Topdog/underdog


"2002 Pulitzer Prize Winner" It blares out from the bright orange cover of Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/underdog: "This play is important. This play is historic. This play is recognized."

Makes it hard to judge honestly, doesn't it? It sets the tone for the discussion, it becomes the bar by which the play is considered: it is award-worthy, or it isn't. I can either confirm that it is deserving of the recognition, or take it to task. It's hard to come at the play neutrally and see through the golden haze of the award.

There's a whole lot of theme here, a heavy load of concepts and leitmotifs and woven plot threads. Starting from the initial images of three-card monte and a black man who plays Abraham Lincoln in whiteface, two brothers fight over their meager existence, while a criminal past haunts and teases them. Lincoln left the con before he ended up dead, but the cards seduce him back, with the inevitable result. (Did I mention that Lincoln's brother is named Booth? Need any more literary foreshadowing?) In a thrilling end, it hits the something like the same note as The Usual Suspects: the whole thing's a con. Theme and plot come together, and it's electric. There's a heady mix of identity and family and the weight of the past and the greater weight of the present. There's no doubt it's a dense and thorny literary piece, deserving of recognition as such.

But is it a good piece of theater? Do the characters change? Is there any journey? The characters certainly act: there is a crescendo of action, and the status quo is irrevocably altered. But the seeds of that climax don't grow organically out of the events on the stage. It is largely external, unseen actions that impel the bloody conclusion instead of change driven by the action we do see. There's a feeling of inexorable inevitability about it all, like Greek tragedy ... but we're robbed of seeing it trigger onstage. It's almost as if it could have been 90 minutes shorter, because the characters we meet at the beginning are simmering with the same resentments that drive the ending, only missing the spark of the offstage events to set them aflame.

Sometimes it's pedantic and old-fashioned to insist on traditional dramaturgy, but it's a simple fact of the theatre: we've given our time and attention and shouldn't be shortchanged by an experience that tells us that very time and attention was worth nothing because what really matters is unseen. It's a limitation of a two-character, one-set piece: The influence of the outside world (and make no mistake, societal forces drive this play) becomes limited to reportage. I imagine it's a play that you could "act the shit out of" (to use a highly technical term), and wish I had seen the People Productions run in 2007. But literary themes and great acting material aren't all there is to a great play. It's a "good" play - perhaps a "very good" one - but the amount of narrative action means it can't be a "great" one. I realize I'm criticizing a play that I otherwise might have appreciated, sans Pulitzer ... but there you are. It makes me look harder when someone tells me what I should think.

The play's a theatrical three card monte: watch all you want and be dazzled by the flash ... but you will never see what's really going on.

Black Watch



Did you know we're still trying to figure out dinosaur skin? What the texture was, what the colors were? Jurassic Park aside, we really have no idea what they even sounded like. We have guesses based on the fossilized remains, but when you only have petrified organic tissue there's a lot left to the imagination.

Sometimes a script is just that: an artifact, a fossil record of an original production. You can see the impression of the work, the outlines of it in print ... but you'll never know how it breathed, how it sounded, or what its skin looked like. The beautiful script of The National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch is just such an artifact: tantalizing, but maddeningly incomplete.

The National Theater of Scotland has no home. Which is really a beautiful idea for a national theatre: it exists everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It stages site-specific work throughout Scotland, and Black Watch was created for an Officer Training Corps drill hall at the University of Edinburgh. In a style that flashes from naturalism to hallucinatory it tells the story of the legendary Black Watch regiment, and one particular squad's time in Iraq.

In talking about The Guys last week, I talked about "the shock of the real". I wish I knew how to define it better, but Black Watch has it in spades. These soldiers don't necessarily break stereotypes: They are crude practical jokers with an abundance of testosterone and a shortage of self-control. But though Burke's not reinventing the wheel in their characterization, his detailed observation of them leads to characters that feel lived in. They speak with their own voices, and though there's definitely a political point, they are never used as mouthpieces. Flowing through silent physical scenes and surreal stagecraft, it retains the feel of a surreal documentary.

While I'm sure in production the squad takes on a full life, that doesn't appear on the page. In a way, it's part of what makes the play so compelling: these men are not falsely differentiated with character hooks. We don't have "the rookie", "the drunk", "the stamp collector" (or whatever ... you get the point). Burke wisely trusted his acting company to give these men life on the stage, but those subtle pieces of characterization don't appear in the text. And since it is largely a character-driven piece, it requires a lot of work on the reader's part to keep the men distinct. Black Watch doesn't have a full life of its own past the fossil record. It works best as a glimpse of a show that I'll likely never get to see, and definitely has planted an itch that won't get scratched without seeing the full production. With its complexity and specificity, it's a far cry from the facile liberalism of The Guys, and an excellent example of a theatre responding to "The State We're In".

