Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Harris Yulin

Review | Men’s Lives by Joe Pintauro | Adapted from the Book by Peter Matthiessen | Directed by Harris Yulin | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

… endangered species …

Men’s Lives tells the story of what happens to fishermen on the East End of Long Island when the forces of change and politics put an end to the only way they know to make a living.  No more skeining with big nets, comes the law from Albany.  And with that, their way of life, based on a tradition of 300 years, is sucked out from under them the way, when you’re standing near the surf, the waves pull the sand out from under your feet.

In order to dramatize Matthiessen’s epic book, Pintauro makes the sensible dramatic choice of focusing on a single iconic fisherman’s family, a father who knew the good times and huge hauls, his three sons who all love the fisherman’s life, and a tough, loving, mother who owns the old house set in sand dunes facing the sea.  Nevertheless, so much is said rather than shown, one feels one’s being informed rather than engaged.

As the story unfolds on a set evoking the sand dunes and the cries of sea birds, we learn that times have been hard — Alice, the mother, recently and in secret, took out a mortgage on the house to keep food on the table but still, the men are seeing the sparsity of the great game fish, the striped bass, as cyclical, sure they’ll come back.

When William, the youngest boy, is washed overboard and drowns, the family draws upon a stoic fatalism, part of their fisherman’s inherited way of life, and holds together.  But they can’t overcome the second blow: the NY State government in Albany bans their way of fishing for stripers, seining with big nets.  This legislation is favored by environmentalists and based on environmental and fish stock benefits but, it’s indicated, the real force behind the legislation is self-serving political pressure brought to bear by wealthy sports fisherman, ‘the rod and reelers.”

The play fails to sort out the significance of the environmental issue.  Is Walt, the father, really correct in thinking that because in the past there have been swarms of fish, they’ll be there in the future?  Experience and common sense indicate that sweeping the seas with large nets leads to endangered fish populations.  (Sometime the loaded, heavy fishermen’s nets needed to be dragged in with the use of tractors, a point not made in the play.)

But whatever the truths of the issues, the fact is that these men’s admirable qualities of stamina, muscle, intimate knowledge of the fish and the waters, and courage against the elements are now useless, and so they feel irrelevant, helpless and without purpose.  They drink, they flounder at other jobs, they die prematurely.  Their fishing dory — open boat — breaks up, their house collapses, becoming no more than an odd-shaped lump among the dunes.  Only Peter, representing the author Matthiessen, who has wandered as a character throughout the play, sympathetic to the fishermen’s plight but unable to help, survives and comes in to his own purpose, to bear witness.

Men’s Lives tells an important story of what happens when a way to earn an honest living becomes obsolete.  It is a tragic story and highly topical, particularly in a world of fast technological change.  Here and there the play comes to dramatic life, particularly when Deborah Hedwall as a gritty, determined Alice is pushing her men — unfortunately to do the impossible.  In a memorable episode, Scott Thomas Hinson as Popeye, the friend, dances his own drowning.  Generally, though, I didn’t believe these actors had the wind in their hair and the waves at their back — especially Peter McRobbie, a fine actor but who here as the father, Walt, who would seem more at home with a pipe and a good book in his study than on that small open boat.

Joe Pintauro’s play Raft of the Medusa, also about a group of men struggling to survive against great odds, with the sea as metaphor, and recently presented off-Broadway in NYC, has far more intrinsic drama.  But what Men’s Lives lacks in drama, it partially makes up for in history.  I read the book awhile back but I’m glad to have seen the play as a refresher, all the more because I know how nowadays you can fish a full day east of Gardiner’s Bay, where these men took their boats, without catching a single striped bass “keeper” — even the once incredibly abundant blue fish, described in the play, are hard to find.

This is the 20 year revival of the play that inaugurated the Bay Street Theatre in 1992.  Men’s Lives has special meaning for being played in Sag Harbor, on Long Island’s East End, and the play itself, first presented during a Baymen’s protest, and with several Baymen attending the first performance, has its own dramatic history.  For more on its background, and for other information and tickets, click here: Men’s Lives.

Review | The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams | Directed by Harris Yulin | Guild Hall, East Hampton, NY

Master of Seduction

No one writes seduction as well as Tennessee Williams.  In his Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, earlier this season, sex is morally and physically deadly for Kilroy — i.e., he has every reason to resist.  And it does take the Gypsy’s daughter awhile — a delicious, suspenseful while — but he succumbs.  In Vieux Carre, another game played out on a small bed, an unattractive man, elderly and sickly, uses skill, experience and patience in a breathtaking seduction of a beautiful young man.  You might think you wouldn’t want to see that — but you do.

Act I of The Glass Menagerie sets up an intriguing psychological situation but it’s not until the great seduction scene of Act II that, in this production, the play comes alive.

Tom, who’s both a character and narrator in this play, wants to be a writer and yearns for adventure but is stuck in a shoe factory supporting his tyrannical mother, Amanda, and lame and reclusive sister, Laura, who finds emotional refuge in her collection of small, glass animals that break easily, like her.  Amanda, an erstwhile Southern belle, chatty and flirtatious, tries to make her intensely shy daughter into a creature like herself, while holding too tight a rein on her son through emotional blackmail and incestuous flirtatiousness — at one point, as my friend noted, in response to one of her intimate onslaughts, Tom covers his groin with his cap.  The traps that lock this family are economic and psychological but Williams is most interested in the psychological.  As Sartre concluded in his play No Exit, of the very same year, 1944, “Hell is other people.”

Frantic to find Laura a suitor, Amanda pushes Tom to invite for diner a man from the factory, Jim who, it turns out, Laura had been attracted to in high school, only intensifying Laura’s pathological shyness.  Jim takes it on himself to draw Laura out of her shell … instead of a bed, Williams here gets them sitting together on the floor, in candlelight, while the others are in the kitchen.  Outstandingly handsome in this production (though not in the script) and sure of himself in a full-of-himself sort of way, Jim succeeds in opening her to romance and a kiss in a tender and cruel seduction.  It turns out he’s engaged.  For him, it was a combination kindness and ego-trip.  For Laura, it’s the ultimate loss.

The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ first great theatrical success, has strong reference to his own life (see also Vieux Carre).  Like the narrator-son in The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ true name was Tom, and it’s no stretch to see in the psychologically fragile and abandoned Laura a reflection of his mentally ill sister Rose whom Williams felt he had abandoned (Jim’s nickname for Laura is “Blue Roses” from his play on words of the pleurosis she suffered.)

The play’s psychological themes speak strongly to the powerful stream of Freudian thought in much twentieth-century literature, particular in the earlier years when everyone was writing about psychological arrest, a la Kafka, and when it was widely believed, for instance, that homosexuality was caused by absent fathers and over-protective and seductive — Amanda-like — mothers.  But the play remains fresh because Williams’ characters are vivid and fully developed, their passions deep, and their interactions intense, believable and inevitable.

The Glass Menagerie, with Amy Irving as Amanda, Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Tom, Louisa Krause as Laura and John Behlmann as Jim, plays at Guild Hall in East Hampton through July 26.

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