“All foreplay and no fucking.”

Sometime within a reasonable error margin of 1995 I saw a Bruce Nauman exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Nothing was terribly memorable, except a gigantic animated neon clown that was waggling (or possibly abusing) his penis. That experience came to mind when I sat down to write about Equivocation, the play by Bill Cain currently soiling the UCLA Geffen Playhouse, and I briefly considered searching out an image of Bozo the Wanker and posting it as the entire text of this review.*

For wanking is what Equivocation does best. It’s all it does. The premise is that Sir Robert Cecil, James I’s plumber and hatchet man (bizarrely played as if paralyzed on the left side of his body, probably to cover for the deficiencies of the actor — although apparently he did have some physical limitations from the pox and/or scurvy toward the end of his life, so I suppose it counts as almost historically accurate) bribes Shakespeare to write a play of the royal version of the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare struggles with truth, his own moral backbone, his daughter, the sniveling child actor playing all the pretty-boy Brad Pitt parts in the Globe, yadda, yadda, yadda, whev.

Really, however, the play is a vehicle for Cain to use every “I’m so clever!” line that he’s ever written. The high point of the first act is when Shakespeare’s daughter starts in on a soliloquy about how she hates soliloquies and how they should be given to minor characters for a change, “like the daughter.” The damned thing is full of that kind of pointless attempt at irony-or-something (distinguished from irony proper not only by its complete tastelessness but also by the fact that it doesn’t constitute irony but its writer would doubtless call it such for lack of the vocabulary to name it accurately). As I said, wanking.

The line that heads this review was used by one of the characters, an actor in the Globe, to describe Shakespeare’s first attempt to write the Gunpowder Plot play — the point being that it constituted a terrible play because it was nothing but a bunch of people scheming and then getting arrested, with nothing actually happening. That aptly describes Equivocation itself.

Nor is there a shred of subtlety. Repeatedly, the dialogue will gesture at something like some dark motive of one of the characters — and then that motive will promptly be shouted qua explicit accusation from Shakespeare to Cecil (or Cecil to Shakespeare, or whoever to whoever-else), as if Cain thinks any audience stupid enough to pay to see his work is also too stupid to catch even the most gentle of tossed hints. (He’s probably right at that.) When Cain isn’t breaking the fourth wall for no reason at all, creating false tension by having the characters air each others’ dirty laundry, or getting cheap laughs from the audience by having Cecil make fun of Shakespeare’s actual plays, he’s putting empty platitudes by the bucketload into Shakespeare’s mouth about truth, theatre, politics, life, and just about any other subject just so long as it doesn’t move the plot forward in any way whatsoever.

I’m told that the last few plays at the Geffen have gotten terrible reviews (although apparently the reviewers liked Equivocation, probably because they’ve lowered their expectations so far that any production at which the cast doesn’t actually show up stoned is a triumph). Were I an LA reviewer, after seeing this abomination, I wouldn’t bother to see the next Geffen play, I’d just phone in a negative review from a nice safe beach somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere with a daiquiri in one hand and a groupie in the other. I suppose I kind of am doing that, since I (and many others) fled the theatre in horror before the second act.

I’m not one to think Shakespeare should be sacrosanct. But if you must pee on the man’s grave, could you at least have the decency to flush?

As the play gimped through the first act and my spirits began to sink, I was set to pondering the really deep question in moments like this: “which is more hopeless, the writing or the acting?” The acting is pretty terrible, especially when they try to read Shakespearean-esque lines. But I eventually settled on the writing. The dialogue is so simultaneously abstract-talkey and overwrought-melodramatic that it would have taken a heroic effort from even competent actors to make the damned thing work. If Ayn Rand had written a play about Shakespeare rather than novels about capitalism, this is what she would have written.

Evidently, nobody ever taught Bill Cain about “show, don’t tell.” Since I’ve been luckier than Cain in that respect, I’ll close by showing you my suffering. The following is a sample of Cain’s writing, excerpted from his contribution to the program:

And I knew what I wanted to write.

I wanted to write one word as true as a last wish hammered into a prison wall by a man trying to be true to his conscience in the last days of his life.

* * *

As I saw the Towers burning in the city I grew up in, the city that I love, I was so angry that all I wanted to do was answer destruction with destruction. Even then I knew that answering rage with more rage gets you nowhere. I knew that such a colossal act of anger could only be adequately answered by a tenderness equally as passionate, equally as committed. That also became the journey of Equivocation — from angry despair to something that I hope is at least somewhat better.

Yes, the writing in the play is all as bad as that. And I saw it sober. Completely sober. Is there no god?

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* Some googling reveals that I may be misremembering — it may have been a piece lovingly entitled “Mean Clown Welcome” that contains not one but two phallic jesters. My apologies to Nauman.

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