The Year in Drama by Julius Novick
1994 was not an auspicious year for American drama. Angels in America by Tony Kushner, still by a wide margin the most important American play of the 1990s, opened in Los Angeles in 1992 and on Broadway in 1993; in 1994 it closed on Broadway at a reported loss of $660,000. (It will, however, be produced in Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere.) As I write, in January, 1995, not one American non-musical play is being performed on Broadway, which is dominated more than ever by a very few, very expensive musicals. The great network of nonprofit professional theaters, established in this country over the last fifty years as an alternative to Broadway, continues to function, but has been hard-hit by the diminution of government funding. Those who train young theater artists are talking about how to deal with the fact that playwrights, directors, and actors can no longer realistically expect to make a living in the professional theater, which more and more has become a sort of farm system, or an expensive hobby, for workers in film and television. ("If I do a couple of films, I'll be able to afford to do a play.")
And yet, stubbornly, quixotically, talented American men and women continue to bring their work to the stage—including, in 1994, two eminent elder playwrights: Arthur Miller (born 1915) and Edward Albee (born 1928). Neither has regained his midseason form, but both, perhaps, displayed their best work since their great days.
Albee's return was particularly triumphant. The off-off-Broadway Signature Theater, which devotes itself to a different playwright every year, gave a whole season of his more esoteric work. Meanwhile, his Three Tall Women opened in New York at the nonprofit Vineyard Theater, transferred to a commercial off-Broadway house for a long run, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Albee maintains that no previous play of his has had such a favorable response from the New York critics.
The protagonist of Three Tall Women is a very rich, very difficult, very old lady: imperious, self-centered, incontinent, reminiscent, forgetful, given to sudden bursts of anger and of weeping. In Act I, she passes the time with her middle-aged companion (the second tall woman), as the third tall woman, a young lawyer, tries to get her to put her affairs in order. At the end of the act, she has a stroke. In Act II, the three actresses play the protagonist at different ages, her three selves considering her life from their varying perspectives, as her son sits silently at her bedside. The play is generally understood to be the author's homage to his adoptive mother.
Three Tall Women has the elegant prose and the desiccated, distanced quality characteristic of Albee's late work. As a reverie on one character's past and present, it has, like other Albee plays, a clear debt to Beckett. The ending is Beckettian: the old lady says, "I was talking about … what: coming to the end of it; yes. So. There it is. You asked, after all. That's the happiest moment…. When it's all done. When we stop. When we can stop."
For me, however, this evening of reminiscences failed to fuse into significance; I found it fine-spun but very thin. Still, it is livelier and funnier than most late Albee, and it leaps into intensity when the silent son appears, and the two older selves of the protagonist recall with bitterness the day he "went away, took his life and one bag and went off." A veteran actress named Myra Carter made a deserved hit as the old lady in both acts, but I was taken even more by the compelling angularity of Marian Seldes as the companion in Act I and the middle-aged protagonist in Act II.
Arthur Miller's new play, Broken Glass, was less successful with the critics and the public. After a troubled tryout at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, it came to Broadway, received mixed reviews, and closed in short order. But it is a play of substance. Its title comes from kristallnacht, when the Nazis smashed the windows of Jewish stores, foreshadowing the persecutions to come. In Brooklyn, in 1938, a Jewish housewife named Sylvia Gellburg becomes obsessed with the Nazi threat, and mysteriously loses the use of her legs. A doctor, searching for psychological causes, makes disquieting discoveries about the Gellburg marriage: once again a Miller play probes into the past to see how it has shaped the present.
Broken Glass has its murky aspects: the relation between the terrors of history and the private sorrows of the Gellburgs is not clearly and convincingly established, and it is not clear what we are supposed to make of the Jewish doctor who rides horseback every day on Ocean Parkway, has fond memories of his student days in Germany, and is attracted to Sylvia. But my attention was held by the search for the secret of Sylvia's disability. John Tillinger staged the play with dignity and grace, and it was finely acted by Amy Irving as Sylvia, David Dukes as the doctor, and especially by Ron Rifkin as Sylvia's husband Phillip. (Rifkin's performance is climaxed by a terrifically graphic heart attack.)
