I know this is a terrible thing to say, but during the 19 days that Broadway was shut down by a labor dispute, I didn’t miss it at all. The Off-Broadway and Off-Off schedules were, if anything, more hectic than usual, so theater as such never seemed to be on the decline. I was sorry for the people out of work, and for the people in all the ancillary trades losing business at the height of the tourist season, but the slackening made Times Square a little more traversable, and conversation in its relatively deserted restaurants a little more audible—so while the restaurateurs wept into their Bushmill’s, I’m afraid I snickered, a little guiltily, up my sleeve.
The disputatious gaggle of realtors and money-hungry riffraff who grandly call themselves the League of American Theatres and Producers had, to my mind, brought the work stoppage on themselves. They had thought, in the manner of capitalists everywhere these days, that it was all about money, and consequently that they, as the check-signers, should be entitled to make all the rules; behind their pose of negotiating willingly with Local 1 lay an ill-concealed desire to do away with union stagehands, and if possible with unions, altogether. Unfortunately for them, the stagehands understood enough about theatrics to read the league’s subtext accurately, and so held their ground until the producers dropped their lunatic dream of running Broadway like Wal-Mart and actual negotiations could occur, after which a settlement was promptly reached and everybody went back to work.
Ironically, given that the producers’ overall attitude may have made the strike inevitable, its consequences probably fell hardest on the few among them who, anomalously and against the current tide, genuinely believe that drama has a place on Broadway. Five of the six Broadway openings postponed because of the strike were “legit” plays; three of them, dropped instantly into the already overbooked week when performances resumed, are the reason this review is so long. That’ll teach me not to snicker up my sleeve.
The week’s principal Off-Broadway exhibit, Peter Parnell’s Trumpery (Atlantic Theater, 336 West 20th Street, 212-279-4200) makes a matched pair, structurally speaking, with Aaron Sorkin’s on-Broadway The Farnsworth Invention (Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200). Each deals with one of the great influences that have shaped our time, but touches only peripherally on its devastating effects; in both, the main issue is who got the idea first. Both authors show a little discomfort with this quintessentially American fetishizing of originality, and both plays end with uneasy reconciliations—the one in Sorkin’s play being, like much else in its second act, nakedly unhistorical. What the fuss over assigning credit obscures, in each case, is the deeper conflict about the relative value and consequences of the idea that the originator set loose on earth. Brecht, who dealt with a similar theme more effectively in Galileo, would have known better.
Parnell, who goes far deeper into his subject than Sorkin, gets at least some flavor of authenticity and some sense of the Brechtian depths inherent in his topic. His twin competitors are Charles Darwin (Michael Cristofer) and the naturalist-explorer Alfred Russel Wallace (Manoel Felciano), who evolved the theory of natural selection while Darwin was struggling to embody it in The Origin of Species. Set at Darwin’s home, where supportive colleagues push him to publish before Wallace gets there first, the play makes a sly running comparison between scientists’ struggle for priority and the animalistic survival struggle embodied in Darwin’s theory. Parnell frames this action in a familial version of the big battle, still going on today, between believers in Christianity and evolution: Darwin’s refusal to acknowledge a spiritual cause behind his scientifically observed findings gets locked in mortal combat with his wife’s grief over their dying daughter.
In David Esbjornson’s production, powered by beautifully measured yet passionate performances from Cristofer and Felciano, Parnell makes this personal side of the play riveting, though showing it to us only through a thicket of scientific data and Victorian scientists’ trade gossip. Every now and then, Trumpery stalls in lecture mode, but the author and his lead actors always have either an emotional blast or a well-turned epigram ready to rev it up again. I could wish Parnell had made his drama’s major focus the door that Darwin opened onto all the goods and evils of modern thought, but a clear outline of the doorway looms over the story he does tell. Two ever-reliable actors, Michael Countryman and Neal Huff, as Darwin’s teammates Hooker and Huxley, add distinctive colors to the event, but it’s the big scenes for Cristofer and Felciano that give it grip.
Sorkin’s play, also fueled by grief over a dying child, keeps its grip by data-smacking you. Every half-minute or so, somebody in Des McAnuff’s ultra-speedy, hyper-choreographed production (movement by Lisa Shriver) gets repositioned downstage to throw a new fact, or half-fact, at you. Sorkin’s combatants are Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson), the intermittently alcoholic, intermittently devout Mormon farm boy who invented television, and David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria), who as head of RCA needed to prove that he didn’t. In 1939, well before television became the market-boom phenomenon that ultimately destroyed human civility, RCA lost this patent fight, but you’d never know that from Sorkin’s drama, which turns Farns-worth into an aw-shucks folk hero facing down the corporate sharks—though it carefully dodges possible imputations of anti-Semitism by showing Sarnoff’s own rise to the top as a struggle, analogous to Farnsworth’s, against entrenched bigotry.
But Farnsworth never explores any aspect of the story deeply. From the sources of the stirrings that made a rural potato-farmer’s kid an electronics whiz by high-school age to the seismic shift in social patterns caused by the mass success of radio and then TV, everything is brushed in, snappily, with a factoid or two, encased in a wisecrack whenever possible, as on those TV docudramas that leave you wishing you’d been told the real story instead. (You can get some of it through a scene-by-scene takedown of the play at thefarnsworth invention.com.) The quick once-over is amusing and effective; Azaria and Simpson make appealingly contrasted heroes; a fleet of strong character actors, notably Michael Mulheren and Jim Ortlieb, supplies variety. But a variety show—sleekly organized, with effective sentimental touches—is all it amounts to. In real life, RCA paid Farnsworth a million bucks in 1939; his company thrived on military contracts during the war, and afterward was sold to ITT. So don’t shed any tears for poor bilked Farnsworth.
