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Bleed Rail – Mickey Birnbaum

April 25th, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

When I first finished Bleed Rail I hated it. Even now, thinking about it, I don’t like it very much. I will apologize in advance, for I have to admit to only reading it, and not studying it the way I usually study a play–so, I will go back and give it more attention and this entry may be subject to modification. Regardless, this fact certainly plays a part in my opinion of this piece and will certainly lead to some interesting speculation (by that I mean ‘ignorant’) on some parts of or themes in the play.

However, even in reflection I find some things to admire, and I will probably focus more of my attention on those, as my mother always told me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say then–hopefully I can keep with this motto.

I will say that Mickey Birnbaum has created an atmosphere that is terrible. It is as pervasive and depressing and disgusting and hideous a creation as I have ever encountered. The level accuracy portraying these pointless lives and the dreariness of their material surroundings and the general sense of ennui and emptiness is overwhelming. For that alone the playwright is due great credit: he has created a pungent atmosphere that permeates everything and makes it stink like a carcass.

I found the two main characters (Ryan and Keith), if I can call them that, flat and two dimensional. That was upsetting. I found them less interesting than two of the supporting characters (Jewel and Jim the Hanger). In fact, based on the conclusion, I found that Ryan was the protagonist and discovered as well that I had absolutely no interest whatsoever in him or his heroic final act. The reversal of the bleed rail and the re-creation of the cows was touching and I found that a very interesting idea; possibly the most resilient image of the whole piece. The conversation and expression of the two main characters was sad and pathetic and while I know that is the effect that Mickey was going for I almost found it too much–that is, even though it was intentional, it almost trivialized the whole thing for me.

Again, the biggest thing about the play experience is seeing the play versus reading the play; which should be no surprise really, considering that is how plays are intended to be experienced. This really held up for me as I read Bleed Rail, as I didn’t think until after reading it, how Mickey had the set designed to be the slaughterhouse. That is, seeing that whole play take place inside a slaughterhouse with red-stained walls, etc, the ominous metallic and mechanical nature of it, that would loom depressingly–heavily, over the whole of the action on the stage. More so than what is conveyed on the page by the words and descriptions of actions alone.

But back to what I did find admirable: (and I can hardly find the appropriate words to describe it) the sense of modern desolation, emptiness; the T.S. Eliot-like nature of the thing:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

The lives of these people are as meaningless as wind in dry grass and nothing can save them. Period. The example of the unbearable meaninglessness that most drives the point home for me is the exchange between Keith and Ryan at the opening where suddenly the conversation shifts from a ‘beef bowl’ to ‘Did your dad die yet?’ The futility of a life discarded this way amongst the greasy atmosphere of a fast food joint is truly misanthropic. Unfortunately, I think I can see the playwright’s misanthropical nature at work here more than that of the characters. The character of Keith, who delivers the terrible line, is, to me, somewhat of a stereotype. When he is talking I can almost hear Randal from the movie . I’m not quite convinced that Ryan’s act in Iraq was enough. (In fact, his placement and death in the war seems too contrived and I must wonder if the playwright bailed and found an ‘easy’ conclusion…or one, at least, that worked.) The image that works and would make the lives of the characters meaningful is the reversal of the bleed rail. That is a strong image. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work in the ‘real’ world (that is, you can’t reverse the rail that way), and I don’t think the characters are strong enough to change the world to make something similar to the rail reversal happen. I know there is the parallel drawn between the reversal of the bleed rail and the sacrifice that Ryan makes and his refusal to be a ‘walker’ in the afterlife; but for me it is not enough to save any of the characters from the vicious portrait that Mickey draws. I think his cynicism is too great.

I found the DVD ending contrived. Worse. It is very obvious exposition. It is way too long. It is not interesting. I wish it would go away forever. Have you ever been to a party where it is sort of late and everyone is a bit drunk and perhaps tired and someone turns the t.v. on and suddenly everyone is drunk and tired and watching t.v. and all of a sudden you become conscious of the fact that you’re at a party (where you in theory socialize with people) but now you’re all slack-jawed staring at this stupid box with light coming out of it? That is what that scene reminds me of. If I was in the theatre, the last thing I would want to do is watch actors watching t.v. Especially for what is crucial exposition to the play. I don’t care if it is a part of the mise-en-scene that Mickey is going for to draw our attention to these utterly meaningless lives (our own?).

