BWW Review: It's Norman Mailer Vs. Feminism in Wooster Group's THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR
It would be nice to be able take in The Wooster Group's intriguing docu-theatre piece, THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR, as a look at the grotesquely blatant brand sexism of nearly 50 years ago that we have since outgrown. Sadly, this glimpse at a carnival-like event disguised as a serious debate on the subject of, as it was known at the time, women's lib, is likely to remind audience members of current headlines.
The set-up is that in 1971 New Journalism hotshot Norman Mailer's essay, "The Prisoner of Sex," was published as a full issue of Harper's Magazine. Considered as a reaction to Kate Millett's criticism of his work in her feminist exploration of culture and literature, "Sexual Politics," Mailer's piece offered his own take on how leading feminist writers were devaluing male/female relations.
The feud on paper inspired the idea for a live debate at New York's Town Hall. Mailer agreed to participate, but Millett declined. Gloria Steinem also declined, but Australian Germaine Greer, author of "The Female Eunuch" who had recently been declared on the cover of Life Magazine as the "saucy feminist that even men like," accepted.
Also on hand were, as Mailer would refer to them, "lady writers" Jill Johnston and Diana Trilling, as well as Jacqueline Ceballos from the New York branch of the National Organization for Women. Susan Sontag and Betty Friedan were among those in the audience.
The event was filmed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker for their 1979 documentary "Town Bloody Hall," which provides most of the text for director Elizabeth LeCompte's freestyle riff. Clips of the documentary play on a screen as the actors mimic the actual events.
Kate Valk gives a very funny performance as the rebelliously spaced out Johnston, who speaks on how every woman is a lesbian and, perhaps as an example, starts making out with two random women in the audience. Excerpts from her "Lesbian Nation" bookend the piece to offer context.
Maura Tierney sports a Sunny accent and an amused demeanor as Greer, undercutting the salacious and condescending tones of not one, but two Mailers. (Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd divide the role.) It may not have been the best decision to have Trilling played by a man, but Greg Mehrten's portrayal is respectfully droll. Ceballos seems to have been left on the cutting room floor.
Fliakos and Shepherd also recreate an infamous moment from Mailer's short-lived filmmaking career. During the shooting of "Maidstorm," which Mailer wrote, Directed and starred in, he and Rip Torn broke into a donnybrook when the latter conked his boss on the head with a hammer.
Like much of THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR, which only takes up a bit more than an hour from start to finish, the moment is attention grabbing without its intentions being clear. But then, those seeking clarity can watch the full length film. The Wooster Group's appealing production is better suited for those who, like Jill Johnston, prefer to space out a bit and maybe make out with a random stranger or two.