nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 5, 2006
For those who are excited at the prospect of Lisa Kron's play Well revolutionizing Broadway with its hip, post-modern aesthetic, I have just three words to say: Monty Python's Spamalot.
Yes, friends, it's been done before, and by the most commerical juggernaut around. Intentional breaking of the fourth wall? Check. Sly parody of slightly cheesy and/or self-important theatre forms? Check. Pretense that the show has broken down and they don't know how to end it? Check. Actors walking off the set? Ok, that was in the movie, but... check.
My point here is not that Well isn't entertaining or that Well isn't, in places, very smart; only that it is what is is. And what it is, from where I sit, is, disturbingly, smug: when the show-surrounding-the-show starts to "fall apart," one of the actors announces that this is "some kind of downtown bullshit," reinforcing the stereotype that off-off-Broadway is by nature amateurish, pretentious drivel. Kron, whose roots—nay, whose entire career up to this moment—are solidly off-off-Broadway, ought to know better.
What's ironic is that Well is, at least ostensibly, about the complicated process of integration. The play, Kron tells us at the top of the show, reading from a 3x5 index card with mock-seriousness, is "a multicharacter theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in a community." It's about wellness, in other words: how integrating the forces and energies of your mind and body can keep you healthy; how integrating people of diverse races, religions, ethnicities, etc. within a neighborhood can make society more healthy. Kron illustrates the former point with contrasting stories of her mother, Ann, and herself: Ann, she tells us, has been sick all her life, while Lisa was sick but, thanks to embracing an appropriately liberating lifestyle, is now well.
The latter notion is demonstrated by Ann's genuinely inspiring and noble work in Lansing, Michigan, where she spearheaded a long-term grassroots effort to bring racial diversity to her neighborhood, working hard to truly build community from the ground up, involving blacks and whites in a variety of activities that helped bring about a common sense of purpose and belonging.
It's interesting stuff, though it doesn't actually get much stage time. In fact, one of the flaws of Well, I think, is how peremptorily the racial integration material is treated. Kron gives equal time to both sides of the wellness debate she instigates in her show, letting her mother and several other characters explain to us that some people really are authentically sick and healthy people can't really understand their suffering, and then showing us by her own example that sometimes mind over matter works—that one can choose not to be sick. But the African Americans in Kron's show don't get a similar chance to speak for themselves; instead, in a weird reverse-guilt-trip thing, the most persistent representation of a person of color in the show—for which Kron apologizes over and over—is a nasty, ignorant nine-year-old black girl taunting little Lisa at elementary school.
Kron tells us that this character isn't supposed to be in her play, but of course that's ingenuous nonsense: every single thing that happens in Well, no matter how convincingly the actors argue to the contrary, has been meticulously planned. Which brings me to the question of what this piece is really about. Well is not a theatrical discourse on wellness and integration; nor is it the self-involved woman vs. mother confrontation that Kron has layered on top of her alleged "multicharacter theatrical exploration." (I should explain clearly here that the principal theatrical device employed in Well is that the actress Jayne Houdyshell plays Ann Kron, offering commentary on Lisa's "show" from a purported replica of the real Ann Kron's living room that covers half of the stage.) No, Well seems to me to be a deconstruction of self-involved "avant-garde" theatre, one that ends, intriguingly, with an implicit attack on issue-oriented art:
LISA: I worked really hard on this. It took me a really long time to figure out how to make all the parts of this fit together and make it work.
JAYNE: But it doesn't work.
LISA: It does work. It was working! They were completely with us.
JAYNE: I know. But it was too easy.
LISA: No, it's not. The play is asking really hard questions.
JAYNE: I think they're the wrong questions....Questions like that are very seductive, because it would be so much easier if we could answer them. But we can't. You can't answer them.
(Jayne then proceeds to provide...well...the answer.)
Houdyshell, by the way, is wondrous as Ann (and, briefly, as "herself"); if there's a Tony Award for Most Lovable Characterization, she's got a major lock on it. But to return to my point, even if we accept that the meta-meta-theatrics of Kron's play work (and I don't believe that they consistently do: there's a scene, for example where the "actors" say goodbye to "Ann," as if they'll never see her again; but surely they will, tomorrow, at the next performance, right?), I still don't get what actual form Kron is deconstructing; and I certainly don't agree that she should "Uncle Tom" her downtown roots in order to do it. In other words: where's the actual self-conscious one-woman show with cheap, cheesy scenery and amateurish actors that Well purports to send up? I guess I've seen a couple of sets fall apart on stage, but that almost always has been a function of budget, a problem that this Broadway show with an $86.25 top ought not to have.
So I left Well confused and annoyed. I am very happy that Lisa Kron has made it to Broadway, and I enjoyed many parts of her show, which is without a doubt entertaining and fun and occasionally even thought-provoking. But for all its alleged avant-garde gyrations, Well is as mainstream as any of its midtown neighbors, especially in its eager willingness to look down its nose at its former compadres downtown. Which isn't bad; it's just true.