In the theater, as in real estate, location is everything. I don’t mean the location of the performance, but of the events that take place onstage. Think how Shakespeare’s comedies change tone when shifting from the court to the forest, or how big-scale American works like Street Scene and Porgy and Bess draw on the place the characters inhabit. The placelessness of so many contemporary plays is a comment not on the playwrights, but on our dislocated, antiseptic society. Unlike Rodgers and Hammerstein, we know we don’t belong to the land any longer, and the land we non-belong to is distinctly less than grand these days.
All of which goes into the mix that makes In the Heights such an appealing event. Here is the musical that still believes in the American Dream; the New York musical that still insists anything can happen in New York; the musical now on Broadway that’s written of, by, and for a community of relatively recent arrivals in whose minds Broadway is more closely associated with 181st Street than with Times Square. This is lovely and heartening, because it links the hip-hop, salsa-pop immediacy of In the Heights to the long line of ethnic infusions that have been refreshing the American musical for well over a century, since the days of Harrigan and Hart, Weber and Fields, and Williams and Walker. When In the Heights‘ Inwood residents celebrate the “carnaval del barrio” by hanging out the Dominican, Puerto Rican, and (pre-Castro) Cuban flags, a good parapsychologist could probably glimpse the ghosts of George M. Cohan and Fanny Brice hovering overhead, holding hands and beaming at the sense of simultaneous renewal and continuity that the scene provides.
Cohan, granted, might frown at the absence of the Stars and Stripes from the tableau: The America that In the Heights celebrates isn’t political, because our politics, in recent decades, has so systematically let down our populace. In the Heights puts its characters’ faith in the dream of self-reliance that has vanished for many Americans, imagining its upper corner of Manhattan as a temporary shelter equally from big government and big capitalism, a place where “free enterprise” means small businesses, hard work, and a community in which mutual respect supplies a cooperative spirit. For these good folk, proudly individualist, prosperity and upward mobility are just around the corner; the Latin-American past is to be cherished as a heritage but never retreated into.
About half the stories in the show’s intertwined narratives involve choosing to move on; others focus on resisting the temptation to go back “home.” The temptation is resisted: In the Heights glows with the old American optimism. As book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes and songwriter-star Lin-Manuel Miranda view things, the dream hasn’t soured yet. The influx of rich Norteaños taking over the neighborhood, mentioned in passing, never becomes visible. Crime, intra-ethnic strife, immigrant struggles with language and mores, and the increasingly hard time Immigration gives Latino communities are among the many realities that the show’s good-natured tone omits or glosses over. The little deli where the hero, Usnavi (Miranda), brews up the neighborhood’s café con leche must do a brisk trade in rose-colored glasses.
Yet that optimism, too, belongs to the theatrical tradition, for ethnic minorities, of depicting life’s injustices comically and lightheartedly. The energy generated by a community’s sense of itself, exercising its own pastiche of musical idioms—blending those brought from the old country with those found here—sweeps away the shadows. Miranda’s vivacious score and Andy Blankenbuehler’s street-move-based choreography keep In the Heights‘ cast in constant motion. Out of the hubbub, individuals emerge, less as three-dimensional characters than as performers, both established (Priscilla Lopez, Olga Merediz) and new faces (Miranda, Mandy Gonzalez, Karen Olivo, Robin De Jesús), staking a claim to be heard as members of a group entitled to equal status in the multiplicity of groups we call America. Making life seem fun as they make light of its crises, they guarantee our granting that status.
The pre-revolutionary Russian folk trapped on the gloomy lakeside estate in Chekhov’s The Seagull mostly lack all hope, as you might expect in a play whose second line is: “I’m in mourning for my life.” Through their tears and tantrums, Chekhov shows us all the points they miss about how to make their lives better, or at least less painful. The old can’t think outside their old patterns; the young, brimming with rebellious anger, rush unstrategically into what they think they want. Habit, determination, and sheer selfishness keep the old going; the young mostly get crunched. Disappointment and death lie in wait, never very far off.
Of Chekhov’s four masterpieces, theater people love The Seagull most, because it has the struggle to make art out of reality (with an emphasis on the theater) among its principal topics. Its characters include actresses, playwrights, and adoring fans; someone even delivers a tribute to the theatricality of street life that could easily serve as a review of In the Heights. As a result, the play’s become almost too familiar, despite all the subtleties and ambiguities with which Chekhov invests it. We’ve seen these people, their quirks and snarks and betrayals, so many times. Yet, ironically, The Seagull only feels fresh when actors go back to its basics, living its lines simply and anchoring them in reality.
That happens roughly three minutes out of every 15 in Viacheslav Dolgachev’s CSC production. Except for Bill Christ’s unrelentingly loud, loutish Shamrayev, everyone onstage has persuasive moments. Dianne Wiest’s Arkadina has a great many; Alan Cumming, as her dogged but faithless lover Trigorin, eschews the smarminess that’s marred his previous work. Kelli Garner and Ryan O’Nan, as the doomed kids who long to supplant them, nail young love’s poetic reality for even longer stretches. Unfortunately, whenever a tidbit of reality’s been nailed, Dolgachev apparently gets interferingly directorial: People begin screeching, gesticulating, and dashing across the stage pointlessly like dodgem cars, until Treplev’s description of Nina’s amateurish, undisciplined acting seems to be the director’s stylistic guideline. The play comes through, but in a bruised and battered form that won’t win Chekhov many new admirers.
27 Rue de Fleurus, a sweet, proficient, ineffectual new musical about a quite different community of kindred spirits, gets its sweetness from a genuine love of its subject, the “marriage” of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Regrettably, it gets its ineffectuality there too, since it loves the immortal artist and her eternally supportive spouse-equivalent chiefly as celebrity icons. It runs through all the gossip, drops all the famous names, pays lip service to the artistic achievement, and never delves deeper. It brought to mind a poet friend’s description of another celebrity-Stein show some years back: “A perfectly delightful evening spent with a woman who couldn’t possibly have written Three Lives.” Frances Hill’s staging is neat, though; the music is well handled by John Bell; and the all-female cast sings excellently.