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Jun 142015
 

In truth, Three is not much of a play at all, but an anthology of “very special episodes” (possibly season finales) of an unproduced television or web series.

Kelly Chick as Diane, Sarah Elizabeth Bedard as Jenni, Tasia A. Jones as Sam, Photo Credit-Ron Spalletta)

Kelly Chick as Diane, Sarah Elizabeth Bedard as Jenni, and Tasia A. Jones as Sam in the Boston Public Works production of “Three.” Photo: Ron Spalletta.

Three by Emily Kaye Lazzaro. Directed by A. Nora Long. Presented by Boston Public Works at The Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through June 20.

By Ian Thal

Boston Public Works’ raison d’être gives playwrights the opportunity to produce their own work. This means that while over time other theater companies develop a particular aesthetic identity, BPW’s aesthetics change with each play because each playwright serves as the artistic director for his or her own production, hiring the director, cast, and production crew. In an era when dramatists are frequently marginalized when it comes to the development and production of their own plays, self-production stands as a powerful alternative. It encourages control, ensuring that scripts will be staged as playwrights envision them, not changed to meet an institution’s desire to satisfy the demands of convention and marketability. Work that would not ordinarily be seen is given a chance to find an audience. (See my 2014 interview with four of BPW’s member playwrights.)

Unfortunately, BPW’s third production, Emily Kaye Lazzaro’s aptly-named, Three (it has three characters and three acts), comes off primarily as a vanity production, part of a strategy to pad out her curriculum vitae, which already includes her acting career and an attempt to present herself as an insightful spokesperson for the millennial generation, as in her essay ”Your 20s are supposed to be glorious. In reality, they are the worst” in The Washington Post.

Three opens in a NYU dorm on the morning before graduation. Roommates (and best friends) Sam (Tasia A. Jones) and Diane (Kelly Chick) have had a drunken first lesbian experience the previous night. (Yes, their names reference TV’s Cheers. But neither Lazzaro nor her characters  make much of the allusion.) Diane wants to talk about it; Sam does not. Their third roommate, Jenni (Sarah Elizabeth Bedard), the most extroverted, sexually voracious, and hardest drinking of the trio, staggers in, bragging of her latest conquest, the deflowering of a freshman boy she met at a party. After more talk of booze and booty calls they are soon in their caps and gowns. Jenni makes a brief reference to a sociology course she took, but otherwise we never learn their majors.

In Act II the trio reunite for Sam’s bachelorette party pub crawl (no one else comes, because Sam has no other friends). They drink, they vent their petty disappointments with their mid-twenties, they insult one another, and they forgive one another, because they’re friends. Then to Act III where again they reunite years later, this time for a funeral. CHEAP PLOT DEVICE ALERT: the deceased hadn’t merited a mention in the previous acts so there’s no dramatic resonance to the death. Finally, Three ends with an earnest use of that old new wave chestnut, Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” – making cliché use of its associations with the 1985 John Hughes film, The Breakfast Club.

Every time the trio is together, the ever-tipsy Jenni says something inappropriate and Diane tries to pressure Sam to talk about their one-night-stand. It doesn’t matter how many years have passed or what the occasion is. Diane is less a “best friend forever” than a creepy obsessive who doesn’t respect personal boundaries. Worse, Sam and Jenni never develop the emotional intelligence to tell the difference.

A scene from the Boston Public Works production of "Three." Photo:

A scene from the Boston Public Works production of “Three.” Photo: Ron Spalletta.

