Samuel Hunter sits among my favorite playwrights based on the strength of The Whale and Pocatello. One can make a sure bet that a Hunter play will build to a mesmerizing, semi-tragic climax as characters push themselves beyond their own limitations.
In Greater Clements, the stakes are extremely high leading to Hunter’s emotionally grueling climax. A 14-year-old girl, perceiving that the next five years of her life will be unbearable (her grandfather is dying, her father is failing to overcome alcoholism) convinces a 27-year-old, emotionally-stunted man to take her on a tour of an abandoned mine. In suffocating heat hundreds of meters below the surface, she reveals that she wants to be left in the darkness where her body will never be found. The result is a brilliant exchange about the need to continue existing. The emotion stems not only from the dialogue but also from the fact that this is a flashback—we already know that she emerges from this encounter with a brighter future, but he does not.
The main character is 65-year-old Maggie (usually played by Judith Ives but I saw understudy Caitlin O’Connell), a life-long Clements resident who has witnessed the death of her town (literally, the people just voted to become unincorporated). As she closes the small mining museum that is the first floor of her house, she and her small circle (including her son and a former boyfriend visiting with his granddaughter) struggle to tell themselves that the future will “be all right.” Maybe the middle of this three-hour play could be trimmed, but the last 30 minutes exemplify Hunter doing what he does best—connecting setting and character to explore the complexities of our need to be heard even if we are not completely understood.
Jagged Little Pill
Most jukebox musicals of this variety (nostalgic rock songs tying together a loose story) do not take themselves seriously. Jagged Little Pill, featuring the music of Alanis Morissette, is different because it takes itself very, very seriously. So seriously that the creative team actually believed that Alanis’s music was a perfect fit for a plot involving (to name a few of the issues) a pill-addicted mother, a work- and pornography-addicted father, a perfection-addicted teenage son, and a sexually experimental teenage daughter (who is adopted… another topic for angsty discussion). Also, we have two rape scenarios that are covered with the uncomfortable lack of depth reminiscent of a “very special episode” from a 1980’s sitcom.
The most energized song is “You Oughta Know.” Jo (Lauren Patten) explodes at hir former girlfriend Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding) after witnessing Frankie having sex with a boy. The chorus dances angrily and the band plays loud enough that our seats literally shake. The crowd responds with a standing ovation just like at a rock concert, which is appropriate for a musical based on Alanis Morissette’s music. But, at a narrative level the priorities of a show are misguided when the energy devoted to the trials of a teenage relationship so dramatically surpasses anything having to do with the two under-developed subplots involving rape survivors.
All of this is not to say that Jagged Little Pill is a bad theatrical experience. In fact, it is colorfully wrapped gift for Alanis fans eager to hear a young, talented cast perform 23 of her songs. It just seems a little ironic that a musical trying so hard to transcend its genre is really an archetype for the same ridiculous motifs as the more tongue-in-cheek jukebox musicals.
The title Slave Play, it turns out, is a clever play on words, but that realization does not arrive until about an hour into the show. By then, playwright Jeremy O. Harris has propelled his audience through an opening sequence that is easily one of the strangest experiences in modern theater (and, trust me, this show is not a work of absurdism).
In this 40-minute opening, we see three pairs deeply entrenched in sexual dominance connected to slavery. A black woman spouting Gone with the Wind-style dialogue arouses her white overseer by grinding to modern rock music. A white, talkative mistress acts on her sexual cravings toward her stoic, black slave. Then, in a twist, a black master and his laboring white slave end up tearing off each other’s clothes and wrestling in their underwear. What grounds these mini-plays is both a series of anachronisms (modern sex toys, Calvin Klein underwear, and a reference to Starbucks) and the fact that the actors break character and even start laughing when needed.
Slave Play is a one-act broken into three distinct sections. I’ve described section one—section two reveals that this play is more about modern sexual and racial discussion than about America’s pre-Civil War institution. Suffice to say, an audience member needs to trust that he/she is in good hands with Harris, who wrote Slave Play in his early 20’s while studying at Yale. Harris provokes, confuses, then clarifies and humors while exploring some of the most provocative, confusing (and, yes, even humorous) topics that we struggle to discuss.