Friday, January 6 – If it is true, as many would have us believe, that there is a parallel to be drawn between the creation of a work of art and the production of a human life, then it can be said that, with the donation of “The Tale of the Queer Barkeep” to the theatrical world, Jack Temchin '68 has provided us with nothing less than a gold lame stillborn baby.
The play is consistently interesting and often immensely theatrical; it succeeds completely in catching the attention at the beginning, and generally manages to sustain interest for the remainder of its 60 minutes. But these admittedly impressive achievements are accomplished through rather superficial, contrived, and often obtrusively vulgar means. “The Tale of the Queer Barkeep” does "flash around" a lot, often very effectively ; but as the play progresses, demanding of itself greater depth and of its audience increased involvement and concern for what is going on, it becomes disturbingly obvious that whatever fight it does radiate stems from a hollow source, from a basic lack of substance, from the dead material beneath the intriguing surface. The light is artificial, like the characters, like a good deal of the dialogue, like the presentation of the theme. The play is, finally, a display, a showcase for a lot of oppressively noisy neon emotionalism, whose bright rays exist merely to advertise their own cleverness, all the while glaring out nastily but purposelessly at the audience, without once illuminating a theme or the nature of a character.
It would seem that “The Tale of the Queer Barkeep” has left the womb a bit prematurely. This is extremely unfortunate, for the play obviously does have the potential for a life of its own. There are many moments that suggest that “Barkeep” could achieve the vitality and excitement necessary to involve an audience in an "honest" way, without the use of gratuitous, out-of-place jokes and gags, unmotivated actions or dialogue, and patronizing explanations of characterization or thematic material.
None of the characters is exceedingly original. They are, rather, fairly recognizable types which we have come to expect in works of the modern American theatre. Jimmy, played by Dave Stewart '68, is the typical American husband reflected in countless situation comedies – ineffectual, stupid, weak, slightly effeminate, impotent, and bewildered. Good old Dad. His wife Janice (Rita Crosby) is, of course, the obligatory slut. The domineering domestic floozie we know and love. Irresistible. Really groovy. The mobile Mod tumor who works her way subtly into your heart with the soft sweet chime of her bell-bottomed eyes, and then proceeds to devour you completely with the nasty Brillo scrape of her burning suburban lust. Funk, whip, lash … and the beat goes on. So there you have it. The new archetypal American stage marriage: he's a vegetable and she's a vegetarian. And where do you go from there?
The point is that this relationship is established right away. We know. We see. We understand. If the play is going to involve us in these people, something more must be added. Unfortunately, Temchin provides both Jimmy and Janice with long speeches during the course of the play that do nothing but accent and represent in various forms what we have already perceived. Jimmy reveals that he once had a "touch of disease" and that Janice was the "only one who could have touched me that way." Revelation. Behind Janice's lovely exterior and sweet breath smile, there is nothing but sickness, venereal disease, to be exact, if you haven't guessed already. But then Janice reveals that, whereas she had all her sickness removed by being scraped out inside (ah-ha! beneath that empty exterior we find – emptiness! – ah-ha?), Jimmy still has his intact. In fact, Jimmy's disease is getting worse and worse, chewing away at his brain. The truth shines forth! Dear old Dada is not merely an ineffectual, stupid, weak, slightly effeminate, impotent and bewildered husband. No, sir. He's an ineffectual, stupid, weak, slightly effeminate, impotent and bewildered husband who's getting more so all the time! Dramatic Progression! And what's making him worse? Of course – the disease! And whose disease is it? Janice's! And there we are, finally, with our discovery: Jimmy is a vegetable, Janice is a vegetarian. The more we hear it, the less effective it becomes. And the beat goes on …
Ineffective and Inert
All right. My mockery isn't necessary. But neither are the speeches. They are superficially dramatic but ultimately ineffective and inert because they offer nothing new; they simply provide rather coy, self-conscious symbolic "explanations" and "analyses" of what we already know. They are patronizing as well as static.
Johnny is probably the most complex of the characters. Outwardly cocky, snide, pushy, ludicrously "cool", he is actually (you guessed it!) insecure, weak, and basically incompetent. The play is set in his apartment. He spends his time alternately reminiscing about his life, with Jimmy's help, and making it with Janice, also with Jimmy's help. What makes his character interesting is the delineation of his frantic fear of emotion, of warmth, of love. He has one truly excellent speech in which he speaks of his late brother, and in this "scene" we learn more about the character than any descriptive summaries will tell us later on. At this point we see for ourselves. In his speech, Johnny speaks of his brother as one who was extremely sensitive, a very "moody" person who "felt things very strongly", and who, it is suggested, had a very intimate relationship with a "silent professor" while at college, where he eventually committed suicide. Johnny expresses great bitterness in speaking about his brother; he has protected himself from such a fate by completely eliminating all but physical human contact from his life. At the time of this play, Johnny has invited the silent professor to his apartment to take his revenge, revenge on one who submitted to the need for human contact. He taunts him and physically abuses him and ends the play by slapping him wildly while furiously demanding a confession from the professor to the effect that he (the professor) had convinced Johnny's brother at college that their relationship was of a homosexual nature, and that the anguish of this realization led to the subsequent suicide. Of course, all this is done far more suggestively and far more powerfully than my description implies.