I just want to take a moment to talk about the book itself. Unlike many scripts, this is clearly a record of one specific production. There are introductory pieces from the playwright, director, and artistic director. There are full page color photographs that are explicitly referred to in the stage directions (e.g. 'See Picture 2'). It's a wonderful attempt to capture a theatrical moment in print, and I wish we saw more of this in American play publishing. Yes, scripts can be literature. But before that, they are part of a specific theatre event and it's wonderful to read them as such.

Next Week: Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks

Yes, I know. Seemingly missing the zeitgeist by not having scheduled that post for today. However, I plan to read it today/tomorrow, which is infinitely more rewarding than a scheduled post.

February's Plays

So, around the middle of each month, I'll post the next month's reading list. I don't think anyone's playing along at home ... but it seems fair to announce things ahead of time, in case any specific play catches your eye.

I haven't decided if I'll stick with these "theme" months. There's too much I want to read, and not all of it fits neatly into boxes. That said, I expect I can shove any play I want in any given theme with enough creativity and elbow grease. So these "themes" may become a bit more like those on This American Life: a connection so loose that "tenuous" would imply a vast increase in structural integrity.

There's at least one more themed month: February contains Valentine's Day, so why not spend a month on love?

I believe I came to one conclusion when setting the list for February: no Shakespeare. Looking at February, I thought I'd look at both Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida. On further consideration, I think I'll save Billy-Boy for a future project. (Of course, I may change my mind. (And "no Shakespeare" doesn't mean there can't be some Elizabethan/Jacobean blank verse at some point.))

That said ... four views of love: two by new voices, two by established ones. I'm not planning on a lot of flowers, candy, and Cupids in this bunch. Call it "My Bloody Valentine".

February 2: Love Song by John Kolvenbach
February 9: Betrayal by Harold Pinter
February 16: The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard
February 26: Riding The Bull by August Schulenburg

The Guys

Part of this year's play reading is recovering from my theatrical Rip Van Winkle act. 9/11 was a part of those years, so when I started thinking about "The State We're In", I wanted to find a play about that September day. I honestly don't know how theatre reacted. A quick Google search for "9/11 play" pointed me to Anne Nelson's The Guys.

I'd like to look at these plays in a critical vacuum, I really would. It's a lot easier said than done, though. My initial response was so strong, I itched to see what the critical reaction had been, and found universal praise. It was enough to make me pause: Am I just that far off?

I'm sure a great deal of the initial acclaim had to do with the immediacy of the production: premiering at The Flea Theater (only a short distance away from Ground Zero) a mere three months after the attacks, this was an important healing event for New Yorkers. Like Waiting For Lefty, this play can't be disassociated from time and place. It must have been an electric experience, the kind of therapy theatre can create when it allows a community to come together in a time of crisis.

However, I'm reading this play in 2009 Utah: far removed in time and geography.

This simple one-act is based on real events, with the character of Joan a thinly veiled version of the author. The play opens with a monologue where Joan talks about leaving Oklahoma behind to live in the dreamland of New York: a rent controlled apartment "filled with music and books. A husband who liked opera more than football. Two charming children in a good private school." Then, the horrors of 9/11 hit. Through friends, she is introduced to Nick, a fire captain who lost most of his men that day. He needs to give eight eulogies in the coming weeks, and is utterly overwhelmed. She agrees to spend a weekend afternoon using her writing skills to help Nick compose the speeches.

The bulk of the play is a by-the-numbers discussion of Nick's men who died, as Joan teases out specific details and crafts pieces out of them. I really wonder how fictionalized these men are. I've done some research, and can't get further than "inspired by". They certainly don't feel real or closely observed: we have "the average Joe", "the rookie", "the family guy", "the scalawag" in that order. For all the avowed intent to memorialize the individuals that stand behind the numbers, the firefighters never have the shock of the real. A feeling that this was a true memorial (like Mary Dickson's EXPOSED) would really have tempered my feelings towards the play, but they remain ciphers - a pretext for the central theme of the play.

It is obviously a heartfelt reaction by a talented writer. So why does The Guys infuriate me? Because it is ultimately not about the guys that died that day, or their leader who survived. Naturalistic scenes continually break out into direct address monologues that reveal the writer's own anguish and pain. Even within the scenes, she is emotionally shattered and Nick constantly apologizes for ruining her weekend. The only emotional arc is Joan's, as if when thinking about all the people who lost their lives on that day, what should truly concern us is the shattering pain felt by the liberal intelligentsia who had to endure the horrors of writing about it.

