Last week I went to see “Escape From Happiness” at the Ooley Theater in Midtown. In part I of my analysis I mentioned that the play worked quite well, but I didn’t really explain why. So I thought I would provide a bit more detail.
As it so happens I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and I mentioned the word “cerebral” as a way of describing plays. And he said, “well isn’t that another way of saying it was boring?” and I had to agree it could mean that. But for someone who is tasked with understanding a play, particularly if one has to fix a broken play, to say a play is “boring” isn’t enough. How do you react to that, really? What does “boring” even mean — dull? Uninteresting? If so, then why?
“Escape From Happiness” is not boring. Why? How does it work so well? I could just say it worked because it worked, sit back and enjoy it, but that isn’t enough for someone who wants to construct plays. And I think “construct” is the proper word. Frankly I don’t think an audience should be completely without critical frameworks either but that’s another discussion. Anyway for me, at my level of ability (e.g., novice) it’s important to develop the critical framework for understanding what makes a play work.
Let’s say a play has these three dimensions:
3) actors acting
Any one of these elements might not work — good dialog but no action; plenty of action, inadequate dialog; great action and dialog but insincere acting, or great acting but one or both of the other elements are weak. Lots of things to get right, plenty of opportunity to goof it up. Any mis-alignment of any dimension can cause a play to be “boring”.
What drives “Escape From Happiness” is a central event that is introduced in the first minutes of the first scene. Everything else is driven by that single event. The purpose going forward is surrounded by the eccentricities, the dynamics of the relationships, and the essential dysfunction of the family members. Each scene has it’s own action, but it all ties back to the central problem. The audience is reminded at critical times just what the problem is, and why the characters are in such a state of frenzy. There are various physical constraints (time, space, knowledge), and a strict deadline with severe consequences for failure. All very transparent — except for the mystery. The mystery’s resolution is not clear until the end. Exciting, not boring.
Each character has a distinct personality, and a distinctly important meaning to the play. And they have a purpose, and that’s the key. Purpose — meaningful action, driven by the desire to accomplish something important to themselves, individually and singly. The dialog that surrounds the action is compelling; witty, pathetic, vulnerable, selfless, courageous, angry, bitter, goofy, sublime. Compelling, not uninteresting.
The actors left nothing on the table. Tears, laughter, fatigue, fear, mental instability — right there in plain sight, in the moment. All kinds of body language and emoting. You don’t get this level of performance without commitment. Which is to say disciplined sincerity.
Every dimension of the play supported the other dimensions — and all that is what worked.
Well that’s it for now, thanks for stopping by. Have a great day!