29 June 2012

'Chimichangas and Zoloft'

As our final production in the 2011-12 Atlantic Theater season, my usual theater companion, Diana, and I went back to Chelsea on Friday evening, 15 June, to see the world première of Fernanda Coppel’s Chimichangas and Zoloft. The production was staged by Jaime Castañeda at Atlantic Stage 2, the company’s second house on West 16th Street. (A week earlier, we’d been to the Atlantic Theater Company’s newly renovated home on West 20th Street to see John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church. That report appeared on ROT on 16 June.) The production began previews on 23 May, opened to the press on 3 June, and closed on 24 June.

The 26-year-old Coppel, who was born in Mexico and raised in San Diego, is what’s usually called an “emerging” playwright. (Sounds like something coming out of a cocoon, doesn’t it?) She earned an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU in 2009 where Chimichangas and Zoloft was her thesis play. (The play won the Asuncion Queer Latino Festival at the Bronx-based Pregones Theater in 2009 and Coppel received NYU’s John Holden Playwriting Award at graduation. She’s been a Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Fellow at Juilliard and a member of INTAR Theatre’s Maria Irene Fornes Playwrights Lab.) Her bio includes several other plays, but I don’t recognize any, though she’s worked—or been workshopped—at a number of area theaters, as well as some in Britain. I believe this may be her first major staging in New York City. In the New York Times, Jason Zinoman wrote that Coppel has an “intriguing comic voice” and Variety’s Marilyn Stasio said she “writes with the whip-smart humor and the world-weary disdain of a 16-year-old schoolgirl.”

The 90-minute play, which ATC asserts “examines happiness and sexuality through the eyes of two brazen teenagers,” is the story of two BFF’s, Jackie Martinez (Carmen Zilles) and Penelope Lopez (Xochitl Romero), middle-class suburban girls who are busy trying to grow up fast. As they go through their own changes (new boyfriends, coming out to their parents—that kind of thing), they fail to see that their fathers, attorney Ricardo Martinez (Teddy Cañez) and bartender Alejandro Lopez (Alfredo Narciso) are also going through some developments, trying to recapture some of their youth. The two dads also have a “secret” they’re trying hard to keep from their daughters. Kicking the turmoil off is the departure of Sonia Martinez (Zabryna Guevara), Jackie’s mother, who, having hit 40 and a major depression, takes off for parts unknown to binge on her comfort food and her comfort drug (as Variety dubbed them) of the play’s title. (I’d guess most of you know what Zoloft is—an antidepressant med—but for those who don’t go to Mexican restaurants, a chimichanga is a Tex-Mex dish of meat, rice, and other ingredients rolled in a wheat tortilla, like a burrito, then deep-fried.)

So, where to start? Oh, I know: This is a play that begins with a fart. Yeah, that’s right—Sonia farts before the lights come up! “That wasn’t me,” she claims, unsurprisingly, and then blames the greasy chimichangas she ate to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Sorta sets the tone, dontcha think? Other points: in the hour-and-a-half of the performance (of which only maybe an hour is “play”), there are I-don’t-know-how-many scenes (I lost count—eight or 10 at least) separated by blackouts and identified with a title projected above the center panel of the back of the set like a Brechtian device (“The Letter”; “Taebo Tapes”; “Bloated”; “Vag In The Air”). Between many of the dramatic (for lack of a more precise word) scenes are monologues by Sonia that are supposed to be illuminating but just interrupt the flow of whatever action Coppel has gotten going and, to my ear, add nothing. (I’ll even venture that if Coppel dropped Sonia as an actual character—even though she’s sort of the “title role” in a weird way—and just kept referring to her as the other characters do, she’d have at least as much impact and maybe more, and the script wouldn’t be so disjointed.) Some of the soliloquies are sort of poetic, like Coppel’s dialogue, but it’s a self-conscious kind of vernacular poetry, studied and crafted, not an organic or natural-sounding prose. Reined in and tamed, Coppel’s obvious love of words, her lyrical sense of how people might wish they spoke (but don’t), might aspire to the heights of the great poets of the theater—the Tennessee Williamses, Anton Chekhovs, or August Wilsons. But as of Chimichangas and Zoloft, she’s not nearly there yet. (On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that, for all the work Coppel must have done on this script since 2009, the developmental workshops through which it must have gone, Chimichangas still started out as a student play. Her audiences have been witnessing her first baby steps.)

Even without the labored monologues, the many short scenes, though some of them have an innate theatrical charm, especially some of the ones between Romero and Zilles, don’t cohere. Coppel’s telling a story and the scenes are episodes in that arc, but while that might work on TV, it doesn’t make a stage drama. While each vignette might have a point, and some of them are dramatically engaging, Coppel hasn’t made the big point, the real take-away theme, clear. This essentially means that there’s no through-line, and that’s where the play really falls. When the last scene came along, Jackie and Penelope each standing on the street waiting for the school bus, separated by several feet because by this time their fathers won’t let them talk to one another, I assumed there must be another scene coming. But there wasn’t and I turned to Diana and asked rhetorically, “Is that the end? What happened?” The action had ended, the story stopped, but the play wasn’t concluded. Everyone’s secrets had been revealed (though I’m not going to tell you what they are, in case you see the play yourselves), but what did it all add up to? The writer hasn’t really come to grips with a significant theme, each of the problems her characters deal with being what Back Stage reviewer Andy Propst called the familiar stuff of the “adult nighttime serial drama and afterschool special.” Unhappy families may be unhappy in their own fashions, but dysfunctional ones, it seems, all fall apart in similar ways.

The production, a kind of up-scale showcase (which is what the 99-seat Stage 2 is for), was nicely taken care of. I found the constant set changes necessitated by the script frustrating (in the small theater, everything has to be done by hand) and it attenuated the play needlessly, but the designs were all fine. (The sets were by Lauren Helpern, costumes by Jessica Wegener Shay, lighting by Grant W. S. Yeager, and sound by Broken Chord. One particular lighting/set effect fascinated me: up center on the back wall was a large abstract painting, part of the décor of the Lopez and Martinez homes. In the Lopez house, it was a green and tan swash on a white background, but in the Martinez’s place, it changed under a lighting shift to a kind of taupe-on-taupe canvas—the green field at the bottom having completely changed color.)

The acting, under Castañeda’s direction, was equally fine. Guevara’s work was mostly vocal, and though Sonia’s monologues themselves don’t seem to add much to the dramatic content of the play, the actress delivered them with a combination of directness and openness, convincingly sliding past the artificiality of some of the poetic prose. The dads, who were written in a pretty predictable and chichéd way, were smoothly and strongly portrayed by Narciso and Cañez (who has a fantastic baritone voice that resonates sonorously). The best work, probably not surprisingly, came from the two teen girls as embodied by Romero and Zilles. Neither actress is actually still a teenager, but they sure must remember what that age was like. (Question: Do teen girls really call each other “Dude” at the start of every sentence? I’ve copped to being a geezer before, so maybe I’ve just missed it, but has ‘dude’ become a genderless word now that refers equally to people of either sex? Oh, well!) While I got the feeling that Coppel had heaped on too much “youthspeak” to make her point, Romero and Zilles went a great distance to making me believe these kids really talked that way all the time. Their body language always seemed like 16-year-olds—sometimes the hardest thing for adults playing kids to pull off. For everyone, but especially for the two young actresses, I just wish the script had been more worthy of their work than it was.

One additional thought on the acting: the program lists a dialect coach, Doug Paulson, which surprised me a little. Watching the show, I just assumed the actors were all using a speech pattern that they knew from growing up Latino in America. Maybe Paulson’s task was to keep everyone on the same track—the play is set in L.A., and I assume there’s a distinctive southern California Chicano accent that’s different from, say, a Miami Cuban dialect or Nuyorican English. But if the cast had to be “coached” to sound authentically Latino, they and Paulson did a terrific job there. I have a pretty good ear, even if I don’t know every accent spoken on this continent, and all five of the actors in Chimichangas sounded a hundred per cent authentic to me. (I made a remark in my report on the Signature Theater’s revival of My Children! My Africa!—11 June on ROT—about the wobbly accents. This cast never wavered or went overboard—which is why I thought it was just an organic speech pattern.)

The press that I read was pretty uniform—and pretty much in line with what I’ve outlined here. In the Times, Zinoman complained of Coppel’s “rigid comic architecture” and called Chimichangas “energetic” but “overstuffed.” He equated the playwright’s two-character scenes with “very good sketch work” but added that her “slangy dialogue is overwritten,” concluding that the play ends up as “the kind of work that theater critics once compared to television.” Joe Dziemianowicz said in the Daily News that Coppel’s plot is replete with “off-putting rumbles,” the fallout of which was “vague” as the playwright “skates across complex issues . . . in a schizo style.” In the Village Voice, Tom Sellar summed up his assessment by complaining that Chimichangas and Zoloft “doesn't deliver the unsettling emotional impact it might,” and lamented that “[l]ike many domestic dramatists, Coppel prefers a soft landing, stressing hugs, and reconciliation.” Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman, dismissing the production in three short paragraphs, objected, “Even if Fernanda Coppel’s Mexican-American family drama did not literally begin with a fart, it would still be a bit of a stinker from the get-go. Blunt, clunky scenes alternate with self-conscious monologues; amid the earnest machinations of the plot, the characters barely scrounge a moment of truth.” Feldman concluded by asking: “This was greenlit by Atlantic Theater Company? Pass the Zoloft, please.”

In contrast, Variety’s Stasio declared that “on its own outrageous terms,” ATC’s “spiffy production” of Coppel’s “raunchy domestic comedy . . . hits every comic base and in a few (delicately directed) scenes between concerned fathers and their too-clever-by-half daughters manages to be quite moving.” And Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post, though she warned us not to “expect anything groundbreaking” from Chimichangas and Zoloft, proclaimed that Coppel, “a promising new voice” with “a knack for snappy dialogue,” is a young playwright who “brings lively energy—and a couple of nice twists—to situations we’ve seen a million times before.” After noting, “It’s all somewhat standard family-dramedy fare,” the New Yorker, in a brief and uncredited review, concluded: “Still, despite some under- and overwriting, there is something refreshing about the young playwright Fernanda Coppel’s approach.”

Though Atlantic Stage 2 opened in 2003, Chimichangas was the first performance I’d seen there (though it’s only a few blocks directly west of my apartment and I walk past it frequently). The stage is a little cramped because of two large, square columns a few feet from the right and left sides of the stage (and often, I gather, incorporated into the set design). Similar columns appear in the auditorium, too, and seating on the far right or left rear of the house (there are only eight rows of seats) can be partially obscured. Diana likes aisle seats, so we were on the house-right edge of the auditorium and though my seat was fine (no action took place stage left of the column on stage), Diana had to move from my right to a vacant seat on the other side of me. For its purpose—the development of new, experimental work; workshops; and classes—Stage 2 seems an effective space for artists who need a place to work and see their scripts on their feet. ATC produces two plays in the black box theater each season.

