In Sickness and in Health

Nina Shen Rastogi

In Well, Lisa Kron asks, what is the difference between the healthy and the ill? And also, why does my mom keep fucking up my play?

Everyone has that friend. You know, the one who skips out on picnics because of his self-diagnosed pollen sensitivity. Perhaps yours is the kind who always looks woozy at brunch, due to the restless leg syndrome that's been keeping her up lately. Or maybe you've experienced the more painful variation on this theme, when a depressed friend slowly abrades your patience until you find yourself secretly, shamefully, and then with gathering indignation asking, why can't you just make yourself better?

Lisa Kron's Well, now playing at the Longacre Theater on Broadway, explores the ways in which pathology can divide people from one another. "Why are some people sick and other people are well?" Kron (who is the star as well as the playwright) asks in the opening monologue. "Why are some people sick for years and years and other people are sick for a while but then they get better? . . . What is the difference between those people?"

Kron has particularly pressing reasons to ask these questions. Ann, the lovable muumuu of a mother she left behind in Lansing, Michigan, has suffered her entire life from an unspecified ailment that keeps her listless and exhausted. Lisa and her family have lived with Ann's sickness for so long that, when Lisa was 16 and her mother became deathly ill, she claims that none of them noticed: "we just brought a mattress downstairs and put it in the middle of the living room."

Ann chalks her condition up to "allergies" -- a diagnosis that Lisa, now in her 40s, feels forced to put air quotes around due to the way it smacks uncomfortably of psychosomatics. This is despite the fact that Lisa had severe enough reactions in college to warrant a longish stint in a hardcore, Hazmat-style hospital allergy unit. When Lisa asks, "what is the difference between those people?" she's really asking, what is the difference between my mother and me?

But then, as Lisa says in the same opening monologue, "this is not a play about my mother and me." But you can smell a big fat lie when it's lobbed right at you, can't you?

Kron, a member of the theater collective known as the Five Lesbian Brothers, is a veteran of the downtown New York performance scene and well known for her solo shows. In the comfortably postmodern Well, she constructs what she calls "a solo show with other people in it." Standing in front of the audience with a neat stack of cue cards, looking like nothing so much as a seasoned lit professor, Lisa promises us "a multicharacter theatrical exploration of issues of health and wellness both in the individual and in the community." For this play — sorry, exploration — Lisa has recruited the help of four actors, who will help her re-enact scenes from both her time in the allergy unit, when she herself became literally and physically healthy, and the period in the '70s when her unlikely crusader of a mother fought tirelessly to keep their neighborhood stabilized and integrated; that is, figuratively and spiritually healthy.

Lisa wants to use these personal examples to illustrate larger questions and principles, but she's cagey about reducing her project to a story about individuals. In her head, she's planned out a classically downtown sort of anti-narrative, which will skip between monologues addressed directly to the audience and a series of loosely connected, non-naturalistic scenes. It is precisely the kind of theater that Lisa learned about in New York City, the psychological and spiritual antithesis of Lansing, Michigan.

It's also the kind of theater that Lisa believes her mother, who is "not a theater person" (read: "unable to understand alternative narrative techniques"), will feel alienated by. Which is awkward, since Ann spends nearly all of Well onstage with her daughter. Most of the Longacre stage is filled with the kind of paraphernalia you would expect in a show like the one Lisa is planning: boxes, risers, beds and chairs that roll on and off, and other set pieces that allow for the stage to shift and morph its location as necessary.

Lisa Kron and Jayne Houdyshell in Well
Photo: Joan Marcus

But in one corner of the stage a small, intense blob of naturalism has been assembled. Downstage left we can view a detailed simulacrum of Ann Kron's Lansing living room, complete with tchotchke-crammed shelves and cardboard boxes stuffed to overflowing with photocopied screeds on the hidden evils of allergies. In the center of this sub-set, "Ann Kron" (played by the brilliant Jayne Houdyshell) holds court in a tattered La-Z-Boy recliner, the pillowy depths seeming simultaneously to sustain and ensnare her.

As Lisa tries to get her "exploration" off the ground, Ann — bewildered at her own presence in this world — interrupts the action to ask questions, offer the audience snacks, and prod Lisa whenever she finds fault with her daughter's accounts of past events. Eventually, Ann unwittingly hijacks the whole show, as the four hired hands (John Hoffman, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Christina Kirk, and Daniel Breaker) rebel against Lisa's "confusing" text and migrate toward her far more charismatic mother, abandoning the carefully constructed scenarios Lisa has scripted for them.

