26 August 2012

Not me baby, I'm too precious

Last Thursday I saw Madeleine George's Precious Little, which has just started its west coast premiere run at Shotgun Players in Berkeley under the direction of Marissa Wolf, the artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater. I liked a lot about the play, especially its very powerful final scene, but something about it just didn't click for me. After a day or two I realized what it was. You know how you feel when you're out with someone you don't know very well but you assume is a decent person and then she starts treating a waitress badly or being a bit snotty to some flunkey? And eventually you realize that this isn't some bad-day aberration but instead is a pattern of behavior? I realized my problem with Precious Little is that the main character is a horrible person - only no one calls her on it, or seems to care, or even notice.

That main character is Brodie, a lesbian linguist in her early 40s who is having a child through a sperm bank. She discovers through an amniocentesis that there is a possibility that the child will be retarded (her word). This is only a possibility, not a certainty, but being faced with uncertainty shakes her world. What should be shaking her world is the way she treats other people, starting with her girlfriend, a graduate student named Dre.

Dre is not only an academic subordinate, she seems (based on her language and behavior) to be from a lower social class, and she's much younger than Brodie. Both women are aware that they are violating university rules against professor/student relationships; it's a concern for Dre but Brodie, who seems to feel the rule doesn't apply to her, dismisses her worries. Dre wants Brodie to go to the zoo with her to see a gorilla who had been the subject of language experiments. Brodie, who specializes in the study and preservation of dying languages, disapproves of what she considers linguistic stunts like teaching apes to "talk." She also disapproves of zoos, even though she doesn't seem to care much about animals, or know much about contemporary zoos. Dre really is looking for a public and emotional aspect to their relationship, and even when her need goes from subtext to text (when she says she wants to be used for something besides fucking - her word - and tape transcription), Brodie barely grasps that aspect - she seems to think the request is really just about a trip to the zoo. (This is not the only time this experienced linguist seems to have problems understanding the functions of language, particularly when they involve listening to other people.) They end up going and Brodie, unexpectedly (and rather implausibly), is suddenly fascinated by the gorilla.

When Brodie tells Dre about the complications to her pregnancy, Dre tries to be supportive and understanding but assumes that Brodie will abort the fetus. Apparently this is not what Brodie is currently planning to do, and Dre's failure to intuit this leads Brodie to dump her, brutally and abruptly. Even if Brodie is so self-centered and oblivious that she doesn't anticipate how much pain this will cause Dre, she should have noticed that obvious pain and anger right away. Instead Brodie - callously, cynically, cluelessly - makes it clear she is planning to continue exploiting Dre as a tape transcriber. I think we're meant to find this comical rather than appalling. Does Dre lodge an official complaint about professional misconduct, or even spread (however inadvertently) destructive gossip about Brodie? She does not. She conveniently disappears, off to heal, or sulk, or whatever, in private, but not before repeating (coincidentally) a line Brodie had already used to her genetic counselor, about things hurting less if you use the real words. This is an extremely dubious proposition to start with, and the repetition of the earlier sentiment was one of several spots where I felt the scaffolding of meaning was a little too obvious. Also, for a linguist, Brodie appears to have a remarkably unsophisticated view of the  important social role of euphemism, cliche, and other formulaic language.

The genetic counselor is a young woman named Rhiannon who is so new to her job that Dorothy, an older mentor counselor, still sits in on her sessions. Brodie at one point tells Rhiannon not to condescend to her but the condescension and the impatient snippiness are all coming from Brodie. Rhiannon herself is sincere and well-meaning and trying to learn a complicated and sensitive job. As with Dre, Rhiannon is young enough to be Brodie's daughter, but they elicit no maternal warmth or interest from Brodie, who treats them as she treats everyone, as if they were dimwitted household servants. She does at one point ask Gloria, the nurse conducting the amniocentesis, why she wanted to go into that field, but this rare interest in another person seems more like a distraction before a disturbing procedure than like something genuine, as if nerves were briefly taking Brodie out of herself. Being a parent requires several qualities Brodie is notably lacking, like empathy with others, and a realization that other people are not just projections of oneself. Why does this relentlessly self-interested woman want a child? Why does anyone think she would be anything but a nightmare as a parent? Why does no one in the play raise these questions?

We also see her dealing with Cleva, a language informant, a frail elderly woman who is an immigrant from the region of the Soviet Union where they spoke the dying language Brodie studies. and with Cleva's daughter Evelyn. Again, she is condescending to both, ignoring the mother's physical and mental health problems and dismissing the daughter's concerns. She can barely contain her exasperation when the mother, who obviously had nothing but rudimentary schooling, doesn't understand what she wants. As with other examples of Brodie's relentlessly self-centered behavior, this isn't played, and doesn't come across, as a criticism of Brodie: I had the sinking feeling we were actually  supposed to "identify with" Brodie, and share her exasperation, and even find it a bit endearing and sympathetic. Other people are such a pain! Especially when they're so much less sophisticated than we are!

The way I'm phrasing the action draws out what I see as the underlying reality of Brodie's character and behavior, but during the play itself we are clearly not meant to have these reactions. Certainly no one I heard discussing the play afterward, and nothing I've read about it, would have prepared me for Brodie's awfulness - for the way she uses other people, for her lack of concern for their feelings and problems, for her assumptions of superiority. In fact, as I mentioned above, I didn't walk out of the theater with those thoughts either - more of an unsettled feeling that there was something amiss with the portrayal of Brodie - so I think significantly negative thoughts about her are not built into the play. But I'm feeling the indignation of retrospection, and are theater-makers and theater-goers really so class-bound that they don't see how horrible her behavior is, even when they've stepped away from the immediate experience and thought it over? At a bare minimum, haven't they ever heard the phrase noblesse oblige, and wouldn't that make them question Brodie's behavior? Why does no one in the play confront Brodie's class-based assumptions?

