The Year in Drama (Vol. 119)

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The Year in Drama by Julius Novick

The biggest single news event of the year in drama was not Corpus Christi by Terrence McNally, but rather the furor that erupted when word leaked out that Mr. McNally had written a "Gay Jesus play." The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights led a campaign against the play; Mr. McNally received death threats; one caller threatened to burn down the Manhattan Theatre Club, where Corpus Christi was to be produced. Intimidated, the MTC withdrew the play—which sparked a furious reaction from the theatre community, protesting this knuckling-under to vigilante censorship. Quickly the MTC reversed itself and reinstated the play—which, after so much sensational publicity, was soon sold out for its entire run. On opening night, as the audience passed through metal detectors on its way into the theatre, a crowd outside with picket signs protested the play, and a counter-crowd, full of theatre luminaries, supported it. Corpus Christi had become a battlefield in the culture wars.

One protester carried a placard saying, "WHY MOCK JESUS CHRIST?" But mockery was far from Mr. McNally's intention. Being gay himself, he has imagined a gay Jesus—but the precedents for imagining Jesus in one's own image go back, arguably, to St. Paul. His hero, named Joshua (the English equivalent of the Greek "Jesus"), is a sensitive, sympathetic young man, born in a cheap motel room—a reasonable modern equivalent of the biblical manger—in Corpus Christi, Texas, the playwright's home town. (Only in mocking Mary's birth-pains does Corpus Christi momentarily turn nasty.) In setting his Jesus-figure in the world his audience lives in, Mr. McNally does what devout medieval dramatists and Renaissance painters did for centuries. Joshua is bullied by homophobic louts at Pontius Pilate High School, and rescued by a saturnine fellow-student named Judas, with whom he shares a tender kiss (and, presumably, further intimacies offstage). Granted, the idea of a sexual Jesus—and worse, a homosexual Jesus—may be blasphemous from an orthodox Christian point of view, but Mr. McNally presents Joshua's sexuality not as sinful, degrading, discrediting, but as a harmonious part of his loving nature.

Joshua tries to evade his spiritual calling, knowing that it will cause him suffering ("Let this cup pass from me," says Jesus in the Gospel), but consents to fulfill his destiny, preaching and healing in the company of twelve disciples. He is crucified by the same vicious gay-bashers who tormented him in high school. The notion that Jesus is crucified for being gay may be startling, but there is nothing new in identifying Jesus with those who suffer, who are "despised and rejected." Blasphemy notwithstanding, Corpus Christi in its own way is a very traditional and deeply reverent work. Mr. McNally does not want to mock Jesus; like so many before him, he wants to claim Jesus for his own idea of what is good.

In the furiously negative response to Corpus Christi from critics who clearly do not share the viewpoint of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, can perhaps be discerned a certain disappointment that the play is so respectful, so mild, so scrupulously not a work of mockery. Ben Brantley of The New York Times called it "about as threatening, and stimulating, as a glass of chocolate milk," and indeed, Corpus Christi is often mushy and cliche-ridden: "… you will know laughter, and friendship, and the joy of skinny-dipping on a sunny day," says God to his son, in the verbal equivalent of a Norman Rockwell picture. Sensitive, unathletic Joshua is persecuted by a sadistic high school football coach—we've seen that one before.

Mr. McNally is at pains to show that you can be gay and still be a Real Nice Guy. Joshua and his twelve buddies form an all-male community, full of loving fellowship not unmixed with anger and betrayal, reminiscent of the group that comes together in Mr. McNally's previous play, Love! Valour! Compassion! They go disco dancing. Joshua blesses the marriage of two disciples: "It is good, when two men love each other as James and Bartholomew do," he intones—and adds, convivially, "Now let's all get very very drunk." (But after all, Jesus changed water into wine, not vice versa.) Joshua's modesty is laid on very thick: "I'm just a guy like you, no better, no worse." His New Age spirituality is cloying: "We're each special, we're each ordinary, we're each divine." And surely it is a little reductive to suggest that Judas betrayed his friend out of insufficiently requited passion.

The story Corpus Christi tells is of course a great story; Mr. McNally's telling, for all its soft-headed limitations, seemed to me sweet-natured and straightforward, compelling and poignant. For those not immediately offended, it can stimulate thought about the enigma of Jesus. But the chief significance of Corpus Christi lies in the fury it provoked.

