Season 7, Episode 19: The Play’s the Thing

Hey, y’all. After 138 episodes, it finally happened: an episode of Perfect Strangers that I had almost nothing to say about. The entirety of my knowledge of the theatre and experience with acting boils down to one college elective course and being in the high school drama club. I like to be erudite in my reviews, but for this, I didn’t even know which of the Shakespeare brothers (Miller and Molière) it would be more appropriate to make reference to.

So I reached out to Catie Osborn, theatre expert, actress, playwright, teacher, slam poet, and most recently, a person who will demand money upfront for any writing she agrees to do. You can read more about her work at www.catieosborn.com.

Catie, may you follow in Twinkacetti’s footsteps and break a leg.

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When I was asked if I’d be interested in evaluating this episode, I was excited, but I was also nervous—I know literally nothing about Perfect Strangers, I’m not familiar with the characters or their relationships with each other, so I’m going in blind, or at least very neutral. I’m going to be reviewing season Seven, Episode 19. Honestly the fact that this is SEASON SEVEN is really the thing that blows my mind.

About me— a few years ago, I decided that what I needed to do more than anything else in this world was get two master’s degrees in Shakespeare. I figured in this economy, why not. Prior to that, I got my BA in Theatre and I’ve spent the better part of my entire life working in theatre. So I’m sort of an expert, (okay, I’m absolutely an expert but I was raised in the Midwest where it’s impolite to say things like that about yourself) but mostly I just consider myself a passionate artist and theatre maker.

Let’s go.

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First, I  just need to say that I was very pleased to discover that Perfect Strangers has the single greatest theme song of all time. It’s now my ringtone, and honestly it makes my day a little bit better every time I hear it.

So the show opens with an establishing shot of the haunted castle where they all apparently live.

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We find out, with some truly hamfisted exposition, that Larry, played by Mark Linn-Baker (or, as I’ve known him for most of my life, the original Toad from A Year With Frog and Toad), has written a play: “Wheat”, which he says is still a work in progress…but oh no, racist accent guy (IMDB tells me his name is Balki) has given it to the local theatre group and it opens in a week! It is also important to note that Larry insists on pronouncing “Wheat” a la “Cool Whip” from Family Guy for no apparent reason.

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Balki reveals that he’s been working on the show AND he’s the stage manager! His duties, he says, include opening and closing the curtain. I have a lot of questions about the rehearsal schedule, and how Larry hasn’t noticed. I’m going to assume that this is a community theatre production, which tend to have a longer rehearsal process—and rehearse in the evenings. So hypothetically, Balki has been gone every night (since he’s the stage manager, he’d need to be there first and leave last) for, let’s say, 4 hours for the past four weeks, and Larry hasn’t either noticed or cared to ask, which, either way, makes Larry kind of an asshole.

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Next, we travel to the theatre, where they’re rehearing the play, which is established by a shot of a recreation center, then the stage proper.

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To be quite honest, I got a good kick out of the stage. It looked like every community theatre set from my childhood, complete with the same old timey stove that every theatre company in America seems to possess. The recreation center thing is also a clever nod to community theatre—while many community theatres have their own spaces (some of then far nicer than the professional theatres nearby), many of them fall into the “found spaces” or ‘cafegymnatorium’ quandary. There was something sort of inherently realistic and familiar with the design, which gave me the feeling that the writers (or designers, or both, I suppose) all had at least some experience working in the community theatre medium—which then, conversely, makes the rest of this episode even more shameful in its laziness.

We then quickly learn two important details: Larry has based the character of Laurence on himself and opening night is sold out!

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Trevor, the director, tells Tony the Pasta Palace Waiter that Laurence is a complete buffoon, and “don’t let the words get in your way, we can always change them later”.

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Unable to take it, Larry jumps on stage and says the words are “sacred” and “every word is in the right order”. I have two master’s degrees in Shakespeare, let me tell you about how many times I’ve heard some variation on this speech.

Then, for some inexplicable reason, the director decides to immediately be a dick and tells Larry that this is clearly his first play and if he works real hard, maybe some day, he can get a job writing game show questions. I struggled with this section for several reasons. The first is that while it is not super common for a playwright to be in the room, particularly for new works, there is usually a dramaturg, who, if not in the room, is at least on call to answer questions and parse out textual questions…so having someone in the room whose job it is to preserve textual integrity is…pretty par for the course. Plus, there are many theatres where, particularly if it is new work that’s been commissioned or written for a specific group of actors, the playwright may very well be on hand for a few rehearsals.

