The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: DR2’s Everything’s Fine
Have you ever been sitting and watching a show or a play and everyone else in the audience is laughing and having a great time? And you’re sitting there wondering what gives? If there is a chance that you are all not experiencing the same show? Cause you’re not laughing. Nor are you finding it funny, like everyone else. It’s a perplexing space to find yourself in, and yet, that’s exactly where I found myself the other night when I went to see Everything’s Fine, a one-man show, written and performed by Academy Award-nominated writer, actor, and director Douglas McGrath (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) at the DR2 Theatre in Union Square.
Directed with a simple tenacity by John Lithgow (RT’s John Lithgow – Stories by Heart), the storytelling is clear and straightforward, with McGrath sharing memories of his life as a 14-year-old growing up in Midland, “Deep in the heart of Texas.” It starts out sweet and engaging, with the performer standing upright, front and center, telling tales of his youth, like the time he was almost outrun by a tumbleweed as he raced home from school on his bike with the wind at his back. He smiles and connects as he rattles off this and other tales, unassumingly, launching into a number of stories that revolve around his father, his mother, his family, and his grade school buddies.
Out of thin air, he drops well-known celebrity names casually, like Harper’s Bazaar’s Diana Vreeland (who his mother worked for) and Andy Warhol (who was a ‘pal’ of his mother during that same time), in a manner that is a bit too insider-like for my taste. The asides don’t actually connect, as it feels outside of the Texan box, and a bit pretentious for no apparent reason other than its notoriety. And even though they don’t add to the framework, the stories are basically charming, especially because he does deliver them with an engaging air. He graces us with his yarn, in the same manner, as a host, standing at the head of a well-laid dinner table, possibly in the Hamptons, sharing a number of well-constructed and rehearsed antidotes to amuse and entertain his well-heeled and privileged guests. And they do, while also, uncomfortably and overtly, feeling like a not-so-subtle attempt to make himself sound very worldly, cultured, and maybe even a bit more fascinating than this needs to be.
When more earthbound, he talks lovingly about his parents from the vantage point of his youth, both at the beginning and end of this 90-minute one-act monologue, in a (somewhat overly) sentimental and touchingly kind way. We smile, and sometimes laugh (or chuckle might be a better word) at his tender characterizations of his parents and sister during their dinner dynamics. He presents them all with an enthusiastic, wide-eyed glee, regaling us with their quaint simplicity while painting a picture that feels ever so sunny, even as he describes the harsh sandy wind. It’s all quite quaint, but we are waiting for the main course to be served, and when he finally does get around to the heart of the matter, we actively hope that this cute set-up is worthy of what is, and will be, bookended by the framing of his adoring parents and family.
Played out amongst a jumbled grade school collection of desks and chairs, designed by John Lee Beatty (Broadway’s Sweat), with costuming by Linda Cho (Broadway’s POTUS), lighting by Caitlin Smith Rapoport (Ars Nova’s A Sign of the Times), and sound design by Emma Wilk (New World Stages’ A Clockwork Orange), Everything’s Fine finally starts to bite into the juicy meat of this story’s red apple. The school desks and chairs start to make sense as the meat of that apple is dutifully exposed, intriguingly at first, well deserving of the gasp that it elicits from a few of the audience members. He slowly lets the story sneak out, teasing us while keeping us fully engaged and curious, myself included. McGrath is most definitely a charming storyteller as he lures us in, expanding on the complicated and shocking interactions he experienced with his eighth-grade teacher, and it’s clear from the get-go that this is no straightforward teacher/student relationship. It is difficult and uncomfortable, especially for a child so young. We feel the conflict take over the space a bit more each time a blue enveloped note is read out for us all to take in and digest, and we sit nervously waiting to hear how it plays out.
The teacher, a late forty-year-old woman, new to the school and the area, starts off well, floating in and painting the walls of her classroom in vibrant colors. The energy and eccentricity cause all kinds of excitement in the eyes of the students, especially inside McGrath’s young and innocent 14-year-old boy. She enlivens the school and the young McGrath, especially when she informs him that he is her favored one and asks him to stay after class to talk, chat, one on one, about life and other such things. The idea causes ripples of distrust and discomfort in the audience, as we know immediately that this isn’t something sweet or innocent, even if the child at the heart of the matter revels in the validation of the teacher.
