Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A 'Jack Goes Boating' recap: What's missing here?

Todd Van Voris, Emily Beleele and Tai Sammons pass the hookah./Owen Carey
By Barry Johnson

Let's say that you have developed a fixation on Bob Glaudini's Jack Goes Boating --  Philip Seymour Hoffman's film version nabbed you, maybe, or his Off-Broadway performance in the play itself -- and you've decided to read every review, story or post you can find about it. That kind of dedication would now lead you to Portland, Oregon, where the play has just opened at Artists Repertory Theatre.  (Which will come as absolutely no surprise to resolute Arts Dispatch readers!)

At this moment, you would have four reasonably formal reviews to help you figure out how things looked to us here in Portland:

Marty Hughley in The Oregonian: "Allen Nause has directed "Jack Goes Boating" with a suitably light touch, making it sweet and engaging all around (despite a touch of violence and lots of drug use). But its the light/dark dichotomies at the heart of the play -- and a performance that balances them so effectively -- that really make this show float."

Ben Waterhouse in Willamette Week: "Their (Clyde and Lucy) exertion in their work and tendency to inflict cruelty on one another feels truer than Jack’s fumbling romance, and their persistence in the face of repeated mutual betrayal is as convincing a defense of the value of marriage as any I’ve seen. (John) San Nicolas and (Tai) Simmons convey roiling discord, absentminded intimacy and reckless affection—and what more is married life about?"

Bob Hicks on Art Scatter: "Let’s just say that Todd Van Voris’s sunk-in, loamy comic essence is ideal for the character of Jack, the shy and schlumpy limousine driver whose only passions seem to be for good dope and good reggae songs until the possibility of Connie comes along."

Barry Johnson on Arts Dispatch (that would be me): "That drama is usually what the romantic comedy is about, after all, not what it critiques. Glaudini’s comedy doesn’t match the ferocity or the cynicism of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,  which is hardly a romantic comedy, but it does visibly cringe and then flee the wilder reaches of relationship conflict. This is awful, get me out of here!"

Our mythical Jack Goes Boating obsessive probably would get a decent idea of how things went at Artists Repertory Theatre on opening weekend -- that the production was sharp and the performances balanced. And maybe some idea of what passes for good theater in Portland, because all of the reviews were so positive and provided some good context.  But there are some things missing, some fairly obvious things, and I have a feeling that my imaginary friend might leave these accounts at least somewhat dissatisfied.

Portland theater fans will notice that the Mercury's critic Alison Hallett is missing, for example. As of this morning, the Mercury hadn't weighed in on the play (maybe tomorrow).  She has written about Hoffman's film version, though:
"It's nice to think that odd, awkward people will find each other and pursue odd, awkward lives, listening to reggae and talking about how their boss sexually harassed them and doing internet research into how to grow white person dreads. And it's nice to think that the reliably great Hoffman thinks that it's important to shed light on the lives of odd, awkward people. But this character study of the dull just doesn't make compelling cinema."
Philip Seymour Hoffman goes swimming.
Two things about Hallett's review. It's about the film version, and she might have different ideas about the play. Personally, I'm really interested to see.  Maybe more important, she heats up the conversation and lands it closer to the middle of what's going on in the play/script -- the relationships themselves. To what extent do they make sense? What do they tell us about real relationships? Hallett ventures an interesting parenthetical judgment about this: "Clyde and Lucy's marital problems highlight Jack's relative inexperience—he's never been in a long-term relationship, and so he doesn't understand that open hostility and infidelity go with the territory, the couple tell him. (The fucked-up emotional logic of this argument provides an early clue as to where Clyde and Lucy's relationship might be heading.)"

