With Max Halberstadt’s iconic photo of the stern, cigar-bearing Sigmund Freud hanging over the mantle, the efficient set for David Weisberg’s new play Totem and Taboo signals it’s heading into deep psychological waters from the get-go. A mashup of political diatribe, hallucinatory sitcom, and Greek tragedy, it’s a gloriously unruly three-act farce that gleefully gnaws on enough material for any three productions. I caught the Feb. 20 opening night performance, which kicks off Central Works’ twenty-sixth season, and I’m still thinking about some of the scabrous lines and and biting indictments.
Running through March 20 at the historic Berkeley City Club, Totem and Taboo centers on the pharmacological breakdown of Ralph, an unaffiliated political philosopher and stay-at-home dad who finds himself in the midst of a harrowing but hilarious episode of The Honeymooners. His frustration centers on his inability to find a publisher for his magnum opus, a book he believes reveals the false promise behind liberalism’s blank slate, arguing that humans are by nature tribal.
Directed by M. Graham Smith and starring Bob Greene (who does a mean John Wayne impersonation and an inspired Jackie Gleason), Deb Fink, April Green, and Caleb Cabrera, the play delivers a post-mortem for patriarchy, while also suggesting that the wily father might return. A writer who lives in Berkeley with his wife, oncologist (and jazz singer) Natalie Marshall, and their high-school age son, Weisberg and I sat down at Catahoula Coffee a few days after the premiere to talk about The Honeymooners, the Enlightenment, and the joys and frustrations of being a stay at home dad.
You cover a lot of intellectual ground in this play. Where did it start?
I used to teach English at Wesleyan, and I had an interdisciplinary course on the social contract, using philosophy, novels, sociology and other writings to look at what holds society together, what’s healthy and what’s damaging. We read everything from Virginia Wolfe to John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, to Freud’s Totem and Taboo. I’m fascinated by Freud. I think he’s one of the great and misunderstood intellectual giants of the 20th century. That book is so full of truth and wild speculation on the origins of society, morality and religion. He located it in this ritualistic killing of the primal father, claiming that the origins of all the things we love are grounded in murder, lust and incest. And that appealed to me (laughs).
In the play Ralph is a writer who’s determined to expose the fallacies of liberal democracy and the Enlightenment, and you’re a writer with some similar ideas. Ralph gave up an academic career, and you gave up an academic career. Ralph’s wife Alice is a doctor, and your wife Natalie is a doctor. You’ve been a stay at home father for your son, and so has Ralph. This play hits close to home, no?
The last play I wrote premiered in 1984 in New York. Totem and Taboo is a return to something I love. I see myself as a writer who occasionally writes plays. So coming back to writing plays with this incredibly difficult subject I had to find a familiar and personal way of approaching the material. Like many writers, I decided to make autobiographical. Yes, I’m a former professor. Yes, my wife is in medicine. And yes my son is a competitive weight-lifter, and we’ve had discussions about whether he wants to go to college. I took some of my own aspirations and disappointments and magnified them 1,000 fold and let my imagination run with it.
How do you get from Freud to ‘The Honeymooners’?
I watched a lot of television growing up, but I didn’t discover The Honeymooners until I was an adult. I was in grad school in New York and I’d get home to Brooklyn and this station ran episodes of The Honeymooners at 11 p.m. and it blew me away. My father was from Brooklyn, working-class, and Ralph Kramden reminded me of him in good ways and bad ways. Aesthetically it fascinated me. The Honeymooners had a lot in common with theater of the absurd, and it was happening in the same moment. They were like Beckett’s impoverished clowns, and Beckett loved vaudeville and Buster Keaton. So I thought about mass culture and high culture, The Honeymooners and the theater of the absurd and brought them together, as they should be.
Getting home after the play and doing a little googling I was delighted to discover that the Raccoon Lodge that features so prominently in the second act, supplying the titular totem, was actually drawn from the television show.
In the play I see Ralph’s unpublished book as another crazy scheme, just like one of Ralph Kramden’s crazy schemes. I actually drew directly on two episodes of The Honeymooners. In one of them Alice gets a dog, but she hides it from Ralph and she puts the dog food in the fridge. Ralph comes home and tastes it and thinks its delicious, and brings it to work thinking it’s something that Alice cooked that he can sell and make a lot of money. In another episode Ralph brags in front of his boss in the bus company locker room that he knows how to play golf, and Norton tries to teach him from a book.
Ralph’s book might be a crazy scheme, but he’s also on to something. You don’t seem to believe in liberalism’s promise of an ever brighter future.
I’ve almost lost friends over pushing arguments too far, pushing against liberal pieties about multiculturalism and diversity. But I’m not really interested in making politically engaged art. Too often it ends up self congratulatory and preaching to the choir. Ralph says he wants to risk offending people who you agree with. There’s room for every kind of theater and art, but we’re too set in our ways of thinking. I would much rather make disturbing questions than comfortable answers.
‘Totem and Tatoo’ runs through March 20 at the Berkeley City Club. Visit Central Works online for details and tickets.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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