The Playgoer: "Paradise" Regained

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Paradise" Regained

I have an article in this month's American Theatre magazine (March 2010) about new directorial approaches to the work of Clifford Odets.  No link, unfortunately, but the issue is on newsstands now, and available online via various academic databases, like Proquest.  Meanwhile, here's the opening:
Can Clifford Odets be cool again? He certainly was in the 1930s. Odets was only 28 years old when his Waiting for Lefty became an overnight sensation, and his most ardent followers at the time were in the same age bracket. For fellow scribe William Gibson, he was "the playwright most of my generation wanted to be." And director Harold Clurman considered Lefty's opening night "the birth cry of the '30s," when "our youth had found its voice."

Though he's seldom been out of production, Odets's critical and popular fortunes have varied wildly since that bright beginning. His plays' complex leftist politics - always intertwined with the personal and the sexual - fell out of favor in the conservative 1950s. And when he reluctantly cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee to avoid being blacklisted - Odets depended on his screenwriting to raise two children as a single parent - he was shunned by many who once worshipped him.

Then, as fate would have it, when his politics at last came back into favor, after his death in 1963, it was his realist dramaturgy - and the association of his work with so-called Method acting, a legacy of the Group Theatre for whom he wrote - that made him seem passé. Reviewing a 1984 revival of Odets's Awake and Sing! in the New York Times, Frank Rich faulted the characters for lack of "psychological depth" and concluded that while the play "endures as a social document, its status as a stageworthy play has declined." A decade later Peter Marks, in the same paper, said of Waiting for Lefty. "Lacking the economic disaster and political context that once validated it.. .the play now is oddly airless."

In the eyes of many resident theatres around the country today, though, that economic disaster, and its attendant context, may now have arrived again. The 2009-10 season boasts no fewer than nine Odets revivals at TCG member theatres. And the new century has produced a new generation of directors who came of age post-cold war and post-Actors Studio, and who accordingly might be equipped to approach Odets without the cultural baggage that has weighted his work in years past. In their hands the archetypical playwright of the Great Depression may still have something to teach us about our own Great Recession.
In addition to emphasizing the timeliness of Odets's work I wanted to focus on how a new generation of directors are embracing this writer, normally considered an uber-naturalist, in more experimental ways.

My starting point is Bartlett Sher's Awake and Sing, produced by Lincoln Center on Broadway to mark the playwright's centennial in 2006, which won new accolades for the play including a Tony for Best Revival.  But aside from a landmark tribute, Sher's expressive use of scenery and insistence on this as a poetic play dared us to completely reconsider Odets's legacy and significance for a new audience--one not mired in either Group Theatre/Actors Studio nostalgia or 1950s communist witchhunt politics (during which he compromised himself by cooperating as a "friendly witness").

I also noticed another director taking on Odets in 2006--Daniel Fish, whose Rocket to the Moon I saw at Long Wharf.  Like Sher's production, it combined rigorous naturalistic acting and expressive stagecraft to force us to see the play in a new way.  As I describe in the article, it involved a revolving set that let us peer into the proceedings of this notably claustrophobic and intimate play (set in a Depression-era dentist's office) through windows and walls.  Kind of an expressionist naturalism, if you can imagine such a thing.

So when I heard Fish was taking on perhaps the biggest challenge of the Odets canon, the rarely revived Paradise Lost (a box office failure originally), I knew that, a) I had to see it, and b) I wanted to write about it.

The article went to press long before the production went up, so I was writing based on Fish's plans for it without having seen it.  But now that I've been up to Boston to see it at ART, I can gladly report that it is quite a momentous event in this writer's tormented afterlife, and something well worth seeing before it closes this Saturday (March 16).

Paradise Lost resembles Awake and Sing in some obvious ways--a three-act "living room" family drama about struggling to survive in the Depression.  Except here, the family loses everything.  And, Paradise's Gordons, being more upper-bourgeoisie than the lumpen Bergers of Awake, fall from a greater height, as we watch their fortunes wither away over a few years as they and the country sink deeper and deeper into an economic wasteland.

So this is quite a "depressing" play in more ways than one, unlike Awake, which at least features an uplifting and optimistic ending.  When I asked Fish why he thinks this play gets produced much less, he said, "Look at the two titles!"  Indeed this painful meditation on loss--both spiritual and material--would be a tough sell on Broadway.  (It was even back in 1935, with the Group Theatre actors no less.)

In fact Fish could barely get any nonprofit theatres to bite either.  So ART and its new AD Diane Paulus deserve a lot of credit for investing confidence and real resources into a tough--really tough--but important and wonderful play.  Part of what is thrilling about watching Fish's Paradise is how BIG a production it is.  Our only chance of ever seeing this in New York I imagine would be in a scaled down Off-Off/ Mint Theatre-style version.  So to see it playing out on that big ART stage with all the tools at a modern director's disposal really fulfills what the play is capable of today.

