Theater Commentary: Dead American Theater Walking

by Bill Marx

In a New York Times article I wrote about earlier this week, dramatist Marsha Norman suggests ways to soften nasty stage reviews, which she claims chase audiences away from the glories of theater and into the decadent arms of television. But how would she discipline a successful homegrown dramatist, Neil LaBute, when he strays off the reservation of whoop-dee-doo, arguing that American theater has become modest and hapless to the point of self destruction?

Playwright Neil LaBute — a nabob of negativity?

A couple of months ago LaBute argued in a Guardian article that — instead of staging plays that “ask the big questions” — companies “worry about what our subscription audiences will think of us doing Chekhov instead of Shakespeare. We think we’d better have a family show for Christmas and a comedy in the spring. All well and good, but if this is how you like your entertainment, you’re probably already dead – you just don’t know it yet.” These traitors must be dealt with – but how?

To his credit, LaBute includes his own plays in his condemnation of the gutless present. He celebrates the 60s and 70s, seeing it as a period when “terrific American plays challenged the system and the politics of their day,” pointing to dramatists such as David Rabe and Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones) “who worried about telling the truth,” along with venues such as the Living Theater and La Mama in New York. For me, he strides on stronger inspirational ground with his list of British heroes of the period – Harold Pinter, David Hare, Edward Bond, Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, and Howard Barker. Regardless of how he understands the past, LaBute’s grim vision of the political and economic constraints on contemporary American theater rings true:

We are small writers in America these days, writing tiny plays about tiny ideas with two to four characters, so that we get produced and nobody loses any money. American playwrights have been workshopped and “staged-readinged” to death, and we are now a fearful bunch who add sitcom lines to our dramas and tie things up at the end so that folks can walk out of theatres smiling. We watch the studios make films about Iraq that don’t sell tickets and we steer clear of the subject. A young American writer like Christopher Shinn, whose plays Where Do We Live (2002) and Dying City (2006) explored the impact of 9/11 and the Iraq war, doesn’t shy away from politics, but there are few others. Wallace Shawn, the most underrated playwright in America, quietly keeps questioning the way we live, but in infrequent bursts; and next week David Mamet opens a new play on Broadway about an American president (fingers crossed it will be good). So there are sparks of fire out there on the horizon, but not enough. Maybe every writer has a political play hidden away in a drawer somewhere, but my guess is that we’ve stopped writing them. Pilot scripts are a lot shorter and easier to hustle.

The fact is that tight economics are increasingly shaping the creative decisions in today’s theaters. In early February I went to a reading of a promising new play, Unbleached, at The New Repertory Theatre. Playwright Michael Aman said in the discussion period that he would have liked to include more characters in the script, but that the cost was prohibitive – he would have to “wait for the movie version” before he could pen what he really wanted to put on stage. Swing that lethal a budgetary axe through the history of the theater and most of the great plays would snap like dry weeds – how many dramas by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw, and Brecht contain two to four characters? Very few. The absurdist Samuel Beckett would be the perfect playwright for the age of dollar cost average — if he were more cheerful.

I recently sat through half of Way Theatre Artists’ disappointing production of Don DeLillo’s latest play, Love-Lies-Bleeding. On the one hand, it was strange that no major local stage, such as the American Repertory Theatre, which premiered other DeLillo scripts, didn’t stage the piece. (Steppenwolf Theater Company presented the play’s world premiere in Chicago.) On the other hand, the play pretty well followed LaBute’s depressing model for theater lite — the linguistic pizazz of DeLillo’s The Day Room and the existential dread of his Valparaiso were scarce. Love-Lies-Bleeding – at least as much as I could take of it – was filled with short scenes, domestic bickering, and flat language.

The Guardian includes a response to LaBute’s polemic from a talented American dramatist, Naomi Wallace, who accuses the playwright of penning “an ill-conceived rant about small writers in America” that only reveals his “deep and wilful ignorance about the cutting edge of contemporary American drama.” She goes on to list some of the hot stuff the playwright misses:

If LaBute could look past his own shadow he would, I am sure, be inspired by the numerous transgressive and original political plays on offer at major theatres in the US. Kia Corthron’s Moot the Messenger (about African-American Gulf War veterans), Erik Ehn’s Maria Kizito (concerning Rwanda) and Richard Montoya’s Chavez Ravine (examining racist laws of the 40s and 50s Los Angeles) all put paid to LaBute’s handwringing.

The scripts sound provocative but, to my knowledge, no Boston-area company has produced them, most likely because they don’t have successful New York pedigrees. Alas, most of our local artistic directors wait for the Big Apple to ordain which new scripts are worth staging here. But shouldn’t local companies cast as wide and enterprising a net as possible when looking for edgy new scripts? Shouldn’t repertoire be about more than bringing critically hosannaed new plays to Boston in a timely fashion – though that would be nice. I saw Martin McDonagh’s powerful black comedy about terrorism, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in a superb 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company production. The New Repertory Theatre is finally producing the play next season – after a 2006 Tony award nomination. The play is good, with or without the Tony hoopla.

LaBute defended his judgments, but the most trenchant response to Wallace’s riposte came from George Hunka, whose unfailingly intelligent blog, Superfluities Redux, is always worth worth reading:

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, a play can be politically relevant and still be “tiny” in the sense that Neil castigates. This isn’t to argue for more wan little comedies about relationships and family, by the way, but to point out that theatre is capable of far more than political instrumentalism or trivial entertainment. Besides which, both that instrumentalism and entertainment are more efficiently got elsewhere — at the political rally or in front of the television set, to name just two of those places.

For audiences to come back to theatre, theatre has to offer them something they can’t get elsewhere. The history of culture and the rise of electronic, reproducible media has rendered that very expensive, very intimate art of the theatre an elitist act. We shouldn’t be ashamed of a theatre of elitism, but embrace the fact. The revolution of the individual consciousness usually does not begin to take place in arenas, or as part of the undifferentiated “community” that playwrights so often, and so arrogantly, seem to address. It takes place in small darkened rooms, in black boxes, where we question our bodies and desires, our capacity for both cruelty and tenderness — every bit as political an act as yet another celebrity-studded production of “The Exonerated.”

Hunka raises an issue that should be talked about more – how do theaters create challenging dramatic experiences that bring in new audiences rather than cater to the demands of a shrinking mainstream crowd and a gaggle of critical Pollyanna.

To be fair, this season the Lyric Stage produced a Christopher Shinn script. And Wallace brings up a recent example of radical theater in Boston.

But LaBute also chastises the theatre public for not wishing to get their “hands dirty” with subjects “of importance”. One example will suffice to show that LaBute is living in a myopic world of his own. Howard Zinn’s The People Speak project (a theatrical collage of historical voices – mutinous soldiers, striking workers, anarchists and dissidents of all kinds) has not only attracted eminent actors but also enthusiastic audiences all over America. A recent production in Boston drew a crowd of a thousand, hungry not only to get their hands dirty but their minds as well.

The ironic kicker is that the January performances at the Cutler Majestic Theatre of the Zinn drama were being taped for an upcoming four-hour television mini-series.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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