THE LENNON PLAY: IN HIS OWN WRITE
Temporary Theater Company
at the Okefenokee Playhouse
"I can't remember if I cried . . ."--Don McLean, "American Pie"
Yes, I cried when I heard about John Lennon's assassination. I remember that moment very clearly, though it's not a what-were-you-doing-when-Kennedy-was-shot sort of memory. That is, it doesn't seem especially historical to me: my way of sharing in yet another McLuhanite mass trauma. To the contrary, it seems like a personal memory of a personal loss. As incredibly, snivelingly hokey as it sounds, I feel as if Lennon was a friend of mine.
He wasn't, of course. I never met the guy. But even so, it isn't too much to say I grew up with him. From 1964, when I was 10 and he was 24, to 1980, when I was 26 and he was dead, Lennon and I carried on a lively if one-sided correspondence through records and movies, books, magazines, and news items. He was always my candidate for favorite Beatle, his playful, raw, experimental music always more exciting to me than any McCartney croon. I absorbed the bed-in, the visit to India, the psychedelic years, and the house-husband phase. I noted the primal screams, the tentative radicalism, Sean's birth, and all the albums. I was embarrassed for him over junk like "Glass Onion," and that smarmy little joke about passing the audition at the end of Let It Be. I even liked Yoko.
I'm telling you I knew John Lennon, for a long time and remarkably well. I admired what I perceived to be his genius and accepted what I perceived to be his foibles. I kept track of him over the years, the way you do with someone you've known long and well. And when I think of him now, I miss him the way you do someone you've known long and well. In that sense, there's nothing so awfully implausible about my considering Lennon a friend.
All that being true, you'd think I'd be positively delirious over the Temporary Theater production of The Lennon Play: In His Own Write. Well I am, kind of. Built around the nonsense poems and stories in Lennon's books--In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works--and adapted by him, Adrienne Kennedy, and Victor Spinetti during 1967 and '68, The Lennon Play is an authentic piece of Lennonalia for which I'm authentically grateful. John's restless, expansive sensibility pervades this show.
But the show itself doesn't work.
The basic problem is in the structure. Faced with the technical challenge of turning Lennon's coy, clever, aggressively frivolous writings into a unified piece of theater with some kind of motion to it, the adapters decided to treat those writings as autobiography: Lennon appears here as a character called "Me," growing up absurd in post-blitz Liverpool; his stories about fat budgies and maladjusted broomers' sons are presented as the coded confessions of a talented, tormented kid on his way to becoming a rock 'n' roll genius.
The best thing about this approach, aside from the continuity it offers, is that it exposes the anger underlying Lennon's superficially droll stories. Bereft of his mother and ignored by his dad, John wasn't a happy boy; The Lennon Play gives us a vision of the boy working out his unhappiness in word games.
Unfortunately, that vision's maudlin as hell. And counterproductive to boot. Lennon expended tremendous energy and will turning his hurt into art; this adaptation sets about turning the art back into hurt. The stories are trivialized. The life is rendered as melodrama. This is very Lennon-like, in a way: as songs from "In My Life" to "Mother" demonstrate, John had a sometimes courageous, sometimes self-indulgent penchant for navel gazing. But all we get out of it this time is a pat reading of a complex personality and a sympy subversion of what could be some funny material.
There are other problems. Though he pulls it together nicely toward the end, Frank Farrell's direction is rough through much of The Lennon Play--and absolutely incoherent in the opening sequences. There's a long bit, for instance, at the beginning of the show where radio performers cluster stage left while Lennon's family clusters stage right, and the entire middle section of the stage is left absolutely, inexplicably blank. Horrendous.
The uncredited costuming seems arbitrary and many of the performances are amateurish. Circus Szalewski can't sing at all, which is a serious shortcoming in an actor playing Lennon. Still, he projects a loving, wry, antic quality in which some part of John seems to reside. The extent to which he can hold on to that quality is the extent to which this show succeeds.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.