The writer Joan Didion once said that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But lately an increasing number of theater makers have not only been telling the stories of their lives but sharing them onstage. Over just the last three weeks I’ve seen four shows that look back at the lives of the people who created them and this week it was announced that Anthony Rapp, the original Mark in Rent, plans to bring a one-man show based on his 2006 memoir “Without You” to New World Stages in January.
It could be that producers like these shows because they tend to have small casts—sometimes just the one person—minimal scenery and almost no costume changes. But I suspect that the trend also has something to do with the fact that so many of us have gotten used to sharing our lives on Facebook and Instagram and TikTok. As Andy Warhol allegedly predicted, we’re all searching for our 15 minutes of fame.
The challenge for the theatrical seekers is to make it clear why the rest of us should want to spend time with their stories and what those stories can tell us about our own lives. Here’s how four shows have fared at those tasks:
EVERYTHING'S FINE: Douglas McGrath got a Tony nomination for writing the book for the Carole King musical Beautiful and he earned an Oscar nomination for co-authoring the screenplay for the 1994 backstage comedy "Bullets Over Broadway" so he was no stranger to showbiz stories. Which made it somewhat surprising that his one-man show, which opened last month at the DR2 Theater in Union Square, focused on his Texas boyhood in the early 1970s.
McGrath and his director John Lithgow (yes, that John Lithgow) allowed their narrative to meander a bit before they zeroed in on the 14-year-old Doug’s experience with a female history teacher in her 40s who became obsessed with him, left him notes, called him at home. The story didn’t go quite where you thought it would and the strained attempts to tie it into McGrath’s feelings about his late father left me wondering why I should care.
And then, just as I was writing this post, came the news that McGrath, only 64, had suddenly died on Thursday night. In an interview he did last month with my BroadwayRadio colleague Matt Tamanini, (click here to hear it) McGrath said he didn’t want to hold onto the anger and bitterness he’d felt in the past and I’m sorry that it took his passing for me to grasp that message his show was trying to share with me.
WALKING WITH GHOSTS: The Irish actor Gabriel Byrne dips back into his childhood too in this one-man show based on the highly-praised memoir of the same name that he published last year. I haven’t read the book but it’s clear from the play that Byrne is an excellent writer, with a keen eye for detail and a poet’s ear for language. And yet, the transfer from the page to the stage isn’t a smooth one.
For starters, the show’s running time of two-and-a-half hours is far too long. Directed by Byrne’s friend Lonny Price (yes, that Lonny Price) it unspools in a series of vignettes (happy trips with his grandmother to the movies, a tragic encounter with a pedophile priest) that probably worked in the book when you had time to stop and ponder how those people, or ghosts, from his past helped to make Byrne the man—and the artist—he is today. But there simply isn’t enough time to absorb those life lessons as they tumble out one after another onstage, despite the blackouts that mark the end of each short tale.
To be sure, there are some pleasures: Byrne’s discovery of the amateur theater group that began his career is a delight and his account of an Bacchanalian evening spent with Richard Burton is the kind of peek behind the celebrity curtain that I wish he had shared more.
Still, Byrne is good company (click here to watch an interview with him) and your enjoyment of his show, which is running at Broadway’s Music Box theater through Dec. 31, will probably depend on whether you feel that just seeing him in the flesh and hearing the lovely Irish lilt of his voice justify the cost of the ticket.
WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE SEA: I may be stretching here since I don’t know for sure that this musical about a father and son now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Center Stage space through Nov. 27, is autobiographical. But playwright Jeff Augustin’s book sure plays as though it is. Like Augustin’s dad, the father in the play immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti and like Augustin the son grew up to be a gay man.
The story is told in alternating monologues by the father who takes a trip west with his wife while she’s pregnant with their first child; and by their now-grown son who years later is traveling east to collect the ashes of his recently deceased father. The actors—Billy Eugene Jones and Chris Myers—who portray them are excellent. But they don’t sing all that much. Instead, the husband-and-wife duo The Bengsons perform the score that they wrote on onstage.
I’ve enjoyed the Bengsons’ folksy, gospel-tinged music in Hundred Days and The Lucky Ones, the semi-autobiographical shows based on their lives, but the couple seems out of place here. This is a story about two black men struggling to connect with one another and so I don’t get why two white people are singing about them.
And while the songs are lovely, they don’t advance the plot and there’s a sameness to them that eventually wears out whatever welcome they did have. Still, anyone who has yearned for a closer relationship with a father or a son may find themselves tearing up at the end.
MY BROKEN LANGUAGE: This adaptation of the memoir that playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes published last year doesn’t open at Signature Theatre until next week and I don’t want to jump the review embargo but the show fits so perfectly into this theme that I can’t resist mentioning it. Both the book and the play center around the women—her grandmother, her aunts, her cousins, her baby sister and especially her mother—in the extended Puerto Rican family that dominated Hudes’ childhood growing up in Philadelphia in the ‘80s and ‘90s
Some of her family members fell victim to the AIDS and drugs that plagued their neighborhood back then but Hudes would win a scholarship to Yale and later study playwriting under Paula Vogel at Brown University. She then wrote the book for the Tony-winning musical In the Heights and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her play Water By The Spoonful, the second in a trilogy inspired by the life of a male cousin who suffered with PTSD after serving in Iraq.
However in 2018, after lukewarm receptions to two plays she did at the Public Theater, Hudes announced that U.S. theater’s slowness to embrace diversity had sapped her interest in continuing to write for it (read more about that here). But the chance to put the stories of her female relatives onstage has obviously wooed her back.
That storytelling, which mixes monologues, song, dance and Santeria rituals, may remind some theatergoers of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. The actors in the five-person cast, which includes Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi in Rent, trade off roles and each of them gets a turn to play the playwright at various times in her life. Hudes is directing the show herself so what audiences see will be the way she wants to tell the story of her life.