"I'm almost afraid to know what happens next," said the man in front of me at the second intermission of David Rabe's "Hurlyburly" the other night at the Westwood Playhouse--this after the scene where Danny Aiello, as a semi-crazed TV actor, kidnaps his newborn daughter from his ex-wife.
The man behind me didn't care what happened next. "Well," he said to his lady, "do we stay or do we walk?" They had come to see Sean Penn, and they liked what Penn was doing with his role as Aiello's best friend.
Unfortunately the character struck them as a jerk. As did most of the other people in the play. Why spend a whole evening with people you would avoid at a party? So the people behind me walked.
The man in front of me stayed, and was glad to see that the baby came through. I also stayed, and decided that "Hurlyburly" was as honorable a play as the American theater has seen in years.
Meaning this: There are playwrights who write serious plays because they don't have a sense of humor. Up to now, one might have thought that David Rabe was one of them. But there are lines, riffs, whole pages in "Hurlyburly" that would have cracked up Damon Runyon. Listen to Mare Winningham, as a balloon dancer who is available for service calls:
"You consider desperation you and your friend's own, private, so-called thingamajig . . . I mean, I can even understand that, due to the attitude I know you hold me in, which is mainly down. . . . But desperation, believe it or not, is within my area of expertise!"
Here is Aiello on his hateful wife: "Perverse is what she wrote the book on it!" Here's Michael Lerner as an agent with a nose for the outclause: "That's terrible, on a certain level."
Any playwright who hears his characters this acutely would have had no trouble making "Hurlyburly" a hilarious putdown of the New Hollywood--a 1980s answer to "Once in a Lifetime."
Not Rabe. He doesn't mind if we laugh at the outrageous things that his characters say to each other, because he's amused by their flights of fancy too--it's wonderful how recreational drugs bring out the poet in people.
But Rabe doesn't really think that Hollywood is funny. Particularly since America became Hollywood, addicted to hype without believing a word of it and ready to try anything that will work at the box office. Junk candidates, junk bonds, junk movies--they all connect.
"Hurlyburly" trusts us to see that. Its concern is Hollywood, the thing itself, "a little while ago"--1978, say. Penn and Scott Plank are TV casting directors who share a rented house somewhere below Mulholland--what used to be called a bachelor's pad. (Set designer Richard Meyer notes the hollow-core doors and the shaky balcony rail.)
Their life style is what used to be called swinging. Plank is "on a goof." He'll probably get back with his wife and kids at some point. Penn is coming down from a bad divorce, still trying to get his head together. As he tells his current girlfriend (Belinda Bauer), there's still a lot of "scar tissue." That's why he does cocaine at breakfast time.
The men also go down to work at times, but Rabe doesn't get into that. What he does notice is how Penn and his buddies conduct their private lives to the same metronome as their Industry lives. They are eternally "on," with every conversation a transaction that leaves you either one-up on the other guy, or one-down.
Everybody thus has to be ferociously verbal, even when he doesn't know what he is saying. Perhaps especially then, because it's such a vulnerable position. The guys are horrified when a visiting teen-age ditz (Jill Schoelen) wants to play the TV and the record player at the same time, but it's only a logical extension of their eternal blah-blah-blah.
The ditz? Lerner, the agent, sent her over as a CARE package. This strikes Penn's pals as vaguely depressing. They see themselves as caring guys who have "relationships" with "dynamite ladies"--sometimes even "serious relationships." They're not depressed enough to turn down the package, but it's a shame how degraded women are getting to be. They themselves would do anything for their baby daughters.
Very male, all of this. Rabe's biggest successes were plays about the Vietnam War ("The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel" and "Streamers"). Here too a kind of martial law prevails. When Aiello throws Winningham out of her own car, it's OK, because he's been going through a lot lately, and what is she anyway? Just a ditz.
Rabe sees how reprehensible this is, but he refuses to write off Aiello's character as a simple creep, and neither, of course, does Aiello. He gives us a portrait of a man who is truly a prisoner of sex. A female can't enter his field of vision without setting off a tripwire. He ascribes to women the power of the witch: the power to see through a man, to make him small.
Naturally a woman has got to use this power carefully when in a man's presence, or she will have to pay the consequences. It is a question of self-defense. Aiello shows that women are a real hoodoo with him. Finally his fears take him over the edge.
But Penn and his buddies, who keep reminding each other how important it is to take a "clear" approach to life, also approach women as having an inborn hold over them. That's why it's OK, in fact smart, to treat them badly--it evens things up. Rabe doesn't defend the attitude, but he records it, and Aiello brings it to alarming life.
Another thing that makes Aiello's a troubling performance--this from the male point of view--is that you're perfectly convinced that you wouldn't do anything more for this guy than his friends are doing. He's too close to the brink for you to join him on it, and yet he's too articulate about his condition for you to take it quite seriously. Hey, Phil, we've all got problems.
So much for male bonding. The women in the play--Winningham, Bauer, Schoelen--are in far better psychic shape than the men, maybe because they've got to take other people into account in factoring their lives.
The guys are free to be totally narcissistic; to admit to one another that they don't give a rap for one another's friendship; to boast that other people are just "background" in one's private movie; to sneer that life is just a bowl of blah-blah-blah. This leaves them free to pursue the pleasure principle to the point of self-disgust and even self-destruction, a point that Penn approaches in the last moments of the play.
Some fun, up there in the Hollywood Hills. Double, double, toil and trouble. We probably wouldn't like the Macbeths very much at a party either. But there was a play in them.