I have a confession to make. I'll get to it in a moment. But first, the backstory. While volunteering for duty as a minister of culture, I escorted my ten year old granddaughter, Helen, to two events this weekend. On Friday night, we went to The Grapes of Wrath,on Saturday we went to Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Yes, after Steinbeck we went straight to the dogs. But that is not what I'm confessing, though perhaps that should be enough. No, my crime was a much greater one. I confess I only wept at one of these two shows. And it wasn't The Grapes of Wrath.
How can these things be? It is universally acknowledged that Grapes of Wrath is one of the most passionate and moving American novels ever written. Frank Galati's adaptation. whihc won a Tony award, is absolutely superb. And our production at THEATREWORKS has opened to critical acclaim and great box office. It gets to people, too. An email from our department chairt today, for example, says the show "grabbed us by the throat." A student in class today was telling me she sat next to three senior citizens who were sobbing quietly.
The Chihuahua, on the other hand, is a pretty wretched movie. A spoiled little rich bitch gets lost in Mexico, is befriended, protected, finds her bark, and returns home in the paws of the gardener's--I mean landscaper's--dog, whose merits she finally sees. You might think something else might have been learned too. Will Chloe learn jewels, designer dresses and pink booties may not be a dog's best friend? Well, yes, she loses the pink booties. But home at last by the pool, the diamonds and the designer dresses are back on. Ahhhhh. The New York Times critic was being pretty generous when he wrote, "As multimillion-dollar frivolities about the pets of the ruling class go, Chihuahua is reasonably diverting. As one that happens to be opening in the middle of an economic meltdown, its mere existence feels utterly insane."
It's actually rather difficult to imagine works more opposite than the two Helen and I saw this weekend, the one serious, important and alramingly relevant, the other commercial, trivial and absurdly out of synch with the events of recent months.
Yet on Friday night I watched Grapes of Wrath with distant admiration. Those deep philosophical exchanges between Tom Joad and the preacher, though very well acted, seemed to me portentous and dull. The most serious moments seemed the most predictible. Helen mostly enjoyed the comedy. Grandpa dreaming of California, talking about how he's going to fill a wash tub full of grapes, "an' I'm gonna sit in 'em, an' scrooge aroun', and let the juice run down my pants." Her favorite scene was when the Joads reach the river, and Tom and Al jump in, and splash the front row of the audience. That was my favorite too, especially when Noah shows up in his long johns, all 300 pounds of him, and looks like he's going to jump in too and launch a Colorado tsunami.
But, as I say, the show didn't make me reach for my handkerchief. Perhaps it's because I know it so well, having directed the play once, and having followed this production closely in rehearsal--I knew in advance exactly how everything was going to play out. Perhaps, too, it's because the emphasis in this show is so strongly on the thrill of the spectacle. The truck turning and just barely not rolling off the ramp. The fire, the river and the rain. The immense stage swallowing up the intimate human scale. As a friend said, it almost feels like outdoor drama indoors.
And yet, watching the end of the stupid chihuahua movie, and seeing Delgado, the noble German shepherd (wonderfully spoken by Andy Garcia) who has protected the princess and led her home, watching him say a sad goodbye to his new little friend, what is that I suddenly feel on my cheek? And what is that snuffly sound Helen is making seated next to me? Could it be what I never gave the worthy desperate hard-working tragic Joads? Could it be tears, actual tears? O no. Yes.
Sometimes art, like life, just doesn't behave the way it ought to. There, I have made my confession and I hope you will let me go now, in peace.