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Modern Family

I saw two plays recently, both contemporary, one of which I liked (Nicky Silver’s The Lyons now playing at the Vineyard Theatre with Linda Lavin in the lead) and one of which I didn’t (Adam Rapp’s Dreams of Flying, Dreams of Falling, recently mounted by the Atlantic Theatre Company at the Classic Stage space, with Christine Lahti in the lead), but both of which set me to ruminating on the question of when they were supposed to be set.

Both are comic family dramas apparently set in the present. Silver’s play features a hilariously overbearing, opinionated, sexually aggressive and critical mother, eagerly awaiting the death of her terminally ill husband, and two over-the-top dysfunctional offspring, the daughter a divorced recovering alcoholic, the son a creepy gay recluse and failed writer who substitutes fantasies of relationships with people he sees from his window for actual human connection. Oh, yes, and a “magic negro” character in the person of the nurse who attends first on the dying paterfamilias and then on the son, who is hospitalized after being brutally beaten by one of his fantasy objects, who he’s been stalking; the falsest note in the play is the close, when the hospitalized son tries to connect emotionally with the nurse, and she reciprocates.

Rapp’s play, by contrast, features a hilariously overbearing, opinionated, sexually aggressive and critical mother, eager to do away with her mousily ineffectual husband and run off with their friend and neighbor (who appears no less mousily ineffectual than her husband is), and two over-the-top dysfunctional offspring: the daughter a creepy recluse and failed artist, and the neighbor’s son, recently released from a psychiatric hospital after a failed suicide attempt, who substitutes a fantasy online relationship with an Iraqi boy (presumably actually an adult masquerading as same) for actual human connection. Oh, yes, and there’s also a black servant who Lahti requires to wear a French maid’s outfit and speak in French who putters about, serving and clearing and being accidentally pulled onto the dining room table by the neighbor’s son while he’s having sex with the daughter on said table.

There are important differences between the plays. Silver’s is funny, for one. Also, his dysfunctional family is Jewish. Also, Adam Rapp’s play features a variety of dead animals. But what they have in common is a kind of out-of-time quality.

Silver’s play, to me, strongly recalled the work of Christopher Durang, whose most important work was created in the 1980s. And the two central characters of the play – the mother, a wife of forty years who decides to live for herself now that her husband has finally died, and the reclusive and emotionally unconnected gay son whose father tried to turn him straight when he was a kid – in particular seem like characters from that era. I kept trying to figure it out: the mother is supposed to have been married for forty years. The son is the younger kid. So, assuming she got pregnant relatively soon but not immediately after marrying, and assuming she spaced the kids out a bit, he’s probably 35. It’s now 2011. That means he was born in 1976. Which means he entered college in 1994. Obviously, life for gay teens and young adults is really different now than it was in the 1990s – but it was also really different in the 1990s than it was in the 1960s or 1970s. And the mother married in 1971. Assuming she married young (the average age at first marriage for women in 1971 was 21) she was born in the late 1940s – an early baby boomer – and, in the present, is in her early 60s. She’s probably younger than Hillary Clinton.

Now, again, don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of Jewish matrons in their early ’60s who the mother figure is reminiscent of. But they are throwbacks. The characters in The Heidi Chronicles are the same generation as the parents in The Lyons. But there is no indication, from the way these characters look and behave, that they lived through the same history.

The play, rather, feels displaced in time – displaced, specifically, from the era of Nicky Silver’s first achievement, the 1990s. The parents look older than they would have been then – because those characters have aged fifteen years since then – but they are nominally the same age they were then (Lavin is a 74-year-old, and as I saw her on stage she’s playing a 74-year-old, but if the character she’s playing is actually 74 then she married at age 34, which makes her regret for having missed out on life and her need to finally live for herself quixotic to say the least; it makes much more sense to think of this character as a 62-year-old who married at 22). The kids are also older than they were then – implausibly old, if you really look at the calendar – but more to the point, they are living lives that make more sense in the context of that era. (The reclusive son, for example, shows no signs of having heard of the internet, which is pretty much inconceivable for a contemporary recluse but entirely appropriate for a mid-1990s recluse.)

The Rapp play is more obviously displaced, so much so that I have to assume the displacement was deliberate. He’s situated his drama in the suburban Connecticut of Edward Albee’s imagination, a place that hasn’t changed since 1965. The most obviously displaced element is the plot (such as it is): the Christine Lahti character wants to do away with her husband and run off with her neighbor. Why doesn’t she just get a divorce, he asks her? “Oh, that would take forever,” she replies. Which gets a nice laugh. But what kind of an answer is that? It doesn’t actually make any sense at all as an answer. I got the sense that Rapp knew that his plot had a problem: that what might have been socially plausible (murder is the only way out of this marriage) in an era when divorce was relatively rare – or at least plausible enough to be an amusing conceit – had become utterly implausible. But he still wanted to organize the action of his play around this idea. So he just … pointed to the problem, and got a laugh. But since the problem remains, I have no idea how to take the action of the play.

The black maid presents a similar problem. In Hal Ashby’s debut feature, “The Landlord,” which is all about race and class at a particular point in time, there are several powerful scenes involving characters – black and white – being dressed up in period costume: a scene where a black servant in livery gets a tureen of soup dumped over his head; a scene where a white character shows up at a party in blackface and eighteenth-century costume; a scene where a white character imagines herself as a southern plantation owner with mulatto grandchildren at her feet; etc. But that film was from 1970, and it was very clear what the director was doing with those scenes. I have no idea, by contrast, what Rapp is doing with the black servant character in this play. I had to assume that he was saying something about how things haven’t changed, or about how these particular characters want to behave as if things haven’t changed, or something. Except that I simply didn’t believe that a young black woman today would participate quietly in this particular farce – in fact, I would expect the job to go not to an African-American woman but to an immigrant (possibly from the Caribbean, so she might well be of African descent – but she also might well already speak French).

As I keep saying, I have to assume that the displacement, in this case, is deliberate. That Rapp is trying to write an Albee play, and therefore these out-of-time elements are really archetypes from Rapp’s version of Albee’s box of tricks. But … to what purpose? That’s what’s never clear to me. If you choose to mount an Albee play, you have to figure out how to connect that work to the present while being true to the time in which it was written and set. If you choose to write an Albee play, it’s all the more important to be able to answer the question: why? Why now? What am I saying to this audience today by depicting a social world that is a parody of a world decades past? Unfortunately, at the end of the play, I didn’t have much of an answer to that question.

What carries both plays is the acting. Lahti is a pleasure to watch and listen to even if I don’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing, and Reed Birney does a fine, understated job as her husband. In Silver’s play, Lavin’s performance is a tour-de-force, but Michael Esper is affecting as the son, Dick Latessa persuasive as the husband, and Gregory Wooddell brings a surprising amount of life to his one scene, as the object of Michael Esper’s stalking (though I didn’t really believe in the violence with which that scene climaxes). Silver’s play rises well above Rapp’s because I believed in his characters emotionally, which I never really did with Rapp’s; they both get their laughs, but Silver’s come from inside, and that makes all the difference to the actors as well as to the audience.

But I remain troubled about this question of displacement in time. The theatre is distinguished among the arts for its immediacy; whenever it is happening in terms of the world of the show, it’s happening now. To my mind, that only increases the urgency that a play make us feel that we are there now. Which doesn’t mean setting things in the present – it means letting us know where and when we are. Even if you’re doing a production of Endgame, and where you are is nowhere and when you are is the end of never – it should be a specific nowhere, at the end of a particular vision of never. Because if we don’t know where we’re going, odds are we’ll never get there.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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