The Playgoer: January 2006

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Tuesday, January 31, 2006


I recommend Michael Feingold's loving as well as candid appreciation (he writes as one who knew her when...)

Terry Teachout takes the opportunity to show some genuine critical soul-searching. How do you eulogize an artist you harshly criticized?

The NY Post reminds us:

It bothered Wasserstein that so many local kids couldn't afford to see the theater for which New York is famous. With that in mind, she founded the Theater Development Fund program Open Doors in 1998, pairing bright students from the
city's public high schools with mentors. She personally recruited Broadway's best and brightest — writers, directors and choreographers — to take the kids to the theater and then out for pizza-fueled discussions.

Effective? Well, at least she did something. (Maybe someone will take up that mantle and pioneer a more affordable program not limited to Broadway.)

I myself grew to respect Wasserstein while working on a profile of her for a Groliers encyclopedia entry recently. Watching the archived video recording of the original Heidi Chronicles (starring Joan Allen) I was struck by the tangible electricity in the small Playwrights Horizons house back in 1987. I'm not sure if the play "holds up" today without context--but no matter. It spoke to its time and to a demographic of post-60s women in an unvarnished and honest way. Contrary to some perceptions, she was by no means a sentimentalist. Beneath the quips and clever characters, her plays were uncompromisingly about loneliness and the sacrifices that follow from independence. In her later works she seemed to have scrambled a bit to find the right subject for the times (politics, "old money"), but that problem always plagues an artist who speaks so spot-on to the time of his or her youth.

One hilarious and now prescient scene I recommend from Heidi Chronicles: the lunch with the TV exec. The show being pitched is to celebrate young women who are over feminism and just want to have a good time (profiting from the advances made by their mothers, of course) buying shoes and getting laid. Sound familiar? The haunting clincher of this perfect mini-satire comes in the casting of the role of the exec's eager nodding assistant in the original production: a young Sarah Jessica Parker. Whatever the ups and downs of were of her particular works, Wendy knew her historical moment.

And think of this: she was one of the last American playwrights who could reliably open a play on Broadway. (Now that August Wilson is also gone, that leaves Terrence McNally, maybe, and, now, possibly John Patrick Shanley.) But even her last play, Third--from just last month--was premiered by her patrons at Lincoln Center in their smaller space. When even Wendy Wasserstein is no longer seen as commercial enough...god help the American theatre.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Wendy Wasserstein, 1950-2006

Just in from the AP. Hard to believe, but her bout with lymphoma was reportedly brutal and long.

More forthcoming. Obviously there were other prominent female dramatists before her. But I will venture now that she will be looked back on as a uniquely popular and effective writer at a very important moment in the theatre, regardless of how people differed over her plays.

(Update: Isherwood's obit is already up on the NYT site, along with a photo-spread. I guess the rumors had been around long enough to be prepared...)

is directing "intellectual property"?

Personally, I say yes. But it's a thorny issue, to be sure. And Jesse Green's piece yesterday--of extraordinary length and depth for "Arts & Leisure" these days--manages to get at the complexity in a nicely balanced way. Definitely a must-read for directors (who will be encouraged), playwrights (who might be horrified), and anyone interested in the morphing of the theatrical divisions of labor. At least among the set successful enough to bother going to court in the first place!

I do wonder, though, if Green isn't guilty of fanning some flames here, stirring playwright and director against each other more than necessary. In the Mantello/"Love, Valor, Compassion" case, for instance, I believe Terrence McNally was totally supportive of him. The real conflict of that case was between director and director. (Of course, some may see it as the big B'way director beating up on the little guy in regional.) I also think the real issue here will ultimately be not money but credit. Shouldn't it be workable one day for subsequent scripts or regional productions to bear some citation summing up the contributions of the original director?

One positive development of all this, noted in the article, is that Mantello's crusade did get Sam French and Dramatists to finally take all those annoying outdated stage directions out of their editions!

Friday, January 27, 2006

Quote of the Day

"Martin also looking forward to his next project: Smack - The Musical. 'It's about how, if you're on heroin, you're always dancing,' he says. 'Though I'm not sure quite how well that one's going to go down.' "

-from an engaging Guardian survey of some the wackier musicals hitting the London scene this season, in the wake of "Jerry Springer."

Hey, at least it's not "Lestat."

Thursday, January 26, 2006

If it's in The Onion you know it's true:

"Second-Graders Wow Audience With School Production Of Equus."
Click here for the shocking details.

