A criticism often leveled against a work of dramatic fiction is that it's not "truthful." Rarely, if ever, does one hear the reverse: that the play, movie, or television program was far too truthful. Received wisdom has it that truthfulness on stage is, by definition, interesting and stageworthy. But is that really true?
Frequently it appears -- to this audience member anyway -- that some subjects, especially when they are truthfully rendered, are just plain dull or, worse, distasteful. There are, of course, truthful plays that are both dull and distasteful, a lethal combination in theatre if ever there was one.
Regardless, the very suggestion that "truth" on stage is not necessarily a virtue and in fact may be a shortcoming, or the idea that some subjects are simply dreary or repellent, smacks of an unsophisticated palate in some quarters.
Clearly, tastes vary, as do thresholds for blood, gore, graphic medical accuracy, or just plain creepiness on stage -- for example, the very realistic treatment of a pedophile. That subject is enjoying a certain cache right now. There are Bryony Lavery's "Frozen" and Martin Moran's solo autobiographical piece, "The Tricky Part." Earlier this season, there was Nicky Silver's "Beautiful Child," a strange, metaphorical play with nods to ancient Greek drama that examines, among other things, how parents handle a grown son who is a pedophile.
Violence among the trailer-park crowd is another hot topic. Consider Tracy Letts' "Bug" and his play "Killer Joe," which was produced several years ago. Two seasons back, there was Rebecca Gilman's "The Glory of Living," and last summer Polly Draper's "Getting Into Heaven," although the latter, in all fairness, deals with the lower depths among punk rockers, perhaps a narrow distinction to some city dwellers.
Novels have been tackling ugly subjects from time immemorial. Think William Trevor's "Felicia's Journey," a peek into the mind of a serial killer, or for that matter Tom Perrotta's "Little Children," a story about a pedophile battling his impulses along with his affectionate, overly involved mother. (See, he really is like everyone else, the author is suggesting.) Some novels, like the aforementioned, are literature; others are pornographic.
Still, there is a fundamental difference between the reading experience -- starting with the fact that a book can be put down and later returned to -- and sitting in a theatre, communally witnessing a performance, with the actors' proximity and the immediacy of a story being told at the moment.
Sometimes the creepiness onstage is almost intangible, but a collective voyeurism is in operation among audience members. Perhaps that is the key: the vaguely pornographic sense of looking at something we shouldn't, finding ourselves, regardless of the creative team's intent, in the role of peeping Tom.
And interestingly, all of the writers and actors Back Stage talked with in connection with this story acknowledge the potential dangers of appealing to the lascivious, although, not surprisingly, each insists that he or she is not.
Up Close and Personal
Consider the pitfalls Martin Moran faces in his autobiographical solo piece, "The Tricky Part," which recounts Moran's encounter with a pedophile at the age of 12. The pedophile was a middle-aged seminarian who became for Moran, over the course of a six-month affair, a companion, mentor, and father figure, in addition to a sexual partner.
Moran was only a youngster at the time of the assault, but the adult Moran is still haunted by the event. Still, the play's central thematic motif is the ongoing impact of the past, now interpreted through the dissembling veil of memory. The play also examines the nature of paradox in almost all human interaction, and the power of grace. Moran's Catholic upbringing and the long shadow it casts are pervasive.
Throughout, Moran, who cuts a sympathetic figure, sits on a stool and talks to the audience. On the other side of the stage, there is a table, adorned with a photograph of the 12-year-old Moran in a canoe, beaming at the camera. It is a picture shot by Moran's abuser, Kominsky.
With any confessional play, there's the risk of turning the theatregoer into a gawker, a problem that's compounded when the performer on stage is narrating his own experience as the victim of a sexual predator. In some respects, the writer-actor has become an exhibitionist, making audience members feel a sense of discomfort or, worse, pity. And remember, Moran is not playing a character. He is playing himself. It is up close and personal.
Admittedly, for the most part, autobiographical shows and the audiences they talk to share a set of assumptions about psychology and theatre. To wit: voicing private pain (the more secretive the better) is healing for all concerned, both performer and audience. And equally central is the mutually held conviction that self-revelation is good theatre.
Moran says he subscribes to those notions, insisting that for him not to recount his story in public "would have been poisonous and self-destructive" and, further, that good theatre demands a level of nakedness. And that's wherein the challenge lies. Autobiographical accounts, he says, make that nakedness both more and less possible. That said, he stresses that he is not simply playing himself.
