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I always thought Charles Dickens was exaggerating. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” C’mon, every era has its ups and downs, but life essentially flows on down the mainstream, only occasionally overflowing onto one side or the other, doesn’t it?
Then came 2013-’14. I had, and am still having, the bumpiest, most disorienting year of my life, full of highs, lows, and confusions. I assumed it was just me personally — after all, if you’re a critic who has been filing reviews weekly for four decades, you can’t simply stop without feeling at least a little disoriented, can you? But then I looked around and saw that it wasn’t only me. Criticism was experiencing disorientation everywhere.
Those luckier souls who continued to hold regular reviewing gigs were feeling it just as strongly as those who, like me, had been displaced by the troubling but unavoidable evolution of time and the corporate web world. Whether criticism was still worth practicing in this changed environment — whether it could still be practiced — was suddenly an open question.
And then, unexpectedly, I found myself back in my comfy old Obie chair, assembling a team of whip-smart judges, and by the time we’d finished bickering and sorted out a juicy list of winners, I was able to cast a backward glance on the year. Which is when I realized that what was happening to me, and to criticism, was happening to the theater, too. The logical conclusion, given that theater both reshapes the world and is shaped in response to it, is that what’s happening is universal — or, at any rate, global. The world is no longer the definable context any of us has previously known.
For the theater, this means that there is, in effect,no mainstream. The standard form of theater experience, in which someone writes a play, it tells a story by whatever means its author has chosen, and the actors embody roles in the story using whatever stylized or contextual means they and their director choose — that form still exists, but it is no longer standard. Yet the assaultive, deconstructive, interactive, or immersive forms by which diehard avant-gardists have sought to replace the standard form have not replaced it. Audiences can still follow, and gain satisfaction from, the standard form, but it’s no longer central to their theatergoing. Likewise, they can savor the immersive, the assaultive, the deconstructive and what have you, much as they would enjoy an amusement-park ride or a good party, but the satisfaction they gain from it offers no equivalent to the old satisfactions of theatergoing, and it may not even bear any relation to them. It is all a new world, in which nothing is central.
Realizing this explained a great deal to me of the dissatisfaction I felt, on and off all year, while going to the theater. Not, mind you, a dissatisfaction with work that smacked of the new. At my age, I’m entitled to be an old stick in the mud, and I am, but I’m still a forward-looking old stick in the mud. The plays that caught my attention and exhilarated me, making theatergoing seem worthwhile, were among the year’s emphatically non-mainstream experiences. Two of their writers, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Will Eno, are on our 2014 winners list. Three others I’d like to mention were Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, Jenny Schwartz’s Somewhere Fun, and Madeleine George’s deliciously ingenious The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence. All three gave birth to superb performances, two samples of which our committee managed to find places for on that category’s very crowded list.
It was, on the contrary, standard-form plays — sometimes even old plays that I’d been rather fond of in earlier incarnations — that lacked effectiveness for me. Too often, everybody involved seemed to be either trying too hard or to have given up trying altogether. This was more consistently true on Broadway than off, and even there you could find a cast catching the sense of a familiar work and running with it, as the cast of A Raisin in the Sun does. Nor was there any lack of effect when a tigerish old pro like Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons, or our superb Lifetime Achievement winner Estelle Parsons, in the short-lived Velocity of Autumn, started tearing the place apart. Where there’s no mainstream, there’s room for everything, including great plays (if you can find one) and great acting. There were even a few Broadway musicals — my favorite was the tickly-funny Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder — that featured not only attractive music but beautiful singing, with female leads (Gent’s Guide has two) who actually sing, rather than belt, in their soprano range.
That went against recent Broadway practice, but recent Broadway practice hardly seems to matter on Broadway these days, much less Off- and Off-Off-Broadway. Will Eno, whose writing gets more interesting as his plays slither into and disrupt traditional forms, was among the playwrights I’d have least expected to turn up on Broadway in today’s economic climate, but there The Realistic Joneses sits, with an excellent castful of stars lending it their gleaming presence. I happened to prefer his sly fox of an Off-Broadway work, The Open House, and I’m glad we got the chance to honor both it and its director, Oliver Butler. Interestingly, Eno’s evolution makes my point: His earlier, resolutely non-conventional monologue texts, like Thom Pain (based on nothing) and Title and Deed, didn’t pique my interest. These recent works, which take the old form and party with it structurally, very much do.
I remember once hearing the great French actor-director Jean-Louis Barrault say something that has stayed with me: “A real chair in a real setting isn’t interesting. A stylized chair in a stylized setting isn’t interesting. But a stylized chair in a real setting — now that’s interesting.” Barrault, in his versatility, could be a touchstone for our time. A master of classical French acting, he was likewise both a superb mime and skilled enough at naturalistic detail to become a movie star. When Barrault ran a Paris theater in the 1950s and ’60s, he produced works from France’s literary pantheon — Racine, Beaumarchais, Marivaux — side by side with outrageous, sometimes scandal-causing new plays by the likes of Beckett, Genet, and Ionesco.
In the middle of all that, he found time to revitalize pieces of saucy 19th-century triviality like Feydeau’s Occupe-toi d’Amélie and Offenbach’s La vie parisienne. As a student, I saw and was blown away by that last celebrated production when it played here at City Center in 1964 (in rep with works by Racine, Beaumarchais, and Ionesco). Yearsa later, I found what he had written about it in one of his volumes of memoirs: “I produced La vie parisienne because I concluded that it was necessary for the company’s artistic development.” Yes: When you are orating as one of Racine’s Roman heroes, and climbing up the mound toward Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, it is also necessary for you and your whole company to do the can-can.
That makes perfect sense to me. Barrault had an advantage, though: He lived in a country where the tradition of nationally subsidized art had deep roots, where a more homogeneous population carried on its political contentions with far less rancor (though there was plenty of the latter when he premiered Genet’s The Screens), and where a lopsided economy was not compelling artists to learn to cope, as ours must today, with severely reduced expectations. There was, too, more time for everything, including contemplation. Our Internet-driven hunger for instant results leaves us little enough of that.
And yet we have time — enough of it anyway, for the remarkable artists on our Obie winners list to have achieved the work we’ve honored them for. And we know — the committee knows better than anyone else — how many more our theater possesses to equal them. In our struggle to sort out what the hell we are doing and why, we must always remember that we are blessed. On a bad night in the theater, I may feel that I am trapped in some inexplicable purgatory. The next night, at a different show in a different performance space, I can feel that I’m the luckiest man alive.