The Playgoer: Same Old New Playwrights

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Same Old New Playwrights

I'm not sure what exactly the ultimate thesis of Charles Isherwood's latest Sunday think-piece is... but I applaud him for writing the kind of article on new plays long overdue at the Times. It's about time someone stood back and surveyed what kind of scene we have now for new American drama. Usually an article on "new plays" just concludes there are none, or talks about British imports. But Isherwood is right in reflecting upon what it means when a mediocre Richard Greenberg play at the Roundabout is the closest we get to a major American premiere.

If you haven't read the article yet, and you're not in New York, then this is an excellent primer for what's going on in the most elite ranks of our "new writing" here. A must-read, I dare say, for understanding at least a piece, some of the factors going into the life of our drama.

Isherwood is especially on target in addressing the role of "the big three"--Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center--in the producing of new American drama. (I would also add the Public Theatre as a "big 4th" to that list, though Isherwood keeps it separate. It may be downtown and not quite as rich, but equally active, influential, and just as huge an organization.) As I have said before, these non-profit behemoths constitute, like it or not, our de facto National Theatre. They are the closest we have--and are likely ever to have--to a subsidized, commercial free zone for serious theatrical work, for both revivals and new writing. The fact that none of them can afford to be remotely commercial free, though, bespeaks the problem.

I agree with Isherwood that these institutions are so risk-averse they cannot not do yet another Richard Greenberg play with yet the same directors. Funny thing is, I bet our colleagues in London would complain about the same syndrome with the National and Royal Court with writers like David Hare. However--at least the National has two other stages free when they're doing the new David Hare. It's encouraging the Roundabout has transformed their new smaller space (the Laura Pels) into a cozy venue for new work--unfortunately they've mostly used it for the same kind of mediocre work by already known writers (Paris Letter, McReele) we get plenty of on their mainstage. MTC also still has two small spaces in the old City Center building, but we just haven't heard much out of there recently. Ever since they bought up the huge Biltmore on Broadway (to directly compete with Roundabout's "American Airlines Theatre", it should be noted) they 've been consumed with the folly of trying to fill it with a new play anyone cares about. If only they stayed small and stuck to their mission. After all, both their two great "finds" of recent years--Proof and Doubt--started in their smaller spaces. There's a lesson there--and it's not just to pick new plays with one-word titles.

Let me play Devil's Advocate for a moment, though, and offer a counterargument to this point of Isherwood's:

the case of Mr. Greenberg's "Naked Girl" rankles. The presence of this slight, uninspired comedy on Broadway can only be ascribed to a lazy decision to stick with a branded product - the new Greenberg - even if the goods are shoddy. I could cite numerous other works, mediocre or worse, by other well-known playwrights that have peppered the slates of these companies in recent years.

Point taken. Obviously if there's a better play out there than Appian Way--and by all reports there must be--then that one should get the Roundabout's attention instead. (Let's not forget the Times's attention either, by the way. Isherwood, of course, is silent on the relentless free promotion "Arts and Leisure" gave to the show, in effect, pre-anointing it "the play of the season" sight unseen.).... But is there a case to be made that our theatre owes something to its major writers? Isherwood's phrase "the new Greenberg" makes me chuckle, in that it (consciously?) evokes echoes of tuxedoed 30's playgoers name-dropping "the new Philip Barry" or "the new Coward". Somehow, the prefix "the new..." can only come before artists who mass-produce new works like a machine; or maybe that's just another word for "professional"?

My rambling point here is... may we not want a theatre scene where we have playwrights around long enough to complain about "the new Greenberg"? One of the problems facing playwrights today is building a career, not just starting one. I think it's good for producers/theatre companies feel committed enough to a writer to produce his or her work even when it is not at their best. And I think it's awful, for instance, that Arthur Miller could not find an artistic home in New York at the end of his life--no matter how lame his late plays may have been, didn't we deserve to see them? Another example (though a very different writer!) is Christopher Durang, who I just took to task (see below) for putting forward a pretty weak script that's beneath him. Some might very well criticize Playwrights Horizons for staying loyal to Durang at all costs, when the slot could go to a better play by an unknown. But I would still counter that even when the play is as bad as Miss Witherspoon, we would still be a worse off theatre community if the Christopher Durang's and Wendy Wasserstein's (another pertinent example right now) were allowed to disappear. (Or just go to Hollywood.) We have so few playwrights left of real achievement, even if it is in their pasts.

The real problem is economics, of course. If Philip Roth writes a new book that stinks, it will still get published since, aside from his own remuneration and royalties, a book is a cheaper commodity than a theatrical production. And many will (rightly, I think) want to read it no matter how badly it stinks because it's "the new Roth" and American letters is better off having him active.

The obvious answer is this should not be "either/or". Something is really wrong with our theatre if we cannot produce both a new mediocre Durang or Greenberg play and a risky adventurous piece by a first-timer. But most theatre companies barely have the funds for one of those. And that's when it starts to matter that you'll sell more tickets or subscriptions to Durang than the unknown.

It's just gotten to be that small a pie...

3 comments:

Freeman said...

Many companies use the workshop model for younger and untested writers anyhow. They continue to "develop" and "showcase" younger writers and their works, without putting real money and power, for the most part, behind a production.

Essentially, the problem is economic, as it has always been. We simply are curious to see what Durang is up to, because it is Durang. His play could be a mess (as you indicate) but it is still a new work by an American writer whose work has been vastly influential. His failures are worthy of note, but they are also deemed worthy of production dollars.

That being said, Mr. Marmalade does sort of kick all this to the curb, doesn't it?

John Branch said...

Somewhere past the middle of Playgoer's post, I was trying to formulate in my mind how to say "you've taken both sides on the issue and both seem right" without sounding lame. You came up with it yourself: "this should not be 'either/or.'"

I'm out of my league saying much more; I don't know as much as I should about how the big New York institutions run. But the workshop process mentioned in Freeman's comment gives me an idea: an established playwright's new work may deserve a production for the sake of his/her past work, but it doesn't necessarily deserve a big production first. Don't any of the big nonprofit theaters have access to smaller stages? "The new Greenberg" could have been launched in some smaller house, at a lesser cost, and with less sense of disappointment if it proves to have warts.

Dr. Cashmere said...

I, too, think it's "good [when] producers/theatre companies feel committed enough to a writer to produce his or her work even when it is not at their best."
But I don't think that's what's going on here. The fact is, Greenberg plays are a safe choice for the Roundabout--for all the reasons Isherwood lays out. And there's little in the Roundabout's recent history to indicate that the organization is especially interested in nuturing a new generation of playwrights.
So this seems likely to be more about branding and marketing than anything else.