Critic’s Notebook: The heartening resurgence of the American play

Had you polled theater pundits in recent years about which they thought would be in better shape today, the Broadway musical or the Broadway play, it’s hard to imagine any of them choosing the drama.

Yet one of the unexpected developments of the past season is the robust showing of what used to be called “the straight play” — a designation that sounds vaguely apologetic for not featuring high-kicking chorus girls and 11 o’clock numbers.

Apparently, those mythological hordes of tourists with their insatiable appetite for franchise spectacles aren’t having the final say. Playwrights and the producers who love them have been putting up a sneaky defense against the theme-park takeover of Broadway.


Stacked against behemoths like “Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark,” new plays are exerting a Lilliputian force. Their victories may not be at the box office, but theater, if I’m not mistaken, is still primarily an art, not a speculative commodity.

Somewhat predictably, the Tony nominees for best musical all flaunt borrowed goods. “Newsies,” “Once” and the already shuttered “Leap of Faith” are based on movies (second-rate movies, with the exception of “Once,” which would get my vote for the award).

“Nice Work If You Can Get It” is a Gershwin revamp, which earned the status of “new” only because of Joe DiPietro’s extensive reworking of material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, principally their 1926 musical comedy “Oh, Kay!” (Evidently, the further you go back in time, the better shot you have of appearing to work from scratch.)

Not in the mix are “Ghost the Musical” and “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” both of which are engaged in pop cultural recycling of a decidedly less august kind.

For a while, the jukebox musical fad had us wallowing in Top 40 nostalgia. Now book writers are rummaging the narrative past for baby boomer bait. Fresh story lines aren’t a requirement, of course, for innovative theater. Shakespeare and the Greeks ransacked the literary vault for their masterpieces; Oscar Hammerstein II could spin musical comedy gold from midlist dross. But musicals today aren’t so much looking for inspiration as blood, brain and oxygen from existing material.

Playwriting, by comparison, is finally stirring from its doldrums. After years in which the Tony category for best play had difficulty finding four credible nominees, this season has given us something resembling a crowded competition. No one would call it an open race, but neither would anyone deem it a cakewalk. And that may not even be the biggest shocker.

Normally, the prestige dramatic offerings come with a British accent and overseas raves. A rundown of the Tony Award for best play since 2006 (a list that includes “The History Boys,” “The Coast of Utopia,""War Horse” and, for some Gallic flavor, “God of Carnage”) would be enough to clear Tony Award voters of any charge of patriotic bias.

But just when you were ready to concede Times Square as part of the United Kingdom, lo and behold, the four nominees for best play are all written by Yanks: Bruce Norris (“Clybourne Park”), Jon Robin Baitz (“Other Desert Cities”), David Ives (“Venus in Fur”) and Rick Elice (“Peter and the Starcatcher”). It’s not as if the English had been banned from our shores. Imported from London’s National Theatre, “One Man, Two Guvnors,” Richard Bean’s hilarious freehand adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte classic “The Servant of Two Masters,” has turned into the must-see comedy this spring.

Most Tony prognosticators, in fact, assumed that “One Man, Two Guvnors” would have gotten the nod over “Venus in Fur,” a two-hander by David Ives that was brought to life in a star-making performance by Nina Arianda, whom many are picking for lead actress in a play. But the play category was unusually competitive this time around, and the only sure bets were that Norris’Pulitzer Prize-winning"Clybourne Park” and Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” would be fighting it out to the finish line.

“Other Desert Cities,” long the front-runner, is now considered the likely runner-up to “Clybourne Park,” which managed to surmount its financial challenges to make it to Broadway after a highly acclaimed run at the Mark Taper Forum.

Other works that didn’t get nominated but that would have surprised no one had they been include Nicky Silver’s “The Lyons,” Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar” and David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish,” perhaps the most topical inventive play of the season. (“Chinglish” deserved more love than it received from New York’s mightier reviewers, but happily Leigh Silverman, who directed the work on Broadway, is bringing her production to South Coast Repertory next year.)

“The Columnist,” David Auburn’s most ambitious offering since his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning “Proof,” isn’t without its dramatic flaws, but it’s still a polished piece of writing offering a plum role for John Lithgow, who was deservedly nominated for his flamboyant portrayal of the fascinatingly contradictory political pundit Joseph Alsop.

Plays that give opportunities to actors, the way “Seminar” gave to Alan Rickman and “The Lyons” by all accounts is giving to Linda Lavin, are nothing to sneeze at. A drama doesn’t have to be “Uncle Vanya” to make a strong theatrical impression. Originality of character is one of the delights of theatergoing, especially when a masterful actor is on hand to infuse the part with his or her own lived-in truth.

Case in point: “End of the Rainbow,” Peter Quilter’s dramatic profile of Judy Garland near the end of her life, a work that is notable chiefly for the titanic performance of Tracie Bennett, who sang, slurred and sloshed her way straight to a Tony nomination. (Bennett, I’m happy to report, will reprise her role at the Ahmanson Theatre next year, in a full-throttle performance that no hard-core theatergoer should miss.)

Earlier in the season I wrote a Critic’s Notebook examining the difficulty dramatists were having in defining the terms of contemporary drama for an audience that seemed as uncertain about what constitutes a good play as they are. But I ended on an optimistic note, stressing that this uneven body of new American work will be a great aid in helping playwrights to reimagine the future.

One theater commentator mistook me for calling for a return to the well-made play. But my point was about the value of theatrical traditions, not dramatic formulas. Playwrights are their own legislators, yet they will never thrive working in a void in which every time they sit down before their computer screens they’re charged with reinventing the wheel. The density of new work on Broadway in the last year goes a long way toward improving the long-term outlook.

This season may not have given us a masterpiece of the level of “A Streetcar Named Desire"or “Death of a Salesman,” both of which are once again back on Broadway. “Clybourne Park” performs a cunning dissection of racial hypocrisy; “Other Desert Cities” uncovers the manifold ironies of our political self-righteousness. Will they be revived as often as these classics by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller? Highly doubtful.

But they are nonetheless part of a Broadway culture that is showing distinct pockets of health amid gangrenous economic conditions. That there’s still room given the price of tickets and the cost of producing for adventurous off-Broadway-style plays such as “Chinglish” and “Venus in Fur” is something of a miracle. Apparently there’s even a place for the story theater antics of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a show with La Jolla Playhouse roots that I look forward to returning to our region in finished form.

Flowers, I’m happy to report, still bloom in the desert. Whatever the fate of the American musical, the smart money right now is on the improbably hearty American play.