The Year in Drama (Vol. 109)
The Year in Drama by Julius Novick
The year in drama was a year of big musicals and (mostly) small plays. Mega-musicals grew ever more mega-, playing, if they were successful, to large and well-heeled audiences on Broadway (where they comprise one of New York City's main tourist attractions) and on the road. Meanwhile, new non-musical plays continued to emerge from non-profit theaters in New York (mainly off-Broadway) and around the country, playing to vastly smaller audiences, taking in vastly less money, receiving vastly less attention—although small-scale work of admirable quality was, as always, in evidence.
The most prominent Broadway musicals of the previous year were transfers from downtown, bringing with them different sounds from those heard in conventional musicals: Rent had an eclectic rock score, and Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk, driven by virtuoso tapping, was a festival of percussion. Both of them ran through 1997 on Broadway, and spawned touring companies as well. But 1997 was a year when corporate power asserted itself in the American musical theater as never before, as two entertainment-world giants established flagship Broadway theaters facing each other across brightly-rehabilitated 42nd Street. (Both theaters, along with state-of-the-art technical facilities and lavishly decorated public areas, feature large retail stores on the premises peddling souvenir merchandise.) There was much hoopla as the Disney organization opened the elaborately refurbished New Amsterdam Theater with The Lion King, and Livent, Inc. (bankrolled by former movie-theater magnate Garth Drabinsky) inaugurated its Ford Center for the Performing Arts with Ragtime—mega-musicals distinctly not from downtown.
But this new age of double-digit-million-dollar musicals produced by giant entertainment corporations—and by other managements trying to keep up with them—is not an age of mere commercialism. Far from it. Critics used to inveigh against the frivolity of "musical comedy," but old-fashioned "musical comedy" appears to be dead. Nobody is producing anything like Guys and Dolls or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum any more—except when those shows are revived, to the delight of many people who love their wit and exuberance. The Broadway musicals of 1997 are earnest, ambitious, serious—even downright somber. The first-act finale of Ragtime is a funeral. The first act of Titanic ends with the sighting of the fatal iceberg. The first act of The Capeman ends with the hero being led off to jail. The rejection of frivolity is emphatic, and ultimately praiseworthy. But whether any of the 1997 shows entirely fulfills its ambitions is another matter.
The theatrical event of the year was unquestionably The Lion King, the musical-theater version of the hugely successful Disney animated film. It marked the most extraordinary union of mass culture and high culture since Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller. Beauty and the Beast, the previous Disney stage musical recycled from a Disney movie, was a ponderously literal reproduction of the film, directed by a long-time Disney apparatchik. To direct The Lion King, however, Disney hired Julie Taymor, a director, designer, and puppeteer deeply influenced by Asian theater, who had worked extensively off-Broadway and in opera, but had never staged a commercial Broadway show. It was an astonishing move. Even more astonishing, when she set to work according to her own long-held aesthetic principles and practices, Disney did not fire her. And more astonishing yet, the result is a huge, huge hit. The commercial lion, it seems, can lie down with the avant-garde lamb, without the result being blood on the ground in the morning.
The Lion King has a book credited to Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, both of whom worked on the film, and it uses the five songs that Elton John and Tim Rice wrote for the film. But Ms. Taymor, credited as director, costume designer, mask and puppet designer (with Michael Curry) and lyricist for one of several new songs, was clearly the shaping force behind the show. "At every turn," she has written, "I was looking for that which would make this Lion King a live theater event and not a duplication of the film onstage." The characters in The Lion King are animals (plus a bird or two)—very human animals, but animals, without a single literal human being among them. How should they appear onstage? Ms. Taymor was determined "not to hide the actor behind a whole mask or inside a bodysuit. I wanted the human being to be an essential part of the stylization, creating a double event where the audience can watch the actor and the animal simultaneously." And so her giraffes, stepping imposingly but precariously across the stage, are obviously men in yellow costumes with stilts strapped to their hands and feet. Sculpted antelopes are supported on the heads and arms of leaping dancers. Other animals are puppets, manipulated by actors or dancers standing in plain sight behind them. The lions wear magnificent masks positioned above their heads. "When the human spirit visibly animates an object," Ms. Taymor writes, "we experience a special, almost life-giving connection. We become engaged by both the method of storytelling as well as by the story itself [sic]." Syntax aside, yes! The opening of the show, when elephant and rhino parade down the aisles of the theater, and magically simple birds, suspended on strings from poles, fly out over the audience, and all the animals throng the stage to behold their new-born future king, is one of the great theatrical moments.
