Theater archives

Ways and Meanings


How do we get from here to there? That’s the question the theater always asks. Following the standard routes may be boring, but if you ignore them and hack out your own path, you’d better be a damn good road builder if you want the public to come along. Just now, the New York theater’s in a miserable state: With more and more people eager for the journey, the main roads have all degenerated into dreary strip malls, while the side roads that used to be so full of scenic surprises have either gotten commercialized themselves or run down into unnavigable ditches at the behest of those who like to stay off the beaten track. We need new paths, a latter-day Treplev might remark, but every square inch of land has been so overdeveloped that there’s hardly room to map out your own way.

August Wilson, at least, is a writer who’s always carved his own road. Jitney, written before Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and reworked last year, is thus both his first tentative step and his most assured new move forward. It takes place in the late ’70s, when that creeping monolith, urban renewal, looms over Pittsburgh’s Hill district, shutting down crumbling buildings but not replacing them for years, which only increases inner-city devastation. The ghetto, meantime, grows its own businesses, like the unlicensed cab (“jitney”) station where Wilson’s work is set, a black market enterprise in two senses. Driving where ordinary cabs won’t go is a risky and haphazard business. The drivers, men who are past other work, or too green for it, or working multiple jobs to get by, are sometimes reliable and sometimes not. Some keep guns in their cabs, one of which is waved about at a climactic moment. That it never goes off conveys Wilson’s boldness with the rules of standard playwriting. But Jitney is so rich with other kinds of life that the customary building blocks of plot don’t matter very much.

With more action and less storytelling than other Wilson plays, Jitney isn’t in the mode where Wilson is most expert. Some of the narrative elements cause him a discomfiture that’s almost audible in the halting dialogue. But its flaws turn out to be virtues. The emotional awkwardness makes us feel the weight of the story, its importance to the writer. (Stark Young wrote that what always moved him about O’Neill was “the cost to the dramatist of what he handled.”) And it points up the many purposes of the stories the characters tell—confession, warning, moral parable, shared memory. They make a kind of database that grounds this transitory place, where people constantly come and go. David Gallo’s ingenious set runs downhill, like the neighborhood; its spacious interior is backed by a full view of the somber, metallic streets outside, where director Marion McClinton often sets silent action to counterpoint the talk.

Speedy, vivacious, and layered with interaction, McClinton’s style is a far cry from the stately directorial pace of Lloyd Richards, who staged Wilson’s previous New York productions. Its unexpected bounce gives the storytelling a new verve, making it a less solemn, more quotidian, ritual: Trading stories becomes good manners, like exchanging greetings when you get to work in the morning. Intriguingly, in Jitney the character who’s the greatest fount of anecdotes is also the center of negativity: Turnbo (Stephen McKinley Henderson), an old driver with a moral platitude for every occasion and a damning piece of gossip about everyone. Henderson achieves an astonishing double feat, making us like the man—or anyway, admire his audacity—despite his hypocrisy, and making his repeated sententious tags seem fresh every time. While Turnbo disrupts the cab station’s camaraderie, and nearly breaks up a pair of young lovers, the cab fleet’s owner, Becker (Paul Butler), is undergoing his own crisis. Becker’s son (Carl Lumbly) has just returned from 20 years in the pen—the circumstances of his crime are too complex to narrate here—during which Becker has refused to see or speak to him. Their ongoing confrontation is the play’s core, about which the stresses of Becker’s drivers and their customers circle, till a pair of unexpected circumstances brings matters to a close that, it develops, is also a continuity.

