I saw this play with a 24-year-old...boy? Guy? Man? Whatever. I'm 42 so as far as I'm concerned, I can call him a boy. (I currently have duct tape over his mouth so he can't object to my characterization.) I'm quite sure if Rox and I had seen it together, we'd have a very different review. But you get what you get, and today it's the 1-Jew Review + goy-Brian. And boy, is he a goy. The usual pale person you get here in Minnesota. Anyway, I digress.
Before the synopsis, before the accolades, before everything, first let me say that this play made me think--and I mean really think. Brian and I talked about it for a couple of hours, and even after I went to bed, I kept waking up, thinking about the play! Then, all day yesterday, I thought about the play and got pretty damn depressed about my life. But that's what a good play does; it doesn't just entertain (and this was an engaging play): it sparks conversation, thought, reflection, has an impact outside the narrow confines of a darkened theater.
Rox would be proud of me, she's taught me well, because in my view the play was about the longing we all have for human connection. I've distilled it down to the simplest concept, because there was so much going on in this play, it made our heads spin. Was it a comedy? Tragedy? A Greek tragedy? Was it making a statement about the repressive 1950s? A statement about self-absorbed men? Was it about all kinds of love? Sacrifice? Winners and losers? All of the above?
The Sex Habits of American Women is set in the 1950s (onstage, in real, live Technicolor) and in 2004 (in black and white video projected onto the back wall of the set). Dr. Fritz Tittles (Richard Ooms), a self-absorbed, sixty-something, German-born psychoanalyst is writing the book he is sure will change the world and earn the admiration of his colleagues. His wife, Agnes, (Tana Hicken) alternately supports and humors his endeavor. Daughter Daisy, (Charity Jones) a thirty-five-year-old "spinster," is unhappy with her lot in life, unhappier still living under the burden of her parents' expectations of who she should be, what she should do, want, and have.
This being the 50s, the men--Dr. Tittles has a protégé, Edgar (Kris L. Nelson)--know what they want. And the women? Daisy and Agnes are alternately trying hard to be what they're supposed to be and resisting in subversive ways...
Brian: Do I ever get to talk?
Elle: One sec. Let me just say that this play would not have been as excellent without the mixed media element. The juxtaposition of the 50s in color and "documentary" film from 2004 projected on the in black and white. And Joy, (Sally Wingert) she was my favorite. That scene where she takes her shirt off to show the camera man her scar...it hit me then that the best drama is that one-two punch that comes when you're not expecting it. It was at that point, I was clear that this play was not a comedy.
Brian Not just a comedy, I would say, because much--though certainly not all--of the message was relayed through humor. Perhaps calling it a complex comedy would be accurate. Yes, I think complex is just the word, I mean look at the mix of characters. As you already mentioned, there was Joy, who was definitely an in your face character, and compare her with, say, Ruby.
Elle: Ruby (Melissa Anne Murphy) was the epitome of the perfect '50s housewife, perfect make-up, perfect clothes, thinking only of her husband and child, never thinking of what would make her happy. She just bought the whole party line about what it meant to be a woman, wife, and mother.
Brian Here's a thought, perhaps she was happy. People's perceptions are often their realities, and if she felt fulfilled in what she did, who are we to say whether her happiness is any less than another's. By the way, there's a funny thing I noticed... At first I couldn't figure out why Ruby looked so familiar, and then it hit me that she used to be my fencing partner a few years ago.
Elle: I wondered why you were staring at her so hard. What about Edgar? Wasn't he a total nebbish?
Brian What's a nebbish? Is this one of those words like "goy?"
Elle: It's Yiddish. A nebbish is, well, sort of a geek.
Brian Yeah, Edgar seemed weak to me. Personally I found him to be an irritating, sniveling character-yet he was still necessary (unfortunately) to the play because, in a way, he was the plot foil.
Elle: Well, Yeah. Without Edgar, there would have been no "Agnes and Edgar." Did you find the relationship between them believable? I mean, Edgar is in his early thirties and Agnes is sixty-five, and they're lovers. I bought the relationship. But maybe that's just wishful thinking. You know, that when I'm old and saggy (coming soon) that a much younger man wouldn't see the wrinkles, the no longer firm, flabby flesh and would still love me and find me sexy!
Brian: This is a difficult one to answer. I mean it's certainly possible for a younger man to find an older woman attractive, but in Edgar's case I think it has to do with something else, specifically, his "mother" and "father" issues. It seemed to me that Edgar was always seeking Fritz's approval because Fritz represented something of a father figure (and a mentor in the world of psychoanalysis) to him. Since Edgar never seemed to be able to achieve that approval, he did the next best thing--he took from Fritz what was his, Fritz's wife. To me this is something of a dominance game. In the play, and as in real life, it's usually unconscious. It's almost like the concepts from Greek tragedy--the man wants to marry his mother and to dominate his father, essentially making him the better, stronger man. So we see Edgar, attempting to dominate his "father" by loving and being loved by his "mother."
Elle: Wow. I so would never have thought of that. Leave it to a man to come up with the dominance issue. Is this that whole black belt thing? Like you can kill someone with your bare hands so you're always thinking in terms of dominance? Kill or be killed?
Brian: I don't know that I think of everything in terms of dominance, but certainly a fair amount. Though, I think it really has more to do with being a dominant male than me being a black belt--the black belt just helps me assert my dominance when necessary... or defend myself when attacked, whatever.
Elle: Enough death, killing, and domination. Back to Agnes and Edgar. Though Edgar admits to mother and father issues, he really seemed to love Agnes. I mean look what he did for her in the end--
Brian Yes...the ending. That's what convinced me of his whole Oedipus complex. I would say, he did what he did because he did love her; it's just that the love he has may be just a bit suspect... But no more, don't give away the ending.
Elle: Ok. But that was another thing I really appreciated about this play--the twists, turns, and surprises. Sometimes I knew what was going to happen but there were enough times I was surprised. And to invoke Rox, everything is so "dumbed down" these days that when I see (or read, or hear) something that rises above the lowest common denominator, I'm happy. And this play especially. Like I said, it really made me think not only about the play, but about my life. And before I forget, As always, I lovedthe set. The Guthrie Lab always makes the most of a small stage. Set Designer Victor A Becker's set was as clever as always: beds (both upright and horizontal) sliding along walls and exchanging places with the couch, hundreds upon hundreds of books that served as walls... So, Brian, what was the "take-away" message for you?
Brian Ultimately, I loved the play, but I was dissatisfied with what I saw as the play's message. Everyone in the play was either unhappy or fulfilled the old axiom, "ignorance is bliss." Now, I personally see myself as an optimistic realist.
Elle: Ah, youth... So optimistic, so idealistic...
Brian Ah, the aged... so cynical, so jaded... Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, that's right all of you pessimists out there, you can, in fact, be both an optimist and a realist. My point is that a person can choose to be happy, in fact, it is one of the few choices we truly have. Alright, Ellen, what do you think?
Elle: What I took from it is that we make our choices in life based on cultural, geographic, and the societal norms of the time in which we are living. If life were a game, and this play is a representation of who wins and who loses (the prize being "happiness") it seems as if only the self-absorbed and unconscious win. Scary thought.
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