24 June 2012

The Washington Square Players: Art for Art’s Sake (Part 2)

[I covered a lot of the background of the formation of the Washington Square Players in part one of this article, outlining the rise of the bohemian scene in 19th- and early-20th-century Greenwich Village and describing the prevailing commercial theater in New York City in the years just before World War I. I’ll start here with a brief discussion of the troupe’s financial organization and move on to my analysis of the artistic aspects of the historic troupe.]

In order to be as independent as possible from the forces of politics, the Washington Square Players proposed to support themselves entirely from ticket sales and, in the first such scheme in the United States, subscriptions. The company started life with but a few hundred dollars in its coffers, contributed mostly by Langner and others of the wealthier supporters, and produced its first bill of one-acts at a cost of $35. In July 1916, Walter Prichard Eaton declared in American Magazine that “The Washington Square Theatre started in poverty, and it is comparatively poor yet—thank heaven. We hope it always will be. Then the workers in it will always be its lovers. We don’t want them to work for nothing; but better for nothing than for great riches.” By 1917, though, WSP was able to pay Theodore Dreiser a $200 advance for The Girl in the Coffin. The production was a huge success—the cast received 18 curtain calls and the audience yelled for the author, though Dreiser had been too shy even to attend the performance—and took in $300 over a six-week run. Low budgets, though a challenge, were seldom a hindrance, however. In fact, they sometimes inspired Lee Simonson to find innovative solutions to design problems using lighting, projections, and formal set pieces. Simonson’s set for Pierre Patelin (1916), one of the first uses in America of “permanent portals and an inner proscenium” enhanced by a backdrop in the “flat colour masses” common to contemporary European posters, illustrated this phenomenon.

Many theatre troupes of the day had clear biases of various kinds: The Neighborhood Playhouse directed its appeal to the East and Central European and Jewish residents of its Lower East Side home, consequently its repertoire was exclusively European; the Provincetown Players were oriented toward American plays and playwrights, and until 1924 produced exclusively contemporary American plays; and the Group Theatre of the 1930s was avidly leftist politically. The Players’ Manifesto, however, placed few restrictions on their repertoire except those of taste. The company’s original announcement succinctly stated that their only criterion would be “sincere, truthful and effective” writing. They hoped to provide a stage for American writers, but they also had a strong interest in European experimental drama which incensed some, including George Cram Cook who felt the Players were not giving native authors enough of a chance. The Provincetown Players, which Cook later founded, focused on the development of playwrights and thus expressly remained a small group, while the Washington Square Players concentrated on the advancement of production quality and so deliberately and rapidly expanded. The Provincetown, according to Lawrence Langner,

was always a more personal expression of the authors behind it than was our group, with the result that it tended to develop its authors rather than its audience . . . . It was frankly experimental as to plays while the Washington Square Players were attempting to present productions which would be in healthy competition with the plays of Broadway. The Washington Square group fought the issue of the art theatre versus the commercial theatre; it sought to produce its plays at the Comedy Theatre [on Broadway] in competition with commercial attractions . . . .
Max Eastman, however, admonished WSP to forget “the box-office and adhere to pure standards of art” by presenting non-commercial plays and plays ignored by the commercial producers. As Hannah White put it, “‘Art for art’s sake’ has been quoted as the slogan of the Washington Square Players.”

In fact, almost from the very beginning WSP bearded the Broadway lion in its own den. Unlike the other art and independent theatres of its time, the Players rented legitimate theatres and actively sought press coverage. Within weeks of that impromptu performance at the Bonis’ bookshop, the Players rented the Bandbox Theatre on East Fifty-seventh Street, assuming the lease of a German composer-impresario who had nearly gone bankrupt presenting his own musical comedies. Goodman, as director of the company, and business manager Langner sent out an announcement to prospective subscribers proclaiming the foundation of “an organization for those who cannot find response to their demands for quality of play and production in the usual New York playhouse.” The first bill of one-acts opened at the Bandbox on 19 February 1915 with four plays: Licensed by Basil Lawrence (Lawrence Langner’s nom-de-plume), Eugenically Speaking by Edward Goodman, Interior by Maurice Maeterlinck, and Another Interior, a satirical take on the symbolic Maeterlinck piece. They played weekends at first, but the demand for their innovative stagings of experimental, new works compelled them to perform four times a week. One critic, describing the fare as “$2 drama for fifty cents,” wrote, “If the Players can keep up their present pace they will make the Bandbox an institution.” By 1917 WSP had moved to the Comedy Theatre on West Thirty-eighth Street in the heart of the Broadway theatre district.

The group’s vaunted non-commercialism and fifty-cent admission charge—eventually raised to a dollar so they could pay their actors “a living wage”—may have attracted the audiences which bought out every performance of their first bill of one-acts, but it was their artistic appeal that filled their subsequent performances and elicited praise from many a jaded theatre critic. Hannah White, in The Independent, gave this appraisal:

Their capital was exactly nothing, their stock in trade boundless enthusiasm, indefatigable energy and a wide variety of talents . . . . They are all young and they are all idealists. They have convictions and they have the courage to carry them out. Their convention is unconventional and their motto is DARE!
If this sounds a bit hyperbolic, it may well be the result of the same numbing boredom on Broadway that spawned the groups themselves. An editor of Theatre Arts magazine remarked that

Their greatest service . . . lies in their proving that even New York has an audience for what is too fresh and sincere for the jaded commercial producer to recognize, and too strange to Broadway custom to find a way through other stage-doors . . . .
And audiences they did have. Other critics concurred with Hannah White’s estimation. Francis Hackett of The New Republic, for example, praised WSP for their “freshness and audacity that is expected to conquer the lethargic,” and “partly allures and partly intimidates the man who wants to see ‘a good play.’”

(Not everyone agreed. Babette Deutsch wrote in Touchstone: “They . . . will sacrifice a play to applause for its setting, and the excellence of a program to retaining their reputation for spicy productions.” In the New York Evening Post, a critic opined that “the appeal is distinctly to the ‘highbrow’ of revolutionary tendencies. That it will ever win an audience outside the spiritual frontiers of Greenwich Village is not probable . . . .”)

But exactly what was WSP producing that caused such reactions among critics and audiences? What were they doing that was so different from the commercial theatre with which they were so blatantly—and so successfully—competing? As already noted, they had no overt political bent, no exclusive American or contemporary orientation, no community loyalty.

Certainly the sets, in the “new stagecraft” developed in Europe by Adolphe Appia and Gordon Craig, “were unusual and arresting.” As Hannah White noted, the Players’ designers Robert Edmond Jones, Rollo Peters, and Lee Simonson created

artistic stage settings, daringly impressionistic . . . . Colors have been used as never before to register ideas. The audience gasps when the curtain goes up, but it applauds, too; and before a word is spoken the atmosphere of the play is established and the imagination of each spectator is in good working order.
Even Babette Deutsch, who generally disparaged the Players’ productions, lauded “their brilliant scenic effects, nearly always simple in line and unique in color arrangement . . . .” Elmer Rice was particularly taken with the work of Robert Edmond Jones, whose designs were “a sensational innovation in a theatre in which scene designing was little more than a branch of stage carpentry. The effect was revolutionary.” Both Jones and Simonson advocated sets that suggested reality without reproducing it, reducing the elements of the design to those that evoked, often through poetry and symbolism, the mood of the production or provided necessary information without eliminating the audience’s imagination. Furthermore, these advocates of the “new stagecraft” saw their art as an integral part of the production, enhancing the interpretation and aiding the dramatic action. The stage set was neither a beautiful picture—a work of art that stands alone—nor simply a background; it was an “environment”: “Players act in a setting,” wrote Jones, “not against it.”

Photographs of Players’ productions and descriptions of designs reveal a number of experimental techniques—though often crude and amateurish in execution, no doubt due to the small budgets. (As we’ve seen, their initial offering cost the Players only $35; some subsequent productions cost as little as $50 to mount.) A number of shows, such as Holland Hudson’s pantomime The Shepherd in the Distance, Maurice Maeterlinck’s Aglavaine and Selyzette and The Death of Tantagiles, and Nicholas Evreinov’s A Merry Death, made extensive use of curtains for walls, an innovation pioneered by Gordon Craig at the turn of the century. Another European practice WSP used was highly patterned wallpaper. Georg Fuchs’s Munich Art Theatre applied Craig’s technique in the early 1900s in “design” drops, as opposed to traditional “sky” drops, before which plays were performed on a shallow stage with a permanent, architectural setting. WSP also used a very shallow stage, but modified the pattern technique by using it as a thematic motif in a brightly colored set of basically realistic, if minimalist, silhouette. In the set of Edward Goodman’s Eugenically Speaking, for instance, a stylized apple motif was repeated in a wall frieze, door panels, a lamp shade, chair backs, and the edges of seats and table tops. Such motif repetition was frequent in Players’ set designs, sometimes showing up in door and window frames or moldings as well as upholstery and other decor elements.

The bright, often unnatural colors were a very common visual element. A vivid example is Lee Simonson’s design for Philip Moeller’s Sisters of Susanna. Actors in costumes of turquoise, emerald, and amethyst moved in an exotic, walled Moorish garden set in which “the walls are orange, almost coral; the lattice in the pavilion is purple and gold; the palms are black against a dense blue sky.” Strangely enough, starkly unrealistic sets alternated on the Players’ stage with essentially realistic and even naturalistic ones. Even these latter, however, were often modified by reducing the stage decoration and furniture to a bare minimum, though what was there was often perfectly realistic. (Necessity being the mother of invention, the lack of detail in these realistic sets may have been as much the result of economics as style.)

A less frequent design element was the influence of contemporary art in the decor. Lawrence Langner’s Another Way Out, designed by Joseph Platt, had a light-colored, stylized bedroom with a dark, abstract design reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley on three door panels and thematically repeated in the painted sky-light, the bedspread, and a wall hanging. (The photographs examined, in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, were black and white. Without a corresponding description of this particular set it’s impossible to determine if the light and dark areas were in fact respectively white and black.)

These scenic innovations, though a curiosity, could hardly have accounted for the immense popularity of the Players’ bills, all of which were sold out in advance. Designer Lee Simonson, himself, acknowledged that he became associated with the Washington Square Players because they “were dedicated not to providing visually beautiful spectacles, but to propagating what seemed to be important ideas in terms of dramatic stories.” So, what were the Players’ audiences flocking to see? What made the company so engagingly different? For one thing, “the plays . . . were vital, full of meaning, or full of racy fun . . . .” Setting aside those that were simply “racy fun,” such as George Jay Smith’s adaptation of Forbidden Fruit, a restoration-style fillip, and Molière’s Sganarelle, as well as the few whose appeal was purely exotic or curious—mostly the pantomimes like the collaborative Another Interior (set inside the human digestive system through which Gastric Juice runs amok), J. Garcia Pimentel and Beatrice de Holthoir’s Yum Chapab (based on a Mayan legend), and the anonymous The Poisoned Flower (a Chinese legend)—even a cursory reading of the group’s plays makes immediately clear what the attraction was. (In November 1916, WSP produced Bushido by Takeda Izumo, but according to various reviews it was the presentation of the theme of loyalty, not the Japanese locale, that attracted audiences and critics. In an unusual move, WSP engaged Japanese dancer Michio Itow to direct the play.) They were human. Not just realistic, in the academic sense of that label, but human—human scale, human emotion, and human problems. Most of the material was serio-comic: the comedies had serious underpinnings, and the dramas did not eschew comic elements. This was certainly a refreshing change from what Elmer Rice called “the stale, predigested fare of the commercial theatre.”

