Theater: Amid the many bloated musicals, originality sneaks in

Brad Fleishcer, left, and Kevin Tighe in Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo."
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times)

Millennial anxieties ushered in the new decade with Y2K panic, 9/11 made it seem as if the paranoid were on to something, two quagmire wars were launched and the Great Recession left everyone wondering about the prognosis of the American economy as it enters its 21st century teens on life support. Yet if the theater, perpetually on the brink of extinction, taught us anything during this unenviable era, it’s that apocalyptic fantasies are just that -- the wishful fears that somehow the chaotic slate will be wiped clean.

Sorry to have to break it to all those cultural Cassandras out there, but we’re not going to get off that easy. The theater, to borrow from Stephen Sondheim, is still here. Neither the housing bubble nor the financial-services industry free fall were enough to put the nail in the coffin. We’ve made our overpriced bed -- now it’s time to figure out how to dream better in it.

Consider what’s happened to the American musical. Commercial pressures have turned one of the nation’s premiere popular art forms into an elephantine and generic tourist attraction. You can blame “ Mamma Mia!,” which landed on Broadway in 2001 and paved the way for jukebox moneymakers and money pits alike. Or you can hold “Wicked” accountable for persuading greedy producers that bloated is better. Yet the musical hasn’t simply rolled over and died of obesity. Individuality and idiosyncrasy have found ways to survive and even occasionally thrive, as they perhaps most notably did with “Avenue Q,” a larky “Sesame Street” for twentysomethings. The cash cows may have the media advantage, but the shows that conferred dignity to the art form in the new century were long shots developed off-Broadway and in the regionals: “Caroline, or Change,” “Spring Awakening,” “Passing Strange,” “Next to Normal” and “Fela!” Even in the most economically inhospitable age, artists tunnel forward.


Established playwrights kept up their end of the bargain. Tom Stoppard -- in a late career uncorking of inspiration -- virtually set up shop on Broadway with five productions of old and new works since 2000, one of which (the Tony-winning “The Coast of Utopia”) was a hugely ambitious trilogy. True, it helps to have a British passport if you’re aiming for a prestige production. Yet known American quantities such as Edward Albee, Suzan-Lori Parks, Doug Wright, Donald Margulies and Lynn Nottage, all of whom have been abundantly produced here in deluxe and pocket venues alike, gave us more than fragments to shore against our collective ruins.

The decade will probably be best remembered for its bad boys: Martin McDonagh, Neil LaBute and Tracy Letts, who’s garnered wider success as he’s turned down the gore without softening the emotional assault. Can there be a zeitgeist diagnosis to explain the influence of this hackles-raising crew? Each writer is a talent unto himself, but all three take a buzz saw to sentimental stage conventions to expose the modern-day worst in ourselves. One doesn’t have to ponder too hard the domestic and international disasters of recent years to figure out why audiences are sick of banal niceties.

For me, however, hope lies brightest in the new breed of dramatists who are interrogating not just the malign historical moment but also the shifting parameters of dramatic form -- writers such as Christopher Shinn (“Where Do We Live,” “Dying City”), Sarah Ruhl (“The Clean House,” “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play),”) Melissa James Gibson (“[sic]”) and Rajiv Joseph (whose “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which premiered at the Kirk Douglas last spring, was to my mind the play of the year). At a time when conformity is almost a prerequisite for production, these talents staunchly refuse to pour their new wine into old bottles. Expect to become better acquainted with them at the smaller and more adventuresome larger venues in the near future. (And good news for those who missed “Bengal Tiger”: It will be reprised at the Mark Taper Forum this spring).

Let the Cineplex titillate moviegoers with the porn of global catastrophe while BlackBerry-bashers and Facebook-phobes prophesy the decline of civilization as we know it. I take comfort in Frank Kermode’s indispensable treatise “The Sense of an Ending,” in which the literary critic reminds us of the human tendency to imagine one’s own epochal crisis as “preeminent, more worrying, more interesting than other crises.” It seems like doomsday because it’s happening to us, not because the sky is actually falling.

The theater may be down, as the NEA’s recent bleak report on cultural attendance indicates, but it’s not out. The fabulous invalid, God bless her, has been rising from her death bed since Aristotle. Sure, it has become harder for artists to get noticed without Hollywood cache and a million Twitter followers. But Jude Law’s (actually quite respectable) Hamlet isn’t the sign of End of Days. And though consumerism has conquered even at the nonprofits, daring new vision has a way of sneaking past obstacles.

As Prior Walter exhorted us in the final line of last decade’s theatrical high water mark, “Angels in America,” “The Great Work Begins.”