Play that Got Away


On Stage PLAYS THAT GOT AWAY BY LEO SAUVAGE I^could look quite cold-bloodedly upon the productions of the recently concluded 1981 -821 heater season that I didn't have an opportunity to review,...

...On Stage PLAYS THAT GOT AWAY BY LEO SAUVAGE I^could look quite cold-bloodedly upon the productions of the recently concluded 1981 -821 heater season that I didn't have an opportunity to review, if not for one absolutely unforgivable omission Few works this year, on or off Broadway, have been as powerful as Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play, performed by the Negro Ensemble Company, under the direction of Douglas Turner Ward The show opened November 10, 1981, for a limited run of five weeks, and has been extended ever since Those who have not yet ventured west of Ninth Avenue on 55th Street to the former church that is the Ensemble's Theater Four are urged to do so The scene is the barracks of a black military unit in Fort Neel, Louisiana, in 1944 Without making a speech about it, the author reminds us from the beginning that the United States fought Hitler's Nazis with a racially segregated army Like many black outfits, this one has some black noncommissioned officers, but all the commanders are white All, that is, until something happens in racist Louisiana that has nothing to do with an antiracist World War A black noncom named Waters (Adolph Caesar) is found dead with two bullets in his body Concerned about the incident, the top brass at Fort Neel places CHARLES FULLER the investigation in the hands of black Captain Richard Davenport (Charles Brown), who was a lawyer before getting the two bars on his epaulets The unit's white commanding officer, Captain Taylor (Peter Friedman), thinks his superiors have made a bad mistake Taylor is far from the worst racist in the Armv, though he does at one point blurt out that "being in charge does not look right on Negroes ' In fact, he would like whoever killed Waters to be punished But because it is generally thought that the crime was committed by the ls.u Mux Man, and there are reasons as well to suspect two white racist officers, Taylor feels a black investigator will never get the cooperation necessary to obtain an indictment, much less a conviction He tries to convince Davenport to give up the assignment, but Davenport is determined to prove him wrong Fuller has said of A Soldier's Play, "It may be the first black mystery " He told an interviewer from Other Stages, the Off-Broadway counterpart to Playbill "In all my experience, I haven't seen any black writer write a mystery " (Presumably he was thinking only of the stage ) "I wanted to construct a well-made mystery " And he has, complete with a wholly unexpected solution True, Captain Davenport's detection is not always fed by satisfyingly hidden, brilliantly uncovered clues He relies more on guessing than deduction, a shortcoming that, strictly speaking, makes him only third best after Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poi-rot The mystery here ultimately concerns variations m human behavior, however, not methods of crime Interesting people studied in depth offer highly dramatic compensation, we come to know Sergeant Waters, for instance, through what are for once coherent and gracefully introduced flashbacks Ward's flawless direction, moreover, gives each soldier a specific personality Davenport is by far the most delicate role in A Soldier's Play, and at first 1 thought Charles Brown was not right for it But the uneasiness he conveys on stage soon persuaded me that I was wrong Brown's difficulties in defending his authority without being smug or arrogant, and in reminding the black enlisted men that they cannot be more familiar with him than with a white captain, accurately mirror the problems a character like Davenport would have had to confront The last production ot the official season was "a musical"—the Playbill honestly avoids calling it a musical comedy—entitled Nine Those who remember Federico Felhm's film 8 1 2 are invited to believe that this play not only has something to do with that story, but ranks half a point above it Sticking to that arithmetic, the Broadway offering should be called 41/4 Indeed, Nine has no story and is not a play, it is merely a succession of glittering, luxurious, meaningless show business feats Director Tommy Tune has staged each separate element perfectly, while leaving the whole without any direction One cannot escape the impression that something rather strange is going on here Maury Yeston provides tuneful music and awful lyrics, William Ivery Long's costumes are often stunning and sometimes really ugly The program mentions an "adaptation from the Italian" by Mario Fratti I have seen several of Fratti's short plays and every one of them demonstrated a greater sense of the dramatic m five minutes than Nine reveals in two hours The credits also say, "Book by Arthur Kopit," another writer who is no stranger to the