When Our Structures Fail Us: Tiny Little Band’s “Your Hair Looked Great” at Abrons Arts Center

Photo by Marcus Middleton

The perimeter of the theater is lined in the temporary grey curtains of a convention hall. An actor wears a microphone taped to his face. He uses his real name. He speaks to the audience about how to achieve success—gently, confidently, sincerely—consulting a PowerPoint presentation as he does so. The event has all the trappings of a motivational speech. And yet, of course, it is a piece of theatre.

Tiny Little Band’s latest show, “Your Hair Looked Great” (at Abrons Arts Center until February 25th), is a remarkable play, in part because it contains very little dialogue. While characters in later scenes do speak with each other, their conversations are often distracted or disingenuous; one gets the feeling that they are talking past one another, unable to truly listen. The moments of rewarding connection emerge, by contrast, in those instances when the characters are speaking directly to the audience. These moments are so easefully done—with performers who are so thoroughly genuine in their deliveries—that it becomes tempting, as an audience member, to take the content of their speeches to heart. One finds oneself unintentionally nodding one’s head, agreeing not only with the characters’ simplistic definitions of success but also with the very presumption motivating their lectures: that anyone sitting in the audience (including unsuspecting theatregoer you) must be a giant failure.       

The cognitive dissonance of the experience is its own reward. One knows, of course, that it is a piece of theatre, and yet, it is difficult not to do as the play asks and fixate on personal shortcomings. The true dialogue of the play thus reveals itself as the conversation one has with one’s audience self—that is, how one negotiates the conflicting impulses to disappear into a self-critical headspace but also maintain critical distance from the play as a play. Ultimately, this is the subtle magic of “Your Hair Looked Great.” It ever so gently leads its audience members into a truly uncomfortable decision: Distrust one’s own life choices or distrust the charming and apparently successful actors on the stage.

Early on, the skillful playwright Jerry Lieblich offers hints that distrust of these characters might indeed be warranted. The first projected image of the play is Jacques-Louis David’s painting, “The Coronation of Napoleon,” which depicts Napoleon’s refusal to be coronated by Pope Pius VII. Believing himself to be his own authority—and bestowing upon himself the power to rewrite the law—Napoleon instead performed his own coronation. Especially given the recent bone-chilling remarks by Trump advisor Stephen Miller that “the powers of the president…will not be questioned,” this image of Napoleon is an unsettling one to say the least. And yet, in his lecture to the audience, the character Merlin Whitehawk is in no way critical of the painting’s message. Instead, he invokes it as a positive example of how each one of us can—and should!—claim power that rightfully belongs to us. From these opening moments, the audience is encouraged to distrust Whitehawk’s logic. His connection with the audience comes off as so entirely heartfelt, however—and he goes on to present such a compelling and easily realizable formula for success—that any unsettled feelings are quickly smoothed away.  

The next time a character takes the spotlight for a lecture, she is equally compelling, winning the audience’s affection with stories of a lifelong recklessness that she has finally, at the age of 65, learned to reform her way out of. She uses her stage time as an opportunity to endorse Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” a narrative structure that this speaker—an advertising executive portrayed by the delightfully nuanced Ryann Weir—has discovered as a useful tool for constructive self-change. Although she seems to understand the Hero’s Journey well enough (just as Whitehawk correctly understood David’s painting), she is noticeably poor at applying the structure to her own life. Telling a story of going to Macy’s and desiring an expensive bathing suit there, then buying the suit and returning home with it, this character is impressed with how thoroughly her own shopping saga maps onto the cyclical leave-change-return format of the Hero’s Journey. If one approaches the character generously, one empathizes with her desire to amplify the minutiae of her life into the stuff of an epic; at base, however, she is really just misreading and misapplying Campbell’s narrative structure. This is another indication that audience members should perhaps think twice before taking too seriously any of these characters’ advice.

It is through these quiet invitations to distrust its characters that “Your Hair Looked Great” achieves a generative uncertainty. Each character makes a sincere attempt at persuading the audience of their particular formulas for success, and indeed, each is loveable enough to render those formulas alluring. And amplifying this (it’s worth noting) is the eminent likeability of the show itself. Well-directed and precise—with designs that are sparse and sleek—all aspects of the production signal a faith in the simplicity of formula. Yet underpinning the entire experience is a nagging suspicion that these formulas are not actually to be relied upon—that they have not solved the characters’ shortcomings but only temporarily veiled them.

