The Playgoer: Coast of huh???

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Coast of huh???

Michael Riedel relates a very funny, apparently well-sourced, account of Tom Stoppard confronting the disgruntled patrons walking out on Coast of Utopia, Part 1, at intermission.

Stoppard, who ducks out of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater for a smoke after the first act, keeps an informal tally of the people leaving his play. Lately, he's started asking them why.

The dialogue goes something like this:

Stoppard: "Excuse me. Why are you leaving this play?"
Lincoln Center Theater subscriber (age, about 97): "Who are you?"
Stoppard: "I'm the playwright."
Subscriber (fidgeting with infrared hearing device): "We can't tell you!"
Stoppard: "Please. I really want to know. Are you leaving because it's boring?"
Subscriber (crinkling a cough-drop wrapper): "Well, yes."
Stoppard: "Why is it boring?"
Subscriber: "Too much philosophy!"

Indeed, I know many respectable theatre folk who would agree that the play is somewhat inert. But I say in this case, the joke is on those who shell out $100 a ticket just because the New York Times told them it is simply the must-see event of the season. Perhaps, because of Stoppard's name, they expect hours of delightful Anglophilia. Instead they get Slavic seminars.

I suppose the Times tried to preempt such disappointment by properly preparing its readers with this lavish spread on the front of their Weekend section Friday. (Not to be confused with this in the magazine section today. How many more ways can NYT come up with to market this play?) Hey, I'm all for context and dramaturgy, and William Grimes gives a nice little primer on the 19th century Russian intelligentsia. But while I assume there's some tongue-in-cheek to the "homework" tone of it all ("That should do it. You are now ready to see the plays," concludes Grimes) and to the list of "Required Pretheater Reading"...what conclusions does one draw from this? To take the article at its word, for instance, if one were to actually purchase all the books on said "required" list (in the specified editions at their listed prices) it would set you back a total, I calculate, of $337.70. Add that, of course, to the $300 it already costs for one ticket to see all three plays.

In short, despite my enthusiasm for the play and its heady subject matter, I find myself recoiling at the presentation of theatre here as a leisure pursuit of the leisure class. When you factor in the clear pricing strategy by Lincoln Center Theatre (which I already inveighed against here), the demographic for this show has been clearly agreed upon by LCT and NYT. The rest of us can either save up the money or watch from the sidelines.


Aaron Riccio said...

I'd just like to point out that the show isn't really that expensive, it's only that expensive if you try to buy tickets for it now, or if you're not a member of Lincoln Center. Before all the hype, I bought tickets for each show at $40 bucks a pop, and I'm sitting seven rows back from the center. I'm seeing the show on the last night of previews (all three times, although I wound up seeing "Voyage" much earlier because of the push-back in opening), and so the grand total (if you count membership) is $160 for three shows, which isn't *TERRIBLE*.

Jaime said...

I was really bothered by the Times article and its idea that you need to do homework in order to get the plays. I know *nothing* about Russian history and almost as little about philosophy, and I loved the first play. People who get turned off by all the philosophy are entirely missing the point - you don't need to know what all the philosophies are to understand how they're affecting the characters. You're not going to catch every reference, or know where all the scenes in Act II fit into Act I, but you don't need to - struggling to parse it all takes you out of the play, and unnecessarily. I also just think it's insulting to Stoppard and every artist working on this project to say that their work can't stand on its own. Any play that can't be understood as it is is a bad play. Sure, some people might enjoy the added historical context, but it's far from required - it's a testament to Stoppard's skill, and that of everyone involved, that the plays can be, and are, effective for an audience without a scholarly background.

Anonymous said...

I second what Jaime says. No homework is required. Not to mention that William Grimes's piece was filled with factual errors, and the somewhat strange insertion of Vikram Seth's "The Golden Gate" on his ridiculous syllabus. "The Golden Gate" is a delightful book which has nothing to do with 19th Century Russia; what it does have in common with Eugene Onegin is a through-the-keyhole glimpse of a social class and a specific time; Pushkin trumps Seth with a healthy dose of "Oh-no-she-didn't!" melodrama. And there is a damned good translation by Charles Johnston. I don't read Russian, but what I mean by "good translation" is that it is immensely readable. Is it close to the original? I don't know. But it's immensely entertaining and is like popcorn or can't put it down.

Anonymous said...

There must be a vast conspiracy between the LCT, NYT and Barnes & Noble.

Anonymous said...

My sense of the Grimes piece is that it's not trying to sell the plays, but quite the opposite: telling people to it's commie egg-head stuff. And a mean-spirited article, to boot.
I'm eager to see the plays, but didn't plan ahead for cheaper preview seats and can't spring $300. I have purchased the playtexts (published in the US by Grove) for $13 each -- $39 plus tax.