Thursday, March 10, 2005

Rewind: Monkeys

While ostensibly being in production for the next solid year, I figured I’d take this time in this space to look back at our previous productions and do a “post-mortem” of sorts. Not especially on the productions per se, but more on the scripts (i.e., my part in the production).

Bear in mind these are not journal entries or “think” pieces on the scripts; these are more Looking Back On Something Nosedive Did When We Were Younger entries, and coming up with ideas about what the guy going around calling himself James Comtois was thinking when he wrote these things.

In essence, I’ll also be like an older guy looking at these scripts as an audience member (considering that many of these scripts were ostensibly written by someone else; although we have similar traits, opinions and anxieties, I really don’t think I’m the same person I was when I was 20).

So, let’s start with the first one, the reason for our logo and tattoo: Monkeys.

* * *

I had to admit I was very apprehensive (to say the least) about rereading and reconsidering Monkeys for the first time in several years, much like meeting up with an ex-girlfriend you haven’t seen, spoken to or thought of in a while.

What a relief it was to find I still liked it!

As proud as I am of Monkeys, and in several ways, it’s one of my favorite plays of mine (more on this later), I think that—despite it being a show that would fare well with multiple productions from different casts and directors—I am under the impression that it would not fare well with many newer Nosedive audiences. There have been some people of late who have asked to read my scripts, and Monkeys is one that I never volunteer unless they specifically ask for that one (and they never do). (See my “Wrong Field” Jamespeak.)

First of all, it reads very poorly. When I first sent it around to friends and family members, nobody liked it (Nate, from the band Cars Can Be Blue, was particularly nonplussed about it). Theatre snobs and theatre people—that is, people who work in theatre and/or studied theatre in school—often don’t get it and don’t like it, because it deliberately changes style, tone and genre (therefore, it can’t be easily pigeonholed as “surrealist,” “slice-of-life,” or “expressionistic,” and as much regard as I have for many of my colleagues in the theatre world, I do believe that theatre schools and the industry systematically blind its students and employees from the forest through the trees [to be fair, I guess every field does that. Just try to talk with an English major about Theodore Dreiser and see how far you get). The play doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s very little action. There’s a LOT of swearing. There are a lot of very sexually immature ruminations. It’s very scatological.

And that monologue. Man, that monologue.

But, it’s possibly the most accurate portrayal of my life in my late-teens/early-twenties that I could write.

And still, after reading it years later, it still makes me laugh.

Monkeys is virtually impossible to describe, which is unfortunate, since it’s probably the play that needs most description. This is especially true now that many if not most of you reading this did not see it, which is a shame, since there are no photos, there’s no videotape and there are no reviews.

I guess the “story” of this one is about a bunch of friends who hang out in an all-night coffee shop to gripe about each other, gripe about other people and flirt with each other.

Yeah, that doesn’t do it any justice.

Okay, how ‘bout this: a friend of mine described it as “It’s Waiting for Godot. But Godot shows up. And they hate her.”

Yeah, that’s no good, either.

Well, if you’re really curious about it, email me and I’ll send you a copy of the script.

Overall I was just interested in that time of your life where you’re old enough to drive and have a job, but not old enough to go to a bar or pay rent: not having a curfew but not having anywhere to go. It’s a weird “twilight zone” part of life: starting to become an adult but still being labeled as a “dependent” when your parents do their taxes. I’m also just fascinated with the way people are bound to one another (and having both positive and negative connotations applying), how relationships change when a new person enters the room and how even the closest of friends keep each other emotionally at arm’s length.

Although this is very clearly a First Play (no, it wasn’t the first play I wrote, but for all intents and purposes I’m calling it my “first”), and it’s very awkward and young, I still have no intention of changing a word. And, despite it being confusing and obtuse for some readers and viewers (even Pete still scratches his head at stuff that I find painfully obvious), there are still so many parts to it that I find funny.

