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Angels and Beards

Tony Kushner's new play, Caroline, or Change is a formal anomaly. It has been hailed as a breakthrough musical created by a confident professional collaborative—vigorous score by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie), lively choreography by Hope Clarke (Spunk), and dynamic staging by George C. Wolfe (Jelly's Last Jam). It is actually a social-political verse play in couplets and quatrains that might have been better understood had it appeared alone without musical credentials.

Playing on the pun in the title, which alternately refers to the small change left in a child's pocket and the concept of social progress or reform, Kushner has set out to dramatize the changes in race relations that were occurring in the South, notably Lake Charles, Louisiana, around the time of the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Like his other plays, Caroline, or Change affects to tell a political story through the agency of a personal anecdote, presumably autobiographical—in this case, a conflict over money between an angry black maid and a spoiled, precocious eight-year-old Jewish boy.

In addition to its verse form, the play is something of a departure for the man who wrote Angels in America, Slavs!, and Homebody/Kabul. For one thing, there is not a single homosexual reference in the entire evening. For another, Kushner has buried his theatrical sophistication inside a simple nostalgic style more appropriate for dramatizing the end of childhood innocence. The story of Noah Gellman, the child, and Caroline Thibodeaux, the maid, takes place against the background of a time when blacks and Jews essentially stopped being allies in the war against racism and—divided by the growing influence of Black Power—started exploring their resentments instead.

Kushner has chosen a tone for this story that is deliberately nave and derivative. He has anthropomorphized the laundry room where Caroline works in the manner of children's stories like "The Little Engine That Could" and "Goodnight Moon," so that objects such as the Washing Machine, the Dryer, the Bus, and the Moon are played by a variety of black characters, while the Radio is embodied by a Motown trio in teased bouffant hair styles that recall the Supremes (or, more accurately, their Dreamgirl equivalents). Noah's mother has died prematurely, and his stricken father has taken refuge in his clarinet. As a result, Noah's perception of the world seems to be washed in the same kind of aching wonderment found in the works of James Agee, particularly his elegiac tone poem, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915." Set to music, Agee's piece had the advantage of an exquisite score by Samuel Barber that captured all of the longing and loneliness of a Southern childhood. Would that Caroline, or Change came similarly equipped. It is not that Tesori's Blues/Broadway/Klezmer music is unlistenable. Some of it, notably the Motown trios, is quite galvanic. The problem is that it is much too inescapable. Like so many musicals today—most recently, the terminally cute Avenue Q—it has wall-to-wall scoring (only one line in the play is spoken). But unlike, say, Stephen Sondheim's Passion, which is also completely sung, it lacks the operatic depth and texture that might justify all that sound surround.

Sondheim, moreover, designed his text for Passion as a libretto. Whatever Kushner's original intention with Caroline, or Change, it is clearly the work of a dramatist rather than a lyricist or a book writer. As a result, much of its literary subtlety and coherence are lost in the musical wrappings. Consider the following passage, a lament sung by a Bus that arrives late because of the assassination of President Kennedy:

The earth
the earth has bled!
Woe-singing wind down the neighborhood.
He is gone now! Gone for good!
Deluge flood ice water rise.
Tear your hair your clothes
your eyes.
Sisters, shed tears of blood.
The earth has bled!
Now come the flood.
Apologies for being late
making everybody wait....
I am the Orphan Ship of State.

This is not great poetry, but it is certainly a legitimate stab at the Whitmanesque, and like Kushner's comic doggerel ("Chanukah Oh Chanukah,/oh Dreidel and Menorah!/We celebrate it even though/it isn't in the Torah!"), it has more emotional weight falling on the ear as spoken language (or perhaps as a dreidel song) than as a show tune driven by a pit orchestra. I emphasize this because such creative mismatching may have helped to spark some critical misunderstanding. The New Republic's television critic, Lee Siegel, taking a moment off from his prosecution of all the culprits responsible for the HBO version of Angels in America, remarks in an aside that Caroline, or Change represents Kushner's "typical brand" of "sentimental, historical carpet-bagging. " There may be a bit of self-satisfaction in this semi-fictionalized piece of history about race relations in the South, but it is too closely experienced to be dismissed as "carpet-bagging," unless Siegel believes that white people have no business writing plays about blacks. I assume that he does not, though he does indict Kushner for being "a Jewish playwright mindlessly exploiting the black experience." As for sentimentality, if there are traces of that in the score, there are none in the text. And I saw no evidence either of the "condescension" that Siegel imputes, based on his erroneous assumption that "there is not a single black character in Caroline who is not a mammy, a pickaninny, a shvartze, or an entertainer with lots of rhythm."

Actually, at least two of the characters in the play are black activists. And unlike the kindly black chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy, the black maid Caroline is no long-suffering martyr to imperious Jewish employees. She is "always mad ... sad and angry all the time," less one of Faulkner's "enduring" female black saints than a cranky injustice collector. Noah's officious stepmother, Rose, who hails from the North, seems to have the typical liberal delusion that the way to redress economic inequity is not through radical reform but rather through acts of individual charity. Indeed, it is her mistaken idea—that Caroline should keep any money she finds in Noah's pockets in order to augment her salary—that leads to the big explosion in the play.

