29 March 2012

'Design for Living' (Shaw Festival, 2006)

[Following Kirk Woodward’s interesting discussion of Noel Coward, focusing on Private Lives ("Noel, Noel," 24 March), I thought it would be fun to look back at a recent Coward show I’d seen. Below is a report I wrote on a production of Design for Living, a play Kirk mentions several times in his article. My report is excerpted from a longer article on the Shaw Festival, and I’ve edited it some to make it readable not only on its own but to an audience six years after I wrote it (verb tenses and that sort of thing, you know). I hope ROT’s readers will find this look back at something from my archives at least amusing if not actually informative.

[In August 2006, I took a trip up to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, for the annual Shaw Festival. The Round House Theatre of Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland, to which my mother used to subscribe, sponsored the trip bi-annually (in alternate years, they went to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival), and they made all the arrangements from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Niagara-on-the-Lake (about an hour’s drive north of Buffalo, New York) and back. The Round House reserved six shows (
High Society, the 1997 stage adaptation of the 1956 film musicalization of Philip Barry's 1939 Philadelphia Story; Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; Ruth and Augustus Goetz's The Heiress, adapted in 1947 from Henry James's 1881 Washington Square; Shaw’s Arms and the Man; Michael O'Brien’s The Invisible Man, the première of the festival-commissioned 2006 stage adaptation of H. G. Wells's 1897 novel; and Shaw’s Too True To Be Good), but several afternoons and most mornings were free if anyone wanted to add performances. I selected two additional shows to make a total of eight performances out of the season's offering of ten plays.

[I wanted to see
Design for Living, so I booked the Coward and Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. I'd always rather see an Ibsen than some unknown, less-than-intriguing quantity, snobbish as that may seem. Some years ago, one of the theaters off Union Square in New York did a multi-year series of all of Ibsen's plays in chronological order in good-quality showcase-level productions, and I tried to catch any that I'd never seen before. But I’d seen Rosmersholm over five years earlier, so I figured this would be a good chance to see another staging with better production values—and it was. (The plays I omitted were a pair of Chekhov one-acts, The Bear/Brute and The Marriage Proposal, under the umbrella title Love Among the Russians; and a new play, Lillian Groag's 1997 The Magic Fire, set in the immediate post-World War II years in Argentina.)]

I did a private reading (a bunch of actors sitting around in someone's living room) of Noel Coward’s Design for Living many years ago, and I've seen the considerably bowdlerized 1933 flick (Cary Grant, Frederic March, Miriam Hopkins), but I'd never seen the play—and I figured a Coward would be fun, assuming the Shaw Festival cast can pull off his comedy-of-manners style—which they did, wonderfully. One characteristic of the acting at the Shaw, which I think must be a unique attribute of Canadian actors, is that they can shift back and forth pretty successfully and easily—or, at least, convincingly (for the most part)—between American characters and Brits. They did well with both the Barry-Porter-Kopit upper-class Long Islanders of High Society, the 17th-century Massachusetts settlers of Salem in The Crucible, and the 19th-century New Yorkers of The Heiress. Then they also nailed Coward's toffs in Design as well as the denizens of small-town England in The Invisible Man. These were often the same actors crossing over from one show to another and they also handled the shifts from Cowardy and Shavian comedy to the heavy drama of Crucible and Rosmersholm, not to mention the melodrama of Heiress. This isn't something American can't do, of course, but we don't tend to do it very much in our theater since this kind of rep isn't common here—outside of college theaters, I guess.

Our first matinee at the Shaw was Design at the Royal George Theatre in town. The Royal George is a converted movie theater that had been built originally as a vaudeville house for entertaining the troops of World War I. It's a proscenium stage and seats about 330 spectators in an orchestra and a balcony, all painted in red and gilt—a little gem of an old-fashioned theater. (The festival used to stage all its musical shows here until 2006. Why it took them so long to realize that the musicals were certainly the most popular performances and they could sell over twice as many tickets in the big, 856-seat Festival Theatre as in the Royal George, I'll never understand. Also, if they weren't going to do musicals in the Festival Theatre, why put in an orchestra pit when they built it in 1973?) I had booked the seats on line, so I didn't check the lay-out and seat location, and we ended up in the last two seats on the house-left corner of the last row of the balcony; Mother said they were the best seats she's ever had. (Mom's small, and she always complains that whenever she goes to a theater—movie or play—tall people always sit in front of her!) After two American plays at the Shaw, this was our first British entry (despite the fact that Coward wrote it for the Lunts). As I already said, the actors handled the British characters as well as they managed the American ones before—and nicely negotiated Coward's light comedy style as well as any British cast (who are usually past masters at this kind of toss-away dialogue and repartee; Americans can be clumsy at it). All in all, it was a thoroughly delightful performance in all respects. Like Crucible (and, it turned out, all the Shaw presentations), this was an ensemble performance, and the three main actors—Nicole Underhay as Gilda, Graeme Somerville as Otto, and David Jansen (no, not that one—he’s Janssen, and he's dead) as Leo, the role Coward wrote for himself—created a bizarre, but totally believable ménage. (Coward created a bizarre relationship; the actors carried it off believably.) Underhay, by the way (pardon the rhyme), has a wonderfully husky voice, à la Blythe Danner.

The set design (by Ken MacDonald) was striking (a phenomenon I’d noted across the festival). Charlotte Dean's costumes weren't bad, either—especially Gilda's slinky, white satin evening dress of the last act. Looks like something Lauren Bacall might have worn! Design is a three-acter and each act is set in a different apartment: Otto's garret studio in Paris, Leo's London flat, and Ernest and Gilda's swank apartment in New York. Though the furnishings changed for each set, from shabby, eclectic clutter of the poor painter to the upholstered middle-class solidity of the newly-affluent playwright to the airy, ultra-modern starkness of the wealthy art dealer and his famous decorator wife, the back "wall" of the various apartments was the same. It was an expressionistic sculpture of a black metal lattice, an eccentrically curving backdrop with an equally asymmetrical balcony door: Dr. Seuss on acid. I'm guessing that this was the visual representation of the life-and-living arrangements of the focal trio. (The fact that the backdrop didn't change suggested the visceral connection among the three occupants. They may move up and out individually, but they remain attached.) The third element of the set was the background outside the apartment, the "view" from the balcony. It, too, was wildly curved and misshapen, a cityscape centering on one landmark that identifies each city: Paris's Eiffel Tower, London's Big Ben, and New York's Chrysler Building These were also distorted in a Seussian manner. (Maybe Salvador Dali is a clearer image—though he's certainly too heavy for Coward.)

The furniture, props, and costumes of Design were all perfectly Realistic, as was the acting (in a Cowardy vein, of course) Only the backdrops—a kind of one-dimensional frame, if you will—was otherwise: one significant element was stylistically opposed to the basically Realistic unit. I suppose MacDonald might have been depicting, in sort of a reverse image, the way that Gilda, Otto, and Leo's world seems perfectly normal from the inside—from where they see it—but is crazily skewed as viewed from outside the relationship. It was reversed, since in the set, we seemed to be inside in the "normal" world looking out at the "crazy" one, as if we were living inside the Gilda-Otto-Leo mindset.

The program didn't specify in what years director Morris Panych put Design for the Shaw's production, and the costumes, except for those of act three, weren't particularly period-specific. The furniture of acts one and two could have been from any time "long ago" without indicating any specific decade. But the pieces in act three, in the apartment Gilda’s furnished after she’s become a high-society decorator, should probably be markedly art deco. They were demonstrably "modern"; however, they looked more like ‘50s stuff than ‘30s. Mother insisted that the production isn't even set in the 1930s, but I put this down to either a design error or a deliberate effort by MacDonald to muddle the period. Only because the design work in the production was so striking did this stick out—it wasn't significant to the production in any other way. (There was one actual anachronism in the design, though. Only a New Yorker would probably have noticed it, however. In the last scene, set in New York City at night, the Chrysler Building's spire was lit up. Either MacDonald didn't know, or knew and decided to overlook for the sake of the effect, that the lights in the Chrysler's crown had been installed, but because construction was completed at the start the Depression, they were never illuminated. Over time, the building's management forgot the lights were there until a renovation led to their rediscovery. Only in 1981, for the first time since the building opened in 1930, was the famous art deco spire of the Chrysler Building lit up.)

What interested me most in the this staging, though, was the casting—and it was an element of the Shaw in general it seemed. The fact that I noticed this shouldn't suggest that it affected me in any way—the fact that it didn't is my point. Neither Graeme Somerville nor David Jansen are matinee idols, yet they were cast as characters who are presented as inescapably attractive to Gilda, a woman who’s supposed to be desired by all men who meet her! (The same casting decision didn't seem to hold for the women, by the way—the actresses were all as attractive as their characters. I don't know what that says—maybe the Canadians are as sexist as the rest of us.) I guess I like this apparent practice because I was never a Leading Man myself, and the notion that we ordinary folks can still play those parts pleases me. (I did have an acting teacher who told me I should go out for what he called "the sex-pot roles." Right! Like any director would actually have considered me for them. Although, I did once play Chance Wayne, a role originated by Paul Newman, in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth—much to my mother's consternation—but those were peculiar circumstances.) By the way, I never heard anyone in the audience remark on this casting.

[Just to provide a brief overview of the Shaw Festival: It was started in 1962 by Brian Doherty, a local lawyer and theater enthusiast, as a "Salute to Shaw." Its first productions, performed by local amateurs, were in a disused courthouse (in 2006, the site of the black box Court House Theatre, one of the festival's three performance venues). It quickly attracted both critical and financial attention and became a companion to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, two-and-a-half hours west, which was launched (with more professional intentions) in 1953. (There is, in fact, a third theater festival in Canada, the Charlottetown Festival on Prince Edward Island, devoted to "new Canadian musicals." I didn't know there were Canadian musicals, much less new ones!) The Shaw is considered one of the two largest repertory companies in North America—the other being, obviously, the Stratford Festival.

[The Shaw runs from April through October and November—some shows opening later and others closing earlier. (I understand from the locals we chatted with in the shops and around town that the weather in Niagara-on-the-Lake is awful in the late fall and winter—cold, rainy, windy, and gray. Except for Christmas, when there's another influx of tourists, it's pretty bleak in the off-season.) Like most traditional theaters, the festival is dark on Mondays, but during the performance week there are at least two shows a day at all three theaters, and often—I'm not sure it's not also every performance day—an 11:30 a.m. "lunchtime" performance. That comes to 36-54 performances a week (I did the math); you can figure out how many shows a season that makes. (There are also script readings, poetry and song presentations, discussions, chats, workshops, lectures, and demonstrations going on many days as well. These folks keep busy.) The festival is a true seasonal rep: no play is performed twice in a row, which means some theaters change productions three times a day. Most actors are in two plays (a few are in only one; no one I could spot was in more than two), and there's no apparent attempt to consider which theater houses which show when it comes to casting. The theaters are strung out along Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake: the little Court House and the Royal George are only a couple of blocks apart in "downtown"; the Festival Theatre is a few blocks east on Queen's Parade, an extension of the main drag. (Nothing in Niagara-on-the-Lake is all that far away from anything else. On afternoons when we didn't see a matinee, Mother and I walked around most of the town and its immediate environs.) The company comprises some 60 actors (directors and designers, as well as other artists such as composers, are hired individually for each show), but all don't appear every season; about 30 or so work each year, and they are on contract for the season. Many actors live in Niagara-on-the-Lake now and consider the Shaw their permanent artistic base, doing other work like films and TV (all those U.S. TV programs that are taped in Toronto and Vancouver are in many of the company's credits) as well as other stage work from time to time, but returning to the Shaw regularly. Some of the actors in 2006 were in their fourth or fifth season in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but others were into double digits. (The other artists also come back year after year, but they aren't part of the permanent company.) Loyalty from both sides—the current artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, was in her fourth season in 2006 and continues to work with artists who started at the Shaw before her arrival—is clearly an attribute of this community. The actors who live in Niagara-on-the-Lake have bought homes and are raising families there.

