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Reality Theater

SINCE THE 1960S, WHEN Michael McClure imagined Billy the Kid humping Jean Harlow in The Beard and Barbara Garson had Lyndon Johnson whacking Jack Kennedy in MacBird, it has grown obvious that actual people, often still among us, have become the grist of American playwriting. In one recent week alone, a musical opened by Michael John LaChiusa called First Lady Suite, featuring Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and Mamie Eisenhower, along with a semi-fictional comedy by A.R. Gurney called Mrs. Farnsworth, about a Vassar woman who may or may not have been impregnated by George W. Bush (who may or may not have paid for the abortion). To be sure, the fictions of the theater have traditionally been confounded with facts, and its characters often resemble living people: Shakespeare's Titania was probably a tribute to Queen Elizabeth, and his Jacques may have been a satirical swipe at "morose" Ben Jonson.  

In the past, these portraits were usually disguised. But in recent years the representation of famous people on the stage has become open and pandemic, as if the theater were laboring to establish its own "reality TV." (In the interest of full disclosure, I am the author of a play about the Lee Strasberg family and Marilyn Monroe.) What is going on here? One theory is that our politicians and celebrities are to Americans what the Olympian gods were to the Greeks--subjects not just for juicy gossip but for dramatic myth-making. (Zeus's escapades with mortal women are paralleled by Ben Affleck's dalliances in Matt and Ben, another reality play.) But I think a lot of this fact/fiction playwriting grows out of a metatheatrical tradition that is initially indebted to Pirandello. Particularly in his celebrated theater trilogy, Pirandello was the first to shatter the thin glass between illusion and reality, which is to say between stage characters and real characters, not to mention between actors and audiences. Six Characters in Search of an Author pits half-written characters against the actors whom they want to play their parts. Each in His Own Way dramatizes a scandal based on people actually sitting in the audience who indignantly rise from their seats to stop the action. And Tonight We Improvise shows actors ad-libbing a story under the supervision of a self-regarding director, who meddles so much in their process that they throw him out of the theater. 

In Well, Lisa Kron proves herself a direct lineal descendant of Pirandello. Abandoning her customary one-woman-monologue technique, Kron appears in a black pantsuit on the stage of the Public Theater with five other actors and a bunch of notes, "improvising" scenes from her life as a child and young woman in Lansing, Michigan. Kron's monologues have always been deeply autobiographical. In 2.5 Minute Ride, she juxtaposed an automobile trip she took as a child in the United States with an adult journey to Europe to explore her father's death-camp experiences. Here she focuses mostly on herself and her mother, "a fantastically energetic woman trapped in a totally exhausted body," who believes in two things, allergies and racial integration.  

Kron's declared purpose is to examine issues of "health and illness as an individual and in a community." A series of episodes dramatize her experience of being tested in an experimental allergy unit, her guilt about living in a largely white neighborhood, her torment at the hands of a particularly obnoxious black girl, her mother's heroic efforts to integrate the community. Though the personal and social parallels can get somewhat forced, and Kron's voyage of self-discovery sometimes enters a sea of self-regard, the work has some highly amusing moments, particularly the interchanges between Lisa and the actress playing her mother (Jayne Houdshell in a recliner), who is surprised to find herself on a stage being watched by an audience. "You're not writing a play about me, are you?" she asks, protesting that her complicated life story is being reduced to a two-minute montage. 

The others in the ensemble, doubling in a number of roles, grow equally restive about their participation in Lisa's "avant-garde metatheatrical thing." Eventually, in a climax lifted virtually intact from Tonight We Improvise, they walk out on the play and the playwright. Torn between ingratiating herself with the audience and rebuking or appeasing her actors, Kron ends up looking a bit too embarrassed, a touch too placatory, a little too apologetic to sustain the edge that would prevent the scene from dissolving into contrivance. The conclusion, in which mother and daughter reconcile their varying states of wellness and illness, is inflated with swelling codas about "what integration means" and how "this organization is about people" that seem to have been imported wholesale from the 1960s. All in all, Well seems at the same time imaginative and repetitive. It is a technical advance for Lisa Kron that could have profited from a tough-minded dramaturg and a ruthless editor.  

Kate Fodor's Hannah and Martin is an entirely different attempt to fit stage clothes on real people. Written in the form of a docudrama (Fodor is a journalist), the play examines the relationship between Hannah Arendt, the Jewish intellectual who later became our greatest authority on totalitarianism, and Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher who provided some of the rationale for one of its most virulent forms. 

Literary couples, from Robert and Elizabeth Browning to Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, have always been meaty material for playwrights. (I suspect we'll eventually see a play about the marriage of Li and Di Trilling.) When this bio-drama begins, Hannah is studying with Martin at Marburg, where they quickly recognize their intellectual affinities. Both feel exalted by Augustine and Wagner, but before long their mutual interests evolve beyond cultural and scholarly passions. The married Martin makes a pass at his young student, who allows him to put his hand on her inner thigh without screaming sexual harassment.  

