‘THE SELECT (THE SUN ALSO RISES)’
Like the characters in The Sun Also Rises, the director John Collins and Elevator Repair Service have the audacity to not want to be saved—not by Aristotle, not by Stanislavsky, not even by Hemingway himself. Instead, the company takes its lumps as they come, sidestepping a conventional, reverential, unsatisfying version of the Nobelist’s first novel. If there’s a gesture of gratitude to anyone in this over three hour enactment, it’s probably to Brecht, who asked that we never forget that we’re in a theatre. In The Select (The Sun Also Rises), now playing at New York Theatre Workshop (the Select is a Parisian café, still in existence today), we’re made aware of the soundboard, one of the show’s stars, its complexities and operation, which sits noticeably on stage. Better to call this event an original, though—the wall of music and effects playing over or along with the descriptions and dialogue, keep the project moving, dissing all the notions you’ve ever had about what the theatre is, should be, or even must never become.
Purists will very likely see red, but given the dispersion of the storyline, this may be the truest way to theatricalize and reinvigorate the material for the present—and, with its tables and chairs and wine and beer, this company–this book!—vibrates with resonances between the 1920s and today:
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways, “ Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
“What brought it on?”
“Friends,” said Mike. “I had a lot of friends. Then I had creditors, too.”
In the aftermath of World War I, post-traumatic stress disorder also intrudes: According to Mike: Lady Brett Ashley, the woman he is going to marry after her divorce–and whom most of the men have fallen in love–received her title from a sailor: “Ninth baronet. When he came home he wouldn’t sleep in a bed. Always made Brett sleep on the floor. Finally, when he got really bad, he used to tell her he’d kill her. Always slept with a loaded service revolver. Brett used to take the shells out when he’d gone to sleep. She hasn’t had an absolutely happy life.”
Actually, The Sun Also Rises always strikes me as too optimistic a title for the book. First, although the fiesta may end, this drunken road trip from the bars of Paris to the Spanish countryside and the blood sport of Pamplona is fairly static in terms of character development. The Sun Keeps Beating Down may be more appropriate, if less poetic or salable (interestingly, in Great Britain the book was titled Fiesta, which is probably better but which doesn’t reinforce the biblical connotations). It’s typically a tough proposition for the theatre to delve into the lives of characters that don’t change much, not that it can’t be done or should not be done. I suppose Aristotle would have wanted more action, of course, but there are confrontations, which turn into fist fights between Robert, Jake, and Mike, which the philosopher might have approved, with some distaste.
The actors themselves don’t merely recite the novel–Mike Iveson, who plays the narrator Jake Barnes, through sheer will or photographic memory, has mastered it somehow (my edition of The Sun Also Rises is 247 pages of which not much seems left out, so I consider him something of a virtuoso). Kate Scelsa, as the jilted Frances, goes off on a harangue so angry, wounded, and raw you’ll swear you either gave or were on the receiving end of that same rant at least once in your life—it’s as if Hemingway supplied the tape recorder and Scelsa plays it all back for you (thanks!). Ben Williams provides fine physical agility as Bill; Lucy Taylor, as Brett, might as well be arriving from Warner Bros. Matt Tierney plays the tricky role of Robert Cohn, the sometimes disliked boxer and Jew. For all the actors this is not a reading, it’s a physically demanding marathon (the performers dance and carouse, flounder and juggle, squabble and fight—bulls or themselves).
Do take a student to this one–as I recall, Hemingway’s book was not an easy read (it took A Farewell to Arms to really hook me on the writer, not that guys weren’t frontloaded to like him anyway). Rather than the story, what’s probably most compelling about The Sun Also Rises is the unadorned, subtextual way in which Hemingway is writing (which has had so many imitators since 1926 that it doesn’t seem so revolutionary now). Seeing it play out can mess with the mind a little bit—I recall the first part, set in Paris, as seeming briefer than it seems on stage (Hemingway cut material to find his beginning, endorsed by F. Scott Fitzgerald). The last sections, in Spain, seem to go much more smoothly in the watching (despite the fact that they include the iconic bulls, it’s a long party).
Perhaps the characters seem less sympathetic to us today because they’re of money, even if they don’t have much at the moment (they’re also unfashionable men: mostly white, straight, educated, Christian). The American theatre has never been above loving a drunk, but views on drinking have changed, too. It may seem inessential today, but there was a time when traveling in a less dangerous world might be seen as a rite of passage for the young, a way to broaden their horizons. Hemingway, who was in his mid-twenties when he wrote The Sun Also Rises, gave us romanticism that wasn’t superfluous (“Only bullfighters live their lives.”). If there is an issue that doesn’t always quite work in this production, it’s the level of seriousness—and I’m not sure that there is a solution in order for it to keep its pace, even if the characters are young and impatient, even if they don’t hear the clock ticking, even if the production team is wildly inspired and creative and energetic (and needs to be). It’s something Colleen Dewhurst talked about in her autobiography, written with and completed by Tom Viola. When she asked if her agent Clifford Stevens had any suggestions regarding her role as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he told her one thing:
“‘I don’t smell the booze. . . .’ I (Dewhurst) woke up thinking about it and that night, came onstage feeling the soddenness of someone who had been drinking for a very long time, the mental dampness and the dull physical exhaustion that every drunk pushes through. It wasn’t important if it was noticeable to anyone else but me; it gave me just the added edge that I wanted, that I needed, that I had not been conscious of. Drunk is an obvious characteristic to play, but if you live with it on your breath, on your clothes and in your hair day after day, that is quite something else.”
I think Hemingway would have also been surprised by our current notions of gender, actually, even if he was, apparently, sometimes perplexed himself—in The Select (The Sun Also Rises), for example, we can have a female bullfighter (which is amusing, but not the sleek, virile Romero we know from the book). Our notions of masculinity have evolved so far that the men in the play work for comedic effect, rather than the tough-guy stances we normally associate with Hemingway’s adventurers: “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night is another thing," we hear Jake say early on. I’m not sure we feel that hard-boiled ideal of men here, that men ever sought to live up to it or even felt that it was worthy of being lived up to (if, indeed, it matters to any of us at all anymore).
It won’t resolve or bleed in any bass harmony, and you’ll carry it to the subway or the bus, or wherever you’re going later, but there’s fantastic, repetitive mandolin music at the end of the show that reinforces its meaning. It wants to find its groove so badly, despite its own nutty, festive propulsion, but the music just can’t find a way to continue or even to develop. Almost a quarter of a century before Godot; nearly a century before America’s Great Recession and its Mideast conflicts; in a novel about a young man less able to laugh off an injury from a war than he likes, we realize that Hemingway and Beckett saw and understood a nearly identical reveal: “It can’t go on, we must go on.”
Despite a gift for dialogue, intriguing reversals, and diligent actors, Stephen Belber’s Tape, now playing at the June Havoc Theatre at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex through September 24, has not found a way to move beyond its plot points; a way to find a full plot. The play is kept ambiguous: was a lawyer raped; did she assent; many years later, is it even important anymore? The questions keep the play spinning, but the characters don’t seem especially individual, they seem more about their jobs (a screenwriter, a drug dealer, and a lawyer), types. In a general way, you’ll feel you know the group, but they aren’t specific enough to make us feel they’re really us. In fact, you might think you understand the playwright better, stuck in the middle of so many decisions, waiting for further realizations, left to his own devices, perhaps hoping to duct tape his head back together when everything’s over. Don DiPaolo, Neil Holland, and Therese Plaehn star; Sam Helfrich directs.
© 2011 by Bob Shuman