Unfortunately, the story itself does not altogether measure up to the method of storytelling. Mufasa the lion king is killed by his evil brother Scar, and Mufasa's son Simba goes through various adventures before he defeats Scar and takes the throne. Beginning with King Mufasa showing baby Simba to his loyal subjects, and ending with King Simba, all grown up, showing his baby son to his loyal subjects, The Lion King seems to be the first monarchist musical. Sample dialogue:
Simba: I really missed you.
Nula [his destined lioness]: I missed you too.
"Mufasa's as mad as a hippo with a hernia."
Moreover, except for the African chants contributed by Lebo M (far more prominent than in the film), the music is undistinguished.
There are high-minded messages about the "Circle of Life," and about the necessity of hanging in there and hitching up your self-esteem so you can fulfil your destiny. But the real artistic ambition of The Lion King is in its evocation of the power of visual imagination. Even Aristotle had to admit that spectacle was an integral part of drama (though he wasn't happy about it). The Lion King restores wonder—sheer, open-mouthed wonder—to our theater.
The most overtly and grandly ambitious of the new musicals, however, is Ragtime, loyally adapted from E. L. Doctorow's ambitious novel, which opened in Toronto in December, 1996, opened in Los Angeles in June, 1997, and came to Broadway in December, 1997 for an official opening in January, 1998. Ragtime unmistakably aims to be a great American musical—if not The Great American Musical. Garth Drabinsky, its producer, has said, "What especially excites us is putting America onstage—both its past and its present." Frank Galati, its director, has said, "Ragtime can be, and I think should be, an important part of the national discourse." The official Ragtime sweatshirt (on sale at the theater) is emblazoned with an American flag.
Ragtime begins with a Little Boy who tells us, "In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York, and it seemed for some years thereafter that all the family's days would be warm and fair." But of course we know better. And sure enough, in an opening number (choreographed by Graciela Daniele) that vividly sets out the characters and themes of the show, the stage on which the WASP gentry genteely parade is quickly invaded by a livelier group of black men and women from Harlem, and then by a huddled mass of immigrants from Europe, as the lyrics (by Lynn Ahrens) for the title song tell us of "distant music" coming closer:
It was the music
Of something beginning,
An era exploding,
A century spinning …
The people called it ragtime …
Ragtime clearly means to dramatize the great social changes that marked the beginning of the twentieth century in America—changes that continue to shape our lives at the century's end.
Like Mr. Doctorow's novel, Terrence McNally's book for the musical intertwines the story of three emblematic families. The lives of Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brothet, and The Little Boy, WASP gentry of New Rochelle, are changed by their involvement with Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black ragtime pianist, his fiancee Sarah, and their little son. But the Coalhouse story tends toward not-quite-convincing melodrama. When Coalhouse's gleaming new Ford is trashed by some cliché bigots, Coalhouse demands justice, and declares that he will not marry Sarah until he gets it. When Sarah is rather arbitrarily killed, Coalhouse becomes a revolutionary terrorist. Sarah and Coalhouse voice their agonized feelings in a series of impassioned songs, most of which remain stubbornly unmoving. Moreover, the third story, about a Jewish immigrant and his little daughter, is never fully integrated with the other two, with only a few points of somewhat forced connection. As in the novel, a number of real historical characters make their appearance, but onstage it is not always clear why they are there. At the end, the survivors of all three groups, white and black, Christian and Jew, come together into—literally—one big happy family: a pious hope belied by the action of the show (injustice, violence, betrayal, death) and by twentieth-century American reality.
