Thursday, August 1, 2002
Who's Afraid of Dialogue?
BY MIA LEONIN
In theater, as in life, we expect marriages to fail, lovers to betray, and family members to hurt us, but when friendship takes the center stage, one cannot help but take note. This familiar but unpredictable territory offers much dramatic potential, and GableStage's current production Chinese Coffee makes the most of it. This a moral play clothed in muscular language and comic sidelines. It deals with the ethics and philosophical underpinnings of drawing fiction directly from reality. Chinese Coffee is also a play about friendship. As we watch two men dismantle their own, it is somehow more disconcerting than to watch a romantic relationship unravel, something that is virtually common. Writer Francine du Plessix Gray mused, "Friendship is by its very nature freer of deceit than any other relationship we can know because it is the bond least affected by striving for power, physical pleasure, or material profit, most liberated from any oath of duty." Chinese Coffee challenges that premise, and it does so superbly.
The story: It's around 1:30 a.m. on a freezing night in New York City when struggling novelist Harry Levine (Paul Tei) pounds on the door of his best friend's apartment, failed photographer Jake Manheim (Michael Gioia). Harry has just been fired, he has $1.50 to his name, and he's come to collect some money Jake owes him. As luck would have it, Jake has even less money. But cash is only one of the things on Harry's agenda. He has entrusted his third novel for Jake to read and wants his friend's opinion. The two circle around each other, Harry pressing the issue and Jake sidestepping it, until finally Jake confesses that he has indeed read the novel: Not only is it a failure but it is at best a cheap imitation of life -- Jake's life. Jake accuses Harry of using intimate details from his family, love, and professional life to make a commercially successful novel. Worse, he accuses him of doing this knowingly. The two launch into an explosive battle of wit and words about the ethics of writing fiction and the value of their friendship, which becomes increasingly strained.
Unlike the predictable drama of two friends scratching and clawing each other to get to the top, Chinese Coffee is a more earnest, compelling drama of two men battling each other not to be at the bottom of the garbage heap. Both are middle-aged men who have long missed their chance to "make it" in the Big Apple -- Harry as the author of two remaindered novels, Jake as a mediocre nightclub photographer turned failed studio photographer.
This one-act, hour-and-a-half dialogue is a reminder that realistic, hard-nosed, dialogue-driven scripts, which are the very foundation of contemporary American theater, are still one of our most successful methods of resolving ethical and psychological dilemmas. Ira Lewis's play has the kind of venomous, rapid-fire dialogue of David Mamet's American Buffalo and Sam Shepard's True West, which Chinese Coffee particularly mirrors in its mercurial shift in the balance of power. One also thinks of Edward Albee's relentlessly swift and ironic retorts in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Seeing it done here and now is like watching an old standard revived with more potency than ever. This meaty dialogue is full of challenging epithets; humorous, sardonic one-liners; and several thunderous crescendos that result in the play's thought-provoking conclusion.
Chinese Coffee is a quintessentially New York play. Tim Connelly's ramshackle bachelor's apartment captures the Greenwich Village milieu, as well as the black-coffee, no-milk, no-sugar existence that both characters live. Early on, the play borders on a Neil Simon, odd couple sort of setup, but as soon as the characters begin to engage in true verbal combat, all risk of typecasting is shattered. Lewis is a Neil Simon with intellectual acuity. He's a Woody Allen who doesn't lean toward absurdity, although the script's hilarious bantering and affection for the neurotic is delightfully reminiscent of both of those writers. Character details such as Harry's teeth grinding -- "I'm a grinder. I wake up with a mouthful of white dust" -- and hypochondria (he fears such maladies as knuckle cancer) provide not only comic relief but also vary the play's tempo. This is no small feat for 90 minutes without an active plot, scene change, or secondary cast.
Jake says of Harry's writing, "It doesn't feed you. It feeds on you." The same is true for this nonstop dialogue -- as the characters converse, they come unglued, and we as the audience become eavesdroppers. We are obliged to participate as if we were listening in on a conversation at the laundromat. Besides Lewis's top-notch writing, what really saves Chinese Coffee from falling into cliché is the outstanding trio of director Joe Adler and actors Gioia and Tei.
