Crude in every sense of the word

Nico Tortorella and W.Tré Davis. Photo by Jenny Anderson

Nico Tortorella and W. Tré Davis. Photo by Jenny Anderson

The epigraph to Jordan Jaffe’s new play, Crude, reads, “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be” — Ralph Waldo Emerson. This quotation is followed by a dictionary definition of the word “crude,” offering six citations, from “in a raw or unprepared state; unrefined or natural,” to “lacking in intellectual subtlety, perceptivity, etc; rudimentary” to “lacking culture, refinement, tact, etc” to “crude oil.” Crude tells a story of a crude oil spill in Texas, contains crude characters, but above all, is a crude piece of work.

As a theater acquaintance of Jaffe’s, I had the opportunity to attend the opening night of this production, and I feel compelled to share my honest reaction, because it was a strong one. I found this play so offensive that I wanted to jump out of my skin while watching it. I was incensed by its thoughtless validation of the power of the insensitive, self-centered white male. The characters in Crude unironically try to spin fictional Texas oil company KP’s massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico (get it?) into something palatable for American audiences through a televised ad campaign, so the company would lose neither money nor loyalty.

We were supposed to sympathize with these characters, responsible for hoodwinking Americans and willfully ruining the environment to save their business interests. Had this premise been explored with tact and intelligence, as in Spill by Leigh Fondakowski of Tectonic Theatre Project, I would be open to exploring the different motives and perspectives involved in this piece of American history. However, attending Crude, my major takeaway was a strong resolve to tattoo FUCK THE PATRIARCHY somewhere on a very tender part of my flesh.

Jaffe’s writing sounded like shallow sitcom dialogue, chock full of characters personifying the most despicably ingrained patterns of human relations: the douchebag ex-lacrosse player protagonist, his blonde, traditionally beautiful, environmentalist wife (who at least broke the hippie stereotype of environmentally concerned women, but then fell into that of women who lunch and have charitable causes), the black soothsayer best friend who has been reading the I Ching and believes in “positive vibes,” and the untrustworthy Hispanic drug dealer. If only proving your artistic relevance and environmental sensitivity were as easy as producing your own play, chock to the brim with offensive stereotypes, shallow depictions, and unoriginal storytelling.

Crude opens with the protagonist, Jaime, who is on the marketing team at his father’s oil company in Texas. He and his wife, Brittany, are one of those couples who sincerely and relentlessly call each other “babe” and “baby.” Whenever they get into an argument, or rather, whenever Brittany expresses an idea of her own, Jaime tries to silence her with sexual advances. Within the first five minutes of the play, Brittany asks Jaime, “Would you rather me tell you what you want to hear or what I actually think?” Even posed rhetorically, this question is painfully sincere.

Throughout, Brittany is depicted without interiority, as a disposable character gravitating around Jaime’s radiating solipsism. Her passion for the environment is supposed to be comical, dismissed as whiny and unrealistic. The same goes for Aaron, the black man relegated to the role of best friend, who encourages Jaime’s immature antics and fuels his indecision with drugs. Aaron’s longest monologue is a story about a foursome he had on Halloween, which is spun into a gay joke. The only other character is Manny, the “urban” Hispanic drug dealer who serves as a sounding board for the story’s embarrassing venture into morality, when Manny suggests that Jaime is a drug dealer too, only his drug is oil and all of America are his customers.

When Jaime loses his temper and demeans Brittany’s intelligence, she leaves, taking their infirm dog with her. Jaime can now rule the kingdom of his living room uninhibited by her feminine presence, and Brittany is conveniently absent for most of the play. Further demonstrating his immaturity, Jaime is more fixated on getting his dog back than his wife, even paying Manny to steal the dog from his mother-in-law’s house.

When I take a step back from seeing these stereotypes perpetuated, Crude was a boring play. It takes place in a living room (or “nice man cave,” according to the stage directions), the storytelling is excruciatingly linear, and there is no dramatic arc or personal growth to speak of — at the end, Jaime is still the same immature, self-centered asshole he was when we first met him, although thankfully his wife leaves him to sulk in his own pitiful, passive conformity. Her grand exit comes on the line, “KP has poisoned your soul, Jaime. You are toxic. TOXIC.” Although Brittany had already stormed out and returned twice, I can only hope that this time she is finding some agency and Nora Helmer-ing herself out of there.

The most poetic moment of the show was when the Post-It notes that Jaime and Aaron were using to record their drug-infused brainstorming for the spin video on the oil spill started fluttering off the living room wall. This was an unintentional effect, a consequence of gravity and weak glue, and felt entirely symbolic of the Band-Aid solutions Jaime and Aaron were devising for this enormous catastrophe.

Attending Crude, I felt complicit in the perpetuation of this type of narrative. We were all participating in the myth that men should be the ones in control of our industry, making selfish, profiteering decisions, and bullheadedly dictating solutions to conflicts. To wit, man-child Jaime, drugged out of his mind, had such insightful problem-solving epiphanies as, “Fish! Holy SHIT. Those fishes are FUCKED.”

But that was the extent of his environmental compassion — when he had the opportunity to change how the spill was being cleaned up to avoid further environmental damage, he ducked any responsibility, and instead turned his anger and impotence on his wife, saying, “Just stop it, this whole eco-crusader phase, and that’s what it is, a phase. Starting tomorrow you’re only going to have one job and that’s being MY loving, supportive fucking beautiful wife, so please for the love, I mean black blood, do you hear yourself?/ then we’re going to go to bed, then we’re going to wake up tomorrow, and well go to the therapist and both get some Zoloft or something.”

Jaime’s last line of the play, before lighting a pile of Brittany’s clothing on fire with — you guessed it, oil! — is “Yeah bro, I need to burn off some steam. Is Tiffany working tonight? I love her tits. Awesome. I’m going to put my blamin’ jeans on. Positive vibes, right. Positive vibes.” Perhaps more disappointing than lines like “I love her tits” was the fact that the audience actually laughed at lines like that.

Granted, it was an opening, so the energy was high and the crowd was particularly supportive, but I was appalled by what a back-patting boys’ club atmosphere dominated the room, both during the performance and at the celebration afterwards. I heard an older woman behind me whisper, “Oh my god” in horror and disapproval when Jaime and Aaron were sticking molly up their butts, scandalized by this type of behavior. But I didn’t hear anyone commenting on lines like, “God I wish I were at Treasures right now, with titties in our faces. Or Kryptonite. Grinding on them college bitches.”

Not only was Crude offensive for all the reasons I have described (and believe me, I could go on), but as a theater maker myself, I was also offended that this play was taking up space in the contemporary landscape of American theater. To use a Lark question, why does this story need to be told in 2016? What is it contributing to our understanding of the world? How is it elevating and enriching our understanding of ourselves? And how are we still producing these narratives glorifying ignorance and insensitivity?

Creating theater, particularly contemporary realism, which purports to hold a mirror up to our society, is an inherently political act. This play was a disgrace to that political process in its unexamined characterizations. Returning to the Emerson quotation that opened the script, what did this play decide to be? It certainly had the tools of self-determination, but made disappointing choices, especially given its place of privilege. I am proud of American theater when it gives voice to unheard stories, or shines a new light on old ones. Crude obviously was a well financed production, but thankfully, you can’t buy your place at this table. I can at least say that the play was aptly named.


Crude runs through May 21 at Theater 511 at Ars Nova.

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