IN THE SHADOW OF A SMILE
Shattered Globe Theatre
at the Project
Once in a while an artist exposes more of himself than he intended. Sometimes when previously subconscious material surfaces, the work gains authority; the images in Pina Bausch's or Karen Finley's performances, for example, may be disturbing, but their psychological truth makes them impossible to ignore.
But sometimes such exposure only serves to make clear the artist's confusion and undermines his intent. Adam Langer's new play In the Shadow of a Smile, disarmingly subtitled "a play about exposures," presents images of voyeurism, violence, and pornography. But watching the play didn't teach me anything about the social ills it addresses; instead, it seemed to expose a playwright as insensitive to these issues as the characters in his play.
Granted, this is a play about misogyny. Flynn (Michael Hargrove), a photographer and self-described voyeur, takes nude photos of his girlfriend Sara (Jill Burrichter) and sells them to Don (Brian Pudil), who owns and operates Peeping Tom's pornographic bookshop. Flynn sells these photos in order to "punish" Sara, since in his mind she toys with him, merely pretending to love him.
Flynn's picture-taking is symbolic of his desire to control and dominate Sara. If he can flatten her out into a photograph, he won't have to put up with her mood swings and she'll always be there for him. His need to control her, to reduce her to a fantasy, is so strong that he spends a lot of time inventing the perfect way to murder her.
This is potentially powerful, troubling material, material that gets to the heart of one of our culture's most widespread sexual psychoses. As Susan Griffin brilliantly argues in her book Pornography and Silence, humiliation and domination--Flynn's modi operandi--lie at the very core of our culture's understanding of sex and sexuality. Pornography, says Griffin, dehumanizes not only the pornographer's subject but the pornographer himself.
At first it seems as if Langer's play is going to take a similar stand, but it ends up reinforcing stereotypes instead of attacking them. Langer gives us the right setup--presenting us with men who are users (the other male characters are just as bad as Flynn) and women who are victims--but then focuses his sympathy on the men. He may not intend to be a sexist, but the underlying assumption seems to be that men's stories are more important than women's.
The play is told mostly from Flynn's point of view. Such a tactic might have been quite powerful if that point of view were constantly held in question, the technique that made Bob Fosse's Star 80 so powerful; we sympathized with Eric Roberts's violently misogynistic character even as we hated him. Flynn, like every other character in Langer's play, is sketchily drawn and doesn't grow an inch. He's despicable, but we just don't care enough about him to feel either hate or sympathy; if anything, we end up thinking he's a little on the tormented side but basically just one of us--something we never feel about Eric Roberts in Star 80. It's almost as if Langer can't decide what he wants us to feel about Flynn. And more importantly, he hasn't clarified his own feelings for Flynn.
Langer has the same failing with the women characters. We never learn how Sara feels about being the subject of porno pinups; even in a scene where Flynn's shooting pictures of her, she never objects to it--she never even brings up the idea that it might be demeaning. She doesn't seem particularly turned on by it, either. Instead, she spends much of her time worrying that she's "acting weird" and not pleasing her man. "I only want to make you happy," she whimpers to him at least half a dozen times. Everything she says and does is simply in reaction to him.
What's especially irritating about this is that the things that happen to the women in this play have infinitely more potential as meaty dramatic material than the things that happen to the men. In Sara's final scene, after Flynn callously shows her the photos he's taken of him having sex with another woman, she refuses to break up with him. She says instead that he is a coward, that he's trying to force her to end the relationship. In other words, Langer has her throw the focus back on Flynn, on his fear of confrontation, rather than focusing on Sara's much more complicated situation. And he robs her of all of her dignity in the final moment of the scene, when Flynn asks her why she won't break up with him. "Because I love you," she responds, choking back a sob.
The other woman in the play, Sandy (Leigh Horsley), is more together than Sara, more articulate and straightforward, smarter, more confident. But the story brings out some interesting contradictions in her personality, contradictions Langer never bothers to examine closely. After discovering Flynn peering into her apartment from the alley, for instance, Sandy goes outside, flirts with him, and then invites Flynn up and has sex with him. But after what's supposed to be an impersonal fuck, she ends up emotionally attached and tries to get him not to leave. (He, of course, is entirely unmoved, and he leaves anyway.)
Or consider the scene where she's alone in her apartment with the psychopathic, greasy-haired Larry (Joe Forbrich), reading a scene with him from his play (a play about "a virgin who's a whore" which, he tells her, he wrote for her). Larry uses the scene as a pretense to maul Sandy. After pulling away from him, instead of demonstrating a little self-respect (not to mention common sense) by throwing him out, she tells him that "the part just isn't right for me." Larry, after all, is sensitive about his writing. She wouldn't hurt the delicate feelings of the guy who just tried to rape her.
What frustrated me most about this production was the talent evident onstage. All of the actors are sensitive, intelligent performers; Horsley is particularly strong, with a comfortably grounded presence and a keen intuitive sense. They either don't see the misogyny in the show that I see, or they see something I missed.
Being an artist means accepting a responsibility as both a reflector and a generator of culture. As Michael Feingold wrote in a recent Village Voice article, theater must think about "what it's creating, what tradition it's upholding, and what it means to the audience, the country, the culture." Langer has written an irresponsible play. In his review in last week's Reader of Female Parts, Langer wrote, "N.W.A., Ice Cube, and Andrew Dice Clay are raking in millions with their misogynist diatribes. Rush Limbaugh, ranting and raving daily about 'feminazis,' is one of our country's most popular radio talk-show hosts. The list goes on, but it's too depressing to itemize." I wish I could understand how someone's actions could be so at odds with his words.