Tragedy in Strong Voices: ‘Girls & Boys’ and ‘Carmen Jones’
The Daily Beast
June 27, 2018
In ‘Girls and Boys,’ Carey Mulligan plays a woman facing a terrible personal tragedy, while—75 years since its last major New York production—‘Carmen Jones’ is beautifully sung.
‘Girls & Boys’
The unnamed character the movie star Carey Mulligan plays in Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys is brisk and no-nonsense, and she doesn’t want our sympathy. That is significant given the terrible thing that happens to her family, which will go unrevealed here.
Mulligan’s 90-minute monologue, opening Wednesday night at New York City’s Minetta Lane Theatre, is both a standing-still affair and one that involves action, movement, and some mime. If you can’t make it to the theatre, Mulligan’s performance is also available for download via Audible (and this reviewer would recommend it).
At the beginning of Girls & Boys we meet Mulligan in a vivid, autumnally colored ensemble standing within four light blue walls, like a splash of human color in a black and white movie.
Mulligan’s accent can best be described as Estuary English. It isn’t posh. It’s chippy southeast England; not Cockney, but roughened around the edges, warm, sharp, witty, takes no prisoners. You can have a laugh with her, but don’t get on her bad side.
The story of the unnamed woman begins with a great yarn about a male airline worker, refusing the batting-of-the-eyes entreaties of a pair of female models seeking special treatment. She loves the male airline worker for not behaving to horndog type; she loves the aggrieved models, so used to having their looks be their passport.
There’s another story about having sex with a boyfriend, her face edging to a little puddle of her own puke. What do these vignettes tell us? She’s wry, funny, brash. She lives her own life on her own terms.
When a partition of stage is removed, we are in a living room and kitchen, surfaces and objects still colored that soft blue, and yet with flecks of color for objects that have to do with children.
The story runs on parallel lines from this point: the present day of the blank light blue set as the terrible story unfolds, and then periodic sorties into what seems like the past to examine the raising of her children, Leanne and Danny (they have names; she and her husband do not). Around it unpeels the blooming of her media career, her marriage, and the violent tragedy that destroys it all.
Those unseen children are our first hint that something isn’t right. They fight each other, exhaustingly. The woman is both mother and referee; she wants to get back into the media business—and she does. Her career begins to grow. The man she falls in love with and marries has a business importing French and Italian antique wardrobes. She notes his handsomeness; how she destroyed a friendship with another woman that he had had.
Just by her tone and responses, we imagine what her children and husband are saying to her. Kelly’s script is witty as well as dark, with lovely little moments, such as when she misidentifies one of her children’s toys: “Oh. I thought it was a dinosaur.”
But these early scenes also sow the seeds for the play’s predominant theme: the male capacity for destruction. At playtime, Leanne builds buildings, and Danny destroys them. We see the beginning of how male privilege and violence is accommodated early, by parents desperately wanting to pacify. “No, I do not treat him differently to you,” Leanne’s mother tells her.
The woman recalls her husband being outraged when she had noted the prevalence of male violence, she thinks, because the conversation “polluted” our nuclear family.
Ambition is also important to this woman: a career, a vocation. She is not posh, so a career in TV seems unlikely, but her determination and straight-talking nature wins her a job and, eventually, a degree of power.
The documentary she ends up telling us most about involves a male academic trying to configure a system that would make it harder for men to attain power.
And it is the exercise of her power, at least according to her, which is the terrible seed that leads her husband to do what he does. It is his diminishment that leads to the act of terrible tragedy, and suddenly what we have been watching becomes clear. Mulligan’s memory is there on stage, her reconceiving of memories too, to involve just her and her children.
Mulligan’s performance is extraordinary, and the monologue is beautifully written but flawed. It is, as she says, only the woman’s point of view, but the story is so important—at the end a particular statistic is deployed—that, with no deeper insight into why the husband did what he did, we are left in a slightly blank narrative ocean.
It is significant that, even in her own reading, the majority of the blame is put on the woman’s shoulders for an act of male violence. It is her career and assertiveness that have somehow led to this, we are asked to believe. It made her husband behave in the way he did.
