Oldness but Goodness

Some old pieces of theater can be amazingly up to date; others are just an amazing up

People complain that the theater audience is too old. I suspect the main reason, other than high ticket prices, is that the plays are too new. Broadway, admittedly, prefers pre-sold items from outdated 10-best lists, but it needs to dress even these in "new" gimmickry—new "darker" (yawn) approaches, ruinous new "adaptations." While Broadway's "new" musicals mostly rehash old songwriters' catalogs, its old ones are invariably "revisals." Only rarely does uptown theater convey enough genuine love for an old work to empower a revival as good as Dinner at Eight or A Raisin in the Sun. Lacking any big institution with a sustained commitment to the past—the Roundabout is a travesty in this regard, while Lincoln Center varies its archival forays with new-play business—theatergoers who want to relish old treasures have to turn downtown, where smaller groups with sparser resources struggle for attention, and audiences are generally younger.

That older folk prefer the old dressed up in denatured newness is no surprise: Nostalgia isn't the same thing as history, and Americans notoriously prefer fond memories to accurate recollections. A gesture toward the past is enough for oldsters; it affirms that they actually had one. If the kids and grandkids on whom they inflict this simulacrum are less enthused, the problem's assumed to be generational; nobody asks whether they might prefer a living past to both the laminated uptown version and the culture that mass marketing carves out for them.

Which makes it all the more reasonable that New York should have at least one theatrical institution, midsize or larger, where the past is a living force, instead of either a reliquary or a decorator's salon. Such a theater should probably have a consortium of artistic directors, not a single self-proclaimed (or hype-proclaimed) genius: The days when the sensibility of an Eva Le Gallienne or Ellis Rabb was both broad enough and cultivated enough to motivate an undertaking of this scope are over. Today's directorial visions are altogether too partial; it should be the function of such a theater to unite, not to subdivide, helping New Yorkers see that their many different groups are a continuum, just as the past and the present are one.

From left: Larmer, Rubinstein, and Beth Glover in Counsellor-at-Law
photo: Jen Joyce Davis
From left: Larmer, Rubinstein, and Beth Glover in Counsellor-at-Law

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Counsellor-at-Law
By Elmer Rice
Bank Street Theatre
Closed

The Girl Friend
and Have a Heart
Musicals Tonight!
Closed

This old daydream regrew in me while I was watching a series of rarities from the American past, one revelatory and two diverting. The revelation was Peccadillo Theater's production of Elmer Rice's 1931 drama Counsellor-at-Law, directed by Dan Wackerman. The production is gone, but it attracted so much enthusiasm that rumors of its imminent return are flying. Rice's large-scale piece, hectic with action and packed with juicy urban characters, turns out to be nearly as fine in its brash way as the half-dozen best American plays. A Depression-era quintessence, complete with bankrupt jumpers from skyscraper windows, its sharp-nosed chronicle of an upwardly mobile attorney's struggle to harmonize his tenement roots with his haughty wife's old-money world is full of lines and situations that might crop up tomorrow, differently accented.

Using 20 actors in 23 roles on a kitchenette-sized stage, Wackerman not only kept the traffic orderly and the pace breakneck, but built at least half a dozen performances of major substance. The show belongs to its title character; John Rubinstein, pacing and growling, evoked the jut-jawed bulldog tenacity of late-period Cagney. High among his most able supporters were Mary Carver as his mother, Lanie MacEwan as the ultimate faithful secretary, James M. Larmer as a high-class lowlife, and Tara Sands, channeling the spirit of Isabel Jewell as the office's frenetic receptionist.

That Wackerman, with the skimpiest resources, could not only bring off Rice's busy mosaic, but also give it a contemporary vividness without trashing its period tone, suggests that he has both love and respect for our predecessors, unlike the uptown names who so often turn antique plays into a dog's dinner. His achievement dramatizes the extent to which New York's theatrical resources are misapplied just now. That, even more than high ticket prices, explains why the young don't go to the theater. Imagination, energy, and passion, always the province of youth, are scarce among the established institutions, with their heads off in media-land. Audiences who want theater require people who want to make theater, not corporate content providers.

Even when the imagination falls short, the passion to make theater can carry the day. Nobody would claim that Mel Miller and Thomas Mills, who produce and direct Musicals Tonight!'s staged concerts, are a match in artistry for Flo Ziegfeld and Ned Wayburn. But their beginner-laden casts clomp through these barely known shows with a zest impossible to resist. Magical voices sometimes ring out, and astonishing gems turn up. (Who knew that Richard Rodgers once remade "Turkey in the Straw" as a Charleston?) Admittedly, the young don't come; this isn't their musical world, and odd titles in an odd venue don't attract. But the troupe's moving to midtown next year, and young ears may find the dapper cynicism of the '20s and '30s more to their taste than the amplified solemnity that clogs Broadway: When the future seems all downhill, the past can be an up.

 
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