Everybody knows theater critics are useless. All year round, they occupy free seats, and in return they do nothing but complain, complain, complain. Why, you ask, can’t they do something useful for a change?
So I was complaining (as usual), a few weeks back (Voice, May 23), about having to review the same plays over and over, when the world, so I claimed, was “full of unperformed great plays” deserving revival. In response, I only got press releases announcing that next season, like the last one, would be full of familiar titles. Some of them worth seeing again, no doubt, but not exactly unperformed rarities likely to fill a desperate hunger in our collective theatrical soul. Why can’t our theater find at least a few less well-known plays that are worth a fresh look?
That drove me, shockingly, to do something useful: compile my list of plays we rarely or never see—plays we should be seeing, because they add some quality, which our theater currently lacks. It’s a preliminary and incomplete list, not definitive and not for all tastes and all situations, but I offer it to interested producers and artistic directors, just as a start.
I gave myself a few restrictions: only American plays, of comparatively recent vintage; only works that might be producible in today’s grim economic climate, and reasonably graspable by a fair-sized New York audience. No wildly excessive cast sizes, running times, or aesthetic approaches. I took a few risks in the aesthetic department, since I think that our theater too often underrates its audience. Time to ignore the two-dimensional media blare outside: Let the theater stand on its own sturdy feet, and check out these samples of its neglected past.
Sin (A Cardinal Deposed) (2004) by Michael Murphy. Not trying to raise religious hackles here. Murphy’s docudrama, premiered by the New Group, uses Cardinal Law’s depositions before the Boston courts to reveal the inner workings of a bureaucracy’s systematic cover-up of child abuse—something that has tragically spread as a matter of public concern, not only within world Catholicism, but in secular realms like Penn State and Horace Mann School. Murphy’s dramatic map of the Boston case remains a painful prototype of far too many instances revealed subsequently.
The Danube (1984) and The Conduct of Life (1985) by María Irene Fornés: Two full-evening works on very different topics, both still burning. The first, depicting star-crossed lovers forced to confront ecological disaster, now seems stunningly prophetic. The second deals with a government-employed military torturer and the women in his life. Granted, I don’t see TV stars lining up to play these scripts. But I wish they would.
Ready for the River (1991) by Neal Bell: Bell is one of my leading candidates for America’s most unreasonably neglected playwright (though PTP/NYC has just revived Monster, his excellent adaptation of Shelley’s Frankenstein). You can gauge his prescience, from the opening of this play’s harrowing, surreal journey—a farmer’s wife and daughter fleeing because he has just murdered the banker who came to foreclose on the family farm. Sounds dated, I suppose.
The Fabulous Miss Marie (1971) by Ed Bullins. First produced, memorably, at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre, Bullins’s sardonic study of L.A.’s affluent black couples, living to par-tay while sneering at civil rights marchers, uses vaudeville stylization and short, cogent scenes to treat its characters with a spicy mix of satirical malice and Chekhovian compassion.
In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969) by Tennessee Williams. A failing genius painter and his fearsomely unhappy wife, locked in Strindbergian love-hate, fuel this most challengingly dense of Williams’s texts. But anyone who saw Donald Madden and Anne Meacham play it Off-Broadway knows its riveting power.
Who’ll Save the Plowboy? (1962) by Frank D. Gilroy. Produced by the Phoenix Theatre, this play put Gilroy on the theatrical map; a few years later, The Subject Was Roses cemented his reputation. Harsher and bleaker than the later work, Plowboy won the 1962 Best Play Obie Award.
The Gingham Dog (1969) by Lanford Wilson. Signature Theatre has kindly announced Wilson’s masterpiece, The Mound Builders, for next season. But they, or somebody, should tackle this somberly moving four-hander, mapping the breakup of an interracial marriage, which got an unjustly sniffy reception at its first production.
Lagrima del Diablo (The Devil’s Tear) (1980) by Dan Owens. Political upheaval on a Caribbean island, naturally seasoned with a dash of vodoun, centering on a dictator, an exiled archbishop, and a mute girl with prophetic powers. Owens, a cunning, complex writer, was treated handsomely by the Negro Ensemble Company, but the press, as so often, had its mind elsewhere.
Boy on the Straight-Back Chair (1969) by Ronald Tavel. A Southwestern serial killer, a startling theatricalist form, and a style harshly mixing self-aware joking with mordant ruminations on American violence: Sounds like the playwright who invented the Ridiculous, doesn’t it? It needs doing as the American Place Theatre did it then, with lucid ferocity and no camp.
The Cocktail Hour (1988) by A.R. Gurney. New Gurney plays still crop up a few times a year, but New York really deserves another chance at this funniest and wisest of the gentlemanly playwright’s rueful reflections on his vanishing elite-WASP class. It requires a four-person cast as brilliant as the Off-Broadway original; consider yourselves challenged.
The Ceremony of Innocence (1967) by Ronald Ribman. You’re an American, your country’s mired in a meaningless war, what do you write about? If you’re Ronald Ribman—another leading candidate for the title of our most underrated playwright—you create a fierce drama about the medieval King Ethelred, who retreats to a monastery rather than wage war. Another American Place Theatre discovery that urgently deserves rediscovering.
The Credeaux Canvas (2001) by Keith Bunin. Art, love, forgery, and integrity, all wrapped in one taut, tidy package about a chameleonic painter whose businesslike buddy convinces him to fake an old-master canvas. Playwrights Horizons did splendidly by it, with the then-unknown Annie Parisse and Lee Pace as model and artist. Young wannabes, take note.
A Few Stout Individuals (2002) by John Guare. Everyone’s favorite theatrical fantasist spun this dizzying web of words for the Signature’s all-Guare season. The dying U.S. Grant, ruthless general and hapless President, struggles to make sense of his life, nursemaided by his would-be publisher, Mark Twain, and a host of Gilded Age figures low and high. I’d gladly take this exhilarating trip again.
Zero Positive (1988) by Harry Kondoleon. High on the list of writers one can’t forget, Kondoleon turned out maddeningly original plays that shed their light prismatically, in disorienting multicolored flashes. At least six of Kondoleon’s plays merit revival, but this one, set partly in an AIDS ward and given a troubled premiere at the Public Theater, manifestly leads the disorientation course.