Corpus Christi is not the only play of 1998 that looks at the Bible from a gay perspective. Nobody picketed The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told by Paul Rudnick (author of I Hate Hamlet, Jeffrey, and the movie In and Out), even though it impudently reverses a common anti-gay slogan, and shows us Adam and Steve, not Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden. The two young men admire the garden, name the animals, and quickly discover sex and love with each other. They arc the only human inhabitants of the Garden—except for Jane and Mabel, a lesbian couple. When, later on, they meet two straight couples and hear about heterosexual sex, they are incredulous: "What you're saying, what you're claiming, is that the men—have sex—with the women?" They find the whole idea "gross" and "wrong" and "unnatural."

Mr. Rudnick's play is a cheeky image of gay presence in a context from which gays are traditionally excluded, but it is more than a one-joke play. In Act I, Adam and Steve, Jane and Mabel have adventures and quarrels and reconciliations as they deal with the Flood, the Exodus, and (very briefly) the Nativity. Mr. Rudnick has a good lime reversing gender roles: the women invent "the lever, the pulley system, and the wheel," while Adam is the proud creator of "shampoo and conditioner in one." Gay stereotypes are gently mocked: when Adam and Steve, kicked out of the garden, become aware of their nakedness, Steve's response is. "I have to get to a gym!" and Adam says, "I have to go shopping!" In Act II, Adam and Steve are living together in Chelsea, Manhattans currently-fashionable gay neighborhood, and Jane is pregnant (by artificial insemination, of course). Jane and Mabel are about to be married by a disabled lesbian rabbi, whose telephone number is "1-900-SHEBREW."

But Mr. Rudnick's wisecracks and riffs and caricatures—many of them hilarious—do not take place in a vacuum. His four central characters are individuals, responding convincingly and coherently to their often wildly fantastic situations. Adam is a slightly goofy spiritual seeker, yearning for God; Steve is a down-to-earth atheist. Jane is a boisterous self-described "bull-dyke" ("I strip paint. I haul cinderblocks")—another stereotype, but her bluster has an entertaining edge of self-parody; Mabel is self-consciously sensitive and New Agey, "a vegetable rights activist." Even, or especially, at their silliest, they arc pleasant company. The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told has transferred from the New York Theater Workshop to a commercial off-Broadway house; it is a gay play with plenty of crossover appeal.

Gay playwrights, of course, are nothing new in the American theater: think of Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee. But nowadays, when even a television sitcom heroine can be a lesbian, playwrights of all persuasions are claiming the freedom to write sympathetically about gay and lesbian characters, with or without identifying themselves as gay/lesbian spokespersons, as Mr. McNally and Mr. Rudnick have by implication in their plays. Gays and straights interact with each other, acknowledge each other, onstage as they do more and more in real life. The gay characters, however, tend to be unlucky in love, in one way or another. The Maiden's Prayer by Nicky Silver (at the Vineyard Theater) begins with a wedding, and the furious jealousy of the bride's sister; but brooding over the whole play is a man's unspoken love for the groom. In The Dying Gaul by Craig Lucas (also at the Vineyard), a Hollywood screenwriter, still mourning the death of his lover, is seduced by a married, bisexual producer, whose wife takes weird revenge through the Internet.

In many plays (as in Corpus Christi), the gay characters are presented as victimized by a mainly-straight world. The two heroines of Stop Kiss by Diana Son (presented by the Joseph Papp Public Theater/ New York Shakespeare Festival), for instance, are two young women on their own in New York City, both with boyfriends in the background, who gradually fall in love—a process that the play depicts with subtlety and charm. These scenes are intercut with scenes showing the violent aftermath of their first impulsive kiss, which happens to be witnessed by a psychotic bigot, who leaves one of the young women in not much better condition than Mr. McNally's Jesus. These post-kiss scenes—detective-interrogation scenes, hospital-corridor scenes—are more conventional, but the falling-in-love scenes gain an increased poignancy from our knowledge of what will happen.

In Stupid Kids by John C. Russell (who died of AIDS in 1994), the world is Joe McCarthy High School, somewhere in the suburbs—a world distilled to four characters, plus hostile offstage voices. Jim and Judy are good-looking, popular, and more or less in love with each other. Neechee (ne John), called after "the fucked up philosopher," and Kimberly (nee Jane), who has taken the name of "Patti Smith's kid sister," are "queer outcasts." Neechee is in love with Jim, and Kimberly is in love with Judy. They have hopes that Jim and Judy will join their outcast fellowship, but they are crestfallen to discover that the straight kids are just visiting the wild side; basically, they belong to "the band of the bland," in Kimberly's phrase.