Now as you can see from the photos, this is indeed a modern production.  An updating? Yes, but not in the text.  Fish and his team have simply placed Odets's characters in a tangibly contemporary environment--the better to remind us that "The Great Depression" was not some distinctly historical time, some sepia-toned snapshot from the annals of the "Greatest Generation."  It is what we are living through now.  Right now.  So rather than the suit-and-tie world of 1930s nostalgia, we get a recognizably middle class world of middle-America, 2010.

One shocking thing about this to Odets purists might be how "white" the world of the play becomes.  The Gordon family has always been considered by Odets scholars a barely deracinated Jewish family, one coming from a culture that talked in the writer's Yiddish-influenced cadences and whose story reflected specifically the legacy of "the immigrant experience."  Fish makes no gesture to this being a "Jewish play" at all, and as a result it plays out on a broader canvas. With Andrew Lieberman's expansive set of fragmented pre-fab suburban housing materials, the image recalls Sam Shepard more than Clifford Odets; and the play becomes more obviously about America (as in the suburban middle-class image we usually see in the media) and its deeply embedded capitalist framework, rather than just another period piece about our Jewish grandparents in New York.  You'll feel the shock of this approach right away when you walk into the theatre and a loud and overblown Western shootout is playing on the huge upstage projection screen, as the "new" Gordons sit around the dinner table watching in numbed silence.

The extensive use of video projection is another startlingly contemporary aspect of the production.  And one apparently the Boston Globe critic couldn't abide--complaining she didn't know where to look as if she'd never seen this before on stage.  Most often this was used to enlarge the action already happening on stage (close-ups of actors talking in corners, e.g.)  and so I also don't understand her complaint that the video didn't have anything to do with the play.  I also don't understand how one can review this play and not discuss the parallels between 1930s America and today; she treats the modern touches as simply random and unexplainable, thus declining to spell out the underlying concept, good or bad.  But there you go.  The Boston Phoenix's Carolyn Clay at least seemed more attuned to the production's sensibility.

Anyway, as the opening mythical Western clip announces, what unfolds on stage is a ruthless dismantling of The American Dream, piece by piece.  The play will end on a practically bare stage, the Gordons dispossessed and cast out into a strange world.  Their business and their house is gone, and their children (in whom all families stake their future) have in various ways been picked off--Mother Courage-like--one by one.

The clash of visual anachronisms and the 1935 text certainly does raise eyebrows throughout.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.  Having the play open with the daughter Pearl talking to her boyfriend not alone on the hallway telephone, but at the dinner table on her cell phone makes her an instantly recognizable teenager from today, immediately demystifying the play's period trappings.  On the other hand, the intermittent lines about Hitler and the future prospects of "television" just don't yield dividends to offset their jarringness (and probably would have been better off being cut, so rarely do they occur).  But overall, the risk pays off by how surprisingly easily this plays as a contemporary play.  It is, after all, about people living through financial freefall and the prospect of neverending war.  The anachronisms just remind us Fish is not trying to "fool" us into believing it wasn't written in 1935 and the dialogue we end up having with it across time is fascinating. 

And as a contemporary play, Paradise Lost is a burst of fresh air, since so few plays today (especially "family plays") are so infused at every turn with the effect of the economy on our daily lives.  (It makes  new plays today that claim to be about class--like Becky Shaw--seem so tame by comparison.)  As the Gordons' home and dreams are gradually, painfully dismantled bit by bit in front of our eyes, we don't see them as mere passive victims of greater forces--they are victims of their own obliviousness to them.  One son, a former Olympic athlete, now can't get a job to support his wife and so turns to petty crime; the father's business partner invites an arsonist over to seriously consider burning the store down to collect on the insurance.  Both drastic measures result in part from an earlier baseless optimism in the American Dream, in the system working, always working.

While Odets calls for the last act to be played Cherry Orchard-style in the house's now-empty living room, Fish offers another equally haunting tableau all too common today: the family cast out to its own front lawn, with everything they own in a U-Haul.  In a nicely sardonic touch, costume designer Kaye Voyce dresses various characters in leftover T-shirts bearing logos from recent political/financial disasters: AIG, Enron, and the Kerry/Edwards campaign. (They're good liberals, these Gordons.  And all the more clueless for it.)

The nearly three-hours of Fish's Paradise Lost is not a walk in the park.  But its tough-goingness is appropriate in making us feel the Gordons' dreadful progress from one economic disaster to the next.  Employing much in the way of alienation effects and long painful silence, it reminded me of another epic deconstruction of capitalism I saw at ART years ago: Robert Woodruff's chilling staging of Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities.  But here we have Odets's more emotionally expressive language and characters to counterbalance the coldness; Odets thus plays very well in such epic staging.

