Theater archives

Even Bad Is Better ‘Off’


It was terrible, it was deadly, it was the worst. Why they chose the plays they did, why they produced and cast and directed them as they did, why I had to sit through them, I’ll never fully understand. The season, if you go by seasons, was the worst within living memory. Everybody says so. In fact, they say so every year. If we took them at their word, we’d have to conclude that the theater in New York has been getting steadily worse since the day in 1866 when they stuck a French ballet troupe into a gothic melodrama at Niblo’s Garden and invented musical comedy. There hasn’t been a good new play in town since Boucicault gave us The Shaughraun, and there hasn’t been a great performance since Mrs. Fiske gave up playing Becky Sharp.

I’m deliberately talking antiquated nonsense, of course. Because it’s still the way we all talk, at the end of another theatrical year: Just insert today’s names in place of the ones from the theater-history textbooks. You’ve heard this song before. George Bernard Shaw, when he was practicing drama criticism over a century ago, summarized it in one elegantly precise sentence: “The theater is, was, and eternally will be as bad as it possibly can.”

Viewed from the commercial perspective, via Broadway, these last few years in the New York theater have been boom years. The numbers tell a happy story, if you’re only in it for the money: More people than ever are paying higher prices than ever to spend between 90 and 150 minutes in the presence of actors on a stage and musicians in an orchestra pit—fewer of either than in days gone by, to sweeten the profiteers’ deal even further. A fairly large percentage of these high-paying people are tourists, who spend money while they’re here in a great many places other than Broadway theaters, bringing New York incalculable economic benefits, blah blah blah, and so on. You’ve heard this song before, too; either the mayor’s Department of Cultural Affairs or the League of American Theatres and Producers issues a press release reprising it every two weeks or so. I’m not complaining. I think it’s great that our big bad blue city rakes in all those red-state shekels. They keep the big theaters bankrolled, and I for one am glad they’re here, no matter how difficult it gets to battle through the crowds in Times Square on my way to a Friday- or Saturday-night press performance.

But I have to admit that there’s a technical problem with Broadway in the new tourist era: It’s mostly boring. It seems to me to resemble theater, the art form I’ve spent my life writing about, less and less. Old plays dredged up for celebrities from the mechanized media, new musicals based on not-so-old movies, old musicals rehashed, everything loaded down with glitz and blandness and overexplanation (tourist audiences are not thought to be very bright): This is not a recipe for exciting theater. The days when tourists came to a Broadway show precisely because it didn’t reflect what they could see in Omaha or Butte or Flagstaff are long gone. In that era, a far less expensive Broadway had its own homegrown audience, and the New Yorkers told the tourists what New York taste was, not vice versa.

But New Yorkers still do shape the taste of the New York theater, only—oh irony—the Broadway theater isn’t the New York theater anymore; it’s just a centralized clearinghouse for the various corporate notions of what makes theater a tourist attraction. Its taste is really to a large extent L.A. taste, which is to say none at all. It imports products from Off-Broadway, from the regions, from London and Dublin. The production that’s actually nurtured exclusively for Broadway is a rarity.

Off-Broadway, in contrast, has its own ways and means, Off-Off even more so. Yes, the media infection has spread even there: The press releases now play up actors’ TV cameos, or their single sank-without-trace movie credit, rather than the five or six stage roles by which New York has come to know and love them. But every year, as we bicker our way through the Obie award meetings, I’m staggered by the number of actors who manage to impress their abilities on the public consciousness without benefit of celluloid. Look at the roster of this year’s outstanding performances. If playwriting was a little on the low side, acting ran high; it was a hectic season crammed full of terrific work: Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson in Grey Gardens; Peter Francis James and Byron Jennings (plus a dozen others) in Stuff Happens; S. Epatha Merkerson in Birdie Blue; Lois Smith in The Trip to Bountiful; J. Smith-Cameron and Reed Birney in Pen; Euan Morton and Michael Stuhlbarg in Measure for Pleasure; Michael Cumpsty in Hamlet; Kate Forbes and Laurie Kennedy in All’s Well That Ends Well; Dana Ivey in Mrs. Warren’s Profession; Kristine Nielsen in Miss Witherspoon; Stephen Lang and Margaret Colin in Defiance; Marian Seldes and Nathan Lane in Dedication. And that’s only the first batch of names off the top of my head. Imagine how long the list would get if I’d gone about it systematically.

