An Open Letter to Alan Bennett

Playwright Alan Bennett.  Photo by Cato Lein.

*Warning – contains minor spoilers for The Lady in the Van*

I gather from your work that you don’t have a lot of time for sentimentality, so I’ll try to keep this mostly stern and brief. I may fail in this effort.

I moved to California last summer. For my first thirty years, I lived pretty much exclusively in northern England, mostly recently in Manchester. So while I love it (read, prefer it) out here, there are certain, specific, mostly art-related things I miss about England. The proliferation of your works being amongst these. So I was incredibly happy when the little independent cinema within walking distance of my front door announced they would be showing Lady in the Van. I have just returned from a screening, and felt compelled to jot my thoughts down.

I have admired your writing for about twenty years. I am forever grateful to my high school English teacher, Mrs. Marchant, for showing Talking Heads to a largely indifferent group of thirteen-year-olds. The monologue in question was Lady of Letters, and I was gripped by the dark humor. I was always considered a little strange in school, and quietly laughing at some of the lines didn’t exactly win me any credibility points. But I didn’t care; I had literally never seen anything like it before.

Another vivid memory associated with you is reading a copy of Talking Heads 2 at the bus stop near my sixth form college. I avoided the school bus, as my aforementioned strangeness often drew negative attention. I’d just started my A Level English course, and was handed a copy of Talking Heads 2. So propped up against a fence, a safe distance from pre-pubescent cries of “goth”, I quickly began devouring the monologues I wasn’t already familiar with. One of these was Playing Sandwiches. I will never forget reading the line… “So I took her in the bushes.” I don’t think I’d ever read anything so dark. To this day, both Talking Heads 1 and 2 are amongst my favorite pieces of literature. I revisit them every six months or so, and I always find something different.

While watching The Lady in the Van today, I was reminded of my teenage isolation for various reasons. Sitting amongst twenty or so elderly Californians, I was alone in laughing at jokes concerning M&S, MOTs and stairlifts, but my laugh was loud and proud. As I’ve got older, I’ve learned to embrace my weirdness, and it has won me some wonderful, lifelong friends, not to mention an incredible husband.

The film is a great adaptation. The story, of course, is beautiful. My heart soared every time a former History Boy appeared, and I have to admit I shed a little tear at the shot of the National Theatre (which remains one of my favorite places in the world). But when you wheeled up on a bike at the end of the film, it was like seeing an old friend. Your work has been with me throughout my adult life, and I’m glad you’ve been so prolific that I will probably never stop discovering new things.

I love my life in California. I have the opportunity to explore my capabilities, and start an entirely new life for myself. And as someone who sincerely wishes people “a great day”, I’m received pretty well over here. But today, for a couple of hours, I was reminded of who I used to be, and how my love of your writing has helped me to develop into a woman who northerners might describe as “alright, you”. I would love to thank you in person, but I don’t imagine you Skype very often. And that’s one of the many things I love about you.

With eternal gratitude,

Tracey

Photo by Cato Lein

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Review – Disgraced, Berkeley Rep

I have a list of my four favorite plays*, and they’ve not really changed over the last few years. But yesterday, I saw a play that joined those hallowed ranks before the curtain had fallen.

Disgraced is the second Pulitzer Prize-winning play I’ve had the honor of watching this year (the first was Between Riverside and Crazy, review can be found here). Previously, I’ve had the egregious misconception that plays that have won such an accolade may be a little “worthy”, expressing ideas and concepts with all the subtlety of a polka-dotted sledgehammer. Boy, was I wrong! Much like Riverside, Disgraced makes the audience constantly question their beliefs and prejudices through entirely believable scenarios and characters.

At the center of the play, we have Amir, a successful New York lawyer, born in America to Muslim parents. Given his negative experiences of the Muslim faith, he renounced his faith as a young person, and is now settled with his blonde, artist wife, Emily. Amir’s nephew, Abe, attempts to persuade Amir to use his legal knowledge to help a local imam, who has been imprisoned for allegedly using funds collected at his mosque for terrorist activities. Encouraged by his wife, Amir reluctantly agrees, but a New York Times article reporting the trial makes it seem as though Amir is representing the imam. As a lapsed Muslim, this is a professional and personal position Amir does not want to be seen in.

