I have been royally spoiled when it comes to hearing great vocal talent on the New York stage. In my formative tween-age voyage to Broadway, I saw Betty Buckley as Norma Desmond, Idina Menzel as Maureen, and Bebe Neuwirth as Velma Kelly in the same week. The same week! And like a French child who is given the best wine straight from the bottle, I learned quickly not to accept the cheap stuff. I become petulant and obnoxious when sitting through a Broadway production with community-theater caliber voices; I start to get antsy and consider unwrapping candies or rustling through my bag. I threaten to leave at intermission, and if I am by myself, I sometimes do it. In recent years, I must admit, this phenomenon has become a lot more common.
Consider the case of Guys and Dolls, 2009. Lauren Graham, who is excellent in “Parenthood” and who continually shines in “Gilmore Girls” reruns, somehow managed to botch “Adelaide’s Lament” — which, by the way, is supposed to sound less than fantastic. The character has a cold, and is not in voce piena to begin with, but Graham made the number sound less like a pro-attempting-to-sound-sick than a sick-person-attempting-to-sound-pro. There is a pronounced difference, and everyone in the audience heard it. The strange thing was, as I glanced around, not that many seemed perturbed by the performance. Perhaps a handful of the audience members had seen or heard Broadway dynamo Faith Prince play the part in the 1992 revival, for which she won a Tony and a Drama Desk and the entire theater community’s adoration. But for the most part, this was a crowd that had arrived for the celebrities — Graham, Craig Bierko, Oliver Platt — and they were content to see the stars they already knew perform a rough simulacrum of the Loesser songbook.
It would be one thing if casual Broadway audiences got a taste of everything — insanely virtuosic voices one night, then a bold-faced Hollywood-import cast the next. Then they could decide what they enjoy best (and I may be overly optimistic about this, but I bet that if given the choice between Bernadette Peters and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Little Night Music, more would have chosen to spend two hours listening to the former). But what is becoming increasingly grim is the fact that shows now need the marquee names to survive, or to even open, and that more and more a marquee name in New York is someone shipped over from Los Angeles and the screen world. It used to be that your little musical could be golden if it landed the likes of Kelli O’Hara; now, it needs to land a Kelly Ripa.
This has been a seeping fear among “show people” for some time, which is why I’m sure so many of them were glad to see Christopher Isherwood’s recent rant in The New York Times about the slow drain of excellent voices from the New York stage. After attending a star-studded New York Philharmonic concert version of Company (Stephen Colbert! Neil Patrick Harris! Jon Cryer!), he grumbled about the lackluster singing. Granted, the event was a kind of celebrity stunt dreamed up by the orchestra from the outset, but, as Isherwood contends, there’s no great excuse for a bad staging of Sondheim, especially when money and world-class musicians are involved. Patti Lupone stole the night; and though she will do that in almost any production she drops into, he wished that at least one person would have posed a minor challenge.
Isherwood’s post inspired dozens of impassioned responses from theater fans, most of them agreeing with his woes (with a few pointing out that we still have young vocal powerhouses on their way up, like Sutton Foster, Aaron Tveit, Gavin Creel and Laura Benanti), and I am glad that the floodgates have opened for this kind of conversation. And yet, even with all the chatter, it doesn’t seem like things will change any time soon.
The way a Broadway star is made has shifted with the rise of reality TV, and even theater-friendly shows like “Glee.” Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison came from the New York stage to that show, but I’ll be surprised if, after the show’s end, half of the cast does not end up flooding Broadway in the other direction. Sure, many of the “Glee” kids are tightly-wound talent coils, and perhaps, if given the chance, they could explode on the stage (I could see Amber Riley owning a revival of Dreamgirls). Vocal chops bred in the Hollywood machine are not always inferior, and screen actors aren’t always the enemy. But what we are in danger of is that musical producers will forget about the very thing that the whole enterprise is founded on: the power and magic of a killer voice.
If you could sing, and I mean, really sing, in any generation before this one, chances are a family member remarked that you were on your way to Broadway. Now, the kids who can belt out are on their way to “Idol,” or if they can’t wait for that, to YouTube fame. If Broadway becomes no longer the ultimate goal, or simply an afterthought, for young American talent, then all theatergoers will suffer.
