Brevity is the soul of wit, but . . .

February 16, 2012

Listen to the Dueling Critics on Eight Forty-Eight

We've recently seen a spate of shows running between 75 and 90 minutes, no intermission. At first I greeted this trend with joy: Intermission has always galled me by interrupting the fictive dream, and I'm not averse to being home in time for The Daily Show. But I've started to notice the downside of all this expeditiousness: The plays often seem unfinished, like sketches rather than full-fledged pieces. Perhaps this is the result of our theaters' intense hunger for new work, and the concomitant pressure on playwrights to finish up this thing so they can start on the next thing. But a number of recent openings have demonstrated the drawbacks of this speed-dating version of playwriting.

Hesperia, at Writers' Theatre, captures its mise-en-scene perfectly, portraying a town dominated by an old-fashioned Evangelical Christianity with respect rather than ridicule while examining its impact on the archetypal strangers who come to town, a pair of porn stars. And playwright Randall Colburn takes care to demonstrate that the impact is mutual, and to probe the fragility of what at first seem to be rock-solid beliefs and principles. Unfortunately, Colburn sets up this situation and then fast-forwards to the conclusion, so that when our pro- and antagonists make their final decisions they seem to have come from nowhere---or, more precisely, to have happened during a scene we'll never see. A friend asked wherther all the dramaturgs in town had gone on strike, but Colburn's work had the benefit of development at Chicago Dramatists, whose fine reputation for honing plays is well-deserved. Still, Hesperia managed to come out of the oven without being fully baked.

Of course the first impulse of any writer when confronted with what's not working is simply to cut it out. I saw this demonstrated at the old Wisdom Bridge by no less a figure than David Mamet, who offered up a version of Speed-the-Plow so truncated by his own red pencil that the point of the play disappeared. He must have known he had a problem making the female catalyst believable (a problem he's had with women ever since: See Oleanna et seq. ) so he simply cut most of her part, leaving the audience to wonder what the two men on the stage were blathering and scheming about. Mamet did something similar with Race (notwithstanding the intermission). The betrayals and counter-betrayals come so rapidly, and to such an abrupt end, that I was left wondering what actually happened and why.  It's fine to take a scalpel to one's work, but simple amputation is rarely sufficient surgery. 

Other shows that could have benefitted from being longer: Disgraced, at ATC, which sped from cosy domesticity to violent collapse in 80 minutes leaving the audience gasping in its wake; Simon Stephens' Punk Rock at Griffin; and Love and Money at Steep. The case of Stephens is particularly instructive, because he's had four plays done in Chicago in the past four years. Perhaps the playwright is over-busy, leaping from project to project in an attempt to cobble together a living. He's hardly the first to encounter this dilemma---there was a period when Rebecca Gilman was turning out plays faster than she could finish them---but the result leaves the audience slightly undernourished. Even Conor McPherson, perhaps the premiere English-language playwright of this generation, falls into the trap of declaring a play finished when it's merely through its second draft. Shining City, a neo-realist tale concluding with an unpersuasive ghost-story bang, would have been far stronger if the playwright had waited until the muses brought him a genuine ending.

Again: This may be the inevitable consequence of contemporary theater economics, a system which also frequently dictates the choice of two- or three-character plays rather than the crowds required by Miller or Shakespeare. But let's try to figure out a way for playwrights to incubate their works a bit longer. That should reduce the likelihood of their laying an egg.