There are few things that Stephen King hates more than adverbs. In his part-memoir, part-manual On Writing (2000), the best-selling author expresses his deep misgivings about that part of speech. King believes that a writer's need to qualify a sentence with a word describing how an action is played out stems from his fear that he might not be getting his point across. Adverbs, therefore, are synonymous with a lack of confidence, and must be avoided. Says King: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
I wouldn't go so far as to prophesy damnation for those whose prose is littered with -ly words. (After all, I'd be banishing myself to Dante's Ninth Circle.) But having experienced 4 Adverbs, Word for Word's theatrical realization of four chapters from Adverbs, Daniel Handler's forthcoming novel about the complexities of modern relationships, I think King, self-important as he is, might have a point.
We live in an era of self-conscious writing; it's a refreshing surprise to come across a new memoir, short-story collection, or novel that doesn't shout, “I'm a work of literature!” in some way. Even Handler's hit “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books for children, with their pseudonymous author, Lemony Snicket, and their earnest warnings about the perils of reading unhappy tales, are studies in self-consciousness. Handler's latest work, though aimed at adults, is no different. The book is packed with metaliterary tics, from calling itself a novel (Adverbs is really a collection of tenuously connected vignettes) to introducing the linguistic Tourette's of phrases such as “very, very, very, very, very, very” and “Right? Right? Right? Right? Right?” that pepper its pages like particles from a sneeze. As a result, it's difficult to read the book without seeing the language dancing before your eyes in a gold-spangled bikini and gumboots.
Which is more or less how it appears in Word for Word's production, a show in which the actors, not content merely to impersonate human characters, also portray wine bottles, a live volcano, cockroaches, doughnuts, and magpies. If you're unfamiliar with Word for Word's work, the company presents literary prose such as short stories or chapters from novels verbatim onstage, with all the “he saids,” “she saids,” and other narrative elements intact. Even though Word for Word's style seems strange to me — if you're going to the trouble of making theater out of prose, then why not adapt it to suit the art form? — the group's frequently imaginative stagings and talented performers often give literary works (from classics like John Steinbeck's Cannery Row to more contemporary fictions like Amy Tan's story “Immortal Heart”) fresh energy.
Given that Adverbs draws so much attention to itself as a work of literature, and that Word for Word's approach is equally self-conscious, you'd think that Handler and the company would suit each other well. In some ways they do: Director Sheila Balter and the physically expressive ensemble of eight players hit the goofy, larger-than-life spirit of Handler's situations and characters with seamless precision.
In the first two stories brought to life onstage — “Arguably” and “Particularly” — a British expat, recently relocated to the Bay Area with her husband, struggles to bridge the cultural divide. Sarah Nealis captures the kooky quality of the story's heroine, Helena, as she reels around San Francisco, shocked at the cost of living yet swigging her way through magnums of champagne. One particularly inventive bit of “drunk” staging sees the soused Helena trying to walk through a door, which sways to and fro thanks to the help of other ensemble members. In “Naturally,” a woman licking her wounds after an ugly marital breakup finds new passion with the ghost of a man stabbed to death in Golden Gate Park. Choreographer Erika Chong Shuch creates beautiful patterns on the stage with the actors' bodies, imbuing the eerie narrative with a ritualistic, otherworldly edge. And in “Wrongly,” a student finds herself stuck in a car on the way to “South San Francisco the Industrial City” with a crazed college dropout. Balter conveys the inherent danger in Allison's frightening drive with the maniacal Steven through expert blocking: Appearing some 20 feet above the ground atop a long set of steps, actors Elissa Stebbins and Kevin Rolston perform the scene from a precarious height that makes us wonder, like Allison, whether she dare jump.
Despite the creativity of the staging and the brilliant ensemble work, the contrivances of the text and performance style soon become too much. Unlike other Word for Word works less driven by literary conceit, the joint metatheatrics of Handler's prose and the company's presentation are so obvious that we're reminded that we're watching a literary work onstage; we can never sit back and simply enjoy the story. Instead of helping us gain insight into Handler's world of misplaced lovers, the excess staginess puts us off: In “Wrongly,” for example, when two actors pretend to be earrings, in the shape of Shakespeare's head, dangling from a character's ears, it's not merely cute, but so overwrought it's distracting.
So what of the adverb's position in all of this “meta” mud? Given the title and chapter headings of Handler's novel, you'd think -ly words would assume special significance in the author's view of relationships. Yet the only conclusion one can safely draw from the stage production — and, to a lesser degree, the book — is that there isn't much of a connection between love and adverbs. In On Writing, King complains that all an adverb does is cancel out the meaning of the word it's meant to be describing. And 4 Adverbs suffers damnedly, infernally, satanically from this hellish problem.