Still, there is much to be said for Ragtime: it is intelligent, graceful, variegated; handsomely and inventively designed and staged; admirably acted, sung, and danced; with glints and gleams in which history does come alive. The growing distance between old-fashioned, patriarchal Father and restless, independent Mother is finely marked in their songs; some of the anthems are rousing; the comic numbers have wit. Stephen Flaherty's music adroitly embraces both oldtimey popular and folk idioms and up-to-date, sometimes Sondheimesque modes, in one of the more listenable Broadway scores of recent years. If greatness eludes Ragtime, it is still an impressive achievement.
By some, or no, coincidence, Ragtime was not the only Broadway musical of 1997 that looked back to the early part of this century; there was also Titanic (unrelated to the blockbuster film, except that they both stemmed from the same historical source), with a book by Peter Stone, and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. In previews, Titanic the musical was the butt of many jokes; there was trouble with its technical apparatus, and there were rumors that it would never open. But open it did, and it won the 1996–97 Tony Award as Best Musical (The Lion King and Ragtime opened too late to be eligible) and became a hit. It begins with a series of songs in praise of the great ship—its size, its speed, its invulnerability—that brilliantly expresses the technological hubris of the early twentieth century, since of course everyone in the audience and no one among the characters knows of the disaster (and many subsequent twentieth-century disasters) to come. The historical irony in these few minutes is keener than anything in Ragtime. Unfortunately, the stories that Mr. Stone has made up about various individuals on board are uninspired, and after its arresting opening the show sags until the irony, terror, and pathos of the great shipwreck exert their effect in the second act. But like both The Lion King and Ragtime, it offers its own kind of admirable, elaborate, expensive spectacle; the technical apparatus that misbehaved so embarrassingly during previews turned out to be worth the trouble it caused.
Another less-than-cheerful Broadway musical of 1997 was The Life (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman, book by David Newman, Ira Gasman and Cy Coleman), about the prostitutes and pimps who inhabited 42nd Street in the pre-Disney days. It has some shrewd and lively moments, and a lot of hokey melodrama. Clichés abound. While she's out hooking, he takes the money that they've saved to buy a little house and raise kids, and spends it on cocaine. "He's no good," she sings, "But I'm no good without him … Don't matter what he's done before, / I keep coming back for more." The Life would be enjoyed, however, by anyone who likes to see women beaten up.
And still another: The Capeman, with music by Paul Simon, and book and lyrics by Paul Simon and the Nobel-Prizewinning poet Derek Walcott: two eminent gentlemen with little in common except that neither had ever worked in musical theater before. (Like Ragtime, it began New York previews in December, 1997 for an opening in January, 1998.) Salvador Agron, known as the Capeman, was a real person: a teen-ager who made headlines in New York in 1959 by killing two other teen-agers. The show, a pet project on which Mr. Simon had worked for years, takes Agron from childhood to middle age and death (he is played at various stages of his life by three actors), but fails to get inside his head, falling back instead on the kind of sentimental excuses satirized forty years ago in West Side Story by the kid who said, "I'm depraved on account I'm deprived." The Capeman was understandably savaged in the press, and not only because its authors had loftily proclaimed their contempt for the Broadway musical-theater tradition. It has some seductive fifties-style songs, very Paul Simon, especially one called "Satin Summer Nights"; but satin summer nights are not what Salvador Agron was about.
In a year of very big musicals came one extraordinary small musical. In 1995 a country-rock musician named Steve Schalchlin, suffering from AIDS, began writing songs about how he felt—songs in which self-pity and sententiousness are held in check by tough, ironically playful wit:
There's a woman named Louise
Tells me my immunities …
She sells T-cells by the seashore.
