The needle-scratch moment—a simulation of the sound of a phonograph needle being hastily taken off a vinyl record as it’s playing—has become useful (if hackneyed) cultural shorthand for an abrupt change of direction. It is a gimmick beloved of, for instance, directors of television commercials who require a quick and (to their minds at least) funny way to let the audience know it is meant to let out a stunned, collective, “What the hey?” One doesn’t often hear the sound effect in the theater, but it is played offstage near the halfway point of Our Mother’s Brief Affair (at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre), Richard Greenberg’s memory play about an exasperating Long Island mother (a wily and roguish Linda Lavin, star of the 1970s sitcom Alice) who thoroughly exploits the dramatic possibilities that come with announcing one’s impending death but proves Reaper-resistant for many more years than anyone would have expected.
In the early going it’s a witty, fond, and enjoyable piece, if not a particularly ambitious one. After that needle-scratch, though, it becomes something else entirely—politicized and chiefly concerned not with Anna’s one-liners but with moral and historical questions. It is, in short, two plays in one, and though Greenberg takes pains to conceal his ultimate purpose, there is no way to discuss what he’s about without giving away that end-of-Act-One secret. So if you plan to see Our Mother’s Brief Affair and don’t wish to have the surprise spoiled, skip to the next review.
“Who was she?” wonders Seth (Greg Keller) about his departed mother Anna (Lavin) as the play begins. We learn that “she looked great in Russian hats” and was “an average situational liar but not a maker of fables.” She loved junk food: “the potato chip is nature’s most perfect food,” she would say. She was “nostalgic, but not for anything that ever happened.” In and out of surgery, fending off one life-threatening disorder or another, she would alternately vex and bewitch Seth as he sat comfortingly, or at least dutifully, by her sickbed. One day—it is 2003—she volunteers the information that she once had an affair. This seems to Seth like anesthesia talking or a dotty aside, it being a well-known fact that none of our parents ever had sex, especially with anyone we didn’t know, but Anna volunteers detail after detail, gradually building a convincing case that she is telling the truth. And so the characters slip back into earlier editions of themselves.
Seth was a boy then, in 1973, studying the viola at Juilliard, where he took a lesson each Saturday morning after taking the train in from the Long Island suburbs with his mother. On a bench in Central Park, Anna struck up a friendship with a kindly and dashing older man named Phil (John Procaccino) who was raised in the same working-class 1930s New York City neighborhood where Anna also grew up. Soon Anna and Phil’s meetings began to take place not on a bench but in a hotel room, while the unknowing Seth was sawing away at his viola.
The older Seth naturally feels betrayed by this information, even as he can fully understand why Anna might have needed respite from his father (also played by Procaccino, in an effective cameo, as a hectoring blockhead). In the closing years of his mother’s life, Seth means finally to come to terms with all she was, but the revelation of unseen new layers instead confounds him further.
Seth is meant to be a surrogate for the audience—young, rational, grounded (and gay, as is his twin sister, played by Kate Arrington, whose function is to give Seth someone other than the audience with whom to share his observations about Anna). He is Anna’s foil, but Greenberg can’t help giving the funniest aperçus to her, and even her mild loopiness is endlessly endearing. Seth, meanwhile, emerges merely as peevish, uptight, and loveless. He can’t seem to maintain a relationship with any lover, a detail Greenberg includes to suggest that (like many a gay man before him), Seth can’t disengage himself from the maternal force field, but from my vantage point Seth appeared simply too mistrustful, sour, and internally oriented to make a suitable mate for anyone.
Greenberg’s central gambit is to use a twist in the narrative at the end of the first act to try to turn the audience against Anna by having her reveal that Phil was something more, or less, than the courtly widower she has so far described. We’re in a hotel room with Phil and Anna when he tells her that he has been lying to her. Though she suspects no deceit, he volunteers the information that his name isn’t really Phil: It’s David Greenglass.