As Diane, Chick goes through the play wincing in discomfort. A uncommented-upon anxious leg tremor helps to deepen her characterization, but she has nothing else to work with. During the course of Three‘s ninety minutes she never develops beyond the  stereotype of “confused bisexual.” We are repeatedly told that Diane is an orphan, but never learn how old she was when her parents died, how they died, or who raised her. The trio-of-friends trope requires that one member be a cloud-cuckoo-lander, a role is filled by Jenni – if one accepts that drinking and casual sex counts as “cuckoo.” Thankfully, Bedard plays an entertainingly physical drunk, even when she is called upon to turn “mean.” Jones is trapped because Sam is a blank slate, a nondescript norm against whom her friends are measured. In Act II, when it is suggested that her nerdy fiancé isn’t her type, it is puzzling. We have been given no sense of what kind of “type’ she likes, aside from a male with a penis. (Lazzaro believes that it is still transgressive for women to chat about ‘dicks’ on stage.) The character is so amorphous  it is difficult to figure out if Jones was cast “non-traditionally” — that is, a black person playing a character who could just as well be white. Or is it that Sam is a black person who only has white friends? If so, why is it that she never once hints at any of the experiences of race that even affluent, educated, African-Americans might share when speaking frankly with their closest friends?

In truth, Three is not much of a play at all, but an anthology of “very special episodes” (possibly season finales) of an unproduced television or web series. Many young playwrights seem to be going this route. It may be too soon to tell if this trend is good for television or the web, but it’s certainly not good for the stage, even though Lazzaro has a good ear for turning the vernacular of her generation into pseudo-naturalistic dialogue. Not surprisingly, in her interview with fellow BPW-playwright John Greiner-Ferris, three out of the four writers Lazzaro cites as influences are television writers. The irony is that she isn’t nearly as daring as her heroines: while Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (I am not familiar with the work of Mindy Kaling) aim to entertain, they never completely shy away from making political and social points (on key feminist issues, Poehler’s often goofy Lesley Knope is dependably articulate).

The millennial generation is graduating from college with massive student loan debts (which would-be spokesperson Lazzaro neither addresses in the play nor in her Washington Post essay). This crushing economic reality is neatly avoided in Three. Sam is successful enough to buy a house at 25 in the Connecticut suburbs and Jenni’s family pays her rent in the fashionably expensive Murray Hill neighborhood of Midtown Manhattan. Only Diane struggles with the more typical 20-something experience of living with roommates in Bushwick — a situation she resents. (Oh, the indignity of an NYU grad living in a Brooklyn neighborhood with significant Latino and Carribean immigrant communities and a vibrant art scene!) Otherwise, she has no financial problems. Even the generational references that identify this as a millennial play are cosmetic: Facebook, Netflix, and Lululemon get name-checked. Sam complains that that her mother doesn’t use texting properly (apparently mom hasn’t mastered the use of emoji.)

In both the conversation with Greiner-Ferris as well as a video interview on Boston Play Cafe’s YouTube Channel, Lazzaro makes an effort to label Three a feminist work, but she sets the bar pretty low – this is feminism as brand identity with little political or social commitment. Yes, the play is about three women and was written by a woman, but the three characters are passive. They never take an active role – they don’t even take a reactive role; life just happens to them. Maybe there are people who would be shocked to learn that there are women who enjoy both alcohol and penises, but I doubt they attend fringe theater productions. Moreover, I know of 20-something women in my immediate social circles who are quirkier, wittier, funnier, more socially aware, and who lead more interesting lives than the females in Three. Perhaps Gen-Xers and baby boomers will come away thinking that they have learned something about the millennial generation, but it is like going to an Olive Garden restaurant for authentic Italian cuisine. There are excellent contemporary plays written by women, featuring all-female, or mostly female, casts – I’ve reviewed some – but Three isn’t one of them.

There’s little evidence that dramaturg Ron Spalletta fulfilled the requirements of the job: helping the playwright discover the dramatic potential of his or her script over the course of the drafting process. Of course, even the advice of the best dramaturgs doesn’t amount for much if the dramatist or director thinks they know better. A capable director cannot save a script that has dangerously little going for it, so one can only hope that A. Nora Long’s next project will offer her a more congenial opportunity.

The one bright spot of this production is Shelley Barish’s set and prop design work. While the two chalkboard walls are under-utilized and the balloons and crêpe paper streamers that festoon the set are inexplicably orange and white (NYU’s school color is mayfair violet), this is a convincingly trashed-up dorm room: the three stools upon which our trio sit, a stack of used pizza boxes, a pile of laundry, and a heap of crushed beer cans and red solo cups. In the production’s only nod to theatricality, the trash follows the trio through the years. Somewhere, buried underneath the detritus of the lives of millennials, there’s a play.


Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. Two of his short plays appeared in theater festivals this past summer. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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  22 Responses to “Fuse Theater Review: “Three” Equals Zero”

Comments (22)
  1. Andy Boyd, another playwright, took issue with my judgement that Three was a “vanity project” claiming Lazzaro’s simple acquisition of an MFA in playwriting (from Boston University) made such a notion “mean”.

    @IanThal saying that she wrote the play to pad out her CV feels unnecessarily mean. She has an mfa. This is her primary art form.— Andy Boyd (@andyboydtalks) June 15, 2015

    • Not sure I see the problem here. A dramatist can have an MFA and produce a vanity project. Lazzaro has probably written a number of scripts; Ian is not suggesting in the review that they are all the same.

      • I stand by my judgement that this was a vanity project. I arrived at that judgement after viewing the play and reading and viewing the interviews and essays cited in the above review.

        Unfortunately, there is a whiff of entitlement represented by Andy Boyd’s tweets that comes from an MFA culture that expects the rest of to automatically perceive the degree as a mark of quality and purposefulness.

        I am quite incredulous that someone who takes the craft of playwriting seriously would knowingly want their work represented by something this slip-shod, especially when also serving in the role of artistic director. That this was done is the epitome of a vanity project.

    • I believe the “vanity project” was yours, Ian…

  2. Hey, Ian, tell me what you really feel about this play! Anyway, this is the first theatre review I’ve read in my life which gave a bad review to the dramaturg.

    • Maybe I need to do it more often — when a play touts its development process, the dramaturg does deserve at least a fraction of the responsibility for the scripts failings, doesn’t it? The problem is that it is harder to determine when a dramaturg has done a good job.

      Perhaps there needs to be a pseudonym that dramaturgs can use when they decide they want to wash their hands of the final product — sort of like the Directors Guild’s “Alan Smithee” or Harlan Ellison’s “Cordwainer Bird.”

  3. Ian,
    I think your suggestion that Ms Lazzaro should have included commentaries on race and student debt because they are hot topics is you wishing you could write a play about those things. I have an idea! You should write a play about that! And get it produced. And get it reviewed! By someone like you who wishes he had an MFA.

    I saw the play and the characters were plenty quirky and funny. Maybe it was just that they were too female for you.

    Your review sounds angry. Some advice. When you review a play, don’t try to do a makeover on it. Look at it for what it is, not what you think it should be. Critique the play, don’t use it to promote your own self-indulgent biases.

    Thanks for the opportunity to critique your critique!

    • Clare Liberis (Latin for “clearly children”):

      This “anger” that you attribute to me is only that I had to intently watch the performance of a poorly written play. However, if you were one of my regular readers, you would also encounter “joyful” reviews of work that I admire.

      I don’t covet an MFA, as you suggest. I already possess an MA — which I only mention because you believe me jealous of other people’s academic credentials. However, the simple matter is that the MFA is not a guarantee of quality, it is only a guarantee that tuition was paid and perhaps that assignments were turned in. I do, like many who comment on the new play sector, have concerns about how the MFA system may be negatively impacting on the quality of contemporary dramatic literature.

      The simple matter is that typically, even with these concerns, I don’t see such poorly written scripts move beyond staged readings or amateur productions. However, this was a professional production and I have to judge it accordingly, by the same criteria I would judge other fringe theater productions. (Note that I have also reviewed A. Nora Long’s directorial work positively in the past — but neither good actors nor a good director can save a bad script.)

      There are a number of plays I admire and have reviewed that are both authored by female dramatists and have all or mostly female casts, so the notion that the play is “too female for [me]” is silly (I’ve also panned plays written by male playwrights with all or mostly male casts). Simply, Three is too superficial, poorly plotted, and lacking in any deep characterization for me.

      A critique needs to point out the possibilities a piece of art opens up, in this case, it was legitimate to note the road not taken (like the economic realities faced by the millennial generation) in part because Lazzaro, in her essays and interviews, presents herself as a spokesperson for her generation and its concerns.

