A Rare Revival of Mary Broome Makes an Intriguing Antique

We bring back some plays from the past because, no matter when they were written, they always seem to be taking place right now. Others get revived because, periodically, some single aspect of their story seems, for a moment, startlingly prophetic. And then there’s the third kind of revival: the plays that get brought back as a way of reminding theatergoers how times have changed, hopefully for the better, since they were written. Varying in quality from stale leftovers to enchanting curios, such pieces can vary almost as much in the ways they inform us about the difference between past and present—anything from table manners to an era’s indefinable state of mind may be involved.

Allan Monkhouse’s 1912 comedy, Mary Broome, now getting its first New York production since 1919 courtesy of the enterprising Mint Theater, falls into that third category. Not a great play, almost as annoying for its dramatic flaws as for the now-dead social attitudes it aims to mock, it warrants revival on the grounds that its dislikability makes it just odd enough to be intriguing.

Monkhouse (1858–1936) came to playwriting late. A sometime theater critic and editor of the lofty Manchester Guardian, in midlife he caught the theatrical bug that had been stirring in England since the rise of London’s independent-theater movement in the late 1880s, and had flowered with Bernard Shaw and Granville Barker’s years at the Court Theatre (1904–07). Manchester chimed in when Annie Horniman, a theatrically inclined rich woman (and an early patron of Shaw’s), established a repertory theater there in 1907. Monkhouse joined the group of mostly younger, determinedly realistic playwrights clustering around it, inevitably christened the Manchester School.

In 1910, the school unveiled its keystone work, Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice (revived not long ago by the Atlantic Theater). Move Brighouse’s play up a notch socioeconomically, and you’d get something resembling Mary Broome—only wrenched totally awry by its recalcitrant hero, Leonard Timbrell (Roderick Hill), the hopelessly indolent aesthete younger son of a gruff, prosperous businessman (Graeme Malcolm).

Though not its title character, Leonard is Mary Broome‘s central focus. Mary herself (Janie Brookshire) is the Timbrells’ housemaid, whom, the play reveals early on, Leonard has impregnated. Suffused with respectability, the Timbrells are torn between the desire to do the right thing and the horrified thought of how embarrassing it will look, especially since Leonard’s elder brother, Edgar (Rod Brogan), and his fiancée, Sheila (Julie Jesneck), are just about to have a big, ultra-correct society wedding. (The news of Mary’s pregnancy breaks just as Sheila has been fretting about Leonard’s unsuitability for the role of best man.)

Only his gruff pater’s threat to cut off his allowance makes Leonard, a hapless literary dilettante incapable of earning a penny, agree to marry Mary, who finds him appealing as a man but a worst-possible choice for a husband. Always off in the clouds or viewing the world speculatively from the sidelines, he tends to wax either flippant or rhapsodic when he talks, and talk is pretty much all he can do. His similarity to the anti-heroic heroes of Shaw and other Court playwrights, like St. John Hankin and Somerset Maugham (both subjects of previous Mint revivals), is manifest.

What flaws Mary Broome is that Monkhouse, unlike Shaw or his Court successors, hasn’t built his event to hold his hero’s unhinged tone: Reality keeps crashing in to make Leonard look like either a gibbering nitwit or a tactless creep. Monkhouse lacks Shaw’s ability to push these moments up towards tragedy or down into comedy. Instead, the result simply looks, too often, like a writer trying to make his tonal confusion seem Chekhovian: Imagine an Oscar Wilde comedy in which a baby dies of malnutrition and you’ll see what I mean.

Inevitably, the script’s muddle breeds uncertainty on stage. Jonathan Bank’s production, though one of his tighter and better-shaped efforts, can’t seem to locate a serious line to hew to, and dampens many laugh lines while searching. Malcolm blusters, melodramatically but effectively; Brookshire makes Mary overly meek. Hill, in effect licensed by the playwright to do as he pleases, has somewhat better luck, while Douglas Rees and Jill Tanner do well in two small roles each, and Patricia Kilgarriff, as a grumpy landlady, supplies one genuine glimpse of Mancunian realism.


Daniel Sullivan’s As You Like It Charms at the Delacorte

Bernard Shaw, who loved ridiculing Shakespeare almost as much as he loved reading, seeing, and quoting his works, often suggested that As You Like It (Delacorte Theater) had been given its title as an instance of the Bard’s contempt for the popular taste to which he was compelled to cater. Shaw railed at the arbitrariness of the play’s action, the lameness of Touchstone’s jokes, and the one-dimensionality of the characters. Responding to Shakespeare’s tale of the deposed Duke’s daughter, Rosalind (Lily Rabe), who disguises herself as a boy to court her likewise-exiled love, Orlando (David Furr), Shaw spoke of “the manufacture of Rosalinds and Orlandos” as “something that really ought to be done in a jam factory.”

But Shaw’s railing did not cure the English-speaking world of its love for As You Like It, which has continued unabated to this day. It didn’t cure Shaw’s own love for the play, to which he constantly alludes. And although I’m in agreement with him about all its shortcomings, recollecting his raillery didn’t keep me from having a thoroughly pleasant time at Daniel Sullivan’s production, with which the Public Theater is celebrating half a century of free Shakespeare in Central Park.

I’ve seen more pointed, and more cohesive, As You Like It‘s. And though every role in Sullivan’s production is tolerably well played, I’ve seen each of them better performed on other occasions—a fair number of them in previous Park productions. But that matters less than the overall cheerful spirit of the occasion: Sullivan takes the play as an easygoing pleasantry. He views its title, you might say, not with the dismissive tone Shaw finds in it, but as a generous host’s gesture of welcome. No directorial gimmickry or newly darkened interpretations for Sullivan. As in his greenswarded Twelfth Night three years ago, the effect he supplies is of a boisterous, airy, outdoor party, with everybody in good spirits and an amusing story re-enacted pleasantly, almost lackadaisically. In other words, as you like it.

John Lee Beatty’s ingeniously landscaped setting, a stockade wall that opens to reveal a meadow backed by trees, looks fit for picnicking. Jane Greenwood’s bright costumes, which put Twelfth Night in Jane Austen’s time, move forward here to mid-19th-century America, peopling the stage with folksy figures from genre painters like William Sidney Mount. Steve Martin and Greg Pliska’s music completes the feeling of folksiness. Far from the harsh forest haunted by aristocrats in exile and re-enactments of courtly love, this cozy pastoral playground mocks the whole notion that “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.” Surely man’s ingratitude has little effect on this sociable crew.

