Stage Left Theatre

Back in the so-called day, when Nixon was bombing Cambodia and I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, my life in the antiwar movement consisted mainly of trying to avoid getting hit with a billy club. Usually that meant running, along with a lot of other demonstrators, through a certain big field near campus. I transferred out of Wisconsin after my freshman year, but when I went back for a visit some months later, the field had already been transformed into a retail-and-cinema complex. And I remember thinking, Hunh. The whole time we were running back and forth across that piece of land, fomenting revolution, other people were planning, designing, financing, and selling this complex. And it didn’t mean a thing to them that we were fomenting revolution there; they didn’t think to themselves, “Maybe we ought to change our plans, what with the revolution coming and all.” They just continued on about their business, confident that eventually we’d be gone and the complex would be built.

I think of this whenever I hear talk about the significance of the counterculture.

Brett Neveu’s Empty is set in the days immediately prior to and following September 11, 2001, but it isn’t about the World Trade Center atrocity. It’s about the significance of the counterculture.

Or lack of same. In act one of Neveu’s new work, now receiving its premiere production at Stage Left Theatre, we meet two boomer couples who are neighbors in a new suburban town-house development outside “a large, midwestern city.” Ben and DJ have invited Mary and Todd over to get acquainted. There’s brie on the coffee table, Crosby, Stills & Nash on the box. Mary and Todd can claim hard-core hippie credentials, having once lived in California and attended a festival where a woman danced topless. Ben and DJ don’t even come close. They kept their distance from Vietnam-era tribal events like festivals due to DJ’s fear that, as Ben puts it, “we’d get lumped in with them and get hit on the head and end up in jail.” The conversation runs on with a mild awkwardness through a bottle of wine and various trivial subjects: vacations, kids, sod. Though tinged with the faux significance a shared nostalgia can confer, the talk is all small and–as per the title–empty.

And empty again later that evening, after Mary and Todd have gone home. Neveu has a remarkable eye for the strategies old married couples use to avoid each other even when they’re alone together. Ben and DJ make more than a few feints toward candor, intimacy, perhaps even confrontation–but always recover themselves nicely. DJ launches into the list of household jobs that need doing. Ben shares fun facts culled from a TV documentary about Alcatraz. A sexual invitation (itself a diversion) is made and finessed. A neat rhetorical dance allows them to go to bed separately.

But then comes September 11. All is changed, changed utterly–and yet no terrible beauty is born. We see our boomers on the Saturday following the disaster. Ben is ready to go back to talking sod. Mary and Todd have canceled a trip they were going to take, and Todd claims to be shaken up, but clearly they’ve already applied a pop-psych Band-Aid to the wound and are on the mend. Only DJ continues to feel the aftershocks. Teary eyed, she remains in the compulsive news-watching mode many people had abandoned by then. She can’t think about anything else, and when she opens her mouth the talk is not only not small, it’s positively global.

Her basic point is that September 11 happened because we let it–because the boom generation abdicated its role as America’s conscience. “I think we lost control,” DJ says. “We chose to forget about the plight of the rest of the world. We chose to forget what made us angry. We chose to stop fighting.”

Jessi D. Hill’s staging appears to endorse this point of view. But it seems to me that DJ’s making the same mistake the hippie nostalgists make, which is to think of the 60s and the people who lived through them as monolithic. They weren’t. At best they can be viewed as a confluence of interests that produced provocative harmonies for a while–sort of like the Beach Boys–creating an impression of coherence that wasn’t borne out by the facts. That, truth be told, actually obscured the facts. George W. Bush and Bill Gates, after all, are members of the generation called boom. So is Osama bin Laden. Even as I was rioting for the revolution, a plan for the land I ran through was on its way to fruition–and I wasn’t in on it. Who knows what most of us aren’t in on at this very moment?

Of course, neither Neveu nor Hill nor DJ is under any obligation to agree with what I’m saying. But I think this would be a better show if it attempted to come to grips with some of the ambiguity of that era. Empty is scarcely even a play yet. It’s a letter to the editor surrounded by dialogue.

And its characters can be as flat as its ideology. Morgan McCabe and Jim Schmid are saddled with straw people Mary and Todd, set up like images in a medieval pageant to represent a certain kind of fatuousness. It’s bizarre that we’re given no idea what they do for a living or how they might have spent even a little of the time between 1972 and 2001. Thomas Edson McElroy’s Ben is much more successful as a husband who’s learned to get along by going along with his stubborn wife but who nevertheless harbors a place of resistance in his heart.

DJ is the real challenge here–both for Neveu and for Marguerite Hammersley, who plays her. This character has the potential to be a Great Irrational: an elemental, possessed soul in the manner of Antigone or Medea, refusing all law and rationalization in the face of her deep mourning. But as she is she’s only half-written, and way too wimpy to be interesting. I hope Neveu and his collaborators will ask themselves what Sophocles would have done with DJ.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Martin.