Soap Operas

Tonya Pinkins's gifts get short shrift in Caroline, or Change.Photo: Michal Daniel

Good works get richer with repeated exposure; the operatic musical Caroline, or Change, transferred to Broadway, seems, on second viewing, poorer. The story centers on the relationship of an 8-year-old Jewish boy, Noah Gellman, with his family’s black maid, Caroline Thibodeaux, in the Louisiana of 1963. But it touches on other things: Noah’s father, Stuart, playing the clarinet and avoiding his responsibilities; the boy’s coldness toward his new, Yankee stepmother, Rose (his mother died a year earlier); Rose and Caroline’s ambivalence toward each other; and the divorced Caroline’s relationship with her three younger children, chiefly 16-year-old Emmie (Larry, the eldest, is serving in Vietnam).

The washing machine, a black woman; the dryer, a black man; the radio, a Supremes-like trio—all talk to Caroline as she does the wash in the basement. Later, the bus, another black man, taking Caroline and a friend home, brings news of the assassination of President Kennedy, who might have done more to improve the lot of African-Americans; still later, the moon also chimes in.

The Gellman house is the only one in Lake Charles that has a basement, where Caroline launders; otherwise, as the text keeps reiterating, there “ain’t no underground / in Louisiana … / There is only / underwater.” Tony Kushner, the book writer and lyricist, clearly sees some deep symbolic significance in this fact that never comes clear in his partly autobiographical and almost wholly sung-through work with music by Jeanine Tesori. The operative concept is a pun on the meanings of “change.” It is what Emmie foresees for her race and herself but what Caroline is reluctant to adopt even though the radio advocates it (while the washing machine and dryer seem unconvinced). What the moon purports—and why it even figures as a character (though, of course, it changes)—remains uncertain.

But then there is change in the sense of coins, which the forgetful Noah keeps leaving in his pants, and which Caroline retrieves. Rose tries to break Noah of the habit, which only makes him more obdurate, whereupon she instructs Caroline to keep what coins she finds. The text tries to connect this small change with all sorts of large phenomena, from Noah’s reaction to his unloved stepmother to the nascent civil-rights movement, a burden the far-fetched and overworked conceit cannot bear. Unexpiated liberal guilt permeates the proceedings; events of personal meaning to Kushner fail to involve us, and even the clever music, mostly pastiche, loses some of its charm upon rehearing: It goes after operatic effects in large ensembles, crying out for surtitles, and the Da Ponte–like repetitions in the uneven lyrics now seem irritatingly out of date.

Riccardo Hernández’s scenery, Paul Tazewell’s costumes, and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting are functional. George C. Wolfe’s direction gets the job done with a competent cast, though as Caroline, the gifted Tonya Pinkins is shortchanged by her material. Veanne Cox and Anika Noni Rose come off best, as, respectively, Rose and Emmie. But there is less to all this than meets the eye and ear.

Mark Medoff always struck me as a questionable playwright, but not until now, with Prymate, a hysterical and incoherent one. Dr. Avrum Belasco, a research geneticist, and Dr. Esther Leeper, a linguistic anthropologist, were fellow experimenters and lovers who worked with a gorilla, Graham; deaf and dumb Esther was teaching him language, while Avrum was interested in him as a guinea pig for aids research. When the couple had a falling-out, Esther absconded with Graham into a cottage in the New Mexico wilderness. After seven months, Avrum had her tracked down, and arrives at the cottage with young and pretty Allison, an American Sign Language interpreter.

Graham has learned 400 words and allegedly acts like a human 8-year-old. He can fish and perform some household tasks but cannot control the urge to grab any woman by her breasts, or to urinate on Allison and force her to masturbate him. The play is primarily concerned with Avrum and Esther’s fight over Graham, as Allison feverishly translates and stands helplessly by. In the end, though, she too performs a violent—and incredible—act. Much of the play is in sign language, which sometimes gets simultaneous English translation, sometimes not.

Since Phyllis Frelich, who portrays Esther, is herself a deaf-mute, she seems to feel compelled to mug and variously overcompensate. As Graham, Andre De Shields, a good actor, can’t really convey a different species—despite convincingly simian sounds and behavior and scurrying about mostly on all fours—which may be Medoff’s humanizing intention. James Naughton (Avrum) and Heather Tom (Allison) try hard in unconvincing roles. Robert Steinberg’s set is both cheesy and unpersuasive; Edwin Sherin’s staging is workmanlike. Certain changes in Jeff Nellis’s lighting are mystifying, but the biggest mystery is the title: Why Prymate with a y? Does it have to do with prying, or prying off, or mere ostentation?

Gilbert did not need sullivan half as much as Sullivan needed Gilbert. On his own, WSG managed all kinds of writing (including drama criticism). Engaged (1877) is an ingenuous-seeming, mordant satire that Oscar Wilde must have learned from. Ranging over rural Scotland and high-society London, it finds them equally hypocritical, greedy, and amoral. Friendship, parental devotion, romantic love, marriage? Just so many disguises for money-grubbing, at which young and old, male and female, strive to outsmart one another with artful artlessness or swinish sophistication. True love is reserved for lucre and self.

“Friendship, parental devotion, romantic love, marriage? Just so many disguises for money-grubbing.”

The plot is all wicked contrivance doused with the perfume of innocence. Some actors are better at accents (David Don Miller, Caitlin Muelder, John Horton), some are expert farceurs (Horton again, and Maggie Lacey), but all except the too-American Sloane Shelton hold their own under Doug Hughes’s stylish if somewhat overwrought direction. Inventive scenery by John Lee Beatty and cheeky costumes by Catherine Zuber contribute handsomely to this debonairly barbed entertainment.

The hype, which Neil Labute condones, has him mellowing; he also claims he is not out to shock. I say no to both. Having had a blue-collar background and a ruffian-infested schooling in Spokane, he portrays lower-class adults and juvenile delinquents in The Distance From Here with fidelity to language and demeanor, albeit with scant sympathy. Two dim high-school loafers—mean Darrell and clumsy Tim—hang out together, often at the zoo. Darrell’s divorced, sex-hungry mother, Cammie, works in day care; her beer-swilling live-in boyfriend, in a dog-food factory. Her 21-year-old stepdaughter, Shari, lives nearby with her illegitimate baby. Darrell has a classmate girlfriend, Jenn, with whom he periodically breaks off. Tim works in a Chinese restaurant and is razzed about it.

LaBute calls his play “in the tradition of Edward Bond,” for which read Darrell’s shocking act right out of Bond’s Saved. Jenn’s described shocking act could, unfortunately for LaBute, be shown only in porn movies. There is also an ugly betrayal of Cammie’s trust, and, as befits a dog of a play, a shaggy-dog ending. Michael Greif has jazzily directed a wastefully dedicated cast in which Mark Webber, Logan Marshall-Green, Melissa Leo, Josh Charles, and Alison Pill excel, as does Anna Paquin (Shari), who should, however, beware of making a specialty of white-trash roles.

There may be truth here, but where are the consequences? LaBute denies being a misogynist: “I fall more straight down the line of humanist … fair to both sides.” He certainly falls down when it comes to humanism, and might consider changing his name to LaBête.

Soap Operas