Sullivan’s single innovative stroke—having one actor play both the good Duke in exile and his vicious, usurping younger brother—only enhances the gentle mood. Andre Braugher, as effective in sage contemplativeness as he is in tyrannical fury, makes the bad brother’s instant conversion easy to believe, since we’ve also known him as a good guy all along. I could wish that Furr’s handsome Orlando had something like Braugher’s graceful, resonant speech. Furr sometimes seems to be wrestling the lines as strenuously as he wrestles Charles. (One of Sullivan’s odder bits of staging, by the way, makes Orlando appear to have been defeated by Charles before their match even begins.)

Rabe’s forthright Rosalind, lanky and Amazonian, is always appealing, though manifestly a frontier-town tomboy rather than a believable boy. It’s her ill luck to have come to the role so soon after Juliet Rylance, in the Bridge Project’s version, spun a gauzy web of enchantment over it. Stephen Spinella’s Jacques casts only an amicably somber shadow over the proceedings; MacIntyre Dixon creates a comically crusty Adam, and Renee Elise Goldsberry an adorably pert, puckish Celia. Oliver Platt manages to wring a few laughs out of Touchstone, which is high praise from me: I’ve finally concluded that Shakespeare meant Touchstone’s material to be unfunny; the running joke should be its constant failure to go over. Exactly what you’d expect from the court jester of a usurping Duke with no sense of humor. But that sort of fun might be too subtle for a moonlit summer night in the park, where the fun must be handled simply, the way we groundlings like it. As Shakespeare well knew.


Man and Superman: Shaw Does His Quirky

“My plays must be acted,” Bernard Shaw wrote to his director of choice, Granville Barker, “and acted hard.” By this he meant not that they should be overplayed, but that Barker should resist the late-Victorian theater’s prevailing habit of putting onstage well-clad, well-spoken people whose polite neutrality allowed a play to be heard, but not experienced, by its audience. “Directors always think,” Shaw complained punningly, “that worms make the best casts.”

No wormish acting, I’m glad to report, occurs in David Staller’s new production of Man and Superman (Irish Rep)—though it does contain some intermittent misunderstanding of what GBS meant about acting a play “hard.” In the opening scene, and at sporadic later points, a certain archness prevails. The cast seems to be “playing Shaw” rather than acting their roles. Most of them shake the attitudinizing off in due course; matters are helped immensely when Brian Murray and Laurie Kennedy, two experienced Shavians, get to assert themselves as, respectively, Roebuck Ramsden and Mrs. Whitefield. With such hands in charge, Shaw’s action quickly finds its footing on solid ground, and the Shavian spirit starts to assert itself without artifice, as its author wanted it to do.

That artifice tempted Staller, though is understandable: For all its hardheadedness and its cunningly firm construction, Man and Superman (1903) finds Shaw at his quirkiest. His brain was full of Bergson, Lamarck, and Nietzsche when he wrote it. He wove the ideas that they promulgated, of “the Life Force” and the Übermensch, into the play’s fabric like Wagnerian leitmotifs—dark burlap threads of abstract philosophy running through this shimmery silk shawl of a romantic comedy.

Ann Whitefield (Janie Brookshire), meant from childhood to marry her wealthy father’s ward, the bland aesthete Octavius (Will Bradley), naturally prefers his dashing, outspoken friend, Jack Tanner (Max Gordon Moore). Jack and Ann constitute Shaw’s update of the legendary Don Juan Tenorio and Doña Ana; Mozart’s Don Giovanni silently underscores the whole work. Wily Jack, though attracted to Ann, struggles to evade the marital trap by needling and browbeating her; wilier Ann outmaneuvers him at every turn, till his only recourse is escape—giving Shaw a handy excuse to supply an exotic Spanish setting for the evening’s second half. Encamped in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Jack dreams that he and Ann are Juan and Ana, trapped in Shaw’s topsy-turvy notion of Hell, engaging in metaphysical discussion with Ana’s father and the Devil—embodied by the stuffy Ramsden and by Mendoza (Jonathan Hammond), the intelligent but hopelessly romantic brigand whose scruffy band has stopped Jack’s car.

Jack’s dream, the famous “Don Juan in Hell” scene, would run, uncut, an hour and 40 minutes by itself, and has most often been played as a separate event. Since the main comedy also contains a subplot to contrast with Ann’s pursuit of Jack—an exceptionally sly one, about the wooing of Octavius’s sister Violet (Margaret Loesser Robinson) by a rich young American, Hector Malone (Zachary Spicer)—Man and Superman, if performed complete, would run well over five hours. It even includes a Shavian rework of the prototype story’s smart-aleck low comedian: Tanner’s chauffeur, Straker (Brian Sgambati), a 20th-century-style servant, trained to master the new century’s machinery.

Sensibly, Staller, like most directors, has made extensive cuts within each scene (we get about 40 minutes of “Don Juan in Hell”), bringing the running time down to just under three hours. Less wisely, to my mind, he has gussied up his scene changes (on an ingenious and handsome set by James Noone) with fusillades of one-liners, pulled from the text or from Jack’s pamphlet, “The Revolutionists’ Handbook.” Still, for the most part the show plays delightfully, once the actors have shaken off the archness. Shaw gets such big laughs, and strikes home so forcefully in his serious moments, that Staller’s stylistic fretwork was needless. Moore, a slight, nervy actor, makes a fluent but not optimally dominating Tanner; Brookshire, elegantly cool and assured, comes off much better, as do Sgambati and Spicer, either of whom might have made a stronger Tanner. With Hammond’s suave diablerie, Kennedy’s warmth, and Murray’s crispness, the evening does more than get by. It offers the miracle of all well-played Shaw: It never feels long.


A Minister’s Wife Gives Shaw’s Candida Some Un-Shavian Solemnity

Perhaps because of its one set and relatively small cast, the early Candida (1894) is one of Bernard Shaw’s most frequently revived plays. I’ve reviewed three New York productions of it, and can recall at least three others. For Shaw, it’s also a fairly untypical work, though its success paved the way for the wider acceptance of his more extravagant or more complex pieces.