In a related, unfake news story, read about the all-puppet "Anne Frank".

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Quote of the Day

"To move it down the street would cost us about $600,000. And it won't garner the media attention or the marketing dollars it needs. And we need that attention."

-Signature Theatre head James Houghton on why it's Broadway or nothing if his lavishly praised production of The Trip to Bountiful is to be extended. Forced to close at the Signature on March 11, there certainly is enough interest in Lois Smith's star performance to keep it going. Such a small play and intimate performance should, by all rights, remain in a small theatre. But the economics of commercial Off-Broadway (as opposed to non-profit OB's like Signature) are apparently worse than "On-", particularly in the limitations on profit margin. The costs of running the show are not significantly lower than B'way (marketing is the same, for instance) and the return is automatically less thanks to fewer seats at (slightly) lower prices. To add insult to injury, no matter how much money you spend on the show, if you're not on Broadway, the press covers you less, and tourists and group sales are just less interested; they want to return home with stories of the Great White Way and Nathan Lane.

What's painfully funny is that the above statement appears in today's New York Times. On the on hand Jesse McKinley seems to be doing a mitzvah by giving them some of that essential "media attention." On the other...

(Note: by "down the street" Houghton's referring to the slick smallish houses recently opened on 42nd St. to house small commercial runs.)
(Note 2: the contractual difference between B'way and Off- is the difference between 499 seats and 500. Yes, that extra seat can get you a Tony.)

damn the highbrows?

To formally respond to some the of the lively comments on the previous post...

I wholeheartedly agree with the last comment that theatre should be "relevant and THEREFORE popular, not popular and therefore 'relevant.' " And I realize some of my postings sound like I'm willing to do anything--just anything--to get cool people, young people, funders, mainstream media to please, please pay attention to us. I'm all for the legitimate stage persisting as the meeting place of an elite coterie. However, it would be nice it were a sustainable elite coterie. And not the hobby of gadabouts living in a bubble of wealthy indulgence--like Baccarat. Nor just the province of performance art cellars in bohemia. I worry that the more theatre is marginalized from the rest of--for want of a better term--"the culture," the harder it will be for our best theatre artists to make a living and sustain their work in this country. They won't die or give up, just go to Europe. The brain drain will flow back.

While, of course, acknowledging the caveat of the many fine "two-handers" (and accepting that a fine art has been forged out of the limitations of downtown theatre--solo performance, e.g.), I also agree that a theatre that cannot afford to employ more than two actors per show will ultimately limit the artform. Ed: But limitation is freedom! And read your Aristotle--the Greeks started with just one actor, and it took Aeschylus to add a third....Ah, but even the one still had a chorus beyond him

I remember something TCG head Ben Cameron says in his "big speech" he gives to every regional theatre gathering (I've heard it twice now, myself). Something like: when the cultural marketplace challenged theatre to adjust to new audiences and new realities, theatre companies responded by doing The Gin Game. It's true: these companies draw up their season budgets (hence, their seasons) partially based on how many total Equity actors will be employed. I've been in on such meetings. You can do, say The Crucible or a Shakespeare, but you have to "earn" that by using no more than 10 or so actors for the remaining plays. Look at some season schedules and you'll see what I mean--1 large cast show, offset by solo shows, two-handers, and maybe one or two 5-6 character plays.

Finally: I strongly believe that in the end, the work will out. There is indeed no point in begging the rest of the culture to go to the theatre because...well, because it's good for them. (And good for us.) There's no better "case" to make than the quality of what's on stage. (McNulty's Yale Theater essay dares to question whether the quality is indeed there. I'm not totally sure where he ultimately comes down on that.) And we should indeed be wary of expending our energy in whining and instead put it into the work. At least the theatre artists among us. As for critics--we also should beware of lecturing readers to attend (and attend to) the theatre whatever is playing. After all, we do our best cheerleading by engaging rigorously and honestly with the quality of what we see. Sending people to mediocre theatre will only make them more cynical and indifferent.

