Don't kid yourself: American tastemakers, who moan about inequalities for women, gays, and minorities in the Theatre, have no problems with consigning conservative artists—and their work–to oblivion. Playwrights, directors, and producers who ask us to approve of materialism over the spiritual (pick from an array of Absurdist or Realist work) or gay lifestyles (just about everything else), see no irony in silencing voices reflecting 40 percent of the population (a population that is interested in art). In our democracy or any other, this is, of course, wildly unjust and egregiously wrong, no matter where you stand along the ideological divide. Why would anyone want their work to be judged viable on whether or not it supported the Democratic Party platform? Having to comply with such a criterion is not considered censorship? Yet, people have lost jobs for less. If you think that this is no big deal, name three conservative theater artists.
American theater—or anyone’s theater–loses when it cannot “discuss the irreconcilable.” David Hare would use such language to define politics, but think of how much more fierce we would have thought his play The Vertical Hour if he really did pit a Republican interventionist against an English liberal—his American, Nadia Blye, was, instead, a Democrat. I bring up a play about our Mideast conflicts because American playwrights wrote little about Iraq and Afghanistan in the last ten years—and did so late and without much understanding of soldiers. An impressive play by J. T. Rogers, Blood and Gifts, at Lincoln Center at the end of last year, however, probably had a conservative central character, who was a CIA operative, but he wouldn't say, and the creative team didn’t know how to show his rougher edges. The author also stereotyped Republican Southerners (recall Ann Coulter telling us how the media consistently lampoons Southerners, Christians, priests, those who live in small town America, and WASPs). What this can mean for Theater is a safe-mindedness among artists—they can be lulled into becoming literary stylists who aren’t thinking all that dramatically or three-dimensionally or dangerously (such concepts are badly reinforced by sit-down readings unseriously prepared).
The Columnist, directed succinctly by Daniel Sullivan—at the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre until July 8–might have helped topple several of the issues I mention above. Beyond its subject and history, though, the work keeps undercutting itself, making it an impossible play, primarily because of its refusal to focus on the resolution of one internal contradiction in the leading character. The Pulitzer winner, David Auburn, does present us with a Republican—in this case the real-life syndicated reporter Joseph Alsop (1910-1989), a D.C. power broker who happened to be gay. In spite of the times, however, his homosexuality isn’t much of an issue for him, and he’s willing to risk being outed even in front of the Washington elite. His family’s WASP legacy makes him a conservative for life, and he holds on to these beliefs even as he champions John F. Kennedy and learns of his step-daughter’s involvement in the anti-war movement. What he does seem to want is that his brother write with him (they had previously been a journalistic team)—however, the play doesn’t find this as the central theme, despite having Boyd Gaines on hand as the younger sibling. The role of Alsop, himself, is a showy Man-Who-Came-To-Dinner part and John Lithgow is up for it. Like Hemingway, everybody gets worried about Alsop except Alsop—somehow he will always prevail, and he does. Grace Gummer has a rather thankless job in playing one character from a young girl through college—her child is over-articulated in word and manner, and her later scenes remind us too much of her mother in her early career (in about the same era). Margaret Colin does work with less; in a measured performance as a woman who marries to become a hostess, instead of a wife—unfortunately, she can’t make us believe she should belong in this dilemma. Throw in a little gay promiscuity and this is the most intellectually stimulating play about ‘60s politics you’d never take your American history class to see. But it may be an early entry in placing sympathetic, multi-faceted, right-wing characters into mainstream entertainment. “Politics is life” Alsop yelps at one point—and theatre, too, is politics.
No matter their stated time, new American plays always seem better set from the late ‘70s up until and including 1983. The social concerns playwrights want to promulgate can seem to have been hashed out decades ago. Although the work of the Amoralists “has balls,” as Alsop might say, their signature piece, The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, scruffy and wild, didn't really fit in an East Village that had grown too gentrified to be the right habitat for serious, contemporary anarchists. Interestingly, The Bad and the Better, the Amoralist's new work, playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater until July 21, is about a male named Venus who wants to learn more about being an anarchist. And that is about all the information you need to know to dive into this mosaic, one of the few plays you’ll see this year that would not be better set 1983 or prior. This one isn’t a love letter to the Vietnam era as was The Pied Pipers; it’s capturing the chaos of 2012 (some day, it would be interesting to see the two plays done side by side).
