Beware of creative children! One day they just may be sharing your foibles or nasty habits with the world. Especially when all their world is a stage.
I would guess the majority of theatre pieces over the years have included elements of the playwright's own life. While there are surely memorable personal experiences that happen outside the home, things that happened within a family still make for the juiciest material. This isn't new: think O'Neill and his harrowing plays about a tempestuous father and morphine-addicted mother; Think Tennessee Williams. The Glass Menagerie is possibly the most heartbreaking mother memory of them all. A contemporary voice, that of Tracy Letts, admittedly mined his own dysfunctional clan in the Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County.
What IS more prominent these days, is the one person show, which is akin to writing -- and for the audience reading -- a memoir. In these "it's about me" times...well, it seems everyone with a microphone thinks they have a dramatic story to tell. And many do. I recently reviewed Not That Jewish-, an endearing one-woman piece in Los Angeles which manages to be about the author and star, and still resonate with enough others who are not that Jewish, and perhaps not even Jewish. Right now, Every Brilliant Thing is pleasing audiences at the Barrow Theatre in New York: in that one, star and co-writer Jonny Donahoe compiles a 'greatest sources of pleasure' list for his suicidal mother. And now The Lion has opened at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre off-Broadway. This one adds music into the memory mix.
The Lion is written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer, a charismatic and ingratiating young man -- and his many guitars. Each instrument comes to symbolize another part of his already eventful life. Scheuer tells -- well, more accurately, strums and sings us -- his story, which includes two brothers, a mother, and a difficult (we later learn depressed) father, who died when his son was only ten. It happened to be when they were in the middle of a terrible argument, during which his father had said particularly cruel things, leaving the boy angry and hurt and obviously scarred.
But as he continues his tale, from then to now, we watch how that boy does come to terms with who his father was. That the discovery is through music makes sense, since that was the older man's secret passion, and the gift he passed on to Ben. In these 90 minutes, we understand a child's confused emotions. We recognize his rebellious years, when the acoustic guitar handed down by his dad, becomes an electric one more appropriate for all that inner angst. We experience his life threatening illness--which I would ordinarily say is a clichéd dramatic device-- but hey, this is all true. And we somehow come to know Ben's mother, his brothers, his girlfriend, and even feel something for his father, who died without pursuing his own dreams. This is ultimately a story of personal growth, with Scheuer's lyrics going from "I want to play like you" to "I never want to play like you to "I want to play like me."
For this one-man band, the play was many years in process and evolved as he has. "I'm thirty two now," Scheuer told me, "about the same age my father was when he had me. And today I recognize so many things in myself that remind me of my dad. As I understand myself better, I understand him better. And I love him more." The title refers to a musical question his father used to ask: what makes a lion a lion? "I thought it was a roar, that being loud and strong and stubborn made you a man," says Scheuer. "I was wrong. Being a man is about being part of a family, a brother, a son and perhaps one day, being a father myself."
On the flip side of such dramatic familial resolution is The Atlantic Theatre Company's I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard. This one is about a bitter, cruel, alcoholic, and cocaine addicted playwright and his twenty-something doting and desperate daughter who only wants to hear him say 'I love you too' rather than his repetitive "I know." He yells, she screams, he yells some more, they smoke, they drink, they snort, they inhale, she vomits, he finally puts aside any hint of familial support and strikes the final blow: "I will always love you but I'll be very disappointed." We've heard it before but still, ouch.
The father figure couches his insults and penetrating cruelty in the assumption that his daughter will use them later. "This is all material for when you write your play." In the final scene, which takes place five years later, the daughter has of course written a play, is a success, and has become as toxic as her father, even repeating the same dialogue. The best plays about despicable characters---like Mama Rose in Gypsy, for example--finally reveal vulnerability or something human we can hang on to. At one point in the show at The Atlantic, someone says, "ask yourself --does this play move me? Did I relate to it"? That's asking for trouble, because I would guess most the audience at this one would answer no and no.
The author of the piece is Halley Feiffer, whose father is writer/cartoonist Jules -- for whom she clearly feels nothing close to understanding, let alone forgiveness. The younger Feiffer writes some good dialogue, but it all feels more like a rant than a play: One critic described the show as Whiplash meets The Heiress, The only thing I pray for so hard is that Halley Feiffer and her dad can find some peace and that we can enjoy her obviously talented voice in healthier fare.In the meantime, she might want to go see The Lion to gather some inspiration and hope.
No one says you have to love your family members -- though MY dad used to say "It's all relatives." In the meantime, know that everything you say to those looking up to you -- may one day end up on a stage.