Saturday, May 6, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "The Confession" (on Bruce Jay Friedman's play Steambath)

the confession
by Douglas Messerli

Bruce Jay Friedman (teleplay, based on his play), Burt Brinckerhoff (director) Steambath / 1973 (PBS television broadcast)

With the recent death of novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman, I determined to watch his 1971 play Steambath. The version I saw was the 1973 PBS production, broadcast at time on only 41 outlets. Since then, the play has been revived numerous times.
     If the play was originally filled with obscenities, uttered mostly by God, in this case a Puerto Rican who cleans and cares for a steambath; in the television version many of these works were excised, the play tamed down a bit—although still showing a woman, Meredith calmly strolling into this men’s den to take a shower, and the two gay men of this work who do a kind of strip-tease to “Let Me Entertain You.”
      In this production Bill Bixby plays the central figure Tandy, and Valerie Perrine the bubbleheaded Meredith—whose major activities include shopping at Bloomingdale’s, getting a new hairdo, and paying her Bloomingdale’s bill.

      Tandy, on the other hand, has just begun what he describes as a new life. Having divorced his sexually promiscuous wife, he has found a new very calm—perhaps too calm—partner, has begun a book on Charlemagne, and finally connected with his daughter on a trip with her to Las Vegas.
      In the early scenes he and Meredith are just a little confounded in how they have come to be in the steambath with such bizarre figures, an older man who seems to have experienced everything in life, including erotic adventures and a good thorough sweat, an unclean man who expectorates and eats oranges, spitting out the pits on the floor, and who watches television loudly. And then there are the two gay men who we later learn hung themselves over their love of a handsome dancer in Zorba, the kind of flippant assessment of gay life we find constantly in cinema and in theater before the 1990s.
      At first, however, Tandy and Meredith do not perceive that they are dead, until speaking with one another they realize that they had simply been going about their daily lives, Tandy eating at a Chinese restaurant and Meredith, as always, shopping when they suddenly themselves in the steambath, and in recounting that realize, as strange as it seems, they must be dead. Friedman has recounted the fact he had a “bad experience with food at a Chinese restaurant” that had led him to contemplate mortality.

       Tandy and Meredith both refuse their deaths, Tandy demanding to see the person in charge. The old codger says there is someone who, from time to time, enters the steam room to gather up the towels and wash down the surfaces.
      When he finally does show up, he is a foul-mouth Puerto Rican who, with the help of a machine, orders terrible deaths and a few good deeds in succession. When the Puerto Rican (José Perez) describes himself as God, Tandy refuses to believe it, locked in his bigotries and incapability of imagining God as a kind of janitor (“I find it relaxing,” he insists, given all his other duties).
      But Tandy will not believe. You cannot be God, he insists.
    To prove his godhead, the Puerto Rican does stage-bound card tricks, and pulls a large group of colored scarves from his pants, Tandy taunting him for his mere magician’s tricks.
     Bit by bit, however the Puerto Rican goes further and further to counter Tandy’s taunts, eventually drinking a six-foot high glass of alcohol in a few sips, and, finally, serving up a kind of multi-media mural of glorification, to which all kneel, even if Tandy only bends one knee.
     Yet even this non-believer is somewhat overcome with awe, and has to admit the possibility that the Puerto Rican is something more than his surface projection.
      Soon after, another man joins their group, projecting the daily stock market results upon the wall. As he laments, he has bet only on sure and safe stock instead of chancy ones. Yet his have all gone down, while the chancy ones have continued rise. He too must have been a suicide.
      God finally orders all of them to enter the door which will take them to the void—which they one by one enter. All except Tandy who tries again to argue his way of death, explaining his divorce, his new writing and companion, and closer relationship with his daughter.
         A new group is about to enter.

       Yet strangely, without God saying anything, he seems to hear an invisible dialogue, slowly realizing that his new girlfriend is absolutely boring, that the book he is writing is a trivial work on something he knows little about (although God has previously told him that 20th Fox, having bought what he as written from his estate, will make a film of the fragment), and that is daughter might be better off in a room of young girl’s like herself than in the hands of her estranged father. The whirlwind he has experienced is merely empty air.
      Yet, even God listens to this man’s heartfelt confession, and suggests he may keep him on for while as his assistant.
      The play ends, however, with a spotlight on Tandy, as he sits alone suffering the repercussions of what he has come to realize.
       Friedman’s play is fiercely funny, yet dramatically serious in its metaphysical  implications. In the original Tony Perkins played Tandy. And I’d like to see someone of that stature perform it on film, if there were ever to be another production.

Los Angeles, June 14, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera and Performance (June 2020).

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