Carson McCullers Talks About Love
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
May 4, 2011
Three elements compete for attention in Suzanne Vega’s Carson McCullers Talks About Love, now playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. The first is the life of Carson McCullers, the author of short stories and novels such as The Ballad of the Sad Café, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and Reflections in a Golden Eye, among others. The second is the songs and music, written by Suzanne Vega and Duncan Sheik (with contributions by Michael Jefry Stevens), performed by Vega, who is accompanied by the ridiculously talented Joe Iconis (piano) and Andy Stack (everything else). The third is trickier to name but is definitely thematic. It’s the indefinable something at the center of every production that is meant both to propel and gel it into a reasonably definable shape. It is the straw that stirs the drink or the spark that ignites the fire; and it is this element that CMTAB could use more of. For lack of a better word—and I’ve tried to define it several times—I will defer to the production and refer to this quality as “Love.”
Vega and director Kay Matschullat begin the show in witty fashion. Vega enters the stage as “The Girl in the Library,” but instead of a library the set is a mixture of den, art house, soundstage, and recording studio. The Girl explains the beginning of her fascination with Carson McCullers, describing her face in personal detail:
… [Her] face drew me in. It spoke to me. This was the face of a wise old child, but also of a film noir anti-hero. Somehow at that moment I felt she picked me out, tapped me on the shoulder and had things to say to me.
She sings a lovely song and crosses to a small table at the middle of the stage where she readies her face in a mirror. My favorite moment of the entire show came when, finishing her face, she puts on a wig, whips her hair back, turns to the audience and smiles. It is a great smile, playful with round open eyes that seem to announce, “It is time to play.” She has become Carson McCullers.
What follows is a rundown of her life, from her beginnings in Columbus, Georgia to the introduction to her future husband to their move to New York City and her life as a famous author through her visit to Ireland to watch Marlon Brando, John Huston, and Elizabeth Taylor film Reflections in a Golden Eye shortly before her death. Vega’s script combines songs, clipped dialogue, and witty exchanges with the musicians to lay out these various episodes and observations on the author’s life. The production also makes clever use of stage convention by incorporating music into the dialogue. At one point, McCullers speaks to her husband, whose voice is represented by the tweaks, twangs, and scratches of Stack’s electric guitar. The guitar’s harsh sounds make it seem like an angrier version of the Peanuts animated specials in which a muted trumpet stands in for the unintelligible voices of Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy’s unseen teachers.
Vega and Sheik fill the show with 12 exquisite songs supporting the storytelling. In a song called “Iron Butterfly,” Vega contrasts the perception of McCullers as a fragile woman—as well as battling alcoholism as an adult, McCullers contracted rheumatic fever as a teenager and suffered from strokes throughout her life—to the strength and courage necessary to become and live as an artist. “Harper Lee” expresses a young woman’s self-belief with confidence and wit. And a song called “Wunderkind” details the conflict and vulnerability in the creative process as well as within creators. Parsing through the script given to us at the show, the friend I went with noticed the simplicity of the lyrics. On paper, they seem rudimentary, maybe even simplistic. But Vega’s expressive voice and the musical arrangements add layers and tease nuance from the lyrics. These songs yearn to be sung.
Where the production falters, where it seems wayward, is in the last element, the category previously referred to as “Love.” It plays a large part at the beginning of the piece. Vega as McCullers announces with a smile that she has loved many, many people. Her husband (Reeve McCullers; they married twice); Marilyn Monroe; a woman named Hilda Marks; another woman named Abbe-Marie Clarac Schwartzenbach; the male editor of Harper’s Bazaar; Greta Garbo; Katherine Anne Porter; the composer David Diamond. The list goes on and she recites each name excitedly and with a smile but the theme never goes beyond expositional. The music certainly informs the tone of these recounted events but the show doesn’t delve far enough into the guts of her life or her work. Even when recounting her husband’s suicide, Vega as McCullers tells the story with a light and seemingly laissez-faire attitude, making it difficult to see the impression this makes. I understand we are dealing with an interpretation of an artist’s life but Vega and Matschullat present the story as though throwing out pieces of a puzzle that when assembled, remains incomplete.
A more thorough understanding of McCullers’s life and the period in which she lived and wrote may be necessary, while a familiarity with her work would be helpful toward deciphering the piece. I also read recently that the show is a still-evolving labor of love stretching back to Vega’s days as a student. So it may be that Carson McCullers Talks About Love requires more time, research, and attention from the creators. It may be a play that stands still, demanding the audience to meet it half (or even three-quarters) way. But without a deeper exploration of the author’s (or artists') “Love,” the show fails to resonate beyond the admiration for the talents involved.