Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Moonlight Room brings out the torture of our Second Class City Mentality.

Well, The Moonlight Room has cruised off Off-Broadway and into Boston, riding a dizzying critical reception in New York City.

Yes, struggling playwrights I give you permission to envy Tristine Skyler. 32 years old and her first play hit the Best Play list of the New York Times in 2003. Wow! You can read Clive Barnes original review here. This was followed by a succession of good, if not glowing reviews.

At the time the descriptions in the reviews made the play seem very cliché and, well, something like Lifetime Network crossed with Dawson’s Creek. However, most of those reviews seemed to say, "Yes, it has that type of structure, but don’t be fooled, this is a powerful play with much to say." And to top it all off Paul Dagienault’s Artistic Director’s notes in the program seem to say the exact same thing.

Well the Boston Broadsheets and Tabloids have spilled their ink, and they released their top dogs on this fresh piece of meat. Though it is a little depressing that Ed and Terry didn’t find their way to the Lyric for Glass Menagerie, I think that theatre artists who are writing new work in Boston can take a little heart in the fact that Tennessee Williams now gets the stringers, but Tristine Skyler, (whom some people might remember from Blair Witch II: Book of Shadows,) and Doug Wright get the chiefs. It shows the hunger they have for new work, for something different.

Or maybe it shows a slavish obligation to bow down to the droolings of New York Critics. I am trying to be a Glass half-full person, so I will just say to playwrights what one great actress said about going on auditions: "Remember, they want you to be good!"

That advice pass on to most of us. Skyler, however, isn't so lucky. Her play is destined to not be able to be enjoyed for what it is. It is, instead, a touchpoint for reviewers to air greivanances, or to outright hate.

First off, I would like everybody to remember that The Globe and The Herald were calling for more productions of New York approved Off- Broadway hits just as this past fall.

One positive thing to be detected from looking at the reviews of The Moonlight Room, is that some of our critics demonstrate a fascinating ability to apologize for the play. Which is extremely nice of them, considering some of the reviews I have read of local efforts that have more than had their "heart in the right place," but, alas, the critics felt they needed to exert some tough love in those instances.

For instance, Ed Siegel called Boston Theatreworks production of Conspiracy of Memory, last year, "TV movie mush," but here he concludes of this Moonlight Room that it is "an appealing, though not a theatrically exciting, place to pull up a chair."

Man, it must be tough. I admired Ed Siegel during the Critics Panel at the Huntington last year when he said he felt, "that if I call them as I see them, in the end that is the best thing for the readers and the theatre." Can’t argue with that. But his whole review is a strange waffling of arguments. A tortured sole struggling with something.

Examine the following paragraph:

"For all its virtues, the play lacks any overarching vision. It isn't the playwright's job to prescribe any social antidote to her characters' malaise, but alienation has been with us for so long that merely showing it in action, no matter how good the dialogue, is not enough."

Sort of like the Smeagol and Deagol thing in Lord of the Rings.

Evil Chief Critic: Must Bash play.

Good Chief Critic: But New York Critics says it is good!

Evil Chief Critic: But I feel as if Meredith Baxter Birney should be in it…

Good Chief Critic: But a hot young actress/filmmaker, who may win a Sundance Award wrote it.

It is all right, Mr. Seigel, we all enjoy a good Lifetime Network Movie now and then. It is O.K. Hey, they have kept Nancy McKeon on the air for a long time, and though I am no big Tori Spelling fan, did you ever catch her in The Alibi?I love the ski chase at the end.

Carolyn Clay, of the Boston Phoenix, has similar troubles when she seems to be trying to find a place to place this work, but with some outrageous place markers:

"Much of this dialogue is funny and incisive, holding a mirror up to urban teen communication the way Mamet does to the profane, inarticulate pontification of macho males."


"On that level, the play is like ER caught in a sandwich between Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth and Beckett."

Beckett, Mamet, Lonergan, O’Neill and even Inge show up in this review. Is Ms. Clay really that intrigued by the play? She does ask the important question though:

"But is this really one of the best plays of 2003, as deemed by the New York Times following its Off Broadway success?"

…and provides an answer:

"I’d say that The Moonlight Room must have been up against the dramaturgical equivalent of some pretty small vats of Ragú."

It’s funny that Ms. Clay’s default position is not disagreement with the Times, but rather an assumption that the quality of work in New York must have been bad.

Terry Byrne, the Herald ’s reviewer appeared to have lost patience with the aimlessness of the script, and let’s loose with three big snark shells:

A: "But playwright Tristine Skyler runs out of ideas quickly, and starts to pad her script with cliches right out of The Parent Trap."

B: "even those who are past their teen years may find themselves zoning out and thinking about which tunes to download to their iPods."

C: "The title, in case you're wondering, is an oblique reference to a happy Upper East Side Manhattan household, wealthy enough to have an apartment with a room facing the East River where the moon shines in. (Did your crap detector just go off, too?)"

Bill Marx of WBUR seems to have held off a bit on filing his review because he knew the direction he wanted to go. It appears he is referring to the reviews I listed above when he starts off his assessment:

"Some scripts aren't compelling drama -- except for what they tell us about where the theater is headed. And the feebleness of "The Moonlight Room" is symptomatic of where playwriting is going, with the complicity of undemanding critics."

He uses the review space to make a statement about how playwrighting is going, and he gives the predictable shiv to Boston theatre in general: "Meanwhile, the growth of stage activity in Boston has generated talk comparing the city's theater scene with those in Chicago and New York. For that to be true, our companies have to wean themselves from grabbing the latest off-Broadway hit the "The New York Times" raved about. Or the big talk is just a lot of moonshine."

Yes, there is a lot of complicity to go around, Mr. Marx. Anyone can go to the WBUR website and still see that you picked "The Moonlight Room," as a play to see this February. Also you have "Blue/Orange" listed, and I am sure you have seen the difference in critical reception Blue/Orange received from its London Premiere and its Atlantic Theatre Company debut in New York City last year. Next time you write a review like this you may want to include a mea culpa.

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