Monday, October 10, 2016

Love, Love, Love

I wrote a thing! More specifically, a review of the last play that I saw in New York. So, here is my review of Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre:

I’d like to start by stating that I enjoyed this. The writing was sharp and the acting was generally of a very high standard, particularly Amy Ryan as Sandra, who made me squirm with her character’s awfulness.

But a few things puzzled me – first, why weren’t some of the references Americanized? I know that this is a very British play, but there’s nothing wrong with adapting it for your audience, especially if doesn’t affect the plot at all. For example, one character mentioned that she had a roommate who she found on Gumtree. I think that’s supposed to have been a laugh/groan with familiarity line, but literally no one in the room knew what the reference was – craigslist would have been understood and is still London-appropriate. During the first intermission, I had a conversation with my neighbor about how I wondered if tuition fees (for university) were going to come up, to contrast with the student grant that Kenneth was living on in the first act. He didn’t know what I was talking about – a clear case of something missing its mark with an audience less familiar with contemporary UK social issues. (I’m also not sure why Mike Bartlett didn’t do anything with this later.)

Second, I struggled to figure out whether this play was written for Boomers, for Millennials, both groups, or neither of them. Although I kind of loathed having two intermissions, although I’m sure they were necessary for the elaborate set changes, it was nice to have a chance to think about what might be coming next for the characters. I was lucky enough to have a great seatmate, who was up for chatting about these things.

For context, Love, Love, Love is a three-act play. The first act takes place in 1967, where we are introduced to Sandra & Kenneth – both students at Oxford, interested in drinking, smoking, getting high, and sex and obsessed with not being trapped and getting the most out of life before they eventually die. The next act is set in 1990, the night of Kenneth & Sandra’s daughter Rosie’s 16th birthday. It is also the night that they discover that they have both had affairs: Sandra unilaterally decides that they’re going to get divorced and announces this to their children over birthday cake. Apparently, they’ve both been feeling trapped (that word again) in their cozy suburban life in Reading, where they and their children appear to want for nothing (other than their parents’ love and attention). The final act is set in 2011, where the now-37-year-old Rosie demands that her parents buy her a house after a lengthy rant about how her parents are responsible for the fact that she ended up nearly-40 with no stable job, living in a rented flat with a random roommate, with no partner, and childless. Her parents refuse, telling her that life isn’t fair and that they had to work hard for everything they’ve achieved (e.g. her father is making approximately 3x Rosie’s yearly income, even in retirement). They’re patronizing and still won’t listen to her. It’s all rather horrible.

I spent the first two acts thinking that the play was written for Millennials, highlighting the fact that their parents’ generation may owe a great deal of its success to both luck – the luck to have been born into a strong welfare state (subsequently decimated by Thatcher, New Labour, and Cameron) and era of booming economic prosperity – and hard work. And then, when the playwright opened act three with one Millennial who couldn’t stop playing games on his phone and another who blamed all of her misfortune on her parents, I felt like he was trapping his characters in all of the cliché criticisms of my generation (let’s ignore the fact that at 37, Rosie is actually too old to be a Millennial and graduated from university in the mid 1990s, a time of economic prosperity). Her parents were just as bad – embodying every cliché about how Boomers selfishly bled the welfare state and the planet dry, then razed a path of destruction in their wake, leaving nothing for the generations that followed. Honestly, I don’t really think the act said anything new about the tension between Boomers and their children, unless the audience really hasn’t been paying attention at all (a distinct possibility, in which case I withdraw this criticism…I recognize that not everyone will be as obsessed with the Guardian’s generation gap coverage as I am).

Finally, and to tie it back into my first point – I’m not so sure that the play, despite its excellent production and writing, really resonated with the audience. I think there are significant differences between the American and British experiences of generational tension and the play assumes a level of familiarity with British references that the audience just didn’t seem to understand. (I had just attended a talkback session with the British director of The Cherry Orchard, Simon Godwin, who spoke extensively about how much he had learned during rehearsal and previews about the differences between British and American audiences and the ways different things resonate with each of them…I think some of that sensitivity wouldn’t have gone amiss at Love, Love, Love.)

Still, it’s well worth seeing and any piece of theatre that leads me to write almost a thousand words afterwards isn’t a bad thing. Thought-provoking is my favorite kind of theatre!