"I'm also playing a storyteller," he says. "There is ritual in storytelling and that formality creates some distance. And similarly, despite the fact that this is an autobiographical account, it's also a structured work, with fictional elements. Two-thirds of the names have been changed and many of the characters are composites. And unlike a confession, the play is an inquiry. My goal was to look for the illumination in the darkness. I have no interest in blame or vilification."
Nonetheless, he points out, "Whatever factual changes I've made have been for the purpose of telling the truth. I have an allegiance to telling the truth as opposed to telling the facts."
In the piece, it's clear -- and this is the "tricky part" -- that Moran's relationship with Kominsky was a loving one, however unethical, illegal, and exploitive the actions on the part of the pedophile. And close to 30 years later, when Moran encounters him again, some of the old feelings are aroused even as he tries to hate Kominsky, this pathetic nub of a man, now in a nursing home. It's powerfully ambivalent. In retrospect, Moran is stunned that Kominsky has played the crippling role in his life that he has. But at the same time, Moran finds himself becoming the kid again, still seduced and still self-blaming for his own ready compliance that was not without cause.
"The Tricky Part" brings to mind an earlier play that also tackled the emotionally charged topic of pedophilia with subtlety and nuance. In the 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning "How I Learned to Drive," a work that was inspired by Nabokov's "Lolita," playwright Paula Vogel presents a complicated love story, however twisted and troubling, between Uncle Peck and L'il Bit, his young niece through marriage. The affection runs both ways and in the end the young girl, who is now an adult, is perhaps less scarred than the victimizing Uncle Peck, who has become an object of pathos.
When I interviewed Vogel at the time, she noted that in many ways Uncle Peck was also his niece's guardian, whatever his crimes. "He has given her the tools, ironically enough, to protect herself from him." She also remarked that there were many women in the audience who resented her depiction of Uncle Peck, suggesting it was a whitewash.
The Banality of Evil
In all probability, playwright Bryony Lavery, who penned "Frozen," has received similar flak for her play's suggestion that a murdering pedophile was a victim as well, perhaps sexually abused as a child or brain-damaged and thus not fully responsible for his actions. That's not to say that Lavery believes the criminal is justified, but there is an effort to explain him.
In this play, creepiness is all encompassing, beginning with the subject matter and the apologist's vision of the criminal. Nevertheless, "Frozen" is not ambivalent about the crime. The criminal's victim is simply that, a victim. She was never compliant nor did she feel an iota of love for the perpetrator. Quite the contrary. Still, the terror and anguish she must have experienced, not to mention her loss of life, are never mentioned. Loosely based on a compilation of notorious cases in the United Kingdom, "Frozen" considers the life and actions of Ralph (Brían F. O'Byrne), a pedophile and serial rapist and murderer.
This play deals specifically with the aftermath of one of his murders -- the rape and killing of a small girl -- and the repercussions in the lives of the girl's mother (Swoosie Kurtz) and a researcher (Laila Robins) who is investigating serial killers, convinced that they suffer from frontal lobe disease.
The repugnant nature of the crime notwithstanding, "Frozen" is a work devoid of sensationalism of any kind, short of a hanging suicide scene at the end and even that snippet is not all that graphic. Indeed, the play is largely a study of three characters, all of whom, for widely different reasons, are psychologically frozen, hence the title. It is also a story of forgiveness. The mother comes to forgive her daughter's murderer and, in the end, all three protagonists grow attached to each other and share a bond of some kind. The minimalist set and sparse staging focus the audience's attention on the three characters.
The initial creepiness metastasizes with the suggestion that the three protagonists truly have common ground, the idea that forgiveness is plausible (or even natural) in this context, and, most stunningly, the unexceptional character of the criminal, who is little more than a dimwitted child-man, covered in tattoos, and almost, but not quite, an innocent.
In one of the final scenes, when the murdered girl's mom visits him in jail, she shows him pictures of her daughter at a costume contest, where she came in third. Ralph studies the picture with affection, noting sweetly, "She should have won." Ralph is undoubtedly an embodiment of "the banality of evil" on two legs. It's a tribute to O'Byrne's acting; he certainly made this viewer want to gag. But is that what he should be doing? Doesn't good theatre require new insights to transcend the creepiness of the topic? Or are there some topics for which there are no new insights? Is making it "interesting" or palatable by definition to falsify?
