Monday, September 30, 2013

The Spoiler Problem

Some weeks ago when reviewing a show at NCRT in my Stage Matters column I mentioned something that some people regarded as a serious spoiler, on the order of telling the true meaning of "I see dead people."  In fact, it was about somebody who saw a dead person.  I thought it was obvious early in the first act, and at least one summary of the play backs me up on that.  But there were audience members who didn't think so, and apparently it was not fully revealed until near the end of the play.  For me, the main character's interaction with this dead son was the main interest of the story.

I did hesitate before mentioning it in my review, but without it there wasn't much to write about except the usual responses to the performances and music.  I found the same problem with Becky's New Car, which recently closed at Redwood Curtain.  In the NCJ review I went on vaguely about its contrivances and coincidences that were both predictable and fantastic.  But I couldn't say what they were.  Because: spoilers.

Now it can be told. Here's what they were: Becky has a husband and a son.  Early in the play she starts an affair with a man who has a daughter.  Her son is wooing a mysterious new girlfriend, and guess who she turns out to be?  The daughter, of course.  Later Becky's husband is hired to do roofing work for the man she is having the affair with, I think by the daughter.  These two families don't live close to each other and they are from vastly different socioeconomic worlds.  And yet, all those coincidences.  Except for the members of these two families there are two other characters, a man and a woman, themselves from different worlds.  They wind up together in the end.  All fantastic, and yet completely predictable, since these are all the people on stage.

If this were a blatant farce, it might get by.  But the level of realism is such that we're asked to think of these people as real, to appreciate and even identify with them.  Yet even on the purely comic level, the story of a Marx Brothers movie makes more real sense, however surrounded by wildness.

Further, the implications of what is going on are blithely ignored.  It doesn't have to be Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, but an affair has more moral and emotional weight than this, in some direction.  And if Becky had in fact dumped her husband for this new guy, and the son and daughter decide to get married (the first didn't happen, the second did), Becky's son would be marrying his sister-in-law.  We're entering Greek tragedy territory there.  But the play cheerfully ignores the implications.

The performances were entertaining and believable as usual at Redwood Curtain.  But the set was so nondescript that there wasn't even a set designer named in the program.  Normally I don't mind a minimal set and costuming.  In this case however the play makes little even metaphorical sense without the guiding metaphor of the title: the car.  The lure of the road.  Careening down the highway of life.  Etc.  But there was one conspicuous absence on the set.  There was no car, no representation of a car, no photo or painting or any sort of imagery (not even in the car dealership) that said "cars" in a way that the audience would absorb.  (There's at least a steering wheel in the publicity photo and poster, though not in the production.  Becky is depicted driving with other characters present and freaked out, but nothing like this ever happens in the play.)

The most dramatic events in the play are simply narrated very quickly at the end: a suicide and Becky's pretending she's dead for some significant period, and they all happen without much consequence.  Becky shows up again, her husband is a little pissed off but not for long, and Becky and Joe live happily ever after, driving down the highway in her new car.

So the full degree of this play's insipidity could not be noted without spoilers. In my darker moments (especially while writing a review) I think sometimes that's what some playwrights count on.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

Opening Thursday at North Coast Rep is the 1930s  comedy You Can't Take It With You by two of the titans of American theatre, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  Directed by Mack Owen, it features David Simms, Evan Needham, Ken Klima, Lora Canzoneri and Molly Harvis.  Opening night is a benefit for cast and crew.  Shows continue Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2.

Becky's New Car continues for two more weekends at Redwood Curtain.  My Stage Matters review is here.  Yes, you need the link because apparently the Journal is doing its best to hide the column from online browsers.  I'll have more to say about this show after it closes, and all the annoying "spoilers" are moot, as well as mute.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

States of Plays: Where North Coast Shows Come From

As we pause after the traditional end of last season and before the start of the next, here’s a retrospective question: where do the plays we see on the North Coast come from?

 For many decades the answer to that would have been easy: New York. After tryouts in select northeastern cities, a show would play Broadway, then go on tour until years later community players would get their chance. Musicals, comedies, dramas—New York generated pretty much everything. But that’s no longer true.