Stupid Kids is not even-handed in its characterizations. Neechee and Kimberly are naively cynical and naively idealistic (two sides of the same coin) and preposterously grandiose as they live out their suffering-rebel self-image and their doomed-to-heartbreak loves, but they are sensitive, intelligent, and brave, while Jim and Judy are cowardly, shallow, empty-headed conformists. Neechee and Kimberly, dear friends, lead hard, lonely lives, but, as she says, "We've found ways to color our world with beauty and speed and we drink our creativity and courage and it sustains us." The "queer outcasts" even get better grades than the straight kids, Russell tells us, and will go on to fulfilling futures, while the straights are headed for dead-end lives in the 'burbs. If there were a Heterosexual Anti-Defamation League, it might want to picket Stupid Kids.

But as its symmetrical setup may suggest—two boys, two girls, two homosexuals, two heterosexuals—this play is not an attempt at realism; it is a wildly romantic fever-dream with its own kind of extravagant lyricism. Beyond gay/straight issues, its exaggerations and rock-and-roll intensities express poignant truths about adolescent ardor and excess. In Michael Meyer's electric, compelling, in-your-face staging, it transferred from the WPA Theater to a commercial off-Broadway house for what proved to be a very short run, mainly, I suspect because of its title. Stupid Kids is meant ironically, of course, but who wants to see a play called Stupid Kids?

Of course, not all of this season's notable plays have homosexual characters. Other truths about adolescence are expressed, with more commercial success, in a play by Kenneth Lonergan that might also have been called Stupid Kids, but in fact is more safely, if pretentiously, titled This Is Our Youth. (First produced briefly by the New Group in 1996, it reopened two years later at Second Stage, and went on to a commercial off-Broad way run in 1999.) Mr. Lonergan's three characters (all straight) are rich, gabby, half-educated, drug-addled kids, through with high school but scarcely adults, over-privileged and under-parented. None of them have the energy and passion of Neechee and Kimberly, or even Jim and Judy. They are funny yet horrifying in their pseudo-sophisticated emptiness.

Dennis is a vainglorious drug dealer ("I am like a total business genius") whose parents pay the rent for his messy studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He insults and patronizes his friend Warren, who pathetically keeps coming back for more. But Warren has something very particular on his mind: he has just stolen $15,000 from his father. ("My father is not a criminal," he says. "He's just in business with criminals") What to do with the money? Elaborate drug deals are in the offing. Meanwhile, Warren does manage, awkwardly and hesitantly, to strike up a conversation with Jessica, a college student majoring in fashion, who has dropped by for some reason. The progress—and regress—of the relationship between Warren and Jessica shows, comically and touchingly, just how young and vulnerable and inept they are: two kids who don't know what to do with their feelings.

1998 was a particularly good year for new American playwrights. In addition to Diana Son, John C. Russell, and Kenneth Lonergan, there were Warren Leight, the author of Side Man, and Margaret Edson, the author of the extraordinary Wit. Side Man is a play of interesting variations on familiar themes and techniques. It is a love story, a dysfunctional-family play, a memory play. Like The Glass Menagerie, it has a narrator: a young man, obviously a stand-in for the author, remembering his family. But Side Man shifts much more fluidly between past and present, and the narrator is much more constantly on the scene. The events of his parents' unhappy lives gain a special poignancy from the fact that he is there, watching, pained and helpless, unable to avert the disaster that is their marriage.

His father, Gene, is a jazz trumpeter, a pure musician, far too involved in his music to belong to any woman. He is not a glamorous figure, but a hopeless doofus: fundamentally uninterested in the real world, therefore unaware of it, impervious to it, and utterly, unconsciously, irresponsible and incompetent. Gene meets and marries Terry, who is not a glamorous figure either: under the pressure of Gene's indifference, she turns into a screaming, drunken harridan. It does not help that Gene's brand of jazz is going out of fashion, and that he and his buddies find it harder and harder to get work. From a very early age, Clifford (our narrator) is forced to be the adult in the family, to take on the burden of mediating between his incompatible, impossible parents.

A familiar story, freshly told. First produced in 1996 in Poughkeepsie, New York, it was presented off-Broadway by the Weissberger Theater Group, and—unlike any other new play discussed so far in this essay—transferred to Broadway for a commercial run. (All theaters mentioned are off-Broadway in New York, unless otherwise specified.)

