubois, Denise Gough and Sally George in People, Places & Things. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Denise Gough has received a great deal of justified praise (and the Olivier Award) for her energetic, incisive and often uproarious portrayal as Emma, an actress who enters a rehab clinic for drug and alcohol addiction in Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places & Things. (The play began at the National Theatre and transferred to the West End, where it recently ended its run.) Gough’s performance is a miracle of controlled chaos. The play is entirely in Emma’s point of view, and for much of the first act the character’s perspective is splintered (in some scenes half a dozen mirror images of Emma are on stage at the same time) and her sense of time is skewed. Like most movie and theatregoers, I’ve seen dozens of dramatizations of addiction but I’ve never encountered one in which the protagonist’s desire for help is balanced so finely against her resistance against the institution – any institution – that exists to provide it. Brilliant, well read, anti-authoritarian, fiercely atheistic, Emma uses her wit and powers of intellection and acerbic gifts, as well as her acting smarts, to push back against every tenet of the twelve-step self-help philosophy that underpins her treatment once she’s admitted to the clinic. “Have you read Foucault?” she demands of her doctor (Barbara Marten, who also plays her therapist and her mother). “Or Derrida? Baudrillard? Barthes?” “You’re an addict because of Post-Modernism?” the doctor, trained to recognize bullshit in all its forms, replies drily.

MacMillan is a stunningly talented writer whose sometimes outrageous sense of humor is the most salient feature of the early scenes of the play. MacMillan and Gough treat Emma’s condition as absurdist revue-sketch comedy. When she shows up to check into the clinic, she’s on her cell, trying to persuade someone to box up all her drugs; we assume it’s a friend whose reluctance to do as she’s asked provokes Emma to call her a cunt repeatedly. (The punch line of this exchange is the revelation that the woman on the other end of the line is Emma’s mother.) When one of the counselors (Alistair Cope) checks her in, he asks her if she’s high and if so what she’s taken, and as his query tugs away at her resistance, she ends up listing seven or eight different substances. The sheer audacity of the scene is part of its humor – you laugh in amazement as much as anything else.

For about two-thirds of the first act the play is exciting to watch and continually surprising. The director, Jeremy Herrin, using all the resources of Bunny Christie’s set, alternates expressionistic, surrealistic and Brechtian elements. The opening episode is a performance of The Sea Gull where Emma, playing Nina, begins to hallucinate, falling in and out of her character: Nina’s “I’m a sea gull. No, I’m an actress” becomes an in-joke metaphor for Emma’s own identity confusion. When the action shifts to the clinic, Emma draws back an upstage curtain to reveal another section of the audience against the back wall of Wyndham’s Theatre, and for a moment, just before the configuration reminds you you’re watching a play, you’re not sure what the hell’s going on.

The problem with People, Places & Things is that its inventiveness and its tonal complexity, the fascination of Emma’s character and Gough’s depiction of it, the literate, sometimes sensational dialogue and the wild theatricality don’t quite mask the addiction psychodrama at its center. Once Emma falls into the routine of group therapy, with the “practice” sessions during which patients help each other anticipate the conversations they’re planning to have with the loved ones their behaviors have victimized, the play turns into a familiar embodiment of a familiar genre, albeit one written, directed and acted by supremely talented artists. And in act two, when Emma, who’s managed to get in and out of the clinic in the minimally required twenty-eight-day cycle without actually committing to the program, returns in worse shape, this time sincerely desperate to change her life, MacMillan runs through more familiar tropes. Only in the last section of the play, when she leaves the clinic for a second time, returning to the house she grew up in and confronting her mother and father (Kevin McMonagle), does it manage to shake off the shackles of its generic material. Christie’s set pulls a trick we aren’t prepared for and, along with Emma, we land in the realm of extreme naturalism, where the brutal frankness of the domestic relationships evokes Eugene O’Neill. The last twenty minutes or so of People, Places & Things contains the best writing I’ve heard in a stage play since Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park.