From the beginning, the Washington Square Players selected their scripts by committee, with every member voicing an opinion on the choice and the casting. Following the success of their second bill of one-acts in March 1915, which included Moondown by John Reed and Two Blind Beggars and One Less Blind by Philip Moeller among other new plays, the company was flooded with scripts. With the luxury of such riches from which to choose, anything WSP produced had to be unanimously approved by the committee. Even early submissions by the young Eugene O’Neill, including Bound East for Cardiff, failed the test. In fact, the Washington Square Players did not present its first O’Neill play, In the Zone, until its fourth season in October 1917. They eventually also produced The Rope in their last bill in April 1918. The group also rejected Glaspell and Cook’s satire on Freudianism, Suppressed Desires, when it was first submitted in 1915. Though WSP eventually produced it in January 1918, the committee told Cook in 1915 that the play was “too special” for the company’s audience.

One play in particular, 24-year-old Edward Massey’s Plots and Playwrights, is, itself, a case study of what Walter Prichard Eaton described as the Players’ “scorn for the flabby, purposeless, and false plays then . . . in the theatre and their enthusiasm for what they considered a more honest art.” The conceit of the play, directed by Edward Flammer and designed by Clifford Pember, is laid out in the Epilogue. It concerns Caspar Gay, a successful Broadway playwright wandering West Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village looking for “an inspiration—comedy, tragedy, romance”—for his next play. He meets young short-story writer Joseph Hastings, played by Ralph L. Roeder, in front of Mrs. Purcell’s Lodging House, represented by a painted drop of a brownstone facade. Gay (Ralph Bunker), dressed as a “toff” in silk topper, wing collar, and silk vest, explains his desperation, and Hastings, more modestly attired in a dark overcoat and fedora, suggests that there is material all around them, in each house on the block. As an example, Hastings suggests that there is a play on every floor of the boarding house. But Gay demurs: “These people are nobodies. There is no drama in nobodies.”

The challenge is on; Hastings responds, “I’ll write a play to prove it.” He “ascends the stoop, and rings the bell, and rents a room.”

The rest of the play is divided into two parts. “The facade rises,” recorded the critic for the Dramatic Mirror, “and discloses rooms on three different floors.” In Part I, we see three small dramas in sequence, each using the same basic set, with nearly identical lay-out and props. In Scene I (“The Story on the First Floor”), Mrs. Hammond (Helen Westley) awaits her daughter, Molly, who is returning after having been away a long time. The mother is planning a pleasant dinner at home for them, but the girl (Florence Enright) arrives with Tom Burch (Charles H. Meredith), a vaudeville dancer. Molly has become Tom’s partner and plans to leave immediately to tour with him, and they are going out to celebrate. In the end, Mrs. Hammond is left alone with the dinner for two.

Scene II, “The Story on the Second Floor,” involves three young women. One is Alice Merriam (Katherine Cornell), a bookish art student who does not date; the second is Bessie Dodge (Ruby Cravin), a good-time girl who burns her candle at both ends. The third, Edmé Jackes (Alice Rodier), younger and innocent, has fallen in love with Frank Devoy (Arthur E. Hohl), a young dandy. Both Edmé’s friends try to convince her not to take Frank seriously, each for opposite reasons. In the end, Edmé follows her own inclination.

In “The Story on the Third Floor,” Dick Griffiths, a studious and intelligent young man (Philip Tonge), who wants to go to college, is prevented by his brother, Sidney (Robert Strange), who insists the young man join him in the hat shop he owns. Sidney is adamant, not seeing any value in hifalutin notions like college, and finally cows young Dick with physical threats. The scene ends inconclusively, but without much hope.

In Part II, the two writers meet at a restaurant represented again by a painted drop on which are depicted windows with light streaming down and three of the four tables; only the fourth table with its two chairs is real. Gay agrees that Hastings has written a play, but scoffs, “That sort of thing won’t go on Broadway.” He offers to “turn it into a big Broadway success.” Using the same apartment setting, after the restaurant drop is flown out, Gay rearranges the characters and plots into a melodrama in which two of the boarders collaborated in a theft and are suspected by the police. It is standard, contrived stuff, reminiscent of early Hollywood output, with tearful pleadings by the crooks’ girlfriends, suspected betrayals, various forms of duplicity—and even the improbable complication that Edmé, the girl on the second floor, turns out to be the illegitimate granddaughter of Mrs. Hammond, the mother on the first floor.

An exchange not in the published script, but reported in the New York Times review, shows clearly what WSP was after, and what they were competing against. Hastings reacts in disbelief to Gay’s creation, and Gay responds:

“But,” says the playwright serenely, “it will run a year on Broadway.”
“My God,” cries the enlightened novelist, “it has.”

Hastings’s small, intimate dramas were real and tender, even if their themes were not earth-shaking. They were human themes—filial insensitivity, trusting one’s own judgment, lack of communications between siblings—and charmingly, delicately presented. Gay’s output, on the other hand, is complex, contrived, improbable, and predictable. Hastings’s characters, while not types, were recognizable, people we might know; Gay’s were stock characters out of “ten-twenty-thirty” melodrama. There is little doubt that an audience hungering for “unusual pieces in an unpretentious and yet effective way” would respond positively to offerings such as Hastings’s.

The acting of the production was universally praised, particularly the work of long-time member Westley and newcomer Cornell; however, photographs of the production, though they were probably posed shots, indicate that the acting was not what we would call “realistic” today, but showed elements of the stylized gestures and postures of François Delsarte—the dominant acting style of the day which we recognize as silent-movie acting. (There’s no way to tell how staged the photographs were.) Even so, there were a few examples of remarkably natural behavior among the actors, particularly the three women in Apartment 2. Katherine Cornell is sitting stage right, leaning into a table with her hands clasped on it. She wears a truthful look of sincerity as she addresses Ruby Cravin who stands opposite her (stage left) with her upstage knee resting on a chair and her downstage hand on her hip. Alice Rodier stands upstage center in an attitude of listening, looking at Cornell, her curled hand resting on the table. Everyone looks natural and animate. By contrast, the performances in Part II seemed far more melodramatic and “stagy”—very likely with the objective of depicting the kind of acting, as well as the kind of theatre, prevalent on Broadway. Alice Rodier stands stiffly stage left of the table with a gun pointed at Arthur Hohl (downstage right), her left arm straight down at her side. Hohl is in a lunge, his right leg extended behind him and his right hand in a claw. He is leaning on the table with his left hand, his head thrust toward Rodier, in a very unnatural pose. The World, nonetheless, dubbed Plots and Playwrights “both in the writing and the acting, . . . to be in the Players’ best vein.”

The response would be all the more enthusiastic when the offerings treated topical and controversial themes. In Plots and Playwrights, Hastings’s dramas dealt with universal themes, but other Players’ material used significant contemporary matters as subjects, themes, or plot devices. George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell’s Suppressed Desires was a comic look at the new—and rampantly indulged—Freudian psychoanalysis. (“You could not go out to buy a bun,” Glaspell once remarked, “without hearing of someone’s complex.”) Theodore Dreiser’s The Girl in the Coffin, inspired by “Big Bill” Hayward of the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”), was set in Paterson, New Jersey, during the silkworkers’ strike, a cause célèbre of the labor activists at the time. Ardently pro-striker, it also touched on unwed motherhood and abortion and critiqued the mores of conventional society. Langner’s Licensed, the story of the death of a young man moments before his wedding to his pregnant fiancée, was a plea for birth-control, a new idea being preached openly for the first time by Margaret Sanger, a Village resident. Another Way Out, also by Langner, was based on his observations of the Village free-love cult; and Goodman’s Eugenically Speaking, voicing novel concepts on marriage, could be seen as a farcical comment on the Shavian idea of women’s liberation.

Grander themes with significance far beyond the Village and New York were also attempted on Players’ stages. Hervey White’s Fire and Water, produced in October 1915, concerned the brotherhood of man, “showing how French and German soldiers, between the lines, may be very good friends . . . .” It would be hard to imagine a more controversial idea at that particular time in history. Though America was still officially neutral regarding World War I, few here had any tender feelings for “The Hun.” In Children, by Guy Bolton and Tom Carlton, “a negro [sic] mother shoots her son dead rather than give him up to a lynching party.” It was intended to be a “sympathetic and clear-sighted psychological study of the Negro . . . .” Not only was the presence of black characters, other than servants and Stepin Fetchits, a breach of common practice, but a serious attempt to treat them with depth in terms of white prejudice would certainly have raised many an eyebrow. (If the characters had been performed by black actors, the production would indeed have been startling. There were no photographs of the cast, however, and the only names I recognized in the cast list were regular WSP members such as Ralph Roeder and Robert Strange, suggesting that the actors were white playing in blackface. An integrated company was apparently too far for even the liberal-minded Players to go in 1916.) The play was presented in March 1916—just fifty years after the Civil War, and at the height of Ku Klux Klan terrorism in the South.

Certainly not all of the Players’ efforts were successful critically. In early productions, their acting was “amateur, even at times fumbling,” and later, ambition led them to tackle material beyond their capabilities—mostly the full-length European plays by Chekhov, Ibsen, Maeterlinck, and Shaw. Still, the combination of new scenic art, serious subject matter—both subdued and controversial—and enthusiastic, albeit rough, performance techniques succeeded in making New York theatregoers sit up and take appreciative notice. The New York Tribune summed up the reaction this way:

If the American stage is ever to extend its exhibitions beyond the “tired business man” type of music show and the farces and melodramas which have been such money makers in the last couple of seasons, it will be by reason of the competition of such organizations as the Washington Square Players.
The Washington Square Players dissolved in 1918, primarily because the entry of the United States into World War I diverted the manpower of the company. In 1919, the company was reconstituted as the Theatre Guild by Langner, Moeller, Simonson, Westley, Maurice Wertheim, and Theresa Helburn, but between February 1915 and April 1918, a little over three years, the Players presented 72 plays, including six full-length, most of them new, untried, or overlooked works. They launched or enhanced the careers of young actors like Katherine Cornell, Helen Westley, Rollo Peters, Frank Conroy, and Roland Young, and designer Lee Simonson. But most importantly, WSP showed that sensitive productions of provocative works could attract audiences. Indeed, WSP had started—or at least given impetus to—a theatrical revolution that is still being felt today. Lawrence Langner concluded that

the Washington Square Players and . . . many others paved the way for a new professional theatre which was hospitable to works of art, and . . . were in the van of the revolution which changed the face of the American Theatre . . . .
In contrast with the prevalent competition, WSP was a brisk wind in a desert. “I believe the theatre as a cultural influence,” summed up Eugene O’Neill, “dates from the Washington Square Players in 1914 and the Provincetown Players in 1916. These two groups made it possible to present serious dramas.” The Players, believed O’Neill, helped introduce “culture into the pattern of the stage.” The alternative theatre the Players helped begin may very well have resuscitated a theatre in the throes of asphyxiation.