Granted, this is usually for professional houses, but it’s also pretty rare for community theatres to do new work, so I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt on this one, mostly because I’m just grateful they’re not doing Streetcar or something. Honestly though: the fact that Larry’s local theatre is doing a new work by an unknown author is a HUGE DEAL.

Small community theatres that support new work are a vital part of the theatrical landscape. Go see a play you’ve never heard of before and give room and space for new and diverse voices. Push your local board to select shows that challenge the community and nurture new talent. There are so many incredible playwrights in this country who have no opportunity to present their work because everyone is busy doing the same plays we’ve seen a million times. Your community doesn’t grow and learn from another production of Greater Tuna, but a new work about the experience of marginalized voices in your town might foster important conversations that desperately need to be had.

(end of soapbox).

So Larry drops a solid King and I joke, which is, weirdly, really the only theatre joke in the entire episode. I was getting a real Frasier vibe from Larry, I expected more highbrow jokes about Mamet.

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Then Trevor the director quits, apropos of nothing, and Tony the Pasta Palace Waiter also quits—along with the rest of the cast because apparently, they were all sharing the same van. Right.

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The producer, Lydia, comes in and is very upset, because oh no! A fancy play reviewer named “Clive Rich” was supposed to come on opening night, and our dynamic duo realizes that they are gonna have to put on this whole show by themselves.  I have a lot of questions about why they just can’t reschedule or push back opening, but for the benefit of Plot Device, I will just roll with this one.

The question still remains, though— what is the big deal with the reviewer? Larry says “THE Clive Rich?” and then it’s never really brought up again. They never specify what paper he’s from, why he’s important or why it’s significant that he’s coming, but he can, apparently ONLY come on ONE SPECIFIC NIGHT. WHY CAN’T THEY JUST RESCHEDULE? THIS MAKES NO SENSE. But instead we have to majorly inconvenience everyone directly involved with the show rather than minorly inconvenience the likes of THE Clive Rich.

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Larry comes in the next day having re-written the entire play and casts …his friends? Again, I have a lot of questions about why the entire play had to be re-written. This is never really discussed or brought up again. I can’t tell if it’s a numbers thing—like his original show had 46 people and he’s reduced it to five, but even then, doubling exists. I would argue that a small-scale cast of 5 playing an entire town has a certain inherent entertainment value to it (and yes, that’s why I shit on Greater Tuna earlier, it all comes back around, you’re welcome).

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Larry claims to know everything there is to know about theatre and then, for the rest of the episode, proceeds to act like the most irresponsible director in the history of theatre. Cool.

There is a great moment with a throw away joke where Larry’s wife comments on why Larry has cast his wife as his mother. It’s a solid joke, but more than that, it’s a great commentary on “stage age”.

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When I talk about Shakespeare, particularly in discussions about what something might mean or why a character might be acting a certain way, I think it’s really important to contextualize what was going on at the time. (I wrote one of my theses on this concept), because since Shakespeare was generally written for the common people, there are constant nods and references to things that were happening in, say, 1595, that audiences in 2018 miss because we aren’t living in that same frame of reference.

One of my favorite examples is about swords. (I actually wrote my thesis on this, so if you want to get real nerdy with me, look it up sometime). So let’s time travel back to 1597. Shakespeare has just written Romeo and Juliet. In it, there are a crap-ton of sword fights. “Cool”, we say, as a modern audience “sword fights are exciting, I guess, something to break up all of this talking”.

But what if I told you that in 1597, public duels were beginning to get so popular that people started trying to get them outlawed? Or that the rapier, a type of sword specifically mentioned over and over again in the play, was the new and fashionable weapon of choice? Or that Italian fencing had come into popularity, which many older people mocked for being too youthful and stylistically different than the traditional style of English fencing. And then remind you that R&J takes place in Verona…Italy?

So suddenly, we’re sitting at a play where the youths of the city are fighting with the trendy new weapon in a trendy new fighting style, fighting for honor and self-satisfaction in a way that would be outlawed by the Queen only 12 years later– suddenly, these random moments in the play make a lot more sense to us as audience members up on popular culture. Romeo and Juliet is a goddamn commentary meme about those young hooligans and their newfangled swordplay and ideas about honor.