      • Ian,
        Would you EVER describe a man’s suggestion that you might have found the play too female as “silly”? I don’t think so, and therefore I rest my case. You are biased.
        Could you send me a link to one of your plays that you were able to produce and get reviewed? One that has words would be good since mime plays don’t really count.
        I’m not sure what qualifies you for critiquing live theatre other than you telling everyone that you are qualified. I think writing a well received play and getting people to come and see it, like Ms Lazzaro did, would be a basic qualification for criticdom.
        Your verbose comments sound like a mime looking for an outlet. Oh! You ARE a mime! So sorry…
        Clare

        • Clare,

          Before I begin, let me note that The Arts Fuse‘s editor-in-chief, Bill Marx, has expressed reluctance to allow you post anymore unless you have something substantive to say about either the play or the review. While you’ve slung around some mild insults, you haven’t made an argument that I am mistaken about the play. In fact, you appear not to have read my review very closely.

          That I am mime and a playwright is tangential to my work as a critic.

          Since I have some reason to suspect that “Clare Liberis” is a pseudonym, I don’t presume to know your gender. However, to answer your question: I often refer to an unsupportable assertion as “silly” even when the person making the assertion is male.

          As to why I regard your suggestion that I found the play (or its characters) “too female” as “silly”: In my review, I fault the characters for being hackneyed stereotypes. I certainly do not regard that as a characteristic particular to females; I regard it as a lazy writing habit.

          Furthermore, if you wish argue that my review demonstrates a clear gender bias, let me draw your attention to The Arts Fuse‘s archive of, as of today, almost 70 articles filed under my byline (there are also several articles to which I have contributed though I am not the primary author) – I invite you to examine them to determine if there is a disparity between how I treat male and female playwrights and how I treat plays with all-male casts versus plays with all-female casts. You, will, of course, want to compare my writing to that of a theater critic you admire. Perhaps, after that, you can publish your conclusions on a blog, or propose it as a guest commentary on an arts webite that you respect. After all, from 2011-2013, HowlRound supported the New York Times Critic Watch.

          As to my “qualifications” to write about theater: That’s for other people to decide. Bill Marx invited me to write for The Arts Fuse some years back and continues to allow me to do so; I submit all my work to him – he judges if it is up to snuff. I have similar relationships with the editors of the other print and on-line publications I write for. There is also a critical mass of theater artists who recognize my ability to write about theater, in that they either ask me to cover their shows, or they accept my requests to cover their shows. 

          The controversy seems to boil down to my description of Three as a “vanity project.” I stand by that word choice for the simple reason that the play was poorly written and that the playwright was also self-producing, hiring the director, dramaturg, cast, and crew in her capacity of artistic director, and therefore is ultimately responsible for everything I found at fault with the show.

          By way of contrast with some other recent reviews:

          I did not call Cassie M. Seinuk’s From The Deep, which she also self-produced with Boston Public works, a “vanity project” for a very simple reason: Seinuk wrote a very good play and she assembled a good team to bring her vision to life.

          Though I harshly judged Ronan Noone’s Scenes From An Adultry,I did not view it as a “vanity project” because it was produced by New Repertory Theatre, and ultimately it was NewRep artistic director Jim Petosa and Next Voices Fellowship Program curator Bridget Kathleen O’Leary who made the commitment to stage a clearly inadequate script.

          I also did not view John August’s and Andrew Lippa’s musical version of Big Fish as a “vanity project” because it was cynical commercial undertaking to further monetize an already existing intellectual property.

          I hope that clarifies my word choices.

          Ian Thal

          • Ian,
            As I mentioned previously, I am not a playwright, or director, or dramaturg attempting to “disguise” myself. Here’s my linkedin profile as proof. http://www.linkedin.com/in/clareliberis

            I’m just a fan of live theater with no shame and no fear when it comes to speaking my mind when I see what I believe to be unfair and inaccurate. I don’t agree with you that this was a “vanity project”, nor do I feel that Three was poorly written. You may not like Ms Lazzaro’s quick, witty repartee or her style, but it wasn’t poorly written or acted.

