“It isn’t drama they play,” Duse groused about actors 90 years ago, “but pieces for the theater.” Today her complaint would be aimed at institutions rather than stars, but it is, if any thing, truer than ever now. Individual plays of value we have in plenty, but there’s something seriously wrong with the play, as a form, in our culture, and everybody knows it. (Matters are even worse with its trivial subsidiaries, the screenplay and teleplay—techno-tails that now wag the living theatrical dog.) While antitraditionalists bitch about the quasi-realist conventions into which most new plays fall, antitheatricalists are busy pricking the balloons of hollow staginess with which conventional directors inflate them. But neither party speaks more than intermittently to the central problem, which isn’t one of manner but of substance: At their core, most recent plays aren’t dramatic. Such conflict as they contain tends to be either factitious or overfamiliar, with no sense of any thing in it being freshly examined. Measured against the great plays (or even the standard plays) of past eras, they tend to look like so much piffle.
Yet the play—the thing that embodies drama—won’t go away. We’ve tried every kind of substitute: the parade of images, the recitation of lumps of data, the nonadapted transfer of texts from history or fiction, the self-revelation. We want drama. And we want its conflict to deal with something that matters to us. No wonder our playwrights search crazily for some new way to kick the staleness out of the old conventions. But it’s easy to kick down a card board facade; the danger is that you’ll twist your ankle falling into the empty space the cardboard once concealed.
Of the four playwrights under review, the only one whose kick doesn’t lead to a painful fall is Edwin Sanchez, just because, dramaturgically speaking, he’s agile enough to catch him self. It takes a lot of fancy spinning, though, for him to get anywhere near restoring his balance. In a way, that’s all right: Barefoot Boy With Shoes On is an act of imbalance, a play as willful and capriciously contradictory as its title. The boy with the double-imaged feet is Rosario, a resident of El Barrio whose podiatric freedom belies the vast amount of social bag gage on his back. Stuck in one stifling room with his indolent, porn-addicted father and senile grand father, Rosario’s also stuck with a stuffy therapist, because in one of his blind rages he slugged his pregnant girlfriend.
Sketched in short, tersely written scenes, Rosario’s smothering world offers him only one glimmer of escape: Employed as a window washer by a luxury high-rise, he literally spends his days on the outside looking in. The erotic overtones of this image haven’t escaped Sanchez, who invents a worst-case Pygmalion for the desperate Rosario: a self-hating homosexual whose wealth comes from managing right-wing political campaigns. Unlike the relatively realistic cross-talk of the other scenes, his conversations with Rosario are rendered in a kind of competitive, elliptical shorthand that suggests the “telegraphic” dialogue of 1920s Expressionism. While the rich man gets his rocks off—fetishistically, at a distance—Rosario gets educated to the upscale mores and cultural tastes he hopes to give his offspring, though not to the ways by which one makes the money to sustain them. “A soul,” as Shaw pointed out in Heart break House, “is a very expensive thing to keep.” Rosario’s desire to keep his unborn son’s soul out of the urban ghetto leads to heartbreak, violence—and then to an open-ended finale as unpredictable as the rest of Sanchez’s script has been. Whenever the obvious crops up, his writing takes a sharp turn in some unlikely direction. The result is less the familiar poor-family play than an urban folk myth given flesh. I wish his vivid play were still running, though Casey Childs’s production, raw and bustling, hardly scooped up more than its basic outline. Nelson Vasquez made a forceful, if occasionally shouty, impression as the hero; Keith Reddin’s astringent shrink and Lazaro Perez’s cheerfully complacent father gave him strong support.
Where Sanchez tilts reality, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers blithely wipes it out: His heroine, Claire, has, we’re told, “a form of psychogenic amnesia” as a result of which she wakes up every day with no memory. This presents a problem: Is the tender spouse who greets her really her loving husband, or is he, as the masked man who breaks in claims, planning to kill her? Claire learns the truth, and so do we—insofar as truth’s available in this cartoon world—over the course of a day’s lunatic ride from one event to the next, where few things are exactly what they seem, and the author grants almost every character a different way of fracturing reality. Claire’s mother’s speech has been splayed into absurdity by a recent stroke; one of the masked man’s cohorts is a borderline schizo whose darker personality comes out through a hand puppet. Even photo graphs aren’t wholly reliable—some of them show people distorted in what the mother calls the “fuddy meers” of a funhouse.
The distorting meer that Lindsay-Abaire holds up to nature can be pretty fuddy, too. Invent enough crazy characters, keep them colliding with each other, slip some kind of coherent story under the collisions as a basis for the lunacy, and you’ve got a play of sorts. Almost. When you start to think about Fuddy Meers, it barely adds up. Among other flaws, in his backstory the author chivalrously seems to have sent the wrong person to jail. And his play has the American peculiarity of reflecting the family as if it existed in a social void; it’s the only farce I can think of with no authority figures at all. David Petrarca clearly had fun directing it, though. The game cast includes, most pleasurably, Marylouise Burke, Robert Stanton, and Keith Nobbs. And J. Smith-Cameron’s Claire, the quiet center of this hubbub, is something genuinely special, a performance with the sweet ness and purity of fresh spring water.
There’s a nasty stale flavor, though, to An Experiment With an Air Pump. Here the tactic is to tell two stories alternately, one set today and one at the end of the 18th century, taking place in the same country house, with the earlier events revealing the true data that the latecomers misread. If this sounds familiar, you must have seen Stoppard’s Arcadia; Shelagh Stephenson’s play is the oversimplified plasticine version, and it’s a little shocking to find the intelligent author of The Memory of Water stooping to such naked filching—especially since she lacks Stoppard’s imaginative instinct for the past. Where he sounded emotional depths and mapped mazes of interlocking ideas across them, she grabs at the obvious: Scientists are cold and selfish; artists and proles are warm; and Roget, who invented the thesaurus, only talked in synonyms. The main event, in 1799, is the seduction of a hunchbacked servant girl by a young doctor who wants to examine her spinal curvature; the servant, a Scot, is given a sentimental naïveté more suit able to a convent-bred rich girl of a century later. It’s all supposed to take place in the Newcastle home of an eminent scientist and his neglected wife. Daniel Gerroll plays the former very well, and my heart went out to Linda Emond, who, as the latter, is required to have the same tantrum in every scene in which she appears.
When all else fails, there’s reading, which neatly dodges the whole question of what a play is by not requiring any production. At A.R. Gurney’s Ancestral Voices, performed Sunday and Monday nights on the set of Contact, the cast of five changes every few weeks; shifts of lighting, rather as in Beckett’s Play, remind the actors who’s reading or narrating at any given moment. The rest depends on how good the current cast is—the very best actors will gladly commit for so few performances—and on how interesting you find Gurney’s text, which is meant to show the upper Anglo-Saxon caste he writes about coming apart under the influence of the Depression and changing mores, but more often succeeds, through conscious nostalgia and stiff-upper-lip bathos, in suggesting that it ought to have stayed together. As Edmund Wilson pointed out in his famous analysis of Emily Post, Americans deeply want to believe in a social Valhalla; Gurney’s Buffalo version of one, not too grand and not too easily crumbled, fits our more affluent theatergoers just right; like Goldilocks, they’re perfectly happy eating someone else’s cold porridge from days long gone. The indeterminacy of form with which Gurney means to underscore his tale of shifting mores passes them right by; as long as actors are onstage speaking, this audience could care less whether a drama’s being acted or a novel read aloud. Gurney is the first writer to profit from their imperception; things being as they are in the play department, I doubt he’ll be the last.