OBIES 2012: Don’t Dress for Theater


Like most theater critics, I am a slow learner. (Why else would we still be theater critics?) So I didn’t realize, until last month, that the Broadway League was trying to kill me. No, I don’t mean that literally: It wasn’t an intentional act on their part, and it wasn’t directed against me personally. No malevolence or violence was involved. The League, the trade association of Broadway-theater owners, operators, producers, presenters, and general managers, was just doing what it’s supposed to do: scheduling the dates on which Broadway productions had to open to be eligible for this year’s Tony Awards.

But Broadway producers have evolved the habit, which the League has done nothing to discourage, of opening their shows as close as possible to the Tony deadline. They apparently believe, mistakenly, that this will make any junk they shove onstage easier for Tony nominators and voters to remember. This year, they outdid themselves: Ten Broadway shows opened in the second half of April, seven of them in the five days from the 22nd through the 26th. (Two shows each opened on the Sunday and Friday of that week, since producers fetishize, idiotically, the selling power of the Monday and Friday New York Times.)

My colleagues, like me, moaned and snarled as we lurched from one show to the next. I only had to go to the theater on seven consecutive days. Others had to stagger, groggily, through weekend double- and triple-headers; where they found time to write, I have no idea. I only know that my eyes got even blearier than usual, while my head, full to bursting with images and mental notes, felt several hundred pounds heavier. Tromping my glum way in and out of erratically ventilated, overcrowded theaters, through April’s customary changeable weather, I naturally caught a cold, and after filing eight reviews where I would normally file four, I lay in bed, numb and blank-brained, for two days, cursing the League, my choice of occupation, and everyone who ever dreamed of producing a Broadway show. And vowing never to go to the theater again—a vow that I immediately broke when I recovered.

But since the Tony deadline had brought the Broadway season to its inevitable end, my post-recovery theatergoing was Off-Broadway. That’s where my great revelation struck. Sitting through Man and Superman and The Caretaker, after a week that had included Ghost, Don’t Dress for Dinner, and Leap of Faith, I realized that I didn’t hate theatergoing at all: I just no longer saw the point of going to Broadway. My seven days of torment had taught me that the theater was fine, but that Broadway was irrelevant to it.

Many people may exist who would view my hellish week as a stroll in Paradise; they’re welcome to their delusions. Under no obligation to think or write about what they see, they may actually find Broadway theatergoing a source of pleasure. Perhaps, too, they’re young and have more stamina than I do, though I don’t see how the young can afford today’s Broadway prices. (I don’t actually see how anyone can afford today’s Broadway prices.) Broadway—for a lot of people it means theater. Beyond its monetary significance, the name has a thousand links and a million associations; Broadway’s propagandists have done their work well.

The irony is that their efforts have come at the end of a century-long historical transition. Historically, for most of 20th-century American life, Broadway was the theater: England, continental Europe, Off-Broadway (which evolved out of the 1910s “little theater” movement), and “regional” theaters (to a later consciousness “resident theaters”) all contributed to it. But Broadway was the mainstream: It had its own system, evolved its own attitudes, and generated the bulk of its own work.

All that has changed, and changed forever. “New” Broadway musicals, most of them recycling movie scores or dead composers’ catalogs, come from London or Los Angeles; this season’s sole innovative piece of music-theater, Once, was shaped by British and Irish artists working with American performers Off-Broadway. Broadway in its heyday had a distinct taste in plays, with an especially distinctive approach to comedy. This year, the Tony nominees for Best Play are all migrants from past seasons Off-Broadway (where two of them won Obie Awards—for Direction, ironically). The one new “Broadway” play I saw during my week-long agony, David Auburn’s The Columnist, was produced by a nonprofit as part of its regularly scheduled subscription season.

The escalating costs of Broadway, now so wildly out of kilter, have coupled with this long-term historical change to supplant the art form’s central need, which is the desire to do the work. Theater is made by people who devote their lives to it because they believe in its value (professional, from “profess,” to believe). Naturally, they want to make a living, and if possible a profit. But the first motive is the value of the work: Broadway’s tradition is a long litany of people who profited, some of them greatly, out of the work they loved and professed. This includes wealthy producers, who knew they were not artists but also knew what they believed in, whether it was a specific shade of red suitable for musicals, a parade of six-foot-tall showgirls in giant headdresses, a romantic comedy loosely adapted from the Hungarian, or a final scene that would reduce the most cynical audience to helpless weeping.

