Honky; Autumn and Winter
By Myron Meisel
Satire in Black and White
For a considerable time now, it has become exceptionally difficult to shock an audience, a gambit that used to be an important arrow in the artist’s quiver. Nevertheless, in a society where in recent years the most dreaded circumstance has become to feel in any colorable way “awkward”, discomfiting the viewer may now be the next best thing.
Greg Kalleres’ Honky shows little mercy in producing squirms of recognition and insecure identification for both white and black audiences, in illuminatingly different ways. Its satiric thrust can be uncannily accurate, and the genuine laughs tend to be accompanied by stinging pricks of bloodletting. Examining contrasting anxieties in social interactions and conversations regarding race necessarily means exposing the discomforts we persist having in dealing with the subject, not to mention getting beyond it. And, by implication, Honky addresses our general incapacity to confront any issue requiring sensitivity, nuance or a genuine exchange of actual ideas, let alone sincere emotions.
The set-up is a classic sardonic ploy: a new white marketing director, Davis Tallison (Bruce Nozick) has been brought into an “urban” sneaker company to expand its appeal to white adolescents, offending the black house creative designer, Thomas Hodge (Burl Moseley), who descends into a personal crisis over a sensationally hyped news story concerning a teen shot over a pair of his brand shoes. Hodge’s sister, Emilia (Inger Tudor), an elite psychiatrist with a white clientele that includes the ad copywriter who concocted the faux street slogan intoned by the shoe assassin, maintains her professional dignity under great duress, while endeavoring to support her brother. When she calms him through a panic attack, he protests that “Black people don’t hyperventilate,” which inescapably becomes a running gag.
It’s rather as if the microaggressions detailed so poetically by Claudia Rankine in Stephen Sachs’ adaptation of Citizen: An American Lyric last year at the Fountain were instead amplified to such an egregious level of prolix cluelessness that even the tone-deaf and unaware perpetrators could not help but flinch in embarrassment. Where Citizen contributed insight, Honky compels acknowledgement, turning the unremitting anxiety that come from affronts to identity and worth straight back on the perpetrators.
Of course, as Kalleres understands and explores, the root of such bad manners (and I persist in regarding “politically correct” as merely a euphemism for “good breeding” – strike that! – “elementary thoughtfulness”) lies in fundamental insecurity and ignorance, with a dash of just making too many excuses in a mania to avoid being blamed. He’s not content to take well-aimed potshots, exploring many implications of the issue in many contexts, with a well-developed dramatic analysis.
Under extraordinarily savvy direction by Gregg T. Daniel (showing versatile chops after Wedding Band at Antaeus, Fences at ICT), no actor sets a foot wrong, confrontations crackle, and the rather ambitious scope of the play’s examination of its subject remains clear and precise. In his attempt at thoroughness, Kalleres does lapse a little into repetition (if always in pursuit of amplifying a point) and sometimes paints himself into a situational corner that Daniel’s resourceful transitions mask well. Despite the play’s essential malice, its intentions are constructive, and it helps to approach it with a thick skin and a spirit of good will.
The white characters tend toward caricature, if just barely, while the black ones are far more dimensional, opportunities which the ever-reliable and charismatic Moseley and Tudor seize impressively. Recent Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and Stage Raw winner for best lead performer Matthew Hancock (Hit the Wall), playing admittedly generic types (he’s billed as “Kid 1”), nevertheless infuses each of his vignettes with original subtleties. Even so, everyone exhibits surprising shadings and layers even when saddled with stereotypical behaviors, abetted by a writer who may strand them in uncomfortable speeches yet still affords them escape hatches into humanity.
Following on Pocatello, Rogue Machine has obviously settled with renewed energy in the MET Theatre space, fondly remembered as the original 1970s home of the Los Angeles Actors Theater with its unforgettable presentations of plays by Miguel Pinero (Short Eyes), Richard Wesley and others. Some magic haunts the place, and RM’s first-cabin designers revel in its possibilities and considerably enhance the depth of Honky’s experience (one would speculate that a reading alone could easily fall flat).
For all our vitality of our stage scene, Los Angeles craves more exposure to world theater. Most of what makes its way to us greatly expands our awareness of the limitless scope of imaginative enterprise. Expensive imports aside, addressing the work of major playwrights whose work is unknown to us in original local productions provides a welcome opportunity. Pacific Resident Theatre’s U.S. premiere of Lars Norén’s Autumn and Winter (1988) introduces us to someone generally regarded as Sweden’s major playwright of the past half century, albeit new to my awareness.
Norén acknowledges influence from Eugene O’Neill (his play And Give Us the Shadows dramatizes a portion of O’Neill’s life) and from Edward Albee, and those antecedents are baldly evident in the instant show, which could be considered a liquor-fueled a Long Night’s Journey into Rather Later That Night.
Part of a trilogy of “bougeois quartets,” Autumn and Winter depicts a monthly family dinner in a Stockholm apartment at the end of October (hence, the title). Henrik (Jon Johannessen) is a doctor in decline, who so recessively absents himself from conflict that Albee’s George appears aggressive by contrast. His controlling, withholding wife Margareta (Melissa Weber Bales) entertain daughters Eva (Nina Sallinen), a successful career woman plagued by childlessness, and the younger Ann (Em Svenninger), whose near-destitution as a single underemployed mother fuels the resentful anger that exposes the lacerating wounds at the heart of the family.
These have become undeniable over-familiar dramatic elements during the period of Norén’s career, and the initial sensation of the establishment of situation and character inevitably reeks of some déjà vu. Nevertheless, Norén exibits such an acute level of skill with his materials that over the course of the evening, the hammer-and-tongs intensity builds incessantly and proceeds to top itself again and again with explosive fireworks.
The European aspect that adds analytic spice to this familiar mixture is the class critique, not merely of bourgeois hypocrisy, but of economic and social privilege itself. In our present political environment, what might have seemed exotic local color when the play was new now feels immediately pertinent. I suppose our consciousness is playing catch-up.
Marita Lindholm Gochman, who has become the primary translator of Norén into English, treads a delicate line between a rhetorical stiltedness that feels as if it probably suits the original language’s cadences and a compromise from colloquial English. Again, while at first disconcerting, the ear attunes, and as the confrontations grow increasingly heated, the diction begins to feel intrinsic to the rhythms of the drama. It ends up feeling authentically Scandinavian and recognizably elemental.
Obviously a tricky undertaking, the play benefits from director Dana Jackson’s efforts to find a plausible tone for the innate artificiality of the arguments within a resolutely realistic context. The cast, as with the text itself, gains in credibility the deeper we are enmeshed in its conflicts. (One insurmountable obstacle is why this night is different from all other nights, given that these dinners are apparently a family habit. This retreats into irrelevance as the action progresses.) Norén tends to saddle each character with deeply unsympathetic flaws which their slightly redeeming victimhood only gradually and partially humanizes.
Still, this work and the production transcend the earlier limitations to deliver one sledgehammer wallop after another, and the emotional workout benefits from its fundamental integrity of vision.
Bittersweet it is to contemplate the late Norman Scott’s Spartan middle-class scenic design, and Ken Booth’s lighting. Co-producer Scott Jackson’s costume and sound design are also effective within the modest resources available. Artistic director Marilyn Fox made a bold choice in choosing this particular play to inaugurate PRT’s 30th season.
Honky, Rogue Machine at The MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles 90029, (855) 585-5185, www.roguemachinetheatre.com, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., through June 12. Running time: 105 minutes (no intermission).
Autumn and Winter, Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-8392, www.pacificresidenttheatre.com, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through May 21. Running time: Two hours, ten minutes (with intermission).