            And I’m not nearly as brave as the female playwrights and actors who risk being marginalized by the very institution that they love every time they try to participate in their art. There aren’t enough parts written for females, nor plays by women playwrights that get produced, so I cringe when I see an attempt to reduce the work of these brave women to “zero.”

            Respectful and constructive criticism is an art and can be done with grace and humor.

  4. What’s ironic about the negative responses to my review is that nowhere is Lazzaro’s MFA mentioned, but that both Andy Boyd and “Clare Liberis” are the ones who mention the MFA as if that should shield a playwright from criticism.

    Is a critic supposed to conclude, that if the playwright has an MFA, that their judgement must be faulty?

  5. “The character is so amorphous it is difficult to figure out if Jones was cast “non-traditionally” — that is, a black person playing a character who could just as well be white. Or is it that Sam is a black person who only has white friends? If so, why is it that she never once hints at any of the experiences of race that even affluent, educated, African-Americans might share when speaking frankly with their closest friends?”

    As an “affluent, educated African American” I have to take issue with your assumptions about what I may or may not talk about with my friends. Your criticism implies that there is no reason to have an African-American character in the play if she isn’t there to talk about race. As if that’s what would make her three dimensional in your eyes. Check your bias.

    • Your criticism implies that there is no reason to have an African-American character in the play if she isn’t there to talk about race.

      Linda,

      While that was not what I intended to insinuate, if that was how I was interpreted, I have to take responsibility for my words. However, as I hope we can agree, we don’t live in a color-blind society, and it’s better to acknowledge it than pretend to be color-blind. In the case of this production, the “color-blindness” of this production appeared to be coming from the same place as the economic-blindness of the script.

      My main concern was that the character was written so one-dimensionally. While the other characters fulfilled the stereotypes of “confused bisexual” and “party girl”, Sam had hardly any characteristics beyond being “not-confused not-bisexual” and “not-party girl” and she never said or did anything of dramatic interest, consequently, there was nothing the actor could contribute to the role beyond reading the lines.

      • Ian,

        Agreed that we don’t live in a color blind society, but we disagree on whether the inclusion of an African-American character whose narrative isn’t driven by her race is an attempt by the playwright to be color blind. There are an infinite number of ways the character of Sam could be fleshed out if that’s your criticism. To argue as you do that the best way to deepen the character is by having her discuss race shuts out all of those other possibilities. It may not be what you mean to insinuate, but it suggests that when an actress of color appears on stage there is a very narrow lens through which she’s viewed.

        • There are an infinite number of ways the character of Sam could be fleshed out if that’s your criticism. To argue as you do that the best way to deepen the character is by having her discuss race shuts out all of those other possibilities. It may not be what you mean to insinuate, but it suggests that when an actress of color appears on stage there is a very narrow lens through which she’s viewed.

          Linda,

          Your point is well made. I am really sorry that my clumsy discussion of casting and race overshadowed my criticism of the writing, but I am even more sorry for being clumsy and offensive.

          Meanwhile, thank you for considering that sometimes people who mean well (myself in this instance) can say something dumb.

  6. Your language regarding the character of Sam and the actor chosen to play her is one of the most offensive things I’ve ever read in a review. As I have said 1,000 times, people of color do not solely exist to talk about their race! We are actually interesting, complex people who face other issues and struggles in our lives. Too bad that’s too mundane for you. And don’t you dare try to hide behind the “well, the world isn’t color-blind” excuse. No, it’s not. However, that doesn’t mean people of color only function to talk about their race in a play. You’re also reinforcing the “default is white” mentality with your words, and how on Earth could the PREMIERE of a play have “non-traditional” casting??? Traditional implies that it’s been done before. Hence, “tradition.”

    Next time you see a play with an actor of color on stage, remember he/she/ze is a person as well.

    • Ciera,

      Obviously if that was the impression you got, then I did not clearly state my opinion.

