Monday, November 12, 2007

A feminist wrestles with "A Feminine Ending"

Gillian Jacobs as "Amanda." Photo by Joan Marcus from

Show #2 of my Playwrights Horizons subscription was A Feminine Ending, by young Yale graduate Sarah Treem. I was very excited and happy to see this world premiere, because I had seen the play developed at Portland Center Stage's JAW: A Playwrights Festival in summer 2006. (Caveat: at that time I read the play and saw some early rehearsals, but did not see the final staged reading, since I had to go out of town.) Back then I was very fond of it. Sure, it's not an earth-shattering play, but I thought it was a nice comedy about a young woman's coming of age. I liked how it dealt with her career and her love life and her parents, rather than hitting only one or two of these important components. And Amanda, the main character, reminded me a bit of myself: an artistically inclined only child who is more the dutiful daughter than the rebel. In an interview, Treem said she wrote this play out of frustration at the fact that women playwrights seem to have it harder than men--and realizing that it's even worse for female composers. (Amanda is an oboist hoping to become a composer.) No wonder I can relate!

Portland Center Stage is going to produce A Feminine Ending this winter so when I worked in marketing there over the summer, I got to think more about the play and how to promote it. It's funny: the dynamic between me and my baby-boomer boss was a little like the dynamic between Amanda and her mother Kim in the play, with regards to our discussions about how feminism has changed from her generation to mine. My boss said, "This whole thing, in the play, with Amanda wondering what guy she'll end up with? That would never have happened in my time. We knew that another guy would always come along, but in the workplace there was that huge glass ceiling, so you would do everything you could for your career. We didn't have time to worry about guys!" (Or like Nathalie Baye says in the 1973 movie Day For Night: "I'd give up a guy for a film, but I'd never give up a film for a guy!") I liked having these conversations. It proved that the play wasn't just a romantic comedy, but was relevant to modern society.

But seeing the world premiere at Playwrights Horizons on Saturday, I felt disappointed. The play seemed more self-consciously quirky than when it was at JAW, with more cheap laughs. The characters' tics and obsessions now struck me as attempts to jazz up a conventional story. For the first time, I considered Amanda a whiner with depressingly little self-knowledge. The actress who played her, Gillian Jacobs, delivered her opening monologue as if already on the verge of hysteria, rather than charming the audience into following her on her journey toward self-actualization.

I thought it was unfair for Charles Isherwood to spend a paragraph of his review lambasting Treem for naming her heroine "Amanda Blue," but several things in this play didn't ring true for me, either. Most jarringly, the character of Billy says he studied "linguistics and women's studies" in college, so he can deliver a monologue about those subjects that tells us the theme of the play. The whole thing is way too pat, like attending a lecture instead of a dramatic performance. Does anyone really believe that this nice but underachieving kid from rural New Hampshire, who is now working as a postman, actually would have chosen to study linguistics?

What's unfortunate is that this monologue of Billy's comes right after a very good monologue of Amanda's, where she describes her choices, regrets, and confusions. Confession time: though it's probably not good protocol to audition with a monologue from an unproduced play, I liked this speech so much that I used it last fall. So I have it on my computer--and IMO, it's just good writing. (Apologies for any changes that Treem may have made to this speech in the past year--but it sounded very similar to this on Saturday.)
AMANDA: Hey Billy? If you brought me up here to catalog my dreams deferred, don’t bother. I know what they are. I’m the one that let them go— (Beat) I mean – put them on hold. Temporarily. They’re on temporary hold.
AMANDA: (Pause) When I was young, it was just me and my oboe. And then you came along. And that was fine, but then one day my parents became people. Who had a whole set of expectations. And from there, it’s just a slippery slope. Because once I realized other people existed, I suddenly saw them everywhere. I had to pay attention to them.
AMANDA: Because I didn’t want to be a bitch, Billy. Nobody sees a girl alone with an oboe and thinks she must be brilliant. They think she must be weird or maladjusted or stuck-up. I wanted people to like me. You get all these perks when you’re a girl and people like you. You can open doors with a smile. Eventually I realized that those doors don’t open very far at all, and besides that, they’re the wrong doors and besides that, I didn’t even know what doors I should be looking for, because I was too busy watching the boys when they gave that lecture in class. But even that, I thought, was a responsible decision, to watch the boys, because there seemed to be a time crunch. And a limited supply. And everyone else was getting one…
So I started to think I’d better put the music aside and get one too. And I did. I found one. A great one. A real catch. But it wasn’t easy getting him. Because a lot of people wanted him. And it won’t be easy keeping him, no matter how much he loves me. So that means more time away from music.
I began thinking, recently…I have a few years now. Before Jack’s career…before children…of relative security. I could really…get something done. So I take a deep breath and look around for those doors… They’re gone.
It used to be the world was filled with doors. Now there are tables and closets and plenty of windows. But very few doors.
I’m not making any sense, am I?
So Treem can write. She can make an extended metaphor (of the "opening doors") that feels organic to the character. She can identify one of the problems of being female in this society--you're supposed to be likable above all else. She can delineate a young woman's emotions and fears. But too often in A Feminine Ending, she doesn't do this. Part of the reason the above monologue is so successful is that Amanda delivers it to Billy, and there's a strong objective behind it--the need to justify her choices to him. But the rest of Amanda's monologues are delivered directly to the audience and completely violate "show, don't tell."

In some sense, though, I feel guilty for criticizing Treem. The words I've used--"whiny," "hysteria," "conventional"--are the words men have always used to trivialize women's writing. If I complain that Amanda doesn't really change during the course of the play--she ends up not much further on from where she started--Treem can say, with Virginia Woolf and other feminist theorists, "Well, women's writing is circular and discursive, and only MEN want a linear narrative with characters who change!" (That's why that whole "écriture féminine" thing irks the hell out of me--but I'll save that for another post.) It's hard for me to find fault with A Feminine Ending without feeling like a self-loathing female. I'm reminded of Curtis Sittenfeld writing, "To suggest that another woman's ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut -- doesn't the term basically bring down all of us?" Maybe you should click that link and read Sittenfeld's whole piece. Maybe that's what I'm trying to say about A Feminine Ending.

P.S. After all this talk about different generations of women--A Feminine Ending provides a simple test of what generation you belong to. When Marsha Mason walks out onstage in the role of Kim, do you recognize her? Do you give her entrance applause? Or, like me, do you think her name sounds vaguely familiar but know you have never seen one of her movies? Mason did a fine job, but I just thought it was weird to hear someone get entrance applause in a theatre as small as the Peter Jay Sharp...

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