Needle scratch. It’s a dramatically ungainly moment, because Greenberg knows the time has long passed when even an educated audience would automatically recognize Greenglass’s name. So Seth, halting the action, addresses himself directly to the audience and explains in a longish monologue that Greenglass, a boy drafted into the Army in World War II, was sent to Los Alamos to work as a mechanic. There, his sister Ethel Rosenberg’s husband Julius entreated him to pass along plans for the atomic bomb in order to give them to the Soviets. Greenglass did so and later confessed everything to federal investigators, who spared him for his cooperation but pressed onward against the Rosenbergs, who were executed. Seth adds that the evidence against Julius Rosenberg was later shown to be overwhelming but insists that Ethel was innocent: She did nothing except type up some notes, he says. (Later in the play we learn in a throwaway line that it was Ethel, not Julius, who initially approached Greenglass at Los Alamos. Oh. Greenberg doesn’t tell the audience that the Venona papers unearthed from Soviet archives in the 1990s provided damning evidence that Ethel was involved in Soviet spying.)
The curtain falls on Act One with the audience left tantalized by the possibility that Greenglass’s name could upend our understanding of everything that’s happened so far. Certainly the name adds some seasoning to the stew, but it’s still the same dish. On his own terms, then, I think Greenberg has not succeeded, but it is a pleasure to watch an ardently left-wing playwright argue politics with himself and lose. Greenberg is apparently a member of that hardy remnant for whom Communism was undone by certain unsavory practitioners and an unfortunate publicity apparatus, not by its own demented internal logic. Marxism-Leninism remains the Lost Cause of the Left.
After the revelation, though, with the audience meant to be reeling or at least unnerved by the knowledge that Anna slept with the enemy, she makes short work of Seth and his sister’s disapproval. Seth and Greenberg strenuously attempt to interest us in the idea that what Anna should have done is storm out of the room when she learned her lover’s true identity, but like most of us Anna doesn’t live her life like an undergraduate activist or one of those chaps who writes a freshly incensed letter to the editor every day. She (much like a 2016 audience) had to be reminded, even in 1973, of what Greenglass had done, and failed to muster much interest in it. She simply wasn’t a political person. By the time Seth, fulminating, compares Greenglass to Hitler and Jack the Ripper, instead of sharing his anger I wanted to pat him on the head and gently explain that Greenglass was more like someone who testified against Jack the Ripper and Hitler. Greenberg tries to frame Greenglass as one of history’s great betrayers, but for what? Making the Left look bad? Would Greenberg seriously argue that giving history’s greatest weapon to an intractable enemy sworn to destroy your own country is not a treasonous act, or that it should go unpunished? Even in New York intellectual circles, the time for defending the Soviet Union has long since expired. Anna may be a little stiff in the joints, but she isn’t the one debilitated by defunct ideology.
If there were a genuinely “audacious” and “subversive” director out there, he’d contribute his own needle-scratch moment to the history of Broadway by staging an all-white version of The Color Purple, the 2005 musical based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel. You may recall either the heavy-handed book or Steven Spielberg’s lugubrious 1985 film adaptation as somewhat soggy “issue” dramas that begged us to attach to them unearned socio-historical significance, but as directed by John Doyle, the revival (at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre) would hardly need to be altered for a white cast. Indeed, with its theme of women awakening to their rights as free individuals unbeholden to the men who seek to control them, it could wittily be staged as a commentary on any number of today’s Muslim-ruled lands, albeit only by a director willing to cover the resulting expense of armored cars and bodyguards.
This edition of The Color Purple succeeds wonderfully because it locates the essence of the material, which is firmly rooted in the conventions of melodrama, of soap opera. It’s a solid example of what entertainment executives used unabashedly to call “women’s entertainment,” emotionally redolent and pleasingly formulaic. Such is the appeal of this production that it may rescue the show from the second-rate status that attached to it during its original run (produced by Oprah Winfrey, a star of the film) a decade ago. In a generation to come, one can picture the musical so firmly entrenched that audiences will be surprised to discover the story had previously appeared in the form of a book and a film.
Set in Georgia between 1909 and 1949, the show (book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray) makes excellent use of pop, soul, gospel, blues, and jazz motifs to tell of the fall and rise of Celie (an incandescent Cynthia Erivo), a poor servant girl whose best friend is her sister Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango) and who has produced two children by the man she believes to be her father (actually he isn’t). Each of the children has been taken away by the older man and is presumed dead.
