Before I begin this post, I’d like to provide a frame of reference for where I was mentally when I saw this show (I think it’s important, as a reviewer, to be honest about what you’re entering the theater with, as it’s different for everyone). I’d had a long day, starting with helping out at a student matinee at the theater I work at, as well as a full hectic day of work, and exhaustion from anxiety struggles earlier in the week. I’m sad to say that I entered this show already feeling fatigued and not very energized. I was hoping the show would lift my spirits. It didn’t.
I have never left at the intermission of a show before, but I did this night. I hesitate to call this an actual review since I didn’t see the whole show but it did provoke me quite a bit and I have thoughts I feel are important to share about the production. My issues are not with the quality of the production, the acting, or the theater itself (all of which are wonderful) but rather the script and the show’s story,
The writing was lacking for me. While I haven’t seen the previous play this one is a sequel to, I didn’t feel that seeing it would have helped me understand the characters or situation better. Henry and Alice are camping to save money instead of staying at an expensive hotel. It was all pretty simple – and that was the beginning of the problem for me. While there was conflict and some sense of urgency, I could find Henry or Alice likable or interesting. Diana I liked and could relate to in some ways, but she was supposed to be an annoying bother, and I couldn’t understand why. Her entrance made me interested, for a while, until she became a stereotypical hippie, “too wild” for Henry and Alice” (if too wild is a “carpe diem” tattoo, I hate to think what my eight tattoos reads as in this world).
I also didn’t appreciate some of the jokes – the swingers misconception had potential, but I felt like it was still dismissive or stigmatizing to actual swingers (as a supporter of polyamory and other nontraditional lifestyles, this could have been an educating or embracing moment and it didn’t read that way). I’m over the “breathing into a paper bag because I’m hysterical” gag. Panic attacks are real. I have them. Please don’t trivialize them (or at least make it a larger part of the character, ala Leo Bloom in The Producers). I’m also pretty sure that g*psy is a slur now, so I don’t know why this was used at all.
I’m just being prescriptive now, which is against everything I’ve been taught in playwriting. But I’m disappointed in this play. Really disappointed. It’s by a female playwright, it’s a new show. It’s everything I want to support in theater. But while sitting and listening to Alice and Henry bicker and not being very interested, I realized a large part of the problem for me. I don’t live in Henry and Alice’s economic world. I don’t live in a place where people retire early or where being laid off means you need to formulate a budget and you can’t shop at Pottery Barn any more. I live in a world where people work until they day they die and a world where, if you’re laid off, your house gets foreclosed. I am not upper middle class. I’m not middle class. I’m lower middle class at best, and most of the time I’m working class. Theater is not a wealthy industry to work in, despite what Broadway might like to depict it as. I make minimum wage, I’ve spent a lot of money for my degrees that has not left me with debt (yet) but has for most of my generation. As a millennial watching this show, I was stunned by the presentation of wealth and money. It made no sense to me that in order to save money, Henry and Alice went camping. If you haven’t been to an REI or a Cabella’s recently, go and check out camping gear – it’s not cheap. At all. Saving money for my family when I was growing up wasn’t changing our vacation – it was not going on vacation at all (it was the same for both of my parents growing up as well). It made no sense that Alice, who clearly worked hard for what she had, wouldn’t understand why her husband was concerned about her spending habits or why her horror story became having to live on a budget instead of, well, maybe being homeless. The fact of the matter is that Alice and I live in completely different worlds. And it’s something I think we need to start talking about.
