If a culturally curious Martian were to land on Earth with the intention of catching a show, it would be fascinating to hear its thoughts on, say, one of the numerous Shakespeare productions that have passed through our area in the last year. “Hamlet” might be dismissed as “feverishly chatty and interminable” and “King Lear” shrugged off as “melodramatic and overwrought.”
Judging a play by a performance can lead to some embarrassing verdicts, yet theatergoers do this all the time when sizing up new works. Separating the player from the play, to paraphrase Yeats, is never easy. And critics themselves aren’t always adept at distinguishing where fault and virtue lie. An ambitious drama given an uneven premiere is flicked away like a piece of lint while a mesmerizing performance in a silly trifle can translate, as it did for Douglas Carter Beane’s giggly 2006 comedy “The Little Dog Laughed,” into not just raves but a Tony nomination for best play.
A matter of ‘Doubt’
Our city not too long ago played accidental host to an experiment on this very issue. In 2005, John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” had its West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse in a production starring Linda Hunt that received mixed reviews. In 2006, a touring version of the acclaimed New York production with Cherry Jones made its way to the Ahmanson, where it received mostly raves. I didn’t see the Playhouse version, but I had heard from many people who had. They were wondering whether they should give the play another chance because they still couldn’t understand how the work they saw could have racked up nearly every accolade known to dramatists, including the Pulitzer.
The recent West Coast premiere of Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” brought the problem home in a fresh way. The actors in the Ahmanson production couldn’t compare to the original British cast, which performed the work on Broadway and returned to London with a suitcase stuffed with Tonys. No doubt there were local audience members confounded by all the celebratory hubbub. How could a drama stretch credulity to the extent that this one does, particularly where the plot concerns the sexual indiscretions of an eccentric teacher and his unusually tolerant class of bright adolescent boys, and sweep the major playwriting awards?
Had my first experience of “The History Boys” been at the Ahmanson, had I never seen Richard Griffiths’ portrayal of the groping academic in question, and had I not, after being so charmed by the Broadway production, spent time reading the play and subsequently writing an introduction to it for “The Best Plays Theater Yearbook 2005-2006,” I would probably have had the same quizzical reaction: Is this the best Tony voters could come up with?
The point here isn’t to make invidious comparisons but rather to shed light on the way a production can affect, for better and worse, our judgment of writing. Acting -- good, bad and indifferent -- can lead you down some strange and regrettable byways of opinion.
After sitting through a number of woebegone productions of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” I had all but given up hope for the play in the modern repertory. For all its storied progressiveness on gender issues, this drama about a wife’s declaration of independence from her husband seemed too trapped in melodramatic conventions, too plodding in the development of its crisis and, in general, too soporific to sit through again.
But a bona-fide eureka moment occurred courtesy of the astonishing British actress Janet McTeer in Anthony Page’s intense 1997 revival on Broadway. There were no postmodern fireworks here, as there were in Lee Breuer’s daring pastiche of the play presented last year by UCLA Live. Yet, suddenly, a work that had been creaking across stages in revival after wan revival sprang to life with newfound energy. What had once seemed theatrically musty was now psychologically and dramatically vital, thanks to McTeer’s ability to treat each moment as though it were densely packed with meaning and mystery. This new Ibsen fellow, whoever he is, was without question at the forefront of a radical new movement of playwriting.
Of course I already had profound respect for this classic from studying it at school. And so you might ask why critics don’t make a habit of simply reading the play before reviewing it, thereby ensuring a clearer appraisal of the work’s particular merits and shortcomings. The soundness of such an approach harks back to Aristotle, who stresses in the “Poetics” that “the quality of a play is evident from reading alone.” Acting, in other words, isn’t necessary to induce that all-important catharsis that Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides sought to provide their audiences.
On those occasions when a script is made available in advance, as it was for David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face” when I reviewed it last spring at the Mark Taper Forum, I’m more than happy to take a sneak peek. My rationale is as practical as it is philosophical. In Los Angeles, where critics are typically invited to a performance no earlier than the official “opening” and must file their reviews by the next morning, it becomes imperative to get whatever head start you can. A play, after all, isn’t a baseball game or a press conference, where instant reporting and analysis are less marred by deadline pressures. Not to be too grand about it, but a work of art is supposed to unfold within you over time, interacting with your intellect and your emotions in the manner of a dream. And so, out of fairness to writers, I try to familiarize myself with the work as early as possible.
As it turned out, the pleasure I had in reading “Yellow Face” far outstripped the pleasure I found in Leigh Silverman’s production. The comedy was broader than I imagined it, and the basic dramatic situation seemed less plausible than it appeared on the page. Had I seen the play cold, there is little chance that I would have described it as “captivating” or referred to it as Hwang’s “most intellectually resonant” since “M. Butterfly.”
What, then, could be holding critics back from always requesting a copy of a new play ahead of time? As for that touchy subject of spoilers, let’s keep in mind that playwrights of the better variety are more concerned with vision than surprise when it comes to their plots. (The Greek tragedians and Shakespeare borrowed most of theirs, and that hasn’t hurt them much.) Yet the matter is more complicated than my experience with “Yellow Face” may suggest.
What an actor can do
The play-performance relationship isn’t one-directional. Our reading of plays isn’t always larger than our experience of them in the theater. Great actors, like great critics, can make you alert to shades of meaning and color that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. I have a keener awareness of the dark shadows in Shakespeare’s comedies because of Anne Barton’s elegantly incisive introductions in “The Riverside Shakespeare,” which I discovered as a student. Similarly, I have gained a finer appreciation of certain roles through the transformative way brilliant actors have performed them. “Sweet Bird of Youth” may be second-rate Tennessee Williams, but I have come to love the theatrical audacity of the play because of Geraldine Page’s memorably monstrous Alexandra Del Lago, the strung-out movie star on the lam from what she thinks was a botched comeback. Yet God only knows what I would have thought of the work had my introduction been the 1989 TV movie featuring Elizabeth Taylor in sorry decline instead of Richard Brooks’ 1962 movie enlivened by Page’s black magic and Paul Newman’s hustler charms.
So much can influence our sense of a play, from the canniness of the cast to the size of the venue. Also, expectations. Buying a ticket for what has been touted as “the best play of the season” can noticeably increase the baggage you wheel into the theater. And while knowledge may be power, too much literary wisdom can divert your attention from what really matters onstage -- flesh-and-blood truth.
There have been times when I have purposely not reread a classic before seeing it performed to avoid the trap of Shakespeare scholars, whose profound intimacy with every nook and cranny of the texts often leads to disappointment in the theater. Too strict a focus on the nuances of words and themes can evidently stoke an appetite for literary delights that the theater isn’t meant to satisfy. This isn’t to champion a theatergoing practice of radical innocence. It’s merely to signal that the rewards of the page and stage are not one and the same.
Plays, like plasma, represent a unique state of matter. They are works of dramatic literature, existing as autonomous entities in a way that, say, screenplays typically do not. And they are also blueprints for theatrical construction. Ideally, these two dimensions should inform each other, in ever-evolving combinations of meaning. True, those days when a new play was hailed as a publishing event may be over. We don’t rush to the bookstore (or even the Web version of it) for the latest Richard Greenberg or Craig Lucas offering. Sad to say, we may no longer hold a very high estimate of drama as literature. Yet to know a work well, it helps to have encountered it both in its abstract and carnal forms and to be open to the toss and tumble of shifting perceptions.
Theater may like to provoke an overwhelming first impression. But drama is designed to encourage second and third thoughts.