Dave and I saw a preview of After the War at A.C.T. last night. The ensemble is absolutely terrific, the set steals the show more than once, but the play itself is dour, earnest, slight, and longwinded. It has something of the feel of what you’d get if you took a slice-of-life play like Juno and the Paycock and muted both the comedy and the tragedy way, way, way down. All is enveloped in permanent twilight, mood-wise.
Despite the many characters living together in the boarding house, the playwright doesn’t have much of a story, and yet it takes him two long acts, three hours in all, to tell it. For a while, I was interested in getting to know the characters, who are a colorful and extremely varied bunch. But an hour and a half later, at the end of the first act, the lights went up and I was still waiting for a story to begin.
(The last scene of the first act has the characters gathering to watch Perry Como on a new television set, which is more than a little reminiscent of the gramophone scene in Juno and the Paycock. But, unlike Juno, the scene is not used to make much of a point about the characters, nor does it lead anywhere in terms of story.)
The story doesn’t get around to beginning, not really, in the second act either. What little dramatic tension there is has mostly to do with who is currently or was formerly sleeping with whom in the boarding house, and who knows and doesn’t know about it. When the various secrets come to light, though, nothing much comes of them. The playwright seems to deliberately shy away from anything that might smack of dramatic conflict or action. He’ll spend a scene building up to the moment when one character finally confronts another with what he or she knows, and then the confrontation comes, and there are maybe two or three short lines and a blackout. Say what? The scene changes take longer than most of the conflicts. Which is maybe only fair, as they are also a lot more interesting to watch. But conflict is the bread and butter of drama, and these ought to be the most important and interesting and crucial scenes in the play. Yet the playwright just tosses them away, over and over again.
It’s not that this isn’t a common enough way of doing things in plays, God knows. It was typical of a lot of mainstream American playwrighting style for a lot of the first half of the 20th century. But it’s hugely unsatisfying. Thing is, if the playwright spends some time early in the play getting the audience interested in the fact that there’s this latent instability in the situation, investing emotional importance into whatever this ticking bomb is that could go off and disrupt things for the characters in a significant way, then, when the bomb is made to go off and it just sputters and fizzles out, it only tells us that the situation was never really worth our concern in the first place, that we have just been wasting our time thinking there was anything going that might matter to the characters. Of course, real life is like that sometimes, but a play isn’t real life, a play is a carefully constructed presentation designed to communicate some sort of view of real life. Quite a different thing. The playwright has had all the time in the world to decide where to direct your attention, and if he or she has done it by implying that this something is vitally important to these characters that you’re being led to care about, and then he or she shows you later that what was presented as being important to these characters isn’t important to them after all — then you’ve been led on a wild goose chase, and rather pointlessly.
What dramatic climaxes there are in the second act seem to occur when characters reach the point of arguing about who has been the most downtrodden by life, whose personal history constitutes the heaviest burden. This is the kind of play where at a climactic moment someone actually shouts, “Your shame! What about my shame!” (I commented on this to Dave afterward, and he said the line that stuck in his memory was, “Because it matters! Because it has to matter!” An awful lot of the dialogue in the second act is like that.)
The most passionate conflict in the play occurs in the second act when a Japanese-American man and a black man, who have been good friends up to this point, quarrel bitterly about whether the mistreatment by America of the Japanese-American man, who spent three years in the worst of the internment camps during World War Two, is significant when compared with that of the black man. The fact that one of the two men is carrying a gun during much of the quarrel doesn’t do much to disguise the fact that these are less characters in a story than they are mouthpieces for opposing viewpoints in the debate the author wants to have with himself. The gun is never fired, nor does anyone so much as threaten to fire it. Nor does the debate come to any conclusion; the author has carefully constructed it, just as he has everything else in the play, so as not to lead to anything that might look like dramatic motion.
Well, that’s not quite true. At the end of the play — and stop me if you’ve heard this one — several of the characters leave the boarding house, suitcase in hand, their fates uncertain. Wandering off into the permanent twilight.