One of the reasons Monkeys is still one of my favorite plays of mine is because it was the one script that came out onto the printed page almost exactly (and I mean exactly) the way I originally imagined it. If people hate or hated it, I can’t (and don’t) use the excuse of “it didn’t come out the way I wanted;” it was my fault. (Again, I can’t judge I it’s a good or a bad play at all, all I can say is that is exactly what I wanted to say, exactly the way I wanted to say it.) It was almost effortless to write (which isn’t to say I didn’t work on it or take my time with it, but I do remember it being the smoothest and most fun to write). It was also the first play I wrote that I felt was mine. It was in my voice and, as a result, I had the confidence to believe that I did have a voice and a style that was mine when I wrote.

And also, it’s one of my favorites simply because it was my First Play.

I had originally staged the play as an informal staged reading at BU in the Spring of 1998 and served as director. I primarily cast friends and drinking buddies (rather than “actors”). The one perk I had for casting and directing friends (being that I’m not a good director and not particularly interested in directing) was that I had to give very little direction. They knew me, knew my sense of humor and knew on an intuitive level what I was looking for. In other words, they just “got it.”

That they “got” my very rough, personal and unconventional play meant a lot to me. That the audience members who came to that mini-production at BU “got” my very rough, personal and unconventional play meant a lot to me. I started to think, “I kind of know what I’m doing here.”

When I moved to New York in August of 1999 and wanted Monkeys staged for real (New York of course, being the place where you had your plays staged for real), I was really interested in seeing how it would be acted in and directed by people who a.) didn’t know me, b.) didn’t know the people I was writing about, and c.) didn’t know the world I was writing about. I figured since I was a really bad director and could pull it off, Pete (who actually liked directing and had done it many times before) couldn’t possibly do any worse.

Although he did better (of course), the process was very informative for both of us.

First of all, most of the cast members we assembled (with some exceptions, mostly graduates of Ithaca College and former theatre majors; “actors,” in other words) did not necessarily “get” the show. I mean, they did a great job and all, but—through no fault of their own—were looking at the project with an intellectual detachment (because, well, that was their job).

And unfortunately, I couldn’t give them any useful advice when they would ask me questions (“Uh, what is the significance or symbolism of this scene? Uh…well…uh…look. I staged it in Boston and it works, okay? People will laugh. Just…do it.”).

To be fair, they were all doing fine (hell, they were doing great). I was just restless most of the time because I had—and have—very little patience explaining things to people (and again, with the crew in Boston, I didn’t have to explain things). I would get frustrated with the Pete for relying on theory rather than his own anxieties and frustrations to portray the characters. Yes, I know; I was getting frustrated with Pete for doing his job—but to be fair, it was my first play in New York and I was freaking out.

If any of this sounds arrogant, I truly don’t mean it to be. It was just a nerve-wracking and bizarre experience to write down my innermost thoughts and anxieties, then having strangers analyze them a couple years later.

There were also things Pete and the cast were doing that were great; things I had never thought of before. Katie Clark had to deliver a four-page, ten-minute monologue that ended up being a frantic run-on sentence on the character’s fevered emotional state and she did it balls-on, without complaint and without paraphrase. Marc Improta would have me laughing like a ninny every time he opened his mouth as his character. And Heff made it very clear to everyone which character was based on myself (the fucker).

I’ve always thought that Monkeys was simply the most honest portrayal of how I perceived people to behave, talk and think that I could do at the time, and the most honest portrayal of how men and women who were friends dealt with sexual tension that I could do at the time.

Interestingly enough, I really wish I could say that the play portrays a naïve view of the way men and women interact with one another (especially friends who have tentative romantic and sexual feelings toward one another), but alas, there hasn’t been much of a change that I’ve seen in this syndrome. In fact, if you just substitute 19 year-olds at a 24-hour coffee-shack (based on the Dunkin’ Donuts my friends and I went to in Manchester, NH) with 30 year-olds at a bar in New York, I think you get the same results.

As far as audience responses, they were extremely varied. Some people have found it completely obtuse, confusing and incoherent (“Is this a period piece?” “How old are these people supposed to be?” “What’s the deal with them referring to each other by their surnames the whole time?”). Some found it just too insular and dull; something trapped inside the playwright’s head. Some found it a scathing satire of humanity’s inertia. A few people thought it showed brilliant insight to women (!!!). Some thought it was a creepy expose as to just how “fucked up” the playwright was (is). Some just found it a silly poop-joke comedy with no serious elements.