I guess what I am talking about is demanding a seat at the cultural table of this country.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

where have all the highbrows gone

After catching up myself this weekend on the Rachel Shteir article I linked to, I'd like to return to one brief point that particularly got my head nodding:

[I]n the 1960s and 1970s, one theme the New York critics return to again and again is that "highbrows" are abandoning the theater. Today, no one really talks about this. The term highbrow is as unrecognizable as gams. It's not just that New York theater criticism and the theater itself no longer carry the status they did forty years ago. The other industries surrounding the arts--all equally important to New York's idea of itself as a center for culture--have shrunk also. No trade publisher is releasing books like the ones Brustein wrote in the 1960s and 1970s--with titles like Seasons of Discontent or The Theatre of Revolt....Any discontent or revolt taking place in the arts community is strictly peripheral. Recent books about the theater have titles like "Adventures in Theater," as though theater were akin to bungee jumping.

We(?) all inveigh against the catering of professional theatre to elite audiences. But when you think about it, aren't those mostly just financial elites? What's surprising--and much more unsettling to me, much more monumental change--is that the cultural elite, my ivy-league educated friends who read trendy novels and go to museums and even the opera, and who, by the way, certainly have the means... couldn't care less about theatre. That's huge as a seismic cultural shift. "Bungee jumping" actually would be fine! No, theatre has become a sideshow--not even in an intriguing "freak" sense, but only quaint--on the cultural map populated by the audience that once was its main patron. Once upon a time, not too long ago, a "cocktail party" conversation about "what have you read lately" would seamlessly segue into "and have you seen any good shows". Yes, they'll go to a blockbuster "prestige" show once or twice a year, usually for an anniversary, or else the tickets were foisted on them as gifts from their parents. (I saw a lot of these folks at the recent big B'way revivals of "Long Day's Journey" and "Gypsy" for instance. And sometimes even at BAM, somehow.) But will they check out the new Richard Foreman even when Ben Brantley says you "must see"?

Ok, some of you may bid good riddence to snooty "boho's" with their "frappacino glasses," Jonathan Franzen under their arms, and Enya soaring out of their Ipods.... But if theatre doesn't have enough cultural cache for them, if even they can't get worked up about discovering the next great young playwright or checking someone's latest take on "Hedda Gabler", then what do we do?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

weekend reading

As I'll be unbloggable(?) this weekend up in the great north here are links to three worthwhile pieces from the recent Yale Theatre journal, I just caught up with:

-Charles McNulty's critique of and contribution to the "theatre is dying" genre
(McNulty is now up and running, by the way, on the LA Times theatre page)

-Rachel Shteir's skewering of the NYC critical establishment (a natural fit for this blog)

-and, as boring as it seems, "Real Estate and Theater Space in New York: A Forum" with some heavy hitters from BAM, other words the ones with space. But maybe they can enlighten the rest of us.

Back on Monday!

Negative Tuition?

I'm off to Toronto tomorrow for a conference all weekend, so perhaps I'm in a Canadian mood. Here's an interesting alternative from up north to the standard drama school model: how about paying the students? Well, the Soulpepper Academy does, to some success so far, it seems.

Read about them here, eh?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

"Bounce" Back

Sondheim lives! His latest project, the ill-fated stillborn "Bounce" (formerly "Gold!", formerly "Wise Guys") is getting a reading at the Public, with Bernadette Peters, no less. Apparently, Mr. Eustis at the Public is seriously considering giving the long-awaited NY premiere of this long-awaited piece by a genius who can no longer get his new work produced.

Sondheim at the mercy of the non-profits? Actually, that's been true ever since Playwright Horizons developed "Sunday in the Park" (and the original "Assassins"). That was back in his first slump (or his second?) before "Into The Woods" made him commercially viable. No doubt, the Public will be accused of selling out, especially if the show gets panned again. But I see it as not a bad thing for our major artists to have a home when abandoned by the commercial realm.

The "Broadway Baby" is no more?

Many of you expert surfers who have found your way here probably already know about Clive James' blog. But I didn't until I read a nice article about it here today. Gotta hand it to the spritely 66-year-old Aussie arts critic, essayist, and TV host for really exploring this twenty-first century form. The site, with lots of video and audio discussions as well as text, looks like great browsing for the longer attention spans out there. In addition to stuff on classic literature, philosophy, and political debates, James's entries range as far wide as Philip Roth, Bruno Schultz, and The Sopranos!

So for those with time on your hands check out the blog. If not, then just read the article. Highlight: "Perhaps the most touching aspect of the site is Mr. James's sincere desire to make it genuinely educational - to bring high culture to the masses, though without a trace of snobbery."

