Generally speaking, we donât go to the theater to listen to conversations that we might just as easily hear while waiting on line at the grocery store or commuting on the subway. Among the essential gifts most great playwrights possess is an ability to take the dross of humble human speech and give it a silvering polish.
The Elizabethans did not address each other in iambic pentameter, after all, and few marital set-tos burn with the coruscating wit of the brawl between George and Martha in Edward Albeeâs âWhoâs Afraid of Virginia Woolfâ The language we thrill to onstage is often a more literate or stylized expression of human speech, whether itâs the filigreed lyricism of Tennessee Williamsâs characters, the eloquent dialectics that perfume Shavian drawing rooms, or the staccato fireworks with which men flay each other in the best of David Mametâs work.
But since the late 19th and early 20th century, at least, there has been a countervailing trend: an attempt to bring the halting, admittedly unbeautiful way average men and women communicate onstage without dressing it up in decorous or flashy colorings. Chekhov probably set the standard for this more earthbound approach to listening in on human nature, although his character still often engage in reveries that are hardly likely to have naturally fallen from the lips of real-life equivalents of his gentrified Russians.
Since then innumerable playwrights have brought th! e rhythms and colors of everyday speech to the stage, to match the drab wallpaper and the proverbial (if not literal) kitchen sink. Some of the playwrights I most admire today – like Annie Baker and Amy Herzog – are particularly adept at finding the poetry in the faltering, arrhythmic manner in which people really address each other, with unfinished sentences, overlapping dialogue and plenty of natural pauses.
But the Nature Theater of Oklahoma takes this aesthetic appreciation of everyday discourse to fascinating, funny, even perverse new extremes. Their marvelous new production, âLife and Times: Episodes 1-4,â which ends its run at the Public Theater on Saturday, draws its text from that most everyday of occurrences, a phone conversation (several, actually) that te directors of the company, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, conducted with one of its members, Kristin Worrall.
From the opening moments of this opus – which totals about eight hours of stage time â” it becomes clear that Ms. Worrall was not chosen for the manicured eloquence of her speaking style, or a preternatural ability to turn thoughts into elegant paragraphs. Recalling her life experience, from hazy memories of childhood through to adolescence and beyond, she sounds like just about anybody you might grab from a suburban mall and plant in front of a microphone.
Thatâs not meant to be a knock: Ms. Worrall, who I guess to be somewhere in her late 30s, speaks in much the same way most college-educated, suburban-raised Americans of her age do, which is to say her conversation is digressive and meandering, and amply stocked with meaningless interstitial words and phrases like âumâ and âyou knowâ and âyeahâ and, most memorably and repeatedly, âlike.â What makes the show s! o remarka! ble is that these conversational tics that we all hear and mostly tune out are all included in the text of the show, as if each fumbling digression were as worthy of immortality as Blanche DuBoisâs immortal observation about the kindness of strangers.
What are they up to Mr. Liska and Ms. Copper are not just interested in everyday language for its own sake, of course: their shows are not transcriptions of random conversations. They are intrigued by how people recollect and process experience through speech. âRambo Solo,â an earlier production, consisted of a single performer recounting the plot of the Sylvester Stallone movie âFirst Blood,â and the companyâs version of âRomeo and Julietâ ignored Shakespeareâs text and replaced it with often-hilarious descriptions or recollections from a variety of people, many with distinctl fuzzy memories.
In their inspired hands, the most unbeautiful, sometimes maddeningly hazy and imprecise language takes on a distinct and surprising appeal. Set to music, as much of it is in âLife and Times,â the rambling recollections of Mr. Worrall become their own form of stylized theatrical speech, simply by being presented without editing. Those endless reiterations of the word âlikeâ become musical notes seasoning the text.
Language unshaped by an aesthetic formula is shown to have its own funky fascination by being presented in a context in which we expect to encounter an aesthetic experience. Trimmed with the traditional adornments of theater â” music and dance, colorful costumes, or in the case of the last two episodes of âLife and Times,â declaimed in the melodramatic style of a creaky stage mystery along the lines of Agatha Christieâs âMousetrapâ – the ! artless b! ecomes artful.
Nature Theater is not the only young company to employ what you might call âfound speechâ as the building blocks of their artistry. The Civilians, another young New York company, uses the texts of interviews with real people to create their clever theatrical collages like âGone Missingâ and âIn the Footprint.â There may be a generational component to this new appreciation of messy everyday speech: the dialogue on the terrific HBO show âGirlsâ likewise hews closely to strict naturalism, including all those extraneous âlikesâ that English teachers find so maddening.
I certainly glory in the language of Williams and Albee and Shakespeare, and would not want every other show I attended to consist of verbatim conversations. But I also share Mr. Liska and Ms.Copperâs delight in the rough, rumpled sound of contemporary talk. And while their approach inevitably has its maddening aspects – eight hours is a long time to listen to someone natter on about him or herself, to be sure – you come away from their shows with an ear freshly attuned to how you and everyone around you actually speaks, and perhaps a heightened appreciation of that immemorially addictive pastime, eavesdropping.
What do you think of everyday speech put on stage If youâve seen any (or all) of âLife and Times,â please share your thoughts on the companyâs unique aesthetic.