A really long post about theatre and feminism and critics and ingrained gender norms

I’ve gotten feministy on you guys before, so this should come as no surprise, but, like, I’m a strong independent woman?

Haha women are funny.

To the point.

In the last couple of weeks, I saw two plays off-Broadway that were within a few blocks of each other. The first, Small Engine Repair, is a “taut, twisty, comic thriller” starring four men (one of whom is the writer, another of whom is most famous for being on Pretty Little Liars, not that either of those things are inherently bad). SMALL-articleLargeThe second is How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them, a “provocative surrealistic fable about codependence,” stars three young women (I’ve seen two off-Broadway before, again not that it matters, just trying to give equal coverage here).14howto-web-articleInline

It’s pretty unfair to compare these two plays on their merit as plays and as productions because they are markedly different. While both feature unexpected violence and cruelty, SER is written and performed purely realistically, while HTMFATKT is surreal and strange. There is swearing in both, brief nudity in both, some comedy in both, and both feature an exploration of relationships bonded in friendship.

However.

While I won’t deny that I enjoyed the twisted turn at the end of SER, nor that the performances and text were strong and amusing, but I will say that I left with a bit of a sour taste. I felt like I’d seen it before. Three white bros, one twenty-something white douche. Jokes about women. Texting. Jokes about social media. Drinking whiskey. Talking in an accent. Cyberbullying. Exacting revenge. I realized that I was pissed off because I’m so bored of seeing men do “men things” onstage as if they are actually interesting to the average bear. I looked forward to a reviewer agreeing with me when the show opened.

smallenginerepair5

Now, to HTMFATKT. It has flaws too—a bit overwrought and overwritten at times, a bit too long. But it felt fresh and unique, like suddenly I was in a room of people that suddenly realized we could actually talk about birth control with each other and not whisper or feel like a slut. You know? Like this private thing, or private feeling was being explored onstage. The world and relationships were almost devoid of time or place—the girls (eventually women) talked about their feelings openly, showed emotions physically with their faces and bodies. They weren’t good people. They were flawed and ugly and conceited and selfish and we saw right through them. There’s something so satisfying about that.

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So, I started to think about these two shows and my reactions. Let’s compare a few notes:

Small Engine Repair                              How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them

4 white men 3 white women
Set in time and place Could be any time/place
Comedy is based on characters’ stupidity, as well as jokes about women, social media, man things. Comedy is based on complete and utter truth-telling; exactly what characters are thinking they immediately say
Violence at the end of the play is all against one, focused on revenge Violence at the end of the play is inflicted on all, and on selves (everyone is hurt and everyone hurts themselves)
There are no consequences to the violent behavior The consequences are brutal if not law-enforced—we know they will continue a horrific pattern of codependency

So, cool! Got that. Perhaps you’re starting to see why I found HTMFATKT significantly more interesting than SER. I mentioned I was looking forward to reading the reviews. Let’s compare those too!

Now, of course, I’m only pulling representative quotes—there were a lot of reviewers who had very smart things to say about HTMFAKT (and SER). What strikes me and really gets my goat is this:

We do not talk about male-centric plays and female-centric plays in the same way.

See below:

Small Engine Repair                                How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them

NY Times

“a raw, funny and well-tooled new play”

“crackling comic dialogue steeped in the tang of male aggression and rivalry

Only male cruelty here is taken seriously. When women are vicious, they’re belittled into “mean girls.” This perversion of language creates a dynamic where men throw spears and women throw Pixie Stix. Both hit an opponent, but one is dangerous while the other is almost cute and mostly stupid.

NY Times

“Ms. Feiffer [playwright] … delves into the mean-girl genre. The play features acne, licking, acne licking; drinking; vomiting; breast baring; and more as Ms. Feiffer makes sure everyone understands that this is no feel-good comedy.”

EW

“…guides your expectations so smoothly that you’re half-shocked to suddenly realize that the coming-of-middle-age comedy you were watching has stealthily morphed.”

“one scene that’s funny, nerve-wracking, and ballsy enough to justify the whole show.”

For men, torture is ballsy. For women, torture is weird (and let’s be clear, I could argue that SER is the more vicious, but at the very least they’re equivalent in violence). Oooh, men are fighting, I’m on the edge of my seat. Ladies going at it? What strange little creatures.

EW

“As the girls get older, their co-dependent habits only deepen and becoming more disturbing until, as the title suggests, their weird little world gets deadly.”

“The manic performances and the mind-numbing repetition of Feiffer’s script suggest that everyone involved had been encouraged to binge on Pixie Stix before coming into work.”

 

NY Post

“The new comic thriller “Small Engine Repair” isn’t subtle, but it more than makes up for it by being tawdry, nasty and fun…”

Who cares! A bro wrote a show! And it’s gross! Cool!

We’re treated to intense bro chatter spiced with nonstop swearing as the trio catch up.”

Bros that add “fucking” to every sentence are just bros, man!

New York Theatre Review

“Feiffer constructs her play to sidestep all but the most superficial conventions of realism. She isn’t interested in cause-and-effect, and her script doesn’t display either psychological truth or social insight. Instead, it uses a lurid form of melodrama

Where’s the depth, ladies? I expected more considering all that hemming and hawing you insist on doing.

potently combines inflated emotion with flat characterization.”

Shut those whiny girls up.

 

Now, I’m willing to concede that I’m digging too deeply. However, as a woman in the arts, it is stunningly rare to see honest portrayals of women like me onstage. I can go weeks without seeing anything that explores women without belittling them, and I see a lot of stuff. And this is just a co-issue with the lack of gender diversity in produced playwrights—12% of all plays produced in the US are written by women. Ergo, 88% of plays produced are written by men.

So seeing this kind of stuff gets me feisty. I get riled. I get angry. Because women are stepping up to the plate, onstage and off, and some brave producers are willing to give them a boost. But even still… we are so ingrained with faulty notions of gender that frequently we can’t see clearly at all. Certainly none of these (all-male, interestingly) reviewers could.

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