Burning Down the (Doll’s) House

a-dolls-house-one-sheetWhile I can appreciate the historical importance of Henrik Ibsen’s seminal work, A Doll’s House, as well as comprehend why it was so controversial in 1879 when it premiered, I also understand that its time has passed. Producers: cut it out. Stop producing this tripe. Leave it to theater history classes. Let actors and directors and dramaturgs read it, but please stop putting it on the stage.

I’ll tell you why: Just because something came first doesn’t mean that it’s the best. We don’t keep flying the Wright Brothers’ first plane model, do we? No. It has been improved upon. We don’t still wear animal skins – fashion evolves all the time. So it should be with A Doll’s House. It may be the first play in which a woman dumps a misogynist creep, but it’s a lousy play by modern dramaturgical standards and no longer has anything to say to us.

Some specific reasons to retire it:

FORM – the play is three acts long. That format – with rare exception – is no longer in vogue, and the play doesn’t sustain its length – it’s almost all TALK.

EXPOSITION – the play is about 3/4 exposition to 1/4 actual plot (being generous, not that much happens). This is tedious to modern ears. Stop TELLING us what happened and DO something!

CONTRIVANCES – this is the play’s greatest failing for a modern audience. Any theatrical piece requires some contrivance in order to condense a story into a short time-frame, but this play relies on far too many coincidences to take it seriously:

  • The play begins with a convenient visit from Nora’s old friend Kristine,
  • who conveniently shows up to ask for a job at the bank that Nora’s husband (a poor lawyer, if you can believe it) has become manager of.
  • Nora conveniently tells Kristine the tale of how she took out an illicit loan to save her husband’s health, right around the time
  • her father conveniently died (so Nora could say he left her the money).
  • The money is owed to a man named Krogstad (another poor lawyer, if you can believe it, who conveniently had money to lend to Nora before, but doesn’t now,
  • and who conveniently works for Nora’s husband at that same bank).
  • Kristine, conveniently enough, used to be involved with Krogstad (though her dear friend, Nora, somehow doesn’t know this).
  • Nora’s husband fires Krogstad (at Christmas, the jerk) for forging another man’s name and gives the job to Kristine. How convenient.
  • Krogstad threatens to expose to hubby that Nora took out a loan by … wait for it … forging her father’s name on the document. (There was an awful lot of forgery going on in Norway back in the day, it seems.) He sends a letter saying as much (they have mail delivery on Christmas in Norway, apparently).
  • Kristine conveniently hooks back up with Krogstad, who is so happy,
  • he conveniently sends the bond back to Nora and hubby and calls the loan forgiven. Hubby berates Nora, but relents when the bond is returned. Nora finally grows a pair and walks out.

Now, these contrivances would be enough to make any dramaturg scream, but there’s more… Throw into this a rich doctor friend who tells Nora A) that he has always loved her, B) that would do anything for her and C) that he is dying very soon. That’s an insanely convenient trifecta – giving Nora a life-line to cushion her exit from hubby’s house – we know exactly where she’s headed when she slams that door at play’s close, from the care of one man to the care of another. How bold. How feminist. (Not.)

Please can’t we write some plays where women stand up to the patriarchy without assistance from some other man?  How about letting Nora stand on her own two feet? Ibsen is often, erroneously, given credit for her doing just that, but then why the character of Dr. Rank? Why the revelation of his loving her, that he’s terminal and that “he would do anything for her,” if not to give her a convenient way out? True heroes don’t have a cushion waiting to break their fall – they risk everything because it’s right – not because they have a solid insurance plan. Nora is actually just trading doll’s houses. From one where she isn’t appreciated to one where – hopefully – she is, but where the man involved is about to croak soon, anyway, so…who cares?

Who cares, indeed.

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Revisiting The Normal Heart

30 years ago, in the summer of 1987, I was cast in a new play called The Normal Heart. It had premiered a couple of years previously Off-Broadway and this was to be its Denver premiere. I was excited about the show, because it was one of the first plays to address the AIDS crisis, and as a young gay man, that was a topic near and dear to my heart. I had appeared in public service announcements for the Austin AIDS Project a couple years prior, and was newly transplanted to Colorado, so the chance to do something I love (perform) on a topic so immediate and of such import… Well, I jumped at the chance.


