This Moral Coil


My column about spending three decades at this post produced, for a change, some friendlier letters from readers. By far the most interesting came from a woman in Winder, Georgia, who took me to task for having any complaints at all about my job, when many Americans don’t live within reach of a professional theater, and a great many of those who do can’t afford to go regularly even if they want to. Under the circumstances, she thinks, I should view my work as unadulterated privilege; she herself would be grateful for a glimpse of even the worst productions I get to cover.

Maybe, but I doubt it. After a few weeks, the theatrical assembly line is much like any other, and the inspector at the end of the line, weeding out the defective products, can get as bored as any other drone without some internal alarm clock to keep him vigilant. The critic’s wake-up call, of course, is precisely the thought of those show-starved souls on whose behalf my correspondent claims to speak: Hard as it is for them to get to the theater, they deserve the absolute best once they’re there. That they will accept less, or let themselves be dazzled into swallowing it by a blizzard of hype and glitz, isn’t a mark against them, but a compliment: It shows how deeply they desire the extra dimension that theater, unlike the prefab media, can give to life. Even at its worst, theater’s alive in a way that movies and TV are not.

That for many Americans theater is also unavailable—too far away to reach, or priced too high above their pocket—is a political matter, and so partly outside a critic’s purview. The Republicans, who’ve spent so much time and effort trying to kill the National Endowment for the Arts, are chiefly to blame, and should never be voted for by any American with any faith in the value of art in any form. Capitalists grub money out of the theater; in this country, that’s inevitable, and probably always will be. But a sense of national commitment behind what’s now an enormous, multitiered, nationwide system of nonprofit theaters would be the strongest backing for universal access, or for any other challenge to the principle of just doing it for the money—the unspoken guideline by which, at present, far too many New York theaters are run. Critics, in this context, can only provide the intermittent prod of individual voices crying out in the wilderness, warning readers away from theater that’s been diluted in every aspect with somebody’s extraneous idea of salability.

Just now, Kenneth Lonergan is a highly marketable purveyor of scripts, an Oscar nominee for his first film as writer-director, linked to names that name-droppers love to conjure with, and glowing with the anointment of media prestige. Under those circumstances, anyone who offers a negative comment gets automatic ratfuck status; one mustn’t prick the publicity balloon. Well, I have no desire to kill the goose laying Lonergan’s golden eggs. His wife, J. Smith-Cameron, is one of my favorite actresses, and since actors can no longer support themselves solely by stage work in this overpriced town, I’d prefer, if anything, for Lonergan to make acres of money. But does this mean I have to like Lobby Hero?

Answer: Not if I don’t like it. There is something going on in its brain, an attempt to dramatize and sort out a moral problem—a good and rare thing in plays these days. And Lonergan’s central character—a hapless putz at loose ends, like the young men at the center of his two previous plays—is more interesting than the overliterate damaged souls at the center of many new American plays. But that’s as far as my enthusiasm for the script can honestly go. The morality Lonergan is testing comes in a situation so elaborately rigged up that it hardly seems to pose a problem at all. Should a guy who isn’t very reliable or very honest with himself betray a trust and do a friend dirt in order to take advantage of the vulnerability of a female rookie cop he has the hots for when she’s out for revenge on her double-dealing patrol partner? All’s fair in love and war, but putting your best (and perhaps only) friend’s brother in jail for life is an act most people would think twice about. Not Lonergan’s hero; as in every other situation up to that point, he just opens his big obnoxious yap and mouths away, barely glimpsing the consequences.

Heedless people who live from moment to moment make diverting minor characters in drama; turning them into heroes, even the ironic kind, is hard because they don’t command the audience’s respect, let alone its sympathy. We may see how much they have in common with us, but to watch for two hours while they get ever more deeply embroiled in the results of their own fecklessness is like watching the sand run down an hourglass. It’s worse if, as with Lobby Hero, you suspect the glass is rigged so that you’re not even getting a full hour’s worth. Because you can’t take Lonergan’s protagonist seriously, you start questioning everything around him: How come he isn’t used to the older cop from the latter’s previous visits to the building? How could a young woman as visibly unstable as the heroine get through the police academy? Why does the serious-minded, African American supervisor choose this motormouthed white pea-brain as his confidant? (“I find your presence to be very soothing,” the supervisor says, not two minutes after he’s reprimanded the wiseass hero for getting on his already frayed nerves.)

To act such a play is to drive an obstacle course: You just plow straight ahead and try not to crash into any barriers. Glenn Fitzgerald, in the lead, has had the rotten luck to see Mark Ruffalo, for whom the role was originally intended, walk off with the daily reviews. Fitzgerald, who uses a cutting-edge voice and a dimwit manner that suggest a less serious and more summer-stocky play, is chiefly irritating, but I doubt that Ruffalo’s tough-waif act could have drawn anything deeper from this nebulous character. Even Fitzgerald’s voice is trumped, in the ear-grating department, by Heather Burns, who apparently equates nervous vulnerability with yowling. The other duo in this four-handed game wins all the points: Dion Graham, sturdy, fretful, and driven, makes the supervisor as close as this play comes to a real person, while Tate Donovan’s mix of tough malevolence, bonhomie, and bluster, though scaled down from the genuine scariness of crooked cops, offers a thoroughly accurate stage replica. (Between this and Amy’s View, Donovan could become New York’s stage update of Erich von Stroheim—the dangerous s.o.b. you can’t help liking.) Mark Brokaw, directing, has creditably declined to gloss over any of the lapses in the script’s Swiss-cheese logic. At one point the hero nearly gets sacked for sleeping on the job; I’m tempted to suggest that certain reviewers who praised the play should be eighty-sixed for nodding off mentally while watching. Don’t ask for names: Unlike the hero, I don’t rat on my colleagues.

But I don’t mind spilling the beans about Noël Coward, who’s currently located where nothing I say will harm him: Design for Living is neither a very good nor a very funny play. Productions of it not performed by the author and the Lunts tend to be failures. Trust me, I’ve endured enough of them to know. Glum and verbose, with a startling tendency to sermonize, the script clearly needs, not a superficial approach (superficial sermonizing is the most obnoxious), but three actors who genuinely adore being around each other and the audience. Unless they can convince the audience they do, their defense of their lifestyle sounds like mere defensiveness, and their attacks on others seem merely mean-spirited. Since Ernest, the wealthy older man who temporarily removes Gilda from this bisosceles triangle, is Jewish, the meanness has a nasty brackish edge. But if the three really adore each other, and can make the house share their adoration, all is forgiven; it’s respectability that looks silly and stuffy, and all you can think of is what fun it would be to be Gilda, Otto, and Leo.

Don’t expect to think any such thing during Joe Mantello’s Roundabout revival. You can follow the map of the play; you can admire Jennifer Ehle’s intensity and beauty, while trying to guess what role she thinks she’s playing (Andromache? Cordelia? Amanda?) instead of Gilda. You can admire Dominic West’s towering good looks and ease onstage; you can, if you insist (I wouldn’t), enjoy Alan Cumming’s relentlessly puckish mugging. You can ponder what Bruce Pask’s intermittently outré costumes have to do with Robert Brill’s grandly grim sets, or the somber haze cast across them by James Vermeulen’s lights. You can wince, between scenes, at the anachronistic music—neo-techno covers of Coward songs. But any chance to enjoy Design for Living—an iffy prospect to begin with—has been systematically removed. What’s left is the puzzle: How did Noël, Alfred, and Lynn make it all seem so delightful?

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