October 24, 2020

Thoughts on Some Offerings of Theatrical Methadone for Those Missing Live Theater

A Zoomed scene from the staged reading of Lisa Loomer's docudrama Roe 

It hit me unexpectedly. I’d been going along for the past seven months telling myself that I didn’t really miss theater because there was no theater to miss once COVID restrictions shut down all the stages here in New York. So I just scratched my occasional theater itch by watching a few things online and reading some books about theater, including a couple of plays. But then, all of a sudden, I started missing theater with an almost physical intensity. 

And that ache got me hunting for some kind of theatrical methadone, something that might substitute for the real thing and relieve the withdrawal symptoms I’d begun to feel. Most of the things I found dealt in one way or another with politics (it seems as though there’s no getting away from it nowadays) and nearly all had star-studded casts (one of the few silver linings of this quarantine period is that almost every actor is at home and available). 

What follows is an account of my theatrical quest over the last week or so as I listened to audio plays, watched Zoom-style readings and even saw a few fully-recorded productions. 

I started by listening to It Can’t Happen Here, an adaptation of the 1935 Sinclair Lewis novel that Berkeley Rep. turned into an audio play that some 100 other theaters around the country are co-sponsoring because its story about a populist demagogue who wins the U.S. presidency and then imposes fascist rule by suspending constitutional rights seems uncomfortably timely. Berkeley Rep’s recently-retired artistic director Tony Taccone and playwright Bennett S. Cohen did a terrific job of streamlining Lewis’s talky jeremiad (I confess I couldn’t make it through the novel) into a compelling cautionary tale.  And the cast, ably directed by Lisa Peterson and led by David Strathairn as a small-town newspaper editor who joins the fight to restore democracy, was top-notch. The show runs nearly three hours and I listened straight-through. You can catch it until Nov. 8 by clicking here.

Next on my schedule was BAM’s presentation of That Kindness by Eve Ensler, who now goes by the sole letter V. As she did with The Vagina Monologues, the playwright interviewed a series of people about their experiences, in this case nurses caring for people stricken by the coronavirus, and assembled what they told her into a series of affective monologues. And she’s also assembled a fantastic crew of actors to perform them, including LaChanze, Rosie O'Donnell, Billy Porter and Marisa Tomei. Yet I’m chagrined to say that as important as the issue is, as heart-rendering as the stories told and as fine as the performances, I only made it about half way through the one-hour presentation, whose depressing tone never varied and so wore me down. But you have the chance to see if you’re more empathetic than I proved to be by clicking here through Nov. 3.

It’s too late for you to catch Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, an all-star production (really, the cast included Morgan Freeman, Katie Finneran, Vanessa Williams, Reed Birney, Phylicia Rashad, Stacy Keach, and Matthew Broderick) that was presented by the streaming series called Broadway’s Best Plays because it had a limited three-day run that ended Oct. 17. Vidal’s play about the competition for their party’s presidential nomination between a too-principled patrician and a do-anything-to-win pragmatist is one of my favorite shows about politics (click here to see a list of others I like) and I was eager to see how it would play out as a virtual work in which the performers interacted with one another entirely through Zoom. The answer: not bad. John Malkovich was an odd choice for the Adlai Stevenson-like patrician but Zachary Quinto was pitch-perfect as the Richard Nixon-like opportunist. And it was actually fun to watch how director Michael Wilson and a crackerjack team of designers created backgrounds and bits of business that attempted to make it look as though cast members shared the same spaces. 

Lisa Loomer’s Roe, a docudrama about the woman behind the Supreme Court case that made abortion legal in the U.S., is a play I’ve been wanting to see since it debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016 as part of that company’s "American Revolutions" series. The mission of its plays is to “establish a shared understanding of our nation’s past while illuminating the best paths for our nation's future.” So I happily paid $15 for a ticket to see the three-day run presented by WAM Theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts. Loomer’s ambitious piece covers issues of class, race and religion and has characters breaking the fourth wall to comment on their actions or to predict their fates but the performances (actually staged readings with scripts in hand) turned out to be sadly uneven. Director Kristen van Ginhoven and scenic designer Juliana van Haubrich obviously worked hard to show how imaginative a virtual production can be but I’m still waiting for a more definitive production—and hoping it can be a live one.

If Richard Nelson’s The Apple Family Plays and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America had a love child it might be Shipwreck, the ambitious drama by Anne Washburn that she's adapted into an audio play The Public Theater is presenting as a multi-part podcast (which you can find by clicking here). Shipwreck divides it attention among a group of clueless white liberals who gather for a weekend at an old Vermont farmhouse built in 1776, Oval Office meetings that Donald Trump has with George W. Bush and former FBI director James Comey (colorblind casting has the African-American actors Philip James Brannon playing Bush and Joe Morton playing Comey) and the musings of a Midwestern farmer who defies all stereotypes. It’s talky and pretentious, but in all the right ways. It’s also one of the rare displays of culture over the past four years that doesn’t treat Trump as a buffoon or a cartoon but as someone to be seriously reckoned with. Under Saheem Ali’s lucid direction, Bill Camp’s Trump is controlled and chilling.

Even the Mint Theater Company, which specializes in works by forgotten playwrights, has climbed up on the politics bandwagon. Its new streaming series kicked off this week with a presentation of Conflict, a 1925 play by the British actor and playwright Miles Malleson that centers on the rivalry between a conservative Tory and a liberal Labour Party candidate. It should have been just what the doctor ordered for me because the Mint is streaming its full 2018 production and like most Mint shows the sets and costumes are comely and the acting classy (click here to see it for yourself). But I have to admit that although over the years I’ve enjoyed many Mint shows, including this one, they’ve always made me a bit uncomfortable too.  And now as the country as a whole and the theater world in particular are wrestling with the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, I know why: nearly all the Mint shows come from the era of drawing-room plays when accents were expected to be posh and casts, with the exception of a servant role here or there, entirely white. This production tries to sidestep that by casting a woman of color as one of the toffs but I couldn’t help wondering why in its nearly 30-year history the Mint has yet to do a play by a black or brown playwright since so many of them have also been forgotten.

Finally, I watched the HBO production of David Byrne's American Utopia, movie director Spike Lee’s filmed version of the show whose Broadway run ended in February. A naturalized citizen, the Scottish-born Byrne has always been unabashed in his love for this country and astute in his critiques of it. His show, a rock concert inventively choreographed by Annie-B Parson and performed by a talented and multicultural band of musicians, is the same. One song celebrates immigration, another pays tribute to black victims killed by police and Byrne makes a direct appeal to the audience to vote in the coming election. But despite such serious topics, the vibe is uplifting and even celebratory. I left the theater feeling exhilarated when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw one of the final performances of the live run and I found myself wanting to get up and dance as I watched the streamed version (which you can see by clicking here)Plans have been announced for the show to return to Broadway next fall but for now, this is a fine substitute.

So there you have it. That’s seven shows I've seen over the last 10 days, making it seem almost like old times when I was heading out to the theater nearly every night of the week.  Almost.

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