Theater archives

Midtown Tragedy


Those of you who just tuned in probably think my headline alludes to Sophocles’s play. On the other hand, my regular readers—all junior partners with the fine old firm of Hypocrite Lecteur, Semblable & Frere—probably assume it’s a setup for rude remarks to come about David Leveaux’s production. Well, the rude remarks are justified, and will be served in due course, but the real tragedy at issue has nothing to do with either the power of this ancient masterpiece, or my low opinion of its current treatment. Remember the ’60s slogan, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” Well, what if they gave a Greek tragedy and nobody, onstage or in the house, cared enough about it for the event to have any effect at all? The possibilities that suggests seem grimmer than Electra‘s story: either human nature has changed its essence, making matters that once shook us to the core seem pointless and dull; or the social act of theater going has lost its point; or, most probable, that the play and the theater it inhabits have become irrelevant to one another.

This last hypothesis is grimmest of all in the prospect it holds for New York, a city that has always depended on the range and variety of its stage performances to provide not only a major inducement to tourism but a sense of its own spirit and identity. Yes, New York always preferred loud, fast, flashy fun to the slow, somber steps of tragedy, but the city’s cachet, its glamour, came from its willingness to accept both and know how to gauge the value of both. Musicals and farcical comedies may have charged higher ticket prices and drawn louder applause, but those who had a passion to see—pulling examples from the past at random—Nazimova in Ghosts, Robards and Dewhurst in O’Neill, Laughton as Galileo, or James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in Fences might be forgiven for thinking that their experience made up in depth for what it lacked in crowd-pleasing and profit.

The dynamic involved would have been familiar to Athenians of the fifth century B.C., who more than once snubbed Aeschylus and gave the prize to some nobody whose choruses made catchy drinking songs. But Broadway only sneered when Sophocles was last offered there in musical form, via Breuer and Telson’s Gospel at Colonus, and most of its current visitants are probably unaware of Martha Graham’s tragic work, though no less a word man than Eric Bentley wrote that seeing Night Journey was the only time he felt he understood what the Greeks had meant by a chorus.

None of these matters is applicable to the current Electra because there’s nothing to apply them to. The audience is ushered to its seats in the Ethel Barrymore, the house lights go down, and for 90 minutes 10 actors move around while speaking a much reduced text of Electra. At least on the second night, nothing else happened. The drama sits unawakened onstage, evoking minimal response in the audience. A few ironic lines get weak laughs, a few inevitable sensationalist tidbits (like Electra licking her mother’s blood off her brother’s hand) rouse faint murmurs, but that’s all. There is no performance of Electra and no audience to respond to it. For all anyone cares, the theater might still hold Ethel herself in The Corn Is Green; she couldn’t be deader than this experience, even after 50 years.

Maybe Zoë Wanamaker should try Miss Moffatt instead. The role demands pluck, and as Electra, Wanamaker is the pluckiest little actress you’ll ever see. She never gets anywhere near the center of the role, but she certainly does try her mightiest to decorate it. She snivels, whimpers, sulks, shouts, rages, mutters, sneers, scoffs, mimics, flounces, yelps, gasps, grunts, and I believe at one point even grinds her teeth. Now and then she does one of these things in concert with a line of the text, but there is never any sense of her being the royal daughter who says these lines and means them; it’s rather like watching someone try to hang the ornaments before they’ve bought the tree.

Since Wanamaker has shown in previous work that she’s not a centerless actress, much of the performance’s emptiness should presumably be heaped on director David Leveaux, whose earlier Broadway visits offer solid evidence of unfocused incompetence; I still cherish the memory of Natasha Richardson, in his revival of Anna Christie, walking barefoot on what was supposed to be the deck of a coal barge. Nothing that nakedly stupid occurs in Electra, but neither does anything to suggest an interpretation, or even a mere acting-out, of the story. Banking on the assumption that most of his audience has never seen the play, or Richard Strauss’s operatic version, Leveaux fills his stage with smidges of imagery and business from two decades’ worth of other people’s productions, till it’s a hack job almost any European resident theater might have churned out in the 1980s.

As is now usual, the palace courtyard is a repository for used furniture, while the palace itself has the customary look of an abandoned factory, the sliding steel door of which inevitably rolls aside at the finish, to reveal a fluorescent Escherian maze of white ladders that makes killing Aegisthus hilariously awkward. Electra clomps around in her father’s overcoat, and kisses the tutor as well as Orestes with incestuous fervor. To give Leveaux credit for small favors, though, she merely rolls on the ground and laughs while Orestes is killing Clytemnestra, instead of having the now-standard orgasm. Only the most naïve provincial could call such stuff original. To a city that’s seen Mnouchkine’s Libation Bearers, and nurtured Serban’s austerely noble Electra, it’s hardly more than navel lint.

Nor can Wanamaker’s supporting cast offer much help, each off busily building his or her own production concept to make up for Leveaux’s central lack. Claire Bloom’s Clytemnestra is the high-rhetoric Victorian edition, an anachronism Bloom’s sweet dignity can hardly validate. Pat Carroll, who gets all the chorus’s lines, seems to be playing a dock worker in a 1930s labor-theater version. Marin Hinkle, untouched by the violent events, is phoning in from the set of some yuppified TV movie. Stephen Spinella aims for a grave toughness even further from his persona than Victorian roaring is from Bloom’s. And Michael Cumpsty flashes his eyes madly, roars musically, and leaves the rest to his powerful physique; now if he could only sing Strauss’s notes he’d be perfect—18 blocks north.

That I dislike this Electra is no surprise; what amazes me is my feeling that neither I nor anyone else cares if it’s any good or not. The “property” (as they call plays Uptown) is chosen; one of the customary mediocre adaptors (in this case the crummy incompetent Frank McGuiness) is picked to shove placeless colloquialisms into some pedant’s literal translation; the famous names, English or American, are herded
into the cast; the daily reviewers are cued to write their mechanical blather; the result is shoved into a Broadway house, and tickets are sold.

But who cares? Why would anyone? What organic connection does the play, the production, the event, have to the space it inhabits? Leveaux’s program note links the play to Bosnia, and defends it as “not an obscure classic.” He might have done better to choose a play that he felt needed no defense, and did not remind him of something he could see on the news. And he might have asked himself who, paying Broadway prices, cares about Bosnia. Or even more interestingly, how he might make them care. But perhaps, to judge by the production, he himself doesn’t care very much about the play or its possible meanings for us. Anyone can write a program note to say, “This is what this means,” but the audience doesn’t come in to read the program note.

Corporate marketing practices, which have slowly crept in to infest Broadway from the nonlive (read: dead) media, have made it a place in which neither genuine frivolity nor genuine seriousness has a home, only an affluent after-dinner sleep, dreaming on both. The 42nd Street Redevelopment Corporation, apparently, is interested in extending the same emptiness to Off-Broadway, already in a space and audience crunch. Unlike a multiplex that plays a manufactured product, the theater cannot be fragmented down infinitely; if you keep trimming the wick of a candle, it finally burns out.