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Top Ten Reasons why the Straight Play might be DEAD

On the art (or lack thereof) in the modern play…

I’ve spent a good deal of time these past couple weeks trudging from Broadway theater to Broadway theater, with a few off-Broadway theaters mixed in, watching the latest in straight plays. The straight play is a difficult gambit without the aid of music and song to help me forget shoddy writing and trite plot. But that doesn’t stop me from going, and crossing my fingers for something good to be presented before me, even without the delight of song. What can I say, it’s been a mixed bag at best…

I often find myself eager to see productions of shows from playwrights that I’ve loved in the past, or at least feel like I should love. That brought me to the revival of David Mamet’s early work, A Life in the Theater (my interest aided by the casting of T.R. Knight and the incomparable Patrick Stewart). Wow, was I bored. The play is awkwardly paced, the series of vignettes occupying only 90 minutes feeling like an eternity thanks to languorous silences and an overabundance of costume and scene changes. Basically the language of Mamet, the primary reason I want to see his shows, was entirely lost.

I had more faith for the epic A Free Man of Color written by John Guare. I have to admit that I know very little of his earlier work beyond Six Degrees, but I was excited for what was being touted as a great new expansive piece. That’s three hours of my life I’ll never get back. The bloated production felt wrong in a time when amazing pieces cannot find their physical voice (made only more obvious in Guare’s odious rant against The Public Theater reported by the New York Times this past weekend). I’m all for lavish and outrageous, but the piece became a polemic laced with obviousness shrouded in a cloud of humor that left me far on the other side of laughing. If you’re interested in the interrogation of America’s long standing racism, do yourself a favor and spend your money on The Scottsboro Boys instead.

So the only place I had left to go was the familiar and razor sharp dialogue of Edward Albee, always guaranteed to please even when the play itself is something less than a masterworks. His new piece, Me, Myself & I, is exactly that: whip smart dialogue in a play that somehow doesn’t quite add up to much. Thankfully the piece is well acted, smartly staged and actually humorous. It’s nice when a well earned laugh comes from intelligence and not potty humor (more on that later). By the end of it all, it was a bit more meta-theater than I would have liked, but I was thoroughly satisfied by my evening.

So it was off to the less tried and true in the hopes that a new voice in theater might be found. As was evident from my own mini-rant last week, Elling was not going to satisfy on any level. La Bete, not entirely new although new to me, was a fun evening of theater, even though the set malfunctioned before the first line of dialogue was uttered. The play fell somewhere between brilliance in the dialogue to delving far too deep into the potty humor I referred to earlier. I just can’t laugh all that hard at an endless rhyming monologue that includes a couple minutes spoken while on a toilet. I found a whole lot more of interest in the revival of Arthur Kopit’s Wings, thanks to an incredible performance from Jan Maxwell and the always thrilling, if confusing, directing of John Doyle. The use of video and Venetian blinds was dazzling. And my final hope for something of interest came from Spirit Control, a new play by Beau Willimon who wrote my favorite of a couple years ago, the political intriguer Farragut North. Unfortunately this new work didn’t do much more than make me thoroughly depressed, although I could see sparks of the same genius at play. Delving into the more cerebral and otherworldly, Willimon seemed slightly lost, the bite and humor completely missing.

So is theater dead? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s very alive and I was happy to be able to take in such a wide variety of straight play, even if the final result was less than stellar. That’s a whole lot more than I can say for the musical world in which hackneyed by way of tried and true has become the name of the game. The only thing I can hope is that the great institutions of New York City take more risks, and that I, as a consumer, become more willing to take those same risks. With time and money as limited as it is, it has become very hard to want to plop down in a seat and “try” something new. I’m as bad as the producers, aiming toward things that I think will satisfy rather than taking that absolute left turn and test something that could completely bore me or enthrall me.


DANCE Cedar Lake Dance – Program B at The Joyce was a fantastic combination of pieces of modern dance that is at once charismatic as it is poignant, bolstered by a set of strong dancers that excel at storytelling through propulsive movement… A-

MOVIE Art School Confidential – I’m still scratching my head over this one, and not in a good way. It’s cliché after cliché of both art schools and indie film without adding up to anything other than to say what makes people famous in both has very little to do with talent… C-

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