Back in the mid-1980s I interviewed Jason Robards, Jr. backstage at Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre during a revival run of the 1930s classic You Can't Take It With You (soon to be seen at NCRT). He was the second generation of three (so far) to be New York stage actors. His father performed on Broadway in the 1920s.  One of his sons, Jason III, was in this production.

 “When I was starting out just after World War II,” Robards, Jr. said, “my father came to see me and he told me ‘This is terrible! When I was an actor there were 700 road shows out, and two hundred some-odd theatres on Broadway.’ But even when I was starting out we still had 134 theatres in New York, and many road shows and stock jobs and resident theatre jobs.”

 New York City dominated largely through size. Even in 1940 it had a bigger population than the entire state of California, or any other state. But war industries spread out across the country in World War II,  the population boomed and so did suburbia in the 1950s. Robards believed the new highways that sliced through city neighborhoods and led to the suburbs depleted New York City audiences. “Now I think the theatre in New York is going to become like the opera, if it isn’t already becoming that: a small, specialized thing.”

 Robards didn’t reckon with the rise of tourist-oriented blockbusters in a Disneyfied Broadway. That trend continues, as movie companies invest more in huge stage productions. The Off-Broadway and then Off-Off Broadway stages rose in the 60s and 70s, then settled to a sustainable level as “a small, specialized thing.” So now Broadway produces bigger but fewer shows, and non-Broadway houses have become incubators for shows that will live most of their lives in independent regional and community-based theatres across the country.

 So last season on the North Coast for instance, we saw products of traditional Broadway, from one of the earliest musicals (Anything Goes at North Coast Rep) to one of the last of its kind (Victor/Victoria at Ferndale Rep.)  The new blockbuster Broadway was represented by Shrek The Musical (Humboldt Light Opera) while Circle Mirror Transformation (seen at Redwood Curtain) had a modest Off-Broadway run before productions by Seattle Rep and the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and stages in Marin County and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Some shows used to be developed outside New York, but became successful when they transferred to Broadway.  David Mamet's Chicago-born American Buffalo (NCRT) is that example.  The New York run still lends a reassuring patina, but more and more shows developed outside New York don’t even bother with the legitimizing New York showcase. The Fox on the Fairway (seen at NCRT) started in Arlington, Virginia before productions in New Brunswick, New Jersey and Naples, Florida. These shows are typically designed for export. Even prize-winning shows with decent Broadway runs (like the musical Next to Normal at NCRT or the drama Proof at HSU) have the small casts and modest staging to be done almost anywhere.

 Prolific American playwright Steven Dietz is a prime example of this new decentralized situation. His work is seldom performed in New York, but appears so often in regional and community venues that he’s in the top ten of produced playwrights in America. His comedy Becky’s New Car is currently onstage at Redwood Curtain.

Except for local group-generated shows and classics, the North Coast is primarily dependent on this new circuit of shows built for quick and relatively easy replication. Some may have virtues and perspectives a New York-generated show might not. But at worst they approach a stereotypical script that’s clever and a little odd but safe and small, with a slick first act and a slack second (that nevertheless includes a thesis statement.) The script too often shows signs of too many hands that got tired before the end.

 More generally, what are we missing on local stages? Due mostly to the demographics of our performers as well as our audiences, we seldom get shows centered on non-white characters or communities. On the other hand we get plays written about southerners, New Englanders and even New Yorkers, but not about North Coast characters. Fortunately, our live actors are surprisingly adept at bringing out the universal (or the North Coast) in any play.

 We also rarely get political plays in the larger sense, apart from gender politics. But hardly anyone in America does. We don’t have a David Hare (one of several British playwrights who look outward) or even a Robert Sherwood, who wrote three Pulitzer Prize winners in the 1930s and a book about FDR and World War II. Wallace Shawn and Tony Kushner are the closest. We’re unlikely to see a play as complex and provocative as Hare’s A Map of the World, for instance. For whatever reasons it’s not a time for singular playwrights with big voices.

 Our North Coast stage institutions do include variety, often at some risk. We're going to see that in the coming season, as well as examples of the kinds of plays I've described.  But our local stages operate in a particular theatrical environment, in a particular national context of this time.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Becky's New Car

Prolific American playwright Steven Dietz is a prime example of this new decentralized situation I described in my end of season column. His work is seldom performed in New York, but appears so often in regional and community venues that he’s in the top ten of produced playwrights.

