A Lesson in Dramaturgy
The Echo Theater Company is presenting the world premiere of Handjob written by Erik Patterson. In the #MeToo, Times Up, Harvey Weinstein era, this play seems to be positioning itself as a statement piece. It wants to join the conversation, but is it able to? If we break the play down to its most basic dramatic parts, we’ll find the answer.
In order for a work of drama to, in fact, work as drama, there must be, in that work, a simple set of dramatic elements- these are not requisites, but fundamentals. The basic elements of playwriting pedagogy. First, there must be a protagonist with a want/need. An obstacle stopping that protagonist from getting what he/she wants or needs- otherwise known as the antagonist. Usually, the antagonist must have equal or greater power or ability than the protagonist which then creates what we call stakes. Stakes must be established alongside the inciting incident, and they must be high stakes if the piece is to earn its tension and conflict. The distinction between high and low stakes relies on two things, the character’s beliefs in those stakes, and perhaps more importantly, the stakes must hold either real or absurdly real value, or the audience simply won’t invest in the story. So, if, like in The Book of Mormon, the stakes are completely outrageous, the audience will go along because it’s a comedy and we understand the characters obstacles are very real to them. Conversely, in The Crucible, the stakes are high because they relatable and terrifying even to a modern-day audience. Stakes create tension which creates conflict that propels a protagonist on his or her journey toward achieving the intended goal.
Handjob, is the story of playwright Keith (Stephen Culp) who hires an attractive African-American man, named Eddie (Michael Rishawn) to clean his apartment while shirtless. Keith is gay. Eddie is straight. For the first half of the play, scenes between Eddie and Keith are juxtaposed on the same set with scenes between Kevin (Stephen Guarino) and Bradley (Ryan Nealy) who seem to repeat several of the same lines of dialogue that Eddie and Keith just did. It’s as if they’re reenacting the same scene. There is a reason for this, a turn in the script that I won’t give away. What I will say is that I had a bit of a struggle discerning what the stakes are in this play. Keith is a gay man who hires Eddie, who is a straight man, intending to objectify him. So, when the play becomes about intimacy and human connection, it departs from the realm of the reasonable, and just devolves into a series of rants about how gay men and straight men can’t have intimacy. It’s also very unclear what Keith wants. I mean apart from his ignorant white male privilege, which the author explores by making Keith unaware that he possesses it. I only refer to him as an ignorant, white man because that, I believe, is exactly how the author intended to write him.
Next, Keith gropes Eddie, thus perpetuating the heterosexual fear that gay men will try to attack straight men when alone with them. Again, this is a topic that explored in the script, I am not making an assumption here. So now the stakes are still absent, but we have a protagonist who is a white, male, who is a sexual predator ignorant of his own white, male sexually assaulting ignorance. Dramatic irony? Or oversimplification of a nuanced issue? Absent stakes make this difficult to clarify. Which brings us to another dramatic element of importance: the Major Dramatic Question. This is kind of a generalized term, that might be too simple to apply to certain narratives, but naturalism, as this play is, seems to always adhere to the Major Dramatic Question. This is a question that is posed at the inciting incident, it is the thing that the protagonist wants or needs, and the audience watches the play hoping, by the end, to have the answer. And the answer comes, usually during the climactic scene. These are usually simple questions, but they are the main question that runs through a story. Examples of MDQs: Will Frodo throw the ring in Mt. Doom? Will Dorothy make it home? Will Hamlet avenge his father? They are not the only thing going on in the story, but they are the question to the main conflict. So, if we’re to ask ourselves, what is the Major Dramatic Question of this play? I don’t know what our answer would be.
If we go past the groping scene, we discover that Keith is also a racist. So now, our protagonist is a white, sexually assaulting, racist gay man, and yet Eddie, the straight African-American shirtless house cleaner- who knows that Keith is a sexually assaulting, racist gay man- sticks around. He stays and wants to make Keith understand how terrible he truly is. But again, it’s unclear what Keith or Eddie actually wants. Is it to edify a mostly gay audience? Is the play moving into such meta territory that we, the audience, might be the intended protagonist? Let’s look a little bit further.
