Our Town

Is Thornton Wilder's Our Town the most produced play in America? There's an apocryphal story that there's a production somewhere every night. Regardless of the exact statistics, it is certainly a hugely popular play, one we've known forever and consigned to the realm of the "safe" classic, heaped on the theatrical dustbin of community and educational theater. Replete with stiff collars and Pepperidge Farm accents, we know this play.

How, then, does a new on-the-cheap production become the toast of Chicago and New York? How does it bring possibly the most hardened theater audiences in the world to tears consistently?

Maybe ... just maybe there's a key here to what good directing is: it starts with reading. Wilder's introduction decries the box set, and explains his attempts "to capture not verisimilitude but reality" then sets the stage quite clearly:

No curtain.
No scenery.
The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light.

Brooks Atkinson hit the nail on the head in 1938: "By stripping the play of everything that is not essential, Mr. Wilder has given it profound, strange, unworldly significance."

It's shocking to re-read the play and see just how spare, cold, and clean it is. The steady accretion of the barnacles of sentimentality gets in the way of seeing what's there on the page, and received "wisdom" keeps us from reading. It's a reminder to all directors and actors: read what's there, not what you think is there.

Three Tall Women

Perhaps I have said this before ... but what a difference a week makes. Seven days ago, I lamented Mamet's misogynistic Boston Marriage. Here's another three-woman play by a modern (male) master, but the results could not be further from that extended strawwoman argument.

Edward Albee's Three Tall Women is a beautiful work, diving deeply into the life of one woman as she nears her end. There's a clever conceit as the individual characters from the first act are transformed into aspects of the woman at different stages of her life in the second ... but gimmickry is not the aim, deep investigation is. In the preface to the Plume edition, he makes it clear the old woman is based on his adoptive mother:

Is the woman I wrote in Three Tall Women more human than its source? Very few people who met my adoptive mother in the last twenty years of her life could abide her, while many people who have seen my play find her fascinating. Heavens, what have I done?

"Fascinating" does not mean "likable", and that's where this play succeeds so well. Though firmly in Albee's constant milieu of East Coast Elite, the old woman is both a a product of her time and also a rough-edged individual that speaks plainly about the scope of her life. I'm almost at a loss to describe why this play is so effective: I expect brain from Albee, but this is pure heart, an outpouring of humanity on par with Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. I wasn't expect heart from a play where the three women are named "A", "B" and "C".

September's Plays

Try to remember the kind of September ....

Fall's starting, classes are beginning, and I am getting focused for a busy year. But "The Plays Must Roll".

So I'll take a tip from El Gallo, and take a trip down memory lane, or at least read some classics. I've made no secret of my preoccupation with David Cromer's current Our Town production which began in Chicago at The Hypocrites. I'm fascinated by that company and its artistic director Sean Graney ... and I'm looking at "old chesnuts" in a whole new way. This month may be a bit "bookish", but I'll get back to new works soon enough.

September 6: Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

September 13: Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

September 20: The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

September 27: Man And Superman by George Bernard Shaw

Boston Marriage

My favorite part of David Mamet's Wildean "comedy" Boston Marriage?
CLAIRE. You look like a plate of cold stew.

If at some point in the near future, I tell you that you "look like a plate of cold stew" ... well, at least you'll know the reference.

Other than that? While I'm interested in some of his abrupt language shifts, as the characters turn on a dime from heightened Victorian excess to rough tradesman drawl ... there's not much to recommend this play other than that stew line. Is this not just Mamet's misogynistic tendencies writ large? Catfighting sometime-lesbians who steal, lie, corrupt, and destroy while conspiring to dupe innocent maidens and their steadfast fathers? Good lord, I was waiting for the vagina dentata to show up.

As a rule, I avoid looking up reviews of these scripts until I complete the post. It's part of the fun: a risk that I could be publicly and completely off-base, and show myself a fool. I'll be googling momentarily to see if I'm completely backwards on this one. I almost hope I am. I look at cast lists that include such women as Felicity Huffman, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Martha Plimpton and assume there must be something there, because they wouldn't participate in this sexist minstrel show .... right?

... Right?

The Little Dog Laughed

DIANE. Come now, Mitchell -- you're just having another one of your little adventures.
MITCHELL. I don't have adventures.
DIANE. Please. You're like Huckleberry Finn. Huckleberry Finn on a raft made out of rent boy.

Ahhhh ... that's better. A quick-witted comedy that hits some true relationship notes, and kept me guessing about where it was going and how it would end: that's what the doctor ordered. Specifically, the doctor ordered The Little Dog Laughed by Douglas Carter Beane.

On the surface it's a Hollywood satire like The Player or Tropic Thunder, but the satire drops away pretty quickly as the quirky love story at the heart of the play quickly takes center stage.

Beane does an interesting juggling act, where three out of the four characters all appear to be the protagonist at one point or another. Our initial POV character seems to be Diane, the sharp and driven Hollywood agent. The play quickly leaves her behind to foreground the story of Mitchell, the almost-big star "who suffers from a slight ... recurring case of homosexuality" ... and when he starts to fall in love, I instantly though I knew where we were headed, into a coming-out comedy that would end up being like a Pride Day Special Episode of Entourage.

It's only as the story grows more complex, dealing with all kinds of pressures in all kinds of lives do we learn the play is untimately the story of Alex, Mitchell's rentboy paramour. He's a street hustler, and Beane flirts with all the stereotypes this prince/pauper pairing could entail, but doesn't give an ending that I anticipated at all. Almost out of nowhere, Alex makes a decision I didn't expect ... but for all my surprise, it seemed perfectly natural and in-character once I thought about it. It's the kind of moment you get at the optometrist office: one flip of a lens and it all suddenly comes into focus.

An Ideal Husband

Pictured to the left is what my puppy did to Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband.

.... Which is what I've wanted to do to it more than a few times over the past few weeks. This is the first play I've been late on, the first play I've had to put aside and start over again, the first play I've dreaded in this project. This is the first time that reading felt like a chore, like homework.

It's not an awful play by any means ... I've certainly read worse. Part of my reaction was simple fatigue, as Macbeth caught up with me and work went through a rough patch.

But much of what I was feeling was simply that the play is so bloody Wilde.

This is a fascinating experiment, a melding of the Shaw/Ibsen/Strindberg well-made play with the frippery that will come to define Wilde when he writes The Importance Of Being Earnest a few years later. It's an uneasy balance, but at times reaches a fascinating depth where the "triviality" of society is stripped away to the ugly core that lies just under the surface. The stumbling block for me was getting to the seedy underbelly, as the play is frontloaded by a party scene full of bon mots and witticisms daintily pronounces by a multitude of people whom we don't care about and will never see again.

I'll be thinking about this play a bit more, and my foot-dragging reaction to it does not mean it didn't end up captivating me. It's a strange, strange play ... but that strangeness is exactly what pulls me in.

Fiftyoneplays? No.

No weeks shall skipped, but An Ideal Husband will not be posted until tomorrow at the earliest.