Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Please, more masterpieces

The cast of Valhalla.

At one point during tech week of Zeitgeist Stage's Valhalla (which I served in the role of dramaturge), cast members wanted to know what I thought of the show. I was in an interesting position; I had feared that my reputation as a critic would make relations with the cast frosty, but luckily, it turned out I'd never really savaged any of these folks in print - and instead of hostility, I was aware of a certain distance, but also a genuine curiosity and something like respect (quite a few of them read me regularly). David Miller, Zeitgeist's multi-talented director, was actually the one with a bone to pick (as I'd sniffed at his Norton-award-winning Blue/Orange, and only really given him one rave in my life, for Say You Love Satan); but we were getting along, and David seemed more and more intrigued by my offline input (I've directed upwards of a dozen shows myself). So I risked a little critical honesty - at least about the play itself. "The show has reached the point - and I mean this as a compliment," I ventured, "where what problems it has are clearly issues in the script, and not in the production itself."

They understood what I meant; it's a problem all actors bump into with new work, which, while immediately accessible to audiences, often has clear limits. Valhalla had its strengths - it's certainly a play worth doing - but our goal was also to mitigate, or even disguise its flaws: to make it the best it could be, or maybe even a little better than it actually is (sorry, Mr. Rudnick). And were we going to be able to do that?

Brian Quint and Elisa MacDonald in Valhalla.

I know I promised I wouldn't promote Valhalla, but now that it has closed, I think I'll just cheat a bit, and say that yes, I think we did make it seem a little better than it actually is. Rudnick's structure isn't the soundest, and the script sometimes slips into sketch, but the cast found the emotional truths that made it worthwhile. At any rate, they must have done something right - of the print critics, only the Phoenix's Carolyn Clay savaged the play - she felt it was a "galumphing odd duck," which in its harshness (and in its klutzy play on the script's swan imagery in Clay's patented, pun-ishing manner) was a rather galumphing misjudgment in its own right.

Clay's broadside was all the stranger given her negative, but still more forgiving, take on "Persephone," a far more flawed offering from the up-and-coming Noah Haidle which Nicholas Martin for some reason decided to showcase at the Huntington. Needless to say, the clever and talented Mr. Martin is a greater master of disguise than David Miller: Persephone played well from start to finish, and managed to consistently distract its audience from the fact that, as Gertrude Stein might have quipped, there wasn't any 'there' there. This was all the more striking given that the production had been troubled: Jeremiah Kissel stepped into a major role after rehearsals began, and then Melinda Lopez took over the lead just before tech week. But the local boy and girl made good: as a five-hundred-year-old statue of Demeter in Central Park, Lopez was radiantly, delicately pursed in her judgments, and she was ably, even slickly, abetted by Kissel, who skillfully morphed from art patron to pusher, and from louse to mouse (literally). There was also solid work on hand from New Yorkers Seth Fisher and Mimi Lieber, honeyed lighting from Ben Stanton, and two glorious, fully-realized sets from David Korins.

Melinda Lopez, Seth Fisher and Mimi Lieber in Act I of Persephone.

But all was for naught: when it came to being a coherent dramatic statement, Persephone did indeed seem to be the play from Hell. There are a few stretches of superb writing in the second act (from which we can tell that Haidle has a genuine voice) in which the statue of Demeter converses wittily and poignantly with an art-loving rat, and attempts without success to console a grieving mother (whose daughter was raped and killed at the statue's feet). These clearly form the solid core from which Haidle hoped to extrapolate a full play. But this is one case of "development" that should have been arrested - Haidle wandered off in conflicting directions, perhaps imagining his usual mix of sweet and sour could be centrifuged into separate dramatic dishes. Thus he drafts a syrupy, utterly synthetic Act I, then drops more shit on Demeter's head than the pigeons do in Act II, before making a sharp u-turn into meaningless affirmation and a head-scratcher of a happy ending. Although we can feel Haidle checking off little thematic boxes throughout (hmmm, I'll have the first-act mouse hate art, then the second-act mouse love it . . .) nothing in the show hangs together (even the set changes in tone, from warm, PBS-romantic to cooler theatre-of-the-absurd). The Globe's Louise Kennedy suggested the script needed "more refining and shaping"; I thought it needed a sledgehammer, if only to pound it back to its solid core, which might form most of an arresting one-act.

The colder clime of Persephone, Act II.

Not that the Huntington was alone with its Persephone problem - indeed, many local houses struggled this season with small, solid ideas stretched beyond their limits. Perhaps most successful in the struggle was Scott Edmiston, who's something of an expert in dramatic camouflage. In "Five by Tenn," he found a clever "story arc" to link together five minor Tennessee Williams one-acts that would have wobbled on their own, and in The Women he deployed a solid cast (and dazzling set and costumes) to successfully sell a dated script as a campy exercise in high style. Edmiston performed another hat trick with Miss Witherspoon, (by Christopher Durang, perhaps not coincidentally Noah Haidle's teacher at Juilliard), a dark farce that opens with a clever idea - a suicide finds herself stuck in a cycle of reincarnation from which she can only extricate herself via, yes, more suicides. The premise had potential, but Durang slowly abandoned it for an increasingly bizarre pop culture pastiche. Edmiston and his top-notch cast (among them Marianna Bassham, Paula Plum, and Larry Coen, below left) and brilliant design team kept everything singing along merrily, however, even as Durang piled on more and more non sequiturs and the script, perforce, settled thematically for less and less. It was hard to fight the feeling that while Miss Witherspoon as a play was a bit better than Persephone, and perhaps not quite as good as Valhalla, Edmiston took the honors in best dramatic disguise.

