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HARD TIMES: CULTURE AT A CROSSROADS

Afflict the comfortable? Not Broadway

October 26, 2008|CHARLES McNULTY | THEATER CRITIC

With the signs and symptoms of capitalism's advanced-stage decadence all around us -- you can't turn on the TV without being bombarded by pharmaceutical commercials featuring randy oldsters -- it seems rather fussy, in a John Houseman kind of way, to complain about the weak tea being served by contemporary playwrights. But as Wall Street's hangover headache looks like it might actually be a brain tumor, it's hard for a theater critic to accept that one of the last places you'd turn for biting social commentary on our recessionary reality is the stage.

Apostasy, you say, coming from a person who makes his living writing about plays and performances? So be it. The theater could do with a good deal less back-patting and a whole lot more honest reckoning. For too long, dramatists and directors, following the cues of marketing-mad producers and lowest-common-subscriber-oriented artistic directors, have been reflecting the vain self-regard and superficial profundity of a relatively small swath of the country's population -- affluent urban theatergoers. Seduced by the new turbocharged American dream (or at least complicit with it), these artists haven't been in the best position to critique its hedge-fund-era perversion.

Now in fairness, our playwrights have had the hardest time elbowing past their English competition on Broadway, which still has the monopoly on cultural prestige, even if it often resembles an annex of Disneyland. But the lucky Yanks who have managed to squeeze themselves in among the Tom Stoppards and Martin McDonaghs, to say nothing of the lion kings and little mermaids, tend to employ a similar flashy tactic -- dramatic settings that are a Realtor's dream.

We're talking Sotheby's, not Century 21. Gratefully, we haven't descended into delusions of "90210" glamour. But who wouldn't suffer house envy during David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole," or covet the Hamptons hideaway of Richard Greenberg's "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way" or the tony Upper West Side living room of Charles Busch's "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife"? Even the trashy antics of the Weston family in Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" take place in a rambling old home that, until this latest bursting of the real estate bubble, would have required a ton of subprime financing for the average American.

No one is asking for squalor and shabby curtains, but it's time to admit that the socioeconomic spectrum has been embarrassingly limited. Tragedy, in its pre-modern guises, dealt pretty much exclusively with the high-born, but this is retrograde to a fault. To judge by the Great White Way, tenement living went out with Clifford Odets, and were it not for August Wilson's epochal 10-play cycle, Broadway regulars would have had scant opportunity to confront how the other half lives.

Whenever I advocate for a more socially conscious theater -- one in which characters actually pay rent, worry about health insurance, despair over the nation's nose dive -- some self-styled aesthete e-mails to say that playwrights aren't meant to trouble themselves with passing CNN brush fires. Dramatists who want to endure should keep their eye on the metaphysical ball. Dow Jones belly-whops are nothing compared to such eternal verities as the meaninglessness of existence and the necessity, God bless us all, of love.

But the notion that brutal quotidian facts ought to be Photoshopped out of our drama for longevity's sake is contradicted by the very canon these nail-paring watchdogs seek to protect. No need to usher in the usual witnesses of Brecht, Miller and Kushner; nor will I time-travel to ancient Athens, though the societal critiques leveled by Euripides and company haven't expired in 2,500 years and counting.

Let Tennessee Williams, no one's idea of a rabid agenda pusher, remind us that it was he who gave us one of the most emotionally searing portraits of the Great Depression. Tom, the narrator of the "The Glass Menagerie," takes us back, in his opening monologue, "to that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy."

Historians can fill in our timelines and pundits can bombard us with gaseous theories, but a dramatic poet like Williams can let us see the scars that result when our age corners us with constricted options. And anyone who wants to perpetuate the idea that conscience and aesthetic brilliance are antithetical should be required to read the plays of Adrienne Kennedy, Caryl Churchill and Maria Irene Fornes.

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