In the days before movies and television supplanted theater in the public mind, star actors tended to make Candida’s production something of a habit. Hearty leading men loved playing Reverend James Mavor Morell, the charismatic but doggedly honorable Socialist preacher, adored by everyone around him, including the impecunious young aristocrat-poet, Marchbanks, a favorite role for “juvenile” romantic leading men. Marchbanks, cut off by his haughty family for his rebellious ways, has been rescued from homelessness by Morell, who keeps him about as a sort of mascot, useful, during the minister’s frequent absences for public speaking engagements, for amusing his lovingly supportive, infallibly glamorous wife, the title role.

Morell and Marchbanks may be irresistible actor-bait, but Candida, to the right actress, is the role of roles. She has both men hypnotized; she gets to be both sposally submissive and dominatingly seductive. Though raised rich—her father, a coarse-grained factory owner, has often been viewed as a preliminary sketch for Pygmalion’s Alfred P. Doolittle—she loves doing the household chores. Sweet-natured and maternally sympathetic, she views mankind with an amusement that sometimes reveals itself, comically, through an unexpectedly sharp Shavian tongue.

In short, Candida is all things to all men, a Cleopatra of the parsonage fireside, and the desire to watch an actress show off the role’s multiple facets has kept the play alive long past any public fascination with parsonages, firesides, or the “shocking” triangle that results from a pampered young poet’s falling in love with a married older woman—married to a minister, no less. Morell and Marchbanks can become habits for an actor; Candida, in the hands of a star who can appear both glamorous and homey, like Katharine Cornell, can almost become a crusade. (Cornell and her director-husband, Guthrie McClintic, had an eye for young talent: The unknown novice actors hired to play Marchbanks in her innumerable revivals of the work included Orson Welles and Marlon Brando.)

But today, Candida’s jittery mix of edgy humor, “advanced” ideas, and thick, late-Victorian rhetoric poses both a challenge and a temptation: The poetic effusions into which Marchbanks leaps as he initiates open warfare on Morell for possession of the latter’s wife fall wincingly on modern ears more attuned to Mamet. A Minister’s Wife (Newhouse Theater), Lincoln Center’s new musical version of the play, solves the dilemma, to a large extent, by muting the humor that makes Shaw Shaw.

Burgess, Candida’s comically crass father, is entirely omitted from Austin Pendleton’s tautly condensed book, and the laughing relief that he provides from the love triangle has disappeared with him. So has his other important function, as capitalism’s spokesman in this Socialist play, a thorn in the side of Morell, who views Burgess as a slave master and has shamed him into paying his workers a living wage.

What feels freshest in A Minister’s Wife is precisely Morell’s Christian Socialism, especially as espoused, energetically, at the show’s opening, in a musicalized sermon. Marc Kudisch (Morell) is one of the best actors in our musical theater—Bobby Steggert, the show’s slyly cocky and vulnerable Marchbanks, also belongs on that list—and his combination of power and zest, touched with a delicate hint of insecure self-consciousness, carries the evening.

This makes for trouble, since, just as Christian Socialism’s morality is the weaker force in a money-centered society, Morell, who needs constant support, is the man more likely to bring out Candida’s wife-mother instincts. With the disquieting comedy pared away, her choice is all too predictable. Composer Joshua Schmidt’s somber, minimalist vocabulary, using the phrases that Jan Levy Tranen’s lyrics snatch from Shaw as repetitive building blocks, gives the show a dry, earnest feeling. It lacks the juice of the repressed Victorian sexuality that ought to seethe throughout the evening. Kate Fry, sweet-voiced and pretty-eyed, makes a pleasant but uncharismatic Candida, not particularly helped by Michael Halberstam’s flatly efficient production.


The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, With a Key to the Scriptures–Waiting and Waiting and Waiting for Lefty

The lengthy title of Tony Kushner’s lengthy (3h40) new play bows in two directions: to Bernard Shaw’s massive economic treatise, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928), on one side, and to Mary Baker Eddy’s gigantic tome, Science and Health, With Key to the Scriptures (1875), on the other. But Kushner’s updated fusion of the two, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, With a Key to the Scriptures (Public Theater), hereinafter abbreviated as IHoG, fuses neither the approaches nor the substance of these two wildly disparate works.

Instead, we get a fusion of a more typically Kushnerian kind: The shape of a conventional, one-set realistic play, racked and distended to admit not only side-issue subplots but a host of flamboyant rhetorical digressions on subjects ranging from the supernatural to the sordid. What other playwright would focus on the family of a Communist longshoreman while including in his cast of characters no less than two academic theologians? Both stress, of course, that they’re emphatic non-believers.

What could lure a leftist longshoreman’s children to theologians is one of innumerable puzzles that Kushner leaves unclarified. He’s much too busy having the theologians, and everyone else onstage, sound off. For prolonged unreelings about such matters as early Christian ecclesiastical texts, Marx’s labor theory of value as applied to sex workers, anarchist choral societies in early-20th-century Italy, or the fine points of translating Horace’s epistles, you’ve come to the right shop. Those in search of a dramatic event may be compelled to look elsewhere.

To be fair, Kushner’s high-flying speeches, which swoop and veer like hawks across the skies above the earthbound plod of his dramatic action, constitute a sort of theatrical event in themselves. Often crisscrossing, in a coordinated multivoice babble that suggests one of Rossini’s comic-opera finales with the music omitted, they offer an exhilaration that, in tandem with the play’s continual touching on one or another of a string of big themes, makes you glad to have sat through an evening that otherwise, when added up, leaves you with only frustrating tidbits of a puzzle unfinished as well as unsolved. Whether the exhilaration outweighs the frustration is for audiences to decide. Here, in either case, they at least have a playwright who has not settled for putting everything together tidily in a set of predigested assumptions. If what he offers instead is an inchoate mess, at least it’s a high-mettled, frolicsome, intellectually challenging mess, certainly self-indulgent, but never drab.

Yet IHoG’s context seems drab enough. Gus (Michael Cristofer), a retired longshoreman and Communist union organizer, has attempted suicide and wants to try again. For approval, he calls a family conference at his Brooklyn brownstone, where his sister, Clio (Brenda Wehle), a radical ex-nun, watches over him. Enter his children: Pill (Stephen Spinella), a gay high school history teacher; Empty (Linda Emond), a lesbian labor lawyer; and Vito (Steven Pasquale), a building contractor, the family’s lone capitalist. Hovering just outside are Empty’s ex-husband, a realtor (Matt Servitto), and her current spouse, Maeve (Danielle Skraastad), a theology student, pregnant by Vito; plus Pill’s longtime lover, Paul (K. Todd Freeman), a professor of “social theology.” Hovering still further out is Eli (Michael Esper), a Yale-educated hustler, Pill’s longtime sexual addiction.

