This Play About Recovery is Being Celebrated Internationally – Which is a Shame.
People, Places and Things is literally the longest and most expensive meeting I’ve ever been to, and it’s disguised as a theatrical show.
Currently playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, NY, this production is making the rounds internationally as some sort of smash hit, and I can’t for the life of me understand why, other than the fact that it’s basically turning the process of detox and recovery into a spectator sport.
Celebrities flocked to the opening, and they’re still popping up every night. The play began selling out pretty quickly across the pond, and it’s doing so here – yet, on a Thursday evening in November, there were several empty seats that needed filling. Maybe it’s because the New York City recovery community doesn’t quite have the time or patience for two and a half hours of spectacle that does little to elevate the existing stereotype of the alcoholic.
Begging for Intermission
The monologues are like someone rambling on and on in an untimed share during an AA meeting, making everyone squirm in their seats – and probably one person sigh audibly and another check their phone.
The actors go for shocks by shouting.
Clones of our leading lady prance around the stage bathed in strobe lights to create a sense of chaos that frankly was more dizzying to watch than any hangover I’ve ever had to nurse. The entire production is meant to offer a “window” into the world of people living with addiction and alcoholism. In reality, it’s more like a funhouse mirror in its reflection of a wilted caricature of the recovery experience in its extremes.
Sitting through this play as someone who just celebrated six years sober and has never been to rehab is likely different than someone who has been in and out or rehab, someone who doesn’t have a drinking problem, or someone who loves someone with a problem. Either way, they could not have picked a more cliché, worst-case-scenario of a subject and circumstance. She whines on in a loud, exaggerated British accent that is so intolerable I was begging for an intermission from the incessant stumbling and bellowing.
I was also begging for intermission because I arrived a few seconds before the play started, during the “cell phones announcement,” and was stopped by the theater manager like a bouncer at a club. I was told I had to wait five minutes to be escorted to the nosebleed section for “late people,” and then I could find my seat during intermission. For an hour and fifteen minutes, I was seated behind the only person in the theater with an apparent whooping cough who found it all quite hysterical.
I’m Not Laughing
The main character is meant to be just a hoot to watch at times, but here’s the thing: it’s not funny. Her life, what she’s done to herself, the people who love and depend on her, and even the people at the rehab facility trying to help her are awful. Waiting that extra beat for the audience to laugh is just as damaging as mocking someone with any other condition that affects their life in a negative way. To be sure, we have to look back and laugh when we’re talking to our people, and in a safe space, but that’s something for a different time, place, and circumstance.
In the second act, when people were sniffling or gasping right on queue, I was internally sighing. A least-suspecting character commits suicide, which I took as a slap in the face, as it was delivered as a throwaway line just to further up “the stakes,” and the predictable low-blows were dealt just a little too easily and conveniently.
Part of removing the stigma around addiction is being thoughtful enough to create a narrative that challenges society’s misconceived conception of the alcoholic and addict for whom rehab is a revolving door they’re reluctant to push through until they realize they’re doing to die.
This play also needed a character to say something about how she was a high-bottom drunk who ran a Fortune 500 company, or a mom who just drank too much wine with dinner on weekends with her girlfriends. We needed a character to say that he started to realize his marijuana use wasn’t just recreational when he began to panic if he didn’t have weed that day and his work began to suffer. There’s extreme for the sake of dramatic effect, and then there’s the point where you move into an accidental satire.
The play might have been conceived in the UK as a way to draw attention to policy reform and the way people living with addiction are treated, in every sense of the word, but I can’t imagine how creating such an unwilling and dislikable character could ever get that job done.
A Missing Element
What was ultimately missing from this production was what happened after our “heroine” stumbles back into rehab with bloody knees, saying she’s ready to surrender. A giant chunk of that transformation is just missing in time, and then – poof – we see her as ready as she can be to face the real world again.
What was ultimately missing from this production was what happened after our “heroine” stumbles back into rehab with bloody knees, saying she’s ready to surrender.-Helaina Hovitz
Not only do we need to change the narrative around how we portray the addict and the alcoholic when it comes to all things art, media and entertainment, but we need to fill in those blanks and show people just how much work goes into fixing the “disease of the mind” in order to battle the misconception that we’re all a bunch of reformed cult members who suddenly start to believe in God, however you define it.
In an ideal world, we would have cut her whiney, stumbling, cigarette-smoke infused opening phone monologue short by about fifteen minutes in order to allow for any of the above. That would have been a step in the right direction.
The theater crowd is a thoughtful group, and in this writer’s opinion, the only food for thought I was given to chew on was whether or not, if I hadn’t stopped drinking and smoking weed at 22, I could have possibly become as unbearable as the lead was.
If the goal is to serve as a cautionary tale, mission accomplished, but you’re already preaching to the choir.
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