The Playgoer: REVIEW: Hello Failure

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

REVIEW: Hello Failure

My review of Hello Failure by Kristen Kosmas at PS122 is in this week's Voice. I'm intrigued by the attention both the play and its Seattle-based(?) author have been getting downtown. And one George Hunka positively raved.

I myself was more mixed. Helen Shaw in Time Out was even a tad more negative. I gotta take my hat off to her for coining the label "Realist Whimsy" to describe the Sarah Ruhl/Jenny Schwartz playwriting moment we now find ourselves in, under which umbrella this play might also qualify.

And I mean that as non-judgmentally as possible, having not hated either Eurydice or God's Ear. But whatever we want to call it, this is a style (an aesthetic? a voice?) that future American theatre scholars I believe will look back on as uniquely early-21st century among the Gen X & Y playwrights.


Reb and Heidi said...
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Reb and Heidi said...
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Reb and Heidi said...

Please forgive me if this is tangential, but as an actor who works a lot downtown, I'd like to call attention to an unfortunate reality of producing a new play beneath 14th street, which is that often you get reviewed on the first or second night you put the damn thing up in front of people. New plays at Playwrights Horizons get three weeks of previews, the economics of downtown means The Village Voice essentially writes about a dress rehearsal. I deeply lament this fact - especially in terms of this play. The performance of Hello Failure I saw was neither subdued nor overly whimsical. After a week of actually performing it for people, Kosmas and the other actors had discovered, as Helen Shaw notes, the "propulsive qualities of her superb dialogue." It was racuous, hilarious, surprising, deeply felt and, at least to me, quite moving.

Kosmas is indeed regarded (in my opinion rightfully so) as brilliant by a huge number of playwrights, directors and performers. I'm certainly not blaming anyone one (you've got to get the critics in there fast for a three week run), but it is a bummer that this play was reviewed before this stellar production had a chance to take flight. Of course I'm a friend and fan of most of the people involved with this show, but I don't think that affects my fundamental argument: New plays are tough to figure out and it takes time, time in front of an audience, to unlock their secrets.

I realize I'm not addressing the realist whimsy moniker, which is more to the point of your post. To me Ruhl, Schwartz, and Kosmas are such radically different writers, that I have a hard time grouping them together under that name.


isaac butler said...


I wonder at your classification of realist whimsy on two fronts. Are you talking about whimsical use of language or incident? I ask, because I think Sarah Ruhl does both (as do Sheila Callaghan and Anne Washburn) but I wouldn't say that Jenny Schwartz treatment of language is whimsical so much as relentlessly minimal.

Also, I wonder if this is particular to our moment. After all, isn't John Guare's work Realism Whimsy? Isn't Nicky Silver's? I think there are a lot of playwrights from the last few decades who could fall under the banner of Whimsical Realism.

Playgoer said...


I appreciate your comments, and glad I have a Comments section for such points. Yes, I can often sense when I'm reviewing a show in a too-early preview, and it's unfortunate the economics often dictate that.

For the record, though I saw the show Monday, March 3--which according to PS122's performance schedule was not the first performance but the second.

I also want to add that I sensed nothing shaky or under-rehearsed about the production itself, and didn't feel like anything was interfering with the communication of the text. If the cast were not yet up to what playwright and director hoped for, I guess it would be harder for me to tell--but then again I liked the cast and said so.

I do think this play doesn't communicate easily to the ear and would probably benefit from reading. But one has to review what's on stage in front of them.

I'll leave it at that, and just add that I do welcome any and all alternative views on the play, since it's one I sense people want to discuss.

And I'm also impressed George Hunka is now being quoted on PS122 publicity materials as just "George Hunka". 'nuff said, the man's arrived!

Reb and Heidi said...

I hear you Playgoer, and I appreciate your response. To clarify, though, the problem, in my experience, is not that the first or (second) performance in front of an audience is shaky or under rehearsed, it's simply not truly animated yet. The actors are in the process of emerging from a hermetically sealed rehearsal process and figuring out how to communicate the play to other people. Yes on the first (or second) preview everybody knows their lines and where to go and what they want and so on, but the engine hasn't yet been turned on. Turning on the engine takes practice. In front of an audience.