The experience, however, was a horrible one for me. When I showed up at the theater, it was apparent that it was not the first rehearsal. I was a replacement for someone. Not a huge deal, but I was unaware of that fact, so I was immediately on the defensive – feeling like sloppy seconds. I was playing the characters of Craig and Grady, as well as a silent orderly, and while I could pull off Grady’s flippant flamboyance, I couldn’t bring tears in the role of Craig, and the director threw up her hands trying to pull them out of me. In my defense, I was a young actor at that time – 24 – and my skills were mostly technical ones. I could make myself sound sad, but I couldn’t make myself feel sad. To make matters worse, she wanted me in tears as the lights rose on stage at the top of the play. So I was supposed to enter in the dark, sit down, and cry. I couldn’t do it. The director, after running out of patience with me, handed me off to her assistant director, who would later pass away from AIDS-related causes himself, tried everything in his power to get me there. No dice. It didn’t help that the actor playing my best friend in the scene absolutely loathed me. And I didn’t care for him, either. (We are now great friends, but that came later.)

I trudged through the production, spending more time on stage changing scenery than acting and beating myself for not being able to produce tears (nor, apparently, thrash well enough during my grand mal seizure). I decided that The Normal Heart was a lousy play – a polemic, really – and I’ve carried that with me ever since.

So when I was offered a chance to read for a role in a new production of the play, I demurred. “Oh…THAT show,” I thought, “no thank you.” The director persisted, and flattered more by his confidence in me than the project itself, I went to the theater and read for him. He cast me as Felix, the lover of the main character, Ned. Back in my first brush with this play, I was backstage during all of Felix’s scenes, so while I knew their outline, I wasn’t intimately familiar with their content. At 54, I thought, I’m a zillion years too old to play Felix. I mean, isn’t it going to be hard for the audience to care that some middle-aged guy dies (spoiler alert) from AIDS, when so many were struck down in their youth?

But reading through the journey that Felix takes in the play, I’ve realized that it’s a much better script than I have given it credit for. Yes, it’s still a polemic; Yes, I still have those memories of that unpleasant prior production, but there are many little details in Felix’s arc throughout the course of the play that show how methodically the playwright crafted the piece: In Act One, Felix teases Ned for eating sweets, in Act Two, he consoles himself with Twinkies after a bad reaction to his chemo treatments. In Act One, Felix tells Ned to call his brother, in Act Two, he goes to the brother himself to aid in repairing their relationship. Each time I went through the script, I saw more seeds planted by Kramer in the first half of the play that bore fruit in the latter half of the play. It’s more than a propaganda piece, it’s also a well-crafted melodrama.

This time, I have history behind me, and many losses, so when Felix must dissolve into tears, I find myself crying. It’s not due to any great acting ability on my part. The role – as Larry Kramer has written it – just touches me so deeply, I can’t help it. I’m enjoying rehearsals this time. They feel productive, I feel connected, I adore my scene partners, I trust them, and I feel confident that I can pull this one off. What a shame that so many lives had to be lost to infuse me with the feelings I dredge up today in the rehearsal hall. But what a gift it is to revisit this play, and pay homage to those I lost: This is for

Bill Beckham and

Kevin Sutton and

Merrill Key and

David St. Pierre and

Duane Black and

Doug Rosen and

John Arendt and

David Richards and

Larry Perez and

Joe York and

Diane “Dee Dee” Fields.

I miss you all. I wish you were still here, and that I could still not cry onstage.























































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Call the Dramaturg!

If we must continue setting Shakespeare in different times/contexts (and I have no problem with the practice, myself – I’ve seen it work quite well many times), then can we please agree to do our research and make sure the new time-line/context actually works? Simply choosing a concept-for-concept’s-sake is not reason enough. A case in point: the Colorado Shakespeare Festival recently produced The Taming of the Shrew (see my prior rant on the misogyny of the piece), and chose to set it in New York’s Little Italy in the days immediately following World War II. Why the director, Christopher DuVal, chose to do this is a mystery. His note in the program doesn’t even mention the time/place shift. Bianca Gordon, the play’s dramaturg, supplies an article on Post WWII Little Italy that sheds little more light – except to tell us that Baptista and Gremio represent the Old World mentality and that Katharina and Bianca represent the youth who are rebelling and testing their boundaries. This may be, but those attitudes exist in the original script as well, and hardly need such drastic clarification.