It's all very much like listening to an upper-class woman complaining about the quality of help these days, and being expected to agree. I'm going to quote once again my favorite movie line, which is from Renoir's The Rules of the Game: "Everybody has their reasons. That's the terrible thing about life." Brodie (or perhaps it's Madeleine George, since she's the one who doesn't have the other characters confront or question Brodie to any significant extent) seems to think that the terrible thing about life is other people's failure to see reason; that is, to see that they should do what is convenient for her. A wonderful thing about drama as a form is that even minor characters can have their say, in their own words, free even of a narrator's interpretive gloss: but the vantage point here is unrelievedly Brodie's. (Except on the occasions when we hear the gorilla's interior monologues, which are refreshing.) And the closest anyone comes to calling her out is to say, You just don't understand, which seems more like an inconvenience to deal with than a charge to ponder; Brodie clearly feels they are the ones who don't understand the significance of her work, or of her.

When Brodie tries to persuade Cleva and Evelyn of the importance of Cleva's language (I forget the name of it, but I believe it was invented by the playwright anyway) she goes off on a highly technical little lecture about what makes the language so fascinating to a linguist. I think we're meant to find it quirky and charming that she's so "passionate" about her field (how much bad behavior are you willing to overlook in exchange for quirky interests?), but clearly Brodie is simply unable to communicate with anyone who isn't a graduate student - that is, someone who shares her interests yet is subordinate to her. (And in fact she even says that she had been picturing her future child as a little graduate student.) I'm expected to believe that this woman, who is completely unable to relate to nonspecialists, did field research for years? And she never prepared a short, clear, yet noncondescending explanation of what she was doing? As with her sudden interest in the gorilla or her desire for a child, this was an assertion that I felt came more out of thematic necessity than actual character. Also, you'd think that Brodie, as a linguist, would have been aware that her extravagant use of technical language to poor, marginalized women like Cleva and Evelyn would be seen as an intimidating and even repellent assertion of social and intellectual superiority.

My initial reaction was that Zehra Berkman as Brodie was the weakest member of the three-woman cast, but on further thought I think the faults in the performance lie with the playwright, not the actor. Berkman was appealing and convincing enough so that my experience of Brodie during performance was - well, I wanted to be sympathetic. But thinking it over afterwards, which to some extent means thinking more about what the playwright did and a bit less about what the actor is doing, I had to realize the problem was the play's insular and complacent view of Brodie as a character. Berkman also didn't have the advantage the other actors had of switching among multiple roles, which heightens the razzle-dazzle of a performance on a basic theatrical level. Nancy Carlin plays the gorilla, Dorothy, Cleva, and the Baby; Rami Margron plays Rhiannon, Evelyn, Dre, Gloria, and various zoogoers. Both are superb in their varied roles. The zoogoers are particularly exhilarating, as Margron does whole crowd dialogues in different voices, flowing seamlessly flawlessly and even hilariously from one character to another.

We hear the zoogoers in the last scene, as almost kind of a chant, while Brodie has a long monologue envisioning life with the baby and the gorilla, whose perfect simplicity and elegance of movement she tries to ape (yes, I'm using the word deliberately); I find that as I try to describe the final scene the details and the movement have blurred in my mind, but the impression remains: an almost abstract combination of words and movement and themes that was unexpectedly striking and actually drew gasps the night I was there. There's a powerful poetic meditation struggling to get out of this play, about language and representation and being in the world. Unfortunately it's trapped in a largely "realistic" effort, whose realism does not extend to questioning or criticizing its main character. It's like a banal, hackneyed magazine article we've all seen too many times - Can Brodie Have It All? - that doesn't realize that if you're even in a position to ask if you can have it all (no matter what "it" is), then you're speaking from a position of incredible privilege. Too bad George didn't spend more time on the other characters, all of whom are more interesting than Brodie (the play is less than ninety minutes, but I found myself checking my watch during several Brodie-heavy scenes). She has her moment of elevation at the end, but my retrospective realization of her unquestioned faults, and the play's failure to challenge or even comment on her behavior, make it feel unearned. It's like something you'd read about in the New York Times Style section: the sort of moment expected to give stylish spiritual depth to a life of unacknowledged and assumed privilege, a little epiphany for the entitled.

2 comments:

Michael Strickland said...

This sounds seriously ghastly. The things you go through for your adoring readers is so brave and selfless that I don't know how to thank you, except to say you're confirming almost every one of my numerous prejudices (towards middlebrow theatre for a certain class, academics, entitled lesbians, phony linguists, you name it) with this review.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Confirming prejudices - now I know what I'm good for!

The thing is that there is some retroactive angry heat in my description here. What I was feeling during the performance was mostly that something wasn't quite working for me, and that Brodie wasn't someone I wanted to be spending so much time with. But I also felt enjoyment at the skill of the actors, and of many individual moments (generally those that were more what I'm calling abstract, as opposed to the "realistic" scenes). But I'm puzzled that descriptions of and reactions to this play don't really question Brodie's behavior.