You might argue, perhaps correctly, that you can still hear the play without the engine being turned on, but I would argue, also perhaps correctly, that you can't.

I'm sorry to sideswipe the other conversation, which I think is pertinent and interesting, I've been thinking about this for a while in terms of lots of plays downtown, not just this one. I shall be silent now.

And yes, George billed as just George, I love it.

Anonymous said...

I don’t understand why folks keep racking this play because "nothing happens." What happens, really, in _Waiting for Godot_ or _The Cherry Orchard_? If I remember correctly, nothing but a lot of little personal catastrophes beneath some impending possibility (the arrival of Godot or the loss of the childhood home). To me, the only development here is that impending possibility of chang is removed.’ve got a lot of personal catastrophes underneath no sheltering UMBRELLA OF POTENTIAL CHANGE.

Hmmm. So instead of saying “oh this writing is really great and poetic and insightful but NOTHING HAPPENS.” Perhaps we should say “Wow, really great poetic insightful writing is illuminating a situation that simply IS and probably won’t change. These people are just trying to get through.” Yet...people are laughing and beguiled and oddly affected. What does that mean about US?” Maybe that...this is true to lots of people’s lives today? What's "happening" in our lives now? (I mean personally, daily, here in New York...despite all the horrors around us in the world.) Thomas De Zengotita book “Mediated” and how he analyzes folks coming of age in the age of TV really comes to mind here... Can you ask more of a young, contemporary playwright, really, than that they speak to our lives today?

Perhaps you answer” that they offer some way out...a vision of storms or islands on the horizon from whence the breezes of change blow--that they wake us from a slumber to something bigger than ourselves”...well, ok. But IF that is an artist’s job, it is the job only of a mature artist at the peak of his or her career. Kosmas’ voice is one that we should encourage so that what speaks truthfully of what is today increases in scope and beauty.

And even if you think the above rant is exactly that--a rant...isn’t it lovely to sit for an hour and a half and listen to people speaking eloquently about the ridiculousness and excrutiating loveliness of our little lives? Isn’t it lovely to listen to words that speak well to all kinds of delicate interior intimacies? Heaven bless Kosmas, Schmoll and this cast for trusting words and eloquence and taking time to let them unfold. Bless them, in this over-stimulating, overwhelming world. From what I could tell, not one audience member on opening night wasn’t sitting still and listening, enamored.

Lisa D'Amour said...

Hello. This is Lisa D'Amour here. I just posted the comment below on Culturebot. This is a great discussion - thanks Playgoer for engaging with your audiences. I really worry about the whole "realist whimsy" thing because it feels aimed at women writers, and kind of awkwardly so. I actually don't know S.R.'s work all that well, but the other writers invoked (Schwartz, Callaghan, Washburn) are all working so hard to WRIGGLE OUT of commonly held ideas about dramatic structure...and to me their project feels brave and ROCK SOLID even if an individual production fails. The work feels brave and serious and I worry that this whole "realist whimsy" tag is coming I allowed to say this...a kind of phobia, or resistance to change....which even be related to a kind of unconscious misogyny.....if we call it "cute" it is no longer powerful...and the hegemony remains solid. I saw a similar trend in criticism in when Anne Marie Healy's STEVEN was reviewed (WHICH I DID NOT SEE SO REALLY HAVE NO RIGHT TO INVOKE HERE). I write this in the spirit of lively inquiry, no finger pointing or ire, just curiosity. Here is what I posted on culturebot..............

