When The Other Folks Give Up Theirs

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

When The Other Folks Give Up Theirs

Published in the Daily Record January 19, 2018

There is a temptation, when racists like Trump and tiki-torch bullyboys command so much attention, to let the rest of ourselves too lightly off the hook, because most of us who happen to be white don’t think like bigots. Still, we remain beneficiaries of social arrangements that make it hard for people of color to prosper. White privilege, I think, is a bigger problem than individual bigotry. We resist seeing it, but it’s there.

I could try driving home this point with statistics and studies, but I’d run out of column space. So let me tell it the best way I can: by testifying about what I saw when I reflected on the ways my own family benefited from racially-specific privilege, and how obvious it was.

Family Tales

It partly had to do with money, but mostly it was about education because education was the sap in my family tree.

I have Jewish and Catholic grandparents, both from groups not altogether favored in Protestant America. Yet they had white skins, and so they got their chance. My Jewish grandparents immigrated in 1908, though my grandfather had wangled a naturalization in an Atlanta courtroom a decade earlier. I suspect his sponsor had perjured himself testifying, as the record reflects, that my grandfather had lived the requisite five years in the U.S.; I have no reason to believe this was true. (Fleeing the pogroms, you may cut some corners.) It seems improbable, though, that an African immigrant would have had as easy a time in that same courtroom – and in any event an African would not have been admitted to this country after the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. My grandfather prospered in business, and sent his son, my father, to Harvard (the yearbook reveals a virtually all-white class). My dad went on to be a diplomat and a professor at Columbia.

My Catholic grandmother, who immigrated from Canada at around the same time, started as a paid lady’s companion, but married a New England accountant who weathered the Depression by working as a bank officer. Their daughter, my mom, went to the elite Boston Girls’ Latin School (I don’t have her yearbook, but everybody seems to be white in nearby classes), and then Radcliffe (not one non-white face in the graduation photo), Cornell, and Hopkins. Later on she taught college.

Exactly One

And as for me, the third generation? I went to the best high school in Ann Arbor, run by the Education Department of the University of Michigan, state-owned but with an admissions process like a private school’s. There were African Americans in my town, in fact I lived next door to them. But out of a graduating class of 60 at my school, exactly one was African American.

I proceeded on to an Ivy university, which I could afford because of a 50% tuition reduction based on my father’s being a Columbia professor. Looking at the freshman facebook of my class, you can go page after page without seeing a non-white face. My graduate school class at another elite institution had just one African American student. And so the first time I had any significant number of black classmates was 24 years after Brown v. Board of Education, when I matriculated at law school.

I was raised to despise racial prejudice, and have taught my children the same. But have I enjoyed a racially-exclusive education? It seems I have. Have I passed this racially-exclusive educational privilege along to my children? Why, yes. The kids are all products of elite private universities, with almost no public schooling among them in their earlier years. That means that, while they have all had some non-white colleagues throughout their educations (far more than I did, thank goodness), they have almost never had to share in the privations of our city’s majority-black public school students. And the prospects for my grandchildren, the fifth generation in this saga, look similar.

Education both requires money and breeds it. Over time, money from parents and grandparents has bought our family’s young educational options. Take my children: One son’s job was a direct result of unpaid internships he filled while in college; family support alone made those credentials economically feasible. All of my children began their education preparing for one kind of career – and ended up incurring costly curriculum changes or additional schooling costs in order to switch educational tracks that led to the careers they actually have. Privilege buys second chances.

Lead Boots

I don’t want to give the impression that my family were not strivers; every single one of us worked hard, and in that sense we’ve each earned our success. But after the first generation, all of us received boosts from our families’ existing money and education. Privilege could be, and was, rolled along like a ball from generation to generation. But to profit from such privilege, somebody had to receive the ball to start with. And as you can see from my account above, hardly anyone seemed to be handing that ball to African American families when and where I was schooled.

Last summer, I saw a wonderful play called The Niceties, by a young playwright named Eleanor Burgess, a two-act confrontation between a white professor who has made good and a black student who challenges that professor’s status. The student says it better than I can:

“[F]irst came 250 years of slavery, and then came a hundred years of segregation, and then came a deliberate and systematic attempt to exclude black people from good school districts and good jobs and to lock them up or hunt them down for doing things white people do every day. I need you to say that whatever else it stands for, America has systematically persecuted one part of its population, in a way that benefits the other part. In a way that has benefited you… You won fair and square cuz everyone else had lead boots on.”


Do Something

The student’s proposed solution, rejected by the professor, naturally, is that the professor abjure her status and resign. And that challenge extends, mutatis mutandis, to people like me. In my case, the abjuration might have taken the form of letting my kids attend the urban public schools. And that was never going to happen (except for a brief period where one child was part of a gifted and talented program).

As the late, great Gil Scott-Heron sang: “The philosophy seems to be, at least as near as I can see: When the other folks give up theirs I’ll give up mine.” In a world without governmental safety nets, few parents like me are going to give up privilege. But if we can’t bring ourselves to do that personally, we’d better get a government that does it for us by creating opportunities for those historically denied them.

Unfortunately, right now we have a president and a government that seem, if anything, to be fans of lead boots. We’ll need to rid ourselves of these cheerleaders for inequality, but it won’t be sufficient. Those of us who will not be “giving up theirs” need to do something more. I challenge my peers to own their privilege – and do something.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

Not Joyful, Not Triumphant, But Determined

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

Big Picture Logo 1

Not Joyful, Not Triumphant, But Determined

To be published in the Maryland Daily Record December 14, 2017

For those who celebrate Christmas, whether of the religious or secular variety, it’s been unusually hard to get into the mood this year. We usually hope for a pleasing return to customs and traditions (trees, gifts, church services and special meals) that reaffirms our identities as members of families, and, for the believers among us, affirms our relationship with a benign and protective Deity, all bringing about a sense of well-being. And the same is true for any other culture’s or religion’s mid-winter festivities.

