A few days ago, as I was leaving the Upper West Side building where my wife and I live, I ran into one of our neighbors, a former state Supreme Court judge. She knows I’m a playwright and a theater journalist and she wanted my take on a play. A minute or two later we were joined by a couple emerging from the building. The husband is chairman of the philosophy department of a university and the author of several books; the wife’s biography of a major jazz figure is soon to be published. They were on their way to a play downtown. Had I seen it? (Not yet. I have tickets in a week or so.) And where was I off to? A different play downtown.
And this is one of the reasons that, for all the hassles and expenses of living in this city, I am glad I make my home in New York. There are few places I can think of where I could take it for granted that my neighbors would gather on a sidewalk to compare notes on the theater. (Truth to tell, I would likely find similar conversations in that other great American theater city, Chicago. Which is one of the reasons I go to Chicago whenever I have an excuse.)
The play my former judge friend wanted to discuss was Love, a work conceived and directed by Alexander Zelden that came to us from the National Theater in London. She’s on the liberal side politically (as am I) and she wondered if a more conservative friend of hers might have his heart opened a little by watching this story of homeless people stuck in a British shelter during the Christmas season. I expressed my doubt that any work of art could be so potent as to open someone’s heart. In that case, she said, maybe she’d save some money and not buy him a ticket.
I resist plays designed to serve didactic purposes. In one of his earlier incarnations, I remember David Mamet decrying the didactic impulse in theater saying that a play’s responsibility was to be an agent of delight not a vehicle of instruction. (Some of his more recent plays suggest that he has modified his views.) I think that plays can indeed show us aspects of the world with which we don’t have direct experience, making us aware of perspectives we haven’t considered. But when the audience is more aware of what the playwright wants to persuade us to believe rather than giving itself over to the illusion of real people interacting over real stakes, I shy away.
Besides, I think what a theater-maker believes is implicit in what they make without consciously attempting to inject it with supplements good for you (a la Kellogg’s Special K).
Love (which was presented at the Armory on Park Avenue) strikes me as like watching the stage equivalent of a Frederick Wiseman film. The scenery is realistically drab, and the characters go through their actions seemingly unaware of the presence of 750 people watching them (some of the audience being very close at hand indeed). Much of the action focuses on what happens when a group of disparate people are forced to share space offering limited resources. They squabble over what shelves to use, whose cup is whose, and, most consistently, access to the single bathroom. There is a constant war between self-interest, grievance and need. I don’t have the script handy, but I would bet that the most frequently employed word in the piece is “Sorry,” because characters are constantly apologizing for being in each other’s way or for having lost self-control and said or done something they swiftly regret. Apparently, according to British law nobody is supposed to stay in such a shelter for more than six weeks, but a middle-aged man and his declining mother have been stuck in one room for a year without hope of rehousing. In England, I gather the play was viewed as an accurate and damning report of what actually is going on in the shelters where Zelden and his team researched their piece.
After I got home, I was checking out the National Theater at Home streaming channel and found that it included a film of Love made by Zelden and featuring some of the same actors I had seen earlier in the evening. It was not a recording of a performance of the play but a thoroughly adapted film version not unlike something you might expect to see from Ken Loach and or Mike Leigh. It was also a half hour shorter than the play, and looked nothing like a Frederick Wiseman film. What had started as a documentary for the stage became a more conventional (but still effective) movie.
I haven’t yet seen the Broadway production of A Doll’s House, though, having been enthusiastic about director Jamie Lloyd’s stagings of Betrayal and Cyrano, I am very much looking forward to it. But there were echoes of the Ibsen play in two of the recent plays I’ve seen.
In the second act of Fall River Fishing, written by and starring Zuzanna Szadkowski and Deborah Knox, two of the characters are named Nora and Torvald. They seem to be more modern characters than those in the original Ibsen. At one point, they are visited by Sharon Tate, who doesn’t seem to know she’s dead. Earlier in the play, Szadkowski plays Lizzie Bordon and Knox plays the maid obsessed with her. A presentation of the Bedlam company and directed by Eric Tucker, the play reminded me of the kind of things that were regular fodder in the early days of off-off-Broadway when classic characters frequently were jumbled together in scenarios that rarely were long on coherent plot. (Of course, before this, Tennessee Williams did something similar with Camino Real.) Szadkowski and Knox are both arresting stage presences, but I could not figure out what it was all intended to mean.
I don’t know if Torvald and Nora were on Betty Smith’s mind when she wrote the final confrontation in Becomes a Woman, but the dynamic of her big scene of a woman confronting a man who has betrayed her is very similar to Nora confronting Torvald. The lead character in her play is named Francie Nolan, as was the lead character in the novel that has made her immortal, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But they are not remotely the same people. The father in Tree is a sympathetic but alcoholic presence in his daughter’s life. The father in Becomes is a belligerent cop with sore feet from the beat and a rigid moral code. Becomes a Woman, produced by the Mint Theater (which specializes in finding lost or under-appreciated plays) was written when Smith was attending classes in a semi-official way at the University of Michigan. Under another title, it won the Avery Hopwood Award in 1931, but notes accompanying the production suggest that the script was perceived to be too edgy at the time to attract production.
