Ann Magnuson begins her new one-woman show, Rave Mom, standing in a hotel room in Las Vegas, high on ecstasy, staring at the radiantly naked form of a young, blonde man with "the body of a surfer." He reaches out to touch her, and though Magnuson refrains from describing what happens next, peals of another kind of ecstasy follow.
She comes down from her high, her eyes find focus – and contact with the audience – and she’s no longer in Vegas, but on the small stage at P.S. 122, a building on First Ave. converted, in 1979, from an unused New York City public school to the experimental theater it’s been since (the P.S. becoming Performance Space). The young man has disappeared with the imaginative moment. Magnuson retreats to a desk, and riffles through some papers.
"From my lawyer" she says.
The show is autobiographical, and the threat of a defamation suit dangles over the stage like the glittering cloth carrot that, after the desk and its clutter, is the show’s only other prop. Pseudonyms, disappointingly, have been appointed. ("I had met this guy," she says, "….we’ll call him Moneybags. He was this huge dot-com billionaire…and he was good friends with the biggest movie star in the world…we’ll call him Gus Gossamer").
Sitting behind the desk, she lays out the basic themes of the show: "the show is about…" the death of her brother Bobby from AIDS; the resulting depression; and the drugs, raves, and relationship with Moneybags that are the manifestations of, and reaction to, her depression.
Rave Mom is a pretty good show. Magnuson is a top-notch performer. Her voice commands attention at all times, even, as in the case of the performance I attended, when the microphone cuts out halfway through the show. She projects through her body equally well and with an impressive economy of motion: simulating a bike ride with a simple up-and-down rhythm of her knees, pulsing to an electronic beat with the controlled intensity of a veteran raver.
An earlier Ann
Her tools are her voice, her body, and the precise direction of David Schweizer, whose subtle lighting design and perfectly calibrated soundtrack compliments Magnuson’s descriptive talents. And "descriptive" is the right word. Her final trip of the evening, a childhood walk through a West Virginia forest with Bobby, is a marvel of descriptive eloquence. A classical guitar plays over her hypnotic, musical voice while a leafy pattern – shading from green to golden yellow – is silhouetted on the back wall of the stage. The scene is so transporting that it’s hard to believe, when it’s over, that it was only Magnuson, standing alone in the middle of a black stage, the whole time. If Magnuson were a novelist, she would write elegant, evocative, atmospheric prose.
Her description of Moneybags’ Oscar party, in fact, brings to life a latter-day West Egg bacchanalia, with celebrities, socialites, and dot-commers (the bootleggers, perhaps, of the late 20th century) mixing in a flapping frenzy that, like Gatsby’s soirees, can’t hide the taint of impending self-destruction. But Fitzgerald created Gatsby to mean something. Gatsby exists for a reason. Moneybags exists because he played a supporting role in Magnuson’s life.
At one point, describing her ecstatic trip with Moneybags down the Pacific Coast Highway, she says that she feels "like a character out of a Joan Didion essay," which would have been a valid simile had she not then appended "…but a good [character]," making it clear that she was using Didion only for her evocative descriptions of California while ignoring the emptiness and shallowness that Didion always layers beneath the beauty.
Later, with the aid of a Vanity Fair article to which Magnuson makes a passing reference, I discover that Moneybags is the pseudonym for a man named Dana Giacchetto. A high-living, high-profile money manager to the stars, a good friend of Leonardo DiCaprio ("Gus Gossamer"), Giacchetto is a gambler who played a massive check-kiting scheme with his clients’ money, a scheme that depended on, and would wane with, the strength of his smile and his glitter. He is, in other words, a perfect vessel for saying something about America at the end of the twentieth century, a Gatsby-esque figure who burned too brightly, who also "believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us" – though his green light is more Hollywood than East Egg – and whose whole life has been a speculative bubble. And like Gatsby, and the stock market, and the twentieth century, Giacchetto’s time was doomed to end, in his case with a guilty plea to embezzlement charges and a five-year prison sentence.
