Claire Went to France
nytheatre.com review by Cory Conley
May 25, 2012
Johnathon, the reluctant hero of Ben Clawson's lively and ambitious new play Claire Went to France, has just returned home from a terrible day at work. For one thing, it's raining. His job is meaningless. His boss is mean to him. The workday goes on far longer than he can bear. Not that coming home is much to look forward to—the guy at the next desk owns a flat screen television, "with HD and 3-D and other D's we don't even know about." Johnathon is stuck with a regular old TV, without "any D's at all."
"I had no idea we had it so bad," says Johnathon's dog, upon hearing his owner's list of complaints. Oh, right—the dog talks. He's also dead, as is Johnathon's grandpa, who sits at a table playing cards, day and night. They share the living room with the spirit of Johnathon's ex-girlfriend, stuck in a closet and full of venom. Given his circumstances, it's only natural when we hear these first words out of Johnathon's mouth: "Well. At least I can always kill myself."
Presented by the New Jersey-based StrangeDog Theatre Company and showing at the theater Under St. Marks, Claire Went to France boasts a real string of virtues: a uniformly excellent cast; an inventive, theatrical staging by the director, Artem Yatsunov; and a charming spirit. It also has a script with a lot on its mind, eventually too much for its own good.
Johnathon's choices—whether to watch that television, or go out for a drink, or even answer the phone—are all fraught with peril and frustration, as he fends off the conflicting commands of his imaginary housemates and his mind's dark, deadening ambivalence. At its best, the play is a poignant portrait of a young man full of nerves and unable (or unwilling) to leave his past behind.
But it feels as though Clawson has attempted to craft something far bigger, a sort of Satire of the Young American Everyman, in which a generation confronts the spoils of a society that owns everything and loves nothing. Grandpa keeps reminding Johnathon that he is the "luckiest, most comfortable, privileged creature to ever live in the history of history," while the Dog keeps encouraging mindless indulgence. Johnathon himself, clad in American flag boxer shorts (the symbolism surely doesn't escape you), wonders why he can't do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without any consequences. Not that he's willing to get up and do any of it.
The broad social critiques represented here are important ones, and they're rendered with skill by Clawson, who has some genuinely clever insights and an ear for clipped, declarative dialogue. The trouble is that those doing the critiquing are, literally, dead—and with no hope of change or climax, their views don't resonate much. Act I is full of observational speeches more suited either to the pulpit or the stand-up comedy stage. By Act II, when the first other living character comes along (Aliee Chan, as the Real Girl), you sit up in your seat with anticipation. But when she quickly launches into a world-wise monologue about how life is like a deck of cards, you might find yourself suffering from serious "lesson fatigue."
Tony Knotts brings a compelling, youthful intensity to Johnathon, while Scott Cagney nearly steals the show with his lovable turn as Dog. Gary Martins wrings plenty of life out of the rigid Grandpa, and Shannon Sullivan is impressively forceful as the trapped, disdainful lover. Jessica Parks has designed a dynamic set that allows for some smart theatrical devices.
Great drama always asks large, challenging, and vital questions about the society around it. Claire Went to France does not fully succeed at this mammoth task, but it's worth seeing, both for the fun it has in the process and the skill of its artists.
It's admirable how Clawson doesn't settle for easy answers, and in fact the play's most cogent (and nearly convincing) argument may be for the pleasures of loneliness. "This is why I prefer solitaire," says Grandpa, at one point. "Other people can really confuse what would have been a simple life."