in dialogue: Yesterdays News
“What’s your play about, Rob?”
“Oh, y’know, Chandra Levy and Gary Condit.”
It’s in the remind-me-who-they-were moment that Rob Handel’s new play Aphrodisiac begins. In a slightly jarring flash, we realize how fairly recent and tragic newsworthy events disappear from our daily discourse and are quickly superceded by the steady onslaught of, well, more recent and tragic events. Names dreg up random details and vague recollections, but the immediacy of our addiction, our hunger for the next installment of the serial headline story, is forever lost. And with it, any semblance of knowing the real story disappears. But did we ever really know it anyhow? These are some of the slippery questions that Handel explores in his new play, Aphrodisiac, which opens in January at P.S. 122.
Reminder: in 2001, Gary Condit confessed to having an affair with Chandra Levy. Later, the young intern’s body was found in a Washington, D.C. park. Condit was never linked to her disappearance. Now that we’re on the same page, we’re ready for Handel to tear us off of it.
In Aphrodisiac, Condit and Levy are replaced with fictional stand-ins: California congressman Dan Ferris and Ilona Waxman. The story is told through Avery and Alma, Ferris’s son and daughter, respectively, who reenact the relationship between their father and Ilona Waxman, 13 days after her disappearance:
AVERY (playing Dan Ferris)
I’m trying to say, listen to yourself. Watching the world go by? You’re young. You’re full of life.
ALMA (playing Ilona Waxman)
You’re pretty lively yourself.
Will you listen?
This is much more fun than I ever imagined.
You can’t put a stop on your life. You can’t call everything off, you can’t let this—of luck—
determine how you’re going to spend the next 18 years of your life.
How are you going to spend the next 18 years of YOUR life?
Are you thinking about that? Listen to me. You have an amazing life ahead of you. You’re smart.
Oh, thank you.
You’re one of the smartest people I ever met.
Funny how my age is suddenly a big subject.
You could be anything you want in this town. You don’t want to leave Washington.
Would you miss me?
“There’s a point in Aphrodisiac where the congressman’s two children talk about wanting to “humanize” him in order to gain some kind of empathy,” Handel explains. “We know that the characters in the news are real people, but they’ve been so cartoon-ized by the time they reach us. Like our political leaders, they have to fight for their lives by telling a complicated story to a bunch of preschoolers. It must be nightmarish.”
It is through the ritual of reenactment that Avery and Alma attempt to comprehend the events that could have occurred between Ilona Waxman and their father. It is also an attempt to understand a remote father, someone who seems distant and unknowable to them. Another concern of Handel’s is empowerment—that while characters are helpless to understand bizarre and horrific events, the reenacting of them at least allows them to grasp them on their own terms.
Watching a reading of Aphrodisiac at the Public Theater this fall, what struck me was the “realness” of the “fakeness”—how the “make-believe” felt like documented real events. I think there’s a good reason for this. As a public, we are accustomed to being baffled by news events that have come to us filtered through so many distant distorted lenses, and in our need to comprehend them we become complicit in the re-telling. We thus share an impulse with these characters, who yearn for comprehension and for a personal connection with their father. The audience buys into their story, eager for what seems like unfiltered truth. That is, the theatrical event offering truer truth than the news event.
This human hunger for stories and role-play is a recurring strain in Handel’s work. In Millicent Scowlworthy (presented at the 2002 O’Neill Playwrights Conference), a group of teenagers gather at a memorial and don articles of clothing which indicate what parts they’ll be playing. They proceed to enact events from a Columbine-like shooting to the JonBenet Ramsey murder case. It is a ritualized enactment, a sad purging of the horrible occurrences, but something that brings them closer to a comprehension of the events, if not intellectually, then perhaps viscerally.
From Millicent Scowlworthy:
You didn’t hear about Jake?
Jake, the strange kid?
He had to write a story for English and he got called on to read it because the teacher figured he hadn’t done the assignment. But he’d written like this whole novel all about Millicent.
He’s going to get expelled.
For writing a novel?
It was like a fairytale about these people living in a house on top of a mountain. There’s a little girl and her older brother and they have a big secret. One night the parents are out shining the mountain and the little girl goes to the brother and goes like, I can’t go on holding the big secret inside, I’m going to tell. And he’s like, you better not, and they’re fighting, and he like grabs her and is going, you better not, you better not, and she like stops moving, and he lets go but she’s dead.
Will you shut up? I don’t want to hear about Jake’s sick crap.
(BOY 3, now in the role of JAKE THE STRANGE KID, brings over a piece of pie he has been served and joins them at their booth.)
But you haven’t heard the best part.
(The two girls look up at him.)
The parents come home and they decide to protect the brother by making it look like a lion came into the house and chewed up the little girl.
I thought you’d be in the principal’s office.
They can’t keep me there forever.
How does the story end?
Justice is done. It’s like a story from the bible.
In the Bible the person killed by the lion turned out to not really be dead.
In this case I’m pretty sure she’s dead.
About his approach, Handel explains, “I have this urge to connect to the news, to the wider world, on a human level, and the most potent tool I know is theater. The people in my plays share this impulse, so they become actors in order to understand what’s happening to them.”
Handel’s play Being Difficult (commissioned by the 2003–2004 Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab), was also inspired by a news event—a story about Zell Kravinsky, an “extreme philanthropist” who decided to donate a kidney to a stranger.
“I’m an evangelist when it comes to theater, which was one of the reasons I started 13P [13 playwrights who produce their own work]. You know when you meet someone for the first time and you have a moment of connection over something, whether it’s you both think the bakery on the corner is overrated or you both had someone die recently? Theater is a place where you can experience that simultaneously with everyone in a room. Plays rarely rise to that level for me, but I can’t think of anything better to reach towards. So even though I write about murder and sex and ethics, all my plays are partly about my love of theater.”
Best-case scenario. Benefit of the doubt. Dad had an innocent friendship with Ilona. Maybe there was an element of flirtation, maybe not. He’s trying to protect her reputation, perhaps misguidedly, and as a result he’s being crucified in the media. Anything could have happened to that girl. She could have let herself get picked up by a serial killer in a bar. She went jogging alone at night. This is not a bright girl.
You don’t know that. She was an independent adult.
She was having an affair with a married womanizer congressman.
Have you never been involved in a stupid doomed self-destructive affair? Love, sex, whatever, makes you do stupid things. That doesn’t mean you’re stupid. That doesn’t mean you routinely put your life in danger.
May I answer the question? No, I’ve never been involved in a stupid affair.
Have you ever been involved in a smart affair?
Well, Alma, I’ve not been a perfect man.
Aphrodisiac will run at P.S. 122 Jan 7 – 30. Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, and featuring Jennifer Dundas, Thomas Jay Ryan and Alison Weller. For more info: www.13P.org
GARY WINTER is a member of (soon to implode) 13P.
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