The Other Side of Niceness: Lasso, Chalk Circle, Mockingbird

First things first, know that you can count me among the people disappointed with season two of Ted Lasso. There’s an old adage that comedy is fast and there was very little fast about this season. That too many jokes were full of air would not be so troublesome if the show had maximized its best feature, namely a willingness to look past the earnestness so many of its characters strive for. The episodes that did go in an entirely different direction, like Coach Beard’s bizarro, post-FA Cup semi-final odyssey, stick out a lot in that landscape, and for all their incongruity, I found myself wanting more of that surreal, form-breaking fun. Ultimately, it seemed like the show, which still had many good moments, was suffering from some growing pains, unsure how to balance its rom-com send-ups with its darker strains of melancomedy. Finding that balance could have done a lot for the theme the show did explore very well: the other side of niceness.

A lot has already been made about the Great Nate Debate, the discourse surrounding kitman-turned-assistant-coach Nate’s transformation from timid nice guy to self-absorbed prick. I won’t spend too much time on the debate here except to say that I found many of the moves heavy-handed (the hair, really?) and sometimes confusing, to the point that, despite all the ways Nate’s darker nature was exposed over the course of the season, his sudden outburst at Ted seemed to come out of the blue. I will say, though, that Nate’s arc is one example of how the show excavates what sometimes hides behind pleasant exteriors. The lesson of Nate’s story is that “niceness” does not always equate to goodness—that even those who seem harmless can harbor selfishness to the point of narcissism. This is not to discount the many ways Nate is belittled throughout the show, but rather to say that sometimes what the “nice guys” lack that the assholes don’t is the balls to do exactly what they want.

In addition to charting a seemingly new course for Nate, the show also lets some of the characters’ pleasant facades slip. We see, for example, that Ted’s relentless positivity is not impermeable; in fact, it is covering up a very serious problem with trauma that produces, among other things, an aversion to conflict. That he begins to untangle that with Dr. Sharon is appropriate, not just in that it shows her own “professional kindness” in the form of therapy is valuable, but in that Ted is able to help her, too. We discover, in Sharon’s private moments, that for all her grasp of human nature, she is lonely and therefore vulnerable to things going wrong. Here we have two people with an aptitude for making people feel good but who have not translated that same energy into personal fulfillment. Indeed, it suggests that sometimes niceness can be a barrier as much as a doorway. While some characters were enriched by arcs that revealed their fragility, other revelations were somewhat less surprising. My bullshit detector immediately started beeping when Edwin Akufo (all-star VEEP alum Sam Richardson), the billionaire Ghanaian heir apparently intent on dismantling his father’s empire, first arrived in his helicopter and started to woo sweet-natured Sam Obisanye with extravagant purchases and promises. (Never trust a billionaire who buys ambience and uses conspicuous consumption in service of an apparently decolonial project.) That he turned out to be vindictive and crude when denied what he wants puts him in a similar category to the slippery Rupert, another billionaire with charm to spare. Interestingly, Rupert, as we discover, is actually repelled by niceness; as Rebecca’s mother points out, putting on a smile proves that he cannot get under Rebecca’s skin. For him and Akufo, good manners are about mobilizing their power in the most effective and least obvious way; once they do not have the power, niceness no longer serves them.

(Speaking of billionaires and power, it’s here that I should return to my first writing on Ted Lasso and its role in the Americanization of the Beautiful Game. If season two got one thing very right about elite soccer, it is that money calls the shots, to the point of making the game a ball pit for billionaire playboys. If we can accept that there are sometimes darker—or at the very least, cynical and commercial—interests lurking behind hyper-lucrative organizations like the Premier League, we might have to accept that Ted Lasso is being positioned for the same purpose. The fact that the Premier League is going to allow the show to use official materials and highlight packages suggests they know a good marketing opportunity when they see it.)

