I spent last evening — which, like tonight, was cold and rainy — wrapped up on our living room love seat, reading two fantastic plays by a young British writer named Patrick Marber. My dissertation director recommended them after listening to me ramble on and on about how I was now utterly convinced that Angels in America is actually about grace, whatever that means.
I began with Howard Katz (2001), the more recent work. It’s the story of a middle-aged talent agent whose life suddenly collapses around him. I’m tempted to describe it as “Death of a Salesman with a happy ending,” but that seems awfully glib. Like Angels, this play forces its characters and its audience to “wrestle with the Almighty” (still my favorite line from Perestroika), and I’m beginning to wonder if this spiritual (if not explicitly Christian) concern can be called a trend. Marber and Kushner are essentially of the same generation. Both should be deeply cynical and ironic, impervious to the barbs of genuine emotion and longing. But here they are, both of them longing for substance. Howard Katz ends with a moment of redemption that, to be honest, doesn’t read particularly well. Successfully staging the scene must require real care, or I imagine that it would slip quickly into melodrama. But the lines themselves are quite beautiful:
I want to live.
Tell me how to live.
With Closer (1997) I began to make sense of the frequent comparisons between Marber and Pinter, though the play that most often came to mind was actually Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Closer is likewise built from a cast of four characters, two men, two women, who torment one another with their particular brands of sadism. Like Albee’s masterpiece, Closer creates a brutal, palpable tension by forcing the audience to identify personally with these characters whose actions we often loathe. It’s quite a balancing act. Marber describes it:
The idea was always to create something that has a formal beauty into which you could shove all this anger and fury. I hoped the dramatic power of the play would rest on that tension between elegant structure — the underlying plan is that you see the first and last meeting of every couple in the play — and inelegant emotion.