New York theatergoers, in effect, no longer possess Broadway as a venue for seeing plays; it belongs to the ultra-rich and the tourist trade. This puts Off-Broadway’s nonprofit institutions in an awkward situation. They would like to take risks, to test works that are untried and perhaps unready, to let novice writers and directors spread their wings and perhaps fall flat on their faces. But their own ticket prices, like their expenses, go up every year. Their audience—the dedicated New York audience that, in decades past, used to check out new Broadway shows from the cheap seats—demands the satisfaction of a fully achieved work. Prestige-hungry boards of directors and hit-hungry commercial producers waving enhancement dollars hover over their season planning. The pressure is endless, the time available for pondering nil, the situation wholly untenable. No wonder such theaters produce many more mishaps than triumphs.
Two plays by playwrights new to us, produced by Atlantic Theater and Lincoln Center Theater respectively, show some of the shortcomings of this situation. Neither is completely valueless, though neither wholly deserved the time and expense of a full production. Graceland by Ellen Fairey (LCT3 at the Duke) was the more justified choice. Fairey, a young Chicagoan, is a relative novice, and Lincoln Center set up LCT3 precisely to give novices a break; the venue is minuscule compared to the Vivian Beaumont and the Broadway houses where Lincoln Center Theater produces the main body of its work.
That doesn’t necessarily make Graceland a play more worth watching, though Fairey clearly comes off as a writer whose gifts deserve encouragement. Her situation offers intriguing possibilities; her dialogue bristles with sharp inventiveness. But she hasn’t finished writing her play; more distressingly, she hasn’t conveyed any particular reason why we should attend to it.
Her problems actually start with her title, which, confuting obvious expectations, refers neither to Elvis’s mansion nor to the South African township. This Graceland is a Chicago-area cemetery, where siblings Sam (Matt McGrath) and Sara (Marin Hinkle) are trying to cope with the death of their father, under what we gradually learn were shocking circumstances. The deeper reasons behind the shocking circumstances never become clear: Fairey is so carefully grudging with information that most of what we need to know about her focal characters remains unclear. Our interest in them steadily wanes as a result.
We know that Sara lives in New York and has just had a promotion at her job; we have no idea what sort of life she has there, what her upbringing was, how she became so estranged from her father, or what causes her apparently deep hostility to Sam. He, though close in age to Sara (who’s apparently over 40), has been in school until just recently; we don’t know what he was studying or why his dropping out should be so important to Sara. He dropped out because of his breakup with Anna (Polly Lee), but we get no clue as to what their relationship was like (they have no scenes together) or why it should so affect him.
The whole thing is rather a puzzle, and the means Fairey employs to scatter the puzzle pieces on the table for us to assemble, involving Sara’s tangled encounters with a divorced man on the make (Brian Kerwin) and his improbably talkative teenage son (David Gelles Hurwitz), suggest her interest in writing a play altogether different from the one, about a young woman coming to terms with her father’s death, that seems to be Graceland‘s main burden. Henry Wishcamper has staged the play she did write with care, and all four actors do well; watching Hinkle’s wonderfully expressive sharp features in motion is a particular joy. But the reasons for making an audience watch Graceland await another draft.
Gabriel, on the Atlantic’s main stage, is an altogether less comforting matter. First produced in London in 1997, Moira Buffini’s play marks her Off-Broadway debut, and shows all too clearly why it hadn’t been produced in New York earlier. The only puzzle here is why its London producers didn’t notice—or possibly they did—that it was simply a compendium of motifs recycled from many, many novels, plays, and movies about occupied countries and resistance in World War II, both those produced at the time and those from later decades.
The Nazis have occupied the Channel Islands, from which most of the British population has fled. Jeanne Becquet (Lisa Emery), a beautiful, still-young widow, heads one of the few remaining English households, which conveniently contains, in addition to the customarily close-mouthed family retainer (Patricia Conolly), one of everything that makes Nazi occupying armies unhappy: a Jew (Samantha Soule), married to Jeanne’s son, away in the RAF; a bratty child (Libby Woodbridge) with fantasies of becoming a full-blown resistance fighter; and an amnesiac young man (Lee Aaron Rosen), recently washed ashore, who may be anything from a British spy to a Nazi officer knocked off a torpedoed warship. Inevitably, the new Commandant (Zach Grenier) finds the household almost as fascinating as he finds the lovely Jeanne. Inevitably, too, he’s a tender-souled humanist who writes poetry and shudders at having seen the horror of the death camps—though this doesn’t stop him from targeting the Jewish daughter-in-law for extermination.
Except for Woodbridge, who seems to equate preadolescence with loutishness, everyone plays this so beautifully, under David Esbjornson’s direction, that its cliché-ridden absurdity makes you weep rather than cringe with embarrassment. Emery, who has given so many superb performances in rotten plays (or in rotten productions of great plays) that it seems to be her specialty, chalks up another one, sumptuous in its fury, vulnerability, and shuddery self-hatred. Grenier, stuck with an even more factitious role, handles it with grace and teasing verve.