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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

American Song by Joanna Murray-Smith



Was it only last week that some f*ck-up in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, used a bunch of fully-automatic weapons to machine-gun a country music concert. Thousands ran in horror, about 500 were shot, some 59 fatally. The President, Mr Trump, in his usual pomp, said it was good the lost souls were now in heaven. And by coincidence (obviously) that’s when Joanna Murray Smith’s latest play, American Song, opened. ‘Like shooting fish in a barrel’ as many have said of the massacre.

And then suddenly a film springs to mind. A Place in the Sun. A man drowning a woman in a river because he wants more, he wants the more beautiful, the utterly beautiful, better connected, Other Woman. It just goes to show, well it shows something who knows what? Such a conflict of thought this reviewer had upon watching this play. When I commenced to write this review, I wrote An American Tragedy at the beginning instead of American Song. Yes yes, one needs treatment, sure. American Tragedy was the novel by Theodore Dreiser published in 1926, and A Place in the Sun was the film adaptation in 1951. But the reviewer must stop this drifting away. So to the play.

The play under review is a love-song from Hell, so to speak.

Some fragments. Mid-play the narrator, or the confessor, Andy, refers to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a love song to life, the body, humanity, nature, America. Whitman’s wonderful lines have been the very heartbeat of American Poetry, reaching right up until the current day, still influencing the greatest American Poets. Whitman sang his words, he wrote ‘I sing the Body Electric’ in Leaves of Grass and much more. The book was published in 1856 and a handful of years later, America tore itself apart with the civil war, neighbors shot each other, brother against brother. And so on.

America is shaped by the gun, it was born under the sign of the gun, at the American Revolution where they drove The British away to Canada…or ‘down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico’ as the song goes.

One of the greatest well-meaning historical mistakes was made by the founding fathers… composed about three years less than a score of years after liberation… so The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the USA gave the American civilian of the time the right to bear arms. This right has persisted to the current day and along with the Fifth Amendment (‘I aint sayin nothin to nobody about nothin, I take The Fifth.’) and the NRA has abused the trust of the founding fathers of the USA by demanding the right to continue to use war-level fully automatic weapons, so effectively employed earlier this month in Vegas (after which the NRA made its machine-gun pitch). So just a few years after The First Fleet sailed into what became Sydney…and before the car, the telephone, the internet, TV, radio, the industrial revolution etc, Americans were guaranteed their gun-toting status.

But the American ‘body’ has short-fused, it’s bad-wired, it’s run crazy. Yet for every fuck-up, there is a new Whitman. There is a Dylan or a Theodore Dreiser or a Bruce Springsteen who wrote ‘Born in the USA’, a great anti-war song that so many (as Springsteen knows) misinterpret as a Vet’s pro-kill Rage or whatever .

The main character – the only character, for this is a monolog, a one-hander – is played to the hilt by Red Stitch ensemble man Joe Petruzzi. No easy feat to speak for one and a half hours with nobody but illusory others behind the Fourth Wall to work off of/with. The audience on my night, we gave him a standing ovation.

The song that is sung in this play is not one Whitman would sing. This one is at odds with itself, questioning, struggling through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief but not arriving, it’s many things. America tries to escape its responsibility to its people, using the ‘people don’t kill, guns kill’ fake news. Thousands of years ago, Homer wrote (or spoke) in The Odyssey  of Odysseus advising Telemachus not to ‘shame the feast’ by having weapons around when people became too excited, ‘For iron (ie: the knife) by itself can draw a man to use it.’ (thus ends the brief review)

For a detailed review, keep reading as the reviewer rambles on

Joanna’s play doesn’t really raise new issues. More, it uses its central issue (The American Gun) as a song the lyrics of which tell a story as old as time. Yett that is no criticism. All essential stories are as old as, specially Cain and Abel, Sorrow, Loss, Lust…all stories. The song remains the same, but the singer…oh, heyho, hold on, there’s another song which claims ‘It’s the singer, not the song.’ Okay.

Please allow me to introduce more tangential blessings. Perhaps I could speak of The Rolling Stones at Altamont, in California and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. And Theodore Dreiser’s great novel which was rendered to the screen as A Place in the Sun with Monty Clift and Shelley Winters and Elizabeth Taylor. (and with its proper title An American Tragedy by Josef Von Sternberg in the 1930s.) I don’t know about Ms Taylor but the other two were Actors’ Studio folk. And somehow I see a connection…An American Tragedy to American Song.