Margaret Edson is a schoolteacher resident in Atlanta; Wit, her first play, was produced at the South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, California, the Long Wharf Theater. New Haven, Connecticut, and the MCC Theater off-Broadway in New York, before transferring to a commercial off-Broadway house. Like Side Man, it moves freely back and forth in time, and is narrated by a main character who comments on the action. Its plot is very simple: Vivian Bearing, a professor of English whose specialty is the witty, intricate poetry of John Donne, has ovarian cancer; in spite of a hideously invasive experimental treatment, she dies. She tries to cope with the indignities and agonies of the disease and its treatment with her usual weapons, intellectual pride (for defense), intellectual rigor (for offense), and wit (for both); they have sustained her all her life, but now they fail her. Her arrogance only emphasizes her humiliation: how are the mighty brought low, not just by disease, but by the medical apparatus to which disease delivers her. Dr. Bearing exemplifies, yet transcends, the stereotype of the dry, crusty, scornful, sarcastic, forbidding intellectual; she is a very specific person, lonely, brave, piercingly intelligent, devastatingly wry. (Wit is probably the funniest cancer play ever written.) Kathleen Chalfant's performance as Dr. Bearing is a magnificent achievement—heroic, herculean—the performance of a lifetime.

One new American playwright of 1998 is also an old American master. Tennessee Williams wrote Not about Nightingales in 1938, at the age of 27, well before The Glass Menagerie made him famous. It lay unproduced, unpublished, and ignored until the actress Vanessa Redgrave found it among Williams's papers at the University of Texas. An Anglo-American production, with Ms. Redgrave's brother Corin in the leading role, was mounted cooperatively by (he Royal National Theater in London, Moving Theater (the Redgraves' company), and the Alley Theater in Houston; after playing London in March and Houston in June of 1998, it was scheduled for Broadway in 1999. Nightingales is based on a news story about a prison in which men were tortured to death by being locked in an unbearably hot room called, with heavy irony, "Klondike." It is crude and derivative (owing a lot to movies of the period), clearly the work of a very young writer, writing about a world that he did not know first-hand—the kind of play in which the toughest prisoner is called "Butch." The Warden, Mr. Redgrave's role, is a figure of melodramatic villainy. But there is a touching yearning for a decent life in the romance between the prison secretary (an earnest young working girl) and a self-educated prisoner who works in the office, and the struggle between the Warden and the rebellious prisoners has a brutal power.

Williams's contemporary, Arthur Miller, is still living and still writing. The Signature Theater in New York devoted its 1997–98 season to his work, including a new play, Mr. Peters' Connections, which evoked little enthusiasm. Another late play, The Ride Down Mount Morgan, produced in London in 1991 and in Williamstown, Mass., in 1996, was finally produced in New York, at the Public Theater/ New York Shakespeare Festival, in 1998. Its protagonist, Lyman Felt, is a rich, successful, magnetic businessman in late middle age, who has married a second wife but neglected to divorce the first. One wife lives in New York City, one lives upstate, and Lyman commutes between them; neither knows about his double life. But when he is injured in an accident upstate, in the domain of wife #2, the hospital summons wife #1, and the two wives meet in the hospital waiting room. Georges Feydeau, the master writer of French farce, declared as his guiding principle, "When two of my characters should under no circumstances encounter one another, I bring them together as quickly as possible." The application of this principle in The Ride Down Mount Morgan produces some good farcical fun. Mr. Miller, however, has a more serious end in view: he evidently intends to study a man who believes he should have whatever he wants, and is powerful, courageous, and attractive enough to get it. Such a character is clearly worth studying (especially, as several observers remarked, during the time of the Bill Clinton—Monica Lewinsky scandal) but Lyman never quite comes into focus.

There were also American plays from the generations in between the old masters and the newcomers. Two disappointing works by two eminent but diametrically different playwrights, Sam Shepard and A. R. Gurney, were presented by the Manhattan Theater Club (probably, disappointments notwithstanding, our leading producer of new American plays). Mr. Shepard's Eyes for Consuela is based on a story by Octavio Paz. Deep in a steamy Mexican jungle, a strung-out American named Henry is trying to recover from a breakup with his wife, when he is captured by a bandit. It seems that the bandit's girlfriend, Consuela, collects blue eyes, and the bandit proposes to gouge out Henry's to add to her collection. Henry protests that his eyes are brown. He and the bandit end up drinking tequila together, far into the night, with the bandit acting as a sort of therapist, dispensing portentous, platitudinous wisdom: "Mr. Henry, you must pass beyond this sorrow…. Love needs a sacrifice, Mr. Henry. There is no other way. Without a sacrifice, there is no love." The sheer strangeness of Eyes for Consuela was not without interest, especially as beautifully acted by David Strathairn as Henry and Daniel Farando as the bandit-therapist, but Mr. Shepard's excursion into magic realism (if that's what it is) seemed more bizarre than significant.