Broadway has always been a place where the most gifted, the most brilliant voices survive; everyone else falls away except the golden tenors and the dulcet ingenues. It should be a place where a 12-year-old can see world-class talent if she stays for a week. It should be a place so exacting, so demanding of excellence, that it crushes dreams even as it stokes them. In the week I saw those three women perform, I was elated, but crestfallen. I knew I would never share the stage with them — I just didn’t have the pipes. I can imagine a teenager feeling the same way after watching Guys and Dolls, but not because she couldn’t project properly. These days, young hopefuls may feel that the bar for entry is impossibly high — not for lack of talent, but because they don’t have a “brand.”
With Spring come two important religious holidays: Easter and Passover. While gentiles like me have always been able to sing along to Jesus Christ Superstar during our holy week, I’m afraid my Jewish friends have gone too long without a musical following the story of Moses. (Fiddler on the Roof, while fantastic, is hardly comparable to JCS in this regard.) Luckily, the folks at Tablet magazine are presenting the second staging of Everything’s Coming Up Moses!, an unlikely mash-up of one of the greatest stories ever told with one of the most important and recognizable American musicals (Gypsy).
Starring Seth Rudetsky (of Broadway Catterbox fame) as Moses, Matt Cavenaugh (recently seen as Tony in West Side Story) as Pharaoh, and Bob Morris (author of Assisted Living and a former New York Times columnist) as God, the musical also features downtown artist Dan Fishback and author Rachel Shukert, who conceived the production last year. Shukert spoke to Fourth Wall via email about the show, its snappy title, the target audience, and the divine qualities of Stephen Sondheim.
Fourth Wall: How did you come up with the concept for the show?
Rachel Shukert: My friend Michael Schulman and I were IM’ing on Facebook, as one does to escape the crushing tediousness of the workday, and we were talking about his parents’ seder, which I was going to, and then one or the other of us typed “Everything’s Coming Up Moses!” That stuck in my head, and in this fit of mania, I wrote the lyrics to two songs — that one and “Some People,” which became “Some Hebrews.” I forwarded them around to some friend I thought would think they were funny (i.e. gay, Jewish, theater types) and my friend Jesse Oxfeld was like, “If you want to do a whole show of this, I will see that it’s produced.” So that’s what I did! It really came together very fast — it’s so rare that something has that smooth a journey from my head to the page. Maybe God is a big Sondheim fan (I mean, obviously, God is a big Sondheim fan.)
FW: This is the second annual performance of Everything’s Coming Up Moses! Did you expect the show to be a hit last year?
RS: I expected it to go over well with the sort of Venn diagram of audience members we had assembled (again: gays, Jews, Broadway aficionados, people’s parents) but it really kind of defied expectation as to how people responded. I mean, straight dudes with beards were into it. We took my mother to Marie’s Crisis afterwards. It was like a dream.
FW: Does the audience need to know both the stories of Passover and Gypsy to enjoy the show? Will I, an Episcopalian who watched the Bette Midler version on TV fifteen years ago, get the jokes?
RS: Yeah, it works a few levels, I think. Obviously, like anything parodic, the better you know the source material, the deeper the jokes are. But the reason I think it works so well is that both the story/music of Gypsy and the story of Exodus are so ingrained in the culture that you kind of can’t help but know them, even if you don’t realize it. Don’t Episcopalians have Moses? I know he’s not quite as big of a deal for you guys, but it can’t just be Jews buying the new limited edition remastered Blu-ray version of The Ten Commandments that comes in a collectible box that simulates the holographic parting of the Red Sea.
FW: Seth Rudetsky is known more for his Broadway commentary. How did you convince him to play Moses?
RS: Um…he gets to play Mama Rose. It’s like asking a straight guy if he wants to be Han Solo. Seriously though, Seth is a genius and we are so lucky to have him. I would even say that the show was contingent upon his participation.
FW: If Stephen Sondheim were to communicate with you through a burning bush, what do you hope he would say?
RS: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to sue you.”
FW: Who’s your favorite Mama Rose? Who’s your favorite Moses?
