The Fifth Jew In A Room, Bitching

How Falsettos’ Trina Illustrates the “Women Are Trapped” Phenomenon

by maya parness

I’ve always been… I don’t want to say obsessed, but obsessed with unhinged middle-aged women and the stories about them. I always hated the assigned readings in high school because there weren’t enough complex female characters in them (turns out I don’t hate classic novels, I just don’t really care what dead white men with no empathy for women have to say!) and three out of four times I’ve been cast in works of theatre in college I’ve played, you guessed it, unhinged middle-aged women. I also am Jewish from New York City. So Falsettos by William Finn and James Lapine was written for me to hyperfixate on from the second I saw the revival in 2016. Set from 1979-1981 in NYC, Falsettos follows Marvin (played by Christian Borle), a Jewish man who leaves his wife Trina (Stephanie J. Block) and their son Jason (Anthony Rosenthal) behind for his male lover, Whizzer (Andrew Rannells).  Amidst the backdrop of  Jason’s upcoming bar mitzvah, Trina’s romance with Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), the changing family dynamics of the ‘80s, and the AIDS crisis, Marvin tries to maintain his fantasy of a “tight-knit family” no matter how much destruction it will cause along the way. While this musical is technically about Marvin, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that Trina is the glue holding this musical together… and as is the case in many stories about men, they all steamroll her. Song after song and scene after scene, Trina struggles as the only woman central to the plot to keep herself and the men around her placated, and every step of the way they push her further towards insanity.  Trina’s situation within the wider context of Falsettos illustrates how women are trapped by gender roles, male immaturity, and ultimately, by the act of loving men in itself. 

Ah, gender roles. We know ‘em. We hate ‘em. Trina is obsessed with them. From the moment the musical begins, gender is an obvious driving force of the musical. The show opens with the four men of the show (Jason, Mendel, Marvin, and Whizzer) dressed in costumes reminiscent of Party City’s rendition of Moses as they sing about how they are “four Jews in a room, bitching.” Later in the song (consistent with the Passover theme), Trina comes onstage in regular clothing and holding a laundry basket, singing the words “slavery, slavery” as the men take off their prophet costumes and give them to her to wash. She repeats the “slavery” motif as she moves furniture around, the men all turn to her and call her a bitch four times, and she scoffs but continues cleaning. Then the men end the song with a count-off of “one, two, three, four,” and Trina reminds them of her existence by interjecting “five!” and only then do they acknowledge her as part of the story. Already, we have established the gender dynamic of this show. The men get to be prophets, dictating who does what as declared by the powers that be (the patriarchy), and Trina gets to be A Woman doing Woman Things like cleaning up after the mess the prophets make. 

In “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” and in much of the rest of the show, Trina is understandably upset about the tasks she feels obligated to perform. However, I say she is obsessed with gender roles because as soon as she can no longer fulfill them, she unravels. Marvin divorces her by telling her that he is a) gay and cheating on her with a man, b) a carrier for syphilis and hepatitis that he most likely gave to her, and c) expecting her to help him uphold his “tight-knit family” fantasy in which he and Whizzer still eat dinners with Trina and Jason that Trina will cook and clean the house to accommodate. We can assume that Trina begins to unravel relatively quickly, as Trina’s storyline opens with her at a psychiatry appointment with Mendel at Marvin’s recommendation. After that appointment (in which Mendel never once refers to her by name, hits on her, and cuts her off when she talks), we next see her in “This Had Better Come to a Stop,” after she has cooked dinner like A Woman who does Woman Things should do. She laments that “I was supposed to make the dinner, make it pretty on his plate / every wife should pull her weight / have it ready, make it tasty and love him” and wonders “who is responsible?” for her family falling apart even though it’s obviously Marvin. She recognizes her role as a wife and acknowledges that Marvin’s expectations of her are unfair and narcissistic, but still feels as though the mess her family is in is her fault. 

We then witness her full-on breakdown in the appropriately titled “I’m Breaking Down.” As Trina cooks dinner for Marvin, Jason, and Whizzer, she word-vomits basically everything on her mind, which is understandably a lot. She misses sex, her whole world has been upended because her marriage was a lie and she still thinks she was the problem, she can’t sleep at night, she’s jealous of her ex-husband’s boyfriend (not even for being in a relationship with Marvin! She’s jealous of Whizzer because he’s happy!), her nerdy and non-religious son isn’t living up to her Jewish Mother expectations, and she’s in love with her psychiatrist who can’t actually help her because he wants to have sex with her. Trina grew up being told her place as a woman (“my father let me marry” in “Love is Blind,” “I was sure growing up I would live the life my mother assumed I’d live / very Jewish, very middle-class, and very straight / where healthy men stayed healthy men and marriages were long and great” in “Holding to the Ground”), and as soon as she loses her position in the family and in society that she was told it was her purpose to inhabit, she falls apart… and she keeps cooking anyway.

Eventually, Trina gets what she wants— she marries Mendel who is “sweet” and “not a maniac,” a relatively good stepfather to Jason (at least compared to Marvin), and loves her and will “have good sex” with her— but even though the gender role she is confined to is literally destroying her, which she knows, in the song “Making A Home” that describes their new life together, Mendel sings “She becomes a happy wife,” and Trina echoes with “he decides the role to assume.” I don’t think I need to explain that line. You get it. 

