On Stage


On Stage SIX PLAYS IN SEARCH OF THEATER BY HARRIS GREEN D espite all the gloomy statistics about the record low number of productions scheduled both on and off Broadway this fall, I never doubted...

...On Stage SIX PLAYS IN SEARCH OF THEATER BY HARRIS GREEN D espite all the gloomy statistics about the record low number of productions scheduled both on and off Broadway this fall, I never doubted there would be a season Something will always be needed to divert out-of-town buyers, the benefit crowd and culturally insecure affluents, and someone will always be around to cash in by supplying it What I feared was a continuing dearth of anything worthy of the terms "drama" and "theater" Where were we to look for them7 For a few decades now, the fashion among some intellectuals has been to turn to pop culture and praise its undeniable vigor as if it were artistic vitality Jazz was expected to replace classical music Oklahoma' was "our Magic Flute " Rock, the most gadget-addicted, artificially enhanced music of all time was, until recently, hailed as the salvation of our politics, as well as our composition and poetry, since it was said somehow to be involved with revolution ' But whatever the cultural enrichment it promised us, rock is still considered a gold mine by Broadway producers When the English confection, Jesus Christ Supeistat, ascended onto the best-seller charts and went on tour, one knew every ring of the cash register brought it that much closer to the stage—not because it was good but because a great chunk of the public thought it was "Fifty million Frenchmen can't be right," said Shaw, fifty million adolescents can't be, either—particularly on matters that require the seasoning of experience, such as esthetics Superstai is very much at the Mark Hellinger now, assailed by pickets, buoyed by a million-dollar advance and laid out by director Tom O'Horgan and designer Robin Wagner, the men who helped start the avalanche of rock on Broadway with Hau And what does one see, hear and feel that artistically justifies its being staged7 Next to nothing Whatever force its music and lyrics acquire during the course of the evening can be credited to the most merciless amplification system ever to get me in its range Andrew Lloyd Webber's tunes are incapable of bearing any message weightier than a deodorant commercial, and Tim Rice's words are ludiciously anachronistic The English of the King James Version is not the language of Jesus, either, yet it is glorious enough to be Rice's language is not eloquently simple, it is simpleminded "Don't turn on to things that upset you Jesus, I am overjoyed to meet you, face to face One thing I'll say for him, Jesus is cool" The only moving things in Superstar are O'Horgan's hyperactive cast and Wagner's ever shifting projections and scenery Most of the $700,000 budget obviously went for hydraulic lifts, thrusts and pulleys What cash was left over certainly went for amplifiers and speakers No matter how little went into hiring the cast, they are overpaid Although I can understand O'Horgan's putting his faith in hydraulics and electronics when staging an assembly-line creation of mass-media built-m obsolescence, surely there is still enough meamng to the term, "live theater," to justify his hiring human beings one could bear to watch The dancing of this unchansmatic crew is nothing but stomps and hops Their singing is a frenzied wail so feebly produced it must be aimed into a hand mike rammed against the teeth, its wire trailing obscenely behind Had he been blessed with any personality at all, our Chnst would suggest a Vegas in c in Jesus-freak threads, on duty at The Sands, he continually tugs at his cord to get more slack as he drifts about the stage Eventually, one cherishes O'Horgan's staging, with its flapping veils and camped-up Herod and flabby kids in loincloths, for suggesting some mad cross-breeding of C B DeMille, Flo Ziegfeld and Ken Russell It's reassuring to find someone's personality—dreadful though his taste be—in an otherwise savorless, mechanical product The Christian and Jewish pickets who imply censorship of some kind is needed can be comforted, too There is nothing remotely rehgious about a Jesus show that ignores the Resurrection or makes so nttle of Christ's asking God's pardon tor His foes Those lesponsible for Supeistar worship Mammon, not Jehovah, and its fate must be decided at his temple, the box office, not in the courts The produceis responsible foi Solitane/Double Solitaire, Robert Anderson's double-bill of one-act plays at the John Golden, have not turned to pop in search of theater but to something a little highei up the slope leading to the heights of art the "try-a-httle-tenderness" school of commercial diama that flourished on Broadway in the '50s Anderson had tenderness banish latent homosexuality in his 1953 hit, Tea and Sympathy In the