In Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play “The Real Thing,” the character Henry, a successful playwright, says that it is nearly impossible for him to write about love with any level of profundity. It comes out juvenile or rude, even boring.
Aaron Posner’s “Stupid F---ing Bird” playing at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through June 23, proves that the childish, clichéd predictability that comes to the surface when an author struggles to describe and deconstruct love is just as exasperating when an otherwise exceptional artist attempts to deconstruct his own art.
Posner, one of the most creative and accomplished theatrical directors working, has written a play about the struggle to create art by deconstructing a classic play, “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov. The full weight of the play, which feels like Posner’s primal scream, falls horribly flat. The fault is not with the production, which is solid. The actors, with a couple of notable exceptions, are very good. The set is gorgeous and intricate, though it does feel a bit disconnected from scene to scene. The fault lies in the prose.
“Stupid F---ing Bird” is the story of Conrad (Brad Koed), a young playwright arrested at a crucial stage of his development, when he has to decide whether he will remain mired in the winter of his adolescent discontent or get on with the business of growing up.
Conrad, bless him, decides against maturity and embraces pedantry as he shouts, pouts and descends into a pit of self-indulgent hyperbole.
Art should change the world, Conrad shouts. His beloved doesn’t love him, Conrad shouts. He hates his mother and she doesn’t understand him, Conrad shouts. He’s thwarted, Conrad shouts. Even Chekhov gets shouted at by Conrad.
In fact, there is so much shouting about his own artistic torture and self-pity that this reviewer found herself wishing Conrad’s attempted suicide had been successful and ended the misery for everyone.
Koed brings little depth to Conrad’s character, though in fairness, it might not be his fault — the character might just be intrinsically unsympathetic. Posner, whose work often reinterprets the plays of William Shakespeare, attempts to incorporate the Shakespearian aside into the action of this play. It works for some characters, but not really for Conrad. In the end his asides, and his actions, make him a jerk.
He has scorn for his mother, Emma (Kate Eastwood Norris), a successful actress, and her lover, Doyle (Cody Nickell), a literary genius. He feels contempt for Mash (Kimberly Gilbert), a young woman in love with him. Mash is loved by Conrad’s friend Dev (Darius Pierce), but she doesn’t love him. Conrad does love Nina (Katie deBuys), who leaves him for Doyle. Observing this embarrassment of unrequited love flare up and cool down is Sorn (Rich Foucheux), Emma’s long-suffering brother and Conrad’s long-suffering uncle.
Norris and Nickell are married in real life, which is perhaps why their chemistry and their obvious comfort with each other makes Emma’s and Doyle’s one of the few relationships on stage that feels genuine. They are also practiced Shakespearian actors and have worked with Posner several times, including opposite each other in the recent Posner-directed production of “The Taming of the Shrew” at The Folger Shakespeare Theatre.
Pierce and Foucheux are masterful in their roles as Dev and Sorn. The two imbue the characters with a depth and warmth lacking in the rest of the characters. Pierce and Foucheux do not huff and they do not yell. The two actors have the luxury of playing men who have perspective, who are reflective and are refreshingly self-deprecating. Perhaps telling, they are the only ones who get to play characters who are not artists. The characters don’t feel sorry for themselves; they relax, say their lines and ply their craft.
In an arrogant play, which is peopled with arrogant characters, Dev and Sorn act as a balm that soothes and protects from the rest of the theatrical nonsense that uncomfortably chafes.
The major flaw of the show is that it spends so much time self-consciously telling the audience through asides what the show is about, as if the people sitting in the stalls wouldn’t understand the themes if they aren’t explained.
At one point Conrad shouts that the play is a deconstruction of “The Seagull.” Another time, he says it is a show about trying to create art that changes the world. Later, he posits the play is failing at creating anything new. After all, at this point, is there anything new? At still another point, the four young lovers crouch and rattle off about the tedium of unrequited love.
“It sounds like [a] commercial,” one member of the audience whispered to her companion.
One leaves the show with the sense that all of Posner’s critiques of Chekhov and his ideas about art and the struggle to create would have been better served by restaging “The Seagull,” instead of deconstructing it.
By the time the curtain falls on Conrad and his crew, this reviewer found herself longing for the quiet and subtlety of the earlier play. Longing for a show where the audience isn’t asked to give characters romantic advice; where the audience isn’t expected to laugh at chummy inside jokes about D.C. theater, modern theater and the history of the medium; a play where ideas are picked apart and explored within the context of creative art in Chekhov’s masterful way.
Chekhov, after all, is simply so good he rejects the garish plumage of schtick for the quiet predictability of craft, character and narrative.