Sunday, April 19, 2009

On the Eve of the Pulitzer

(FYI, I'm trying a different format, to see how it affects my voice.)

(Update: the news from Columbia University, around the corner from my place: Ruined won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But my assessment stands: it deserves a Broadway run, & a Tony, but it's not a play for the ages. - A)


I've never heard so much talk about the Pulitzer for Drama before -- at least, not before it's awarded. Most folks favor Lynn Nottage's Ruined to win. Also in the running are: Becky Shaw (Gina Gionfriddo), Our Enemies (Yussef el Guindi), The Good Negro (Tracey Scott Wilson), & fading fast, Reasons to Be Pretty (Neil LaBute).

What kind of shows usually win the Pulitzer? Epics like Angels in America are rarer than you'd expect. For every thrilling piece of funky experimental drama like Topdog/Underdog, there are five works of realism seasoned with a touch of neurosis, academia, or morality (Rabbit Hole, Proof, Doubt).

Pulitzer-winners are solid and heavy, like sturdy furniture made of walnut or oak. When they're adapted into prestige films, they're a little too stagy to sit quite right onscreen. They're almost invariably set in the US, & address grand themes like death and illness, American history, race or sex.

So what about Ruined? I finally caught it at MTC last week. It's satisfying to see a show about Africa that avoids tourism & impotent hand-wringing. Unlike most critics, I find its universal themes more compelling than specifics like its African setting. It's undeniably strong & affecting.

Ruined is a war story. Mama Nadi runs her bar/brothel as a DMZ in the Congolese civil war: all are welcome, leave guns & politics at the door. The war tests her philosophy, but so does her relationship to two young women she buys in the opening scene: Sophie, a victim of rape & mutilation, & Salima.

Because of Sophie's mutilation, she's useless to Mama as a good-time girl, but, resourceful & literate, she balances the books and gains Mama's trust & sympathy. Salima, meanwhile, deals with pregnancy till she's tracked down by her one-time husband, now a soldier. All three roles are phenomenal.

But if I hadn't heard the rumors, I wouldn't put Ruined in the running for a Pulitzer. For one thing, it doesn't fit the formula. Its subject is international, with no mention of how America fits into African civil war. But it also lacks the solid craftsmanship that a great realistic drama should have.

This is a play that moves in jerks. The main characters have holes & caesuras in their arcs -- Sophie herself doesn't do much except work as a catalyst for Mama. Supporting characters, especially the men, tend to disappear for stretches & then return, as if out of a hat, to serve a plot function.

Nottage relies on the machinery of old-fashioned melodrama: stupendous revelations of buried secrets, tragic coincidences of timing, a literal storm gathering as the war approaches Mama's bar. Rather than relying on complex psychology & social insight, Nottage falls back on manipulative sentiment.

As a cynical operator, Mama N. is supposed to evoke Brecht's Mother Courage. But in spirit she's closer to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (“I stick my neck out for nobody.”). The problem is, her cynicism's all talk: from adopting Sophie forward, her every decision stems from sentiment, not pragmatism.

So do I think Ruined will win the Pulitzer? Probably. It's realistic, it's noble-minded, it's international at a cultural moment that's repudiating US isolationism. And I think Nottage's Intimate Apparel deserved the award over Anna in the Tropics in 2003. But it's not the best American script of 2008.

For all my quibbles, however, I echo the wish that MTC had placed Ruined on their Broadway stage. It's also a sad irony that the Goodman brought Ruined to MTC's City Center site but will move their starry Desire Under the Elms to the St. James. A Pulitzer for Ruined? Naw. But a Tony? Most def.