As intellectuals, the lovers are not entirely compatible. Martin, working on Being and Time, disapproves of communism and Bertolt Brecht, while Hannah champions free expression and democracy. With the coming of the Nazis, the argument is moot, and before long Martin, whose wife resembles Ilse Koch, is making public remarks that can easily be construed as anti-Semitic. Having fled Germany and settled in America, Hannah questions his attitude toward Jews. He replies that their love affair is proof that he is not prejudiced. Attending the Nuremberg trial to write a New Yorker piece on Baldur von Schirach, Hannah finds herself arguing for the academic reinstatement of her former Nazi lover, who has been denied emeritus status at the University of Freiburg. Hannah's decision is hotly protested by her friend Karl Jaspers, whom Martin failed to protect from the SS, and by her idealistic assistant, who refuses to type her letter. 

All this is created in orderly narrative fashion, with flashbacks and flash-forwards competently supervised by the director, Ron Russell. But while Martin's reasons for supporting the Nazis are obvious enough, if oversimplified (Hitler opposed the Communists and admired Wagner), Hannah's motives for continuing to defend her former lover remain unclear. Is she convinced by his argument that Hitler betrayed Martin's hopes for re-creating the Greek city-state? Does she believe he has suffered enough, having been repudiated by both the Nazis and the new German government? Is she being heated by the embers of her old passion? 

Whatever the case, this is not the only instance in which Hannah Arendt took a contrarian position. She was the object of relentless criticism after questioning, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, the lack of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. But whatever one thinks of her views, the suppleness and the subtlety of her mind are unquestionable; and it is those qualities that are not always evident in this play, perhaps because the playwright, preferring to use her own words, has borrowed little from the letters, books, or lectures of her subjects. While David Strathairn's silver-haired Martin is elegant and nuanced, and George Morfogen's Jaspers has a hunched, compassionate intensity, Melissa Friedman's always insistent Hannah never quite captures the quicksilver intellect, much less the nicotine-stained German baritone, of this extraordinary woman. Nor does this well-researched play. For that, we would need a dramatic poet rather than a methodical biographer. 

With Who Killed Woody Allen? at the Triad Theatre, we are back in the world of contemporary reality theater. This farcical whodunit was reputedly written after Woody Allen unexpectedly yanked the rights to one of his plays away from the Empty Stage Theatre Company. The producers--Dan Callahan, Brendan Connor, and Tom Dunn--revenged themselves by writing their own play (Dunn compounded his revenge by directing it as well). What they have achieved is the theatrical equivalent of a celebrity roast. The play brought a threatening letter from Allen's lawyer--apparently the sensitive humorist doesn't have a sense of humor about being satirized himself.  

Aside from a few soft shots at Woody's relationships with Soon-Yi Previn and Mia Farrow, however, Who Killed Woody Allen? is a relentlessly good-natured evening. Its premise is that, Allen having kicked off, a "star-studded group of Woody's closest celebrity friends" have gathered to eulogize him and to plug their movies. Among these--many of them rendered with dead-on accuracy by very shrewd impersonators--are "the always creepy" Christopher Walken (Peter Loureiro) slithering in a double-breasted suit and T-shirt; Diane Keaton blushing and stammering in her patented tie, vest, and fedora (Jillann Dugan); a logorrheic Billy Crystal (Christopher Wisner) improvising relevant riffs on "That's Entertainment" and "Comedy Tonight"; plus a surly Alan Alda (Ed Moran), a selfinfatuated John Cusack (Carter Roy), a goofy Ed Burns (John Mattey), a fiery Spike Lee (Kola Ogundiran), a horny Leonardo DiCaprio (Michael Somerville), and a corpulent Dianne Wiest (John Francis Mooney). Even the lay characters resemble movie stars, like the detective (John Shaver) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Harrison Ford. He arrives to announce that Woody has actually been murdered and that all of the mourners are under suspicion. (Farrow, an obvious suspect, has already been cleared, since she was in Los Angeles at the time of the killing "auditioning children to adopt.") 

What follows is a manic blend of Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway, as the detective proceeds to expose the motives of all of the potential murderers. Keaton was jealous of Allen's relationship with Farrow, Burns resented his superior film technique, Lee believed he was a typical white Hollywood racist, and so forth. In a blackout, one of the suspects (Wiest) is murdered herself. The male actor who played her--he looks a lot like Gary Sinese--returns as a wonderfully wired and drunken Conan O'Brien.  

Inevitably, in high Pirandello style, the stars in the funeral home come to realize there are people out there in a theater. ("Damn," says Lee, "that is the whitest audience I have ever seen.") Leonardo DiCaprio abdicates Celebrityville by wandering into the house and sitting at a table with a patron. And in what is undoubtedly the most tasteless wheelchair joke of the year (and possibly the funniest), the cast is joined by mystery guest Christopher Reeve, wheeled on stage to the accompaniment of the theme from Superman. To his chagrin, Reeve is given a series of obligatory standing ovations.  

Eventually the murderer is exposed. I won't reveal his identity except to say that he killed Woody Allen in the hope that his eulogy would revive his fading career. This provides a suitable climax to a show that considers all human behavior an extension of show business and every human action an opportunity for publicity. Some critics will probably find this sophomoric. I found it a highly entertaining antidote to our fame-crazed, star-dazed reality culture.

This article appeared in the May 3, 2004, issue of the magazine.