Those who a familiar with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn only from its sentimental film adaptation are unaware of how tough the original 1943 book is. There is similar toughness in Becomes a Woman, which is about a sheltered young woman who is seduced and becomes pregnant by the son of the owner of the shop in which she works. He abandons her and she’s thrown out by her family. Her only ally is another young woman with similar troubles in her past. When Francie’s young man finally comes round with a proposal that is largely motivated by financial interest, she systematically disassembles his personal hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of the system in which she has been raised.
Is the play a rediscovered classic? No. It is filled with the artificial conventions of the time including stilted exposition, coincidences that strain credibility and too many paper-thin supporting characters. But A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a great American novel, and a second novel, Maggie Now, though not of the same order, has passages of startling force. Smith was a major writer and I was delighted that the Mint gave me the chance to encounter this early effort in a form she hadn’t yet mastered.
Crumbs From the Table of Joy is by Lynn Nottage, another Brooklyn-identified writer. In Smith’s play, Francie chafes against her father’s authoritarian ways. Godfrey, the father lead in Crumbs, also has an authoritarian stripe, if of a more benign cast. He is a follower of Father Divine, a hugely popular Black spiritual leader who claimed to be literally divine and whose complicated legacy included both a doctrine of capitalism and the pursuit of social justice. Divine’s opposition to many secular diversions influences Godfrey’s parenting style, which makes the lives of his daughter Ernestine and her sister even more difficult (as if it weren’t hard enough to be among the few Black families in the neighborhood). From my description, you might expect the play–set in 1950–to be grim and purposeful, but, without ignoring the difficulties of the family’s circumstances, it is suffused with affection. The father is well-meaning and loves his family, Aunt Lilly Ann is a serious activist but also likes a good time, and even a surprise addition to the family in the person of a German refugee is characterized sympathetically.
First produced in 1995, Crumbs was the introduction of many to Lynn Nottage, who has gone on to write a series of celebrated plays, including two which won Pulitzer Prizes, Ruined and Sweat, as well as the popular comic hit, Clyde’s. Crumbs reminds me that, though an avowedly political writer, Nottage has always maintained the humanity of all of her characters. Even as we can’t help but take sides in some of the arguments in Crumbs, she never demonizes the people we disagree with. The production directed by Colette Robert currently on offer from the Keen Company combines rigor with compassion in a way that is rare in these days when so many are writing with serious agendas but forget to give their characters blood and breath.
The long career of Lynn Nottage stands in contrast to the short one of Lorraine Hansberry, the author of A Raisin in the Sun (which should have won the Pulitzer). Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, has been given a high-profile revival directed by Anne Kauffman at Brooklyn Academy’s Harvey Theater. I wish I could say that I think it’s an under-appreciated masterwork, but, though it has a number of compelling passages and creates a vivid portrait of life among the Greenwich Village intelligentsia in the Sixties, the script feels a couple of drafts away from a final form. Oscar Isaac plays the title character, a Jewish would-be artist and entrepreneur without talents to match his aspirations. He proclaims his integrity relentlessly. Rachel Brosnahan plays Sidney’s wife, Iris, whose acting career hasn’t much chance of taking off given her crippling fear of auditioning. They argue constantly, but when the intermission came, I turned to my companion (another critic) and asked her, “Do you have any idea what the issue is in this marriage?” She couldn’t articulate one either. Another strand in the play is the relationship between a young black man named Alton who has fallen in love with Iris’s sister Gloria. When he discovers that Gloria is not the fashion model he believed her to be but is actually a call girl, Alton ends the relationship and a distraught Gloria commits suicide. But the relationship’s end means little to the audience because at no point have we seen Alton and Gloria together.
There are a couple of potent scenes at the beginning of what is this production’s second act. Alton’s articulation of why, as a Black man, he can’t countenance marrying a woman who has let herself be used as a commodity is fierce stuff. Also excellent is a scene in which Gloria’s other sister, Mavis, mordantly details the hypocrisies to which she has acquiesced to stay married to her cheating husband. Both of these characters call into question the ability of Sidney to maintain his ideological purity in a complex world.
Herman Daniel Farrell III is currently working on a biography of Lloyd Richards which should include new insight into the work director Richards did with Hansberry polishing A Raisin in the Sun for production. A number of commentators have noted that August Wilson’s first five plays generally are tighter and better-constructed than his last five. The first five were also directed by Richards and benefitted from his dramaturgical input. Richards did not direct the premiere of Sidney Brustein. I can’t help but wonder what the script would have looked like if he and Hansberry had collaborated again.