RS: Charlton Heston for both! Just kidding. Charlton Heston for Moses. And I’m pretty partial to Patti LuPone…except for Bernadette [Peters], who I wasn’t nuts about, the others were all kind of before my time. I do kind of like Rosalind Russell in the movie; she’s so tall and gawky, which I always thought was interesting.
FW: Have you considered parodying other classic musicals for Jewish holidays? What show would parallel Yom Kippur? Rosh Hashanah? Sukkot?
RS: Yes. I’ve actually been working on Purim Evita, or as it should be called: “Don’t Cry For Me, Achashverosh.” Hanukkah is Les Mis, Yom Kippur is Cabaret. I very seriously outlined “Oklahoma/Yom HaShoah” (Yom HaShoah is Holocaust Remembrance Day), but they didn’t go for it. I can’t imagine why.
Everything’s Coming Up Moses! plays at 92Y Tribeca on Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at 7:30. Advance tickets are $20, and can be purchased at 92Y Tribeca’s website.
While I consider myself open to mystical happenings, I was skeptical: After a woman has shoved her head in an oven, one assumes that it’s not possible for her to spring back to life, learn 50 years of technological and cultural updates, and then tweet about them.
And yet, when I clicked on the feed (you would have done it, too!), I realized that this wasn’t your typical Twitter imposter. The hammering out of 140-character updates under fake avatars has become a widespread phenomenon (see @fakestevejobs, @halfpintingalls or @mayoremanuel for examples), but whoever was tweeting as Ms. Plath was doing so in a way I hadn’t seen before: The writer placed Sylvia inside of a specific situation — a mini-play, of sorts — in which the poet lands in the small town of Northbrook, Illinois, commissioned to write a one-act. The fictional Plath has to put up with Rhonda and Chloe, the lovable local yokels who are vying for the starring role in the play, and she tweets about how forlorn and lost she feels among the country folk.
A few examples:
Forty pages typed, and Rhonda is an emoting blender of slush. She is a floral, fleshy girl with Moscow lips, but an opal heart.
The locals ferociously dine out and purchase slick, pink ballet shoes for their young. O drummed out dance among the tortured nylon.
Sleep has overtaken my lids. O curse you, Whopper, stronger than ten xanex. I become a red velvet theatre seat.
I was impressed with the diligence of the tone and the fact that the author had given the Plath character a location, a setpiece, and a playground. It almost felt to me like a strange sort of theater. And as it turns out…it is.
Looking deeper into the feed, I discovered that it is written by Karen Nystrom, a Chicago-based slam poet and performer — and that her @sylviaplath handle was part of a bigger project. Nystrom set up the Plath-goes-rural scenario as part of Re:Orbit, an “experiment in social media theater” that launched on March 1.
The concept of Re:Orbit is this: Writers, actors, and artists pick cultural icons or fictional characters to inhabit, place these characters into a scene, and let them play around within it over Twitter. There is @MrMillerSurfin, which explores what life might be like for the playwright Arthur Miller if he moved to Venice Beach. The voice behind the fake Miller is actress Amelia Mulkey, who recently moved to L.A. herself to direct a production of Miller’s Memory of Two Mondays (example: “Spend the morning with hobo pirates and the evening with industry godesses.”). Then there’s @tweenbeckett, which imagines Samuel Beckett as an angsty teenager (Atlanta-based actor Steven Westdahl runs this one, typing out updates like “Just to be clear: @justinbieber is a synthesizer trying to bring in as much as he can. I’m an analyzer trying to leave out as much as I can”).
It’s beyond absurd to imagine Samuel Beckett ever dedicating his thoughts to the likes of Justin Bieber, but the members of Re:Orbit are actively trafficking in the absurd; and they are performing the hell out of these characters. Whether or not the project can be classified as “theater” is another story.
Re:Orbit was the brainchild of four friends living in the Bay Area — Eric DeJesus, Dawn Danby, Adrian Cotter and Erik Hinzpeter. They were not intending to launch a theater company, per se, but rather to shake themselves out of their daily routines by experiementing with new ways of storytelling using a new medium.
