Off the Record

Zack Hatfield on Lars Jan’s The White Album

Lars Jan, The White Album. Performance view, BAM Harvey Theater, 2018. Mia Barron. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

ADVICE: IF YOU DECIDE TO ADAPT Joan Didion’s writing for the theater, downplay its literary origin. Her sentences inhere most naturally on the page, where they can be underlined, annotated, queried, immediately reread. Didion’s own theatrical presentation of The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), her meditation on mourning for her husband, the novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, whittled mazy streams of consciousness into a stark monologue performed by Vanessa Redgrave. The actor’s gravitas was compelling but at odds with the literary persona Didion has over decades so carefully honed as a writer who divines a mood that readers invariably take as the mood. In her essay “The White Album” (1968–78), an impeccably garbled auscultation of 1960s California counterculture, Didion attempts to parse the chaos around her, evoking her fractured state of mind alongside the “zeitgeist” she montages from various vertigoes of the ’60s—serial killer paranoia, student protests, an interview with an imprisoned Huey Newton, a hangout with The Doors. And so it was unfortunate that the departures of director and visual artist Lars Jan’s stage adaptation were atmospheric, not textual. Jan’s White Album, realized by his Early Opera Company, more than clung to the text—the script was simply Didion’s euphonic words, all ten thousand of which Mia Barron, performing as Didion, duly memorized. Yet the overthought, practically chipper inflection with which the actor delivered the essay’s aphoristic lede—the oft misinterpreted “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”—at once suggested Jan’s desire to package Didion’s self-implicating report on the failure of narrative into vivacious, empowering entertainment. 

In addition to Barron’s soliloquizing, four performers (Andrew Schneider, Stephanie Regina, Sharon Udoh, and Micaela Taylor) acted, danced, and sang many of the essay’s scenes (one segment woefully involved jazz hands), and twenty young volunteers were “cast” as an onstage audience. For the first twenty minutes, these volunteers (presumably representatives of the twenty-first century) huddled onstage watching Barron, though later they served as extras in party sequences played inside the only set piece: a boxy white modernist house sparely furnished with midcentury furniture and equipped with soundproof sliding glass doors. This room’s design, by architectural firm P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, was clever. At times, it lit up in synaptic bursts of light; at other times, archival footage was projected onto its walls. Because Barron rarely entered it, the box clearly signified Didion’s outsiderness, her disconnection to her subjects. Still, Barron was blocked to take up space—pressing her body, arms outstretched, against the windowed facade; tidily gesticulating like a Ted Talker; appearing at one point on the roof of the now fog-enshrouded house—her hyper-theatrical presence sabotaging the restrained “I” of Didion’s prose. The four performers, while clearly gifted, were mostly tasked with disposable, distracting roles. The malaise with which Didion describes loitering at The Doors’s aimless recording session was strangely leavened by Schneider’s exuberant, man-boyish Jim Morrison, but Udoh’s keyboard-and-vocals rendition of “Light My Fire,” while inventive and haunting, felt less justified than Taylor’s intermittent street style bone-breaking, a surprisingly effective interpretation of the essay’s fragmented form.       

Lars Jan, The White Album. Performance view, BAM Harvey Theater, 2018. Andrew Schneider, Mia Barron, Stephanie Regina, Sharon Udoh. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

Again and again, Jan’s White Album fumbled Didion’s most durable theme—the intimate quest for and surrender of meaning (and even sanity) in times of sociopolitical collapse. As Barron recited the writer’s account of the 1968 student strike at San Francisco State (where “disorder was its own point”), members of the auxiliary volunteer audience scrawled phrases on the house’s walls: ACCESS TO EDUCATION, MASS INCARCERATION, WHITE FRAGILITY, WHAT ARE POLICE FOR? The issues are of course still painfully present, but at times it felt like Jan was positioning Didion—who in a 1968 essay declared herself “a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people”—as a spokesperson for our contemporary “moment,” framing the volunteers as youthful extensions of the author in a drab ruse to whip up intergenerational relevance. This strategy was more convincing when the narrative reached the Manson murders, during which a protracted shootout between a white SWAT officer (Schneider) and a black female protestor (Taylor) erupted inside the set piece. Barron’s back was turned away from the two performers, who danced, tottered, and slumped over in the bloodied cube, their guns (his a prop, hers merely her fingers pointed as a gun) blasting each other until their rapid-fire shots died down into a metronomic twinge. The scene was a risk, one that nicely teased out the absorbing limitations—political distance among them—of the original essay.   

In its evocation of a shattered-mirror mentality amid a generalized anomie, Didion’s “The White Album” proves—uselessly, eternally—vatic. To tweak one of her punchlines: An attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to 2018. But its “lesson” for contemporary readers looking to cope as things fall apart resides not in universals, but in mastering the language of particulars. Didion’s essay is, partly but ineluctably, about writing. This adaptation appeared neither to comprehend this nor that it is at its un-held center about Didion, whose bracing solipsism was here glossed over by aesthetic concepts and blinging visuals. Details such as the glass room and Barron’s white cardigan and long khaki skirt stood only as the generic memory of an era, chosen for accessibility, not for the fathoming of a single self. Yet “The White Album” will always be Didion’s story, not ours, which is why she still remains the best one to tell it.      

The White Album ran from November 28 to December 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.