Why do we go to the theater? Supposedly, it enriches our life, in any of half a dozen ways. We get thrills, we get meaning, we get laughs, we get music and dance, we get glamour and excitement; we get issues framed to raise our hackles and questions raised to make us search our hearts. We come in contact with people—the real ones performing or the fictional ones they play—who are not part of our everyday experience. We get to identify ourselves with them, or shrink in repulsion from their awfulness, or weigh our lives and actions against theirs. We go back to the everyday world, hopefully, with an enhanced sense of what life is, and what living it means to us, a heightened awareness that puts whatever else we do in the bumbling course of our days into perspective.
You would think this was all self-evident. But it isn’t any longer. If the theater
has been slipping out of public consciousness, it’s not because movies and television are any more oppressively present than they were 40 years ago, when Broadway was shriveling but the theater was a boom industry nationally. And it’s not because Internet chats and music downloads have replaced the human desire to witness live entertainment: Theaters are full to bursting with eager audiences, often at outlandishly high prices. The number of plays, theaters, and productions in New York seems to quadruple yearly, at least to judge by the flood of press releases that jam my inbox every morning.
No, the theater, that allegedly dead thing, is alive and—well, let’s just say it’s alive. Its problem has not been the amount of activity, but that, since the late 1990s, this hyperactive mode has seemed increasingly factitious. Yearly it gets less and less like the real life of which I know the theater to be capable, and more and more like a weirdly empty replica. On many nights, sitting through some numbingly vacuous event, I have begun to worry that perhaps the fabulous invalid is indeed deceased, that what we are seeing instead of a living theater, far too often, is a reconstituted zombie version of it.
Mistaking this simulacrum for the real thing is easy enough. As living creatures go, the theater has always been a sort of monstrous affair anyway: It has survived on innumerable occasions without a heart and has been known to live happily for decades at a stretch without a brain. But the one thing it cannot survive is making itself uninteresting, and that is the ominous trend most visible in the New York theater today. This move toward boringness has two sources: television and a quest for what I might call microrealism. In a sense they’re the same: Television’s fascination really stems from its ability to pick up anything that lies in the camera’s path; YouTube was its natural outgrowth. You stare at the screen not because something is happening, but because something might happen anytime; the blank objective eye itself is hypnotically reassuring. Hand in hand with this neutral, non-three-dimensional fixation comes an obsession with microscopic detail: The camera, unlike the human eye, notices everything and, if held motionless, emphasizes nothing. Nothing on television is ever important, because television makes everything equally important.
Sensibilities reared on this all-objectivizing unimportance produce events like the two I’ve used this discussion to stave off reviewing. Neil LaBute’s Wrecks is a new “play,” The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the New Group’s “production” of a 40-year-old one, but neither really exists, in the way a play or a production exists onstage. In the first, Ed Harris, a gifted and charismatic actor, comes out and chats for 74 minutes about the minutiae in the head of a businessman at his wife’s funeral, after which there is a one-second “twist,” obvious from the title and already in wide circulation, that adds nothing to the story and, though intended to shock, reveals no shocking truth, except that the character is a misguided jerk like all the other LaBute jerks who have flashed their allegedly shocking truths in similar next-to-closing moments.
Miss Jean Brodie is a more complex case: Jay Presson Allen’s old script, based on Muriel Spark’s sly novella, has been allowed to do its storytelling work in its old, clunky, but effective manner; some actors with strong presences—Lisa Emery, Caroline Lagerfelt, Ritchie Coster, John Pankow, and young Zoe Kazan—have been cast in the major supporting roles. But Scott Elliott, New Group’s artistic director, displays here, as in many of his recent productions, a willful passion for the pointless, the anti-theatrical, and the inert, making the characters, especially Cynthia Nixon’s Jean Brodie, talk of what’s most important to them as if it were meaningless. For a large part of the evening, Nixon appears to be reciting lines by rote; emotional peaks spelled out in the script are damped down into nullity or, when unavoidable, tonelessly screamed. Maybe Elliott’s interest, as with his equally drab revival last year of Aunt Dan and Lemon, also lies in the play’s non-shocking “shock,” the idea of a charming nonconformist heroine being revealed as a crypto-fascist. Otherwise, it’s hard to see why he chose it or thought it suited Nixon’s talents.