I went to see Side Effects on Sunday and it was an entertaining two hours. One of the highlights? Peter Friedman. You know his face, you’ve seen him in a bunch of stuff, he’s one of those guys who’s kind of in everything (he played the neighbor, the one you just knew was gonna get some limbs chopped off by crazy Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female), and I just think he’s really great. He’s a New York actor (another thing I liked about Side Effects– so many New York theater actors onscreen), and I first saw him onstage a few years ago in After the Revolution at Playwrights Horizons.
He always seems to be living when he’s acting. He doesn’t feel like an actor man delivering lines, he feels like a fully realized human being going through an experience. He interrupts himself, he laughs, he scratches, he wants something from the other actors around him. When I watch him act, I say “Oh, I know that guy” or “Yup, I do that, too.” Sanford Meisner taught that acting is the ability to listen and respond, and I could watch Peter Friedman do it endlessly.
Before I left New York a few weeks ago, my cousin Nicholas performed with some of his classmates at the Bitter End, a West Village music venue. Nick goes to a performing arts high school, and some of the upperclasskids got the chance to tread the boards for family and friends on a Sunday afternoon. How often do you get the chance to watch teenagers sing their hearts out? I highly recommend it– watching kids perform is good for the soul, I think it shares restorative properties with kale and daily exercise. What I found so moving about the Bitter End performers (and believe me, I was moved– I cried into my vodka cranberry each time someone hit the chorus or craned to find the right note. My cousin Kyana teared up along with me, and we agreed that if we ever have children they won’t allow us to attend any graduations, no performances or school recitals, no occasions that might push us to tears. At the rate I’m going, an elementary school bake sale could make me nostalgic and embarrassingly weepy) was their absolute commitment, that life force that young people have that makes their art so clean and expressive and pure.
I love kids doing art. Anything– I love watching them draw, play make-believe, make up dances, paint, take pictures, sing songs, act in plays. When we’re young, that wall between our conscious and unconscious brain hasn’t yet calcified, I think there’s still a freedom to roam and a willingness to explore that doesn’t feel daunting. Youth allows our creativity to spool out away from us and live. At camp I would sometimes direct campers in our musical production, and there’s nothing that gives me goosebumps more than young voices tripping through a chorus together. Those kids. Their eyes were wide, their arms hung by their sides, their mouths wobbled, there was a glint just behind their eyes that told you they were communicating something crucial and necessary.
How lovely might life be if we could live that way as we grow older? I will pursue acting until the day I die, but often I feel far removed from my basic burn and need for it. I long for that eleven year old version of myself, the one who could live with all of her energy and seize moments on stage, the one who would have been up there singing Lady Gaga songs and show tunes with Nick and his classmates, unafraid of how she sounded as she hopped from one leg to the other, sticking her chin in the air, daring life to scare her out of saying all that she needs to say.
Last summer I had about four dollars in my bank account, so I planned on spending my summer tethered to the sticky city. But yay of all yays, playwright Jordan Seavey asked me to participate in a workshop of his lovely, beautiful, heartbreaking new play “Listening for our Murderer” with New York Theater Workshop in Hanover, New Hampshire.
So I said goodbye to my messy little apartment.
Goodbye to Penn Station. You smell like foot and armpit.
Goodbye to my fuzzy departure picture. That’s the thing about traveling alone. You feel bad asking a stranger to be patient while you fiddle with the settings on your camera.
This past summer I made myself go see Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Uncle Vanya. They brought it to New York as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, and because the tickets are expensive, the show is long, and the run is so short, I came up with a billion reasons not to go. But I really loved STC’s production of Hedda Gabbler at BAM back in 2006, and I feel like it’s silly to miss an opportunity to see Cate Blanchett on stage, so I just used that credit card that’s always $100 from being maxed out anyway and went to see it.
Whenever I’m feel particularly boastful after a drink or two, you might catch me claiming that “Uncle Vanya, hic, is my favorite Chekhov play.” When in fact, Uncle Vanya is the only Chekhov play I’ve seen in performance. But I really do love it– it’s slow, not much happens and yet everything happens, and it presents a kind of crushing, acute reminder of the pain of living and trying to love and deal in the world.
This production had all of that, but it also had a bouyancy about it that I can’t seem to forget. I’ve seen productions of Uncle Vanya that are certainly beautiful and poignant, but they definitely feel like “eat your spinach” theater– long, dour, a world without much light. Which I guess might be the Russia Chekhov creates, but he also creates a Russia where people need music, drink like Vikings, sing at the top of the lungs, crave the human touch, and break into dance. Their inability to have all of these things in a consistent way is one of the reasons his work feels so heartbreaking to me. And when you get a glimpse of how these characters might live if they could get out of their own ways, when you see how one’s life could be if perhaps fear wasn’t such a constant, it is absolutely both the happiest and saddest thing in the world. This production of Uncle Vanya allowed us to see how happy these people might be, how their lives could feel like a Saturday night as opposed to Monday morning– we see that glint of possibility, and when it’s taken away, when they realize their dreams are only dreams and life is probably one, long, monotonous stretch, the shock of the realization just takes your breath away.
I went to see The Suit at BAM tonight. Based on a short story by South African writer Can Themba, The Suit is the story of Matilda and Philomen– a seemingly happy couple who learn to relate to each other in an entirely different way when Philomen learns of Matilda’s infidelity. There is music, there’s dancing, there’s not much of a fourth wall, there’s audience participation (I think this is the only time I’ve seen a show and felt tempted to pop my hand in the air and beg to be included on stage), and I was reminded of the many ways that theater can work, what it can do. The stage is sparse, actors play multiple roles, characters address the audience, musicians are onstage– there was an in-between quality to this world and this story that I think theater can capture so beautifully. But there was also so much specificity, and when the narrator tells us that this story could only take place in South Africa– during its regime of violence and oppression, of fear and no safety, of hate and hope– you understand. The story feels immensely personal, but it gestures to the world outside of the couple’s bedroom– a world where musicians and working men are killed daily and neighborhoods are destroyed– and it’s hard not to see the symmetry between Philomen and Matilda’s loss and a character singing “Strange Fruit” after learning of a musician’s execution.
We all need stories like this. Stories of life and love and hope and loss and fear and doubt. I sometimes find it hard to relate to theatrical depictions of blacks– our pain and suffering feels paramount and seems to squeeze the life force out of everything. But this story gave the characters some room, they had space to be free to live in a way I often don’t see on American stages. It’s not surprising to me that the company touring the production is French. There was so much life presented tonight. I recently saw the film adaptation of Les Miserables and was amazed by how dead everyone seemed– there was no fire, no passion, no heat, no breath. The Suit had a pulse. It throbbed and showed us how life is everywhere all the time– the good parts and the difficult parts– and there is beauty to be found in our encounters with that life.