I'd like to react to The Guys in a purely technical sense, but I can't get past my own distaste for the play's narcissism. When we talk about The Culture Wars, here is Example A in The People vs. The Smug Self-Centered Lefties. The spine of the play (and of its reception) seems to be this: How are we, as rich, artistic left-leaning New York intellectuals ... how are we affected by 9/11.

Perhaps I'm not all that far from the critical reaction after all. As I was finishing this post up, I stumbled across an otherwise glowing review from the Village Voice:
As time passes, The Guys may come to seem shallow, even clich├ęd, not because it doesn't deal in authentic emotions, but because it offers little critical distance on them.




(One thing The Guys certainly has going for it is some great monologues for adult women. Those can be hard to find, so it's well worth a note just for that. I'll be keeping track through the year of plays that have good scenes or monologues though Labels.)

Next Week: Black Watch by Gregory Burke

Waiting For Lefty

As the U.S. economy seemingly collapsed overnight last October, the Great Depression haunted us again ... and there's no playwright who encapsulates that era better than Clifford Odets. He is to the theatre what Woody Guthrie is to music or Dorothea Lange is to photography: the poet of a national trauma. It's a trauma that still obviously haunts us as this past fall became filled with ghosts of Hoovertowns and bread lines. Waiting for Lefty immediately came to mind as I looked at "The State We're In", and became first on the list as I thought about this project.

I've read Waiting for Lefty before. When I assistant directed a production of Awake and Sing! in the early nineties, I tore though most of Odets' complete works very quickly in an effort to be prepared. It was a long time ago, however and this read was a very fresh experience. I was surprised by its brevity, its power, and its focused mixture of hope and rage. In its basic examination of how massive economic forces impact the individual (and what the individual can do about it), Waiting for Lefty is a timeless story that feels like it could be happening today ... but there's another aspect that feels antiquated and outdated and "period".

In a modern production, how do you come to grips with Lefty's fervent passion for Soviet Communism? Odets joined the American Communist Party in 1934, and Lefty is flush with admiration for the movement. This is no theoretical Communism: Dr. Benjamin speaks clearly about wanting to go to Russia, to work in their socialized medicine system. It's hard to imagine that had these characters had been able to see behind the Iron Curtain they would have been so passionate about the cause. Soviet Communism was not the ennobling force for the worker's good that it appeared from the outside, so how does that historical truth inform a modern reading?

It cannot simply be ignored. Though actors, directors and designers could decide on a "pure" production ... the audience knows. There is no way to simply inhabit the wide-eyed optimism Odets and his characters felt. The play changes and darkens as a result, becoming a politicized Waiting for Godot where the only salvation lies in the dream of another life, but that salvation is all illusion (or delusion). Communism will not come to the rescue of people like Joe and Edna or Sid and Florence. All the hope rings hollow, and Lefty becomes far bleaker even than it must have appeared to a Broadway audience in 1935.

Next Week: The Guys by Anne Nelson

A Prologue, Part 4

As mentioned yesterday, this will not be any sort of survey of "Plays You Should Read". Though I'm sure I'll read (or re-read) some classics over the next year, this will be a completely idiosyncratic journey. There will be new plays and old plays, the familiar and the obscure, the important and the awful.

That said, I compiled the following utterly-less-than-definitive list for a class, and thought I'd share it here. It's not necessarily a list of the best plays, but a good appetizer platter that would be a pretty decent overview.

So… What Plays Should I Read?
Some 20th Century Plays and Playwrights Of Note

Eugene O’Neill
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Moon For The Misbegotten, Ah, Wilderness!

Thornton Wilder
Our Town, The Skin Of Our Teeth, The Matchmaker

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
The Man Who Came To Dinner, You Can’t Take It With You, Once In A Lifetime

Bertolt Brecht
Mother Courage and Her Children, The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Samuel Beckett
Waiting For Godot, Happy Days, Endgame

Arthur Miller
All My Sons, Death Of A Salesman, The Crucible

Tennessee Williams
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie

Edward Albee
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story, Three Tall Women

Neil Simon
Brighton Beach Memoirs, Barefoot In The Park, The Goodbye Girl

Sam Shepard
Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love, Curse of the Starving Class

Harold Pinter
Betrayal, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, The Caretaker

David Mamet
Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Oleanna

Recent Pulitzer Prize Winners
August: Osage County, Rabbit Hole, Doubt, Topdog/Underdog, Proof

Recent Tony/Olivier Winners
The Coast Of Utopia, Copenhagen, The Pillowman, The History Boys

Some More Writers
Tom Stoppard, Brian Friel, Caryl Churchill, Suzan-Lori Parks, David Hare, Joe Orton


Edit: I'd like to point you to Melissa Hillman's comments here. She's quite right.

