Mary-Louise Parker and the Pleasure of Speech

The most pure, ear-tickling pleasure I’ve got from a speech this year came from the book “Peter Hujar’s Day,” by Linda Rosenkrantz. You might know Rosenkrantz’s first book, “Talk,” a collage of real-life tape-recorded conversations between the author and her friends during the Warhol-redolent summer of 1965. “Peter Hujar’s Day” is similarly simple in premise and surprisingly thrilling in execution. In 1974, Rosenkrantz asked several of her friends—among them the photographer Peter Hujar—to log everything they did on a single day, and Hujar chose December 18th. (It happened to be a Wednesday, that least memorable, most revealingly normal day of the week.) Hujar forgot the assignment and let his day go unledgered, but, at Rosenkrantz’s prompting, he went to her apartment and talked about the day from beginning to end while her tape recorder spun.

The resulting monologue—a little book you can throw into a free pocket—is a quick, freewheeling documentary mélange of information and gossip, attitude and conjecture. Hujar, who died in 1987, springs alive as if from a coating of amber, kept fresh by his verbal power. On the day in question, he’d gone to photograph the famous poet and counterculture swami Allen Ginsberg, but the achievement of the text is less in its profusion of names (though those are fun, too; the longtime New Yorker photography critic Vince Aletti shows up) than in its demonstration of how quickly conversation—just speech, nothing more—can come to constitute not only a person but the entire social world that surrounds him.

Here’s a snippet of Hujar’s charismatic talk about Ginsberg. Watch how it spills over into the personal and the bureaucratic, moving downstream from an encounter with an eccentric celebrity to little details about employment:

Standing there in this burned-out butcher shop window, with his arms
crossed, chanting. He kept doing that ummpatumpum. Then we go to the
doorway across the street and he sat down in the lotus position,
looking very Buddha, right in the doorway, and started to chant. And I
really thought well, I can’t interrupt God. . . . OK, so we finish
taking pictures out in the street and I don’t know what else to do
there. At one point I said you’re talking to me like I’m the New York
and I’m not. He kept throwing in things about the ownership of
the Times’ connections with the oil interests and I couldn’t care
less. I mean the details are like a soap opera that’s not very
interesting. So he said but you work for the Times and I say no,
this is the first job I’ve ever gotten for the Times and suddenly
that was much better and I asked if I could take some portraits of him
at home for me, and he said sure.

I kept thinking about “Peter Hujar’s Day,” and about how talk can be a free gift between friends—the gift being more reality than any one person can witness on her own—as I went to see plays in the past month. As I hinted at in my most recent theatre column, on Lileana Blain-Cruz’s hearteningly wild new interpretation of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” (at the Vivian Beaumont), I’ve been slightly blue these days about the gathering feeling, in our society and in a lot of the art I see and hear, that people always seem to be engaged in a zero-sum struggle, trying to eke out every advantage, and it appears that talk is just a way to get over on one another.

That idea is perhaps best expressed by the “groomer” slur that certain conservatives, led by the guilelessly amoral Christopher Rufo, have started to use against teachers who dare to discuss sexuality and gender with their students. David Mamet, whose 1975 play, “American Buffalo,” is in revival (at Circle in the Square), recently shared his own spin on the wacko groomer ideology in a Fox News segment, saying that teachers, especially men, are “inclined” toward pedophilia. And, as it happens, “American Buffalo” runs on the lack of trust implicit in that grotesque assertion. Donny (Laurence Fishburne), the owner of a secondhand shop, has a somewhat teacherly relationship with a troubled young kid named Bobby (Darren Criss).