I found the stilted conversations, the ones that the playwright goes to such pains to discuss at the beginning in the ‘Note on language,’ to be contrived; stupid; boring; and annoying. I had to translate what these morons were saying and I didn’t even give a shit about what they had to say in the first place. I think that is a bad combination for a playwright to stuff onto an audience: make them work to understand something they could care less about. And again, I don’t feel that the play is justified or saved in any way by the fact that the playwright was intentionally doing this. Further, in his notes on ‘Setting’ I took issue with the ‘iconic Midwestern town of heavy industry and strip malls. Plenty of nothing to do.’ Either the fact that I found the atmosphere of the play so horrifying speaks volumes to the fact that I recognized it and am just a sore sport when it comes to acknowledging the accuracy of the shot; or this is a truly condescending, shitty thing to say. For instance, the portrait that Mickey paints in this play is not specific enough to characterize one region of the country. That is, this play could just as easily be happening in Los Angeles as in Chicago or Cleveland. I’m sure there are slaughterhouses out west, and I know there are stupid people watching big t.v.s in dumpy little apartments. Scores of them. I think the Setting note would be better if it just said, ‘Somewhere in America,’ or worse, ‘Anywhere in America,” or worse still, “Right next door to you.”

I think there are some strong points to this play: again, the atmosphere, the stage setting and the way it would hang over the whole piece, and the strong three-dimensional nature of two of the characters, as well as the final vision of the reversal of the bleed rail. Otherwise, I am not too jazzed about this play and what I believe to be some major and fatal tears in its fabric. I think if Mickey took the characters of Jewel and Jim the Hanger and made a play–well, that would be something worth seeing!

  1. May 14th, 2007 at 20:13 | #1


    Thanks for the thoughtful critique of my play. Obviously, I don’t agree with you, or I would have written a different play, but I’m nonetheless pleased you took the time to see the work and that you had a strong reaction to it. I’d rather have someone strongly dislike something I wrote than be indifferent.

    I won’t debate your characterization of the play — it’s your blog, after all. But here are two interesting points of amplification —

    The initial drafts of the play were based on research, but I had the opportunity to spend a few months in a small Midwestern town last year. While the play was never intended to speak for an entire region, it was helpful to discover that the kind of social dynamics and economic conundrums the characters grapple with exist in significant proportion in real life.

    Second — while this is a dark play that came out of a dark place, I believe it’s actually not cynical — or to put it a better way, I hope it doesn’t inspire cynicism in an audience. On the other end of the spectrum, those audience members who do get into the play talk to me about their empathy for the characters. The most interesting comment I’ve heard came from a woman who grew up near a slaughterhouse in the Midwest, and talked about how the town’s poverty and industry affected the people who lived there. She noted that the young people were especially depressed and death-haunted by their environs — “The young don’t realize life is inevitable,” she said, which captured my feelings about the play exactly.

    Well, if time permits, come and see my other play, *Big Death & Little Death,* opening at the Road Theatre in NoHo this weekend (www.roadtheatre.org). You may dislike it equally as much, but I guarantee you’ll at least find it funnier. We even have a live death-metal band integrated into the show.

    Anyway, thanks again for your incisive and committed writing — I can tell it comes from the heart.

    Best Wishes,

    Mickey Birnbaum

  2. Weebelly
    June 6th, 2007 at 19:35 | #2


    Thanks for the comment. I would only draw your attention to the opening of my blog entry where I admit to a level of ignorance. That ignorance is largely based on the fact that I READ the play and did not SEE the play. I know well that there is much lost in translation between the two; and even writing as I have, I would very much like to see it: even on the likelihood that my opinion would be confirmed–although I expect it would be greatly mollified.


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