Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Taking Playwrights Seriously

It is true, in its way, that all theater is political: that the mere act of creating or producing or choosing to see Xanadu rather than All My Sons is a kind of political act.

But oftentimes a show is overtly political, by which I mean that its creator clearly intends it to be taken as a document of its time and a call to action or at least to reason. Why does it seem that playwrights have so much trouble getting this kind of work to be taken seriously?

Take two recent examples, Michael Weller's Beast and Brian Parks's The Invitation. The former is about two Iraqi War veterans who return home and ultimately journey to the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas; the latter is about a dinner party amongst the New York upper crust. But both plays contain clear criticisms of the state of America in 2008--criticisms so focused and resonant that they became, for me, the key thematic concepts contained in these two works. Weller wants to illuminate the tragic maltreatment of veterans of our current war and of their families, and he does so with eloquence and scary specificity. Parks wants to remind us of the ugliness of a culture of entitlement that has made the richest few much much richer and the rest of us invisible to them.

Read the New York Times reviews of these shows, however, and you'd never have an inkling that either Weller or Parks were offering serious commentary about the State of Our Union. Charles Isherwood's review of Beast touches on "Mr. Weller’s sympathy for the soldiers and his antipathy to the Bush administration" without once referencing the words the playwright has put into the mouths of his soldier characters or, most compellingly, the widow of one of them. And Neil Genzliger's piece on The Invitation never suggests even once that this play is more than an "annoying black comedy" in which "five overeducated, overly moneyed Ivy League types pummel one another and the audience with literary, historical and sociopolitical references while drinking rather a lot of wine."

Each of these gentlemen is certainly entitled to believe what they wish about these plays. But one would hope that they would actually listen to what the playwrights are saying in their work. It's a shame when the so-called "paper of record" fails to record what some of our society's deep thinkers are thinking about when they take on the colossally difficult task of writing a new play.


RLewis said...

Martin, far be it from me to defend The Times, but your post does bring up something I’ve been thinking this year, “Can you believe some of the plays that they’re covering?” Maybe I’m not seeing straight, but it seems to me like they’ve been reviewing a lot of shows that used to be below their radar.

I mean they recently reviewed a show with a maximum audience capacity of 4! whose venue was a walk around the block! in Brooklyn! And they gave it a damn good review!!! I’m jealous. Imagine what that review will do for the show’s creators in future grant proposals and marketing packets.

And the Times has covered a number of shows recently that either ran less than a week, had a runtime under an hour, or took place in off-the-path venues. I guess to make the case I have to name a few that a decade ago might never have been reviewed: There or Here; The Passion Project; The Chalk Boy; Dog Day Afternoon; 7 Stories; Marko the Prince; Girl in Heat; All the Rage; The New Electric Ballroom; When is a Clock; Len, Asleep in Vinyl; Whisper; The Witlings; Animals Out of Paper; Attorney for the Damned; and even clown classes in Brooklyn (that’s just a short selection). All written about in the “paper of record”. Great for them!

As for the 2 shows that you’ve singled out, I haven’t seen them, but they were on my “maybe” list, so I read several reviews that, except for (which I love with all my heart), all pretty much echo the Times (I opted for Anger/Nation). It seems pretty clear that both shows have big moments that the banter leading up to them does not earn. The directors of both shows have been sited in more than just the Times for pushing the works where the text could not sustain. I really can’t see where their subject matter had anything to do with the reviews or where they were not taken seriously. And for one show that kills a woman and locks another female in a closet, I fear my attendance might collude me in some sexism.

So, I know it’s always fun to bash the big guys, or in this case big grey ladies, but they do occasionally provide a great service to indie theater. Because they are tough on all shows just like the Bway ones, their words when positive provide a cred’ that ripples along in proposals and packets for the artists involved long after the show has closed. said...

Thanks for the comment. Your point about the Times (and many other outlets, I might add) reviewing indie theater more than in the past is a good one -- but it's not really what I was trying to focus on in this post.

Michael Weller and NYTW are absolutely not part of the indie theater world -- Weller's long and distinguished career, including plays on Broadway, qualifies him as a major American playwright in my book. And it's the fact that the Times failed to really hear his play at all that rankled. What more does he need to do to prove himself worthy of our attention? Yet "Beast" was dismissed as anti-Bush satire (more or less) without a full consideration of what the playwright had to say.

And it doesn't matter whether the play is overall "good" or "bad" -- playwrights like Weller have earned the right to have their works be listened to be in their entirety.

One more thing: if you didn't see the two plays in question, I'm wondering how you know how one of them ends -- did some reviewer include a spoiler in his/her piece? If so, shame on them!

Thanks for being in the conversation as always, Ralph!