Sorry, I get excited.

So let’s look at this moment in the context of 1992. In 1991-1992 (when this episode originally aired), the top movies included*, most notably, Basic Instinct, The Crying Game, The Bodyguard and Scent of a Woman, and Silence of the Lambs won best picture…so objectified women and women used as sexual objects and bargaining chips for the sake of the plot are pretty familiar to anyone watching this on network TV in 1992.

*Also Aladdin, Sister Act, Beauty and the Beast and The Rocketeer which are all great movies. Remember when Disney was in its golden Renaissance? Damn.

So maybe it’s just a throw away joke, or maybe, for a brief moment, the writers touch on something very real facing female actresses in 1992.

Moving on:

So Larry decrees that they shall begin rehearsal on stage, which is, depending on your school of thought, either totally normal or very strange. Some directors like to start with table work—read through the show, some like to jump right in to get a sense of what the ensemble brings to the show, but, for the most part, no rehearsal ever begins with jumping on stage and setting your play in stone, but fine, Larry is a non-traditional director. No big deal.

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Balki is concerned because he is cast as the mean brother, Billy, which he doesn’t feel he can personally connect to. Larry gives him the advice to think about someone in his life who reflected those characteristics and bring those into his character. Balki comes up with this mean kid from his home country, Brunos. He coaches him through a vision exercise—what did this character look like? Sound like? What did he feel to be like him?

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Balki then has a breakdown, then struggles to connect his emotions to his acting, so Larry decides to create a trigger word for him—“bridge”– which he uses and Balki then goes into a rage-out fugue state and throws him off the stage.

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Now. This is the part of the show where I debated nit-picking for the sake of this review, but I decided, ultimately, that it was problematic enough that I wanted to address it. First, let’s acknowledge that there are many, many schools of thought on acting. Nearly all of them revolve around the idea that “yes, you’re pretending, but try and find ways to make it seem realistic”. They all come at it from different ways. For instance, the Stanislavski school of acting basically says “what would I do if I was in this character’s shoes”, and you play those circumstances, whereas Uta Hagen’s school of acting says that you basically find a link between something in your own life—say, a time that you got mad about missing the bus, but take that feeling and apply it to a scene, where, say, you’re angry that your boyfriend is leaving you.

So contextualizing this DEEPLY PROBLEMATIC scene in that way, the best I can figure out, Larry is sort of bastardizing the Meisner Acting Technique, which says that actors should fully throw themselves into the emotional “state” of the character onstage. So the actor isn’t pretending to be mad, the actor actually finds a reason to get angry.

PS theatre nerds: I know these are very broad and somewhat lacking descriptions, don’t @ me, I’m reviewing an episode of Perfect Strangers not writing a treatise on acting.

However, the issue I have here is that what Larry is doing is actually REALLY dangerous for an actor. There is, in stage combat, such a thing as a “red light” actor, who is fine in rehearsal, and then when the excitement of performance sets in, creates an unsafe fighting environment for the actors around him/her. I’ve seen this happen in community AND professional acting scenarios, and every time, it ends with someone getting hurt. I’ve seen broken fingers, split lips, shattered swords…and here, this show presents a scenario in which the actor, during rehearsal, red lights so hard that he throws someone off of the damn stage.

Fun fact, when I sent this article in, I got some comments back from our fine Editor.  He provided the following insight into this whole scenario, which I am just going to present here:

But—oh man—Bronson is a red light actor. I know of three instances where he ended up causing harm; I have to imagine there are dozens across his career. In a “Honeymooners” themed episode in season 6, he overdid a bit of physical comedy and landed flat on his face; in a season 4 episode when Balki is shaking Larry, Bronson shook him so hard that he (Bronson) hit his teeth on Mark’s forehead and Mark had to get stitches; and when Bronson was in the play Zoya’s Apartment, he misread the lead actress’s “readiness” for some bit of physicality they had discussed (but not made plans to incorporate into a performance) and says he ended up doing a handstand on her face and falling down.