“I’ve been using Twitter for the last couple of years as a creative writing outlet, given that creative writing has nothing to do with the work I do,” says Dawn Danby. Fourth Wall spoke to Danby from her home in San Francisco, where she works as an “industrial designer and synthesist” by day. “But Eric had the early idea. He wrote a blog post about it a couple years ago; he was flipping back and forth between a Twitter account and reading about Lawrence of Arabia in the Times, and started to wonder what Lawrence would say about the news today. So combined with Eric’s thoughts, and the fact that I was doing this creative acupuncture with Twitter — writing these tiny poems inside this compressed space — it all came together.”
The pair teamed up with designer friends and launched Re:Orbit, Danby says, “to infuse art into the mundane. There’s so much marketing and advertising on that platform, and we wanted to do something different, something inherently performative.”
But is it theater? Can watching someone act out a fictional character in tiny spurts ever be as fulfilling as watching them inhabit one in flesh on the stage? Danby argues that the Internet is creating a new kind of theater, one in which the actor, director, and producer are the same person.
“We’ve been calling it social media theater, because yes, the people involved are writing and acting,” Danby says. “Eric had reached out to people in theater world, playwrights, directors, actors, in a sense we are asking people to bleed all those roles together. These people usually all have different roles within he hierarchy of the theater. But, for example, Amelia Malkey, as she directs an Arthur Miller play, is writing a Re:Orbit as Miller. She has told us that it makes her work that much deeper.”
And in fact, this is the most exciting aspect of Re:Orbit and other online experiments in performance — the fact that they can be an excellent complement to stage shows, if not a replacement for them. Imagine a world in which a character from an upcoming Broadway show goes onto Twitter and gains a following before they ever debut on stage? Imagine a playwright creating a mini-drama or feud between two fictional avatars, and then bringing that emotion into a physical space? The interchange between online personae and real-life acting is still in its most nascent stages, but projects like Re:Orbit may be a sign that there will be some intriguing developments on the way.
I am considering starting a Re:Orbit as Chekhov, placing him inside a high school cafeteria. I can think of no better place to feel ennui or utter despair. But I think I’ll leave it to the pros.
Being a teenager is rough, and finding a group of other teens that share your obsessions is one of the keys to survival. I didn’t listen to the Smashing Pumpkins until it was too late to form a secret coven with the other Zero t-shirt wearers. I had no knowledge of Manchester United stats. I have yet to see a Bertolucci film. But I knew the complete Rogers and Hammerstein catalog by the time I was thirteen. I played Molly in the citywide production of Annie at nine, yelling out the Chrysler Building’s name 12 years before I moved within spitting distance of it. I set up the camcorder in my house and staged one-girl versions of Oklahoma and Porgy and Bess. My nose came in handy when they cast The Diary of Anne Frank and Fiddler on the Roof. And by time I was in high school, I could recite every single word of RENT.
A guy once told me over drinks that there were really two kinds of girls in our generation: those that belted Idina Menzel solos growing up and those who didn’t. Sure, this is annoyingly reductive, but I had to admire him a bit for finding me out. My car-mooing happened years ago, but in an ad-hoc observation, he drudged up the truth: I had been a protozoaic Gleek.
For my kind — awkwardly flamboyant suburban kids trapped in a desert town where tumbleweeds served as surrogate soccer balls — theater was the closest thing we had to rebellion (we being too pious still to escape chemically). Every little thing about RENT felt like a revelation at sixteen, a glimpse at escape. The drugs and (homo-erotic) sex chants! The AZT breaks! The idea that somewhere in the world people had once congregated together to wear cheap thrift store coats and suffer for art around smoldering trash cans! This kind of bohemia was long dead by the time any of us purchased a double-disc cast recordings and blasted them inside our cars and bedrooms, but the record became kind of an underground railroad for social defectors. Once you heard someone in the hallway humming “Santa Fe,” you knew that they knew that you both knew that there was certainly a bigger, more exciting kind of life ahead.
