Bitch, bitch, bitch.
Gripe, gripe, gripe.
At the Kennedy Center Opera House, we have 17 characters on stage in "A Chorus Line," taking turns complaining about their hometowns, parents, classmates, teachers and sex partners. At the National Theater, we have seven characters in "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Endf," taking turns complaining about their boyfriends, husbands and lovers.
That's two dozen kvetches, whining on withou letup - and what's worse, without intermission - and not a single kind word among them to say about anyone.
Both plays were produced by Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival, and have achieved critical acclaim and audience devotion. You can watch the audiences at their devotions - the quieter ones nodding gravely every time a new petty grievance is aired, and the more emotional ones crying out their years.
In popular psychology, our era is somewhere between Its All Mother' Fault, and Everybody Is Beautiful Turned Inside Out. Encounter as theater has turned into theater as encounter: it turns out that people will pay to hear other people's laments, even if they know they will not be given a turn in the spotlight to tell their own.
The "Colored Girls" characters are specialists; they only do complaints about mean men. Among the seven, they have been - repeatedly - kicked, beaten, seduced, raped, molested, neglected and deserted. But what they are most bitter about is the crummy way the men do these things and apologize afterward.
"Chorus Line" characters go in more for grubby sex than brutal sex, but that is only part of their litany. They have also had to endure stiflingly dull hometowns, parents who have money but no taste and unpopularity in high school. One man first said he came from a close family, but after recounting that his father stood by him after discovering his homosexuality, he added, accusingly, "That was the first time he called me 'son'."
Only one has a complaint she does not blame on a callous world. She is too short to get parts when chorus line uniformity is required, a serious problem for an aspiring dancer. She's the one who got my sympathy.
But there is plenty of sympathy for the others from audiences who believe in their plight as sensitive victims of a hostile society. The lack of tolerance they exhibit for others, the lack of interest in anything outside themselves - that seems to be accepted as "honesty."
At the end of "Chorus Line," there is a song that claims that these people sacrifice themselves for a love of dancing. It is not evident in the rest of the play.
What they love is not dancing, but the hope that it will bring them "stardom," a divine state that is to compensate them for their rotten moments. "Everybody in the whole goodamn country wants to be a star," says one character, voicing perhaps the national goal.
The one character who has gotten close to stardom, failed, and now wants to get back into the chorus might seem to be motivated by a love of dance. But she explains herself by saying, "I don't want to wait on tables - but most of all, I don't want to teach other people to do what I should be doing myself." No one who cared about dance could sneer at teaching that way - her interest, it seems, is only tried up with exhibiting herself.
Perhaps one should not look for heroes or heroines in a chorus line. But if 17 presumably randomly selected dancers, and seven additional black women are all vitims of a mean world - and if huge audiences empathize with them - then who are all those nasty people doing the victimizing?
To say nothing of solid people, good and bad, selfish and generous, who deal with the problems of the world, not just in ego-massaging.
At the end of "Colored Girls," there seems to be a sense of dropping these grievances and going on from there. "The Colored Girls Somewhere Over the Rainbow" - now, that might be a play.