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Thinking About Theater

Of Playwrights and Complainers (Part II) logo

This is part II of Michael Feingold's first two-part "Thinking About Theater" column.
Click here to read part I.

Keith Nobbs and Jeremy Strong in The Great God Pan
(© Joan Marcus)
Amy Herzog's The Great God Pan, which opened at Playwrights Horizons back in December, was the first item to send what audiences apparently perceived as perplexing signals. Small, taut, and unassuming, it told a simple story that raised questions which turned out to have no simple answers. Its hero, Jamie, is told by a pal from his pre-school childhood that he may have been sexually abused by said pal's father. Since Jamie's life is at a crossroads in many respects — new job, troubles with his long-term girlfriend, a less-than-easy relationship with his parents — the news tints his every move with a discoloration of doubt. Nor are the doubts resolved at the play's end.

To me this all seemed both lucid and fascinating. Herzog hewed to a firm line in keeping her story ambiguous, not underscoring or overexplaining any point, but allowing the audience to make its own decision about what had happened. I came away convinced that there had been no trauma in Jamie's past; my guest at the show thought just the opposite. This, to me, was proof that Herzog had played fair; what she most meant for us to take away was an awareness that we could never know for certain that the past is an evanescent place and its effect on us very hard to gauge.

To my surprise, this turned out to be the point around which some audience members' resentment actively collected, as if there were some inherent outrage in Herzog's not telling us a fact that was, in essence, unknowable — its unknowability being precisely the play's point. She had, I think, made two minor missteps in shaping her script: The relatively unfamiliar poem (by Elizabeth Barrett Browning) from which the play's title comes was worked awkwardly into the story, seeming more a piece of decorative appliqué than an organic element. And a subplot, involving a troubled teen whom Jamie's nutritionist girlfriend was treating for anorexia, made too facile a parallel to Jamie's own troubles. But these two small flaws, both partly atoned for by the care with which Herzog wove these peripheral matters into the overall context, had nothing to do with the inexplicable rage people expressed over the central story. I've heard at least two of my colleagues stigmatize Herzog's playwriting as "fake," but it's hard for me to spot even an ounce of factitiousness in The Great God Pan.

Where a small minority of Playwrights Horizons' attendees had been querulous about The Great God Pan, the company provoked something close to a small firestorm of complaint when it produced Annie Baker's The Flick — so much so that artistic director Tim Sanford felt compelled to write a letter defending it, addressed to subscribers who had complained and those who hadn't yet booked their tickets. Sanford said all the right things, but I wish he hadn't written the letter — or at least had asked me to edit it before he sent it out. He stood by the play, and the author's right to experiment, but his style, woolly and discursive, made the letter seem apologetically defensive.

Aaron Clifton Moten, Matthew Maher, and Louisa Krause in The Flick
(© Joan Marcus)
And yet few plays have needed apology less than The Flick. Terse, simple, straightforward, and immaculately performed, it told the story of three youngish people, two guys and a gal, employed in a seedy, old-fashioned one-plex New England movie theater. Cinema references abounded; the characters, in their various ways, were all film-besotted. Each was also on a differing career track, working his or her way along a very different life path. The crossing paths produced cross patches among them, and each tiny conflict illuminated some aspect of the larger world in which this grungy antique venue and its workers' uneasy camaraderie would soon be supplanted. Though the narrative was full of events, most of the visible action consisted of the two male characters cleaning the theater after the evening show, their minimal conversation a counterpoint to the sweeping up of spilled popcorn.

The Flick took its time. That it did so, in this bare context, inexplicably enraged a fair number of spectators. Though something was happening, subtextually, at every moment, these furious folks apparently couldn't see it. All they did see was the sweeping up of popcorn. Though any quick mental trip through the history of naturalism, onstage or in film, would reveal dozens of predecessor examples from Chekhov and Schnitzler to David Storey, the objectors hadn't taken or didn't want to take any such trip. Watching two lower-middle-class townies and a college prof's kid sweep up popcorn and talk about movies was to them what a primrose on a river's brim was to the guy in the Wordsworth poem: lacking all larger sense.

This was their loss. For those of us who enjoyed The Flick, which included most reviewers, its rewards were apparent as well as substantial. (The revelatory moment in which one cleaner, shocked by a piece of news, threw litter all over the area the other guy was cleaning, has lodged in my memory right next to the first time I saw Bessie Berger, in Awake and Sing!, smash her father's Caruso records.) Yet, again, the issue is less that some spectators could dislike a play, or overlook what it was doing, as that they should feel compelled, in this context, to rail against it so vehemently, as if, by pleasing one segment of the public while displeasing another, the artists were engaging in an elaborate consumer fraud of some kind.

The beautiful clarity with which The Flick was conducted should itself have made clear that no such fraud was taking place; the producing venue alone should have served as a calming sign. This is Playwrights Horizons. It presents new plays that are part of their authors' ongoing development. It doesn't claim that every play it stages will magically appeal to people from all walks of life and become a thundering worldwide commercial success. That's not why Playwrights Horizons — or any of Off-Broadway's nonprofit institutions — is in business. When an audience chooses to attend any such theater comes in expecting to have its experience predigested and milled down into lowest-common-denominator blockbustering, it has come in on the wrong footing and has arrived at the wrong place.

And yet, disturbingly, some segment of the downtown audience — a vocal segment if not a large one — appears to have come under precisely those misguided expectations, just as they might go to Verdi's Aida expecting Elton John. Perhaps they have absorbed, from other media, the simpler expectations that the theater spends so much of its life altering and shaking off. Perhaps they have been conditioned, by the steadily flattening tone of our political life, to take a stance before assimilating the facts of a situation. Or perhaps the concept of "Broadway" has become so all-pervasive that every theater piece is now viewed only in the context of its commercial viability. It has always been hard for Americans to absorb the notion, put forward by Henry James — to whom both authors owe something, and who would probably have admired both these plays — that "there was something a failure was, a failure in the market, that a success somehow wasn't. A success was as prosaic as a good dinner, there was nothing more to be said about it than that you had had it."

Michael Feingold's next two-part "Thinking About Theater" column will appear on consecutive Fridays July 12 and July 19.