Mr. Schalchlin's partner, Jim Brochu, turned the songs into a five-character musical called The Last Session, which moved from the off-off-Broadway Currican Theater to a commercial off-Broadway house. Its hero is a singer-songwriter named Gideon, a gay man with AIDS—clearly a kind of alter ego for Mr. Schalchlin—who summons a few colleagues for a recording session. Gideon intends to make a valedictory album of songs for his lover, and then to commit suicide.
Into the studio comes a substitute backup singer, a brash, naive country boy named Buddy, religiously homophobic, who is aghast to discover that Gideon, his boyhood hero, is one of them. This plot-premise, under the circumstances, has a certain predictability about it. The callow Christian kid who thinks homosexuality is an abomination is unlikely to convert the suicidal AIDS victim to his point of view—not in a show written by an AIDS sufferer and his domestic partner. In fact the show has gentle fun with Buddy's appalled innocence, and Gideon does get the best of the argument:
Buddy: I'm trying to love the sinner and hate the sin.
Gideon: So am I. I'm trying to love the bigot and hate the bigotry.
But Buddy is neither a monster nor a fool, and the process by which he comes gradually, reluctantly, to accept and (metaphorically) embrace Gideon's humanity, is convincing and touching.
Similarly, it is not exactly a surprise when Gideon decides to live after all, but it would take a hard heart to complain. Invigorating, hopeful without being soppy, The Last Session achieves its intentions more completely than any of the big musicals discussed above.
As far as non-musical drama is concerned, it was a quiet year. The best of the new plays were mainly modest affairs, finely turned individually—but collectively, something was lacking: wildness, boldness, fierceness. There were no major new plays. Presumably it was similar considerations that induced the Pulitzer Prize Drama Jury to vote not to give an award for 1997. A stunning revival of A View from the Bridge, seldom considered one of Arthur Miller's best, at New York's (non-profit, of course) Roundabout Theatre, made clear by contrast what the new plays, fine as some of them were, lacked in sheer emotional power.
As always these days, most of the year's interesting nonmusical plays were produced off-Broadway. The most unexpected of the year's artistic and popular triumphs was Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, written—or perhaps "compiled" would be a better word—and directed by Moises Kaufman. Staged off-off-Broadway by the Tectonic Theatre Project, a hitherto-obscure enterprise founded and led by the hitherto-obscure Mr. Kaufman, it moved to a commercial off-Broadway house for a long run, and other companies were formed to play it in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Mr. Kaufman puts the documentary aspect of his play literally front and center. Facing the audience, downstage of the raised platform that represents the courtroom, is a long table at which several actors sit, punctuating the proceedings (themselves taken from trial records) by quoting various commentators. Sometimes they positively brandish the books and newspapers they read from. Questions of art, love, and morality are cogently raised. But because Wilde was such a mass of contradictions, and because what happened to him, brought on by the fatal collision of homophobic bigotry with his own irresistible urge for self-display (and self-destruction), was so terrible—and because Mr. Kaufman has selected his material so deftly—Gross Indecency is no less gripping and moving for being, for the most part, literally true. (It is not, however, altogether cricket to quote Frank Harris without adding that he was the biggest liar in London.)
Because Wilde is so richly complicated, the play necessarily leaves a lot unprobed, but the intercutting of the trials with his writings is finely done, particularly the juxtaposition of brutal hectoring by the prosecutor in the third trial with Wilde's pathetic avowal of eternal love for Lord Alfred Douglas, and his even more pathetic vaunting of what he had been in the world—what he had thrown away. Michael Emerson, the previously-unknown actor who plays Wilde, looks nothing like him, but he knows how to take stage, as Wilde must have known, and he gives us, poignantly, Wilde's haughty frivolity collapsing into terror and grief. Wilde said that he put his talent into his work and his genius into his life. Gross Indecency suggests that perhaps this great comic writer's greatest achievement was his own tragedy.
