Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum are moving the New Group’s “Hurlyburly,” not to Broadway but Off Broadway, where it opens April 4. “We are going to do something singular, something unique,” Seller announced in the New York Times. “We’re going to make Off Broadway hip again.”
For the sake of argument, let’s brush aside the new Off Broadway shows “After Ashley,” “Boozy,” “Ghetto Superstar,” “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” “McReele,” “Romance,” “Shockheaded Peter” and “Spelling Bee.”
If Off Broadway isn’t hip, what does that make Broadway? And by extension, all of Gotham theater?
Seller’s comment exposed the tawdry secret everybody at Angus McIndoe already knows: When it comes to hip, theater has turned into film’s nerdy stepchild. Even TV has surpassed legit in being “chicer, cooler” to borrow other adjectives from the Seller interview.
The hip/nerd divide was truly seismic at this season’s New York Stage & Film gala. The fete’s movie half included taped interviews with Steve Buscemi, Mark Wahlberg and other stars who offered up their snarkiest jokes while looking as though they’d just rolled out of bed for a Sunday morning press junket at the Four Seasons.
The evening’s theater half included the body-waxed, half-naked cast of “Good Vibrations” and an understandably awkward Craig Bierko singing “Trouble” from “The Music Man.” NYSF guests Ethan Hawke, Peter Dinklage and others who work both sides of the thesp fence guffawed at the tapes, then walked out during the live perfs. Trouble, indeed.
Last month, Chris Rock trashed the Oscars when he said that no straight black man watched the awards. Jazzed by media criticism, Rock paraphrased his zinger when he told Jay Leno, “What I actually said is that only gay people watch the Tonys.”
On the action front, “Chicks don’t like fall over when you say you’re a playwright,” says “McReele” author Stephen Belber, who writes for all three media.
Legit’s current unhipness can’t be dismissed as just a hetero-guy thing. “When I mention having written episodes of ‘Rescue Me’ or ‘Law and Order,’ kids on college campuses sit up,” says Belber. Screenplays are hot, plays are not. ” ‘Tape,’ the movie, gets much more attention from acting students than the play ‘Tape’,” he adds.
Belber isn’t the only talent to signal the theater’s descendency in the culture.
“Hip means edgy and new culturally,” says “Avenue Q” director Jason Moore. “(T)he theater is often not timely. TV can get it done and out there in a few weeks.”
Once upon a time, America had a cultural pecking order: novels and plays were turned into movies, which morphed into TV shows. Today, theater is more likely to be the vehicle of last resort for old songs and vintage movies.
“And bad theater is so much worse than a bad movie or TV show,” adds Jeff Whitty, book writer on “Avenue Q.” And so much harder on the pocketbook.”One-hundred dollars a ticket is too much money to be hip. That’s the short answer,” says director Will Frears, who follows last season’s “Omnium Gatherum” with even edgier works this season: the Presnyakov Brothers‘ “Terrorism” and “God Hates the Irish: The Ballad of Armless Johnny” by Sean Cunningham and Michael Friedman. “The theater has gotten this stuffy reputation, and you meet the actors and writers and they’re the least stuffy people in the world,” says Frears. “In the downtown theater, there are stars everywhere, but the media has to step up.”
What is truly hip about the theater – the discovery of new talent – is what gets reported on the least. Magazines fill their pages with “new faces” profiles of TV and movie actors, many of whom already possess a long legit resume. Coverage instead focuses on Neil Simon trashing Mary Tyler Moore, Farrah Fawcett tanking in “Bobby Boland,” Linda Evans and Joan Collins starring in a Broadway show.
The theater’s best hope may be to piggyback on the cache of indie films and cable TV.
“There is a bridge between film and theater, L.A. and New York, that didn’t exist 40 years ago,” says the Vineyard’s Doug Aibel, who also casts film and TV. Certainly, the Broadway era that produced actors who never returned to the theater in any form (Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, then Warren Beatty and Robert Redford) is long over.
As for hip, it is doubtful that the April 4 opening of “Hurlyburly” can equal last week’s preem for Stephen Adly Guirgis‘ “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” Meryl Streep, Ben Stiller and Jeffrey Wright were among those seeing Eric Bogosian and Sam Rockwell under the direction of the Labyrinth’s Philip Seymour Hoffman. Which is not to say that “Iscariot” will be, or should be, the next “Sideways” or “Entourage.”
“Theater is, by its nature, limited,” says Hoffman, “and it is also limitless in what you can do. There is a reality to film, which is limited. The culture is geared to film. I hope people see what we do. But I don’t know.”