nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 12, 2010
Lear, the new play written and directed by Young Jean Lee for Soho Rep, seems to be about the relationships between grown children and their aging parents. The final section of the play is a monologue in which an actor talks about the anxiety he feels because he hasn't spent enough time with his father. "My father is dying," he says, "and I don't know, I don't know I must remember that he is...he is still alive. I can still hear his voice. I can pick up the telephone any time I want...."
My advice to whomever that speech is about—perhaps it is about the playwright herself; I don't know—is to stop whatever you're doing and call your father. In fact, that's pretty good advice to give to anyone. I miss my father very much, more than 13 years after he died too young, so I know what I'm talking about.
The interesting thing, though, is that I think we may be intended to empathize not with the disregarded parent but with the busy-and-self-involved grown-up child who knows what (s)he ought to do but nevertheless finds him/herself incapable of doing. Lear seems to be steeped in the brand of postmodern thinking that renders one incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, not because one cannot but because one will not, because there's no point to making the distinction.
Nothing in Lear—not its first hour of quirky non-sequitur dialogue among the five children of Lear and Gloucester who are the characters in Lee's play, not its fourth-wall-breaking monologues, not its tongue-in-cheek-y paean to Sesame Street, and certainly not this final speech I've been talking about—felt remotely sincere to me. Here's a random speech from the first section of Lear, so you can see what I mean. (I have literally opened my script to a random page.)
CORDELIA: I am Cordelia and I am good and there are fine candy-spun things sweetening my dreams. I will cry into your ear and give you something to be sorry about. I will show how many pastries it takes to suffocate a baby calf. And your diaphragm will be safe from me, I will not remove it in soft handfuls, I will not extract your tongue with my teeth.
Re-reading it, I still don't know what this is supposed to mean.
Lee tells us at the very beginning of her play that she has written "an inaccurate distortion of Shakespeare's King Lear." I can understand how her play's apparent theme—an exploration of what it means to a child to abuse or abandon his/her father—ties into King Lear; it's as if Lee thought to herself, who are the rottenest daughters in drama, and then found them in Goneril and Regan. What I don't understand is why she wants to inaccurately distort the original play, or how the thing she's created actually accomplishes that odd objective.
Shakespeare emerges unscathed from the proceedings: the only moment in Lear that touched me in any way was when the actress playing Goneril performed a long excerpt from King Lear, because it was the only time in the play that theatrical language was used to convey emotions with honesty and passion:
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth....
I should mention that Lee's cast of five actors—four of whom I have seen multiple times in the theatre and know to be talented professionals—deliver what their director seems to want, to little effect as far I was concerned. And it appears that a good deal of money, by off-off-Broadway standards at least, has been spent on a sumptuous set designed by David Evans Morris and lush period costumes created by Roxana Ramseur. (Though the period is Elizabethan rather than the actual period when King Lear takes place.)
I will close by saying that every time Lee used the word "cunt" in her play—I lost count, but I think there are about a dozen occurrences—I wondered what, beyond childishly trying to shock me by making a character from Shakespeare say a naughty word, she thought she was doing.