John Cassavetes' Husbands
nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
January 6, 2010
Conversation I overheard at the intermission for this show.
Theater Enthusiast: I think I'm going to go.
Theater Die-hard: I think I'm going to stay. I think it's not uninteresting.
Theater Enthusiast: I think that's true. It's not uninteresting. (slight pause) But that doesn't mean it is interesting.
This seemed to encapsulate the audience's mood in the middle of this three-hour event, which was conceived, designed, and directed by Doris Mirescu. What they did not discuss was whether the piece was enjoyable. This show seems to have been built to be tangential to that consideration.
John Cassavetes is known for his pioneering work in the cinema using hand-held cameras, subtextually-driven plots, and eliciting gritty, anti-star-vehicle performances from his actors. He mortgaged his house rather than contend with a producer changing his script. Gena Rowlands, his wife and leading actress, once recounted sitting with him in an office across from where one of their films screened. They would watch as men came out in the middle of the screening for a smoke. Typically, those smokers would pace for ten minutes and then walk away. She believed the film touched on something overwhelming about their marriages.
John Cassavetes' Husbands had a few people peeling off for the exits within the first 15 minutes of the performance. Perhaps they were annoyed by the story of three guys making asses of themselves through drinking and circular, sometimes nonsensical conversation after the death of a close friend. Maybe the staging and multimedia elements, which either give the audience several viewpoints of one thing or absolutely no clue where to look, frustrated them. Having the heart and passion taken out of the performances through the dissipation and deconstruction of the source material probably did not keep them there.
I do not think anyone left because they were confronted with seeing the dark recesses of their souls presented before them.
There were a few moments I enjoyed. As the husbands are on the subway, one drops some money. When his friend picks it up, he sees a small photo of their deceased mutual friend. This was amplified by its projection on the large screen upstage. An offstage scene in a bathroom visible only on the screen was equally repugnant and engrossing. Several times, all the stage machinery worked together with the performances and I felt like I was taking in something through this hybridization that I would not get from just a play or just a film. The live guitar work by Anders Nilsson gave texture and often drove the action.
But I did find myself working really hard to give over to the experience. It was not emotionally or intellectually engaging for me. However, it was not uninteresting.
The energy in the audience felt different after intermission. Roughly a quarter of the audience left. Those who stayed, because of enjoyment or curiosity, had more visceral responses. There also seemed to be a more relaxed atmosphere onstage. I credit this to the fact that the women got to do more in the second act than continuous counterpoint exercises or just sit there as the men yelled at them. The scenes suddenly became about dealing with things and seemed to carry more of the emotional Cassavetes spirit.
This pointed out how the first act is more than twice as long as it needs to be. Also, the men have a much tougher job than one would suspect at first blush. They are dealing with the loss of love. Male friend love. They curse, drink, yell, fight, smoke, ramble, and move around aimlessly, but only hint at addressing the pain. This is indeed the heart of this piece. Maybe the cacophonous multimedia got in their way or the actors did not know each other well enough to go to some of those scary places with each other. While I admire how hard they were working, something was missing.
The reason John Cassavetes' Husbands was made is unclear to me. What does its premise about three middle-aged men in 1970 expressing grief through indirect means say about where we are now? Certainly the movie is not one that many know. Several people in the crowd at the performance I saw admitted to not having seen the film on which this is based.
I would like to properly credit performances in this play but the actors are simply listed in a lump on the program without assigning characters to them. They seemed to have decided at the last second to do a messy curtain call at the end of the show. To me, these are both clues as to why the evening was aggressively difficult to follow. The performances that could have been illuminating combined with some admirable stagecraft to make an amazing show were drowned out by the direction.
Maybe one day 40 years from now someone will make a three hour multimedia piece called "John Hamburg's I Love You Man," and people will be equally baffled by its presentation, though I doubt it, because the source material has more structure to deconstruct.