From the Vineyard Theatre, off-Broadway, came a small, quiet, amazing play—funny, touching, riveting—entitled with ironic understatement, How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel. With perfect sure-handedness, it neither sensationalizes nor mitigates its subject, which is child molesting. It offers no pious horror, no callous attempts to shock, and no excuses. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Drama Desk Award as Best Play of 1996–97, and the Pulitzer Prize for 1998.
The play follows its protagonist, a country girl from Maryland nicknamed Li'l Bit, from childhood to the edge of adulthood, shifting easily back and forth through time and space, with a cast of five, on a bare thrust stage furnished only with four kitchen chairs and a table. It is the story of a long, slow, patient attempt at seduction. Li'l Bit's Uncle Peck likes to go fishing, and he plays her the way an expert fisherman plays a fish, through driving lessons and other meetings, over many years, exerting shrewd and subtle, gentle but unrelenting sexual pressure. "Nothin's gonna happen between us, until you want it to…. Do you want something to happen?" Uncle Peck is not a stereotypical molester: Li'l Bit is unmistakably the love of his life, and he loves her no less as she matures. She is unnerved, but attracted, and, especially given David Morse's quiet, subtle performance as Uncle Peck, it is easy to see why.
Ms. Vogel is wonderfully perceptive about the delicate ways in which one human being can manipulate another, and without for a moment justifying Uncle Peck, she enables us to sympathize with him as a man who misuses his fine sensitivity in the service of a warped, life-long obsession. In a way, the play is his tragedy. The realistic, finely observed scenes between Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck are distanced, kept in check, by the ironic Brechtian announcements and comments that surround them, and by the simplicity of the staging. How I Learned to Drive transferred from the Vineyard to a commercial off-Broadway house for a long and well-deserved run.
A traditional American comic plot—George S. Kaufman used and re-used it for decades—is the one about a young man with artistic ambitions who is tempted off the straight and narrow by a flashy dame who represents money, glamor, fame, or all three. But he comes to his senses just in time, and ends up with the sweet gal who really loves him. A typical example is June Moon (1929) by Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman, charmingly revived off-Broadway by a new group that calls itself Drama Dept. A thoroughly up-to-date variation on this theme, As Bees in Honey Drown by Douglas Carter Beane—presented, neatly enough, by Drama Dept., of which Mr. Beane is artistic director—is by all odds the funniest play of 1997.
Mr. Beane's protagonist is a young first-novelist named Eric Wollenstein, who has already changed his name to the more euphonious Evan Wyler, and reluctantly agreed to pose shirtless for a gossipy magazine feature, when Alexa Vere de Vere enters his life. Alexa is a dazzling creature, a self-creation inspired by flamboyant literary (and movie) heroines: Sally Bowles, Holly Golightly, Auntie Mame. She is a manic motor-mouth, a bundle of fantastic affectations, shooting off enthusiasms and dropping names like a fireworks display.
The reason I called you [she says to Evan] is that I have been struggling—looking for the genius young writer to write this mouthwatering movie idea I have up my peplum sleeve. David Bowie, no less, wants to play my father. He's a dear friend. David Bowie, not my father…. You see I want this film to be the story of my life which is too entrancing, almost even for me …
Evan is duly dazzled, delighted to be caught up in the whirlwind of wealth, fame, and glamor that Alexa offers him, willing to lose himself in more ways than one. This of course is an old story, far older even than George S. Kaufman—Alexa is really Mephistopheles in a Louise Brooks bob—but Mr. Beane has one original, very nineties twist. In accordance with the formula, Evan falls for Alexa's sophisticated charms, and breaks the spell just in time. But her traditional rival, the sweet gal who truly believes in the hero, has undergone a metamorphosis, and become a man. As part of the process of losing himself, Evan lays aside his homosexuality to make love to Alexa, but at the end of the play, we hear that he has written a second novel, entitled As Bees in Honey Drown (Alexa's catch-phrase), and on the jacket it says, "Eric Wollenstein's debut novel, Pig and Pepper, was published under the pseudonym Evan Wyler…. He resides in New York City with painter Mike Stabinsky." A new-old happy ending.