Seeing all these arcana squeezed together evokes a comic strip, or a politicized version of Red Grooms’s “ruckuses”; it certainly doesn’t suggest the taut drama of a suicide watch. And indeed, despite all the sour, embittered fervor Cristofer brings the role, Gus hardly seems suicidal: Kushner’s elaborate contrivance of the family council and the sale of the brownstone seems as factitious as the blurry chronology the script gives Gus’s union career. (He appears to have made his way openly espousing Communism just when unions were expunging CP members from their ranks.) The other stories, each equally paper-thin in its details, seem merely to have a distant, hi-there connection with the central issue of Gus’s survival. Only Michael Greif’s scrupulous, thorough direction, and the passion in the largely excellent acting, allow IHoG’s narrative to bear any weight. In addition to Cristofer, Wehle’s plangent quietude and Freeman’s subtly escalating fury enhance the drama most. While Kushner’s words are flying, you may not notice how little his drama means.


Lay of the Land and Let Them Eat Cake Draw the Battle Lines

Tim Miller’s a visionary; Holly Hughes is an event planner. What could they possibly have in common? That may sound like the pitch for a new urban romance, but you won’t be downloading When Timmy Met Holly from your favorite movie website anytime soon. The roles described above are those the two performance artists embody, respectively, in their latest pieces, Miller in his solo, Lay of the Land (P.S.122), and Hughes in the collaboratively created Let Them Eat Cake (Dixon Place). Because the two works have so much in common, their extreme difference from one another fascinates.

Hughes’s piece, a sweet-natured, loosely structured celebration, relishes the joys of loving couples and the supportive community around them, though not without casting a sharp eye on the harsh realities that community must face. In contrast, Miller’s solo, for all its humor and its frequent lightness of touch, is dark, angry, aggrieved, and tautly focused. He, too, celebrates love and community, but he does so while out there alone. Hughes’s community is onstage, building the piece with her (she co-wrote it with Megan Carney, who directed, and with Moe Angelos, who also appears in it). When Hughes looks at the audience, she sees and greets friends there; the friends Miller sees in the audience include those who couldn’t make it because they’re dead, from homophobic violence or from AIDS. Miller is a Whitmanite; the community he evokes, though constantly embattled, extends cosmically, even reaching out to animals and visual-art icons. At the apex of his surreal vision, he imagines himself having to perform a Heimlich maneuver on the Statue of Liberty.

Liberty has good reason just at present to feel that she’s choking. Miller and Hughes are two of the four artists who, at the height of the early 1990s “culture wars,” sued when the NEA grants they had been awarded were withdrawn on the hazy grounds of a “general standards of decency” clause. (The other two were Karen Finley and John Fleck.) In a federal court decision, the four were awarded their grants, but the Supreme Court decided that the “general standards” language was valid as an “advisory” guideline—i.e., it’s valid if you think it’s valid. Under right-wing pressure, the NEA subsequently elected to dodge the problem by ceasing to fund individual artists altogether.

Hughes and Miller have continued their creative careers, while new issues have sprung up to preoccupy the world, but two decades later, gays still don’t have equal rights, and the culture wars have come again. Both shows mention, glancingly, the late David Wojnarowicz, who, 16 years after his death from AIDS, just became a renewed focus of controversy in Washington, D.C., where a four-minute excerpt from a video of his was removed from a show at the National Portrait Gallery after right-wing protests. That the removal took place on December 1, World AIDS Day, doesn’t improve any artists’ view of America’s current condition.

Lay of the Land begins in the dark, with Miller waving a flashlight through the audience, claiming he’s on the hunt for a lost BlackBerry. “I’m always losing things,” he declares, enumerating a list of missing objects that includes, as of the last election, his civil rights. As the piece goes on, leaping from contemporary events to childhood memories and onward into ornate Whitmanesque fantasies, he makes other enumerations, listing brutalized and victimized gays across the country, the U.S.’s wrongs against other minorities and other countries’ sovereignty—a geographical history of American injustice. And it’s all mixed up (except that it’s as lucid as the lines on a Mondrian) with his genuine passion for American constitutional principles, American culture, and even the most cornball American iconography. Surely no artist but Miller has ever confessed to the public his love affair with the bear on the California state flag.

While Prop. 8 still hovers, it’s hard for Miller or any gay man to feel an undiluted affection for California, or for other states where right-wingers are trying to repeal same-sex marriage laws, forbid them, or kick judges who rule in their favor out of office. Hughes’s amicable onstage party, which may have taken a few hints from Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (1908), clarifies the context in which Miller’s fevered specifics burgeon. The event Hughes has ostensibly planned is a same-sex wedding, between two guys who, like Shaw’s bride and groom, ultimately bag the event (albeit for a thoroughly un-Shavian reason). The guests they keep waiting include critics of same-sex marriage from both radical and conservative viewpoints. But all disputes ultimately dissolve, and a same-sex marriage is celebrated nonetheless.

The dash of bitters in Hughes’s sugar cake, which also spurs the participants into action, is the historical context, delivered by a guest celebrity, downtown’s Carmelita Tropicana, in a fervent speech detailing the cases (Sharon Kowalski, Miguel Braschi) that shaped the issue, clarifying its importance for the gay community. “Marriage is a state-sanctioned institution.” For people to be viewed as full citizens, they must have equal access to any such institution. Since rightists view legality purely as a set of political maneuvers, without principle, the fight goes on. But meanwhile, so does the celebration, with Let Them Eat Cake‘s wedding party entering, draped in adorably silly cardboard cutouts, as emblems of the states where same-sex marriage is legal.

But it isn’t federally legal yet, and might not be for some years. The states that Hughes’s emblems traverse are mostly clustered far from those whose state-college football mascots come to Miller, in his vision, conspiring to rescue him from this or that rotten political decision quashing equality, overlooking hate crimes, subjugating politics to precisely the establishment of religion the framers feared. The land is troubled; too many children, taught that displays of affection within a single gender are dangerous, are killing themselves or being killed. And performance art is a very small flashlight in the darkness, looking for a sense of fairness that somehow got mislaid. We’re a very careless nation.