None of those producerial desires is good or bad in itself; all of them are good if the people creating them believe they add something to the life of the city and the life of the theater. But on today’s account-conscious Broadway, that belief has been replaced by a faith in marketing calculations. It’s no longer “Do we love this play?” or “Does New York really need to see this play for the fourth time in 10 years?” but “Does so-and-so the movie star, who will sell x weeks’ worth of tickets, want to do this play for x weeks?”

This causes a kind of theater that those who love the theater for its own sake find very hard to care about. Not that we object to see so-and-so confronting the challenges of theater instead of film, nor mind revisiting a great play (though maybe four times in a decade is one too many, with the world full of unperformed great plays). Gauging by the message-board chat about discount codes and TDF seat locations, some have learned to cope with Broadway’s insanely inflated ticket prices, as New Yorkers over the decades have learned to cope with every urban craziness.

But to say we don’t mind, or have learned to cope, is not to say we care. Theater we care about can still occasionally be found on Broadway, but for the past few decades, increasingly, New Yorkers have needed to look elsewhere, meaning Off- and Off-Off Broadway.

This situation ought to empower Off-Broadway more than it does. The nonprofit institutions that dominate our smaller-scale scene now constitute our theatrical mainstream. Yet with all sympathy for what they’re up against financially—the economy that bloats Broadway costs and prices hasn’t made institutional fundraising any easier either—they do what can only be described as a cautious, honorable job. Risk plays a severely limited role in their season selections; qualities like ambition, scope, and daring emanate chiefly from second-tier theaters and those slightly off the beaten track. Happy as I am when a treat like Once migrates north to the big-money realm, far too much of what I see Off- and Off-Off Broadway seems to have been put up with one eye angled toward that possible move—not, again, out of the producing theater’s passion for the show, but in the hope that it will rake in the shekels to keep their institution going. And while nobody rejoices more than I do at the skill and versatility that our actors constantly reveal, the major nonprofits have started to evolve a pool of reliables who get reused so often that the scene starts to resemble a repertory company—only without the challenge and excitement of repertory.

The caution that mills down Off-Broadway’s artistic choices isn’t an isolated trait. It belongs to the larger miasma, fiscal and political, in which we’re all caught. In some respects, this year’s most theatrical phenomenon was the advent of Occupy Wall Street, proving that New York, like other urban areas, holds a very large mass of people dissatisfied with the way things are, and ready to demonstrate their dissatisfaction publicly. The theater has a lot worth communicating to them; finding ways to do so could recharge the theater’s sapped energy with the fervor of that mass dissatisfaction. “The theater can never tell people what to think,” said the British playwright John Arden, who died this year, “but it can confirm what they are beginning to feel.”

Is Off-Broadway too small, or too tied in to the 1 Percent, to address that audience? I don’t know. But apart from Signature Theatre, which has a seemingly magical gift for parlaying the support of the monied into broader access for the rest of us, the signs of hope I see—signs of a higher reach and a braver eagerness—lie mostly in young artists and young groups, all over the city. This year I found myself, quite accidentally, involved with one such group: A batch of crazy but highly literate young people called Marvell Rep decided to put on my translation of The Threepenny Opera, in repertory with Schnitzler’s gigantic, virtually unknown Professor Bernhardi. Cramming large casts into a tiny theater, both productions had an edgy, scruffy excitement that brought these big plays home to the audience. Marvell has similarly big plans for the fall.

They are not alone: I know because my inbox is crammed with invitations from theaters doing what I used to think of as “marginal” work—repertories of new work by unknown writers, documentaries, group-created events, reinvestigations of classic works familiar and unfamiliar. One such group has taken on the mission of reviving every play the Group Theatre produced. Another has a passion for dystopian science-fiction serials. A third strives to present plays about working life that appeal to workers. Are these marginal? Or am I, by having continued to pay credence to Broadway after it had outlived its meaning, the one who marginalized himself? I think I will do less of that in the future. Sitting through that painful week on Broadway, I did not want to be home in bed with a book; I wanted to be cramped in a stuffy little theater, seeing Professor Bernhardi again. How many more such experiences are waiting for me? The torment that severed me from Broadway has, paradoxically, made me love the theater again.