Above all I was fascinated by Phillip, whose relation to his own Jewishness is so exquisitely complex and exquisitely painful. He is desperate to distance himself from other Jews, pathetically proud to be "the only Jew ever worked for Brooklyn Guarantee in their whole history," the only Jew ever to set foot on the deck of his boss's yacht. He glories in the fact that his only son is an army officer: "I wanted people to see that a Jew doesn't have to be a lawyer or a doctor or a businessman." His hatred of himself as a Jew is related to his sexual impotence and to his wife's paralysis. He is so divided against himself that his heart attack is like a bursting apart, after a lifetime of holding himself ever-so-tightly together. A number of recent American plays—by Neil Simon, Herb Gardner, Donald Margulies, Jon Robin Baitz, Wendy Wasserstein, and others—have wrestled with the vexed question of what it means to be an American Jew; Broken Glass is a notable contribution to that ongoing discussion.
If Broken Glass is this year's play about being Jewish, Love! Valour! Compassion! by Terrence McNally is this year's play about being homosexual. Its setting is an idyllic country house not far from New York, where eight gay men foregather to eat, talk, bond, court, and skinny-dip. (The skinny-dipping caused some raised eyebrows among the more straitlaced subscribers at the Manhattan Theater Club.)
The house is owned by a generous dancer-choreographer named Gregory, whose lover, Bobby, is a sweet, curly-haired, blind young man, not only blind but so spiritual that immediately upon arrival he goes out to say "Thank you, God" for the house and grounds. But Bobby is not too spiritual to be seduced by Ramon, a hunky young Puerto Rican dancer, who is the lover, for the moment at least, of John, a sharp-tongued, malicious Brit. When Gregory finds out about Bobby and Ramon he is furious, but when he realizes he is too old to dance the brilliant new solo he has created, he nobly resigns it to Ramon. Meanwhile, John's brother James turns up, and turns out to be as nice as John is nasty. Pudgy Buzz ("Love me, love my love-handles") falls in love with James, who reciprocates. The remaining houseguests are Arthur and Perry, who have been together for fourteen years. "We're role models," says Perry wryly. "It's very stressful."
As any play about contemporary gay life must do, Love! Valour! Compassion! acknowledges the shadow of AIDS. Buzz and James are both HIV-positive; Buzz has a long (too long) speech of complaint about it, and James collapses as he and his friends, in tutus, dance an excerpt from Swan Lake. In a sense, this is a play about AIDS. But it does not harrow us with death-throes; as the title implies, its spirit is gentle, sentimental, affirmative. Nathan Lane as Buzz gets the best of the playwright's abundant laugh-lines, and makes the most of them, while not neglecting the human being behind the class-clown antics. John Glover does a spectacular turn as both John and James, transforming himself instantaneously by just a twist of body language. Randy Becker lets us see that Ramon is using his truculent sexual glamor as a shield against men who are older, better educated, and more firmly established in the world than he. But the play is an ensemble piece, impeccably acted by all concerned under Joe Mantello's sensitive direction, offering a deliberately unreal, wishful, sometimes cloying, but generally disarming image of the gay world as ultimately a band of brothers, somehow united by the scourge that threatens them. A hit at the Manhattan Theater Club, Love! Valour! Compassion! transferred to Broadway.
Like Terrence McNally, Sam Shepard has had a thirty-year career as a playwright (with time out, in Shepard's case, to write, direct, and act in movies). Shepard's new play, Simpatico, which played a limited engagement at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theater, revolves around a fraught relationship between Carter, who is rich and smooth, and Vinnie, who is poor and unkempt. (The two have reminded many observers of the respectable brother and the outlaw brother in Shepard's True West.) Many years ago they were involved in framing a horseracing official; then Carter took Vinnie's wife and his Buick; now Carter supports Vinnie, who has a cardboard box full of photos that could incriminate his erstwhile partner.
Shepard is a maker of American dreamscapes, not particularly a storyteller; he has loaded this play with more plot than he is able to articulate clearly. In spite of impressive acting by Ed Harris and Fred Ward as Carter and Vinnie, James Gammon as the man they framed, and Beverly D'Angelo as Carter's wife, Simpatico is full of dull confrontations, with much beating around the bush, culminating in revelations that fail to reveal anything of consequence.
Tony Kushner, arguably at this moment our country's leading playwright, was represented this year by a minor work. Slavs! (Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness), which came from the Actors Theater of Louisville to the New York Theater Workshop, is an 80-minute piece that recycles material Kushner originally wrote for Perestroika, the second part of Angels in America. Like Angels, Slavs! buzzes with intellectual energy, viewing politics and private life through a combination of realism, fantasy, and satire.