Donny tries to show Bobby the ropes—he tells him to eat and counsels greater discretion in interpersonal matters—but the deeper context of their relationship is essentially predatory. The pair are cooking up a tawdry heist, barely worthy of the name, and the plan gets complicated by the intervention of Teach (Sam Rockwell), another gimlet-eyed crook, closer in age and experience to Bobby than to Donny. The name Teach takes on a new, dismal meaning in light of Mamet’s ideological obsessions—it has the ring of an assertion that the only lesson worth learning is to get yours and watch your own back. The acting was good and the play undeniably purred—Neil Pepe’s direction was all deft, dancerly movement and hot moments of chaos amid the clutter of Donny’s shop—but I left the show irritated by its faulty and erroneously mercenary anthropology.

There’s a teacher, too, in Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” up on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman, directed by Mark Brokaw. His name is Peck (David Morse), and he’s the uncle, by way of marriage, of Li’l Bit (Mary-Louise Parker). He’s been manipulating her into an ever-darker, ever more intricately difficult scenario of sexual abuse. The play opens in a car: it’s the scene, we soon understand, of many instances of abuse, and the pretext for the pair’s time alone over the years.

Nobody, then, has more right to cynicism than Li’l Bit. Parker originated the role Off Broadway, in 1997, and part of the added meaning of her recasting in this production comes from the mere sight and sound of a somewhat older woman reaching back into the past to recover these dangerous memories. (Morse played Peck back in 1997, too.) I’d entered the theatre sort of clenched, not looking forward to what might add up to a depressing night, but Parker skillfully used the implicit distance between an older Li’l Bit and the adolescent version who passed through so much bewilderment and pain. Vogel, in a feat of intricate patterning, pulls from the jargon of driver’s ed to create tongue-in-cheek chapter headings, skipping the story back and forth through time, making it feel even more like a gauzy memory.

Both Vogel and Parker—whom I’ve come to admire for her onstage ability, independent from the words on the page, to portray the difficulties of thought in real time—insist on humor. Parker plays a two-stranded scene—in which we see Li’l Bit’s mother teaching her how to drink with men, even as, in scene, we see her uncle subtly plying her with drinks—as a kind of screwball comedy, causing the audience to cringe and chuckle at the same time. And her recounting of the portentous quirks of her family reads like the beginning of a comic coming-of-age novel:

In most families, relatives get names like, “Junior,” or “Brother,” or
“Bubba.” In my family, if Grandma calls her husband “Big Papa,” it’s
not because he’s tall. In my family, folks tend to get nicknamed for
their genitalia. Uncle Peck, for example. My Mama’s adage was “the
titless wonder,” and my cousin Bobby got branded for life as
“B.B.”—for blue balls.

The play is unabashedly about grooming—the actual kind, the kind that slips past cable-news political pageantry and settles into the bones of a family—but it’s also, decidedly, not a resigned shrug of the shoulders about the human condition. Li’l Bit’s talk—her humor, her wit, the small, pondering pauses that Parker turns into quiet treatises—is a kind of redemption. She’s a humanist, even though her life, in the person of her uncle, has done its damnedest to dehumanize her. Every sentence is a triumph, limited but real.

“The Minutes,” a new play by Tracy Letts, directed by Anna D. Shapiro (at Studio 54), is a mystery that’s, in the end, all about words and their concealment. A young city councilman has missed a meeting, and now one of his colleagues has disappeared. The meeting’s minutes have gone missing, and the councilman’s attempt to uncover them leads to increasingly unsettling hijinks and, eventually, a strangely abrupt genre switch. The play seems to speak directly to our current culture wars concerning race and history, in schools and beyond, from the Sturm und Drang over the New York Times’s 1619 Project to Rufo’s farcical witch-hunting with respect to critical race theory. Perhaps it was that too sleek, matchy-matchy metaphor—and a kind of unearned jadedness about what a text, and the truth it contains, can do when it finally does show up—that made me sour on the show.

All through it, and for many days after, as I kept my ears open on the streets, straining to overhear something good, I couldn’t stop thinking about Parker’s Li’l Bit, and about Rosenkrantz’s Hujar, two hyperverbal heroes who, through considerable darkness, speak light, and life, into being.

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