Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Groove on the Turntable of Life: "Doris to Darlene"

de'Adre Aziza as Doris/Darlene, Michael Crane as Vic Watts, and David Chandler as a talk-show host. Photo: Joan Marcus

As planned, I saw Doris to Darlene: A Cautionary Valentine today at Playwrights Horizons. The play caught at many of the same issues I discussed in my anticipatory blog post about girl-group music: the relationships between young black singers and Phil Spector-ish record moguls, the surprising power of a sweet girl-group melody... So I'm definitely on the same page as playwright Jordan Harrison with regards to his play's themes and messages.

But I'm not sure we agree regarding dramatic and narrative form. Much of Doris to Darlene involves the characters narrating their own stories and thoughts in the third person, which IMO is a very tricky thing to do well. Jordan explains his rationale for this choice:
“To me it feels like a little bit of a gift to the character each time they get to speak in the third person [...] We’re very close to them at that point. [...] There’s a difference between a silence and Doris’ Grandmother speaking the line ‘Grandmother doesn’t say anything.’ That gives it a different weight; it’s a stern act… A silence wouldn’t give us the same information.” (citation)
I tend to disagree. For me, a line like "Grandmother doesn't say anything" takes me out of the scene, makes me feel more distant from the character, and makes me think that the playwright doesn't have enough faith in the dramatic value of a pause, a gesture, or his actors' ability to convey emotion without speaking. Sometimes, when the scene is nonrealistic to begin with, the device works--when the characters of Doris to Darlene are alone in their heads, speaking their inner thoughts aloud, and their words and desires echo from century to century. But when Doris is talking to her grandmother in a realistic dialogue, and Grandma suddenly comes out with "Grandmother doesn't say anything"--nah, it doesn't work for me. A play can only take so much "telling, not showing" until it loses a significant amount of dramatic tension.

In general terms, Doris to Darlene is about lonely people who learn to communicate by creating and listening to music, so I guess you've got to show both the initial isolation and the eventual communication. The problem is that the latter is much more interesting, and requires less third-person narration. One of the best scenes in the show comes when record producer Vic and singer Doris/Darlene (Vic changed her name to make it more commercial) demonstrate for a skeptical talk-show host how "Wall of Sound" production techniques can make the silliest teen-pop lyric sound spectacular. As the talk-show host repeats the lyric over and over in rhythm, Vic and Doris clap their hands, stomp their feet, and add "shoop shoop" backup vocals, until they create a beautiful harmony.

Less amazing than it ought to be, though, is Darlene's hit song "He's Sure the Boy for Me." We are told repeatedly that it is based on Richard Wagner's "Liebestod," but it's impossible to discern this from the snippets of the song heard in the play. Only when the entire song plays as you're filing out of the theater do you hear the chorus, which is the same melody as the Liebestod. This is just shoppa-loppa-sloppy-sloppy. (Click here to listen to some of "The Boy for Me.")

Other than that, Les Waters' direction is pretty good and moves smoothly. This must be one of the few scripts where a revolving stage is not only practical, but thematically significant-- because, duh, it's a turntable. All the characters are spinning around on their own record, making their own music.

Tom Nelis gives the most real performance in the show, as Mr. Campani, a gay high-school music teacher who puts on a persona of fastidiousness and wit to conceal how unfulfilled his life is. Michael Crane is funny as the scrappy, nervy, grandiose music producer Vic, but also convinces in his single-scene role as a high-school bad boy. De'Adre Aziza has a sunny voice and smile, but was a little too tall and self-possessed to be a convincing 16-year-old schoolgirl. As the 16-year-old Young Man, Tobias Segal can be affecting, but the performance feels forced. (And now, after this character and Garrett in 100 Saints You Should Know, I feel like I've seen more than enough sexually confused teenagers for one season at Playwrights Horizons.) I liked the idea of having Mad King Ludwig played by a young woman, like a "pants role" in an opera (even if Wagner's operas don't employ this device). Laura Heisler captured the king's awkward, ardent love of music, but not always the full extent of his madness. And David Chandler doesn't have quite enough to do in his role as Richard Wagner.

This show is based on the Liebestod, the love-death, and in its best moments, you feel the love, in the human relationships or in the music. But you rarely feel the other side, the dark undercurrent that would make this a "cautionary valentine" instead of just a love story. Even when King Ludwig drowns, prompted, some say, by the emotional tug of Wagner's music, the moment is not given its full weight. Mr. Campani says, half-jokingly, that great works of art, like Wagner's operas, provoke literally visceral reactions--they affect your emotions so much that you have to run out of the theater and throw up. But Doris to Darlene is not likely to provoke even a single case of heartburn.

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