The father-son conflict resembles the one in Fences, with an added disagreement, over churchgoing, that in other Wilson plays mars relations between husband and wife or brother and sister. Not always secure in the story’s realistic details, Wilson gives it the weight of a mythic prototype, a new and bitterer version of the prodigal’s return. Both Butler and Lumbly rise movingly to the occasion, the former with a big, expansive gravity that seems noble even at its harshest, and the latter with a burning anguish that’s all the more striking because Wilson gives him lines that barely seem to unpack the role’s emotional content. There are other strong performances in McClinton’s production: Willis Burks II as a love-struck numbers runner, Anthony Chisholm as the cab fleet’s resident alkie, Russell Hornsby as the youngster in whose love life Turnbo meddles. Wilson gives them all material rich with zesty detail; whatever one might think his play lacks in shape or selectivity, it has a dense-packed awareness of life that makes it more gratifying than more “perfect” works. By the end, the characters are like a family you’ve known for years. Which may not solve the theater’s aesthetic problem, but makes a great alternative to it.

The Green Bird began as a would-be solution to a different aesthetic problem, two centuries earlier. The art of professional touring troupes that we call commedia dell’arte—a loosely structured melange of ad-lib dialogue on standardized scenarios, relieved by the performers’ preset routines—had died a merciful death after nearly 400 years of use. Goldoni had taught the best actors in Venice to throw away the old masks and trust the playwright’s lines. But there’s always nostalgia at a dead art form’s wake, and the chief mourner, Count Carlo Gozzi, was determined to make the dead walk again. Gozzi had genius of a kind—sufficient to inspire minds as diverse as Schiller and Meyerhold—as well as enough sense to know that you can never go all the way home again. He created a half-improvised mode of play that mixed fairytale spectacle and moral parable with low comedy, indulging his own gift for high-flown fantasy along with his affection for the old clown shenanigans. The result is a mishmash genre that had wide appeal in late-18th-century Europe—look at Mozart’s Magic Flute—but makes an icky mixture today, unless you have Mozart to sweeten the deal.

Naturally, in our postmodern daze, Gozzi’s chic: Anyone who can render a simple story incoherent with digressions must be doing something right. Broadway’s Green Bird, wandering in this chaos, seems to be seven or eight different shows, in irritating succession. The straightforward, slightly stiff Bermel-Emery translation has apparently acquired more than one layer of rewriting, like a slab of rock on which you can count the geological strata. Fortunately, the deal is sweetened quite often by that Mozart of the visual, Julie Taymor. Long stretches of dialogue find her helpless and her actors, masked or otherwise, adrift; then something that’s pure magic occurs, to which nothing on Broadway could be compared if Taymor hadn’t staged The Lion King. A giant talking statue rolls onstage, champing its jaws and blinking its eyelids; magic apples dance up and down in the shape of musical descant, and astonishing creatures like the title character swoop down out of nowhere.

Much of what goes on between the visions has been tightened and improved since Taymor first staged the piece for Theatre for a New Audience four years ago, but the story still unrolls slowly, an ornate fuss over nothing. (And far too convoluted to summarize.) While many of the cast have either sharpened their work or, as new arrivals, brought a welcome freshness to the material, the one real performance triumph, even more glorious than the last time around, belongs to the only actor who finds a deeper and more vivid life behind his mask: Derek Smith as the lovelorn king, Tartaglia. His face hidden beneath a white rectangle, framed by droopy curl-paper eyelids and cutout Clark Gable ears, he’s flamboyant and physically free, lighter than air even while his character’s afflicted with pratfalls and paranoia. Apart from Taymor’s puppet visions, he’s the only thing onstage that seems to be what Gozzi has to be: Italian.

For all that, Taymor’s work has a quality of imagination otherwise unavailable in the commercial theater. Take Elaine May’s Taller Than a Dwarf, a reworking of her long-ago comedy, A Matter of Position, with the action now shifted from Manhattan to Queens; ordinary folk like May’s nebbish-hero can no longer afford Manhattan rents. The scenes have been fragmented, and the characters now talk freely to the audience, the supporting cast stressing the peripheral nature of their roles with obnoxious humility. The hero is a mother-dominated sap for whom liberalism is the equivalent of toadying to everyone around him; one morning, after too many domestic crises, he gives up altogether, and his insistence on staying in bed, à la Oblomov, makes him a hero in everyone’s eyes, despite the household disasters it causes. He learns to beat the system at its own game because, you see, everyone is corrupt. Isn’t that incredibly original? How did May ever think of it!

