NO MATTER WHAT the American Premier Stage dished out in its first two programs. I was prepared to be generous and far-sighted, to bury my cavils in a cornucopia of praise for the nobility and daring of the enterprise. New playwrights have painfully few outlets for their work in this country, and everyone is hurt by the lack. Isn't it obvious that the mainstream commercial theatre is so impoverished because so little, apart from television, feeds into it?
There is another reason to be generous: the difficulties of starting a new repertory company--let alone a company devoted to new works--are virtually insurmountable. Theatre critics in this country, for one thing, are notoriously short-sighted, more concerned with writing funny, energetic pans than with gauging a company's potential for growth or assessing the future of theatre in the region. It's a matter of attitude: for John Simon and his less literate disciples, a bad work of art is a cigar in an elevator, an affront that must be answered in kind. In Great Britain, on the other hand, a serious artist may fail, have his work taken apart, and still be treated civilly by critics and audiences: there is a middle ground between shutting one's eyes to the deficiencies of an obviously inferior work and tarring and feathering the artist.
Audiences love you or hate you in this country--their responses lack complexity. There is an element of fraud in the hosannas that greet the Royal Shakespeare Company's Nicholas Nickleby every night from the moment the lights dim. The show is sensational, to be sure, but the overpowering beauty of its canvas becomes apparent only around Hour Five, long, long after delirious theatregoers have been scurrying about proclaiming it's the greatest day they've ever spent in the theatre. Nothing's inherently objectionable about an immense outpouring of love, but the flip side of this is the palpable hate and discomfort audiences display in the face of something they're less sure of, something that demands more than a tough backside and a fat pocketbook.
One sympathizes with the financial difficulties of new arts organizations as well. The APS had a hell of a time raising money this year, and probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground without massive financial assistance from Boston's Westminster Gallery, a Newbury Street venture whose British owners feel the lack of a thriving theatre culture more acutely than Americans do. It's very sad when an enterprise claiming devotion to new American plays must depend on a British deus ex machina instead of its own government, and even sadder when the dream might better have been left unrealized.
Dealing with new playwrights is in any case, a messy, time-consuming, demoralizing business. Ninety per cent of them have no reason for writing a play beyond being stage-struck; and most manuscripts are either plodding, sentimental TV problem plays, or blank-verse behemoths that would make Milton blanch. The latter are occasionally built on legitimate dramatic impulses, but the authors have no theatre sense, no conception of how to hold the stage, and they smother their ideas with embarrassing language and elephantine pretensions. Many of these playwrights have nobly sacrificed law school, television or movies for Art: they trumpet their martyrdom and expect artistic and literary directors to coddle and nurture them regardless of their talent.
SO IN THE FACE OF its Herculean labors I never imagined I'd write an unfavorable review of the American Premiere Stage, let alone vigorously trash it. But I never imagined it would be so tasteless and cowardly, that it would champion plays this terrible. After rejecting the "let's-incinerate-them-so-that-a-phoenix-may-rise-from-the-ashes" philosophy of theatre criticism in principle, I find I must invoke it in this instance.
In the first play, Tennessee, by Romulus Linney, a frontier family arrives at its recently-acquired shack ("We're here, ain't we?") and the father, a weatherbeaten, Abe Lincolnish icon of American spirit, makes long, slow speeches about how he "growed up crawlin' on a dirt floor like a goddamned ant" and now that the war's over he's gonna harness these here fifty acres; his wife stands awkwardly on the porch and pulls at her shawl (for the entire play, in fact); and his well-rouged son chimes in about cutting the brush over yonder. Then a badly made-up "old" lady trudges in ringing a cow-bell. "It looks like she's holding a star in her hand," offers the son. So much for imagery. She stomps around the stage, cackling at her own feistiness, and the family plunks itself down to listen to her story, which is perfunctorily acted out but mostly consists of lines like, "A year went by," "Days went by," and so on. Seems she'd only marry a man who'd take her to Tennessee; one man offered to; she married him; they spent many days travelling there; they lived there for many years until he died; then she found out he'd deceived her and driven her only seven miles from her original home. In the harrowing climax she stumbles around the stage muttering "Griswold, why did you do this to me?"
That's it. The play lasts an hour. The point? That there's no escape? That you can move and move and never reach your "Tennessee"? That you'll always be an ant on a goddamn dirt floor if that's what you make it? Or is it always a dirt floor, no matter how you deceive yourself? Beats me, but there's no drama in the play. Linney writes aimless, graceless dialogue and has no sense of shape--or else the piece would be a fifth as long--and his characters are thin or non-existent. Director Brian Smiar has immersed them in molasses, resulting in The Longest Hour, as badly staged and acted as anything I've seen on the Harvard stage, let alone in a company with national aspirations.
