Climate Change: The Obie Awards Chairman Charts the Seasonal Highs and Lows

Climate Change: The Obie Awards Chairman Charts the Seasonal Highs and Lows
Jesse Dittmar
Rabbit's feat: The bunny who prowls the stage in An Octoroon is no soft touch

I always thought Charles Dickens was exaggerating. "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." C'mon, every era has its ups and downs, but life essentially flows on down the mainstream, only occasionally overflowing onto one side or the other, doesn't it?

Doesn't it?

Then came 2013-'14. I had, and am still having, the bumpiest, most disorienting year of my life, full of highs, lows, and confusions. I assumed it was just me personally — after all, if you're a critic who has been filing reviews weekly for four decades, you can't simply stop without feeling at least a little disoriented, can you? But then I looked around and saw that it wasn't only me. Criticism was experiencing disorientation everywhere.

Michael Feingold, Obies chairman, at the podium during the 2014 Obie Awards ceremony on Monday, May 19 at Webster Hall.
Sandy Honig
Michael Feingold, Obies chairman, at the podium during the 2014 Obie Awards ceremony on Monday, May 19 at Webster Hall.

Those luckier souls who continued to hold regular reviewing gigs were feeling it just as strongly as those who, like me, had been displaced by the troubling but unavoidable evolution of time and the corporate web world. Whether criticism was still worth practicing in this changed environment — whether it could still be practiced — was suddenly an open question.

And then, unexpectedly, I found myself back in my comfy old Obie chair, assembling a team of whip-smart judges, and by the time we'd finished bickering and sorted out a juicy list of winners, I was able to cast a backward glance on the year. Which is when I realized that what was happening to me, and to criticism, was happening to the theater, too. The logical conclusion, given that theater both reshapes the world and is shaped in response to it, is that what's happening is universal — or, at any rate, global. The world is no longer the definable context any of us has previously known.

For the theater, this means that there is, in effect,no mainstream. The standard form of theater experience, in which someone writes a play, it tells a story by whatever means its author has chosen, and the actors embody roles in the story using whatever stylized or contextual means they and their director choose — that form still exists, but it is no longer standard. Yet the assaultive, deconstructive, interactive, or immersive forms by which diehard avant-gardists have sought to replace the standard form have not replaced it. Audiences can still follow, and gain satisfaction from, the standard form, but it's no longer central to their theatergoing. Likewise, they can savor the immersive, the assaultive, the deconstructive and what have you, much as they would enjoy an amusement-park ride or a good party, but the satisfaction they gain from it offers no equivalent to the old satisfactions of theatergoing, and it may not even bear any relation to them. It is all a new world, in which nothing is central.

*SECTION BREAK

Realizing this explained a great deal to me of the dissatisfaction I felt, on and off all year, while going to the theater. Not, mind you, a dissatisfaction with work that smacked of the new. At my age, I'm entitled to be an old stick in the mud, and I am, but I'm still a forward-looking old stick in the mud. The plays that caught my attention and exhilarated me, making theatergoing seem worthwhile, were among the year's emphatically non-mainstream experiences. Two of their writers, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Will Eno, are on our 2014 winners list. Three others I'd like to mention were Lucas Hnath's A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, Jenny Schwartz's Somewhere Fun, and Madeleine George's deliciously ingenious The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence. All three gave birth to superb performances, two samples of which our committee managed to find places for on that category's very crowded list.

It was, on the contrary, standard-form plays — sometimes even old plays that I'd been rather fond of in earlier incarnations — that lacked effectiveness for me. Too often, everybody involved seemed to be either trying too hard or to have given up trying altogether. This was more consistently true on Broadway than off, and even there you could find a cast catching the sense of a familiar work and running with it, as the cast of A Raisin in the Sun does. Nor was there any lack of effect when a tigerish old pro like Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons, or our superb Lifetime Achievement winner Estelle Parsons, in the short-lived Velocity of Autumn, started tearing the place apart. Where there's no mainstream, there's room for everything, including great plays (if you can find one) and great acting. There were even a few Broadway musicals — my favorite was the tickly-funny Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder — that featured not only attractive music but beautiful singing, with female leads (Gent's Guide has two) who actually sing, rather than belt, in their soprano range.

That went against recent Broadway practice, but recent Broadway practice hardly seems to matter on Broadway these days, much less Off- and Off-Off-Broadway. Will Eno, whose writing gets more interesting as his plays slither into and disrupt traditional forms, was among the playwrights I'd have least expected to turn up on Broadway in today's economic climate, but there The Realistic Joneses sits, with an excellent castful of stars lending it their gleaming presence. I happened to prefer his sly fox of an Off-Broadway work, The Open House, and I'm glad we got the chance to honor both it and its director, Oliver Butler. Interestingly, Eno's evolution makes my point: His earlier, resolutely non-conventional monologue texts, like Thom Pain (based on nothing) and Title and Deed, didn't pique my interest. These recent works, which take the old form and party with it structurally, very much do.

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