Hair is 40 years old. And I was already a practicing (though still unpaid) theater critic when it opened at the Public Theater in the fall of 1967, as part of the company’s first-ever season on Lafayette Street. I was of course only three years old at the time (I don’t know why people have so much trouble believing that), but they gave me press tickets anyway: Joe Papp loved youth. Other than Shakespeare, it was the thing he loved most in the world. Nothing pleased him more than the idea of young people seeing and enjoying great theater except, maybe, the thought of young people making great theater.
There should probably be a statue of Joe somewhere near Astor Place, but the kind of memorial he’d have liked best is what happens every night at the end of the Public’s new production of Hair in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater: After the bows, the band keeps playing, the cast starts dancing again, and in what seems like one seamless movement, a large part of the audience is up there dancing with them. I think this moment should officially be named the Joseph Papp Memorial Disco Curtain Call, and I feel sure that if Joe were here, he’d be up there dancing himself. It’s what he craved as an artist, what Hair is entirely about, and what so much of the best theater moves toward: the complete union of artists and audience, the engulfing of everyone by the spirit of the performance. Act I of Hair ends with a representation of a “Be-In” in Central Park; Act II, in this production, ends by becoming one. Those who believe in theater as a transformative ritual should be smiling broadly.
Much of the audience experiencing that surge of shared feeling may not know what a Be-In is, or what the boys are supposedly burning in a trash can during the one that closes Hair‘s first act. Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s head, has to explain in his pre-show speech that these objects are draft cards, a near-meaningless concept to those who grew up in the time of the all-volunteer army (invented by shrewd conservatives to make sure the youthful rebellion of the ’60s would never happen again). Things were different when half the country’s 18-year-olds had to walk around with little ID cards in their pockets telling them they were 1-A, which meant they could be shipped to Vietnam at the government’s pleasure. And that card was federal property, not yours, which meant that burning it was a felony. There’s ample reason for the climactic moment when Claude (Jonathan Groff), the more conflicted of Hair‘s two heroes, wavers about adding his to the blaze.
Claude’s choice—follow the flower children or obey the law and get shot at overseas—is the closest that Hair gets to drama. The show’s book is as lackadaisical as the stoned street people it celebrates. In that first Public Theater production, director Gerald Freedman apparently labored to give it some spine; his reward was to see the show move to an uptown disco, die, and get reborn, as a far looser event, under Tom O’Horgan’s direction. After which it moved to Broadway and became an enormous commercial success; looseness, not dramatic spine, was what the public wanted. O’Horgan’s nonstop visual inventiveness—some of it drug-fueled, and some the visionary product of one of the most highly cultivated minds ever unleashed in the theater—supplied dazzle. Authors Gerome Ragni and James Rado, with composer Galt MacDermot, balanced it with hippie-beaded charm, stringing onto the few thin strands of plot the glittery sweetness of their perky, tuneful, never-quite-complete songs.
Hair is no masterpiece, but as a piece of its time, it’s lodged so firmly in the public memory that you can’t ever get it out, like party glitter that lingers on your clothes for decades. And maybe that does make it a sort of masterwork: It catches young people’s urge for innocent, loving rebelliousness so accurately that, 40 years later, it still seems fresh, performed by and for youngsters who can have only a vague hearsay acquaintance with the life it ostensibly depicts. Diane Paulus’s Park production is to O’Horgan’s what Kathleen Marshall’s Park revival of that other Galt MacDermot musical, Two Gentlemen of Verona, was to Mel Shapiro’s original: Everything onstage seems streamlined, simplified, a little unimaginative, a little uniform. The amount of space left for human eccentricity, for a range of shapes and attitudes and personalities, has shrunk over the decades.
Inside the narrowed space, though, the spirit still jumps. Though many of Paulus’s young cast seem more hardworking than engaging, they clearly love their work. The standout among them, for charm and resourcefulness as well as sheer energy, is Groff, who can get from one end of the Delacorte’s wide auditorium to the other faster than any Puck or Ariel I ever saw, and without losing an iota of breath or a flicker of charismatic eye contact. The word “starshine” is distinctly applicable. I pity Christopher J. Hanke, who’s replacing Groff for the last three weeks of the run; taking over for a triathlon champ in Beijing would be easier.
A.R. Gurney’s new Buffalo Gal, at Primary Stages, revisits the past too, as a fading TV star comes back to her hometown (always Buffalo in Gurney’s work) to play Ranevskaya in a small local theater’s production of The Cherry Orchard. Since Ranevskaya herself, in Chekhov’s play, comes home only to sell the family estate and depart again, we know how ruefully this will end, but Gurney has his usual skillful fun juggling the juxtaposed stories. The estate that his diva (Susan Sullivan) has turned her back on is the theater itself; in lieu of an impossible lover in Paris, she has to choose between a juicy new sitcom out west and the local dentist (Mark Blum) who’s pined for her since adolescence. Director Mark Lamos, working with a lighter touch than usual, teases a bittersweet, loving sensibility out of Gurney’s cunning jokes and variants on his Chekhovian source. The whole cast, like Hair‘s, feels spiritedly engaged, especially Sullivan, Blum, and Jennifer Regan as the small theater’s beleaguered artistic director, while little Carmen M. Herlihy, an animated dumpling of a comedienne, steals laughs like crazy as an overeager assistant.