Which leads us to deeper questions about the direction of Boston theatre. Not so long ago, classics formed the core of the stagnant Boston scene, and folks everywhere called out for more new work. But you should always be careful what you wish for. New works are now the norm - but few have proved of much lasting interest, despite productions that have been, by and large, scintillating. In fact, I have a gnawing feeling that Boston - like Scott Edmiston - is beginning to specialize in the art of disguise, and that's not a good thing. I'm getting rather tired of a certain knee-jerk attitude that I summarized on another blog as "Why do a great old play when we can do a mediocre new one?" The answer is that we need the great old plays as the benchmark for our current endeavors. Without them we might find ourselves truly satisfied with the likes of Miss Witherspoon.


  1. Hi Thomas,

    I really like this post.

    As I have said many times before, the question is not "Why do a great old play when we can do a mediocre new one?"

    It should really be, "why do mediocre newer-plays (Last thirty years,) when we can do a good new one?"

    There is a difference between The Misanthrope (New Rep this coming year) and plays like Sisters Rosensweig.

    You would have no argument from me if a theatre would put up season of nothing, but Moliere, Ibsen, Shakespeare etc.

    But how do I know that in another 4 or so years, we will probably be seeing another production of The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, complete with dramaturgical notes on how it is a forgotten masterpiece about commerce, etc.

    If the choice is between The Wild Duck and Persephone, I'll take Ibsen.

    But if the choice is between Sam Shepard's Simpatico and a new play by an emerging playwright, I'll take the new play any day of the week. (Sorry, Mr. Shepard.)

    There are problems in the "Development" areas of theatre, and they are being talked about and argued about by people today.

    Village Voice reviewer Michael Feingold, reviewing a Second Stage World Premiere that had supposedly come through a "development process," went on to savage the play. But he did preface it all by saying that if the play was not going to receive the tough love it needed in the so-called "development process" then he was going to take it upon himself to give it in his review.

    I am confused though, what are we to make of your argument when you practically lead off with this statement:

    "Valhalla had its strengths - it's certainly a play worth doing- but our goal was also to mitigate, or even disguise its flaws: to make it the best it could be, or maybe even a little better than it actually is (sorry, Mr. Rudnick). And were we going to be able to do that?" (Emphasis is mine.)

    Certainly? Why is that? Won't it corrupt our aesthetic values?

    Aren't you only dealing with levels of mediocrity.

    Couldn't Spiro Veludos, Scott Edmiston and Nicky Martin argue the same thing about their productions?

    I will be the first to agree that "new" does not mean good, but your point seems to really boil down to a call for playwrights to write better plays. To which I say, "Right On!"

    The problem in theatre lately is not that Ibsen has gone away for a bit, the problem is that Persephone and Book of Days will probably be back before he is.

  2. My point isn't just a call to playwrights to write better plays (although I'm hardly calling for the opposite!). It's really a call to everyone else to be a little harder on the new plays they're considering, and not give them a pass simply because they're new. For instance, unlike you, I'd probably be happier seeing Shepard (although maybe not Simpatico) than Noone - who I fear is being overrated these days because he had a minor hit in New York. (Which leads me to another pet peeve - the idea that a New York production validates anything!) I'm dismayed that in my occasional forays into the development world, I've seen plays work their way entirely through the process without ever having their central problems solved. In the old days, of course, Harold Prince would just tell Stephen Sondheim "We need a showstopper HERE!" but these days everybody's a Sondheim and nobody, apparently, is a Harold Prince. And the mania for "new work" does the rest.

  3. Oh, yes - re: Valhalla. Yes, there's a lot wrong with it: some scenes are merely skits, the second half loses its momentum, and there's a sudden u-turn into tragedy at the finish that feels forced. I feel that's balanced elsewhere by some tight dramatic writing, many very funny lines, and the evocation of some very big themes. And I was struck by how genuinely poignant, despite its seeming superficiality, the play turned out to be. You left aware of its flaws, but not scratching your head.

    And let's recall that Valhalla is about as "new play lite" as Zeitgeist Stage gets. Next up is The Kentucky Cycle, for chrissakes, and they've done Churchill and Hare. At the same time, would I like to see them balance this with the occasional classic? Yes.

  4. I think we are on the same page.

    By the way. I want to be very clear that while I did see some of the plays you mentioned, I didn't get a chance to see Valhalla.

    My comment was mostly playing off of your assessment earlier in your post. I didn't meet a single person who has seen it that hasn't had a great amount of complimentary things to say.