And I love that!

I do love the idea that one person comes out of the show and thinks it deeply philosophical, and another comes out of the SAME show and finds it more lowbrow than a Farrelly Brothers comedy. That is the closest thing to my ideal response from an audience to my play. I really do learn a lot about the plays and what they’re about from audience and cast responses, and Monkeys was one of the best examples for that.

Later, Pete admitted that it took that first play of mine to “figure out” how direct my stuff. That usual artistic/intellectual remove really just doesn’t work, for the most part (as in, yes, I’m “saying” things in this play as well as others and making “artistic statements” and all that crap, but I’m not “saying” things about “other” people. Put another way: I was writing—and often write—about things going on in my life as I was writing. Yes, I was seeing some recurring themes in my life—as many of us often do—but I can’t/won’t/don’t look at my life or people or surrounding events as “themes,” “motifs,” “symbols,” etc. I don’t see my life as theoretical or as a thesis. Which is not to say I don’t get some sort of “moment of clarity” or “glimpse of a Bigger Picture” every now and again.).

Or, to be less pretentious and full of shit, I often try to write like people talk and people act. So, often when I hear or see “Acting” (insert your best Jon Lovitz voice here), the results can be awful.

[Side note:

There was this weird subgenre of theatre I was aware of while writing Monkeys (this would be around the year 1997) following the lead of O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. That is, characters speaking out loud, then saying their thoughts out loud (which would invariably contradict what they had just said).

For example:

JUDY. (To lunch date.) I’m so glad you’re my friend. (Aside.) FUCKING BITCH!

I really didn’t like that. Which is to say, I thought it was an interesting device but it was executed so poorly and wasted on the cheap laugh or point. I mean, people weren’t like that. Few people I knew were that simplistically two-faced. Sure, you’d tell someone it was nice to see them, but you wouldn’t simply be thinking, It’s not nice to see you. And even if they would, why would anyone care about such a shallow character (or person, for that matter)?

(To be honest, I can’t remember the names of any of these plays, just that they were new plays and that I coincidentally saw something like, three in a row that used this device throughout and it’s just something that stuck with me, like seeing a number of disparate friends and acquaintances deciding to go to law school in the past six months.)

The way I understood people (or myself) was that often it was something like this:

JUDY. (To lunch date.) I’m so glad you came to meet me. (Aside.) You are a good friend well as good a friend as I can find which is really fucking pathetic considering you’re really boring and selfish and I’m sure you’re going to expect me to pick up the check you cheap bitch because you want to get back at me for standing you up at the movie the other day and I’m really sorry about that it wasn’t my fault but I don’t want to bore you with the details because they’re really not interesting but hey you never really gave me any shit about it in the first place so I wonder if they’re still serving brunch items.

This isn’t set in stone or anything, but I’ve just been under the impression that it’s very rare that people actively say to people they hate, “I like you.” We’re more circumventive (I find).

End of side note.]

Rereading it brought upon a flood of memories, and almost all of them happy. I had never been in the state of mind I was in when I wrote Monkeys before, and I never have since.

It was the first play I wrote where I thought I actually had something to say, and for good or for bad, I did say it exactly the way I wanted to say it.

Pete and I both look back on the New York production of Monkeys with mixed feelings. It was our first play in the city. It was super-fun and got us charged to keep on going. I felt left out because the majority of the cast was an established clique that the director was a part of (and I wasn’t). The set was shit. We got no reviews. We got a few packed houses (and one standing-room-only performance). It was fun and vibrant, and it was cold and detached. But what the fuck? It was our first play.

It is one of those scripts I would like to see staged again, but I realize the difficulty in this, because it’s very young and awkward and reads pretty poorly.

Still, I was super proud of it when I wrote it and Nosedive staged it, and am glad to find that I still am.

Looking back fondly (yet warily),

James “Let’s See You Do Better!” Comtois

March 10, 2005


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