Derek Ahonen seemed a bit burned out in an interview, about five years after the inception of the Amoralists, at the time of his revision of Bring Us the Head of Your Daughter in the winter of 2011. He “felt he wasn’t very close to” the play—and he, apparently, wasn’t afraid of drinking at rehearsals either. In the summer, his “Pink Knees on Pale Skin” for Hotel/Motel, a site specific collaboration with writer Adam Rapp at the Gershwin Hotel in Manhattan), was a soft porn riff on bad TV shows like Love American Style—Ahonen was writing serviceable material for the actors, but, clearly, he needed a breakthrough. It seems to have come in the form of the Occupy Movement, which apparently asked him to consider, as has been suggested not only by conservatives, whether there was serious power behind the protests: Someone like Michelle Malkin contends that the people on the streets are being used as pawns. Perhaps, more personally, The Bad and the Better suggests what one should do when one reaches success—communalism is well and good when everyone’s broke, but what happens when one has a choice of keeping or giving away real money? Joan Rivers recently said, she deserved to gather the fruits of her labor—and, yes, she said she hates D.C., everybody everywhere, and herself as well.
Daniel Aukin, the award-winning director of 4000 Miles, seems to have insisted the Amoralists get haircuts for this venture, find new costumes—and keep them on throughout the entire performance. He’s helped Ahonen produce a tighter, cleaner, faster-paced script—and Aukin’s blocking is sharp, if a tad posed. The feel is less brutalist than other Amoralist forays, but Ahonen’s underclass remains, unable to find escape hatches to better lives—or even consider there being any. There are 26 actors, with an ever-thickening plot in this show—Ahonen is definitely some kind of creative genius (and he's still standing out as he's moving into the mainstream). Many of the Amoralists have, fortunately, made the transition uptown, too (one notable exception is Matthew Pilieci). Sarah Lemp plays a ditz—a different kind of role for her. James Kautz, Selene Beretta, Byron Anthony, and Chris Wharton are escaping from Mission Impossible. William Apps plays a burned-out detective, Anna Stromberg is a young idealist, Nick Lawson plays the Nick Lawson part. Interesting newcomers include David Nash as Venus, Cassandra Paras as the bartender—and a fabulous hard-as-nails-in-curlers performance by Judy Merrick as Connie, the detective’s wife. Really, everyone from a texting teen, Sarah Roy, to a Hispanic revolutionary, Regina Blandon, is terrific. There are cops: Wade Dunham, Edgar Euguia, James Rees, Ugo Chukwu, there are sleazeballs: Clyde Baldo and James Rees, plus more, as well as Reuben Barsky Penny Bittone, Christopher Lanceley, David Lanson, Dan Stern, Kelley Swindall, and Vanessa Vache—everyone deserves a bitch-slap and a wet kiss. Sean Bauer is the Director of Production.
Flowing through the end of The Bad and the Better is the song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron. The musician felt that change in America would not come through blankly watching television, but from realizing that personal thinking needed to be changed, so that people could “get in sync with everyone else to understand what is happening in this country.” Ahonen’s own thoughts may be that there are no perfect political solutions, only the bad and the better—and he might agree with Hare about politics being about reconciling the irreconcilable (hopefully, without anybody simply deleting an entire segment of the population next time). See what you think he advocates for his anarchists, now all grown up.
From the program: “Please be advised that there will be gunshots and other gruesome stuff ( . . . but enough about politics).”
© 2012 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photo: Selene Beretta, Chris Wharton, Regina Blandón, Nick Lawson, Byron Anthony, David Nash, Anna Stromberg in The Bad and the Better. Credit: Monica Simoes. All rights reserved.