Review: Douglas McGrath's Everything's Fine and All the Lonely Teachers
The book writer for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical takes the stage in his new play.
Douglas McGrath is the kind of person you want at a dinner party: Possessing an affable smile and a trove of amusing tales tucked under his pocket square, he knows how to elicit a chuckle without causing offense. In the first several minutes of his solo play, Everything's Fine (now at the DR2 Theatre) he warms-up the audience with stories about racing tumbleweeds as a child in West Texas, and the day his father's glass eye (ludicrously installed by an optometrist named "Dr. Gougelmann") popped out of his head and flew over his copy of U.S. News and World Report (he must have been reading the latest tuition numbers). These anecdotes are fine for cocktail hour, but I found myself wondering if they constitute a nourishing 90 minutes of theater.
I'm happy to report that the subject matter becomes much heartier (and spicier) about 15 minutes in, when McGrath begins to discuss his 8th grade history teacher, Mrs. Malenkov, whose arrival at the school causes a small sensation. Compared to the other teachers at the small and conservative Midland school, she stood out with her colorful classroom decorations and even louder red pantsuit.
The story begins in earnest when she invites Doug to stay behind after class, which he does, feeling gratified that any adult would take interest in his activities and opinions. The next day, she leaves a little blue note in his locker, inviting him to stop by after school anytime, which he does. Then she invites him to her house for hot chocolate. Sensing that the relationship is transgressing the teacher-student social contract, he decides to stop coming around as much — and that's when the notes change: "Where were you yesterday? I waited until 6:30," she writes. Later, she calls him at home, her voice quivering with emotion as his family eavesdrops from the dining room. We begin to suspect that the characters are inhabiting totally different plays: She's in Tea and Sympathy, while his story increasingly resembles Misery.
In this era of well-meaning teachers being smeared with the label groomer, it's important to stress that nothing sexually inappropriate happens in Everything's Fine (at least not as initiated by Mrs. Malenkov). She's less Sheba Hart from Notes on a Scandal than she is Barbara Covett. Still, the play leaves you with an ache of dread in the pit of your stomach. For me, it recalled the awkward feeling of wanting to maintain a casual friendship with someone who requires a much more taxing commitment. It's hard to escape that situation without hurting feelings, or without demolishing one's own notion of oneself as a nice person.
McGrath expertly threads this needle, drawing us into his conspiracy to let Mrs. Malenkov down easy. With the smallest of physical transformations, he slips in and out of supporting characters, like his friend Eddie, who arrives with his hands on his hips, a Texas drawl drier than the prairie in August. We're never not on his side, even when we recognize the harebrained scheme of a teenage boy. Most impressively, McGrath maintains his jovial demeanor even as his gentle comedy imperceptibly darkens to horror. It's a master class in good storytelling.
Director John Lithgow facilitates this balancing act through a light touch in staging and design: John Lee Beatty's classroom set, complete with metal chairs and cinderblock walls, places us in the appropriate environment for the story, while Linda Cho's costume clearly marks McGrath as a time-traveling intruder. A note of tension rises under McGrath's voice as he recounts how the blue notes began to arrive more frequently, and with more alarming content (subtle and effective sound design by Emma Wilk). At one point, he overturns the banker's box on the teacher's desk to create a deluge of blue onionskin. It's a small gesture that reveals the enormity of the problem.
In hindsight, McGrath has some sympathy for Mrs. Malenkov, a 47-year-old woman in a new town, desperate for cultured conversation and finding it only in a 14-year-old student. It's difficult to make friends as you grow older, and the morose parade of days lived in social isolation can be maddening — as many of us discovered in the previous two years. Everything's Fine shows how the deep need for human connection, when unmet, expresses itself in troubling ways.