These are not especially good times for the one-person show; they’re actually quite bleak. The sad theatrical reality is that anyone with a checkbook—or access to one—and a big mouth can get a stage and have at it. And so unsuspecting audiences have been treated to a nearly endless succession of narcissistic eruptions that bill themselves as theater. Women are more likely to chronicle something personal, usually about their bodies, usually messy. Men, on the other hand, tend to try to show off their serious acting chops by invoking dead legends and trying to create an annuity for themselves along the lines of Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight.”
The recent debacles have included Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson, moaning that her life is rotten because she wants more, Amanda McBroom trying to make a musical out of writer’s block, and Eve Ensler talking to her stomach. Only Judy Gold, with “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” last season and Kate Mulgrew with “Tea at Five,” her lovely portrayal of Katharine Hepburn, have created viable entertainments in this vein, worthy successors to Julie Harris’s “The Belle of Amherst” in the mid-1970s, and Holbrook’s piece, which really helped create the modern one-person show as viable show biz.
Those shows, at least, were about something other than the ego of the performer and didn’t leave the awkward sense that one has stumbled in on a confidential conversation with a medical professional—physical or mental. What’s so alarming about these shows is not the amount of personal information given out to strangers. Talk shows have inured us to that level of wanton self-revelation. What’s alarming is that real, honest-to-goodness theater folks think there’s value in taking a speculum to one’s life. Sometimes we like our fourth wall and we like our distance. That’s the balance Elaine Stritch and Bea Arthur managed to achieve in their solo shows—and these are amazing women at whose feet we want to sit. But the tribulations of a woman who is the voice of a cartoon character?
The ego, however, is a powerful force, and these hits—or more precisely, body blows—keep coming. The latest foray into confessional solipsism is “Stopping Traffic” by Mary Pat Gleason, who is a former soap opera script editor and a character actress who has been on TV and whose largest film role was in the lackluster movie of “The Crucible.” Oh, and she’s also bipolar and subject to “episodes” at just the wrong time in her life. So, she messes up the filming of her big scene, with Arthur Miller there and everything. She gets locked up in mental wards; that’s the story.
Gleason is no playwright and has created just a progression of scenes with no insight into her disorder. Nick Nolte is in the story, too, but there is no dramatic journey in this piece. But do you really want to shell out 50 bucks to hear someone complain?
No one is going to argue about the seriousness of bipolar disorder. It’s amazing that Gleason works at all and has struggled to overcome it, and she should be applauded for that. The title of the show comes from a rarely poignant moment when in the midst of one of her manic states Gleason thought she could control the traffic outside her ward with her mind. It’s amazing she got through that, but survival is not enough when an audience goes to the theater. We need perspective and context and believable emotion, all of which are missing from this piece.
It’s as if having made the choice to discuss her disease was enough and simply telling the story would create the evening. Not so. There is no interior here; it’s all surface monologue so it’s very difficult to care. Director Lonny Price should have helped create the inner life of the character, but he didn’t. He seems to have been more concerned with never allowing Gleason a moment to sit and quietly talk about her experience. The direction is almost as manic as one of Gleason’s episodes, darting from chair to stool to table. The most believable moment in the script is when, having returned to the set of “The Crucible” after an episode, Gleason finally breaks through her illness to deliver the performance the director Nicholas Hytner wanted. In that moment, Gleason controls the stage and herself and because that scene is structured to give us insight into what this woman is experiencing, we share her triumph when she finally nails the speech.
If only the rest of the show were that well structured.
Gleason is a wonderful, warm presence and in a better piece could really light up a stage. It’s pleasant enough to spend the time with her, and I wasn’t biting my program in agony as I was at some of the shows mentioned above. It’s just that I want something more theatrical when I go to see a play, something more than appealing dinner party stories—even if the subtext is mental illness.
As my mind drifted, I kept thinking of Noel Coward’s advice to one Mrs. Worthington—“Don’t put your daughter on the stage.” I would amend that to address those who are contemplating mounting shows of this nature—“Don’t put your neuroses on the stage.” We’ll all be better off.