Low-Flying Genres


The three light entertainments that opened on Broadway last week, all pre-war creations, don’t quite strike the right note for the confusing and frightening time we’re in. The problem isn’t that they’re not topical; even a livelier and less contrived theater than plodding old Broadway might be forgiven for not keeping up with the money-grubbing monomaniacs (or Republicans, as they are sometimes called) who’ve dragged us into this lethal quagmire. Even the sense of crisis the war has stirred up isn’t the problem, precisely. Edgy as we all are, we stay calm; New Yorkers are great at staying calm in a crisis. Granted, the carnage on the news, the bag searches at the entrance to every public building (theaters included), and the troopers in combat fatigues holding M-16s who crop up at the entrance to every subway station are all signs of a different world than the one we lived in last month—signs that all artists will have to assimilate and deal with in due course—but no one expects a piece of theater to explain these signs, much less resolve our miserably mixed feelings about them, the week they appear.

At best, all we can hope for from the theatrical moment is a temporary release from the agony outside: a few hours’ purgation by laughter, or by pity and terror. Notice, by the way, what human dignity that stale old phrase carries compared to “shock and awe.” By focusing our feelings on a few people in a simple situation, the theater can restore our sense of humanity. Interestingly, it’s the only art that can: Movies and TV are inhuman technological artifacts; music is abstract; books and pictures are solitary pastimes. Only in the theater can we be with the people living out an experience, and feel that we share it in some way—a feeling that the very real images of the war, whether on TV or in newsprint, can’t give you; they only increase your sense of rage and helplessness. True, you can’t help Hamlet or Willy Loman or Lysistrata either, but at least you’re there with them. In that respect, as it turns out, they can help you.

It’s at that point precisely that the innocuousness of commercial entertainment becomes its biggest drag. A play’s substance is embodied in its characters; the less substantial the play, the more shadowy its people. The two couples in Yasmina Reza’s Life (x) 3, for instance, aren’t people at all; they’re merely one of the standard bridge-table matchups of sketch comedy, one pair of insecure bickerers and a snootier pair a few rungs above them on the status ladder. Where Reza learned all the standard tropes of 1940s Broadway comedy (from which sitcom proceeds) I don’t know; surely Franco-Iranian writers don’t spend their lives delving into the likes of Norman Krasna. She dresses the material up in fancy Structuralist clothes with metaphysical ruffles, but there’s no concealing its sitcomic nature. Yes, the pompous couple show up for dinner on the wrong night, just when the bickersons’ bratty offstage offspring is driving them nuts. Yes, hubby bickerson’s having career trouble; yes, his wife still resents giving up hers; yes, the pompous boss has a letch for wifey (this is a French play, after all); yes, boss’s stuffy wife has a few too many and says giddy wrong things. If there’s anyone still reading who thinks they couldn’t write this script better themselves, it’s back to rerun school for you.

Reza’s gimmick is to replay the embarrassing non-dinner party three times, with the characters’ relations shifting slightly each time, like numerical permutations. Her mistake was assuming that this would add up to an evening of theater; instead it simply shows that she might have written the play any of three different ways if she had only found some reason to care about its characters. But she didn’t, and so neither do we: They remain bits of cardboard next to whom the figures in more current sitcoms look almost three-dimensional. Matthew Warchus’s direction worsens matters by staging everything at a stately pace, to make sure we get all the jokes. He needn’t have bothered; most of them are visible a long way off, rather like the exits at Circle in the Square. John Turturro works mightily hard, sometimes to good effect, to animate this non-party’s beleaguered host; if his moves and inflections sometimes suggest a mixture of Ralph Kramden and Ricky Ricardo, you can hardly blame him for honoring the author’s sources. Linda Emond, Helen Hunt, and Brent Spiner bear their lesser afflictions with skill and patience; all four should be rewarded in the near future with the script of something worth playing.

It’s no use playing down to Sean Foley, Hamish MacColl, and Toby Jones, the three clowns who make up the cast of The Play What I Wrote—they’ll only agree with you, make six lame jokes, fold themselves in half, and move on to the next bit. The attenuated variety show what they put on, full of ancient vaudeville and music-hall wheezes which you can also often see approaching from miles off, has its moments of laughter. But, as Rossini said about Wagner’s music, it has an even greater number of mauvais quarts d’heure. Vaudeville and music-hall comedy acts ran 10 to 20 minutes, and then had the sense to get offstage; trying to stretch one into a two-hour theater evening with the barest pretense of continuity requires a kind of inspiration, or maybe a degree of emotional focus, that’s not in this team or its material. Having a surprise celebrity guest each night may enhance the treat, but doesn’t enrich its substance, since each mystery guest is put through an equivalent set of insipid jokes.

Still, I didn’t mind it much. Though rarely inspired, the three are usually competent. (I was pleased to note that they had quoted me as saying so, in advance, on one of their innumerable gimmicky backdrops. This tiny show carries enough scenery to revive a Ziegfeld revue, and enough gadgets to resuscitate Joe Cook.) Foley, the aggressor of the principal duo, is a speedy and skilled acrobatic clown; MacColl, his perpetual victim, has a likable mild wistfulness. And they are the only people currently onstage in America willing to announce with glee that their show has just driven Gerry Schoenfeld to suicide. They were able, similarly, to make the press-night celebrity guest, Kevin Kline, stand still and not wince while they confused him with Calvin. (“I’ve been wearing your shorts for years,” says Foley, pulling them from his waistband and handing them to Kline.) This indicates a certain determination to succeed, but with what? Jokes about the Count de Toblerone, a sweet gentleman, though a bit nutty, originally Swiss. Like the scenario of Life (x) 3, you’ve done this stuff for yourself already, while throwing bread sticks at each other across the table in your college cafeteria. No, you haven’t got Foley and MacColl’s impeccable timing. But you’re smarter than they are; you knew when to stop.

Nearly stopped in its anodyne tracks by the daily reviews, Urban Cowboy has been reprieved; not every retarded Texan is so lucky. But then, Urban Cowboy‘s not criminal, just mainly mediocre, predictable, and a tad noisy. Small-town Texas boy comes to big Texas city, meets and marries a girl as manly as himself, loses her, and gets her back. This ungainly story, initially carpentered up to parlay a magazine article into a feature film, barely holds together onstage. Keeping the lovers apart takes as much strained contrivance as getting them into the final clinch; along with the strain comes dialogue as ponderous as the worst operetta scripts, and characters so stock they might as well be robots with labels. Leo Burmester, Sally Mayes, Marcus Chait, and Rozz Morehead manage to shove a little chiaroscuro into four of these monochrome figures, but that only steals attention from the lead couple, a pair of charming blanks (he’s prettier, she’s spunkier) who drift, seemingly unaffected, through their wooden dialogue and the show’s erratic patchwork of songs, old and new. Some of the newer items, variously by Jason Robert Brown, Jeff Blumenkrantz, and Bob Stillman, aren’t bad. But garish designs, trite choreography, and the emptiness at the center of the generalized blare don’t encourage enthusiasm. New York probably wouldn’t be in the mood for a big, brash show about Texas just now anyway, but Urban Cowboy‘s worst flaw is that it conveys only the barest hint of Texas or of country music; it feels more like a road-tour repro of some other New York show.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 1, 2003

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