IMG_3880To this audience member, it seemed like one of those “wouldn’t it be NEAT…” decisions; one that sounds fun at first glance, but wasn’t carefully thought-through. The set is pretty, and festooned with a sign that says “Little Italy Welcomes You.” There are street signs for Lombardy St. and Pisa Ave., which give the show an Italian flavor, but to anyone who has visited New York’s Little Italy, it causes some head-scratching. The Little Italy section of New York is quite small, and while the restaurants often have Italian names, the streets do not. Canal, Mott and the area’s main drag of Mulberry don’t sound particularly Italian, but those are the actual street names. Not Lombardy. Not Pisa. If one is going to fictionalize Little Italy, why not choose place names from the play? Why isn’t it Padua Street? In some organizations, it would fall on the dramaturg to point out such things.


WASP uniform


WAC uniform

In a particularly egregious case of “the-right-hand-not-knowing-what-the-left-hand-is-doing,” the dramaturg’s note mentions how the show portrays Katharina as a WASP (not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which would be it’s own oddity, but a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilot program). The dramaturg goes on to tell us some interesting tidbits about that program and quotes the book Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. What a pity that no one told the costumer, who dressed Katharina in a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) uniform, with its signature olive drab color and envelope hat, rather than the Santiago blue uniform and beret of the WASP corps. In some organizations, the dramaturg would have had this discussion with both director and costumer, to be certain all were on the same page.

At one point in the show, the actor playing Petruchio sings a few lines of “Where is the Life That Late I Led?” from the musical Kiss Me, Kate – a not-terribly-faithful-retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. This was intended (one assumes) to be a nod to the era, but again, one scratches one’s head. This version of Shrew is set in 1945 – immediately following VE Day. Kiss Me, Kate opened on Broadway in 1948 (December 30 to be exact – very nearly 1949). It doesn’t take a theater historian to know the dates are off. Many musical fans know that Kiss Me, Kate won the Tony Award for Best Musical. They also know that the Tony Awards didn’t begin until 1947.


A copatain hat.

And then there are the odd script decisions. The place names are kept (Padua, Mantua), though we don’t know whether these are now street names, or city names. Is Padua a nickname for NYC? Where is Mantua? The Bronx? New Hampshire? Also left unchanged are descriptions of clothing that don’t match the clothes the actors are wearing. Biondello’s famous run-on sentence description of Petruchio coming to his wedding “in a new hat and an old jerkin; a pair of old breeches thrice turn’d; a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, another lac’d…” has been left as-is, though when he arrives, Petruchio is dressed in a purple satin Zoot Suit with leopard-print chaps. An outfit inappropriate for a 1940’s Italian Catholic wedding, certainly, but not the description given previously. Later, Vincentio catches Tranio impersonating his son Lucentio. In this 1940’s scenario, Tranio is wearing a white Navy Admiral’s uniform (with a few too many medals), yet Vincentio accosts him for wearing “A silken doublet, a velvet hose, a scarlet cloak, and a copatain hat!” The cognitive disconnect between what we see and what we hear is disconcerting, and throws us out of the play for a moment. Why keep the original words? Maybe an alteration (or cut) would have been more effective.

While these items have been left as-is, on the flip side of this metaphoric coin, there are some curious alterations to the script – supposedly in a quest to take some of the sting out of the play’s misogyny: when Petruchio sends away dinner (spoiler alert), sending Katharina to bed hungry, he tells the audience “we eat no meat today, nor none shall eat…” The original line is “she eat no meat to day, nor none shall eat…” He adds himself into this equation, which I assume is meant to show us that he is suffering as greatly as she is, but he still goes on to say that he’s doing this to “curb her mad and headstrong humor,” which is as repugnant as ever, with or without his starving alongside her.

