"I have learned," says an elderly character in one of Shaw's less familiar plays, "not to expect too much from life. That way I am always getting pleasant surprises instead of desolating disappointments." Long ago, I adopted this little maxim as the best guideline for theatergoing, and it has held up handsomely over the decades. So it was in my mind this past month when I went to sit on a panel that was to discuss, before an audience of would-be commercial producers, what makes a good play.
At least I thought that was to be the topic. When we began, however, the moderators announced it as, "What makes a successful production?" I groaned inwardly, but my Shavian guideline preserved my equanimity: What, after all, could I have expected would-be commercial producers to think a good play was, if not a successful production? A good play should be a successful play, right? And a successful play always gets a successful production, doesn't it? The distinctions involved were tricky to explain in this context — these were not folk who would put much credence in Henry James' claim that "There was something a failure was, which a success somehow ineffably wasn't." Understandably, neither I nor the other panelists — all smart, articulate people — made much effort to clarify the matter.
Courtesy keeps me from naming any of the famously successful plays that were cited, sometimes reverentially, by my fellow panelists or by questioners in the audience. Most of them are plays I think of as, in themselves, artistically worthless — the sort of stuff that can be made enjoyable, and hence profitable, through a great production or great acting. At best you could call them good theatrical opportunities. As for the hypothetical or embryonic shows in the dreams of the prospective producers who spoke up from the audience, they seemed, if anything, far worse — the kind whose mere press release makes critics shudder with self pity and terror. As a currently unemployed critic, I found the thought of never having to review them deeply consoling.
But the evening naturally started me thinking about what we expect when we go to the theater, and how happy — or unhappy — we become when our expectations are fulfilled, or disappointed. People attend plays for a great many reasons, and the path to the box office has many potential pitfalls. So I thought it might be helpful to offer, in time for the holiday season, a few of my personal rules — which I don't expect anyone else to follow — for choosing shows in a way that can help dodge desolating disappointments and encourage pleasant surprises.
1. Celebrity doesn't matter — unless you think it does.
Names, these days, are what sell tickets: a familiar title, a revered playwright, an admired director or choreographer, but most of all, a star. And today, more often than not, the star's stardom comes from movies or TV rather than the stage. Though intensified to high pressure by the Internet, this is an old story: Movie stars, ranging from those with years of stage experience to inept, untutored duffers, have taken advantage of their fame to stomp across the boards since movie stardom began. So, before them and alongside them, have star athletes, high-society beauties, and scandal-tainted celebs desperate for cash. Even critics started getting into the act when Alexander Woollcott decided it would be a good gag to play, for one night, the corpse in the opening scene of The Thirteenth Chair.
To fret over such old news would be futile. Instead, one should simply learn how to pick one's way through it. No guarantees apply when glamour figures from the two-dimensional media move into three dimensions. If you are happy merely to be in the same room as Denzel or Bette, or can go into ecstasies just from watching Julia Roberts or Tom Hanks move and speak, no more need be said. If you crave actual acting, you may need to look a little harder — at the reviews, at the star's past, at the evidence that can be gleaned from screens small and large — before you give the eager operator your credit card number.
And if you crave playwriting to accompany your star performance, your hard look may need an accompanying caution. Stars — even actual stage stars back in the day — have long had a notorious appetite for junk in script form. Easier to play than drama or comedy, which require deep thought and deeper commitment, "vehicles" as they used to be called, are a persistent bane. Theater libraries, the literary equivalent of automobile graveyards, are littered with the worn-out vehicles of the past. Today, theater historians may ponder how the hell Uta Hagen got away with In Any Language; in another few decades, they may well be pondering why the hell Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman bothered about A Steady Rain. They could, after all, have done a play instead.
Mentioning Craig reminds me that, with stars as with other performers, there are no guarantees, positive or negative, of quality. As Eric Bentley put it in the 1950s, "In the New York theater, there is no ratio between talent and fame — not even an inverse ratio." Craig, aside from being James Bond and all that, is an actual actor, and a good one. Put him and two other such actors together with an actual play, like Pinter's Betrayal, and an actual director, like Mike Nichols, and you get results that — the snipey negative reviews notwithstanding — are the kind a genuine playgoer values. The production is different from previous mountings of Betrayal. It has less of the aloof, cold-fish tone that people generally believe is optimal for Pinter; it hunts for and articulates subtexts that are not spelled out in the script's stage directions.
This has occasioned some raising of eyebrows among Broadway chatterers: The aficionados of anything-for-a-buck showbiz have suddenly become the arch-defenders of Pinter's sacred text. Admiring Pinter greatly but with reservations, and not counting Betrayal among my favorite plays, I have to admit that I enjoyed this production much more than my three previous encounters with the work. I saw and admired the sly intelligence of what Nichols was doing, and thought that, far from damaging the play, it expanded and underscored its sense, reinforcing the key point — often overlooked, though very clear in the text — that marital vows and friendship are not the only elements being betrayed here. The characters (the men particularly) have betrayed their youthful ideals; they have become exactly what they wanted not to be.
But talking about stars has distracted me from listing and explicating more of my rules. Back to those next week.
Stay tuned to TheaterMania for part II of this "Thinking About Theater" column, which will appear on Friday, November 22.