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What are playwrights waiting for?

The issues underlying Broadway's shutdown are rife across the U.S.

November 26, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

The stagehands' strike in New York threw a monkey wrench into Broadway's fall season, darkening all but nine shows and leaving a slew of highly anticipated dramas, including Aaron Sorkin's "The Farnsworth Invention," Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" and Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer," in a state of fretful limbo.

Although the strike appeared to be approaching its endgame Sunday, writers would do well to pause to reflect on the tacit concern that has been inadequately addressed on our stages of late -- the roiling, polarizing mess of what has been called the "new gilded age." If conflict is the soul of drama, a writer could hardly ask for more combustible material than the eternal battle for a bigger piece of the pie, which has become harder for ordinary Americans to come by in an age in which globalization, deregulation and a never-ending war have rewarded the money pushers, oil barons and governmental cronies with the biggest slices of all.

Whichever side you come down on -- the stagehands or the theater owners and producers -- the background issues underlying the Broadway shutdown are rife across America. No, most of us aren't busy negotiating the Byzantine hiring regulations for loading in the set of a new musical. But all of us can relate to the fierce struggle wrought by an economy that has transformed housing and healthcare (forget dentistry altogether) into luxuries, given us job security on a wing and a prayer and forced upon businesses a risk-reward ratio that most professional gamblers would smirkingly walk away from.

Why aren't more playwrights offering us images of an age that's perhaps best characterized by the fetishization of the Dow Jones industrial average on the nightly newscasts? Where is the new "Six Degrees of Separation," John Guare's acute comedy of materialism, when we could really use a glimpse of the deception going on inside those megamillion-dollar condos that have been cropping up like Starbucks in the last few years?

What about a new "Caroline, or Change," Tony Kushner's challenging musical memoir of growing up in Louisiana in the early-civil rights '60s, transplanted to post-Katrina New Orleans to help us better understand why, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, only one in five African Americans feels they're doing better than they were five years ago? How about a sequel to Lorraine Hansberry's classic "A Raisin in the Sun" to fill us in on what happens to the Younger family after the house they fought so valiantly to attain goes into foreclosure with the rest of the homes built on sub-prime quicksand?

Conventional wisdom tells us that American dramatists haven't been as keen to tackle economic issues as their British counterparts. George Bernard Shaw, the grand theatrical observer of the way money makes the world go round, returned to Broadway this fall in the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of "Pygmalion" with Claire Danes and Jefferson Mays. The play that gave rise to "My Fair Lady" might be hazily remembered as a loquaciously witty entertainment, but it's actually a critique of capitalism artfully disguised as a Cinderella romance, sans the usual happy ending.

Yet the great subject of our national literature has been the American dream, and no novelist or poet has revealed the corrosive effect of a family's empty-handed pursuit of its promise better than Arthur Miller in his masterpiece, "Death of a Salesman." There is a pipeline, in other words, of serious social drama that runs from Elmer Rice, Clifford Odets and Miller to David Rabe, August Wilson and Kushner, straight to Rebecca Gilman and Christopher Shinn -- and boy, do we need the spigot to be open right now.

Comedy has historically been more adept at reflecting contemporary crises, and America's tradition here is just rich. Whatever you may have thought of Wendy Wasserstein's final play, "Third," seen at the Geffen Playhouse this fall, it was heartening to encounter a protagonist ambling about her darkly humorous plot as nonstop TV coverage of the Iraq war sharply impinges on her daily consciousness.

Consider this an APB to the ablest of our comic playwrights -- David Mamet, Craig Lucas, Paula Vogel, Richard Greenberg, Lisa Loomer, among countless other talents known and not yet known -- to assist us in recognizing the tectonic shift that's been widening the disparity of wealth in American society and threatening the equilibrium of democracy. Rich or poor, all of us are affected by the new reality, one that makes it hard to feel secure about retirement even if you're lucky enough to live in a house that has tripled (at least on paper anyway) in value.

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