New York

David Shapiro And Stephen Paul Miller

When performance art or just plain theatre carelessly takes on social and political burdens, the results are often pretentiously disjointed, humorless, tediously self-conscious and grave—sincere but deadly—and often leave one cynical, gasping for a taste of the irreverent. This is, of course, a reaction of the earnest viewer, the one who believes that art can be a vehicle for ideas that address serious questions of world-view. But one can only defend what an artist tries to do for just so long. Naive, simple-minded sincerity is not enough, in any arena or from either side.

A particularly modern alternative to this very modern, secular dilemma is to forego seriousness and sincerity altogether in the name of entertainment. This is an interesting alternative if the artist incorporates every serious matter he or she can think of, in order to not take the serious seriously. David Shapiro’s and Stephen Paul Miller’s approach to this route interests me because it provides a rather complete description or illustration of what finally amounts to a certain familiar sensibility, a sophisticate’s alternative. It is intellectual, without the blackness; satirical, without the bite; it’s tame and fun. Even though they manage to maintain that they do in fact take the themes (What is truth? What is beauty? What is serious? What is high art?) of their comedy Harrisburg Mon Amour or Two Boys on a Bus quite seriously, they insist that there couldn’t be a better reason for comedy.

They wallow willingly in artistic self-consciousness; the “two boys” on the bus are the two playwrights, Shapiro and Miller. The wildly charming Taylor Mead plays them both with complete childish abandon, stumbling and giggling about the stage in a tuxedo, flirting with and teasing the audience like some harmless but intoxicated favorite uncle. Taylor Mead and the words of Shapiro and Miller are the sustenance of the play. Laurie Anderson’s music comes in noticeably only at the beginnings and endings of the acts, creating lulling, somber moments. It is rhythmic and sonorous, a quirky blending of the tribal and the classical with a long, wistful aftertaste—it’s hard to decide if it’s an isolated bit of estheticism or another dimension to the parody.

The “plot” is simple: two “boys” board a bus destined for Kuttztown, Pennsylvania; on the way they discuss among other things love, art, literature, criticism, sex, politics and childhood, making a perfect comedy team, complete with funny guy (Shapiro) and straight man (Miller). These two, of course, decide that a play should be about something (Example: “You’re not answering my question . . . but that’s good, that adds to dramatic tension.”), so they discuss their fears and anxieties as children—the perils of the Lincoln Tunnel and the Staten Island Ferry. Their play is no more or less about fear than it is about beauty, seriousness, love and truth. Amidst the fragmented if not fractured discussion, questions are posed and answered with great mock sincerity by Mead, simultaneously parodying a deeply troubled Shapiro and any cliché of art criticism, philosophy or logic that provides definitive answers. Everybody “great” gets dragged in—Brecht/Pollock/Freud, etc. When Shapiro tells a Freudian-Primer type dream, he moans, “Freud has ruined everything!” and when he has a rare moment of metaphysical clarity, he says, “Maybe this is a Heideggerian moment.”

When Mead (as Shapiro) insists that “standards” of true or false or meaningless are too limited, and that there should be other criteria, an Oscar Wilde sentiment becomes clear: how absurd to judge people (or art or life or ideas) by applying the standards of good and bad, when tedious or charming are much more suitable. Mead, of course, is charming. When he harangues about “modern existential despair” about waiting for the night that never falls (Waiting for Godot), he announces: “I’d just like to tell everyone that the sky is a little darker, maybe even a little bluer. . . .” This is not to seriously mock the seriousness of modern despair; this humor is to charm, not disquiet.

Harrisburg is only mentioned in act two when Mead starts screaming that Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden and all of them will “Melt down to China!” Are we all going to go through the earth, he inquires desperately; he read this, he says, in a physics book. No, he corrects himself, in a “No Nukes” handbook. He makes a wild-eyed plea to the audience: “Sometimes I want to call up Jimmy Carter and say: ‘You’re putting me under ENORMOUS EMOTIONAL PRESSURE!’” This is not just makeshift slapstick—this is smooth slapstick, with the essential injection of well-calculated pathos to make it winning.

The play ends in a frenzy over a “Chekhovian disaster”: Mead (as Shapiro) spills grape juice (or is it grape drink?) on his suit and frets and fusses the rest of his way to Kuttztown, over whether or not the stain (the Shakespearean “spot”?) will come out. This is a tumultuous and funny sequence; if the dialogue whimpered a bit, it ends with a bang.

Shapiro and Miller’s play clearly articulates an “alternative” sensibility, one that requires the contrivance allowed by an active, well-informed and well-intentioned intellect and imagination. The joke played on high art and lofty aspirations is clearly a joke, not an attack; genuis, art, politics and morality aren’t grossly overrated or obsolete—the burden of history, however, is heavy. It is not really that existentialist despair is mere romance or myth; the cliché as cliché becomes more, not less, incomprehensible; one might as well insist that “the sky is bluer.” Hence the accident of Three Mile Island and the ongoing controversy over the hazards of the use and expansion of nuclear power are trivialized—juxtaposed with the meaninglessness of the event of two boys on a bus. Tragedy equals comedy. It’s tame, finally, because it is not irreverent; a nervous giggle in response to a threat.

Shapiro, Miller and Mead are at their strongest when they are making havoc with the things they know best. But the politics of such a “seemingly” willing apolitical attitude border on the juvenile. Unlike the sincere but deadly, it’s far from grave, but it says about as much about the issues in question, or as little. The difference, of course, is that it doesn’t try to, so it doesn’t fail. It may not be “better” to insist that the sky is a bit bluer; it’s surely less tedious.

Joan Casademont