David Cale's SANDRA at The Vineyard
In the one-woman show, Sandra, written by David Cale and currently appearing at The Vineyard, the word “destination” recurs. As is the case in much of David’s work, what matters is not so much the specifics of a potential place but the longing to be somewhere/someone else. With less adept writers, this instability can feel forced by virtue, a dramatic arc or a sociological lesson, but in David’s the unpredictable urges of a restless heart provide the pulse. In earlier solos works which he performed, David semi-fictionalized his own life as a Brit expat; lyric, sensitive and very funny stories of characters destined to end up somewhere other than where they began. Characters leave their dull, threatening, closed lives to open up elsewhere, like books with strong spines but unturned pages. In some cases, David seemed to take a version of Alan Bennett’s middle-class characters, often women, up, out, swimming away from the land where his predecessor often kept them grounded. He incorporated live music, scoring the language, giving his writing a magical and seductive lyricism that puts us inside the monologue as song. Then, in We’re Only Alive For a Short Amount of Time, David stepped out from behind the mask of character and revealed that many of these stories came from his own life. He did not leave England so much as flee, after a horrible crime committed by his own father. The U.S. meant escape, freedom, a new identity (and perhaps Judy Garland).
This new production brings David as writer together with the director Leigh Silverman, as with their very successful Harry Clarke, which featured Billy Crudup as the sole actor. In that production, it was immensely satisfying to experience the confidence and challenge of David’s writing coming to us via another performer, whose skills are somewhat more expansive (or perhaps simply more objective). It also gave David Cale, writer, a chance to deepen the narrative paths of his storytelling without having to be concerned with how he would perform them. Watching a writer/performer transpose their work on another performer is part of the thrill and risk. What happens when the writer/performer projects onto their character a fantasy specific to that writer, and then asks another actor to perform that? The trajectory of David’s career brings this into the dramaturgy itself.
In this one-woman monologue, Marjan Neshat still seems to be settling in her role, though that is somewhat appropriate for a Cale character; is anyone truly settled?
David is a master at charting a character’s discovery of and diversions from the limitations of human relationships (offset by his ongoing fascination with the natural world, birds and fishes as more than just metaphor). The realization of the limitations and restrictions create friction, dissatisfaction, longing. With Sandra, the writing brings this urge into the shifting terrain of the mystery/thriller. Desire becomes dangerous, something that women experience far more than men, though David making the missing person in this mystery a gay man acknowledges such vulnerability as not limited through gender. It is clear that Sandra’s vanished friend, Ethan, has given her permission to move beyond herself to the point of possible vanishing. Yet as in the 1977 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar (and perhaps the current Tár) we feel a mounting dread as the female character attempts to emancipate herself through desire. Aspects of this story might seem familiar, and the confidence of the writing is such that we hear a peripheral character refer to Tennessee William’s Night of the Iguana, as another character seems to drop in from that play.
In the character of Sandra, we have a disarmingly “normal,” even slightly dull character. It takes us a while to excite our interest in her, but the 80-minute work slowly deepens the character through her predicament. This requires a performance of revelatory moments and internal struggles. The performance I witnessed did not quite achieve that complexity, but the strengths of David’s storytelling did. This is of course the dilemma of this kind of story; the writer has worked out what the character is in the midst of discovering, this being the “in the moment” making acting so difficult. Our interest and belief in this character is not initially essential, as it might need be in a more “Hollywood” arc. She grows on us, this Sandra, a bit of an everywoman telling a story that takes time to become transformative, to her and to the audience How does such a character live through massive unexpected transformation, and then narrate it? Once again, a challenge of live storytelling. The character is not profound, but what is happening to her is. Perhaps this is the divide between how a monologue works in a performance art context, where we are focused on the intricacies of a narrator/persona’s sensibility, as opposed to the character’s responsibility to deliver a story. Is it the character or what happens to them that matters? Of course, as in life, it is both; the destination and the way we get there. David has found a very intriguing place between those two approaches. The character does not match the intensity of her situation, which makes for a version of naturalism. We seldom live up to our situations. This has always been David’s territory to master. As in a song, the drama is in the notes accumulating through the voice and arriving at melody and harmony. Though the piece succeeds in very suddenly ramping up the dramatic action, do we fully feel the transformative shift required from such a character, her letting go of one thing and grasping another? That movement toward the new destination is immanent in the script, but not fully supported by the performance itself. Yet.
The performance also suffers a bit from the director/actor choice to overfill moments with miming of objects not there (a glass, a cigarette), a conventional “realism” that conflicts with the lyrical interiority of the writing. That kind of filling-out belies the way a performer creates illusion through narration, not necessarily literal “action.” David’s writing is accomplished at finding the sweet spot between fantasy and fact, a skill that makes his storytelling here merge with the character, and some of the slight directorial overreaching in this production suppresses that. During the performance I saw, there were two moments where the actor began to cough and had to grab water hidden behind the sole piece of furniture on stage. Although handled professionally, I felt a lost moment, a possibility of a 4th wall break that could have refreshed our relationship to the work. Having seen so many of David’s works, I thought of the way David himself accomplishes this when performing. Perhaps unfair, and once again a risk in this kind of work (and audience). Sandra is a slowly accelerating train, and traveling toward any destination with this writer a moving and transformative experience.
2022 Jeff McMahon