There is a beautiful, complex moment at the end of it, when a little Siberian girl, born mute and sickly as a result of prenatal exposure to radiation from a Soviet nuclear device, and now dead, appears in the afterlife, suddenly able to speak. She meets two high-ranking Soviet apparatchiks, also deceased, playing cards in the snow. "The socialist experiment in the Soviet Union has failed, grandfathers," she tells them gravely. Slavs! is a tragicomic elegy—not for Stalinism, for which Kushner has no sympathy whatever—but for the hopes and the sufferings invested so vainly in "the Soviet experiment."
Unfortunately, the earlier parts of Slavs!, in which Kushner parodies Marxist rhetoric, and then shows us a foolish apparatchik in love with the lesbian custodian of the storage-room where the brains of deceased Bolsheviks are kept, have a dangerously high ratio of words to action, and are performed with execrable heavy-footedness under Lisa Peterson's direction. The sloppy Russian accents are a disgrace throughout.
Another American playwright interested in history is Suzan-Lori Parks, author of a work modestly entitled The America Play. Its protagonist is an African-American grave-digger called "The Foundling Father" or "the Lesser Known," who impersonates Abraham Lincoln in a fake beard, and gets assassinated over and over and over again. This play has its admirers. It was commissioned and developed by Theater for a New Audience, workshopped at Arena Stage (Washington, D. C.) and Dallas Theater Center, and performed in New Haven and New York as a co-production of the Yale Repertory Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival. It seemed to me an endless evening of tricky, fiddly, empty conceits. A play's power and meaning must be rooted in a dramatic action, or, nine times out of ten, it will have no power and no meaning.
This year's most striking playwriting debut was made by David Ives, the author of an evening of six oddly intriguing comic playlets presented off-Broadway under the title, All in the Timing. In "Sure Thing," the first of them, a nice young man tries to pick up a nice young woman in a cafe. Every time the conversation goes offtrack, a bell rings, and they try again until they get it right; the result is a gentle, perceptive satire on dating rituals and small talk. In "Words, Words, Words," three monkeys named Milton, Swift, and Kafka try to type Hamlet, without knowing what Hamlet is. In "The Universal Language," a new and pleasantly cockeyed invented language, "Unamunda," becomes an occasion for romantic comedy, as teacher and student fall in love. "Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread" is a parody, set in a bakery, of Glass's operas and their monotonous repetitions. In "The Philadelphia," cities give their names to states of being. Mark is "in a Philadelphia," which means that "no matter what you ask for, you can't get it," while Al "woke up in a Los Angeles. And life is beautiful"—no matter what happens. "Variations on the Death of Trotsky" begins with "Trotsky sitting at his desk, writing furiously. The handle of a mountainclimber's axe is sticking out of the back of his head."
These are slight pieces, skits really, and some of them go on too long. But David Ives is a truly original comic mind. Under the direction of Jason McConnell Buzas, his work gets the kind of light-touch revue acting it needs.
Three works this year rendered with particular precision aspects of contemporary American life. Eric Bogosian, the performance artist (his Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead was reviewed in this space last year), has written a full-fledged play in which he does not appear. In his solo pieces, Bogosian is a scathing satirist; in this play he is a sober realist. Entitled Suburbia, it is set in a fictional but all-too-real town called "Burnfield—pizza and puke capital of the world." It presents us with a group of young men and women—not kids any more, but unable to grow up—whose main activity in life is hanging out by the 7-11, drinking beer and throwing fast food on the pavement. There is a plot—a minor rock-and-roll star comes home to Burnfield to look up his old buddies, and the result is sexual rivalry and death—but what is most convincing—and terrifying—is the aimlessness of the lives we see. "It's the end of the world, man, no hope, no ideas, no future, fuckin' apocalypse." Robert Falls's finely naturalistic staging of Suburbia for the Lincoln Center Theater is full of galvanic youthful energy, which only intensifies the pervading sense of bitterness and frustration, waste and loss.
