I am just writing a piece about Maureen Dowd that begins with a quotation from William Hazlitt: “Those who lack delicacy hold us in their power.” La Dowd exemplifies the melancholy truth of Hazlitt’s observations in her girly, gossipy prose that brings the cattiest of sorority nastiness to the august pages of a once-serious newspaper. It’s the disjunction that causes the frisson: you’re expecting some sort of serious analysis or opinionating and what you get instead is this painful smart-ass calling people names and calling attention to herself like a poorly brought-up, pubescent brat who recently discovered that her sex could be deployed as a weapon as well as an excuse.
But let me leave Maureen Dowd for later on. Now I want to remark on the wide application of Hazlitt’s principle: “Those who lack delicacy hold us in their power.” You can, I’m sure, think of plenty of examples. Here’s one. My friend Kevin Williamson, a writer for National Review, author (most recently) of The End is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, and theater critic for the magazine I edit, The New Criterion, got tossed out of a theater last night. Why? Because Hazlitt’s principle was working overtime. Let Kevin explain:
The show was Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which was quite good and which I recommend. The audience, on the other hand, was horrible — talking, using their phones, and making a general nuisance of themselves. It was bad enough that I seriously considered leaving during the intermission, something I’ve not done before. The main offenders were two parties of women of a certain age, the sad sort with too much makeup and too-high heels, and insufficient attention span for following a two-hour musical. But my date spoke with the theater management during the intermission, and they apologetically assured us that the situation would be remedied.
The situation was not remedied. On the contrary, “The lady seated to my immediate right (very close quarters on bench seating) was fairly insistent about using her phone. I asked her to turn it off. She answered: “So don’t look.” I asked her whether I had missed something during the very pointed announcements to please turn off your phones, perhaps a special exemption granted for her. She suggested that I should mind my own business.
This is where things got interesting.
So I minded my own business by utilizing my famously feline agility to deftly snatch the phone out of her hand and toss it across the room, where it would do no more damage. She slapped me and stormed away to seek managerial succor. Eventually, I was visited by a black-suited agent of order, who asked whether he might have a word.
Kevin wondered, as I would have done, whether management had come over to give him a pat on the back and congratulate him on dealing effectively with a public nuisance. I hope you will be as shocked as I was to learn that instead, he got the boot. There is, Kevin concluded, “talk of criminal charges.” I assume, but do not know, that he means he is contemplating suing the female in question, the theater, or both. It’s been suggested to me that, on the contrary, the possible charges might be directed at Kevin.That, I suppose, is possible, but only because William Hazlitt, with his laser-like insight, saw deeply into the heart of human folly.
In his often-bizarre but oh-so-brilliant analysis of the disastrous Star Wars prequels, Mike Stoklasa of Red Letter Media (video embedded below) commented on the opening sequence of A New Hope:
Compare this fecal matter [the Phantom Menace plot] to the opening of the original Star Wars. You see, a guy named William Shakesman once said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” This just means “don’t waste my time.” You keep it nice and simple. Without saying one word of awkward, boring political dialogue that goes on for ten minutes we know everything we need to know just by the visuals. Rebels. Empire. We get a sense of how small and ill-equipped the rebels are and how large and powerful the Empire is. The low angle implies dominance and the length of the Star Destroyer implies the long reach of the Empire. This shot says everything we need to without saying one word. In fact, this is so genius I have a feeling that George Lucas had nothing to do with it and probably fought against putting it in the movie.
Having Michelle Obama, first lady of the United States, present an Academy Award was such a brilliant strategy for advancing the post-structuralist deconstruction of America, even the Obamas themselves probably didn’t realize how genius it was.
When the first lady’s name appeared in Oscar tweets I checked to see if they were posted by The Onion; it sounded like the perfect goofball story. My heart sank when I realized she was really participating, and though I am sometimes petty or partisan in spite of my best efforts, I know if Laura Bush or Nancy Reagan had been teleported to Hollywood, the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach would have been the same.
There’s nothing like having the wind of public opinion at your back on a controversial issue. I used to, but the wind changed. Gay marriage will come to my adopted state if voters let stand the Maryland legislature’s recently passed same-sex marriage law. The gradual leftward shift on this, in Maryland and nationally, defies a prediction I made years ago. Mine is no longer the clear majority view – and it certainly never was among my fellow homosexuals. Ignoring the matter as long as possible has been my response. But time’s up. The November 6 vote is near. Having consulted my conscience, I find that my opposition remains.
It would be wimpy to tiptoe quietly to the polls. Not when the “Yes on 6” side is having so much fun mobilizing politically, financially, and even theatrically. Three local stage companies have put on plays intended to boost support for same-sex marriage in the run-up to the election. I decided that, forced to again take up this question, I could at least mobilize myself to enter the civic arena and attend some live theater.
