Theater of the Perturbed

Leah Hager Cohen can't keep up the act with her new work.

While reading Leah Hager Cohen's newest book, I kept coming back to her earlier work. Couldn't I review instead her 1997 Glass, Paper, Beans: Revelations on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things (Doubleday)--a book that made it imperative for me to read her again? It's not that I didn't like Hager Cohen's newest work. I didn't like it as passionately.

Hager Cohen writes of real people in a way that makes them more like characters in a novel. She doesn't merely describe them. She gets into their minds, senses what they see and feel and taste. I was looking forward to her doing this again so that I, too, could be transported into those lives.

But she didn't. How unfortunate, considering the opportunity to do so in a book about theater. Isn't that one of the better art forms to intimately reflect people's lives? Perhaps she lost her ability to wander backstage--curiously, naively. Her involvement with Bread and Puppet Theater in the '70s and numerous school plays and a year of drama school were important motivations for spending time with the folks at Arlington Friends of the Drama nearly two decades later. But it interrupts the telling of those people's stories, and answering the questions, "Why this kind of theater? Why now? Why this small town outside Boston?"

Hager Cohen tries to focus on the story of a regional company attempting a familiar struggle in community theaters around the country: an all-white production team launching the controversial M. Butterfly. She lays out her plan. "This time around, I had come to community theater not in order to insinuate myself into its culture but to try to understand what that culture comprised, and to answer what it is about amateur theater that makes people not just desire but need it."

She succeeds to a point. But then there's the matter of disparate threads desperately trying to be woven together in Stuff of Dreams.

The main "plot" is the year AFD takes on M. Butterfly: its all-volunteer cast and production team, its 75 years of politics, one swift week of auditions and months of technical woes. The story climaxes in the last chapter--opening night, the lead actor still incapable of "getting off book" (remembering his lines) without having to be rigged with a cue microphone throughout the run of the play. This stresses the perfectionist director, a demanding woman who leads her theater crew like she manages her employees at Hewlett Packard. The uncharacteristically failing actor wants this no-nonsense woman to be gentler with him, more touchy-feely.

This is the story I want to be immersed in--the interiority of two minds and hearts struggling with each other--which will reveal to me why people get involved in community theater when they could be doing something less stressful with their free time.

Instead, the "characters" Hager Cohen describes don't jump off the page as they did in her earlier work. There are too many of them: the actors, the onstage dancers/prop changers, the director, the costumer, the sewing ladies, the set designer, the guys in the light and sound booths, even the presumed writer of a hate note--sent just weeks before the show opens--opposing the nudity, queer sexuality and unfamiliar Asian culture.

OK. I know this is a book about community theater, about the behind-the-scenes production fiascoes, about the illusion and magic of theater. But without a focus on the struggles of a couple of key characters, Hager Cohen's suppositions of why we need amateur theater in our lives seem didactic--a problem of trying to braid too many strands into one book. Instead, show us why community theater is a microcosm of how society works. Or why community theater is a bastion for misfits. Or why we should believe that people have an "unstanchable desire to imagine themselves into other people's stories."

Instead, Hager Cohen interrupts this sprinkling of unqualified wisdom by telling her own sweet stories--entire chapters--about canoeing across a lake in darkness, the pull of her adolescent desire to imagine herself into other people's lives at a theater in the Adirondaks. And details of her travels to Nicaragua to work in community theater--a redundancy, she naively discovers, as every part of Nicaragua is "theater" and "community." And her decision to leave drama school and study writing instead.

These stories are important in understanding Hager Cohen's motivations, but they're not incorporated smoothly into the rest of the narrative about Arlington and its struggles to put on a controversial play "during a time when people both desire and need community theater, but are busier in less community-oriented ways than ever before."

This book could have enveloped me into the fine world of Hager Cohen's "characters" as she did in Glass, Paper, Beans, but instead it was closer to enduring bad community theater. I doubt Hager Cohen wrote her book with that irony in mind.

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