The neo-Marxist critic at Geva [Photo: Sarah Waddell, 1/25/20]
In “Parasite” at The Little: What would Frederic Jameson see?, I subjected the film Parasite to a neo-Marxist reading using critic Frederic Jameson’s terms, “the political unconscious” and “narrative as a socially symbolic act.” Given that Parasite is explicitly about class conflict in South Korea, Jameson’s formulations – a neo-Marxist ideological analysis – work to a tee. The results of uncovering the real social contradictions underpinning the film are illuminating.
Today, at the great risk of being a kill joy and buzz killer, I subject Geva’s Slow Food by Wendy MacLeod and directed by Skip Greer to a similar critique.
Slow Food is a light comedy about a long married couple, law grad turned management consultant and therapist, taking their first vacation as empty nesters. In Palm Beach, they encounter an — at first — exasperating gay waiter who — at first — elongates the dinner beyond reason. In the opening sequences, the audience feels fallen into an absurdist contemporary version of Waiting for Godot where the appearance of the food (and its meaning) is deferred possibly in perpetuity. However, as the food arrives in drips and drabs, the mood mellows, characters are humanized and the dinner table morphs into a therapeutic space where characters work through psychological issues, invoking a warmhearted inventive wit reminiscent of Frazier.
Echoing the positive responses of four local reviews, in “Marriage Story” (CITY), Leah Stacey writes; “During the doldrums of a Rochester winter, it’s nice to have a comedic escape at the theater.” Similarly, in “‘Slow Food’, fast laughs” (D & C), reviewer Jason Cottrell remarks:
While Geva’s recent production of Queen foisted excruciating ethical questions on its characters, and The Niceties confronted deep-seated racism, Slow Food offers a complete change of pace. The play is like slipping into a hot bath — and it feels just as good.
On a grim February afternoon, I like a warm bath and escapist laughter as much as the next guy.
And laugh I did. As we reveled in the virtuoso comic timing, the intermission-less 90 minutes flew by, culminating in a well deserved standing ovation. In a particularly hilarious vignette, one character pretends to be gay. The moment is so funny we only later realize its deft inclusion by Macleod as the scene becomes pivotal in the resolution of the drama.
But there is more to the story.
Any self respecting neo-Marxist critique need include an audience analysis. In “Marriage Story” Stacey aptly describes MacLeod’s ouvre: “[Her] work tends to center on ‘first world problems’ — usually white, middle-aged, upper class characters,” including a previous Geva production, Women in Jeopardy!, called by Stacey a “sticky-sweet comedy.”
Not insignificantly, as characterized by Stacey, MacLeod’s characters match the demographics of many — if not most — Geva subscribers: white, upper middle class (well heeled enough to afford expensive theater tickets), middle aged, well versed in long marriages and quite often empty nesters themselves whose children may have left town to pursue professional careers (and reproduce their class). One character’s lament that one of his sons doesn’t call and the other is majoring in comparative literature may ring familiar.
The spoof-like title, Slow Food — a culinary vogue associated with coastal upper middle class foodies — signals what the audience will get. The play is about them and for them — and in actuality underwritten by them. Not necessarily a bad thing, given the mirroring of the play’s characters and themes with its Geva audience, Slow Food is firmly embedded in what can be termed the “dominant cultural discourse.”
At the same time, the theme of the empty nest is somewhat problematic. In “Empty Nest Syndrome”, family researcher Sara Harkness says:
In the United States,empty nest households are mainly white and middle‐class, while lower income whites and other ethnic groups, such as African Americans and Mexican Americans, tend to maintain larger, more extended households, and keep closer ties across generations.
If Harkness is right, Slow Food may foreclose the play to large segments of the population who experience marital and family life differently. In SLOW FOOD at Geva Theatre, Cottrell quotes actor Danny Vaccaro’s take on the characters and play; “It’s also real . . . otherwise you wouldn’t relate to them.” While I can relate, at the risk of sounding churlish, would Slow Food feel so “real” and “relatable” to an extended African-America family at an inexpensive urban Jamaican restaurant or inhabitants of a trailer park out on the town at a greasy spoon diner?
