Note From Jon


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Ghost and the Dysfunctional Family

P.W.Y.C. Yes those four lovely initials (though not an acronym) mean it’s time for another trip to Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Tonight it was David Adjmi’s new play Stunning which I read the following synopsis for:

Sixteen year old Lily knows nothing beyond the Syrian-Jewish community
[…] where she lives a cloistered life with her much older
husband. Soon an unlikely relationship with her enigmatic African-
American maid opens Lily's world to new possibilities - but at a big

So I thought I was seeing something in the vein of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (just replace Syrian-Jewish with Afghani, and African-American maid with first wife). I loved that book but tend to have a hard time with realistic dramatic theatre, so I had fairly low expectations (for my enjoyment at least, not for the quality of the show). My expectations were shattered instantly when New York club music pumped out of the darkened stage and the play opened with a scene I’d describe as Sex in the City-gogue, and the audience was quickly cracking up.

I’d made two false assumptions. First, that the play was set in Syria. Notice that deceptive “[…]” up in the synopsis quote? It hides the words “in Brooklyn” which failed to sink in when I originally read it. The second assumption was that the cloistered girl was poor. Actually the family, and in general the whole Syrian-Jewish enclave (which actually exists) is quite wealthy—Lily had just returned from Aruba in the opening scene, so I had to reconcile cloistered with international travel and conservative with trendy clothes.

Having successfully made this mental adjustment, and breathing a sigh of relief that this would be a humor-infused drama, I began searching for what is seemingly an intentional mark of Woolly theatre: The Ghost and the Dysfunctional Family. The play Nutshell from last year’s fringe festival made a joke by describing a play at Woolly Mammoth as “the one about the dysfunctional family”, and when that didn’t narrow anything down, “the one with the ghost”. That line gets funnier to me with every show I see there. So far this season The K of D and No Child… have both had a dysfunctional family and a ghost. Now the family isn’t hard (how many plays have you seen about a functional family?), but the ghost as well? I didn’t have to wait long. In the very opening scene Lily describes how her new house is haunted, and the ghost plays a recurring (though somewhat inexplicable) role throughout the play. The Ghost and the Dysfunctional Family. Check. Three for three.

So the play was off to a good start for me and for the most part it maintained that feeling throughout, although the first half was more enjoyable than the second and the show didn’t feel quite tight enough at points (to be expected from a P.W.Y.C. preview of a World Premiere show—they even made an announcement about the lack of polish during the house manager speech which was a first for me). While the scene transitions were rough at times, Daniel Conway’s set design itself was far more impressive than I’d expected. They successfully recreated a multi-story NYC luxury apartment (the minimalist igloo was decorated entirely in white—to the point where the maid was told that there was a bucket of paint in every room and if she saw a spot on the wall, or just had free time, to touch up the paint). In fact the only part of the whole set which wasn’t in grayscale was probably “Kitty”… the goldfish. Whole walls seemed to open and close like garage doors to reveal different rooms in the apartment, and more importantly to reveal mirrors along the whole back of the stage. The mirrored wall was a new effect to me and led to some interesting staging, notably it enabled some rarely seen back-blocking where you actually picked up the actors expressions in the mirror, and of course to some extent you also saw the audience. Although that could have been distracting, because of the hazy quality of the some of the reflections, I actually linked our ghostly appearance to the haunting of the house.

Race was one of the themes of the show, as you might imagine from a play about Syrian Jews who consider themselves white, look Arab (or are supposed to), but are, as Lily points out in a great dinner scene, Spaniards from the Iberian peninsula who fled the Inquisition—knowledge which she clearly picked up from her African-American maid... the one who she insists on pretending is Puerto Rican. The race relations are humorous at some points, such as when the maid, Blanche, tells Lily the anti-wrinkle secrets of Cocoa butter which leads to the phrase “Black don’t Crack”, or when Lily’s husband asks Blanche if she’s a hip-hopster… yo. But several times the N word is used to stunning effect, and its power is not diminished even when spoken in Pig Latin… which Lily and her sister use to speak secretly in front of the maid… the quad-lingual maid with the PhD in Semiotics from Brown University. Sound Designer Ryan Rumery did an excellent job capturing these diverse aspects of race and class in the scene transition music which included Arabic techno, hip-hop (shortly after the hip-hopster scene) and Rachmaninoff.

The play benefited from solid acting performances from the whole cast and particularly from the three leads, Laura Heisler, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, and Michael Gabriel Goodfriend, although one of the strongest moments of the night was when Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, who plays Lily’s sister, personified the rejection which the Syrian-Jewish community apparently expresses to those who leave the fold. Not only are community members directed to only marry other Jews, but they define being Jewish as having two Jewish parents and conversion to Judaism does not count.

David Adjmi’s script was clever and used humor to balance most of the serious issues of the show, which worked well for my tastes, and while the characters seemed a bit caricatured at times, they developed some depth through the show, and became even more real when you realized that no character was wholly good or bad (although some of these changes made it challenging to connect with characters… or at least the same characters… towards the end of the show). Some aspects of the script were a bit unclear to me, so on the off chance someone cares here’s a list of elements that confused me:

  • How old was Lily? At various points she claims she is turning or has turned 17, at other times 16
  • I assumed Shelly was Lily’s friend and not her sister until nearly the end of the show
  • The bookkeeping incident at the office is incredibly vague
  • While I loved the ghost for the continuity of the Woolly Mammoth joke, I had a hard time picking up it’s origin or relevance to the rest of the play
  • Several times the husband’s attitude toward the maid seems unnatural (e.g. seething “You are dead!” at the close of one scene… and convincing you he means it… and then greeting her cordially in their next scene)

I think we’re about at the point where I need to switch over to my bulleted memory format!

  • Some of my other favorite lines, paraphrased as best as I can remember:
    • Lily: I look white!
      Blanche: Not to me you don’t! (gives Lily the trademark Larry David eye from Curb Your Enthusiasm)
    • Blanche: It’s like Helen Keller said, “I’m just one person, but I’m still a person!”
      Lily: I thought Helen Keller was mute.
      Blanche: I’m paraphrasing.
    • Blanche: Lobster isn’t a fish, it’s a sea insect.
    • And because I always think fondly on the college dinner when James tried to explain how the Law of Diminishing Returns applied to our enjoyment of Fazoli’s breadsticks (later I believe he corrected this to be The Law of Marginal Utility), I particularly enjoyed this exchange:
      Lily: You don’t seem drunk at all
      Blanche: I drink a lot. It’s the Law of Diminishing Returns.
    • And because Natalie and I discussed this generation’s Nature Deficit Disorder and its relation to Attention Deficit Disorder, this line was particularly appropriate:
      Blanche: You have the attention span of an Aphid!
      Lily: What’s an Aphid?
  • And some memorable visuals:
    • Blanche, nearly crying, frantically spraying glass cleaner until the mist coalesced and ran down the mirror like tears.
    • Seeing what someone might look like after an attempted drowning in a tray of paint

Finally, Notes to Jon:

  • Apparently I am a horrible date because I’ve now had a different date to each of this year’s four Woolly shows. Granted all but one of them were “dates” with a close friend, but even my real date didn’t want to come back to this one! I may soon be seeing these shows by myself.
  • Parked at the usual Gallery Place spot, and arrived in the theatre right at 6:00, which put us about 70 people back for tickets.
  • I wish I’d read the New York Times article about the real-life Syrian-Jewish community which the play was based on like Natalie did, fascinating stuff.

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