Mr. Gurney's characters arc far less tempestuous than those of Mr. Shepard. Some years ago, he wrote a play called The Cocktail Hour, about a young playwright named John, who offends his parents by writing a play about them. (Some of Mr. Gurney's own plays, including The Cocktail Hour, are suspected of autobiographical implications.) In his new comedy, Labor Day, John is a successful middle-aged playwright, who offends his grown children by writing a play about them. Labor Day was good-natured fun to watch, especially for lovers of jokes about the theater. (The comments of John's son about his father's work—"We all think Dad's plays are a little bit slow"—are Mr. Gurney's graceful jokes about himself.) But the play is undermined by a long series of implausibilities.

John Robin Baitz, author of The Substance of Fire and A Fair Country (among others), is a generation younger than Mr. Shepard and Mr. Gurney, though scarcely a new playwright. His latest play, awkwardly titled Mizlansky/Zilinsky or "Schmucks," is a heavily revised and expanded version of his first play, a one-act dating from 1984. M/Z is an affectionate, very funny comedy about a shady, fly-by-night, seat-of-the-pants Hollywood promoter, a gushy, querulous, paranoid, effortlessly dishonest whirlwind of vehement energy, whom Mr. Baitz sees as overtaken by the corporatization of the movie industry. A few decades ago, this play might have had a successful Broadway run as a star vehicle for someone like Nathan Lane; theatrical economics being what they are, it was produced instead, with Mr. Lane, by the indefatigable, non-commercial Manhattan Theater Club.

As usual in recent years, new American plays were not abundant on Broadway, which nowadays belongs essentially to musicals. In 1998 the big-hit musicals continued to haul in money, on Broadway and on tour, but since The Lion King, Ragtime, and The Capeman came to New York at the end of 1997, there has been little news on the Broadway-musical front. Two shows were unimaginatively recycled from movies of the same name: High Society is a clumsy attempt to fit old Cole Porter tunes into a new book by Arthur Kopit; Footloose, with its lame-brained book about a town where dancing is outlawed, is somewhat redeemed by zingy dances full of adolescent energy. The big disappointment of the season was Parade, a glum, earnest affair, directed by Harold Prince and produced at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center (which counts as a Broadway house). Parade is based on the case of Leo Frank, a New York Jew lynched in Georgia in 1915 for a murder he did not commit: not, at first glance, ideal material for a song-and-dance show, but musicals tend to be very somber these days. Unfortunately, Alfred Uhry's book pits a passive hero and an unconvincingly active heroine (Mrs. Frank) against cliche villains. (The music and lyrics, however, by a newcomer named Jason Robert Brown, suggest that Mr. Brown has a future as a musical-theater composer, though perhaps not as a lyricist.)

Meanwhile, off-Broadway, the search for new forms of musical theater continued. Many people admired Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which has a book by John Cameron Mitchell, music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, and a dazzling star performance by Mr. Mitchell as the victim of a botched transsexual operation. Hedwig is simultaneously a drag show, a rock concert, and a performance-art piece; in the unlikely event that it does turn out to be the future of the American musical, many people, myself not least among them, will be very upset.

One startling development of the year in drama remains to be noted. Though only one new non-singing American play (Side Man) achieved any sort of a run on Broadway in 1998, an unusual number of foreign plays managed to carve out Broadway successes. Moreover, the two most popular, most lauded, most honored Broadway plays of the year were not only foreign: they were by playwrights whose work was entirely new to America. The 1997–98 Tony Award for Best Play went to Art by Yasmina Reza, already a prize-winner in Paris and London, and the first French play in many years to make any kind of an impact in this country. (Christopher Hampton and Matthew Warchus, respectively the translator and director of the London production, repeated these functions for Broadway, with an American cast.) The Drama Desk Award for Best Play went to The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a first play by a 28-year-old wunderkind named Martin McDonagh.

