Hamish Linklater, left, Alan Rickman, Lily Rabe (standing), Hettienne… (Jeremy Daniel, The Golden…)
Sitting through a succession of new plays on a recent visit to New York, I was reminded of car trips as a child with my grandmother behind the wheel of her gigantic red Lincoln Continental. Her destination was clear, but her route, like those of the playwrights who were chauffeuring me around Broadway, was a guessing game.
This was before the age of GPS, which would have been irrelevant for a fur-draped woman who relied on hunches rather than a map. (I recall one interminable journey to Atlantic City, N.J., that had me anxiously pointing out highway signs indicating we were headed elsewhere while she calmly applied another round of lipstick.) If there was a method to her navigating madness it was a form of trial and error, which seems a fair description of the system employed by Theresa Rebeck in "Seminar," David Ives in "Venus in Fur," Katori Hall in "The Mountaintop" and, off-Broadway, Stephen Karam in "Sons of the Prophet."
This isn't intended as a general dismissal of these plays, which have varying degrees of merit to them. Rather, it's an observation of the plight of today's dramatists struggling to define the terms of contemporary drama for a mainstream urban audience that seems just as uncertain about what constitutes a good 21st century play as they are.
My sample could be expanded to include other new works that have appeared closer to home this fall — "Poor Behavior," Rebeck's schematic comedy of ill manners at the Mark Taper Forum, say, or "Somewhere," Matthew Lopez's overstuffed coming-of-age drama at the Old Globe in San Diego. The point isn't to criticize individual writers for coming up short, but to try to figure out why so many who are bursting with bright ideas and in possession of a solid sense of craft are having such trouble laying down tracks for their theatrical visions.
Leafing through a collection of Walter Kerr's theater criticism from the 1970s, I came upon a clue. Writing at a time when the avant-garde had blown a hole through theatrical tradition, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama critic reflected on what was lost when playwrights no longer had common reference points for comedy and drama.
Kerr offers a compelling first draft of theater history: "The rough-and-ready conventions — call them blueprints of a kind — that had once guided our writers, conventions that had dictated at least the outer shape of comedy or melodrama, farce or 'serious' drama, suddenly vanished or were discredited as outmoded." The result, in his admittedly establishment view, was a form of chaos, in which "the playwright now not only had to invent the particulars of a given play, he first had to invent the idea of what a play was." Concluding this thought with a sigh, he writes, "Small wonder, then, that new playwrights come to us so hesitatingly, so slowly, in such small numbers."
The sketchiness of tradition today can't be attributed to the assault of radical experimentation. Instead, it's a consequence of the receding importance of theater in our general culture, the dominance of film and TV, and the disruption of the natural relationship between artists and local audiences through a skewed emphasis on commercial marketability.
Of course, not being bound by domineering precedent has the upside of greater freedom. Playwrights have the burden of inventing the wheel but they also have the liberty to suit their own fancy. Let's not forget that strong tradition, as the art critic Clement Greenberg elucidated in his classic essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," can lead to a whole lot of dead wood, formulaic imitations of "vicarious experience and faked sensations" that lure the masses without really satisfying them. Noël Coward's infinitely witty "Private Lives," back on Broadway at the Music Box until the end of the year in a production starring Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross, moves with the sleekness of a race car, but a universe in which all comedy zipped along at the same highway speed is a rather stultifying prospect.
Still, Kerr's notion of modern theatrical rootlessness makes it possible to connect the critical dots between the hodgepodge style of Hall's "The Mountaintop" at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and the indie film-like meandering of Karam's "Sons of the Prophet" at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre. On the surface, these works would seem to have little in common, yet both have difficulty advancing their stories. The structural flaws are obvious, but there's a deeper concern. Simply put, the ideas don't know how to move.