Mark Medoff Medoff, Mark - Essay

Medoff, Mark

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Medoff, Mark 1940–

Medoff is an award-winning American playwright. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

[When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?] is an updated version of The Petrified Forest, and, as such, kinkier and more blackly humorous, but still a melodrama depending more on shock effects than on humane insight. The psychopath who terrorizes the staff and clients of a New Mexico diner is now no longer a typical gangster-movie villain, but a hippie gone vicious, a criminally demented prankster possessed nevertheless of some validly sardonic critiques of our society. Clinically, however, this character … does not quite ring true: at times he is too cute for his cruelty; at others, too cruel for his cuteness. But some of the lesser figures, though not exactly novel, are endowed with fine dramatic veracity…. (p. 72)

John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1973 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), December 24, 1973.

[When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?] is a mixture of possibilities which never quite merge into a single work. On the surface, it gives us a demented young man, a bully, perhaps a moralist turned evil side up (cf. Charles Manson), tormenting a group of people in a diner. He is never clearly a metaphorical figure, as Duke Mantee is in Robert E. Sherwood's diner in The Petrified Forest, but all the harping on long-gone Western heroes (the answer to the titular question is "Never") suggests that he is the product and the victim of an America which has moved away from old certainties or, as Mason would say, old values. Then at the end, it turns out that everyone has somehow been changed—some of them strengthened—by his treatment of them, and the whole thing begins to suggest a parody of The Passing of the Third Floor Back. (p. 361)

Gerald Weales, in Commonweal (copyright © 1974 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), June 28, 1974.

As a barometer of social and psychic change in America the new young U.S. playwrights are hard to beat. Writers like David Rabe, Michael Weller and Mark Medoff are not isolated, eccentric geniuses like the historic heroes of the American theater, an O'Neill or a Williams. Instead they are like sensitive cells of the body politic, registering the shocks that body is heir to. And since they are young cells in that body, the message of their plays is important, and the plays tell us that at this moment these young artist-citizens of a troubled society are laughing with tears in their eyes—and murder in their hearts.

This was the point of Medoff's play, "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?"… And it is the point of ["The Wager"]. In both of these, the central figure is a young man of exceptional intelligence driven into perverse and violent behavior by the ambience of failure, fear and foreboding that hangs over all our heads. In "Red Ryder" this character was Teddy, the nihilistic rover who terrorizes the people in a New Mexico diner. In "The Wager" it is John Leeds, a brilliant, tormented graduate student at a California university who is so aware of ubiquitous bad faith that he has become a super put-on artist, funny as hell but a potential assassin of the spirit and maybe even of the body. (p. 60)

What happens? All sorts of things, expected and unexpected, in this youthful, exuberant, perturbed, imperfect play by a writer with a natural gift for comedy, an instinct for surprise, a gift for language and a love-hate for his society that makes him representative of a generation. (p. 63)

Jack Kroll, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), November 4, 1974.

There is a lot of plot [in "The Wager"]. There are also a few funny moments, but the play is mean-spirited and, for all its brittle surface, simple syrup inside. It is hard to give a damn about these characters, and the playwright's knowledgeability about his hero is insufferable; we are so on to Leeds. (p. 124)

Edith Oliver, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 4, 1974.

[Mark Medoff] is so clever that I could write three or four different reviews of [The Wager],… addressing them to different kinds of readers and emphasizing different aspects of the play's attributes. That, I suppose, would make me clever, too.

There is some validity and interest in the play's basic idea: the depiction of three types among young men of recent generations. (pp. 476-77)

Medoff's cleverness may be discerned in the treatment of his material with conscious (or unconscious?) artificiality. There is a degree of fake suspense: who will kill whom; will Ron commit suicide; will Honor overcome Leeds, etc.? More telling is the brightness of the dialogue, highly articulate at times, collegiately smart-assed, paradoxically funny, and ultimately "down to earth" in the contemporary vein and vernacular. As presented, this combination is entertaining and unbelievable. What one's final estimate of the piece is depends on what portion of the shtik one wants to latch onto. We are allowed freedom of choice which, I repeat, is clever. I could not take the game seriously—nor does Medoff insist that anyone should. (p. 477)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 9, 1974.

I don't know whether you have heard of a Do-It-Yourself Tom Stoppard Kit, but Mark Medoff out there in Las Cruces, New Mexico, must have, and doubtless got one by mail order; for his … play, The Wager, is to any Stoppard play what his pre-Stoppardian When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? was to The Petrified Forest. An insufferably smart-ass, bookish, and asexual graduate student, Leeds, shares an apartment at a Berkeleyish university with an insufferably chipper, oversexed jock, Ward—which is wholly unlikely, for starters. Leeds bets Ward that he cannot seduce their neighbor Ron's wife [Honor] within 24 hours without being killed by Ron within the following 48 (if Ward is killed, say, 49 hours later, he wins). And so it goes, from preposterousness to absurdity, and with dialogue in which almost every sentence gets turned upside down, inside out, and then fractured for good measure, either by the speaker, or by his interlocutor, or, most often, by both.

There is more to disbelieve in this little four-character play than in a three-hour C. B. De Mille superspectacular from the days when Hollywood spent millions on piling the Improbable on the Incredible. No relationship makes sense. Why would the delicious [Honor] have married the dreary Ron? Why would she have stayed married to him for eight years? Why, of all people, would she pick the—mutatis mutandis—just as dreary Ward to be unfaithful with? Why, then, would she really be yearning for that insulting prig of an anchorite, Leeds? And why, of all things, should the impregnably insulated Leeds suddenly start melting?…

What differentiates this from Stoppard is much less sophisticated diablerie, and far fewer deviations into recognizable humanity. Now if, on the other hand, it were pure Surrealism, Absurdism, or caricature, that, too, might work; but we are supposed to care about these hijinks-jinxed phantasms as if each had a pancreas, never mind a heart. (p. 122)

John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), November 18, 1974.

The Wager … very likely would not have been commercially produced in New York had it not been for the very deserved success last year of his When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?

[This play] is what collegians take for cleverness and Medoff seems to take for successful repartee. It doesn't work by a long shot. Characters are 'characters', not for a moment people; they speak not in response to a situation but in response to Medoff's conception of the audience's potential response. It's all snide, supercilious and superattenuated, which is particularly regrettable from a playwright who has demonstrated he can do far, far better. (p. 34)

Catharine Hughes, in Plays and Players (© copyright Catharine Hughes, 1975), February, 1975.

The point of ["When You Coming Back, Red Ryder?"] is that Red, for all his superficial Charles Atlasy toughness, hasn't got the staying power. He's really rather gentle. Didn't even go to Viet Nam. But there's someone in this play who did, Teddy, a semiarticulate hangover from the drug-enthused hippie generation. He sadistically exposes Red's makeshift machismo, and in a dreary and forced accordance with accepted modes of theatrical exposition he also 'strips bare' every other cliche character who drifts into the diner. Everyone says his piece, reveals himself, and has a quintessential breakdown. This … is just another recycled tale of trite Americana. (p. 118)

Michael Zilkha and Christina Monet, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1975), December 22, 1975.