First the facts, and then a word of advice. The facts: The Mixed Blood Theatre has decided to run two plays in repertory this fall, a decision that artistic director Jack Reuler cannot account for, except to shrug and say it seemed like a fun idea. The plays are How to Improve Your Golf Game by David Babcock and The Primary English Class by Israel Horovitz, and they are scantly like each other, except that both plays involve a character
comically choking. As is done with repertory theater, almost the entire cast from Golf Game appears in English Class, although one actor from the former, Aditi Kapil, switches to the role of director for the latter. (Michael Kissin directs Golf Game.)
I know Kapil as an old classmate from the Brave New Workshop and, between performances of the two plays this past Sunday, we met for lunch, and she discussed how harrowing it is to direct a play and then sit in the audience, waiting for catastrophe. I offered her some advice, which I invented on the spot, but which seems like pure gold to me now, so I will record it here for posterity: On the first night of a performance, the director should show up backstage with a large grocery bag filled with rotten fruit and vegetables. She should lay this out on a table for the cast to see, and then methodically pick up each piece of produce, weighing it for general heft. The director might even make a few practice throws against a back wall, just to get her arm warmed up. Once the play starts, the director should then sit in the front row of the theater, grocery bag in lap, and whenever she sees a performance beginning to falter, she should hold her hand above the grocery bag in a menacing manner. I am certain that my spoiled-produce technique of directing would lead to immediate and obvious improvement in the local theater scene, and so I offer it here, freely.
Kapil didn't seem impressed with my suggestion, although she did offer to show up at my apartment and rain spoilt produce on my balcony if she didn't like my review. Fair enough--such an act would surely lead to an immediate and obvious improvement in theater criticism. Indeed, I am so inspired by this thought that I have decided to weed a phrase out of my vocabulary in the interests of better writing. That phrase is sitcom-level humor, and while I have not used it often, it must go. I don't know why I ever used such a phrase in the first place, as I think some of the writing on television is quite excellent. Both Golf Game and English Class have an air of the situation comedy about them, and neither suffers for it.
In the first production, a former PGA golfer (played in Tiger Woods mode by Gavin Lawrence) drops off the tour, brings home a noisy, oversized girlfriend (Signe Harriday), horrifies his parents (Kapil and Warren C. Bowles), and loses his mind, in that order. It's a slight comedy, to be sure, but genuinely funny. The frustrated golfer soon takes a job at a nearby golf course and then does everything possible to lose the job again, wandering the fairways in military uniform and dancing in his underwear through the sprinklers with his naked girlfriend. While all this happens, his parents offer sublimely mortified commentary. "He actually rides his girlfriend around," one complains.
And so he does, and that's about as sophisticated as the play gets. Still, there's a great, transcendent pleasure in watching Lawrence hop onto Harriday's back as she scampers around the set, and it has nothing to do with sophistication and everything to do with a purely childlike sense of fun.
The author of English Class, Israel Horovitz, was responsible for The Indian Wants the Bronx, one of those must-see Sixties off-Broadway plays that was famous for its tough language and sadistic story line. Thankfully, Horovitz's inspiration in this play is lighter--perhaps it was the famous stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, in which the Marx Brothers filled a tiny chamber with as many people as possible. Here, Horovitz has added one more detail: None of the characters speak English, but for a harried teacher, played with superb self-importance by Amy Colón. She assumes a snide attitude of superiority over the remainder of the class--if only because of her own feeble English skills--and Horovitz takes great pains to paint her as a fool for it.
In a moment of high anxiety, she steals the glasses off a German man (Michael Tezla) to make a point, but then neglects to return them. Alas, without his glasses our German is almost totally blind. Worse, as he is also very deaf and relies on lip reading, he settles into a miserable world of blurred images and sounds, occasionally rising from his desk to beseech his teacher for his glasses back. Every time he rises, however, his teacher roars at him. "Sit down, Pilsner," she commands, then slaps his hand.
Much slapping follows, and the students bear this with the exaggerated gravity of farce, in which the impossible and the ridiculous must be treated as seriously as possible. It is a good formula for laughs, which is undoubtedly why it was adopted by the situation comedy--though the riotous good times here are not sitcom-level humor. That's the last phrase I would ever use.