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The Art of Success/Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise

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THE ART OF SUCCESS

Griffin Theatre

SELF TORTURE AND STRENUOUS EXERCISE

Pig American Theatre Ensemble

I've been reading The Compass, Janet Coleman's new book about the Compass Players--that bunch of Hyde Park misfits whose experiments with improvisation 35 years ago "revolutionized the art of comedy in America." It's a sad book, in a way. David Shepherd conceived the Compass as a people's theater, a reborn commedia, where actors would ad-lib plays about the events of the moment and the lives of the masses. He planned on performing in factory cafeterias.

But that's not how things turned out. Although the Compass gave us a great technique for spontaneous play making--not to mention plain old playing--it never did much to further Shepherd's political agenda. Instead, it became a forum for the bourgeois preoccupations of comics like Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May. Masters of the 50s Neurotic Mode of humor, Berman, Nichols, and May practiced the populism of the psychiatrist's couch, one analysand to another. Their social criticism had more to do with urban anxiety than proletarian anger, and their social pose favored anomie over solidarity. They didn't do cafeterias.

And that's pretty much how American comedy's been ever since. From Nichols to Woody Allen, from May to Sandra Bernhard, and from Berman to Spalding Gray, Freud beats Marx out every time. Our most sophisticated, politically aware satirists choose to frame their satire in purely personal terms. There's no real acknowledgment of class, history, economics, social constructs, vested interests--no dialectic at all: just this sense of a free-floating ego bumping up against an alien world.

Which is why it's hard to imagine an American coming up with anything like The Art of Success. Set in early 18th-century London and populated with folks like William Hogarth, Henry Fielding, and Whig power broker Robert Walpole, The Art of Success combines an easy manner with some ardent, anything but free-floating polemics. It's too contextual, too political, too interested in wealth and poverty and power to have been written by an American. And, in fact, it wasn't. The Art of Success is by Royal Shakespeare Company member Nick Dear.

The play basically follows Hogarth--creator of The Rake's Progress--on a progress of his own through the strata and under the skirts of an England on the verge of worldwide colonial dominance. The brilliant son of a dead debtor, Dear's Hogarth has something of the Sammy Glick about him: with his social plum of a wife and his merchandising savvy, he's eager to grab all the money and prestige he can. Yet he also takes a perverse pride in his simple, ugly commonness--a pride that becomes a kind of dark longing after a while. Unwilling to assert his class identity--unequivocally and politically--through his art, he pursues a strangely furtive affair with it. A sort of adultery.

Hogarth's adultery is at once economic, artistic, and sexual. He's attracted to sordid subjects--painting a poor murderess in her cell on the expectation of selling the image after she's been hung. He's attracted to sordid women, too, playing coprophiliac games with a whore he loves in his common, guilty, dirty heart.

The sex is important. Just as England built its wealth on colonial exploitation, Dear's Hogarth builds his empire on the backs, as it were, of women: appropriating his wife's position; stealing the murderess's image; mining the whore's being, even down to her shit. In one of the most absurd but telling passages in the play, Hogarth--having been deprived of his pants--steals the clothes off a woman imprisoned in the stocks. It's the most vivid rape among many perpetrated here.

Though not entirely comfortable with Dear's casual worldliness, the Griffin Theatre production is more than competent. Director Richard A. Barletta makes Dear's points and plays Dear's rhythms. Andrew Hawkes makes an energetic if not exactly hungry Hogarth, Mara Casey is spit-in-your-face wry as the murderess, and Archie Benfield is a likable bastard (when he remembers his lines) as Walpole.

But Barletta seems to shy away from the vulgarity of the piece. Which is everywhere, and crucial. The scene at the stocks, for instance, should wallow in violence and violation--in everything implied by the circumstance of a helpless woman at the mercy of an id-sick Western man. And yet it's practically decorous. Other scenes cry out for an ugliness they never come close to realizing.

This reserve may seem judicious to Barletta, but it comes across as a subversion of Dear's political and artistic intentions. The Art of Success is about the strange convergence of art and money, of love and pox, of transcendence and shit in the society that gave birth to our own. What's the struggle over the NEA about if not this very convergence? Tasteful neglect of any part of the equation not only diffuses Dear's dialectic, it delivers that dialectic into the infinitely more vulgar hands of people like Jesse Helms. This is no time to be squeamish.

Harry Kondoleon's not squeamish. His plays are full of messy dinners, bent minds, screaming disgust, and lurid metaphors. Take Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise, for instance. An Ionesco-esque drill about infidelity and heavy denial among two couples, it's lousy with mashed pies, sweaty fits, and self-consciously idiotic tropes about the "mismatched earrings of marriage."

No, Kondoleon's not squeamish, but he doesn't have much real power, either. Not here, anyway. In Self Torture he exhibits all the smart, flashy, essentially imitative ingenuity of the Yale whiz kid he is. It's very cunning stuff, but who besides his thesis adviser cares?

The Pig American Theatre Ensemble, apparently. They've done Kondoleon's drill up with all the vivacity of people who think it's the real thing. And they've done a pretty good job, too. Except that, like Kondoleon in this play, they're much too obviously still kids.

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