[The Shaw Festival mandate, as they call it, is to showcase the plays of GBS and his contemporaries. (I don't know if the idea when the festival was originally conceived was to restrict itself to Shaw's plays only, but the inclusion of plays "written in Shaw's lifetime" has been part of the concept for decades, in any case.) Considering that GBS lived almost a century (1856-1950; the festival celebrated his sesquicentennial earlier the year I was there), the definition of "contemporary" leaves a lot of leeway—and covers a lot of territory stylistically! In 2000, the festival expanded its mandate to include plays written about the period of GBS's lifetime, so now they do modern plays set in that almost-century. The 2006 season included two Shaws—which I gather is the practice—plus an Ibsen (1828-1906) and a pair of Chekhovs (1860-1904). Also coming, I suppose, in the category of plays by GBS contemporaries (though at the end of his century) were the Noel Coward (1899-1973) and the Arthur Miller (1915-2005). (I'm guessing that's
Crucible's "in," since it isn't "about" Shaw's lifetime—even McCarthyism really started after GBS's death—and was written three years after GBS died. It's kind of a stretch, I guess—a policy evidently known as "Jackie's elastic mandate.") Two adaptations from novels could go either way—the source material is contemporary to GBS and the setting is, consequently, of that period, too, though the adaptations are much later. The Heiress was adapted from James's 1881 novel in 1947, which would barely qualify as "Shaw's lifetime," but the story is set in 1850. The Invisible Man, from an 1897 novel, qualifies because the modern play is set within GBS's life. The other new play, The Magic Fire, is set in 1950s, barely fitting into GBS's life span. Of the final entry of the 2006 bill, Cole Porter's High Society, the source material, the 1939 Philip Barry play, fits into the Shaw life span, but the qualification is again the setting: 1930's Long Island (the musical having been transferred from Philadelphia's Main Line for reasons comprehensible only in Hollywood).]

24 March 2012

Noel, Noel

by Kirk Woodward

[Once again, my friend Kirk Woodward comes up with an interesting perspective on a familiar topic, this time the recently closed Broadway revival of Private Lives and its author, Noel Coward. I’ve known that Kirk has great admiration for Coward as a playwright—we’ve discussed both the writer’s merits and Kirk’s fondness for his work and interest in his life and career many times over the years—but what I didn’t know was that Kirk’s had those sentiments at least since we were in college together in the ‘60s. (For ROT readers who don’t already know the connection, Kirk and I were classmates at Washington and Lee University and met as participants in the university theater, Kirk a budding director and playwright and me a wannabe actor.) As you’ll see shortly, “Noel, Noel” had its origins that far back.

[It’s my practice, especially since I launched
ROT almost three years ago now, to write a performance report on plays that I see. I’ve gotten Kirk to do his version of that occasionally (see “Race,” 3 May 2010, and “The Scottsboro Brecht,” 12 February 2011)—he’s even done a little performance reporting on musical events he’s attended (“The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010, and “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” 8 January 2011)—and when he told me he was going to be seeing Private Lives and might have an article on it and Coward, I expected his take on the performance report again. I had no idea he’d reach back into our youths and come up with a very perspicacious and informative consideration of Coward’s dramaturgy—even if he was a college kid at the time! (Who knew? We were just theater geeks, I thought! Still waters and all . . . .)

[Since there won’t be a plain old report on
Private Lives, a play I rather like myself (though Blithe Spirit is my favorite Coward), I’ll fill in the bare details. The production opened at the Music Box Theatre for previews on 6 November 2011 and closed on December 31 after 12 previews and 53 regular performances. The revival, starring Paul Gross as Elyot and Kim Cattrall as Amanda, and directed by Sir Richard Eyre, was always intended as a limited run, but had been scheduled to run five weeks more. Of the production itself, which got mostly good reviews, Kirk wrote me:

Even for a funny, well-regarded show, it may be somewhat overexposed. And it’s not a show that lends itself to new and daring interpretation—you pretty much need to do Noel Coward’s Private Lives or do something else entirely. It was doing well enough in the holiday season, but the producers apparently didn’t see signs that that level of sales would continue once January arrived. In this economy, and with ticket prices as high as they are, there might not have been enough of a “hook” to let the show thrive after the holidays.

[In fact, that’s the explanation the producers offered, with one of them stating: “Despite fantastic reviews, ticket sales have been slower than we had hoped for and it would be irresponsible to continue running into the notoriously difficult January period.”

[So, have a look at Kirk’s elucidation of Noel Coward’s themes and ideas in his famously witty and seemingly light-hearted (not to say light-headed) plays.

In December 2011 my wife and I saw the latest Broadway revival of Noel Coward's comedy Private Lives. We wanted to see it because one of our favorite actors, Paul Gross, was playing Elyot, the male lead. Gross, a leading actor in Canada, also played the erratic theater festival director in the brilliant TV series Slings and Arrows, and the Mountie in the very entertaining TV series Due South, which was on U.S. television from 1994 to 1999. We also wanted to see the play because we'd heard that Kim Cattrall, best known as one of the four leads in Sex and the City, was outstanding in the role (she had played it in London, where this production originated, to acclaim), and she was.

But we also wanted to see it because Private Lives is a delightful play. It is continually revived; I saw it on Broadway in 1984 with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead roles. (I remember that I worried about how Burton would get through the more physical parts of the play – he was having a lot of back and neck trouble – and that I thought Taylor was quite good in the role.) Alan Rickman played Elyot in another Broadway revival in 2002, which I would love to have seen, and all in all the play has been produced on Broadway seven times.

What accounts for the longevity of Private Lives? The story is lively, the humor character-based and genuinely amusing, the action continuous. Most of all, though, the play was written by Noel Coward, which means it was written by one of the greatest playwrights of all time.

I hope that last sentence is sufficiently provocative. Coward certainly never made any such claims for himself; when one of his characters sings, in the song "If Love Were All," that "the most I've had / Is just a talent to amuse," one can't help hearing a reflection of Coward's own attitude toward his work. He was proud of what he wrote, but he made no claims for its immortality.

But who are the greatest playwrights of all time? Comparisons, as one of Shakespeare's characters says, are odorous, but it may be easier to see Coward's standing if we ignore the silly prejudice that comedy is trivial, and look at the members of the Playwriting Pantheon in two categories, Dramatic and Comedic. Who are the unquestionable leaders in each category? Granting that many playwrights have written many remarkable plays, I'd say that the unarguable Greats are the following:


Shakespeare (again)

It's not a long list. Certainly it's open to argument. But whoever else you might put on your list, let me try to make the case a bit more that Coward belongs on it, not that I'm certain the case needs making any more. I'd like to call on my much younger self, in an article I wrote for Ariel, the student literary magazine of Washington and Lee University, in its Spring 1969 issue. I will present the article first, and then comment on it.


Noel Coward's fifty-so plays typically present the British upper- or upper-middle class, usually aristocrats, artists, or bohemians: persons who project elaborate public images. Noel Coward also presents a public image: wit, sophisticate, possibly a playboy, carrying the scent of a declining or recently-vanished decadent society. Popular opinion assigns Coward's personality and plays a personality it borrows from the characters in his plays. The word is that Coward writes "sophisticated farces, comedies, and musicals." This opinion is mistaken in its assumptions, but difficult to refute, since it uses a kind of code. "Farces, comedies, and musicals" indicate light entertainment. "Sophisticated" means that Coward has nothing to say.

Some of Coward's plays, however, have established reputations on their own. The most produced of these plays is Private Lives, in which a divorced and separately remarried couple cannot help causing themselves and their new spouses trouble when they rent adjoining rooms at the same hotel on their honeymoons. Another well-known play, Design for Living, presents a curious love-triangle: three best friends, two men and a woman, who continually find out that no two of them can do without the third. Amateurs often do Tonight at 8:30, a collection of nine one-act plays arranged in sets of three. In Blithe Spirit (1942), a novelist who remarried after his first wife died inadvertently materializes his first wife's spirit during a séance, and the spirit willfully refuses to dematerialize. (Beatrice Lily and Tammy Grimes played in a recent musical version of this play, High Spirits, which Coward directed.) In Present Laughter (1947), an actor cannot determine which of the people around him are genuine and which of them are acting, while his friends wonder the same about him. Waiting in the Wings, produced in 1960, concerns aging women (The Wings is a British home for retired indigent actresses) trying to learn to accept their increasing old age.


The first step in a proper evaluation of Coward's plays is to determine what kind of plays they are. They follow a pattern which is familiar to students of the modern drama. This pattern may be described using as an example Family Album, a play in Tonight at 8:30. This is the pattern: a closely-related group of people have an image of themselves, a claim to an identity (the family in Family Album acts properly; its members profess their respect and love for each other). At the moment the play begins, however, a crisis is also about to begin (father has just died and been buried and the will read), stirred by long-hidden resentments and desires (the relatives talk about distribution of property). Guilty secrets about the past come to light (father had a mistress, who went to his funeral) and the group attempts to obliterate the feeling of guilt by drinking, but liquor only sharpens the problem ("Papa liked wine – he liked it to excess – I expect this is hereditary"). At last something resembling the whole truth emerges (father wrote a will leaving all his money to his three mistresses; the butler burned the will with the relatives watching; the loving daughter hated and despised her father). The group, "guiltily awake" at last, finds a way of tolerating its knowledge (the butler says he is too deaf ever to hear a question about the will), but the illusory identity, the fiction of trust and honesty and innocence, is gone (as a character says, "This house was happy when there were children in it").

This pattern resembles that of Ibsen's later plays. Ibsen and Coward both begin their plays at a point where romantic illusions hover at the brink of collapse. Both playwrights see illusions about the past destroyed by confrontation with the real past. Coward's affinity with Ibsen is historically appropriate. Ibsen's spirit dominated the theater of Coward's youth; Bernard Shaw wrote his powerful book of introduction, The Quintessence of Ibsenism, less than thirty years before Coward wrote his first play.

The comparison with Ibsen holds even though Coward writes farces, as an examination of a Coward farce will reveal. Blithe Spirit concerns the clearly farcical situation of the ghost of a first wife returning to her now remarried husband. Even in this situation, however, the principle of the destruction of illusion, the unmasking of realities concealed by appearances, still operates. In Blithe Spirit, the "appearance” is the husband's happy remarriage after his first wife died. What is "unmasked" is his guilt over shifting his love so easily, claiming to love his second wife with body and soul while still retaining genuine feeling for the departed. The fun never overtakes the guilt which lies at the core of the play's action.


Coward's plays "typically present the British upper- or upper-middle class, usually aristocrats, artists, or bohemians: persons who project extravagant public images." Aristocrats, artists, and bohemians depend on their public images: without a Character an aristocrat loses his influence, an actor loses his ability to create illusion, a bohemian loses his standing as an independent spirit. Coward's characters depend on their Characters. Elyot, the husband in Private Lives, overpowers his new and ex-wives by force of personality. Garry, the actor in Present Laughter, dominates the lives of his whole circle of intimates as well as the lives of many people he has never seen. Gilda, Otto, and Leo, the bohemians in Design for Living, form and reform alignments at will because they do not have to think of themselves as being under the restraints of conventional morality.

But images, although they facilitate control of other persons, do not facilitate control of one's self. Garry, the actor, trained in creating illusion, cannot watch himself in an off-stage role, he can only do the role. He knows that everyone, not just actors on stage, must use techniques of presentation to communicate, and this knowledge intensifies the disgust he feels at living, and being rewarded for living, a life devoted to the creation of theatrical situations neither "true" nor "false since they exist but are not “life” as such. “I’m always acting,: Garry complains, but at that moment he may be posing; he may be telling the truth and posing.

