Agenda Bending

Spring is here, but the shortsighted gang of money-grubbing sadists who pompously call themselves the League of American Theatres and Producers, Inc., won't let critical boys and girls go out to play, only to see plays. Every April, they jam their tiresome heap of retreads and imports into the few weeks before the Tony nominations close. When you think about it, the nominating committee should be far more offended than I am: the producers' underlying assumption being that even the nominators will have forgotten, by May 1, any show that opens before April Fools' Day. I've frequently offered my simple solution for this dilemma—"produce memorable plays"—but the producers never adopt it, confirming my suspicion that they hate the theater almost as much as the rest of America does.

They've certainly been doing their best to make everyone else hate it. After six nights of nonstop theatergoing—and I have an easier schedule than some of my colleagues—I've seen almost nothing I could call theater. Overpriced, overproduced, overhyped, and overexplained, the experiences crumble away in retrospect, leaving behind the memory of a few exciting moments, a clutch of interesting performers, and not much else. If I were a tourist on the same schedule, I doubt that I'd ever want to go into a theater again. And yet, people have been creating theatrical greatness for at least two and a half millennia. The art form isn't all a fraud perpetrated by the League; it just looks that way at the end of a grim week. I can bear witness, too, that there are audiences Uptown, Downtown, and all over the country who sit through these parades of dismal, half-formed, or irrelevant commercial crap because they, like me, love the theater and want it to be great. Yes, they applaud indiscriminately, and they stand up at curtain calls when they think they're supposed to, but not merely because they're naive idiots. They do it as testimony to their willingness to be moved, while waiting for the event that will move them unaided by their own volition.

Instead, Broadway proffers works to which no direct response is possible, because they aren't being put on for direct reasons. The love of the play and what it contains keeps being supplanted by other things: the work's cachet, its point of origin, the ethnicity or nationality of its cast. Politics worms its discomfiting way in sidewise: The issues addressed matter less than the stance taken toward them, which isn't what Brecht meant when he said the theater should take a stance on the issues it deals with. First, that implies, you have to deal with them; Broadway prefers to emphasize how they're packaged.

Judith Ivey and Hayley Mills in "Shadows of the Evening": Suite while it lasted
photo: Joan Marcus
Judith Ivey and Hayley Mills in "Shadows of the Evening": Suite while it lasted

Details

Suite in Two Keys
By NoŽl Coward
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street (Closed)

Rose
By Martin Sherman
Lyceum Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street 212-239-6200

The Wild Party
By Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe
Virginia Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street 212-239-6200

The Real Thing
By Tom Stoppard
Barrymore Theatre
Broadway and 47th Street 212-239-6200

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Under such circumstances, it's appropriate that the closest the week came to actual theater was in a pair of Noël Coward one-acts Off-Broadway, two-thirds of the centennial playwright's last major work, the 1966 Swiss hotel trilogy he called Suite in Three Keys. The new production drops the farcical "Come Into the Garden, Maud," replacing it with the local premiere of the somber "Shadows of the Evening."

This made for an awkward imbalance: "Shadows," a brief lesson in stiff-upper-lip-ness, is about an unflappable publisher showing his wife and mistress how to cope with the news that he has only a few months to live. "A Song at Twilight," the main course, deals with a wealthy hack writer (allegedly modeled on Somerset Maugham) confronted by an old flame, down on her luck, who threatens to publish his letters to the one person he genuinely loved—another man, now dead. Skilled theatrician that he was, Coward would have been the first to see that two plays about death and lost love make a gloomy evening, despite all the glittery Coward witticisms bandied back and forth. A romp was needed.

That was the first of the evening's two major flaws. The second, ironically, was that Paxton Whitehead, an actor best known for his rompish comic sense, was at a hopeless loss in "Shadows," conveying about as much pathos, pain, and fear of death as a rubber duck. He pulled himself together with reasonable dash for "Song at Twilight"—though he then, inevitably, had trouble falling apart again for its conclusion. In both plays, however, he was flanked by a commendable performance and a really superb one. The commendation goes to Hayley Mills, especially touching as the writer's boundlessly patient German wife; the plaudits belong to Judith Ivey, incisive, infallible, and a sheer delight from her panic-stricken first line in "Shadows" to her sad-but-triumphant final exit in "Song at Twilight."

Coward wrote partly to offer audiences the pleasure of performances as fine as Ivey's, but he also had higher aims in view. If "Shadows" is largely an exercise in actor display, needing elements that weren't all on display here, its counterpiece is something bigger. Maugham's notorious secretiveness about his sex life may have been the inspiration, but Coward lived and chafed (more flamboyantly, granted) in the same half-light. He seized the time to speak openly when it came round, and he spoke as a playwright, not a propagandist, weighing choices made and not made against each other. As a result, "A Song at Twilight" seems, if anything, more meaningful now—a fact which, in tandem with Ivey's performance, should have given Suite in Two Keys at least a few weeks' run. Instead, trampled by the Tony rush, it got its mixed reviews and shut its doors quietly, outshouted by events that are neither as serious nor as much fun.

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