Once again, the National has failed to touch me with an incredibly produced and likely well-acted show. Men Should Weep is a sort of “heart warming tale” of “family togetherness” in a Depression-era Glasgow tenement. John (Robert Cavanah), the patriarch of the Morrison family, tries and fails to work with a hang-dog persistence that requires us to admire him while we can’t fail but notice that perhaps he’s not really trying that hard; he’s got his wife Maggie (Sharon Small) to carry the weight of taking care of the seven children he’s saddled her with while he expects her to serve him when he comes back from a hard day of standing on a street corner. Maggie is caught up in living for the moment, leaving little things like taking her son into the doctor to have his chronic cough treated for later because she doesn’t like to focus on the bad things. Meanwhile, the neighbors are dealing with head lice and beating each other up; somehow the Morissons come off like a bundle of love, even as the eldest son (Pierce Reed) gambles and drinks, the eldest daughter (Sarah MacRae) runs off to be a kept woman, and Granny (Anne Downie) is practically auctioned off to another family member for her pension money. It’s basically the UK as the ConDems are hoping to remake it over the course of the next few years, as everyone sells whatever they have for money but empty-pockets dad rules the roost.
Unfortunately, any ability I might have had to get interested in these characters and their lives was horribly wrecked by the thick Glaswegian dialect. I eventually got that “wains” meant children and “deed” meant dead, but for the first half hour at least the only words I caught were “Alec” and “Lily.” Even after the interval, during a key argument, I totally missed just who it was that went to jail for defrauding the policemen’s benevolent fund. I considered leaving and skipping the second act because I’d just completely failed to connect to anyone or their problems (although I was in love with Granny just a bit); instead I trudged on through the full three hours and was not rewarded for my investment of time.
I can’t fault the cast in general. Small was fabulous as the “heart of gold” mom; Sarah MacRae gave her all to her key speech that I felt certain had served many an actress attempting to prove mastery of the accent (though I found her unconvincing overall). But I just didn’t care, and not even the great supporting work from neighbors Karen Dunbar and Lindy Whiteford can change my mind. (A real thank you goes to understudy Louise Montgomery, who was not only good as Maggie’s sister Lily but also the only person in the cast I could consistently understand.) I checked: the English people surrounding me weren’t able to follow along either. The set was perfect, the accents were no doubt spot on, but these alone could not rescue the night.
I am not going to discount my dislike as due to missing at least half of the dialogue in this show. This was just not an interesting play. It has a lot of good character studies in it but that just wasn’t enough; I felt it was a lesser work overall and probably not worth the trouble of reviving so glamorously. There was no dramatic tension and I didn’t feel any evolution in any of the characters. It certainly looked poverty square in the face (or perhaps a bit rosily in the face), but … insofar as I like plays to illuminate the human condition, it just didn’t cut it. No doubt people will sing its praises, but if you find yourself yawning after the first hour, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
(This preview performance took place on Tuesday, October 19th. It continues through Sunday, January 9th, 2011. For the completely opposite take, please see Ian Foster’s review. It’s a fact that we almost always see things exactly the same way: when we finally both agree, expect the universe to implode.)