I get it, it’s comedy, but it’s just…it’s not funny. It’s not okay. The dual “joke” of psychological trauma and unsafe stage technique is just….squicky. PARTICULARLY given the background that our editor just provided—this actor—not Balki playing Brunos—but the ACTUAL PERSON who is portraying this character has a history of behaving just like this—and rather than confront it, or bring in a qualified stage combat person to deal with it, they turned it into a “hilarious” inside joke. That’s just….so deeply not okay.

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So the next night, the show opens. Larry introduces the play with a sort of vague overview of the plot as narrator, a convention which will carry through the rest of the show.

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Larry’s wife is still mad that he made her play the mom, and then refuses to complete her blocking, forcing Larry to improvise. A brief note: this is a really tried-and-true convention for comedy plots involving theatre. The actor is upset at a coworker, therefore they will punish them onstage. FYI: This is not a thing real actors do, and if they do this, they are A: not an actor that you want to work with B: an actor you won’t have to worry about working with because they will never work again. It’s funny in practice, but in the real world, this kind of behavior is just…it’s not a thing.

Balki jumps his entrance….three times. Sure.

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Lydia the Apple Lady is paralyzed by stage fright. Fine.

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Larry continues to have to improvise as the play falls apart around behind him. Reasonable.

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The door is broken, Mary Anne (Sagittarius) can’t find her prop.

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Fun fact, these are all things that really happen all the damn time in theatre. Door flats are notoriously difficult to build, and prop doors have a funny way of sticking. There’s actually a great video of Mary Poppins on Broadway in which the door gets stuck and she has to improvise through it. Losing props, too, is, while generally frowned upon, something that happens on occasion, even in the professional world. Find an actor and ask them about a time someone forgot a prop on stage, I guarantee every single person you talk to will have at least one good story.

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Then Balki misses his entrance and comes on stage eating a bagel. No. This is not a thing. I don’t care how dumb you are, I don’t care how little you know about theatre, no one in their right mind is going to show up for their entrance eating a snack.

Then Larry stops the scene to compliment him. Again, this is not a thing. Like….we’ve all seen little kids at the Christmas pageant wave to their mommy and daddy. That is adorable. Larry is a grown-ass man, there is no reason why this should be a thing.

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Oh no, then he accidentally uses the trigger word again while Balki …transforms into a werewolf behind him. Balki drags Larry off stage to…presumably murder him, then returns to the stage to …once again throw Larry off of it.

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We are transported back to the magic castle.

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Larry returns home with a neck brace, cast and crutches. Please see my above note regarding unsafe working conditions.

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Larry feels bad because if he hadn’t interfered with Trevor’s assuredly expert directing, it’d probably all have worked out alright, and says that it’s water under the bridge, leaving Balki to meltdown again as proof of the lasting psychological damage he did to his friend. The end.

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Dramaturgically, I have questions about Larry’s premise. First, we never really get to the whole “Wheat” thing. We know that the play is about a wheat farmer (or something) and his childhood on the plains, but the whole thing is narrated by these weird Ibsen-style monologues featuring basically, just Larry.

I get that the joke is supposed to be that everyone else is under-rehearsed and/or fucking it up for Larry so he has to improvise, but really, the biggest problem I see with the show is that it’s basically a one-man show that he stuck a few extra characters in to. Of course everyone else in the show is annoyed, they’re basically set dressing for Larry’s weird ego trip of The Wheaty Vagina Monologues.

What is fascinating about this episode is that it came out almost 6 years before Waiting for Guffman, one of the best films about the insanity that can be working in community theatre, but yet it hits nearly every cliché joke: the overzealous director, the talentless actors, the problematic rehearsal process, the low budget, general ineptitude…we’ve seen it all before.

Aside from the deeply problematic behavior set up for “comedy”, I suppose the thing that really irks me about this episode is just how cliché it is. It’s lazy writing.  Even before I knew anything about this show or this particular episode, I could have made a list of every trope and general theatre stereotype we were going to see, and been mostly right. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised we didn’t see a deeply offensive portrayal of a gay man, but maybe that’s what Trevor was there for. Who knows.

The meta angle, of actors working on a show in which they portray actors putting on a show has, I suppose, some generative qualities to it…but it seems, at its core, contradictory. Take the whole “Larry’s wife is mad about her character” thing—this show is TERRIBLE. The writing is awful, the plot silly and the main character (I guess?) Balki is literally the worst…but yet these actors showed up every day to film episodes presumably just like this one—and it was their job to make that material compelling, interesting and semi-watchable.