Cherry Jones Sails Through Mrs. Warren’s Profession; Lee Hall Mines The Pitmen Painters

First published in 1898, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (Roundabout/American Airlines) has grown so familiar over the years that we tend to forget what a fuss Bernard Shaw’s great play initially caused. England banned it publicly till 1925 (there was a private-club performance in 1902). In 1905, when the intrepid young American actor Arnold Daly attempted to produce it here, he and his entire company, including the ticket-taker and concessionaire, wound up in a police court, charged with conspiring to commit an act of public indecency.

1905’s shocked reactions may seem fairly quaint today, when acts of public indecency are readily downloadable. Mrs. Warren conveys its modest delvings into indecency with near-total decorum, verbal and physical. But Shaw knew his target audience: The real “indecency” of his story is that society sanctions the transactions of Mrs. Warren (Cherry Jones) and her colleagues while pretending they don’t exist. Partly a depiction of women’s dilemma in a world where men rule, and partly a critique of the monetary basis of social relations, the play also studies, sharply, the nuances of that hypocrisy. Its spectrum of denial runs from Praed (Edward Hibbert), the aesthete who affects to know nothing about “that side” of Mrs. Warren’s life, to her business partner, Sir George Crofts (Mark Harelik), who, when pressed, spills the dirt, not only on lowborn Mrs. Warren, but on all his upper-echelon pals. Mrs. Warren’s chain of continental “hotels” staffed with willing young girls don’t score so high on the indecency meter when you know that even the Archbishop of Canterbury is a slumlord.

On all three topics, Shaw’s play remains current, despite its somewhat prim Victorian manners and its tidy Victorian construction. As a parable of unearned income under capitalism, it’s certainly truer than ever. Its account of the choices young girls are forced to make has waned in the West, but girls from Shanghai to Somalia know all about it. As for our continuing hypocrisy over the matter of sex for money, why take my word on this when you can consult Eliot Spitzer?

Only our way of seeing plays has altered since Shaw’s time. 1905 audiences would have come in anticipating a “well-made” drame bourgeois in which a “wicked” woman’s past would be unmasked. And they would expect to see it played in a style of slightly heightened realism, perhaps inching up toward melodrama at climaxes, and flecked throughout with the startling colloquial moments that 1890s reviewers gushed over as “touches of nature.” (“Imagine a theatre,” Shaw the critic grumbled, “where nature is represented solely by ‘touches.’ “)

We today lack Edwardian theatergoers’ luck as well as their contextual awareness. We have no set expectations for plays or acting; modernism shattered them all decades ago. We barely have common social assumptions about what constitutes permissible representation, let alone how to rate its quality. Our audiences are apparently contented as long as a star or two can be recognized from some recent film or TV show. Unlike other natural resources, New York’s supply of gifted, well-trained theater artists is, if anything, increasing, but so is the slapdash, unthinking manner in which we squander their opportunities.

Hints of such squandering loom early over Doug Hughes’s bumpy, wayward production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession: set designer Scott Pask’s semi-abstract front curtain, stylistically remote from the traditional scenes it rises to reveal; David van Tieghem’s tinkly-tinny, syncopated music, evoking hip ’70s sitcoms. Shaw’s script opens quietly, on a summer afternoon at a vacation cottage; Broadwayishly, Hughes starts in and sustains an urgent, panic-stricken tempo. First Praed, the play’s best-mannered character, addresses a female stranger without removing his hat, and when Sally Hawkins, as Mrs. Warren’s daughter, Vivie, commences speaking, all is nearly lost. Hughes and Hawkins must jointly be blamed for this dismaying performance. Priggish and harsh-faced (men are supposed to find Vivie attractive despite her blunt manner), Hawkins turns every speech from start to finish into a strangulated scream of suppressed angst.

Matters do improve, slightly. Hibbert eases into his role. Adam Driver gets the earnest melancholy, if not the romantic playfulness, of Vivie’s would-be boyfriend, Frank. As his father, Michael Siberry’s standard-issue stage clergyman at least shows you what the standard was. Harelik, though overly sedate for a rough-hewn “sporting gentleman,” gets the role’s emotional layers in place. And then, fortunately, greatness comes onstage, in the person of Cherry Jones, and what might have been severe disappointment dwindles to mere peripheral annoyance.

Even Jones suffers some directorial hindrances, like having to make her first entrance in a dress that virtually announces her profession. But she holds firm, sailing through the piece with spirit, playing discreetly past the eccentric limitations Hughes has imposed on everyone else. Mrs. Warren is not a refined lady. Shaw’s choice for the role, in 1902, was the low-comedy star Fanny Brough; in the mid-’30s, Paramount approached him about buying the film rights for Mae West. Jones, hand on hip, sauntering good-humoredly through a rectory garden, suggests a West character with unexpected emotional depth; when she unpacks her bitter past to Vivie, a dark fierceness spills over the saucy surface. She makes every familiar moment in the role seem fresh. However misguided the surrounding performances, we can be grateful that Mrs. Warren has gained a new Cherry.

Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters (MTC/Friedman) also traffics in money and class issues, with a sweet-natured, low-temperature sincerity, telling the story of some 1930s British coal miners who, inspired by an adult-education art class, evolve briefly into an exciting school of painters themselves. Touching predictable bases, Hall tells his story jumpily, as if more anxious to declare his sentimental allegiance for the old-left dogmas inherent in it than to make it dramatically pertinent today. Despite the glibly drawn characters, the all-English ensemble, under Max Roberts’s crisp direction, performs with stirring conviction, particularly Christopher Connel as the most gifted of the lot, Deka Walmsley as a perpetually grouchy union official, and Ian Kelly as the group’s uneasy mentor.


The Critic Gets a Callback

My recent comments on criticism’s tenuous position in our increasingly Web-woven world (“Theater Criticism Reconfigured,” Voice, August 12) provoked many responses from an unexpected area. I had suggested in the article that Broadway, as it stands, might not be a theater critic’s primary focus of interest, and that the Tony Awards, which glorify Broadway achievements, might not be worth taking all that seriously. To my amazement, I heard from a fair number of notables who had benefited from both Broadway success and the Tonys’ prestige. And they all seemed to agree with me that criticism is neither irrelevant to the theater nor fused with it in eternal love-hate, and that the Tonys had perhaps lost some credibility by choosing to drop the press from their voting roster.

