Emerging from the Gil Cates theater after last night's play, I saw a lobby full of unusually animated theatergoers discussing the Joanna Murray-Smith play reviewed without mercy by LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty.
Usually when a blurb in a program written by the hosting theater calls a play "thought-provoking" or says that it generates more questions than it answers, I'm skeptical. One hardly plugs a play by saying it raises no important questions and ends with definitive conclusions which altogether terminate thought and discussion.
But in the case of The Gift, I must agree with every theatergoer who has posted on the Geffen FB page about this searing comedy by the controversial Australian playwright, screenwriter, columnist and librettist. I knew about Honour (Broadway production in 1995 with Meryl Streep and Sam Waterston) and Female of the Species, which played at the Geffen in 2010 and starred Annette Bening.
In the New York Times, Charles Isherwood had this to say of the Geffen show: "The Female of the Species is not just antifeminist. In its depiction of women as variously pompous, deluded, self-obsessed, hypocritical, sexually obsequious or just plain crazy, it comes closer to being antifemale." But I knew little of the prolific writer who seems to be a bit of a provocateur, a kind of Australian Camille Paglia.
Ms. Murray-Smith's remark that male playwrights are generally better than female ones set off a firestorm of tweets calling her out for what was regarded as terribly sexist. In truth--and this bears on what I have to say about The Gift--it's acceptable to hold outrageous views which fly in the face of PC or conventional wisdom, but it's not okay to say them out loud, much less in an interview. And from what I can gather, Ms. Murray-Smith is a bit like a highbrow Howard Stern circa 1990, who in this case (as more than one parent told me after the show), "says what we've all thought at least once."
In reviewing Ms. Murray-Smith's clever satire, one has two choices: issue a spoiler alert and discuss the morally complex and unsettling conclusion (as in Theater Notes, a serious now defunct blog I didn't read until last night) or speak abstractly while trying to say something meaningful. McNulty does not reveal "the gift" but notes, petulantly, that he would not have been wrong to do so given the play is "banalit[y]" personified and a waste of four great actors. For a different reason--because the emotional, psychological and moral force of The Gift depends largely upon a late plot twist--I have chosen the second option.
Even McNulty must acknowledge that the set--like the writing--was "superficially appealing": faint praise for a set which in its evocation of a lush tropical vacation and glorious LA home with a view reminds one that set design truly is an art form. The play begins with two couples on a 5-star vacation which one couple paid for and the other won: Ed (Chris Mulkey) and Sadie are wealthy, middle-aged, childless, and in their own words, not particularly interesting; Martin (James Van Der Beek) and Chloe (Jamie Ray Newman) are young, artistic, passionate and slightly irritating (unless you're part of the conceptual art scene).
I was a couple minutes late and missed the part about the young, beautiful being a writer with a Ph.D. Just as doctors and lawyers lack patience for medical and legal dramas, I rarely like movies or TV shows about literary people (particularly academics) because they don't represent what I know of the world I lived in for many years.
Chloe doesn't sound like a first-year Masters student in English (or anything), much less a PhD. This doesn't matter in the scheme of things but nothing about Chloe communicates intellectual seriousness, unless your standard is someone completely uncultured and unread.
The couples become strangely close over expensive wine and cocktails (mojitos), a closeness cemented during a sailing accident in which the young artist saves the life of the older businessman. They agree to meet in a year's time--during which the older couple has embarked on a whirlwind tour of art galleries in Europe and New York and the younger couple has finally broken into the "bigtime" art world--so that Martin and Chloe can think of an appropriate gift as an expression of gratitude for having their lives saved in more ways than one.
The first 35 to 40 minutes is riotously funny, particularly on the score of parents who schlep their kids to lessons in activities for which they have no talent. I have ordered the text of the play so I can relive these scathing comments about parents who essentially lie to their children about their aptitude rather than providing their offspring with realistic assessments: "You're a wonderful, caring person but a future Stanford pediatric oncologist or concert pianist you are not."
Several times during minor set changes, Baker poignantly addresses the audience, confessing that seeing this young couple admire one another (Chloe calls him "brilliant" and a "genius" far too often to preserve crediblity or unequivocal sympathy) makes her imagine what she might have become had she not married Ed or believed marriage permitted ongoing growth and autonomy.
Baker freely admits that even as a young woman, she lacked Chloe's "beauty and intellect" but can't help wondering what might have been. This is moving, though again, the beautiful and waifish Chloe (with a particularly commanding voice) hardly screams out erudition or "life of the mind." She reminds me more of the mousier, more neurotic faux intellectual Monica (Ellen Paige) hilariously mocked by Alec Baldwin's character in one of his best performances in years in Woody Allen's spectacular To Rome with Love (2012).
Baker's humanity and commonsense emerge most powerfully during the part of the play I cannot here discuss, but even her early admission that she has never had a great idea is endearing in its self-deprecation. As a great fan of Aaron Sorkin's underrated Sports Night, his critical darling and commercial bomb in the late 1990s due in part to its 30-minute format and in part its relatively untested genre (the "dramedy" had not yet caught on as Denis Leary learned through the failure of The Job from the same era), the "great idea" episode immediately and pleasingly sprung to mind.
Ed and Sadie are profoundly decent if simple people for whom life has grown terribly dull. Martin and Chloe remind them, even before the transformation in the year following Ed's accident, that life--via art--can be strange and surprising.
Of course if one expects a treatise on aesthetics or literary criticism which provides a novel analysis of the way in which art remakes life--a Defence of Poetry a la Sir Philip Sidney for the 21st century--one will be disappointed. The talk about art is somewhat cliche, but the way in which art touches the lives of those not invested in it in connection with two artists (or one artist and his promoter wife) is not without meaning or value.
Musing on the play this morning on Facebook as I am prone to do about a performance seen the night before, it occurred to me that this play appeals to a particular sort of person, namely, a secular, educated, urban dweller at least in the upper middle class, or an artist on the fringes of a culture made up of such people. For observant Christians or Jews, children are the point of marriage if not life itself. Post-Friedan, it's fine not to want kids (at least if you live around money in a godless, liberal city, because of course the quickest route to poverty is children).
A woman whose username is "MadgieofBrentwood" left the following comment on the LA Times blog: "As an urban parent guilty of helicopter tendencies (like most boomer parents living in upscale L.A. neighborhoods), I found the play to be well-written, surprising, and thought-provoking. I'm guessing the critic isn't a parent. Thought all four actors were superb." I left my own remarks (my first time commenting on a piece in the LAT), wishing both to counter the critic's view and to register my wholehearted agreement with Madgie.
As "Tiger Mom" Amy Chua learned in the wake of the Wall Street Journal's irresponsible and misleadingly-titled "Why Chinese Parenting is Superior," only the topics of abortion and guns arouse such intense cum hysterical passions as parenting. I heard Ms. Chua--a professor at Yale Law--discuss Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother at UCSB last year and found her as affable, witty and incisive as she was in Palisades native Michael Medved's radio show. (Medved took a sharp right turn some time ago but is to my mind one of the sharpest of what a friend calls the "conservative talking heads".)
Ms. Chua nearly sued the WSJ both for making it sound as though she asserted the superiority of Chiense parenting--she didn't as she told her audience at Campbell Hall, and the title was not hers--and for committing the cardinal sin of criticism even of the journalistic variety: failing to contexualize an excerpt or passage. The first third of the book describes the Tiger Mom philosophy, while the other two-thirds questions it in the wake of her second daughter's dramatic rebellion in the middle of Moscow's Red Square at 13.
But nothing pushes buttons like talking about other people's kids, and generally rational people become downright certifiable when it comes to criticism of their children or their parenting methods. Any Little League coach knows that a perfectly normal parent off the field can become a candidate for a straitjacket at the bottom of the fifth when his son is taken out of the game.
The Gift won't play in Peoria, as they say, any more than Coney Island Christmas, which though never mean-spirited, is clearly pitched to Jews whether secular or observant. Wondering if having kids was a mistake which destroyed your life, career, and possibility of happiness or passion is a luxury only people not occupied with survival can indulge. And even to the 1%-er couple, Ed and Sadie, who could not have children, the significance of "genius" over and above humanity is dubious at best.
Of course for (deliberately) childless people like myself, who late in life fell in love with two children of friends (both 5 years old) but who sees children as the worst possible financial investment with an enormous potential for catastrophe (mental illness, drugs, alcoholism or just general uselessness to name a few) not to mention the certain annihilation of freedom for a minimum of two decades if you're not in the 1-2% and able to hire full-time help, the play is an amusing confirmation of everything I've always thought about the childrearing endeavor.
The Gift runs until March 10th. If I were not leaving for NYC on Saturday and returning March 9th, I would pay to see it again.