Critics, Critique, and LAWMAKERS
I’d like to invite you, if you’ll be in New York this weekend, to see the final performance of WE ARE THE LAWMAKERS, a daring play of political chaos directed by my dear friend, Marc Andreottola. It is part of this year’s New York International Film Festival and will be playing Saturday, August 23 at 7:30 pm at 45 Bleecker Street. I also happen to be the show’s rather bumbling publicist. And this, precisely, is about the last thing a publicist should say:
Beware, the reviews have been terrible.
But don’t be too -ware. I still think you should see the play. I’ll be there, and if the fun I had tonight was any indication, I’ll be loving it. In the end, after my third exposure to LAWMAKERS, I have no choice but to declare it among the most significant statements about American democracy in 2008 I know of.
NYTheatre.com’s Mark DeFrancis reports, “Lawmakers has virtually no plot to speak of but is composed of many loosely connected scenes, each of which touches vaguely on a different aspect of American life and culture.” Further, “Though I found much of this experience to be esoteric and hard to follow, there are some moments of brilliance that deserve mention.” However, the show “offers precious little for an audience to take away other than shock and disappointment.”
Wait, it gets worse. CurtainUp was particularly brutal:
Writer-director Marc Andreottola aspires to follow the path of Chuck Mee into the terrain of jagged plays that are not too “neat” (thereby functioning as a reflection of life). Unfortunately, while he gets Mee’s disorder just fine, he misses the critical discipline that is also part and parcel of Mee’s work. Instead, he views it as a license to hurl random crap (verbally, sonically and visually) at the audience in this ungodly mess of a play. What starts as a dysfunctional family’s house party quickly deteriorates into a cavalcade of socio-political and pop culture references, most all conveyed in hyperbolic fashion by the unfortunate cast. Nothing is constructed to overcome all of the deconstruction that’s going on, though there is the ubiquitous if useless bow to Brecht. In the end, this is just an unpleasant sit — an inept monstrosity that adds insult to injury by running almost a quarter hour over the advertised time. Non-masochists, you are hereby warned.
Alas, I myself am among the critics. When Marc first sent the script to me, wondering if I’d help him with the show, I at first was supportive:
It is nuts, as usual. And hits me with this odd pleasure I always get when I encounter the first literary accounts of a current event that I lived through. They are the goosebumps of mythmaking – because the first ones to the story get to tell once and for all what it means. … I want to congratulate you for doing something world-historical.
But then I revealed these reservations, which were understandably hurtful to him:
In some respects, I am also nervous about the piece and about joining on with it. There is such a fine line between mayhem that speaks, that teaches, and mayhem that is simply pornographic, gratuitous, and ultimately desensitizing rather than sensitizing. I don’t want to be part of something that is finally negative, and, from reading the script and your last remarks, I am not sure where it stands. It doesn’t mean we have to feel goodwatching it. But it does mean you have to make the transgressions worth their weight in filth.
You’re probably getting the idea. The play is a wild, confusing, violent, brilliant, and indulgent blow-up that claims to truthfully represent the subconscious of the 2008 American presidential primaries. Hillary Clinton is a character who gets hit with an asteroid and is left deranged (except for a stunning moment of lucidity when she confesses how she wanted President Clinton to look at her). She’s also one of the only characters played by an actor of the same gender as the character. The soundtrack is monotonous, and at random moments it makes the dialog inaudible. Nothing is easy to follow, nothing warms the heart except to rip it out and eat it, and our whole society is declared a motherload of repression, posturing, and barely-veiled sexual criminality.
In the end, despite my earlier resistance, I found that WE ARE THE LAWMAKERS makes its case. Especially in the numerous macabre soliloquies, each of them brilliantly performed, the far reaches of American existence are woven together and shown as one. There is Britney Spears and George Bush. RuPaul and Hillary Clinton. High ideals and the ubiquitous prostitution of advertising. The heart of it, I think, is a sequence about cultural segregation. After Tom doesn’t understand the proclamation that “Stephanie is the truth.” The oil-baron Mama says, “That’s because this is a different part now.” And the chorus explains: “When you go to a different part now, you don’t need to refer to the part you were just at.”
That is how America operates—as does all power—by covering over the baffling complexity of human life through ruthless segmentation. Every channel on TV is a different universe. Serious politics is possible in and through its distinction from popular cultures, not to mention seedy underworlds. When those worlds combine, the play reveals, they collapse in absurdity. We are filled with contradictions, and amidst them all power is a lie, particularly when it claims to be democratic. The hollowness of the powers is revealed in the juxtaposition. This was the method of America’s greatest recent theologian, William Stringfellow, and it is Marc Andreottola’s too.
This method belongs to the darker, twisted side of plain old skpeticism (which by the way has lately been the professed, if perhaps temporary, ideology of The Row Boat). Like all skepticism, this vision is inevitably a hollow one. It unveils, it humbles, it deflates, and it leaves wanting. “But it can make for good entertainment,” Andreottola suggests in the program. And isn’t that really the point of a play, after all? Karl Marx highlighted the lofty hope of all skepticism in his concept of ideology and critique: When we finally critique away all the ideologies, we will see reality as it is, and most importantly, each other as we really are.
I would modify Marx this way: critique doesn’t bring us to see things as they are, but to see the desire in everyone to see things as they are. Its consequences can then be sympathy and empathy and patience amidst all the bickering. Love, even. Maybe this can be the subject of LAWMAKERS’s sequel.
Critique, critique critique… What to do about the critics? Those who critique, those who demolish, must see the other end of their enterprise; the critique of their own ideologies, their own positions, their own biases. All of it is flimsy, like straw (as Luther called the book of the Bible he didn’t like), only a waypoint in the process of becoming, for artist and critic alike. I, for one, appreciate LAWMAKERS more each time I encounter it. Terrible reviews, passing time often shows, are evidence of something truly great in the works—they are hard to watch because they point at things that are hard to see.
But it is hard to describe the feeling of a bad review. Perhaps you’ve seen some of my recent tangoing with critics (here and here, for instance). What goes not quite said is the odd gut-wrenching that inevitably takes its part in the course of it. I appreciate criticism deeply, and I often tell myself that seeking it is the very reason I write at all. But there is always a process—the usual grueling steps of denial, anger, resentment, tranquil acceptance, and the rest. In the end, I am always grateful for even the most ruthless critics. Whether in their lines or between them, there is without fail truth to be found.
Criticism, from the publicist’s point of view also, has its benefits. During those debates of mine, this site got more traffic than ever before. And tonight at LAWMAKERS, after the devastating reviews, was the closest thing yet to a full house. Go see what all the fuss is about.
tags: conversation, criticism, drama, friendship, New York City, powers, skepticism