Theater archives

What Price Spirituality?


Yes, Mr. Congressman, I’m ready to testify. No, honestly, I had no intention of thinking about Enron when I went into the theater that night. My only intention was to see Kevin Bacon in a new one-person play. The playwright? I’d heard that she was serious and intelligent. I hadn’t previously seen any of her plays. No, I wouldn’t say I’d seen one now. The piece at the Roundabout isn’t a play—it’s an inert, loosely strung lump of narrative prose. I suppose it might be believable in print—people believe anything that’s in print, don’t they? Enron’s stockholders believed the company’s annual reports; even the board’s audit committee believed them. See, there I go again. I can’t explain it. When a prosperous nonprofit theater produces a pointless play on Broadway, I just naturally start thinking about Enron. I suppose it’s a kind of fiduciary allusion.

Do I mean that Ms. McDonald’s narrative isn’t believable onstage? Quite right, Mr. Congressman. I thought the only believable gesture came at the end of Act I. No, not onstage, sir—I mean the audience members grabbing their coats and heading for the exit. I think in Washington you call that voting with your feet. Not all of them, no. Some were there like me, for professional reasons. Some think they have to sit through the whole show to get their money’s worth—you know, sir, theater tickets have gotten awfully expensive since your colleagues started beating up on the NEA—and some stay on principle, because they believe in the theater. Yes, sir, that’s what I said. No, sir, I don’t know why. When a script like this gets produced in a major venue just because a movie star’s involved, I don’t know what there is about the theater to believe in. Do I believe in it? Well, I work there; I’m an artist of sorts. My colleague W.S. Gilbert said, “I don’t think much of our profession, but contrasted with respectability it is comparatively honest.” No, he said that before Enron.

Are the people who run the Roundabout artists? I wouldn’t say so, sir. They don’t much seem to care what play they produce or how well it’s done—they just shove the stars onstage and rake in the money. I’m sure Ms. McDonald and Mr. Bacon are artists. Artists can make a mistake as easily as anyone else. But a theater that was run on an artistic basis wouldn’t put their mistakes on view in front of a big subscription audience. The Roundabout knows, though, that a part of the audience will stay simply because they believe that a movie star is good by definition—that his acting’s good and any play he’s in is good. No, I don’t know where they get that idea. They might all be on medication. But the Roundabout banks on their not realizing how dull it all is. The way Enron banked on its auditors not noticing those funny little partnerships draining the money away. I’m sorry—I can’t help it. It’s instinctive.

Why is it so dull? I don’t know—some of Ms. McDonald’s other plays sound really interesting. Like Dream of a Common Language, the one that caused the big ruckus down in Charlotte. It involved male nudity in support of family values—a husband poses nude for his artist wife. Well, someone in Charlotte thought it was demeaning. No, I don’t understand why either—a lot of men I know spend their lives hoping some woman will ask them to take their clothes off. But this play barely makes sense. The hero’s a spoiled priest who lost his faith after inadvertently causing a terrible accident that killed some children. Then he married an anthropology professor, although he skips over that very quickly, and they had a child with a peculiar disease—the kind writers dig out of medical textbooks to jazz up their stories. Then he wrecked his relationship with his daughter by worrying too much about her condition, or something. Frankly, it’s hard to care. The events are disconnected and improbable, and he doesn’t seem driven by any particular need to talk about them. No, I don’t see what it has to do with religion or spirituality. Your spiritual condition affects everything you do or say; writers don’t need outré events to illustrate it. And if the hero’s crisis of faith runs so deep, why can’t he have it onstage now? You’d never know from his little daytime drama that there are real crises about major aspects of faith going on in Catholicism today.

Part of the problem’s the way Mr. Bacon plays it. Yes, I do think he’s a good actor—for light comedy. He’s got a wonderful ease onstage—the exact opposite of a man undergoing a spiritual crisis. And his voice—a pleasant light baritone—constricts very unpleasantly when he has to open up. I imagine his standby, John Dossett, who’s playing most matinees, is better prepared vocally. Oh, you didn’t realize that? Yes, movie stars tend not to play eight shows a week. They have these little options—like Enron execs with their little accounts in the Cayman Islands. Sorry—couldn’t help it. No, I don’t blame Mr. Bacon; solo work is exhausting. And Michael Mayer’s production doesn’t do much to help him. But the theater’s pushing his name very hard in their publicity, and the celebrity-hungry suckers who bought in to see him may not have read the fine print—like the Enron employees who kept buying stock because they believed Ken Lay.

Yes, sir, I am sorry. I realize that yours is the only committee in Congress not currently investigating Enron. I didn’t mean to drag you back to it. But it’s a peculiarity of the arts in America: The absence of federal support drives our institutions to the corporate model. And of course, the first thing they learn there is corporate dishonesty. Thanks to Enron and its ilk, we’ve learned that all corporate executives are essentially thieves and liars—it’s all a criminal operation. Things aren’t that bad in the theater, fortunately, but we do have these institutions that preach art but practice maximum profit for minimum product. They poor-mouth to the unions, pinch pennies with their staff, and throw perks on celebrities who often hinder the play rather than help it. I don’t know if you’ve heard, sir, but the Roundabout’s made enough money to purchase Studio 54. I suppose they’ll sell its name to some corporation just as they sold the Selwyn’s to American Airlines. Well, the theater where such things go on might not want its true name mentioned. I mean, Selwyn was a real producer. Happy to have helped with your investigation, Mr. Congressman. Well, of course I know you don’t exist, sir. But talking to someone imaginary helps me when I’m upset. Besides—it’s more dramatic. Thank you.