Art is an elegant, three-character, ninety-minute construction, or perhaps confection would be a better word, with a very simple premise. Serge has just bought a minimalist, white-on-white painting for 200,000 francs. This infuriates his friend Marc, who not only dislikes the painting, but takes its acquisition by Serge as a personal affront. Their mutual friend Yvan tries unsuccessfully to keep the peace. Triangular bickering ensues.

Its admirers say that Art is not primarily about art, but about friendship. Yes, various tensions, assumptions, hostilities do emerge, as the three of them subject their situation to an elaborate ongoing analysis. But their interlocking relationships seem contrived, arbitrary, without much general meaning. Perhaps Ms. Reza does not know very much about how men relate to one another, or perhaps Frenchmen are different from us. At any rate, it is hard to believe that three such childishly touchy individuals could have become friends in the first place.

Still, this is a highly playable chamber piece, and as performed with exquisite timing by the first New York cast it was often very funny. There is even some pathos in poor, vulnerable, needy Yvan, pushed around by two chilly, arrogant egotists. Art has been substantially over-hyped; it is really much ado about not a whole lot; but it is not hard to see why people like it.

Yasmina Reza's characters are educated, middle-class, analytically minded, urban Frenchmen; Martin McDonagh's are poor, uncultivated, rural, and very Irish. Mr. McDonagh was born and lives in London, but his family came from the West of Ireland, and his plays, festering with malice, frustration and violence, seem bent on demonstrating that they were right to leave. "You can't kick a cow in Leenane without some bastard holding a grudge twenty year," says one of the characters in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the first play in Mr. McDonagh's Leenane trilogy, set in a God-forsaken village in County Galway. Mr. McDonagh gives us the underside of charming, gregarious, warm-hearted Ireland; this Ireland is a land of no opportunities, rain, wretched cottages, women left to wither manless on the vine. "Me porridge has gone cold!" shrieks an old woman in The Beauty Queen of Leenane; Mr. McDonagh's Ireland is a land of cold porridge. We have seen something of this dead-end Ireland before, in other plays (by J. M. Synge and Brian Friel, for instance), but never has it looked so grim.

Beauty Queen takes place in what must be the ugliest cottage in all of Galway, where old Mag Folan and her spinster daughter Maureen live in a stale of mutual loathing. Mag, in Anna Manahan's memorable performance, is a massive, inert body in a rocking chair, with a sly, selfish, stubborn, malicious, wheedling, mind inside it. Bitter Maureen is desperate to get away; Mag, unable to live on her own, is determined to keep her. When Pato Dooley returns for a visit from London (there is no work for him in Leenane), Maureen takes him to her bed, and viciously taunts her mother with his presence in the morning. Will Pato be Maureen's means of escape?

What follows is a brilliantly contrived arrangement of suspenseful situations, secrets and surprises: an intercepted letter, a crucial word let slip, a sudden realization, a blazing confrontation, hopes kindled, hopes dashed, a heavy iron poker, a mother-daughter duel to the death. Mr. McDonagh has written a perfect example of a well-made play, full of intricately connected twists and turns, according to a model of dramatic structure that was standard a hundred years ago. Mag, dropping a letter, page by page, into the fire, resembles nothing so much as Ibsen's Hedda Gabler burning Eilert Lovberg's manuscript. Perhaps only a very young playwright could write such an old-fashioned play.

In Mr. McDonagh's hands, these hoary devices work powerfully. At the big turning points there are audible gasps from the spectators. But the plotting is a little too clever; there is a pervasive air of contrivance; it is the playwright, not life or fate, that is raining down these hammer-blows. That may be why the grimness is so depressing. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is genuinely gut-wrenching, but having one's gut wrenched is not necessarily a pleasant experience.

Beauty Queen was first presented by the Druid Theater Company in Galway city, in a production that moved on to London, to an off-Broadway engagement in New York, and to triumph on Broadway. It was followed to New York a few weeks later by another McDonagh play, The Cripple of Inishmaan; given an American production by the Joseph Papp Public Theatre/ New York Shakespeare Festival, Cripple was less successful with the critics and the public and did not transfer to Broadway, but it seems to me a better play.