At play’s end, when Katharina berates the other wives for disobeying their husbands, her famous line “I am ashamed that women are so simple…” has been altered to “I am ashamed that we are so simple…” which does nothing but throw off the meter. We still understand “we” to mean women/wives, so neutering the pronoun doesn’t add anything.(though in an odd bit of staging , the director has her direct that line to the audience, because calling hundreds of women “simple” is always a wise choice.) If there had been a same sex couple in the mix (a male Bianca would be a delightful twist – imagine Baptista’s dismay at having a passive son and aggressive daughter), then Katharina’s “we” might have meant “partners/spouses,” but without a shift in context, it’s still, sadly, the women who are being maligned. Adding a dance to the end was a nice try at lifting spirits after Katharina’s sad surrender, but after all the anachronisms and misbegotten choices ended up leading to the same dreary outcome, Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” never felt so sad, sad, sad.

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Some Sacred Cows Should be Roasted

I recently saw the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. It was entertaining enough, though admittedly I’m not a huge fan of the play (and not merely because of its misogyny – as a piece of dramatic fiction, I find the fight between Katharina and Petruchio to be the climax of the play – but this occurs in Act Two, Scene One of a FIVE act play…which makes for a far-too-long denouement, in my book), but in any performance of this classic, the play’s world-view of “a woman’s place” cannot be ignored, and must be dealt with when producing it for a modern audience.

This production, oddly, chose to set the show post-WWII (immediately post, mind you: we get the radio announcement that the war is over during the show’s prologue, and Kate is seen wearing a WAC uniform) in New York’s Little Italy. Aside from its not-terribly-clever swap of city names into street names (We see street signs for Lombardy St. and Pisa Ave. and Petruchio has ‘come to wive it wealthily’ on Padua St., presumably), this conceit doesn’t buy us much. Grumio talks in a Brooklynese accent, which some found humorous, but the setting actually worked against the play in most other ways. One obvious example: if Vincentio’s father lives over on Mantua Street, why must they convince a travelling salesman to impersonate him? Is it really so far to go to get the real one? But the largest error, of course, is that Kate’s capitulation to Petruchio simply does not fly in the modern era. (Especially once she has been a WAC!)


Intermission at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s The Taming of the Shrew.

There were some weak attempts at political correction: Petruchio’s “She ate no meat today, nor none shall eat” became “WE ate no meat today, nor none shall eat…” How equitable of him. If only a swapping of pronouns could fix the play’s problems. Kate’s famous “I am ashamed that women are so simple” became “I am ashamed that WE are so simple,” which didn’t fix the problem, but certainly shattered the poetry of the piece. While it still wouldn’t have fixed the problem, replacing the word ‘women’ with ‘partners’ or ‘spouses’ would at least have left the meter intact.

We know history. We know there were times when a woman had – or seemingly had – no option but to marry a man in order to make her way in the world. We can understand (when left in the original setting) that our otherwise headstrong heroine must – in order to avoid spinsterhood (that horrible fate!) – swallow her pride, lower her eyes and say “yes” to the boorish Mr. Darcy… Oh, wait, wrong misgynist classic.  I always get those two confused.

Whichever “woman selling out” story you choose, they only work if they remain set in a place and time (Elizabethan, Regency…heck, even the Antebellum South) where a woman’s options were so relatively few. As soon as you encounter, say, women’s suffrage…it gets dicey. It becomes extremely difficult (or in my case: impossible) to buy either Katharina’s or Elizabeth Bennet’s 180-degree turns in a post-emancipation setting.


Mary Wollstonecraft

Which raises the question… Why stage The Taming of the Shrew at all? What does it bring to the table in this era? Why read Pride and Prejudice? Do we really need to be reminded of how far women have (or, sadly, have not) come in the intervening years? Aren’t there more relevant stories to tell? Shakespeare’s own The Winter’s Tale shows us how two women (Hermione and Paulina) game the system to their own ends (and in a complete reversal of Shrew –  it is the MAN who starts out headstrong and winds up chastened and obedient). Perhaps it is time to retire some of these sacred texts and write (or rediscover) others. It has been too long coming. After all, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written in 1792. I’ll do the math for you: that’s 225 years ago. We gave minstrel shows the heave-ho; isn’t it time we did the same with misogynist ones, as well? I think it is. I hope it is. Meanwhile, I’ve made my decision: I have seen my last Shrew. Hallelujah! It’s a great relief knowing that. I won’t miss it.