Aristocrats, artists, and bohemians, in Coward’s plays or out of them, constantly do things which remind themselves that, if they want something, they have to put on a “show” to get it. On the other hand, persons who do not constantly face the fact of role-playing still form their personalities through roles. These persons may allow themselves to forget the fact. If one convinces himself that he is “just what he is,” and if events then throw up to him the truth that “what he is” has been constructed out of the deceptions of presentations, then he too is a potential subject for a Noel Coward play.


Awareness of role-playing leads to a search for the self and self-knowledge. Coward’s characters often make the search. In Design for Living, the two men and the woman they love try to understand why they find themselves so entangled. The answer depends on who they themselves are, and so they try to define themselves as well as their situation. Examples of their attempts:

“ . . a too loving spirit tied down to a predatory feminine carcass.”

“What’s the truth of it? The absolute, deep down truth? Until we know that, we can’t grapple with it. We can’t do a thing.”

“Chance caught us, as it was bound to catch us eventually.”

“It isn’t you that’s changed – it’s time and experience and new circumstances!”

The effort to define oneself is based on the premise that a person is an object consisting of a number of properties, but the premise collapses when one tries to identify what those properties are. Since Leo, Otto, and Gilda in Coward’s play are artists (Leo writes a play called Change and Decay), they should know that man defines himself, not as an object, but temporally, by creation: a painting, a deed, a baby. A man’s search for his own “design” resembles the attempt to turn around and see his own back; so "Design for Living," as Coward insists in his preface, is an ironic title. Perhaps in Design for Living the characters learn the fruitlessness of the search for a “self.” At play’s end, Ernest, Gilda’s present husband, makes a last attempt to define the trio:

It’s ludicrous to think that I was ever taken in by any of you – that I ever mistook you for anything but the unscrupulous, worthless degenerates that you are! . . . You’re shifty and irresponsible and abominable . . .!

Gilda, Otto, and Leo collapse in laughter, and Coward adds in his preface that he believes the characters are laughing at themselves.


Humor depends on an uneasy awareness of discrepancy. Great comic writers – Aristophanes, Swift, Moliere, Shaw, and others – have clear eyesight and strong stomachs. Coward’s humor, and he has a considerable eye for it, springs in his best works from the discrepancies revealed by his themes, discrepancies between past and present (Madame Arcati, the medium in Blithe Spirit, quotes Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth . . .”), role and reality (Madame Arcati announces just before the séance that “I had a sudden presentiment that I was going to have a puncture [on her bike] so I went back to fetch my pump, and then of course I didn’t have a puncture at all”), expectation and result (a maid for some reason can only move at a dead run). Most important, humor springs from the conflict between truth and the illusion that one can be profound:

CHARLES: It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.
RUTH: Write that down, you might forget it.
CHARLES: You underestimate me.

(Blithe Spirit)


Although Coward’s plays contain a kind of knowledge, they make no demands for change in the audience. Post Mortem (1930), an anti-war play and the principle exception to this rule, is bitter but not evangelistic. The dedication of Post Mortem to William Bolitho, who was already dead in 1930, indicates a tone characteristic for Coward:

If the world doesn’t seek you out, and find you out, so much the worse for the world. It can’t matter to you.

But Coward’s despair does not result from his membership in a passing dissipated generation, as his public image would suggest. It is the product of a penetrating intellect.

Resignation and humor are Coward’s weapons against despair. Waiting in the Wings, set in the home for aging actresses, has as its theme the necessity of resignation. The staff of The Wings has no reason to feel sorry for its wards; if the staff members live long enough they will find themselves in the same condition as their charges. Either the actresses in the home become bitter or they learn acceptance. Noel Coward is the Knight of Infinite Resignation. The plays he writes and the jokes he makes show his courage:

We pooled our money, spent the lot,
The world forgetting by the world forgot.
Now we haven’t got a penny for the you know what!
Has anybody seen our ship?

(Red Peppers, in Tonight at 8:30)

* * * *

At a distance of forty-two years, there's not too much I'd change in the article today. (I have altered a word here and there where Younger Me needed editing.) I am pleased that I championed Coward when he was still somewhat underappreciated in the United States. What he himself referred to as "Dad's renaissance" had begun in England in the early 1960's, but was still not fully underway in the U.S. when I wrote the piece.

I am also pleased that I identified Coward as the actual heir of Ibsen, a point that I have not seen made elsewhere (of course it may have been). The general assumption is that Shaw took on Ibsen's mantle, an assumption based on the fact that Shaw championed Ibsen's plays (his later ones, in particular). However, Shaw's dramaturgy has next to nothing to do with Ibsen's. Shaw resolutely looks to the future. In his principal exception, Heartbreak House, the characters look backward, but with nostalgia, not with Ibsen’s sense that the past is erupting into the present.

If I were writing the article today, I would put less emphasis on the theme of resignation. Partly I stressed it because I'd just read several of Coward's later plays, in which that theme is perhaps more prominent. (I'm always particularly interested in the plays that authors wrote after their most famous work was done). I also see that I was determined to demonstrate that Coward was a Serious Playwright. I wouldn't feel the same need today, not because there aren't "serious" issues in even the lightest of Coward's plays, but because there is wider agreement today that comedy handles the same material as apparently weightier drama, only in different ways.

In fact, a lasting strength of Coward's plays is that they express a world view, one that is amply expressed in Private Lives. (One of the virtues of the recent Broadway production is that it encouraged the audience to appreciate that world view.) Coward doesn't overstate his perspective, which can also be found in writings such as his diaries, but it hovers over his works. Life, he tells us, is evanescent, and is all that there is:

ELYOT: . . . Let's blow trumpets and squeakers, and enjoy the party as much as we can, like very small, quite idiotic school-children. Let's savour the delight of the moment. Come and kiss me, darling, before your body rots, and worms pop in and out of your eye sockets.

It's not a positive world view (and it's not mine) but Coward holds it consistently and it informs his plays, giving them a coherence and resonance that characterize the work of the greatest playwrights. Coward's characters maintain their lives bravely in the face of a universe that takes no notice of them.

It's noteworthy that this courageous and somewhat forlorn view of existence is embodied in the work of an author best known for writing light, brittle comedies. But this surprising juxtaposition, which only began to be clear after Coward's own generation had passed away, is another mark of his distinction. One even imagines, again, the grim countenance of Ibsen looming somewhere behind his plays. Can we call Coward superficial when his work points us to such depths?

[I happen to have seen the Broadway production of High Spirits with Tammy Grimes and Bea Lillie which Kirk mentions in “Noel, Noel.” (The actor, it seems worthy to note, who played Charles Condomine in the musicalizaton of Blithe Spirit was Edward Woodward—no relation, Kirk tells me, to the author of this article.) That was about 48 years ago, though, long before I was keeping notes or writing reports on plays I’d seen, so I can’t say much except that I’ve always liked that show and I was thrilled to have gotten to see Bea Lillie live, on stage in what turned out to be her last Broadway appearance. She didn’t die until many years later, but she seems to have retired after that show, at least as far as the States was concerned.) Some years ago, however, I made a trip to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and one of the plays in that season’s rep was Coward’s Design for Living, which Kirk mentions here, too. I’ve decided to publish a version of my report on that performance, just for the amusement of looking back at a connected article, and I’ll be posting it on ROT in several days. If you’re curious, keep an eye peeled.]

19 March 2012

'The Lady from Dubuque'

On Friday evening, 9 March, Diana and I returned to the new Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row to see the revival of Edward Albee’s Lady from Dubuque at the End Stage Theatre, the Signature Theatre Company’s largest and most formal performance space in its new complex. Albee’s 1977 play replaced the previously announced world première of his Laying an Egg which will now be produced in a future season. (The theater hasn’t offered a specific explanation of the indefinite postponement, but Michael Riedel in the New York Post reports that the playwright was having difficulty with the play’s third act, which is stylistically at variance with the first two. According to Patrick Healy in the New York Times, Albee had requested the postponement of Laying an Egg because he was taking longer to finish the play than he’d planned. Explaining, “I was overcomplicating things,” Albee says he’s had a “breakthrough” and would finish the new script this summer.) Albee, who has previously been the playwright-in-residence at STC in 1993-94 and has had plays presented there in other seasons as well, is the troupe’s first Legacy dramatist since establishing its permanent home this season at the Frank Gehry-designed Signature Center. The Legacy Program, which began as an occasional event at STC for its 10th anniversary season (when the company presented Albee’s Occupant), is a chance for previously produced playwrights at STC to revisit a play or to present a new one.

Lady was last seen in New York City at the Morosco Theatre on Broadway in 1980; it premièred on 31 January and ran a mere 12 performances. Clive Barnes in the New York Post had called Lady “a comedy of manners about death,” and John Simon, the famously acerbic reviewer for New York magazine, wrote: “The Lady from Dubuque is the worst play about dying since The Shadow Box. It is the worst play about anything, ever.” Simon added, “The Lady from Dubuque is a lot of desperate pretensions and last-ditch attitudinizing about nothing . . . .” In the New York Times, Walter Kerr pointed out that “‘The Lady From Dubuque’ is a play in two acts and three questions, none of which . . . is ever answered” and complained that “Mr. Albee is still working in an ornately convoluted ‘literary’ style that has no conversational feel to it . . . .” In the end, Kerr advised the playwright that if he “wishes to continue indulging himself in the sort of philosophical speculation he’s lately become addicted to (I find this speculation thinnish and familiar), he must first put some muscle, some tangible flesh and blood, onstage to serve as base.” The review concluded that “the play is far too much like its expiring heroine. ‘My arms go around bone,’ her husband says, ‘She diminishes.’” In contrast, Gerald Clarke, saying the play was “a major work,” characterized it in Time magazine as Albee’s “best since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” After a three-week run at the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut that June and July and some productions abroad, the play faded from the stages of the United States. (Indeed, new Albee plays were absent from New York stages for about a decade after the failures of Lady and two other ’80s flops—until the Signature’s Albee season brought him back.) Then the play was revived in 2007 by Seattle Rep (staged by the company’s artistic director, David Esbjornson, who directs the STC revival), the same year the play saw its London première. It’s still a relative rarity among Albee’s works.

Considered one of Albee’s bleakest plays, Lady’s negative reception on Broadway 32 years ago was partly due to its subject: death. At the time of the failure, however, Albee blamed reviewers, especially the TV reviewers, whom he called “dimwits.” “The play is fine,” the playwright insisted. In a comment quoted in People just after the play closed on Broadway, the playwright insisted, "Broadway audiences will rarely take a chance unless they hear it is worth buying. But commercial merit doesn't have to do with a play's merit." In Edward Albee: A Singular Journey, his 1999 biography of the dramatist, Mel Gussow wrote that Albee was drinking so much at the time he wrote Lady that he often couldn’t fix script problems even when he recognized them. “I remember not being sober enough to do the work,” Gussow reported that Albee admitted.

The STC revival is Albee’s opportunity to reintroduce this work to audiences, and he says he hopes it, and perhaps his other Broadway failures from what Gussow calls “Albee’s down period, when nothing seemed to go right,” Lolita (1981) and The Man with Three Arms (1983), will gain a reappraisal. “I don’t necessarily want ‘The Lady From Dubuque’ and those other plays to be liked, but I do think they are worthy of respect,” the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner says. Like Tennessee Williams after his great early plays, Albee felt that following the success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he “was supposed to write, ‘Son of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and keep on doing that. I didn’t, and that annoyed” the critics. Albee has revised the play since it flopped in 1980, and the London revival (which starred Maggie Smith) was more successful, running for three months at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

The Lady from Dubuque starts while Jo (Laila Robins) and Sam (Michael Hayden) are having a late-night party, entertaining their guests with a game of Twenty Questions. As the evening progresses, the partiers drink more and become less congenial and it becomes clear that something more than meets the eye is going on. “Who am I?” demands Sam, inviting questions from his and Jo’s neighbor Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) and his wife, Lucinda (Catherine Curtin), and their friend Fred (C. J. Wilson) and his latest girlfriend, Carol (Tricia Paoluccio), as we learn what everyone else already knows: Jo’s dying and often in terrible pain. This doesn’t prevent the whole bunch, including—especially—Jo, from engaging in Virginia Woolf-type savagery, rubbing salt in old wounds and revealing unpleasant truths about one another. The games delay, though don’t prevent, the acid from spurting out; it’s a good thing, I suppose, that the game is Twenty Questions and not Truth or Dare. When Jo cries out in pain, there’s barely a lull in the proceedings—even Jo rejoins the party.

