Arts & Events
About a decade ago, an article in the National Geographic described a new social class named “bobos”—a portmanteau of “bourgeois” and “bohemian”—as, “…that subset of thirty- or forty-something -year-olds who don't allow their socialist leanings to interfere with an enjoyment of material pleasures." My immediate reaction to this disturbing definition was two-fold: 1) that doesn’t sound like a group I would have much sympathy for, and, 2) oh, crap! I’m one of them.
At Berkeley Rep, Lisa Kron’s In the Wake presents us with a chapter in the life of tall, blonde, bi-curious Ellen (Heidi Schreck).From the dramaturgical form, we may suspect this is the playwright’s own story.It is set during the Bush Years, a time most of all of us would prefer to forget.Regrettably, it goes on about as long as the Bush Years did.This vastly overwritten play (caution: 3 hours with intermission) is made entertaining by the effortless realism of the very talented and well-cast actors.Three hours is reserved for works of importance, and this self-important frippery, which expects us to have sympathy for a character that in no way merits it in a story that leads nowhere, made me almost as angry as W’s two terms did.
We need a little distance to appreciate things.When they started projecting newscasts of those eight-long-years, they may as well have brought on a chalkboard and a lady with long finger nails.I couldn’t empathize with this egocentric, oblivious do-gooder; she is a blindly ironic character Bay-Areans might well laugh at if she weren’t tall, blonde, educated and progressive.When an actor begins the play with a monologue to the audience trying to explain themselves, my hackles go up; my lip curls when they repeatedly appear spotlit to further explain themselves.The monologues are only emotional commentary and neither advance the play nor add exposition nor provides any resolution.I didn’t come to hear your confession or description; dramatize the damn thing.
The program notes set my teeth for some hearty intellectual meat by invoking implications of systems theory, chaos theory, the “butterfly effect,” and the idea that the randomness of the universe has much to be said for it.Instead, the play served up jello—pretty and bouncy but without substance.
Set mainly in a Manhattan apartment, it begins at a Thanksgiving with close knit friends. Ellen and Danny (Carson Elrod) live together without benefit of wedlock.Their ever-present neighbors are a “married” lesbian couple.They are visited by Ellen’s depressive friend Judy (Deidre O’Connell, whom you will recognize from films and TV) who works for an NGO in strife-ridden Africa.The focus is on the TV and the Gore v. Bush election debacle.
Our heroine goes on a political rant at every opportunity, blithely stepping on others’ feelings, followed by profuse apologies.Danny, the sole man in the play, is cute and charming with a capacity for understanding that only enlightened heirs of Alan Alda share: he accepts Ellen’s regular visits to Boston and her black-haired, film-maker lover Amy (Emily Donahoe).Brunette lesbian Laurie (Danielle Skraastad) is a not particularly liberal, nuts-and-bolts woman who wants stability and is frightened/angered by 9/11. Her red-haired partner Kayla (Andrea Frankle) is about to abandon her dreams of creativity for the security of a corporate job. This, predictably, drives Ellen up the wall and she tries to interfere. In turn, the married couple has judgments about Ellen’s polyamorous out-of-town adventures, and her leaving her long-suffering male partner behind for long weekends.Too close for comfort, and too much in each other’s business.They seem to be constantly in one another’s company, sharing ordered-out meals, or those cooked by Laurie; we never see Ellen use a microwave or wash a dish which tells us a lot about her character.
There is some witty amusement but no real laughs, it’s all very recognizable and cozy, but the conflict is minimal and derives mainly from our heroine’s wanting to “have it all” without paying any price.The players admirably fill their roles with nuance and quirk—one of the more difficult acting challenges—but are constrained by uninspired writing that includes break-up scenes with dialogue more appropriate to a Danielle Steel novel.
While the expansive Roda Theatre dwarfs the play, the scenic artists fill up the stage expertly.David Korins recreates the Manhattan apartment that I think I lived in 30 years ago, with walls that hadn’t been painted for the previous 30 years, with no window but a fire escape, and shelving so high that you will never again be able to access those books you put up there.He puts the whole set in an inset shadow box-like frame.When Alexander V. Nichols’ collage of newsreel images of W, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the other still-at-large war criminals are projected onto the set, the angle of the proscenium’s frame bends and warps them and—with the choice to project them in black-and-white—conjures an Orwellian bad dream. Even Gore’s Mr. Rogers-like concession speech makes the skin crawl.To change venues, he flies in a lateral strip of background that foreshortens the stage and transports us to Boston and some hot foreplay in her lover’s bedroom.
A highlight of the play is when Judy’s mixed-race but distinctly African-American niece Tessa (Miriam F. Glover) from Kentucky, who has come to live with her, is fussed over by this family of friends.When their various nouveau lifestyles are revealed to the country girl, her discomfort is realistic and palpable, yet she precociously points out some ironies that get a laugh.
The key scene is when friend Judy reveals that she doesn’t vote, which outrages Ellen.With the wisdom and patience that comes from seeing the depths of humanity, Judy calmly explains that voting is a feckless charade and that the American system is designed to secure the status of the wealthy, to keep the middle class mollified, and to keep the poor down.Her polemic concludes that Americans like Ellen think that “anything is possible” by dint of a ditzy idealism fed to middle-class girls in the latter 20th century.In a notable elevation of the otherwise commonplace prose, this political lesson is delivered with such moving articulation from a character who has fought her way out of her trailer-trash Kentucky background that we forgive the didacticism.
This revelation might have reversed the course of our heroine and brought her to some wisdom, but, alas, the final monologue of this politics-filled and time-specific domestic dramedy ends with an abrupt and depressing solo fugue. Ellen’s arc just doesn’t happen. This play does not feed the soul, transport us to another world, or make us wiser
Both Ellen and the play end as they began: still clueless and all about her.Even the title of the play is a stretch and self-referential: the detritus that our Ellen leaves and is left with in the wake of her self-absorbed life.
In the Wake plays Tue-Sun through June 27, at Berkeley Rep in the Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison Street
Tickets/info: (510) 647–2949 or http://www.berkeleyrep.org
Written by Lisa Kron, directed by Leigh Silverman, scenic design by David Korins, costume design by Meg Neville, lighting and projection design by Alexander V. Nichols, sound design by Cricket S. Myers, dramaturgy by Pier Carlo Talenti, casting by Bonnie Grisan, Amy Potozkin, and Erika Sellin. Stage Management by Elizabeth Atkinson.
WITH: Emily Donahoe (Amy), Carson Elrod (Danny), Andrea Frankle (Kayla), Miriam F. Glover (Tessa), Deirdre O’Connell (Judy), Heidi Schreck (Ellen), and Danielle Skraastad (Laurie).
John A. McMullen II was just accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association.
Email comments to EyeFromTheAisle@gmail.com