My field trips, about which more below, prompted rumination about plays for the opposition to mount – if so inclined, which of course they’re not – that would cast an approving glow over heterosexual matrimony. Eugene O’Neill? Edward Albee? The more I thought about it, the more obvious it was that a staple of the modern theater has been husbands treating wives perfectly shabbily and vice versa. Well then, what about that old stand-by, Shakespeare, whose comedies end in nuptials? No. He only shows the first moments of marriage. For all we can say, Beatrice and Benedick, Orlando and Rosalind and the others wind up tearing into each other with all the sadistic zest of Martha and George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Despite how they were billed in the newspaper, the three productions I saw — two in Baltimore City and one in Columbia — addressed not same-sex marriage but the past prejudices that brought down upon us the cruel contempt of our fellow citizens. Who could disagree with preachments in favor of toleration? Two out of three so preached, I should say, for “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?”, being the “edgiest” of the lot, was a total loss. A two-man play, it arrived in 2006 as British dramatist Caryl Churchill’s way of floating her theory that the UK’s close foreign policy collaboration with the United States was rooted in an erotic attraction between Tony Blair and George W. Bush. The piece has been revised to make it less keyed to those individuals and more symbolically about the evils of capitalist-imperialist Uncle Sam. But it was still expressionism, and we were still Baltimoreans. In the Q and A after the show, audience members did not hesitate to share their bafflement.
The other two were staged biographies: “The Temperamentals,” about Harry Hay, founder of the earliest gay rights organization, and “Breaking the Code,” about Alan Turing, the British computer science and artificial intelligence pioneer who played a crucial role in defeating Adolf Hitler. (Turing broke the Nazis’ Enigma code.) The latter drama, which was written by Hugh Whitemore in 1986, was well-acted. It was pitiful and searing to watch a world-historical figure being humiliated by the government he served.
“Be Prepared To Spend a Few Years Working Boring Jobs You Think You’re Overqualified For That You Hate So You Can Pay The Bills. Just Take Whatever You Can Get So You Can Survive and Not Live in Mom and Dad’s Basement. Do Not Expect Your ‘Dream Job’ To Be Waiting for You When You Graduate. It Can (And Really It Should) Take Years Before You Break Into Your Field And Shift From Working Jobs to Living Your Career.”
Over the past few years, this has generally been the time when the younger, college-age writers finish up their BA or Master’s, prepare to venture off into the “real world,” and ask if I have any suggestions for them. (I was in their shoes six years ago.) The advice above summarizing my own post-college misadventures usually isn’t met with much enthusiasm.
And since 2008′s economic downturn, this injunction to “Just Take Whatever You Can Get” fell on deaf ears when passed on to some of my job-hunting friends. As long as they had an unemployment check flowing in or free rent from Mom and Dad, then what’s the rush to take a job that’s beneath you? Shouldn’t they hold out for something great? “I’ve got a college degree. Why should I work a job that I could’ve gotten just out of high school? I deserve better! I’ve worked for it!” But eventually the unemployment checks would run out.
Then it was time to cash the Reality Check, to go down to the temp office and take whatever job they’ll give you.
That’s the setting for the first act of Reality Check, a new musical comedy from father-and-son writing team David and Ben Shapiro that debuted with two performances last week in Los Angeles.
Reality Check takes the common young adult archetypes of The Breakfast Club and Friends and reinvents them for 2012. Five friends from high school rediscover each other at the temp office and find that after 10 years they’re still all clinging to the immature identities they embraced as teenagers:
- Sarah Brandon plays Lindsay, the workaholic overachiever who’s never able to focus her energy into real success and happiness. (Courtney Cox on Friends)
- Justin Buller plays Edward, the sex-obsessed jock, ladies man, and tough guy. (Matt LeBlanc in Friends and a blend of Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club.)
- Samantha Rose Cardenas plays Brittany, the cheerleader and princess (Jennifer Aniston in Friends and Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club.)
- Alex Robert Holes plays Alex, the “sensitive,” high-minded writer-artist eager to write the Great American Novel, always scribbling down notes (David Schwimmer in Friends meets Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club with sprinkles of Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe Buffay and Ally Sheedy-style “ooh! look at me!” pseudo-creative weirdness.)
- Haqumai Waring Sharpe plays Jimmy, the class clown joking through life. (Matthew Perry on Friends.)
The whole cast shines, with each performer embodying the high school stereotypes we know so well. The personalities are so universal that every audience member should see himself in at least one of the characters on the screen. I sympathized with the pretentious writer Alex who was dressed in the standard tortured artist uniform — all black, always carrying around a book, and facial hair that just doesn’t work. That was me senior year of high school. Even down to playing the Schwimmer role chasing Princesses who in turn pursue misogynistic men and then come running back to us for emotional support only to play with our hearts, never committing to a relationship. Reality Check hits this universal dynamic in the love triangle between Alex, Brittany, and Edward — a story told many times in real life and fiction and well done here.
But stealing every scene he’s in is Peter Pergelides as “The Man,” who runs the temp office and implores the adult-children to grow up with a song that’s still stuck in my head: “Let Go The Banana.” Here are some of the lyrics which set the tone of the whole production — fun, upbeat, clever, but still sincere:
In the jungles of Africa / This is how they catch a monkey
It’s a method that they’ve used for years / And it’s now become a habit
Take a jar with an opening / Slightly larger than a monkey’s hand
Put a banana inside the jar / And the monkey will soon grab it
He can’t see the reason / He can’t take his fist out
Now the hunters grab him / All because the monkey won’t
Let Go the Banana
He won’t let go the banana / You’ve got to know
For you to grow / You let go the banana
What are the bananas Reality Check targets? Several that should resonate not just with we Millennials now creeping up on 30, but also those in older generations, some of whom still struggle with letting go of the illusions trapping them in repeating cycles of self-destruction. The challenge of growing up and maturing into happy, responsible adults is a process that’s as necessary and ongoing at 53 and 76 as it is at 28.