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October 26, 2005

George Hunka's New Play

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Wife and I just caught a performance of George Hunka's theater evening "In Private/In Public," and were both pretty knocked out by it.

I should preface my handful of comments about the evening with a caveat. As far as the pleasures of the theater go, I'm temperamentally far more attuned to the low than the high. Burlesque, revues, vaudeville, parody and satire, campy exhibitionism, song and dance, storytelling, sex, jokes -- it's the whole scrappy, shameless, puttin'-on-a-show thing that brings out my good will.

George Hunka is no vaudevillian. He's a genuine, and genuinely, serious theater artist. He works with real themes; he has ideas he wants to express; he has substantial things to say. George is interested in theater as a high-art form, and he works in the line of Ibsen, Beckett, and Pinter. Of the relatively-familiar art that I've seen in recent years, George's work reminds me most of the more sophisticated Woody Allen movies, and of Patrick Marber's "Closer" (the play that became the Julia Roberts/Natalie Portman/Mike Nichols movie). George of course has his own distinct tone and attack.

So, given my low nature, I may not be the best judge of this kind of work, and I probably don't have much of interest to say about it. On the other hand, I've done a fair amount of theatergoing, and I've seen a lot of the kind of decentered, abstract, and stark thing that George does. Just by virtue of a fair amount of experience I think I'm capable of saying, Nice job! And, Snappy evening!

On its surface, "In Private/In Public" is a marriage-problems-among-the-intellectuals number, done in a cryptic and occasionally sinister style. I don't mean to be flip: This is the theatrical language of modernism, one that has evolved to express a certain set of states of mind.

Thematically, George's play concerns the place of art, sex, and ideas in the modern world; the violence we do to ourselves and to each other; and how these energies and proclivities find expression in both our private and our public lives. The Upper West Side characters flirt, tease, and torment each other even as the city's terrorism alerts swing from red to orange and then back again. As the geometry of what may or may not be unfolding reveals itself, the characters frame and then reframe their understanding of what they're living through. But what can ever be truly grasped?

George handles his materials and his devices -- the abruptnesses, the precise imbalances, the misterioso tonal shifts -- with a lot of expertise. "In Private/In Public" is a very polished and skillful writing performance, eminently worthy of the kind of critical attention that people like Pinter and Marber get. The play's production, at Greenwich Village's ManhattanTheatreSource, was its own small, supercontrolled, and polished gem. Directed by Isaac Butler and featuring a very talented cast -- Darian Dauchan, Abe Goldfarb, Daryl Lathon, Sasha Taublieb, and Jennifer Gordon Thomas -- it was a confident demonstration of how to isolate and heighten the kinds of invisible tensions that this kind of theater demands.

With all that proper (and sincere) theater-appreciation out of the way, I have to confess that much of what won me over about the evening were a couple of other elements entirely: a lot of theatrical shrewdness and exuberance.

To explain: as arty as I am, I have a practical mind. And to my low and practical mind, the main challenge that abstract theater material presents is: How are you gonna keep the audience sitting there, attentive and alert, for an hour and a half?

This is small-scale, anti-conventional, intellectual theater, after all. All the beautiful modernist craftsmanship in the world isn't going to work without -- how to say it? -- a little bit of showbiz to keep us from nodding off. Plays like these don't foreground easy pleasures, let alone easy accessibility. The characters don't arc in familiar ways. A linear narrative that draws you along with surprises and revelations? Ain't gonna happen. And it isn't as though song and dance routines are going to be popping up on a regular basis to supply shots of energy.

Yet, practically speaking, we need inducements. So what always interests me at this kind of performance is: What kind of showmanship is the serious playwright going to rely on to keep us awake? (Small rant: It isn't generally acknowledged how big a role traditional showmanship plays in the work of modernist heroes like Pinter, Ionesco, Robert Wilson, etc. These artists are often discussed in terms of ideas and metaphysics, when what interests me far more is their theatrical savvy and opportunism.) Pinter gets us through his evenings with shrewd theater games; I dislike his plays but acknowledge that a lot of the scenes in them would be fun to act in. In "Closer," Patrick Marber relied on brio, dirty talk, and shock tactics.

George delivers showbiz rewards along a number of different fronts. For one thing, the play is full of beautifully nailed character moments: better-written versions of the kinds of behavior-observations that Woody Allen wins a lot of acclaim for. The digs the characters get in at each other are often wince-producing in painfully-funny ways. With much of this anti-action occuring on the tiniest possible scale, the audience experiences many scenes as a kind of minimalist vaudeville.

But what I liked best in the play and its production was another element: unstable, wildcard characters who come crashing through all the spiritual malaise and intellectualized unease. One young man we never see again is loud and proud about taking care of the tampon-buying for his girlfriend when she's mopily on the rag. A bartender at a trendy bar is hilariously disbelieving when a pal claims not to flirt with the models. These are inspired and likable outburts of irrepressible rowdiness and exuberance. (I'd like to think that they're also shots of American energy administered to an evening that otherwise feels very Prague or Paris.) They're blasts of sanity and perspective that help remind us that the whole world doesn't consist of overthinkers struggling to find their bearings.

I'm sorry to report that the run of "In Private/In Public" is now over. But those curious about George's work and brain (George Hunka and I have met a couple of times, so he's George to me) can enjoy cheap and easy second-bests: George's blog, Superfluities. George is one smart, serious/funny guy, and on his blog he shares a lot of thoughts about serious theater, as well as many tales about the joys and agonies of trying to get real serious theater up on its feet.



posted by Michael at October 26, 2005


What did Mr. Hunka think of the experience? Is getting a play produced a common thing for him, or is this the first time?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 27, 2005 5:27 PM

Mr. Hunka is shell-shocked at the moment, both from the experience of producing the workshop (no, not for the first time) and the gratification of seeing such insightful comments as Michael's.

This does not happen often. Mr. Hunka, though, is hopeful that it will become more frequent from now on.

Posted by: George Hunka on October 28, 2005 7:52 AM

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