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Humbug Awards for Theatrical Folly : On mindless Dasher, on foolish Dancer, on publicity Blitzen!

December 24, 1989|DAN SULLIVAN

Why is this man scowling? Because his nephew has just made a dangerous remark: "Merry Christmas." Not only do such words exhibit light-mindedness, they lead to social discontent. Once you start paying the working man to stay home from the office on Christmas day to be with his family, he'll start wanting every day to be Christmas. In a responsible society, the phrase would be banned.

Welcome to our annual Humbug awards, memorializing the follies and scams of the past theatrical year. It is meant to be an amusing survey, but the American theater's largest folly in 1989--a backing away from freedom of speech--wasn't amusing at all:

True, no American playwright was thrown into jail for his political beliefs, as happened to Czech playwright Vaclav Havel last spring. Havel's sensational rehabilitation at the end of the year was, in fact, considered a victory for American principles. We wouldn't dream of making a playwright adhere to a party line.

No. But 1989 was the year when the new chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts retracted a grant for an arts exhibit about AIDS, because it was "political" in content. It was the year when a Southern arts center came close to being permanently defunded by the NEA because one piece in a traveling exhibit struck some people as sacrilegious. It was the year a Washington museum canceled a show by a gay artist because "it might cause a scandal."

You think those things don't register when a resident theater starts planning its next season? It's a strong script, all right, but what if we offend the (insert special-interest group here) and Senator (Blank) gets into it, and we lose our grant? Better stick to Shakespeare.

Our first Humbug of 1989, then, goes to the censor, in all his manifestations, from the blunderbuss bureaucrat at the Ministry of Culture to the sympathetic literary manager who puts his arm around the playwright's shoulder and sighs: "If it were up to me, we'd do it in a minute . . . but you know our board."

And above all to the inner censor, the voice that tells a playwright: "Better not: you'll just turn people off." By the 1970s there was a whole generation of Soviet playwrights who didn't find the censor a problem at all. They had ingested prudence with their mother's milk. And wrote the tamest plays in the history of drama. It could--just--happen here.

A free theater also encourages directors to mess around with the classics, which can take it. Ben Hecht's and Charles MacArthur's "The Front Page" is an American classic by now, and TheatreWorks of Palo Alto wanted to do a revival with a woman playing that tough-talking Chicago editor Walter Burns.

A great idea and not that outre . Remember the Herald Examiner's Aggie Underwood, who used to shoot off a gun in the office to get the staff's attention? But Helen Hayes and James MacArthur, Charles MacArthur's heirs, were horrified at the notion, and "Wanda" Burns had to go back to being Walter. Too bad. Wanda might have given "The Front Page" a whole new lease on life.

1989 was also the year that New York Times theater critic Frank Rich came under increasing fire from what is known as the New York theater community for "abusing his powers"--i.e., failing to produce sufficiently supportive reviews.

It was acknowledged that Rich could analyze a play, and that he knew how to write, but he was panning stuff that wasn't all that bad, and was at least serious, for gosh sake. Playwright David Hare, author of "The Secret Rapture," accused Rich of being a sort of cultural war criminal, as lethal as a Stalinist censor.

It made for great headlines, especially the one in Variety--"RUFFLED HARE AIRS RICH BITCH." It was also humbug--an attempt to punish a writer for refusing to follow a party line. Critics aren't spokesmen for a trade association. If Rich is smart and can write, he's doing his job.

So much for the thought police. Another of the year's tackier trends might be called Xerox theater. Dress up an affordable young performer as a great star of yesteryear, make up a meaningless story about him, throw in some songs, and call the thing "Durante" or "Groucho" or "W.C."

Presto, you've got the best of both worlds--this one and the next one. When some spoilsport critic says that it's not the real thing, reply that of course it's not the real thing, who said it was? It's just an impression.

Or, maybe, a tribute . That's what Nick Edenetti calls his "Sinatra" show. Sinatra, as it happens, is still with us, and is threatening to take Edenetti to court. One can't help feeling that Groucho might have done the same. Thanks to the VCR, the great stars of the recent past are available to us in our living rooms. In the theater, let's get some new stars.

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