Melinda and I went to an amazing play last night - All That I Will Ever Be, by Alan Ball. It was great for a lot of the same reasons that people would say American Beauty and Six Feet Under, other Alan Ball projects, are great - it was dark without being despairing, topical without being preachy, simultaneously familiar and strange, funny.
I didn't know anything about it when I bought the tickets - just that it had been written by Alan Ball, and the program didn't have even the briefest plot summary, so I sat down as a blank slate. It was basically about a Middle Eastern hustler and the relationships he forms with clients. The hustler is played by this guy, Peter Macdissi:
It's a really meaty role, and Macdissi does a phenomenal job. The playhouse was pretty small, and we had good seats, so we were pretty close to the stage. A lot of the time, you see an actor in person and it's sort of disconcerting that they're so human-sized. One of the things that makes theater so special, and so difficult, is that the actors don't have huge projectors or elaborate settings to enhance their impact on the viewer... they're just people, standing a few feet above all the other people in the audience. Macdissi is a big guy but I felt like he just got bigger and bigger and bigger until he was gigantic, outsized, totally filled the stage.
I don't think that cinema can really come close to the intensity and physical charisma a good actor can project in theater - because it's so immediate, because it's a moment in time that can't be repeated or repaired, because there is a physical connection when a body is performing in front of you. Acting is physical, corporeal, and that is...thinned out, mediated, through film. This means that a bad play is ridiculous. But a good one grabs hold of you bodily and won't let you go.
There were only six actors, so several of them played multiples roles. Having the same person reappear several times in different guises, having pared-down sets with minimal props, forces the audience to to engage, to construct the dramatic world with the actors.
Meanwhile the hustler, who goes by the name of Omar, uses his clients to construct his own false realities - he tries to be whatever is wanted of him, because what he wants is to be someone else. Or because he finds his own identity as a foreigner, an alien, so slippery and unstable that he has lost track of it. We see him in several situations - in the retail job he has to ensure a regular, base income; a call to a client that develops into something like a relationship; a date with a woman who is not aware that he's a hustler; and a call to an older, male client who has spent some time in the land of Omar's birth. Although these situations are not interrelated in the butterfly-bats-its-wings-in-Malasia way, it is only by seeing the very mutable Omar in all of these situations that the viewer gains a real sense of who he is, what his life is like.
At one point, after a very touching exchange Omar offers to stay the night for no charge; his client says: Sweetheart, we don't pay you to stay, we pay you to leave.
And the last line of the play is: Why would I want to hurt you?
I wonder if the goal of the play was to investigate what it really means to give people what they want, to be what is wanted rather than what you are. Because although it seems like a compulsion for Omar, it's ultimately a self-destructive, very painful one. I also think that the play intentionally draws parallels between hustling and other relationships - retail, love, and family. It's hard to know when Omar is acting to please himself or his client; when he is in his professional or personal mode. And it's easy to see how others need Omar to construct their own fictions - less explicitly, and less consciously, than Omar himself.