There are bitterness and frustration, waste and loss to burn in Twilight Los Angeles, 1992, which came from the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, to the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, to the Public Theater in New York, and on to Broadway. But there is something healing in this work's very existence. Twilight, about the racially-fueled riots in Los Angeles, is the latest one-woman performance piece by Anna Deavere Smith, who also created Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities, about a previous instance of racial strife. These two works are part of a series she calls On the Road: A Search for American Character. "Each On the Road performance," she writes, "evolves from interviews I conduct with individuals directly or indirectly involved in the event I intend to explore. Basing my scripts entirely on this interview material, I perform the interviewees on the stage using their own words."
Smith is slender, light-skinned, African-American; her characters are black, white, Asian, Latino, male, female, young, old, rich, poor, dignified, fatuous, militant, peaceful: dozens of them, emerging one after the other through the voice and body of this one woman. She presents them all with scrupulous fairness. The result is a compelling collage, showing no demons, just a lot of people acting according to the logic of their own feelings and assumptions. Everybody, it seems, wants "justice." But what is that? Anna Deavere Smith honors with seriousness and skill the function of the theater as "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time."
Another work that manages the astonishing feat of dealing evenhandedly with a fiercely contentious issue is Keely and Du by the reclusive Kentucky playwright Jane Martin. (So closely is her identity guarded that many people suspect that "Jane Martin" is a pseudonym.) Martin begins with a compelling premise: a group of anti-abortion activists who call themselves "our Lord's underground" have kidnapped a pregnant woman who was seeking an abortion, have handcuffed her to a bed in a basement, and propose to keep her there until she has her baby.
There are, of course, heated arguments pro and con, but Martin never loses sight of the immediate emotional realities of the situation—which serves to increase both the urgency and the cogency of the arguments. The two main characters—Keely, the pregnant woman, and Du, the kindly but fanatical woman who guards her—have strikingly individual voices: both are working class, but Keely is abrasive, slangy, contemporary, while Du is old-fashioned, straitlaced, warm and homey. Predictably, the two women begin to bond together—but Martin keeps their relationship firmly this side of sentimentality. Neither retreats from her beliefs and demands, but they form a kind of women's alliance against pompous, patriarchal Walter, who descends periodically to lecture Keely on what the Lord has in mind for her. (The playwright takes no side—or rather, both sides—in the abortion debate, but the men in her play do not come off well.) At the end, Martin finds a way to resolve the dramatic situation without diminishing our respect for both Keely and Du and for what they stand for.
Keely and Du was first presented at the Actors Theater of Louisville in 1993; according to American Theater magazine, it was the most popular play of the 1994–95 season at the nation's resident theaters, with 14 productions scheduled. Strangely, no plans have been announced to produce it in New York City. Like Twilight Los Angeles, 1992, Keely and Du has probably not changed many minds, but though the former is fact and the latter is fiction, both have the power to give people valuable insight into the minds of those who disagree with them.
1994 was not a year when new foreign plays made a great impression. From London to Lincoln Center (in a new American production) came Hapgood by Tom Stoppard, partly a spy movie for the stage, partly a parody of a spy movie; it is also a high comedy, and includes a rueful love story, a tough, noirish sex story, and extensive reflections on the similarity between spying and particle physics, grounded on the essential unknowability of reality. Stockard Channing, one of our finest actresses, plays the eponymous Hapgood, a high-ranking British Intelligence operative, with an admirable balance of crispness and warmth, and also gets to impersonate Hapgood's blowsy twin sister. (Twinship is one of the themes of the play.) She is beautifully supported by David Strathairn as a thoughtful Russian physicist, Josef Sommer as a senior Intelligence officer, and David Lansbury as a thuggish agent. Jack O'Brien's staging is brisk, smooth, elegant.
But in this play Stoppard's celebrated cleverness gets the better of him. Right from the first scene—an intricate pantomime of ducking into cubicles, handing off briefcases, picking up towels, set in the locker room of a public swimming pool—the action moves faster than the audience can take it in. It is hard to avoid the feeling that Stoppard is deliberately teasing us. Hapgood is written in enjoyably neat and cultivated prose; when Hapgood's young son is in danger, the plot does begin to grip; but it remains tantalizing rather than satisfying. When the thuggish agent, trying to puzzle out what has happened, says wryly, "Give me a minute—I'm slow," he speaks for the audience as well.
