Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Return to Sender

I feel that I should be a big fan of the Huntington Theatre’s new play development effort; after all, under Nicholas Martin’s guidance, it would seem this local giant has done everything right (while the ART, frankly, has done everything wrong; more on that in later posts). The Huntington now offers fellowships for local playwrights, stages readings of new plays in the spring, and has tipped its season heavily (in fact, almost entirely) toward new and recent work - this year’s schedule includes August Wilson’s Radio Golf, Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, Lisa Kron’s Well, and Noah Haidle’s Persephone; the only “classics” on tap are Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and David Rabe’s Streamers (itself just thirty years old). Two years ago, Martin even risked a full production on a local playwright, Melinda Lopez, whose Sonia Flew successfully spread its wings at the Calderwood, and soon migrated to regional theatres across the country.

Yet there’s a small, struggling fly in this shiny sea of ointment. Despite all its ongoing “development,” the Huntington has yet to present a new play that’s truly challenging or edgy, and its most recent premiere, Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius, is so derivative that I hesitate to call it a “new play” at all. It’s something else entirely – more an “episode” than a play (Rebeck was a writer on “Law & Order,” among other shows) that neatly reconfigures and then regurgitates the audience’s shared assumptions – with, of course, the requisite twists to disguise its conventionality. Don’t get me wrong; Mauritius is one gleaming machine, with a cast that understands just when and how to press its levers; but any spark of individuality long ago disappeared into its gears. What it represents is not the artist’s voice, but the collective voice – that is, the hip collective voice. In a word, it’s premium cable – on stage.

Some might argue “What’s wrong with that?” - and the first answer is, premium cable is a lot cheaper than Huntington tickets. The second answer: it’s redundant. Ms. Rebeck has found her natural perch in the law & order of things, as it were, and she seems to have little to say that can’t be said within its confines. Simply wanting the prestige of a playwriting career doesn’t mean you should be granted one, however clever you are, and however much your glamour may rub off on the organization that produces you. The salient feature of Ms. Rebeck’s dramatic career, in fact, might be her very careerism – it’s hard to believe this woman, who has yet to have a major hit, and who doesn’t really have her own authorial voice, is currently working her way through three separate commissions (from Playwrights Horizons, Denver Theater Center, and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park), while juggling consulting producer duties on the TV show “Smith,” and preparing for the publication of her first book of essays. (She’s also found time in recent years to write seven screenplays.) Whew!

No wonder Mauritius feels so pre-processed; it was probably assembled on quite a schedule. The play concerns two rare coins – oh, sorry, stamps! – that may or may not be genuine, and that may or may not be owned by two half-sisters, whom three unscrupulous businessmen may or may not be trying to swindle. The whole caper is cleverly constructed (though the central premises are pretty hard to swallow), and there are, I admit, brilliant acting turns from Marin Ireland and Michael Aronov as the damaged “bad girl” and her hustler consort (both should be nominated for, and win, IRNEs and Elliots). The rest of the cast is, likewise, far more compelling than the play; it’s certainly the best ensemble seen in Boston this year, and possibly for several years (in fact I can’t think of a stronger one offhand).

But in the end, all this is essentially for naught; once the curtain falls, nothing in Mauritius hangs in your mind, or has any resonance – just as you don’t lie in bed pondering "Law & Order." None of the 'unpredictable' twists goes anywhere new, and the show ends on a note of standard-issue commercial rue. Mauritius is entertainment, and nothing more – not that there’s anything wrong with that; but the play – and the Huntington - are pretending it is something more.

And unfortunately the critics were only too happy to go along with the charade. Of course all were careful to point out the play was an obvious cross between David Mamet’s American Buffalo and Arthur Miller’s The Price (with the villain thrown in from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels). But a simple gender switch in the leads was apparently enough for it to pass muster as original; in fact, the show was given a funny gender-triumphalist spin: “Imagine what American Buffalo would be like if it had been written by a woman -- and a funny, wise, and warmhearted woman, too,” Louise Kennedy cooed in the Globe. “That's Mauritius." (Actually, imagine American Buffalo diligently rewritten by Hillary Clinton – THAT’s Mauritius.) As if to paper over something nagging her subconscious, Kennedy went further: “…unlike the stamps at its center, it never leaves its authenticity in doubt. Mauritius is the real thing.”

Oh, please, Louise. Mauritius, for all its intricate craft, is basically what comes out of the business end of an American buffalo. And something is clearly rotten in the state of development when a retread script by a producer from "Law & Order" is what the Huntington comes up with from its new play program. This outcome seems all the more suspect when one considers that the best new plays around (The Goat, A Number) have had their Boston premieres at small theatres like the Lyric Stage! The Huntington has ignored the latest from Edward Albee and Caryl Churchill, yet has found time to develop The Hopper Collection, Carole Mulroney and Mauritius? Somebody get me rewrite.


  1. There's no e-mail address listed to invite you to shows with those favorably missed free tickets. Happy to invite you if we knew how to reach you!

  2. Your point about The Goat and A Number being done by smaller theatre companies is interesting in light of the disparity in Arts funding for the theatre companies here:

  3. Point taken, although the Lyric didn't have to "develop" either "A Number" or "The Goat." Its director, Spiro Veloudos, simply had to recognize their quality - and then take a considerable artistic and financial risk. Fortunately, both paid off.

  4. Invitations, praise, screeds, etc., can be directed to

    - Tom