August 10, 2013

The Pains of Summer Festival Fatigue

We theater lovers used to beg for things to see in the summer.  And so we got festivals. Lots and lots of festivals. Maybe too many festivals.  

There’s the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the Midtown International Theater Festival, the Lincoln Center Festival, the New York International Fringe Festival and a bunch of mini-festivals at the 59E59 Theaters, including the East to Edinburgh Festival, which showcased 16 of the American productions that are among the nearly 3,000(!) shows playing this month at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and Summer Shorts, a grab bag of six one-acts by well-known and upcoming playwrights.  
From all accounts, very little of what any of them have offered this summer has been worth seeing.  I skipped NYMF this year because my husband K and I were out of the country. But my blogger pal Chris Caggiano at Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals saw 18 of the 250 productions; he really liked three of them but just the thought of having to sit through the other 15 depresses me. (Click here to read Chris' final report on the festival.)
I also couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for the salmagundi of international productions that Lincoln Center served up this year and so I passed on them too. The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood's recap of the shows, including Monkey: Journey to the West, the circus-like extravaganza performed entirely in Chinese, confirmed that decision (click here to read what he wrote.)

And now, alas, I can tell you from personal experience that this year’s Summer Shorts offerings aren’t faring much better.  Or at least that was the case with the three one acts my husband K and I saw in Series A, the first of the two bills that are being presented this year.

The lineup had seemed promising: playlets by the old masters Neil LaBute and Tina Howe, both of whom are Summer Shorts regulars, plus one by the young playwright Lucas Hnath, whose A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney stirred up a lot of buzz when it was performed at Soho Rep in the spring. 

The evening started off with LaBute’s Good Luck (in Farsi), a piece that he also directed about two actresses trying to psyche one another out as they wait outside an audition room. It includes so many of LaBute’s tics—the jousting for power, the obsession with looks, lots of profanity—that it almost seems a parody of a LaBute play.  Still, the put downs are mildly amusing and the young actresses game.  So no harm, no foul. 

But Hnath’s About a Woman Named Sarah completely baffled me. It’s an imagined recreation of the conversations between John and Cindy McCain and Sarah and Todd Palin during their first meeting. The four actors playing the characters sit on benches and get up when it’s their turn to perform a series of two-person dialogs that are punctuated with a clicking sound, whose purpose I’m still trying to figure out. 

The deadpan actors make no attempt to mimic the well-known people they play and director Eric Hoff gives them little else to do.  So there are no new insights into any of the characters—and no enjoyment on my end.
Howe’s Breaking the Spell was, at about 25 minutes, the longest and most ambitious of the three. I had been expecting another of her meditations on WASP culture but Howe seems to have taken to heart the notion that playwrights can play around with one acts. Her story is set in a fairytale kingdom where a princess has fallen under a sleeping spell. The King, her devoted father, has watched over her for 100 years, trying everything he can think of to break the curse.

The play seems to nod to Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist drama Exit the King, which I loved when Geoffrey Rush brought it to Broadway back in 2009 (click here to read my review of that) and the theater vet Michael Countryman does a nice job with this king. But Breaking the Spell also seems custom-tailored for the talents of the young pianist and saxophonist who play the many suitors who try to awaken the princess.  

They may be talented musicians—the program proudly notes that one of them, Evan Shinners, will play a different prelude from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” at each performance—but they are both amateur actors and that undercuts the impact. At least for me.  The actress Jane Alexander, a friend of Howe’s since their student days at Sarah Lawrence College, was in the audience at our performance and howled at almost every line.  
It isn’t popular to say that there is too much theater (Rocco Landesman, one of Alexander’s successors as head of the National Endowment for the Arts, got blasted when he said as much a couple of years ago (click here to read about that dust-up). But I’m going to stick my neck out and say it anyway:  there are too many people doing theater in New York and  many of them should be doing something else.
The Fringe Festival begins today.  I’ve enjoyed some of its productions in past years (click here to read about the day I spent theater-hopping last year) and I’ve really tried to gin up some interest in this year’s slate but, on the basis of how the festival season has feared so far, I'm probably going to sit this one out.

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