When a lion tamer steps into the cage, you gotta give them credit, even though the
assembled lions are less than perfectly synchronized, rearing up on their hind legs and clawing the air.
LION NUMBER ONE: “You gotta hand it to them. We’re pretty ferocious.”
LION NUMBER TWO: “That whip gets much closer and I’m taking off his arm.”
LION NUMBER THREE: “Frankly, I never understood the chair.”
Whether you respect their profession or not – and a lot people believe that animals have no place in a circus – though I defy you to show me where other professions are stepping up to the plate and offering them alternate avenues of employment. Although I am not entirely certain I blame them: “Can you handle an ‘Excel’ Spreadsheet?” LION JOB APPLICANT: “What’s that?” – you have to admit that “lion tamer” is an impressible and challenging gig.
Now here’s where I hypothesize, and I may not be correct, though I do not see why I wouldn’t be, as I have thoroughly thought this through.
I imagine that, like with anything else you can think of – and therefore why should this arena be an exception – lion tamers come in two separate and distinguishable categories: There are lion tamers who are “naturals” - born lion tamers, if you will – and lion tamers who capably “know the ropes”, and they try hard – and it would take a real lion taming aficionado to detect the difference – but they do not generically – or is it genetically – have the knack. (And the lions instinctively sense that. You see them checking their messages while these persistent wannabes attempt desperately to command their attention. As Rodney Dangerfield used to say, “No respect. No respect at all.”)
The distinction between the naturals and the “not-born-to-its” may be virtually negligible. But even the layperson can intuit which is which. One sends you home feeling exhilarated; the other – you may not be able to put your finger on it – but you somehow feel that something meaningful was missing. Especially if they do get too close with the whip, and the insurgent lion wasn’t bluffing about the arm.
Now, you might think – and I can easily understand why – that this blog post is about lion taming, because that’s all I’ve been talking about. But, in actuality, it is not. What is it actually about?
“This guy’s great, isn’t he?”
Thank you. We recently saw Annette Bening in a one-woman show, portraying renowned comedy monologist Ruth Draper, whose performing heyday spanned the pre to post World War I era and the 1920’s (That was not the most proficient job of “spanning”; and for that, I most humbly apologize.)
More specifically, Ruth Draper was a “monodramatist”, acting out a series of twenty-minute-or-so vignettes in which she hilariously lampoons identifiable characters, invariably members of the ”Comfortable Class” of that particular era.
The French, whose country she performed in to enormous acclaim, called her a “diseuse”, literally “a female sayer of things.” I love that word, and I enjoy the idea of slipping it seamlessly into a conversation, although so far, I have had little luck finding a natural opening where it would organically fit in.
In the show we saw, Bening presented four extended scenes, offering four distinct characters. In my favorite vignette, she plays what Stephen Sondheim called one of the “ladies who lunch”, hosting a restaurant repast for three acquaintances, all of whom have been put on strict diets by their apparently fad-enthusiast doctors. (Chirps the man who downs an eight-ounce glass of pomegranate juice every morning because somebody told him it prevents prostate difficulties.)
One woman will eat nothing for lunch but carrots. Another requires eleven glasses of lemon juice. The third, limits her midday meal intake to a single turnip. The hostess herself, under “Doctor’s Orders”, restricts herself to three chocolate eclairs.
So you get the gist.
The material is highly perceptive and extremely funny. But here – finally – we connect with the “lion tamer” analogy.
Annette Bening is an experienced, skillful and courageously game actress. But, as far as I call tell, she is not a comedic “natural.”
She tries. And does commendably well. But, like the lion tamer to whom the lions pay only perfunctory attention, there is something essentially is missing in her command. (This deficiency is arguably augmented by the fact that, as the theater’s program reports, Ms. Bening has elected to direct herself.)
If you’re me, possessing an ear attuned to the material’s potential, you can sense that Draper’s monologues deserve bigger laughs than the performer, lacking the “basic ingredient” is able to elicit.
You can feel the audience wanting to laugh more – and Draper’s delicious observations meriting more – but Bening’s comedic insufficiencies turn potential thunderous home runs into opportunity-missing bloop singles.
Bening delivers her finest moment in the show’s least comedic vignette, where she portrays a “girl who thinks too much” attending a fancy dress ball. In this case, I was touched and entirely won over by her intuitive understanding of the character.
Otherwise, I mostly sat there, imagining which performer might “kill” in a similar situation. Lily Tomlin came to mind (for whom Ruth Draper, I recall her once saying, was a personal hero.)
Maggie Smith could also do the trick. As could, going back a ways, Beatrice Lillie (who once made her entrance on stage, incongruously attired in a ball gown and roller skates.)
I am reminded of the film Funny Bones (1995) in which a successful comedian father (played by Jerry Lewis) sets his abject failure comedian son (played by Oliver Platt) straight about the delineating nature of comedic instincts, when he says,
“There’s this thing called ‘Funny Bones.’ You either have them or you don’t. You don’t.”
Annette Being doesn’t either. Nevertheless – and maybe even more impressively because of its absence – she is an intrepid lion tamer.
And for that, I respectfully tip my hat.