But more important, Mr. Beane's hilarious exaggerations and condensations express a shrewd, unhackneyed understanding of the preposterous apparatus of late-twentieth-century celebrity—and the deep thirst that impels so many people, even talented people who know better, toward that celebrity. Alexa is no fool; she knows what she stands for: "fame without achievement." Mr. Beane is a genuine satirist, and there are never many of them around.
David Ives is another kind of comic writer. None of his full-length plays have won—or deserved—much admiration, but along with Christopher Durang, he is our leading writer of brief comic sketches. An evening of these, entitled All in the Timing, was a hit a few years ago, and its 1997 successor, Mere Mortals (and Others), has transferred from the tiny Primary Stages for a commercial off-Broadway run. Mr. Ives's most characteristic sketches are quirky, off-beat, rather delicate, independent of conventional comic formulas. A playlet called "Time Flies," for instance, presents us with two mayflies, Horace and May, who are aghast to discover, by watching Sir David Attenborough on television, that mayflies live for only one day. But the funniest piece in this current collection is "Speed-the-Play," a no-holds-barred David Mamet parody.
Two sober, realistic plays, commissioned and first produced by the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, were presented off-Broadway in New York by the Manhattan Theater Club. Both are graceful, intelligent, finely written, small-scale works by distinguished writers who are not yet (and may never be) well-known to the general public. The first to reach New York was Collected Stories by Donald Margulies, author of Sight Unseen and The Loman Family Picnic: a two-character play about two writers (both women), and the elder writer's difficulty in dealing with the younger one's success. How does it feel when your admiring, adoring follower becomes your rival? How does it feel, if you are a writer, when your life turns up in the fiction of someone else—someone so close to you, who owes you so much? Delicately, shrewdly, precisely, Mr. Margulies explores the ambiguities of the teacher-student, mentor-protegee relationship. The older writer, sharp-tongued, demanding, defensive, lonely (and admirably played by Maria Tucci), is a particularly vivid and sympathetic presence.
Later in 1997 came Three Days of Rain by Richard Greenberg, author of Eastern Standard and Night and Her Stars. His new play has a neat gimmick that is more than just a gimmick: in the second act, its three actors play parents of the characters they play in the first act. In the first act we meet Walker, his sister Nan, and their friend Pip. Walker is unhappy to the point of madness; rational Nan copes with him as best she can; cheerful Pip admits, "I strove to sustain some level of unhappiness, but I just couldn't." The father of Walker and Nan, and Pip's father, were architects, and partners; who will inherit the house that is their masterpiece? The younger generation is deeply involved with—and deeply marked by—what happened among their elders; in the second act we find out that the truth is very different from what its heirs conceive it to be. All six characters are involved in a dense web of family and romantic relationships, their lives entangled in artfully complicated, ironic ways; Mr. Greenberg's dialogue is abundantly witty and unfailingly graceful, but what powers it is the emotional intensity of his characters.
Lanford Wilson is another quiet, serious, graceful writer. The Circle Repertory Theater, his long-time artistic home, being now defunct, his new play, Sympathetic Magic, was given an impeccable off-Broadway production at the Second Stage Theater. The new work is not one of his best. The relationships among the characters are confusing, as are the author's attempts to combine the home life of his protagonist, an astrophysicist, with murky observations on the nature of the cosmos. But Mr. Wilson's dialogue has not lost its peculiar charm; his characters are not particularly witty or eloquent, but it is a pleasure to listen to them. It is amazing that a play so unclear can be so absorbing.