The male rivalry in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline ( Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, 212-239-6200) is personal rather than commercial: The exiled Posthumous (Michael Cerveris) loves his wife Imogen (Martha Plimpton) so much that he’s willing to bet that Iachimo (Jonathan Cake) can’t tempt her into adultery. Iachimo loses the bet but lies to collect, sending Posthumous into a jealous frenzy in which he lies, too, secretly plotting Imogen’s murder while assuring her that everything’s swell. Everybody in Cymbeline except Imogen lies like crazy, making its plot notoriously tough to follow, and nothing in this fantasticated Roman Britain is actually swell: Relations with Rome are in turmoil; King Cymbeline (John Cullum) has to prep for war while his queen (Phylicia Rashad) connives to marry her nitwit son, Cloten (Adam Dannheisser), to Imogen, Cymbeline’s daughter by his first wife. Add two kidnapped children, a few seemingly subornable servants, and a prophetic dream that leaves three-dimensional artifacts behind, and you have a recipe for anything but dramatic coherence. No wonder Cymbeline was rarely revived until the deconstructionists fell in love with its fractured narrative.
Mark Lamos’s production, the fifth Cymbeline that New York has seen in the past decade, fights, with mixed success, to impose some order on this chaotic tale. Much of it, under Brian McDevitt’s sharply sculpted lighting, looks beautiful. Like most directors who’ve tackled the play, Lamos can’t quite do what only Andrei Serban’s 1998 Delacorte staging, in my experience, has succeeded at: building a magic realm where this persnickety play’s preposterous events are allowable and its characters still forgivably human. Lamos’s solution, which leans toward operatic grandeur, never gets all the way into the magical; his greatest victory is with Cerveris, whose pain-racked threnodies reach the stature of a great singer’s classic arias. Plimpton, achieving the winsome muscularity of an empowered Cinderella, is nearly as good; Cullum is suitably commanding, while John Pankow (Pisanio) and Herb Foster (Cornelius) lend distinction to their subordinate roles. On the debit side, Rashad’s Queen is hollowly rhetorical, Dannheisser’s Cloten neither scary nor funny, and the biggest letdown is Cake’s Iachimo, a capering Cockney lout who probably couldn’t get to first base with Eliza Doolittle. Cake looks great in a towel (Lamos sets the wager scene in a Roman bathhouse), but memories of Liev Schreiber’s hypnotically seductive Delacorte Iachimo wipe him out of the fully clad scenes that follow.
High rhetoric, down-home style, is the comfort food—maybe I mean “discomfort food” —heaped high on your plate in Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County (Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200), a production from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company that’s roused wild enthusiasm, perhaps just because of its sheer bulk. Americans love overeating, and Letts’s three-hour-and-20-minute banquet of emotional recriminations, set when an Oklahoma poet’s embittered clan gathers after his unexplained disappearance, seems perfect theater for a culture of obesity. Everybody’s problems, everybody’s secrets, everybody’s resentments, vices, addictions, and failures come crashing out, as if the family had been locked for decades in Fibber McGee’s closet. Much of the material’s familiar, and the distended structure only dimly approaches anything you could call dramatic shape, but the excessive length allows Letts to give all his characters multiple facets, and the crackle of his dialogue gives a batch of good actors plenty to chew on, though the loud chomping noises that Anna D. Shapiro’s heavily italicized directing allows some of them to make may seem too excessive even for this picnic.
Still, as William Blake said, “You never know what is enough until you know what is too much.” Broadway’s few serious exhibits in recent years have mostly been dramatically anorexic little events; a play that shoves a dozen major characters onstage, all busily digging up globs of buried backstory to splatter on each other, supplies understandable relief. Lacking a large-scale classical theater, New York’s practically forgotten what great drama is. (Shakespeare, being sui generis, doesn’t count.) A big heap of melodramatic hokum, fresh-sounding and played with spirit, takes at least a baby step on the road back to greatness. And with performances as good as those by Sally Murphy, Rondi Reed, Frances Guinan, Brian Kerwin, and Jeff Perry, what’s the harm in a little overindulgence? Even at current Broadway prices, you can’t say August: Osage County isn’t giving you your money’s worth.
And if acting’s what you shell out for, Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer (Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200) gives another plentiful helping, under the author’s direction, with deeper grounding and little or no gratuitous italicizing. The trouble is McPherson’s script, another of his no-blend combinations of grottily detailed low-life naturalism with a piece of folk kitsch left over from the era when all supernatural beings came onstage via trap doors or fly wires. He doesn’t seem to understand that his context kills his dramatic substance—it’s like setting Peter Pan in a natural-history museum. The killing works in reverse, too: These low-life souls are so scruffy it’s hard to see why Satan wants them so desperately; he could be making hay at Republican Party headquarters instead. But McPherson’s actors make the lowlifes juicily real, and the two central performances—by David Morse as the soul in deepest torment and Ciaràn Hinds as the stranger gambling on his destruction—anchor the factitious script with the dour, towering strength of weathered steel pylons.