What is even more irritating is that Mark Linn-Baker (Larry), is, and was, a pretty successful theatre director in New York. By the time this episode came out, he’d directed at the Public (which is a huge deal)…and he founded his own theatre company. It’s not like this dude was a clueless actor who had no idea how the stage side of stuff went… after seven seasons, I feel like maybe he should have had a little more say in how his character handled this situation, SINCE HE LITERALLY DID IT FOR REAL.

There are also shows that have done it better. Slings and Arrows, for example, remains one of my favorite television series of all time—and it’s wholly about theatre people doing theatre people things—but the difference is that they give it heart, and motivation. The characters’ (sometimes crappy) behavior is rationalized out by their backstory and circumstances, whereas with this episode, it just feels like everyone is going through the motions as the omnipresent hand of the writers forces their pawns to jump through humiliating scenario after scenario for the enjoyment of the audience.

So why then, is it funny to watch actors failing for the sake of comedy? Wouldn’t it have been a stronger choice to make everything look like a disaster, but then, because they all care about Larry and the fate of his play, they all come together and put on a truly good play? Maybe Balki, it turns out, could have been a fantastically good actor, and Larry’s wife could have been a great director. The critic could have come and been wildly impressed. But instead, the writers chose failure. They punched down, rather than have the characters rise up to overcome the odds. It just feels lazy, like the writers couldn’t be bothered to think outside the predestined sitcom box of expectation.

But it’s season seven after all, so maybe that’s exactly what was happening.

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For this relief much thanks, Catie.

I didn’t watch this one, but it sounds like Larry pissed off a guy who sells pasta and then had to harvest wheat to make his own? I don’t know and never will.

Join me next week for “Stress Test”!

Catchphrase count: Balki (0); Larry (0)

Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)

Appearances left: Gorpley (1); Lydia (1)

Unused Larryoke countdown #12: “Wheat Writing Man” – The Rolling Stones

4 thoughts on “Season 7, Episode 19: The Play’s the Thing

  1. Great review, Catie. Season 7 is all lazy writing and unfortunate drawing out of what might have been good plots in season 3. (And since you haven’t watched the show, you might know that “Billy” is Larry’s brother, the adonis who wins all the awards and gets all the girls.)

    Frankly I’m jealous that a show by a local playwright has a sold out opening night. And I think I’m going to C&P your entire paragraph about introducing local plays to your community.

    –Sharon, who watched this entire series with her daughter Piper, who also co-founded a local theater company in Iowa City, Iowa, is married to a playwright, and who is at this moment directing a bunch of talented kids in a show that will be put on at–talk about your found spaces–the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library in West Branch, Iowa.

    Like

  2. I have little experience with the theater too, so can’t comment from that perspective. And that’s probably for the best, because this is one of my favorite episodes. Re-watching now I still find it consistently funny. For once the show gets past the exposition quickly and gets right to the third location. The story feels authentic for Larry, and it’s nice to see him in a positive role that steps out of the conniving character he’s become. The setup’s a little clunky, but the payoff in the third act is worth it, and the jokes land consistently.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Larry is sort of bastardizing the Meisner Acting Technique

    It’s always seemed weird to me that apparently there are no TV writers who are aware that there are schools of acting other than Method.

    And thanks for the Romeo and Juliet details. I love having ammunition for when I find myself needing to explain that, no, it’s not the greatest love story of all time, it’s Shakespeare complaining about how Kids These Days are going to donk everything up by not listening to their parents.

    Like

  4. I liked exactly one thing in this entire episode…but I liked it a lot! Larry’s false, exaggerated humility when he finds out Balki submitted his script to the theater company is delivered so well.

    “Balki, I can’t believe you gave her my script without my permission. My play, Wheat, is still a work in progress. I’ll be hu-MILLIATED. The theater group with HAAAAAATE it. I’ll be a LAAAAAAAUGHING stock.”

    Larry trying to hide his flattery under what he thinks the socially appropriate response should be is genuinely great. It’s something I’ve observed a number of actual artists do, myself absolutely included.

    On a related note, I’d absolutely read a blog or a book in which Catie did nothing but dissect the portrayal of theater across various TV shows and movies.

    Like

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