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October 1, 2008

All You Can Eat Serves Up Empty Calories

One of the most inspiring pieces of writing I've read all year came my way in response to a tongue-in-cheek blog post I wrote last May about our mad multitasking culture. A reader sent a link to a college commencement speech given by Samantha Power earlier that month in which the Pulitzer Prize–winning author offered students a list of pointers about how to accomplish their dreams, or, as she put it, to "make what is possible real." The part of the speech that began "Be sure to create quiet time so you maximize the chances you will be able to hear your gut when it speaks to you" resonated particularly strongly with me, given that my blog post concerned the strange side effects caused by the ubiquity of Bluetooth headsets. "If I am not mistaken, the shower is now the only place we are guaranteed to have time to ourselves," Power wrote. "And soon, undoubtedly, our iPods will be waterproof and our cell phones will be devised to drown out the shower current and to amplify the human voice."

So it was interesting, four months on, to hear a character in dramatist-director Steve Morgan Haskell's overstuffed and noisy new play intoning these very words. I clung to this echo of my Bluetooth blog post for the rest of the drama like a business executive to his BlackBerry: Power's practical, streamlined prose offered one of the few palatable entry points into a play that otherwise bites off more than it can chew.

All You Can Eat is one of those dramas that is at once easy and difficult to decipher. The overall message of the play — which takes place backstage at the ballroom of the French Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, shortly before an American rock band's reunion concert — can pretty much be summarized in a single quote spoken by band frontman Alexander: "What do I find wrong with America? Everything." On the other hand, in an attempt to illustrate this pessimistic, hardly revolutionary opinion via his world premiere collaboration with foolsFURY theater company (which I witnessed at its final preview), Haskell slaps together a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of underseasoned, congealed ideas. I can't pretend to have detected all the ingredients he combines to create this heavy yet unfilling theatrical stew. But some of the most obvious critiques of U.S. culture and society the play superficially proffers include the populace's persistent fascination with the lowbrow and obsession with cleanliness, the role of rock stars as modern messiahs, and the nation's involvement in the Iraq war. A couple of the themes would potentially make for interesting drama if approached individually. I, for one, would be fascinated to see a play that explored the tension between the dirty politics of this country and its mania for maintaining a germ-free environment.

But the proliferation of bewildering, half-baked themes only becomes more impenetrable when matched by Haskell's approach to staging the play. Clichés flop on top of one another like bodies at the tail end of an all-night orgy. Brian Livingston's broodingly enigmatic Alexander follows a long line of destined-to-die-young rock music bards from Jim Morrison to Kurt Cobain. The remaining band members strut and pout like Mick Jagger clones. In the role of the band's lead guitarist, musician Tracy Welsh noodles incessantly on his instrument, hashing out tired Led Zep–like riffs. Matt Sesow's painted murals at the back of the mostly bare stage are equally derivative — the brightly colored, toothy figures, though well executed, remind us of the graffiti of dorm room favorite Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The drama shuttles erratically between different eras in the characters' lives. On occasion, the band members earnestly act out their current obsessions (one character declares her love for Power; another has a Tourette's-like predilection for singing cereal commercial jingles). Elsewhere, we glimpse them at various stages of their previous development, such as the beginnings of the homosexual relationship between the lead singer and the drummer.

However, the past and present at best seem only tangentially related, and an overwhelming sense of randomness prevails. Every now and again, the performers break into expressionistic interpretive dance motifs or perform snatches of inane songs. Elsewhere they invoke the titles of various heavyweight tomes, from Don DeLillo's White Noise to Dante's Inferno. Meanwhile, the band's songlist reads like a bad Beat poem: "coffee in person, a tiny flower, Roland Barthes spills his pudding, suicide swirl, fish stick, aberrations of time and movement, colonized, frozen sky, happy happy happy."

Even the play's locale seems disconnected from the action. The opening monologue, in which Michelle Haner appears in the guise of Democracy in America author Alexis de Tocqueville's great-great-great-great-great-niece, is intended, I guess, to draw a line between the old world and the new. But whatever point Haskell is trying to make gets lost in the distracting business of watching Haner cradle her infant son through most of her long, French-accented monologue. Young Morgan Albrecht Haskell (whose father is the production's author) may make a stellar Hamlet one day. But for now, his presence onstage feels gimmicky. As a result, all we can conclude from the Scottish setting is that it provides the actors with an excuse to outfit themselves in modish rockabilly kilts.

That the play's ideas skitter erratically before our eyes like a kid with Attention Deficit Disorder is very likely a deliberate ruse on Haskell's part. After all, the play's fast-food aesthetics perfectly embody his vision of the sort of culture that would embrace the idea of a shower-safe iPod. But the marriage of theme and form backfires. If only the dramatist were as direct and solution-oriented as Power was in front of those students back in May. Sadly, the pessimism and opacity of the production sit heavily in our bellies.



  • Defending foolsFURY's Complicated Meal.

    I am writing in amazed and amused response to Chloe Veltman’s savaging of All You Can Eat, foolsFURY’s current production (“All You Can Eat serves up empty calories”, October 1). First, two disclaimers: I am a long-time admirer of Veltman’s insightful theater criticism; I am the artistic director of foolsFURY, and thus highly biased. Not in the habit of writing to defend my own work, I will do so with All You Can Eat, a play I am proud to present.