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Seven Sisters and the Author’s Intent

I just saw a friend’s play and while I quite admired many things about it, I was uncomfortable with many more, and didn’t know whether it was the script, the production, or my own prejudices that made me squirm.

The play is Pleiades by Marissa Skudlarek, and while it was inspired by those seven sisters of Ancient Greek myth, it doesn’t owe much more than its outline to that tale. For those not in the know, the Pleiades were seven sisters, daughters of Atlas and companions of Artemis, who were pursued by Zeus (the leader and horny toad of the gods) and turned into stars to keep them safe from him. Other than that vague tale, little is known of them other than their names and various stories of their couplings with other gods.

This was enough to serve as a springboard for Marissa’s tale of seven upper-class sisters summering in the Hamptons and the Zeus figure who pursues them (or some of them, at least).

And there’s where my discomfort begins. Marissa has chosen to set her play in the women’s liberation era of the 1970’s – a time when feminism was all the rage, the ERA had not yet gone down in flames and Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer were waging war against the good old boy network and traditionalists like the (ultimately victorious) Phyllis Schlafly. The seven sisters, realistically (if sparsely) drawn by Marissa, are caught between these opposing forces. On the one side “The Patriarchy” in the person of Bruce (the Zeus stand-in), and on the other “Feminism” in the person of their cousin Diane (the Artemis role).

As befits a play set in that time, Bruce is a male chauvinist pig (think Bobby Fisher) and Diane is a rabid feminist (Billy Jean King). Both are broadly drawn characters – well, not really characters, but agit-prop types – mouthpieces for their respective ‘isms’ – they are not quite caricatures, but not very real – especially compared to the sisters. Of the two, Bruce comes off better than Diane, because she is such a lampoon of the militant man-hating feminazi, that it’s easy to dismiss her, despite the fact that she has a point (or twenty). Bruce is a creep, but he’s a creep like many I have known, and his dialogue feels less arch than Diane’s.

Was this what the author intended? It seemed clear to me that it was (though in real life, Billy Jean King won that match, while in this version…Bobby Fisher wins). While the device was a bit contrived for my taste, I went along with it, preferring the sisters’ shades of gray to the black and white ends of the spectrum they were torn between. I actually ended up finding them more compelling thanks to the device (though I’m not sure they need such severe foils).

But then it got stickier. And ickier. I’m no fan of spoilers, so I’ll just say that the events of the play come down pretty strongly on the side of tradition and old-fashioned views of a woman’s place in the world. For a play billed as “female-driven” to wind up so squarely in the world of 1950’s Americana made me angry and sad.

But then I wondered again about the author’s intent. If the play had had a “stronger” (i.e., feminist) ending, I certainly wouldn’t have been so uncomfortable, but would it have been realistic? If the play had had a happier ending, wouldn’t that have been a cop-out? And untrue to both its source material and the time in which the play was set?  Isn’t it better that I left angry at the sisters for essentially (from my point of view)  kowtowing to societal norms? While Marissa is too young to remember the 1970’s, I still do. I can practically hear the screaming of my parents at my sister for “shacking up” with her boyfriend (and their absolute conviction that she was a whore for doing so). Going against the rank-and-file of that era was not done easily, and not without burning many bridges. And in the image-conscious class, it was simply not done (the play even references that idyll of disobedience to authority: Love Story).

Adding to my conflicted feelings was the production itself. The play was directed unevenly – as a comedy for the first 3/4, then as a drama for the final 1/4. Mind you, the script does take a dark turn at that point, but I don’t feel this is a fault of the script – Marissa opens the piece with a dramatic reveal of a somber topic, so it’s not as if there aren’t flashes of drama throughout, but the stakes were slight (when they were there at all), and for the longest time it felt that the actresses were playing to a metronome – a sameness pervaded the action and undercut the foundation she was trying to build.

And , yet…and yet… I’m still thinking about this play and arguing with myself over it, which I wouldn’t be doing if it hadn’t struck a nerve, if it had had no effect on me. Which is reason enough to overlook some of my quibbles. I just wish I hadn’t felt so damned depressed at the ending. Why is that? Haven’t things changed? Don’t women have greater options now than they did then? I like to think so, but I live in the San Francisco Bay area – considered by many (if not most; if not all) to be the most liberal place in America. So I’m in a bubble. And I’m not female. I’m a white anglo-saxon recovering Catholic gay male. So what would I know? Perhaps we haven’t come so far in 40 years, after all. Which would serve to make Marissa’s play a tragedy, not a drama after all.