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Actor's Lot

I do kind of recommend Isherwood's Sunday NYT piece on the challenges of the working NY actor. It's woefully incomplete as a true survey of the problems, but, to be fair, the article claims only to be covering a mini-convention of actors and what was said there.

Still, though, it should be easy enough for a reporter to gather up, for instance, what the Equity minimums actually are Off Broadway and On, compared to Regional. I wonder what effect it might have on NYT readers to see--especially after reading the daily tributes recently to those "superior" Brits--that most of our cherished stage actors here are lucky to make $400-$500 a week in a non-musical play if it's not on B'way. And that's maybe a 3-week run, plus 3 weeks of rehearsal--after which it's back to unemployment.

Isherwood's opening point--that the more successful actors (i.e. those with TV & movie gigs) are in effect subsidizing the American theatre--is basically right, I think. But some more context for that is in order before we allow Tim Blake Nelson to make a complete martyr out of himself. Ideally there should be no problem (no "compromise") with actors working in all these media.

What's also conspicuously missing here, is any mention of "Law and Order," which, as we all know, is truly subsidizing the stage acting profession more than anything.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Best Performance by a leading Actress who will not win a Tony

Here's an idea for some long-weekend reading, especially for fans of great acting. Celebrate both the vivid descriptive prose of Michael Feingold and three standout performances celebrated by him recently in the pages of the Village Voice. While not one of these fine actresses will even be eligible for a Tony (unless their shows transfer--doubtful) the theatre community is already abuzz that their work in the Off-Broadway nonprofit realm this season is not to be missed. The pilgrimages made to these theatres each night are even making tickets hard to come by. It is a personal goal of mine to catch each in the coming month while I can. (Limited runs are a worse curse of non-profit than any loss of Broadway & Tony glow.)

With links to reviews of their work by Feingold (to my mind the greatest champion of acting left in the critical establishment) these three current nominees for First Lady of the American Theatre are:

Lois Smith in Horton Foote's chestnut, The Trip to Bountiful
Dana Ivey in Shaw's early masterpiece, Mrs. Warren's Profession
Julie White in Douglas Carter Beane's latest, The Little Dog Laughed

McHales' Last Call?

McHale's bar, one of the last refuges of real life in the synthetic new Times square theatre district/theme park, is now really, really forced to close, apparently. (Read the sad details here) Indeed, with the decline of the old Howard Johnson's last year, the old Times Sq really is gone. And there are no more modest fun places to hang out pre- or after-theatre that are not exorbitantly expensive or make you wait 45 minutes for a table. McHale's was a true "enclave" and, like the HoJo, actually had some "real people" (i.e. non-tourist, non-theatre folk) as customers.

So raise a final glass. And watch the remains of an authentic theatre culture chipped away a little more each day...

Friday, January 13, 2006

Quote of the Day

"Journalist may not use text produced by Amanda Peet for any purposes other than what is originally intended without securing the prior permission of Amanda Peet... Journalist agrees not to publish any quotes supplied by Amanda Peet in any manner without obtaining Amanda Peet's prior written consent."

-Amanda Peet (via her publicist) restricting interviews at the meet & greet for the upcoming B'way Barefoot in the Park revival.

And who said movie stars are the answer to saving theatre? Quoth the desperate theatre publicist: "As a rule, it's much harder to get press for a play than it is a movie or a television show, so you're happy to get press wherever and whenever you can." Indeed, the joke is the handlers don't realize all Broadway press is puffery anyway.

Michael Riedel has those and more amusing highlights from this Hollywood-meets-Broadway encounter. Including: "A correspondent for a Broadway Web site who was shooting some video of the 34-year-old Peet was ordered to stop because the angle of the shot had not been preapproved." Really, I don't even have a video camera. Honest.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Nadirs of Criticism

I have long suspected the theatre credentials of Times 2nd-stringer Neil Genzlinger. With his slick yet chatty prose--a lowbrow Anthony Lane, if you will--he may be easy and pleasant to read, but the style really does seem to cover up a lack of substance. Or should I say, lack of knowledge. He's a fine choice for the Times to send to cover kitschy schlock like Batboy. But faced with a rare revival of a complicated obscure classic the likes of Sor Juana de la Cruz's House of Desires, he is clearly out of his depth.

Typical, easy (in other words, lazy) remark from his review today:

The playwright was a nun and proto-feminist in Mexico, and there is perhaps some curiosity value in a play written by a woman in the late 1600's. The main lesson of this work, though, is that women were just as capable as men of writing forgettable, not very farcical farces.

