As some of you may know, I was born in England. It was an accident. Please accept my deepest apologies just the same. There are more than enough Brits dominating New York life and culture as it is. I’m with you on that one.
The only reason I bring up my Englishness is to explain why I know absolutely nothing about Peanuts . It leaves my American friends astonished, but it’s true. Charles M. Schulz’s fabled Peanuts comic strip that inspired You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown , which has opened on Broadway, reaches a daily readership of 350 million round the world. But it didn’t reach me.
I’d heard of Charlie Brown. The dazzling literary salons of London I inhabited are not so cut off from real life. We’d hear from time to time of this 6-year-old misery who was worshiped by adult America. But I hadn’t a clue who-or what-he was.
Well, do you know who Bill and Ben, the flowerpot men, are? I forgive you for not knowing. Bill and Ben, cartoonesque TV heroes of my childhood, were little flower men who lived in flowerpots. They were certifiably insane. They spoke a peculiar language. (See also the invented language of today’s Teletubbies, as well as the experimental use of language in Caryl Churchill’s Blue Kettle , which I’ll be discussing later.) Unlike Charlie Brown, a lucid loser, there’s clearly more to dopey Bill and Ben than meets the eye-including linguistic daring, highly experimental methods of communication and the mysterious psychology of eternal life in a flowerpot.
As I say, I was raised on Bill and Ben, the flowerpot men. I shared the convention. But for at least 20 minutes of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown , I hadn’t a clue what was really going on. Because I didn’t share the convention. I knew that it was a cartoon. (Another cartoon on Broadway!) But why were these stage midgets singing about Beethoven, comfort blankets and kites? And what was it to me?
“All I need is one more try/ Gotta get that kite to fly/ And I’m not a guy/ Who gives up easily.” The audience sees poor old lovable Charlie Brown, who would like to fly a kite but can’t. Well, obviously, this gives us an invaluable insight into the meaning of life. Life is a kite. The audience identifies and is charmed. This is what I’m told: Charlie Brown reminds us of ourselves. It’s O.K. to be depressed!
But wait! What I see-in my innocence, I assure you-is very different. I see an adult actor (Anthony Rapp, late of Rent ) who is playing a child, Charlie Brown. The adult actor wants to be loved, confusing his role with the child. I cannot help but think, perhaps unfairly: Is there anything obnoxiously cuter than adults playing children, unless it’s children playing adults? But let it pass. The Charlie Brown I see isn’t charming or amusing, he’s a mess. He’s even rejected by his own dog, Snoopy. He’s a misery in need of a shrink; a failure mocked by his friends as stupid; the butt of everyone’s jokes; can’t get the girl; and will never fly a kite. He’s one of life’s great neurotic losers.
Now, why generations of Americans have identified with that particular child within is troubling. But my point is that I’m not seeing “lovable” Charlie Brown who-in the words of director Michael Mayer-“has to believe the world is a good and just place.” Because the world as actually presented in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown isn’t a good and just place. It’s a cute, inconsequential place full of existential angst.
When, in another life, I accompanied Peter Brook and his international troupe on a half-mad theater safari through the Sahara and central west Africa, audiences often couldn’t understand what on earth was going on. We couldn’t speak the same language.
We invented a language. And in one of the little improvisations that took place in village squares, a young actor in the troupe entered the carpet, which served as a stage, to play an old man. But the African villagers, who had crowded excitedly round the carpet to see the show, were mystified. The actor coughed, as old men do, and became a bit hunched and decrepit, playing old. But the African villager didn’t see an old man. He saw a young actor who was taken ill, or he saw something strange and unnatural. He didn’t share the convention.
The African saw a young actor pretending to be old badly. The Englishman saw an adult actor pretending to be a neurotic Charlie Brown cutely. So, in all theater, even in Peanuts cartoon theater, nothing can be taken for granted, nothing can be presumed. The director Michael Mayer, who has done such fine work with Side Man and A View From the Bridge , presumes, for example, that the message of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is “Happiness is anyone or anything at all that is loved by you.”