      I review a lot of culturally-specific theater, so ethnicity is simply one of those things I have to grapple with as a reviewer. As to my use of the term “non-traditional casting” — I’ll refer you to a wikipedia article.

      I have seen plays where the ethnicity of the characters is irrelevant and so the ethnicity of the actors is irrelevant, and consequently, I made no comment on the actors’ ethnicity.

      I have, of course, seen African-American actors play Germans, Serbs, Italians, Albanians, Turks, Chinese, Anglo-Saxons, Arabs, Rwandans, and yes, African-Americans, without feeling the need to comment on skin color, yet I commented upon skin color in this particular production.

      The difference was because in those other shows, I found the story and characters sufficiently interesting that I was only interested in commenting on the actors’ performances. In the case of Three I found the characters one-dimensional, and Sam specifically was a cipher, lacking personality quirks, virtues, vices, or even much motivation that make a character interesting. I have not seen enough of Jones’ work to have an opinion on her work as a performer — but a great actor can’t do much when the playwright gives them a weakly-written role.

      Simply put, I was hoping for more engaging characters, and so I was looking at any missed opportunities (ill-defined back-stories, dramatic conflict, casting choices) that might have made the play less of a bore.

      • Hi Ian,

        A huge part of being a good ally–to any group, not just people of color–is listening. If several actual people of color take issue with the way you talk about race in your review, they probably have a point. Maybe you should listen instead of leaping to your own defense.

        Personally, I am in full agreement with Linda and Ciera-Sade here. Regardless of whether or not you liked the play, expecting a character to speak about her race simply because she is black is incredibly, deeply racist. I understand that you were hoping for more from this character, that you found her to be a cipher, but again, suggesting that the emptiness be filled up with racial commentary, and that racial commentary is the only possible thing it COULD be filled up — again, deeply racist.

        Also, why would casting a white woman in that role be “traditional”? I don’t understand. Are you suggesting that all roles, unless directly specified, must be played by white people, and that all other casting choices are “alternative”? If so, your view is perpetuating the damaging standard in this country that white is default, and all other colors are secondary.

        I look forward to your response.

        • Lindsay,

          You make an excellent point, which is why I have not dismissed either Linda’s or Ciera-Sade’s criticism.

          I have been known to stake out a controversial position here and there, but there is a difference between taking a position one intends and letting the chips fall where they may, and offending people whom one never intended to offend.

          It is apparent that however well-intended I imagine myself, my choice of words did not communicate the idea I had hoped to convey — and if I feel that I was misunderstood on the issue of race, the fault is solely mine.

          I offended Linda Powell and Ciera-Sade and very likely others. For this I apologize — this is separate from my judgement of the play.

          In discussions about how identity is represented in the media there is a real tension between whether acknowledging the identity of the character (or the actor playing the character) enriches the characterization or whether it reduces the character to the perceived identity — that is, as a stereotype.

          In my review, I noted that Three was a catalogue of missed dramatic opportunities, for instance: the uniform passivity of the characters, the fact the the first act shows them as soon-to-graduate college students but we never learn their majors, the vague backstories, the lack of chemistry between these supposedly best friends, and the over-reliance on stereotypes.

          My intent was to suggest a way that the casting could have been used to enrich the character of Sam; in short, how casting could have been an opportunity rather than an accident. However, I phrased it poorly, and so it was unavoidable that some intelligent and principled people read it as if I wished Sam had been reduced to a stereotype of my perceptions of the actor’s identity.

          I apologize and will endeavor to communicate with greater sensitivity in the future.

          * * *

          “Non-Traditional Casting” is a term preferred by Actors’ Equity Association and the League of American Theaters and Producers to refer to “the casting of ethnic minority and female actors in roles where race, ethnicity, or sex is not germane.

          The idea of non-traditional casting was to both acknowledge that casting is often done with the implicit bias that the default character is a white male, and to point out that it should not be.

          As it is a term used in the professional theater, that was how I meant. Obviously the term was not as well-known amongst my readers as I had imagined, and had I made the effort to better define it, some of the confusion about my intent might have been avoided and I might have caused less offense.

  7. This is why I would never want to be a drama critic.

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