The house, a modernist, nearly characterless stage set designed in beiges and taupes by John Arnone, is not so much a boxing ring as an operating theater-cum-torture chamber. From time to time, the characters deliver asides, mostly short phrases but occasionally longer speeches, to the audience, but these aren’t self-conscious or furtive, and the other characters don’t pretend they aren’t aware of the piercing of the fourth wall; sometimes they watch us as if to see how we’ll respond, it seemed. The party breaks up and Sam carries Jo upstairs to bed and just as they disappear, an unexpected guest and her mysterious companion (Jane Alexander and Peter Francis James) arrive in the empty living room right as the first act ends.

When the second act commences and Sam descends the stairs to find the elegantly dressed woman posed in an easy chair in his living room, the question “Who are you?” takes on an altogether different urgency. He keeps asking, but she won’t answer, except in riddles. (Her name’s Elizabeth—she passes herself off as Jo’s mother, the lady from Dubuque, Iowa, though Jo’s always said her mother, a tiny woman with pink hair whom no one’s ever met, lives in New Jersey—but the woman’s never called by name except perhaps once, by her companion, Oscar.) What had been a largely realistic first act, brutal but life-like (except for the direct address, which I don’t feel really enhances the play except as an unnecessary signal that something’s off center here), now starts to veer off into Pinterland. When Oscar enters the room, Sam becomes almost apoplectic. A handsome black man of about the same age as Elizabeth, Oscar is equally elegant (the spot-on costumes are by Elizabeth Hope Clancy) and restrained, but nonetheless menacing and possesses combat skills that are downright scary. (Later, he puts Sam out with a Vulcan death grip—although that’s not how he explains it.) Soon enough, Edgar and Lucinda return, ostensibly to smooth over the acrimony of the previous evening’s end, and then Fred and Carol appear—no one seems to believe much in door locks and keys in this suburb. Despite Sam’s insistence, his erstwhile friends all believe that Elizabeth’s Jo’s mother and abuse Sam for his refusal to accept her. Oscar finally subdues Sam (with that death grip) and Fred takes the opportunity to step in and bind him, unconscious and on the floor, with his belt. Jo eventually comes down and even she, in her depleted state, seems to accept Elizabeth, who cradles the dying woman on the center couch.

On a wall panel outside the End Stage, where STC posts background information and sidelights relating to the production, among the quotations from the playwright was one in which Albee averred that one reason his post-Virginia Woolf plays were rejected by New York reviewers and audiences was that he’d begun to write plays, like Tiny Alice, that were confusing in ways in which theatergoers weren’t ready to be confused. Perhaps Albee’s partly right there: in 1980, maybe audiences and reviewers just weren’t ready for the kind of Pinteresque dramaturgy of Lady, packed with mysteries, unvoiced threats, and unexplained and inexplicable undertones. The big hit on Broadway was The Elephant Man and other significant new plays that season included Children of a Lesser God, Talley’s Folley, Nuts, Bent, and Loose Ends, all largely straightforward Realism with unambiguous themes. Strider was probably the closest commercial producers came to pushing the envelope on the Great White Way, and maybe Devour the Snow. (Musicals included Evita, Barnum, A Day in Hollywood/ A Night in the Ukraine, and Sugar Babies.) Nothing remotely approaching The Lady from Dubuque in style or theme challenged audiences or the press. Even the import from London, Pinter’s own Betrayal, wasn’t a stretch for conventional-theater lovers aside from the minor dramaturgical challenge that the story was told backwards. (Tennessee Williams also had a flop that season: Clothes for a Summer Hotel ran only 15 regular performances.)

Maybe Alan Schneider misdirected the Broadway staging (though neither the reviews nor later analysis suggests that). Or maybe Albee was right in this instance. In any case, Lady’s not a dismissible failure. Theater critic and editor Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., who included the play in the 1979-80 edition of Best Plays, posits that Lady’s Broadway failure “was a reflection on the system, not on this distinguished and durable play.” It doesn’t rank with Albee’s best work, but it’s intriguing, and it more than bears a reexamination and revival, especially in Esbjornson’s crackerjack production. Lady’s unquestionably a challenging play, artistically, psychologically (that is to say, thematically it’s hard to take), and intellectually. I suspect that everyone who sees it will come away with a different idea about what Albee’s saying, and everyone may even be right. The playwright didn’t give but the vaguest clues, and Diana and I spent more than an hour over coffee after the play talking about what we thought it’s about and why Albee constructed it the way he did. (We didn’t come to any agreement, and Diana found the play more lacking than I did in the end—though we both admired the stage work regardless.) Walter Kerr’s complaint that Albee raises questions he doesn’t answer is both true and immaterial; Kerr preferred straightforward well-made plays, but in reality, unanswered questions can be the most dramatic. They make the spectators draw their own conclusions.

Lady strikes me as a very personal play; even though Albee was supposedly inspired by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s psychiatry text, On Death and Dying, it seems the kind of play someone only writes because of something that happened to him—he went through this kind of loss or he saw someone close do so—and he had to write about it to work through it. Of course, I have no idea if something had happened in Albee’s life, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a writer comes up with because he read or saw something and said, Gee, there’s a play in that (the way John Logan said he was inspired to write Red after learning about Mark Rothko and the Seagram commission; see my report for ROT on 4 March).

(I suppose it’s a logical assumption that the title character’s name, Elizabeth, comes from the author of On Death, the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The play’s title, however, is a wry joke of Albee’s. In the script, it’s explained by Oscar: New Yorker founder, Harold Ross, when asked to identify who’d typically read his magazine, is supposed to have answered, “One thing I know, the magazine is not going to be written for the little old lady from Dubuque.” According to writer Don Shewey, Albee has quipped, referring to the worldly and sophisticated Elizabeth: “If The New Yorker is written for anyone, it’s written for her.”)

Lady happens to Sam; Sam’s the character who experiences this death and has the emotional response to it. Though Elizabeth comes for Jo, it’s Sam on whom she leaves a mark. It’s Sam’s panic and pain Albee’s examining. In Albee’s view, Death isn’t a kind or relieving presence, especially for the survivors. She doesn’t come in and immediately carry Jo off peacefully and sweetly, lifting her pain—she’s a torturer. Sam’s completely lost and helpless, but Death brings him no comfort or relief. All the people he should have counted on for support turn against him—or were never really with him to start with, but make it clearer when Death appears. (There’s more than a little of Everyman in Lady: Sam’s a kind of late-20th-century Everyman.) Michael Hayden goes from a kind of superior coldness when he insists on taking his turn for Twenty Questions at the beginning of the play, through increasing uselessness and cluelessness, to abject ineffectiveness and hollowness at the end. Diana wondered why Albee presented the experience of death this way, but, as I said, I think it’s one form of the experience that Albee witnessed or had and he wanted to depict it. In any case, Hayden (whom I first saw in Washington almost 14 years ago as Chance Wayne opposite Elizabeth Ashley in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth) handles the descent, which is far from smooth or even, with extraordinary credibility and fullness. In fact Esbjornson has cast his show excellently with actors who embody the characters perfectly. Back Stage reports that “the fearless cast tears into the play” and this is unquestionably one of the best ensembles I’ve seen recently (a phenomenon that seems to be a happy habit at Signature, no matter who directs). Wilson, Paoluccio, Ryan, and Curtin present pitch-perfect images of the not-so-stalwart, narcissistic companions—can I really call them friends?—as they reveal the animosities and resentments that Fred, Carol, Edgar, and Lucinda harbor for Sam. Robins, one of our moist accomplished and commanding actresses (why isn’t this woman famous?) is the strongest and most vicious dying person ever, but she can go directly to unbearable agony in a blink. It’s hard to distinguish one actor above the others, but I have to mention how wonderfully Paoluccio slides from ditzy “dumb brunette” (Carol’s actually a natural blond, she explains, but she looks cheap “natural”) to street-wise sharpie who’s the only one to see what’s happening. I’ve never seen her on stage before, but Paoluccio’s someone to watch.

Elizabeth and Oscar are, of course, outliers in the Lady ensemble. They’re not supposed to be part of the gang, and Alexander and James stand alone in their tasteful gray outfits and well-coiffed hair—the epitome of elegance, sophistication, and reserve (Ben Brantley accords Elizabeth “patrician cool and surgical wit”). In 1980, I suspect, a mixed-race couple like this (played on Broadway by Irene Worth and Earle Hyman) might still have been a rarity enough to make an impression, but here, though Fred, who’s a bit of a bigot as well as a bully, points out that Oscar’s black, it’s only remarkable because Albee spotlights it. In any case, the actors make the characters so forcefully apart, so strongly separate by their demeanor and speech that what might have been lost to the passage of an era is not felt much on stage I don’t think. If these actors could float an inch off the ground, that’s how Elizabeth and Oscar would move, I’m sure. They don’t ruffle (though Oscar can lash out—all the more frighteningly for his stillness).

As I understand it, Albee did a little revising of Lady since 1980, though I gather it was mostly updating a few references. The STC production is set “Now,” but the script still harks back to the late ’70s. Oscar says he’s a vet of World War II, which in 1977 or even 1980 would have made him in his late 50’s or early 60’s but today would make him over 90. Elizabeth speaks of the Soviet Union as if it were still a contemporary reference point, as it would have been at the height of the Cold War in 1980 with Leonid Brezhnev still in charge, though some lines about Richard Nixon, added for the London production, were deleted here. (Sam also uses a cell phone.) Elizabeth also remarks that Japanese isn’t “a required language yet,” a comment that would have resonated 30 years ago when Japan was at the height of its economic mastery. (Today the reference might be Chinese or Hindi.) Arnone’s set is essentially timeless, fitting anywhere from 1955 to today, but the decor has a decidedly ’80s feel, with its abstract paintings and faux-African sculptures, boxy furniture, and even a cowhide rug. (Oscar also remarks on a console TV in the library—does anyone even still make those in this age of flat screens?) But since the date of the play or the production is really irrelevant, these are hardly consequential faults.

I could easily spend paragraphs trying to articulate what The Lady from Dubuque means—or means to me—but not only isn’t that what an ROT play report’s supposed to be, but it would ultimately be inconclusive and mostly meaningless to someone else. (There are both on-line and printed analyses of the play all over, of course, and many also speculate on the apparent reasons for its Broadway failure.) Even my suggestion that the play contends with something Albee actually experienced is irrelevant now, so all I’ll do here is reiterate what I said earlier: Lady from Dubuque is a worthy play, full of interesting and arresting stage images and thoughts, however difficult they are to contemplate. My only serious criticism is that both act one and act two have some tedious passages that make their points and then remake them, and if Albee had edited them a little, the two-hour Lady might be a neat 90-minute one-act. (Although, that would eliminate the strategically managed act break which is, itself, a dramatic moment.) It is, in any case, a terrific vehicle for theater artists, especially actors. The characters are just a notch off true Realism, making them challenging and demanding; I can only guess at the kind of work, both in and out of rehearsal, this cast must have had to do. For audiences, Lady’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think this revival shows that it’s time now for the play to be added to the repertoires of American theaters.

