Uptown/Downtown

There is a kind of civil war going on on Broadway this season. On one side are the traditional and established parties–the commercial producers, the movie companies, the establishment non-profits that account for the bulk of the productions mounted each year. Call them the uptown gang. On the other side are the more unruly types who are frequently more political and edgier and who are used to working on small stages in remote corners of the city. The downtown gang.

The chief rivals for Best Play are The Ferryman–a three-act blockbuster Broadway production with a company of 35–and What the Constitution Means to Me–a 90-minute piece featuring three performers that is less a traditional play than an autobiographic monologue with contributions from two additional actors. Though I have my reservations about The Ferryman (it includes practically every trope that has ever appeared in an Irish play), it nevertheless has a gallery of engaging characters and a compelling story. It is a marvelous construction that holds an audience utterly captive for more than three hours. Uptown producing on a high level. Constitution speaks directly to our moment, requiring the audience to seriously consider if the foundational document of our country is in need of reform or complete overhaul. Totally downtown.

Constitution played the New York Theatre Workshop before coming to Broadway. So did Hadestown, the downtown entry for Best Musical. My hunch is that its chief competition is an accomplished stage adaptation of the classic movie comedy, Tootsie. Tootsie is filled to overflowing with funny lines, bouncy songs, and big performances in the old Broadway tradition.

All of the nominated revivals of straight plays are from managements with long histories on Broadway.

But the two shows nominated for Best Revival of a Musical offer a study in contrasts. Kiss Me, Kate has been modestly revised for a contemporary audience (the lyric that from Shakespeare that began, “I am ashamed that women are so simple” is now “I am ashamed that people are so simple), but it is securely within the tradition of previous stagings. The Oklahoma! directed by Daniel Fish looks like no production of it you’ve ever seen. It is staged in three-quarters with the playing area defined by picnic tables, the orchestra has been replaced by a country-western band, and no effort is made to invoke the period in which the story is set. Instead, Curly often plugs in a guitar to sing, and use is made of video when the stage is thrown into darkness for the smokehouse scene. The original production of Oklahoma! opened during World War II and was meant to remind the audience of the values Americans were fighting for–neighborliness, true love, picnics. This production suggests that there was a lot of violence and hypocrisy not openly acknowledged in the story. The show’s putative hero turns out to be a killer and the cheerful neighbors choose to be accessories. A downtown perspective if there ever was one.

I’m betting that at least two out of the three cases, the downtown gang will prevail. It’s not just that the shows themselves are bracing and refreshing, it’s that the voters have largely grown up in a theatre that was transformed by the downtown artists that began revolutions in the Sixties and continued to define themselves in opposition to traditional Broadway-style productions. We see this in other productions. Gary is a downtown play with an uptown budget and Sam Gold’s take on King Lear is meant to challenge traditional stagings not only in casting women in what are usually male roles but in its aggressive anachronisms.

I don’t have a concluding sentence. Do I need one?

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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