Traditionally, this is the time of year when pundits take up their scalpels to eviscerate Broadway for the sorry state of the drama. But even without a Pulitzer nod this year, the industry should be spared its annual bloodletting, given the brisk traffic in straight plays and the surprising trend toward nontraditional forms of storytelling.
On one end of the spectrum are intimate, audience-responsive shows such as Lisa Kron’s “Well” and Sarah Jones’ “Bridge and Tunnel,” both of which came out of experimental theaters.
On the far side is “Festen,” the highly stylized expressionist drama adapted from the 1998 Dogme film by Swedish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg.
Irish playwright Martin McDonagh speaks in graphic metaphors of violence to deliver his anarchic political message in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” Another Irish scribe, Conor McPherson, introduces a supernatural element into the psychological struggle between a therapist and his guilt-ridden patient in “Shining City.”
So, what’s the word on the Rialto about this phenom? Are creatives caught up in some experimental trend — or have they just forgotten how to write a straightforward linear plot?
“Writers are definitely adapting, doing more interesting things nowadays with dramatic form,” says “Well” producer Elizabeth I. McCann. But she also points out that Broadway saw plenty of experimental storytelling during the formative era of the early 20th century, when American scribes were heavily influenced by European drama.
“In ‘Well,’ Lisa makes very theatrical use of the playwright as narrator,” McCann says. “But that’s not original with her. Thornton Wilder did it in 1938 in ‘Our Town,’ for God’s sake.”
What is different, says the producer, is how self-conscious playwrights have become about writing for a financially strapped industry.
“The economics almost force writers to look for different ways to tell the narrative,” McCann says. “Even the nonprofits don’t respond to multicharacter plays, so more and more playwrights are writing plays with only two or three characters.” The result, she says: “Once they get more than three characters on the stage, they’re stuck. They don’t know how to move the story.”
It takes plays like “Festen” or “History Boys,” with their plus-15 cast members, to remind us of what a big dramatic ensemble even looks like onstage. The many thesps of “Festen” is a key component of that show’s expressionistic storytelling, says its associate producer, Dante Di Loreto.
“When they are all seated at that table in stony silence for four or five minutes, each actor is telling a silent story,” says Di Loreto, identifying one of the “magical” moments in the play when the story is advanced through film imagery, rather than verbal narrative.
“Because the source material was originally a film,” he says, ” ‘Festen’ lent itself to this stark and dramatic visual style.”
If “Festen” represents the sophisticated use of visual narrative, then “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” has to be the last word in metaphorical storytelling. Unless scribe McDonagh just has a murderous fixation on pussycats, the graphic images of mutilation and killing in his drama beg to be interpreted on some nonliteral level — the obvious being the never-ending violence in northern Ireland.
“Oh, the metaphor is broader than the war in Ireland,” says Randall L. Wreghitt, the show’s lead producer. “People have compared it to the war in Iraq, to man’s inhumanity to man, to the futility of violence. That’s what I like about metaphor. It can be many things to many people.”
But this is Broadway, not the Atlantic Theater Company, and the nagging question remains: Can anyone make a buck off metaphor?
“When the dust settles, I am still a commercial producer, and I have to believe that such shows can succeed on commercial Broadway,” says Wreghitt, who puts his faith in the intelligence of the audience by producing an anarchic storyteller like McDonagh. “There is a portion of the Broadway theatergoing audience that has always been sophisticated.”
Edward Albee, who dryly notes that no more than three of his 18 plays produced on Broadway managed to turn a profit, declares himself “of two minds” about the audience. “I’m convinced that audiences have been trained to want less. Since it’s economically sound policy to give people what they want, we get plays that are not dangerous or threatening.
“But I am also convinced,” he goes on, “that if someone gave me, say, $100 million and allowed me to choose all the Broadway plays for five years, I could change the habits of the audience and make them want plays that are experimental and wonderful and dangerous and marvelous.”
“Well’s” scribe and onstage narrator Kron finds uptown auds eager to embrace the intimate storytelling techniques she developed at downtown venues like the Public Theater and New York Theater Workshop. “I strive to do theater that is very dynamic with the audience,” says Kron, who addresses the audience directly in the comedy-drama and responds to them just as directly. “The action of the piece is the telling of the story, so their reaction is part of the event and they become part of the action. In a sense, it makes the audience a player.”
And when the audience plays its part and laughs out loud, you’d never mistake it for canned laughter.