Celie, who is often derided as ugly by her peers, has little choice but to accept an arranged marriage with a much older man, the brutish Mister (a snarling Isaiah Johnson). The power imbalance between the two is such that she doesn’t even know her husband’s name. But as decades pass she makes what she can of a pitiable existence, looking after Mister’s children and yearning for any kind of human connection now that Nettie has stopped answering her letters and is also presumed dead.
She finds herself awakening sexually when she meets the vampish, uninhibited cabaret singer Shug Avery (a regnant Jennifer Hudson, making a belated Broadway debut after having won the Academy Award for her role in the film version of Broadway’s Dreamgirls). Shug happens to be the one person for whom Mister also cares, having once had an affair with her. Shug enjoys a casual, teasing power over Mister, whom she dismisses by his given name, Albert, and returns Celie’s homosexual interest in the ballad “What About Love?”
It’s a lovely song and marvelously sung, the centerpiece of the evening. If the number weren’t a showstopper we might not forgive the chief flaw of The Color Purple, which is that the fling between Shug and Celie is fairly ludicrous. There is a caste chasm between the two women, and as we’re repeatedly told, the one is a sexual sorceress while the other is humble and plain. Nor would it have been particularly difficult, in the 1930s and 1940s, for a touring jazz singer to have met others with Sapphic inclinations. The two have as much in common as dust and emeralds.
In parallel to discovering a sexual component in herself she had never known existed, Celie also experiences a social awakening when she meets Sofia (delectably played by Danielle Brooks, best known for playing the inmate Taystee on the popular Netflix comedy-drama Orange Is the New Black), the wife of Mister’s diffident son Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe). Sofia, refusing to be anyone’s property, responds to Harpo’s attempts to beat her into submission by giving him a thrashing instead, and even serves time in jail. Nevertheless she secures the upper hand in her marriage, much to Mister’s disappointment. Her example leads Celie eventually to stand up for herself and even start a business sewing pants for women, inspiring the ebullient comic number “Miss Celie’s Pants,” in which the women delight in their colorful, liberating trousers.
Both the book and the film seemed to wallow in Celie’s various humiliations, deprivations, and frustrations, but this stage production is much lighter in tone: for instance, in both Walker and Spielberg’s versions, the moment when Celie spits in Albert’s drink is framed as a quiet but devastating act of rebellion, a desperate woman’s only means of fighting back. In Doyle’s view, it’s a “You go, Girl!” act that wins a hearty chuckle from the audience. Doyle, crucially, understands that the first imperative of Broadway is to entertain, and so he finds comedy in the vanities of the men, beauty in the friendships of the women, and comfort in the benedictions of the Lord. This Color Purple is soothing balm. In the inspirational title song, which concludes the show, the women locate with pleasure their place in nature and in God’s design:
Like a honeybee
Like a waterfall
All a part of me.
Like the color purple,
Where do it come from?
Now my eyes are open,
Look what God has done.
In the audience, dry eyes are at a shortage by the time these words are sung.
That the American entertainment industry is ruled by guilty white liberals poses certain challenges when dealing with race. Today the horror is of being accused of what might be termed Bagger Vance-ism, after a 2000 film (the execrable Robert Redford–directed The Legend of Bagger Vance) in which Will Smith played a type that later became derided by blacks as “the magical negro,” a smiling and servile angel selflessly (even slavishly) dedicated to the advancement of white people’s interests. (In a decade, if not less, the film will doubtless join Disney’s Song of the South in the memory hole of suppressed celluloid). “They endured”—Faulkner’s slightly condescending two-word summation of the black experience in the South—today seems insufficient, even politically inoperable. “They suffered” seems a much more apt slogan, and brings with it the smugness of announcing one has taken notice of another’s pain. Yet “Come and see some suffering” doesn’t make for a very attractive pitch to ticket-buyers. Usually it doesn’t occur to show-business types that “they suffered” is itself a kind of reductionist condescension, a blindness to the range and texture of another class’s experience. This production of The Color Purple carries the subtext that, in every economic stratum, people simply get on with it as best they can. It’s a show that says, “They lived.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 6, on page 40
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