In a snap, he tells us, this uncertain and unnatural alignment expands, changing everything suddenly and inexcusably in the most unexpected way. A shift is occurring, and the idyllic life of this 14-year-old boy has now been altered forever. Trust and safety have collapsed, and the unruly and inappropriate blue-noted attachment to the young boy is set in historic stone; a stunning admission and a wildly tense complication. Yet, and here’s where I was set off on my own from the rest of the crowd, the story is told by McGrath in an off-handed kid-like manner, as if the weight of these interactions really didn’t really affect him all that much. His manner says, ‘I’m good’ even though he knows she was wrong (and troubled). It was ‘just a thing that happened back then, and although uncomfortable, it wasn’t life-altering’. And he still seems to hold that tight. The story is told well. And clearly. But without the seriousness of the situation in his core, that is, beyond giving the adult McGrath a very unique tantalizing story to tell to his friends over dinner and/or cocktails in a ‘gosh wasn’t she bat-shit crazy’ kind of way.
This is where I and the majority of the audience veer solidly away from one another. And I will admit, most honestly, that I am in the minority in this matter (or so it seems). To me, this is no slight story, and even though it steers clear of sexual trauma and manipulation, it definitely is something of importance, not one that is presented casually as amusing or funny, as McGrath appears to do in his attempt to deliver it. He states at one point that as a 14-year-old, alongside his sarcastically mature best buddy, all they could do with this complicated adult pressure for attachment was to laugh at it hysterically, as the premise was just too much for any kid to take in and deal with. That I can understand, and the best buddy’s quick humorous jabs do register. Yet adult McGrath still seems stuck in that same place, asking us to laugh alongside him and his eighth-grade buddy, as he unpacks this complex and traumatic dilemma with us without ever really letting us in to the vulnerability and trauma it left imprinted.
Now, I feel I must add that I am a psychotherapist in my day job, and one who deals a lot with childhood trauma. Hearing what was put upon this young boy by this adult woman, it certainly triggered those red flags the come within my professional heart and soul. I couldn’t just chuckle along, nor get past what was done to this boy emotionally. Also, it was very clear that something terrible must have been playing out in the mind of this middle-aged woman to allow her to engage with a 14-year-old in this wildly inappropriate and damaging manner. This wasn’t, at least to me, a casually entertaining story to be told with a few jokes laid on, much like that 14-year-old boy needed to do to try to maneuver around this aggressive behavior. Something much deeper was needed to make this story rise up to the occasion.
And then the story was played out. Somewhat simply and casually. And we returned to the familial. The bookend that hopefully would tie it all together. But unfortunately, the twist tie is too weak and simplistic to leave us feeling securely framed. The idea and logic are a stretch and not convincing enough to leave it all with comfort and meaning in our hearts. This wasn’t simply about loneliness, even though it might have played some part in the uncomfortable action. The chairs have been lined up neatly in the back to give the illusion that order has been restored, but I wasn’t buying it in the same way others were. Maybe this is a professional problem, and not a theatrical one, as others seem to walk out feeling held, but I was left carrying that uncomfortable feeling long after the show ended. In Everything’s Fine, McGrath is a fabulously engaging storyteller, but everything wasn’t fine inside me as I left wondering when this internalized trauma will be unpacked and worked through, not simply tossed aside, like an empty blue envelope.
[…] isn’t the only one on the Broadway (or off-Broadway) stage. There was Douglas McGrath‘s Everything’s Fine, cut short all too suddenly by his untimely death. Such a sad end to that story. I tip my hat to […]
[…] but it isn’t the only one on the Broadway (or off-Broadway) stage. There was Douglas McGrath‘s Everything’s Fine, cut short all too suddenly by his untimely death. Such a sad end to that story. I tip my hat to […]