Bitter Wheat: A Reappraisal
by Ariel de la Garza Davidoff
That New York Times reviewer is an idiot. He went to the theatre with his mind already made up. After all David Mamet has had a recent turn to the right and, well, America is in a very politicized place — and he didn’t get a joke about Barry Fein, the Weinstein-like character played by John Malkovich, being a fat narcissist. Then I read The Guardian’s review. Well, I mean, of course they didn’t like it. If the NYT is blinded by politics, The Guardian is only more so. And, besides, they have concerns about many things. Then I read The Independent’s, The Financial Times’ and, thinking those too respectable, went on to read Time Out’s, The Evening Standard’s, and even The Daily Telegraph’s reviews of Bitter Wheat. They all agreed. In a chorus, they cried: “mediocre,” “insincere,” “bad, weird and pointless,” and “a bitter disappointment” (HA get it ?!). Now, I’ve often disagreed with a review, for good or for ill. Who hasn’t? But this feels different.
The play opens on Barry Fein humiliating a screenwriter and stealing his work. Quickly and, some would, say coarsely establishing Fein as a bad guy. Then there are a series of fast paced farcical elements: an award show for humanitarian achievement, a judge from said award show that needs bribing, a money laundering operation, a terrorist on the loose, and Fein’s senile mother’s death. Incidentally, Fein’s mother owns and chairs his production empire as part of a complicated scheme to appear above-reproach, to evade taxes, and to launder money — that’s what these saccharine films are for anyways, he assures the audience.
But the meat of the play focusses on Fein’s increasingly horrifying attempts to bed Yung Kim Lee (Ioanna Kimbook), a young Cambridge-educated Kent-born British-Korean actress, who is in town to promote her new movie, Dark Waters. The plot, at times, feels scattershot and lazy. But I suspect it was another series of faux pas that depressed the sharper critics.
The biggest problem — ethically, at least — is that the play doesn’t show the full extent of the consequences of Fein’s actions on Yung Kim Lee, and her character’s point of view, throughout the nauseating evening that nearly ends in rape. Clearly, there is much more to explore. The play ends with her returning to Fein, in an act that could be read either as defiance or as capitulation. Sondra (Doon Mackichan), Fein’s icy personal assistant, lacks stage time and ends up a slim character.
It bears mentioning that Mamet’s portrayal of the pathetic but nonetheless complex scheming and negotiating that often leads to sexual assault is a good facsimile of what actually goes on in those situations. There are two incredibly tense scenes — set in a restaurant and in a hotel room, respectively — that are remarkably similar to the accounts of women victimized by Weinstein: the dawning realization of what’s happening, the claustrophobia, the incredulity, and the exhausting, never-ending bargaining.
But, then again, the play is about Fein. And that may be its deeper problem. The critics caught on to this: there was more than one exhausted “Did we really need this? A play about Weinstein, about his story, haven’t men like him had enough attention?” They aren’t wrong. We do need more plays about and from the other side’s perspective, exploring the pain and absurdity of the situations they’ve been unwillingly thrust into. Moreover, a play about the MeToo movement where neither female character is fully fleshed out betrays its architect’s rather pathetic myopia. It very well may be that that myopia sinks the play, at least in the esteem of many it has. The more reviews I read, the more I agree with them, Malkovich’s bewitching qualities are fading from view with each disappointed 2-star review, “The most pointless play of the year” says the FT… But something still bothers me. All is not well with the reviewer’s qualms:
“Indeed, Bitter Wheat never fully reveals the psychological depths of this depraved character, or the motivations of those around him who enabled such abuse of power.” – The Independent
“Fine actor though he is, Malkovich has to work overtime to invest a character who claims ‘people are animals’ with any light and shade… But, while Malkovich has shown in the past that he can humanise monsters, he can find little variety in a downright villain.” – The Guardian
“Fine actor though he is, not even Mr. Malkovich can ride out the faux-psychology of Fein’s climactic lament. ‘I molested various actresses, as who has not,’ Fein says by way of defense, as his accusers grow in number and Oscars are revoked. A ‘deeply flawed human being’ adrift in a ‘wicked’ world, Fein, we’re meant to understand, might have been a more humane and decent person had he been able to lose weight. Really? A diet would have put everything right?’ – The New York Times
“The role lacks psychological depth: Fein is a profane, abusive, creepy figure, but essentially he’s just a conduit for Mamet’s vitriolic lines….Yet there are only the most perfunctory attempts to probe the roots of Fein’s predatory behaviour.” – The Evening Standard
All of these complaints lament Fein’s lack of “psychological depth”, his “faux-psychology”, and Mamet’s inability to “humanise” him. But I wonder what these reviewers wanted? Did they want to empathise with Harvey Weinstein? To see things from inside his head? Maybe have a flashback where we hearken back to some horrible scenes of social conditioning and childhood abandon in a world of privilege that taught Harvey, the wee tyke that he was, all the wrong lessons about dignity, power, and respecting women? This doesn’t sit right with me. The other critiques have force, but I can’t stomach this bizarre call for understanding.
In fact, one of the things the play did do well was show the profound banality of Hollywood: its greed, its vanity, and the shocking simplicity of the formula that allows people like Weinstein to get away with their blatant, flagrant crimes. That banality is a fundamental part of the MeeToo story. That’s not to say that there aren’t complex, deeply rooted, learned behaviors that allow us to tolerate many, many forms of harassment and abuses of power, at all levels of our social interactions; and that there are other, richer stories to be told that show us our own quotidian complicity. But the things Weinstein did were never acceptable in wider society, they weren’t even acceptable in Hollywood — at least not uncoated. One of the deeply distressing aspects of Malkovich’s portrayal of Fein is the rehearsed, distracted tone of his interactions with Yung Kim Lee. It’s clear that he’s done this before; he does it often. And his secretary, and his doctor, and even that pointless intern all know it and help him do it and they don’t do it because of any deep mystical spell he’s cast over them: this isn’t the story of a cult leader, this is the story of capitalism. They do it because he is rich and powerful and they are greedy, shallow people. They are like him.
A play that humanised Fein would have failed to transmit the one, and perhaps only, crucial thought this play succeeded in transmitting: some motivations are transparent.
The Death of Stalin, a much better movie than this is a play, has a similar approach to the psychology of the powerful, cruel men that it follows: they are simple, vain, and obsequious to a fault. The point is that there is nothing more to them. They are caricatures. And caricatures are important. People are complicated, of course, but sometimes banality is real and, if we forget that, we may find ourselves speculating like an American news anchor after a school shooting: What was his state of mind? Was he mentally ill? Was it his upbringing? Well, I’m sure there are many things to be said about those. Maybe even enough to fill more than a few 60 Minutes segments. But the problem was the gun. It sometimes really is that simple.
Fein is a bad, powerful, rich, white man and, well, money talks.