I’m speaking all over the shop here because I don’t want to expose the narrative. If I speak to much of the narrative, it’ll just be another review where you are told the story for lack of anything else to write about: Drinks. Performance. Story. Go home.

There were things about the play that initially mystified me…but one must accept the premise of the play and the intention of the author, and the interpretation of actor and director or you walk into the woods where you do not belong. You become lost or injured. In reviewer- speak I mean that one can easily cross to border into the land where there is sacred life of which a critic should not speak. That is, the very heart of the writer. It is not our business to know. I think Postmodernist critique says otherwise but who cares…I wouldn’t know.

Have I said exactly what I mean, I ask and no, so… this is what I mean: The play is set in America, about an American man. Central Park, Strawberry Fields in Central Park, the memorial bit in that park dedicated to John Lennon who was shot to death just a few yards away back in 1980—or maybe 1981, I can’t recall – and I say yards and not metres because we’re being American. And Columbia University, not Monash or Melbourne U, and all things Upper West Side or maybe Upper East Side, not Carlton. But Upper. Not taps, but faucets, and so on.

It’s a play that evokes America, is America and I did wonder, could the play have been written with an Oz sensibility. But that’s a personal observation and the answer, well that is mine to keep. With no insult intended. Just a brief wonder. I turn to my friend in the theatre. She says, I wondered, did you wonder. I said I did. America. Love it or leave it.

The actor, a believable and stoic turn by Joe Petruzzi, is a guy (not a bloke) name of Andy, giving a personal history lesson while he works on something with his hands, somewhere in a place far removed from—what he  speaks of, where is American Tragedy took place…what he tells us. What he shares.  He’s fashioning something real. The way Whitman called on nature to be his muse, so Andy is trying to feel real, because he’s been through the wringer. He is trying to use the things of stone and wood and grass and rock  and let it roll, to remake his world from the ground up, to go to the very ground zero of the place…and far from where his dream was first checked, was faded, and was ended.

America – the land of vice-presidents. Vice presidents a dime a dozen and Andy was one of them. The girl of his dreams, his wife. A little kid to complete the picture he tells us. What could possibly go wrong.

We are given a hint. There’s the foxy babe. Caroline. What’s she gonna do to this perfect little scene? Cue the third party. Not a cliche, so much as an essential. To make this soup of sorrow, stir in the film-noir femme fatale schtick.

There’s an incident in the street. To keep the plot alive, I shall not reveal. The wife handles it superbly, the man is not needed with his schoolboy football grunt. Nevertheless…what? Is this a portent, a passing moment to alert to the devil in Paradise? Andy begins to accumulate a few scars, but the scars do not make his life more interesting to him. We watch. He’s talking to us. He’s leading us to something.  And warning, men of noir: you don’t tell the Other Woman, the femme fatale, the babe who wraps blokes around her finger, you don’t tell her to beat it. Never. She tells you.

Andy’s wife is an academic, I think it was in art history, but that aint paying the bills and perhaps New York is not the place to raise a child. He’s been playing Mr Mom but it’s an empty proposition, pushing the baby around in Central Park, the only male doing it, and in that area, it’s a Nanny-Only Zone. They move back to where they came from (I think). The kid is babysat by the nice girl next door, he becomes a teenager, the he’s emotionally negative to the family. Not so unusual with emo trends and goth kids all over the shop and the internet, you don’t see your kids for days, just a roll-call for dinner. The sound of the door slam as they head off to school. Life goes on.

Then a phone call. The phone call at work  that will change Andy forever, change the marriage, and the memory…I don’t know if Andy, as he speaks to us, his emotions building, I don’t know if Andy learned anything from his life. I can see he is searching for what Whitman found and spoke to us of in Leaves of Grass. He sounds like a guy at the baseball eating a mustard-covered dog, but he reads Leaves of Grass. Maybe it happens. Andy wonders where that world went. But I don’t think he’s located it. He’s walling himself off from life and he’s trying to understand what has happened and his sorrow is an energy, like anger is. (the final end of the review!!)

American Song

a play for one actor

at Red Stitch Theatre, St Kilda

featuring Joe Petruzzi

directed by Tom Healey