“Beginners by Raymond Carver; Or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is a long title for a short drama. Based on Raymond Carver’s eponymous short story, the play was adapted by Phillip Howze and directed by András Visky, blending together elements of biography, theater and criticism. It’s both a play and a commentary on the machinery of editing.
Most of the piece is an adaptation of Carver’s short story about two couples who talk love over drinks. The conversation escalates when the older woman, Terri, talks about an old flame who nearly killed her for love. Arguments over the nature of love ensue. Carver’s short story is composed largely of dialogue, which explains its immediate appeal to a playwright. It’s easy material to convert, and it’s good material. His prose is shimmering, smooth, easy, and it captures the American idiom and rhythm of speech. It’s almost written like a screenplay — dialogue with brief pauses to describe gestures, lighting and movement. But a nearly word-for-word adaptation is a double-edged sword. You get the ease and fluidity of Carver’s dialogue, but a question arises: Does the adaptation do anything the short story doesn’t?
It does, of course, but its innovations only work some of the time. Spliced into the plot of the story are extended voiceovers, in which an unseen actor reads from correspondence Carver had with his editor, Gordon Lish. Carver defends the story as he wrote it, tells Lish he loves him, begs that nothing be changed and so on. Meanwhile text from the story is projected onto the back wall; little carrot-marks and cross-outs show the editing process at work. Unfortunately, the text swirling about can be difficult to see or process before more text replaces it. Nor is this move particularly original. It’s a rather literal demonstration of editing.
The direction does better when it explores editing through subtler means. For instance, characters occasionally step into the limelight, leaving the rest in the dark, embarking on monologues that Carver eventually cut from the final version of his story. We see blocks of crossed-out text behind the actors. Indeed, we see that Carver was right to excise these soliloquies, mostly poetic excurses on cattle and snow that have little to do with his minimalist and everyday style. The director sheds light on Carver’s maturation as a writer without breaking the rhythm of the play.
Elsewhere, the rhythm feels off. The adaptation tries too hard to shoehorn Carver’s smooth and understated prose into the standard forms of performance — monologue, banter and retort, rejoinder. Actors rush their delivery to swell a scene or raise their voices to show they’re agitated. The quiet, subdued rhythms of Carver’s prose are replaced with those of the capital-T Theater. The “human noise” made by Carver’s characters, ambiguous and rich, is forced to fit the confines of dramatic performance. The lines of dialogue in Carver’s story are so bare, so unmediated by narration. They could be caustic, gentle, tragic or humorous. Onstage every line has a too-specific intonation — sarcastic, or ironic, or effusive.
The play asks good questions, but does so imperfectly. The interruption of the plot with voiceovers, though jarring, raises interesting concerns about character. When the characters all freeze in the darkness and we hear Carver talking about them to his editor, we become acutely aware of the fraught power dynamics between a writer and his work. The excised monologues and material we’re shown on the screen reveal just how much Carver’s characters live and breathe in his consciousness. We see how almost maniacally possessive Carver is of his creation. We wonder whether he’s fully in control of his characters, or whether they’ve slipped out of his grasp. It’s painful to see entire pages of text pared down to a couple words, to see parts of characters pruned away, maimed by their author and his editor.
At the end of the play, the actors stare at a screen whose text describes their own movements. In moments like these, the play rises to the level of thought-provoking, textual self-consciousness. While this move isn’t new, it is interesting for its integration of biographical and historical context. But often this effort at incorporation is forced, or imperfectly executed. Despite the bold staging, the play’s directorial gambles don’t quite pay off.