Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Another Problem with Theatre Criticism

Another problem with theatre criticism, it seems to me, can be neatly encapsulated by an examination of Adam Feldman's review of A Bronx Tale. Unlike my views of Stewie's reviews -- in which I not only often disagree with the substance of the criticism but find that the substance has been torn asunder by a streak of vituperative bitterness -- I generally agree with Adam's reviews, meaning that I do not find substance being surrendered to cleverness. To me, though, A Bronx Tale slips as quality criticism a bit. His lede: "Nearly 20 years ago, when Chazz Palminteri first performed A Bronx Tale, many people assumed that this coarse, morally stunted solo play was a work of autobiographical nonfiction." I'm not clear that he was there 20 years ago; certainly he wasn't a critic. Frank Rich had nifty ways of clearing this hurdle -- he'd write that such-and-such element "recalls" some other element or he would otherwise artfully acknowledge that he hadn't seen the original production of Medea.

The meat of the matter for this post, however, concerns Feldman aiming at how the "risible climactic sequence involves, in immediate succession: a hate crime, a breakup, two murder plots, a rescue, a reconciliation, a fatal fireball, an assassination, a silent-scream sequence and an anguished cry of 'Nooooooo!'" He cries, "This is not a slice of life. This is a slice of processed cheese," and I do hear him -- in my New York Press review of the play, I wrote, "Credulity is stretched a little, sure, and I do wonder whether all of these things could have really happened—or maybe Palminteri’s well-told tale was just a little tall." The problem is that old nemesis, that old devil incarnate, suspension of disbelief. If we don't believe Cyrano or any man could have had a nose that size, Rostand's climax is risible, too. If we argue with regard to Long Day's Journey that all of those conversations, all of those confessions, all of those concerns, all of those discoveries, all of those speculations and emotional disfigurements, all of those cataclysms and superlative arias could not possibly have occurred within the space of a single day, O'Neill's best play (some say) is fruitless to fathom.

And this is the challenge critics face: What is the tripwire for dramatic plausibility? I'd argue that Adam may have one tripwire and I another -- vive le difference, as they say. To demean A Bronx Tale because it may indulge in literary or dramatic liberties with a set of known facts for for the purposes of storytelling, however, has to be viewed as a little bit hypocritical; O'Neill did rather the same thing.

In one of my graduate school classes, I raged about the utter improbability of Oedipus Rex -- it's ridiculous to expect anyone (except perhaps the Greeks) to believe that everything that happens to Oedipus happens in a single day. (We also know it's a single day because Aristotle argues that the play is the premier example of tragedy in the Poetics, and tragedy, he states, requires a unity of time.) Yet if we actively refuse to succumb to the ridiculousness -- if we relegate improbabilities and implausibilities to a status of being "risible" -- we effectively deny ourselves the opportunity to burrow underneath these tricky dramatic caverns and experience something satisfying, both as general audience members and specifically as critics.

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Anonymous said...

Hi LJ --

Time doesn't permit me the luxury of responding to this post as lengthily as I would like, but I strongly disagree with so much of what you've said that I feel like I have to respond at least briefly.

Your first point -- that I wasn't here in 1989 so I can't say anything about how the show was perceived -- is pretty silly. That's what research is for, and little research makes it clear that A BRONX TALE (by a then-anonymous bouncer) was generally taken for true at the time. You can see this in, for example, Stephen Holden's 1989 Times review, which credulously refers to the piece as a "true story." You can even see it to this day in, for example, Backstage's description of the play as "autobiographical," or even in your own pseudoskeptical suspicion that the story might be "just a little tall." Let's be quite clear here: A BRONX TALE is not "a little tall." It is a giant of phoniness, and is nearly entirely fictional from beginning to end. To quote Palminteri himself on the subject, in a recent interview:

"It's not a documentary. One true thing in the story was I saw a killing as a kid. Also, my father drove a bus. And I threw dice with the wise guys and I had relationship with a black girl. All these events happened in my life and I put the story together."

Yes, he threw dice with gangsters and dated a black chick. But he didn't get adopted by the most powerful mafia boss on the East coast, didn't witness said boss's murder by the son of the victim of a man he had seen the boss shoot (because "revenge is best served cold" -- brilliant!), didn't get saved by the boss from a car that would explode en route to committing a terrorist hate crime against a black social club, and so on ad nauseum.

Of course all playwrights draw from and extrapolate imaginatively from their experience. But if Eugene O'Neill, instead of writing Long Day's Journey, has written a play in which he starred as himself, and told a story in which his heroine-addicted mother saved a church full of burning nuns while simultaneously inventing the typewriter, then he would not be Eugene O'Neill. Chazz Palminteri is no Eugene O'Neill. He is not even James Frey.

The problem with A BRONX TALE is not that it is fictitious per se; it is that it presents its fiction under the guise of truth, and thus escapes being held to the most ordinary standards of writing by which it would otherwise be condemned. If Palminteri had told exactly the same story without pretending it was his, it would have been laughed out of town as a compendium of sub-Hollywood-screenplay contrivances and clichés -- leading up to that final sequence, which plays out like the fantasy of a bored ninth-grader making up stories to amuse himself in class. And it fails on the most basic level to make the points it thinks it is making; Palminteri says, for example, that the message of the piece is "that the saddest thing in life is wasted talent," a maxim that is never illustrated or developed at all in Palminteri's story.

Again, without the protection of its bogus "autobiographical" trappings, all of the above would be obvious to all viewers.