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How will this fadge?

I saw Act One of a messy Twelfth Night this evening, but I won’t go on about it (been there, done that on Facebook), except to reiterate that Viola’s famous ring speech ends with two lines of precise iambic pentameter, yet I can’t recall an actress EVER performing them that way.

Not even the glorious Judi Dench.

For some reason (perhaps faulty transliterations from the original? Tone-deaf directors? Poor scansion classes?) They always separate the final contraction “t’untie” – thereby adding an extra syllable and ending the speech on a sour note (at least for those who care about the verse – and that’s not a small number of us directors – the very folks you’d be auditioning for).

Here are those two delicious lines:

O time, thou must untangle this not I

It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.

It’s a delicious ending, for many reasons – there’s the homophone “not” that suggests “knot” in the phrase “untangle this not I,” which is cleverly followed by the actual word “knot” in the next line. He also echoes “untangle” with its cousin “untie.” It also lets us know that Viola is perfectly aware of how twisted the love triangle is, but that she’s not going to try solving it. And equal in importance – it ends the speech formally – with two precise five-foot iambic lines. q.v.:

o TIME / thou MUST / unTANG / le THIS / not I

it IS / too HARD / a KNOT / for ME / t’unTIE

The man wrote in this style for a reason.

PLEASE don’t  re-work that final line into:

it IS / too HARD / a KNOT / for ME / to unTIE

You’ve just replaced the final iamb with an anapest. Which has its uses, certainly, but Shakespeare didn’t place one here. It makes that final line fizzle, when it should sizzle.

Also, please do not EVER use this speech in an audition. I would rather hear you perform a man’s monologue than attempt this one.

Got that? Good. Carry on.




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No Sacred Cows Allowed

My last rant was on the pedantic nature of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which is more of an essay than a play, in my opinion. But there are other plays that stick in my craw much more than that one, because at least that play did what it set out to do, however obvious and un-subtle it may have been in the process.

Two of them, in particular, I’d like to touch upon today – both noble failures. Both of which have great premises and poor executions.


The plays in question are Take Me Out and Oleanna, and while everyone loves to hate on the latter, the former seems beyond reproach for some (I assume politically correct) reason. Well, I don’t care what sacred cattle I mutilate, so here goes:

Take Me Out has such a terrific premise: what if a major league baseball player – a black player, no less – came out as gay? What if, indeed. When the play was written, gay marriage didn’t exist and the number of out celebrities was still fairly small. Great topic, then, for a play. Richard Greenberg, sadly, dropped the ball (sorry, I couldn’t resist) with this limp melodrama by taking a situation rife with possibilities and scuttling it almost completely. 

Like most folks, I had heard about the [gasp!] nude shower scenes in the play long before I saw the show, myself. Unlike my prudish fellows, I didn’t find the idea shocking, since I had seen actors wag their willies in plays before (some that I, myself, directed), and also because A) I’d be more offended by a shower scene where the actors WEREN’T naked (who showers in their underwear?) and B) I knew what Greenberg was going to do with the conceit. Or so I thought. I expected that we’d have a shower scene where the guys are goofing around, slapping each other on the ass in congratulations for a good game, yadda, yadda, and then, after the player comes out of the closet, we’d see that go away. Suddenly the players would be self-conscious in front of him, the butt-slapping would go away, no more popping towels, no more comfort and ease… I imagined that final moment of Act One when the player says “I’m gay” to be a shocker.