Such a roster isn’t a mere morsel of acting; it’s a banquet, with a menu chosen only from actors who are already known quantities. The real list is much longer. If you prefer being thrilled by the art of acting to being left neutral by the sight of media stars in mediocre revivals, New York is an incredibly lucky place to be, teeming with artists of this high stature, who love the theater and make it their life. Yes, they all do their movie and TV bits, their voice-overs and commercials; I realize that they subsidize their stage careers that way, as well as paying off the mortgage, putting the kids through school, upgrading the computer or repairing the boiler. Well, my thanks to those who hire them. We should probably give a special Obie to the producers of Law & Order. But we haven’t even got the scope to give one to everybody on the list. I for one sincerely wish we could, but the ceremony would run longer than Wagner’s Ring.

Mentioning Wagner reminds me that acting isn’t the only realm in which Off-Broadway has been glorious lately. Musicals are Broadway’s stock in trade, but Broadway’s musicals are increasingly either foreign imports or “properties” manufactured in some corporate corridor. An actual Broadway musical, even one nurtured, like The Wedding Singer or The Drowsy Chaperone
, in nonprofit venues across the country, is almost as rare a creature as an actual Broadway play. Our little downtown theater, meanwhile, has been busy creating the kind of original musical that revitalizes and challenges the form. The Broadway year has been dismal, or at best so-so, for musicals, but Off-Broadway’s come up with an appealingly varied crop: The year of See What I Wanna See, The Seven, [title of show], Grey Gardens, Miracle Brothers, Bernarda Alba, Fanny Hill, and I Love You Because can hardly be called a dull one in the musical theater. If the musical as a form is about money, then, no, most of these shows will never rank with Hair or Cats as worldwide phenomena. But if the musical is about pleasure and excitement—and it is—I’d say that even the worst of them has The Woman in White or Lestat beat all hollow.

Nor is that the end of Off-Broadway’s accomplishments this year. The downtown theater stuck its neck out far enough to give us events like Poor Theatre, Heddatron, Abacus Black, and Peninsula; experiment leapt into the mainstream with the stunning In the Continuum. Broadway’s sense of the classic repertoire has shrunk, in recent years, to a few plays by Shakespeare and the standard school texts of O’Neill, Miller, and Williams. Off-Broadway, contrariwise, was venturesome: You could see The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Gentleman Dancing-Master, or plays by nearly forgotten writers like Dawn Powell and Rose Franken. The same night Hot Feet opened on Broadway, just after the Obies’ cutoff date, Off-Broadway offered up a trifecta of powerhouse classics: Howard Brenton’s Sore Throats (a New York premiere) at the Duke, Schiller’s Mary Stuart at the Pearl, and the two parts of Goethe’s Faust at CSC. I have a slight involvement with the first two, but that’s not why I mention them: Such plays give the theater stature and meaning, of a kind that uptown’s money-system theater can never provide; they give intelligent New Yorkers reasons for going to the theater that an Odd Couple or Pajama Game don’t supply. The danger of Broadway is that its monolithic love of profit squeezes a little more density and vibrancy out of New York’s idea of theater every year. Off-Broadway and Off-Off exist for the sheer joy of keeping that idea alive in all its richness. Whatever their failings, I’m happy they’re here: They make a theater in which I can live and work, without feeling that my sense of adventure, my intelligence, and my imagination are always being crammed into some unworthy, prefabricated object.