Thursday, November 15, 2007

TV Writers Unite!

Theresa Rebeck's new collection of her plays includes an introduction that spends most of its time in defense of her writing for television.

She has a very interesting line of thought in the essay. When she first saw success on the stages of New York she kept being labelled as a "feminist playwright." She thought this was strange because she never considered her plays overtly feminist. (I agree there.) In fact, because one play, Spike Heels, incorporated an incident of sexual harassment it strengthened this view of her. However, as Rebeck points out, the play was not about sexual harassment.

This problem of being identified as a feminist or woman playwright soon went away, but only because it was replaced with a new identity that she has yet to shake until this day. She wryly explains, "I became known as the Playwright Who Writes for Television." This label was affixed after she wrote an essay about her decision to write for NYPD Blue. That essay made its way into the pages of American Theatre and, well, all hell broke loose.

She writes about how very few reviewers can write a review of her work without somehow mentioning this fact.

While that is the overall structure of her introduction, the piece does contains several contradictions and unsupported toss offs that make it appear incredibly defensive. She keeps saying it is no big deal for her to decide to write for television to point where, (I am sorry to any of her fans and to Ms. Rebeck herself,) it really starts to sound as if she is trying to convince herself that it is OK.

For the record, I could really give a crap less if a playwright also writes for television. One blogger put it so succintly, (I can't remember which one):

If Diana Son or Theresa Rebeck were having to take a job in a
bank or as a waitress to support their playwriting we wouldn't be having these discussions.

And I'll go even further: there is some damn good television being written out there.

In The Huffington Post, playwright Jon Robin Baitz pens more or less an open letter to Charles Isherwood, the Critic for the New York Times, in response to Isherwood's article (that was half-facetious by Isherwood's own admission) about how playwrights who are currently writing for television should use the strike to maybe write a few plays.

Baitz criticizes the critics at the Times, as we all do. His main thesis is that the power of Times's critics, and their hostility playwrights doesn't help the situation. But then, surprisingly, Baitz gives a slap in the mouth to an up and coming playwright, and Pulitzer Prize finalist Will Eno.

As a critic, Isherwood is not without value, though many people are still scratching their heads over his almost Olympian celebration of an inscrutable monologue a few years ago at a Union Square theater.

That "monologue" would be Will Eno's Thom Pain which had more bravery in its concept than Baitz's last three plays combined. (Baitz had to back off and publish a P.S. apologizing for taking a swipe at another playwright, probably because he got a lot flack. But he still doesn't name the playwright in his apology.)

At least Rebeck has no problem actually naming those she is outright envious of as far as reviews go. In the aforementioned introduction to her anthology she calls Mamet a misogynist, and admits she was angry at Frank Rich for expressing relief, upon the opening of Mamet's Oleanna, that somebody had finally written a play about sexual harassment. After all, Rebeck says, she had written a play about sexual harassment.

But wait a minute, a few paragraphs before wasn't Ms. Rebeck insisting that her play wasn't about sexual harassment?

After reading these apologies by two leading dramatists I start to feel a little embarassed for them. It seems pettiness and jealousy tend to get the better of them over a real discussion of the issues.

It is depressing on another front as well. It seems that two dramatists who are incredibly successful, (Rebeck has a play on Broadway and Baitz just had one there a little bit ago,) let the critics get to them.

I will admit, I have no idea of the pressures of being a playwright that collects commissions from around the country and is able to get a reading of their latest plays at any number of regional or New York-based theatres. I am sure it must be hell. However, I do empathize with the pain of a bad review, but please.

I can never tell what Baitz and Rebeck are really complaining about here. Reviews are really in the eye of the beholder sometimes. Baitz and Rebeck rarely receive horrible reviews from the Times. From what I have read over the years, the reviews range from mixed to very positive.

Here is Ben Brantley on Rebeck's Omnium Gatherum: (Review titled "A Feisty Feast of Wicked Wit.")

But for a work that might at first be taken as an exceedingly talky allegory, ''Omnium Gatherum'' sustains a fluid, frantic sense of paradox that feels remarkably close to everyday life in the wake of 9/11. Its characters are irresistibly given to breaking off from discussion of cosmic truths to devote equal passion to the taste of well-cooked salmon or Lydia's riveting confessions about her love life.

Ms. Rebeck and Ms. Gersten-Vassilaros savor these moments of pleasure, refusing to discount them as merely frivolous. The most refreshing surprise of ''Omnium Gatherum'' is that it doesn't merely reiterate Sartre's dictum that hell is other people. It hints that heaven, however fleetingly it is felt, is other people, too.

Not a mention of her television writing in the whole review.

Here is a sample of Charles Isherwood's positive review of Rebeck's The Scene:

Ms. Rebeck’s dialogue bristles with biting observations about the obsessions of aspiring New Yorkers who continually rub up against more successful versions of themselves. ...

But “The Scene” certainly makes up in forceful comedy what it may now lack in psychological nuance, and Ms. Rebeck’s dark-hued morality tale contains enough fresh insights into the cultural landscape to freshen what is essentially a classic boy-meets-bad-girl story.

After reading the latest writings from Mr. Baitz and from Ms. Rebeck, I am only left to conclude that they simply want the reviews Mr. Mamet occasionally gets or that Will Eno received for Thom Pain.

So do I, but it is not that simple. At all.

In other words, Baitz and Rebeck don't really have a problem with Times reviews, they just have a problem with who is getting good ones. After all, how can they not get raves when they are being produced all over the country and on Broadway?

Oh, it must be because they write for television!

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