February 2010

I’m back in New York City this month to find that the global-warming-induced severe snows are being hotly bruited about in the infotainment venues of cable television that you can’t always access when on the road. Will there be theatre when the ice caps have gone? It’s a question that no one seems to be asking; meanwhile I’ve enjoyed three very different plays, thinking it a good idea to take in some culture while there’s still time.

‘You Can’t Take It With You’ was part of the Salon series of readings put up and hosted by The Acting Company. The Acting Company is something (as all theatrical ventures are) of a triumph of the improbable over the impossible – by which I mean the fact that it exists at all, let alone that it has flourished since 1972. Their website gives full background and current details.

‘You Can’t Take It With You’ was written in 1936 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and filmed by Frank Capra in 1938. It is gem from the golden age of the well-made play. The reading was given by a cast of New York theatre stars and veterans including Ms. Patricia Conolly of my acquaintance, at Playwrights Horizons. Trish (Conolly) played Gaye Wellington early on in her American career for the legendry APA Phoenix Repertory Company under the direction of the equally legendary Ellis Rabb. Later Trish played Penny, job-sharing the role with Rosemary Harris. In this reading she graduated to play the Countess Olga, and got a round of applause on her line ‘The Czar said to me: never stint on your blintzes.’

The APA was the only independent theatrical company which managed to offer a repertoire on Broadway in the last fifty years. Charles Isherwood in his recent New York Times article seemed unaware of the fact in his article calling for another permanent theatre space in Manhattan.

Well made is a 19th century term which generally means a tightly constructed plot leading to a final climax late in the play. A British equivalent might be J.B. Priestly’s comedies. The well made comedies of Kaufman and Hart have a joke rate-per-page to rival any sitcom, and this crack cast gave expert delivery.

A different kind of laughter went with a performance of ‘Thunderstorm’ which I saw at a high school in New England. ‘Thunderstorm’ was written in 1933 by Cao Yu and was the beginning of modern Chinese drama. The play deals with a prosperous family with Ibsenesque skeletons and secrets in its closet. There is something amazing about watching a teenage company dealing with challenging themes. The cast showed a sophisticated understanding and compassion, and my younger son Nick who happened to be in the cast turned in a truly excellent performance.

The audience was touched by the delicacy of some moments, but found itself hooting with laughter as the plot built with ever greater speed to the more shocking revelations. In our family discussion afterwards we wondered if this is a function of a post-Jerry-Springer world. There is no question that when first performed this play would have devastated its audience. To date it remains China’s most famous play.

In the early 1970s I saw a production of Romeo and Juliet that I saw in London at The Young Vic. I was about 14 or 15 and it was a life changer. The Young Vic is a small studio theatre with a thust stage. It was the first time I saw actors up close and personal, the first time I saw that play, another time when I thought ‘that’s what I want to do.’

So it was a pleasure to see another fine production of that exquisite tragedy, The Acting Company again, this time a full production. Set in an Italian summer, with all the heat, and light, and style that suggests. Praise for a clear telling of the story, well spoken in terms of sense, though one could have wished for a little more vocal variety all around. It was a production with a strong ensemble, but also featuring lovely work from the principals. Juliet nearly floated off the stage in her first blush of love for Romeo. Romeo was love-struck to a point beyond dizziness. The balcony scenes had their usual problems because Juliet is looking at the stage from above and Romeo is looking up into the lighting grid, but an enchantment of chemistry between them. There were feisty contributions from Mercutio and all the young men, bursting with testosterone, calling each other to fight. And the family dynamic in the Capulet household beautifully clear, a lovely performance from the nurse too. The play sure does work. This was a production fine for its straightforwardness. It trusted the story and told it well. Consequently the story was allowed to work simply. The best way.

One time backstage in Beijing during the tech of King Lear, I was having a whispered conversation about philosophy with one of the students at Beida University. This kid was a specially bright guy (in an environment populated by specially bright people. Beida is known as the Harvard of the east) his knowledge of 19th century European philosophers out distanced mine within a few sentences. Changing the subject, I asked him if he thought that theatre could make a social contribution and bring about political change. His answer was immediate and confident, ‘No.’ he said.

Then I agreed despondantly when I thought of say, David Hare’s ‘Stuff Happens’ written after the fact of the recent illegal wars. That play played to capacity in London, New York, Los Angeles, and Sydney but it never had the slightest chance of changing policy because few of the executive ever goes to the theatre.

But today I remember that when you’ve spent an evening laughing as I did at ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ you feel better, don’t you?

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