June 4, 2011

Plays About People Talking

Petey: There's a new show on the pier.
Meg: Oh, Stanley could be in it, if it's on the pier.
Petey: This is a straight show.
Meg: What do you mean?
Petey: No dancing or singing.
Meg: What do they do then?
Petey: Just talk.
Meg: Oh.
Harold Pinter, The Birthday Party
When the curtain rises on that little three-walled room, when those mighty geniuses, those high-priests of art, show us people in the act of eating, drinking, loving, walking, and wearing their coats, and attempt to extract a moral from their insipid talk; when playwrights give us under a thousand different guises the same, same, same old stuff, then I must needs run from it, as Maupassant ran from the Eiffel Tower that was about to crush him by its vulgarity.
Treplev, in a particularly poorly-translated speech from Chekhov's The Seagull

I saw Happy Medium's production of Douglas Carter Beane's The Country Club last night at the Factory Theatre.  Expertly acted, fantastic chemistry between the characters, nice set, very well-directed, a really terrific production.

Except that I disliked the play itself, on principle.  It's witty, erudite, got some great zingers, etc., which was entertaining up to a point, but in addition to its conventional and obvious structure, it represents an outmoded genre of theatre that I for one am tired of, one that I think does damage to live theatre in general: Plays About People Talking.

(It's also a specific subgenre of PAPT that I, as a lefty, find tedious: Plays About Affluent White People Talking About How Miserable They Are.  But that's not my principal point.)

Douglas Carter Beane fails to effectively answer one essential question: Why Is This A Play?

To re-phrase: what is so intrinsically theatrical about this story that it can only be told as live theatre, as opposed to a movie or a TV show?  And if the answer is "nothing," then that's an issue.  Is this only a play because nobody bought the film rights?

In addition to The Country Club, there are other notable contemporary examples.  Among them:
  • Collected Stories and
  • Dinner With Friends by Donald Margulies
  • The Substance of Fire by Jon Robin Baitz
  • Burn This by Lanford Wilson
  • Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and
  • The Lisbon Traviata and
  • Master Class by Terence McNally
  • Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley
  • Seascapes With Sharks And Dancer by Don Nigro
  • pretty much everything by Neil Simon
(I'll add more as they come to me.)

Counter-examples that I've seen lately:  Most of Whistler's work, especially Tales From Ovid, and IDS's Eurydice.

There was nothing intrinsically theatrical in The Country Club.  There's no connection or engagement with the audience, directly or indirectly.   The fourth wall remained intact.  It was your basic fishbowl play.  We sit and watch people in a one-way fishbowl.  We see in, but they don't see out; the fish do not acknowledge the watchers.

I can easily forgive plays written before the advent of motion pictures, since live theatre was the only creative outlet for performed stories (so Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Shaw easily pass).  But Treplev was right: since the advent of film, television and other live performance media, the theatre needed to find new forms.  Plays like The Country Club are a relic of an obsolete performance style.

Arguably the theatre's greatest strength, in addition to the immediacy and connection of live performance, is its use of alternative symbology, and that symbology's transportive nature.  Onstage, a frying pan can represent a steering wheel.  A feather can represent a bird.  Two actors standing on ladders are George and Emily flirting through their open windows.  Onscreen, a frying pan is a frying pan.  Onstage, a thing is what we decide it is.  Onscreen, it is what it is.

Some plays work because of their use of language; what's transportive onstage would sound overly flowery and unnatural on film.  Hence the poesy of Stoppard, Albee and Overmeyer, the hypnotic memory plays of Pinter, and the gutter poetry of Mamet work better onstage than onscreen.  They don't aim for realism, but acheive a heightened hyper-reality or conversly a dreamy surrealism.  So they get a pass.

Ultimately, PAPTs do long-term damage to the art form.  Why should my above-cited Meg and Petey pay as much as $100 per ticket for the same experience they could get at the cinema for $10, or at home on TV for free?

We need to sell the experience of live (non-musical) theatre as something more than People Talking.  Most of my list keeps getting produced only because there are movie stars in them.  How sustainable is that in the long run?