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Critic’s Notebook: What script are playwrights following?

Sitting through a succession of new plays on a recent visit to New York, I was reminded of car trips as a child with my grandmother behind the wheel of her gigantic red Lincoln Continental. Her destination was clear, but her route, like those of the playwrights who were chauffeuring me around Broadway, was a guessing game.

This was before the age of GPS, which would have been irrelevant for a fur-draped woman who relied on hunches rather than a map. (I recall one interminable journey to Atlantic City, N.J., that had me anxiously pointing out highway signs indicating we were headed elsewhere while she calmly applied another round of lipstick.) If there was a method to her navigating madness it was a form of trial and error, which seems a fair description of the system employed by Theresa Rebeck in “Seminar,” David Ives in “Venus in Fur,” Katori Hall in “The Mountaintop” and, off-Broadway, Stephen Karam in “Sons of the Prophet.”

This isn’t intended as a general dismissal of these plays, which have varying degrees of merit to them. Rather, it’s an observation of the plight of today’s dramatists struggling to define the terms of contemporary drama for a mainstream urban audience that seems just as uncertain about what constitutes a good 21st century play as they are.

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My sample could be expanded to include other new works that have appeared closer to home this fall — “Poor Behavior,” Rebeck’s schematic comedy of ill manners at the Mark Taper Forum, say, or “Somewhere,” Matthew Lopez’s overstuffed coming-of-age drama at the Old Globe in San Diego. The point isn’t to criticize individual writers for coming up short, but to try to figure out why so many who are bursting with bright ideas and in possession of a solid sense of craft are having such trouble laying down tracks for their theatrical visions.

Leafing through a collection of Walter Kerr’s theater criticism from the 1970s, I came upon a clue. Writing at a time when the avant-garde had blown a hole through theatrical tradition, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama critic reflected on what was lost when playwrights no longer had common reference points for comedy and drama.

Kerr offers a compelling first draft of theater history: “The rough-and-ready conventions — call them blueprints of a kind — that had once guided our writers, conventions that had dictated at least the outer shape of comedy or melodrama, farce or ‘serious’ drama, suddenly vanished or were discredited as outmoded.” The result, in his admittedly establishment view, was a form of chaos, in which “the playwright now not only had to invent the particulars of a given play, he first had to invent the idea of what a play was.” Concluding this thought with a sigh, he writes, “Small wonder, then, that new playwrights come to us so hesitatingly, so slowly, in such small numbers.”

The sketchiness of tradition today can’t be attributed to the assault of radical experimentation. Instead, it’s a consequence of the receding importance of theater in our general culture, the dominance of film and TV, and the disruption of the natural relationship between artists and local audiences through a skewed emphasis on commercial marketability.

Of course, not being bound by domineering precedent has the upside of greater freedom. Playwrights have the burden of inventing the wheel but they also have the liberty to suit their own fancy. Let’s not forget that strong tradition, as the art critic Clement Greenberg elucidated in his classic essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” can lead to a whole lot of dead wood, formulaic imitations of “vicarious experience and faked sensations” that lure the masses without really satisfying them. Noël Coward’s infinitely witty “Private Lives,” back on Broadway at the Music Box until the end of the year in a production starring Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross, moves with the sleekness of a race car, but a universe in which all comedy zipped along at the same highway speed is a rather stultifying prospect.

Still, Kerr’s notion of modern theatrical rootlessness makes it possible to connect the critical dots between the hodgepodge style of Hall’s “The Mountaintop” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and the indie film-like meandering of Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet” at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre. On the surface, these works would seem to have little in common, yet both have difficulty advancing their stories. The structural flaws are obvious, but there’s a deeper concern. Simply put, the ideas don’t know how to move.

“The Mountaintop,” a two-hander starring Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Bassett as a hotel chambermaid, imagines a prophetic encounter the night before King is assassinated outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. The play flits from realism to religious fantasy to political militancy in a herky-jerky fashion that never establishes a groove. It wants to treat King as a man rather than a myth, it wants to celebrate his accomplishments while challenging his tactics of nonviolent resistance and it wants to playfully grapple with the enormity of his fate. But Hall, a young writer with more perceptions than she can sort out, hasn’t yet arrived at a theatrical model to contain her play’s energies. Form should ideally be a natural extension of content. But for a writer still finding her voice, it’s probably best to settle on a genre, even if a curious hybrid, as a way of tapping into the playwriting wisdom of the past.

“Sons of the Prophet,” one of the most acclaimed new plays of the fall season, is just as adventurous — and unmoored. Karam focuses on a Lebanese American family that is overcome with what Aristotle would call (in ancient Greek, naturally) unmerited misfortune. The play loosely organizes its scenes using titles from Kahlil Gibran’s spiritual bestseller “The Prophet,” a work that comes into play when the protagonist’s opportunistic employer discovers that her assistant with a puzzling medical malady is distantly related to the author.

A meditation on the inescapability (and inequity) of human misery, “Sons of the Prophet” has a philosophical reach that outstretches its playwriting craft. Karam’s standard procedure is to bring together two quirky characters of opposing temperaments and let them argue in a contrived manner that had my companion re-titling the play “Conversations That Never Happened.” The work contains some captivating eccentricity and a haunting store of grief but very little in the way of dramatic action — a deficiency that might be masked with charismatic actors on-screen but here leaves the impression of a theme in search of a believable story.

Rebeck’s “Seminar” at the Golden Theatre is an improvement over the dithering antics of “Poor Behavior,” which fizzled earlier this fall at the Taper. Both works take great delight in characters behaving badly, but “Seminar” has the advantage of a fiendishly droll Alan Rickman, who stars as a castratingly blunt private writing teacher paid to mentor four would-be Jonathan Franzens into the pages of the New Yorker. The play, which is by turns wryly observant and cliché-strewn, keeps spinning its plot in new directions as though afraid we may find its basic premise (that writers are self-seeking monsters at heart) a bit thin. But Rickman’s performance, a Mephistophelean tour de force with a hangoverish mien, elevates the play by linking it to other works in which the presumptive devil steals the show.

This was a reminder that actors are a living conduit between the stage’s past and present. They are indeed a walking memory of drama, cuing not just their audiences but also their authors to tried-and-true styles. Certainly much of the comic vitality of Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” which I caught at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre before it closed (the play transfers to the Lyceum Theatre in February), stems from the old-fashioned pungency of Nina Arianda, who’s paired with the classically dapper Hugh Dancy. Intrepidly committed to their farfetched theatrical business revolving around a casting session between a director and an actress testing for the part of a reluctant dominatrix, they bring an expansive resonance to the game set in motion by Ives, pulling out all the stops to conceal the reality of a clever conceit spinning itself into the ground.

Samuel Beckett famously extolled the virtue of failure (artists daring to fail more boldly than mere mortals), and I admit I derived some Beckettian uplift from the mixed results of these new plays. Putting aside the issue of Broadway’s high ticket prices, the fact that these works were produced in prime cultural space, interpreted by some of our most gifted performers, is a step toward crystallizing a new theatrical tradition. (David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish” and Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” add their luster to the fall season’s unusual abundance of homegrown drama.)

Broadway hasn’t always been this welcoming to writers without British accents or musical accompaniment. Yet it’s only through full-scale productions that playwrights can discover what works, what doesn’t and what future possibilities await them and their successors.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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