In the middle years of the last century, American publishers such as Random House and Doubleday routinely issued new plays and collections of works by "important" dramatists of the present and past. Those volumes (many each year) were aimed at the general reader who, whether or not a regular playgoer, wanted to know what was being said in that essential sector of world culture, The Theater.
As the 20th century waned, other forms of expression--film, television and video, rock clubs, and theme restaurants, for instance--elbowed the theater aside. With what Variety calls "legit" being relegated to an ever-narrowing corner of Western culture, publishers lost faith in fireside fans of drama. As a result, trade editions of new plays, as well as play collections, became few and far between, with only the stage's biggest hits readily available to the general book-buyer. Now Martin Denton, a former Marriott executive, is trying to reverse that trend via desktop publishing and the Internet.
In Plays and Playwrights 2001 (296 pages, $15.00), a new anthology of admirable, often provocative work from Off-Off Broadway which he has edited, Denton offers 16 freshly minted scripts by dramatists who, for the most part, have not been published before. Compact and sturdily bound, Plays and Playwrights 2001 is a paperback designed to withstand rehearsals and scene study, as well as the wear-and-tear of ordinary reading and library circulation. It is the second annual volume in a series published by Denton's non-profit company The New York Theatre Experience, Inc., the first having been Plays and Playwrights for the New Millennium.
Founded five years ago, The New York Theatre Experience operates nytheatre.com, a specialty web site featuring reviews, news articles, listings, and theater seating charts and providing Internet access to tickets. While the organization's name suggests catholicity, it's stated mission is fairly narrow--namely, to promote those outer reaches of New York theater celebrated so effectively last summer in the 2000 New York International Fringe Festival (John Clancy, artistic director; Elena K. Holy, producing director). Although there's no official connection between NYTE and the Fringe Festival, Plays and Playwrights 2001 contains a number of works that were part of that event.
Denton has chosen an impressive variety of works, eight of which are brief one-acts. As might be expected in a volume focusing on Off-Off-Broadway, a number of the plays are self-consciously arty; yet one of them, Edward De Santis' The Language of Kisses, is so much of the "kitchen-sink" school as to be positively retrograde. Most of the comedies are admirably purposive; a a couple are frivolous (which isn't intended as a derogation). Denton includes dramas that are unflinchingly serious along with two that evidence a light touch. Some of the choices are lyrical; most are stubbornly vernacular. All but one are readily accessible to the armchair reader. The exception, Julia Lee Barclay's Word to Your Mama, is an evocative prose-poem that invites a director's vision to give it real coherence.
Also among Denton's selections are two musical comedies, House of Trash by Trav S.D. and The Elephant Man--The Musical by Jeff Hylton and Tim Werenko. These are camp-fests that function, in terms of the book's overall content, like whipped cream and cherries atop a heavy dessert.
In a preface to Plays and Playwrights 2001, Robert Simonson, whose Café Society appeared in NYTE's previous volume, praises Denton for "putting new comedies and dramas out where directors, producers, artistic directors, and theatergoers can find them." Simonson credits the editor with "reinvesting the long moribund world of play publishing with vision and enthusiasm." That enthusiasm, reflected in the almost astounding range of Denton's taste (as well as the jubilance of his Introduction), is the most noticeable aspect of Plays and Playwrights 2001. Introducing The Language of Kisses, a deft dramaturgical performance by De Santis which, taken as a whole, is (in the view of this reviewer) pedestrian in effect, Denton exults: "This play breathes! Like the best work of William Inge, it examines unexpressed passions that simmer just below the skins of homely, everyday people; I love it for that."
How unexpected: a spokesman for the New York avant-garde who appreciates the out-of-vogue William Inge and expresses admiration without a jot of the snarky irony that seems to be de rigeur in this age. Here's how Denton defends his selection of The Language of Kisses despite having included another De Santis script, Making Peter Pope, in NYTE's prior volume: "The Language of Kisses is included here because it is so darn good, it felt right to break a rule or two to get it before the public." Denton's ebullience is not only refreshing but downright contagious. Also endearing is that Beaver-Cleaver expletive "darn" in an essay by a New York theater writer, accustomed as he must be to the expletives and blasphemies that are a sine qua non of modern plays.
The 16 scripts in Plays and Playwrights 2001 speak well for the craft and imaginative vigor of theater in New York. What's sobering is the poverty of intellectual influences on display. It's evident that Denton's playwrights have been inspired by Hollywood movies, television sitcoms, Broadway shtick, kitchen-sink drama, and a bit of the Theatre of the Absurd. But except in eight fanciful 10-minute plays from Gorilla Repertory Theatre, which display varied influences from Shakespeare to W.S. Gilbert, there's scant evidence of any source of inspiration earlier (or more profound) than American pop culture of the mid-1950s. Disappointing, perhaps, but a function of the times and beyond any editor's (or dramaturg's) control. The good news: In compiling this valuable anthology, Denton has been mindful of the fact that, whatever its ancillary functions, "theater is supposed to be enjoyed" (this is a quotation from one of the delightful Gorilla Rep one-acts) and its audiences are "supposed to be entertained."
CONTENTS OF PLAYS AND PLAYWRIGHTS 2001:
Washington Square Dreams by Gorilla Repertory Theater (featuring 10-minute plays by Anthony P. Pennino, Jeni Mahoney, Ben Sahl, Arlene Hutton, Joe Lauinger, Gary Giovannetti, Craig Allan Pospisil, and Matthew Ethan Davis)
Fate by Elizabeth Horsburgh
Velvet Ropes by Joshua Scher
The Language of Kisses by Edmund De Santis
Word to Your Mama by Julia Lee Barclay
Cuban Operator Please by Adrian Rodriguez
The Elephant Man--The Musical by Jeff Hylton and Tim Werenko
House of Trash by Trav S.D.
Straight-jacket by Richard Day