I’ve just spent three evenings watching the work of young playwrights—well, relatively young, since they all turn out to be over 30, though comparative newcomers to the scene. (I hate the phrase “emerging playwrights,” which always makes me picture them having just crawled out of some cave.) Their confluence makes a good occasion for saying something about the way the young—I’m sure none of them minds being called that—write plays today.
My under-30 readers are probably already wincing, on the assumption that this will be a diatribe about how much better and more exciting young playwrights were back in the day, etc. I’m known for such diatribes, despite the inconvenient fact that I’ve never written one: In the Internet era, everything’s available to be misread, at ever-higher speeds. But that, too, like some of the shortcomings of today’s playwriting, is a phenomenon of our time. It may not last—one of the pleasanter parts of aging is the growing realization that current phenomena rarely last long enough to be worth fretting about. For better or worse, they’ll change, and the change will never come in an expected way. Which is why loving the playwriting of the past (as I do) never means condemning the present wholesale: The past had its share of shortfalls and disappointments, too.
The real point is that every generation fails, the same way it succeeds: differently from its predecessors. It would make no sense at all to demand that Adam Bock and Itamar Moses, whose new plays make up two-thirds of this column’s subject, write exactly like, say, Elmer Rice and S.N. Behrman, or like Lanford Wilson and John Guare. Instead, one should ask how good Bock and Moses are on their own terms, what substance their plays reveal in the context of their own time.
Which is where my perturbation begins, for what’s wrong with today’s plays doesn’t seem to come from a lack of talent. Both Bock’s and Moses’s new plays—The Drunken City and The Four of Us, respectively—rank high in terms of quality workmanship. Care has been taken with them, and craft skillfully exercised. Both plays convey a distinct quality of feeling: a sweet-natured, ruefully wise sense of how things can change among people who are and then aren’t close to one another. Both scripts have humor, and astuteness, and a degree of sharp observation. These playwrights enjoy, as the best playwrights of the past always did, seizing the nuanced ins and outs of human relations. Both plays, too, have gotten charming productions, directed with an airy, cunning smoothness—The Drunken City by Trip Cullman, The Four of Us by Pam MacKinnon; the latter features an especially ingenious set by David Zinn.
With all this so good, and with the added enhancement of appealing performances by actors both fresh (Gideon Banner in The Four of Us, Cassie Beck in The Drunken City) and newly familiar (Michael Esper in The Four of Us, Maria Dizzia and Barrett Foa in The Drunken City), what could be the problem? The answer, dismayingly, is that both plays lack, of all things, drama. Like many recent plays produced by our Off-Broadway institutions (for instance: Doris to Darlene, Hunting and Gathering, Unconditional), they deal with small groups of people (only two in The Four of Us) whose lives intersect for no particular reason, sometimes by improbable coincidences: The three suburban gal friends of The Drunken City, out celebrating one’s engagement in Manhattan, just happen to run into two guy buddies from the same suburb, an encounter that will alter life for all five. The two boys in The Four of Us were rock-star wannabes at music camp together in high school; having gone to different colleges, both happen to give up music for literature, and happen to spend the summer after they graduate together in Prague, where one writes the novel that will crack the friendship apart by becoming a worldwide bestseller.
Obviously, events occur in these plays, and some of them can be called “dramatic.” But the characters in each, as a group, have no dramatic meaning; they suggest the random sample of a public-opinion poll, or a circle of friends accumulated on a social-networking website. They drift through life, showing only the haziest awareness of family or society. The idea that what affects the play’s people cumulatively should have the stature to affect us, the audience, as a group seems to have drifted out of the playwright’s consciousness.
Unlike earlier plays about groups, such as Wendy Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women and Others, which compares the trajectories of five women who’ve bonded through the shared experience of a Seven Sisters school, the new plays’ character assemblages suggest the sitcom producer’s instructions in The Heidi Chronicles: “Just tell us who these women are and why they’re funny.” That’s not enough for Heidi, who understandably declines, and it’s not enough for the theater, either. Yet it is enough, apparently, for a wide and affluent stratum of people, served by theaters nationwide—or maybe just for the managerial types who choose those theaters’ plays. For them, it seems, the quest to make the figures onstage vaguely recognizable, like people you might see at the mall or on reality TV, has replaced the shock of recognition that comes with great drama. We may be living in a world so dramatic that those who provide entertainment for a living instinctively want to soften their work, providing a harmless, faintly insipid virtual reality that never encroaches too much on the actual one looming outside.
Edward Albee waxed incisively bitter about this—complaining that young playwrights today are encouraged to soften their work and not take risks—at the talkback following the press performance I attended of The American Dream and The Sandbox, a pair of plays he wrote when he was around the same age Itamar Moses is now. Even if his contempt for the softening process hadn’t strengthened mine, seeing these two plays again, for the first time since the mid-’60s, certainly would have. Now half a century old, they feel as sharp and fresh as ever, taking an aggressive stance toward American life and American mores that comes from a distinctively personal perspective and yet speaks with a general truth. No one except perhaps the playwright himself would claim that Albee’s the best director of his own work; the rhythms of his staging are jerky and his casting uneven. Lois Markle, a late replacement as Grandma, is still struggling with the role. But George Bartenieff dodders drolly as Daddy, and Judith Ivey’s beaming, steel-tipped incisiveness as Mommy—is it possible for coldness to be lush?—shows total mastery. And the plays, by the standards of any generation, are gems.