1907, 1957, and...Now?

Welcome to Off-Off-Broadway's newest theatrical discovery—the past

Keen Company and Transport Group have taken a different tack, each keeping one foot planted in the past and one in the present. Keen, which says it believes in "sincere" plays that offer "hope for humanity," has a sentimental streak to its taste, sliding dangerously toward hokey stuff like The Hasty Heart or Tea and Sympathy; it's been bold enough, though, to tackle resolutely hardheaded plays like Maugham's sardonic 1930 study in lost affluence, The Breadwinner, and Heinar Kipphardt's 1964 docudrama In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a sobersided, prescient look at our Cold War nuclear establishment. And though Keen puts theme, rather than formal innovation, first, the company kicked the lid off one of Downtown's longest-simmering aesthetic kettles with its powerful production pairing two of Thornton Wilder's open-form masterpieces, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and Pullman Car Hiawatha. Wilder's tireless quest for innovation gets little respect these days in the Times Square marketplace, where he's mainly celebrated for writing the play that became Hello, Dolly! But Downtown, he's always been, like his good friend Gertrude Stein, a founding father. Plays from the two uncompleted one-act cycles of his old age have cropped up intermittently Off-Off, as have the wilder early Wilder one-acts like Hiawatha and The Long Christmas Dinner.

Ultimately, though, Wilder's example may have a longer-lasting effect than even the best of his works. As the writer who, while never wholly jettisoning naturalism, pushed playwriting in every imaginable direction, he sent off reverberations that echoed through this year's most striking rediscoveries, Transport Group's productions of Tad Mosel's All the Way Home (adapted from James Agee's novel A Death in the Family) and William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Both Southern- inflected family plays (Tennessee, Oklahoma) that had first sprouted in the Broadway sensibility of the 1950s, the scripts belong to the genre that always provokes scholarly sneers at our theater's inability to give up the worn-out conventions of stage realism. But Transport Group, which stretches its vision to include musicals, new and old, as well as plays, had no worn-out conventions to give up. They played both pieces in stripped-down settings that would have made Wilder rejoice, veering freely in and out of the naturalistic context, shifting angles and points of view to reveal, under the Currier & Ives surface reality, memory plays full of expressionist angst, heightened by a kind of child's-eye-view surrealism. Suddenly, in their bare bones, scripts one links to cozy bourgeois sentiment took on all sorts of new, sharp-edged implications.

This tactic, like the interest in rejuvenating a forgotten repertoire, would have been less surprising half a century ago, when Off-Broadway was young and Off-Off in its infancy. That time, too, mixed into its newness a hearty helping of eye-openers from the past: Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott coming to light in Edwin Justus Mayer's Children of Darkness; Gene Frankel's legendary staging of Machinal; Ellis Rabb's salutary breaches of canonical rigor, like including George M. Cohan's The Tavern in the APA's repertory, side by side with Shaw, Sheridan, Pirandello, and Giraudoux. Those dips into the overlooked past existed simultaneously with the headiest ventures into the new: the Ridiculous; Tom O'Horgan building the contemporary equivalent of a medieval strolling players' troupe at La MaMa; the postmodern dance scene at Judson Church morphing into a loose-jointed new form of musical theater. But the Downtown work of that era, so gay (in both senses), so lighthearted even when angry, so evanescent that Susan Sontag could compare its scripts to Kleenex to be used and thrown away—no one could possibly bring that back, could they?

Tour de '60s: The Madness of Lady Bright, from West Village Fragments
photo: Stefan Hagen
Tour de '60s: The Madness of Lady Bright, from West Village Fragments

Don't be so sure. The single most startling part of Off-Off's newfound fondness for the past, the news inside the news, is the number of young people who seem to want the early Off-Off days back. It's not a nostalgia trip I would have invented, or even expected. I'm not the one who sends crowds of youngsters to hear the old-timers reminisce at La MaMa's bimonthly "Coffeehouse Chronicles," or who instantly posts on theater chat sites Jerry Tallmer's Villager articles revisiting the early days. Peculiar Works, a company that began by delving into edgy new-style work, has spent much of the last few years sifting through the scripts and data of early Off-Off-Broadway; their readings and discussions led to last fall's exhilarating West Village Fragments, a walking tour that juxtaposed plays of the '60s to sites associated with their original performances—sometimes literally up against the wall where an Off-Off theater had once existed. And the group's still at it: Stay tuned for East Village Fragments, currently scheduled for June.

The vanished world to which Peculiar Works' exuberant retrospectives brought this flickering new life also has a more solid existence in our new millennium's other startling new development, a spate of recent books devoted to this tiny theater movement largely confined to this one minuscule part of New York: David A. Crespy's Off-Off-Broadway Explosion; Stephen J. Bottoms's Playing Underground; Wendell C. Stone's Caffe Cino; and Return to the Caffe Cino, a bulky anthology of scripts and reminiscences edited by Steve Susoyev and George Birimisa, who knew the place firsthand. This is astonishing: Four substantial books, in fewer than four years, about a single strand of theater in a time of nationwide cultural upheaval, published in a world where books on theater, like books on every subject, are widely viewed as a vanishing species. What did Gertrude Stein say? "It does not prove anything, but it may tend to indicate something." One thing it certainly indicates is that more such books are likely to follow: The Off-Off-Broadway of the past is now, officially, historic—meaning, among other things, that its dramatic literature too stands ready to be rediscovered.

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