Friday, February 29, 2008

Some Things Are Private

Perhaps the title of Deborah Salem Smith’s and Laura Kepley’s new verbatim piece (a show about a real event using excerpts from the public record as its script) Some Things Are Private is intended to be arch irony; perhaps gentle reminder; perhaps, considering the battered state of whatever wall once separated public from private, simply wishful thinking. Whatever was intended—and intent, we come to understand during the play, is everything—the effect is to prepare us for an evening of principled declamation. Principled declamation is a useful tool in any writer’s box—“Attention must be paid” has both the subtlety and the utility of a hammer—but it’s most successful when used for a specific job; when it is the default voice of an entire show, the audience quickly tires of its clamorous and clumsy demands. We need changes of pitch and timbre to indicate shifts of mood, sincerity, and even, simply, character. It’s not entirely clear why Some Things Are Private appears to have no mood at all, no disposition other than sincerity, and very little in the way of character. Is it because the script calls incessantly for the principled declamation that ultimately drowns character out? Or is principled declamation simply the awkward register in which it is appropriate to pitch the play's ideas? The co-creators' seriousness of purpose is admirable, but it makes one wish that someone other than artists could make art about artists—there’s too much conflict of interest for a genuine reckoning.

Anne Scurria plays Sally Mann, a Virginia photographer who achieved renown and notoriety for her 1990 book, Immediate Family, which featured photos of her children in scenes that might reflect a pastoral equilibrium or the menace of molestation. We are introduced to her by three benevolent, unnamed ciphers (Richard Donnely, Janice Duclos, and Rachel Warren)—my girlfriend thought that they were cousins to Dickens’s ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future—who declaim headlines and excerpts from real news articles charting Mann’s unprecedented success. Our guides—ghosts or Virgils or musketeers—shout “Fact!” or “Headline!” before dramatically reading their headline or letter or article. This technique, used later in the show, comes to feel like CPR: each exclamation is a stiff-armed thrust to the sternum of a quietly suffering script. The tension here is false: if the “facts” of photographs are subjective, why not the “facts” of other media; and if the “facts” of all media are subjective, why the barked assertion of facthood? It excites without meaning anything.

Anyway, after this greatest hits roll-call describes a hazy outline of Ms. Mann’s career, the three muses (or whatever) conjure up a man named Thomas Kramer (Stephen Thorne). Kramer is a fictional character, a lawyer whose wife has died a year after buying one of Mann’s landscape photographs. Hoping to revisit a time in his life when he was happy, Kramer goes to a New York City museum to look at Mann’s other landscape photographs. Only he doesn’t find landscapes. He sees a picture of Mann’s young daughter’s face, looking savagely beaten; he sees Mann’s young son’s naked torso, covered in some dark, viscous substance; he sees the daughter again, naked, caught in the big hands and between the large dark legs of an older man. The photographs disgust him not because he’s a reactionary or a naïf, but because they challenge his instinctive, absolute ideas of propriety, protection, and privacy. What follows is a series of intermittently exciting dialogues between Kramer and Scurria about Art and Interpretation, mediated by the three amigos and interrupted occasionally by monologues from other more or less relevant figures: an AP editor, the advertising photographer responsible for the infamous Brooke Shields jeans ad, a woman caught up in a child pornography investigation because of a report from the photo lab where she had dropped off nude prints of her young children playing.

Any of these stories would make a better play than the one we find ourselves watching; but as we know, we go to the theater with the drama we have, not the drama we might want or wish to have at a later time.

The problem with Some Things Are Private is not with the performances. Anne Scurria really is wonderful as Mann. The script has her reading lines culled from interviews, but she invests the mannered speech of guarded personal disclosure with a sense of urgency and discovery. Her performance is fresh and full with revelation. Stephen Thorne is a pleasure to watch, but, as always, his slightly muppetish ebullience undermines the threat of real feeling. When his performances come to a boil they force his long arms and fingers out and away from his body. Although expansive, this gesturing feels less expressive than simply theatrical; we wonder what would happen if he contained that energy and let it build up steam. Still, his performance allows us to understand how a single father addresses, sadly and stridently, a world that he fears is full of meanness. The other actors all read their lines with vigor, but they have no characters to animate. Donnely, Duclos, and Warren do their best and they have their moments, but they run around a lot and seem to get nowhere.

The problems with Some Things Are Private are in its structure and its biases. First, as I have already suggested, the story that focuses the play isn’t nearly as compelling as either Mann’s own ruminations on the nature of art or the short anecdotes used illustratively throughout the show. Boots on the Ground, Salem Smith’s and Kepley’s verbatim piece about the Iraq War, succeeded because we got to know all of the characters; their struggles to endure the war as soldiers in the thick of battle or spouses at home provided insight and drama. There was no need for theatrical intervention: although the characters rarely explicitly addressed each other, their monologues overlapped and engaged one another. With them a time and a place were woven into existence. Some Things Are Private spans decades, I think, or at least several years (it's impossible to tell), and relies on short, if punchy, letters to the editor of major newspapers for much of its intellectual inertia. No wonder the three witches create Thomas Kramer. The sprawl of the piece, and its reliance on desultory and near-anonymous newspaper clippings, diffuses its own relevance, but not even Kramer can restore it.

Then there’s the problem of bias. Here we have artists—playwrights and actors—defending the freedom, even the sanctity, of artistic expression: they are, in effect, advocating for their own usefulness and unimpeachability. Bravo! So while Kramer flails his arms around and sputteringly accuses Mann of provocation and dissemblance, Mann is privileged with a script that gives her the benevolent patience and Socratic cunning of Jesus countering Pontius Pilate: you say I am a provocateur, not I. She is also provided a soundtrack, even if it is a cheesy exercise in Americana, that blesses her mission with the unction of innocence, of inviolability; in the play’s battle for hearts and minds, only our hearts are engaged. Of course, Kramer has no angelic folk-trio underscoring his points; he is on is own.

Some Things Are Private shows at Trinity Rep. through March 23.

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