Tuesday, October 22, 2013


"How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It’s an archaic belief, one that I haven’t seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting. Backing off for a year or two was understandable, but to want out so badly that you’d take your own life?
“I don’t know that it had anything to do with us,” my father said. But how could it have not? Doesn’t the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?” - DAVID SEDARIS, from THE NEW YORKER

Last night I went to a reading of Frank Basloe’s SLEEPY HOLLOW, which sounds like it would be an action adventure but is really about living ghosts. Five friends meet for an uncomfortable dinner in a house in Westchester County; as it begins, you know there is something going on that no one will talk about. It takes a while to get to the heart of the uneasy truth: one of them tried to commit suicide three months before. Even though he is alive, everyone seems to treat him as a ghost, not wanting to face him, not wanting to ask what made the world so unbearable he tried to leave it. He is a traveler returned from a distant land, where few people ever come back from, viewed with mistrust and alienation by everyone, his wife, his children, his old friends. The forced awkwardness of the first half of the play rings false, until your mind catches up and you realize, it's as real as real life.

It’s hard to know how often people fail to commit suicide, except in movies where someone always comes in at just the right moment, playing it for laughs. How many of us have watched people we love walk back from the razor's edge? If they really meant to die, how is it possible that they could fail? It's only then you realize how our lives turn on the thinnest of coincidences, coming home too early or too late to save someone. It’s hard to know how to respond - pretend it never happened? Pretend they won’t try again? Wait for them to succeed next time? Both Stephen Fry and Mike Daisey have talked about their failures to slip away silently, but the ones who have succeeded, they give us no answers. The dead can’t talk, and anyway, everyone knows answers only lead to more questions.

Last night I thought again about the husband of my mother’s old college friend, who hanged himself when I was in high school. I had just met him and his family earlier that year. I can still remember his face, his thick shock of badger-striped salt-and-pepper hair. What we didn't know then was that he'd been battling depression for some time. One night, his wife called our home, her voice troubled, and I wrote down her phone number on a napkin that then was accidentally thrown away. In those days my Chinese was much worse than it is now; I'd forgotten her name, and it wasn't until a few days later that she finally reached my mom. I’ll never forget the shame that went through me when I heard why she'd called. I couldn't sleep without thinking about their son, some years younger than I, who'd been the one to find his father's body in their garage. I hope he understood, it wasn’t anything he did.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

on the edge of farce. theatre notes.

I found the New City Theater because of a roundtable discussion on the state of theatre in Seattle at the Rep in the spring of 2011. Intiman had just closed. Mike Daisey was in town for THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS, and he gave a benefit performance of HOW THEATRE FAILED AMERICA, followed by the roundtable. The actress Elizabeth Kenny was part of this discussion, and she was a ball of energy and anger, and when introducing her Jerry Manning had said "you should really all go see her show SICK, it's really great." I went home and looked up the New City, which turned out to be in the central district, not far from my apartment. Soon after I went to see SICK, and it was amazing. The space was amazing, two narrow rooms: a long lobby crammed with art and books and chairs, like the living room of the most interesting people you know, and the performance space, which seats at most fifty people.

Much later I learned that John Kazanjian - who directed SICK and pretty much everything else produced by New City Theater since its inception in 1982 - and Mary Ewald, who's starred in most of its productions - began the theater in their living room (they have been married for over thirty years). It still feels like a living room - when they did HOMEBODY a few months ago, they divided the already small theater space in half and squished the audience (now reduced to 20 people) into a scraggly semicircle around Homebody (played by Mary Ewald), seated at a little tea table shoved against one wall. Kazanjian and Ewald are the masters of monologue. I've seen them do Beckett (HAPPY DAYS) and Kushner (TINY KUSHNER and HOMEBODY), and Ewald in Caryl Churchill's THE SKRIKER (at a different theater) last fall was totally mesmerizing. So when I heard that Kazanjian would be directing New Century Theatre Company's latest play, I was hyperventilating with excitement until opening night. It wasn't until I got to the theater and sat down in the lobby with my program that I realized I had no idea what the play was going to be about.

The title, THE WALWORTH FARCE, gives one the idea that it will be funny. And indeed, it is funny, until it isn't anymore and becomes terrifying. Later I think of Harold Pinter's "comedies of menace," which start out quite amusingly and then turn a sharp corner and catapult you into a murky, creepingly menacing sense of dread. The comedy is immediate and physical, a funny wig, three characters spinning around each other in a dance. But it balances on the knife's edge of anger; this is what makes it work, the bitter counterweight to the laughter. The underlying unease - just exactly what the hell is going on here? - keeps you trembling on that edge. When you realize the truths that keep the three men of this story trapped in this dingy apartment - only one of them ever leaves, to buy food, and one day unwittingly brings the outside world back with him - the story becomes heartbreaking.

What I have always loved most about New Century Theatre Company is how much they feel like a family - several of them seem to be actually married to each other - and how watching them is like seeing a murmuration of starlings rise as one being from the earth and sweep across the sky. I can't explain it any other way. There is a connection and a familiarity and a physical awareness of each other. And for the first time I understand how, in a way, John Kazanjian is still directing plays in his living room. This space that is New City Theater is like his own skin, with its brick walls and painted floor, and the slamming of doors and thrum of music like his own heartbeat, and ours.