["The Washington Square Players Art for Art’s Sake” was awarded the 2004 National Amy & Eric Burger Prize for theater writing. A version of this article (with photos and source notes) was published in the 2005 edition of Theatre History Studies. I’ve also delivered a short version of the paper with slides at theater conferences.]

21 June 2012

The Washington Square Players: Art for Art’s Sake (Part 1)

[Though the Washington Square Players isn’t an unknown troupe and its record is documented both in general theater history books and the pages of the press of its day, it’s never achieved the prominence of either its sister theater, the Provincetown Players, or the producing organization that was its successor, the Theatre Guild. The history of WSP has never been compiled into one volume the way Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau’s The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre has done for that company or Lawrence Langner’s The Magic Curtain did for the Theatre Guild. A few capsule accounts of the company have appeared lately, such as the brief paragraph in The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre and a few other similar reference works, but in order to get a comprehensive examination (or even a superficial overview) of the Players’ history, readers would have to piece it together themselves from scattered accounts and brief mentions, mostly in biographies and autobiographies of the personalities involved, and articles and reviews in contemporaneous New York City newspapers and, especially, the theater press. Not only are these sources dispersed widely across diverse research categories (and collections), but many of the periodicals, little of whose pertinent coverage is indexed or listed in bibliographies, aren’t commonly available even in large university libraries. My article, posted on ROT in two parts, attempts to draw together these widely-spread and disparate references into a coherent narrative and, by situating this into the political, cultural, and artistic milieu, to look at the history and accomplishments of the Washington Square Players as an outgrowth of its own time and a harbinger of the future.

[In addition, I’ve examined WSP’s history and record with the critical eye of the theater reviewer and the analytical instinct of the dramaturg in an attempt not only to document what the company did, but to understand why they did it and what the impact of their work was on the emerging new American theater. Though a more-or-less comprehensive account of the Washington Square Players’ plays and personalities can be patched together from existing sources, if the reader has access to some of the more esoteric and obscure ones and is willing to dig out the scattered bits and pieces, the analytical and evaluative aspect of this investigation isn’t available anywhere in published form.]

In the years before the First World War, when the century was less than a dozen years old, an upheaval that would have cultural and artistic repercussions across the country was taking place in an obscure corner of New York City. The social, artistic, and political forces came together in what became known as the bohemian life in Greenwich Village. Intellectuals of all stripes came to work or live in this community, recorded lawyer and amateur New York City historian Edmund T. Delaney, its distinct character “somewhat richer than other parts of the city,” and influenced “American literature, art and thinking wholly out of proportion to their numbers.”

The influence, across the gamut of culture and ideas, was made by a motley group including proponents of atheism, socialism, cubism, anarchism, free-thought, free-love, birth-control—“and women who bobbed their hair and smoked cigarettes.” As socialist journalist John Reed described it:

Inglorious Miltons by the score,
And Rodins, one to every floor.
In short, those unknown men of genius
Who dwell in third-floor-rears gangrenous,
Reft of their rightful heritage
By a commercial, soulless age.
Unwept, I might add—and unsung,
Insolent, but entirely young.

To be sure, Villagers included “crackpots or phonies,” but many were sincere artists and thinkers and, according to W. A. Swanberg, biographer of Village resident Theodore Dreiser, “most were conscious rebels . . . [in] revolt against mildewed American concepts and properties . . . .” This side of Village life was summed up by author and radical editor Max Eastman, in the words of his biographer William L. O’Neill, in what he dubbed the Innocent Rebellion:

All that was self-consciously new in American culture—the “new women,” the “new morality,” the “new art”—could be found there. On one level Greenwich Village was becoming a showcase of the cultural revolution, on another it led the movement, serving as headquarters to . . . the Innocent Rebellion.

All this creative activity set the stage for an influx of artists “ready to espouse all the new causes—individual freedom, free love, socialism, avant garde literature and futuristic painting.” Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau, the historians of the Provincetown Players, pointed out that “with so many arts represented, drama was the natural meeting-ground, the inevitable medium of expression.” Much of what was exciting and new in European culture was allied to the theatre: the new playwriting of the likes of William Butler Yeats, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Harley Granville-Barker, James M. Barrie, George Bernard Shaw, Maurice Maeterlinck, Georges de Porto-Riche, and Paul Claudel; the “new stagecraft” of Adolphe Appia and Gordon Craig; innovative productions by directors like William Poel, André Antoine, Max Reinhardt, Alexander Tairov, Leopold Sulerzhitsky, Aurélien-Marie Lugné-Poë, and Jacques Copeau; and art theatres like Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, the Munich Art Theatre, the Moscow Art Theatre, and Paris’s Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. Examples of these and other theatre work were known to the artists and intellectuals either from the Europeans’ visits to America or the Americans’ travels abroad. The new theatre art was in the air, but was not much practiced on America’s commercial stages. It would have been a most attractive outlet for the new ideas and artistic endeavors of the Village artists and thinkers.

Indeed, the theatre movement that sprung up in the Village during this time was populated by talented people from varied fields. Few were theatre professionals as the founders of these companies were slow to recruit artists who represented the same stick-in-the-mud attitudes, exemplified by the state of contemporary Broadway theatre, against which the companies were reacting. The professionals also certainly looked down on the amateurs and their impecunious troupes—until the successes started to attract critical acclaim. Then the croakers and doubters clamored to join them.

Among the participants were radical journalist John Reed, short-story writers Alice Brown and Susan Glaspell, lawyers Lawrence Langner (who specialized in patents) and Elmer Reizenstein (later, Elmer Rice), businessman Edward Goodman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, novelist Floyd Dell, publishers Charles and Albert Boni, and sundry others. They amalgamated with the few professional actors, scenic artists, and playwrights and began a movement that started or influenced a number of interrelated theatre developments across America: the art theatre, the little theatre, Off-Broadway, and serious American playwriting.

For the moment, however, they were interested only in founding and operating their own theatre groups based on their artistic and social beliefs and a discontent with the available mainstream theatre. The first major group of this movement to establish itself independently in New York was the Washington Square Players, founded in 1914 as “the outgrowth of a little group that used to foregather in Washington Square, radicals, socialists, progressives, artists, writers and plain men and women . . . .” One of their regular gathering places was the Liberal Club at 133 MacDougal Street, “a Meeting Place for Those Interested in New Ideas.” The Club fostered discussion, openness, and “wine-and-talk parties” on Friday nights at a charge of twenty-five cents. Some occasions were far more boisterous, such as when the Club presented one-act plays written and performed by its members. This was the germ of the Washington Square Players.

The story of the founding of the Washington Square Players has variations, depending on who does the telling. Most agree on the significant details, though. As early as 1912 several artistically inclined intellectuals including Philip Moeller, an aspiring writer, and Edward Goodman used to meet at the Ethical Culture Society on Central Park West. The group read plays together on Sunday evenings, concentrating on modern European dramatists like J. M. Barrie and Maurice Maeterlinck and scripts of their own. Now and then, they would give a public performance. When the group advanced to works by August Strindberg and Arthur Schnitzler, the Society’s director commented discreetly, “I think you have outgrown us.” Moeller and Goodman moved their productions to the Socialist Press Club and, joined by Theresa Helburn and patent attorney Langner, also began reading plays by Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and George Bernard Shaw at one another’s homes. A dinner at the Socialist Press Club a few years later introduced another stage-struck lawyer, Elmer Reizenstein, to the emergent Washington Square Players. As he recalled:

The dinner was chaired by Edward Goodman, general director of the enterprise. Others who were actively engaged were Lawrence Langner, Philip Moeller and Lee Simonson. It was a co-operative undertaking; actors, directors, scene-builders, stagehands, ushers were all amateurs. The opening performance, at a tiny playhouse in the East Fifties appropriately called the Bandbox, was a significant event in the history of the American theatre. In a sense, it sounded the first note of the movement that was to vitalize the American drama in the 1920s. The plays, while in the main not especially noteworthy, were in refreshing contrast to the stale, predigested fare of the commercial theatre. The whole undertaking was a step toward the establishment of a much-needed adult theatre.

The nascent group also began meeting at the Liberal Club to argue about the hot topics of the day: socialism, anarchism, free love, birth control, and women’s suffrage. Here were also involved Dell, who had been working as a book critic in Chicago; Ida Rauh, a would-be actress and the wife of Max Eastman, editor of the radical periodical The Masses; tyro Broadway actress Helen Westley, and writer George Cram Cook. These frustrated theatre artists put on one-act plays, usually composed, directed, and designed by Dell, who also performed in them.

Next door to the Liberal Club, at 137 MacDougal, was the Washington Square Book Shop run by the Boni brothers—”the exact center of the new bohemia.” Attracting few customers, the shop was a gathering place for radical poets and writers such as Reed, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Theodore Dreiser. So that the budding artists could more easily mingle with the revolutionary writers and thinkers, a door was cut into the wall adjoining the Liberal Club. The Bonis encouraged the efforts of their new neighbors, and inevitably the conversation of the assemblage turned to theatre. The Liberal Club crowd had considered forming a performing company and renting a playhouse, but several attempts to find a site both suitable and affordable were unsuccessful. An art dealer on Washington Square had offered them free use of an unused room in his shop, but when he saw the response to the initial prospectus announcing the new company, he decided he had to charge them rent. Seeking further, the group looked at an empty stable at 139 MacDougal Street, but first the fire inspector, then the buildings inspector, and finally the health inspector all demanded alterations of the space and the cost became prohibitive. Ironically, that vacant stable later became the famous Provincetown Playhouse when the Provincetown Players moved from Cape Cod to Manhattan in 1916.

Ida Rauh lamented their lack of accommodation, but Albert Boni protested that a stage was unnecessary for producing a play. A Liberal Club member with some professional theatre experience who happened to be a Harvard schoolmate of Albert Boni’s resolved the matter immediately. Robert Edmond Jones, just returned from a stint in Europe studying stage design with Max Reinhardt, appeared propitiously at the bookstore.

“Do you have to have a stage to put on a play, Bobby?” asked Boni.
“Of course not,” answered Jones. “You can put on a play right here.”

So, they did. One of the store’s two large rooms was appropriated for a make-shift theatre with the frames of the sliding doors dividing them serving as a proscenium. The group selected Lord Dunsany’s The Glittering Gate as their text for two very practical reasons: it had only two speaking parts and the bookshop had several copies on its shelves. Using sheets of wrapping paper, Jones improvised two tall columns and long spears for the silent guards, for which the two tallest men present, stripped to the waist, were drafted. Jones transformed two other participants into boulders by covering their heads with coats and gave them candles to hold—instant footlights. Helen Westley and the others present became the delighted audience, and the play was thus enacted. It was a few months later, after the inspirited participants raised the money to rent a real theatre, that the formal life of the Washington Square Players began.