Fundamentally, as explained in “Parasite“, Jameson posits that many literary texts — especially ones in the dominant discourse — work by first revealing real ideological or social anxieties or tensions. Ultimately, the anxieties or tensions are suppressed or accommodated. In vulgar — but apt — Marxist terms, the couple (Irene and Peter) are socially symbolic figures of “the bourgeoisie,” while the waiter (Stephen) — who earns his livelihood serving the bourgeois — represents “the proletariat.” Perhaps tellingly, the playbill does not note Stephen’s first name, only referring to him as “The Waiter.”
Within the fictive universe of the play, Stephen — intruding upon the couple — becomes the site of potentially destabalizing, subverting or threatening anxiety as he disturbs their expectations of a vacation meal at an upscale Greek restaurant in Palm Springs.
Actually, the waiter may represent dual anxieties as both a gay man and a member of the working class. As a modern day proletariat, we learn that Stephen’s circumstances are much like others working in a posh neighborhood. He can’t afford the rents that would allow him to live nearby nor — never having been to college — can Stephen afford tuition to further his career. Dependent on tips, Stephen’s salary is less than he wants to admit and, despite some hollow pretense, he has no financial or investment stake in the restaurant.
At the same time, much of the play revolves around role reversal. In a kind of working man’s fantasy, lording over the couple with his seeming superior taste, Stephen is the one in control of the dinner, calling the shots and “owning” the production and distribution of the food (cultural capital).
Desperate for sustenance, the couple become abject and subservient figures, taking on roles more associated with a busboy or bartender, given to semi-sycophant praise of their waiter/boss. They get caught stealing bread and beer. Peter has to sneak off to the bathroom when Stephen is not looking. They are accused of breaking a city health code, potentially jeopardizing the restaurant’s license. At one point, hoping to win favor and perhaps an oerdovre, a kow-towing Peter appears to make himself sexually available to Stephen.
Ultimately — as Jameson would predict — even as the dramatic device of role reversal generates topsy-turvy humor, at closure order is restored. The restoration revolves around Stephen’s dual identities as gay man and working class man. Crucially, Stephen recognizes that his gayness is fully accepted by Irene and Peter; the humanized bond created between the three dissolves that anxiety (homophobia). At the same time, fundamentally, Peter reverts to his privileged position as management consultant.
In the new dynamic, Peter offers Stephen a measure of personal redemption or salvation by offering to consult with him and possibly invest or fund Stephen’s ambition to own and operate his own restaurant — accommodating any lingering proletarian resistance by inviting The Waiter into the bourgeoisie.
Nonetheless, Jameson might see the resolution as what he terms an “imaginary solution.” An imaginary solution provides an improbable or coincidental solution to the real social problems raised by the play. If not for the serendipitous meeting in the upscale Greek restaurant and Stephen’s lingering service, Stephen would remain were he was. Individually, Stephen can be imagined a newly-minted member of the ownership class, but the structural conditions that allow low paid workers in general to be on the outside looking in, prevails.
Finally, in the opening paragraph of SLOW FOOD at Geva Theatre (Broadway World/Central New York), reviewer Colin Fleming-Stumpf writes:
There is nary a more unifying social experience than receiving horrid, mind-bogglingly bad service at a restaurant. It cuts across class, background, geography, ideology, upbringing, and every other imaginable social divide.
Wearing my neo-Marxist critic’s hat, I beg to differ. To be sure, consuming nutrition — service exemplary or horrid — is a universal human instinct. But the cultural practices of eating and dining are always already conditioned by their socio-economic contexts.¹
¹ I take this phraseology from Louis Althusser’s proposition; “A material individual is always already an ideological subject, even before he or she is born.”