Notices were mixed, though most reviewers were largely positive, even enthusiastic about the production—especially the acting. Brantley calls the revival “scintillating” in the New York Times and concludes that it’s “exquisitely mounted,” even revealing to him that, as I noted earlier, the play’s about Sam (something Brantley had apparently missed). In Back Stage, Erik Haagensen goes so far as to write: “This blistering yet deeply humane metaphysical drama about death ranks with Albee's finest work” and concludes, “‘The Lady From Dubuque’ is a sure and stunning blow to the heart.” On the other side, Variety’s Marilyn Stasio was more in tune with the 1980 reception, asserting that the play “doesn't exactly rise triumphantly from the ashes” because the “metaphysical mystery is surprisingly shallow” despite “its handsome mounting” which “does . . . look absolutely stunning.” Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post more or less agrees, saying that the reasons for the 1980 flop are understandable: Lady “relies on forced situations and straw men” even if Esbjornson “makes a good case for this play’s mix of sophistication and crassness, stylization and realism.” In the Village Voice, Michael Feingold asserts that “Albee has created a powerful, multi-layered image of dying and the sense of loss it brings” but adds, “Even a multi-layered image, though, isn't a drama.” He describes the STC revival as “sleek yet surprisingly poignant . . . with its strongly focused acting,” but states that this only makes the weaknesses of the script more apparent. He concludes by saying, “Riveting yet off-putting, it feels frozen, a fossil reality trapped in amber.”

14 March 2012

'Early Plays'

On Friday evening, 2 March, my friend Diana and I drove over to DUMBO to see Early Plays, an adaptation of three one-acts from the Glencairn Plays by Eugene O’Neill, presented at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The adaptation, by Richard Maxwell, was performed by a combined company made up of actors from the Wooster Group, the long-lived experimental troupe whose usual home is the Performing Garage in SoHo, and the New York City Players, a 13-year-old group started and directed by Maxwell. While I’ve known of the Wooster Group for years (I was a grad student in NYU’s Department of Performance Studies and a frequent student of Richard Schechner’s, whose Performance Group was the precursor to the Wooster Group), I hadn’t heard of the New York City Players—at least I don’t remember having heard of them despite the fact that reviews of their shows and articles about them have appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere for over a decade. (Along with a collection of some of Maxwell’s plays, Plays, 1996- 2000: Richard Maxwell, there’s even a book about him and his company: The Theatre of Richard Maxwell and the New York City Players by Sarah Gorman.)

The four Glencairn Plays (also known as the Sea Plays) take O'Neill’s tales of sailors at sea and ashore, drawn from the playwright’s own experience as a merchant mariner, as a vehicle to explore themes of longing and eternity. Dark episodes depict the underside of turn-of-the-century maritime life—brawls, dances, and carousing—as the playwright captures the voices of seamen from different countries. The one-acts were written separately and weren’t all débuted by the same troupe. Bound East for Cardiff (1914) premièred at the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on 28 July 1916 in a production of the nascent Provincetown Players; the Washington Square Players’ début of In the Zone (1917) opened at the Comedy Theatre in New York City on 31 October 1917; the Provincetown Players premièred The Long Voyage Home (1917) at the Playwrights’ Theatre, New York, on 2 November 1917; and The Moon of the Caribbees (1918), presented again by the Provincetown Players at the Playwrights' Theatre, opened on 20 December 1918.

O’Neill hadn’t intended the Glencairn Plays to be played together at first, even though they all share the same set of characters who are shipmates on the British tramp steamer Glencairn. It wasn’t until 1924 that the Provincetown Players first staged the four one-acts under one title, The S.S. Glencairn, at O’Neill’s suggestion, but since then, they’ve been considered a set. (The four plays were filmed together in 1940, updated from World War I to World War II, as The Long Voyage Home, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. It’s said to have been O’Neill’s favorite film based on any of his plays.) The Wooster Group had invited Maxwell, who’d worked with his company out of the Performing Garage a few times, to direct the plays, and he chose to do three of them (Zone isn’t included in Early Plays) on the set of the Wooster Group’s Emperor Jones and Hairy Ape (designed by Elizabeth LeCompte and Jim Clayburgh). In Moon, the ship is anchored off a West Indian island as the men listen to the eerie singing from shore and wait for the native women to come aboard to sell fruit and contraband rum. Two sailors fight over Pearl, who’d been flirting with them both, and one of the men is stabbed to death. The first mate throws the women off the ship, leaving the sailors alone as the on-shore singing haunts them. In Bound East, Yank takes a fatal fall down a hold and reflects bitterly on the life he’s leaving. His shipmates attempt to comfort him as death comes for him in a vision of a beautiful woman. Long Voyage is the story of Ole Olson, a Swedish sailor, who goes to Fat Joe’s, a bar on the London docks, with his mates. Olson won’t drink so he doesn’t get drunk, but he recounts his plans to return home to his family farm to sympathetic Freda. She distracts him while Joe slips him a mickey and he’s shanghaied aboard the Amindra, the “worst ship dat sail to sea.”

Early Plays, a world première that the companies plan to tour to Paris, Los Angeles, and San Francisco next season, explores the spareness and the musicality of this language in scenes that include songs by Maxwell. Elizabeth LeCompte, director of the Wooster Group, chose the New York City Players director to provide these plays a "re-mix," giving O’Neill’s romantic text a stark, Postmodern feel. After my experience at St Ann’s, I have to say, I don’t get the hype or even the attention Maxwell and his troupe have gotten. Granted, this production is different from the usual New York City Players’ fare: first, the company is a combined troupe of New York City Players and Wooster Group actors, so Maxwell’s not working with his usual crew; second, this is a rare effort with a script that Maxwell didn’t write. (In 2003, Maxwell and his troupe staged an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. Their only previous effort at presenting the work of another writer than Maxwell; it was universally panned.) I don’t know what difference that might make, but I have to consider it.

Maxwell, a North Dakotan who launched his theater work in Chicago around 1992, is the brother of Jan Maxwell, a well-regarded star of Broadway and Off-Broadway (and the wife of an actor I used to know quite well and greatly admire). Maxwell started the New York City Players in 1999 and their work has gained a great deal of acclaim among both devotees of experimental theater and the press. Ben Brantley of the New York Times, for instance, said of Maxwell in 2001 "that he may indeed turn out to be one of the most innovative and essential artists to emerge from American experimental theater in the past decade." According to the company itself:

New York City Players is a theater company creating original work about people, relationships, and above all, feeling. [Its] aim is to initiate a new dialogue with an ever-growing audience using original text and music. By rigorously stripping away the habitual identities that encumber work, we pursue the power of language, of story, of image, and what happens when people gather in a room.

I can’t unpack this manifesto, but what all this turns out to mean is that the actors create no characters and deliver the lines with flat affect so that not only are the emotional or psychological intentions erased, but the accents and dialects in which O’Neill wrote in the Sea Plays sound ridiculously childish and stupid. (I gather from reading criticism that Maxwell’s idea is that this emphasizes the words and impels the spectators to supply their own emotional content. I can do that by reading the plays—I even own a collection of O’Neill.) There are many jokes about untrained actors reading a script for the first time and reading all the words, including the stage directions. That’s what this is like, except instead of stage directions, the actors read the phonetically spelled-out dialects verbatim. The actors also speak in an even, slightly speeded-up pace and exhibit few, if any, facial expressions or body gestures. There’s no attempt to make the words sound like speech—indeed, the company deliberately subverts any such intent. If there’s some point behind this practice—and I gather that this is the performance style of the New York City Players—I don’t see it. Diana thought it was amateurish—but that’s simplistic. An amateur might do something like this out of ignorance or inability; these actors do it intentionally, as if it meant something to sabotage the sense of the dialogue. Now, I recognize that O’Neill’s writing in these early plays is stilted, inartful, and hard to speak. The Sea Plays are usually considered unstageable as they’re written. The dramaturgy is clumsy, fragmentary, and plotless. As Ben Brantley points out in his New York Times review of Early Plays, acting these plays “with ardor and earnestness often only amplifies their creaks.” But Maxwell’s approach hardly solves the theatrical problems; it exacerbates them. (The cast is split among Wooster Group actors and New York City Players, but the production's style appears to be exclusively Maxwell’s.) Frankly, I don’t get the point of the whole exercise.

According to Brantley (whose word I’ll take in this instance), Maxwell’s notion is “to look for the distilled essence beneath the hoary crust” of O’Neill’s novice efforts. The affectless monotones, phonetic pronunciation of the dialects, and robotic movements, however, don’t elucidate or clarify. They numb and enervate. Even the staging, using the Wooster Group’s O’Neill set as a kind of found object, has its detriments. Bound East, the playlet about the dying Yank, is performed far upstage right, off the actual platform that is the ship’s deck in Moon and the bar in Voyage. Yank is stretched out in a bunk or hammock a few feet up, his face and torso dimly lit by a lantern, as a shipmate stays with him to keep him comforted, and it was so hard to see this scene that I ultimately gave up and just tried to listen. (Some reviewers suggested that that was Maxwell’s goal for Bound East—but another name for that kind of production is radio drama.) Now, I’ll freely admit I’m a geezer, but I don’t automatically dismiss experimental art, especially theater. I’ve seen some performances that I didn’t really understand, but that I enjoyed for their flair, verve, and innovative impulse. I like seeing what younger minds than mine (which is . . . well, most of them these days) are coming up with to make the old new again. But here, I just don’t see the rationale for the approach—except just to do it, to thumb their noses at the audience. (Okay, that’s what Marcel Duchamp did in 1917 when he mounted a urinal on a board and called it art—but that was funny! At least I think it was.)

The plays include a few moments of song, such as the shanty the sailors sing in Moon and the haunting music they heard from shore in the same play. Oddly, when the men sing, the actors seem to forget their commitment to affectless performance and sing like working men engaging in an impromptu musical interlude. Then there are the songs that Maxwell composed for the breaks between the plays. As far as I could see, they had nothing to do with either the little vignettes of the seaman’s life or “the spirit of the sea” which O’Neill is said to have designated the hero of the Glencairn Plays. Like a lot of the work in Early Plays, the original songs struck me as self-indulgences by a self-important artist.

Aside from Brantley’s New York Times notice, which was cool but harked back to earlier Maxwell successes and laudatory estimations, Adam Feldman in Time Out New York, while also acknowledging that Maxwell’s style works effectively when applied to his own scripts, concludes that when applied to the work of other writers, as in Early Plays, “it can come off as smug and dismissive, as though diddling itself with a middle finger.” In Back Stage, Jason Fitzgerald calls “Maxwell meets O'Neill” “a carefully wrought and visually beautiful production that is defeated by its own rigor,” and suggests, “It lacks the thing O'Neill cared about most in his theater: a beating heart.” The Village Voice’s Alexis Soloski offers, “It’s a clever show and sometimes a startlingly charming one, but it never argues for its own necessity, never clarifies what drew these companies to it.” In the New Yorker, however, Hilton Als, saying that Early Plays “has the supreme realism of a dream,” lauds Maxwell for “short-circuiting our desire for the standard forms of theatrical pleasure” and asserts that the production “is reductive in the best possible way.”

Nonetheless, I’m left with the questions Why Maxwell and his company do this kind of work—because I don’t understand it—and then Why does anybody find it worthwhile and even praiseworthy. In the end, it was I who was at sea. I felt I’ve been witness to the emperor’s new clothes: the monarch’s naked, but no one’s dared tell him so or inform the people. Well, here I am to tell you all: The emperor ain’t got no clothes on! Go look if you want to, but don’t be fooled. He’s as naked as a jaybird!

