He Learned It By Watching Pulp Fiction
Photos by Henry DiRocco/SCRAboygawkingthroughapeepholeatabeautiful girl dressing in her room, dancing by herself, losing her virginity with her boyfriend. Sweet dreams are made of this; also—as we discover in Noah Haidle's provocative and funny-as-hell new play Princess Marjorie, which opened last weekend at South Coast Repertory—the stuff of nightmares. Innocent the boy may be—in this case, two boys, brothers, in fact, who have drilled a hole in their bedroom wall the better to spy on their gorgeous red-haired cousin Marjorie, who they say "is the collective fantasy of every teenager in this county" and has the constant ringing telephone and the boyfriends crawling through the window to prove it. But, oh, the brutal, the un-innocent consequences when the girl leaves home, the boys grow up, and a decade or so later the girl returns in a long-dreamt-of homecoming, mixing memory and desire, and suddenly the picture in the peephole isn't just something to fantasize about, or (for these boys) to beat off to, but a live human being, her beauty fading ever so slightly but whose heart still beats a radiant flush into her cheeks, and who, goddammit, goddammit, the boy cousins realize they will never ever possess. Memory, desire, love, sex, death, beauty and its rages—these are the perdurable themes Princess Marjorie takes on as lustily and confidently as a Shakespeare sonnet, though Haidle's got such a luminously light touch, a flair for the ironic and tender mercies of the childhood imagination, and an intuitive feel for the redemptive qualities of the pop comic tradition, that his play could just as well be encapsulated in a 1950s girl-group song—say, "And Then He Kissed Me" (which happens to play over and over in Marjorie's room)—as one of the Bard's 14-liners.
Haidle (blessedly unconfusable with the Greg Haidl who's been polluting the pages of the Weekly these past months), all of 26 and getting his second play produced at a major regional theater like SCR while he's still a student in a playwriting program at New York's Juilliard, is a new case of the American natural, casually carrying his formidable talents like a humble sack lunch in the school cafeteria; he's pulling out sophisticated and tricky technical achievements of the theater like they're his Mom's peanut butter sandwiches, and sort of surprised that anybody might find them sophisticated, tricky, and worth trading for.
"I want my writing to be, like, completely egoless, and when I'm writing well, it is—like, there's no part of me that I'm trying to control, it's just happening," Haidle says. "I try not to think at all when I write."
Like, I know what he means. Princess Marjorie, chock-full of material rich and disturbing enough to get into your dreams, and possessed of a meta-theatrical structure that seems borrowed from Luigi Pirandello, nonetheless comes off, as I heard one older patron huff as he stalked out after the performance I saw, "like a play dreamt up by a 12-year-old." Yes, exactly. But let the old dude huff. In my book that's a compliment.
Not that Haidle's some artistic babe in the woods who came upon a Mac in the underbrush, found a forest hot spot and started pounding out stuff that theaters all over the country are clamoring for. (He's got an off-Broadway production of his SCR-premiered first play, Mr. Marmalade, coming up this fall; plus a commission from the theater at his alma mater, Princeton University, and another for SCR.) This is a boy who's studied up. This is a boy who at the age of 15 or 16 watched Pulp Fiction eight times at his local theater in Grand Rapids, MI, and by his last few viewings was bringing along a copy of the screenplay so he could follow the story's structural pyrotechnics and genius dialogue. This is a boy who shortly after that initiation into the power of art, decided "I had an instinct that I was going to be able to do this"—write—and because there was nobody else he found in Grand Rapids with the same instinct, decided, in a display of private obsessive dedication that I find amazing, to read a play every single day, for years, until he understood what the hell playwriting was all about. He had the instinct that he was going to be able to do this playwriting thing, "but not right now," so he'd have to train himself, "like working on my jump shot." This is a boy who recalls August Wilson saying that a playwright should either know nothing about the theater, or everything, and opted to try to know everything.
This is a boy who also appreciates. Though Thornton Wilder and Tennessee Williams are "my gods," he says, "The first act of Death of a Salesman," by the recently deceased Arthur Miller, "is the most perfect piece of theater ever written in English." (How does he know? Because Haidle, when he's not reading the theatrical canon or writing plays that he hopes someday will enter it, types out classic plays word for word to see how they work.) And this is a boy who followed his instinct to Princeton, where he picked up the nuts and bolts of his craft, and afterward to Juilliard, where he's worked with such heavyweights as Christopher Durang (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You) and Marsha Norman ('Night, Mother), writing scripts that flew out of the workshop into the hands of people like SCR's artistic directors David Emmes and Martin Benson, who snapped up Haidle's controversial first play, Mr. Marmalade, and produced it last year, to both praise (it's been nominated in multiple categories for OC Weekly Theater Awards, including Best Production) and damning.
The damning, incidentally, was considerable, occasioned by some notable walkouts by offended theatergoers, letters to the editor in local papers which called the play "filth," a long apologia for the play in the Orange County Register by SCR's dramaturge Jerry Patch, and a follow-up story in the Los Angeles Times exploring the dustup. The damning was also predictable: a lot of SCR's patrons, even those who get season tickets for the more avant-ish series of plays put on at the smaller Julianne Argyros Stage, are on the geriatric side, and Mr. Marmalade was predestined to offend such an audience. See, Mr. Marmalade is about a four-year-old girl (played, just to fuck with our perceptions, by a sexy 22-year-old actress) who dreams up an imaginary playmate in order to deal with her loneliness. The titular imaginary friend, though, is no Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, but a coke-snorting, porn-addicted businessman who beats the shit out of his assistant and turns the girl—in her imagination—into his Lolita, knocking her up by the end of the play. Not only does the girl dream up such fantasies to cope with the multiple dysfunctions of her family life, but she and a male playmate (also acted by an adult) play a round of pretty explicit "doctor" that is sexy if you see it as two adult actors on a stage but feels sort of queasy if you recall that these adults are doing kids not long out of diapers. And it's even weirder (and more impressive) when you realize that the play's a comedy: Haidle manages to explore the connection between childhood innocence and the brutalities of adult awakening, working up the crushing nature of the latter without losing the sweetness of the former.