For most of them, that second point was probably the key. People who win an award by vote like the world to think it was fairly won and was not purely partisan. What’s true of Iranian dictators must be that much more true of Broadway’s far more sensitive and kinder folk. That the latter could take comfort from my comments is touching, though maybe a tad ironic: I’m not exactly famous for administering comfort to the Broadway establishment or, for that matter, to anyone.

In fact, I’m not exactly famous at all: Because my idea of theater has included Broadway, but tends to range far outside its conventions, I’ve somehow managed to enjoy a very long career of writing about the New York theater while mostly staying outside of its spotlight. I’ve assumed for decades that nobody read me because I didn’t fit any of the standard pigeonholes; I tend to view any response at all on my writing as a pleasant surprise. This positions me perfectly to comment on our new era, in which my colleagues—those still employed—are busy anguishing about their diminished status. Never having had any at all, I can live with it easily—as long as I’m still getting paid to write. To update Kipling: “If you can keep your job while those about you/Are losing theirs and blame the Internet/Just disregard the fools and knaves who doubt you/And ask yourself, ‘How lucky can I get?’ “

“Anyone can write drama criticism,” the great British critic James Agate said in the 1920s. “It takes a very clever fellow to get it published.” The Internet has nullified Agate’s second assertion: Anyone with a website or access to a chat board can now get his or her notion of drama criticism published. Like the coffeehouses of 18th-century London, our new electronic Grub Street offers a multitude of fly-by-night opinions, backed by no journalistic ethics whatever. As then, anything that gets published can find believers; such times breed fake phenomena, like the “Cock Lane Ghost.” Fortunately, they also breed a counterforce: honest crusaders revolted by falsity and illogic. The coffeehouse world produced the great Samuel Johnson, whose gift for skewering falsehoods helped launch journalism on its perpetual quest for credibility.

Dr. Johnson also coined the famous couplet, “The drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give/And we, who live to please, must please to live.” As Bernard Shaw pointed out, during another proliferation of newspaper babble a century later, the tricky part for artists is choosing which of “the drama’s patrons” they strive to please. Shaw the critic used his weekly column to battle a lazy-minded public’s prevailing attitudes. In 1904, wearing his playwright’s hat, he teamed up with the actor-director-playwright Harley Granville Barker to create four memorable years at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Besides solidifying Shaw’s stature as a major playwright, they restored Greek tragedy to the repertoire, established an innovative modernist approach to staging Shakespeare, and spawned a generation of “social” playwrights, including Maugham, Galsworthy, and St. John Hankin. London’s intelligentsia loved the Court; ordinary audiences mostly stayed away. Shaw’s wealthy wife repaired the annual deficit. When the enterprise finally shut down, Shaw reflected, “I don’t think playgoing London ever came to see us to any great extent.”

That would probably make most Americans today view the Shaw-Barker Court as a failure, another proof of Henry James’s apothegm that there’s something a failure is which a success, somehow, ineffably isn’t. Agate, a critic of a more conservative stamp than Shaw, put the dilemma most succinctly: “The drama is an aesthetic phenomenon; the theatre is an economic proposition.” There’s no disentangling the two; the need to do justice to their conflicting claims is the torment of creator, critic, and producer alike. The postmodern era’s new conflicts over modes of production and definitions of drama only tangle the matter further.

The audience experiences no such torment: It goes to a show because it wants to see a show, and has heard something about this one. Misled by the shilling of tweeters and chatters, let down by media-hyped celebrities who turn out to lack the stage’s basic tools, it may well hesitate before laying down its hard-earned money again.

Under such circumstances, the critic might have a role somewhat different from the dispenser of instant opinions, the passionate advocate for this or that mode of theater, or the lofty pontificator who analyzes through a veil of academic jargon. A poster on a theater message board, discussing my previous article, said that most people go to a play based on what their friends have said about it. Maybe, but what about the many who enjoy the theater—or would, with a little prompting, but don’t have such knowledgeable, up-to-the-minute friends? For them, the critic might well function as a virtual friend, a sort of aesthetic ombudsman who has seen the show, knows its world, and is more interested in discussing what it contains than in dismissing it or drooling over it.

Whether readers agree with such a critic’s taste or not is less important than their ability to know, from the review, how well the play might please them: the sort of knowledge of another’s opinions that comes only with longtime friendship, or with its journalistic equivalent, regular readership. The Internet has been blamed for destabilizing such reader-critic relationships, but the destabilizing started decades ago, as newspapers folded and magazines began cutting down or dropping their theater coverage. The Web has given back, virtually, all of that lost space. Anyone can now publish theater criticism. But—to update Agate—it will now take a very clever writer to give it value, and an even cleverer one to get paid for it.


Revised Standard Diversion

“They say the world is old. I know it; just the same/Like any child it needs to be diverted with a game.” La Fontaine’s apothegm still holds true. Audiences—the people of the world as assembled in a theater-are always infants. They need diversion, and they need it all the time, most particularly if you plan to teach them anything. It would be a mistake, though, to assume automatically that, being childlike, audiences are stupid, which is never true. Children are like Americans: not stupid, simply uninformed. Give them all the facts and they will catch on soon enough. But before, during, and after that time, they need diversion. Hard on the heels of Xanadu‘s arrival on Broadway, this year’s Lincoln Center Festival opened with a big dollop of theatrical diversionary activity from the opposite side of the globe. They make an interesting contrast.

By far the more interesting—and the more diverting to me personally—was the double bill of excerpts from traditional Chinese operas presented by the Contemporary Legend Theatre of Taiwan, headed by Wu Hsing-Kuo and Wei Hai-Ming. The latter, who is billed as the company’s dramaturg, played the female central roles in the two pieces, The Tipsy Concubine and Farewell My Concubine. (Wu, the artistic director, played the king who must say the second piece’s titular farewell.) This certainly shows a different view of dramaturgy: If I heard that any American dramaturg of my acquaintance was scheduled to perform the harrowingly difficult sword dance that is the high point of Farewell My Concubine, I’d put as much distance as possible between myself and that theater. Beijing opera dramaturgy must have more to do with finger dexterity than ours, where manual skills are largely focused on the computer keyboard.