[This play report, an application of the principal rationale for launching Rick On Theater three years ago, appears in the week of the blog’s third anniversary (on 16 March). There’s nothing especially remarkable about “Early Plays”—though I suppose it’s auspicious that my anniversary post focuses on the first American playwright to gain an international reputation and the only American dramatist to win a Nobel Prize (1936)—but it does represent the very purpose I had for starting this on-going effort. In the intervening months and years, I’ve branched out into other topics, even other fields beyond theater or the arts, but the mainstay of ROT is still the play report. This month and last will have seen a surfeit of reports on plays and performances, both from me and from my friend and contributor, Kirk Woodward. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all to the good. The season’s only about two-thirds over, so there will certainly be more production reports to come—and, I hope, well into future seasons. In between, I hope to present thoughts on topics that interest or concern me and to bring ROT readers ideas and opinions from other writers, both previously published and original for the blog. I also hope readers will keep returning to see what’s up on ROT. The past three years have been challenging and fun. I expect the future will be the same. ~Rick]

09 March 2012


On Wednesday evening, 29 February, Diana, my frequent theater partner, and I went to the Peter Norton Space, the temporary home of the Atlantic Theater Company (their Chelsea home base is under reconstruction until the spring), to see the world première of Gabe McKinley’s CQ/CX, a play set in the world of daily newspaper journalism.

CQ/CX follows Jay Bennett, an emerging African-American reporter at the New York Times. Bennett aspires to become a famous newsman, but his dreams disintegrate around him when he becomes the center of a plagiarism scandal. McKinley’s drama is inspired by the true story of Jayson Blair, forced to resign from the Times in May 2003 when the paper revealed that he had cribbed many of his stories and invented details and fabricated reporting and interviews without ever leaving his Brooklyn apartment. The playwright has changed the names of the people involved and some characters are composites, but the facts remain closely parallel to the real events. CQ/CX also doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of the story, including the aftermath of the exposure. Because Blair is black, there were allegations that he’d been promoted and advanced in his career because of his race, and that he’d gotten away with what he’d been doing for so long for the same reason. “People of color who believe they’ve achieved on their own merits become insecure because they’re worried that they were only pushed forward because of affirmative action,” says Kobi Libii, the actor who plays Bennett. “That’s part of what drives this incarnation of the character to deceive his colleagues at the paper.” McKinley asserts that that’s a main theme of the play. “In any scandal the most dramatic and tragic elements are in the ways it’s ground up and churned out,” observes the playwright. While exploring topical questions such as what makes good journalism and how a story should be told, CQ/CX also looks at issues that include racial politics, gender bias, cultural elitism, and political correctness.

McKinley, whose last play in New York City was Extinction at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 2010, is in a good position to know something not just about journalism, but the Blair scandal in particular. He worked at the New York Times for 12 years, spanning Blair’s tenure at the paper, and his brothers Jesse and James are both reporters for the Times now. (James writes about music and Jesse reports on theater and heads the San Francisco bureau.) The McKinley brothers’ father was also a reporter (Esquire and Playboy in the ’70s), so it’s a milieu Gabe McKinley ought to know well. He affirms that the Blair saga had a “deep” effect on him: "I always thought it was such a dramatic situation, the confluence of personalities, and the news breaking at the time, from 9/11 to Afghanistan to sniper attacks and anthrax incidents. It felt like the whole world was ending.” He was compelled to write about the experience, he says. It took him almost ten years to come to grips with the events, however. Asked why he didn’t just write a biographical play about Blair, McKinley explains: “It’s a work for the theater and I felt, like Jayson, that to get closer to the truth I had to get farther from the facts sometimes. I had to create some characters and create composites of several people.”

The dramatist, who left the Times in 2008, got to know Blair some while they were at the paper. “He wasn't much older than me. We used to hang out quite a bit," McKinley recalls. But he adds, "It's hard to know what he was actually like. He had a secret life, obviously. He was a gregarious, fun-loving, charming guy. He enjoyed the nightlife. He liked the idea of the work-hard, play-hard journalist. He really embraced that as part of his identity." Though he still admires the paper greatly, the playwright acknowledges that the humans who run it can make mistakes. "This play is a look at traditions, at legacies and ultimately at hubris,” McKinley points out. “There are great minds involved who were basically hoodwinked." McKinley hasn’t seen Blair since the former reporter left the paper, but Blair, now working in Virginia as a life coach, has said he would try to see CQ/CX. “It’s kind of a great opportunity again for people to learn from my mistakes,” Blair says.

McKinley’s job at the Times included compiling the corrections that are published on page two of the front section every day. (He was an editorial assistant, but he says he worked in every department.) It’s from that aspect of newspaper work that the play’s title comes: “CQ” is the abbreviation of cadit quaestio, Latin for ‘the question falls,’ which editors write in the margins of a draft article when they determine that an unusual word or fact is, indeed, correct. “CX,” shorthand for ‘correction,’ marks text that needs verification. (Oddly, some sources give the definitions in reverse, but I derived mine from a published interview with McKinley—so I’ll go with the dramatist’s intent on this.) Unfortunately, McKinley never really develops this locution into a theme in the play and it remains just one of the factoids about newspapering that the writer drops into the script.

The play, unhappily, has several more serious problems, both on the page and on the stage. Let me start with the first set, the script troubles. It’s clear that McKinley’s a tyro playwright; his bio lists few scripts and only one’s been staged here. (McKinley wasn’t a reporter at the Times, either, but an editorial assistant, so his writing credentials in that field are limited, too.) I ascribe many of the dramaturgical faults of CQ/CX to a writer not yet sure how to handle the medium and who’s main knowledge of dramatic writing seems to be from television. The two-and-a-quarter-hour play’s made up of short scenes, some very brief, separated by swift scene changes covered by the sounds of a newsroom (typewriters, computer keyboards, ringing phones, etc.) as moving panels, covered with projections of news text, shift back and forth across the stage (“an overdose of moving scenery,” says Variety). (The set is by David Rockwell, with projections by Peter Nigrini and C. Andrew Bauer. The lighting design is from Ben Stanton and David Van Tieghem created the original music and the soundscape.) Few of the scenes are linked causally (though the narrative connects most of them), and they are frequently focused on exposition rather than drama. The one good scene theatrically was one among the publisher (David Pittu) and his managing and executive editors (Peter Jay Fernandez and Arliss Howard, respectively) after the crisis has broken: the three men engage one another, not always graciously, and each has a strong, private objective to pursue—it’s an actual dramatic scene, a confrontation, rather than just story-telling. Though I haven’t seen any corroboration of this supposition, my feeling is that either McKinley set out to write a TV movie or he inadvertently ended up having composed one.

Perhaps more damaging, the play’s not really about Jay Bennett or anyone else in the cast. Bennett’s function in the play is as a catalyst: he makes the story happen, but he doesn’t change as a result of the play’s action. We know the story’s about Bennett only because the source material’s about Jayson Blair; however, McKinley’s focus isn’t on any person, but the paper—or the idea of The Times, the Gray Lady, which the playwright clearly reveres. I’m not sure any writer can make this work on stage (it might work on film and especially on TV, though even Deadline U.S.A. had to have strong characters, led by Humphrey Bogart’s editor, to work as a film melodrama), but without characters on whom to focus, with whom to sympathize, the play becomes too diffuse for me to care much about anyone or, even, the paper itself. In the Village Voice, Michael Feingold gives a good, concise analysis of what I think went wrong in CQ/CX:

A story in a newspaper and a story onstage are two different things. A newspaper reports the facts—at least, one hopes it does—and only occasionally takes an in-depth look behind them. When a play takes up facts, it's supposed to dramatize them—meaning not only that we watch while, seemingly, the facts occur to the people involved, but also that we end by getting a deeper understanding of how and why these facts have occurred.

McKinley asserts that his play is about a number of human conditions he sees reflected in the scandal and the circumstances at the Times, but while lip service is given to many of them, the playwright doesn’t examine the issues, or look at the characters in their light. (The Internet gets a mention, for instance, but there’s no exploration of its effect on the future of the news business.) In my criteria for good theater, CQ/CX fails the test of doing more than telling a story. As Feingold intimates, I learn very little about the human condition from McKinley’s play.

As for the production, the first error, in my estimation, is a casting mistake. Young Kobi Libii may eventually be a powerful actor, but at present, he’s a lightweight. (Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post says he “doesn’t have an ounce of charisma.”) He gets lost on stage whenever anyone else is there or whenever anything is happening that steals focus from him. Director David Leveaux seems to have taken a chance on an untried performer, and maybe that’s a generous impulse that could have paid off, but he chose wrong in this case. What the part seems to have needed is a young Andre Braugher, an actor who attracts focus even when he’s out of the spotlight; Libii fades away. (I don’t mean to put the blame on the actor’s physical attributes, but Libii’s slight and willowy with a light voice, making him seem more like an adolescent than an ambitious and manipulative young man.) When Bennett makes excuses for his behavior and argues that he isn’t responsible for his failures, Libii sounds more like a whiny teenager trying to get out of trouble at school than a fighter with his back against the ropes. Unfortunately, Leveaux’s other casting choices aren’t a whole lot better. (The best stage presence in the cast is Larry Bryggman, whose aging, obsolescent old-time reporter is a wonderful little portrait, if a bit of a cliché. Bryggman’s Frank King, however, is just a grace note in the play, a sort of echo of times past against whom to measure the current staff of both editors and cub reporters. If the character were cut, the play wouldn’t change.) None of the actors makes his or her character more than a plot point, someone to move the story along, but not to introduce dramatic conflict, tension, suspense, or revelation. Many (except Arliss Howard, who sometimes seemed as if he were on a different stage) seem to be indulging in what we used to call studio acting, what acting students do while they’re working on acting technique, but which isn’t meant for paying audiences. With the short and fast-changing scenes of the script, none of the characters registers for long, and the actors (and the director) never overcome this deficit.

The New York Times review was mixed, suggesting that the playwright was too concerned with the story and the details of the circumstances—the confusing and rapidly evolving situation at the paper, for instance—and not enough to the stage drama. It’s interesting to note, though, that the notice was written by Frank Rizzo, the theater reviewer of the Hartford, Connecticut, Courant, not someone from the Times’s theater or cultural staff. I’ve never seen that as far I can remember, and I wondered why at first. (Rizzo, also a frequent contributor to Variety, was identified in a blurb at the bottom of the column, but the paper gave no explanation for his appearance in its pages.) Suddenly, it dawned on me: Of course the Times would bring in an outsider to review CQ/CX. The playwright is a former Times employee, his brothers both write for the paper, the characters in the play are all versions of real current or former Timesmen, and the plot is a New York Times scandal. Whether or not any present staff writer knew Blair or was at the paper when he was there, the appearance of a potential conflict of interest could make any evaluation of the play suspect—especially considering how significant the Times’s reviews are believed to be in the world of New York theater. (Here’s an interesting question: If the New York Times is the most powerful voice in theater reviewing in this city, does a review by a non-Times writer carry as much weight just because it’s published in the Gray Lady? Not according to one reader: “I will disregard this review and await a proper review from a New York Times critic.” The commenter signed the e-mail, rather chauvinistically to my eye, “NEW YORK TIMES Subscriber. NOT the Hartford Courant.”) So the Blair scandal, which seems to have been ancient history at the Times in all other respects, still has repercussions eight years later, in a department with which Blair had no connection. (Why Rizzo was selected rather than any other non-Times reviewer, I have no guess. It might be interesting to find out, but probably not relevant.)

Rizzo, describing the play as “less ‘Front Page’ than ‘Front Page Correction’—a straightforward dramatization and a cautionary tale of ambition, deception and hubris,” concludes, “Like a good journalist Mr. McKinley lays out those facts, adds color and provides an authoritative voice, but . . . ‘CQ/CX’ only lightly suggests themes of class, power and race.” In Variety, Steven Suskin observes that the “real-life drama of the situation is pretty much absent onstage” and closes with, “The play itself could use some strong editing.” Back Stage’s Erik Haagensen writes that the play “rarely dips beneath the surface, playing more like an extended TV-drama episode” (as if agreeing with my own suggestion!) and declares that Leveaux’s “busy production” does little more in the end than “accentuate the shallowness of McKinley's two-dimensional script.” The Voice’s Feingold, while applauding the “smart efficiency” of Leveaux’s direction, says that the “first-rate acting, like the lucid wordsmithing and the bustle of Leveaux's staging, animate the story but never deepen it.” Vincentelli of the Post writes bluntly, “‘CQ/CX’ . . . is a cheesy, ham-fisted affair.” On the other hand, in New York’s Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz asserts, “Save for some clunky exposition, McKinley’s script is crisp and smart,” though he adds, “It’s too bad that eventually the play becomes wimpy.” The nays far outnumbered the yeas.

