Monthly Archives: March 2016

Not Even Chlorine Can Clean Away This Corruption

Lucas Hnath has written the best play David Mamet didn’t. That assessment may initially appear to be damning with faint praise. Yet, Hnath has exceeded the reach of his predecessor in several key elements.

Currently coming to the end of it’s run at New York Theatre Workshop, Hnath’s Red Speedo details the late career hopes of professional swimmer Ray (played with off-kilter intensity by Alex Breaux). The plot revolves around whether or not he took performance-enhancing drugs to aid him for his Olympic trials. The moral quagmire encompasses Ray, his brother/manager Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), his coach (Peter Jay Fernandez), and ex-girlfriend Lydia (Zoë Walters). Hnath shares Mamet’s ability to bring his drama alive with staccato lines spat out like frantic machine-gun fire from Apocalypse Now. He also dramatizes the moral rot that can pervade an institution and how the appearance of propriety often becomes more important than actual propriety.

Hnath excels in some compelling ways. First, in Lydia, Hnath has created a fully realized female character. Lydia is not an idea or caricature or plot device. As embodied by Walters, Lydia — even though she appears in a single scene — is fully a part of the tapestry of the world. Her reach — the effect that she has on the narrative outcome — far greater than her stage time might at first indicate. Morally damaged like the other characters, Zoë is the one who tries to find a path — stumbling in the dark as she does — to something more ethical, something that allows her to leave her past behind.

Second, the playwright carefully weaves the personal and the professional together. Choices flow organically from character, from damaged pasts, from desperation. If a character chooses a morally questionable path, the drive emanates as much from the pains of failures, the fear of abandonment and loss, and the desire to escape errors. Greed is not so much a motive as fear. That makes them more understandable, more relatable. We can bring them closer to us, rather than judging them from the distance. Of course, once we have brought Ray into our hearts — when we think he is a jerky, somewhat stupid, somewhat deluded guy — then Hnath brings down the hammer and we are confronted by the monstrosity of Ray’s actions.

And that, finally, leads to Hnath’s greatest playwriting strength: the ability to surprise. None of the salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross are particularly likable. We see them for what they are from the start. And when they fall upon one another in the second act, it is entertaining to be sure, but the audience is kept at a distance from them; we can happily feel morally superior to them because we are removed from them. Not so with Ray. Hnath sets his drama so that we believe Peter to be the fast-talking lawyer with the ethics of a deranged squirrel while Ray has just been along for the ride but is ultimately a sweet kid, redeemable. As the play unfolds, we see different shades of both that reveal complexity and nuance to both. The playwright carefully reveals details that leave us, at the end, with the judgment of Ray that is starkly different, starkly darker than where we started.

Director Lileanna Blain-Cruz stages the drama brilliantly, and the transformation of the New York Theatre Workshop space into the side of a swimming pool serves the work admirably. Fernandez excels as the Coach, and he lays bare the contradictions of his character as he must navigate the shoals of which moral compromises to make and which to avoid.

Kill “Sorry” and “Besides”

A tip for playwrights and screenwriters:Eliminate “sorry” and “besides” from your vocabularies. Too often I’m watching something — even a prestige production by a writer I respect — Character X will be savaging Character Y and then when the monologue is complete will add “sorry” or “besides” completely robbing the emotional power of what came before and destroying the stakes of the scene. If you are going to go to an emotionally dangerous place that might alter the relationship of your characters, you have to own it. Don’t shy away from it. Good writing is about letting your characters grow in unpredictable ways and not remain static. So, banish these two escape hatches from your work.

With Prodigal Son, Shanley is Our James Joyce

There comes a moment in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when Stephen Dedalus, the author’s alter ego states, “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” The novel chronicles how a young man creates himself both as an individual and as an artist. As he authors himself, he walks through the fires large — nationalism, religion — and small — the struggles of adolescence, a dysfunctional family. Last  month when I saw Prodigal Son, I came to the conclusion as the lights came up for the curtain call that, at last in John Patrick Shanley, we had our American Joyce.

Much can and has been said about Prodigal Son, but I want to here focus on that Joyce connection. Shanley, as with Joyce, has brought his adolescent self to life through words — through poetry and prose, through philosophy and theology — to be reconsidered, reexamined, to undergo catharsis as much for the audience as no doubt himself. His avatar, Jim, is truly a remarkable creation. And I should add that in Timothée Chalamet (famous for Homeland and Interstellar) Shanley has found the ideal collaborator. Actor and author do not shy away from Jim’s darkness — he says and does the stupid things teenagers often do as they wrestle with the twin tensions of childhood and adulthood — his brilliant narcissism, or his self-destructive impulses. He is not likable the way teenagers on television sit-coms are often likable. But he is engaging and endearing. His darkness is understandable, his pain a source of empathy, his yearning to connect with an world of ideas that he cannot yet quite touch remarkable. The play is no better than when Shanley lets Chalamet tear into a monologue, trip the light fantastic in a way that has the raw magic of stream-of-consciousness to find truths (human truths, perhaps, if not universal truths) in the most Joycean, or given the play’s setting in the 1960’s, Kerouacian way. The actor opens up to show us both the wonder and pain within.


Stanley is at his most powerful when his flawed characters wrestle with faith and doubt (in reference to his perhaps most famous work). What intrigues here for Jim is the same that intrigues for Stephen: the temptation for sin he finds within and not from without. He recognizes the darkness in himself — the darkness that dwells within all of us — but he is intelligent enough (brave enough? foolish enough?) to address it and not ignore it as most do. What will win inside him? Will what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” eventually hold sway? Jim does not know. He wants to find the answer, though perhaps it too scares him.

Louise, the headmaster’s wife, tells him, “I think James Quinn is a fine outline, and it’s up to you to fill it in.” Shanley, I think bravely, undertakes the return to his tumultuous past (for the nation, for himself) to try and unlock the puzzle of his earlier life. Kudos to him for not giving us pat answers — for still not truly knowing what the answers are yet, though he surely has a better grasp of the questions.

Shanley, for me, became the American Joyce the day he decided to put Prodigal Son on stage. Here is the kicker. I do not believe he set out to do that. If he had, his work would have been derivative, pretentious, blah. He just sat out to write the most searingly honest play he could. In so doing, he stumbled onto something unintended and rare: a work uniquely specific and uniquely universal. Joyce writes of Stephen, “He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him.” Shapely could write the same of Jim.