Gender Is the Night

Like It or Not, It's Theater, Pure and Simple

I'm nervous about making any evening in the theater sound perfect; high expectations are so easily let down. In Greenspan's place, I might snip one or two lines, in the few places where he pushes a scene slightly beyond its natural span. I might tone down a few points where the one performer whom the director can't see goes slightly over the mark. But that's all. Small, breezy, and near perfect, She Stoops to Comedy is a very big event, tickling up, in its cameo-carved wit, large ideas about love, truth, art, reality, and other matters that concern everyone. You go to the theater, you experience delight instead of agony, you come home exhilarated, and when you wake up the next day, you have an enhanced awareness of life as well as a pleasant memory. I believe this is how the process of theatergoing is meant to work. And I believe that David Greenspan is not the only artist in New York who can make it do so. Why the others don't is the part I haven't figured out yet.

At least I know what hinders the delight in Erica Schmidt's Public Theater production of As You Like It, a heavily cut version that employs a cast of only six on a bare stage—rather recalling the five-actor version that Greenspan's characters patch together. Schmidt has at least partially grasped the same basic good idea: that simplicity, directness, and a minimum of apparatus are what the theater needs right now. And even though she lets her good idea go wrong, it still looks and feels better than a bad idea gone wrong, which is the usual practice in New York these days. Unhappily, she's one of the countless victims of the theatrical ailment known in its most virulent form as Saxe-Meiningen Syndrome, or Kazan's Tic, which results from there having been, at times, directors who actually had creative sensibilities. Pollen from these having rubbed off on people of no particular ability or intellect, the latter developed a bloated sense of self-importance that broke out into what is called directorial concept—a show-business term meaning "a bad idea." The painful result is that now almost no one can direct a play without imposing some irrelevantly perverse notion on it, and then calling attention to the notion all evening long.

Smith, Kerr, Copeland, and Greenspan in She Stoops to Comedy: once upon a mattress
photo: Joan Marcus
Smith, Kerr, Copeland, and Greenspan in She Stoops to Comedy: once upon a mattress


She Stoops to Comedy
By David Greenspan
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

As You Like It
By William Shakespeare
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street

The oddity of Schmidt's less virulent case is that half of her "concept" simply consists of the straightforward, bare-stage format, perfectly suited to the common sense inherent in Shakespeare's work. The other half, regrettably, consists of calling attention to the reductions, to their execution, and to the fact that the play is supposed to be funny. In lieu of something like Greenspan's simple clothes and straight-on staging, Schmidt offers cutesy-poo costumes, endless gratuitous running around, archly "comic" voices, and an almost unerring ability to miss the point of any line or speech in one of the most familiar plays in the classic repertoire.

Despite these irritations, and the general callowness of the cast, the evening is by no means one of the more painful you can currently spend in a theater. The performance is short and brisk; the Rosalind and Orlando, Bryce Dallas Howard and Lorenzo Pisoni, are attractive and not too ill-spoken; and Pisoni's circus-gymnast training means that you get some spectacular back flips mixed in with the poetry. Even the repetitive hat-switching business with which Schmidt persistently reminds you that her actors are playing multiple roles is sometimes neatly choreographed. It could be worse. But the true Shakespearean note—more matter with less art—is struck in Greenspan's non-Shakespearean text.

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