I don't want to devote too much space to the inaugural San Francisco production of the duo's black comedy about the actors drafted to play Munchkins in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. Let's just say that I hope the four cast members who spent most of the performance I saw circling around their lines like "planes in a holding pattern above Heathrow Airport," as Welsh put it, and twitching and mugging to compensate for the yawning lapses in focus have found the play by now. Despite enthusiastic acting and an arresting visual concept (the surreal Alice in Wonderland quality of Tony Kelly and Colby Thompson's oversized hotel room set), this rambling, arrhythmic staging might make audiences want to click their heels three times, vowing "There's no place like home." That being said, the work itself along with the ideas behind it and what it may or may not subconsciously reveal about its creators is definitely worthy of further speculation.
Welsh and Cavanagh don't seem like the kind of authors interested in writing a drama about Munchkins. From Welsh's 1993 debut novel, Trainspotting, about the drug-addled daily existence of a gang of disaffected Edinburgh youths, to his forthcoming The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, concerning a womanizing alcoholic's journey toward self-knowledge, the Scottish scribe presents an unflinching world view that has earned him notoriety on both sides of the Atlantic as one of contemporary culture's most nihilistic chroniclers of urban depravity. Meanwhile, Cavanagh, Welsh's sometime writing partner and a native of Bradford in northern England, has undertaken such projects as adapting Filth, Welsh's novel about a corrupt cop's relationship with his tapeworm, for the screen, and penning an original screenplay about two English kids embroiled in the drugs trade in Thailand. The diminutive, eternally perky inhabitants of the Land of Oz might be the focus of Babylon Heights, but this being a Welsh-Cavanagh concoction, you can bet your ruby slippers we're not in Kansas anymore.
Babylon Heights takes as its premise a bit of Hollywood lore concerning the on-set suicide of a little person during the shooting of Oz. According to legend, a disturbance in a tree to the right of the frame in the scene in which Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow set off down the yellow brick road, is not as the Internet Movie Database attests "a large bird stretching its wings," but a swinging Munchkin corpse. Set in a Culver City hotel room during the shooting of the film, and inspired by rumors of wild sex orgies, opium binges, and general dwarf debauchery that allegedly took place after hours (Judy Garland reportedly once referred to her pint-sized co-stars as "little drunks" in a television interview), the play imagines the circumstances that might have led to one performer's untimely death.
The text could use some further work. For one thing, three out of the drama's four characters don't develop at all; for another, they barely transcend cliche: Charles Merryweather is a sensitive, fresh-faced ex-gardener from England who possesses all the oomph of Oz's Cowardly Lion; Bert Kowalski is a foul-mouthed circus performer with an opium habit; the pompous, well-dressed Raymond Benedict-Porter considers himself a great thespian; and Philomena Kinsella, a devout Irish Catholic, divides her time between taking baths and fending off Bert's lewd insinuations. The characters turn out to be not quite what they seem, yet the twists are simplistic; discovering that the tough guy has a heart, for instance, is no surprise.
But for all its dramaturgical flaws, the play's handling of its central theme the little person's struggle in a big person's world resonates at several levels. Alleged discrimination against the film's small performers by production bigwigs (reports about those actors receiving less pay for longer hours than Dorothy's dog Toto have become the stuff of legend) find their way into the work. By setting the action in a cramped, claustrophobic roach motel, forcing a female character to share a room with three males, and conceiving of the outside world of "regular sized" humans through the use of a disembodied voice barking orders from the wings, the playwrights powerfully illustrate the dehumanized treatment of Oz's Munchkins.
The victimization of little people extends beyond the Oz production lot. Babylon Heights suggests the broader exploitation of the individual by larger, more powerful entities, such as the studio system and the state. Merryweather is terrified by all "big people," from the other gardeners at his old job, tending the flower beds at London's Royal Kew Gardens, to taller cast members on the movie set. Meanwhile, Kinsella talks about performing sexual favors on "men of all sizes." And as Kowalski puts it: "Even giants get lost in Hollywood."
As I listened to Welsh and Cavanagh talk about their personal experiences of getting work produced within the British and American film and theater systems that morning at the Phoenix, I couldn't help but feel that Babylon Heights might, however subliminally, be about the writers' own professional struggles against greater powers. "There's such a fucking horrible theater culture in the western world. It's all luvvies, darlings, and sweethearts. It's a closed shop," said the soft-spoken Welsh with uncharacteristic vehemence, before launching into a tirade about how the Booker Prize-winning novelist James Kelman can't get his plays produced in his native Scotland. The pair then discussed Welsh's abortive experiences in Hollywood, "doing lunch" with producers for two months till both sides got bored.
"Maybe Babylon Heights is about all of these ways of fighting against the system," said Cavanagh. "If we wouldn't have gotten the knock-backs, we wouldn't be doing the things we're doing now."
Welsh nodded in agreement: "Right. Success teaches you fuck all. Failure's the best and only way you can learn."