The real gift of this show, then, is that while all of its other elements depend upon formula, its structure does the opposite—resisting formula altogether. Watching the show, I waited to see which narrative format—that is, which character’s advice—the show would ultimately side with. Yet as I observed the play shapeshifting from one scene into another—becoming, in the first moment, a TV commercial for Doritos and, in the next, a re-enactment of Greek myth—I realized that the play itself was evading any recognizable structure. It neither split itself into easy dualisms of good and bad, nor did it attempt to circle back upon itself à la the Hero’s Journey. If anything, it merely acknowledged itself as a knot—with each new piece of information complicating the picture: Pull at one thread, and the others become that much more tightly adhered.

The impressive ache of this show, then, is its structural admission that there might not be any failsafe pathway toward success—or, indeed, that success might not be achievable in the first place. If one is able to refuse the self-critical spiral that the play invites (upon initial reading), then it becomes upsettingly evident that the play’s lecturers have been offering their opinions absent of any social context. Theirs is advice that only makes sense in the vacuum of a convention hall; it is advice that sounds good precisely because it is delivered as monologue rather than dialogue—because the audience never gets the opportunity to talk back. And in truth, there is a danger to this advice, for at its essence, it is just another manifestation of the bootstraps myth (ever popular in these United States): Don’t worry about the inequities you’ve inherited based on race, class, gender, or immigration status; simply work hard, and success is sure to be yours. This is advice that cannot survive the realities of structural injustice, and even within the world of this play, it is advice that does not survive the complexities of actual conversation.

If the characters offer their advice absent of context, however, the play eventually provides important context for reconsidering the characters themselves. Following Whitehawk’s speech, for instance, the audience learns that he has gone home to re-evaluate his entire existence—recognizing for the first time that he hates the apartment he lives in and that he doesn’t even like the IPA that he has bought for himself to drink (spoiler alert: he drinks it anyway). Similarly, the advertising executive confesses to the audience that she’s never worn the bathing suit she was once so proud of having acquired. In her next line, she adds a surprisingly truthful detail: Her children won’t return her calls.

It is initially satisfying to learn that these characters, so sure in their spotlights, are also prey to the distrust they have caused us to acknowledge in ourselves. With time, however, the realization creeps in that the characters’ shortcomings are borne of their very preoccupations with self-betterment. It is their aspirations for greatness that distract them—not only from being able to attend to one another but also from acknowledging the crises, however large or small, that undergird their lives. Because they believe so fully in the success formulas that they have inherited, they cannot read these crises as anything more than narrative aberrations.

In one of the later scenes of the play, all of the characters sit together in an office break room, commiserating about how terrible their weeks have been. In a monologue masterfully delivered by Emma Meltzer, one character complains about failing to successfully reorganize her closet—a project that has resulted in dress shirts that no longer have a place to be and that, consequently, have just been left sitting out on her bed. These shirts have been such a source of anxiety for Meltzer’s character that she has not yet returned home to confront them. In fact, she hasn’t been home in weeks. This is the sort of heartbreaking detail that hints at a fracturing psyche. And yet, the character dismisses it as just another sign of an especially bad week—one that will surely pass.

By zooming in and out in this way—between the characters’ grandiose aspirations of “saving the world” and the personal crises that seep into the cracks of their quieter moments—the play hints that there is danger in allowing our ambitions to distract us from what is actually present. If we are constantly seeking out formulas for self-improvement, then it is very likely that we are ignoring matters that are far more immediate: our environments and our communities and even our own persistent uncertainties. In the end, then, if failure is a theme in this show, it is not a theme of personal failure but of the failure of our structures to protect us. Indeed, to use this play as just another excuse to indulge in the self-analysis trap is to miss its deeper urgings: When we wait for our stories to inhabit the structures that we’ve scripted for them—that is, when we ignore all of the nagging details that do not fit the formula—then we are poised to hasten our own destruction.

And so, here we are in 2017: in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with Napoleon trying to coronate himself before our very eyes. It is tempting to believe that all stories still get to end happily—that things will definitely get better “next week”—but at this point, it’s probably wisest to abandon narrative predictions altogether. Let’s allow our structures to fracture, shall we? Then, perhaps, we can see the crises for what they really are.

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