What’s that again?
“Happiness is anyone or anything at all that is loved by you.” This, he says, is “a radical idea.” It’s all very odd. In “Happiness,” the closing number of the show, which is sung by the entire cast beaming in their jammies, we learn that happiness is having a sister. Or, as the lisping B.D. Wong, who plays Linus, sings it: “Happineth ith having a thithter.”
Ith it? Well, it’s not too important either way, whatever Mr. Mayer may say. The original 1967 production ran for almost five years in a tiny Off-Broadway theater. Its message then must have been “smaller”-more in tune with the modest, wry sketches of the Schulz comic strip. There are two sparkling, uncute performances from Roger Bart as Snoopy, and from Kristin Chenoweth as Sally. It’s hard for adult performers to work miracles as an agitated 5-year-old with Shirley Temple curls, or as an extroverted beagle. But they do.
Blue Heart , Caryl Churchill’s acclaimed double-bill at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a genuine experiment in what this daring, cultvated British dramatist calls “anti-plays.” Ms. Churchill, of Top Girls , Serious Money and The Skriker , among other boldly imaginative, risky dramas, has now questioned the very point of theater itself.
I am pro her anti-plays, though not as feverishly as some. The first, the darkish comedy or farce, Heart’s Desire , explodes and fractures conventional narrative and is the more enjoyably accessible of the two short dramas.
A longtime married couple await, with the husband’s sister, the return of their daughter from Australia. But each time the action starts, Ms. Churchill stops the narrative and replays it with absurd variations. The characters are trapped forever in the anti-play, locked in timelessness and wild imaginings, with no exit.
The form itself isn’t new. Remember Bill Murray in Groundhog Day ? I saw that film when I had jet lag and kept nodding off. Whenever I awoke, the film had begun again. I was trapped in the film! Ms. Churchill’s Heart’s Desire owes more of a debt to Eugene Ionesco and the Theater of the Absurd. (Unusually among contemporary British dramatists, she relishes absurdity.) As we await the daughter’s return from Australia, anything could come through the door. Anything does, including a huge ostrich.
At the same time, I recognize a North Country English farce when I see one. (The characters also speak in North Country accents.) The narrative experiment, and even the “anti-play,” aren’t as boldly anti-convention as we’re led to believe. The piece is rooted in traditional farce, with weirdly surreal interludes (a monologue on self-cannibalism; a wonderful invasion of the stage by a swarm of children). The breakdown of the narrative mirrors the melancholy breakdown of the family. Death is awaited at the door, a little obviously. The piece, nevertheless, is wildly funny.
The second anti-play, Blue Kettle , is more problematic. The story holds fascinating promise: A 40-year-old con man dupes elderly women into believing he’s the son they gave up for adoption long ago. Perhaps they’ll leave him a legacy; more likely, he needs their protection and love.
I found myself wishing that Ms. Churchill had written the play ; though, of course, she’s entitled to be the author of her own malfunction. The dramatist prefers an experiment in language and feeling, as if a computer virus had taken over. About halfway through the piece, the words “blue” and “kettle” gradually take over the language.
Why? I haven’t a blue.
It seems to me that if it’s Ms. Churchill’s intention to show that emotion exists independent of words, she has succeeded. But that isn’t new, either. What is the mysterious power of great music, but the power beyond words?
The outcome of Ms. Churchill’s word experiment seems merely strange or eccentric:
“Don’t try to be the kettle of attention, Enid.”
“What’s the kettle? Blue the kettle with her, Derek?”
Or: “I don’t remember blue. Is that kettle? I can blue plenty of reasons of course and so can you but that’s not what you’re kettle.”
Or this: “T-b-k-k-k-k-l?”
To which that answer is: “B.K.”
Which, I’m told, is another way of saying: “Would you like a cup of tea?” Answer: “Yes, please.”
It says a lot for the entire skilled ensemble, directed impeccably by Max Stafford-Clark, that they make it all seem completely natural.
Well, see blue all next kettle.