Last spring, during Easter dinner, my aunt leaned across the table and asked: "Chris, have you read this 'Fifty Shades of Grey?'" I said I had not but I had heard about it and, changing the subject, had she read —
"What's 'Fifty Shades of Grey'?" my mother asked. And so my aunt promptly explained the plot.
I laughed, though none of it was intended to be funny. Then I realized there was a pressing magazine article I had to read in the next room and quietly excused myself while my aunt explained rough sex and bondage.
I thought about this again recently. In the terrific new coffee-table book "The Book of Mormon: Testament of a Broadway Musical," Nikki M. James, who won a Tony for playing sweet African villager Nabulungi, says that during the first Broadway preview, when they came to the song whose title is a naughty curse on God," she remembers hearing the audience talking loudly. Then a lot of nervous laughter. The book — a thoughtful oral history mingled with production notes and backstage photos, an annotated script and a transcript of an interview with co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker on "The Daily Show" — returns to discomfort occasionally (though less often than you might expect).
Actor Rory O'Malley says: "I thought the ushers would have a standard routine of what to do when 50 audience members get up and leave." Even journalist Mark Harris, introducing the script, recalls sitting in the audience and, five minutes into the show, "the jaw of the woman sitting to my left dropped … her face remained thus frozen for the rest of the show."
What's interesting about these remarks — and what I heard from theatergoers last week in the lobby and on the sidewalk in front of the Bank of America Theatre here, during previews for "Mormon's" Midwest debut — is that the people commenting are not really shocked themselves. It's more like, they're embarrassed for others.
Specifically, during intermission, I heard a number of variations on: Thank God my parents are not here.
Granted, I was there to ask theatergoers if their parents were there. But the way many recoiled in horror at the thought of sitting through "Book of Mormon" flanked by their moms and dads was positively primordial: "Oh God! No, no! I could never! And would never," one man said when I asked if he would bring his mom. Why experience squirm-inducing theater with queasy parents when "A Christmas Carol" is so much easier?
Melissa Garson, 51, attending with her 21-year old son, said they loved the show and had no problem sitting next to each other, that they have a healthy and open relationship. "We like to call each other (expletives)," she said cheerfully, then added: "But not in a million years would I be able to watch this with my mother."
Going into the Chicago run of "The Book of Mormon," a frequent (and silly) refrain from those who had seen the New York production was: But would it play in the Midwest? Instead, what they should have asked was:
But can I bring my mom?
Or conversely, as a parent, do I really want to squirm next to my kid?
A couple of hours before the first Chicago show, Robert Lopez, who co-created "The Book of Mormon" with Parker and Stone (and wrote the delightfully randy "Avenue Q," as well as the delightfully innocent songs for last year's "Winnie the Pooh" movie), told me it was never an intention to make anyone uneasy "or bum people out."
I said that's obvious.
But he said if discomfort is what the songs bring up, that's valid. When the show opened in New York, he said, he was worried the play would be pulled out of its context, but that never really happened. He said: "There were definitely times during the workshop when we felt like we had crossed certain lines, but it was because the material wasn't coming together. The way the switch to Africa was coming across, it felt like, 'And now, we're in Africa and Africa means black people.' It felt like we were headed for a misstep right away that got us off on the wrong foot." In other words, if the scenes were thin, the unease would be warranted. "But at some point, when we got to Africa, we harked back to the articles you may or may not have read about Africa and the conditions and the atrocities and (stories of) people just trying to exist — by which point I felt like, you can have characters singing '(Expletive) you' to God. They've earned that right."
Sure, let it be uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, regardless of justification or taste or even the material itself, there's an almost hot, physical discomfort that is squeezed out and impossible to ignore if parents are present. I saw "The Book of Mormon" twice in New York. The first time, during the preview period, there were gasps. The second time, earlier this fall, I sat beside a family: The parents were hunched forward and laughing with tears in their eyes. Their teenage son and daughter appeared as though they wanted to curl into balls and vanish. I felt for them. This is not a Midwest piety. This is a related-by-blood-so-we're-easily-embarrassed piety.
Earlier last week, at a matinee of the Lookingglass Theatre's "Metamorphoses," I spotted a couple with their son. There must be nothing worse than sitting next to your 13-year-old son during a live show with nudity and incest. On the other hand, being asked about it later by a newspaper reporter while your son stands there — that has to be a close second.
"We called ahead and the box office said 'incest and nudity,'" said Therese Porter, the mom.
So you weren't uncomfortable next to your son, a few feet from an actor wearing nothing but angel wings?
"Slightly," said Rob Porter, the dad, with a quiver of discomfort that could be measured on a Richter scale.
I spotted Serena Himmelfarb, 25, and Holly Day, her mother. Day, who didn't want to give her age, said her daughter called ahead and warned her: Just FYI, there is full-frontal male nudity in this thing.
"I think the uneasiness in these situations," Himmelfarb said shyly, "comes from assuming that the other person is uneasy."
For me, definitely.
In fact, as someone who has found himself in this uncomfortable position remarkably often, I feel overqualified to talk about the squirmy embarrassment of seeing raunchy material with parents. Either that or I'm just a repressed Catholic prude. I saw "The Crying Game" with my mother on Christmas night. I saw Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves," in which Emily Watson is encouraged by her disabled husband to set out on a sexual walkabout with strangers and report back with details, on Thanksgiving night. When I was a teenager, my mother and I wandered from a Roy Lichtenstein exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York into a nearby Robert Mapplethorpe show. (You know, complete with the bullwhips and everything.)
I have developed such a low threshold for seeing uncomfortable material in the presence of my family that if they are watching a movie and I know there's a scene with nudity coming up, I will unsubtly excuse myself.
Linda Rubinowitz, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University's Family Institute, explained this: She hears from patients about such discomfort fairly often, but more from teenagers and adult children than parents. She said the feeling is especially acute among "young adults who are growing into genuine adulthood. As they get older, things equal out and the tension becomes reduced, but the truth is that I'm not sure this ever entirely goes away. It's just hard to enjoy theater, film, TV, whatever, when you can't help being reminded your parents are still your parents and you are still their child. But that also has a lot to do with the cultural norms in this country. It's like, American parents never have sex, right? Just that one time."
Of course, it should be noted that, regardless of how uncomfortable you may be watching raunchy material, performers themselves, when they know their parents are in their audience, get doubly embarrassed. Chris Witaske, 29, has been in the Second City e.t.c. cast for six months. He recalled performing in his first play as a student at the University of Iowa, and how the role required miming a certain sex act and how his parents drove in from St. Charles for the show and, oh, well: "They are unconditionally supportive, but there are those latent Catholic values and afterward they said they just kind of skipped past the other stuff and said they were so sad my grandparents couldn't have been there to see it."
Somehow, knowing it could be worse is comforting. Joe Jahraus, founder of Profiles Theatre, a frequent home for difficult onstage situations unfolding inches from your face, told me he simply doesn't invite his mother to some of the theater's productions. As a teenager he took her to see "Taxi Driver," then spent "the entire movie regretting it." He learned his lesson.
He went to a dress rehearsal for "Book of Mormon" last week. "I've seen a lot but when they got to the '(expletive) God' part, my girlfriend and I were like, oh, ouch. I mean, I wasn't offended by it, of course, and I doubt many people are, but I still wouldn't take my mother."
Neither would I. Besides, theater's expensive. This Christmas, I'm thinking "Django Unchained."