Like GableStage's widely acclaimed Popcorn (also starring Tei), Chinese Coffee is a play that could be successfully realized on-stage or in front of the camera. In fact, Al Pacino played one of the roles in 1992 and then directed himself and his costar, Jerry Orbach, in a yet-to-be-released Fox Searchlight film of the same name, also penned by Lewis. Adler's character-driven directing style elicits multiple responses from Tei and Gioia. Each maintains a persona and then gradually shreds it without fully abandoning it.
Harry appears to be on a nonstop Xanax trip. He is wired, depressed, and obsessive. He's constantly chattering, challenging, and probing; he scratches his balls and rummages through Jake's empty refrigerator -- all appropriate to his character. Now in his sixth play at GableStage, Tei has reached a new level of skill in .Chinese Coffee. At one moment cagey, weak, and vulnerable, he is at the same time passionate. His character's vulnerability is a labyrinth of insecurity and passion. Together, Adler and Tei have crafted the quintessential artist -- neurotic, insecure, self-absorbed but also resolute in his struggle to defend the validity of his work.
Back to the stage after several years' hiatus, Gioia is incredibly powerful as the world-weary Jake. Gioia's excellent control of voice and mood almost threatens to overshadow a more subtle but brilliant aspect of his performance: his silence. His facial expressions along with Jeff Quinn's subtle lighting become a constant subplot, an untold story that is deeply rooted in this vitriolic encounter. When Harry confronts Jake on the true motive for criticizing his work so harshly, his nonverbal presence becomes monolithic and even frightening.
This is a play about values -- the value of a writer's effort, the value of something that has not attained commercial success. Then the flipside: What happens to the artistic value of creativity when it becomes monetarily qualified? It is also a portrait of human nature that is rarely so well portrayed in the plethora of movies and plays where an ethical question is at the crux of the matter -- both characters are incredibly sincere, mistaken, broken, and pliant.
How to make an hour and a half of two men arguing not look like a mere battle of wits or duel of words? Get an intelligent and poignant script and two excellent actors and get them up on GableStage.
Wednesday, July 31, 2002
Two top-notch performances in 'Chinese Coffee'
By Hap Erstein, Palm Beach Post Theater Writer
CORAL GABLES -- There are some provocative statements about artistic aspirations in Ira Lewis' 1983 two-character play Chinese Coffee, but the main reason to trek to GableStage is to see a pair of terrific performances.
Paul Tei and Michael Gioia play a couple of down on their luck, would-be writers, hashing out the nature of art and commerce late one night in a Greenwich Village apartment. Their words are worth chewing on, but they come in a distant second to the scenery-chewing they do as the wary, jittery characters they bring to life.
The play had been kicking around about a decade until it surfaced on Broadway in 1994 with Al Pacino as down-on-his luck, nervous novelist Harry Levine. Maybe he attached himself to the play for its thematic content, but he surely saw the potential for bravura acting and, from most reports, capitalized on it.
Tei does not rely as much on facial tics and vocal volume as Pacino, but he is the actor of choice at GableStage when it comes to volatile low-lifes. His Harry arrives at the apartment of longtime acquaintance and part-time mentor Jake Manheim, desperate to get some money he is owed and just as desperate to hear some feedback on his latest novel.
Tei, who wears those needs as uncomfortably as he wears a ratty raincoat, proceeds to take over the production with a dazzling display of neuroses.
As Jake, Gioia has the calmer, more reactive assignment, but playwright Lewis has thoughtfully parceled out a few incendiary moments for him as well. By the time Chinese Coffee's intermissionless 75 minutes have sprinted by, Gioia has made it evident that Jake is an equally combustible kindred spirit of Harry's.
The evening sprints, but only after a slow, wordy opening in which the two characters parry and feint, testing each other, as the play takes its time coming to a boil.
Until it declares its intentions, Lewis takes his characters through some enjoyable, if tangential, riffs, including Harry's discourse on the coffee and funerals of Chinatown.