A Prologue, Part 3

Q & A

Every Monday? Every single Monday of 2009, come rain, shine, or Opening Nights?
That's the plan. If I fail, I'll refund your money. Heck, I'll even double your cost of admission.

(While you're thinking about my imminent failure and all the funds you'll reap thereupon, it's not cheating if I read plays ahead of time and stack up posts like theatrical cordwood against a looming tech week.)

So are these reviews? Synopses? What exactly are you writing?
I am writing reactions. I believe blog writing is at best brief and to the point, so I simply won't have the word count for a detailed, balanced review. The blog format fascinates me because I think you start to lose your audience after 300 words. So I certainly won't be wasting those words on Cliffs Notes. We'll see what comes out, but I don't expect you'll be able to crib these for Dramatic Lit 101.

Will these plays offend me?
Possibly. I'm not filtering for content here at all, so there will be situations and language that some may find uncomfortable.

Why should I read the plays you're picking?
No reason at all. I'm just picking a variety of scripts to keep myself energized and entertained. I'm certainly not trying to develop any kind of Great Plays Reading List. (Though I do have one of those, and I'll publish it tomorrow just for reference.)

Where can I find all these plays?
I'm finding that the used copies on Amazon are often a good deal. The shipping is usually $4, but the books themselves can come in pretty cheap. The library's another good bet, and in the interest of fairness I checked the Salt Lake City Public Library Online Catalog and found three of the four plays for January. Even if you can't check books out because you live in the wrong county, plays are quick enough reads that you could curl up in that lovely downtown location and rip through a few on a weekend morning.

A Prologue, Part 2

Why read a play a week? In fact, why read plays at all?

It's not like I don't see enough. Though I don't have the record-keeping gene that my better half possesses, I saw a mess-o-theatre in 2008. Some of it was great, some mediocre, but all of it taught me something. There's no doubt: seeing theatre is an absolutely vital part of a life in the theatre.

But it's not everything.

I think it was Sheldon Patinkin who drilled it into me: part of a life in theatre is reading plays. There are far too many actors who stop reading scripts once they leave school. Perhaps they'll read shows they are auditioning for, or shows they are in ... but not even that is guaranteed. Headshots, trips to the agency, fitness, networking ... these are all things a professional keeps up on with ease. It's "part of the job". But reading plays falls easily by the wayside.

Theatre is a collaborative artform: you can't do it alone. That's its blessing and curse. Especially as an actor, you are often waiting for an opportunity. So how do you exercise those theatre skills when you're not actually making theatre? Reading plays is one of the great ways to do it: working out what you'd do in a particular show or with a particular role, analyzing different challenges and styles that you might not be familiar with.

That doesn't even touch on the practical considerations. Reading plays is the only way to find contemporary monologues that aren't overused, because once it hits those dreadful collections it is all but useless. Reading plays prepares you for working with directors and other actors who have experience, and leaves you with some response for that common comment "this is just like ...". Reading plays gives you a facility for reading plays, for quickly analyzing a new script that you're handed moments before an audition.

Here's where money and mouth intersect. I counsel students at the Theatre Arts Conservatory that they need to be reading scripts as part of their training, at least one a month. After all, it only takes an hour or two to read a complete play, and is essential exercise.

I can't very well encourage young actors to do something I'm too lazy to manage, can I?

(Well, of course I can. That's not the point. Stop being cheeky.)

A Prologue, Part 1

Welcome to 2009!

Do you have a resolution? I do.

I'm beginning to love resolutions. It helps me give focus to a year where I often serve at the whim of others' decisions. I did well in 2008: teaching myself guitar, making good progress on some writing projects, and largely quitting one particular bad habit.

My 2009 New Year's Resolution? Read more plays.

I'm no stranger to blogging, having written about comics and gaming at various points over the past few years. I enjoy the discipline of pinning my reactions down in words, and the high-wire act of public stunt blogging brings even more fun to the mix. But while I enjoy comics and gaming, I just don't have the passion for them that I do for theatre.

So, in this particular stunt blog, I'll read a play every seven days in 2009 and post about it on Monday. 52 plays in 52 weeks, a couple hundred words about each.

I'll be doing daily posts through Monday's first play to kick this off: explaining the whys, there wherefores, and the groundrules. While this is a personal challenge, it will be a lot more fun with readers and comments and suggestions. So please let me know what you're thinking.

If you do want to play along with the home version of the game, here's what's on tap for the start of the year. On the 20th of January, the political landscape will change and there's a stack of problems the new administration will need to deal with. I decided to pick four plays that speak to me about The State We're In:

January 5: Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets
January 12: The Guys by Anne Nelson
January 19: Black Watch by Gregory Burke
January 26: Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks