Doris to Darlene, A Cautionary Valentine, by Jordan Harrison, directed by Les Waters. At Playwrights Horizons through December 23. For discount tickets ($45 instead of $65), call (212) 279-4200 by December 11 and mention code DDBL.
The most common and cliched piece of writing advice in the world is (say it with me, everyone): "Show, don't tell." In practice I often turn this into another piece of advice: "Dramatize!" If it's important to your story, don't just say the couple went on their first date and really liked each other: Play out the whole thing, who picked who up, what their greeting was like, where they went, what was said, letting the dialogue and actions alone chart the process of their getting to know each other, the rising emotional temperature. Good showing gets the reader in the moment with the characters and keeps them there, with telling serving only as confirmation of the emotion the showing engendered or narration to skip moments that aren't relevant. Showing is preferable because it creates feeling, the end goal of all art, so the cliche is a cliche because it works.
But telling in the right circumstances can be showing -- where the writer's conscious expert choice to break the convention of showing, and the reader's awareness of that breakage, reveals something even more powerful and real than conventional enacted drama could achieve. I am thinking of the middle section of To the Lighthouse here, and sometimes Hemingway, and Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings," and, on and off, "From Doris to Darlene," currently running at Playwrights Horizons. I'm going to plagiarize and edit the press release for the show to summarize the plot:
"In the candy-colored 1960s, a biracial schoolgirl named Doris (De'Adre Aziza)
is molded into pop star Darlene by a whiz-kid record producer named Vic Watts (Michael Crane) who culls a top-ten hit out of Richard Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Rewind to the candy-colored 1860s, where Wagner (David Chandler) is writing the melody that will become Darlene’s hit song, under King Ludwig II's (Laura Heisler) obsessive supervision. Fast-forward to the not-so-candy-colored present, where a Young Man (Tobias Segal) obsesses over Darlene’s
music — and his music-appreciation teacher Mr. Campani (Tom Nelis), who loves Wagner's operas."
So, six characters, three interpersonal dramas, and seven decades -- for Doris's story spans the period from the 1960s to the 1990s, while the Wagner-Ludwig drama lasts until the king's death in 1886. Doris becomes Darlene, gets her #1 hit, gets married to Vic, gets disillusioned, and gets revenge. Wagner and Ludwig become co-dependent -- the composer on the king's money and admiration, the King on the composer's music and myth. And the Young Man becomes a Wagnerian disciple, thanks to Mr. Campani's passionate teaching, and begins to explore his sexuality, inspired by Mr. Campani himself. Any one of these dramas would be more than enough for a two-hour play, and to pack them all in, Mr. Harrison uses telling -- having the characters narrate their actions or feelings to compact the situation, characterization, or emotion. For example:
LUDWIG II. Young King Ludwig the second builds a dream palace in the mountains of Bavaria. The peasants are scandalized by the pink marble. Inside, Wagner sleeps very quietly. His sleep is quieted by the pink stone, which repels sound more effectively than all other colors.As with all telling, it helps that it's really good prose, witty and specific. (Mr. Campani is described as "looking as if he came into this world clean and stayed that way.") And the technique is incredibly effective in moving us through the decades where appropriate and then zooming in on particular moments with a well-timed zinger or detail. Nonetheless, I went back and forth between enjoying the wit and wishing Mr. Harrison had stuck to straight dramatization, showing -- especially because his showing, when it does happen, is so damn good. When Mr. Campani lectures on Wagner, the Young Man goes out on his first date, or Ludwig experiences one of the operas, the scenes are funny and moving, characterful and real. It's a compliment to the playwright that I came out of the show thinking both "I'd love to see this guy write a novel" and "I'd love to see another one of his plays that's all show."
WAGNER. Wagner dreams of enchanted swans and dragons and swords with names.
LUDWIG II. In the next chamber, Ludwig dreams of taller mountains, and pinker palaces -- and Wagner.
Of course, my impatience with some of the telling is also symptomatic of a larger problem, which is that the Doris section is not nearly as interesting as the other two. Doris and Vic are basically caricatures of Connie Francis (say) and Phil Spector, and the decades their plotline has to cover and Ms. Aziza's awkward performance only highlight the essential flatness of those characterizations. Wagner operas and mentor/mentee relationships link all three sections, but the connections feel flimsiest here, and Doris and Vic run out of story long before Ludwig dies or the Young Man finds his courage. I think I would have been happy with an all Wagner-Ludwig/Mr. Campani-Young Man play, to allow more time for Ludwig's sad, strange story and a real resolution to the present-day relationship . . .
And more stage time for Tom Nelis, the actor who plays Mr. Campani, who was just wonderful. Precise in his pronunciations, point-device in his accoutrements and gestures, and with a strong singing voice, he beautifully conveyed Mr. Campani's operatic passion and resigned loneliness, and, what is more impressive, the connection between the two -- how the passion marks Mr. Campani as different even as it saves his life, and the character's consciousness of that fact. Everyone in the cast does at least triple duty as bit players in the other plotlines, and Michael Crane and Laura Heisler deserve special recognition for their excellence in both their main gigs and their supporting roles. (Indeed, all the actors should get kudos for negotiating the complicated staging, involving two turntables and lots of sliding doors; and kudos to the director and stage manager, too, for keeping it all running smoothly.)
In conclusion: Doris to Darlene is a "cautionary valentine" about the power of music in the lives of its creators, performers, and fans; and I send the show a cautious valentine in turn, for its ambition, its ideas, its wit, and, in Mr. Nelis's performance, its transcendence.