Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Heilpern Provides the Wet Blanket

New York seems to be going bananas over Tracy Letts' new play August:Osage County.

Mr John Heilpern provides the following observations:

When it comes to theater, I’m an unapologetic elitist. Before I’m hissed in the streets, I ought to clarify that I believe theater should be completely and democratically open—but popularity isn’t everything.

The only good move that would make theater honestly accessible isn’t to lower artistic standards, but rather the ludicrously high ticket prices. Don’t mess with the art. A theater of excellence is one that takes us up along with it; a dumbed-down theater inevitably takes us down. But we don’t call that theater. We call that television.


Mr. (Peter) Brook’s plea for the uniqueness of theater has never seemed more urgent: How can we sustain a theater of consequence whose raison d’être is that it exists in opposition to the pabulum of TV when the difference between the two is becoming more and more dangerously blurred?

I disagree with Charles Isherwood’s exuberant declaration in The New York Times that Tracy Letts’ saga of dysfunctional family life, August: Osage County, is “flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years.” Whether or not he’s right about the gifted Mr. Letts’ ambitious new play, look at the references he uses to authenticate its “turbo-charged” three acts and “blissful” three and a half hours:

“The play has the zip and zingy humor of classic television situation comedy and the absorbing narrative propulsion of a juicy soap opera, too. In other words, this isn’t theater that’s good-for-you theater. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote an immortal line from a beloved sitcom.) It’s theater that continually keeps you hooked with shocks, surprises and delights, although it has a moving, heart-sore core. Watching it is like sitting at home on a rainy night, greedily devouring two, three, four episodes of your favorite series in a row on DVR or DVD.”

No higher compliment from The Times, and death to some of us. Mr.
Isherwood’s most exciting American play in years must surely be a cut above reruns of Sex and the City or The Sopranos. It’s the favorable association with comforting TV sitcoms and juicy soaps that’s meant to bestow The Times’ seal of approval.

Is it any wonder our theater culture is fucked?


Anonymous said...

This sounds more like Heilpern taking swings at Isherwood than at Letts' play. Or even psychological realism, though I'm pretty much over all those people who bleat "Hey ho, hey ho, psychological realism has got to go!"

It's just as possible to write bad surreal or "experimental" -- whatever that might mean anymore -- plays that are no better, and are frequently a damn sight worse, than the average episode of "Family Guy" or "South Park" as it is to write bad soap operas for the stage. That anyone is still trumpeting the "theater good, TV bad" line is just dispiriting. And intellectually dishonest, to boot. Since when is theater's "raison d'etre" to exist in opposition to TV? Hasn't theater been around a couple thousand years longer than the Farnsworth invention? Doesn't that kind of dispel the notion that theater is supposed to protect us Great Unwashed Eejits from the Nefarious Boob Tube?

Good writing is good writing if it engages the audience and takes them someplace. Bad writing is bad writing if it does nothing more than reinforce existing prejudices or offer cute eye candy devoid of larger meaning. (I could give examples, but won't.) The delivery method doesn't really matter, as long as it effectively communicates with the audience.

Obviously, some work communicates better in a live setting than on the screen, which is why I'm glad I saw "August" as a play, in a theater filled with rapt audience members in the moment with me.

I mean seriously: A straight play, rather than a film-to-stage transfer, is setting Broadway on fire, sans major stars, and Heilpern thinks this is proof that theater culture is fucked?

And where is his proof for this alleged state of fuckedness, anyway? Self-serving Chicken Little nonsense.


Esther said...

I loved "August: Osage County." I think Tracey Letts makes some very perceptive points about the generational divide, about the pressures women face. It's a witty, emotional, hilarious play, and I really think everyone will find something of their own family in it. It's tremendously entertaining, the acting is heart-wrenching, and a month later, I'm still thinking about it. I'd never seen a Steppenwolf production before, and I went away thinking what great theater, what great acting, is taking place all over the United States.

Anonymous said...

Esther, I agree with you completely on how strong the women's roles in particular are in this play. It's quite rare for me to encounter any new work -- film, television, or play -- that contains so many fine roles for women over the age of 30. (Hell, most of the time they're flat-out invisible, or might as well be, given how thin their roles are.) Is it the most groundbreaking play ever written in terms of theme, structure, etc.? No, but it got into my bones and is still there to some extent. I think that's a fine reason to recommend it. Who cares if someone at the Times said it reminded him of a television show?