While Ted Lasso revealed what lies beyond niceness, other texts, such as Bertolt Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle (stay with me here), reveal the differences articulated between niceness and kindness. As my class and I studied Brecht’s text recently, I found myself thinking back on what professor and devised theatre expert Rich Brown once explained to me and others during a workshop session: that niceness is complimenting a friend’s terrible new haircut to keep up appearances and kindness is telling them the truth because you really care. In short, kindness prioritizes a person’s needs, even to the point of superseding manners and other mores of polite society. Kindness also comes with a certain cost, as Grusha, Brecht’s heroine, discovers when she rescues a noble child named Michael from the flames of a political insurrection. As Grusha flees through the Caucasian mountains to protect herself and the baby, she is constantly reminded, in typical Brechtian fashion, of the real, material costs of keeping this child as her own. It brings her under such scrutiny that she is forced to go into hiding, first as a noblewoman to get a room for the night, then from a lascivious corporal, then in the bonds of a loveless marriage. Eventually, once Michael’s rich, selfish mother comes calling for her son in order to secure her rights afforded to his heirship, Grusha is forced to defend her right to be Michael’s mother based on the care she has shown him. The women present their case to Azdak, a roguish judge who has spent the past few scenes robbing the rich to feed the poor. As in the biblical story of Solomon, Azdak devises a test: the child will be placed in the center of a chalk circle and the women will each pull on one end to see who is strong enough to extract him and claim him as her own. Kindhearted Grusha is unable to bear the thought of harming Michael and refuses to quickly relents. Azdak sees this and awards her custody, recognizing that her love forbids her from tearing at her son.

The conclusion of The Caucasian Chalk Circle alone speaks to the notion of kindness as something deeper than respectability and social conditioning. Michael’s birthmother is perfectly respectable, but it is Grusha who has demonstrated an investment in the child’s wellbeing. Even apart from the stark contrast between these two figures, Brecht’s play constantly points to the risks Grusha incurs to do what is right. From the other workers of the palace warning her to leave the baby in the first place to the sham marriage that puts her true love at risk, the real stakes of Grusha’s decision are never out of sight. This is important to recognize in Brecht’s work, which, in the Marxist tradition he practiced, always investigates the socioeconomic position the characters occupy. It does so partly by subject matter but also through Brecht’s staging and dramaturgy, which alienate the audience (verfremdungseffekt!) from the action in such a way as to invite critical engagement resulting in ethical judgments and real-world action. Understanding Grusha’s attachment to Michael, then, is not about embracing sentiment but about identifying the material wager Grusha makes by claiming Michael as her own, even if protecting him is the right thing to do. This is partly why productions such as the 2013 one by Classic Stage Company in New York use a very obvious baby doll in all its plastic glory to represent Michael: to disrupt the theatrical illusion and remind the audience that he is a costly object. Ideally, the move does not dehumanize Michael but instead humanizes Grusha by showing her willingness to break all the rules of proper society in order to protect this precious item.

If the second season of Ted Lasso is about showing what lies behind nice faces and The Caucasian Chalk Circle examines the cost of doing good, then Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (again, stay with me) shows the other side of people who take their goodness for granted. Based on Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel, Sorkin’s Mockingbird, which I recently watched in the Shubert Theatre nosebleeds with my girlfriend, is written with a clear mission: to, as Sorkin says, converse with Lee’s novel and reshape it into something that responds to the moment. A lot of this is accomplished by expanding the role of Calpurnia, the Finch family’s Black domestic laborer, and playing up the degree to which Tom Robinson, the Black victim of racial injustice, is condemned by the tears of Mayella Ewell, the White woman Tom is falsely alleged to have raped. Calpurnia openly challenges Atticus Finch, the noble lawyer, when he tolerates his racist neighbors and accuses him of being sanctimonious after taking on Tom’s case. Mayella, meanwhile, is wound up to the point of hysterical rage at Tom, despite the fact that her father, as in the story, is undoubtedly her abuser. Calpurnia gives voice to Black pain by challenging Atticus’s assumptions and lamenting the death of Tom, who is shot seventeen times while trying to escape; Mayella encapsulates the privileges of whiteness, which allows her to construe her own pain into a rationale for condemning somebody else. Altogether, Sorkin’s efforts to bring To Kill a Mockingbird into today are obvious and, for the most part, successful in so far as they can bring this piece into the present. It may seem especially relevant in the ongoing racial reckonings that accelerated in 2020, but I would not characterize it as the play that best meets the moment. Still, by framing the action as a memory, as Sorkin does by casting the youths Scout, Jem, and Dill as character-narrators, the play does show how the past can bleed into the present. Though the conceit is manifested somewhat inconsistently, the effect is, at its best, moving and often thought provoking.

