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When Plots Don't Thicken

September 28, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

"Yes--oh, dear, yes--the novel tells a story," wrote E. M. Forster in "Aspects of the Novel." "Melody" or "perception of the truth" were qualities that Forster esteemed higher than plot, but any novel's first job, alas, was to hook the reader into turning the page to see what came next.

It's the same with plays. This might seem obvious, but one increasingly hears the argument that plot is a vestigial device that theater ought to hand over to movies and TV. Director Peter Sellars was saying it a a few weeks ago on this page. Plot was fine "in its place"--but it was a lowly place. Theater at its best offers visions, not diagrams of who-did-what-to-whom.

But think. Has there ever been a good play that didn't take its characters on some sort of emotional journey, from this point to that? Doesn't such movement constitute the plot of a play? And isn't it important that it be a well-conceived one?

Take that famously static play, "Waiting for Godot." "Nobody comes, nobody goes--it's awful." But, in fact, "Godot" is full of comings-and-goings, and makes its own journey. It doesn't reveal who Godot is. But it does reveal the two tramps who are waiting for him, and the fact that they'll be waiting again tomorrow.

That's all that "plot" means in a play--how the characters fill time on their stage: what they say and do. It's necessary that they do something because we can't see into their heads, as we can when we're reading a novel. If the novelist can offer private information about his characters and still feels the need to put them into motion, how much more so the playwright.

But that doesn't mean that the play has to ride on cast-iron rails. Today's audiences have heard so many stories that they are very quick to put two-and-two together. Indeed they rather enjoy having certain things left unexplained--another familiar experience in the real world.

Take Harold Pinter's "Old Times." What had the two women meant to each other before the younger one got married? That's up to the viewer. But he has no doubt that the older woman has returned to lay claim to her. Will she or the husband prove the stronger combatant?

This fairly primitive question may not be what Pinter wants us to take away from "Old Times." But the question is what keeps us in our seats, so that the rest of the play can work on us. And it's not accidental to the play. "Old Times" is as much what's happening between its three characters now as what happened (or didn't happen) between them then. A good play is its story.

But the story these days can be very faint. "Blue Window" was the story of a party--a window through which we discovered seven lives. The story can be told backwards--"Merrily We Roll Along" shows its characters getting younger and nicer with each scene. The story can hop around, as did "Green Card," a mosaic of the history of immigration. The story can take eight hours to tell, as with "Nicholas Nickleby."

All that's needed is a sense of movement, a sense of bringing the audience closer and closer to a moment when it can say: "I see." Revelation is the goal. The plot is the route to the goal.

So the plot should be, yes, well-made. Not in the airtight sense of "All My Sons," with everything either a cause or an effect--not if the playwright doesn't see life that way. But well-made enough to take the audience on a coherent theatrical journey without lost time and blind alleys.

Some plays that I've seen recently have started out on promising journeys but failed to make it home. Keith Reddin's "Highest Standard of Living" at South Coast Repertory begins as a heavily plotted tale. Plots are, indeed, its essence. The young hero (a wonderfully jumpy Jeffrey Combs) discovers that everybody in Moscow is out to get him--and, later, everybody back home in America as well.

But rather than mounting in ingenuity, as a Feydeau farce would (Feydeau's plays also run on fear and paranoia), Reddin's story falls short of invention in the second act. Rather than an infernal machine, his tale dwindles into a willy-nilly fantasy. The most most frightening aspect of paranoia, official or individual, is its logic. This nightmare was too easily explained away.

William Hauptman's "Gillette" at the La Jolla Playhouse delivered very nicely at the final curtain--literally with a knockout punch. At that moment, both the viewer and the hero said: "I see." (He saw that a man can't afford to trust even his family. We saw how this miserable message gets processed into the male mystique.)

Along the way 'Gillette" also delivered lots of laughs, as when Hauptman's boom-town rats tried to out-swagger one another. But some scenes were simply too far-fetched--as when the hero and his uncle camped out in Salvation Army furniture on the Wyoming flats without providing a roof for themselves.

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