This is helped by a wonderful cast that pours its collective heart into every impulse.  I particularly liked Michael Rudko as the odd character Pike--a rabble-rousing handyman who forms part of the eccentric extended family of neighbors and hangers-on in the Gordon household.  Outfitted in a old baseball cap, down vest, with a big white Grizzly Adams beard, Rudko's Pike may look nothing like what Odets had in mind--but he certainly looks like the kind of heartland radical you see today on Democracy Now.  His impassioned arias denouncing "the war to end all wars" that killed his son requires no "translation" to apply today; Rudko's at times direct address to the audience shames us, as he says, "Who are we if we remain silent while they make the next war--who then are we with our silence? Accomplices, Citizen!"

Also affecting were longtime ART actor Thomas Derrah as the ineffectual neighbor Gus--who I always considered a kind of boring spineless distraction until I saw Derrah walk out in old biker-leather gear and play him as just a good ol' boy with a heart.  (Gus is after all a motorcycle enthusiast in the text.)  Fish's expansive staging--where characters continually wander on and off stage or otherwise lurk in corners--also actually enhances certain roles that normally would get short shrift in performance.  Therese Plaehn's unsentimental Pearl gets to play away at her piano not offstage but visibly up on the set's higher levels, buried in her headphones and her teenage angst.  (No ingenue, she.)  And by allowing Adrianne Krstansky's Mrs. Katz to actually make an impression on the audience by letting us see her for more than the few walk-on's Odets specifies, pays off in her big Act II explosion, revealing the lies and desperation behind her marriage, the family business, and for that matter all middle class families when the bountiful riches run out.

Again, Paradise Lost closes this Saturday and I strongly recommend it.  To the adventurous, that is.  I would even acknowledge that not knowing the play (and most don't) could be a hindrance.  Fish's staging and the actors' delineations strike me as clear enough for a newcomer to the text, but there are some experimental "doublings" and other effects that might obscure certain plot points and character identities.  (Partly to scale back on the immense casting requirements of the play--24 characters in all--in one scene three shopworker characters are represented by "real" people onscreen, dubbbed over, the results of which are admittedly mixed.)  That said, even merely reading a synopsis of the play--if not the whole script--can only enhance one's appreciation here.  I consider myself very much an Odets fan and could not have liked this staging as much as I did if I didn't feel it stayed true to both the spirit and the letter of the text.

In the American Theatre article I hope not to draw some facile binary distinction between realism and expressionism, naturalist and experimental theatre.  Odets saw himself, in fact, as a kind of hybrid dramatist--striving, particularly in this play, for a poetic realism and struggling against the confines of the literal realism more common on the Broadway of his day in favor of a more expressive emotional truth.  (He thus embodies and anticipates the spirits of both Miller and Williams at once.)  So I have a hunch Clifford would like how Fish and his actors have let their imaginations work on his disenchanted "paradise" and let it awake and sing again for Americans in 2010.

(PS. One more note about the article.  Contrary to what it states, I personally do NOT deem Odets's last play The Flowering Peach a "slight biblical comedy" at all.  That was an editorial insertion, one I do not agree with.  I'm not saying it's a great play--but definitely a serious and a moving one.  So, caveat lector, as they say.)


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Thanks for this, Garrett. JZ

RLewis said...

I agree - very interesting. My group is thinking about doing something with an early Hallie Flannagan piece with similar issues, so this was also quite instructive. Looking forward to the AT article. Thnx.

RLewis said...

oh, and I think you might want to check the spelling of the costumer's last name (maybe has a "y" in it).

Playgoer said...

You're right, R. It's Kaye "Voyce." Duly corrected, thanks.

And nice to know Jay-Z reads this blog!

Anonymous said...

It is very hard to dismiss Odets; his language is as fluid, rich, and distinct as that of any American playwright and his plays have an intensity that makes most current writing feel timid and detached.
On another issue, I am outraged that American Theatre would "insert" any statement into a writer's piece, much less one that is contrary to the writer's opinion. Why isn't there more protest over what is both censorship and, worse, misrepresentation, as they have put they are publishing their opinion under your name. Why isn't their more protest over this?

Playgoer said...

I appreciate your concern, Anon. To put it in perspective, though, this kind of thing happens a lot more than we realize. A lot more than I myself realized until I started writing for magazines a bit.

So it has humbled me a bit to think twice before lashing out at some journalist for writing something I find objectionable. Because who knows, maybe he/she didn't even write that? If you want to blame someone, better not to follow the byline but to hold the publication itself responsible. Since nothing appears in print without the editors taking responsibility.

Walt Odets said...

I was, unfortunately, not able to see the production, but you have clarified a lot for me. Thank you.