Where Sorkin’s play makes its most provocative changes is in the characterization of the iconic Atticus. The mere mention of the name calls to mind Gregory Peck’s almost saintly turn in the 1964 film, which crystalized him as the paragon of White liberal heroism. Although Jeff Daniels, returning to the role for the initial post-lockdown Broadway run, may not have quite the same gravitas as Peck, he does skillfully balance Atticus’s quiet decency, quick wit, and rhetorical grace. What Sorkin’s version of the role also demands is a certain shortsightedness that fuels a cantankerous temper. In Sorkin’s hands, Atticus’s commitment to basic human decency is complicated by the degree to which he lets racism slide out of deference to his neighbors. Throughout the play, Calpurnia and the children pick at Atticus’s stubborn refusal to call the racists out for who they are, taking it to the point that his belief in decency and non-confrontation is making him blind to the truth. As we come to learn, however, this version of Atticus is not afraid to get his hands dirty if necessary, as he proves when disarming the angry Mr. Ewell during a confrontation and verbally belittling him with surgical precision. It is a shockingly, if somewhat satisfyingly, violent moment for someone who has otherwise maintained nothing but restraint. Ultimately, even though Atticus defends Tom with skill and vigor, the nature of his commitment to resisting the full extent of racism’s power is left unclear. What is clear is that this Atticus’s above-it-all approach is not without his flaws, while the man himself is not without a certain edge. In my view, this demystifies Atticus Finch without harming the character’s legacy. If anything, it shows that complex people can perform heroic, if ill-fated work, even if they are not the saints we want them to be.

While it may seem odd to hold these three pieces together, I think all are instructive in the way they contrast the veneer of niceness with a deeper truth, whether that be the real selves lurking behind happy faces, the heavy costs of doing right, or the fact that sometimes being nice just covers up too many sins. As someone who has always gotten by on being nice, it is genuinely convicting to sit with work that asks something more of its characters. To do that in a way that invites audiences to reflect requires a willingness to peel away layers while ratcheting up the stakes. Ted Lasso excels at peeling layers and may, eventually, clarify the stakes. The Caucasian Chalk Circle and To Kill a Mockingbird, meanwhile, have stakes to burn. For them, the difference between niceness and kindness can mean the difference between life and death. As I see it, we have to be ready to make similar choices in real life, too.

Four Years On: An Ubu Retrospective

The cast and co-creators (and real heroes) of Ubu Roy: An American Tale. From left: Alec Gallardo, Allison Tindall, Tyler York, Sara Skar, Charlie Schwieterman, and Janie Curl.

Four years ago today, I closed the show that altered the fate of a nation. At least, that’s what I like to apologize for from time to time.

The show in question was Ubu Roy: An American Tale, an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s proto-absurdist play about an egotistical maniac who overthrows the Polish government, only to lose his throne in a grotesque spectacle of ineptitude. In the version I created with the help of my cast – Tyler York, Sara Skar, Charlie Schwieterman, Allison Tindall, Alec Gallardo, and Janie Curl – Jarry’s Pere Ubu became Ubu Roy, who murders the Governator of Ticks-Ass and goes toe-to-toe with his widow, Harriet McClintock, for the Presi-dency, all while everyone from a lusty handyman to a gonzo version of Bernie Sanders threaten to play spoiler. Needless to say, it was not subtle. It was, however, one of many Ubu adaptations aimed squarely at the rise of Donald Trump, seemingly Pere Ubu in the flesh. To my knowledge, it is the only one commissioned by and staged at a community theatre in the conservative stronghold of West Texas, with the first and second weekends running either side of the election. It is also probably the only one to change endings following that fateful night, thanks to a promise made by its pretentious writer-director – on local television no less – that if Trump did win, the show would reflect that. At the time, it didn’t seem like much a risk: Clinton’s victory, which aligned perfectly with the original ending, in which Harriet McClintock defeats of Ubu Roy in a battle set to the theme from Mortal Kombat, was virtually assured. Now you see what I apologize for: flagrantly tempting fate.

I exaggerate the show’s influence, of course: barely a soul showed up to see Ubu Roy, seeing as how it ran at 9pm at the Community Theatre in Lubbock, Texas and everyone was already fed up with the election. It was always destined to be a blip on the radar. Still, like any show I pour my heart and soul into, it was The Most Important Show in the World. I would like to think my cast and co-creators felt the same way, because they certainly performed like it, even on the nights when they outnumbered the audience. And don’t get me wrong, it was fun. It’s hard not to have fun when there’s an overriding sense that you’re doing something deliciously naughty, in this case flipping the bird to the whole rotten, overblown system, and deep in the red heart of Texas, no less. Sure, we gave our Clinton stand-in the side-eye, too, but the target was always Trump. The mere idea of his ascension was too much, too ridiculous, too dangerous, too too. It was begging to be made fun of. And then, after Election Day, it wasn’t all that funny anymore. The new ending, in which the Ubus win the battle and the cast members remove their wigs while staring plaintively into an uncertain future, made that point crystal clear.

