Some Explicit Polaroids
By Justin Hayford
You're in the hospital dying when the Russian sex slave you bought over the Internet stops in for a visit. He wants you to take your pills because, he admits, he cares a little bit about you--a response you find intolerably oppressive and "nonfun." So you refuse to take your medications until your stripper friend Nadia, the one who laughs off her boyfriend's regular beatings as "negatives I'm not holding on to," stops by and starts humping your boy toy right there on your hospital bed. Seeing his head up her skirt, you decide to take your pills.
If you can see yourself, your friends, or anyone you've ever met reflected in this scene from Mark Ravenhill's new play Some Explicit Polaroids, I can't imagine what planet you're living on. As in his first play, Shopping and Fucking, Ravenhill creates characters in such extreme states of neurotic dysfunction they seem motivated by alien impulses beamed from a neighboring galaxy. Were you only to read his script you might be convinced, as I was, that the playwright has no interest in or understanding of human beings in the real world, despite all the gritty contemporary angst in which his characters wallow. But if you're fortunate enough to catch director Shade Murray's startling production of Some Explicit Polaroids, you'll discover that Ravenhill is one of the sharpest social critics in the theater today.
The secret to Murray's success is simple, though it eluded me through multiple readings of the script: recognizing that all Ravenhill's disturbed characters lead self-deluding, self-destructive lives, but that his vision is essentially comic--the play even ends with something more akin to a wedding than a funeral, with two defanged former radicals and estranged lovers locked in a happy-ever-after embrace. Unlike Jeremy Cohen, who two years ago directed Shopping and Fucking as social realism to unconvincing effect, Murray turns this potentially humorless traumafest into social satire, producing one of the most provocative theatrical evenings of the season.
On a superficial level, Ravenhill examines the generational gap between those at the far end of generation X and those in the thick of generation Y. Nick and Helen, former socialist activists now in their mid-30s, struggle to find anything to fight for in a London of post-Thatcher, postboom complacency. Nick has spent the past 15 years in prison for nearly fulfilling Helen's rhetorical directive to "Kill the rich"--he attempted to murder a member of parliament. Nick returns to find Helen transformed into a local councilwoman who hopes to gain a position in national government, a hope that's unlikely to be fulfilled because of her past. She hasn't the energy to fight the system any longer, she explains, and is instead trying to find contentment working to make the buses run on time. Nick, still brimming with revolutionary outrage, ventures out to find a kindred spirit.
Instead he happens upon a trio of preposterous twentysomethings who are convinced, it seems, that they live in the happiest of all possible worlds. Tim has flown in Russian go-go boy Victor for an indefinite stay; both men insist that things like "feelings" and "meaningful relationships" are tres outre, opting instead to indulge their trashiest, most hedonistic impulses. When Tim's friend Nadia lets slip that Tim isn't just a sex machine but a wonderful, caring person, Victor nearly flies off to Japan in a huff. Meanwhile Nadia, master of self-help psychojargon, accepts deep lacerations from her abusive boyfriend with a shrug and a smile, explaining that each day is a new day and that the past, even if only a few hours old, is irrelevant.
The three make a hysterical and unwittingly terrifying trio. Having come to adulthood convinced that ensuring economic prosperity for the monied classes is their government's sole purpose, they are devoid of a social conscience. While Helen must consciously turn away from the Big Picture to keep living, ignoring the gross systemic inequities she's learned she can do nothing about, the twentysomethings can't imagine a Big Picture in the first place. As though they'd been suckled on neoconservatism, they boil all social interactions down to personal responsibility--which for them means they need only look after themselves. Any sort of collective action, or even collective consciousness, is unnecessary because they see themselves as islands of self-regulating self-interest.
Ravenhill creates two generations with diametrically opposed relationships to history. Nick and Helen can't escape the past, as their transgressions in the name of social revolution leave them barely able to hobble into a future they see all too clearly. Tim, Victor, and Nadia know no past except their personal pasts and therefore see nothing ahead but themselves. But as Ravenhill makes clear, neither group seems equipped to accomplish much of anything in the world. Change occurs only through someone like Jonathan, an unscrupulous businessman and member of parliament who believes that rapidly moving markets and money--the most selfish of reasons--are the only things that motivate people to act.
Murray and his passionate, whip-smart cast capture Ravenhill's dystopia so convincingly it becomes difficult to imagine how any significant social-protest movement will ever arise again. This achievement is particularly impressive given the lampoonish extremes to which Ravenhill goes to create his world. In other hands, Some Explicit Polaroids would become either a silly romp or a pretentious ordeal. But Murray and his cast understand not only the politics that inform the play but the depth of emotion in these seemingly two-dimensional characters. No matter how cartoonish the portrayals, especially among the younger characters, the actors bring important human predicaments to life. David Baca's Victor may talk with the mangled accent of a Mel Brooks movie, and Bruch Reed's Tim may seem as flitty as any of Scott Thompson's gay parodies, but both actors bring out their characters' concealed need for meaning in their squalid lives. Against all odds, we recognize ourselves and our fates in these self-described bits of trash. As Nadia, Katie Maringer creates a stunning portrayal of a woman heartbreakingly disconnected from reality. It's perhaps the most difficult role in the show--imagine trying to create a character who can't be bothered to worry about regular, vicious attacks from her boyfriend. Maringer came into the production only a week before opening, yet she turns in the richest, most nuanced performance of the show.
As Jonathan, the least developed character in the play, Troy West has an air of suppressed mania that nicely complements Kelly Van Kirk's openhearted Nick. In the play's most thankless role, Jennifer Avery is a picture-perfect Helen: uninspired, uninspiring, and painfully aware of her own nascent bourgeois blandness.
Ravenhill creates a fascinating and sobering world in the first half of Some Explicit Polaroids, but he doesn't quite know what to do with it. In the second half, Nick seems to lose all of his activist anger for no credible reason, wanting only to become Helen's housewife. Without much prompting, Tim and Victor both realize they want true love after all. And when Tim returns from the dead to ask Victor for a quick hand job, and Victor launches into a pat monologue about his need to be saved, it seems Ravenhill has completely lost sight of the world he's created.
Most disappointing, Ravenhill lets the play degenerate into largely personal crises, suggesting that his characters act in such desperate ways because they're trying to stave off loneliness, rather than because social and political forces might limit their options. Given the scope of the play's first half, such a conclusion is particularly unsatisfying. But while the show ends with a fizzle, the issues raised in the first hour make it well worth grappling with.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Ravenhill.