Not being expert in this field, I don’t know what constitutes the “contemporary” aspect of Legend Theatre’s work. The operas themselves date from the Ming dynasty, which ended in 1644. The first is set during the Tang era, circa 720 A.D., the second around 900 years before that. The imperial concubine Yang Guifei notoriously had the Tang emperor Xuan-zong wrapped around her little finger, but The Tipsy Concubine catches her at a low point. The emperor has gone off to spend the night with one of his 3,000 other concubines; abetted by the court eunuchs and her ladies-in-waiting, Yang Guifei consoles herself by getting drunk, alternately reeling in elation from the wine and bewailing or ranting over her lover’s desertion. With its many arias for the title character, covering a subtly shifting range of moods, interrupted by comic byplay with the scheming eunuchs, the scene became famous in the West as a showpiece for the 20th century’s most famous Chinese actor, Mei Lan-Fang (18941961), who toured everywhere and apparently influenced everybody: Brecht, Stanislavsky, Stark Young, and Bernard Shaw were all enthusiastic admirers.

Mei was noted for the delicacy of his style, an intriguing notion in the context of this piece full of low-comic antiques and emotional extremes. But then, Beijing opera offers a broader range of techniques than we’re used to in the West: Imagine the high-tragic formality of traditional opera seria or ballet, dialogues played with psychological realism, numbers staged with the showbiz canniness of old-time musical comedy, and the ritualized comic exaggeration we associate with vaudeville routines, all as part of a single scene’s stylistic continuum. And, as in some of those old traditions, the Chinese audience isn’t reticent to applaud a particularly good move, nor the star to repeat it at their request. (Shaw’s comment about the 19th-century opera star Adelina Patti “coming out of a stage faint to acknowledge the applause it evokes” may be pertinent.) Though always grounded in real feeling, this is not a realistic form, and the audience delights in that fact—a truth which becomes even more apparent in the evening’s second half, Farewell My Concubine. Here you have both stars alternating spacious emotional solos with big, meaty scenes together. Framed in battle sequences that look like choreographed explosions of military flags and spears, the tender feelings of the king who has lost his fight and the consort who kills herself rather than outlive him become cues for two contrasting kinds of personal flamboyance, which Wu and Wei embody stunningly.

Xanadu‘s flamboyance, in contrast, has a jerry-built quality, displaying its bursts of amusement over a near-total emotional void. It’s a big, gooey dessert without any nutritional value, and how well you enjoy it may depend on how much time you like to spend gorging on big, gooey desserts: 10 or 15 minutes is about my limit, and Xanadu runs 90. Buried deep down in the sundae dish, you can find a sort of plastic replica of the Orpheus myth, a minimal structure to support the big scoops of sugar and cholesterol. All through the goo, librettist Douglas Carter Beane, whose idea it was to adapt the notoriously lamebrained 1980 movie, has layered mildly spicy wafers of sarcasm and put-on, offering an intermittently crunchy texture to vary the slurping sound as the audience laps the stuff up. Christopher Ashley’s cast is highly skilled: Kerry Butler, who can maintain her balance, pitch, and adorableness even while wearing one sock, one roller skate, and an intentionally dreadful Aussie accent, ranks as a star in my book. Cheyenne Jackson, even on skates, looks like definite leading-man material, while Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, as a pair of spiteful villainesses, should probably be hired to disrupt almost every standard musical. (Just think what improvement they could wreak on Les Miz.)

That Butler is playing Clio, the ancient Greek Muse of history; that the mortal (Jackson) with whom said Muse falls in love is a 1970s L.A. sidewalk artist who dreams of opening a roller disco; and that the villainesses are two jealous sister Muses who rat on her to Zeus—none of this need worry you, even in its idiocy and incoherence. Posters on theater chat sites may proclaim it as the end of the world and the death of the American musical, but Western culture has always cherished a streak of theatrical inanity like this, running wider or narrower according to the times. We live in lousy times, that’s all. The week I saw Xanadu, I’d been reading a collection of late 18th-century after—pieces, the silly diversions theaters put on following Hamlet or The School for Scandal in the pre-television era, when people expected an evening at the playhouse to be a long one. A few of the writers had some wit, but mostly the scripts were far stupider than Xanadu, and not nearly as amusing. Of course, you got Hamlet for your money too, but the evils of capitalist distribution are not a drama critic’s concern, though it’s worth noting that Marxism, like other movements toward violent revolution, arose just when the theater was at its most trivial, concentrating its efforts almost wholly on diversion. More on this point, and on Robert Wilson’s Comédie-Française staging of La Fontaine’s Fables, next week.


Short-Form Filing

Probably no theatrical form has had a longer or hardier life than the one-act. Even if you don’t count the ancient Greek tragedies as one-acts that were assembled into triple bills, their performance was always followed by one-act satyr plays burlesquing the tragic material, only one-and-a-half of which, unfortunately, survive. The Elizabethan theater and Renaissance opera both began with two- or three-character “interludes” to sweeten the tragic deal. London’s 18th-century playhouses improved on the ancient Greeks, and enhanced their box offices, by tacking “afterpieces,” which could be sentimental or musical as well as farcical, onto their already long full-evening plays; 19th-century theater managers topped them by adding “curtain-raisers” before the main piece as well as finishing up with a farce. This went on, according to Bernard Shaw, “until it dawned on the managers that no living person had ever been known to wait for the farce, and accordingly it was dropped.” The early 20th-century’s mainstream writers, including Shaw himself, churned out one-acts for stars who wanted to make quick money on the vaudeville or music-hall circuits. Most of the century’s major dramatists, from the earliest days of the experimental or “little theater” movement to the beginnings of our own off-off Broadway, began with one-acts: Chekhov, Schnitzler, Wedekind, Strindberg, Pirandello, O’Neill, Brecht, Lorca, Wilder, Williams, Miller, Albee, Genet, Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter, and so on down to Lanford Wilson, John Guare, Adrienne Kennedy, David Mamet, and countless other writers still alive and productive. Some enterprising soul should probably start a cocktail-hour theater devoted to producing a repertoire of classic one-acts.