This line may look good on the NYT Arts web page as a hook. We can't fault Genzlinger as a journalist, I suppose. But think for a moment how ignorant that is, not to mention offensive-- insulting not just to Sor Juana, to women, but to Times readers and theatre audiences.

Current interest in Sor Juana goes way beyond some nutty fringe "curiosity." As we continue to reassess the importance of Renaissance drama outside of Shakespeare, the contributions to the form from other cultures, and from women, has transformed the field in academia and by theatre artists. (The text of this production was originally commissioned for the RSC.) New York Times readers (the quintessential "cultural elite") deserve to know this. We have a right to expect their arts & culture critics to be up on things like that. After all, do we not look to them as some sort of "authorities" in their field?

Genzlinger doesn't even seem to care. His review today is embarrassing in so glibly mocking the play for being, well, "old" (he calls it a "corpse" that's "DOA") and not at all taking into account the possible shortcomings of a production in realizing a challenging text. From what I hear, first of all, the play is severely cut and I know of no previous endorsement of the proficiency of the company/artists involved. I know readers out there would agree with me that many inadequate stagings of, say, Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night's Dream might have led to momentary doubts about their author's worth--but thankfully we have centuries of production history and scholarship to counter that. Many today who pick up Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters may be baffled by the respect given to that silly slapstick-fest--until they see a brilliant recreation of its original context on stage, such as that offered by the late Georgio Strehler in his Arlecchino this past summer.

Look, I admit to not knowing this play. But when you hear that the author was a missionary nun in Mexico, don't you assume her intentions might not have just been to write a stupid sitcom? Perhaps there are good reasons House of Desires (or, in another translation House of Trials) has never caught on in the English-speaking theatre and perhaps its moment has passed. But such dismissal of potentially revealing material as junk is beneath any critic outside of Entertainment Weekly.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Quote of the Day

"It's time to redefine straight-to-video releases as a facet of legitimate distribution. If someone cannot foresee making money off of, say, Resnais's Not on the Lips, Akerman's Tomorrow We Move, or Rivette's The Story of Marie and Julien—all DVD'd in 2005—why should that negate their presence and accessibility? Projection is optimal, of course, but I'd be happier if more filmgoers stayed home with a crystalline digital Rivette or Sokurov or Iosselliani than donate their ten-spot to guaranteeing another brain-raping superhero franchise."

-V.Voice film critic Michael Atkinson on the future of Indie Film. (See here, scroll to bottom under heading "Get Rich or Die Trying." Part of December's Voice critics poll "Take 7", an annual must-read. As with the Obies, no one does anti-awards better than the Voice.)

I cite this not just for those concerned about the kind of films mentioned. This is exactly the kind of new thinking we need about the survival of all the performing arts, especially the drama, in the capitalism of the 21st century. I hope theatre artists and producers (and critics) will take a cue from approaches like this and throw out old assumptions, reimagine the conditions under which we operate. Obviously "straight-to-video" is not an option for live theatre. But smaller venues? Earlier curtain times? Less subscription-reliant?

As Netflix subscribers will tell you, all the best in exciting new (and classic) cinema is now even more affordable and conveniently available on DVD than theatrical releases could ever promise. How do we make serious theatre, good theatre, similarly accessible once again to those who actually want it? (As opposed to only those who don't really want it but use it for status or leisure.) Look no further for proof that cinema will continue to far outstrip theatre as the serious dramatic artform for current and future generations. It's the accessibility, stupid.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Shanley's latest

Interesting preview here of what is unfolding as a Shanley culture-wars triology, of which Doubt was just the beginning. Loved Doubt? Wait till you see Defiance...

Monday, January 09, 2006

The "Variety" Mess

Superfluities' George Hunka reports (by way of UK's The Stage) on the apparent disimissal of critic Matt Wolf as the London critic for Variety over a suprisingly public disagreement with his editor Peter Bart over Billy Elliot. After Woolf gave the show a thumbs-down, Bart--a man, let's face it, with a lot more experience in Hollywood than in theatre, to put it midly--went on the record in his own pages declaring:

Variety's critic greeted the show with a fusillade of words like 'maudlin' and 'lazy,' with Elton John's music described as its 'weakest link.' This caught me off guard, since, in my opinion, Billy Elliot will clearly rank as one of the best musicals of its generation. Not since the opening of The Producers has a show left its audience on such a high.

