One knows one has been to see a truly remarkable piece of theater, though admittedly this happens none too often, because one goes home thinking: “Is it possible that life is so rich, profound and extraordinary?” Leaving the Ludowy Theater staging of “My Brilliant Divorce,” a monodrama written by Irish playwright Geraldine Aron and performed in English by Christina Paul-Podleska, one walks out asking oneself: “Is it possible that life is so barren, wretched and superficial?” There have been many very interesting artistic attempts to show this barrenness of modern life, perhaps starting with Fitzgerald and moving through the Theater of the Absurd to the contemporary films of Michael Haneke, but Aron’s play has nothing to do with this tradition. In the films of Haneke, for instance, the audience watches the characters endure tedium and senselessness and is horrified to confront the possibility that they might be watching a reflection of their own lives. Here the viewer is gleefully expected to have a life just as meaningless as the heroine, to laugh with her at her foibles, to uncritically identify with the tedious reality being portrayed because – as the play seems to suggest – there is nothing at all horrifying about this vacuity. Smile! – this dreary reality is yours and mine as well. The play, in brief, is the “moving yet optimistic and funny” (press release) story of a woman whom we encounter just as her husband is leaving her for someone younger. We follow our protagonist through her mood swings, her attempts to forget her husband, her dismay at her own aging, and her mildly slapstick forays into the dating scene as a middle-aged woman. The humor is the sort familiar to watchers of sassy British sitcoms of the “Absolutely Fabulous” ilk [consulting the Internet after writing this, I find my reference more apt than I expected – one of the stars of the above-mentioned sitcom has performed “Brilliant Divorce” at the Edinburgh Festival]. Self-deprecating asides, heaps of pop culture references and candid sexuality (there is a long segment on the difficulties of buying a vibrator) are the main leitmotifs here. Never is there any indication that the main character’s life and thoughts rise above these extremely shallow watermarks. And here we come to another troubling aspect. While attempting to portray a woman of liberated sensibilities, Brilliant Divorce’s central message is that when the man packs up and leaves, the woman is a pathetic creature, her life is a shambles, and her one focus is to find another man to regain her womanhood, and pronto. Outside of this, a woman’s only real interests are reading trashy magazines (for the lonely hearts column in particular!), shopping for cosmetics, and combating the effects of aging. It may indeed be true that many middle-aged women’s lives boil down to this shabby constellation of pursuits, and there is a certain segment of viewers who will argue that this is contemporary reality, and thus it deserves to be shown. This is a desperate argument one hears a lot of nowadays to defend art that merits no defense; if there is one lesson that reality television has taught us, it is that much of “reality” needs to be chucked overboard as worthless ballast, and that reality alone does not make a thing interesting, let alone intelligent. Actress Christina Paul-Podleska does a valiant job struggling with the script, but it is a losing battle. It is difficult to say if she has range, because the text keeps her monotonously flippant, leaving her no room to explore what might be real emotions in the character. Director Jerzy Gruza manages to use the tight space effectively. Of course, if what you want from theater is a string of jokes about Christian Dior, microwave ovens, gynecologists and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” then you will find all of this (and more!), and the above criticisms will be unwarranted and possibly irrelevant. After all, there was one gentleman in the audience who laughed at every joke without exception. But by now, at least, you have been warned.
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