The reason is not only deeply suspect and sexist, the play’s path doesn’t even lead up to this being plausible. Is it true? Remember: This is only her interpretation, and only what she wants to tell us. Everything we see in Girls & Boys is an exercise of the woman’s memory.
The play’s biggest flaw is that we don’t know the truth, and the point of the play isn’t to examine whether the woman is telling the truth. But the truth she tells us still feels incomplete, even if it is the truth. You may feel, as I did, a jarring disconnect between between the story and the storytelling.
The performance is stunning and powerful to watch, and Mulligan both exquisitely poised and, even in the thicket of her character’s grief and loss, not manifesting the kind of behavioral patterns of grief that you expect from dramatic pieces that orbit the subject. Having defied expectations all her life, the woman Mulligan plays is now defying the devastation around her, and deploying her memory as her most ruthless weapon.
The white Oscar Hammerstein II wrote Carmen Jones, the all-black musical that is a slimmed-down, “greatest hits” distillation of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, with the action transferred from 1820s Seville to an American parachute factory in World War II.
The Classic Stage Company’s latest production of the show is the first major New York production since Carmen Jones’ premiere on Broadway 75 years ago, and surely a reasonable question in 2018 is: Why doesn’t it have a black director?
This isn’t to diminish John Doyle’s beautifully mounted production (and, as The New York Times noted, Doyle—who is also the CSC’s artistic director—led another company of black actors to Tony Award-winning success in 2016’s The Color Purple).
“We all come from different backgrounds,” Doyle told the Times. “I’m not saying to you that I feel 100 percent comfortable about it, but I have to come to terms with it inside myself. And I am comfortable being in a room of my friends telling this story. That’s not a question.”
The show does have a very famous black choreographer in Bill T. Jones, and the show moves very sexily and languidly in his care. It also has a company of actors whose singing is, for the entire 95-minute duration, sublime. The story of course is speeded up, and so the emotional transitions from flirty come-ons to gnashing jealousy can seem a bit puzzling—it is not opera, or musical, but a kind of curated-feeling musical collection.
With a stage empty bar a few crates to sit on, and some scarves to place over lamps to imply nighttime, we watch Anika Noni Rose as Carmen commandingly slink and purr her way to ensnaring the smitten Joe (Clifton Duncan). Ann-Hould-Howard’s costumes for the women are notably lovely, particularly Carmen’s tight-fitting dresses, the most memorable in siren red.
Joe himself is being pursued by the lovelorn Cindy Lou (Lindsay Roberts), while on the edges of Carmen and Joe’s relationship are the envious Sergeant Brown (Tramell Tillman) and the boxer Husky Miller (David Aron Damane).
Carmen’s spell is universal, and that will only bring tragedy to both her and Joe. The only time Doyle’s direction falters is lining up the production’s group of actors to sing at the three sections of the audience separately. It feels regimented and stilted, particularly in “Stan’ Up and Fight,” the musical’s version of the Toreador Song.
The musical, like Carousel and My Fair Lady, while beautiful to listen to, is—played as narrative-unchanged—also utterly misogynistic. Carmen is a defiantly sexually and romantically liberated woman, and one thoroughly judged by both male and female subsidiary characters, and Hammerstein’s book. She must die for asserting her sexual power so unapologetically.
Stripped of its grand passions, the central love story is really one of deadly male-on-female obsession, and Joe’s final song imagining his execution, “tied up on a tree,” summons up images of lynching. Lost in its own time, the musical has nothing to say about race, when—given its era—race and racial inequality would have been experienced by its characters.
As with the recent problematic revivals of Carousel and My Fair Lady, to enjoy Carmen Jones you have to not question it. Detach yourself from the glaring meaning and mechanics of the story and listen to, and revel in, the music. The wonderful orchestra is so ably led by Joseph Joubert that, together with the singers, you really do feel like you’re having a mini-night at the Met. As sung by Roberts-as-Cindy Lou, “My Joe” (“Micaela’s Air” in Bizet’s opera) is one of the evening’s surprise standout songs.
The configuration at the CSC means the performance is happening in the round, and the performers face the audience directly. When Carmen draped herself on one person at the performance I was at, the audience member got their own round of applause for fanning themselves cool with a hat. At the end of the show, you may be feeling—in the best way—the same.