In 1914, WSP was essentially alone on the New York independent theatre scene; its colleague theatres had not yet established themselves on their own in the city. The Neighborhood Playhouse, begun in 1912 as an adjunct of the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, did not begin functioning separately until 1915. The Provincetown Players formed their group on Cape Cod in 1915 but did not move to New York to produce until 1916. These three essentially amateur organizations were followed by a number of other efforts, each inspired by the success of its predecessors, and often founded by departing members of one of the previous groups. This explosion began what today is the Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theatre in New York. Across the country, it gave impetus, inspiration—and material—to the newborn “little theatres” which were supplanting the old stock companies of the 1890s and the unsatisfying touring companies controlled by the Shubert Brothers and the Theatrical Syndicate. These regional theatres eventually developed into major theatrical houses such as Washington’s Arena Stage, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater and similar companies in other cities.

Aside from this influence outside the mainstream theatre world, the early Village theatres, even with all their amateurish, low-budget, simple production techniques, had a lasting impact on the commercial theatre against which they were a reaction. Their very success in attracting audiences to out-of-the-way locations and out-of-the-ordinary productions frankly frightened the Broadway producers. Eventually, however, it encouraged the commercial theatre to present more daring and significant material. American theatre before World War I was principally a place of entertainment, while the Washington Square Players and its like were places of dramatized ideas.

But why had these groups formed? What made them feel the need to create a new theatre program? Certainly they wanted to try their artistic wings and indulge their political and social views, but why not in the mainstream? History provides the answer to that, and, not surprisingly, it is based on economics. By the late 1890s, according to Walter Prichard Eaton, drama critic and historian of the Theatre Guild, the successor to the Washington Square Players,

the “Theatrical Syndicate” was formed, and set about to gain control of such a chain of theatres as would make booking with them inevitable . . . . The ambitious actor or producer who might wish to experiment or to do some fine thing limited in its appeal, either had to do it as best he could, at his own risk, and often in a poor theatre, or give it up.

A few enterprising producers like Arthur Hopkins did manage to “experiment” to a degree, “but by and large, productions had to conform to mass taste to get a profitable hearing . . . .” Elmer Rice, who as Elmer L. Reizenstein wrote Home of the Free for the Washington Square Players in 1918, evaluated the commercial theatre of the day in his 1963 autobiography:

In spite of the feebleness of many of today’s plays, the general level of writing and production is higher than it was fifty years ago. There were many excellent craftsman, but almost no plays of literary quality. My avidity for playgoing did not blind me to the fatuities of the native drama. My program books crinkle with scornful commentaries on the crude melodramas and mechanical farces that constituted the bulk of theatrical fare.

In the words of commercial producer Hopkins, all Broadway offered was “a ceaseless repetition of a familiar and timeworn formula” that no longer provided any excitement to the audiences.

In illustration of the futility of producing anything subdued, artistic, and delicate on Broadway, Rice relates an anecdote concerning Alice Brown, a New England author whose The Sugar House was performed by the Washington Square Players in 1916. When the Booth Theatre opened on Broadway’s Shubert Alley in 1913, owner Winthrop Ames offered a $10,000 prize for the best play to inaugurate the theatre. Alice Brown’s Children of Earth won the prize, but “the payment of such a sum to an unknown writer aroused expectations that the quiet, sensitive chronicle of New England life did not fulfill. It was soon withdrawn, another ‘proof’ that art in the theatre does not pay.” This was the prevailing trend of the Broadway theatre at the time the Villagers were forming their artistic and social philosophies. Susan Glaspell, who with her husband George Cram Cook was an early member of the Washington Square Players and later founded the Provincetown Players, summed it up for her fellows:

We went to the theater and for the most part wished we had gone somewhere else . . . . Plays . . . were patterned. They might be pretty good within themselves, seldom out to—where it surprised or thrilled your spirit to follow. They didn’t ask much of you, those plays. Having paid for your seat, the thing was all done for you, and your mind came out where it went in, only tireder . . . . What was this “Broadway,” which could make a thing as interesting as life into a thing as dull as a Broadway play?

For the most part, Broadway productions were “dramatized best sellers and vehicles drawn exclusively by stars.” Among the latter were the long-running title-character appearances of Joseph Jefferson in Rip Van Winkle, William Gillette in Sherlock Holmes, and James O’Neill in the famously career-dominating The Count of Monte Cristo. Aside from the “crude melodramas and mechanical farces” described by Elmer Rice, the mainstream product included mediocre romantic comedies and foreign works whose adaptation, in the words of a contemporary critic, “often robbed the play of all its character.” Furthermore, though the commercial producers controlled most of the money in theatre, artists were contemptuous of Broadway because the sets and costumes were old-fashioned. Even the “painstaking dramaturgy” of David Belasco, whose crowning achievement was the construction onstage of an operating replica of Child’s Restaurant, complete with “real flapjacks . . . fried on a real griddle,” for 1912’s Governor’s Lady, was used merely to enhance empty plots. Such elaborate realistic sets, which Robert Edmond Jones disparaged as “interior decorating,” were necessary only because “few of the dramas of our time have been vital enough to be able to dispense with them.” “The proscenium,” lamented Lee Simonson, the Players’ distinguished designer, “was nothing more than an enlarged peep-hole, the current theatre a peep-show.”

With this atmosphere in and around the mainstream theatre just when enthusiastic young people were looking for artistic outlets, it is certainly no wonder that they would be impelled to found their own companies. They needed something more than was available, but, as another critic of the time saw it, “the need is not recognized on Broadway, or if recognized it is not understood . . . . It can only be met by dramatists and actors and managers who of necessity reach that pitch of intensity about the consequential which . . . conceals a truth.”

That truth, according to Lawrence Langner, was “intelligence, and interest in social matters, and a serious critique of life . . . .” In the view of Philip Moeller, they intended “to assert the rights of the human soul. The American [commercial] theatre has no place for the subtler nuances of drama.” WSP expressed a desire, as theatre historian John Gassner saw it, not only “to introduce new styles of dramatic art to the American public . . . [but] to introduce new attitudes and interest in psychological and social truths.” Robert Edmond Jones, who helped inspire the launching of the Washington Square Players, noted that the contemporary theatre was concerned with creating stage “illusion”—remember Belasco’s restaurant set—when what he and his innovators wanted was “allusion.” The one, he knew, was rigid, empty, and fake; the other, fluid, provocative, and stimulating. What was being offered on American stages, Jones held, was not real theatre because it lacked any “dramatic nourishment.” “We are hungry,” he cried, “and we are given a cook-book to eat instead of a meal. We expect to go on a journey, and we have to be satisfied with a map and a time table.”

As was the practice, the Players published a Manifesto to set forth its aims and purposes. Written by founders Langner, Moeller, and Goodman, the statement made plain the following precepts:

The Washington Square Players . . . believe in the future of the theatre in America . . . .

The Washington Square Players believe that a higher standard can be reached only as the outcome of experiment and initiative.

We believe that hard work and perseverance, coupled with ability and the absence of purely commercial considerations, may result in the birth and healthy growth of an artistic theatre in this country.

We have only one policy in regard to the plays which we will produce—they must have artistic merit. Preference will be given to . . . plays . . . which have been ignored by the commercial managers.

Though not organized for purposes of profit, we are not endowed. Money alone has never produced an artistic theatre.

Believing in democracy in the theatre, we have fixed the charge for admission at 50 cents.

(The 50-cent admission was a third of the cost of the best seats in the commercial theater in 1916. Special events, such as an appearance of Vaslav Nijinsky and the Ballet Russe, could cost as much as five dollars. There were seats available for as little as 25 cents, but these would have been in the rear of the balcony or other poor seats; WSP tickets were set at one price for all seats at all times.)

[This is the first part of my analysis of the history and artistry of the Washington Square Players. I’ll pick up part two in a few days, starting with a discussion of its finances and how it managed that element of its work. Please come back to ROT at the start of next week to read how I saw the artistic aspects of the historic company.]

16 June 2012

"Storefront Church'

Over the years, I’ve been to shows I didn’t understand, whose points I missed. Sometimes I’m just not the optimum audience for the material (The Rug of Identity, a radical feminist performance by Jill W. Fleming which I reviewed in 1989); sometimes, I’m just not in a very receptive frame of mind (or I’m plain obtuse) and I miss it all (The Cezanne Syndrome, a French Canadian play by Normand Canac-Marquis I reviewed earlier the same year); and sometimes the production just doesn’t work for me (Energumen by Mac Wellman, on which I reported for an interested producer in 1985). In the last circumstance, the responsibility could be in the staging (that is, it’s the director’s and cast’s doing) or the play (the writer’s fault). Now, I’ll freely admit that I’m not necessarily the sharpest knife in the rack, but after sitting through the two hours of John Patrick Shanley’s latest, Storefront Church, at the Atlantic Theater Company’s newly-renovated Linda Gross Theater in Chelsea on Friday evening, 8 June, I’m pretty sure I just experienced one of those last situations again. Oh, I know what the plot is all right, and I can describe the characters and all—but I have little idea what Shanley’s trying to say or what we’re supposed to take away from the performance. And since Shanley also directed the play, and had a fine cast, I have to assume he got onto the stage what he wanted, so I can’t blame bad directing very much.

According to Shanley, the idea for the play arose from walking around his old Bronx neighborhood. “I kept seeing these storefront churches,” he recounted in a Playbill interview.

I thought it's just such an interesting idea to take a candy store or a laundromat and say, “Okay, this is going to be a church, and I'm going to name it whatever the heck I think a church should be named, and I'm going to preach whatever I think this church should espouse and hope to get some parishioners and make a go of it.” What an interesting thing! It's sorta the basic building block of religion. Rather than people who attend major faiths, this is the place—the primal soup—of organized religion. I thought the original impulse—the need for spirituality and community that this represents—was exactly the kind of thing that I wanted to talk about.
Originally titled Sleeping Demon, Storefront Church—an earlier working title which is much more straightforward—is the writer’s final play in his “Church and State Trilogy” following Doubt (2004; Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, Oscar nom) and Defiance (2006). (Those two plays débuted at the Manhattan Theatre Club, the dramatist’s artistic home since the 1980s through Romantic Poetry, a 2008 musical for which Shanley wrote the book and lyrics and which he directed. Shanley moved to ATC for Storefront Church for reasons no one’s really discussing; he said he just wanted to try someplace different.) Set in December 2009 in the Bronx, it concerns Bronx Borough President Donaldo Calderon (Giancarlo Esposito) who steps in to help a homeowner, Jessie Cortez (Tonya Pinkins), and her husband, Ethan Goldklang (Bob Dishy), solve a mortgage problem that threatens to take their house. It happens that the bank that holds the mortgage is also the prime financer of a $300 million development project Calderon supports for his borough. Furthermore, Calderon’s mother, a close friend of Jessie’s, is the co-signer of her loan. After Ethan, an accountant, meets with the by-the-book loan officer, Reed Van Druyten (Zach Grenier), and suffers a heart attack in his office (flipping the loan officer the bird as he sinks to the floor!), Jessie goes to see Calderon at his mother’s suggestion. He’s reluctant to intercede because it might look like a conflict of interest and it might interfere with his dealings with the bank, but in a meeting with the bank’s CEO, Tom Raidenberg (Jordan Lage), Calderon mentions Jessie and Ethan’s situation, and Raidenberg immediately goes into action to see if he can manipulate the paperwork somehow to get the couple out from under the impending foreclosure. (Please observe: the director of the bank foreclosing on people’s homes while manipulating elected officials in pursuit of a $300 million deal, is named Raidenberg—as in ‘corporate raider’—and while he’s chatting, he’s demolishing a gingerbread house that was a gift for his son. Heavy symbolism much, ya think?) It’s clear that what he proposes to Van Druyten is quasi-legal at best. Though the loan officer, who’s already lost one career and has some prodigious personal baggage as well, demurs briefly, he ultimately shrugs his shoulders and does what he’s asked.