In writing specific plays, Deitz has been inspired by Chekhov, Ibsen, P.G. Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle. For his 2008 play Becky’s New Car, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, he appears to have been inspired by Oprah.

 Or is it a coincidence that one character gives away lots of cars, another spouts Dr. Phil-like psychology, and the main character is a woman who talks to the audience, and occasionally brings audience members up on stage? Maybe it is, and it can join the cluster of coincidences that drives the action (and no, I’m not beginning a series of car puns.)

 Here’s as much of the story as seems safe to tell: Living in a Seattle-like city, Becky Foster (played by Peggy Metzger) is a vaguely restless middle-aged woman who has been married for 27 years to Joe (Randy Wayne), who runs a roofing business. One night while Becky is catching up on paperwork at her desk job in a car dealership, a wealthy billboard magnate named Walter Flood (Gary Sommers) bursts in to buy nine cars as gifts for his employees, because he can’t think of anything else to get them.

Articulate and apparently guileless, Walter is a widower who for some unexplained reason thinks Becky is a widow. In their evolving relationship (which includes trips to his island estate), Becky keeps neglecting to tell him otherwise.

 Becky and Joe have a 26 year-old son named Chris (Luke Tooker), an unattached psychology student (and budding Dr. Phil) who lives in their basement. Walter has a daughter, Kensington (Jessi Shieman) who is fed up with her rich boyfriend. The secondary characters are Steve (Steven J. Carter), a car salesman who can’t get past his wife’s death, and Ginger (Shelley Stewart), a formerly rich neighbor and friend of the Floods.

 Almost exactly two years ago Redwood Curtain staged an earlier Dietz play, Yankee Tavern, a drama that depended on extraordinary coincidences. This time the coincidences are played for laughs, and along with the conventions of the happy ending they are so obvious that even my brief description of the characters practically gives away the rest of the plot.

 So on one level this is a skillfully fluffy domestic comedy, a middle class American farce, a blithe foray into contemporary self-absorption, an arty sitcom that alternates irony with sentimentality. As such, it’s an enjoyable romp. Peggy Metzger commands the stage with charm and believability, and Gary Sommers infuses Walter with an appealing innocence. All the actors perform well, with Wayne and Tooker in particular perfectly delivering their characters’ deadpan humor.

 Relationship traumas and tribulations among older people is a welcome and viable subject for the stage-- especially for the usual audience demographic. (The playwright is 55.) For at least some people, troubling issues may arise from Becky’s actions, and perhaps this breezy style frees the audience to debate them later.

 Dietz’s smart dialogue has the characters saying intelligent and provocative things, while events (plus sudden audience involvements) happen fast to surprise and mesmerize. But beyond the distracting razzle-dazzle I felt a certain emptiness.

 For instance, Becky delivers the guiding metaphor of the play in her first monologue. Quoting someone unnamed, she recites something like: When a woman says she needs new shoes, what she really wants is a new job. When she says she needs a new house, she wants a new husband. And when she says she wants a new car, she wants a new life. Becky has just told us she wants a new house and a new car (which doesn’t arrive until near the play’s end.) But she does not appear to really want anything very much.

 Maybe her drift into an affair is supposed to be “realistic” or at least comic. But this is too earnest to be bedroom farce, and too flatly and fantastically contrived to be emotionally effective. The script does hint at other metaphors that might be realized onstage (the car as vehicle for life’s journey, etc.) but aren’t. At least, not in the preview performance I saw.

 The actors get you to like these gently and helplessly self-absorbed people. But as characters, none seem to have a truly defining moment onstage. (Several tell us what they decided offstage.) Except for flashes of danger in Randy Wayne’s eyes as the regular Joe, there’s little beyond cascades of contrivances on the busy surface. Some may find this liberating. To me it felt like emotional cheating. Becky’s New Car is directed by Gail Holbrook, with lighting by Michael Burkhart, costumes by Jenneveve Hood and sound by Kristin Mack. It continues weekends through Sept. 28.