wet earth

"The Guys" at MPC Studio Theatre

Two chairs on a sparsely decorated stage, two cups of coffee.  Two voices, a woman, a man.

Two planes.  Two towers.

Nothing about the tragedy of 9/11—the collapse of the towers, the number killed, the wars it spawned, the way it changed how we live—none of it was small.  For many, the reality of what occurred was too big to take in.  How to talk about it?  How to tell a story about it?

A dozen years on, artists are still struggling with how to convey what happened that day.

In Anne Nelson’s “The Guys,” currently showing at the MPC Studio Theatre in a poignant production directed by Laura Coté, a New York firefighter asks a local writer to help him compose funeral remarks about the men of his company who went into one of the towers and never came out.  The small size of the Studio Theatre and the intimate storytelling quality of Nelson’s work create a space—theatrical, and also emotional—for the viewer to revisit, on a human scale, those terrible days, to experience the grief of 9/11 without feeling overwhelmed by it.

Nick (Gary Bolen) is proud of his men and their mission to save lives.  The onslaught of so much death on 9/11, the maddening senselessness of it, has nearly undone him.  Bolen gives a moving performance as a man shaken by grief, yet quietly stoic and committed to doing right by his men and their memory.

Joan (Jennifer L. Newman) is a journalist whose younger adventurous self—dangerous experiences in Central America, ideological passion—has given way to a more comfortable lifestyle.  When she is contacted by Nick for her help, she is astonished: Someone actually needs a writer?

Newman gives a strong, committed performance as a woman desperate to be of service during a time when so many felt useless and unsure how to help.  “I have nothing to bring to the table!” she exclaims, struck by the enormity of the pain around her and her own powerlessness to do anything about it.

Both Nick and Joan suffer from survivor’s guilt; with a slight change in scheduling, Nick could easily have been one of the dead men he now mourns.  But he isn’t.

Joan draws out from Nick the stories of the men, scribbles sentences on a yellow legal pad, then gives it to Nick to read aloud.  Nelson’s portrayal of the collaborative creative process is convincing: as any writer knows, the heart of a story lies in its details, and it is enjoyable to watch Joan coax Nick into remembering specific qualities and episodes from the lives of “the guys.”

Less successful in “The Guys” is the absence of any real tension between Nick and Joan.  Both are anxious to be kind to each other, even as each suffers his or her own private torments.  But for theatre—for any story—to work there must be conflict, which it is the story’s job to resolve.  Here all the conflicts feel off-stage, or in the characters’ minds.  Bolen and Newman fully and skillfully invest Nick and Joan with deep humanity, giving voice to and embodying the heightened emotion of that time.  But without any spark of conflict in the script, the play is ultimately less than satisfying.

This is not entirely surprising; “The Guys” was written and performed in New York (by Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver) mere weeks after September 11, 2001.  Its purpose was to address the immediate trauma of 9/11, to tell a story about—and for—those who had experienced it.  “The Guys” is about connection, about finding solace and common ground with people who are different, and about the ways tragedy can erase those differences, at least for a time.  Seen in that light, it is a more than a memorial play.  It is also a reminder of how, in those frightening days, people opened up to the idea that what we need, more than anything, is each other.

"The Guys," at MPC's Studio Theatre, through Sunday, September 15.

"I'm Not Rappaport" at the Magic Circle

“The best thing for relaxing is jokes,” one man says to another in Herb Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport, now showing at the Magic Circle Theatre in a delightful production directed by Elsa Con.  What the jokester doesn’t say is that sometimes behind our laughter a hidden tear gleams, waiting to be acknowledged.  Gardner’s Tony Award-winning classic is one of the most potent and entertaining explorations of this dynamic—the underground brotherhood of humor and sadness—that I have seen in a long time.

The funny man in question, Nat Moyer (Rollie Dick, left, photo above), is a feisty elder still waging now-ancient battles for freedom and justice in a world that seems to have moved on.  Nat is a force of nature with a cane, a passionate and opinionated man raised in the heady atmosphere of early 20th-century labor struggles and socialist idealism.  Now in his eighties, he sees how society is changing but refuses to give up the struggle without a fight.

We meet him on a park bench in Central Park, New York, pestering Midge Carter (Avondina Wills), an aging building superintendent struggling with vision problems.  Midge would rather be left alone with his newspaper, yet he can’t seem to resist being drawn into Nat’s labyrinthine storytelling.

Many of these stories center on Nat’s identity.  First he claims to be a secret government agent; when Midge presses for details, Nat explains that “in my particular field, I don’t have to have a cover story.”

