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The page vs. the stage

There's a strange alchemy between plays and players. A key performance can elevate a mediocre work -- or sink an excellent one.

December 23, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

If a culturally curious Martian were to land on Earth with the intention of catching a show, it would be fascinating to hear its thoughts on, say, one of the numerous Shakespeare productions that have passed through our area in the last year. "Hamlet" might be dismissed as "feverishly chatty and interminable" and "King Lear" shrugged off as "melodramatic and overwrought."

Judging a play by a performance can lead to some embarrassing verdicts, yet theatergoers do this all the time when sizing up new works. Separating the player from the play, to paraphrase Yeats, is never easy. And critics themselves aren't always adept at distinguishing where fault and virtue lie. An ambitious drama given an uneven premiere is flicked away like a piece of lint while a mesmerizing performance in a silly trifle can translate, as it did for Douglas Carter Beane's giggly 2006 comedy "The Little Dog Laughed," into not just raves but a Tony nomination for best play.

A matter of 'Doubt'

Our city not too long ago played accidental host to an experiment on this very issue. In 2005, John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" had its West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse in a production starring Linda Hunt that received mixed reviews. In 2006, a touring version of the acclaimed New York production with Cherry Jones made its way to the Ahmanson, where it received mostly raves. I didn't see the Playhouse version, but I had heard from many people who had. They were wondering whether they should give the play another chance because they still couldn't understand how the work they saw could have racked up nearly every accolade known to dramatists, including the Pulitzer.

The recent West Coast premiere of Alan Bennett's "The History Boys" brought the problem home in a fresh way. The actors in the Ahmanson production couldn't compare to the original British cast, which performed the work on Broadway and returned to London with a suitcase stuffed with Tonys. No doubt there were local audience members confounded by all the celebratory hubbub. How could a drama stretch credulity to the extent that this one does, particularly where the plot concerns the sexual indiscretions of an eccentric teacher and his unusually tolerant class of bright adolescent boys, and sweep the major playwriting awards?

Had my first experience of "The History Boys" been at the Ahmanson, had I never seen Richard Griffiths' portrayal of the groping academic in question, and had I not, after being so charmed by the Broadway production, spent time reading the play and subsequently writing an introduction to it for "The Best Plays Theater Yearbook 2005-2006," I would probably have had the same quizzical reaction: Is this the best Tony voters could come up with?

The point here isn't to make invidious comparisons but rather to shed light on the way a production can affect, for better and worse, our judgment of writing. Acting -- good, bad and indifferent -- can lead you down some strange and regrettable byways of opinion.

After sitting through a number of woebegone productions of Ibsen's "A Doll's House," I had all but given up hope for the play in the modern repertory. For all its storied progressiveness on gender issues, this drama about a wife's declaration of independence from her husband seemed too trapped in melodramatic conventions, too plodding in the development of its crisis and, in general, too soporific to sit through again.

But a bona-fide eureka moment occurred courtesy of the astonishing British actress Janet McTeer in Anthony Page's intense 1997 revival on Broadway. There were no postmodern fireworks here, as there were in Lee Breuer's daring pastiche of the play presented last year by UCLA Live. Yet, suddenly, a work that had been creaking across stages in revival after wan revival sprang to life with newfound energy. What had once seemed theatrically musty was now psychologically and dramatically vital, thanks to McTeer's ability to treat each moment as though it were densely packed with meaning and mystery. This new Ibsen fellow, whoever he is, was without question at the forefront of a radical new movement of playwriting.

Of course I already had profound respect for this classic from studying it at school. And so you might ask why critics don't make a habit of simply reading the play before reviewing it, thereby ensuring a clearer appraisal of the work's particular merits and shortcomings. The soundness of such an approach harks back to Aristotle, who stresses in the "Poetics" that "the quality of a play is evident from reading alone." Acting, in other words, isn't necessary to induce that all-important catharsis that Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides sought to provide their audiences.

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