What are playwrights waiting for?

Times Staff Writer

The stagehands’ strike in New York threw a monkey wrench into Broadway’s fall season, darkening all but nine shows and leaving a slew of highly anticipated dramas, including Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention,” Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” and Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” in a state of fretful limbo.

Although the strike appeared to be approaching its endgame Sunday, writers would do well to pause to reflect on the tacit concern that has been inadequately addressed on our stages of late -- the roiling, polarizing mess of what has been called the “new gilded age.” If conflict is the soul of drama, a writer could hardly ask for more combustible material than the eternal battle for a bigger piece of the pie, which has become harder for ordinary Americans to come by in an age in which globalization, deregulation and a never-ending war have rewarded the money pushers, oil barons and governmental cronies with the biggest slices of all.

Whichever side you come down on -- the stagehands or the theater owners and producers -- the background issues underlying the Broadway shutdown are rife across America. No, most of us aren’t busy negotiating the Byzantine hiring regulations for loading in the set of a new musical. But all of us can relate to the fierce struggle wrought by an economy that has transformed housing and healthcare (forget dentistry altogether) into luxuries, given us job security on a wing and a prayer and forced upon businesses a risk-reward ratio that most professional gamblers would smirkingly walk away from.


Why aren’t more playwrights offering us images of an age that’s perhaps best characterized by the fetishization of the Dow Jones industrial average on the nightly newscasts? Where is the new “Six Degrees of Separation,” John Guare’s acute comedy of materialism, when we could really use a glimpse of the deception going on inside those megamillion-dollar condos that have been cropping up like Starbucks in the last few years?

What about a new “Caroline, or Change,” Tony Kushner’s challenging musical memoir of growing up in Louisiana in the early-civil rights ‘60s, transplanted to post-Katrina New Orleans to help us better understand why, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, only one in five African Americans feels they’re doing better than they were five years ago? How about a sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic “A Raisin in the Sun” to fill us in on what happens to the Younger family after the house they fought so valiantly to attain goes into foreclosure with the rest of the homes built on sub-prime quicksand?

Conventional wisdom tells us that American dramatists haven’t been as keen to tackle economic issues as their British counterparts. George Bernard Shaw, the grand theatrical observer of the way money makes the world go round, returned to Broadway this fall in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of “Pygmalion” with Claire Danes and Jefferson Mays. The play that gave rise to “My Fair Lady” might be hazily remembered as a loquaciously witty entertainment, but it’s actually a critique of capitalism artfully disguised as a Cinderella romance, sans the usual happy ending.

Yet the great subject of our national literature has been the American dream, and no novelist or poet has revealed the corrosive effect of a family’s empty-handed pursuit of its promise better than Arthur Miller in his masterpiece, “Death of a Salesman.” There is a pipeline, in other words, of serious social drama that runs from Elmer Rice, Clifford Odets and Miller to David Rabe, August Wilson and Kushner, straight to Rebecca Gilman and Christopher Shinn -- and boy, do we need the spigot to be open right now.

Comedy has historically been more adept at reflecting contemporary crises, and America’s tradition here is just rich. Whatever you may have thought of Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, “Third,” seen at the Geffen Playhouse this fall, it was heartening to encounter a protagonist ambling about her darkly humorous plot as nonstop TV coverage of the Iraq war sharply impinges on her daily consciousness.

Consider this an APB to the ablest of our comic playwrights -- David Mamet, Craig Lucas, Paula Vogel, Richard Greenberg, Lisa Loomer, among countless other talents known and not yet known -- to assist us in recognizing the tectonic shift that’s been widening the disparity of wealth in American society and threatening the equilibrium of democracy. Rich or poor, all of us are affected by the new reality, one that makes it hard to feel secure about retirement even if you’re lucky enough to live in a house that has tripled (at least on paper anyway) in value.

Striking TV and film writers, who are trying to protect their economic interests in a rapidly changing new market, would enlighten us enormously by heeding this call as well. But it’s addressed primarily to playwrights because the theater throughout its long history has been more welcoming of this kind of expansive analysis than TV and film. And theater critics such as Shaw, George Jean Nathan, Kenneth Tynan, Eric Bentley and Frank Rich have never hesitated to remind artists of their higher mission.

Broadway, chockablock with tourist trash, hasn’t been a particularly hospitable environment for trenchant social vision lately. Blame it on the impossible cost of doing business, which has caused some to hold striking stagehands responsible. No parent should have to shell out 500 bucks to take the family to see a musical. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the producers of Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” one of the nine Broadway shows left running, as Mammon would have it, will lower their premium ticket prices of $450 if they could get cheaper labor.

Robert Anderson’s famous quote about the theater, “You can make a killing, but not a living,” has never been truer than it is for the new Broadway, which grossed almost a billion dollars last season.

That number might sound like a reason to celebrate, until you hear about the extent of the casualties. The shipwreck of “The Pirate Queen,” the infamous 2007 Broadway flop, could alone commission several generations of writers with its sunken treasure chest, reportedly valued at close to $18 million.

The game, in short, is broken on all ends. Still, when the salaries of stagehands, which admittedly seem high compared to those of measly journalists, are tossed around as evidence of union extortion, it’s worth considering that few of these skilled workers could afford to live in one of the high-rises recently erected in the now-desirable Times Square-Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood where they work.

More to the point, how much does one have to earn to be considered middle class anymore? In days gone by, that meant being able to afford your own home, send your kids to college and tuck away a sufficient senior nest egg. Today that seems more like a package of expectations that only Wall Street instant millionaires and their seven-figure chums can bank on.

And if that doesn’t stir our playwrights’ dramatic juices, then I’m afraid not even the Fed can save us this time.