Saturday, January 1, 2011

Scratching My Head

One real advantage of living in New York is that I am able to indulge my affinity for the theater five to ten times a month. But even at that, I have no desire to see everything. I pick and choose shows that I believe I will find compelling and that will allow me to willingly suspend my disbelief for a period of time. With every performance I attend, I go in the hope of being caught up in some combination of the playwright’s way with words, the individual and collective performances of the actors, the vision of the director, the way the set design contributes to the overall production, and, of course, if it’s a musical, the music, lyrics, singing, choreography, and the interplay between the musicians and the singers and dancers.

Rarely does everything fall into place, but I am not a demanding perfectionist as a theatergoer. What I do expect is professionalism from a professional theater company; not to be condescended to as a member of the audience; and not to be treated to smoke and mirrors in lieu of a good script.

Since New Year’s Day is meant for reflection, I have decided to take this opportunity to look back over the first half of the 2010-2011 theater season and the two dozen shows I have seen on and off Broadway. I have to say that more than a few of these have left me scratching my head for one reason or another, so rather than a play-by-play overview, I thought I might share a few of my moments of puzzlement before we plunge into the second half of the season.

Let me start with the one show that left me puzzled not over its conception or execution, but over its failure to connect with a larger audience. That would be John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical, The Scottsboro Boys. I am as confused by the early demise of this Tony-worthy show as I was about last year’s puzzling failure, the excellent revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, which, for reasons I cannot fathom, attracted no audience whatsoever.

The Scottsboro Boys provided originality, strong performances by a very talented and energetic cast, a top-notch score, and fine directing and choreography by Susan Stroman. The show aroused some controversy because of its use of the minstrel show format to tell the real-life story of a group of black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women in deeply segregated Alabama in the early 1930s. I can understand the discomfort associated with the nature of the plot device, although anyone seeing the show would, I should hope, recognize its use as a means of satirizing and skewering racism and bigotry.

Previously, The Scottsboro Boys had done well at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre and spent additional time polishing itself up in a production at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater before heading uptown, where it landed in fine form—or so I thought when I saw it. And yet it is gone, with just a small possibility of renewal through a drive to bring the show back to Broadway for at least another short run prior to the Tony Awards. For information and to participate in that effort, I direct you to the website

Now, however, let’s turn our attention to some different kinds of head-scratchers I encountered in the last several months. And I promise, not one word about Spider-Man.

A trio of esteemed veteran playwrights with long and successful careers and a not insubstantial pile of awards all came up short with new or newish plays that left me thinking of unhappy metaphors like that of wells running dry. I speak of Edward Albee, John Guare, and Peter Nichols, who gave us, respectively, Me, Myself, & I; A Free Man of Color; and Lingua Franca.

None of these plays was a total failure by any means, but none approached the level of expectations for work from such original and skilled playwrights. The first of these was an absurdist comedy at heart but came off as pretty inane; the second was a confusing mind-trip of a history pageant; the third harked back—perhaps intentionally, but not very interestingly—to the “angry young man” post World War II era of playwriting by the likes of John Osborne. I do have to wonder if any of these plays would have been produced had they not carried the by-lines of their well-respected authors.

Another puzzler was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which, despite some A-List casting and its well-regarded director, never seemed to jell. What Woman on the Verge needed most, in my view, was some serious editing, including the elimination of several roles and recasting of some of the others. The standouts were the set design and projections (by Michael Yeargan and Sven Ortel, respectively), and the ditzy comic performance of Laura Benanti. Therefore, despite the show’s weaknesses, I do expect to see a couple of Tony nominations.

Also on my list is Elling, an adaptation of a quirky movie of the same title and a trilogy of novels by the Norwegian writer Ingvar Ambjørnsen. The play, about two unlikely roommates trying to survive in the world upon being released from a mental institution, starred Denis O’Hare and Brandan Fraser, both of whom tried their utmost to create real characters out of these two oddball personalities. But Elling was a head-scratcher from the outset, and other than a couple of bright moments by the leads and a few seconds of inspired wackiness by a game Jennifer Coolidge, I can’t begin to guess why anyone thought this might work on Broadway.

There are other shows I could talk about, including the clunky and amateurish production of Dracula, now in previews at the Little Shubert Theatre, but I wanted to focus here on major Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, where the effort was made to present something original and different, and that represented work by well-established theater professionals. While I have found the shows I have discussed to be puzzling, none was a total artistic failure, and one, The Scottsboro Boys, met pretty much all of my criteria for a top-notch show.

It just goes to show, theater is like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get!

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

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