Even Bad Is Better 'Off'

If this season was any indication, the future is brighter Off-Broadway

It was terrible, it was deadly, it was the worst. Why they chose the plays they did, why they produced and cast and directed them as they did, why I had to sit through them, I'll never fully understand. The season, if you go by seasons, was the worst within living memory. Everybody says so. In fact, they say so every year. If we took them at their word, we'd have to conclude that the theater in New York has been getting steadily worse since the day in 1866 when they stuck a French ballet troupe into a gothic melodrama at Niblo's Garden and invented musical comedy. There hasn't been a good new play in town since Boucicault gave us The Shaughraun, and there hasn't been a great performance since Mrs. Fiske gave up playing Becky Sharp.

I'm deliberately talking antiquated nonsense, of course. Because it's still the way we all talk, at the end of another theatrical year: Just insert today's names in place of the ones from the theater-history textbooks. You've heard this song before. George Bernard Shaw, when he was practicing drama criticism over a century ago, summarized it in one elegantly precise sentence: "The theater is, was, and eternally will be as bad as it possibly can."

Viewed from the commercial perspective, via Broadway, these last few years in the New York theater have been boom years. The numbers tell a happy story, if you're only in it for the money: More people than ever are paying higher prices than ever to spend between 90 and 150 minutes in the presence of actors on a stage and musicians in an orchestra pit—fewer of either than in days gone by, to sweeten the profiteers' deal even further. A fairly large percentage of these high-paying people are tourists, who spend money while they're here in a great many places other than Broadway theaters, bringing New York incalculable economic benefits, blah blah blah, and so on. You've heard this song before, too; either the mayor's Department of Cultural Affairs or the League of American Theatres and Producers issues a press release reprising it every two weeks or so. I'm not complaining. I think it's great that our big bad blue city rakes in all those red-state shekels. They keep the big theaters bankrolled, and I for one am glad they're here, no matter how difficult it gets to battle through the crowds in Times Square on my way to a Friday- or Saturday-night press performance.

Obie winner S. Epatha Merkerson in Birdie Blue
photo: Joan Marcus
Obie winner S. Epatha Merkerson in Birdie Blue


See also:
Winners! Pictures! Stars of the Stage!
The 51st Annual Obie Awards


But I have to admit that there's a technical problem with Broadway in the new tourist era: It's mostly boring. It seems to me to resemble theater, the art form I've spent my life writing about, less and less. Old plays dredged up for celebrities from the mechanized media, new musicals based on not-so-old movies, old musicals rehashed, everything loaded down with glitz and blandness and overexplanation (tourist audiences are not thought to be very bright): This is not a recipe for exciting theater. The days when tourists came to a Broadway show precisely because it didn't reflect what they could see in Omaha or Butte or Flagstaff are long gone. In that era, a far less expensive Broadway had its own homegrown audience, and the New Yorkers told the tourists what New York taste was, not vice versa.

But New Yorkers still do shape the taste of the New York theater, only—oh irony—the Broadway theater isn't the New York theater anymore; it's just a centralized clearinghouse for the various corporate notions of what makes theater a tourist attraction. Its taste is really to a large extent L.A. taste, which is to say none at all. It imports products from Off-Broadway, from the regions, from London and Dublin. The production that's actually nurtured exclusively for Broadway is a rarity.

Off-Broadway, in contrast, has its own ways and means, Off-Off even more so. Yes, the media infection has spread even there: The press releases now play up actors' TV cameos, or their single sank-without-trace movie credit, rather than the five or six stage roles by which New York has come to know and love them. But every year, as we bicker our way through the Obie award meetings, I'm staggered by the number of actors who manage to impress their abilities on the public consciousness without benefit of celluloid. Look at the roster of this year's outstanding performances. If playwriting was a little on the low side, acting ran high; it was a hectic season crammed full of terrific work: Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson in Grey Gardens; Peter Francis James and Byron Jennings (plus a dozen others) in Stuff Happens; S. Epatha Merkerson in Birdie Blue; Lois Smith in The Trip to Bountiful; J. Smith-Cameron and Reed Birney in Pen; Euan Morton and Michael Stuhlbarg in Measure for Pleasure; Michael Cumpsty in Hamlet; Kate Forbes and Laurie Kennedy in All's Well That Ends Well; Dana Ivey in Mrs. Warren's Profession; Kristine Nielsen in Miss Witherspoon; Stephen Lang and Margaret Colin in Defiance; Marian Seldes and Nathan Lane in Dedication. And that's only the first batch of names off the top of my head. Imagine how long the list would get if I'd gone about it systematically.

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