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What’s the Big Idea?

Noises Off

NEW YORK Whatever happened to the Big Ideas play?

Plays that directly address the major political and social issues of the day once were fairly common on Broadway, but they’re increasingly rare.

The only two plays this season that could conceivably fit that bill were “Sixteen Wounded” and “Prymate,” which dealt with, respectively, terrorism and medical ethics. Between them they played less than two weeks of performances — although, to be fair, it wasn’t their topicality but their quality that caused the problem.

Off Broadway, where theaters often are subsidized and subscription audiences loyal, is a more hospitable place for writers interested in penning politically or socially engaged plays.

Upcoming at Playwrights Horizons is Jon Robin Baitz’s “Chinese Friends.”

Baitz offers us a glimpse at politics today by predicting the future: The presidential election of 2032, to be exact.

Peter Strauss plays Arthur Brice, a policy wonk who served in the 2008-12 White House. In Baitz’s future world, it is the lone Democratic administration of the next 28 years. The rest are ruled by “a Texas dynasty of cowboys,” as the playwright puts it.

Baitz can point to several reasons why so few playwrights these days take on Big Ideas (Tony Kushner being a clear exception).

“The chickens of politically correct constituency theater have come home to roost,” he begins. “There is this toxic brew of correctness plus a lack of funding for outreach programs for new writers. The (nonprofit) theater develops things to please grant-givers. Carefulness denies curiosity.”

Baitz says a pro-active approach to discovering new writers is needed.

“You take people who are young and smart and have an interest in political science and history, and you reach out and give them opportunities to work in the theater,” he says. “Politics and the American landscape seem so remote to most theaters.”

Baitz’s idea for the play came to him in late summer 2002 as he was watching C-SPAN. “The government was making plans to go to war. There was this delight, a fervor, an appetite, you could smell it,” he recalls.

In “Chinese Friends,” the current war effort has left America bankrupt, both financially and spiritually.

The play is Baitz’s look at the 9/11 generation. “They’re intelligent, but they’re also feral on some level. They are children of elites, but there is no economy, no jobs, and they look at America as having destroyed the rest of the world.”

Baitz follows the futuristic politics of “Chinese Friends” with the sexual politics of “The Paris Letter,” due on Broadway in the fall.

“It examines the relationship between American psychiatry and homosexuality from 1960 until now through the story of two men who make two very different choices,” says Baitz. There is suppression on one hand, repression on the other.

If new topical plays are a rare breed these days, old ones are having a new heyday this season, with “Assassins” and “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway doing good business, and Larry Kramer‘s “The Normal Heart” extended through the summer Off Broadway.

As Kramer says of his play, “The reviews are better now.” The same certainly could be said for “Assassins.”

Theatergoers hooked into the anger in “Heart” the first time around. “You either responded or didn’t with these crazy people screaming about a few cases of AIDS,” Kramer recalls. “Now, it is a much sadder play, because you realize that the war has been lost and there is no hope.”

According to Kramer, “The Normal Heart” went through a period where it was considered dated. (So did “Raisin.”) “Now it is a history play.”

The passage of time has had the opposite effect on “Assassins.” Book writer John Weidman says it is a “more upsetting” show post-9/11 than it was 13 years ago during the first Gulf War “with its low U.S. casualties.”

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