Michael Feingold adds, “McKinley has dramatized for theatergoers the difference between old plays, which sometimes stay alive, and old news, which notoriously doesn't.” The Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, at least for the purposes of politics. Gabe McKinley has proved to me that a newspaper isn’t a character, at least not for a successful stage drama.

[Coincidentally, the story of Jayson Blair at the New York Times was the basis for a murder mystery on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. In October 2003, the series aired an episode called “Pravda” (both the name of the Communist Party newspaper of the Soviet Union and the Russian word for ‘truth’) whose plot revolves around the investigation of a murder, during which the detectives question the alibi of Carl Hines, a star African-American reporter on the Sentinel, who can’t produce out-of-town receipts and has a history of filing false stories.]

04 March 2012

'Red' (Arena Stage)

I took my usual Kosher Bus down to Washington to catch John Logan’s Red, his play about Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (1903-70), at the Arena Stage’s new Mead Center for American Theater at the matinee on Sunday afternoon, 26 February. I’d seen Washington actor Edward Gero as Salieri in a revival of Amadeus in May 2011 (see my report on ROT, 6 July 2011) and the actor’s program bio noted that he was going to be playing Rothko in Chicago and then at Arena, and I wanted to see the play. I’d missed it here in New York City, so my mother and I arranged the date so I could squeeze the trip in between shows here for which I had tickets already. (Red ran on Broadway in the spring of 2010 in a generally well-received production with Alfred Molina as the artist Mark Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant, Ken. The production had come from London’s Donmar Warehouse where Michael Grandage, who staged the show, is the artistic director. It won six Tonys, including one for Best Play.) The revival at Arena’s Kreeger Theater is a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where the play ran first, from 17 September to 30 October 2011, before moving to Washington; Robert Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman, the country’s second oldest repertory theater company, directed the revival.

Playwright Logan says he was moved to write Red when he was in London in 2007 filming Sweeney Todd, for which he’d written the screenplay. He paid a visit to the Tate Modern which has an exhibit of nine of Rothko’s 1958 murals intended for the elegant Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. “They had a very powerful effect on me,” Logan asserts. “I knew very little about Mark Rothko, very little about Abstract Expressionism, but I found the paintings themselves profoundly moving and kinetic in a strange way.” The writer was deeply moved by the paintings: “They touched me, mostly because of their sense of profound seriousness.” Taken with the story of how the painter had changed his mind and decided to keep the murals, returning the money for the commission, the dramatist decided there was a play “in Rothko’s complicated relationship with his work.”

Logan came to understand that Rothko’s “frame of reference, his world, was entirely that of painting. So before the character could speak about anything, I felt as though I had to have some facility in the visual arts and in the specifics of the language of art history.” With no background in art, the writer “realized I would have to gain a significant understanding of art history” because Rothko was “such an intellectually challenging artist” who “had an encyclopedic knowledge of painting and of artists.” The playwright recounts that “I spent eight or nine months researching art history. Going to museums, looking at paintings, and trying to see which artists had inspired Rothko, how he fit into the tradition, and why and how he broke with tradition. In a way it was like learning a new language for me—the language of visual art.”

The play’s not an actual biography of the painter (though Logan read one by James E. B. Breslin, as well as Rothko’s own writings on art and color), nor a depiction of any actual events in his life. The character of Ken, for instance, is invented, not based on anyone in Rothko’s life. (In the Washington Post, Peter Marks describes Ken as “a composite of the assistants who toiled in Rothko’s Manhattan studio,” but Logan has stated that he’s not even that: he’s entirely made up.) In fact, the relationship between Rothko and Ken in Red isn’t a reflection of the painter’s relationships with his actual assistants, who were mere practical employees, there only to do what Rothko needed, Logan explains. The playwright has said that “the play is really not about art at all, it's not about painting; it's about fathers and sons” and he sees Ken as a surrogate son for the “flamboyant” painter. Rothko would “be the prow of an ocean liner cutting through the ocean and Ken would have to be the wave that billows around it for most of the play,” Logan explains.

Red débuted in London at the renowned Donmar Warehouse, a cradle of new and experimental plays that have often had subsequent success both in the West End and at theaters in this country. It played in London from 3 December 2009 to 6 February 2010 before transferring to Broadway’s John Golden Theatre on 11 March 2010 for previews, opening on 1 April and running until 27 June. After the successes in London and on Broadway, Logan, who went to college and began his playwriting career in the Chicago area in the early 1980s when, he asserts, “it was like Paris in the ’20s,” says he knew there’d eventually be an American production, with an American director and an American cast. The Chicago-Washington staging is among the the first, though with its critical reception, single set, and small cast, I’d bet there’ll be more pretty quickly. (College productions would seem a natural, I’d think, especially since one character is a young man—and even Rothko is only 55 at the time of the play.) It won’t hurt the play’s prospects that it runs only 100 minutes and has no intermission. The D.C. production opened for previews on 20 January and is scheduled to close on 11 March (including an extension of eight additional performances).

Washington has made something of an event of the play’s appearance there. On 8 December 2011, Edward Gero performed excerpts from the production at the Phillips Collection, one of the District’s most distinguished art museums. The staged reading was followed by a conversation with David Dower, Arena’s associate artistic director, and Klaus Ottman, curator-at-large of the Phillips and author of The Essential Mark Rothko. The Phillips Collection maintains a Rothko Room which founder Duncan Phillips created with the artist in 1960, featuring four Rothko paintings in a small, chapel-like gallery off the main lobby of the museum. Before the performance at the collection, Gero paid the exhibit a visit on his own to experience Rothko’s paintings as the artist had intended: by spending time with them. He read the scene in Red where the artist instructs Ken the way to look at a painting—aloud to the Rothkos—and then he sat for three hours. The Rothko Room, the first public space devoted exclusively to Rothko’s art, has a bench specifically selected by the painter to encourage visitors to do this. (After contemplating the four canvases in the room, Gero met with Ottman who discussed the artist and his work with the actor. This was all part of Gero’s preparation for the part, which also included reading the 1993 Breslin bio, before he went to Chicago for rehearsals. Gero ruminates on this experience in “Field Trip: The Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection” on line at http://geroasrothko.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/field-trip-the-rothko-room-at-the-phillips-collection. Alfred Molina, the Broadway Rothko, also made the trip to the Rothko Room at the Phillips and to the National Gallery of Art’s collection of Rothko canvases.)

In 1985 and ’86, the National Gallery received a large gift of works from the Mark Rothko Foundation, including several of the Seagram Murals. (The third group of the Seagram Murals is part of the collection of Japan’s Kawamura Memorial Museum in Sakura.) From 6 December 2011 through 15 August 2012 the National Gallery will house a special installation of three of the Seagram canvases in the East Building’s Concourse Gallery to coincide with Arena’s staging of Red. Between 3 and 5 February, inspired by Rothko’s stand against art that only the elite would see (the artist’s stated rationale for withdrawing the murals from the up-scale Four Seasons), the Vestibule Guerrilla Gallery presented Seeing Red, an exhibit of street art that everyone can see, at Arena’s Mead Center. (The Guerrilla Gallery, as its name implies, is, well . . . peripatetic. It pops up where it can cause the most impact—wherever the Occupy Movement in Washington is demonstrating, for instance.) For Seeing Red, the gallery assembled a group of emerging D.C. street artists whose works have been seen on the streets and in galleries of the District. The artists in Seeing Red created new work using Rothko’s formula for making art: “I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. . . . It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results of the proportions of these elements.” Other activities and events coordinated with the production have been planned as well and the Washington Post has published several articles on the play, aside from the customary review. (Gero, who’s won four Helen Hayes Awards for his stage work, is a favorite actor of audiences in the District. That would generate press coverage as well.)

To cut to the chase, then—it was worth all the hype (not to mention my bus trip south and back). Red is a terrific play and the Goodman-Arena production is excellent. I was so engaged by this exchange between the narcissistic, self-important artist and his young assistant who grows into intestinal maturity in our presence, so absorbed by the exploration of relationships, legacy, worth, meaning, adversity, life that I knew I had to buy the script. What Logan put on paper and what Falls, Gero, and Patrick Andrews, who plays young Ken, put on stage was one of the most thrilling pieces of new theater I’ve seen in a very long time. Horton Foote’s Orphans’ Home Cycle came mighty close, but the main thrill there was the wonderful and monumental production; otherwise, the nearest I’ve come to this quality of theater experience recently has been at revivals—Brecht’s Threepenny Opera at BAM, Kushner’s Angels in America at Signature, or Schiller’s Mary Stuart on Broadway. (Do you think that’s effusive enough?)

Okay, I don’t think Red will go down as great literature. But it’s really good theater. In fact, it’s theatrical as hell! (Remember my two criteria for good theater? A play must do more than tell a story and it must do it in a theatrical way. Red aces the test.) As Sophie Gilbert of Washingtonian magazine writes, the staging “achieves the seemingly impossible . . . [it] makes spellbinding theater out of watching paint dry.” I’m sorry now that I missed it on Broadway, not because the Arena production is lacking, but because now I wish I could have seen what the other actors and director did with the show. This is the kind of play in which I get caught up in three different aspects, all at once, and each can be so different in the hands of different artists. There’s the text, of course, full of infinitely interpretable lines and scenes; there are the characters, each open to interpretation by different actors under the guidance of different directors; and there’s the relationship between the two characters, which will change if one actor changes even one beat. (I’ve heard, though I don’t know how accurate the report is, that Eddie Redmayne, who won a Tony and an Olivier for his portrayal of Ken on Broadway and in London, had developed such a different feeling about Rothko by the end of the play that he couldn’t deliver the last line of Logan’s script. Redmayne is supposed to have acknowledged that himself, though I’ve never seen it reported; but if it’s even partially true—that, say, the actor had trouble saying the last line because of all that went before in his work with Alfred Molina—that’s what I mean.) This play is so full of possible variations, all of which can be vastly different but equally true or valid, I can’t even contemplate the permutations that are possible. If I were still an actor (and ten years younger), I’d kill to play Rothko somewhere.

Maybe that’s enough enthusiasm for one report. Let’s get to specifics. The play opens on Rothko’s cramped, cluttered studio at 222 Bowery in lower Manhattan in 1958, just after, as we’ll soon learn, the painter’s gotten the commission to create paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building being designed by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, giants of architecture in the post-World War II decades. Todd Rosenthal’s naturalistic set is visible when we come into the theater—the Kreeger’s a traditional proscenium space, but there’s no curtain on this production. Paint pots, buckets, drop cloths, frames, stretchers are all around the periphery of the room; a wheeled work table with cans, brushes, and painterly paraphernalia is stage left center, just below a slop sink; a glassed-in vestibule is up right. There are no windows: natural light isn’t good enough, we’ll learn. And up center, right in front of us, is a monumental canvas, orange and brown, unfinished: a Rothko! Classical music, the opening theme of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, starts playing from a Victrola—we’ll find out that Rothko hates jazz—and the painter comes in to sit in a green, wooden lawn chair, smoke a cigarette, and contemplate the work. Otherwise, silence. This is how art—Rothko’s art—is experienced, considered, understood, judged. This is how the artist himself decides if it’s finished. If it needs more work. What it needs if it does. This is Mark Rothko’s world. This is John Logan’s version of Rothko’s world. For all intents and purposes, this is the universe of Red—though now and then bits of other realities will spin into its orbit. They can be used, confronted, but they aren’t part of this universe. Not even other art is part of this universe.

