Around The Town

Paulanne Simmons Unscripted

Who’s Who Versus What’s What

April 28, 2024: I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m finding so many plays boring these days. Sometimes these are plays that have received almost universal acclaim. What is everyone seeing that I’m not. What am I seeing that others ignore?

Who’s Who Versus What’s What

April 28, 2024: I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m finding so many plays boring these days. Sometimes these are plays that have received almost universal acclaim. What is everyone seeing that I’m not. What am I seeing that others ignore?

The last two shows I’ve attended, Mary Jane and Patriots, have finally made it clear: most of the time these plays don’t tell us enough about the characters to make them anything but superficially engaging.

Take Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane. While some in the audience were discreetly or proudly wiping their damp eyes, I was mostly unmoved. Surely, you might declare, the saga of a single mother caring for her disabled child is a deeply heartbreaking story. And so it is. But during the play’s 90 minutes, Herzog tells us little about Mary Jane other than that basic situation.

We know Mary Jane once wanted to be a teacher, but she gave up that ambition after her son was born and her husband abandoned her. However, we don’t know what she wanted to teach, whom she wanted to teach or even why she wanted to teach.

We see Mary Jane with the super of her building and various caregivers. Does she have no family? Is she an only child? An orphan? Is her poor son, who can’t move his body or speak at the age of two, who can’t breathe on his own and is prone to seizures, also devoid of all relatives? Is there no loving grandmother, aunt or uncle to listen to his babbled words if he could ever learn to speak?

At the end of the play, Mary Jane describes her son to a sympathetic Buddhist giving pastoral care, but for most of the play Alex is merely an object – albeit a living object – in a hospital bed surrounded by equipment or a bedroom we can barely see through an open door. We feel sorry for him because we would feel bad for any human being in such a condition. We don’t need a play to tell us it’s awful to be a disabled child or to care for one.

In Patriots by Peter Morgan, we have a different situation. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Putin are both not only perfectly healthy but also very powerful people. But their life and death struggle is more like a game of chess than a human drama.

Berezovsky was a child prodigy. He is a mathematical genius. Yet for a man who has so thoroughly studied probabilities, he makes pretty poor decisions. What in his character prevented him from understanding that Putin would quickly become his enemy?

We know Berezovsky has a wife and children, and several mistresses. But we only see him briefly, and by telephone, with one of the many women who, we are told, surround him. We know he wants power and money. We know he is ruthless. We know he is patriotic, in his own way. But all these traits can apply to so many politicians they hardly define the man.

As for Putin, he remains as much a mystery in Patriots as he does for many of us in the real world. He is presented as a man with a family that seems to have no effect on his life. He is supposedly scrupulously unbribable. 

The real Putin’s wealth is staggering. He has a Black Sea mansion with extravagant furnishings and a huge staff, as well as numerous cars and planes, all on a yearly salary of $140,000.00. None of this is explained or explored in Patriots.

Yes, the problem with too many plays today is that they tell us what’s what, but they don’t tell us who’s who.