We are living in the most economically disparate time since the 1920s (or so I learned my first year in my MFA program). Never before has there been such a large difference between the wealthiest of people and the poorest in our country. In the world of theater, we of course need money (especially donors) to fund our work and make things happen (there are of course arguments agains that, but I won’t tackle those here). But we also want to open our doors to most diverse audience, especially those who can’t often afford to attend theaters. I couldn’t help but think about the students I saw at the student matinee I helped at, who were awed at the expensive look of the building they were entering, and started thinking about how they might feel about Alice complaining about not being able to buy stuff. Perhaps how it was how I was raised, perhaps it was my college education, hell, maybe it’s my fondness for Brecht – regardless, classism is never far from my mind. It’s not that I don’t think shows can’t just be entertaining or have wealthy characters – they certainly can, but it’s important in how you talk about it and discuss it in the show. It’s also about creating more diverse work about diverse people. But in this case, it was how money was discussed. I didn’t stay around for the second act and maybe it’s resolved and Alice learns materialism isn’t so important and Henry learns not to be so uptight. But that’s not really the issue. The issue is that I don’t ever believe there’s that much to lose. It all felt hollow to me because in the world around me, the stakes are much different. If all Alice is going to do is not get her trip to Europe, I don’t feel a connection with that. I would love to go to Europe – but right now I’m worried about paying my rent that’s going up in December because Minneapolis is being filled with expensive luxury apartments that cost as much as half a semester of my grad school tuition per month and everything is getting more expensive. Alice can’t buy her Pottery Barn furniture? I know people who can’t afford medication they need, who don’t have health insurance, and if they do have insurance, they are or are afraid they will lose coverage.
Theater doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. And for me it’s impossible not to see what’s happening in the world around me when I attend a show. I can’t just sit back and relax and shut off everything else – I wish I could, But the play I’m attending is always in dialogue with the world around me. And I think that’s a really important function of theater. A show can be really entertaining and make you forget your troubles but also teach you something really important or make you realize something. And what bothers me is that this play does touch on some really wonderful stuff – Alice’s hard unappreciated work as a stay at home mother, trying to care for an aging parent, and the affect the economy and lay offs have on personal relationships. But I just don’t understand why it used story to work with those issues.
I also have to ask what kind of audience was this for. I was one of the youngest members of the audience on a relatively full weeknight and, yes, it was a mostly older, white, seemingly middle class audience. This is not a critique of Park Square alone but a theater-wide issue. There’s a contention between the subscriber base and the urging to bring in younger and more diverse audiences. I feel bad criticizing this show because I really love the cast – John Middleton, Carolyn Pool, and Melanie Wehrmacher are absolutely wonderful. Mary M. Finnerty is a fine director. And I’m looking very forward to the season ahead, especially to Hamlet. I could simply admit I’m not the intended audience for this show. It’s not about my world. But I also want to know what happens when not the intended audience enters the room and what happens then. How do we deal with that? How do we recognize their feelings without brushing it off as a overreaction? I admit that I’m emotional about this, but I hope it shows it’s because I care. I love theater too much to let it continue to be overwhelmed by classism, I’m tired, so tired of this fight on many levels – there’s a great intersectionality with economic status that affects age, gender, race, sexuality, etc and it too often gets overlooked. I want to challenge theaters to consider classism more when discussing seasons, marketing, access to patrons, etc. We need our wealthy patrons who are willing and able to support our shows, but we also need patrons of different economic levels to enjoy what is produced, to feel inspired, and see their stories shared onstage.
I want to end this (very) long post with a final thought on why I am so passionate about this. The first theater show I ever attended was “The Wizard of Oz” at Wagon Wheel Theater in Warsaw, Indiana. I never in a hundred years thought that one day, after seeing that show with my grandmother, I might one day write a play myself. While they were community theater actors, I saw them in a professional light – partly because I was six and anyone who was an adult was cool and partly because theater lighting has the power to make anyone look incredible and magical. Seeing someone onstage puts them in a privileged position – in Western theater, we’re sitting the dark focused on them, while they have the floor to speak and we’re quiet (well, different levels of quiet depending where you’re attending theater). Regardless, they literally have the mic – and what they say matters and resonates. I think it’s too easy to think theater is just another art form that people consume and shrug off. It’s like any other – some of it we always we remember, others not so much. But unlike other art forms, it’s happening in real time. And it has the capability to speak to us immediately, presently, as a collective of different people with different experiences. It is one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever been privy to. I’ll always remember seeing “The Wizard of Oz” in the theater and not the first time I saw the film, because seeing it with a group of people who also were afraid of the flying monkeys and were mesmerized by Glinda and gasped at the Wicked Witch’s wickedness is downright incredible. What we make matters. We know that. I just hope that we continue to broaden our idea of who it matters to.