Some time later, this article becomes the subject of discussion at a dinner party between a clearly distressed and increasingly drunk Amir, Emily, Amir’s colleague and fellow lawyer Jory, and her husband Isaac, an art dealer with the power to boost Emily’s career. It is this dinner party scene that contained some of the best dialogue I have ever heard. The tense encounter is completely believable; conversation topics such as religion, terrorism, media bias, religious misinterpretation, the Constitution, and domestic violence are all completely viable topics at a meeting of intelligent people, especially when one of them is incredibly inebriated, and has a major religious chip on his shoulder.

I’m aware that I may have done the playwright, Ayad Akhtar, a huge disservice with this clunky synopsis. Ultimately, this is a play about human emotion, and the factors that drive us; whether that be art, religion, career, love, or the pursuit of justice.

Akhtar has created five incredible characters, and a script that constantly amuses, shocks, and sparks ideas. The plot, and the intentions of the characters, are revealed at a perfect pace. But through the first three-quarters, while the tension built to dangerous levels, I couldn’t imagine what the all-important “fucking hell” moment was going to be.** And when it arrived… It’s something I’ll never forget. And on reflection, it was a moment so beautifully seeded in previous dialogue. This is an incredibly well-written script.

The cast are all absolutely fantastic. There is something consistently uneasy about Amir, and Bernard White captures this inner-conflict perfectly. But the star for me was Zakiya Young as Jory. Not only is she an incredibly striking stage-presence, she has the benefit of some of the funniest lines in the piece, and her delivery is flawless.

Huge congratulations to scenic designer John Lee Beatty, who perfectly created a Manhattan apartment, with full balcony, on stage. I never for a second questioned the authenticity of the set. Christine A. Binder’s lighting design was also something to behold, especially when expressing the passage of time. Subtle, but so beautiful.

I cannot recommend Disgraced enough. This was only my second visit to Berkeley Rep, and I already feel spoiled by the sheer quality of their productions. If this gushing review isn’t enough to convince you, then I don’t know what will.

Disgraced is playing at the Roda Theatre, Berkeley Rep, until 27th December. For more information, click here.

*For those interested, the other four plays (in no order) are The Pillowman (McDonagh), Orphans (Kelly), The Last of the Hausmanns (Beresford), and Blackbird (Harrower).

**Some of the best plays ¬†have a moment where I cannot help but look at the floor in shock and go “fucking hell”. For another example, see The Nether (Haley).¬†

Review – Between Riverside and Crazy – A.C.T’s Geary Theater, San Francisco

Even from the front balcony in A.C.T’s Geary Theater, I had a great view into the lives of Walter “Pops” Washington and his family. Indeed, from my perspective, I could also see the bedrooms and bathrooms down the corridor from the kitchen and living room. In my previous experience, the plays of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis come to life through vibrant characters and crackling dialogue, but it sure didn’t hurt that the set for Between Riverside and Crazy was beautifully realistic.

It’s a standard weekend in Pops’ New York apartment, as he sits eating his breakfast with Oswaldo, a friend of his son, Junior. Oswaldo is currently seeking refuge with the family. Through quick, quirky, and hilarious dialogue, we learn that Pops’ wife, and Junior’s mother, is dead. Junior has recently been released from prison, and his girlfriend, Lulu, is also helping to fill the decreasing empty space in Pops’ apartment.

Pops is a retired police officer, and is somewhat disgruntled by the circumstances under which his career came to an end, the full details of which are beautifully and steadily revealed. We are also introduced to Pops’ former working partner Audrey, and her fiance Dave, who become more central characters as the details of Pops’ downfall becomes apparent.