But no. The play BEGINS with the player coming out, so we get no view of the “before” scenario with which to compare the “after.” Wow. That’s about as dramatically compelling as, say, coming in on the second act of David Auburn’s Proof – and therefore missing the dramatic reveal in the final line of Act One (and since Act Two is just one lo-o-o-ng denouement…if you missed Act One, you missed the play). Even worse for Take Me Out, is that the central character is remarkably dull. A man of color with so little color, it’s a shame. A gaping hole in the center of the play. It’s the supporting cast that compels, though the character of Shane Mungitt is an embarrassing stereotype of a damaged redneck – imagine Carl from Sling Blade and you’d be pretty near the mark. Kippy is a charming narrator (until he mysteriously disappears in Act Two, to be replaced by people I can’t even remember) – it’s Kippy who has the unenviable task of TELLING us about how the guys used to act in the shower and how they act now. A sad replacement for the missing – and potentially much more compelling – scenes. Finally, we get Mason Marzac – arguably the finest role in the show – for which many actors have won awards, beginning with Dennis O’Hare in the original production. Mason is a gay man who is fascinated by baseball – he has long, rambling speeches comparing baseball to democracy, and his addiction to the sport is infectious, causing the audience to eat up every word he says.

And yet… Mason Marzac, though far and away the best thing about the play, has no reason to be there. He is the central player’s new accountant, of all things. He is not a catalyst in the play, he is not a confidante, not a player (yes, I went there) – he could be cut from the script completely and it would not alter the dramatic arc of the play even a fraction. He is completely outside the play itself. And that’s a problem. Think about it: when your most compelling character is superfluous, maybe you need to revise something. And do something with those shower scenes, huh? They are also – like the putative “lead role” – pretty damn dull.

And now for Oleanna. As I mentioned before, I’m not the first to baste this particular turkey, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it. Ignoring Mamet’s misogyny, I’ll just focus on the premise itself and how it could have been a good play.

  1. It’s not a fair fight. The professor is written as extremely intelligent (if paternalistic and obnoxious) and the student is dumb as dirt (and she’s easily manipulated). How about coming up with a situation where we LIKE both the characters, where they are equal, so that when something goes wrong between them, we’re torn? Instead, she’s such a harridan and he’s such a creep, it’s hard to care one way or the other (though I remember seeing it with my friend Nancy, and we both wanted to hit her long before he ever did). And what if it was ambiguous? What if, at intermission, the audience was arguing “He made a pass at her!” “No, he didn’t!”  Now THAT would be interesting.
  2. You need more characters, Dave. The instant the lights come up on Act Two and we see that they are alone in his office, the play is over. Legally, she has just tossed her lawsuit to the wind. If you accuse a man of sexual harassment, why on earth would you meet with him again – ALONE – in his office? Her lawyer would drop her and the suit like the proverbial hot potato – maybe quicker. If there were another character present, the threat would be real, and we could even get (wonder of wonders) an external point of view on the situation.
  3. You need fewer acts, Dave. Since the show is dramatically kaput the second Act Two begins, Act Three (again with the two characters ALONE in his office – seriously?) is just more of the same – treading water and beating a horse that’s already been dead for an entire act. The three-act structure having died a couple of generations ago, let’s not revive it with a play on a topic this fraught …and with two so despicable people. Blechh.

Problem plays are tough to do, I get that, but if you would just pass them by ME… (or any dramaturg with half a brain), maybe Dick and Dave, your plays would suck less by the time they got to production.

I’m available for consultation. Call me. But not after 11pm, okay? I need my beauty sleep.



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Please, No More Polemics Masquerading as Plays

I was having a discussion with my friend Jan the other night about The Crucible, a play we both loathe, and it gave rise to a larger issue: the polemic-as-play dilemma.

My gripes with The Crucible are legion. For example, it bothers me…

  • that few of the characters (really, only Rev. Hale and Mary Warren) have any kind of dramatic arc – the rest are no different at play’s end than they were at the beginning: Abigail grows from lying harlot to lying harlot, Elizabeth Proctor moves from long-suffering wife to long-suffering wife, and John Proctor…well he does change a bit: he journeys from conflicted unfaithful husband to dead unfaithful husband.
  • that the most interesting information Arthur Miller provides is in his stage directions, which an audience isn’t privy to. Glad you did your homework, Art. Pity none of is shows in your script. (And you know you confused Danforth with Stoughton, right?)
  • that there are too many characters and we learn too little about most of them – and virtually all of that is told, not shown. Seriously, it’s Dramaturgy 101: don’t TELL us how good Rebecca Nurse is, SHOW us. But the woman presented, though she doesn’t contradict what is said about her, has no playable actions to show her saintliness (sitting briefly with an unconscious girl hardly seals the deal).
  • that it makes its point early in the play and then beats it to death for another 2 hours and 45 minutes. Way to make me root for the hangman, Mr. Miller. Just to shut everyone up and end the torture.
  • that there is no mystery concerning any of the characters, because everyone is either an obvious liar or ludicrously heart-on-sleeve.
  • but the biggie is that he didn’t really write a play. He wrote an essay. A screed against Joseph McCarthy thinly veiled – oh, who are we kidding? Not veiled at all – as a play about the Salem witch trials. And this last one is the one that REALLY annoys me.