"I do not believe that there are any subjects that cannot be made interesting or are too distasteful to be represented on stage," asserts playwright Bryony Lavery. "Of course the playwright has to give the material shape and make it artful. Writing about a pedophile was not my purpose. My goal was to write about people withholding love -- that's true for all of the characters -- and the consequences of that withheld love.
"No, I don't think Ralph was responsible for what he did, especially if he is brain-damaged. Clearly, that idea might offend some people," Lavery continues. "And it's also true that some audiences may feel disgust with the whole subject matter. I don't think that's necessarily bad either; theatre is the place to explore hard emotions. But I would hope that at the end of the play, audiences can also feel that Ralph's tragedy is that he never experienced the wonder of being a human being." She adds, "Evil is not clever or creative. It's just the opposite."
O'Byrne agrees, maintaining that his ambition "was to make Ralph as ordinary as possible. What makes him repellent is that his actions are so completely outside our experiences or even our imaginations. It's not my job to judge him, but to accept the fact that his logic is different from mine.
"In preparation for the role I read a biography of Robert Black, a serial killer in England who murdered children and then sexually molested them, not unlike Ralph," O'Byrne continues. "Ralph says -- and so did Black -- he killed the kids in order not to hurt them. And he means it. He believes he is doing a kind thing."
O'Byrne adds, "I don't think this play is about Ralph or a pedophile. To me the most interesting thing about the play is the nature of forgiveness. Is it possible? When is it possible? One conclusion I've come to: Forgiveness is not about letting someone else off the hook. People who forgive are doing it for themselves. Forgiveness can also be used as a weapon."
Emerging from a totally different universe -- one that partakes of gothic film noir and even the comically grotesque -- there is "Bug" by Tracy Letts. Like his "Killer Joe," which was produced several years back, this work also provides a glimpse into the violent Grand Guignol lives of the trailer-park crowd, both plays evoking Quentin Tarantino's film "Pulp Fiction," with its trigger-happy semiliterate psychotics.
Set in a sleazy motel room somewhere in the Deep South, "Bug" describes the evolving relationship between Agnes, a heavy-boozing abused woman hiding from her wife-beating husband (who has just been released from jail), and Peter, a drifter, who within time reveals himself to be a paranoid. He (Michael Shannon) convinces both himself and her (Shannon Cochran) that the room is overflowing with insects. By the second act, the stage is filled with insect-repelling sprays and canisters. Dozens of bug-trapping adhesive strips dangle from the ceiling.
Ultimately Peter believes that the crawly creatures have been implanted into his body and are hatching away beneath his skin. Suffice it to say, at the dénouement, the stage is awash in blood and gore. Offensive as it may be, the play's saving grace is, ironically enough, its comic-strip flavor and Michael Shannon's deadpan performance, which undoubtedly lends an amusing aspect. Still, there are moments when one (this reporter anyway) has to shield one's eyes. Once again the audience has been cast to play rubber-necking witnesses at a ghastly accident.
Shannon defends the grisly elements, suggesting that there are life lessons to be learned through the graphic violence, and that theatre is a good place to learn it. "Violence is real and people get hurt in life," he says. "There is nothing wrong with audiences being exposed to reality in a theatre -- the realer, the better."
Shannon also acknowledges that the cartoon moments in "Bug" create a dual sensibility throughout. "You need the comedy in order to tenderize the audience for the fear," he says. "If a play is nothing but fearful, for example, the audience is more reluctant to come for the ride. Similarly, my character, Peter, needs to be funny and charming in order to be liked by Agnes and the audience. Yes, Peter is crazy, but that's nothing to address as an actor. You don't play crazy. You play the need to survive and be loved. And, yes, Peter is creepy, but you can't play that either. He is creepy because he is afraid, not because he wants others to be afraid. And that's what I play -- his fear.
"I believe that deep down Peter is not a bad person," Shannon continues. "My job is to figure out the pattern of his life and then I can accept who he is and even like him, although I don't think I have to like him. I have to understand him."
Is It Pornography?
To what extent one experiences a pornographic element lurking beneath all of the aforementioned plays is obviously subjective. Lavery, who recognizes that risk, describes drawing her line in the sand this way: "I'm open to exploring all material on stage as long as I feel I've dealt with it in my life in some way and can put an emotional handle on it," she says. "The one subject I know I would not even attempt to write about is a concentration camp. With that topic, there is the danger of my becoming a voyeur and writing to prurient tastes."