Monday, July 16, 2018

More New Plays: Consent, Artney Jackson, & Straight White Men

Sian Clifford in Consent. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Consent by Nina Raine (Tribes), a West End transplant that began at the National Theatre, is a thesis play with a thesis no one is likely to dispute: that the law reconfigures real life out of recognition. Raine has devised a series of clever dramatic strategies to work through this idea. The main characters are two couples, best of friends, with young children. Edward (Stephen Campbell Moore) is a defense attorney; he and his wife Kitty (Claudie Blakley) have just had a baby, their first. Rachel (Sian Clifford) and Jake (I saw Pete Collis, standing in for Adam James) are both lawyers. The action begins at a dinner party that Ed and Kitty have staged partly to introduce her oldest friend, an actress named Zara (Clare Foster) who’s desperate to find a man to settle down with, to Tim (Lee Ingleby), a prosecutor. At first Raine draws our attention to the detached, dispassionate way in which the criminal lawyers discuss their cases, talking about their clients in the first person, as if they were playing the roles of the people they represent:

EDWARD: So what have you been up to, lately?
JAKE: Me? Oh, I’ve raping pensioners.
EDWARD: Charming.
JAKE: Yes, I tie them up, I fuck them, and then I nick their stuff.
RACHEL: Quite a few of them, apparently.

When Ed and Tim wind up (not for the first time) on opposite sides of a rape case, a combination of the inexperience of the victim, Gayle (Heather Craney), her inability to control her emotions and Ed’s deftness in cross-examining her prevent her from getting justice. Outraged and a little unhinged, she finds out where Ed lives and shows up at his house in the middle of another party, where she’s shocked to find that he and Tim are pals. (This is the encounter that ends the first act.) But Raine’s chief method for proving her thesis is to take both couples through messy break-ups prompted by infidelity, where the lawyers discover in very personal ways how the law can be manipulated. She also includes an ingenious scene in which Ed and Tim, tag-teaming to prep Zara for an audition for a legal drama, take the competitiveness they feel in the courtroom to a perilous level that exposes jealousy and mistrust.

The play sometimes reminded me of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, a high comedy mixed with a comedy of menace about two well-heeled couples who get together to work out an issue involving a violent incident between their elementary school-age kids. But Consent isn’t a comedy; Raine is going for a serious exploration of marital relationships. The fact that her depiction of the characters is cool and distanced because none of them is especially likable (the men especially) makes it difficult for us to get emotionally invested in what happens to them, though the twists and turns keep us engaged. And Roger Michell’s production – which bears some resemblance to his staging of Mood Music, also on a set by Hildegard Bechtler – is highly polished, with excellent performances all around, though Moore, an actor I’ve always liked, fails to pull off Ed’s breakdown scene in the second act, after Kitty leaves him for another man and keeps their child away from him for a whole month. Blakley is outstanding as Kitty, who sleeps with another man not exactly as revenge for an affair her husband had five years ago but because he’s never apologized and she’s sure he won’t understand what he put her through unless he endures the same agony himself. Kitty and Ed are extremely interesting characters, but their behavior doesn’t feel organic because Raine has set it in motion to illustrate a point. It is, of course, a variation on her thesis about real life and the law: what makes Ed a great lawyer is precisely what makes him inadequate as a husband – his preference for reason over emotion, i.e., his lack of empathy. He has to learn it the hard way. The last scene, where he shows that he has, is obviously meant to be a powerhouse, and you probably can’t improve on the way the two actors play it. But you walk away with dry eyes.

The cast and crew of Artney Jackson together after their celebration performance at WTF. (Photo: Facebook)

James Anthony Tyler’s Artney Jackson (Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage) has the opposite problem. It takes place in the break room at a Las Vegas cable company over the course of four days, during which the title character (Ray Anthony Thomas), who’s been with the organization for twenty-five years, applies for promotion to manager while his son A.J. (Michael Braugher), just turning thirty, makes plans to finally move out on his own over his dad’s objections. A.J., who works on the same company team as his father (the retention department, made up entirely of African Americans), is schizophrenic; Artney is afraid that, left to his own devices, he’ll stop taking his meds – as he has numerous times in the past – while for his part, A.J. feels his father is refusing to let him grow up. There’s more to this complicated plot. Two of Artney’s co-workers, a middle-aged woman named Jackie (Portia) and a young man named Perkins (Joshua Boone), are sitting on secrets that get revealed in the second half of the play. And the tight-fisted company has decided to start charging their employees two hundred bucks a month more for health care.

