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What Would Morrie Do?

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The reviews for Tuesdays with Morrie, at the Seattle Rep, have been jarringly equivocal. The play, based on the 1997 cash-cow memoir about "an old man, a young man, and life's greatest lesson," recounts weekly conversations between Morrie Schwartz (an old sociology professor dying of Lou Gehrig's disease) and his sometime student Mitch Albom, a sports reporter who reunites with his former mentor. It's stuffed with deathbed boilerplate: Life is fleeting; hooray for compassion; all you need is love.

The P-I described the production as "touching" but "manipulative." Misha Berson at the Times said it was sweet and moving, "though in my case, I wish its lessons were more startling and the heartstrings less calculated." (Note the hedge: "in my case.") Gavin Borchert from the Weekly dubbed it "beautifully done," but its "truckload or two of life lessons" are "relentless... Go, have fun. And leave me here to stew in my pessimistic juices."

Tuesdays with Morrie is pap and the critics know it (The Stranger didn't review it because there were fresher productions that deserved attention). But instead of indicting the play, the critics indict themselves. Why is this play tying them into knots?

First explanation: At its most literal, Morrie is about the soul of a journalist. Mitch is a high-powered sports reporter and a high-powered dickhead. It's his job to say what he thinks, even if it hurts an athlete's feelings or career. Through the play, sweet, wise, noble Morrie becomes a little voice lodged inside Mitch, persistently asking: Why are you such a meanie? That's a familiar dilemma—the critic who doesn't fret over the tension between duty and generosity is emotionally atrophied and doesn't deserve his job. The play inoculates itself against criticism by making the benighted, wayward pupil a journalist. If you have anything mean to say about it, you become that guy.

Second explanation: Morrie is moving because it's vacant. The play is unrelentingly generic from start to finish—that's its trick. Other, better artworks draw us into the lives of complex, fictitious strangers, but Morrie's characters are vague (easily confused with "universal"), forcing us to fill their gaps with details from our own lives. It is less a play than an echo chamber for our memories of the old people we have loved and neglected and, with luck, might become. Anyone who has watched a body crumble under the weight of age and disease will be moved by Morrie's final gasps. But the drama is not onstage—it's in our heads. The art does not move us; we move us. Tuesdays with Morrie, ostensibly about love and compassion, is an exercise in self-absorption. It's a harmless bit of solipsism, but it's not good theater.

What would old Morrie make of all this? "Go ahead, gaze at your navel," he might squeak in his happy-old-man voice. "But it is more rewarding to gaze at the navels of others."

brendan@thestranger.com

 

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