Yet deep cover is exactly what Nat’s self-dramatizing yarns provide, masking the fear of growing old, helpless and powerless.

The arrival of Pete Danforth (Flip Baldwin), a representative of the building where Midge works and lives, provides Nat the opportunity to spring into action.  Danforth has come to inform Midge he’s being let go; a tenant has seen him walking into walls.  Midge has been hiding his growing eyesight troubles as long as he can.  Now he just wants to make it to Christmas, for the holiday tips and bonuses.

Midge manages to convince Danforth to increase the amount of his severance pay, but Nat has no patience for collaboration with the enemy.  Instead, he impersonates a lawyer and frightens Danforth with the threat of litigation, union action, public embarrassment, and, one of Nat’s most cherished words, a strike.

Emboldened by this apparent success, Nat takes on other increasingly dangerous projects: a park hoodlum (Daniel Ruacho), a dope dealer (Brandon Burns) who terrorizes a young woman (Amanda Schemmel), and, most terrifying of all, his own daughter, Clara Gelber (Kalyn Shubnell), who wants to get her father off the streets, out of harm’s way, and into some kind of supervised living.

As Nat, Rollie Dick is simply magnificent.  This is a performance not to be missed.  In Nat, Gardner has created a character who can see what lies ahead, the looming, inescapable precipice of death, and whose response is to throw himself full throttle into the business of life.  Dick takes on this challenging character with incredible gusto.  “The proper response to outrages is still to be outraged!” he cries.  And the diminishment of old age is definitely an outrage to a man so intent that life—his life—should have meaning.

The chemistry between Dick and Wills is superb.  Throughout the play, Midge tries to separate himself from Nat and what he sees as the old man’s craziness.  Midge just wants to be left alone, to find some comfort in the dwindling existence that remains for him.  He has no time for Nat’s grandiosity.  “We’re old men,” he tells Nat.  “We wander like ghosts.”

Yet perhaps they are not so dissimilar; in the end, both men have a fierce desire to be seen.  Wills captures with grace and style the depth of Midge’s character, his accommodation with injustice, his own quiet longing for recognition.

The beautiful set design, by Dani Maupin—with the park’s trees sending forth one final bright flourish of fall color—adds to the note of poignancy that gathers as the play moves towards its satisfying conclusion.

It is easy to be sentimental about old age, but I’m Not Rappaport offers instead a truer portrait of life’s last chapter.  An aging parent, as willful, stubborn and narcissistic as a toddler, can be a problem with no easy solution.  But it can also be an opportunity to appreciate the full spectrum of life, in all its messiness and complications.  “The very old, they are miracles like the just born,” Nat says, almost in self-defense, as if living past a certain age were a crime.  “Close to the end is precious, like close to the beginning.”

I’m Not Rappaport, at the Magic Circle Theatre, 8 El Caminito Rd, Carmel Valley, through September 15.  For tickets and information, call 831-659-7500.

My Two-Sam Summer

“There is no right way to write a sentence,” Lan Samantha Chang told her workshop students last month at the Tin House Writers’ Conference, in Portland, Oregon.  I was particularly grateful to hear this bit of wisdom because it was spoken in reference to a story by me.

Summer writing conferences are intense, total-immersion experiences, in which you find yourself inhabiting an alternate reality where writing is the most important thing in the world.  I attended two this summer, Tin House and the Lambda Literary Retreat, in Los Angeles.  They were very different.  At Tin House, where I studied with Chang (who goes by Sam), every day was filled with non-stop activity: morning workshops, afternoon craft talks, evening readings.  Sleep was elusive; in the hallway outside my dorm room, a large industrial AC unit with the engine capacity of a fighter jet roared night and day.  It made for some interesting dreams.

The craft talks were fabulous.  Dana Spiotta spoke about creating rules for your novel and then violating, complicating or escalating them.  Luis Urrea suggested using nouns and verbs, rather than adjectives and adverbs, to describe a place.  Matthew Specktor asserted that all narrators are to some extent first-person narrators; every narrator is a character in a story.  Steve Almond deplored the modern habit of starting a novel or story by plunging the reader into a frenzied scene, and advocated a “ruthless and tender quality of attention” for the opening paragraph.  The opening paragraph, he argued, is the place for “a sustained effort to orient the reader,” “to establish a relationship of informational equity between reader and character.”

Anthony Doerr, in his talk entitled “On Failure,” offered this: You don’t make the wings to fly.  You make the wings to make the wings.  The only success is work.