Three Birds Alighting on a Field by Timberlake Wertenbaker is a London art-world satire that gets off some shrewd hits: "Here come some rich people. Tell 'em how art makes being rich all right." Originally produced at the Royal Court Theater in London, it came to the Manhattan Theater Club with its original director, Max Stafford-Clark, and its original leading actress, Harriet Walter, who gives a remarkable performance as a Candide-like youngish woman learning the ways of this esoteric world. But the play wanders off in too many directions to be very effective.
More interesting than this year's new imported British plays were the revivals by British directors. In a production that began at the Royal National Theater in London, Stephen Daldry has radically rethought An Inspector Calls, an old chestnut of provincial English rep written in 1946 by J. B. Priestley, a popular novelist, playwright and pundit now largely forgotten. The time of the action is before World War I, during the heyday of British capitalism. An inspector knocks at the door of Arthur Birling, a prosperous manufacturer. A young woman, formerly employed in Birling's factory, has just killed herself. By the time the inspector has finished his inquiries, every member of the Birling family is shown to bear some responsibility in her death—and it becomes apparent that the inspector is not a police inspector at all, but a mysterious, presumably supernatural emissary of social justice, come to show these complacent plutocrats their sins.
Daldry and his designer Ian MacNeil have broken the play out of its deceptively cozy domestic interior and set it on a rain-swept, darkling plain, in the midst of which is an isolated miniature house on stilts, just large enough to contain the actors who play the Birlings. In a stunning coup de théâtre, the house opens up, exposing its inmates literally as the inspector exposes them metaphorically. Later, a chorus of silent, sober figures appears at one side of the stage, watching accusingly. Still later, the house becomes a gaping wreck, tilted all askew. When the Birlings regain confidence, the house, astonishingly, rights itself and closes once again—and opens again, to reveal the accusing chorus inside.
All these and many other wonders are accompanied by four live musicians playing Stephen Warbeck's melodramatic incidental music. Yet the bold, powerful acting of Daldry's cast—Philip Bosco as Arthur Birling, a sleek, self-satisfied walrus, Rosemary Harris sashaying regally as Mrs. Birling—holds its own against the spectacle and the music. "Revisionist" directors, who stage plays in ways their authors never could have imagined, usually work their wills on the classics of the stage, often with dire results. But An Inspector Calls is nobody's classic. Daldry has taken Priestley's rather stuffy socialist parable and shaken it into new life, made it an explosive, hallucinatory indictment of Britain in the Thatcher Era, not without implications for Americans.
From the little Almeida Theater in London came the Medea of Euripides, staged by Jonathan Kent as a star turn for Diana Rigg as a witty and polished, rather than a primitive and elemental, Medea. At the end, in a coup de théâtre not unlike those in An Inspector Calls, and perhaps even more powerful, the great rusted steel plates that form Peter J. Davison's setting fall away clangorously, revealing Medea outlined triumphantly against the sky.
While An Inspector Calls and Medea were booked into commercial Broadway houses, Nicholas Hytner's production of Carousel, from the Royal National Theater, came to the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center. With expressionistic sets by Bob Crowley, and a beautiful Act II ballet choreographed by the late Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Hytner's somber production de-emphasizes the homogenized heartiness and New England charm that many people associate with this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, and focusses instead on the somber story of a starcrossed young couple and their unhappy daughter. Some people complained about the interracial casting in a show set in a small town in Maine—where in real life one would expect to find few African-Americans—but Hytner pointed out that in his production the ocean was represented by blue linoleum, so that "real life" was somewhat beside the point.
It was good to have Carousel back in New York after many years. But what has the world come to when the British are reinterpreting our classic musicals for us? On the other hand, there were revivals of musicals by American directors as well. From the Old Globe Theater in San Diego came Damn Yankees, originally produced in 1955: the one about the middle-aged Washington Senators fan who makes a deal with the devil to become a baseball star and help the Senators to a pennant. Revised and staged by Jack O'Brien, artistic director of the Old Globe, who provided a new, gently satirical take on the Formica paradise of 1950's suburban domesticity, and sporting zestful, sometimes hilarious dances choreographed by Rob Marshall, it made excellent light entertainment.
Assisting O'Brien on the revisions was George Abbott, the show's original coauthor and director. It was the last project for "Mr. Abbott," as he was universally known; he died on January 31, 1995, at the age of 107, after an astonishing eight decades in the theater as an actor, playwright, librettist, producer, and above all as a director, famous for fast-moving, meticulously staged, funny musicals and farces.