Jessie had taken out a $30,000 second mortgage, which she clearly couldn’t afford, Van Druyten points out to both Ethan and his boss. She has given the money to her tenant in the former laundromat beneath the residence to convert it into a Pentecostal church. A preacher, Chester Kimmich (Ron Cephas Jones) has no means to pay back the loan or to pay the rent and, we soon learn, is suffering a crisis of faith—he’s a Katrina refugee from New Orleans—which has left him unable to pray or to open his church. No prayer, no service; no service, no church; no church, no collection; no collection, no income. Calderon, paying the reverend a visit to see if he can shake loose 10 months of back rent so Jessie can pay down her arrears, points this out, but the BP’s presence, even as skeptical as he is, inspires Kimmich to offer a service the next Sunday and he invites both Calderon and Van Druyten to attend. At Calderon’s meeting with Raidenberg, the BP also mentions the coming service, and the glad-handing CEO insists on coming, too. If he’s going to do business in the neighborhood, he explains, he should meet some of the residents, shouldn’t he? So everyone gathers at the storefront church: Reverend Kimmich, with his spiritual blockage; Jessie, who plays the electric piano and has enough faith for everyone; Ethan, who declares himself a “secular Jew”; Van Druyten, who’s never been to a church of any kind, much less a Pentecostal storefront temple; Calderon, who admits he’s let politics crowd out religion in his life, and Raidenberg, the money-lender in the temple, as Ethan calls him. (With all those Christians of one sort or another on stage, Shanley puts this New Testament observation into the mouth of the sole Jew? Oy Gevalt!) The confluence of all these folks—Raidenberg has also brought along the papers forgiving Jessie’s loan—precipitates the crisis that’s Shanley’s central drama.

That dramatic crisis, which is pretty contrived in my opinion, arrives at the very end of the play. Everything else in the two-hour performance is set-up. (There are at least half a dozen coincidences and contrivances that have to be laid out, after all. The interrelationship among Jessie-Ethan, Calderon, his mother, and Raidenberg-Van Druyten is only one.) The theater promotes the play as an examination of “the relationship between spiritual experience and social action” and Shanley says the script “involves a mortgage crisis and—more directly, really—a spiritual crisis of which the borough president and the minister are two sides.” In a Back Stage interview, the playwright asserts, “Conscience is the most dangerous thing you possess. If you wake it up it may destroy you.” Well, that may be what he intended to depict, but the play offers a rather wan exploration of that theme, people faced with choosing between two unsavory actions in order to get through, and it takes the whole play to get down to it, leaving little time for anything but the most inorganic conclusion for Shanley to make his point. In an already talky play, the final scene, built around a preacher and a politician, is more so. I will say, however, that the final scene might stand alone as an interesting one-act if it could be extricated from the exposition and web of absurd coincidences and unlikely relationships that comes before. It’s the only scene with any potential for drama, but it isn’t enough to save the performance from being enervating in the end.

Diana and I saw the play three days before its press opening (Monday, 10 June), giving Shanley and the company 23 days of previews before we attended. (The play started performances on 16 May and will close on 24 June.) During the preview period, Shanley made many alterations, prompting the title change and including over 20 revisions to the last scene, arguably the most complex—with all the characters on stage, it’s the only scene with more than three characters—and momentous in the script. Yet, what seems to have happened is that the playwright never fixed the central dramaturgical problem: introducing his point early enough to keep from dumping the entire conflict into that final scene. He says he reworked the characters based on suggestions from the actors, but it isn’t the characters that are the issue—it’s the guts of the drama. Maybe if he hadn’t woven in so many little quirks and oddities to the plot and the characters—there’s a whole, intricate back story concerning Van Druyten, the loan officer, that has little to do with the actual point of the play except that it provides Grenier some emotional baggage to help explain some of his behavior—he’d have been able to get to the meat of the play early enough to get into it and then he wouldn’t have had so much trouble with that last scene.

The second (not necessarily in impact, just in sequence) problem I have with Storefront Church is that when Shanley does get around to concluding his play, after not coming clean about what he’s exploring, he cops out as far as I’m concerned. Raidenberg has manipulated the paperwork of the mortgage so that it’s now a small-business loan, which the bank writes off as a bad debt. There’s no payment from Jessie and she won’t lose her house. But Calderon points out that no loan is ever really forgiven, and Van Druyten backs this up. Money’s been paid out, so somewhere along the line it has to be paid back—just not by Jessie, Ethan, or Calderon’s mother. Some zhlub down the line will get the bill to subsidize Raidenberg’s gift to Jessie in Calderon’s behalf—but we don’t know that guy, so we won’t worry about it. (Little of this reasoning is laid out in the scene—I’m interpolating.) There’s an undercurrent from Calderon that maybe Jessie shouldn’t sign the papers forgiving the debt—he wobbles and sermonizes (because Kimmich can’t preach, but Calderon can—another convenient Shanley contrivance), but in the end, he shrugs and tells Jessie to sign the documents. So the play ends on a morally ambiguous note, not a fault in itself, but here it’s a cop-out and a convenience. This is the moral dilemma about which Shanley suggests he’s writing, but it comes so late and so abruptly and so without much heft that it has no dramatic impact. It ends the play—or, rather, stops the action—without really concluding it. I’m no playwright, but I wonder what might have happened if Calderon tells Jessie not to sign the papers. It’s wrong to pass on her debt to someone else just because it’s opportune for her. What if the BP explains this and advises her not to go along with Raidenberg’s iffy scheme? Diana said you can’t end a play that way, which strikes me as overly prescriptive. (I maintain you can always find a way to do something unconventional—you just have to be smart enough to figure out how to make it work. If I were a playwright, maybe I’d have an idea here, but I’m not, so I don’t. Still, I ask the necessary question.)

The performances are far better than the script deserves, in my opinion. Not that this cast of A-list pros would have shirked their professional duties under any circumstances, of course. By the same token, Shanley’s direction isn't especially striking, so he seems to have gotten good stage work from those pros just by letting them loose on the roles. (It’s an odd sort of paradox that while providing so much backstory and so many seemingly irrelevant details can be annoying for us viewers, it can give actors scads of great material to work with to animate their characters. In a Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, David Mamet, or Lanford Wilson play, say, the actors winnow out the snippets of background and history the writer drops in and then perhaps expand on that privately for their prep; Shanley puts it all in the script.) All the actors in Storefront Church give us terrific, quirky, and believable (if eccentric) characters. The very top of the chart is occupied by Zach Grenier, who appears weekly on TV as the opportunistic, self-interested, and ruthless domestic-affairs attorney David Lee on The Good Wife. His Reed Van Druyten, the most interesting role in the play both dramatically and theatrically (Charles Isherwood calls it “the play’s most touching turn” in the New York Times), is so emotionally damaged that he no longer can summon up the slightest sympathy or sense of humor. His face is half frozen from a gun-shot wound (part of his backstory—and I’ll never figure out how Grenier pulls this off physically without taking botox injections before each show) and he cites Quasimodo’s plea from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which Van Druyten has read because Ethan Goldklang has left the book behind after his heart attack): “Why was I not made of stone.” Grenier could well have been, for all the expression he allows Van Druyten to reveal—until, that is, his marvelous melt-down in the last scene. It’s a tour de force and Grenier nails it gorgeously. I’ve never seen Grenier on stage as far as I can remember, but he’s a frequent performer on TV and in films and I’ve never seen him work like this. At least in those electronic media, he’s woefully underused.

Another actor whose work here is a happy surprise to me is Giancarlo Esposito, the conflicted and torn Bronx Borough President. (When was the last time any of you heard of a play—or any other piece of writing for that matter—with a New York City borough president as a lead character? How many people outside the city—and not a few in the city—even know what a borough president is?) He, too, has been on stage here and on the big and small screen a lot, and he’s always been an actor for whom I haven’t really cared much. It’s hard for me to put my finger on why, but his performances have always rubbed me wrong, like he’s outside the character watching how well he’s doing. But his Donaldo Calderon is more than just sympathetic—although he isn’t always so righteous, he tries to be—he’s honest, especially with himself. As Calderon struggles with the dilemmas he faces—that mall the bank wants to finance will bring many jobs to the borough, but they’re minimum-wage jobs; the mayor supports the development and helping the mayor would beneifit Calderon politically, but the mayor’s a businessman and looks principally at the bottom line; the building the development will replace is derelict and empty, doing no one any good, but it’s architecturally attractive and residents like it and want it preserved for community use—I could see Esposito weighing the consequences, both to his constituents and to himself. I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he knows he has to make a decision that isn’t as pure as he’d wish. At the storefront service, when he assumes the preacher’s mantle, the transition from practical politician to moral voice is nearly impossible as Shanley wrote it—it looks like a shift no actor could pull off cleanly. But Esposito makes it work—or seem to, at least—because he does it with absolute sincerity and commitment. That’s something no director can get from an actor on demand: it has to come from the actor’s soul and a hell of a lot of skill and well-honed technique.

The rest of the company executes their parts with verve and intelligence. Tonya Pinkins, who could be the Latina cousin of TV commentator Donna Brazile, makes Jessie at once soft-voiced and steel-spined. She may not always see the reality of a situation, but she damn-well knows what she wants. Ron Cephas Jones keeps Reverend Kimmich from being the cliché he could easily become by a truly honest and even vulnerable core, even as Shanley’s lines are predictable and platitudinous. For all the character’s foreseeable opportunism and manipulativeness, CEO Raidenberg receives a patina of humanity—just enough to make him warm-blooded rather than a cartoon—at the hand of Jordan Lage, and Bob Dishy, whom I haven’t even heard from much less seen for an age, injects considerable warmth and humor into the proceedings with his bemused approach to Ethan, the outsider in many ways (a Jew among Christians, a humanist among pragmatists and materialists, a white man among people of color, a bit of an imp among serious-minded folk) whose only interest is his wife’s welfare and happiness. All these characters have the potential to fall into cliché or stereotype, but the cast all find truth and humanity in what Shanley wrote for them and skirt that trap.