Katy Sullivan and Wendell Pierce in Cost of Living at Williamstown’s Nikos Stage. (Photo: Daniel Rader.)

Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, the season opener at Williamstown’s Nikos Stage, is a complicated proposition. The play juxtaposes two somewhat parallel relationships, that of an unemployed recovering alcoholic named Eddie (Wendell Pierce) and his wife Ani (Katy Sullivan), who lost her legs in a car accident after they separated, and that of John (Gregg Mozgala), a doctoral student with MS, and Jess (Rebecca Naomi Jones), a young woman who is his newly-hired caregiver. Eddie and Ani’s story is told in flashback; she’s dead at the start of the play (we don’t find out what she died of until the last scene) and he’s in wretched shape without her. Despite her anger at him – he was involved with another woman before she lost her legs – her accident brought them back together: he took over as her caregiver and let his other relationship lapse. In these scenes Eddie also has to battle Ani’s cynicism and irony, just as Jess has to get through the barrier of John’s cynicism and irony, to persuade him that she’s the right person for a job he isn’t sure anyone can perform to his satisfaction. She succeeds, and then she develops romantic feelings for him.

The different parts of the play fit together awkwardly; the final scene, between Eddie and Jess, presents us not only with information about her that we didn’t know previously but with a Jess so unlike the woman we saw in her exchanges with John that she seems to be some other character entirely. Most of the dialogue is both stylized, in that post-Mamet way so popular with American playwrights, and yet flat and banal. You can feel Pierce, who’s a wonderful actor, working hard to find the natural rhythms in his speeches, especially his long opening monologue, delivered to an unseen stranger in a bar whom he keeps treating to drinks while he sits with his seltzer. Jones, on the other hand, seems hamstrung by her dialogue; she reels off one speech – which is meant to convey quicksilver shifts in consciousness as she negotiates what she thinks (incorrectly) is John’s sexual attraction to her – so rapidly that you can’t make sense of what the character is going through or read her tone. The director, Jo Bonney, seems to have abandoned the actress in this scene.

But there’s something going on in this play aside from Pierce’s performance, in a couple of scenes where John and Ani talk about their experience of their own traumatized bodies, and it has largely to do with the fact that both Mozgala and Sullivan have, in real life, the same disabilities as their characters. When John, searching for an analogy Jess can grasp, asks her if she’s ever been hit and then explains that he feels like someone is hitting him continually underneath his skin, or when she undresses and bathes him, passing him the cloth nonchalantly so he can wash his own genital area, you feel that the playwright and the director and the actors are guiding you into a realm that perhaps no one has ever dramatized before. And though she can’t make anything else about these relationships interesting, Majok rises to the occasion here. When Eddie gives Ani a bath, she observes that whenever he does so he’s cautious not to touch her vagina. He replies that he’s been trying not to confuse things – their old sexual connection and this new friendly, caring one. But she reports that most of the time she can’t feel anything down there, that she has to rely on other stimuli. “My mind is a great lover,” she says, and also “My imagination has all this grime that won’t come off it, from my memories.”

Generally I cringe when someone describes a performance as courageous; it usually means that the character is courageous and derives from an antique misperception that actors are indistinguishable from the parts they play. But Sullivan and Mozgala’s delving into the psychic depths beneath their own unusual physical conditions – and without exhibitionism – really does strike me as fearless. (Bonney deserves much of the credit for the fact that we watch these scenes without discomfort – that is, the discomfort that arises when we feel actors are specimens on display.) The intimacy and candidness of the exchange I quoted above appears to put Sullivan at her ease; otherwise her performance suffers from an inability to find emotional and vocal variety in a part that’s written as too strident. Mozgala is good throughout. I sure wish Cost of Living were a better play, but it contains maybe fifteen or twenty minutes that I doubt I’ll ever forget.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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