More of the Same: An Examination of Relevance in Contemporary Theatre.
By Patrick Hurley
I set out to write a review of The Geffen Playhouse’s world premiere production of Our Very Own Carlin McCullough, written by Amanda Peet, who is probably known to most from her film and television work as an actress. I grappled with the same questions that accompany most of my theatre experiences in Los Angeles, the largest of these being why. I decided after dozens and dozens of reviews, and years of patronage in the theatre, to voice an honest response about my experience with this play. And that turned into a much bigger exploration. I don’t usually make personal statements when writing on this blog.
That changes today. As this may very well be my last review.
If relevance were a significant indicator of producible theatre, there may be a larger audience for it, but alas, in this particular point in our history, the most important factor is the power of the almighty dollar, and theatre is no exception, so it is sadly becoming more and more of an elitist pastime. This thought occurred to me several times while I was watching Our Very Own Carlin McCullough. And while we could discuss this play’s lack of theatricality, it’s all too familiar episodic structure, or the performances by the cast, which were all solid, by the way, I don’t want to do that. Because, instead, there is an argument that can be made over why this play is exactly what’s wrong with the current state of American Theater. Theatre that is told through the same lens that it’s been using for thousands of years. A lens that is irrelevant to the majority of the world, and needs to change.
I think it’s important that I stress the point: I don’t blame this play. I think the effort on behalf of everyone involved is valid and should be applauded. Because in all honesty, the play is not entirely unsuccessful, it is completely watchable. However, as dramaturgy demands a look at subtext, so too does critical thinking and contextualizing. They not only change the meaning of a story if we look at it sociologically, but they give us a greater understanding of where we are as a people- a sort of social exegesis, if you will, a rooting out of why–or for our purposes–deconstruction of patriarchal literature as commerce. Because let’s be honest, money determines art. So, there is a need to fight back, to voice opposition through critical analysis of what our civilization has deemed acceptable in our art. I mean, is art even cognitive? There are epistemological concerns about taste and opinion, so do we bend to the hand that feeds us? Or risk isolation with the battle cry, “Integrity!” Aristotle and Plato both agreed that art can assist in the development of one’s moral character. When the art is swayed by the people most in power, what shape is our moral character in? So let us take an intellectual pursuit in an age of anti-intellectual rhetoric, shall we?
Our Very Own Carlin McCullough is the story of struggling single mom Cyn (Mamie Gummer), who’s daughter Carlin (played at two different ages by Abigail Dylan Harrison and Caroline Heffernan) is a 10-year old tennis prodigy. Because of her financial situation, and the fact that Carlin’s father abandoned the two of them, Cyn allows Carlin to be trained solely by Jay (Joe Tippett), a man in his thirties who spotted Carlin on the courts one day and because of her raw talent decides to coach her for free. Carlin and Joe develop a very, very close relationship. But it’s not what you’re thinking, at least on Joe’s behalf. Or is it what you’re thinking? There are elements in Act One that suggest there may be a reason to question his motives. Is he appropriate?
Cyn, even suggests to him that he is very touchy with her daughter, physically, not emotionally, and even a recruit from Stanford (Tyee Tilghman) points out to Cyn that people could take their relationship the wrong way because of his behavior. A wedge is soon driven between Cyn and Jay, who may or may not have a romantic entanglement; it’s hinted, very heavily hinted, but mostly on her part. In one instance, she quickly puts make-up on late one night when he’s out of the room so that she can impress him when he returns and sees her- a sort of outdated device that romantic comedies have been using since, well since the patriarchy demanded it, I guess. The scene in the hotel room where Carlin makes Cyn and Jay share a bed is also…a thing that happens. But the idea of Jay as inappropriate is all a red herring because well, first of all in today’s climate we really shouldn’t just trust the man in power, and so a given circumstance that the playwright had to know was there is highlighted to give the play tension. False tension. It’s dramaturgically a weak point and one that just doesn’t have much of a purpose in the overall story here. Because we have to ask why. What is Jay’s motivation? What does he want? Why does he cling to Carlin the way he does. We can intuit, but the text never answers the question. It’s never clear. And so when he has his anagnorisis- when he learns about Carlin’s feelings—why isn’t he prepared for that? Shouldn’t he have some inkling that their closeness might be mistaken for something more? I guess if he did, then the dramatic tension is completely diffused. You see where this is going, right? It’s what I call the magical dramaturgical “if.” The play creates false tension, and false starts in terms of plot, and so “if” the text did its job the play wouldn’t work. But I digress—
When it becomes somewhat clear, or I might be completely wrong, because again, it’s only really hinted at that there might be a romantic thing between Jay and Cyn, but it is clear that Jay is more interested in being Carlin’s coach than he is in being Cyn’s boyfriend. When that becomes clear, Cyn decides to send her daughter to a Tennis Academy. I mean she did get a full scholarship, so blaming Cyn’s motivation on her own hurt feelings seems…well textual, actually. She is angry at Jay when he pays more attention to Carlin. A relationship she encourages and then resents. She starts drinking more and more as the play goes on, and the only dialogue that we can glean anything about her character from are the moments when she talks about being single. It’s clearly the root of her problem. So Jay represents a male rescue figure who isn’t rescuing her, and her response is slow descent into alcoholism. I mean, okay, she’s also a single mother who struggles to keep her job so she can travel with the two of them to Carlin’s out of town matches. But wait, that shows her need to create a sort of family environment. Temporary, sure, but they share a hotel room, they play board games, and Cyn clearly has romantic feelings for Jay. And every time she’s confronted with the notion that Carlin would be a much better tennis player being taught at a school where she could play with peers, Cyn’s reaction is to become hostile. Don’t break up the family. They need Jay. Until it becomes clear that Jay doesn’t quite want her the same way. So, okay…let’s just stick to the text, Cyn approves of the family dynamic that is being created with Jay in the picture. And wants to be with him romantically, at least for awhile. And without him, life is worse. We know this, because he disappears for years between Acts one and Two. And let’s not forget that Cyn has been struggling since her husband left her. Okay, got it?