Gee, not since 2001? Sure that's not reaching too far back, Peter?

While the bullying of Wolf couldn't be any more baldfaced, I do feel compelled to wonder if Variety doesn't have a right to define itself as a very specific kind of trade publications, more concerned with commercial prospects and prognostications than serious aesthetic criticism? If Bart took the opportunity to reconsider why Variety has critics in the first place, then I could respect that. But if he's just going to replace Wolf with a hack toady who will be called a "critic" but just bow to Bart's own personal tastes (or, worse the tastes of the producers--let alone The Producers!), then this is very, very disturbing.

Is it that unimaginable that, one day, even the blessed New York Times--in its mission to promote B'way at all costs--could do the same to a critic?

Critics on Display

The latest in the American Theatre Wing's "Working in the Theatre" seminars (courtesy of Playbill):

The American Theatre Wing's "Working in the Theatre" seminars will continue on Jan. 19 with an afternoon devoted to theatre criticism.The noon-1:30 PM seminar will be held in the Elebash Recital Hall at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The Wing’s Howard Sherman will moderate the discussion, which will feature panelists Melissa Rose Bernardo, Entertainment Weekly; Michael Feingold, Village Voice; Elysa Gardner, USA Today; Michael Kuchwara, Associated Press; and Jeremy McCarter, New York Magazine....
The CUNY Graduate Center is located at 365 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street. Tickets, priced at $10, are available by calling (212) 817-8215. (Wing members can reserve free of charge through the Wing.) Visit for more information.
Nice lineup! If you can't show in person, you can always catch it on NYC Time Warner channel 75 (CUNY-TV) in the coming months' rotations.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Musicals & Music

The Sun's Eric Grode has a thoughtful overview today on the widening gulf between musical theatre and (good) pop music.

His big question, "Why is it that good rock songs make for bad musicals and vice versa?" recalls a very different (yet perhaps related) problem in film, namely: why is it movies made out of great books tend to be vapid and mediocre, while many of the great movies have been based on mere pulp and less respected literature? The universal message may be, beware when taking on source material already great in its own right.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Yes, more London

Janet McTeer as Schiller's Mary Stuart

The NYT Brit-ink continues to flow, in day 3 of Brantley's travelogue. And Playgoer eats it up.

I'm beginning to nod along with those comments coming in that the difference may come to more than economics. The stunning looking black-and-white Mary Stuart (pictured above) just betrays a refined and complex sensibility to the classics not on display on these shores. I believe it's harbored in the souls of many of our finest theatre practitioners. But maybe it is not nurtured by our institutions, our critics, perhaps our audiences and our funders, as well.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

London, continued

The London dispatches continue as Mr. Brantley shares with us the benefits of his expense account. And you know what? I love it, really. My point about the NYT London coverage is not that it is odious to cover the Brit scene at all. Any reader of this blog knows Playgoer is at least as Anglophilic as they are. And pieces like this and this only reinforce why: London still enables a theatrical environment where adventurous artists are both putting on new work and reexploring classics at (to us) an astonishing rate. (What Brantley's been able to see in one week's visit there we would be lucky to see in one season here.)

Of course, a serious theatre page would cover more equitably New York, London, and the rest of America! That is my point. Now the Times might reply they review plenty (ok, some) "regional" shows. But let's face it: sending your critic up to Williamstown in the summer to review Gwynneth in As You Like It (as they did some years ago) is either just giving more ink to a celeb, or you're going at the behest of a press agent trying to engineer a Broadway transfer. What many of us would like to see in the paper of record is a critic writing up a major production in a LORT theatre done by serious artists and just saying "Gee, here's something I just thought it was really interesting." The Times, like the New York culture as a whole, still cannot see that the LORT network is not just "regional" but actually constitutes our "national theatre." It's where our best-trained and most talented actors, designers, and directors are working most of the year when they cannot find employment on Broadway or want to be paid more substantial Equity minimums than what they get in a downtown "showcase." For directors, such theatres may also be the only venues left for them to do something like The Wild Duck, which (see Brantley) may get a great new production at the Donmar in London, but it will be a while before the Roundabout touches it.

