New York Theatre, Winter 2009
Mentioned in this essay:
“To Walk in Darkness”: two one act plays by Martin Zuckerman. “Beltraffio”, directed by Aleksey Burago; “The Marriages” directed by John W.
Cooper and Aleksey Burago. Adapted from the Henry James stories. Turtle Turtle Shell Theater turtleshellproductions.com
“The Glass Cage” by J. B. Priestly. Mint Theatre
“A Light Lunch,” A.R. Gurney
Flea Theatre, NYC
To Walk in Darkness: Nikki Ferry and Bristol Pomeroy in "Beltraffio". Photo by John W. Cooper
Henry James always wanted to write plays. That’s no reason to think he could–never mind being one of the great novelists of all time. A theater group in New York dramatizes two of his short stories, keeping much of the original texts, but they still are not plays. Both “The Marriages” and “Beltraffio” convey the story of these short fictions while giving characters something to say. That’s no mean feat. But not enough happens on stage to make a play (say, characters enacting an event or idea; a conflict; a climax of action; and a resolution). Even if characters spoke the most exciting James story, not enough would happen on stage. What the common phrase “Jamesian” alludes to, I think, is the sense of interior life he serves up rather like a medium between us and his imaginary people. That is to say, his works do not dramatize so much as mediate inner worlds, if I may, in a voice like none other. To be fair, these pieces are narrations.
The subject of both stories hinges on the intimacy of marriage, not on the face of it a promising subject or premise for drama. Marriage can be dramatic enough, heaven knows, and ninety nine percent of that drama makes comedy high and low. But a straight faced little disquisition coming out of a him-and-her-at-home piece in which he reads the newspaper while she cooks, that is to say, a piece set in the modernist, anti-dramatic, ordinary life style of things typifying so much of contemporary work, that promises little for theater. Nor can a spare outline be placed over a luxurious piece of prose in the expectation of changing its shape from story to drama without changing the thing itself–not to take a different direction here. Most of James’s prose does not translate into dialogue: mood and style, language and tension suffer irreparable damage when yanked into speech by characters named after his own. In the case of this production, the lines are clear enough; the cast performs at a consistently professional level. But I don’t know what this is about.
I suspect the impulse for this work reflects something of our generally anti-theatrical moment. I have mentioned the phenomenon several times in this column trying to get at it clearly. The stage wants to disappear, not as in the past so as, say, to concentrate attention on the realism of a performance, but to level the distance between actor and spectator who happen to gather together in a place called a theater. To take this by the tail, the place does not also define the activity that hypothetically occurs there. As I have implied, the actors in both pieces are good to excellent; the production is fine to wonderful–New York keeps a marvelously high standard for the technical business of the stage. The thing is, no one in this lot is making theater.
"A Light Lunch". Havilah Brewster, John Russo, Tom Lipinski, Beth Hoyt. Photo: Richard Termine.
Then in contrast, “A Light Lunch” by A. R. Gurney makes superior theater out of a slight piece. Visually stunning, the set, just outside the walls of a huge apartment block, offers the view from a restaurant with red checkered table cloths. Photos of movie and theater stars hang on the walls, generic clients of two agents meeting to make a deal. One represents the playwright Gurney, the other a potential producer from Texas with money. Talk is amusing, all but perforated with asides and comment by their waitress. It turns out her secret mission is to sabotage their possible play about the crimes of George W, who secretly finances her effort. It’s an amusing turn on the paucity of biting satire and political subjects being produced by main stream theater. That is to say, the target of satire controls the arrows of outrageous fortune being shot at him. So, the public may see writer and W as adversarial; in fact they are kindred. W is the model of a tragic hero for Gurney. As in classical Greek plays, he must suffer and die, but he leaves the world a better place. This is more or less what happens. The waitress serves as mouthpiece for her boyfriend, a playwright who infuses his political works with “moral stature.” An example in the action: W is shot; a Marshall comes on and gives the act an Aristotelian interpretation; so W becomes a tragic hero after all. The witty agent says his writer is working on a musical about Obama.
"The Glass Cage". Jeanine Serralles, Saxon Palmer. Photo: Richard Termine.
There were, are, more than thirty other plays on the boards in New York this season. Five of these were productions of “Twelfth Night,” which may have amounted to more of the same than any one city can absorb.(More about WS and the industry in a separate column.) “The Glass Cage” by J. B. Priestly received a fine mounting at The Mint Theater, directed by Lou Jacob. The Mint remains among the top rank of theaters in New York producing consistently excellent work. In the case of “The Glass Cage” the talent and looks of a tight family of two brothers and a sister whom the playwright met in Canada struck him as apt material for a play. He promised to write about them as siblings, and then they unexpectedly turn up in this play about hypocrisy. The well seasoned actors included Gerry Bamman and Fiana Toibin.