Season Your Admiration

In the midst of global dimming, the theater could offer a few bright spots

First, don't blame me. If New York's theater was in a miserable condition this year—and it was—I've been warning for years that it might come to this. The theater's badness is never really a surprise; it was none even to Bernard Shaw, the best theater critic ever to write in English, who said, after only three years' servitude, "The theater is, was, and eternally will be as bad as it possibly can." This is the bottom line, which every critic goes in knowing. Drowning Crow and Prymate may have been nadirs, but they held no terrors for one who's survived Gogo Loves You and Rockabye Hamlet. If the past year drove me to contemplate giving up the theater altogether, and ceasing to be blamed for the Obies (with which, for the past three years, I've had no connection owing to outside commitments), the cause of my discontent lay beyond simple badness.

Since a certain amount of theater will always be rottenly disappointing, the big question is always: What keeps the theater as a whole above disappointment? Who maintains the standard; more importantly, who perpetrates the work that drags it down? This is where my concern runs deep. There is, especially Off-Broadway, no dearth of fine things to balance the rotten ones. The year that gave us three plays as good as I Am My Own Wife, Intimate Apparel, and Well can hold its head high in any chronicle. And as better plays will, these and others offered great opportunities for their interpreters. Even when at its dramaturgical worst, the year was a feast of great acting and astute directing; those quiet, rarely publicized folk, the designers, performed the succession of daily miracles that, little understood or honored, are their field's normal practice. Given enough space, I'd gladly list dozens of artists who brought me joy this year. When the season's dullest play shows off J. Smith Cameron, and its crassest is dignified by André de Shields, we're clearly not starved for great executants.

Who, then, causes our shortfall? I blame producers and artistic directors. Why not? After all, they're the decision makers. I don't envy them. They're accountable to anybody who doesn't like something: their boards of directors, their subscribers, their principal donors, their staff, the press, artists, agents, managers, and God knows whom all else. They have a lot to struggle with, especially money, chronically short in the arts, and since 9-11 particularly scarce in New York's entertainment sector. Money isn't everything but it's required for most things. Nobody can fault a producer for wanting to make money, and for choosing to produce work that will do so by pleasing the public. This essay is not a diatribe against popularity, which has always been part of the theater and always made its own conditions. If the public is tasteless enough to enjoy Wicked, or hipped enough on sordid Schadenfreude to find Bug and Neil LaBute meaningful, that's the public's problem, not mine.

Intimate Apparel: No dearth of fine things
photo: Joan Marcus
Intimate Apparel: No dearth of fine things

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    No, the real problem, for me, is the overwhelming number of plays produced which are self-evidently without either the hope of success or the prestige of a challenging failure. Plays that water down experience instead of intensifying it; plays that dress up trite materials in an issue or a gimmick; plays that embody the writer's familial gripe without ever making it the audience's concern; plays that look and sound like somebody else's hit play of two years ago; plays that make such frantic efforts to look and sound different that they forget to be plays. Every playwright knows these traps and, especially when young, has fallen into them; the real writers fight their way free because they have a real play burgeoning inside them. To stride past all the waiting temptations and simply write that play is one of the theater's hardest tasks—made infinitely harder if the prevailing conditions set by producers and artistic directors tend to reward fake plays instead of real ones.

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    Jefferson Mays: His playwright's voice
    photo: Joan Marcus
    In the 1890s, there was a controversy in London because a bishop declared that there were "no ladies" (meaning no respectable women) on the stage. "No ladies on the stage!" exclaimed a popular playwright of the era, "Why, there are hundreds of them—and only about six actresses." That's exactly how I feel about the plays I saw this year. There were hundreds of "respectable" scripts, but not more than 10 or a dozen plays. And despite the fools who believe that stars are the source of all ticket sales, and the pedants who believe that directorial deconstruction is the height of postmodern truth, the play is still very much the thing. People go to the theater, still, to become acquainted with a world, to see a story enacted, to experience a life of which they knew nothing before they entered the theater and which they come out cherishing as their own.

    The theater that fails to provide such experiences is not merely disappointing its audience; it is cheating them. People survive disappointment as they do a rained-out street fair, and try again the next week; a public that has been cheated drifts away, more resentful than let down, and may not try again for a very long time. I should add, quickly, that I don't think New York's producers and artistic directors intend to cheat their public. Of those I know, most are sincere in their artistic goals, or are at worst honest profiteers, meaning to give fair value for money. But far too often they go about it the wrong way.

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