Now, what about Carlin? In Act Two–(spoiler alert!), Carlin, at seventeen, finally reveals her actual feelings for Jay. Of course, she has transferred all of the feelings created in her by her absent father and turns them into a romantic notion toward the adult male that is clearly encouraging co-dependency with her- girl does have daddy issues, which makes sense. What are his? And she even starts to look at her mother as a rival. But also vice versa, as evidence by the scene where a recruiter visits and a full-on Albee-style family dispute between the three of them ensues. So, now we have a young girl raised without a father, who has replaced that father with a man she is now in love with, and a mother who says, and a I paraphrase, “I wanted to raise you so that you didn’t need a father,” while constantly making references to the fact that they would be much more well off if he had never left- at the same time encouraging the co-dependant/father daughter relationship that develops with Jay. So all we can really conclude from this is that without a man these two women cannot function. Now, this is a problem. Not untrue perhaps in the canon of American fiction, which extends to societal expectation, because let’s be real, literature often depicts the current climate of patriarchal expectation. Contemporary drama, that is drama written since 9/11, there has been more and more of a pushback to the idea of needing a man. Then Harvey Weinstein and countless other villainous male figures were thrust into the spotlight by the voices of women and men who were fed up with being silent about the tyrannical behavior of men in power. And yet another pushback has been occurring.
Okay, so social/dramaturigcal exegesis: pushback can be interpreted through dramatic irony, we expect one thing we get another, this isn’t the case here. This isn’t a response to the #metoo or the #timesup movement, because the denouement offers no opposition. Maybe it’s a reverse irony because the minute we see the heterosexual white male in a position of power we expect the power dynamic to shift. But it doesn’t. The reality of this world is that women will give up things, and do things they don’t want to do to impress or to keep a man, and that’s just the world we live in. That’s just the way things are.
In today’s climate, what are we to take away from this?
Well, let’s tie this narrative into the current state of American theater, shall we?
I became a theatergoer when I was five years old. My mom introduced me to a world where everyone in the room was willing to buy into a fantasy. Adults were “playing” in front of us, and, being a kid not so crazy about the real world I was seeing around me, I fell in love. Theatre can transport, educate and enlighten all with the people just in that room. When someone laughs you hear it, when someone cries you know. And it can show us a side of ourselves, human beings that is, that we hadn’t looked at. With all of the marginalized voices, and all of the stories that offer us a glimpse into a world that we may not recognize…the ability to experience different cultures, different ideas, and different perspectives, as Plato and Aristotle suggested, it certainly seems to have shaped a good deal of my character. And a longing to experience all of those voices and art works that don’t just episodically move through a linear piece of naturalism like a film, with the expected blackouts like traditional theatre, heavily drenched in manipulative music. To be introduced to artists that dare to interpret the world through a lens that most people will never see through otherwise. With us, the audience, in the room. Right then. A shared voyage. Shared implying that even when that fourth wall is supposed to be there, we know it’s not really there. The illusion is not that we are not in that space, it’s that we are. And that we can be a part of it. We want to be a part of it. That’s the beauty of theatre. That’s why it’s not a movie. And this is not to suggest that naturalism can’t be incredible theatre. The Humans, playing right now at the Ahmanson proves that allowing the fourth wall to be a peephole into middle-America, where the audience almost voyeuristically peeks in on a crumbling family, is a powerful theatrical device. Because we all know we’re there. The power of awareness is not a little thing.
Knowing your medium as an artist is the most essential tool you can have. Writing a problematic script that could just as easily be a movie or on television, and having the means to have it produced in a prominent theatre is not a tool, it is a sign of privilege. When you present naturalism, you want it to reflect as close to real life as possible. Verisimilitude is a requirement. So that means you’re either going to draw an audience that it’s directly addressing, or one’s that are curious about a new landscape. When it’s one we’ve all seen, a million times, and it offers nothing new, it only draws the people who identify with it. So the audiences get older and older and fewer and fewer young people are interested in attending theatre, because it just doesn’t speak to them. For so long it was populated with privileged, white, first world problems. More and more people feel that the stories on stage are farther and farther away from the world they recognize, or even one that they feel a part of. So why? Why are these still the worlds we’re seeing? Because these are still the people with all the money. And so, with all of that pushback…this is the world we live in? This is just the way things are?
I guess I have nothing more to say about Our Very Own Carlin McCullough.
Our Very Own Carlin McCullough
By Amanda Peet
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli
Through July 29th
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Links to help under-represented voices in Los Angeles Art:
If you know of more, please include them in the comment section: