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Jonathan Demme’s Illuminating Jumble

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Theater isn’t my bailiwick here at the mag, but it’s my first love, and since I spent a bit of time with Jonathan Demme and the cast of Family Week for a (frankly adulatory) piece on the director, I was blindsided by the bad reviews — especially by the one in today’s New York Times by Charles Isherwood.

This is not an attack on Isherwood.

It’s just that sometimes I need to remind myself that drama and film critics inhabit different universes. Often, I’ll go to plays and productions that drama critics have raved and I’ll be flabbergasted. Hundreds of dollars poorer and pissed off, I’ll tell myself these critics see so much dreck that works like Equus and musicals like The Producers or Rent — works that seem banal or downright idiotic when adapted for the screen — must seem like cultural oases. Closer to the present, I understand why they flip for the latest Brit Chekhov (Gareth from The Office as Treplev, anyone?) and why Laura Linney’s stature as a stage actress can blind them to the inadequacies of her latest vehicle … why the element of liveness adds to the thrill ... why they get frustrated when messages aren’t spelled out, because the bourgeois Broadway audience demands clarity … I understand that theater isn’t the dominant art form anymore and that it needs critics to clang-dang the bell in ways that blockbuster movies don’t …. I respect their plight …

But then I read these two Isherwood paragraphs and feel baffled and hopeless:


It is never clear if Ms. Henley intends to lampoon the center’s blunt, schematic approach to the healing process. (The actors all double as staff members, a distracting device.) But as the play progresses it becomes glaringly obvious that Claire’s problems are so severe and longstanding that the therapies being used — she is required to tote around a big stuffed bear, for example — are the equivalent of a Band-Aid applied to an arterial wound.

Ms. Henley, too, seems to steal away from the dark matter she keeps approaching, allowing the horrors depicted to reach a level of absurdity that is almost, but not quite, comic. Are we meant to laugh when Claire casually announces that “so far they’ve diagnosed me with P.T.S.D., an eating disorder, clinical depression, uncontrolled rage, hypervigilance ... and I think other things”?



“It’s never clear … ” No, it isn’t. And it’s never clear in, oh, Hedda Gabler if Ibsen means us to sympathize with Hedda’s plight as a woman in an era with few options or revile her as a demon … and it’s never clear in, oh, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation if Guare is mocking the young African-American’s mixture of hucksterism and delusional thinking or if he understands that yearning to belong …

Sure, these references are a mite obvious … But the works I love most in fiction or film or drama are the most irreducible. Robert Brustein handily sums it up in The Theatre of Revolt: “Unable to master his contradictions, [the playwright] dramatizes them in his plays, grateful for a form in which tensions do not have to be resolved.”

Let’s imagine a dramatist decides to adapt Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book-length screed Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I enjoyed the book, but I’d approach a theatrical adaptation warily. If a playwright doesn’t sympathize with and on some level even make the case for the role of positive thinking in helping people get by in often dismal circumstances, we’d have a one-dimensional thesis play. That doesn’t mean I don’t love scathing satires like Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy or Sister Mary Ignatius … , but there is drama in those angry comedies, too: Durang depicts innocents who are profoundly damaged by monstrous dogmatists and must fight their way to clarity. Their internal yes/no is what’s most important.

As it happens, I posed the question to both Demme and Henley: What do they think of the self-help movement? Do they agree with Lena in the play that the “blunt, schematic” approach to healing is reductive? And they both answered that it was reductive, but that — as Demme put it — anything that forces people to acknowledge one another’s separate truths and to help them achieve empathy can’t be all bad. I’ll answer Isherwood’s question: Yes, we are meant to laugh at “So far they’ve diagnosed me with P.T.S.D., an eating disorder, clinical depression, uncontrolled rage, hypervigilance ... and I think other things.” Pick up the latest DSM: It’s a laugh riot. Most psychological diagnoses tend to sound silly. Some people think Freud generated so much bullshit because he needed money for cocaine. I’ve been around rehab facilities and snickered at the mantras, while recognizing that the counselors were doing their best in the face of staggering obstacles. I find myself simultaneously appalled at all the harping on God in AA and grateful that so many lives are being saved — not only the lives of addicts, but of their children. It’s not either/or. It’s both.

Isherwood compares the therapies in Family Week to “a Band-aid applied to an arterial wound.” Yes — and no. Treatment for an arterial wound is relatively simple and uncontroversial. But treatment for the loss of a child? For soldiers who return from a hopeless situation like the one in Iraq with PTSD? Zoloft or Paxil, maybe — a stab in the dark. Then what? Demme thinks Claire has a shot at recovering from her devastation; I think she’s probably a lost cause and I suspect Henley does, too. We don’t know because the play ends. We hope Claire’s daughter will escape the cycle …

As a critic with highly idiosyncratic tastes, I would never presume to challenge Isherwood’s judgment of Family Week, only the terms he uses to dismiss it. But I am a bit dismayed by his description of Demme’s masterpiece Rachel Getting Married as “another jumbly scrapbook of a troubled family,” because what drew me to that movie was precisely that jumble. We can debate whether a particular jumble is illuminating or stupefying — but it’s the jumble that keeps us going to theater and laboring for days, weeks, years to sort out our responses to works like Family Week.

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