Early on, Jake had dismissively said that he hadn't had time to read Harry's novel. It turns out that he not only had read it but also took great offense at the way his life had been co-opted into its pages. In this sense, Chinese Coffee may bring to mind Donald Margulies' whose-life-and-history-is-it-anyway drama Collected Stories, perhaps filtered through the sensibility of early David Mamet.
The novel is Harry's third, and the first two failed to make an impression on the commercial or critical radar.
As Harry and Jake argue over the book, the possibility arises that it could be a breakthrough of artistic consequence. It is, at least, a catalyst for their feelings about artistic struggle and the quest for success, as well as the wedge that comes between them and threatens their already tenuous friendship.
In lesser hands, this could disintegrate into a static talkathon, but Tei and Gioia are helped considerably by the staging of Joseph Adler. He makes physical their verbal tug of war, moving his actors around every inch of Tim Connelly's well lived-in apartment set. Long left unproduced post-Pacino -- except for a little-seen movie version released two years ago -- Chinese Coffee is the sort of high-intensity, highly theatrical fare that Adler and company do so well.
Thursday, August 8, 2002
'Chinese Coffee' at GableStage
By Tony Guzman
Joe Adler's GableStage is concluding its 2001-2002 season with the Florida premiere of Ira Lewis' Chinese Coffee, which depicts a critical sea change in the alternately anguished and funny relationship between two penurious New York writers struggling to stay afloat both financially and emotionally in a philistine world.
Jake Manheim is a middle-aged extravagantly unsuccessful theatrical photographer who long ago had shown some promise as a fiction writer. In the dead of a frigid New York February night, struggling novelist Harry Levine appears pounding at his door virtually in rags, with $1.50 to his name. He's come to collect on a, for him, sizeable loan he charged on a credit card he inexplicably received, and to get Jake's reaction to his latest novel, a manuscript of which he had left him. Jake has no money and blithely disclaims having yet read the book, further exacerbating Harry's in extremis state. Harry is up against the wall of a looming old age of poverty, isolation and increasingly insulting marginalization. Unsympathetic Jake torments Harry with his loser status and bleak prospects and cynically counsels various strategies for "selling out" and going for the bucks. As the plot and true nature of the relationship unfolds, it turns out that Jake has in fact read Harry's novel and is enraged by its depiction of him as "a pompous coffee house phony." Particularly galling to Jake is the fact that Harry's book actually may have considerable commercial potential. Incensed - and jealous - he reverses himself and now berates the incorrigibly Bohemian Harry for selling out and having "nothing in your heart but money."
As for the play's title: Harry ascribes restorative powers to Chinese coffee, and, along with his idealized view of the Chinatown in which it is served, the warming beverage becomes a metaphor for a cohesive, nurturing community in contradistinction to our exclusionist, commercialized-to-the-core society.
Michael Gioia confers an arresting Zen-like stillness and centripetal weight to Jake that makes Jake's histrionic outbursts toward the end quite dramatic, while serving as an effective contrasting focal point to Harry's nervous effusions. He gives us an arresting and compelling, if somewhat opaque, Jake. Paul Tei's trademark has been the palpable sense of danger he brings to roles involving charismatic villains teetering on the edge of mayhem and beyond. A chief source of interest in this production for Tei aficionados is to see him in "sensitive intellectual" mode, assaying a whole range of new colors and effects. It's a lucid, affecting performance, although Tei may have reined himself in more than necessary: after all, Lewis' script makes the point that Harry is the spitting image of a "subhuman" killer from Queens.
One gets the feeling that Chinese Coffee is a highly autographical work, with Harry serving as a stand-in for the playwright. Lewis' depiction of the plight of the "outsider artist" is certainly deeply felt and closely perceived. The play is almost Chekhovian in its sly humor, psychological insight and the way Lewis fleshes out a compelling dramatic world largely through dialogue. In the midst of the slim pickings and typically lightweight fare associated with our sultry theatrical off-season, GableStage's Chinese Coffee is a savory and substantial brew indeed, and it really hits the spot.