Agents Provocateur

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You never know what you’re going to get with a Martin McDonagh or a Bruce Norris play, which is a significant part of the pleasure of going to them.  You may leave the theater aghast with the revelation of what the itch is in Norris’ funny, searing The Pain and the Itch.  You may be repulsed by the tortuous stories in McDonagh’s The Pillowman, certainly one of the best, most provocative plays of the past ten years in my opinion.  You’ll feel unsettled and goaded by writing that doesn’t hesitate to critically expose your fallibilities, or ragingly question your belief systems, but you’ll also feel exhilarated, entertained, and to be honest, enlightened to an extent.  I’m a big fan of both writers, so, of course, in the past couple of weeks I took the opportunity to see productions of their works – in Los Angeles a couple of weekends ago, I caught the Center Theatre Group production and LA premiere of McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, starring Star Trek hunk Chris Pine and staged by its original Broadway director Wilson Milam.  Last weekend I was at Steppenwolf Theater’s world premiere production of Norris’ latest work, A Parallelogram, directed by Tony winner Anna D. Shapiro.  I’m not a big fan of the McDonagh work;  although provocative, I’m not sure I’ll place the Norris work at the top of this favorite playwright’s oeuvre.

Not for lack of trying, I missed both the New York production and the Chicago premiere (at Northlight Theater last year) of The Lieutenant of Inishmore due to schedule conflicts, so I made sure I got a ticket to the LA premiere, currently onstage at the Mark Taper Forum, when I was on a trip to the West Coast a couple of weeks ago.  I gotta say, despite all the admiring publicity surrounding this play, I’m not as sucker punched by Inishmore as I am by The Pillowman or by the subtler horror of The Beauty Queen of Leeanane.   It really pains me to say this, but I don’t think McDonagh is saying anything profound (not that he has too, but still, you’ve come to expect it of him, given his track record) in this play, which is a really tiring example of unbridled, stylized playwriting excess.  Padriac, a loony tunes, pretty extremist IRA member who’s aspiring to create a splinter group of his own, goes home to his small town to see why his beloved pet cat has taken ill, and unleashes a gruesome homecoming involving his IRA comrades, a surrogate cat, and the various village denizens (his drunk father, an airheaded teen, and the teen’s cow-shooting, Padriac-worshipping older sister) when things don’t turn out to be what he expected.

Inishmore’s themes are pretty obvious:  human beings have a violent streak; violent acts beget more violent acts, until the whole cycle just becomes bigger than what we imagined; in the end though, our redemptive qualities, which we try hard to subvert, surface.  McDonagh and Milam revel in portraying these themes in a hysterical, shock-value oriented fashion, with he-didn’t-just-say-that zingers and a pretty over the top staging of murderous carnage in the second act.  It’s all-hysteria-all-the-time, and we don’t really see anything we haven’t seen before, and depicted much better in other ways and forms (exhibit A:  David Cronenberg’s beautifully-rendered film A History of Violence).  Plus the characters are just not that interesting – you never understand why Padraic is so insane or why Mairead, the chick who’s hot for him, is so determined to enlist in the IRA.  I really admire Pine’s dedication to prove himself to be more than just flavor-of-the-cinematic-season beefcake, but his performance starts out at such an aggressively excessive level and never stops, with nuance barely visible along the way.  I also never really believed in Padraic as menacing – wacky and temperamental yes, but truly dangerous, no- maybe because Pine just has this cuddly boy-next-door quality which doesn’t come postmarked with an edge.  I’m not sure what I, or anyone for that matter, will cuddle though, because the really good-looking Pine is also angularly, almost painfully thin, so much so that I kept on forgetting about his character, and thinking of Pine, the actor, strapped-down being force-fed milkshakes and burgers (people, lift yourselves out of the gutter!).  The rest of the cast (including a pretty funny Andrew Connolly reprising his Broadway role as an IRA hatchet man) is fine, watchable despite all the frenzy.

Bruce Norris’ The Pain and the Itch would be on that top theater list of the past ten years as well, together with The Pillowman.  His newest play, A Parallelogram, despite posing stimulating questions about whether we can, or we should, change our future if we know what it will be, doesn’t have the bite, the terrifying honesty, the social relevance of The Pain and the Itch, which Steppenwolf premiered several years ago (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Governor of Steppenwolf’s junior board).  I think it’s a much simpler play, with a more intellectual bent, versus the ferocious, almost unforgiving intellectual and emotional velocity of the previous play (or the other Norris work I enjoyed a lot, The Unmentionables).  Bee, played with her usual truthfulness and nuance by ensemble member Kate Arrington, encounters her future, older self (a terrific, acting-heist-triggering Marylouise Burke) who tells her about the fate of the world she’ll grow old in, and the loved ones she’ll grow old without.  These loved ones include the middle-aged guy who leaves his wife for her (an equally riveting Tom Irwin) and the Mexican gardener she subsequently leaves him for (Tim Bickel, a young actor who surprisingly holds his own with his formidable co-stars).  It’s a great cast, confidently directed by Shapiro, in-tuned with each other and at home with Norris’ singular writing.

Norris’s dialogue is still pretty crisp, and at times, quite shocking (the nervous laughs at the theater became more distinctly nervous as mentions of the Holocaust and 911 come up, for example).  The writing is also pretty funny, especially as delivered by the invaluable Burke, whose meaningful drawl and been-there-done-that demeanor helps the future Bee come off as this really hip grandmother with too much medication (and we’re not thinking Lipitor here).  But the play itself, overall, seems to be more reflective, more mellow, and more internalized, with less cutting references to the ironic craziness of the world we live in, something I’m come to expect from him after seeing his other plays.  Despite the excellent performances, the characters also feel less fully-fleshed out than usual, more vehicles for an intellectual discussion, than fiery, multi-dimensional people.  It’s not unwelcome; it’s just strikingly different from what I was expecting.  The seeming open-endedness of the ending is intriguing, but also feels like an abrupt arrival.  Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design is terrific, and the technical aspects of the set changes impressive.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA, until August 8 while A Parallelogram is at the Steppenwolf Theater Mainstage, until August 29.  And since I’m shameless, I’m taking this opportunity to post a photo of Chris Pine with a shirtless guy (co-star Brett Ryback) hanging upside down in the background.  It’s so, ahem, exciting, on so many levels! Ha!

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