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PERIODICALLY my parents call, they inquire of the weather and ask if I've yet found a job to offbalance the upcoming graduation, and then my mother asks, with feigned nonchalance: "And how's your social life been lately?"
A turn of phrase I find impossible to deal with.
For how to explain that in absence of That Special Someone (whose acquaintance my parents seem to seek more earnestly than I) life here at Harvard has been a series of endless movies, impromptu parties, hyped conviviality and 98 proof highs? Not that I mean to complain. For the most, it's been fun--the conversation sometimes brittle, sometimes stoned, full of the gossip of relentlessly recycled relationships as Patti's seen first with Dan then with Bob before returning with mathematical certitude to take up with Dan once again, as the earth lurches away from the sun and, consciously or not, we pretend to be the vile young bodies of Evelyn Waugh or Fitzgerald's golden flappers. So I can hardly be expected to complain.
Except there are moments when the spirit palls and the resolute good humor stretches thin. Drunk once more, you stumble home alone to wrest yourself to sleep in an unmade, comfortless bed. And the party's almost over and whadaya got to show? The one-liners have long since faded. And after one or two bravura letters, the friendships fade as well. So what then's left to do short of shuffling through Senior Yearbook for the next 2000 years? Let's face it. College is pretty much a shuck. A holding action with a seductive glow that hasn't even the half-life of a burning match.
Which explains why Michael Weller's Moonchildren--planning tonight and tomorrow at Brandeis University--is a witty, shattering, melancholy olay.
Weller--a graduated from Brandeis in '65--has put together a memoir of the middle nineteen-sixties, those years of "Good Day Sunshine" when a peace march could still be a lark and graduate school a respectable alternative. His characters live precariously on the brink of graduation: Bob, a music student who contemplates submitting to the draft as the simplest way to end it all. Kathy, who's convinced that by telling Bob he gave her her first orgasm she's given him the confidence to go on to a brilliant career. Norman, a graduate student in mathematics who, with inordinate sense of purpose, sets himself aflame when he turns against the war. Shelly, the prototypical early-hippie who sprinkles her conversation with "far-outs" the way other people use casual obscenities. Dick, underneath the smooth exterior a creep held over from the fifties who's reported to be making it with his tutor's wife. Most importantly, Mike and Cootie, two blithe spirits, masters of the put-on, who pretend to hold-the show together through the incantatory appeal of their preposterous school-boy jive.
MOONCHILDREN is itself an elegiac treatment of the charms--as well as the costs--of the fabled put-on (a form first given definition by Jacob Brackman in the pages of The New Yorker not so many years ago). If you ever went crazy for the Marx Brothers, memorized Soupy Sales routines, religiously watched I Love Lucy and Rocky and his Friends, fell in love with Holly Golightly, you have an instinctive feel for the form. But Weller's not only concerned with the surface jests. They're there to be enjoyed ("Hey, you decided what ya gonna do when you get out of college?" "I'm gonna be a homosexual."), but Weller's more concerned with exposing the evasions of commitment on which the put-on breeds. His characters can play straight-man for each other, but they cannot communicate any deep or pressing need. The superficial wit offers only the flimsiest of bridges over deeply troubled waters. One Boston critic complained that Moonchildren does injustice to the seriousness of the peace movement and other student causes by making too many jokes at their expense--but that is just the point. The more serious an issue the more fiercely these kids try to exorcise it with the uneasy magic of their skittish laughter.
Moonchildren is not a faultless play. In structure, it is almost too arbitrary and low-key. But Weller possesses an uncanny ear--just as Catcher in the Rye has become the high schooler's bible of enforced adolescence, Moonchildren could easily become the standard account of our generation's own delayed adulthood. Brandeis is to be commended for mounting a production so promptly, so expertly. (Moonchildren originated at Washington's Arena Stage last fall and then died in February after two weeks on Broadway.) A few members of Peter Sander's cast are a bit too old to make convincing college students and, on opening night, a few scenes didn't play as tightly as they might. But there is also a grimly accurate set by Charles Flaks and colorfully detailed performances, headed by Sam Weisman as Bob and David S. Howard as Mr. Willis, one of a parade of adults who drop by to share vicariously in the kid's illusory freedom. Business-as-usual or no-business-as-usual, you'd do well to catch the production before it's gone (and, at very least, should take a look at the Delta paperback edition). Michael Weller is among the first to make sense of our lives and he's definitely not to be missed.
And, oh yeah, as for you Mom, in regards to that social life, you see, I just went to bed with this great girl I want you to meet.
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