Somewhat more substantial was Show Boat, the 1927 classic with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and music by Jerome Kern. It came to Broadway from Toronto in a big, festive, strongly-cast production staged by Harold Prince. Show Boat has a reputation as a pioneer "serious" musical: it deals with racial persecution and marital desertion, among other things. The Prince production pays some rather self-conscious attention to oppressed African-Americans, but it is not a revisionist staging; it does full justice to Show Boat's old-fashioned, sentimental heart. Rebecca Luker as Magnolia Hawks, the showboat captain's daughter, ages convincingly from an innocent girl to a strong woman, and Mark Jacoby is handsome, though not particularly dashing, as Gaylord Ravenal, the gambler whom Magnolia marries. Kern's melodies are beautifully sung (though the sound man turns up the volume noticeably for big climaxes). Even at a top price of $75—a new high for Broadway—Show Boat is a big hit.
New musicals? There were some off-Broadway. Hello Again at Lincoln Center was inspired by Schnitzler's La Ronde, in which A sleeps with B, who sleeps with C, and so on until someone finally sleeps with A again, completing the circle. But the copulations in La Ronde take place in a small span of time and space, while in Hello Again they range back and forth over the decades from the turn of the century to the present. Michael John LaChiusa, who wrote the words and music, was rumored to be an important new musical-theater talent, but Hello Again seemed to me chilly, uninviting, and without much point, though it was staged with exquisite smoothness by Graciela Daniele, and impeccably performed by the entire ensemble.
I preferred another, less publicized off-Broadway musical, Christina Alberta's Father at the Vineyard Theater, with words and music by Polly Pen, based on an obscure novel of the same name by H. G. Wells. Set in England early in this century, it went all out for offbeat charm, and often achieved it. (Father to heroine: "I hope, my dear, among all these artists and people, you are not getting … ramshackle.") Polly Pen will, I hope, be heard from again.
New Broadway musicals? Sunset Boulevard (which of course is originally from London), was reviewed here last year; in 1994 it moved from Los Angeles to Broadway, with Glenn Close still starring flamboyantly: at only $70 for the best seats, it rivaled Show Boat in the big-hit category. So did Beauty and the Beast, a ponderous stage version of the Disney cartoon film, notable mainly as the beginning of what promises to be a long-term Disney involvement with Broadway.
Passion, the newest work by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book and direction) was not a big hit: it opened on Broadway in May, and closed the following January. It was, however, the most controversial production of the year, much loved and much loathed. From a little-known Italian film, and an even less-known nineteenth-century novel, comes its strange story of obsessive love. It begins with two lovers in bed, singing rapturously of their joys. But Giorgio, an army officer, is ordered away to a remote provincial town, and his beautiful Clara (who is married to someone else) is left behind in Milan. As Giorgio and Clara write to each other of their mutual longing, he is stalked by Fosca—the cousin of his commanding officer—an ugly, sickly woman, sunk deep in resentment and self-pity, given to hysterical seizures, who has fallen desperately in love with him, and demands that he love her in return.
"Is this what you call love," he asks her, "this endless and insatiable smothering pursuit of me?… This is not love, just a need for possession." "Loving you is not a choice," she replies. "… You are why I live." An ugly woman in love with a man who doesn't care for her is often a figure of fun, but Donna Murphy plays Fosca with fierce dignity and strength. Finally Giorgio realizes that "No one has truly loved me as you have, Fosca"—and realizes, moreover, that he loves her.
There is something deeply disquieting in Fosca's implacable pursuit of Giorgio, in her use of her sickness, her unhappiness, her very ugliness, to enforce her demand on him; in real life it would be an intolerable campaign of emotional blackmail. But Passion insists, romantically, on the transcendent value of emotional intensity. Yet it does not depend on big gestures, big outbursts, big avowals; the passion of Passion is more intense for the restraint with which it is expressed. Lapine's staging, in uncluttered sets by Adrianne Lobel, with subdued lighting by Beverly Emmons, is beautifully austere. Sondheim's music avoids catchy tunes and turn-up-the-volume climaxes; his score weaves recurring themes and fragments into a spellbinding web.
Passion is really a chamber opera, and it is a work of great distinction. The wonder is that it ran as long as it did. Sondheim and Lapine have succeeded in using the Broadway apparatus to do their own admirable work. Even on Broadway, the art of the theater is still possible.