A Plea for Theater Producers to Become Less Predictable


They’re previewing the new season again—just as if, in the world of global warming and the 24/7 media barrage of the Internet, such things as seasons still mattered. How long has it been since you could demarcate your year by the weather? “Autumn in New York,” Vernon Duke’s once-famous song queries rhetorically, “Why does it seem so exciting?” And the first answer the lyric supplies is an experience now so remote from us as to seem antediluvian: “Autumn in New York/It means the thrill of first-nighting.”

Back then (the song is from a forgotten 1935 musical revue), most Broadway shows opened “cold,” with only an out-of-town tryout to test audience response. Productions Off-Broadway—they called it “the little theater movement” then—got even less pre-testing. Shows had one chance with the major critics, members of that chic first-night audience in which everybody knew everybody else. The “exciting” part was that, unless they’d been systematically monitoring the pre-Broadway buzz, first-nighters didn’t know what the shows contained. Familiar artists might trot out their tried-and-true elements—S.N. Behrman equaled rueful high comedy, George Abbott meant fast-moving farce—but they might just as easily make a point of overturning those expectations. “Properties,” as our monied showbiz world insists on calling works of art, were less pre-marketed then, less endlessly “developed”; as a result, they had less time in which to become predictable.

Those knowing first-nighters nurtured a certain contempt for producers whose only thought was to recycle what had been successful before. Today, when most Broadway producers, nervous for their investment, see their artistic future almost wholly in terms of hit shows from the past and hit movies that can be revamped into large musicals, I often wonder if that bygone audience’s contempt for predictability might not itself be ripe for revival. Not that I mean any disrespect to the artists now busily at work on upcoming shows like Shrek, Billy Elliot, and 13. I’m sure they love these movies and yet believe that their own gifts can somehow enhance what was already there on celluloid.

Since the start of a season should be a time for generosity, I’m even willing to keep an open mind about To Be or Not to Be, though I can’t fathom how the stage could possibly improve on Lubitsch’s masterpiece. I wish, too, that the new adaptation’s perpetrators would put Edwin Justus Mayer’s name someplace noticeable. Screenwriters have a tough enough time getting due credit for their achievements, and Mayer’s pre-Hollywood plays, which probably deserve to be looked at again, had a tone not quite like anyone else’s. Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott met while doing an Off-Broadway revival of one of them. But I digress.

Digression has its virtues. One might say that today’s producers, among their other failings, don’t digress enough. And by “producers,” I mean our nonprofit institutions as well as those vast phalanxes of backers whose names now make up a dense paragraph over the show’s title on every Broadway playbill. Relying on what they think succeeded once to be successful again, they’ve become almost fixated on a very small number of play titles as salable. They don’t see plays as a wildly varied assortment of choices, or authors as the creators of a substantial body of work. For them, the names to conjure with are the few that have been profitably conjured with before.

The result is a systematic de-education of New York’s audiences. Not exactly a dumbing-down—you could hardly say audiences are being dumbed down when they’re urged to see Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow and American Buffalo, which will shortly be playing a few midtown blocks from each other. But these two excellent plays, though they happen to have been commercial successes, hardly constitute Mamet’s entire artistic output. The management that dreams of expanding our audience’s Mamet awareness by taking a risk on, say, The Cryptogram or The Shawl—plays that didn’t get such rousing receptions the first time around—is an element our theater lacks.

You could apply that complaint to the case of almost any major playwright, American or foreign, living or past. The great plays that tempt stars are worth seeing time and again: I’m as curious as anyone to learn what Mary Louise Parker will make of Hedda Gabler—and even more so to see what Christopher Shinn might make of Hedda‘s playwright. Still, my curiosity doesn’t blind me to the fact that we’ve been well supplied with Heddas in recent years: One of them, Cate Blanchett, has just announced her plans to be back here in fall ’09 playing Blanche DuBois, another character of whom we’ve had a steady supply. Ibsen and Williams wrote other plays, which we rarely get to see in major venues, and even their less-than-great works carry a fascination that New York deserves to experience. Our rare glimpses of it tend to come in half-baked tries under shortchanged Off-Off circumstances.

Granted, next spring the Pearl—which is always considerably better than half-baked—will venture on Williams’s Vieux Carré; this fall, the Mint, Peccadillo, and Keen Company will stick their necks out with even rarer scripts and writers: Charles MacArthur’s Johnny on a Spot, J.B. Priestley’s The Glass Cage, Booth Tarkington’s Beasley’s Christmas Party. But the big players uptown, both commercial and nonprofit, prefer playing with well-worn cards, and their caution is the moral equivalent of an IV dripping sedative into the audience’s arm.

A similar caution seems, increasingly, to guide Off-Broadway’s nonprofit institutions. I know, I know: They’re up against the fiscal wall like everybody else. And they do, somehow, always mix in a few playwrights I love among those I find unendurable. Still, far too often, their choices, both lovable and unendurable, fall into a familiar range; the authors’ names ring recognizable bells; a reticence about risk, about challenge, about stretching the imaginative field, is noticeably on display. I want to see that change. And the freedom to change it doesn’t come from money but from feeling free, from knowing that the only obligation a new season entails is the obligation to bring the theater to life again. And life, as we know from the world outside the theater, is far from predictable. That’s why it seems so exciting.