Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Finding 'Never Land'

For the flatmates of D––––– St.

Phyllis Nagy's Never Land is the best play I have read so far this year, or at least the most interesting. I picked it up based on The Webloge's vehement recommendation of Nagy in general; Never Land, as I understand it, is not her favorite among Nagy's works, but it's one of only three that my university library owns, and you've got to start somewhere. If, however, the correct implication is that Nagy's other plays are even more ambitious and unsettling, then I've got a new name to add to my list of favorite modern playwrights.

Never Land takes place in the south of France and concerns itself with the three Jouberts: Henri, a middle-aged Frenchman who works at a perfume distillery, though neither his head nor his heart is much there; Anne, his tart and witty wife, loyal throughout his string of failed enterprises but longing for her own, different life; and Elisabeth, their thirty-something daughter, comfortable bathing in front of her parents in the very first scene but adamant in keeping them from meeting her fiancé. The first scene of the first act is the only one where les Joubert reserve the stage to themselves, all together and unaccompanied. The bulk of Nagy's three-act script showcases the Jouberts' strained relations to four other characters: their married friends the Caton-Smiths, petits-bourgeois from England; Albert Montel, the jocular owner and foreman of the parfumerie where Henri works; and Michael Carver, an African-American employee of a nearby casino, and Elisabeth's lover. The last scene of the last act, in a bitter symmetry, will again focus solely on the Jouberts, though a crucial series of entrances and exits will keep them from sharing the stage all at once, or ever again.

The most obvious theme of Never Land is the pathetic and oddly Sisyphusian way in which Henri dreams of abandoning his homeland for England. This longing so encases the other aspects of his character that Nagy's dramatis personae describes Henri only as "a middle-aged Frenchman who only speaks perfect RP." Henri's Anglophilia elicits both pity and discomfort, from his intimates as well as Nagy's audience, as he reprimands his daughter and his boss for addressing him in French, insists on referring to the wine he drinks as "tea," and even goads his dinner guests through impromptu recitals of skits from Fawlty Towers (where Henri, oddly, plays a Spanish character). It is a hot, passionate thing, Henri's craving for England, even when it courts absurdity and incites plunging melancholia. Doubtless, Nagy's play communicates something different to readers better-versed than I in the particulars of English-French relations, although the elliptical register of her setting and dialogue, all of them strongly redolent of subconscious urges and psychic states, all but neutralize the specificity of France and England within the logic of the play. The Jouberts live on the top of a high, muddy precipice, while the admittedly sheltered Caton-Smiths describe their neighborhood in London as a rare bulwark against the encroaching emptiness and lawlessness of Britain. Uniting all of the characters, though none too chummily, is a desire for geographic distance, mirroring a desire for personal solitude. This is not one of those plays about "alienation" where modernity's castaways hunger for a closer connection. Instead, Nagy's characters, already divorced each from the other, including spouses in lasting marriages, including couples from their friends, including parents from their children, can be roused to trembling aggravation at the slightest hint of companionship.

Working out a heady array of formal inroads to this sad and often angry emotional territory, Nagy fills her script with interesting conceits that are never quite systematic: they permeate the play, but not always in the same way, and not in a way that actors, directors, or audiences will easily put their finger on. Though Nagy subtly quotes at least one O'Neill title in the play and conjures his ghost in many other ways, her characters' curious and almost unpunctuated soliloquies do not separate public behavior from private obsession in quite so clean a way as the monologues in Strange Interlude or Mourning Becomes Electra do. The "(Beat)"s peppered all over the script are not necessarily pauses, and despite surface appearances, the story and the characters in Never Land differ from Pinter's example as much as they invoke them. Pinter often does what Henri does at his job: he distills essences, condensing subtle strains of meaning and feeling into overwhelming atmospheres, as a means of both defining a place and implying where else its inhabitants wish they were. Nagy, though less innovative in her style, is more complex in her tones and admixtures. Never Land sees its characters as discrete, if not altogether incompatible, and the different kinds of disunion that define their psyches and plague their relationships do not boil down into any universal statement. Indeed, it would defy Nagy's point to court any such goal. Rather, by shuttling us amongst comedy, eroticism, and panic, she all but changes the mood and rhythm of the play with every new scene, and she refuses the audience any ironic superiority over her characters' knowledge or self-knowledge. She does not shy from outsized staging effects—a huge vat of boiling fragrance, a thunderous rainstorm—but these are neither so predominating nor so numerous as to disguise her primary interest in her people.

And it is in people, not in any one person, that Never Land maintains its deep, disturbing fascination: in how they flee each other, even in the very midst of seduction; in how they send each other on errands they would rather not commission upon themselves; in how parents sometimes dispatch their own children before moving onto the business of more fully reckoning with each other, or with themselves. These group phenomena seem to me to suit Nagy's style much better than her recent film Mrs. Harris, now playing Stateside on HBO. That script, directed by Nagy's own uncertain hand in a medium she understands much less well than she does the theater, boasts an array of complicated ideas about Jean Harris but shockingly few about her underwritten and dissonantly acted allies and adversaries. Working only on the evidence of these two works, I admire the audacity of her writing: so enviably gifted with elucidating imbalance, estrangement, and disappointment within unexpected life stories, she all but consigns herself to accusations of unevenness—her pitfall as a writer as well as her forte.

Never Land wavers a bit for me whenever the character of Michael shows up, possibly because the script limns his Americanness a bit more rigidly than it does the Frenchness of the Jouberts or the Englishness of the Caton-Smiths, and the rigidity in this case stems not from the characters, but from the play. Nonetheless, Michael comprises the only uncertain note within the utterly persuasive and absorbing discordance of a brave, tricky script, full of speeches and exchanges that are credibly playable in any number of ways. Its portrait of an endangered marriage and an inchoate anxiety with life in toto comes impressively close to the high summit of Albee's A Delicate Balance. The dark, rumbling melodies it both hears and repeats inside words like "menace" and "miscalculation" are equal to the best moments in Mamet, in The Cryptogram or Glengarry Glen Ross. But Nagy is not Albee, or Mamet, or Pinter—or Churchill, or Beckett, or Kane, or Dorfman, or Parks. She aligns herself with the overriding concerns of modern British and American drama but doesn't simply repeat them, and with compelling strokes you don't see coming or don't grasp until much later, she corners her readers into a rich and under-explored terrain of modern introspection.

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Blogger tim r said...

I've only just started it, but I for one (and as a much bigger fan of Mrs Harris) am thrilled you've had this Nagy conversion. Now you must read her adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley, available through amazon I think. In stagecraft, economy, and acuity, it's just mind-blowing.

Back me up, Webloge!

5:28 PM, March 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phyllis Nagy is certainly one of the best playwrights of the century, Nick. Excellent find. I wish that she were more popular in the United States, but that's America's loss, I guess.

6:13 PM, March 28, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I'm on this Ripley tip as soon as I can track it down.

@All of you: Sorry to be so late to the party—I realize the entry reads like it's "making a case" for a playwright who is clearly already well-established—but thanks to you all, again, for the recommendation!

6:34 PM, March 28, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

I always vote for making a case for people, even if they're well-established as true amazements. That way, those of us who don't necessarily keep up with this realm of things can get caught up. So, thanks, everyone!

10:37 PM, March 28, 2006  

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