Black playwright Gus Edwards also writes about trapped people, but his people are Black and his setting contemporary. Except they might as well be white and the setting Victorian England. Three Fallen Angels concerns a man, his wife and his best friend, a young co-worker. The friend falls for the wife. "I got to kiss you. I got to know how it feels," he says. Completely inarticulate, encased within themselves, the "angels" can only express their feelings physically: erotic dancing, lovemaking, or (how many times have you seen this?) a just-for-fun sparring match between the two men that grows increasingly vicious. For philosophy, one character ruminates: "Sometimes it's nice being alone. Then it can get...lonely." For the agony of illicit love: "Miriam. I love you. I don't know what else to say." "Let's just be quiet."
Edwards has boiled down the language of these people to the point where there's nothing left. By reducing the affair and its complications to its bare bones in a few, thin scenes, he must think he's written something archetypal. But it really is just a skeleton--without context, or poetry, or characters with any stature, or interest or surprise. Or a reason for being, since the play just dribbles off without even a confrontation. Apart from the dancing and loving--where the players get a dilly of a rhythm going--the playwright has directed lugubriously and without humor, although the actors--Bari K. Willerford, Seret Scott and Kevin Davis--suggest that under different circumstances it would be a pleasure to watch them.
THE THIRD PLAY once again salvages a piece of the evening. Last time it was Shel Silverstein's The Lady or the Tiger: this time it's Fits and Starts by Grace McKeaney. The McKeaney play, however, was written five years ago (although the APS doesn't mention it) and performed at the Yale School of Drama. It's a somewhat dated piece of collegiate absurdism by a very sharp playwright, but it seems like Bastille Day next to the other two.
Once again our protagonist is Trapped, a bright, attractive housewife dramatizing wildly to retain her sanity while being battered senseless by the weapons of Domesticity. Addressing the audience as one would the wall in a world gone ga-ga, the wife. Babs, bobs and jiggles like an adorable, black-eyed marionette. Objects like vacuum cleaners, blenders and detergents take on a sinister life of their own: the dog, her one friend, weighs about 250 pounds, goes shopping and watches television. The play is liberating because it magnifies everyday neuroses into a giddy surrealism that comes far closer to capturing the reality of an advertising-swamped culture than the "slices of life" of Edwards and Linney.
All around Babs people are crushed by cliches. Her husband, an adman, is worn down by the slogans of his profession, so cut off from reality that he longs to dismiss the product entirely: "A structuralist's dream--advertising for its own sake!" There is a psychological as well as social basis for Bab's paranoia: her mother, whom she locks in the closet and taunts with lines like. "I'm fucking the dog, Mom" comes out and announces. "Children were given to us by you-know-who so that we could make order out of our own lives." It's a chilling vision, perhaps closer to the '60s than the '80s, but still potent, and McKeaney can write ferociously funny lines: "I'd kill any one of you for that dog," snarls Babs with disarming moral certitude.
The play is occasionally shrill and familiar; and the ending, in which the protagonist cries "Give me a chance to find some intrinsic value" and is whisked away by a deux ex machina, lacks the delicacy of the play's best moments. But at least it points to a kind of theatre beyond the blank, muddy "reality" that the rest of these plays have a foot in. Mark Milliken has staged Fits and Starts with merry rambunctiousness, and the piece is fetchingly danced by Julia Newton, an utterly charming waif. Annette Miller and John Adair, though, as mother and dog respectively, again display little variety or subtlety in their delivery.
The formula, after two endless evenings, is clear: two dreary, realistic plays followed by a crowd-pleasing cartoon. One might feel sympathy if these were unknown, generally unproduced playwrights, but few of them are. (In the next program we'll see plays by David Mamet and actor Cliff Robertson.) This smacks of cowardice: the APS might have attracted a devoted following if it had produced good or at least ambitious plays by unknown playwrights rather than the poor scraps of the well-known. If artistic director Tom Bloom knows how bad two-thirds of these plays are but decided he needed the names, then he has compromised too early and deserves to fail. If, on the other hand, he seriously believes they are worth producing, then he has no taste whatsoever and also deserves to fail. I find myself hoping this theatre will collapse on its impotent foundation. In the unlikely event it survives it will do more damage to theatre-going in the area than good: it will convey to young playwrights that the only way to get produced is to write thin, bittersweet, Lanford Wilson plays about little people: and to audiences that there is no more the theatre can make of the waste and injustice and dissociation of our time and our country than this disengaged, sub-television fodder Back to the drawing-board, fellas.
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