Friday, March 23, 2012

To and from the mailbox

Yesterday's post on Next to Normal brought some (not entirely unexpected) e-mail, though no comments.  Chief among these missives was the following from fellow IRNE critic Larry Stark, of the Theater Mirror:

Tom, what’s “A Play”???  You’ve fallen into a habit of dismissing shows with “But, of course, it’s not a play,” as though you and I knew what wasn’t there.

Well, frankly, I can’t see what you insist isn’t there.

So tell me:  What’s “a play”?

I was, of course, happy to oblige, and immediately sent Larry the following reply:

Right, I'm saying that a lot these days, because somebody has to - we're not seeing many "real" plays these days, just market-developed facsimiles of plays. A "play" in the traditional sense is something that has a premise, a theme, a rising action that develops that theme, compelling characters, a climax or conclusion (or an anti-climax) . . . this isn't exactly controversial. We just ignore these traditional tent-poles of theatrical experience more and more often as we're fed instead what are essentially pieces of marketing designed to draw various audiences. What's missing from recent non-plays? Well, often it's action - "Bakersfield Mist" and "Recent Tragic Events" lacked any genuine rising action - to be fair, "Recent Tragic Events" DID develop its themes, but via a lecture format. "Ameriville" and "Captors" fell into the same trap; they were staged lectures (one of these was far more entertaining than the other, but still). Sometimes, though, new "plays" lack everything - "Next to Normal" was just a nonsensical car crash, and "Before I Leave You" hopped around from theme to theme with nearly every scene; it seemed to be starting over and over again as we watched.

If you're seeing developed themes and rising action in these pieces, fill me in: what are they? I know these pieces have marketing hooks: depression! Katrina! Aging! "What is art?" Etc., etc. And don't think I'm not happy to see innovation on stage - I am; still, I'm also aware that most so-called "innovation" isn't really innovation at all (playing around with formal elements sans any thematic payoff is NOT innovation, for example - it's more like masturbation).

But I'm always happy to argue this further. Do you mind if I post this on the blog?

(Larry replied he was happy to see it posted.)

Meanwhile I received another note, from someone whom I think would prefer not to be named, but who said something that I found interesting in regards to Next to Normal:

I didn't know it was possible to (rightfully) indict a subculture and a society through the review of a musical. The whole thing rang true. I didn't see this production, but my experience with the cast recording lines up . . . It's a frustrating state of affairs, all this empty writing and empty showmanship. Additionally frustrating is that all the posturing comes with this implied sense of superiority and sophistication, which marginalizes works that try to offer something nourishing . . .

What can I say?   Stay tuned . . .

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