    I don’t know whether to be honored or outraged by the degree of vitriol Veltman showers upon the play. She rails eloquently against every aspect of the production from the writing (“Cliché’s flop upon one another like bodies at the tail end of an all-night orgy,”), to the set design which she finds derivative of “dorm room favorite Basquiat.” Ultimately her main complaint is that the play is too packed with themes, “a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of underseasoned, congealed ideas.” Fewer, more developed, she says, might “make for interesting drama.”

    On a surface level, I can’t disagree. The play is a barrage of ideas and imagery. But Veltman writes about the use of cliché and the bombardment of half-processed ideas and imagery as if it were an accident, or the result of writer/director Steven Morgan Haskell’s naiveté. The play is obviously an examination of the roles of cliché, pop culture, and commercial media. Even if one missed the program notes which clearly state this, one can hardly fail to understand that this is the point. Likewise the “derivative” set design (painted by acclaimed outsider artist Matt Sesow), and the constant refrain of the rock guitar. This, Haskell seems to me to be saying, is the state of the culture we are faced with, one in which complex ideas – Samantha Power’s musings on privacy, Don DeLillo’s thoughts on death – fight for airtime and mental space with cereal jingles and pop soundtracks.

    The real question addressed aesthetically by the play, and which seems to be the crux of Veltman’s dyspepsia, is whether audiences can be presented with a selection of raw ingredients and process them for themselves, or whether they need to receive pre-masticated pablum. She writes that the “opacity of the production sit(s) heavily in our bellies,” to which I can only suggest that you all come chew on this complicated meal yourselves, and see if it satisfies your belly more, or leaves a less bitter flavor in your mouths than the review.

    Ben Yalom
    Artistic Director, foolsFURY Theater Company

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 2, 2008 at 12:41 PM  

  • Mr Yalom
    Thank you for your comments and good humor. This was a very hard review for me to write, as you can imagine, as I have a great deal of respect for you, your company and all the collaborators involved. You may not believe this owing to the vitriol of my response to the play, but what I say is true. Even though my words are savage, they come from a deep-seated place. With regards to what you say about me missing the point that Mr Haskell intended the barrage of themes: I did of course realize that the director was adopting this tactic of surfeit on purpose. My final paragraph says as much: "That the play's ideas skitter erratically before our eyes like a kid with Attention Deficit Disorder IS VERY LIKELY A DELIBERATE RUSE on Haskell's part. After all, the play's fast-food aesthetics perfectly embody his vision of the sort of culture that would embrace the idea of a shower-safe iPod." Unfortunately, the tactic doesn't quite work. As I conclude: "the marriage of theme and form backfires." Onwards and upwards I say. Pip-pip. C

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At October 2, 2008 at 12:54 PM  

  • Beauty is truth, truth beauty

    Dear Chloe,

    Thank you for your candor. Your beauty. I think you got it right on. I don't mind being ripped a new asshole if it is warranted, and in the case of ALL YOU CAN EAT I believe it is.

    When I pitched my idea to Ben Yalom I told him this would be my "puke play", something I have imagined doing for years and for some reason felt this might be the right time, what I felt was in the air in our country, and I believe I came through on my promise.

    Nobody likes to puke. It hurts. And nobody, that I know, is interested in anybody else's puke. We usually go away and puke by ourselves, right? It is repulsive. So why did I choose to stay in the room and puke all over everybody? Well, I'm not completely sure why.

    We feel something and we get it out. What you felt about the play you had to purge. Quite beautifully I might add. It seems my work made you a little nauseous and you remained in the room and got it out for us all to see. Good for you. I wouldn't have my critic any other way. You stepped into my trap and gave me just what I asked for.


    And with all due respect to Samantha Power, whose commencement speech is a thing of beauty that brought tears to my eyes when when I read it. And to Henry Miller, whose essay The Staff of LIve was our final song. And to all the bits and pieces of writing I ripped from their comfortable homes and mixed with my quickly wrought puke soup.

    Not unlike the early sketches of a painter I just threw all this stuff down without too much thought. That was the point. If Alex De Toucville said something better than I could, in the time allotted, I threw it in there. If the only way I could do this was for my son to be in the play, I threw him in there. It was that slap dash of a process. And now you are a part of it, and I welcome my mess.

    And it is hard for me to believe you didn't enjoy writing your review because I had such a blast reading it. There are some classic lines in there and I will always have that. If you had been luke-warm in your review I would have lost my respect for you. But of course I have to admit I wish you had enjoyed the play. The actors have done such an admirable job working through my crap. I think there are some truly beautiful moments.

    But I thank you. And I commend you. Our conversation has begun. I look forward to more. May it live long and prosper.

    steve morgan haskell

    P.S. Just so you know, I loved Samantha Power's speech because of its beauty and its hope. A hope and beauty I find sacred and believe in myself. I suppose I could have woven more of this throughout the play and I may very well do this if I ever dare return to it. I'm sorry I made you feel bad. I suppose this was a little "punk" on my part. I am not a pessimist. I guess I just went off on this ti-raid because of a lack of patience and not a little laziness to boot. I will do better next time.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 3, 2008 at 11:12 AM  

  • Dear Steve
    What can I say? I've been got. If making us feel like we've been deluged beyond all patience was your aim, then you certainly achieved it. and that comes with pros and cons, though it's hard for me as a reviewer see the former in all honesty. as a friend, however, i can say that you're very brave. I went into the play -- as I go in to all plays, or I couldn't do my job -- open to everything the playwright cared to throw my way; wanting to love it. I didn't. But maybe that's a good thing in a way. I don't know. I can't wait to see your next one. Looking forward to more conversations.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At October 3, 2008 at 11:22 AM  

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