The analogy isn’t perfect. Gatsby was a meticulous businessman, a schedule-maker, a gambler but also an accountant. Giacchetto’s books were such a mess that it took the Feds months just to de-tangle them and discover whether, in fact, he had stolen money or just lost it through incompetence (a little of both, as it turns out). But it was pretty good – Giacchetto and Gatsby both invented pedigrees for themselves: Giacchetto earning a mythical MBA from Harvard on the basis of two Continuing Ed. Courses, Gatsby becoming "an Oxford Man" from 5 months spent there after the war – and perfect isn’t necessary. The reason that autobiographically based artists give their characters pseudonyms is precisely so that they can tweak them to better fit their narrative or allegorical purposes. Magnuson, in assigning pseudonyms but ignoring the creative space this creates, deprives her work of both aesthetic and salacious value (if she’d used real names, at least we would have gotten some good gossip).»
There are other opportunities missed. Icarus, for instance, seems like an obvious metaphorical source for both Moneybags and her brother, each of whom, in their different ways, flew too close to the sun. In the Burning Man segment, Magnuson makes reference to Wagner’s Gotterdämmerung – I believe the music is Wagner as well – and ends by striking the pose of a Valkyrie, but it’s all for purely melodramatic effect. Ignored – in a scene specifically about the death of her brother from AIDS – is the potential value of the Valkyrie, who, according to Brittanica Online, "served the god Odin and [were] sent by him to the battlefields to choose the slain who were worthy of a place in Valhalla." Magnuson wouldn’t have had to sit through the entire Ring Cycle to figure this out.
Rave Mom, like many a memoir, is difficult to grapple with morally. I find the various phenomena of which the show is representative – postmodernism as excuse for narrative anarchy, self-absorption, referential laziness – disturbing and destructive, but the thing itself is pleasant enough. Like the re-designed Volkswagen Beetle, Rave Mom is well-intentioned and shiny, and like the Beetle it makes all the proper gestures to the past without understanding any of it. The reviews, if there are any, will read like the commercials for the new Beetle. They’ll be upbeat, full of catchy phrases and hip references, and they’ll obscure what is, finally, a bankrupt sensibility.
Because if there’s one thing that memoir has to do, it’s come clean, and Magnuson doesn’t come clean. She tells us that she didn’t know that her brother had AIDS until he was lying on his deathbed, and then moves on as if this doesn’t beg the question: how could she not have known? After dozens of her "close friends" had already died of the disease, how could she not have known? What other questions does this beg? Is it possible that she wasn’t as close to her brother as all the nostalgia would suggest? What kind of lifestyle was he living? Was it self-destructive? Did she try to help him? Where was she in all this, and where, for that matter, was her father?
Real names are not the only things being avoided in Rave Mom. There’s every reason to believe that Magnuson’s grief is real, but by avoiding these questions – questions of her culpability or feelings of culpability – she deprives the show of its moral center. And other questions surface. Why didn’t she mention the fact that the money Giacchetto was using to wine and dine her was embezzled from his clients? She makes a quick reference to a partner of Giacchetto’s – talent agent Jay Moloney – who committed suicide, but doesn’t mention any the following facts: 1.) at one point Giacchetto gave Moloney, who was at a rehab halfway house, $6,000 that everyone knew would be used for drugs; 2.) it took Moloney two years to get clean; 3.) during those two years, Giacchetto lost much of what remained of Moloney’s money; and 4.) after he finally got clean, Moloney was pushed by Giacchetto to assume leadership of a company in which Giacchetto had invested. "Within four weeks," according to the Vanity Fair article, "Moloney was so far down he couldn’t get out of bed."
Moloney killed himself later that year, and while depression, and not Giacchetto, was the cause, I’m reminded of some other characters in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald writes: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…."
For Magnuson, who doesn’t come clean, with herself or us, nobody has made the mess, it just happens, and as she fails to see Giachetto as Gatsby, she fails to see him also as Tom, and maybe to see that part of herself that is Daisy. That’s too harsh; Magnuson isn’t responsible for Giacchetto’s misdeeds, nor her brother’s death. Most of the time, we can’t save people, but we have to try, and when we fail, we have to believe that we didn’t try hard enough. Without that belief – and its consequence, guilt – animating art, and without narrative arc or thematic depth, all that’s left is spectacle, a thumping, serotonin-drenched rave. It’s fun for today, but leaves us feeling empty and hollow tomorrow.