Fifteen years after RENT opened, the second season of Glee barrels on. And it continues to insert Broadway hits into its lineup and send them platinum: Last night, Rachel and Mercedes vocally sparred in “Take Me or Leave Me,” the token karaoke anthem for aspirant teen divas everywhere. It is safe to say that my peers’ underground railroad has now gone mainstream. These things happen, of course, as culture churns and recycles itself. But this does feel like a particularly fecund time for musicals-as-pop — it’s almost reminiscent of the Golden Age (when Sondheim and Bernstein and the gang were setting an aesthetic agenda that stretched well beyond Midtown). Stars like Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff (and Matthew Morrison, Kristen Chenoweth, and Idina Menzel) — these big, bawdy hams that were cultivated on Broadway stages — are on the covers of Cosmo and EW. A thing can happen where a young twenty-something sings Babs at the Tonys (looking like a toddler wearing a woman’s high heels, but that’s another story), and the video goes viral. Cover songs from Wicked and The Wiz chart right alongside Katy Perry.
And so what happened? A theory: The theater geeks of my generation grew up and, as geeks tend to do, started to own the world. But instead of denying their roots (“of course I have no idea who Mandy Patinkin is!”), they decided to create a utopia in which gay, glitter, and Gershwin are celebrated. It’s the happy cloud that so many of us dreamed of, as we hid out in the green room learning how to melt cake eyeliner on the mirror-bulbs for maximum effectiveness. As long as Ryan Murphy and co. are allowed to keep going (and the show improves from its currently nonsensical state, which is a big issue — and again, another story), we’ve triumphed. I imagine that more teens than ever are going out for the school musical and the talent show. American Idol made youth want to be radio stars; Glee makes them want to learn how to shimmy with jazz hands (or hopefully, be more tolerant of those who do). This is presumably a good development.
But you wouldn’t think so by speaking with theater die-hards. Not knowing how to make sense of it all myself, I turned to some friends in the industry — and found that, surprisingly, many find the Glee phenomenon to be disappointing. Yes, it has launched some Broadway stars into the pop pantheon, but that’s the problem: Some of New York’s best actors and singers, one casting director (who wanted to remain nameless) told me, are bounding over to L.A. in search of glossy autotune stardom. Another casting staffer grumbled that the dual Matthew Morrison/Lea Michele performance at last year’s Tonys knocked out time that might have otherwise been used for a showstopper from actual nominees. And one major B’way publicist e-mailed me this: “The first season of Glee felt like a godsend. People in Kansas knew about Patti Lupone! Now, they keep re-booking Gwenyth Paltrow, and the one character who remains most true to her theater-love, Rachel, is consistently battered down and seen as a campy punchline. It’s hard to know whether they love Broadway any more or are subtly mocking it. The kids still get slushied.”
He has a point, and there will always be room to complain. After yesterday, “Take Me or Leave Me” will chart on iTunes, but most of the people who buy it will not know about Jonathan Larson’s death on opening night. They probably will not know how it felt to sing both parts of “Light My Candle” to your reflection imagining hot gel lights — not TV cameras — witnessing it. And yet, they’re still downloading it. To imagine Larson being upset at this development (as another publicist suggested) is similar to guessing that Faulker rolled over in his grave when housewives started buying The Sounds and the Fury because Oprah told them to. In our info-saturated era, it’s probably enough that these cultural figures are still getting Googled.
The divide between Broadway devotees and Gleeks may grow even wider next year when NBC debuts, Smash, a show about a Marilyn Monroe musical-within-a-musical, penned by theater vet Theresa Rebeck, with music by Tony-winning songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and produced by Hairspray’s Craig Zadan and Neil Moron. This is theater royalty taking on Hollywood, as opposed to the other way around. It is hard to say if the model will be as successful as the karaoke parade that Murphy and co. have spun into gold, but it will nevertheless be interesting. Will Smash people fight Glee people for true Broadway allegiance? Or will the new show, without Train covers and Jane Lynch, fall dead with a thud?
The real question here is, with Glee (and maybe Smash) making musical theater nerds the norm — and even celebrated — what will become the new version of sneaking out to your station wagon on lunch break with your friends to blast “Seasons of Love”? When the playing field is leveled between Broadway and Bieber, where will the rebellion come from? Making your way to New York, as a theater person anyway, is an act of will — of sheer, hot-brained tenacity that comes from perpetually imagining yourself a world away from where you grew up. I wonder if Glee is fostering these dreams or dampening them — when your passions are ratified on TV, you’re much more likely to sit and watch, but are you also more likely to go out and do? Are Gleeks auditioning for plays or just huddling around DVRs?
