In which several new plays are examined - with an emphasis on the context
Rock'N'Roll Come Back, Little Sheba
Speech and Debate In the Heights
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Context - The Glue That Ties It All Together
It’s called theatrical context. All those wonderful tiny pieces of information that a playwright uses to tie a play together, and that a director uses to hang his themes and actions (“verbs”) on, and that an actor uses to create an inner reality for the character. If the context isn’t understood or doesn’t ring true for an audience, the play just isn’t going to work. Context is the problem with several of the otherwise brilliant productions that I’ve seen this season. Either the context wasn’t believable or the playwright had to provide lengthy notes in the program.
Rock’N’Roll, Tom Stoppard’s most recent work of genius spoke movingly for those of my generation who had lived through the Prague Spring and summer of 1968. Unfortunately, my 27-year-old son kept wondering why all those people were complaining so much. As I waxed rhapsodically on the power of theatre to keep historical moments alive, he complained that it was difficult to read the two-page insert that explained the political and social turmoil that was 1968. And I had to agree with him.
Come Back, Little Sheba is a classic of American domestic drama that captures the desire for “normalcy” that dominated 1950’s America. The Manhattan Theatre Club’s production featured brilliant performances by S. Epatha Merkerson and Kevin Hudson, and was directed by Michael Pressman. The hidden details of a marriage gone flat and an alcoholic about to go on a bender were underlined, but somehow the fact that the main relationship was an interracial marriage was completely ignored. A product of the fabulous fifties, I can assure you that an interracial marriage even in a college town would be considered an anomaly and deserving of some comment
Speech And Debate, a blockbuster hit by Stephan Karam, presented predatory sexual encounters on line and the scary thought that our teenagers are not as innocent as we would like to think. The show was full of teen computer dialect and irrational school rules that baffled the characters and audience alike. Ironically, although the context was way beyond my experience or ken, the dynamic acting of the four young actors, Sarah Steele, Gideon Glick, Jason Fuchs, and Susan Blackwell kept the show alive until its message of intentional confusion was brought home. And no, I didn’t know what my children were up to that night, but I did check when I got home.
In The Heights, supposedly the next Rent, is set in the Latin American context of Washington Heights that is beyond my experience or understanding. However the dancing and energy was so vital that I didn’t have time to wonder what the difference was between a Honduran, a Cuban or a Dominican. And the relationships - filial, parental, and neighborly were so universal and realistically portrayed that there was sufficient context for a broad audience. The standing ovation was definitely merited.
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof This first all African-American production featured some of the most gifted talents – actors and director - that America has to offer but it demonstrates how a faulty context can undo a masterpiece. The play itself is past its prime with the hidden sins being “homosexual lusting in the heart” and the danger of “mendacity” when our political leaders have made truth telling the anomaly. And something is definitely wrong when the audience laughs at Big Daddy’s description of his ruthless climb to power, when Big Daddy is James Earl Jones.
Now granted this writer recognizes his own limits with his contextual history as a WICKUP (White Irish Catholic Ultimately Protestant). I had much to complain about in the block-buster Doubt such as a mother challenging the nun, and Mother Superior’s “Bless You, My Dear” sufficing, not to mention a private meeting of a sister and priest in a garden – that just wouldn’t have happened then. If we could all be a little more mindful of the contexts that we are dealing with or at least attempt to represent some of the “hidden secrets “ of the past, we might have more honest theatre in the present.
Thanks – Thespis Bustard