But what can we indeed learn from all this attention on London? Since the Times doesn't bother asking the question, let's consider this for a moment. In other words, why are they having this amazing season over there and we're still recovering from the cultural ink wasted on Blonde in the Thunderbird and In My Life? Is it something in the water there? Connecting to another recent post here (on Isherwood's bemoaning the dearth of rep companies in NYC), glancing across the pond reminds us of what we lose by not investing (and I use that word in all sorts of ways) in our theatre as a national resource. I have argued before against knee-jerk calls for a "national theatre"--but here is one really important benefit of such an institution: the fostering of a national repertory. In this way the theatre culture in the US (and especially NYC) really has been impoverished. In London they don't just "believe" in the classics. Institutions are funded and set up to be in continual production, mining not only their own national repertory but ours and much of the world's. (When you have to do a lot of plays, you do start reaching out.) I bet many Americans barf at the thought of restaging our "chestnuts" over and over--but in fact the British theatre is stronger for all its artists having done a gazillion "Midsummers". Every generation cuts its teeth on a body of work, may times at that. The fact that the RSC and RNT might stage 4 or 5 Hamlets in a decade means a constant reinvention of such plays. When that doesn't happen the classics do get stale and rusty, as they do here--like unused appliances buried in our basements.

And what about actors? Look, forget the question of are British actors just better. (And forget about the training issue. I would argue we have just as good training, in theory. Just fewer of our actors are getting it and able to make a career from it.) But an American director does have to envy the quality of the acting pool in London and how available it is. If you want to put on The Wild Duck in New York good luck finding the kinds of actors to pull off the subtleties required without resorting to "classical" stodginess. We have those great classical actors here, for sure. But you'll find those who have not gone out to the coast for pilot season are already in the new Roundabout show, getting paid lots more than the Equity minimum your little company can offer for a three-weekend run. Plus, you can't put them on Broadway, which is the only way they have a shot a career-enhancing Tony.

(Speaking of the L.A. effect, btw, an English actor once pointed out to me something earthshatteringly simple about the difference between US and UK acting careers: English actors don't have to choose as much between stage, tv, and film because it's all in one city. In fact some do some of each in the same day! The LA/NY dilemma many of our finest stage actors face jeopardizes the future of the acting pool increasingly every day. When's the next time you think we'll see Paul Giamatti on stage, for instance?)

The result in NY is you have fine, well-intentioned companies like The Mint and The Keen doing the lord's work in mining the repertory and rediscovering "neglected masterpieces"--but whenever I see their shows I am inevitably disappointed by the cheap scenery and generally mediocre acting, especially in such plays' crucial older roles. The ambition is there, the vision is there, but at some point the resources matter. This is the lesson I believe London can teach us. And so can many of our "regional" colleagues, where our best artists flock to do our classics justice.

And so I wish all the coverage of London would inspire efforts to emulate its successes. Instead, I fear, it only fosters inferiority complexes. And attempts at bad British accents.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Bullshit PR of the Day

Jeff Daniels is a fine actor. And he has walked the walk in theatre, founding and running his own Purple Rose company in Chelsea, MI, keeping the old Circle Rep. dream alive he started with Lanford Wilson et al back in the 70s. He also written plays for Purple Rose, including the 1996 Apartment 3A, now getting a NY premiere, off-off B'way. The play is described to the press as a "romantic comedy" and "ghost story." Sounds fine, but does it really need this reach for significance from the playwright:

"Given all the recent public debate about the importance of religion in our lives," Mr. Daniels said, "I think the play probably has more relevance now than it did when we premiered it."
Please, Jeff. I doubt the Bush theocrats make your apparent Blithe Spirit remake any more "relevant." I'll wait for someone to really write a play about that.

I feel sorry for those writers who feel pressured to inflate and distort classifications of their own work in order just to make it more marketable to the press. (Notice the NYT takes the bait, sure enough.) And maybe it's the press's fault. What's wrong with just a good romantic comedy?....The worst was back in Fall '01 to see how quickly playwrights, directors, and their press agents so glibly exploited 9/11 to sell their already-in-progress projects about relationship breakups and the like as "about loss--and you know, in a time like this...."

So much for a cheery start to the New Year!

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Huffington Post has added Christopher Durang to its roster of celeb playwright-bloggers. (Along with Mamet, Baitz, and some lesser knowns, too.)

Here, Chris explains it all about Texas, God, and Intelligent Design. With an online outlet for these amusing ramblings, maybe he won't have to put it all into such rants posing as plays like Miss Witherspoon. Thank you, Arianna!

Oh, and Happy New Year.