Constructors of “well-made” plays on the model perfected in the 19th century by Eugène Scribe—the model that Broadway lived by until very recently—knew that plays had to hold your interest by building up to what they called the scène à faire, the pivotal scene that every play had to have as its dramatic climax, in which the hero or heroine was forced into the inevitable confrontation that the audience dreaded but secretly desired, guaranteeing that they would stay riveted on the action till the end. Delightful fun in the hands of a genial and knowing writer like Scribe, this mode of audience manipulation could quickly turn not only mechanical but offensive in the hands of lesser talents, who would bend their characters into any contradictory absurdity, or submit them to any degradation, for the sake of an effective “curtain.”
We’ve come, alas (or do I mean “thank heaven”?), a long way since then. Scribe is now merely a charming antique, his works familiar only to operagoers. But the well-made play still haunts Broadway, in crumbled and degenerated form. The uptown season’s last two arrivals, Prymate and Frozen, present opposite approaches to it, each trying to sustain some of the old form’s affective power while wrapping itself up in newness. And the different ways they choose of being “new” turn out to be the gauge of their relative integrity, vis-à-vis both the old form and the world today’s audience inhabits.
Prymate‘s approach to the form might be described as “meltdown.” Economically, it uses four people on a single set to tell a story—if you can call such a patent absurdity a story—that seems contrived to contain, in 90-plus intermission-less minutes, as many conflicts, as many crises, as many current issues, and as many transgressive devices as possible. The plot concerns two scientists in unrelated fields, former lovers, quarreling over the ownership of a laboratory gorilla. Whose ape is this anyway? Given the petty contentiousness of the claimants, it’s hard to care. Science here is a field in which personal agendas always take precedence, and no form of vindictiveness is too low. There is no inevitable climactic scene: In such a play, every scene is a climactic scene. The characters carom from one crisis to the next like billiard balls, and with about as much humanity.
With writing this frenzied, the actors would be screaming at each other all through, if the author hadn’t made one character an animal and another a deaf-mute; everyone’s ability to sign adds texture and physical dimension to what would otherwise merely be a prolonged wallow in verbal recrimination. Mark Medoff’s knack for making his limited elements multitask is summed up in the role of the gorilla, which is played by an African American actor (the distinguished artist André de Shields), face and lower legs bare. Since the animal is simultaneously presented as (a) almost human in comprehension and feeling, (b) freer and simpler than humans, and (c) corrupted in its habits by human dishonesty, the use of a black actor in the role gives the already conflicting animal stereotypes a double-whammy echo effect, getting all the animal-rights and race-relations issues evoked by the image thoroughly confused.
Since the animal’s corruption (by an offstage lab assistant, before the action begins) is sexual in nature, the show reaches its nadir of taste in a King Kongian ape-and-blonde-beauty moment that can cater to any racist heart of darkness in the audience while solemnly disavowing all such intentions. It’s a tribute to de Shields’s innate integrity and emotive power as an actor that even this doesn’t prevent him from making the gorilla the only dignified and sympathetic character in the piece, far more appealing than any of the three humans, though the acting overall is much better than the script deserves.
Frozen is an altogether more careful and more honest work, respecting both its characters’ integrity and the dignity of its audience. Its climactic scene, in which a serial child murderer and the mother of one of his victims confront each other, stirs the kind of cathartic emotion that makes the theater a healthier place spiritually. Full credit to playwright Bryony Lavery: She neither fakes the scene nor strains to reach it; it grows organically out of what came before. The trouble, though, is that Lavery builds to it too carefully, with a tidy, dry precision. She lays her groundwork in a series of short, gnomic solos like jagged flagstones, each supplying another neatly landscaped piece of evidence: here the behavior pattern, there the social statistic, beyond that the little detail linking back to the central metaphor.
The net effect, despite the excellent acting in Doug Hughes’s terse, lucid production, is that we almost don’t feel the full force of a climax that’s, for once, both truthful and powerful. Only in Swoosie Kurtz’s performance as the bereaved mother, moving from numb grief to vindictiveness to grave compassion, does the power of human nature burst through the tidiness. A compliment to Lavery is that she makes her audience listen with a quietude unusual on Broadway; an even bigger compliment to Kurtz is that, seemingly without effort, her pivotal moments make them break that silence with roars of applause.