The Broken Lines of Tommy Smith
My mother was driving in Los Angeles with a friend, when her friend suggested that they stop off at an interesting looking bakery they had just passed. Being a native Los Angeleno, my mother said, “They’re not gonna want us in there.” To which her friend replied, “Rita, they’re a business, they want business, from whoever.” (Disclaimer: dialogue is approximate.) So they made a little bet, parked out front, then went on in.
Up at the counter my mom’s friend began to ask the person working there about various cakes behind the glass. “What’s in that one, and how about this one, what do you call this?” After a couple of inquires, the person behind the counter remarked, “You’re not going to know anyway, so what does it matter?” My mom gave an “I told you so look as they exited back out onto the street, then into the car, and started the engine back up.
In some ways, it doesn’t matter what kind of bakery it was, nor does it matter what sort of person my mom or her friend are. There was a line outside that bakery, an invisible one, the kind that exists the world over. We don’t always discuss or even mention such lines, but we are, for the most part, keenly aware of their presence. This is how we live.
In the world of playwright Tommy Smith, however, these lines are broken up, pushed aside, and perhaps even ignored as we watch characters onstage put together in a way they wouldn’t be allowed to just outside of the theater. Tommy says of the characters in his play The Wife, currently in production at Access Theater, “Aside from the main Hasidic couple, no two characters share the same race/class—from the secretly malicious, white hipster, to the teenage latchkey, to the Australian, the characters in this play represent a diversity of experience.”
May Adrales, who frequently collaborates with Tommy and directs The Wife, says, “Individuals are often assigned to a specific identity without much choice—they are prescribed a code of conduct based on their ethnicity, class, sexuality, geography or through circumstances of war and political turmoil. The act of breaking free from those conscripted values is an act of extreme courage.” The characters in The Wife seem to be trying to find order or some sense of hope in these identities they have been assigned.
And while I don’t want to give away the events that take place in The Wife, what fascinates me about Tommy’s work, and this play in particular, is that though we might be watching characters who don’t belong to our specific cultural or social sect, what we are watching is a world coughing up on the lines of separation that we have created throughout the years. And what is, for me, both hopeful and sometimes scary, is that we then have to go back out there, into the world where these lines still persevere and constrict us.
From the play, Jake, early 30s, white, speaks to Ruth, mid-30s, Hebrew, in his apartment where she will be cat-sitting:
You’re like a Jew, right? You’re one of those Jew wives, right?
Okay, because I thought, well, you know, there’s not a whole lot of interaction that goes on between you and us. The other people who live in your neighborhood. Like guys like me. It’s not a big deal and we totally don’t have to talk about it. You shouldn’t ever let him out because he hides under the staircase and you can’t get him out for anything. His name is Pele. Like the soccer player.
The Brazilian soccer player from the eighties? You don’t watch television, do you?
Not even like the radio? You don’t even listen to the radio or read the newspaper? That’s a pretty fucked up religion, I mean, I’m totally not an anti-Semite but that’s pretty fucked up. You should scoop out his litter box every day or so. You can dump it right into the toilet. Biodegradable litter.
So much of what happens in our lives occurs in the silences. Those sentences we form and perfect in our heads, but never actually release out into the ether. For fear of what? For calling something exactly as we see it? For offending somebody with how we experience the world? Tommy’s plays are constructed with such specific language that perfectly details and nuances the awkwardness of a situation, but at the same time there are silences and moments where the distance between two people can be felt even in their breathing.
From the play, Jakob, mid-30’s, Hebrew, speaks to his wife Ruth:
Your hair’s on crooked.
(He adjusts her wig.)
You’ve been wearing this crooked all day, haven’t you?
It was fine when I left.
It’s all crooked.
(A long pause, then: )
That stroller is still here.
I’ll throw it out in the morning.
Playwright Jose Rivera says in his 36 Assumptions About Playwriting, that “each line of dialogue is like a piece of DNA; potentially containing the entire play and its thesis; potentially telling us the beginning, middle, and end of the play.” I’ve always been fascinated by this idea, as I feel that Rivera is not referring to big moments where the title is echoed through the theater at the play’s climax, but rather those small moments where it seems nothing major is going on.
Reading the works of Tommy Smith, I was struck repeatedly by this, marking up so many pages of the scripts, circling lines that seemed to carry the entire piece within them. This same notion also applies to the characters in The Wife, of which Tommy says the play “seeks to smash these characters up against one another to show that a person’s identity is defined more by the differences of cultural assignation than by a supposed ‘personality.’ Wallace Stevens once wrote: ‘I am what is around me ... One is not a duchess / a hundred yards from a carriage.’ I’ve used this idea as a guiding rod for composing The Wife.”
The concept is unnerving, but identifiable. Imagine people wandering around, small parts of them empty, looking to be filled. With anything. With identity. With connection. With something that will help them figure out who they are in this life.
From the play:
I sort of hope someone’s following me. Someone walking with me. Because sometimes, and I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but sometimes I just walk besides people and pretend I’m in love with them. I pretend I’m walking next to a person who just loves me. We’re strolling together because that’s what you do when you’re in love. It’s a comfort. I was a child once. I know what its like. That feeling. Someone cares about you. Like a pressure on your chest. Like a pressure on your heart. I can’t describe it. Do you know what I’m saying?
Often in Tommy’s work, characters do or say something that takes you by intense surprise. You’ll find yourself with a sudden jolt of twisted laughter in the middle of a tense moment, or heartfelt feeling comes from out of nowhere while something darker is happening onstage. “Through the course of the play, every character shows off a radically different side of their being, based on the (sometimes random) person they are talking to,” says Tommy. “Kind people turn venomous; cruel people are reduced to acts of compassion. At the core of our humanity is also the need to suppress our best qualities in the face of other people whose appearance is different than ours. I don’t really know why people (myself included) do that, but I do hope people think about it as they’re leaving the theater.”
For the current production, according to the website, The Wife is “set in a deconstructed playing environment exposing the Manhattan skyline.” To me, this feels like a reminder of where the intriguing world that Tommy has created comes from. While perhaps these are not characters whose realms we understand, in some ways they are no different from us. They fill the buildings that fill the skyline just as much as the actors fill the stage, and we the seats. We’ve put so many boundaries between us. We coagulate ourselves to different beliefs and lifestyles, only to block off entire parts of the actual world. But there are no lines in Tommy’s worlds, just people reaching out from their own situations, trying to find connection, to be less alone.
The Wife by Tommy Smith plays The Gallery at Access Theater December 2 – 19, 2010; directed by May Adrales and produced by Amanda Feldman. At 380 Broadway, N.Y.C., 10013. For tickets and more information, visit: http://thewifebytommysmith.wordpress.com.
ContributorMatthew Paul Olmos
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS is the inaugural recipient of La MaMa ETC's Ellen Stewart Emerging Playwright Award, as selected by Sam Shepard; a Sundance Institute Time Warner Storytelling Fellow; two-time Mabou Mines/Suite Resident Artist; and an Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange. For more information, visit: www.matthewpaulolmos.com.