A few non-musical plays worth noting did come to Broadway, rather than off-Broadway, in 1997—most of them (unlike the musicals) from non-commercial sources. If Gross Indecency was the year's surprise success, An American Daughter by Wendy Wasserstein was, as far as the public and many of the critics were concerned, the year's surprise failure. Over the past few years, Ms. Wasserstein, the author of The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig, has probably been the most commercially successful of all American playwrights. Like all her major plays, An American Daughter is a comedy about the tribulations of highly intelligent, highly educated, highly privileged American women. It has in ample measure the special Wasserstein combination of wit and warmth. It ends, like the others, with her heroine determined to soldier on into the future. But it is still a new departure for her: it is her most political play, the one most concerned with res publica, and it is, strikingly, her angriest. Perhaps the anger is one reason why this play, admirably staged (in a rented Broadway house) by the nonprofit Lincoln Center Theatre Company, proved so much less popular than her others.
Lyssa Dent Hughes, her heroine—with Ms. Wasserstein it is always a heroine—is, like Heidi Holland of The Heidi Chronicles, "a serious good person": not only smart but principled, dedicated, humane. She has been nominated by the president to be the surgeon general of the United States—a position she desires passionately, not out of personal ambition, but because of what it would enable her to accomplish. But her nomination runs into trouble when she describes her mother as "the kind of ordinary Indiana housewife who took pride in her icebox cakes and cheese pimento canapes." On top of this, a supposed friend reveals that she once threw away a jury-duty notice. After which, the latest poll reveals that the women of America, for whom Lyssa has fought all her professional life, have decided that she is "condescending and elitist." Replying to this charge on national television, she lashes back with scathing sarcasm:
Oh we all understand it now! She must have hated her mother! That's why she's such a good doctor! She must be a bad cold person. That's why she achieved so much!
After this outburst, she is forced to ask the president to withdraw her nomination. Lyssa is defeated because, according to Ms. Wasserstein, even after so many decades of feminism, strong, effective professional women are still regarded with deep suspicion—especially by women.
Lyssa is obviously meant to remind us of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a strong, effective, professional woman who was induced to try to placate the suspicious American public by releasing her recipe for cookies, and also to remind us of the strong, effective professional women whose nominations for attorney general were stymied by revelations that they paid their servants off the books. But thanks in good part to Kate Nelligan's performance, she becomes a sympathetic human being, not just an instrument for scoring points.
An American Daughter is somewhat overloaded with contemporary political and social phenomena. Lyssa's best friend, Dr. Judith B. Kaufman, is an infertile Jewish African-American oncologist struggling with her inability to "make life or stop death": a few too many Issues of the Day stuffed, over-cutely, into one character. Judith's appearance sopping wet, after an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide by jumping into the Potomac, is a bit much. But—again with substantial help from the actress, in this case Lynne Thigpen—she too turns into a person. Too neatly for complete plausibility, liberal Lyssa's father is a staunchly conservative senator. It would have been easy, given Ms. Wasserstein's liberal sentiments, for her to caricature him as a bigoted neanderthal. But instead she makes him a shrewd, charming, urbane old gent who genuinely loves his daughter. This is a rich, funny, keenly intelligent play, its anger finely expressed and never shrill, about the human cost of idealism in our society, especially when the idealist is a woman.
It was not, all told, a happy year for well-known American playwrights, especially on Broadway. Proposals, Neil Simon's new comedy, came and went without causing much excitement, even though it was his first play with an African-American central character. Has Mr. Simon's talent ebbed, or has he merely outlived his historical moment?
David Mamet is a generation younger than Mr. Simon, and unquestionably more in tune with the current zeitgeist, which may not be such a nice thing to say about Mr. Mamet, or perhaps about the zeitgeist. His new play The Old Neighborhood, which came to Broadway from the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is about a middle-aged man named Bobby Gould, who has evidently come to a crisis in his life. He has left his wife and returned to his home town—clearly Mr. Mamet's Chicago—to rethink, reevaluate, remember, reconnect.