In an early scene of Gruesome Playground Injuries, one character asks another to stick her fingers in his eye socket, which has been blown out from an exploded firework. This queasy moment is set against the starkest possible set by Neil Patel; the flooring is slick, glowing, and pale blue — like a hockey rink after a Zamboni clean — and the only setpiece is a roving hospital bed, offering no environmental comfort to the two actors who must bleed and double over in pain for an hour and a half with no intermission. Between the quarts of fake blood spilled on stage and the austere quality of the character’s surroundings, it’s clear that Rajiv Joseph’s play is intended to cause some amount of discomfort. Unfortunately, the majority of the unease you may feel when watching Injuries is the friction that comes when two actors never quite gel with their material.
Here’s the thing about two-person plays: They are difficult to get right. Almost always. The script has to be rich enough to sustain hours spent diving into a singular relationship without exhausting the premise. For an actor, having only one other person to respond to and create a relationship with means that you are constantly sprinting through a marathon. But when the two-person play is done right, you can feel sparks shooting between the actors on stage — they create a forcefield of intimacy that’s intoxicating. See Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak’s legendary performances in ‘night, Mother in 1983 (for which playwright Marsha Norman won the Pulitzer), or Mike Nussbaum and Joe Mantegna in the original production of Mamet’s A Life in the Theater. When the going is good, it’s Godot. But when something doesn’t completely fit with the writing or the chemistry, every pockmark shows. Consider the overwrought melodrama that was Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in A Steady Rain (Ben Brantley called the play “a small, wobbly pedestal on which two gods of the screen may stand.”) Even boldfaced names could not save that show from its soggy imperfections. Two-character dramas are too naked to be faked; it’s all out there, and baby, we can see it.
So there’s something funny, then, about Gruesome Playground Injuries being a hobbled production considering its subject matter — two lifelong friends who both suffer from various maladies, including broken bones, self-mutilation, IBS and tooth loss. The play itself is wounded before it even begins, because it simply doesn’t give its actors enough to go on.
Joseph is only 36 and, as of this week anyway, the toast of the Broadway community — he has only been putting on productions for six years after scooping up an NYU MFA at 30, and already one of his plays (Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, a magical realist take on the Iraq situation) is headed to the Great White Way with Robin Williams as the star. The Ohio native spent three years in the Peace Corps in Senegal after college, and last year, was a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize. He’s a star, and justifiably so — though that doesn’t mean that every play he writes is a winner. But theater momentum is theater momentum, and it’s not surprising that Second Stage would jump on Joseph’s success and produce Injuries off-Broadway as his big-stage debut nears. It’s simply disappointing that the play isn’t better.
Doug and Kayleen, played by Pablo Schreiber (Nick Sobotka of The Wire) and Jennifer Carpenter (Debra on Dexter and the former Ms. Michael C. Hall) have been pals since the second grade, when they wind up in the nurse’s office together. Her constant pain is more internal — she vomits off and on throughout the 30-year span of the show and cuts up her own legs with a razorblade, the results of a loveless childhood and social anxiety. Doug is the daredevil, climbing telephone poles and jumping off of rooftops, which result in the empty eye socket, a steady limp, a temporary coma, and a lot of garish scars. Neither character is too smart — they are subpar suburban kids with emotional problems that are too complex to express outside of physical symptoms — but they find subtle ways to heal each other. Doug feels consoled by Kayleen’s touch, while Kayleen, despite remaining prickly and dismissive throughout the show, thrives on Doug’s attention and desire to share in her internal anguish by injuring himself in the flesh. Mutual masochism is nothing if not an alluring set-up for a character study; we love to see hurt people hurting.
The way the actions play out, however, feels more like an MFA exercise than a fully-formed show. The pair flash in and out of non-linear time periods of their lives marked by injuries, and never leave the stage. Instead, they apply blood to their wounds and strip down to change clothes in front of the audience, and use basins of water hidden in the stage floors to wash their hands of each previous scene. The cleansing process is exciting for a few beats, but after an hour or so, both the relationship and the time it takes to scrub off fake gashes and clear away buckets of vomit begins to feel tedious.