On the technical end, the sets from Takeshi Kata are thoroughly appropriate for the milieus he’s depicting, with the benefit of shifting easily, quietly, and quickly for the over-half dozen locales called for. (ATC’s reconstruction included installment of state-of-the-art tech equipment.) Lit nicely by Matthew Richards, the several spaces all do what they need to do, and the little storefront church, with the sunlight from the street shining through the single window painted with the temple’s name (and then barred against break-in with an accordion window guard) is downright evocative. Alejo Vietti’s costumes and Charles LaPointe’s wigs (for Pinkins, I presume) are entirely appropriate, and the dialect work (also for Pinkins) by Shane Ann Younts keeps things convincingly real. Shanley has written two wordless scenes on park benches which seemed largely unnecessary, but special mention must be included for the sound design of Bart Fasbender, who overlays those scenes with sentimentally atmospheric songs—I didn’t know the music, but I’ve learned they’re “Another World” by Antony Hegarty and the Johnsons, and Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms”—that allowed them to communicate without dialogue. (Nice work here from the actors, too. The scenes may be dramatically extraneous, but they are well done.)

This world première is the first production in ATC’s main home (they have another theater, Atlantic Stage 2, on West 16th Street) after a two-year renovation which involved the complete gutting of the space and even excavating some cellar space, now the theater’s lounge, bar, and restroom area, that was inaccessible previously. (Marilyn Stasio of Variety found Shanley’s play about church and state a “smart choice with which to reopen ATC’s “restored theater-in-a-church.”) The new theater is attractive enough, and as far as I could tell, its stage acoustics, as well as the sight lines, are fine. I did notice, though, when I arrived and was waiting for the performance to start, reading the program and just looking around at the new house, that the auditorium is very noisy, the sound of everyone’s conversation echoing through the room. (There was also a mildly annoying crackle from the sound system which was loudest when no one was talking on stage and then subsided when there was dialogue.)

In the press, Isherwood was a lot kinder to the play in the Times than I’ve been, calling it “unwieldy but affecting.” Isherwood did acknowledge that Storefront Church “sometimes bogs down in windy debates,” specifically criticizing the last scene as “an egregious example” which “surely could have been finessed into better shape” if director Shanley had been more distanced from writer Shanley’s “overripe oratory.” (I’ve observed this several times regarding playwrights who direct their own scripts. They’re too close to the words.) Yet Isherwood observes that “the more ponderous aspects of ‘Storefront Church’ are leavened by some of Mr. Shanley’s sharpest comic writing in years” and asserts that the dramatist’s commitment to his topic “remains distinctive and invigorating.” The reviewer’s one statement about the script with which I completely agree is that Storefront Church “is so stuffed with character, incident and ideas that not all of them feel thoroughly digested, even by the writer.”

Among the most positive reviews is the uncredited notice from the Associated Press, which calls the première of the “edgy” and “intense drama” a “quirky yet searing production” whose “outcome is not necessarily surprising, but it’s very satisfying.” Like all the other published reviews, the AP writer praises the cast unreservedly. Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post, describing Storefront Church as “a melancholy fable, or maybe a twisted fairy tale,” asserts that the dramatist is more interested in being Hans Christian Andersen than Michael Moore. Vincentelli concludes that though the play’s “a little clunky, a little obvious,” it’s “also earnest and generous. And that alone is praise-worthy.” But based on his Village Voice review, Michael Feingold seems to have seen a different play than I did. Characterizing the playwright’s dramaturgy as “simultaneously light and deep,” Feingold states:

John Patrick Shanley has the gift, always rare among playwrights, of writing scenes that convey both shape and spontaneity. You never feel with him that his characters are being shoved this way or that, for the sake of a previously worked-out agenda. Things happen in a Shanley play because they happen, not because the author nagged or nudged the characters into making them do so.

That’s precisely the opposite of my impression of Storefront Church. To be fair, Feingold does admonish that occasionally Shanley’s “characters are prone to let their talk wander from the point, and to settle their affairs all too conveniently when they remember to come back to it,” which is what I saw all through this play. But Feingold finds it an asset, and I didn’t. Furthermore, though he acknowledges that there’s a “plenitude of plot” which unfolds “in a loopy, half-coincidental way,” the Voice reviewer finds the “the characters' multi-accented cross talk” to be “far more interesting,” even comparing it to some of Shaw’s writing. I couldn’t agree less: the talk, especially the preaching (which mostly comes from Calderon rather than Kimmich) is, for me, pat and unconvincing, convenient and, from my perspective, insincere. (The characters may believe what they say, but only because Shanley wrote them to.) When Feingold lists the “for the best” outcomes at the end of the play (and his review), he seems to be seeing only one side of each result. For instance, Jessie won’t lose her house, Feingold notes, but he doesn’t remember that someone else down the line will be paying for the forgiven loan in order for the bank to cover the loss. Van Druyten, according to Feingold, “rediscovers his self-respect”—but at what cost (if, in fact, he even does)? He’s ripped out his own guts in front a roomful of virtual strangers, he’s exposed all his raw nerve endings. Of all the attendees of the storefront service, he’s the one who raises his hand when the preacher asks if anyone else feels dead. Is that really redemption? Looking beneath the surface of the benefits that accrue at the end of Storefront Church, it’s clear to me that everything isn’t entirely “for the best.” Now, that may in part have been Shanley’s point: that we all compromise, by will or by coercion or by circumstance, but the modern world requires it. But the playwright doesn’t actually make this point—he just lets it happen and then stops the play. So, I’m not sure where Feingold gets his “happy” ending.

In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz writes that Shanley’s new play “is modestly intriguing but lacks the taut, fine-tuned storytelling” of his Pulitzer-winning Doubt and even chides director Shanley because “the production clunks from one scene to another.” The News review writer concludes that the production’s most serious deficiency is its “fuzzy focus”: “Like coins in a collection plate, themes are tossed out” but the director-playwright " doesn’t tie threads together,” resulting in a performance that’s “too vague to be all that gripping or satisfying.” In Back Stage, David Sheward characterizes the structure of Storefront Church as a “scattershot approach” and adds that Shanley “lays on the symbolism a bit too thickly,” citing, among other examples, the gingerbread house-devouring bit. Sheward, however, does affirm that the play nonetheless “has much to recommend it.” Variety’s Stasio calls Shanley’s play “wordy, unfocused and unresolved,” concluding that the final scene includes some nice theatrics by several characters (especially Grenier’s dead-pan loan officer), “but good luck finding the dramatic logic of it.” Matt Windman pretty closely echoes Stasio in AM New York, calling the drama “socially conscious but superficial” and contrasting the “too sentimental” last scene with the “confrontational scenes” of the rest of the play. “Shanley should not have directed the play, and it could really use some trimming and focus,” insists Windman.

11 June 2012

'My Children! My Africa!'

Past the end of the traditional stage season here though it is, my theater partner Diana and I are right in the middle of the Athol Fugard series at the Signature Theater Company. Having enjoyed the production of Blood Knot back in February (see my report on ROT on 28 February), Diana and I went to the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row on Thursday evening, 31 May, to see Fugard’s 1989 play My Children! My Africa! in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater. (We will be seeing the last play of the 2011-12 Residency One season, The Train Driver, this summer.)

The play, set in a small, east South African town in the fall of 1984 during the beginnings of the protests and uprisings in opposition to the so-called Bantu education imposed by the apartheid government on South Africa’s black majority, is Fugard’s treatise against the violent resistance of the African National Congress to not only the segregation of the classrooms but the curriculum that was taught in the black schools. There are three characters in My Children, a teacher and two young students. The teacher, Anela Myalatya, called Mr. M, is black and teaches in an academy for native students in the “Location,” the colloquial term for what we’d call the ghetto. Mr. M (James A. Williams) is an excellent, if idealistic, teacher, a Socratic mentor to Thami Mbikwana (Stephen Tyrone Williams), his prize pupil and an impassioned debater. As the play opens, Mr. M has been moderating a debate on women’s education between Thami and Isabel Dyson (Allie Gallerani), a girl from the upper-class white prep school whom Mr. M had invited to participate in the inter-school debate. The debate, a foreshadowing of the coming, more heated and passionate argument for a different kind of equality, has been a great success for everyone, though Isabel has won her argument in support of equal education for girls even though the audience is made up of Thami’s schoolmates and friends. The two 18-year-olds are on their way to becoming friends and intellectual equals, despite the barriers the country’s politics places between them. It has been Mr. M’s plan to defeat the system by showing the country and the world that, in spite of the unequal opportunities provided by the Bantu education under which he must teach, his native students are the intellectual equals of the best that the white society can field, and that beneath the skin color, the two communities can cooperate, develop, and accomplish good things if only the country would get out of the way.

In 1953, Prime Minister Daniel François Malan’s white minority government of the then-Union of South Africa (it became a republic in 1961), led by the white-supremacist National Party, passed the Bantu Education Act which established separate schools for blacks and whites. (Bantu is the catch-all term for native Africans, irrespective of their actual tribal membership. The “homelands” to which natives were assigned citizenship were known as Bantustans, usually in a pejorative connotation. I included a brief summary of the history of apartheid in South Africa in my report on Blood Knot.) The schools weren’t the only educational element that was decreed to be separate. Teacher salaries for the black schools were lowered substantially so that few candidates could be recruited, resulting in classes with one teacher to 50 students or more. In addition, the very curriculum that the native Africans were taught in their classrooms was different from what white students learned so that the native students were essentially trained for manual labor and servitude. Text books available for Bantu schools were not just out of date, but specially written and edited to omit information the government didn’t want its native population to have, and many texts and other materials were deliberately made available only in Afrikaans, a foreign language to most native Africans who viewed it as the language of the oppressor. Some dedicated teachers, like Mr. M in My Children, used games and tricks to teach their students how to think and reason as well as understand math, literature, and philosophy. It was against this system that the young people of South Africa, fed up with their inferior education—as Thami says in the play, the native schools are “traps which have been carefully set to catch our minds”—and the apparent passivity of their elders who seemed to be acquiescing to its continuation, rose up to fight in the middle 1980s. This is the milieu of Fugard’s play, and each of the three characters has a stake in the struggle, though the goals and dreams of each, all valid and even laudable by themselves, are different and, apparently, ultimately irreconcilable.

(I must add here that this awful and degrading situation in South Africa not only made me think of the Jim Crow era in this country, one struggle against which was the modern civil rights movement of the 1960s, but also the treatment in the U.S. of the American Indians in the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. There are differences, of course, and in some instances the situation here was worse than the South African counterpart, and in others the African circumstances were direr. Nonetheless, the echoes are frightening and shameful.)

My Children! My Africa! was written in 1989, a few years after it’s set and a few years also before the end of apartheid, which occurred between 1990 and 1993 (culminating with the election in 1994 of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of South Africa). 1989 was also the year in which F. W. de Klerk replaced hard-liner P. W. Botha as president, the catalytic event, like the succession in the Soviet Union of Mikhail Gorbachev was for the end of communism, for the dismantling of the apartheid apparatus in South Africa. The play was first performed in June 1989 at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre and débuted in New York in December in a production of the New York Theatre Workshop at the Perry Street Theatre under the direction of the playwright. In the New York première, the role of Mr. M was played by Fugard’s long-time collaborator, John Kani; Isabel was played by the writer’s daughter, Lisa Fugard, and Thami was portrayed by Courtney B. Vance. (The current revival, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson for the Signature, opened for previews on 1 May and will close on 17 June.)