theater But where is his "book"7 There are 21 women in the cast, and among them it is a pleasure to welcome back Lihane Montevecchi and Taina Elg As for Anita Morris, she certainly has the body, the talent and the ironic wit necessary to wear Long's most daring "costume," a full-length transparent net I must confess I do not quite know what Raul Julia brings to the role of movie director Guido Contim (whose name was Guido Anselmi in 8 1/2) Probably no actor could bring anything to so much nothingness The Hothouse, a play that the young Harold Pinter wrote in 1958 then left in a drawer for some 20 years, ran briefly this spring at the West 48th Street Playhouse Like Nikolai Erd-man's TheSuicidem 1980, it arrived by way of the Trinity Square Repertory Company m Providence, Rhode Island A comical farce, The Hothouse might prove helpful in discovering?unmasking?—the real Pinter In contrast to most of his other works—including The Birthday Party, which opened in London the same year—it provides no occasion to look for deeper meaning where there is none Though The Birthday Party flopped in the West End before being proclaimed a masterpiece in other parts of the world, Pinter quickly found that the key to his success was audiences' eagerness to argue about his hidden mysteries Perhaps that is why he decided to put aside The Hothouse It spoiled his formula Free from any imaginable significance, the play is acrobatically nonsensical fun It is exuberant entertainment from a playwright with an inborn sense of theatrics and a clever, unique way of capturing attention through methodical incoherence Christopher Durang's ' new comedy," Beyond Therapy, seemed to me beyond criticism By intermission, all it had to show were two pairs of utterly silly and ridiculous characters Durang starts with an intolerably boring twosome trying to become a couple She, Prudence, is thirtyish and not unpleasant looking (Dianne Wiest, who plays the part, was Desdemona in Othello a few months ago ) He, Bruce (John Lithgow), is an overgrown, underdeveloped bisexual He puts ads in the papers because, between sudden bursts of tears, he thinks he needs some female companionship to complete or balance his cohabitation with a young man named Bob If we do not identify with these people, we are at least supposed to view them sympathetically In any case, I could not find a "new comedy" m the meetings of Bruce and Prudence—whether in a restaurant where there is no waiter (if that is an especially meaningful joke, I didn't get it), or at Bruce's home, where in addition to young Bob we encounter the tireless telephonic presence of Bob's crazy mother The second pair is formed by Bruce's and Prudence's analysts (His is female, hers male) Besides Durang's overloading these two with every hackneyed joke ever made about shrinks—on the Broadway stage or commuter trains out of Grand Central Station—John Madden directed them as if they were supposed to be cheap clowns on an old-time burlesque circuit Beyond Therapy was not simply beyond criticism, it was beyond endurance There have always been promising theaters Off-Off Broadway, and one of them, the Greek Playhouse on West 28 th Street, for six weeks hosted a group of Japanese-American actors from the Pan Asian Repertory Theater in a series of three plays All three addressed the very painful experience of the deportation and internment of California's large Japanese population during World WarII,including those born in the U S who were not conscripted into the Army I had already seen the best one, Richard France's Station J, in a Chicago (and white) production that seemed obsessed with integrating all the traditions of the Japanese theater Here in New York, directed by Chinese- American Tisa Chang, the ensemble concentrated on showing the facts as they were—cruel, inhuman, un-American France is the author of The Theater of Orson Welles and has adapted Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to the stage Station J is a powerful play political theater without any political gimmicks Unless, of course, one considers it gimmicky to use as dialogue the exact words of a President of the United States and a future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court It is a pity that one of the pleasant little houses on 42nd Street's new Theater Row had the sad privilege of presenting the worst "play" of the season, The Ex-travagant Triumph of Jesus Christ, Karl Marx and William Shakespeare The author was Fernando Arrabal, whom some critics—particularly, I regret to say, in Pans—believe to be a real playwright with revolutionary ideas Arrabal himself does not doubt that his Extravagant Triumph is an important contribution to the political theater conceived by Erwin Piscator and practiced by Bertolt Brecht What I have to say about his foul smelling product is limited to a four letter word this magazine might not wish to print...

Vol. 65 • July 1982 • No. 14

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