The problem with the men deciding the role they get to assume, other than the obvious stuff like *gestures at the rest of this essay*, is that the men are really immature. We know this because: 

  • They either cannot or do not clean up after themselves, as evidenced by  “slavery”/”bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch” debacle in the opening number
  • Mendel cannot keep it in his pants for even one (1) psychiatry appointment with Trina, even though it’s, you know, literally his job not to do that and definitely very weird of him 
  • Marvin expects everyone in his life to conform to his fantasy of being the Man Of The House 
    • He breaks up with Whizzer after Whizzer poses a threat to his masculinity (Whizzer beats him at a chess game, but Marvin expects Whizzer to do “what pretty boys should do” and let Marvin win at chess/have the masculine upper hand in the relationship) in “The Chess Game”
    • Despite himself initiating the divorce with Trina, he gets so upset with Trina for inviting him to her wedding to Mendel that he threatens to kill her and slaps her across the face, not after she did anything, but after the ensemble acting as a stand-in for his own internal monologue repeats his self-deprication that he is dumb back to him (“Marvin Hits Trina”)
    • He cannot take responsibility for anything! He blames Mendel for stealing the family that Marvin himself broke away from, leaving Trina and Jason stranded in a tug-of-war of which man the family belongs to
  • Jason is 12.

Finn and Lapine are also very aware that the men are immature. In fact, they wrote a whole series of songs about it! Here we have “Trina’s Song,” “March of the Falsettos,” and “Trina’s Song (Reprise).” This sequence starts with the lyric “I’m tired of all the happy men who rule the world/ they grow, of that I’m sure, they grow but don’t mature,” setting us up to hear Trina’s innermost thoughts and laments about how much she attends to these men (as they’ve decided to assume the role of Letting Women Attend to Them Instead of Being Functional Adults) because “They amuse [her]” or because she’s “wired” or because her life is entirely dependent on the whims of men (“I’ll wed and change my life”), and also setting me up to take a trip to Spain without the S. So, Trina is alone onstage singing this heartbreaking song about the contradictions between her dissatisfaction with men and her inability to live without them, and then the men arrive just in time for “March of the Falsettos.” A blacklight washes over the stage, rendering Trina indistinguishable from the rest of the backdrop, and the men appear onstage wearing fluorescent tee-shirts, shorts, goggles, and propeller hats. If that wasn’t weird enough, all of the adult men open their mouths to sing a song that would be well within their belting range in a falsetto. Except for Jason, who is 12. Although weird, this is intentional— these fluorescent adult bodies are the embodiment of the men’s psyches and inner voices, and those inner voices are in falsetto in order to match the pitch of a 12 year old. This way, the men can “keep replaying their adolescence” and perform hypermasculinity for one another while they do so. Then the light comes back on, revealing Trina once again, who has now decided to commit to a better life for herself (insert the “good for her” meme here) and move on from Marvin and the toxic lifestyle she lived with him. 

Although this is promising, there are three major caveats here: the first is “Trina’s Song (Reprise)” begins with Trina apologizing for “Trina’s Song,” emblematic of how women frequently feel the need to apologize for taking up space. The second is that Trina’s train of thought was interrupted by men, as is so familiar to so many women. And the third is that almost as soon as Trina commits to a better life where she gets over the anger she feels towards Marvin, Whizzer and Marvin get back together and Trina must yet again reinvent the family dynamic while the men insist on being prioritized, drastically reducing her chances of reclaiming her destiny and independence. And because Trina is exceptionally good at playing the part of Woman, she does it! She creates a family dynamic where they all begin to care about one another… once Whizzer gets AIDS and is on his deathbed. Jason chooses to have his Bar Mitzvah (much to Trina’s relief) in Whizzer’s hospital room, symbolizing all of the men finally, truly maturing because they are confronted with their own mortality. So all of Trina’s hard work pays off, despite the male mediocrity and immaturity in her way, and just as she comes to terms with who she is and what she wants her life to be, Whizzer dies and it shatters all over again. And because she is Woman surrounded by emotionally stunted men, we know she will bear the burden. 

Falsettos is about Trina. It is about how Trina is trapped by the men and notions of masculinity surrounding her. So trapped, in fact, that we think Falsettos is about them. Finn and Lapine have tragically, and ingeniously, trapped Trina inside her own musical. She links the stories all together— without Trina, there is no Jason, let alone a relationship between Jason and Marvin. Trina goes along with Marvin’s “tight-knit family” fantasy, creating the key relationship between Jason and Whizzer that sets the groundwork for all the men to finally grow up. She marries Mendel, which connects him to Marvin and Whizzer in a personal rather than professional context and gives Jason the closest thing to a positive male role model she can find. But in creating all of these connections, she has tangled herself in the middle. Trina could have pulled a Doll’s House and left, sure— left behind Jason and Marvin, never met Mendel, never paid Whizzer any mind, and shed the gender roles that came in a package deal with them along the way. She could have avoided years of serving these men with no reciprocity, years of being strung along and left out to dry by their every immature whim, years of not knowing her own worth and being treated like a commodity. But she doesn’t, because she loves them. She loves them so much that she loses her mind when they leave, that she cannot fathom an existence without them, that she associates the men being near with the appearance of “happiness and love.” Gender roles and male immaturity are pernicious societal forces that push Trina (and so many other women) into the deep end, but the true tragedy of Trina is that it is her love— whether it’s programmed by society, manifested because she’s bored, or genuine— that the patriarchy weaponizes to hold her underwater, crying out “five!” in the hopes that any of the four Jews in the room will stop their bitching long enough to realize she’s about to drown. 

Reference

Falsettos, BroadwayHD, 2017, http://www.broadwayhd.com/movies/AW2GubDEpx3F9_4AqewY.

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