In walks Ken, young, timid, overdressed—this is a place of work, the painter will inform him—and awed. “What do you see?” Rothko asks him. Me? You want to know what I think? Why? What should I say? And that’s where Ken and Rothko’s relationship starts. Rothko tells Ken in no uncertain terms that he’s not the young wannabe’s—he’s a painter, too, though his work is never seen, not by us or by Rothko— rabbi, father, shrink, friend, or teacher. He’s the employer and Ken’s there to do whatever the artist needs done: stretch canvases, prime them, buy supplies, clean brushes, mix paint, sweep up, move framed paintings, fetch cigarettes . . . whatever. A gofer. But that’s not what happens, as we know it won’t. Ken becomes a sounding board, an outside eye, a test audience, a punching bag, and, yes, a student and, perhaps, a surrogate son. (“The son must kill the father,” Rothko advises Ken. “Respect him, but kill him.”) Over a two-year span in 1958 and 1959, Rothko learns about the bloody murder of Ken’s parents in Iowa when the boy was seven, and Ken hears about Rothko’s witnessing a Cossack raid during a pogrom back in Russia when he was still Marcus Rothkowitz, a land he left at 10 and a name he shed in 1940 when a gallery-owner informed his there were already too many Jewish artists. Little by little, over the hour-and-forty-minute course of the drama, Ken learns to stand up to the bully, even finally to challenge him—and they end up respecting each other, however grudgingly and obliquely.

“What do you see?” It’s both the first thing Rothko says, and the last. Ken’s answer is also the same: “Red.” Red is the essence of the life force, we’ll learn; black is death: Rothko’s greatest fear is that “One day the black will swallow the red.” He means, of course, not only his own death—the painter committed suicide in 1970 by cutting his wrists in his studio (evoked in Red when Ken finds Rothko sitting on the floor covered with paint)—but also the death of his art, swallowed up by the popular work of the Warhols, Lichtensteins, and Rauschenbergs, swiftly coming up behind him—the sons killing the father. Just like he and his contemporaries did to the Cubists, their predecessors. And not only that, but the death of refinement and culture swallowing up all art and creativity.

As you might guess, red is a leitmotif in Red. But what does red actually mean when Ken says that’s what he sees? “What does ‘red’ mean to me?” Rothko demands. “You mean scarlet? You mean crimson? You mean plum-mulberry-magenta-burgundy-salmon-carmine-carnelian-coral? Anything but ‘red!’ What is ‘RED?!’” It’s about perception. It’s about seeing. Life is what you see—not just in art, we’ll discover, but in everything, everywhere. When you look at something, what do you see?

In a profile of Falls in the Washington Post, Gero explains that as a result of the director’s exploration of the play, “Patrick and I became very specific about what was happening at every single moment of the play.” And they did. Andrews, a prolific Chicago actor, and Gero, one of the Capital’s most sought-after performers, match up perfectly for this pair of characters. Andrews, small, slim (a dancer, as it happens), light-haired, mid-20’s, boyish, a tenor, is the physical opposite of Gero, stocky, tall, Italian-swarthy, dark-haired (though balding), mid-50’s, with owlish glasses, a booming baritone. But they’re identical beneath the physiognomy: steel-spined, strong-willed, vocally commanding, both capable of holding the stage either alone or as part of a duo. And they do, taking stage, giving it, sharing it. In fact, the performances are a little like a mostly-bloodless boxing match in the squared-off space of the studio—with the giant canvases as a backdrop (there are maybe half a dozen different “Rothkos” in various states of completion pulled up on the central piece of wall that is Rothko’s “easel”), often the focus of the debate or the catalyst for it. Sometimes Rothko prevails—well, usually he does—and sometimes Ken does, but the tussle is usually pretty even dramatically and neither Gero nor Andrews gives any quarter. It’s just like when the painter and the assistant stand side by side, backs to the audience, to prime a canvas, furiously smearing red-brown paint over the huge expanse of white with broad brushes, silently, except for the slap-slapping of the wet brushes on the fabric, stretching to the top and reaching down to the bottom edge in tandem action to get to the same result—be ready to work. Damn, this was something to watch.

I went down to Washington last September expressly to see the Arena’s revival of Oklahoma!, and that was great fun. I was delighted to have made the trip, but mostly because I just love the old musicals. This was a different pleasure. Granted, it was serendipitous, since I couldn’t have known what I’d see, but I wouldn’t have missed this performance of Red for anything. I know Gero’s work from past performances, and I expect him to be a strong stage presence—that’s why I decided to go down to see this show when I read he was doing the role. But I never heard of Andrews, and I’ve never seen his stage work, which has mostly (though not exclusively) been confined to Chicago. With any luck for the rest of us (I don’t know how he’d feel about this), someone’ll snap him up and get him out to the rest of the country, especially back East, much more often.

Now, Red is a play with only two actors in the cast. But there actually aren’t just two characters. There’s one more presence on the stage that becomes almost as powerful, at least at times, as Ken or even Rothko: the paintings. (Karl Kochvar, resident scenic artist at the Goodman and an artist himself who instructed the two actors about the use of brushes and Rothko’s painting techniques, made the prop Rothkos seen in the production. They look totally convincing to my eye—I’m no Rothko expert, but I’ve seen a few.) Starting with the large canvas seen at the start of the play, a brown field with a thick, rectangular, orange outline around the center (very like one of the actual Seagram Murals), through several changes of the work in progress, the paintings in various states of completion are ever present. There are also smaller paintings hung around the studio, and we gather from the behavior of Ken and Rothko that there’s a wall for displaying other canvases on the downstage “fourth” wall. Rothko’s world is surrounded by his art. (There are no representations of anyone else’s art in the studio, not even the greats with whom Rothko compares himself.) In the very first moment, when the artist examines his work-in-progress, from the first line, “What do you see?” to the last moment (also “What do you see?”), the paintings are the matrix of this small part of life. Logan says that the play’s not about art, or even painting, but the paintings are overwhelming presences, even the ones Ken and Rothko only talk about and we never see. (In the play, Rothko plans to paint 30 or 40 canvases and select the ones that work best together for the Four Seasons.) So Andrews and Gero don’t have to work just off of one another, create a relationship between themselves, but they have to work off the art, create a relationship between each of them and the paintings, let the paintings inform the relationship the actors develop between their two characters. And they do.

As Molly Smith, the Arena’s artistic director, points out, this is endemic to the drama of Red because before turning to painting, Rothko began to train as an actor at the American Laboratory Theatre in New York City (that was Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya’s troupe) and then performed with a company run by the wife of Clark Gable in Portland, Oregon, where he grew up. Painting was a source and an inspiration for contemplation and thought (“Most of painting is thinking,” says the artist), Rothko believed (which is why there’s a Rothko Room at the Phillips), but it was also a dramatic, theatrical act, a performance. Klaus Ottman, the curator and Rothko writer, says that the painter “continued to refer to what’s happening on the canvas as plays and to these color fields as actors that play out emotional dramas.” The Rothko Room at the Phillips and other spaces, like the 1971 Rothko Chapel in Houston, are stage sets in which the spectators are enclosed. Further, since Rothko doesn’t like or trust natural light for art, the studio and gallery lights are his stage lighting (there’s even a rolling Klieg light in the set to spotlight canvases), and Keith Parham’s lighting design for the Goodman-Arena production is both atmospheric and dramatic. (Most striking and effective is the final tableau when the painting on the wall, a black field with a red center, glows from within as the house lights dim. Now, that’s theatrical!) Red, then, is a drama about art as drama: “There’s tragedy in every brush stroke,” declares Rothko, and he doesn’t just mean tremendous sadness and loss. He advises Ken to read Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, a seminal work for theater artists. When he questions Ken about what reading he’s done, Rothko names Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Shakespeare among the philosophers and poets. “Hamlet?” he pleads. “At least Hamlet, please God! Quote me Hamlet. Right now.” To know art—to make art, you must know theater, Logan suggests.

Red’s critical reception in Washington was uniformly excellent. In MetroWeekly, Jonathan Padget calls the play “bracingly effective” and Washingtonian’s Gilbert especially states that the play’s pitting of the artist and the assistant against one another, the fundamental dramatic device, “works brilliantly.” While calling the production “immensely enjoyable,” Marks in the Post also speaks of “other powerful forces at work in ‘Red.’” On the website DCTheatreScene, Jayne Blanchard spotlights the “sublimely detailed and acted production.” She also writes that Gero and Andrews “work magic with the dark poetry” of Logan’s script. Amanda Gunther on another website, Maryland Theatre Guide, is so effusive as to say: “Never before has such a simply complex color blossomed to thrilling exuberant life upon the stage” and the Baltimore Sun’s Tim Smith, comparing the play to Rothko’s paintings, declared that “it pulsates. And the play's impact reverberates long after the curtain calls.” The Chicago notices were much the same, if not more laudatory (Logan, after all, is a kind of hometown boy): the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones calls the play a “superbly taut and compelling drama” and praises Falls’s directing and the acting of both Gero and Andrews, whom Jones thought all surpassed their London-New York counterparts, and Hedy Weiss in the Sun-Times calls Red “bristlingly smart, emotionally fiery.” In fact, in my survey of the reviews I didn’t find a single complaint or detraction, just praise and, often, astonishment that a play not only about art, but about talking about art could be so thrilling on stage. I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly. (When a friend, a theater-lover who lives in central Virginia, asked me if he should make the three-hour drive north to see Red, I told him unequivocally that he should. I might have been more honest to have said he must.)

Now, if you’ll permit me, a side comment. When Red opened in New York two years ago, the Times’s art reporter, Roberta Smith, wrote a column complaining that the play didn’t align with her experience visiting artists’ studios in the years following the setting of the play. I was aghast when I read the comment (which reminded me of another cavil years earlier when a psychoanalyst wrote to criticize Equus for its inaccurate portrayal of clinical behavior by the play’s psychiatrist). Smith seriously misses the point. Red isn’t reality—not only isn’t it Rothko’s reality—it’s not a bio play, just as Logan asserts—but no play is a depiction of reality because it’s art. Logan has created an exciting and moving piece of art that explores the relationship between two men. I gather that it’s based on the dramatist’s relationship with his own father, but that’s really irrelevant, since it’s the artwork which we experience—but under no circumstances is it meant to be a snapshot of reality. It’s informed by reality, as Logan has acknowledged, and it comments on reality, as all art does to one degree or another, but it doesn’t present reality. That Smith, who, as a journalist in another field of art, should certainly know better, or anyone should go to a theater and expect reality to unfold astounds me. (I’ve already decided that I’ll write an ROT article on this topic soon. Look for it in a month or so.) Red is a contemplation, a dramatic effort to discover how two people working on a single project in a confined environment over a short time can affect one another, teach each other, help each other grow. In Red, the one who does most of the growing is Ken, but he effects some great changes on Rothko in the play, too. What Gero and Andrews accomplish, through Logan’s script and with Falls’s guidance, is let us see how that happens. Logan’s right: Red’s not about the Seagram Murals or art—it’s about . . . well, everything. In the play, Rothko tells us:

You have a lot to learn, young man. Philosophy. Theology. Literature. Poetry. Drama. History. Archeology. Anthropology. Mythology. Music. These are your tools as much as brush and pigment. You cannot be an artist until you are civilized. You cannot be civilized until you learn. To be civilized is to know where you belong in the continuum of your art and your world. To surmount the past, you must know the past.

Red’s not about an artist in his studio. What Logan wrote about, what Gero, Andrews, and Falls put up on the Kreeger stage, what I saw (and what Smith should have seen) is simple: Red’s about seeing—it’s about being human.