Welcome to NYC's Hidden Golden Age of Theater

In New York theater today, what's not imported is what's underrated

I felt I had stumbled on one of those secret jewels, some months back, when I sat spellbound, in the tiny upstairs theater at Playwrights Horizons, by the quiet magic of Circle Mirror Transformation. It had not been overlooked: There were favorable reviews, and a bit of buzz on the chat sites; the show's run was already in the first of what proved to be multiple extensions. Even so, it felt secret. Here was a wonderful new work by a gifted young playwright, Annie Baker, and director, Sam Gold, and there had been no ecstatic media celebration, no bouquets of feature articles and interviews. Roughly twice as many people see Promises, Promises, every night, as saw Circle Mirror Transformation in any week of its run. Not only London, but Paris, Berlin, or Stockholm, would have found ways of compensating for that inevitable disparity.

The problem seems especially urgent where our actors are concerned. Circle Mirror Transformation's immaculate ensemble, two members of which had already won Obie Awards for "sustained excellence," could not be called unknown. None of them, though, could exactly be called a media star, either. Cook's bothersome question came back into my head. I started asking people, colleagues and theatergoing friends, "Do you think Deirdre O'Connell and Reed Birney are the two best actors in New York?"

I expected, and got, some agreement, but I wasn't prepared for the number of people who said, "Who?" These two artists did not begin their careers this season; they have been around Broadway houses and cramped downtown lofts. It's hard for me to imagine regular theatergoers who've never seen them. But we don't always notice what's not explicitly pointed out to us; some people only listen when the fanfare machines are at work.

Deflowered!: Our Voice cover man Taylor Mac—out of his botanic garb—wins an Obie for his five-hour downtown extravaganza The Lily’s Revenge.
Chad Griffith
Deflowered!: Our Voice cover man Taylor Mac—out of his botanic garb—wins an Obie for his five-hour downtown extravaganza The Lily’s Revenge.

I kept adding names to the list. "We are living," I began to tell myself, "in a Golden Age of acting, and nobody knows it." The playbill for every Off- or Off-Off-Broadway show I saw gave me a few more names for it; so did the press release for every one I missed. I nearly wept when I had to skip a concert that featured Judy Blazer, Chuck Cooper, Jeff McCarthy, and Debra Monk, a cast, not currently visible on Broadway, that could grace any musical. Actors I knew I could trust, like Eisa Davis and Darren Pettie in This, turned in spectacularly good work; actors totally new to me, like Mary Bacon and Quentin Maré in Happy Now?, brought the joy of discovery. I started compiling, in my head, the accumulated achievements of Francis Jue, Jayne Houdyshell, Sean Dugan, Jeremy Shamos, Sharon Washington, Rocco Sisto, Richard Topol, Tom Nelis, Ty Jones, Leslie Kritzer, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jennifer Ikeda, Maggie Lacey, T. Ryder Smith. Golden? Our age was pure platinum.

In the mass-market mind, these artists are not stars; few have been billed above the title of a Broadway show. A fair number have won Obies, or other awards; you will find one or two listed among this year's winners. Their names will probably never sell as many theater tickets as the latest escapee from a cancelled sitcom. But they, with the many others for whom my memory and this column have no space, embody our theater's hope for greatness. Their names on a playbill mean that something will be done well, perhaps unforgettably, that evening.

Will anybody notice, apart from the few, like me, whose duty it is to do so? I don't know. I wish I could see New York learning to value and cherish its own. The era of mega-profits, now apparently over, and of digitized communication, now degenerating into Tweeted triviality, have given us bad cultural habits. We've grown used to mistaking monetary success for value and logo recognition for meaning. Unlike England, which cherishes its artistic tradition, we've always tended to toss aside a previous generation's favorites in pursuit of the next big thing. This carelessness with our own goods creates an aesthetic vacuum, which Art, like Nature, abhors. London and Hollywood only step in to fill the gap our inattentiveness has left.

These two bad habits—preoccupation with profit and apathy toward our own valuable artists—merge to create a third. Unlike London or the great continental cities, New York has no major theatrical institution. Lurching nervously from hit to hit, our better-funded nonprofits strive more often to placate current taste than to offer it either the backbone of tradition or the adventure of the new. They, like the commercial producers with whom they feel compelled to compete, look elsewhere for their grounding, not to the incredible artistic potential waiting for them here at home.

And whatever comes next for us will assuredly not be easy. As I was working on this article, the news of the "mothership" Law & Order's cancellation, after two decades of silently subsidizing our acting community, made the gray cloud hanging over our theater that much grayer. Our distress—economic, political, ecological—may give us some unexpected advantages. While the maximizing-profit model and the international-shopping habit may be coming to their end as ways of sustaining New York's theatrical life, the genuine gold that glitters, quietly, just below their noisy flashing signboards may become visible. The Golden Age we think we lack, and yearn for, the one granted public recognition, may be just around the corner. The ore is there, waiting to be mined. I hope it happens soon: Like the rest of the planet, we are in no position to waste our precious resources.

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