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.

    For starts, they don't do plays they believe in. They do plays because someone else—a producing partner, a regional theater, a TV star's manager—told them to. Or because the writer's name is familiar from productions elsewhere. Or because the play fills a politically convenient niche. Or because some enhancement money has been dangled before them. None of these automatically makes a play bad. But none, I emphasize, is a reason for producing a play unless you already love that play. Not putting the play first has been, increasingly, the principal mistake of our theaters, from Broadway to Off-Off, profit and nonprofit alike. On far too many occasions this year, all I saw onstage was a producer's motive, glaring at me through the theatrical barrenness.

    It may be that our producers and artistic directors don't know a good play when they read it. I am never sure how much any of them knows about dramatic literature, its past and its prospects. (I've often thought of teaching a course called "Literacy for Producers." But how many of them would confess their condition by enrolling?) Certainly their sense of it is alarmingly narrow: A scattering of today's "hot" writers; a few 10-best lists from the recent past; a smattering of current and currently revived British or Irish works. Of the vast and complex world of European and Asian playwriting they know nothing except via London. When London busies itself, as it currently does, with restaging old American musicals and staging American movies, all sense of foreign life vanishes from our theater—especially unwise when our country is increasingly at loggerheads with the world.

    As with plays, so with actors, the theater's other basic nutrient. I don't deny that people buy tickets to see actual stage stars, like Hugh Jackman, or to help create new ones, like the Chenoweth-Menzel duo in Wicked. This is the public's glorious prerogative. But the myth that untrained movie and TV nobodies guarantee box office is just that—a myth, created by a pop media world isolated from the theater's reality. This year hopefully represented the myth's nadir; no producer is likely to announce Jasmine Guy, Ashley Judd, and Melora Walters in The Three Sisters anytime soon. Futile on Broadway, the practice is ludicrous for Off-Broadway, with its intimate houses, limited runs, and an audience more likely to recognize Cherry Jones than Liv Tyler. Trusting the audience is one of those basic principles our theaters have increasingly held in abeyance, like knowing the world and believing in the play.

    It's easy, now, to see how such principles got laid aside over the past decade. The boom times that produced global capitalism's stranglehold on the world had a parallel effect on our little world. But the boom times are over. Mega-capitalism's empty fraudulence, like that of the dogmatic bureaucracies that have turned the world's great religions into hate machines, has been exposed. We live on a planet that is running out of time; all vital institutions have to be rethought before we destroy the planet, or are destroyed ourselves. The theater—a place where much of the rethinking could occur—had better be one of the first, and the people who run it had better take notice. Otherwise, I may not be alone in finding it increasingly easy to do without.

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