Unseasonable Reflections

Something Was Missing in the Theater This Year—Did Anybody Notice?

There were brighter spots in the wasteland, of course. Urinetown, revisited after the disaster, seemed stronger in substance. Its gritty, smiling nihilism, ridiculing both agitprop earnestness on the one hand and affluent optimism on the other, came across as a viable style for living onstage in a world where terror can strike at any moment. And the targets of its contempt had a cutting relevance. Not that contempt was a necessary precondition for fun: The Producers, after its flurry of cast changes, still drew laughs from targets that Aristophanes relished 1600 years ago. Giving them 20th-century labels doesn't alter their archetypal antiquity, just as the elaborate contortions that Thoroughly Modern Millie's book goes through to make its thoroughly old-fashioned stereotypes socially acceptable doesn't change their cornball nature. Which is OK, when they're embodied by such appealing people: Millie's cheerful inanity causes no pain; the constant effort to correct its social mores is what makes reviewers' jaws ache from repeated dropping. It imposes the same additional distance from reality that Broadway revivals of nonmusicals increasingly enforce by casting Hollywood nonstars who can't act in lieu of actors trained and experienced at stage work.

I call them nonstars because, though the media give them celebrity status, nobody would buy a movie ticket just to see them; the dementia of producers who think their names sell pricier Broadway tickets, which swelled to plague proportions this year, is a mystery. I don't mean that all of these people lack all talent, but they aren't actors. Acting is done on the stage, in three dimensions; it requires constant practice there, before live, watchful audiences. The company of Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theatre, which played BAM last week, could walk onstage and in five seconds make our media folk look like a pile of pasteboard props.

And yet we have plenty of real actors, some of whom were visible this year in real plays: The Swedes would have been as happy as I was to watch Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl, Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright, Robin Bartlett and Bebe Neuwirth (another mystery: the critical dismissal of Everett Beekin), Peter Frechette and Reg Rogers, Estelle Parsons and Frances Sternhagen. The scripts and productions these people animated weren't exactly shabby, either. And that's only the iceberg's tip.

No, I shouldn't be tired and irritable; I have a lot to be glad about. Unlike 100,000 New Yorkers whose specially extended unemployment benefits are about to run out, I still have my job—at least until Graduate fans start e-mailing my editor. But I don't even mind The Graduate that much. What I mind is the absence of a living theater to counterbalance it. I am tired of living-corpse revivals, whether imported from London or cast from Hollywood. I'm tired of plays with no play to them, and experiments that try nothing. I'm tired of overpriced empty theater for the rich and of scraped-together self-conscious grunge for the artsy kids. I'm tired of last year's borrowings presented as stunning innovations. I want a theater for people who live in the world and respond to it—scary as that is these days.

Instead, I live in a city where one set of producers sees artistic success as an occasion to invent new categories of high-priced tickets, while another sees it as a chance to fob off non-union touring replicas on the nationwide public. Again, there's nothing new in this; what's new is the absence of the countervailing force at the center, speaking for the theatrical sense as a basic human impulse. It used to be something theater people all shared. Today, I'd say, it reposes in individual artists—lots of them—but the sense of sharing is almost gone, leaving a gap like the one at ground zero, to cause a permanent ache in hearts that, like mine, are given wholly to the theater. No one's discussed, in real terms, ways of filling that gap. Can I be the only one who's noticed it?

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