In Fugard’s play, everything starts off as a Pollyanna scenario. The debate between Thami and Isabel has come off perfectly, even for Thami, who lost. Mr. M has been vindicated, and the teens have each found a friend who can be both a window into a hither-to unknown world and a sounding board for newly forming thoughts and ideas. “I discovered a new world,” Isabel says sincerely, if somewhat disingenuously. Both the students and the faculties of each school seem to accept the encounter without any reservations or fears, and even Isabel’s parents want to meet her new friend and his remarkable teacher, about whom the young woman has been telling them at home. No one seems to be suspicious of anyone else, and there’s no hint of sexual tension—it’s not even mentioned (as if this were a 1950s TV show). Indeed, both students seem precocious not only in their intellect and academic achievements—in act two, they prepare for a competition in English literature by grilling each other on obscure facts and quotations pertaining to 19th-century poets and novelists—but in their ability to understand the artificiality of the gulf imposed between them and the misguidedness of the country that perpetuates the wasteful and dangerous division. Except that we can sense that something must be looming to create drama—it is Athol Fugard, after all, not some playwriting hack with no agenda—spectators might wonder what could possibly go wrong here. Are we simply going to watch this über-simpatico trio skip down the bunny trail into the proverbial sunset?

And something does, of course, happen. It’s not even a big surprise once the hints start dropping (or you read the lobby-display panel outside the theater before the show or during intermission). The whole play takes place in the Number One Classroom of Mr. M and Thami’s school (all other events, such as tea with the Dyson’s, are reported like the battles in a Greek tragedy), but unrest is generating outside in the Location streets. Meetings are being held in shops and homes at night, and the young, militant ANC members, the “comrades” who want to act, are calling for violent protests—first the toppling of the statues to the white heroes of Boer and English South Africa (“They’re not our statues,” argues Thami), then boycotting the Bantu schools, then burning them down, and finally the execution of collaborators and informants—any native African who’s even seen in the company of a white person. While Mr. M deplores the violence and advocates staying in school, gaining an education—“If the struggle needs weapons, give it words,” he insists—and defeating the apartheid forces in the long run rather than in the short, Thami is being drawn into the militant camp. At first, he just speaks approvingly of their aims and tactics, but we know he’s going to become active. Isabel, though she deplores the treatment she sees her friend and his people suffering, doesn’t understand the call to action or, more immediately, the need to pull away from all whites, even those who are sympathetic. Thami’s been getting more and more remote, finally dropping out of the literature competition, and Isabel senses that he’s ending their friendship. There’s nothing wrong between them, he explains, but the comrades won’t see it that way. The Pollyanna world has exploded: apartheid has made adversaries where none should ever have existed. I think that this, more than Mr. M’s call to stay in school and resist violence, is Fugard’s point in My Children! My Africa!—that the insidious evil of apartheid isn’t so much that it separates blacks, whites, and coloreds, or that it oppresses the disenfranchised majority, but that it makes enemies of natural friends and allies. If no one trusts anyone else, then society can’t heal or grow—like Orwell’s 1984 where a state of war with someone always exists. (Isn’t that part of what’s been going on in the Middle East for generations now?)

The problem with the play, and it doesn’t seem to be the fault of the director or the production, is that it’s more a history lesson and poli sci lecture than drama. Fugard doesn’t really preach, but he does lecture, not only from the mouth of Mr. M, who’s surely his stand-in in My Children, but from the two students and from the play overall. Each character has at least one long monologue which is both biographical and polemical, and an argument for his or her aspect of the then-current political struggle. I can’t imagine how the play works for a South African audience, either today or in 1989, but it seemed to me that Fugard had really written My Children for non-South Africans. It’s so literal and on-the-nose that there’s little more in it than facts and reenacted scenarios of the time. After Thami has become entirely coopted by the comrades, he tries to explain to Mr. M and then Isabel what they stand for, and it sounds exactly like a polemic from a young man off the streets—more impassioned perhaps than real life might have made him—doing the same thing with his parents, his teacher, or a white friend. Furthermore, since it is all history now, if you read a newspaper back then, you know where everyone’s going to go. (I’d guess, even in 1989, a half decade after the events of the play, most theater audiences would have known where the characters would all end up. Perhaps even more then, as fresh as the events were at the première, than now, 23 years later, when some young spectators might not know the end-game of apartheid.)

The false promise of the opening scene, which seems to suggest that Fugard’s going to explore the tentative friendship of two young people from opposite ends of the society in the dying days of apartheid, made the play seem potentially more engrossing than it turns out to be. Very little ends up happening between Thami and Isabel—that tea with the Dyson’s that looked so dramatically promising not only takes place off stage, but passes by with barely a mention. In his New York Times review of the 1989 production, Frank Rich observed, “It's almost as if Mr. Fugard were a chaperone afraid to leave the two kids alone in a room, for fear that they might get out of his tight control,” because the two young characters never once share a moment of personal revelation or relaxed openness. And though the actors aren’t really at fault, I couldn’t help feeling that the stiffness of the characters, their guardedness and wariness, was the effect on the acting of the lack of human vulnerability in the written characters. It occurred to me after the performance that neither actor ever touched the other, or seemed to want to. Given the racial divide mandated by apartheid, that might have been an almost explosive moment—even just a friendly instance of contact—but it never happened or even threatened to.

The production of the Signature revival, at 2½ hours-plus playing time, is fine for the most part. This was my first show in the little Linney Courtyard, the company’s variable-space theater which was set up this time in a thrust configuration with audience on three sides, plus a small balcony in the front. Neil Patel designed the little classroom as spare, with only a plain wooden table and chair for Mr. M in the up right corner, another plain chair for Isabel and a chair with an arm-desk down left for Thami. The backdrop evokes both the back wall of the room and the wire fence outside the building with scraggly brush and a lone, spindly tree which suggests that even in this barren and scrub terrain, some life might dare to grow. Above the rear of the set (in other audience-performer configurations, it’d be another balcony) is more brush and the corrugated tin roof of the school building, the common construction material Fugard tells us is used for most of the structures in the Location. With Marcus Doshi’s lighting, which helps depict the space as functional but characterless and drab, the set serves principally as an arena, the center of the room being bare of furniture unless one of the characters moves a chair into it. (It’s necessary, of course, that director Santiago-Hudson move his actors around the stage so that all three sides of the audience get to see them. The empty set allows for that shifting without impediment, of course, and, except for Mr. M, the characters are imbued with energy that prevents them from sitting anywhere for long so that they are nearly always on the move.) Karen Perry’s costumes are appropriate without overstating their point—Isabel wears a green school uniform (a hockey kit in one scene) to reinforce the idea that she’s from an upper-class academy, Thami wears neat but casual attire (and a soccer—well, football in his culture—outfit after a game), and Mr. M is dressed in a jacket and tie in conservative tones like a school master might have worn here in the ’50s or ’60s. Santiago-Hudson chose music by multi-Grammy Award-winner Bobby McFerrin for the revival, adding an element of contemporaneity to the production as well as helping enliven the talky scenes.

All the actors demonstrate terrific enthusiasm for their roles and the points they make; it seemed to me that they were all thoroughly committed to Fugard’s themes and ideas. (Given that Santiago-Hudson sees current relevance in the events of 1984 depicted in My Children, this isn’t surprising. “Circumstances have changed in some ways,” the director insists, “but people are still racist and denying others their rights.”) There’s not a little of the stereotype in all three characters as written, so it’s not surprising that the actors all fall into that pattern in performance. I don’t see how they or Santiago-Hudson could have worked around that anyway, Fugard having written essentially a role-play rather than a fully rounded drama. Thami’s character is a little more varied than the others, so Stephen Tyrone Williams has more subtle shifts with which to work and he does so quite well, if a tad over-emphatically; Allie Gallerani and James A. Williams remain true to the figures, two-dimensional though Fugard painted them. (The two Williamses don’t appear to be related.) Isabel, however, isn’t as easy to play as she might seem initially. She requires Gallerani to be simultaneously naïve and strong, and the actress mostly carries this off convincingly. At the end of the play, when Thami tells Isabel they can no longer be friends, Gallerani gives us a glimpse of what she’s capable of, suppressing her hurt and confusion—as much as she wants to, she has no idea what Thami’s going through—at what she can only see as a personal matter. Aside from this, the only quibble I have with the performances is that, at least to my ear, the characters’ accents, especially the two students’, wobble a little: Thami is Xhosa, but Stephen Williams seems to slip into Italian dialect occasionally, and Isabel’s an English South African, but Gallerani doesn’t seem to be sure if she’s British or Afrikaner now and then. (South African dialects can be tricky, as Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News observes—he thought the cast did well with them—and I’ll confess that my ear may not be so expert as to make this judgment definitively.)

The press mostly agrees about the pedagogical nature of My Children! My Africa!, though Ben Brantley in the New York Times plays it down to a passing mention (he invokes the reviews of 23 years ago, but essentially dismisses the complaint). “Hope has broken loose in Athol Fugard’s ‘My Children! My Africa!,’” Brantley writes, and goes on to praise the cast, the director, and the writer in expansive terms. “Between Athol Fugard’s potent script and the cast that brings it vividly to life, Signature’s new production of ‘My Children! My Africa!’ packs a one-two wallop,” asserts Dziemianowicz in the News. “It deserves both of those exclamation points.” He does, however, note, “A Fugard play is always a talky affair,” and suggests that the 90-minute first act could be “pruned.” Even Michael Feingold states, “Fugard's prose, though sometimes a little over-methodical, never dampens the pain with which his play is fraught, and Santiago-Hudson's cast does it fearsomely discreet justice” in the Village Voice. Celebrating the audience’s “second chance” to experience “Fugard's toughest and most unflinchingly political play,” Linda Winer does comment in Newsday that “this snapshot of a moment before massive social change seems a bit like ancient history,” but ends entirely commending the Signature revival. In Variety, Marilyn Stasio acknowledges that “the early classroom scenes . . . are overlong and overdone,” but she states firmly that “‘My Children! My Africa!’ doesn't feel the least bit dated in Signature's stirring revival production.”

In the New York Post, however, Elisabeth Vincentelli complains that “the second act isn’t good enough to make up for the slog preceding it,” though she likes Santiago-Hudson’s direction. “But most of the time, ‘My Children! My Africa!’ relies on earnest speechifying,” Vincentelli concludes, admonishing, “A teachable moment doesn’t have to feel like a lecture.” In Time Out New York, David Cote sums up his evaluation, “If the structure is often dull, the writing at least is serious and resonant, and the actors are fully committed.” Possibly the most negative review, though, appeared in New York magazine, where Scott Brown calls the play “a public intellectual’s none-too-subtle attack on both the apartheid regime and its chief opposition at the time, the African National Congress.” Brown continues by criticizing the characters: “The children in My Children! don’t sound like children: They sound like talking points.” He adds: “The play is really a slender one-act, only it’s rendered in two, both of them grotesquely overwritten; there’s only so much director Ruben Santiago-Hudson can do with it,” noting, however, that the actors “often succeed” in their efforts “to disguise” the script’s “total lack of dramatic propulsion.”