Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Half a Loaf 

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
Hillary and Soon-Yi Shop for Ties sounds like an idea for a Saturday Night Live sketch, one that would be funny for only a few minutes, and, in fact, the play is written in the same wacky variety-show structure as SNL. Instead of a story, we get a string of scenes -- actually clever cartoons -- with titles like "Tempus Fugit" and "Teiresias." And instead of characters, we get icons, "images of women we've seen through the centuries" (in playwright Michelle Carter's words), to make a little intellectual sport.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Soon-Yi Previn Allen have each been publicly disgraced by their men, in Carter's mind, and the difference between them is partly generational -- Hillary knows she's disgraced, Soon-Yi doesn't. This conceit, as far as it involves Soon-Yi, is presumptuous. But it gives Carter a chance to shape dialogue between an older woman who fought for women's rights and a younger one who takes them for granted. The script was inspired by the manner in which Soon-Yi doted on Woody Allen during his jazz band's European tour (as seen in Wild Man Blues), and it was written for the Magic Theater to open its '99-2000 season.

First, some background. Andre Previn and Mia Farrow adopted Soon-Yi from a Korean orphanage while they were still married, in 1977. Four years later Woody Allen took up with Farrow and became, sort of, Soon-Yi's dad. (Allen and Farrow never married.) When Soon-Yi was in college, Mia found naked pictures of her in Woody's apartment, and international scandal ensued. A few years later, Soon-Yi married her sort-of dad.

The details of Bill Clinton's disgrace should be clear even to visiting Eskimos.

Woody plays the clarinet; Clinton plays the sax. Randy Craig has been careful to include both clarinet and sax in his original score, and Richard Olmsted has built an elegant, off-kilter proscenium in '60s pastels, with a big tie running down the middle of the stage. Carter, the SFSU professor/playwright, has subtitled her game, "A Vaudeville for the New Millennium," but the load of historical footnotes will keep Hillary and Soon-Yi from surviving very far into the 2000s. Still, it's a sly and funny show that manages, sometimes, to be sophisticated.

In the "Father's Day" scene, a tie rack flies from the rafters; the ladies talk about ties but don't mention names. Woody and Bill come on only in huge, shadowy gaps. Hillary's a disillusioned, sharply dressed woman played with bitter energy by Lorri Holt; Soon-Yi is an ingénue, played with less conviction by Amy Tung, who lets oddly suggestive lines slip from her mouth. "No one's given him a tie in some time," she tells Hillary, about her absent man. "Father's Day has been kind of a sore subject."

Other skits include a baseball game, with Hillary swinging the bat and Soon-Yi in the stands; an amusing strip show, to Joan Armatrading's "History Repeating"; a monologue by Monica Lewinsky; and various vaudeville numbers. Holt does a funny song from behind a TV cooking-show set, as Hillary trying to contain herself in the role of first-lady hostess at a White House bash. And Tung's best scene may be "Feminist Studies 201," where Soon-Yi gives a deadpan lecture about her favorite Greek myth: Persephone, the girl abducted by Hades, and her relationship with Demeter, her mom. Soon-Yi goes into hilarious personal detail.

The strongest scene, at the end, shows Hillary drunk and babbling at a Georgetown party, circa '67, with Bill somewhere offstage by the barbecue platter. The mixture of poignancy, hope, darkness, and love here raises the sketch above the others. Hillary appears for the first time as both icon and human being -- in a headband, glasses, and striped pantsuit -- showing no bitterness as she talks about moving to Arkansas. "We're gonna be a team, Cheryl!" she effuses. The scene ends with a flashbulb-pop to foreshadow disappointment and future sorrow. That's honest playwriting, rising above but not shirking politics; and it makes you wish Carter had afforded the same pathos in her scenes with Soon-Yi.

But too much of the show is either treacherously boring -- like a stretch of scenes about Tarzan's Jane and the Virgin Mary -- or just unconvincing. One skit called "Photo Shoot" imagines Soon-Yi on a couch, still virginal, carrying on a one-sided conversation with Woody while someone not quite there (Hillary, in this case) snaps pictures. "What a world you live in," Soon-Yi tells Woody, "where people tell each other they're beautiful. I'd give anything to live in such a world." She unbuttons her blouse. And Hillary, sarcastic, says: "That's usually what's required."

The scene falls flat because Soon-Yi has so clearly been raised in the beautiful world -- why would she try to screw her way in? The skit is pure cliché. And the rest of the script shortchanges Soon-Yi's emotions, while it indulges Hillary's. In Wild Man Blues Soon-Yi came off as a poised, intelligent woman, overtolerant of Woody's neuroses but otherwise self-possessed. It's easy to imagine what else might be going on in that hoary old stereotype of an affair -- Daddy's-girl sentiments and flattered vanity -- but it's still a long jump from film to play, where Soon-Yi appears as an adolescent fool preyed on by the Lord of the Underworld, a girl who doesn't know her own mind and therefore sets women's lib back a couple of centuries. Even given the cartoon style, Carter's reading is common, superficial, good for some jokes and some dogma and not a whole lot else.

In its lowest moments, the play shows why sweeping declarations about Society don't belong in a form that needs to deal with individuals. Hillary's blithe overview of the women's movement since the '60s, in "Tempus Fugit," ends with one dire word about 1999 ("Disappointment"), and sets a tone for the play. But I think playwrights are smart to leave sociological nonsense about Where We Are Now to lesser writers, like Susan Faludi. Sweeping statements tend to miss the point. Carter seems overattached to the power of images, or "paradigms," to define character and destiny. She seems to believe, like most good university types, that taking a barometric reading of a given era's celebrities will yield startling insights into our souls. But Hillary and Soon-Yi only proves that it can't.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"