Now, I might argue with Hallett about Glaudini's "resolution" of the Clyde/Lucy relationship and then about what real people in their circumstance might do. But I like the energy of the question. Because even a fairy tale (and both Hicks and I talked about the play in those terms) must make some comment on real lives to make a connection. In some ways, I think of Jack and his close-to-the-edge girlfriend Connie (played by Emily Sahler Beleele for ART) as more allegorical than real, and that means the other couple, Clyde and Lucy, have "unreal" friends to integrate into their "real" lives. Not that Clyde and Lucy aren't inventions, representations, reductions, even phantoms themselves. This is the theater, after all.

So yes, we are missing a red-meat discussion of ART's version of Glaudini's ideas about relationships.

UPDATE: Hallett has now weighed in, though she doesn't dig into the relationships issue, alas.

What else? Well, a little reporting.  What do any of the actors, director and designers (Alan E. Schwanke did the set; Elizabeth Huffman, the costumes; Don Crossley, lighting; Rusty Tennant, props) think about the play as a whole, the individual characters and the ways they intersect? Generally,  in the modern legacy media, these interviews, when they occur, form the basis for previews of the production.  But when you think about it, how does the journalist know what will be most useful to talk about until after the show has opened?

In preparation for reviewing assignments, I've read a lot of scripts in my day, which is always useful, but I learned that what I found interesting on the page -- essentially literary moments, really -- didn't necessarily mean much when I saw the full production.  My thoughts were led in entirely different directions. I think that's called "acting." Talking to the participants after the show has opened -- even after it has closed, when they would be freer to talk -- would give us a better idea of the insights and intentions of a particular production.

More conversation.  In general, I think we underestimate the affects and value of the social aspect of the arts. For example, theater is just by its nature a collaborative art form, involving lots of people in the direct production of the art. It comes out of an ancient human tradition, the depths of which we can not plumb. And it is made for the audience, whose reaction completes the performance. And not just the applause at the end of the show -- the conversation, afterward, because that's how the play ultimately is transmitted, to those who haven't seen it, sure, but also those who attended. What we pick to talk about usually has everything to do with what we pass along.

I'm sure my Jack Goes Boating fanatic would like to know more about what Portland audiences thought about the play, what they are chosing to pass along. The reaction of this set of critics is pretty homogenous. Our friend might not know that three of the four critical takes listed above are by men who worked together for many years at The Oregonian. Bob Hicks was the newspaper's first full-time theater critic; I succeeded him in the position; Hicks returned to the post for a few years and then passed this particular torch (or burden!) to Hughley, who ably shoulders it now. That doesn't mean we always agree on particular judgments or even approach a production identically; we don't (although we all enjoyed this production, we wrote about it differently). But we belong to the same critical family, more or less.

Did I say, "men"? All four, so far, are men (hurry, Alison!), and more diversity among the opinionizers would be welcome. I won't push the diversity issue much further, but I wonder how the play would look to a group of teens at a very diverse high school, such as Reynolds High School, in the northeast corner of Multnomah County. Any traction whatsoever? Maybe the persistent drug use, discussion of infidelity and comedy would lead them to reveal some ideas about relationships and individuality that would be fascinating. You don't have to be a Jack Goes Boating fanatic to wonder about that.

Ultimately, the point is a simple one: The more public discussion there is, the better chance we have of finding something useful, a description that captures what we ourselves think or, more likely, one that gives us a solid platform for our own considerations.

That's about it, except maybe for a good video of a scene or two from this production. Or a documentary! But now we are getting into fantasy land, where the arts are funded at levels similar to sports. Right now, I'm imagining a daily arts show on cable with film clips, interviews, discussions, investigations, a place where our ideas about relationships, among a thousand other things, can emerge thanks to the indirect way that the arts work. I think our obsessive fan would love a whole series devoted to this play.


Mary McDonald-Lewis said...

As dialect coach for the show, I found this story alive in its rough accent... the biplay of Brooklyn workingman discord against the sweet seriousness of the words themselves. To discover it, and at the same time shake off our preconceptions of what that dialect means about a boy or a girl, we read Rupert Brooke, Saint-Exupéry, Dickenson, Frost, and more, telling each other *these* stories with our sidewalk sound. Delicious.

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