Working Out Working-Class Drama

Airport hangar-turned-theater Ruskin Group Theatre, at the Santa Monica Airport

The Indiscreet Charm of the Proletariat, or Why I Don’t Buy the Blue Collar Blues

Last night I went with my friend Stacy Highsmith, an actress transplanted here two years ago from New York, to the Ruskin Group Theatre at the diminutive Santa Monica Municipal Airport, which looks untouched from the Howard Hughes era. We’d intended to see Arthur Miller’s Memories of Two Mondays, but it turned out to be sold out. Instead we crossed the street to a smaller space about the size of a New York studio apartment, to see Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The play was of special interest to Stacy, who’d played Frankie in the senior production at North Carolina School of the Arts back in the day.

The production has its strengths and weaknesses, but I kept finding myself distracted by Johnny’s crudeness, the characters’ psychological simplicity, the insistent thematic emphasis on the gulf between popular music (“Frankie and Johnny”, the Beatles) and “quality music” (Bach, Stravinsky, Debussy), and by the characters’ ignorance of the latter. (When Johnny is told a piece of music is by Bach, he replies, in complete sincerity: “Johann Sebastian, right? I heard of him.”)

When I saw the movie back in the 1990s, I’d assumed the problem was the stunt casting of Al Pacino in full AL! – PACINO! mode as ex-convict sling hasher Johnny and Michelle Pfeiffer as unattractive, middle-aged, unsuccessful actress/greasy-spoon waitress Frankie (supplanting Kathy Bates, who originated the Broadway role, which was written for her). But last night I concluded that perhaps the real problem is my own skepticism about conspicuous, possibly condescending working-class signifiers. Do people really talk like that? Really not know the meaning of words like “archaic” or “peccadillo”? Really think one would only read Shakespeare if one were “taking a class or something”?

Among other things that Raymond Carver was master of is the depiction of bona fide working class characters whose level of education, culture or refinement, while evident, is never overplayed. Which is to say: Are Frankie and Johnny’s middle-of-the-night meatloaf sandwiches not overdoing it, a little?

Logically I know all these characteristics might actually obtain, in certain quarters—after all, I’ve heard similarly broad accents on the New York subway—but in drama such characters strike me as exaggerated and simplistic stereotypes, not real people. The question is whether that’s due to my own intractable incredulity or whether I’m rightly detecting the tell-tale tracks of middle-class playwrights slumming in the lower classes for color. David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People creates plausible specific characters in the same working-class neighborhood of south Boston in which he grew up. David O. Russell’s movie The Fighter, which does the same in a similar area of Boston, is based on a true story. (Interestingly, the respective leading ladies won top awards, a Tony for Good People‘s Frances McDormand and an Oscar for The Fighter‘s Melissa Leo, supporting the thesis that blue collar color is also beloved by award committees). None of which is to say that a writer is limited to his or her own deeply known personal experience or the socioeconomic bracket of their upbringing.

What do you think? Do you find characters in working class drama exaggerated or simplistic? Could it be that McNally’s play is beginning to show its age? What does it take for a playwright to write convincingly about a milieu not natively her or his own? And if you are a critic, do you find yourself noticing personal resistance to certain themes or types?