Noah has forgotten to remove his Chanukah gelt from his dirty pants—a twenty dollar bill from his Marxist grandfather—and Caroline, who has hitherto refused to take smaller sums from a babe, pockets it for her family. In frustration, Noah tells Caroline that President Johnson has built a bomb especially designed to kill all Negroes, and Caroline replies: "Hell's where Jews go when they die." This climactic scene leads to Caroline's temporary departure from the family, during which time Noah reflects on his guilt ("I did it. I killed her") and Caroline on her rage ("Don't let my sorrow/Make evil of me"). "Will we be friends then?" Noah wistfully asks after she returns. "Weren't never friends," says Caroline. The play ends with Caroline's daughter Emmie, the politically engaged daughter of a politically indifferent maid, reflecting on the changes to come.

This material is hardly sentimental. Yes, it may be driven too much by Kushner's patented Jewish guilt (reminiscent of Angel's Louis Ironson and his betrayal of Prior Walter). But it seems to me an eminently hardheaded view of the tragic breach between two American ethnic groups that once shared common ground. As for the production, it is extremely well-designed by Riccardo Hernandez (sets), Paul Tazewell (costumes), and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (lights); well-acted by the entire cast, especially Tonya Pinkins as the stoical Caroline and Harrison Chad as the precocious Noah; and strongly directed by George C. Wolfe, who has staged at least one genuine show-stopper, a scene of recrimination and remorse called "Lot's Wife." But just like those Victorian children who were asked to be seen and not heard, some musicals should be spoken and not sung.

I went to see Amy Freed's The Beard of Avon with trepidation. I imagined from its title that the play was another contribution to Shakespeare Authorship Denial, that cottage industry of overeducated souls who believe that creative genius is only bestowed on patricians with a Ph.D. or a peerage. I guess I'm losing patience with people who ransack the arcane in order to avoid the obvious—Baconians and Oxfordians, for example, never bother to explain why Ben Jonson, the most envious playwright of his time, not only admired the man called Shakespeare "this side of idolatry," but never expressed a single doubt about his rival's creative identity.

Instead of being faux scholarship, The Beard of Avon proves a lusty antidote to all forms of Bardolatry, including the perverse benighted kind that considers the Bard a beard. Instead of assigning the works to this Elizabethan courtier or that Cambridge graduate, Freed assumes that everyone wrote Shakespeare's plays, including the Stratford man himself, who added touches of "heart" and "humanity" to plots he didn't have the wit to invent. An extended satiric sketch worthy of Monty Python, The Beard of Avon is a genuine hoot, performed by a splendid company and directed by Doug Hughes with cheeky energy and high style.

Freed treats Elizabethan theater history with a lot of poetic license—or shall we say poetic licentiousness? She imagines Richard Burbage as a ham who keeps pulling a sausage out of his tights and pretending that it is his penis. She turns Heminge and Condell, Shakespeare's fellow actors and the editors of his First Folio, into theater managers who would drive tragic authors to suicide rather than sacrifice a raunchy bit of business. She imagines an Elizabethan culture more indebted to the Greeks than to the Romans. She invents spectacles like "The Conquest of Alexandrio" more appropriate to the heroic drama of the next (Restoration) age. And she creates a kind of period dialogue ("How ist doth amuse thyself this day? How ist doth pass the time 'twixt now and then?") that sometimes fails to pass the test of grammar or scansion.

On the other hand, her understanding of theatrical egotism is priceless, and her gift for comic anachronism is unmatched. The wanton, amoral, bisexual, bored, heartless, and irresistible Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, writes in a form he believes to be beneath him, but insists on total control of casting and unlimited house seats. In the act of seducing Shakespeare's wife, Anne, he reminds this "maid who can't say nay" that "an goodly man is hard to find." Oxford and Shakespeare collaborate on Titus Andronicus, the sonnets, and Venus and Adonis, a narrative poem about the pursuit of a younger man by an older woman, assumed by the court to be an allegory of Elizabeth and Oxford (James Joyce believed it to be a disguised account of Shakespeare's seduction by Anne Hathaway).

After Shakespeare writes Richard III for Oxford ("I see a hunchback. You flesh it out"), he becomes "a writer most enormously hot," virtually a brand name. Everyone at court begins submitting plays under his name, including Bacon (Three Merry Whoresons), Lady Lettice (a Lear that is nothing but an endless reading of the will), the Earl of Derby (Any Way You Want It), and Regina Dentata, the Queen herself, who writes a version of The Taming of the Shrew. In a hilarious re-enactment, Will re-writes her work and almost loses his head ("Thou art in water most enormously hot"). But all's well that ends well, as she chooses instead to bask in the play's success. Oxford, before he dies of the plague, says it doesn't matter who wrote the plays: "It's really all about the work."

Obviously, this kind of low backstage comedy is not to everyone's taste. But I left the theater enormously gratified, and grateful, too—particularly to Doug Hughes's remarkably detailed and exuberant direction (the best staging of the year), the colorful environment of the brilliant design staff (settings by Neil Patel, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Michael Chybowski), the courageous choices of the sensational actors (Mark Harelik's deliciously depraved Oxford, Tim Blake Nelson's perpetually surprised Shakespeare, Kate Jennings Grant's lubricious Anne Hathaway, Mary Louise Wilson's uproariously starched Queen Elizabeth), and, above all, the bold and bawdy playwriting of Amy Freed. Or whoever wrote the play under her name.

By Robert Brustein