If this silliness were at least in the service of a larger tale with some integrity, that would be a different story. But as I wrote in my review, A BRONX TALE is essentially a juvenile, morally stunted mash note to the Mafia, which is depicted in terms either cutesy or maudlin. Its simplistic bully-coddling makes it offensive on a human level as well as an aesthetic one.

My review of A BRONX TALE is thus a poor illustration for the case you are trying to make of it. I am perfectly happy to suspend disbelief when the material warrants it, and have done so a gazillion times in the theater. But Palminteri's phony-baloney claptrap doesn't earn that suspension or reward it. Honestly, Leonard, to compare this prefab tripe to Medea and Oedipus is ridiculous.

I've run out of time. Hope the above will do.

Leonard Jacobs said...

Yikes, for someone without the luxury of time to respond to my post lengthily, it does seem that was a rather lengthy response, to the point of luxuriation even.

AF, I take your point, but I don't buy it, sorry. Vis a vis 1989 and, to paraphase Elton John, "that's what research is for," it's my view that phrasing mustn't lead the reader to think the critic was there if the critic wasn't there. And if knowledge is the product of research, are there no artful, non-academic ways to communicate this?

Tonight I moderated a panel at an acting school. It followed the performance of a play directed by the woman who is Jerry Zaks' assistant director on A Bronx Tale and we spoke about it. She told me that there are a number of elements of A Bronx Tale that are true -- more than Palminteri alluded to in that interview (apparently). That a lot of literary/dramatic license has been taken there's no debate. Whether there's been too much such license is clearly a question of personal taste. For me, I don't see it as a "giant of phoniness" (watch the hyperbole!): my point is that whether it's fiction or fact is fundamentally irrelevant. It's storytelling, not documentary theatre -- Moises Kaufman isn't in the wings with Leigh Fondakowski interviewing Loose-Lip Louie. If the audience thinks it's all true, what does that say about Palminteri's performance? Or, let's say it says nothing about Palminteri's performance, that it sucks. That the audience buys it warrants further examination -- is this, finally, good storytelling?

Rhetori aside, I ask you kindly to re-read: I didn't say Palminteri is the equal of Eugene O'Neill -- that's a bit facile, don't you think? What I said was that one of the main elements you faulted -- "a risible climactic sequence" involving "in immediate succession: a hate crime, a breakup, two murder plots, a rescue, a reconciliation, a fatal fireball, an assassination, a silent-scream sequence and an anguished cry of 'Nooooooo!'" -- poses a problem because an awful lot of work in the Western canon, being part of the Aristotelian tradition, features climaxes that are reliant upon a succession of similar implausibilities. I cited Long Day's Journey because you've got to believe that all those events occur, that all those statements are made in the course of just one day because if you do not, you will have a harder time locating value and catharsis from the play.

If presenting fiction under the guise of truth is a problem, is The Glass Menagerie, based on Williams' family (but not really), not similarly flawed? Mind you, I am not making that argument. But I believe it could be made.

And I just think A Bronx Tale is not your cup of hemlock. That's fine; lots of stuff that critics love seems more about intellectual showboating than the work. (Like using the word "Aristotelian" in a sentence, I know.)

Finally, the comparison to Medea and Oedipus was mentioned strictly with regard to the unity of time. Yikes, that's old Aristotle again.

Hope the above will do, too. I'd say I look forward to discussing this at a Drama Critics Circle meeting but I guess that's not going to happen.

Anonymous said...

Hi LJ --

I'm a quick typist when I have a bunch to say. And the issues you raised, obviously, could elicit a much longer response than my few meager paragraphs.

I disagree that my review's phrasing implied that I "was there" in 1989. I merely stated a fact, which was that the show was widely accepted as autobiographical in 1989. In a 300-word review, one is forced to be concise.

And I still feel you're missing my point somewhat. My problem with the last sequence of A BRONX TALE is not simply that it is "reliant upon a succession of [...] implausibilities." It is that, unlike in a well-crafted play, those implausibilities come virtually out of nowhere (have we even met C's friends before they go off in a car to kill black people?), and are themselves hyperbolic clichés of Hollywood screenwriting. It's lazy, manipulative writing. That people respond to it as truth is unfortunate, and owes much, as I've suggested, to the fact that (unlike Williams, O'Neill, etc.) Palminteri performs it himself and very explicitly presents it in the framework of personal memoir. There is a big difference there: the difference between using one's experience as grist for artistic creation and inflating one's experience into a self-aggrandizing adolescent fantasy and then passing it off as truth. (And if you kindly reread my response above, you will surely find that, pace your accusation, I never said that you said that "Palminteri is the equal of Eugene O'Neill." I was merely illustrating the difference between them, since you had brought up O'Neill.)

Finally, while I appreciate your kind assessment of my work in your initial post, I think you do this friendly exchange a disservice when you later imply that I -- albeit subsumed into "many critics" -- care only about "intellectual showboating" than about "the work." My review and my response are uniquely concerned with this particular work, arguably a good deal more so than your extrapolation of this play and my response to it into some general failure of critical imagination.


Leonard Jacobs said...

Well, your dig at the end was great. I was waiting for that. When I wrote "lots of stuff that critics love seems more about intellectual showboating than the work," I actually wasn't referring to you -- but I can see that you might think so. In fact, I was writing that at 1 a.m. and at that hour I haven't nearly the gift for verbal luxuriation. Sorry about that -- but the remark was not actually about you.

As for the rest of it, missing your point and not agreeing with it are two different things.