In an ideal two-person drama, the characters need to communicate effortlessly; they need to move as an organism. Schreiber and Carpenter, both usually so gifted, make it look like work. Joseph’s script (which may very well have been an MFA assignment!) may be the culprit — it is a tall order to extend a clever metaphor into real-life emotional resonance. The cuts and scrapes that Doug and Kayleen display are clearly standing in for deeper mental calamity, but the show never gets past that first revelation. You can see Doug and Kayleen’s blood, but you can’t feel a pulse. Here’s hoping that Joseph’s turn on Broadway hits a little harder — at least enough to cause a bruise.
There would be no New York without the concept of constant, churning reinvention. Out of necessity, we gussy up old structures, pull the skin taught, and gleefully scaffold everything we know. We hang shiny new garlands off creaking Dutch skeletons and call it progress. Almost everything in the city can and will be remade — styles, tenements, train stations, families — and yet, there is one small cultural corner that has long resisted the standard New York facelift: Theatrical comedies of manners. Most people don’t associate petticoats and high tea — presented for 90 minutes in a small jewel box — with innovation.
When it comes to this particular (and yes, often delightful!) theatrical niche, most ticket-holders know exactly what they’re getting into when they sign up for their lumpy red velvet seat: The sheer visual delight of women in bone corsets and men in tweed riding britches, and at best, a light, sparkling Sunday afternoon watching doors opening and closing. In my experience, culturally-engaged matinee ladies like nothing quite so much as a butler entering a drawing room at an inopportune moment — except perhaps, equestrian humor and/or a buxom French maid who coos pearls of comic relief with a feather duster in hand.
The Atlantic Theater Company’s revival of Langdon Mitchell’s The New York Idea (dir. Mark Brokaw), currently playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, has all of these things, including: colonial jokes about Egypt, clucky old women in cardigans with cameo brooches, a healthy number of punchlines about a Sargeant portrait, and declarations like “I dislike Italians and I don’t care for common people, any more than I care for common cats.” Which is to say — it would be easy to write the play off as the kind of stodgy, antiquated fare that resists true re-imagination, and that you only care to see before dinner. After all, BBC America comes standard with most Time Warner packages these days. It is entirely possible to indulge in upstairs-downstairs hijinx while wearing a slanket.
But then, what would a show about “the New York idea” — the very core of what we believe as a city — be without a wink to our knockdown-turnaround mentality? And in fact, David Auburn, the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright commissioned to rewrite Mitchell’s original script, has done more than wink at it. He has done something that I previously thought impossible; he has made 1907 sound like 2011, without sacrificing language, character, or the butler.
“I thought of it more as a gut renovation,” Auburn told Fourth Wall, speaking from his Manhattan apartment. “I started building the play from scratch, and approached it as a new work.”
Maybe this is how a revival should be done — slashing the original material down to its essence and killing one’s darlings. There is a reason that The Atlantic extended The New York Idea for two whole weeks even before opening night (well, besides a glowing Times profile of Auburn). It’s the first crusty, yellowing old play in some time to be made wholly new; the material has been doused in fresh water. The revival’s theme is similar to the original: that the “New York idea” of relationships is that there is no constancy, flux being built into the big city. But Auburn has taken this concept from something taboo to something celebratory, in a few short moves.
Mitchell’s original play was a hit when it debuted in London in 1907, and though different in tone, carried much the same premise as the new version: Two divorcees, the staid judge Phillip Philimore (expert straight man Michael Countryman) and the beautiful, young Cynthia Karslake (played with spritely energy by the wonderful Jaime Ray Newman), are preparing to marry one another. The spectre of ugly divorce is ever-present, as are the lovers’ ex-spouses: the bankrupt gambler John Karslake (Jeremy Shamos), and the worldly, bawdy Vida Philimore. In Mitchell’s version of the story, divorce is seen as the ultimate social mistake — it is the characters’ deep flaws that cause their marriages to dissolve, and they are all more or less unhappy because of it. “He thought of the play as an argument against easily obtained divorce and the dangers of it,” Auburn says of Mitchell. “In the original, Cynthia is freewheeling. John is more steady, the problem in the marriage is that Cynthia is so flighty that the slightest bump in the marriage.”