We are presented with a fascinating conflict; the coldness, emptiness and bestiality of Johnny, Jimmy, and Janice on one hand; and, as an "alternative", warmth, human need, intimacy are represented by the memory of a dead boy and the dream-like presence of a withered, mute old man. Not much of a choice, certainly. Temchin certainly offers a cynical view of what commitment to the recognition of need can fall to and a pessimistic view of what negation of need can produce.
All these ideas might have been explored in very effective ways, and, in fact, the last 10 minutes of the play do so to a great extent. They are electrifying. But, by compromising honesty during the major portion of the play, Temchin prevents his audience from becoming seriously involved in the final section. There are too many self-contained, forced jokes throughout especially in the beginning, that should be deleted. The motivations for behavior and dialogue throughout the play are often clumsily intrusive. The play seems to turn in any direction at all at the author's whim.
And this sort of thing is done often. Artificial methods are used to illustrate character; we are not given a chance to conclude from the situation – we are constantly being told what is happening or what someone is like. Ideas are explained in an artificial manner. When trying to get Johnny to relate an unpleasant memory, Janice comes up with : "I'm the new woman, Johnny, and you're the new man, and we're free, baby, free! Free to inflict pain, free to indulge in suffering! So tell me, Johnny! Tell me! For the pain! For the pain!" And she wasn't joking, either. That girl knows enough to write a play, I bet.
Temchin has killed his own characters and destroyed the credibility of his situation, even on its own obviously non-realistic level: he has smothered his play under piles and heaps of theatrical cosmetics: jokes, parodies, gags, unmotivated behavior, and overly explicit statements of characterization and theme.
The play was served at Kirby by an extraordinarily fine production. Greg Prentiss' direction was consistently theatrical, and prevented a potentially static talk play from becoming seriously bogged down in the sound of its own howl. He did allow, at times, some of the weaker aspects of the writing to be emphasized rather than toned down. Many jokes seemed to be "highlighted" unnecessarily, and he seemed to be attempting to treat some of the more conspicuously contrived exchanges in a style of self-parody that didn't quite work and came dangerously close to becoming "camp" renditions of bad movie cliches. On the whole, however, his direction was appropriate, tense, and ingenious, just what it should have been.
The actors were mostly superb, though all seemed to have difficulty in understanding exactly why their characters did and said the things they did without any convincing reason. Craig Dunkerly '69, as Johnny, suffered most from this problem. As written, the part lacks a clear focus, and this was reflected on stage. Sometimes Johnny was a nasty Dudley Do Right, sometimes president of a local Shriner's club; sometimes just a hint of James Cagney crept in. When the motivations were clear, his performance was urgent, taut and quite powerful.
As Janice, Miss Crosby had some excellent moments, especially when portraying the softly slithering temptress or the sweetly purring vulture, but when the characterization switched abruptly into a Martha derivative, a loud-mouthed, abusive floozie, she was not quite convincing. As the Professor, Barry Keating '69 was very good in a rather undefined role. Though the part is not developed at all, Keating played it to the hilt. Sitting motionless in his wheel chair, wearing amazingly believable make-up, the hair on his head like surplus coleslaw, his wrinkled face appearing irrigated, and his fingers constantly attempting to escape the grasp of his hands, he presented a case of erosion that might startle the editors of the "National Geographic."
Closing the Gap
Dave Stewart played Jimmy, perhaps the only character able to elicit any sympathy from an audience. Again, the part is inconsistently written by Temchin. At first, Jimmy is a pleasant, pitiable clown; we laugh at him, we find him sad, but we don't really care too much. And at the end, he has a long, beautifully written monologue that suggests far greater depth than seems reasonable, considering his behavior until that point. Stewart was not able to close the gap between the "opening" and the "closing" Jimmy, but this is understandable. What he was able to do, magnificently, was play both Jimmys with remarkable control, restraint, and subtlety. His timing in the humorous "bits" was perfect, and one could not help liking him immediately as he looked out at the audience, with a fingerpainted smile slowly spreading over a flabby soap-carved face. It was an impressive bit of comedy acting. And in the final scene, what might have been an exceedingly sentimental speech was delivered with such poignancy, such understanding, and such simplicity that it seemed to stand on its own as a beautiful set piece.
Many of the artificial gimmicks that undermined the honesty of "The Tale of the Queer Barkeep" probably arose from an insecurity in dealing with an audience's reactions. One way to help solve such a problem is through experience : more and more productions. Temchin's work is certainly interesting enough and promising enough to deserve them, and if Amherst students have any interest at all in theatre as a changing, modern art form, they should support such ventures: certainly they should be given even more opportunities to do so. For, no matter what one's reservations, "The Tale of the Queer Barkeep" was an interesting, worthwhile experiment, and it was given a production that is fine by any standards.
Source: Part 1, Part 2