Which brings us back to Princess Marjorie and that bedroom peephole. The theme, so far as I can make out, is much the same: the play's about the brutal fate of vulnerable dreamers, of what happens to youth and beauty in a country that reveres them and has no idea what to do when they start to disappear. It's about innocence disappointed, about, as T.S. Eliot put it in the poem "The Preludes," "the notion of some infinitely gentle/infinitely suffering thing." Only it's really, really funny—partly because the play is so self-aware, so meta. Eschewing realism altogether—"verisimilitude" Haidle says almost with a shudder, "that's something I never want to see in a theater ever again"—Princess Marjorie is all about breaking down the fourth wall. Harper, one of the cousin-obsessed brothers, walks on at the beginning of the play holding a box containing some of the set's props, as if he were a production assistant. While laying out the stuff, he starts talking directly to the audience like the Stage Manager of Haidle's beloved Our Town, slowly making us see that real life is over and the play has begun. ("Oh, Wilder," Haidle says. "I'll be stealing from him the rest of my life.") Only real life and the play keep bleeding into each other. Harper keeps turning to us and telling us, say, that this is Scene One and it's going to end this way, and even when we get into "the scene," where you can't help but begin to suspend disbelief a little bit, a character will say "This play fucking disgusts me!" or something equally belief-suspending. Now there's nothing new about this—Renaissance playwrights were doing a little meta by 1600, and the tradition intensified after Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author—but what's cool about Princess Marjorie is how unassuming the meta-theatricality is. Thanks partly to the considerable wiles of director David Chambers and a cast who seem to be getting a hell of a kick out of what they're doing, it's hard to tell whether the seamlessness of the play's back and forth between scene and self-commentary is a product of shrewd artfulness or a triumph of lucked-out artlessness—sometimes the play feels like it's written by a guy who's read a play every day for five years and absorbed their lessons; sometimes it feels like this is an out-of-the-garage production put on by that 12-year-old the huffy man hates.
The funniness is there in the script, too. The first scene is an extended riff on masturbation, with the two brothers, Harper (Michael Gladis) and Charlie (Nathan Baesel), lying in their bunk beds, Harper feeding Charlie peephole memories of Marjorie as Charlie beats off. (Both actors throw themselves headlong into their roles: Gladis a little punch drunk and slippery, sweetly melancholic; Baesel giving 110 percent throughout, throwing himself around literally, into wheelchairs, even tossing his body under the stage floor at one point). Not content with this, they re-enact their memories of Marjorie's deflowering, complete with Charlie putting on Marjorie's underwear and rolling around with his brother in a mock sex act. This, yes, is weird and borderline incestuous, though Haidle, fearless, presses taboos, not, seemingly, to just fuck with us but because he honestly wants to see where an idea will go. Again, the 12-year-old. That the brothers are acting, that is, playing out their fantasies, chimes perfectly with the play's meta-theatrics, which suggest that "real life" and the theater that represents it in fact constitute a seamless whole. It's also just really, really funny,
Then Marjorie enters the play and the conflict kicks in—not only is her beauty not quite what it used to be (or, as a shocked Charlie keeps putting it, "She's fucking ugly!") but she's married—to an academic poet wearing one hell of a stuffed shirt. Shades here of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, a stunner who danced herself tired, noticed she was fading and snatched up a boring academician before it was too late. (Khrystyne Haje plays Marjorie, and she gives a fleet-footed performance, as conscientiously imaginative as you might expect of an actress who put this much thought into the spelling of her first name. John Vichery isn't as impressive as her husband: he's all one-note British uptightness, as if he were wearing a don's robe at Oxford, and he's the only real weak spot in the acting. Vichery's better in two other small roles in the production.) How the boys, now in their twenties, cope with the new Marjorie, and how Marjorie, confronted with the ghost of her former status as an awe-inspiring princess with a constantly ringing telephone, copes with her aging beauty, is what gets played out. Sometimes literally: Marjorie wants to re-enact losing her virginity, with Harper playing her boyfriend while Charlie plays himself watching through the peephole. Charlie can't stand it, though, and basically stops the production—the sex act and the play we're watching—because he's still in love with the old Marjorie. What follows is amazing: everybody abandons the stage except Charlie, who's stuck up there by himself having to kill long minutes of stage time until the rest of the actors come back. Charlie is panic-stricken looking out at the audience, and the awkward silence that fills the theater is another brilliant faux-naif stroke of meta-theater, making the audience unusually aware of itself as an audience. A later scene where Charlie sings a little ditty called "Marjorie, Come Home to Me" accompanied only by a ukulele, is even better, and brings home the comedy and pathos of his lost innocence in both a rollicking and moving way.
Haidle panics a little at the end, throwing too much into the mix—a murder, a self-serious speech by the professor, a resurrection and an angel hanging from the rafters. But the play isn't radically deformed by that. The play retains its youthful playfulness and that postmodern ironic tone that says dreams are made to die by crushing blows but we can't help but marvel at, and love, the infinitely gentle thing turning all infinitely suffering. Haidle says that for him the theater is one of the few spaces left that are "sacred," "like church," he says, though the rituals enacted in this play are more pagan and Greek, involving a community gathering to watch itself (and watch itself watch itself) play out its enduring destinies—and laughing, forgivingly, at what we've wrought, who we are.
SEE JOEL BEERS' REVIEW OF PRINCESS MARJORIE IN THE ARTS SECTION.
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