The narrative details are all interesting, but what unifies them? I sat all the way through Tyler’s play without being sure what it’s supposed to be about. Some, but not all, of it is about the tribulations of the working life in the twenty-first century. Some, but not all, of it is about Artney’s learning to live with things he doesn’t like but can’t change and discovering his strengths as a member of the work force and as a father. There’s a shaggy-dog element to the play: you get the sense that Tyler came up with this group of characters – the others are Perkins’s friend Zaahir (Christopher Livingston), who’s logging some time on the job between graduating from college and starting his M.B.A., and the outgoing manager of the team, Rhonda (Alfie Fuller) – and let them take him in various directions without worrying about focus. Since the characters are engaging and Laura Savia’s production is lively, I didn’t mind spending an hour and a half with them. But a play needs a clear theme to ground it; that’s elemental. Without it, the individual episodes in Artney Jackson keep turning into melodrama.

Savia and the actors get the workaday atmosphere of the company, just as Dominique Morisseau did in Skeleton Crew and Lynn Nottage did in Sweat, and the cast is strong, though Thomas’s big emotional scene toward the end falls short of authenticity, just as Stephen Campbell Moore’s does in Consent. Portia is quite fine in a role that in many ways resembles Faye, the character Patricia R. Floyd played in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Skeleton Crew back in March – a woman who is bucking under to personal stress that she’s succeeded in keeping from her co-workers. Both Livingston and Boone appeared in Where Storms Are Born at Williamstown last summer; it’s good to see them again. Both are good, but Boone is remarkable, I think. He has an electric stage presence, rock-solid theatrical instincts, emotional variety – everything a young actor needs. Keep an eye out for this guy.

Paul Schneider, Josh Charles, and Armie Hammer. (Photo: 2ndStage)

At the beginning of Straight White Men, a 2ndStage production at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater, two actors in shiny jumpsuits that look like alien costumes they’ve donned for a Halloween party (Suttirat Larlarb designed these atrocities) introduce themselves to the audience as Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe. Both are transgender; Defoe is native American. After explaining that the loud rock-club pre-show music (which has no connection with the play that follows) was meant to take us, or some of us, out of our comfort zone, they inform us that what we’re about to see is a piece of realism about straight white men and that it’s offered in the spirit of empathy – the same spirit that we should extend to stories about, say, women and gay people and people of color. Since Straight White Men was written by an Asian woman, Young Jean Lee, this preface seems meant to place an ironic tone on the material we’re about to see, which, one might expect, is going to be satirical. Except it isn’t. The straight white men are a widowed father and his three grown-up sons, who are getting together to celebrate Christmas at the house the boys grew up in, and actually they’re unusually sensitive and progressive and aware of their own inherent privilege. Honestly, I have no idea what the intro has to do with the rest of the play, unless it’s meant to be an apology – or a reverse apology? – from a non-white non-male playwright for choosing to write about straight white men. The play focuses on the efforts of the other men in the family to help dislodge the only brother who has moved in with their father and given up his efforts to forge a career, but it’s dramatically incoherent. It veers back and forth between family situation comedy and family drama, and the motivations of the four characters – the father is played by Stephen Payne (who seems to be a last-minute substitution for Denis Arndt, who was already a replacement for the originally advertised Tom Skerritt) and the brothers by Josh Charles, Armie Hammer and Paul Schneider – shift from scene to scene. I saw Straight White Men late in previews, but there’s nothing the actors or the director, Anna D. Shapiro, could possibly do with the script to rescue it. I don’t know how it wound up in a professional theatre. I was embarrassed for everyone involved in it.

– 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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