Fuse Theater Review: “after all the terrible things I do” — Taking a Safe Stand
Scripts of this well-intentioned variety are big on exalting forgiveness and empathy – calls for justice are rare, for obvious reasons.
after all the terrible things I do by A. Rey Pamatmat. Directed by Peter DuBois. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through June 21.
By Bill Marx
Homophobia, bullying, hatred, and malice are terrible things and they should be condemned. But how valuable is it to write and then produce plays that tell already wised-up liberal theater audiences how bad these behaviors and attitudes are? We are seeing the rise of what I call the Public Service Announcement play – these are scripts that focus on social problems that are slam-dunk heinous (in this case bullying) and spotlight characters who are bedeviled by these poisonous prejudices. (Issues such as widening income disparity and class warfare are ignored because they might generate serious disagreement among theatergoers. Know of any pro-bullying groups?) The inevitably uplifting wrap-up arrives, in which the play’s sinners — now cleansed of their evil inclinations through therapeutic confessions — proclaim that the healing must begin. Well-intentioned scripts of this variety are big on forgiveness and empathy – calls for justice are rare, for obvious reasons.
What makes A. Rey Pamatmat’s after all the terrible things I do interesting is that it is not only a paradigmatic PSA play, but it has the added (if questionable) benefit of displaying many of the formulaic weaknesses found in the current products of the MFA-engineered school of playwriting. The script is right off the staid academic assembly line: a small cast (two actors), the use of sit-com rhythms to make the audience comfortable before moving unto disclosures of secrets that lead to the domestication of the unruly dilemmas raised. Eugene O’Neill’s drama of expiation appears to be the inspiration for the action — think of the repressed, self-tortured couple in A Moon for the Misbegotten. But the latter’s characters struggle to express painful truths to each other in order to reach a precious moment of grace before fate’s deadly hammer falls. In a PSA play, revelations of shameful behavior are rewarded with huzzahs of self-discovery and requests for amelioration. No suggestions of tragedy allowed – only neatly bundled psychological solutions shorn of any political bite.
Set in an independent book store in a Midwestern city, after all the terrible things I do starts off with a surreal job interview between middle-aged owner Linda and Daniel, a wanna-be writer, just out of the University of Iowa, who is working on the manuscript of his first novel. The gay guy longs to work where he used to hang out and read as a child. Somehow Daniel is hired and then it takes about 45 minutes –- MFA plays tend to cling to exposition — before dramatic conflict finally rears its welcome head. I don’t want to give anything crucial away — suffice it to say that each character has dealt with instances of homophobia and bullying in ways that have led to confrontations with issues of life and death. Employer and employee agree to unite in a quest to understand each other and what happened to those they loved. Revelations about self-hatred, betrayal, and violence are dutifully made — all neatly calibrated. Though there is talk about rough sex and some earthy language, nothing here would shock anyone who watches cable TV.
For those familiar with PSA plays, the twists and turns along the way are not surprising, though I must admit that Pamatmat piles the final scene explanations on extra-thick. MFA scripts generally end by having their characters tell audiences what they have seen and what they should think about what they have just seen — there is absolutely no trust that we can figure out on our own what has gone on. Ambiguity might lead to confusion, anxiety, or intimations of elitism. Here Daniel and Linda sound like two hyper-articulate shrinks going at one another with a diehard vengeance, making sure that neither of the other’s symptoms are left unexplained. Daniel may think that there is something more than cowardice behind his actions, but by God Linda is going to make him admit that there is nothing driving him but fear, plain and simple. We are trapped in a PSA world where everything troubling is neutered through explication, “understood” to the point of dull exhaustion. Only the competing blurb-o-matics of local theater criticism, the Boston Globe and WBUR/Artery, would find any of this heavy-handed do-gooding “provocative,” “riveting,” etc.
One other irritating belief that after all the terrible things I do underscores is the American distrust of the imagination. Buffeted by the bullying (?) influence of our factoid-crazed culture, we don’t believe that literature is something that is wholly made-up, aside from science fiction and horror yarns. Daniel keeps telling Linda that his novel is fiction, but she and we and Pamatmat know better: Daniel finally breaks down and admits that it is his life and its dastardly traumas on the page. But writers do make stories up, they do invent other existences and worlds — not every novel is an autobiography in disguise. But PSA plays are not about the exhilaration of invention — they are about delivering comforting messages.
The Huntington Theatre Company production is directed with economical dispatch by Peter DuBois, though he can’t overcome the head-spinning amount of yakking. Tina Chilip’s Linda is far too motherly at the beginning, while Zachary Booth’s Daniel comes on too high-schoolish. These attitudes flip as the play progresses, but Pamatmat’s thin character studies might have been made more complex had there been mysterious hints of strength and vulnerability early on. But PSA plays never dare go out of tasteful bounds: Linda insists at one point that she would like to kill Daniel, but this is far too polite and sensitive a production to make us believe that. (Maybe talk him to death …) The metaphoric setting of the snug little bookstore fits the dramatic limits of after all the terrible things I do perfectly — the emotional source of bullying is categorized, then neatly inventoried and shelved, thus reassuring us that all can be well if we only show empathy and love one another, etc. Me, I am waiting for a pro-bullying play … at least that might generate conflict rather than curative cliches.
Note: The Huntington Theatre Company is continuing its antibullying program, “Not Waiting on the World to Change,” with the first public reading of The View from Here, a new play by Huntington Playwriting Fellow Kirsten Greenidge. (At the Boston Center for the Arts on June 16 at 7 p.m.) “Education Director Donna Glick and Education Associate Marisa Jones partnered with Playwright Kirsten Greenidge and 10 Boston-area high-school students to create a new play focusing on the issue of teenage bullying.” To its credit, this excursion into PSA drama involves kids who might discover an interest in the theater during the process.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.