The funny part, 233 years later, is that we still don’t know who we are. We have a history; we have a cultural tradition, both low and high; and we have a distinctive language. But nobody knows, to this day, exactly what America is. We’ve somehow managed to transform the world without ever figuring out what we wanted from it or who we, as a nation, thought we were.
Three American plays from different eras crossed my path last week: Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of The Royal Family, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 comedy about the shenanigans of an American theatrical dynasty; Oleanna, David Mamet’s hackle-raising 1992 drama of sexual politics in academia; and A Disaster Begins, Ain Gordon’s new solo drama, which conveniently frames the sequence by using events of a century ago as a mirror for our own time.
Taken chronologically, the three works’ narrowing physical scope shows the American theater’s shrinking economic status: The late-’20s comedy boasts a large cast and three generous acts (blessedly given, in Doug Hughes’s production, with the correct number of intermissions); the ’90s drama, first produced in New York Off-Broadway, calls for two actors and a minimum of scenery, in one taut 75-minute act; Gordon’s new work, debuting Off-Off-Broadway, offers one actor and even sparser furnishings, lasting just over an hour. If anything, the shrinkage seems to go with an increased intensity of feeling, like the growing resentment of a poor relative whom the big, affluent nation has unthinkingly shoved aside.
Writing in a boom time, Kaufman and Ferber display no particular rancor at America’s condition, yet the resentment’s still there. Half spoof of and half tribute to the Barrymores, The Royal Family presents theater artists as a race apart—people who fascinate America but who have no assured position in it. Whenever the play isn’t about art, it’s about money: the “Cavendish” clan’s free-spending habits, their attraction to plays that bring more prestige than box-office success.
The piled-up antics that keep the action rolling, a Kaufman specialty, mostly focus on the plight of brother Tony (Reg Rogers), the John Barrymore figure, a hothead who has become a movie star, hounded by crowds of gaping celebrity-chasers every time he makes tabloid headlines by decking some incompetent camera-cranker. His segments of the event have an eerily up-to-date ring: The imaginary mobs screaming for Tony outside the Cavendish duplex (a ne plus ultra design by John Lee Beatty) can be seen post-show, two blocks over, standing in wide-eyed wait for the stars of A Steady Rain.
Like other Ferber works, the triple-decker story that gives The Royal Family its dramatic substance centers on strong women’s struggle to shape their lives, three generations of them here. Julie Cavendish (Jan Maxwell), the Ethel figure, is the era’s reigning stage star, desperate to escape the endless demands made on her by marrying the doting millionaire (Larry Pine) whom she’s been stalling for years. Her mother, Fanny (Rosemary Harris), fights to ignore both increasing frailty and the changing tastes that have made her style outmoded. And Julie’s daughter, Gwen (Kelli Barrett), has to choose between her first plum role and a stuffy stockbroker boyfriend.
Both emotional scenes and farcical interludes are built to divert. Writing for a commercial theater, Kaufman and Ferber never dug deep. But they built for authenticity, and their diversion captures genuine feelings, of which Hughes’s generally excellent cast makes the most. Comparisons to earlier productions, notably the 1976 Ellis Rabb revival in which Harris played Maxwell’s role, are inevitable but futile, with Harris’s warm graciousness so different from Eva le Gallienne’s eagle-claw determination, and Maxwell’s fine modern frenzies so unlike Harris’s tempest of tears. Some secondary roles are blandly or crudely played, but that was true in 1976, too. John Glover solves, stylishly, the problematic role of Fanny’s inadequate brother; David Greenspan, as the family’s houseman, finds valid laughs where none previously existed. The overall effect is festive.
Hughes also directed the very different Oleanna, which began its current life in L.A. last summer. Constructed as if intended to provoke arguments, Mamet’s play is tricky, all maddeningly disconnected phrases on the surface, all murky motives and churning emotional violence underneath, a study in what magicians call “misdirection”—aiming the audience’s attention to one side to conceal what’s happening on the other. In each of three scenes, a male teacher (Bill Pullman) confronts a flunking female student (Julia Stiles). What starts as an awkward attempt at consensus turns, by the end, into an all-out war of sexual politics. Taking either side’s rightness for granted means you haven’t paid full attention. Mamet adds an extra hurdle by making it clear that neither character is particularly good with language, though only language can bridge the gap between them: Their inability to articulate is the source of Oleanna‘s tragedy.
This poses a production challenge that Hughes and his actors face gamely and often effectively. He orchestrates the dialogue’s weird, crisscrossing blips with exactitude; the physical staging makes clear, as the original Off-Broadway production didn’t always, that what occurs in the first scene partly justifies some of the startling allegations of the later ones. The tension, heightened by a maddening sound of metal window shades descending between scenes, is palpable. What’s missing, oddly, is the sexual dynamic that underlies the whole story, the element that makes both parties keep coming back to this interview neither wants. You need to sense mutual desire to comprehend both the issues raised in Oleanna and their distressing result.
Ain Gordon’s A Disaster Begins explores our appetite for cataclysm through a lecture by a woman writer (Veanne Cox), whose bestselling book deals with the Galveston flood of 1900. Like her lecture itself, her career and her personal life are soon revealed to be, in their various scales, disasters of equally gigantic proportions. Dismembering rational sequence the way Mamet dismembers his characters’ syntax, Gordon teasingly weaves his heroine’s distresses into a multi-leveled metaphor till the tidal wave that hit Galveston engulfs her unforgettably. Cox’s gift for the nuances of neurasthenia has rarely been put to such effective use.