The play consists of three episodes, each with its own title. In the first, "The Disappearance of the Jews," Bobby sits around reminiscing with Joey, a boyhood friend, about growing up Jewish. Joey feels trapped in a barren, meaningless life, and spins fantasies about the ancestral shtetl. "You think they fooled around?" Bobby wants to know. There is plenty of comedy in the conjunction of Jewish references—rare in Mamet's plays until now—with the staccato rhythms, the pauses, the sentence fragments, the percussive obscenities, of characteristic macho Mamet-speak. In "Jolly," the second episode, Bobby visits his sister, an angry, bitter woman who complains, and complains, and complains about their mother and stepfather. (Patti LuPone manages to make this drab litany compelling.) In "Deeny," the final episode, Bobby listens to a former girlfriend talk about gardens and other things, after which the two of them say goodbye.
Mr. Mamet has acknowledged that Bobby is his alter ego. In the program for the play, he reprints a fierce attack on the Reform Judaism of his youth: "It was a religion in a plain brown wrapper, a religion the selling point of which was that it would not embarrass us." The question of Jewish-American identity, of whether assimilation has gone too far, is much in the news these days, but The Old Neighborhood engages it only glancingly.
In general, this is a play of not much substance. Information is doled out sparingly. Bobby is agreeable, supportive, but frustratingly passive. Nothing happens to him, or to anyone else. The character—and the playwright—are so reserved, so unforthcoming, that if there is a real play in this material, it never reaches the stage.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo by Alfred Uhry, author of Driving Miss Daisy, is a more accessible—and more revealing—play about being Jewish in America. Commissioned for the Olympic festivities in Atlanta, it came to Broadway from Atlanta's Alliance Theater, and won the 1996–97 Tony Award for Best Play. It presents us with a genteel, prosperous Atlanta family, circa 1939, whose members are far more uncomfortable about being Jewish than anybody in The Old Neighborhood. According to Sunny, the family's bright, rebellious daughter, the annual "Ballyhoo" ball at their exclusive upscale-Jewish club consists mainly of "A bunch a' dressed-up Jews dancin' around wishin' they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians." Sunny clearly has their number. After a slow start, the plot kicks in when Sunny's Uncle Adolph, the family breadwinner, brings home a new employee, a personable young man from Brooklyn with no pretensions to Episcopalian-style gentility—clearly "the other kind" of Jew. As the young man leaves, Adolph's sister says, "Adolph, that kike you hired has no manners." It is a chilling moment.
Of course Sunny and the young man from Brooklyn fall in love, quarrel, and are reunited in time for a happy ending. The Last Night of Ballyhoo is a conventional, predictable, old-fashioned light comedy, not always convincing in its dramaturgy, but amiable and charming—we want those two nice kids to get together—and also very sharply observed.
Thus much for American drama. As always, there were foreign plays, mostly from England, but this year's crop was a poor one. Stanley, by Pam Gems, about the peculiar life of the twentieth-century English painter Stanley Spencer, was notable mainly for Antony Sher's performance in the title role. (It was the last production of the Circle in the Square, a non-commercial management that made history off-Broadway, moved to Broadway, and ultimately went broke.) My Night with Reg by Kevin Elyot (The New Group) and Mojo by Jez Butterworth (Atlantic Theatre Company) were given off-Broadway productions with American casts. Each won an Olivier Award as Best Comedy of its year in London, which suggests that British comedy has fallen on hard times. Goose-Pimples (also The New Company) by Mike Leigh, the film-maker, was a labored, repetitive farce, its attempt at social criticism undermined by its implausibility. Meanwhile, new plays in London by Tom Stoppard and David Hare, and the emergence of a widely-hailed new Irish-English playwright named Martin McDonagh, offered hope for the future.
But there is always that.