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An Old Story Brought Up to Speed : 'Stand-up Tragedy's' full-court press

June 18, 1989|By DAN SULLIVAN

Click/Click/Click/Click. It's the way we take our home entertainment now, and it has had its effect on the way we watch theater and movies. Maybe even on the way we watch life.

A bad effect, in some people's view. Kids raised on "Sesame Street," teachers tell you, can't follow a traditional story. All they want is the ups.

Others argue that it's just the reverse. TV has exposed us all to so many traditional stories that a couple of images give us enough to infer the rest.

I tend toward the second view. Theater audiences in the 1980s can still process a long narrative, if it's well told. A longer narrative than ever, in fact. Look at "Nicholas Nickleby" and "The Mahabharata."

But we are impatient with filler. We don't like being told everything twice. Scenes that spend a lot of time explaining themselves begin to seem labored and old-fashioned.

Oddly, we are perfectly happy with the laconic small-town characters of Horton Foote, who tend not to say anything when they don't have anything to say--and sometimes when they do. That strikes us as true to life. A well-observed silence in a play like "The Widow Claire" can speak volumes.

And we're happy to listen to August Wilson's characters as they tip their chairs back after supper and start telling stories. Language here generates its own voltage, as in Shakespeare. We can still listen to him, too.

It's the good gray playwrights who have to worry, the ones who see no problem with a line like the dreaded "We've got to have a talk." Click!

Bill Cain's "Stand-up Tragedy" at the Mark Taper Forum (through June 25) is aware of all this. It is not an avant-garde play. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has characters you care about. It has ideas. It is written, not shot from a laser-gun.

But it's quick. Rather than being written for the slowest person in the room, it presumes that he no longer exists--that today's viewer not only gets the picture right away, but can process two images at once.

It is actually telling a rather old-fashioned story, the one about the idealistic young teacher who comes to a slum high school and vows that he's going to make a difference (Jack Coleman).

His adversaries include the case-hardened principal who has seen these hotdogs come and go (this being a Catholic school, the principal is a priest--Vaughn Armstrong). His fellow teachers include an anal-retentive type who is just putting in his time (John C. Cooke) and an outrageous pragmatist whose methods include letting his kids cheat (Dan Gerrity.)

The student our hero most wants to reach is a quiet youth with a flair for art, an obsession with superheroes and an addiction to his sick, destructive family (Michael DeLorenzo.) If only, if only he could be sprung from that grim apartment. This kid is college material!

You have seen the movie, yes? You have even seen the TV series. So has everybody at Nativity Mission School. They are not interested in being a learning experience for our hero. They know how things work in real life. To rescue a kid from a "bad home situation" in this neighborhood (the Lower East Side) is to run the risk of throwing him into a worse situation.

It also may put his rescuer at risk. You don't get half-way get involved with a kid's life and then go home to the suburbs for Christmas vacation, not without consequences. Forces have been set into motion--and at a Catholic school in the barrio, the idea of "forces" is not an abstraction. They believe in evil at Nativity Mission, and some of them--or their families--are hooked on it.

This begins not to sound like "Room 222." Playwright Cain knows this school--he has taught there--and he remembers how confusing and perverse things can get around spring break.

How to convey the welter of life at Nativity Mission, the heart-lifting moments and the heart-stopping ones? How to convey the eternal tension and the odd cameraderie between the kids and the faculty at an all-male school, not unlike the strains of boot camp? How to convey the hilarity of a faculty-student basketball game, and the despair of yet another 7 a.m. funeral? How to get in the neighborhood in as well?

A movie could flick from image to image, and the viewer could put it all together. It's not so easy to do these things in a play. On the stage, images have weight--they're usually attached to actors. "Stand-up Tragedy" doesn't see that as a problem. If your actors know how to break-dance, and chant rap poetry, and dribble a basketball, and do raunchy jokes, and jump from role to role at the pop of the director's fingers (Ron Link is the director)--then the show can be set at whatever tempo it needs.

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