How to Stay Bitter Through the Happiest Times…
nytheatre.com review by Thomas Weitz
June 11, 2006
Before I describe Anita Liberty's new one-woman performance piece, How to Stay Bitter Through the Happiest Times in Your Life, I should mention that I had very high expectations going into the show. Unlike some of Liberty's audience members who I imagine must have seen one of her shows or read one of the books on which they're based, my expectations didn't derive from having previously experienced her work. I just liked the show's title. It sounded to me like just the kind of irreverent rant that would justify my decision earlier that night to forego watching the Tony Awards in favor of what I was hoping would be a more substantive theatrical experience. By the time I finally sat down to watch Liberty perform I was half expecting the next Sandra Bernhard or Spalding Grey to walk out on stage. I was sadly, but not surprisingly, disappointed.
Bitter is an autobiographical piece written and performed by Liberty about her first serious relationship since a bitter breakup with her last boyfriend (the basis for her last book and performance piece, How to Heal the Hurt by Hating). At the same time Bitter is also about the challenges Liberty has faced while attempting to become a successful artist. In more general terms, the show explores Liberty's difficulty in striking a balance between the cynical and hard-edged independence that has led to her current artistic success and her desire to be more trusting and open with her new love interest.
Although Liberty purports to be the kind of sarcastic and insightful performer I was hoping to have discovered, I actually found her writing to be too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Instead of delving into the nuances of her new relationship, Liberty spends most of her time flitting along the surface, detailing events with rather predictable outcomes and little acknowledgement of their deeper personal significance. Even the ending of the piece, a culminating event at the end of a long process of self-discovery, seems like more of a footnote then a major personal victory.
Thankfully, Liberty's writing isn't a total bust. There are some funny poems in the piece including one called "Getting Over Myself" and another entitled "The Last Day at My Temp Job" both of which capture quintessential moments in Liberty's evolution from hobbyist to full-blown artist charmingly. However, even the humorous parts of the show tend to illicit more of a chuckle then an outright laugh.
The flatness of Bitter's writing might not have been as noticeable had Liberty's delivery been better, but unfortunately she gives a stilted performance. I think this is due in large part to director Christopher Duva's decision to place her behind a music stand for the duration of the piece. This seems to affect both her delivery of the material, which comes across as being read rather than performed, and the general atmosphere of the piece, which feels more like a lecture than a performance. Even Spalding Grey, who spent a large part of his performances behind a desk, found occasional moments to come out and connect with his audience. Liberty by contrast seems trapped behind her podium, unable to express herself.
One aspect of staging that I do think is successful is the use of screen projections to punctuate and underline certain aspects of Liberty's monologue. One of the high points of the production occurs in the beginning of the show with Liberty standing in front of a projection of The Little Mermaid, equating her own desire to give up her bitterness for newfound love to The Little Mermaid's decision to give up her voice for the ability to walk on land.
Unfortunately, the screen projector on its own cannot save the show. In fact even as it helps illustrate Liberty's story it also conspires, along with the music stand and Liberty's constant reminders to the audience that the show is based on writings from her soon-to-be-published book, to give the impression that Bitter is more of an extended book reading then a performance piece. For this reason I would only recommend this piece to fans of Liberty's writing and not to the casual viewer.