This Moral Coil

My column about spending three decades at this post produced, for a change, some friendlier letters from readers. By far the most interesting came from a woman in Winder, Georgia, who took me to task for having any complaints at all about my job, when many Americans don't live within reach of a professional theater, and a great many of those who do can't afford to go regularly even if they want to. Under the circumstances, she thinks, I should view my work as unadulterated privilege; she herself would be grateful for a glimpse of even the worst productions I get to cover.

Maybe, but I doubt it. After a few weeks, the theatrical assembly line is much like any other, and the inspector at the end of the line, weeding out the defective products, can get as bored as any other drone without some internal alarm clock to keep him vigilant. The critic's wake-up call, of course, is precisely the thought of those show-starved souls on whose behalf my correspondent claims to speak: Hard as it is for them to get to the theater, they deserve the absolute best once they're there. That they will accept less, or let themselves be dazzled into swallowing it by a blizzard of hype and glitz, isn't a mark against them, but a compliment: It shows how deeply they desire the extra dimension that theater, unlike the prefab media, can give to life. Even at its worst, theater's alive in a way that movies and TV are not.

That for many Americans theater is also unavailable—too far away to reach, or priced too high above their pocket—is a political matter, and so partly outside a critic's purview. The Republicans, who've spent so much time and effort trying to kill the National Endowment for the Arts, are chiefly to blame, and should never be voted for by any American with any faith in the value of art in any form. Capitalists grub money out of the theater; in this country, that's inevitable, and probably always will be. But a sense of national commitment behind what's now an enormous, multitiered, nationwide system of nonprofit theaters would be the strongest backing for universal access, or for any other challenge to the principle of just doing it for the money—the unspoken guideline by which, at present, far too many New York theaters are run. Critics, in this context, can only provide the intermittent prod of individual voices crying out in the wilderness, warning readers away from theater that's been diluted in every aspect with somebody's extraneous idea of salability.

West, Ehle, and Cumming in Design for Living: trilateral omission
photo: Joan Marcus
West, Ehle, and Cumming in Design for Living: trilateral omission

Details

Lobby Hero
By Kenneth Lonergan
Playwrights Horizons
16 West 42nd Street
212-279-4200

Design for Living
By Noël Coward
The former Selwyn Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
212-279-1300

Just now, Kenneth Lonergan is a highly marketable purveyor of scripts, an Oscar nominee for his first film as writer-director, linked to names that name-droppers love to conjure with, and glowing with the anointment of media prestige. Under those circumstances, anyone who offers a negative comment gets automatic ratfuck status; one mustn't prick the publicity balloon. Well, I have no desire to kill the goose laying Lonergan's golden eggs. His wife, J. Smith-Cameron, is one of my favorite actresses, and since actors can no longer support themselves solely by stage work in this overpriced town, I'd prefer, if anything, for Lonergan to make acres of money. But does this mean I have to like Lobby Hero?

Answer: Not if I don't like it. There is something going on in its brain, an attempt to dramatize and sort out a moral problem—a good and rare thing in plays these days. And Lonergan's central character—a hapless putz at loose ends, like the young men at the center of his two previous plays—is more interesting than the overliterate damaged souls at the center of many new American plays. But that's as far as my enthusiasm for the script can honestly go. The morality Lonergan is testing comes in a situation so elaborately rigged up that it hardly seems to pose a problem at all. Should a guy who isn't very reliable or very honest with himself betray a trust and do a friend dirt in order to take advantage of the vulnerability of a female rookie cop he has the hots for when she's out for revenge on her double-dealing patrol partner? All's fair in love and war, but putting your best (and perhaps only) friend's brother in jail for life is an act most people would think twice about. Not Lonergan's hero; as in every other situation up to that point, he just opens his big obnoxious yap and mouths away, barely glimpsing the consequences.

Heedless people who live from moment to moment make diverting minor characters in drama; turning them into heroes, even the ironic kind, is hard because they don't command the audience's respect, let alone its sympathy. We may see how much they have in common with us, but to watch for two hours while they get ever more deeply embroiled in the results of their own fecklessness is like watching the sand run down an hourglass. It's worse if, as with Lobby Hero, you suspect the glass is rigged so that you're not even getting a full hour's worth. Because you can't take Lonergan's protagonist seriously, you start questioning everything around him: How come he isn't used to the older cop from the latter's previous visits to the building? How could a young woman as visibly unstable as the heroine get through the police academy? Why does the serious-minded, African American supervisor choose this motormouthed white pea-brain as his confidant? ("I find your presence to be very soothing," the supervisor says, not two minutes after he's reprimanded the wiseass hero for getting on his already frayed nerves.)

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