Saturday, September 22, 2018

Plays of Regret

"Screen Play" at Pandemonium
Brian Pedaci & Toni K. Thayer
re·gret (rəˈɡret)

verb 1. feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over (something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity).

noun 1. a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done.

Groundhog Day

Why does the movie Groundhog Day work? I mean, the premise is facile, but inspired. One person wakes up on the same day, day after day, seemingly for eternity.

It could easily be a horror film, like an episode of the Twilight Zone, a "No Exit" situation, in which our protagonist is driven to madness. When he is finally released and it is finally February 3rd, he’s a gibbering, quivering mess, or unleashes unspeakable violence on the citizens of Punxsutawney before being carted away in a loony wagon.

Instead it's a somewhat broad romantic comedy that includes one unfortunately dated homophobic gag.

Bill Murray plays the main character, and he's a complete jerk. But he’s not the only jerk, there's a lot of jerks in this movie. I couldn't help but imagine that piano teacher and her decision, every single time, to accept a sizable amount of money to kick her adolescent student out of the house. Man, that girl looks really sad and confused.

Also, Chris Elliott. That’s all, just, Chris Elliott.

Watching the film for only the second time the other night ("don't @ me") I was impressed by the structure. The different phases our man goes through, confused, manic, suicidal, resigned, driven. But I was not only amused by but disturbed by Murray’s performance. I’m not sure he changes as much as people want to believe he has.

He fails when he takes an easy route into into Andie MacDowell’s pants, by discovering and memorizing her favorite things, and then repeating them back to her. But aren’t his long-term efforts at becoming a full-actualized human being the same thing, only more sophisticated? Does he learn languages and philosophy and boogie-woogie piano because he wants to, or because that is what it will take to attain the acceptance of the only person in town he apparently can't bamboozle?

Nailed it.
He accumulates several lifetimes of experience and practice, an autodidact’s liberal education, but he’s still kind of a jerk. He bathes in his own cleverness. I mean, Bill Murray always does. However, I believe that fact is the film’s redeeming quality, that he does not become an entirely different person. He changes, yet he does not. The best that can be said is that he does not seem to hate himself anymore. It's not even about her. Do we not all hope for that kind of radical change?
“How old I will be by the time I learn to really play the piano/act/paint/write a decent play?" The same age you will be if you don’t.
- Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
Groundhog Day was released when I was twenty-five. Half my life ago, with so much in front of me, I wasn’t particularly touched by his dilemma. At the age of fifty, which of us would not -- barring the opportunity to actually go back in time and change things -- take the opportunity afforded from one single day, repeated over and over, to make up for lost time? Reliving, reliving, and recreating. The young man finds it amusing. The older man just sees his own life and thinks, what have I been doing with my many varied days?

Make no mistake, Groundhog Day is ultimately a movie about regret. Because there are no do-overs, we cannot relive a moment to get it right. It is a fantasy of longing for the one who got away.

Plays of Regret

Several of my plays have been inspired by brief, passing encounters, expanded upon and brought to their ultimate, extreme conclusion.

Twenty years ago, in 1998, four playwrights (David Bell, Suzanne Miller, Toni K. Thayer and myself) collaborated to create a new work for Dobama’s Night Kitchen titled Cole Cuts. Set in a trendy, late 90s cocktail bar, each fifteen minute piece was to include a lesser-known song by Cole Porter, performed live by the company, piano by the incomparable Michael Seevers.

"Cole Cuts: The Imaginary Date" directed by Dan Kilbane
Featuring Adam Hoffman, Elaine Feagler, David Thonnings & Alison Garrigan
Piano: Michael Seevers
(Dobama's Night Kitchen, 1998)

In my scene, “The Imaginary Date,” a young man (Simon) is pressed into service, pretending to hit on a friend of his (Missy) to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. By the end of the short scene the gambit has worked -- the ex stomps off in a huff -- but Simon is left wounded by the connection he allowed himself to believe has been made with Missy on their “imaginary” date.

The convention of the complete, one-hour play (set in a bar called The Porterhouse) gave this scene additional impact, as Simon returns to the bar, continues to drink through two other scenes, and sadly staggers out near the end of the final piece.

Emotional role play is also a major plot point in The Way I Danced With You, in which a young couple attempt to rekindle a flagging relationship. This piece, which received a weekend of performances at Blank Canvas last March will have a complete, three-weekend run this season at Ensemble Theatre.

A few weeks ago, my ten-minute piece Screen Play premiered at Pandemonium, Cleveland Public Theatre’s annual gala. Two years ago I tried it out at CPT’s monthly public workshop, The Dark Room with Brian Pedaci reading the male character. This summer he asked if I wouldn’t pitch it for the party. I was surprised he remembered it. I was surprised they chose it. It’s a little kitchen sinky, but between he and my wife, Toni K. Thayer as she, it was taut, compelling, and we got some lovely responses from party goers.

"The Way I Danced With You" at Ensemble Theatre
Sarah Blubaugh & Cody Kilpatrick Steele
Unlike those other two pieces, featuring youthful protagonists in the very midst of romantic decision-making, here we have two Gen Xers in their middle years, a quiet evening at home, on their screens. He googles a one-night stand from college, and his attempt at re-connection (an ill-thought impulse) is met with a less-than-positive response. The ensuing conversation with his spouse leads to several uneasy conclusions.

Dan Savage said, “every relationship you are in will fail, until one doesn't.” Is the success of an entire relationship defined by whether or not it ends? How many relationships hinge on a single word? Have you ever felt the regret that comes with doubting the choices you have made, and the possibility that one choice, one moment, one word -- stay -- may have created for you an entirely different life, a different world, a different you?

If you had it to do all over again, would you?

And would you regret that also?

Ensemble Theatre presents the World Premiere of "The Way I Danced With You," through April 7, 2019.

This post was updated on 3/22/2019

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