Mitchell’s play, as Auburn suggests, that the young, beautiful Karslake ran away from her husband not because he was a wrong fit, but because she was of uneven spirit — a flight risk. Her character was drawn (and thinly so) as a flake, a puff of hot air; one of the play’s matriarch’s describes her “a ‘sporty’ woman.” One of Auburn’s big changes was to pump new blood into Cynthia: In the new version, she has not run away from her sturdy marriage on a fickle spree; rather, she departed a situation that was simply not working. She becomes self-protective as opposed to whimsical. ”In the original John doesn’t understand why his marriage ended. Cynthia just…leaves. That’s where I thought we need to try something different,” says Auburn.
In a late scene in Auburn’s recasting, John gets his answers. When pressed as to why his young love walked out, she breaks down. “You don’t know how to make a woman happy! Not for long,” she says. “Oh you’re quick out of the gate and splendid round the turns but you fade in the home stretch because you’ve no idea what’s in our hearts or heads, or who we really are, because you don’t know who you are.” The way Newman and Shamos play this scene, with the raw tension of love and pain of the recently split, it feels more like a heart-wrenching moment from Blue Valentine than dusty drawing room dialogue.
Auburn forces the play into a modern clip this way. It is not only a women’s inconstancy that causes emotional distress; it’s the inability for anyone, male or female, in a society strictly confined and full of expectations, to determine who they really are, or what they really want.
In Mitchell’s script, women are dangerous. Take Vida, the judges’ ex-wife with a penchant for long cigarette holders and exotic kimonos. She’s a schemer, a woman who hunts down adventure like a member of the explorer’s club. She wears turbans. She is also an outcast, a divorcee. She trots off to Cairo for pleasure and receives buckets of flowers from gentlemen she has met once.
Like Cynthia, the men in Mitchell’s play tend to vilify Vida’s choices — this desire to “marry for whim, the New York idea of marriage.” One taste of freedom, Mitchell writes, and they become monsters in party hats. As the disapproving Uncle Sudley says to Lady Philamore, they represent “the uncouth modern female, the gruesome “Gibson girl,” with a cigarette in one hand and motoring goggles in the other –an habitué of the race track and the divorce court.”
Auburn keeps in this disapproval, but skewers it with comic underpinning — the men are equally dysfunctional, if not more so, in his new world. “All of the characters are really just scrambling to figure out how to behave,” Auburn says. “The two central women in the play are terrific characters and surprising to people in their iconoclasm. I didn’t want to lose that. I wanted to make them stronger.”
“What the play became about for me, at the core, is rule breakers, and people who abide by the rules. Cynthia and her ex, John, are less comfortable abiding by those rules. They are vacillating between throwing off constraints and submitting to them, never quite on the same page. And Vida, well, she thinks of herself as this outrageous rebel, but really she is just as desperate to conform in certain ways as everyone else is. There is good stuff in the original, but I was trying to write her as a young Lady Bracknell; this completely artificial, self-possessed, person who is amusing herself constantly.”
The idea of “taking liberties” with someone else’s words is often seen as a bad thing — only rarely is a remake, remix, or mash-up, better than the source. But in a show that is about liberty and the freedom to reinvent, it was a justified risk. And for Auburn, who needed a boost (since Proof won the Tony and Pulitzer, he has been working quietly on an HBO show and a new commission for MTC), getting to tangle up someone else’s creation proved to be the kick he needed. “I took on the play at a time when I was struggling with another play that was complicated and serious, the dog days,” he says. “It was completely refreshing, to break it down. I really just wanted to write something to put on in the dead of winter that is just fun, brisk, old but new. Like New York itself.”
“In my view, the real New York idea is constant self upheaval,” says Auburn. “Everyone here has an opportunity to write their own rules. As John says in the show, our customs are being invented anew at an hourly rate.”
So here’s to new customs, a new theater column, the old becoming new again. Other revivalists, take note. A gut renovation may be your best option.