Theater archives

Summer Clearance


I originally began this review with a long paragraph about the meaning and function of criticism, but I’ve deleted it; the summer heat is not conducive to abstract discussions. Besides, I knew in my heart that I’d written it merely to avoid discussing four shows I don’t particularly want to review. Their openings, and even some of their closings, are long past, the Off-Broadway institutions having as usual dumped all their major spring openings into the weeks after the Tony cutoff date, apparently just to cause backlogging in weekly columns. Now the hot weather’s here, and nobody cares very much about anything, least of all the theater. Same-sexers, who make up such a large segment of the playgoing audience, are all busy having celebratory same-sex in Texas bedrooms while they plan their Canadian weddings. (I recommend Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, where a translation of mine opens at the Shaw Festival later this month.) The world is in upheaval; the resident lunatic in the White House is busy truckling alternately to God and Mammon, with zero regard for the American public; and the Middle East, the economy, and the environment are all busily making a bleak future look bleaker. With all that going on, who really needs a report on recent plays that didn’t suffice?

No one, frankly, but the management doesn’t underpay me to fill my columns with reflections on the approaching end time, so report on insufficient plays I must, at least until somebody produces a sufficient one again. At that, none of the works I have to write about is unworthy. Eric Bentley once said that it was easier to explain the existence of the universe than the production of a dull play, but he may have been exaggerating: He was reviewing a string of mid-’50s Broadway sex farces—two of them in historical costume. My undesired subjects, all produced by nonprofit institutions, are more honorable denizens of the script list (a dull sex farce in historical costume being less honorable than anything). Reasons for producing them were clearly visible; it was reasons for sitting through them that fell short.

Not always that far short, either. Take D.H. Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law, getting its local premiere an inexplicable 38 years after its posthumous publication in the volume of collected plays that made Lawrence a figure to be respected, if not exactly cheered, in British playwriting. Written around 1912, his work fits the pattern of post-Ibsen naturalism that was then being established on the English stage by the Court Theatre under Granville Barker, whose plays the Mint Theatre has lately been bringing to New York’s dilatory attention. As such, it was a logical choice for the Mint; and the script, though uncertain in touch and ungainly in putting the two aspects of its story together, has Lawrence’s sensibility in it, which is not to be sneezed at. It also has, more regrettably, his habit of either not coming to the point or being wildly overwrought about it. The events in The Daughter-in-Law, about a mother-dominated coal miner’s struggle to win the respect of his haughty bride while a bitter strike looms outside, don’t always seem to be happening in sequence, and some are dragged out till they seem to be happening twice; it’s as if A Doll’s House had gotten miscollated with Gorky’s Mother. The names in that comparison, though, suggest the stature and seriousness of Lawrence’s attempt. A lot of the play’s details of observation, too, are fresh, and Martin L. Platt’s production, despite generally uneven acting, makes it look lucid and true, through designs (sets by Bill Clarke, costumes by Holly Poe Durbin) that catch the careworn quality of a mine workers’ town without self-conscious drabness or grunge. Only the distance between Lawrence’s understanding of his people and the awkward way he tells his story makes the gap into which your attention lapses.

Even so, he does better than Marguerite Duras, whose gnomic Savannah Bay might be described as all gap and no drama. Or maybe, given the hieratic, fashion-shoot archness of Les Waters’s staging, all Gap—the brief but interminable evening most often seems to be about watching stately Kathleen Chalfant walk around in nice-looking clothes, by Ilona Somogyi, while Robert Wierzel’s lights flood the backdrop with swashes of various pastel hues. Chalfant can make even the most dissociative speech sound cogent, but her striking presence does little to enliven the portentous cat-and-mouse game Duras has set up, in which a young woman (Marin Ireland) alternately chats with and interrogates a much older woman (Chalfant), apparently a once famous actress, who may or may not be her grandmother. The apparent purpose of the interrogation is to unearth the story of the young woman’s long-dead mother. As in other Duras works, the old woman is a wealthy and domineering figure; unlike better Duras works, this one wallows in its secrets without granting the audience any alternative substance to reward their patience as they watch it wallow. Duras compounds the felony by having her two characters discuss a Piaf recording we hear at the outset as if Piaf were some unknown relic of antiquity, rather than a singer instantly recognizable worldwide. Maybe Duras wrote her play to be buried in a time capsule; it should certainly be buried somewhere.

Next to it, Kate Robin’s Intrigue With Faye looks almost respectably solid. Robin’s trouble, antithetical to Duras’s, is that her dramatic structure is altogether too pat. A live-together couple, she a therapist and he a wannabe filmmaker, try to strengthen their bond by recording their time apart from each other on video. Predictably, this burgeons into a marketable project for him (through a female TV producer with whom he’s had a one-night stand). Less predictably, she turns out to be hot for the fame a nationwide airing of their domestic difficulties might bring, while he, magically grown virtuous and mature from the experience, rejects the chance. All of which would be fine, if you could believe it for one instant of the muddled but sincere woman and the chronically dishonest, self-serving man you’ve watched for most of the evening. While the first act has the excruciating dullness of microscopic accuracy, much of what comes after the break replaces it with the glib ring of TV story editing. More dismissive reviewers have used the occasion to send Robin, who showed some early promise as a playwright, back to her work on Six Feet Under. I’m inclined to think that, though this script is unsalvageable, it suggests she has enough dramatic sense—and enough hunger for what’s genuine—to make us hope that she might turn up with a real play sometime.

Jim Simpson’s production makes this one look real enough, at least on the surface, though he’s oddly directed its many interpolated video clips as overacted celebrity camp. Benjamin Bratt deepens the flaw in Robin’s writing with one of those smooth, empty performances young media stars often give onstage: every tiny gesture believable, but not an ounce of conviction behind it. Juliana Margulies, in contrast, not only grounds her character strongly but goes way beyond the script in the blinding fury with which she plays her climactic tantrum, confirming the strong impression she made in the even more factitious Ten Unknowns: This is an actress I’d like to see tested in a great dramatic role, without delay.

Without delay is how Matt Pepper seems to have written St. Crispin’s Day, as if he were rushing to beat the Delacorte’s Henry V into town. A sort of “Porky’s goes to Agincourt,” it injects Shakespeare’s low-comic soldiers with post-Gulf War cynicism and Monty Python mock-orotundity, entirely oblivious to the notion that Shakespeare, and a few thousand of his successors, have beaten it on both counts. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking there’s much comedy, let alone satiric revelation, left to be squeezed from the idea of Fluellen as a macho closet queen, or Henry himself as a blasé manipulator: Put M*A*S*H in medieval burlap and it’s still a rerun. Simon Hammerstein’s staging keeps the rowdy-dow steadily on the move, however, and some of his performers—notably David Wilson Barnes, Alex Draper, Michael Gladis, and Darren Goldstein—come off considerably better than their material.