Chicago Theatre Company
and the Kinetic Theatre Company
It’s more than you / It is more than me / No matter what we are / We are a family . . . –from “Family,” in Dreamgirls, by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger
“Family values,” to appropriate a favorite expression of the far right, were very important to the ancient Greeks; the great tragic stories that have come down to us through Hellenic myth and drama were wont to use familial perversion and violence as a metaphor for the deep and pervasive ills gnawing away at the inside of society. Though Oedipus and Electra (the son who slept with his mother and the daughter who lusted after her father) are symbols of specific, individual psychological aberrations now, for the Greeks they symbolized widespread cultural decay (it’s no accident that Athenian tragedy flourished during that great city-state’s long period of decline during the Peloponnesian War).
Stanley Bennett Clay’s play Ritual takes elements of Greek tragedy as a starting point for his own acerbic dissection of upper-middle-class black American family life. Like the dramas of Sophocles and Euripides, Clay’s play is bursting with turbulent emotion expressed in elegant, lean, image-packed dialogue. The contrast between his characters’ finely honed speech and their tortured feelings, besides making for a theatrically compelling script, highlights the play’s theme: that the quest for success and security in status-conscious, white-dominated society can be spiritually deadly to the black family.
This serious theme is boldly explored through a story and style that veer energetically, sometimes erratically, and always invigoratingly between overt poetic stylization, soap-opera melodrama, and barbed comedy of a particularly waspish sort. Ritual is often very funny, even when it’s most serious; and Clay’s ambition and intelligence, as expressed in the slick and edgy midwest premiere of his play, directed by Douglas Alan Mann at the Chicago Theatre Company, make for an exhilarating experience in the theater.
Just as Greek tragedies generally took lawgivers and their ladies as their main characters, Ritual’s heroes are a lawyer and his wife. Leon Becker (note the name’s kingly, leonine implications) is a rich man, whose status as a pillar of his society is suggested by the Greek-style columns that decorate his sprawling California home. Leon is also a very proud man–proud of his success, of his beautiful wife and brilliant son and dutiful daughter. But as he reveals in several soliloquies, which he delivers to the audience in a style made up equally of classical oratory and black street talk, he’s troubled by the fragility of his well-ordered inner and outer universes. Having made it to the top in white society, he reacts with fury when his son taunts him as a “good nigger,” yet he secretly shares that attitude: “At least some of us don’t use skin whiteners anymore,” he confides to the audience. “But oh, how we bleach away the dignity.”
Leon’s wife, Sylvia, is her husband’s opposite and his frequent antagonist–a bitchy former actress who’s ill at ease in the role of an affluent lawyer’s wife. (Here Clay echoes numerous stories, mythic and historical, of witches and priestesses who rebelled against the domesticity imposed on them by their warrior-king husbands.) Sylvia loves her husband, but has grown estranged from him as her frustration has led to incipient alcoholism. The ground on which most of their battles are fought concerns their son Mason, a precocious 17-year-old–serene on the surface but boiling with sexual confusion inside–who wants to drop out of college. Mason’s sister, Teresa, is a 19-year-old “Madame Curie of domesticity” whose rivalry with her mother for Leon’s affection is blatantly clear to everyone but Leon. It’s certainly clear to Mason, who upon his return home contrives to bring his parents closer together by pushing his sister into the background.
The effects of Mason’s plans are predictable given Clay’s conscious echoes of Greek tragedy. But the final results are ironic, not tragic. There is no catharsis here–and thus no redemption. The Becker family keeps on keeping on–“We can be the Huxtables when we have to be,” Leon says with mocking bitterness–by arriving at a spiritually ruinous compromise. In a world where families, particularly black families, are failing right and left, the Beckers discover just how far they can, and must, bend to survive.
Ritual’s unusual transformation of Greek drama into a modern comedy of neurotic manners recalls the myth-inspired plays of Jean Cocteau; its hothouse atmosphere and barbed bitchery are reminiscent of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and several of Tennessee Williams’s dramas. Like these writers, Clay has created an overripe, extremely theatrical world for his characters, in which long speeches full of camp and highbrow literary references–from Agamemnon to Alice Walker to Auntie Mame–and brazenly artificial mannerisms are the common currency. Not naturalistic by any means, this is juicy material, and the Chicago Theatre Company cast digs in with obvious relish. Zuindi Colbert plays Sylvia with a hauteur that’s equal parts fashion queen and drag queen and an insidious, vixenish voice that reminded me of Eartha Kitt on a very good day. As Leon, Frank G. Rice offers a marvelous contrast to Colbert’s Sylvia: he’s the stolidly masculine overachiever who, every so often, lets down his guard enough to reveal the vital young man he once was or the soul-dead phony he’s becoming. Though too old to convey the youthfulness needed to make their actions deeply shocking, Rolanda Brigham and Thomas W. Greene are an acceptable pair of Cocteau-esque enfants terribles, evil in their very innocence.
Except for a less than convincing final fight scene, which would come up to par with some more rehearsal, Douglas Alan Mann’s direction nicely reveals the play’s multiple levels of meaning and style. Mann is aided by Patrick O. Kerwin’s California-Hellenic set, Glenn Billings’s vivid costumes, and especially by Corbiere T. Boynes’s mood-setting sound design, which segues from Dreamgirls (itself a critique of the black family aspiring to white-defined success) to a spooky, glossy pop sound track by Brian Eno that sounds, appropriately in this context, like a cross between Quincy Jones and Bernard Herrmann.
So don’t think you’re going / You’re not going anywhere / You’re staying and taking your share / And if you get afraid again / I’ll be there / We are a family . . . –from Dreamgirls
Like Ritual, Ira Levin’s Veronica’s Room is an ironic and threatening exploration of dark implications in family life. The social context here is not African American but Irish American; the setting is one of those big old houses that Irish immigrant families used to build in Boston to tell the WASPs they weren’t leaving. The subject, again, is incest–laid out in a series of games in which the characters change, and exchange, roles with startling suddenness as they enact cruel, warped Catholic-inspired rituals of submission and penitence. Unlike the rituals in Clay’s play, these rituals don’t mean much of anything; they’re just there for Levin to exploit in search of escapist chills and thrills.
Written in a comic-macabre Hitchcockian vein a few years after Levin’s hugely successful novel Rosemary’s Baby and a few years before his hugely successful play Deathtrap, Veronica’s Room recalls both. Like Rosemary’s Baby, it takes as its heroine an innocent, puckishly brave young woman who finds herself in a strange, old-fashioned place among a group of strange, old-fashioned people; like Deathtrap, it’s fascinated with the device of theatrical role-playing to the point where illusion and reality collide, as the heroine is forced into posing as a mysterious young woman who had been imprisoned in her room by her religious-fanatic parents half a century earlier.
Played well, Veronica’s Room can do just what Levin wanted it to, which is to scare the hell out of an audience while making them laugh. Played mediocrely, as it is in this staging by Avenue Productions and the Kinetic Theatre Company, it is merely offensive in its trivialization of such issues as incest, necrophilia, child abuse, murder, and madness. Not very substantial in itself, Levin’s script cries out for performances full of unpredictable power and kinetic vitality. In David Webster’s shallow and disappointing staging, all it gets is half-baked hamming.