Bryony Lavery’s good, though not great, play Frozen is currently receiving a splendid staging by Drew Barr at PlayMakers Repertory Company (Tuesday-Sunday through Feb. 12th in the Paul Green Theater in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). While this drama, cunningly conceived and occasionally quite powerful, anatomizes a subject at the very heart of what it means to be human, another all-too-human failing on the part of its author leaves one troubled in a way the playwright never intended.
At the core of Lavery’s 1998 Birmingham Rep hit (subsequently produced in the West End in 2004 and off-and-on Broadway in 2004) are deeply disturbing acts of hubris in the form of plagiarism: first, from the life and work of the forensic psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis and her pioneering, semi-autobiographical book Guilty by Reason of Insanity; second, and more damning, from the prose of another writer.
Now it may be argued, successfully, that much art takes its inspiration from the lives of people living and dead. If you’ll forgive the comparison, my own 1995 play The Dogs of Foo uses as its central character a pretty obvious knock-off of George Cukor. In my case, however, Cukor’s life and the movies he directed form the basis of a fantasia on reality — a kind of “what-if?” speculation regarding public and private lives in the Hollywood of the past that has its own very real parallels today. In focusing on a Cukor-like figure, moreover, this playwright did not incorporate into his fantasy a living being whose life, actions, and even words, might well be confused with that of a fictional character.
My argument may well be regarded as shortsighted, ethically uncertain, even self-justifying. But the inventions in my own play are diffuse and, for the most part, unrelated to Cukor’s actual biography. Lavery, on the other hand, lifted Lewis, her writing, and the important field-work of the psychiatrist and her partner Jonathan Pinkus wholesale. Important details are taken, often word for word, from Lewis’ writing, or revised so as to lose their original power.
Take this, for example: asked by the psychiatrist Agnetha Gottmundsdottir about remorse Ralph, the serial killer of Lavery’s play responds that “the only thing [he’s] sorry about is that it’s not legal.” “What’s not legal?” Gottmundsdottir probes. Ralph’s answer: “Killing girls.” In Lewis’ account the accused’s more worrying phrase is “Killing Jews.” Taking nothing away from the horror of children being targeted by pedophilic murders, what shock and power is lost by that feeble substitution!
Lavery’s second offense involves what is, arguably, her play’s best and most often-quoted line, which is uttered by Gottmundsdottir (whose name also seems lifted, this time from the 1992 Robert Altman movie The Player) twice in the course of Frozen: “The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom.” The writer of that sentence is a wordsmith of gift and insight … but it isn’t Lavery. The phrase was lifted, verbatim, from a 1997 New Yorker profile of Dorothy Lewis by Malcolm Gladwell. Lavery’s reaction to the charge of plagiarism is a shrugging “I thought it was O.K. to use it…. I thought it was news.”
That remark is either naïve to a staggering degree, or deeply disingenuous. Lavery is a mature woman with an impressive list of credits to her name. Can she possibly be so ignorant of the difference between hard news and an objective profile? Can any serious writer be so unaware of basic journalistic approach? Does that sentence even remotely sound like something a reporter would place in a news story?
If I seem to belabor the point it’s because Lavery’s “borrowings” cannot be separated from the work at hand; they cheapen and deflate what is, after all, a play of intense feeling and humanity which, while not quite attaining the heights of the masterwork at the very least attempts to ask, if not answer, the right question — one that, in a curious way, also touches on Lavery’s own artistic breach.
Lavery’s theme is forgiveness, her central question among the most urgent any human being can ask of another. Is forgiveness possible when the wrong done is premeditated killing — even if the murderer can be proven, or presumed, to be so damaged by his own childhood abuse as to be incapable of resisting his urge to replicate the cycle of cruelty? This is, I repeat, a profoundly important query, one which defies easy answers. And to Lavery’s great credit, she does not attempt to supply them. The climax of Frozen represents not so much an end to thorny emotions as a sorting out of them. Once an upheaval as grave as the killing of one’s child has occurred, everything changes; forgiveness itself becomes a thing bounded on all sides by conflicting imperatives. Conditional forgiveness, then, subject to unpredictable anguish, may be the best one can hope for.
Essentially a three-character play (a fourth, the thankless role of a silent prison guard, might have been dispensed with altogether), Frozen is comprised largely of monologues interspersed with occasional — and in the second act, increasing — dialogue. (Aside from Ralph and Gottmundsdottir, the other speaker is Nancy Shirley, the mother of the last child Ralph abducts and murders before he’s caught by the police.) There is much here that is beautiful: Nancy’s heroic struggle between the urge for retribution and the need for a kind of inner peace; Ralph’s repetition of certain words and phrases which, to him, must seem coolly intelligent but which make him ever more creepy and pathetic; the little Tibetan prayer flags Nancy’s daughter gives her and which, slowly at first then more gradually, betoken great changes in the grieving mother’s attitudes. Other items are heavier going, such as the symbolic ice imagery, even unto the Icelandic “Gottmundsdottir,” that tend to put rather too fine a point on things.
There are no such reservations, however, concerning the trio of actors Barr has directed with such finesse, all of whom play their roles on the nerve endings; we’re never quite sure when their emotions will build to an outburst of anger, despair, weeping, or obscene ugliness. Deborah Hazlett is both funny and assured as Gottmundsdottir; when the character goes up during an academic speech it feels queasily as though it’s the performer who’s done so. That’s craft. James Kennedy’s Ralph is an enigma that cracks itself open now and then, only to retreat again into the unknowable. (His response to Shirley’s tender proffering of a handkerchief is a hideous obscenity.) The crowning glory, however, is Julie Fishell’s intensely felt performance as Nancy. It is Nancy who makes the greatest psychic journey in the play, from jovial, if caustic, wife and mother to grief-smacked survivor, from enraged advocate to tentative humanist — too aware, perhaps of the life that’s passing her by to dwell forever in the realm of misery and militant anger. Fishell never tips her hand, or makes this excursion schematic. Hers is a magisterial presence, innately humane and profoundly sympathetic.
Narelle Sissons’ scenic design is spare yet resonant, anchored by the canny employment of a marvelously utilitarian trapdoor. I could have done without the usually reliable M. Anthony Reimer’s minimalist underscore, located on one side by David Grusin, on the other by the faint echo of Stephen Sondheim and in between by a smattering of Steve Reich. Justin Townsend’s lighting is effective throughout, though I wish Ralph’s climactic gesture was not undercut by too brief a blackout.
That the opening of this well-cribbed play should coincide with the revelation that James Frey’s best-selling memoir A Million Little Pieces is largely a work of purest fiction is, however unintentional, instructive. Frey’s defense is that his book is “essentially true,” Lavery’s that magazine profiles are “news.” Both are specious in the extreme. Or is it too much to ask that a memoirist confine himself to the truth of his experience and a playwright confine her activity to the act of creation rather than the wholesale appropriation of writing not her own?
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Frozen Tuesday-Saturday, Jan. 24-28, Jan. 31-Feb. 4, and Feb. 7-11, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 29 and Feb. 5 and 12, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theater in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY (7529). Note 1: There will be post-show discussions, led by dramaturg Gregory Kable, immediately after the show’s Jan. 25th and 29th performances. Note 2: There will be an all access performance Jan. 27th, with Braille and large-print programs, audio description, and sign-language interpretation available in addition to the assisted listening system and wheelchair seating that PRC offers at each performance. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/genPage/index.pl?pgid=93 [inactive 8/07]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=379663. Bryony Lavery: http://www.pfd.co.uk/clients/laveryb/f-pwr.html [inactive 3/06]. “Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?” by Malcolm Gladwell from the Nov. 22, 2004, issue of The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?041122fa_fact [inactive 3/07].