Monday, February 25, 2008

How Now, New Plays, Whither Wander Thee?

Thom Garvey and Louise Kennedy both smell something in the air.

Don Delillo's Love Lies Bleeding received its Boston Premiere by the small company Way Theatre Artists. Kennedy gave the production and the play a very positive review, not quite a rave, but close. Thomas Garvey, at his Hubreview, had reservations about the production in his review.

Both reviews pointed out the strange situation of a play by a major talent like Delillo being premiered in Boston by smaller company. Garvey elaborates on what he sees as problem in the direction the theatre scene here in Boston may be going.

I posted some of my reactions to Thomas's post. And Ronan Noone, a local playwright who has received premieres at the Huntington, has also chimed in.

I encourage people to read Thomas's post and the comments.

(In the interest of fairness, I know and am friends with many people involved with Way Theatre Artists and my wife performed with them.)

Basically, Louise Kennedy's review began this way:

On the smaller of two stages at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, a young fringe company is presenting the regional premiere of Don DeLillo's
"Love-Lies-Bleeding" . . . This is a strange commentary on the state of our large local theater companies, if you consider that two earlier DeLillo plays were commissioned and premiered by the American Repertory Theatre.

Thomas Garvey picks up on the point:

A "strange commentary," indeed. One wonders why Kennedy can't simply say aloud what I've been saying for some time: Boston's major theatres are failing to bring us the news from our playwrights. The A.R.T. continues to pretend that directors are more important than writers, while the Huntington has become focused on developing talents in-house - which means, unfortunately, that
said talents are often genuine but minor. Meanwhile, we've had to turn to the Lyric Stage to see Albee's The Goat, Boston Theatreworks to see Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, Zeitgeist Stage to see The Kentucky Cycle, and Company One to see Mr. Marmalade.

Garvey uses Love Lies Bleeding and the Way production as a case study of sorts, saying that it deserved the resources of our larger theaters. He elaborates in the comments section:

The A.R.T. and the Huntington - and even the New Rep, the Lyric, and SpeakEasy - have ignored a huge amount of work that should by now have been done professionally in Boston. We still haven't seen Albee's latest, or Caryl Churchill's, or anything, really, from Howard Barker. Plays from such lesser lights as Adam Rapp still haven't been produced in Boston. Perhaps what I'm really arguing for is more commitment to the actual writing of our time from the university theatres that are supposed to be bearing some kind of intellectual
standard. Trust me, if each of them simply committed to producing ONE GODDAMN PLAY a year by one of our greatest living playwrights, there would still be plenty of gravy left over for the small theatres.

Here is my latest response in the comments section:


Back to the theatre scene.

I understand your reasoning, but I just can't agree.

The system you are proposing is the system that has been driving new voices too far to the fringe to have an impact. Your own examples, in a way, demonstrate the chicken/egg element: Remember, Adam Rapp was made important BY his PREMIERES at the ART. Now, you wish you saw more of his SECOND productions there?

I find it a refreshing change, the idea of seeing new voices reach larger audiences.

I wouldn't discount the part of Mr. Noone's argument about building a following, building an audience for new voices. (Of course, I am also a playwright as well, so we may be in a genuine George Lakoff conundrum here.)

As you say though, better work should be the ultimate goal of us all. I was enthralled by Nocturne, but Rapp's Animals and Plants, and Stone Cold Dead Serious led me almost to madness, (I confess to now sharing one New York critic's point of view that he will start seeing Rapp again once theaters stop producing his first drafts.)

However, just as you rightly point out that ticket sales don't equate to quality, I would point out that neither does budget or production values.
Remember that the Lead Actor of the Goat, (which I think was a late replacement,) was a bona-fide New York Actor who had played the role in the New York production. He was just the type of person who would have been cast by a larger house.

By the way, I do know that you have always been an advocate for local talent versus the fly-by lead, so I don't mean to suggest otherwise. However, Mr. Noone is right to point out that you would have been deprived of Mr. Gill's performance.

The Lyric has great local actresses lined up for Albee's Three Tall Women. Is it sad that more people won't see it than if it were shown to larger subscriber base at the Huntington? Well, it is sad that more people won't see it, but if it is good then the critics should at least try to point that out to the public, no?

As both you and Mr. Noone suggest, the theatre community is a complex organism. There are benefits to be had by all. Also negatives to suffer.

I don't think we are in any type of Golden Age. Sadly, many new companies that are starting up are choosing to do Neil Labute, Kenneth Lonergan, Brian Friel, etc. Rather than new playwrights or original work.

William Donnelly, a local playwright who produced himself for many years,(as I did,) has been absent the scene for a while. He is now receiving a full regional production of his new play this Portland Stage Company.

Whistler, Gurnet, Way, AYTB, and others are very strong companies, but they are replacing companies like Donnelly's, The Bridge, Rough and Tumble, etc. (I'll include my old company, Essayons in that mix.) While Another Country and Brian Tuttle's 11:11 continue the new work mantle, (Centastage seems to be back in the mix too,) it appears that many new companies are providing stellar acting directing and management, But are, for the most part, doing established works by known talents.

And the larger companies like the Huntington, New Rep, Merrimack, are moving towards world premieres by newer talent. So, to that extent, I see your point: Once the hip, young talent becomes the maturing, mid thirties, early forties talent who will do their work if the smaller, fringe companies are doing standards or epics?

As for Louise Kennedy's statements, which started this whole discussion. I read them much different from you. I read them as the words of a theatre critic fearing the complexity of more dynamic theatre scene.

She seemed to be impressed with the production of Love Lies Bleeding. Way more so than you, but I respect your contextual comments more because they are more germaine to your criticism. Her comments seemed at a right angle to her experience.

Yes, she liked the production. However, this presents problems. Can the lead critic ignore the Boston Premiere of the new Delillo? Not really, especially not if there is hot talent involved. But what if it is taking place at the Piano Factory? There was an unintentional backhandedness to the comment.

Combine Kennedy's opening comments of the LLB review with her admission that she was nervous upon hearing that BTW was going to take on Angels in America, (several other critics said this as well,) and you get a chilling air.
While Homebody was not a perfect production, (what is?) It was a powerful, and professional staging of that work. In fact, though sometimes I like BTW productions, and sometimes I don't, I have to admit, I never entertained the thought that they would utterly fail in presenting Kushner's epic.
I think the iconic Broadway production of Kushner's play has obscured the fact that the play was originally produced on much smaller stages like the Eureka and the Mark Taper Forum.

The power of the critic is smaller than people give credit, I know. You don't have to read many memoirs or collections of people like Kerr, Rich, Brustein, or Tynan to see that they all have instances where they really tried to get audiences to see a show they thought exceptional. In some cases going beyond just the the notice or daily review, they would write follow-up think pieces, mention the show in other reviews...only to see the show close because of 1/4 capacity houses.

But part of the job of the critic is to illuminate beauty whether it is in a garage or at the Met.

Your opinion at least can start a discussion, whether Mr. Noone and I agree with you or not.

Ms. Kennedy's comments, I think are a bit more dangerous: There is great work going on by this smaller theatre company, I really enjoyed the production, but really we should be seeing it somewhere else?!!!

That is something I just can't get down with.


The discussion may or may not continue at Hubreview.

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