Lisa's play — sorry sorry, exploration — is further derailed by the presence of a little black girl named Lori Jones (played by Ekulona), who terrorized Lisa as a child and has returned to do the same to her play. Lori's not only a monstrous presence onstage — she gleefully causes the destruction of a large part of the backdrop — she threatens her cherished childhood memories of a neighborhood aglow with racial harmony. Lisa fears that Lori will feed into people's stereotypes about racial tensions; Ann, in turn, chastises Lisa for exhibiting a subtler, liberal-friendly form of racism, one borne of oversimplification. "Kick Lori out of the play for acting like a crumb if you want," she says, "but not because she's not an appropriate 'representation.' Part of the point of growing up in an integrated neighborhood was that you didn't have to extrapolate from abstract impressions of black people, because you knew actual black people. Lori didn't have that kind of power. She was just one little girl."

Throughout the show, Ann reprimands her daughter for glossing over complicated issues in favor of rushing toward a thesis or tidying up a narrative. By the end of the play, Lisa learns that she can't ignore the elements of her story that are messy, counterproductive, or otherwise unsatisfying to her personally -- a point that gets driven home quite neatly when Lisa is handed a copy of one of her mother's neighborhood association speeches, which states that integration "means weaving into the whole even the parts that are uncomfortable or don't seem to fit. Even the parts that are complicated and painful."

It's driven home a little too neatly, frankly. But then, how much faith can you put in a revelation that's been scripted by the revelatee? Even if you're comfortable with the sneaky way race has gotten turned into an aesthetic metaphor (a move that seems to contradict the spirit of Ann's admonitions about Lisa's use of Lori Jones), it's hard not to feel that Well cops out at the end. Moments before she gives Lisa the speech (the reading of which ends the play), Jayne Houdyshell steps out of the character of Ann Kron to address Lisa directly, telling her that she's uncomfortable with the ending as it's been written. "It's trite," she says.

Lisa protests that the play is asking "really hard questions" about sickness and health and the way that illness can carve up a family. "Questions like that are very seductive," Jayne says, "because it would be so much easier if we could answer them. But we can't. You can't answer them."

But the really frustrating thing about Well isn't that it fails to answer those "really hard questions," but rather that it never really bothers even asking them in the first place. The whole issue of sickness is just a red herring: the real story here is, you guessed it, the relationship between Lisa and her mother.

And this is unfortunate, because the themes of illness and society that Lisa had ostensibly been tracing were interesting and cogent. As an exploration of mother-daughter relations, though, Well is pretty run-of-the-mill. Really, is there anything more clichéd than a smarty-pants kid who goes off to school (or the big city) only to grow embarrassed by her hometown's perceived provinciality? And when the whole thing boils down to, essentially, the notion that people are different and remember things differently, and that we all have our own versions of the truth, it's hard not think, um, thanks? The kerfuffle over James Frey may have gotten people all riled up about the state of truth and the memoir, but anyone with a reasonable amount of familiarity with literary convention won't be particularly blown away by this revelation.

It really comes down to the fact that, in order for Well to work well, you have to believe it's all happening for the first time. The show's disintegration and Lisa's sense of loss and betrayal at that collapse need to feel genuine, not preordained. I don't know if the production felt less schematic in its earlier, smaller incarnations (Well premiered downtown in 2004, at the Public Theater), but on spit-and-polish Broadway the necessary sense of danger is largely absent. It's like watching the big mechanical ship fall apart in the Titanic stage show -- you can't quite suspend your disbelief enough to buy into what you're seeing.

Well sells its own premise out way too early. The second Kron steps onstage and assumes the role of "Lisa", with her grant-friendly theatrical proposal, Kron invites the audience to laugh at her character. We're encouraged to side with the actors, one of whom dismisses the play as "some kind of fucked-up downtown bullshit", rather than get invested, at any level, in Lisa's initial vision. It's no wonder that the most powerful moments of the show are the completely naturalistic ones, when the artifice drops away fully: the arty "fucked-up downtown bullshit" was a straw man all along.

I'm the world's #1 sucker for teary parent-child confrontations, but when my eyes welled up at the end of Well, it was in spite of the fact that I suspected I'd been cheated out of something much richer and more compelling. I wonder what Ann Kron would have to say about that.

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