I don’t want to give too much away, as everyone should see this Pulitzer Prize winning play. But don’t let the lofty accolade but you off. This is a very human story, with a healthy amount of swearing and humour. Pops, played in this production by the incredible Carl Lumbly, is a frustrating character. He is a man set in his ways, and feels like the world owes him something. He continues to fight for what he perceives as justice, even to the detriment of his failing health. He loves his family, and trusts those around him, but to a fault. At several points in the play, he hands money to the dubious young people occupying his apartment like he was dishing out candy. And they accept with absolutely no questions whatsoever. But Pops’ brutal honesty provides some of the biggest laughs in the play, and by the end of the play we learn that this man is by no means stupid.

The rest of the cast are kind of at a disadvantage, as Pops is such a wonderfully written character, who provides the heart of this play. So it would be difficult to describe the other actors as anything other than “supporting”. Which isn’t to say they didn’t deliver some stellar performances. Elia Monte-Brown was adorable as the naive Lulu, and Stacy Ross and Gabriel Marin do a very convincing “good cop, bad cop” double act as Audrey and Dave.

Director Irene Lewis lets the material speak for itself, but this is not a sparse production. Like I mentioned before, the set is very realistic, and the infrequent set changes are quietly impressive. One particular moment that brought me to tears was at the very end, where we realise Junior is sitting in the exact same position at the kitchen table as Pops was at the beginning of the piece, suggesting the cycle of dissatisfaction with life continues. This image lingers through the closing scene, which was very subtle but extremely moving.

Between Riverside and Crazy is a play about a lot of things. Race, health, anger at the system, police officers, corruption. And yet, on the surface, it’s just a story about a man who feels that the world has deprived him of so many things, and wants to ensure his family don’t suffer the same injustices. It runs until 27th September, and you should see it if you get the opportunity.

Review – Love and Information, Strand Theater, American Conservatory Theater

 Writer: Caryl Churchill

Director: Casey Stangl

It’s comforting that my first solo theater experience in the US is a play by a British playwright. And a bloody great one at that. Love and Information is a whistle-stop tour of the human heart, and we are led by a parade of unnamed characters, who enter our lives for a moment or two, and then disappear.

Love and Information is a collection of 57 subtle scene-lets, on the subject of, well, you can probably guess. From secrets shared between friends, to obsessions with celebrities, to childhood cruelty, to passing, silent fragments of time. The cast of twelve actors inhabit countless characters, some peripheral, some heartbreakingly memorable (or memorably heartbreaking).

According to Nirmala Nataraj’s program notes, Churchill’s script does not contain any character descriptions or stage directions, so Director Casey Stangl had a almost completely clean slate to work with. Visually, this is a stunning production. The (many) scene changes are slick, and the stage constantly feels alive. There is fantastic use of a video screen, especially during one scene where a character is texting her absent husband and the message thread appears at the back of the stage. The screen also allows the play to establish a sense of location, as well as show some very effective pre-filmed scenes (one concerning a man with Alzheimer’s Disease was particularly moving).

Through the nameless faces, there are a couple of recurring characters. A morose, silent woman (Sharon Lockwood) has clearly experienced some trauma, and is unresponsive to her friends and family. Her final scene, though brief, brings tears to my eyes even now.

Another fantastic scene, between Dan Hiatt and Anthony Fusco, shows a couple of ex-lovers reminiscing on their former relationship, and remembering completely different occasions. It was an interesting commentary on what people can take away from shared experiences.

Perhaps the reason why I enjoyed this play so much, is that with the removal of extensive character development, it made me compare the circumstances to my life, and the lives of those I care about. There were a lot of instances where I was reminded of various friendships, former relationships, and of course, my wonderful husband.

The newly-opened Strand Theater on Market Street is a gorgeous space. It is a fairly intimate theater, with fantastic facilities. The staff are extremely helpful, and most importantly, I felt at home there.

I did observe some differences between US and UK audience behaviour. I went to a midweek matinee, and the theater was not full. However, the audience were courteous, engaged, and emotive. US audiences seem to be a lot more open with their reactions; they laugh easier, they gasp, they voice their disapproval. It makes for a very relaxed atmosphere, and ultimately, an enjoyable one.

I am very excited to see ACT’s 2015/16 season, and look forward to revisiting the beautiful Strand Theater again and again.

Love and Information runs until August 2015. For more information on ACT, click here.