To be simultaneously separated by masks (I wear two) and joined in responding with laughter with hundreds of others is to experience the contradictions of going to the theater these days. Of course, you can’t see the mouths, but maybe you see someone’s eyebrows dance or a tiny backward jerk of the head.
In olden times, it was not unusual for me to see somewhere between 120 and 150 shows a year. The pandemic turned me (and countless others) into virtual audience. I wolfed down the streaming offerings from the National Theater, The Globe and Canada’s Stratford Festival and sought out TV and film versions of plays sitting in my DVD collection and on my hard drive that I had not gotten around to. Some of these videos filled in gaps in my background. (Stratford’s Coriolanus, directed by Robert LePage and the National’s Jane Eyre, Barbershop Chronicles and Cherry Orchard were particular treats.) Comedy didn’t play as well (except for the Bridge Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Nicholas Hytner, which was staged on platforms that moved about amid standing audiences surrounding them, also streamed by the National); I was startled to find myself laughing outloud alone. (I usually don’t do this unless I discover I’ve made a stupid mistake.)
Now I’m almost back to a familiar schedule of theater-going. The good news is that most of what I’m seeing is worth the effort.
I’ve already written about my admiration for Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok. The other play that excited me (which alas has ended its run), was Richard Nelson’s What Happened?
I have known Richard slightly since we had one-acts on the same bill at the Arena Stage in Washington in 1977. Mine was Porch, a small-scale, naturalistic drama set in a small town about a young woman who visits the father she’s had a rocky relationship with as he is about to go into the hospital for a chancy operation. The play was an attempt to relate their personal story to larger changes happening in society as young women were going to the city to reinvent themselves. Richard’s piece was a monologue called Scooping and it featured a young Jay O. Sanders as a reporter who was losing his grip on reality.
So, here we are, more than four decades later, and Richard has spent the last several years working with Jay again (and Jay’s brilliant wife Maryann Plunkett) on a cycle of plays about three families based in the small town of Rhinebeck. And he, too, has been relating his characters’ personal stories to larger changes happening in society. (And no, I am not suggesting that he has been remotely influenced by Porch.) Together, the Rhinebeck plays offer a remarkable record of what articulate white Americans discussed over their dinner tables from 2010 to today. Richard has been candid about his desire to avoid many of the conventions of traditional naturalistic drama. There were few raised voices and he generated little suspense as to what choices the characters would make. Mostly, the various families mused on what to make of where their personal ambitions and the changing social tides had landed them. Some playgoers missed those dramatic elements, but the best of the plays offered a rare sense of intimacy.
What Happened? is the twelfth of these plays, and it differs from the others in that it is not set in Rhinebeck but features members of the Michaels family in a town in France that is host to a modern dance center. The family used to be headed by Rose Michael, a prominent choreographer. She appeared in an earlier play, Conversations in Difficult Times, facing the end of her life. In this play, the characters are those she has left behind after succumbing to COVID – her daughter, the woman she married just before she died, her ex-husband and his second wife, and women who danced in her company. Covid looms in the background, but even as the response to the virus has divided the larger community, Rose’s death brings these people together.
The play awakens to particular life when Rose’s daughter, Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell), recreates dances her mother choreographed, including a piece she dances with her cousin May that is a comic take on the courtship of her parents. Rose is gone, but she lives again in Lucy’s dance. Indeed, the past relationship between Rose and her ex-husband, David (played by Jay), lives again as he watches the loving portrait of his younger self.
I have generally admired and learned from Richard’s work over the years. This is the first time it has nearly moved me to tears.
Incidentally, a choreographer friend of mine tells me that the play is extraordinarily accurate about the dance world and about key events and people to which the script refers. (The choreography is adapted from work by Dan Wagoner, and my friend says the show does the work honor.)
Starring Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who also wrote and directed), Lakawanna Blues is his solo evocation of growing up in a Black enclave in an upstate New York town in the 1950s. Moment to moment, the performance and the material are vivid and engaging, but there is a disturbing undercurrent to the evening. Though the presentation seems to suggest he intends this to be a sentimental look at the world in which his adopted mother, Nanny, served as heart and conscience, most of the stories he shares center on the abuse of women by their husbands and lovers; there are few positive images of people at work and play. This is hardly the celebration of the resilience of community I think some audiences anticipate. Santiago-Hudson’s performance itself is joyous, offsetting the grimness of much of the narrative.
And then there’s a small new off-Broadway musical called A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet by Ben Fankhauser and Alex Wyse who also play fictional versions of themselves as a songwriting team who have been commissioned to write said jingle for the singer named in the title. The premise is pretty rickety and the script is filled with familiar humor about the perils of collaboration. The main reason to see the show is Bryonha Marie Parham. In 2017, Parham was featured in Prince of Broadway, a retrospective Hal Prince put together of his career directing musicals. Parham performed excerpts from Show Boat, Cabaret and She Loves Me, making such distinct and specific choices as Queenie, Sally Bowles and Amalia that she put me in mind of that great chameleon of Broadway, Donna Murphy. As Regina Comet, she plays a boisterous diva and confirms her star quality. I look forward to seeing her in hardier vehicles. A few of the songs in the score suggest that Fankhauser and Wyse have the potential to move on to more substantial work.