For all its bittersweetness, I have special memories of Ubu Roy and the people who made it with me. I still hold a grudge against nobody in particular that it never got the audience it deserved, and I still cringe at the nights I spent lying down between the back two rows praying for laughs to come roaring out of our teeny tiny audiences. Thankfully, and somewhat appropriately, the play has enjoyed a peculiar longevity among a small number of fans. Just last week, an old friend interviewed me in preparation for a research project she’s doing on Ubu and its many adaptations. Periodically, total strangers will interest in the play – even an actor and instructor in New Zealand tried to stage it at one point. The cast and I have often joked about a follow-up, including a Christmas special variously called Ubu 2: The War on Christmas or Ubu Saves Christmas, something like that. Just to have these conversations is an honor, really, but I always find myself hesitant to revisit the piece because it is so 2016. Seriously, we went out of our way to reflect everything we could in Jarry’s funhouse mirror. Even Ken Bone makes an appearance. By the time we assembled the first half for a festival performance in February 2017, the references were already achingly dated.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to look back now, four years and one (contested) election down, and wonder: what if it made a comeback? It’s a fun fantasy to indulge, but the problem is when I do look back, I see Ubu Roy as very much a history play, not just in that it presents a superficial snapshot of the times but in that it represents an outlook consigned to an uneasy past. It was always one of many Ubus in Trumpland, but now the whole concept almost seems too meager. The real Trump Administration, like Ubu’s Poland, really has been a kind of carnivorous circus, rolling through the unseemly, the absurd, and the appalling while devouring its own. The gap between that reality and Jarry’s brand of cynical tomfoolery has shrunk so much and the Trump Administration itself has become so repetitive that the notion of him calling foul and refusing after losing the popular vote by over 5 million is entirely predictable, almost shrug-worthy – and that is awful. What is even more insidious about this Administration is that it has not only normalized its own madness, it has made the old-fashioned politics it supplanted seem even more insidious, at least to the Trump adherents and their Republican enablers. For Trump and his ilk, the margin of his loss, the inadequacy of the his pandemic response, and the global resistance he has faced is evidence of nothing less than a multinational scheme to keep them down. It’s an astounding feat of cognitive dissonance, and yet it somehow has traction to the tune of over 72 million votes. That is the true success, if you can call it that, of the Trump Administration: that even in the midst of its own mess, it can still make itself a compelling alternative to the old status quo.

So, when I think back on Ubu Roy: An American Tale today and the prospect of revisiting it, I have to ask myself: how do you compete with this reality? What could a new production, even as a historical piece with the most modest of aims, expect to bring to the table? My fear is that it would inspire nothing more than fatigued exasperation. “Seriously?” I can hear someone muttering at Tyler in his oh-so-obvious Trump wig, while others sigh at Allison’s shadow-cast of the First Female President Who Never Was or scratch their heads and really wonder if we’re making a Ken Bone joke. There would probably be very little joy, even of the cynical and ironic variety, just a long slog through old jokes that portended a sad reality.

No, I think Ubu Roy: An American Tale as such has probably had its brief, provincial moment. Another version might come along someday as a sort of retrospective, less caught up in the duel of the election and more reminiscent of the President’s long wallow in narcissistic self-pity. After all, we always built the play to be agile, able to take on new material as necessary. Even then, maybe it’s best to wait, at least until the election results are well and truly settled this time. You know what? Maybe we just don’t hurry Ubu-as-Trump back to the stage anytime soon. As my research during the lead-up and follow-up showed, Pere Ubu has a habit of appearing in new guises all the time, almost always as an avatar of abuse and excess. The classics have a way of doing that: providing a deep well for inspiration while reshaping themselves to fit the vessel. Returning to that well with new productions, new translations, new adaptations keeps us in tune with the long history before us and sweetens our responsibility to wrestle with the present. The specifics will sort themselves out in the process. All we know is that Ubu will probably begin the play as he always has, exclaiming the same exclamation that has greeted every new low these past four years: “Shit!”

Editor’s Note: The author says all this but would change his mind tomorrow if the money was good. Also, kudos go to funder Herb Armstrong, techies Lo Gauna and Jessica Johnston-York, and the leadership of Lubbock Community Theatre for their support, endless patience, and generous laughter.