Like The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan is part of a trilogy (Mr. McDonagh is nothing if not prolific)—this one set in the Aran Islands off Ireland's west coast. Mr. McDonagh's protagonist, a crippled 17-year-old orphan boy known to one and all as Cripple Billy, is as desperate to get away from Inishmaan as Maureen Folan is to get away from Leenane, and actually succeeds—for a while. Like Beauty Queen, Cripple has its share of plot twists, of secrets (why did Billy's parents drown themselves?) and surprises, but its central conflict is not as strong; on the other hand, its sense of contrivance is less oppressive. Moreover, The Cripple gives much freer rein to Mr. McDonagh's talent for comedy. Several of its characters resemble the lovable Irish eccentrics we have all seen before. Johnnypateenmike, the town gossip, is trying to get his ancient mother to drink herself to death—with her enthusiastic cooperation. Billy's foster-aunt talks to stones, but only when she's upset. A young woman called Slippy Helen announces, "I do like breaking eggs on fellas," and obliges with a demonstration. But this is still Mr. McDonagh's Ireland: the comedy is largely generated by the stupidity, insensitivity, and cruelty of his characters. They talk like the Irish peasants of J. M. Synge, with obscenity substituted for lyricism: "Colman King is as ugly as a brick of baked shite and everybody agrees, and excuse me language but I'm only being descriptive."

Mr. McDonagh is both a deeply traditional and a strikingly individual writer. If he, like Yasmina Reza, is somewhat over-hyped at present, he is still an impressive new talent.

Some older foreign talent was in evidence on Broadway in 1998, under less triumphant circumstances: two star-vehicle plays by the newly knighted Sir David Hare (author of Plenty, Racing Demon, Skylight, and many others), brought over from London with their original casts. In the spring came The Judas Kiss, with Liam Neeson as Oscar Wilde. To presume to write dialogue for Oscar Wilde is to undertake a formidable challenge, but Sir David rose to it successfully; moreover, he and Mr. Neeson gave their Oscar Wilde a valuable quality that other versions of Wilde often seem to lack: dignity. The Judas Kiss was generally interpreted as showing Oscar sacrificing everything for love of Lord Alfred Douglas, his adored "Bosie"; it seemed to me rather to show Oscar as a man bent upon self-destruction, with the famously obnoxious Bosie as merely the means to that end. It was indifferently received by the critics generally; I found it fascinating, poignant, and psychologically acute. (Of course, if Bosie is Judas, what does that make Oscar? Wisely, the point is not insisted on.) The Judas Kiss was followed in the fall by Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room, an adaptation of Reigen, also known as La Ronde, the famous sexual rondelay by Arthur Schnitzler. Brought smartly up to date by Sir David, The Blue Room is still, like other versions of Reigen, a series of acrid vignettes displaying joyless couplings, people using people, sex as merely what Iago said it was, a lust of the blood and a permission of the will. However, The Blue Room sold out its entire engagement when the news got around that Ms. Kidman would briefly appear in the nude.

Other foreign plays turned up off-Broadway. Mark Ravenhill is one of several young English playwrights who take an even darker view of sexual behavior than Schnitzler. Mr. Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking, produced off-Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop, tells a murky, implausible tale that, as its title may suggest, depicted sex (dramatized by several squalid, vicious couplings) as a commodity. Mr. Ravenhill's play, an example of the Theater of GrossOut, makes The Blue Room seem subtle and even graceful by comparison. Athol Fugard, everyone's favorite South African playwright, was author, co-director and leading actor (at, once more, the Manhattan Theater Club) of The Captain's Tiger, subtitled "A Memoir for the Stage," a genial but distinctly minor work in which he played himself at the age of twenty, a seafarer and aspiring novelist. But the main foreign-play action, for a change, was on the Main Stem.

So, then, 1998 was a year of no great masterpieces—perhaps, in part, because economic realities now dictate that unless a play has a very small cast, it will have a very hard time getting produced in America. Beauty Queen, Eyes for Consuela, Stupid Kids, and The Dying Gaul have four characters apiece; Art, This Is Our Youth, and The Captain's Tiger have three; The Blue Room has ten—played by two actors. Nowadays, epic scale, with few exceptions, is only for musicals. Of course, a small-cast masterpiece is possible (The Glass Menagerie has only four characters), but not all stories can best be told that way. However, it was also a year in which foreign plays were, once again. Broadway hits, a year in which an unusually large number of talented new playwrights, domestic as well as foreign, appeared on the scene. If some of these newcomers can be induced not to abandon the theater for films and television, 1998 suggests promising possibilities for the future….


The Year in Drama (Vol. 109)


The Year in Drama (Vol. 86)