“Realism has no more to do with reality than anything else,” said sports novelist Hob Broun. Indeed, reality is notoriously meandering and ambiguous—the opposite of a well-made play. The playwright’s job is to create works of art that ring true, or at least abide by imaginary rules. For writers who tackle social issues head-on, this can seem dishonest, but as Broun suggests, even realists need myths. Both Comedians, Trevor Griffiths’s 1975 play about British amateur stand-up comics, and Corner Wars, a hip-hop drama by new playwright Tim Dowlin, aspire to gritty realism and get tripped up by placing reality above art.
In addition to numerous stage plays, Griffiths co-authored screenplays for Warren Beatty’s Reds and Ken Loach’s Fatherland. Loach’s movies about Northern Brits living under Thatcher’s thumb are remarkable for their quasi-documentary style. For Comedians, the New Group hired set designer Derek McLane to re-create a suitably drab interior, a schoolroom so accurate in its detail, from the blackboard to the rain-soaked safety glass, that at first you wonder if you’re in the right place. But you soon discover that the six hapless archetypes of Griffiths’s play are taking a stand-up comedy course in a room where kiddies learn long division all day.
At the center of Comedians‘ narrative is instructor Eddie Waters (Jim Dale), a has-been comic turned guru. Waters has a vendetta against ethnic jokes, inspired, we learn later, by a trip to a concentration camp. Making Waters human is a snap for Dale, but it’s an uphill battle to turn the character into someone who’s ever been funny. Waters is clearly a sourball academic masquerading as a comedy expert. As a warm-up exercise, he has the comics recite the tongue twister “The traitor distrusts truth” without comprehending that it applies to the artist, too. Offended by a misogynist limerick tossed off by skinheaded student Gethin Price (Raúl Esparza), Waters embarks on a litany of pure bigotry, then claims to have demonstrated the principle that “A joke that feeds ignorance starves its audience.” Which might be true, but Waters’s rant doesn’t contain any one-liners, just straight bigotry. The danger of ethnic jokes isn’t that anyone thinks they’re true stories, but that the artistry of an effective one lends the authority of truth to their distortions. Sort of like a play.
The drama takes place on the evening before a promoter will watch Waters’s students and book the lucky ones. Unfortunately, the second act is an all-too-accurate depiction of their inept routines, as excruciating as the real thing and a lot of business for not much plot development. Instead of pandering, Price does an inscrutable bit of agitprop performance art. During his post-show heart-to-heart with Price, Waters admits he got sexually excited during a visit to the gas chamber. The conclusion he seems to have drawn from that boner is that some truths aren’t funny—not that comedy and tragedy are locked in an absurd tango. The cast do their damnedest to float this booby-trapped ship, as does their captain, Scott Elliott, but the truer they remain to the play, the more it goes off course. Perhaps it all seemed fresher in the reality of 1975.
Capturing today’s hip-hop reality on stage is the holy grail of New York theater. Just why is unclear, because it isn’t like the dollar of color makes up a huge percentage of TKTS profits, and the bluehairs from Teaneck surely aren’t flocking in to see Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam. Curiously, Corner Wars, a play about kids selling drugs in Philadelphia, rings truer than most hip-hop theater, despite being written by a grayboy, Tim Dowlin. Or maybe that’s part of the reason. Among the play’s virtues are that it shows, rather than explaining, how the drug trade works, how rough it is to survive the game, and how the system keeps people between a rock and a hard place. Maybe Dowlin knew that the energetic multi-ethnic cast wouldn’t stand for him putting righteous words in their mouths.
Still, there’s nothing new about the story of Corner Wars. A crack dealership tries to keep its footing in the neighborhood during an economic crisis and rubs out a rival operation. Nothing you couldn’t see closer up in the Brazilian movie City of God. But Dowlin’s less interested in glamorizing crime than showing us a community through the lives of its many characters.
None of the dealers are users: One kid is studying for his GED, another girl is cutting a demo, two others are clumsily falling in love. Unfortunately, none of the forked paths in the story lead anywhere. The police don’t even solve the murder case.
Any sense of momentum gets lost in Act II. But there are many spirited performances, particularly Omar Evans as put-upon dealer Dex, and Joel Holiday, Chris Williams, and David Shaw as his dawgs. The play’s cinematic finale, though, leaves you wondering what purpose any of their stories served. That hopelessness is probably part of the point, but it’s disappointing that someone with Dowlin’s ambition should settle for so much reality. Maybe Lily Tomlin was right when she said, “Reality is for people who can’t cope with drugs.”