Perhaps if I looked at my saved Playbills regularly, I might make more discoveries like I did recently on one of those few occasions when I pulled one out at random. I have little to no recollection of many of the plays I have seen, especially when they are from decades ago, but neither do I recall most of the books I have read a year or two ago, much less those from a generation back. This was an exception. Although the Playbill indicated attendance at a play in 1981, I did remember going to it. Who can forget seeing James Earl Jones as Othello? And then there was Christopher Plummer as Iago. I skimmed the cast, and to my surprise I had seen Kelsey Grammer as Casio. I had no idea who Grammer was in 1981, and his performance in Othello did not stay with me. But the Playbill indicated that I had indeed seen him, and, of course, since then I have tried to work into conversations that I saw “Frazier” in a Shakesperean play even before I had seen him in Cheers.
I look over a season’s Playbills before I move them to the top shelf of a bookcase. Looking over this year’s batch, I am struck by the diversity of what is offered in New York. I saw The Play That Goes Wrong, which came from London and has run on Broadway for a while. It was silly—no message—but it was laugh-out-loud funny. I saw a number of plays at the Roundabout Theatre Company, a preeminent theatrical institution, that ranged from dreadful to good to the quite interesting The Last Match, about fading and rising tennis stars.
I saw a couple plays at the Manhattan Theatre Club, another preeminent theatrical institution, including the provocative The Children, written by Lucy Kirkwood. An older woman shows up at a lonely British seaside cottage. She is not there as we might first think to renew an old love affair but because a nearby nuclear powerplant has had a disastrous meltdown. The three who meet there are physicists who generations ago helped build the plant. This is a play about righting mistakes, duty, and sacrifice. What is our obligation to fix our failures? What is our duty to future generations to leave a cleaner world?
I saw a couple plays at the The Public Theater—yes, in keeping with its populist roots, this preeminent theatrical institution spells it “theater” not the more pretentious “theatre.” The plays I saw there rated B+s.
I had looked forward to seeing Junk because I had admired Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which won the Pulitzer a few years back. This play about the junk bond crisis was good, but I felt somehow that it did not rise to a higher level. I so admire good reviewers who can articulate what sometimes I only feel. They can explain why a play is excellent or thrilling or not so good.
I felt a similar a similar disappointment in the play In Love with the Arrow Collar Man, which was at an Off-Off Broadway theater. (This is neither a pejorative nor a geographical term. An Off-Broadway house has from 100 to 499 seats, while an Off-Off-Broadway theater has fewer than 100.) The play was about Joe Leyendecker, the country’s foremost illustrator until Norman Rockwell, part of Leyendecker’s circle, nudged him from that pedestal; Frank Leyendecker, a gay artist like his brother; and Charles Beach, Joe’s model for the Arrow collar ads and his lover. The play portrayed interesting lives in complicated times, and it kept my attention, but there was something missing. I could say that the play lacked a necessary depth or did not have sufficient polish, but I don’t have the ability to articulate exactly what I mean by those clichés.
Some of the plays were plotless, or at least I can’t describe the plot. Ballyturk, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, (a preeminent institution that does not grapple with “theater” versus “theatre”) falls into that category. Two brothers seem locked in a hermetically sealed world, but there is much movement, fast speech, and what seems to be a periodic radio soap opera. I am not sure what it was about—perhaps the meaning or the meaninglessness of life. But I laughed and was amazed at many of the word images that kept flying by as well as the physical abilities of the two as well as the sultriness and voice of the third character when she appeared. I found it hard to describe, but it was assuredly out of the ordinary.
(Concluded on June 15)