There is a turn in the script, a moment that changes our perception of what the world of the play is, and whne that happens, we’re introduced to two new characters and a new set of issues, that reflect the same issues as before, only slightly heightened. This sounds vague, because I don’t want to give any spoilers. But I will just say, that the stakes and MDQ and conflict are now even more difficult to identify. The biggest hurdle the play has to overcome is the believability factor. It’s very hard to believe the authenticity of any character. Why? Because the author chooses to politicize nearly every line of dialogue that each character speaks, either by making them mouthpieces meant to represent a minority, or has them angry about everything from racism and homophobia to consent, gun laws, and queer issues. So every moment in the play is kind of a red herring for the playwright to voice his own political beliefs. Which of course makes the play didactic and strained, which, in turn eliminates stakes, conflict and questions. By having characters that serve as his proxy, the author shows, probably without bad intent, his own lack of sensitivity and awareness. Having a character, who is a queer woman of color, for example, lecture another character about the brave queerness of a gay white man giving a straight white man a hand job on stage is not only culturally insensitive, it’s just simply a bad argument.
The next element vital to the success of a play is having dramatic action. Because there is a protagonist who wants something, and an antagonist that is blocking him or her from getting it, there needs to be a progression toward something. The protagonist must take steps to attain a goal, and along the way, other characters help or hinder. To make this very simple: Character A wants to persuade Character B into doing something, therefore, Character A uses tactics to get Character B to do that thing. Things like seduce, betray, manipulate, and any other verb you want to choose. And each time the tactic fails, they get more desperate, the tension builds and we get a nicely earned climactic moment. This is an elementary explanation, but one that is warranted because in this play, there is no progressing. Only stops and starts that have characters point out each other’s shortcomings. The characters are merely arguing with each other. And while its true that “more of the same” is a trap writers can easily fall into, in order for progression to be successful, the same argument, the same moment must not keep repeating. For this play, there is a gigantic soapbox for some characters, and though the arguments are slightly altered from character to character, there isn’t a through-line, there isn’t a goal, and so the arguments are circular and highly repetitive. Drama isn’t merely characters lecturing each other to make their points. Having people make their cases to prove someone else is in the wrong is called litigation, not drama. This play never allows us to empathize because we can’t even wrap our heads around the plausibility of it, because it lacks stakes, a clear protagonist want, plausibility, and dramatic actions.
The final element I’ll include is that in order for a play to nail the ending, a writer must earn his or her events or moments in a play. Conclusions should probably always be surprising but inevitable. When you rely on preaching and given circumstances, you can’t earn anything. And saying a straight white man receiving a hand job from a gay white man in 2019 is shocking and unapologetically queer, is blatantly false and reductive toward an entire group of people. Given circumstances can sometimes be what the audience brings to the table. Here, the author probably assumes that most audiences nowadays have knowledge about theMe Too movement, about the Times Up movement, and about the politically correct nature of America. Therefore, the play can hit on these topics without having to give context because we don’t need it. However, you can’t build an entire story on such broad and general ideas. There must be specificity, and this antiquated idea that gay men will pursue straight men, and that queer means anything sexual between two men is as preposterous as it is outdated. And I’m not missing the point, as some would argue. You can’t rely on given circumstances and erase every single element of dramatic writing expecting that white guilt and demeaning stereotypes are enough for your play to earn its catharsis. That’s not how dramatic writing, nor any kind of writing works. The word drama in Greek means “to do,” so, by its own definition, a play is a piece of writing where characters do things. They don’t just say them. Show don’t tell. I don’t know what I was supposed to take away from this play. I assume I should feel hopeless, that my own race, gender and sexual orientation should make me feel bad. If I look at this play as the political piece it wants to be, then I must conclude that queerness is defined by sex. Luckily, I don’t see this play as political, I see it as reductive.
In the end, this play just doesn’t work. It lacks stakes; it lacks clarity, specificity, wants, needs, catharsis and plausibility. What we’re left with is a preaching, circular, uneven piece of agitprop that intends to provoke white guilt, and gay shaming, I guess, because it repeatedly shames a white gay man, and a straight white man- to be fair- but make no mistake, the gay shaming is glaringly present. The cost of such shaming? Becoming homophobic and racist itself. So the play becomes exactly the things all of its characters, and the author, are railing against.
Can we say irony?
Written by Erik Patterson
Directed by Chris Fields
Echo Theatre Company
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave.
Los Angeles, CA. 90039