Hi there. I have not checked out the playgoer discussion yet but I will. Saw Hello Failure last Friday night and felt like I was floating the whole time - there is something really special going on there.
Such clear cues given, the staging and design, as to how to listen and watch the play, most notably the evolving tableau / family portrait of women that materializes over the first two minutes of staging. I remember thinking, as they were gathering "oh, they are like specimens, like alien creatures, like a museum exhibit" which immediately made my brain shift into a different mode of experiencing the piece, not as a story but as a concert (of ideas, images and sounds). I too was surprised by the "realist whimsy" tag, in that there is something so SOBER about the piece, so MATURE in the way it both relies on and critiques a kind of contemporary excess of language - language as noisiness. I can't remember the line exactly, but something about "we are just talking, we are just opening our mouths and these words are coming out". I've been talking about the piece a lot since I've seen it, and keep feeling like I lack the words to describe my experience, which I think is a good sign. When I try, I say things like "my experience was trying to hold this whole set of ideas/sounds/people in my head at was about an eerie accumulation of images (painted in sound, bodies, ideas)....i experienced it almost in the way I experience a Richard Foreman piece, where I find myself laughing or gasping in a moment and not quite sure why I am doing so..." See? When I try and put the experience into words I sound like a dumbass. But I am a happier dumbass for going to see the play. OK all for now. I think I will post this on Playgoer too. PS: There is more to say on this whole terms "whimsy" and how it is being attached primarily to women writers. Seems like an easy way out, perhaps a lazy way of categorizing? I need to think more on this...

Reb and Heidi said...

Okay, I'm silent on downtown previews, but thanks to this fascinating discussion I'm back up on the topic of Realist Whimsy and I'd like to offer a AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY as an ideal contender for the genre. It has all the signposts of a Great American Play (thank you, Eugene): Sprawling family drama in a sprawling family house with the requisite alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity, incest, betrayal, parent-child alienation,a big family dinner scene, some mystical connection to an earlier America, pedophilia, and poetry readings. Big, captivating, climactic fights between all the people who usually have big captivating climactic fights in plays plus a trio of three sisters all with problems corresponding directly to their birth order. Nobody can say there was nothing happening in this play! Plus, it boasts that fabulous, loud chew-the-scenery acting, the kind that makes high school kids all over the country join drama club.

I was entertained every second and yet AUGUST was clearly never taking itself so seriously - every big revelation, every familiar dramatic trope was played and written (I think), ultimately, with a knowing wink for laughs. In fact I might say it almost had a "whimsical" relationship to the standard ingredients that go into a big, serious American play. I wondered watching (and enjoying)this dazzling display - is this perhaps a fanciful and extravagant parody of the great American play? Realist Whimsy, anyone?

Playgoer said...

Thank you, Lisa for your thoughts. And for everyone. It's nice to have a blog and be able to expand one's initial 250 word review into a larger , more thoughtful discussion.

I have just now posted a follow-up picking up some of the threads here.

Anonymous said...

I like your comments on "realist whimsy", too, Lisa. If it isn't misogynist, it is at least cheapening. "Whimsy" implies a kind of light-hearted, sugary ignores the sadness, that is, at least in this play, being negotiated as best the writer/characters can. It is humorous because the self-absorbed, ridiculous, but genuine suffering of these characters is portrayed with an intimate "love." Not because it is "whimsical".

Aaron Riccio said...

Double-posting this here and at CultureBot, but:

There's a lot worth saying about and defending in "Hello Failure," but I do think we should avoid anything related to "reviewers coming to see the play too early." I saw the play on Monday, 3/10 (, and as I tried to express, what I react to is that the play is too *AWARE* of itself (the characters are too, though they don't address the play). I think that's what leads people to assume that it's whimsical -- it tackles something serious, but not seriously, and the changes in tone throughout the piece (especially the direct address at the end) lead people to try to make connections (or sense) of things that are meant to just be felt. (I forget which reviewer said it, but I certainly found this play to be easier when I read it myself, with a consistent tone in my head.) Lisa grasps a great line though, that I wish I'd paid more attention to, about the use of language -- there's also another great part in the bathroom where they try to speak as economically as possible. I liked "God's Ear" so much more because it drove that point about language into the core of the piece; with "Hello Failure," it seemed to just be one more thought.

Anonymous said...

If I might clarify for a moment: Helen's reference in Time Out to the "school" of realist whimsy was connected to a line of thought that I have been suggesting in the magazine for a while. Reviewing John Cariani's "Almost, Maine" last year, I wrote of Cariani’s "whimsical literalism"; about Noah Naidle's "Rag and Bone," I wrote that it was "the latest example of a theatrical style we might call literalist whimsy." It may or may not be of interest to note that both of those playwrights are men.

Adam Feldman