Taking (Stage) Direction
A gag in Elaine May's play Adult Entertainment causes Filichia to muse on the subject of stage directions.
Went to see The Winter's Tale at Classic Stage Company (Barry Edelstein blocked it beautifully and made the most of the theater's physical space). Then saw Adult Entertainment at the Variety Arts (many laughs in the first act, nary a one in the second). Then caught Uncle Vanya at Jean Cocteau Rep (one of my favorite places in the city and one that didn't let me down, offering the most riveting production I've seen of this play since that memorable 1983 night in Dusseldorf when I saw Onkle Vanya in German).
All three productions started me thinking about stage directions. I find it utterly impossible not to do so whenever I see The Winter's Tale and they get to that scene in the third act where Antigonus is on his way to a ship when he runs into a bear -- leading to what Robert Thomas Fallon calls in A Theatergoer's Guide to Shakespeare "the best-known stage direction in the history of the theater: 'Exit, pursued by a bear.'"
In Adult Entertainment, Elaine May presents a group of porno actors whose new writer-director believes he can make stag films that are artistically rewarding. But his actors are dim bulbs -- one is so half-witted that when he reads his script, he reads the stage directions as if they're dialogue. Good joke -- just as it was in 1963 when Joe Stein put it in Enter Laughing, and just as it was five years earlier when Carl Reiner wrote it in his novel that Stein later adapted. There's no doubt that May knew the joke, given that she starred in the play's 1967 movie version. (I realized that Enter Laughing isn't the only play whose title was inspired by a stage direction: There's Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, Michael Frayn's Noises Off, and a 1962 Off-Broadway revue called Alarums and Excursions. All three titles come from plays written by the guy who wrote "Exit, pursued by a bear.")
At Jean Cocteau Rep, Uncle Vanya was pretty much played on a bare stage; so, when we went to Vanya's bedroom in Act IV, there was no map of Africa on the wall. And how do I know that there should have been? From Chekhov's witty stage direction: "There is also a map of Africa on the wall, obviously of no use to anybody." Actually, I'm surprised I caught that the last time I read the play, for skipping past stage directions is an easy thing for a reader to do -- and, in many cases, a mistake. Playwrights often show wit and resource in their stage directions. That nifty line in "Bosom Buddies" where Mame guesses Vera's age as "somewhere between 40 and death?" It was originally a stage direction in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's hit play Auntie Mame. In an era where so many of us are searching through our DVDs to find "Easter eggs" -- hidden features that aren't easy to detect -- we often zip through playscripts without savoring some delicious stage directions. And this is the only opportunity to do so, for you never get them when you see the show.
Well, almost never. In 1990, director Anne Bogart staged Kaufman and Hart's Once in a Lifetime at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After the curtain rose on a young man sitting in a dreary apartment, audiences heard over the sound system, "A room in the West Forties, New York City. It is a replica of the countless other furnished rooms in the district -- cheerless and utterly uninviting." Indeed, for the entire evening, the crowd heard the charming stage directions that Kaufman and Hart wrote; obviously, Bogart admired them.
Some others are worth hearing. In that famous scene in The Odd Couple where Oscar comes home too late and Felix storms into the kitchen to assess the damage on his roast, Simon gets in a good gag: "Black is the color of his true love." The playwright also provides an interesting stage direction in his screenplay for The Odd Couple II. When Oscar and Felix saunter into a bar with two young women, "The music comes on. It's Tony Bennett singing one of his classic love songs," Simon writes, before adding parenthetically, "(Not 'San Francisco.')" Guess he wanted an entirely different mood.
In The Skin of Our Teeth, in the midst of a cold snap that makes New York's current weather seem like 110 in the shade, Mrs. Antrobus decides that she'd better prepare her children for what's coming. Writes Thornton Wilder, "She draws up a hassock and sits front center over the orchestra pit before the imaginary fire. The children stretch out on the floor, leaning against her lap. Tableau by Raphael."
Oscar Hammerstein was always known for his good taste, and a good example of it occurs in Me and Juliet, his musical about backstage life. "Juliet blows a kiss to Dario as she exits, and Charlie, infuriated, mutters something which, if you could read his lips, is very insulting indeed." But Hammerstein's most vivid stage direction is arguably the one he puts at the end of the first act of The King and I. "The King is watching to make sure that Anna imitates him, sits back on his heels, then leans forward, finally stretching out prone. They are both flat on their faces. Then he raises his head and rests his chin on his hand. She does the same. Fireworks burst through the air beyond the terrace. Anna and the King regard each other. Who is taming whom?"
In Smile, the much-underrated 1986 musical, our heroine is Robin Gibson, Miss Antelope Valley, who's competing for the crown of California's Young American Miss. She doesn't believe she has a chance; but Doria Hudson, Miss Yuba City, keeps telling her that she does, so she starts to believe it. When Miss Bakersfield Sandra-Kay MacAfee emerges victorious, librettist Howard Ashman writes, "The others gather around Sandra-Kay in the usual hoopla. We have a moment, however, to catch Robin realizing that it's over, and the result is exactly as she herself would have predicted it a week ago."
You know who writes wonderful stage directions? William Goldman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter. His screenplays are chock-full of them. The most famous is still the one he put in 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Butch's reign as gang-leader is challenged by another cowboy. How does our hero handle this? According to Goldman, "Butch delivers the most aesthetically exquisite kick to the balls in the history of the modern American cinema."
But, funny thing: Last week, when I read A Family Affair, which Goldman wrote with his brother James, I didn't come across one memorable stage direction. So I decided to read the Goldman brothers' 1961 play to which they gave one of the worst titles in Broadway history, Blood, Sweat, and Stanley Poole. The script of this 84-performance failure yielded only one moderately interesting stage direction: When a character destroys his enemy's car by driving it into a building, the Goldmans describe the sound of the crash as "KKKRBAMSCREECHRRRKKSSHH!" I kinda like that word, don't you?
That's it for William Goldman's Broadway career: one musical and one play before Hollywood glory. James Goldman, of course, gave us Follies -- and at least one terrific stage direction. When Sally first approaches her old boss Dimitri Weismann, she tells him, "I'm so glad I came." But, Goldman writes, "He hasn't a clue who she is" and later adds, "Either he used to lay her or he thinks he did."
Yeah, I got a million of them. John O'Hara writes about a character in Pal Joey, "He likes Joey in spite of himself -- and in spite of Joey." Before John Adams in 1776 says to deciding voter James Wilson, "It would be a pity for a man who handed down hundreds of wise decisions from the bench to be remembered for only the one unwise decision he made in Congress," Peter Stone writes: "Quietly, turning the screw." George Kelly in The Torchbearers describes Mr. Spindler, the community theater props master, by noting that "he strides towards Ritter (the leading man) and extends his hand with that vigor which usually characterizes the greetings of unimportant persons." In Into the Woods, James Lapine writes, "The Baker's house caves in. We should be momentarily uncertain as to whether there has truly been an accident on-stage." (God bless live theater!)
So from now on, when you read a play, give the playwright his due by checking out those italicized words that you might otherwise pass by. You might get a good chuckle, or you just might give a head-nod of admiration.