So I have a pile of Playbills on my desk, attesting to texts I haven't had the heart to critique. Some, like The Power of Duff at the Huntington, have been highly crafted, and superficially close to the mark, but proved ultimately forgettable. One, after a disastrous opening act, inched up hill, but only toward competent melodrama (Water by the Spoonful at the Lyric - and it won a Pulitzer!). Another thrashed around interminably, and in the process buried all its good ideas (Rancho Mirage at the New Rep). And let's not forget the one that should have been left in its famous author's desk drawer, as he himself seems to have wanted (Kurt Vonnegut's Make Up Your Mind at SpeakEasy).
In case you haven't noticed, there you have all our mid-sized Boston theatres, plus the Big Kahuna, the Huntington. That amounts to a lot of cultural effort. Which is clearly being misdirected. No, no one expects any theatre (much less any season) to hit new plays out of the park with every swing. Still . . . it's hard to sit through Rancho Mirage, which debuted across the country in a series of "rolling" regional productions, without thinking that there is something deeply wrong with our current development system.
When I first warned that new-play standards were beginning to sink, and that we needed more old plays on the boards to maintain a perspective on quality, people called me all kinds of names. I wonder what they're thinking now. Although maybe I don't; most of these types don't actually go to the theatre that much - they only see their own shows, or shows their friends are in (or have written). Theatre is produced more and more for its producers rather than its audience. This makes the development issue particularly tricky - you're asking the theatrical community to be harder on itself, to turn its back on all the playwriting grads the academic farm system churns out, to focus on artistry rather than connections and networking and identity. And what's the reward for that? The audience has collapsed so far by now that you can't really count on a challenging artistic success to be embraced by the public. And the boomer generation is simply uneducated about art - particularly the ones with advanced degrees; they just want high art to recapitulate the pleasures of the pop art of their college days. So you edge forward piecemeal, rewarding one audience segment after another - many of which are already part of your own network - with this or that chunk of liberal pop nostalgia.
Sigh. It's no wonder criticism itself barely exists - it's superfluous in this closed loop. (Sometimes quite literally a closed loop, btw, in which producers openly pay for a review - often from people linked to their home institution - as goes on at the Arts Fuse.)
But I do hope to work through some sort of analysis of the recent pieces that I felt had some potential. I agree that Rancho Mirage was a disaster, for instance - but I can't help but feel it had possibilities (its fatal flaw was that it was irritating, rather than blandly uplifting, as most successful bad plays are). Stoneham's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde likewise struck me as half-baked, but interesting. I suppose I can come up with a few things to say about The Power of Duff. I'm less sure about Water by the Spoonful, though - and please, don't make me write about Make Up Your Mind (I might lose my own if I do). Perhaps things will look up this week - Caryl Churchill is on the menu, and there's a puppet show not far off! And what can I say? Things can only get better, right?