For 28 summers, Ensemble Studio Theatre has been producing an annual one-act “marathon”—12 to 18 one-acts, on three or four bills that play in alternating repertory—in its creaky city-owned loft building on West 52nd Street, a once desolate area, framed by rusting railyards, that’s now about to be transformed by looming upscale apartment towers. But the creaky flight of stairs that takes you up to EST’s minuscule lobby, where the chance of fresh air is roughly equal to the likelihood of your stepping on the artistic director’s irrepressibly friendly dog, hasn’t changed. What has changed, at least marginally and (let’s hope) temporarily, is the excitement that used to attend the Marathon’s variegated bills, the joy of wondering which wacky way of treating a small-scale encounter an enterprising playwright might dream up next. From previous marathons, I remember several Mamet gems, and such lesser delights as Stuart Spencer’s In the Western Garden, as well as giddy dessert treats like the first version of Chris Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius, or Paul Rudnick’s Raving and Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach. I went to the first two programs of Marathon 2006 knowing that, as always, there would be some good directing and some first-rate acting, and wondering what enchantments might tumble out of this year’s grab bag.

Well, maybe the enchantment is on Program C. A and B have their merits—a new Mamet item, Bone China, is a somber highlight—but the overall tenor of the two evenings is lackluster. It’s not for lack of trying on the playwrights’ part: Program A’s second half consists of a tender, spooky piece by David Ives exploring familiar material in an ingeniously disturbing way, and a tiny, equally tender sketch by Anton Dudley. But Dudley’s Davy and Stu, neatly acted, and directed by Jordan Young with graceful understatement, has a jumpy inconclusiveness, while Ives’s The Other Woman gets mishandled in Walter Bobbie’s production. The two actors, who play a passionately devoted husband and wife, hardly seem to connect with each other. Ives’s educated phrases stumble unconvincingly off Scott Cohen’s tongue, while Ruthie Henshall’s British-accented rat-a-tat delivery never seems to come from the person he’s describing. A better-matched pair, more at ease with the material, might have made this something juicy.

The first half of Program A feels more conventional, ironically, because both of its plays are trying so hard to be hip. The lesser offender—much too decent and pleasant, really, to be stigmatized as an offender—is Amy Fox’s Breakfast and Bed, a morning-after colloquy between a club gal who’s overslept after being picked up and a maturer, more motherly woman than the lesbian date who did the picking. The explanation’s visible early on, but Fox, seemingly more nervous about her material than the audience, protracts it as if every new turn were an ultra-shocking surprise. She doesn’t commit any false moves, though, and the two appealing actresses, Julie E. Fitzpatrick and Karen Young, make an enjoyable if slow-paced time of it under Abigail Zealy-Bess’s resolutely unforced direction. Watching the lights and shadows of feelings that flicker across Young’s face reminds you that one principal pleasure of this type of unlikely-encounter play is seeing a skilled actor get thoroughly immersed in some improbable character.

It’s Fox’s ill luck that her play is tainted by coming after the bill’s opener, Lloyd Suh’s Not All Korean Girls Can Fly, a lame lump of would-be satire, or something, that suggests an extremely pedantic ethnic-studies lecturer trying to parody Joe Orton. Though it makes little sense, Suh’s script probably isn’t as bad as RJ Tolan’s dreadful production—all screaming and ineptitude—makes it seem. That Tolan is the artistic director of Youngblood, EST’s emerging-playwrights group, makes the shrill relentlessness even more dismaying: All the vampire musicals on Broadway couldn’t drain young blood away from the theater faster than this. One can’t blame the actors: Both Cindy Cheung and Jonathan Tindle, who do the bulk of the screaming as, respectively, a frantic Korean American mother and a surgery-crazed doctor, give evidence in the few quiet moments Tolan allows them of the ability to do better in saner directorial hands.

Program B, overall, fares better. At least, it takes more formal risks, albeit with uneven success, and it offers more genuine liveliness. Its opener, Julia Cho’s 100 Most Beautiful Names of Todd, is a silly, scrappy piece, repeating motifs from her full-length BFE, seen at Playwrights Horizons last year. But it’s also a fun listen, with few false steps in its writing. A youngish widow fixates on the loss of her husband, while her preteen daughter, equally at a loss, finds solace in quasi-romance with an African exchange student—in whose native language, to give you some sense of Cho’s fondness for comically oddball facts, the movie Carrie is known as Queen of Blood Dancing. Though adding up to little, its bright writing, abetted in Jamie Richards’s production by endearing performances from Allison Bartlett, William Jackson Harper, and Diana Ruppe, shows off another quality good one-acts have: hope for the playwright’s future.

Next comes Mamet’s Bone China, proffering a lovely, clean chill that cuts through the lingering sweetness of Cho’s work like a perfectly measured dash of vinegar. An encounter between two riven souls with other people’s problems on their minds, it lures you into its quick surprise reversal with unerring precision. EST artistic director Curt Dempster’s staging wisely gives his two top-of-the-line performers, Marcia Jean Kurtz and Victor Slezak, the leeway to spring Mamet’s trap with their own immaculate timing.

Before the break comes Program B’s comparative dud, Will Eno’s Intermission, in which two couples chat between acts of a play. Eno knows how to throw in a good laugh line here and there, but what he’s up to overall is both predictable and windily pretentious. If audiences really spouted such idiocy at intermissions, house managers would have more to worry about than cell phones going off. Michael Sexton’s production sugars this dry puff pastry with four lovable actors: Brian Murray, Jane Houdyshell, JJ Kandel, and Autumn Dornfeld, with Murray’s crotchets and Houdyshell’s acerbity pretty much saving the day.

Lovability comes into play again with James Ryan’s On the Sporadic, which occupies all of Program B’s second half. A noisy comedy as inchoate and pointless as its haughty title, Ryan’s would-be comedy follows the by now all too familiar pattern of a square’s encounter with an increasingly menacing weirdo. Ryan tries to alter the pattern by throwing in a third character who neutralizes the menace with philosophic sweetness, but since almost nothing in his script is backed by any believable motive, no twist can give much surprise. What does surprise is the acting, under Charles Richter’s direction. Both Ean Sheehy as the jittery city guy and Jordan Gelber as his outrageous nemesis (a Native American with a torrential cascade of problems) play gleefully and precisely up to the bearable edge of their characters; respective crazinesses. Good feeling, rather than playwriting, is what’s on view. But that too, you might say, is a principal excuse for the one-act as a form.