Infertile Ground

A comedy pregnant with possibilities but no substance or slammable doors

But then tenability—the notion that the parts of a play all belong together and support each other in making a complete statement—seems very far from the minds of the playwrights favored by our nonprofit theaters these days. In its inconsequentiality and inconsistency, Joseph's play isn't that far from the two disastrous duds with which Second Stage ended its mainstage season or from many other recent instances of the allegedly up-and-coming. Not for the first time this year, I was reminded of an antique playwright whom I imagine few living people except myself and some theater historians have bothered to read: Frederick Reynolds (1764–1841), probably the worst writer ever to have been a huge success in the English-speaking theater. Mainly famous for having saved Drury Lane from bankruptcy by inventing "dog drama," the canine-centered melodramatic genre that paved the way for Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, Reynolds churned out plays that are alarmingly incoherent in plot and every other regard, mixing the stale dregs of 18th-century comedy of manners with splodges of every then current pop form from Gothic horror to mortgage melodrama. His plays stink of mass marketing. The name of his most successful comedy, How to Grow Rich, even sounds like one of today's self-help titles.

Waiting for the next line: Sadoski and Ritter
photo: Joan Marcus
Waiting for the next line: Sadoski and Ritter

Details

All This Intimacy
By Rajiv Joseph
McGinn/Cazale Theatre
2162 Broadway
212-246-4422

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Reynolds wrote for a time when, like today, the world was going through enormous upheavals—never expressed in his work, only reflected in its jumble of uninflected gestures. Back then, like today, intelligent people had largely lost interest in the theater, which was gradually losing its status as a branch of literature. It recovered its footing (sensibly turning its back on Reynolds) in the next generation: Boucicault, Gilbert, Robertson, and the early Pinero may not exactly rank at the top of the list with Sophocles and Moliére, but each of them perceived, as Reynolds hadn't, that a play must be all of a piece, whatever shocks of cognitive dissonance its components offer, and that its characters, however streamlined or two-dimensionalized, must convey that their life extends beyond the bounds of what we see. Without these elements, there's hardly any point in writing a play at all. But our theater seems largely indifferent to them. If it doesn't collapse of its own inanition first, expect a return to the basic elements of playwriting soon. The time of Frederick Reynolds is a fleeting one.

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