Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Evildoers at Yale Rep

The Evildoers, by David Adjmi, directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman, is in its world premiere run at Yale Rep. With any luck, this will also mark its world finale run. The principal evil is inflicted on the audience.

As always at Yale Rep, the set is spectacular. And the acting is superb, with a seasoned, top-notch cast. It’s the play itself that sucks—surprisingly, given Adjmi’s credits.

The cast comprises two couples. The husbands were schoolmates, and yet one couple comes across as nearly a generation older than the other, setting up an inescapable sense that the first act is channeling the ghost of Edward Albee’s in tone and subtext.

If that description intrigues you, rent the movie (Who’s Afraid…) rather than attend The Evildoers. But if you feel a perverse compulsion to attend, at least have the good sense to leave at the intermission. You do not want to be around for the figurative and literal bloodbath that is the second act. Suffice it to say, I may never order tongue in a deli again.

The program notes provide a clue to where this train ran off the rails. If you read interviews with playwrights, you get the sense that an idea may kick around in the back of their heads for a long time, and perhaps there are a few false starts. But once the writing is well under way, it doesn’t generally take all that long to finish. For this one, though, Adjmi seems to have burned through about a dozen foundation grants and a season at a writing colony, which suggests that perhaps he was struggling a bit, do you think? On top of that, he acknowledges the contribution of nine, count ’em, nine dramaturgs. Normally a production involves one dramaturg or sometimes two. Burning through nine suggests, um, creative differences, perhaps?

In any case, there will not be a quiz later on The Evildoers.


Dick Margulis said...


According to a review in the Yale Daily News, Adjmi spent four years on the script, confirming my suspicions. I'm not suggesting it can never take four years to write something worthwhile. Certainly many books take much longer. But in the case of a play, I think it's a sign of trouble.

Anonymous said...


Since you seem to be ill informed about what it takes to write a play and get it produce in the American Theatre I thought I should apprise you of a few things:

Plays are not really funded by the government anymore. To write a new play these days and get it put on by a theatre one generally has to be submitted through various channels -- readings at theatres, workshops. These things legitimate the play for producing theatres and often are the occasion for something called REWRITES.

There are countless plays -- and very good ones -- that stay in development for much longer than four years, unfortunately. Working with various friends and dramaturgs in this process is far from unusual. It is a nice and decent thing to credit these people in a program -- not an occasion for you to validate your particular dislike of the play.

I'm not so interested in whether you adore or inveigh against the work of this writer but it does annoy me that you look to justify your subjective stance with bogus references to 'number of years' or 'number of dramaturgs', as if this gives empirical evidence for your 'findings'.

Dick Margulis said...

Dear anonymous,

Thanks for your insight. Here's my take on it. The play doesn't work on many levels. It doesn't work as social satire; it doesn't work as an homage to the various genres of drama and melodrama that are alluded to. It doesn't work as entertainment. It just doesn't work.

Now to your specific difficulties with my comments:

It never would have occurred to me that plays should be funded by the government. I would expect playwrights, like other writers, to support themselves with day jobs initially and from royalties once successful. The writing of a play should not require investment beyond the sustenance of the playwright.

I'm all in favor of workshopping any writing, and mentioning the venues indeed is a courtesy to be encouraged. However, my larger point was that the long, drawn-out series of workshops and essays and rewrites involved in this particular play speak to an underlying struggle with an ill-begotten concept. If the idea is clear and simple, the writing will come together fairly quickly in my experience. If the idea is muddled and complex (as it most certainly was in this case), the writer ought perhaps to cast it aside; otherwise the process of trying to refine it will be tortuous and tortured.

Anonymous said...

It won't surprise you to learn that, according to a preview I read, the author and director were still discussing what the play meant a few weeks before opening night.

The Evildoers was the WORST play I have seen at Yale Rep by far, and like you, I was impressed as usual with the sets and acting. The material was flailing - soap opera shockers and characters that didn't seem to develop as characters, but were instead only developed to provide the next shocker.

Whoops I'm gay, biting tongues out, killing babies, theft - to say what exactly? Was the author simply trying to overshock the audience? I think we all got over the concept of "shock" theater a while ago.

I will give it this: it is a rare play that can anger both a LGBT activist and a conservative Christian with its sterotypes and biases. I can't believe there hasn't been more of an outpouring of criticism for a play that explicitly ties discovery of one's homosexuality to a psychopathic need to destroy the happiness of others.

Dick Margulis said...

Dear fyrg,

The play didn't anger me; it disappointed me (I know you were describing two people who are not me, as I'm neither a LGBT activist nor a conservative Christian). I fully support Yale Rep's taking risks with new plays: I'm always willing to subscribe for the season, knowing full well that half the plays may be real stinkers. First of all, Yale Rep puts their all into every production. Second, without risk, there can be no transcendence.

But like you, I reserve the right to call 'em as I see 'em, good or bad.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dick,

It would have never occurred to you that playwrights should receive funding from the government? We are the only first world nation that does not fund its artists. The NEA used to fund individual playwrights, but Reagan put an end to that. It is quaint of you to expect that playwrights suffer in temp jobs until they hit it big, but the playwrighs who make ART (and I think EVILDOERS counts as art though you may disagree) and not dreadful pabulum will never make enough money to live on. Albee is the only living playwright who hasn't had to work in other media to support himself.

I disaree with you COMPLETELY by the ay about this play. To me it is an astonishing, brave meditation on the violence that people do to one another when they are disarticulated from the lives of others. I think it is neither a social satire nor a tragedy, nor an homage: it is its own thing, a kind of viral drawing room play and I love that about it. Whre you found it muddy, I saw it as complex and faceted. I found it incredibly caustically funny, frightening and moving. I thought pairing up a critique of fundamentalist ideas and "christian love" with jacobean plots and iconography was very clever and trenchant. There were some things that didn't work for me, but it was altogether brave, and layered, and pretty brilliant writing. It is not for everyone, but for me it worked pretty splendidly. I think we have very different tastes.

Dick Margulis said...

Dear anonymous,

You hide your identity while putting words in my mouth. I said nothing about temp jobs. The writers I know are gainfully employed in full-time jobs that may or may not have anything to do with the passions they write about.

Look, you obviously liked the play. I obviously didn't. We're each entitled to our opinions and we're each entitled to write about them. I'd prefer that you not cast your disagreement with my opinion in the form of attacks on my integrity, but I don't suppose there's much I can do about that, given that you don't seem to believe in signing your accusations.

But getting back to the play itself, if an advanced degree in the history of the theater (you spell it your way, I'll spell it my way) is a prerequisite to attending a play and assessing whether it works as a dramatic production, then that should be part of the subscription contract. And yet, somehow, it isn't. Which suggests that perhaps it is incumbent upon the playwright to lay out his thesis in a way that a reasonably well educated theatergoer can follow the bouncing ball.

If Adjmi's analysis is "very clever and trenchant," it is so only at the most sophomoric level. Soulless bourgeoisie behave badly. Film at eleven. Can we move on to something deeper now? It is not news that many Americans try to satisfy their craving for meaning by buying expensive toys or that we live in a narcissistic age or that our culture promotes perpetual adolescence. Good on Adjmi for noticing. And for the first ten or fifteen minutes, it works. But then it spirals ever downward. It flails, as fyrg says. You see layers of meaning; I see layers of chewing gum and baling wire trying to hold the thing together.