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Thinking About Theater

Of Playwrights and Complainers

Michael Feingold
(© Stephen Paley)
This is the start of a new voyage for me, and the charts for this area of the ocean are somewhat vague, so my route may be a little meandering. I hope my fellow travelers will bear with me. I'm going to focus, in each of these essays, on a phenomenon or a tendency that I've noticed in the current New York theater; to describe it, make a guess at its sources, and analyze its effects, for good or ill.

To start, I want to take up a happy subject that has left me more than a little troubled. This past year, New York produced an exceptionally interesting crop of new plays, mostly by nonprofit theaters, Off-Broadway and on. In a time when Broadway's big-noise exhibits cater to an audience that's nearly two-thirds tourists, with an increasing emphasis on family shows angled toward a preadolescent kiddie sensibility, this is cheering news: New York actually has a theater that reflects itself instead of a nationwide mass-market taste — a theater that adult, educated urbanites can enjoy, if they're cagey enough, without spending a small fortune on tickets, and without the relentless excess of trapezes, screechy kids, overamplification, and aging TV stars that marks today's commercial Broadway.

Unquestionably, we are lucky. The troubling point is that we don't seem to realize how lucky we are. If anyone other than me has been writing articles full of praise for the batch of exciting new American plays that our nonprofits spawned this year, I haven't come across them. The talk that I hear from friends, or overhear in theater lobbies at intermission, or see posted as chat on theater message boards, focuses most often on one play at a time. Its comments are mostly reserved in tone, and are often surprisingly captious in their reservations. Even more troubling, I've noticed that plays which hew to a straightforward emotional line tend on the whole to get a more appreciative reception; the ones that try something subtler or more difficult, and hence throw a few obstacles in the spectator's way, stir up an unexpected amount of carping.

That's natural enough. A play that supplies a big emotional zing will always arouse stronger immediate reactions than one that follows a trickier, more complex path. A Streetcar Named Desire gets revived way more often than Night of the Iguana, and very few of us would rush to see Timon of Athens if we were simultaneously offered King Lear. As far as that goes, Shakespeare and Williams, back in their own respective days, faced similar struggles with mixed audience reactions. But today, their bylines give them an automatic credibility, for which living playwrights who veer away from conventional patterns still have to fight.

I'm certainly not proposing that the audience at a new play should shut down its critical sense on the playwright's behalf. Quite the contrary: The more alert and critically responsive an audience, the more a playwright understands what his or her script has and hasn't achieved. The aspect that dismays me is that I find, in tandem with the deepening quality of new plays New York has been seeing, we've been getting what strikes me as an increasing reluctance, on the most devoted theatergoers' part, to accept the complexities that a playwright might throw in their way as a justifiable part of the work. It's as if the desire for immediate responses and easy explanations that's been bred in us by the Internet — and by the whole wash of popular media engulfing us these days — has wiped out, or to some degree diminished, the cultivated audience's instinct to question, to explore, to ponder. And it's done so even in the corner of the theater where these impulses are most demanded, and most often come into play. People who subscribe to a small theater that aims to produce challenging new plays aren't obligated to like the results, but it seems unfair for them to resent the challenge.

To clarify my meaning, in the second part of this essay I'll go into some detail about two recent examples among the year's more distinctive plays. Both, produced by Playwrights Horizons, have stayed in my mind as trouble-givers of the kind that raised audiences' or critics' hackles in some unexpected way. Neither could have been construed as in any sense a failure. Presented by a nonprofit institution in a small space for limited runs, both played to packed houses and had their runs extended; both received reviews ranging from appreciative to highly enthusiastic, with relatively few dissents. In neither could the acting, direction, or design be faulted as misleading or distracting audiences from the substance of the play. In quality, both productions were superlative.

Yet each, as I say, provoked some part of its audience to a kind of querulous questioning of the play's validity, as if its ambiguity, its difficulty, or in one case even its simplicity constituted a sort of defect that called for condemnation instead of respectful consideration — rather as if the questioners had gone to see Hamlet and complained bitterly that it wasn't Titus Andronicus.

I don't mean to claim that either of these plays could rank as high as Hamlet, or that either was wholly free from flaws. It's just that the captiousness of the objections seemed to me to convey an oddly shortsighted view of playwriting, harking back to the sort of comments made a century ago about Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw, and Strindberg — comments we think of now as comically old-fashioned. (The great actor Henry Irving, when his co-star Ellen Terry made him read Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, responded, "Threadworms and leeches may be an interesting study, but not for me.") To make the situation still odder, the plays that I plan to cite in part II of this essay were both, on the surface, quite traditional and straightforward naturalistic events, mixing surprises into their substance, but not in a way that could confuse anyone used to seeing plays that go a few steps beyond villains in black hats and heroes in white.

Stay tuned to TheaterMania for part II of Michael Feingold's first "Thinking About Theater" column, which will appear on Friday, June 21.