Tin House also offered surprisingly good cafeteria food (lots of healthy, vegan, gluten-free choices, perhaps to counteract the dangerously enticing dessert bar), as well as the gorgeous setting of Reed College, with its many stately trees and a long dirt path that rambles around a quiet, marshy lake.

Best of all was Chang’s workshop.  I was thrilled by the high level of the students’ writing and the lively, intelligent critiques.  On the first day, Chang encouraged us to orient our critiques from the point of view of what the writer had in mind.  She struck a lovely balance between allowing the discussion to develop organically while also taking charge to emphasize particular issues in a given piece.  I was reminded of how my tai chi teacher talks about the flow of energy in tai chi as alternating between river and mountain.  All river would be too diffuse; all mountain too dogmatic.  In their balance, we were invited to be part of the flow and to learn from a master teacher.

At Lambda, which was held at the American Jewish University, in Bel-Air, I studied with Samuel Delany, my summer’s second Sam, (although he actually goes by Chip).  To continue with the tai chi metaphor, Delany was definitely more mountain than river, more yang than yin.  Early in the week, he told the class that he is “a rigid reader, a hard reader.”  His workshop was structured very differently: each student had two minutes to offer a critique, and we went around the room in a circle, with everyone speaking (usually for more than two minutes), followed by Delany’s thoughts about the story or novel excerpt.  I was initially resistant to his approach, until I realized that it was my job to become the river.  By opening up to his considerable wisdom and experience (by the end of the week we were calling him Dumbledore), I opened up to the possibility of learning.

For instance, Delany is not a fan of the flashback.  The strongest you can make a scene, he said, is just to have it on stage.  Put the whole thing in chronological order, and you’ll see where the holes are.  He is also big on setting.  Too many stories, he said, suffer from “white room syndrome”: stories that don’t seem to take place anywhere.  Truly dramatic structure moves from location and situation to action and effect.  This kind of structure provides grounding for the story’s flow.

Most interesting to me was the discussion, on the last day, of what he called his “dark side”: that mysterious place where language comes from, what people sometimes call the Muse but what for Delany is more akin to a little child that needs to be treated with tenderness, humbleness, and respect.  You don’t demand or argue with this little boy or girl: it can easily be scared away.

I also liked a visualization exercise he suggested, in which the aspiring writer imagines her novel as a finished object in the world.  Hold out your palm, he said.  How much does this book weigh in your hand?  What does it feel like?  What color is the cover?  Make your story something real in your mind that you can aim for.

Another reason for the success of Delany’s workshop was, similar to the workshop at Tin House, the presence of incredibly gifted writers, whose collective grace and insight were simply amazing.  I’ve heard stories about being in workshops with dud or cranky writers, but this summer I really lucked out.  Every one of the writers I workshopped with, at Tin House and at Lambda, had a valuable story to tell, and interesting language for telling it.

A key difference at Lambda, of course, was that everyone there was queer.  Such a gathering of smart and talented gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender writers offered an environment of safety, community and inspiration that is hard to describe.  (Malinda Lo, one of the other Lambda faculty, does a good job of describing it in her blog.)  We still live in a society that, despite many advances, invests an awful lot of energy in keeping non-gender-conforming people in a place of inferiority—of shame.  The antidote to shame is community.

Lambda was smaller than Tin House (forty-eight students, compared to a couple hundred), which made the group gatherings more intimate.  At an afternoon workshop on how to write transgender characters, the discussion grew heated over the issue of trans and non-trans (or “cis”) terminology.  Conflict can feel uncomfortable, yet this conversation was, for me, one of the highlights of the week, for it stressed the deeply rooted nature of language in our lives.  For those of us who were called names growing up, or who hid out of fear of being named, of being seen, it matters what we call ourselves, and what we demand to be called by others.  (My Lambda fiction cohort and new friend Everett Maroon has written an excellent blogpost on this subject.)

Another reason I so enjoyed the workshop on writing trans characters was that it gave me the opportunity to learn new information, new ideas, new approaches.  The older I get, the more I love to learn.  Cheryl Strayed, whose Dear Sugar column “Write Like A Motherfucker” is one of the best manifestos about writing I know, said in her craft talk at Tin House that “we are always starting out, every time we sit down to write.”  I have been grateful to spend the summer learning and growing, with a beginner’s mind, in the company of some generous mentors and peers.  Now I ride the wave of energy of these two weeks to return, as gently as I can, to the solitude of the desk, the chair, the blank piece of paper, the screen.  I am remembering something else Strayed said: “What you have to offer as a writer, only you can say.”