Apart from the newly splintered structure and some Y2K jokes, the revisions only succeed in pointing up the script’s age: A boss who will casually trot out to Queens Boulevard to drop off work for a supposedly sick employee is hard to find on today’s roster, even when the office computers are down. Alan Arkin’s production, on a heavy set by Tony Walton that lurches like a battleship when it shifts, tromps through the old routines patiently. Joyce Van Patten, Marcia Jean Kurtz, and Cynthia Darlow are tolerable as three of the intentionally annoying women in the hero’s life, and Sam Groom makes his boss interestingly weird. Parker Posey plays a personable, well-spoken young woman who, as this geek’s wife of seven-plus years, is flatly unbelievable. Such actual acting as is required comes from Matthew Broderick, who harmonizes the hero successfully with his likable movie-star self. To demand more of an actor in such a play would be like asking hemophiliacs to give blood.

Which brings us to the opera Jonathan Sheffer has made out of Gertrude Stein’s unfinished attempt to write a murder mystery, Blood on the Dining Room Floor, produced by the resuscitated WPA, in a staging by Jeremy Dobrish, at the Signature Theatre’s Peter Norton Space. The work dates from the period after The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published, in which Stein, nearly 60, suddenly found herself a world-famous best seller—and blocked. Living mostly at her country home in Bilignin, she noted down local happenings, including several mysterious deaths, while attempting to restart her creativity. Sheffer’s libretto combines passages from the fragmented unfinished novel, with the slightly more factual treatment of the incidents Stein put later into her bestseller’s sequel, Everybody’s Autobiography. He then frames the result with the sight of Alice, at Gertrude’s grave, chatting to her about the “crimes” and, at the end proffering a solution—pat and, to my taste, overly cute.

But cuteness, regrettably, is the guideline for the whole event. Sheffer’s easy-on-the-ears score proceeds in swatches of music that sound like this composer and like that one, but the pastiche isn’t held together by any darker underlying sense of the action. Similarly, Dobrish’s staging trades, slickly and inventively, on poses and attitudes of the period; one feels that it’s less a work by Gertrude Stein than her popular reputation that’s being put onstage. The work’s as attractive to look at as it is to hear, with Markas Henry’s subtly detailed costumes and Michael Gottlieb’s stylish lights particular assets. But it doesn’t sit easily on Stein’s sensibility, the bright surface of which always has deep, somber underpinnings, just as Sheffer’s prosody doesn’t always sit well on her phrases, which call for settings that highlight their ambiguity and their hidden pain—not always so hidden, in the texts at the core of this work. The singers, too, seemed only uneasily focused on their business. Carolann Page made a strong, forthright Gertrude; Wendy Hill’s Alice, though diffuse of diction, was nicely fluid in coloratura. (Inevitably, Sheffer added kitchen slaughters from Toklas’s cookbook to the opera’s carnage.) Like many such evenings before it, it envisioned Stein as an old camp dear. Anyone who’s seen the Carmines-Kornfeld Stein works, or a great production of Mother of Us All, knows better.

And whatever you think of Jesus Christ Superstar—not much, in my case—anyone knows how to stage it better than Gale Edwards, whose embarrassing, puny production has been shoved into the cavernous Ford Center, apparently on the grounds that anything, even a production most dinner theaters would sneer at, is good enough to sucker the know-nothing tourists. The original album had hints of interesting possibilities that Rice and Webber, in their dismal careers since then, have miserably failed to follow up. When the work was first put onstage, a director who was a true visionary, Tom O’Horgan, welded the hints into a memorable phantasmagoria. Even Jesus himself, noted for his ability to heal the crippled, would be stumped by the lameness of Edwards’s production, reinforced by a cast that mingles the insufficient with the misguided; only Tony Vincent’s Judas conveys signs of professional life. Yet if the idiots buy tickets, there’s no way to stop the thing, inexcusable as it is. Clearly, before we invent any more new ways to write a play, somebody had better think up a way to embarrass Broadway producers into giving value for money.