form of middle-aged, middle-class marriage, it remains his pet subject Solitaire is set in that future made so familiar to us by Orwell, Huxley and even Galsworthy—in the short story "The Machine Breaks Down," in which everyone lives alone in lavishly equipped cubicles, in contact with one another by intercom Calling such quarters a "Servocel" and allowing its inhabitants a life outside are about all Anderson contributes on his own to this vision He has also borrowed from Genet's The Balcony the idea of a bordello where one can act out fantasies mstead of gratify appetites His tormented hero patronizes an underground chain, "Callfamily," that allows him to relive the joys of family life, like a quiet "dinner at home," with a call-wife and callchildren Anderson's sentimentality so weakens the work that I would have felt no dread at all watching Solitaire if the Servocel, designed by Kert Lundell, hadn't looked so ominously depersonalized, with its plastic contours, compartments withm compartments and those coldly glowing buttons to press Arvin Brown's direction is at a loss here It and the cast are much more at home in Double Solitaire, set in the present—on any weekday afternoon from 1 00 to 4 00, to be precise prime TV soap-opera time Will Charley and Barbara renew their vows on their 25th anniversary7 Will they always sit on opposite sides of the stage7 Will the action consist only of relatives talking at them about the imperfect joy of marriage7 Will Barbara never speak7 Will we have no moie scen-eiy than a backdrop of panels, for God's sake7 Having long suspected that mar-uage, like any human institution, has its drawbacks, I cannot share Andei son's delight in the profundities that drop from the lips of his characters with all the subtlety of Stemways plummeting from the catwalk "Every year of marriage can be dangerous All brides die, Charley In any marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce " Richard Venture and Joyce Ebert's skillful attempts to bring the two leads to life are heroic, but drama, that exalted commodity to be experienced and pondered, cannot be found at the Golden 0 ff-broadway remains the theater-seeker's promised land, despite its frequent reneging on that promise So far, it has provided Leaves of Grass, "a musxal celebration" that dressed Whitman up in tinseled show tunes for those connoisseurs who thought they had absorbed Cervantes after seeing Man of La Mancha twice And there is something at the Guggenheim Museum called "Liquid Theater," said to be inspired by Molly's soliloquy in Vlvsses, which I see no need to attend, it consists of one's strolling through a maze while actors—better make that "performers"—caress and fondle one as they choose Eventually one can sit cross-legged 01 dance to rock A plunge into the "Liquid" must bear as much lesem-blance to a performance as an encounter group does to therapy Under these trying circumstances, I am more tolerant than usual of the kind of sporadic success Ter-lence McNally has in his new full-length play, where Has Tomim Flowers Gone'' He tnes to create an individual specimen of that familiar contemporaiy phenomenon, the 30-lsh bachelor dtopout from society, showing how tarnished idealism and Hollywood-ted daydreams lead, in Tommy's case, to ripping off Bloom-mgdale's and Howard Johnson's and, eventually, bombing a corner of New Yoik City, just for the hell of it To show all is not well with Middle America, either, McNally woiks in among Tommy's fantasies and affairs some letters from the home-folks in Florida—letters spoken by actors on film, as though they were appearing in an unusually skillful home movie—that say a great deal more about the thousand little aches of life than Robert Anderson ever could Unfortunately, these letter sequences, well filmed by Ed Bowes and Bernadette Mayer, are so powerfully written and in such brilliant color that it's always a letdown to return to the stage, where McNally's writing tends to sprawl and David Chapman's black set always bores The sad facts are that Tommy moves in several directions and only occasionally scores with its forays into black comedy, social protest, urban pastoral (I think that's what the love story is) or Saroyanesque whimsy (I liked an old actor's reminiscence about a dog that committed suicide while watching Ed Sullivan) Its lacks are personified by Robeit Dnvas, our Tommy Dnvas doesn't seem to have whatevei it takes to be a star, yet, every so often, he shows the makings of a good character actor by bringing off a difficult scene well McNally's play, like his hero, doesn't really go anyplace but it can be something to watch and to think about, and I am grateful for these fundamentals of theater Most of the acting is very good, and Arnold, a charming little sheepdog, is terrific...

Vol. 54 • November 1971 • No. 23

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