Not in theory, mind you. The idea of attacking McCarthy via a play is kind of a brilliant one. Why not use this forum to strike back at the man who was attacking so many in the entertainment community? But I wish it had actually been a good play that had its jabs at McCarthyism as a by-product, not the main selling point.

People look back on The Crucible with reverence, attaching import and credibility to it – as if Arthur Miller’s play brought an end to McCarthyism (and the related House Committee on UnAmerican Activities) – when in actuality, the original production of the play opened to largely negative reviews – even the good review from the New York Times complained of it having “too much excitement and not enough emotion” –  and eked out a run of just six months before closing.  Conversely, the following year, McCarthy’s approval rating reached its highest point. Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now program, aired a year after the play’s short run, had a greater impact on McCarthy’s fall. And the HUAC lived on for decades after.

Sadly, when playwrights get up in arms about some social problem, what we are served too often is  a polemic, and these rarely (if ever) make for satisfying drama. But curiously, the authors are seldom called on it because – I assume – detractors are afraid of coming off as against the issue, rather than against the play, itself.

Let’s look at some examples, shall we?

The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer. Terrible play. Again, it’s not really a drama as much as a loud, angry cry against the government for being slow to respond to the AIDS crisis. Peopled with unpleasant and self-absorbed characters, we’re asked to ignore the people and focus on the politics. The theatrical equivalent of  waterboarding.

A Question of Mercy by David Rabe. Also AIDS-related, this play is about assisted suicide. But the play is so exposition-filled, so blatantly pedantic, you feel as if the author were sitting in front of you reading particularly dry articles on euthanasia directly to you. For hours. In a monotone. Dire.

The Water Children by Wendy McLeod. A messy, fragmented piece that purports to examine the abortion issue, but ends up feeling like one of those conversations with a drunk friend – where they think they are being profound and inspired, but are actually rambling and disconnected and their train of thought keeps derailing right and left and what was I saying again? Oh yeah, right, right, I was talking about, ummm…  To her credit, she tries valiantly to make the show DRAMATIC, including a scene with a young man screaming Pro-Life epithets in your face, and a talking cat. I’m not kidding. A talking cat. You’ve got to grant her some originality, but…

Ghost Light by Tony Taccone. A play that believes Mayor George Moscone’s death was overshadowed unfairly by the concurrent assassination of Supervisor Harvey Milk and decides to set the record straight. Unfortunately, author Taccone thought the way to do this was to write a fantastical, nightmarish and stultifying exposé of Moscone’s self-centered, porn-addicted, insufferable son Jonathan (who bizarrely directed the premiere production of this horrendous work – I have to admire his willingness to allow the world to see him portrayed so horrifically). In addition to stealing characters and conceits from Angels in America and Six Characters in Search of an Author, the play included scenes in which the Jonathan Moscone character runs a scene study class on Hamlet. My brain was trying to claw its way out of the back of my head as I watched this drivel. I swear I could feel my I.Q. dropping by the second. Ugh.

And sadly, there are many more to add to this list…

My wish is that playwrights will continue to get fired up about issues, but my hope is that they will remember that no one comes to the theater to be preached at. That shit’s for political rallies and church services. If you want an audience to care, then find a way to place characters in a situation that makes us care for their plight. Because at the end of the day, it is the person we must connect with first. Just as I can’t ask an actor to play a line “more socialist” or “less death penalty,” so too can you not expect your audience to care about an “-ism.” BUT, if your central character is sympathetic and they are in a compelling situation that just happens to involve your issue du jour…THEN we have the beginning of something. And hopefully your audience will listen. And care.


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