Sour Note

Well-being is a sense that’s hard to come by this mid-winter, though. With environmental disasters everywhere (the California fires are the latest at this writing), ever faster melting of icecaps, misrule rife in Washington, possible nuclear war on the horizon, the prospect of financial ruination for everyone in our country except the rich, attacks on national monuments, defunding of children’s health insurance, hate groups resurgent, genocide in Myanmar, and the unmasking of sexual harassment carried out by formerly admired men throughout art, media, and government, just to name some things at random, there’s a sour note in the air bound to infect almost any celebration.

I happened to be up in New York a good deal of the time this last week. On the surface, everything looks as inspiring as ever. There is an astounding tree in Rockefeller Center and a great light show at Saks Fifth Avenue, and the Rockettes are still kicking up their heels with military precision at Radio City Music Hall. Yet if you wander into the Hudson Theatre, where The Parisian Woman, an ultra-topical play about today’s Washington, written by Beau Willimon (creator of the American version of House of Cards) and starring Uma Thurman, unspools nightly, you can sense the real underlying mood. As the play recognizes, no one in the current circles of power really believes in what he or she is doing or saying. But no one stands up for what he or she does believe. Personal advancement and enrichment trumps conscience every time. And the audience seconds Willimon’s perceptions, with bitter laughs at the jokes about Trump and his sidekicks, who appear to have no admirers in that venue.

At the end of a different show, I ponied up $20 for this year’s Carols for A Cure, the wonderful annual collection of holiday songs contributed by the casts of various current musicals, the proceeds going to charities funding AIDS research and care and some aspects of women’s health care. I’ve bought a number of these CDs over the years, and they have frequently served to raise my own holiday spirits. But as I was driving back home this year, I found myself listening repeatedly to a rendering by the cast of A Bronx Tale of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, and thinking different thoughts.

Henry’s Dark Night of the Soul

This song, adapted in 1956 by composer Johnny Marks from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow written in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, as Longfellow was dealing with his soldier son’s recovery from near-fatal wounds in battle, captures the despair of that era in words eerily reminiscent of what we are all feeling now.  Invited by the sound of Christmas bells to rejoice, Longfellow cannot feel it.

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

But Longfellow refuses to take his own depression as the final word, attending instead to the power of the bells:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Longfellow’s encouragement proved justified. His son did recover, and the North did win the War.

No Hands But Ours

And perhaps Longfellow’s larger point is also true. We can and we must take heart this season. Maybe it’s only the familiar power of the bells or the trees or presents or church services or family gatherings to change the mood. Or maybe there is a God, neither dead nor asleep, still presiding over our sad world. But if so, it must be a God whose style of intervention justifies the perception attributed to Teresa of Ávila that God has no hands now but ours. And her perception (or whoever’s it really was) is key.

What we all at our core want most at Christmas is to be cared for and reassured like the children we were when we first came to love the feast. But for grownups that can never be the principal concern. Instead, we shoulder the task of being Santa Claus, the nurturer rather than the nurtured, a task passed on from generation to generation. And this dark year we need to be Santa in a much larger sense, being the providential protector that the bells promised Longfellow was neither dead nor asleep. It is ours to see that the Wrong fails and the Right prevails.

Those Are The Breaks

Because of that assignment, we probably cannot sing Adeste Fideles with quite the accustomed spirit. The task we face is daunting. We are all too justified in feeling neither joyful nor triumphant, whatever the verses claim. But those are the breaks. This Christmas, we need to muster whatever cheer we can, recharge our batteries, and then – come out swinging this next year. Whatever the wounds we have sustained, whatever setbacks lie ahead, we must fight with renewed energy to reclaim our world.

No generation ever lives to see the Wrong totally fail, or the Right totally prevail. But this is the moment we need to stop losing ground. And who knows? Maybe we shall regain enough of it so that some day in our lifetimes we can sing with conviction once more about being joyful and triumphant. Regardless, we have no choice but to try, and no holiday but the present one, by whatever name we call it, to ready ourselves.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column


Revive the Draft? Bite Your Tongue!

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

Big Picture Logo 1

Revive the Draft? Bite Your Tongue!

Published in somewhat different form in the Daily Record, November 10, 2017

Have you learned nothing, journalist Clyde Haberman? You’re my age, plus four years. You, like me, are of the Vietnam generation, the last generation to face the military draft. We of all people should know that forcible conscription is something this nation must never, never, never, never reinstitute. Yet there you go, in the pages of the New York Times on October 24, rising to John Kelly and Sara Huckabee Sanders’ bait. John Kelly pities anyone who didn’t share at firsthand the reality of military service and sacrifice, and Sanders says you shouldn’t get into a debate with a four-star general (one who has that experience). These bits of chest-thumping non-sequitur make you go weak in the knees and suggest that we should maybe all have that experience again, and so maybe we should bring back the conscription.

Oh, you do temper it a bit, and say other forms of national service should be acceptable alternatives too.

Let’s Talk

Really? We need to talk about all of this.

Have you truly forgotten, in this season when Ken Burns’ magisterial Vietnam War refresher documentary is unspooling on DVRs everywhere, what usually happens when our national leaders make war? Well, then, I’ll remind you. They tell us that the cause is just, that our military brass are wise and skilled, that victory is just around the corner. And by the time it comes out that most of it is lies, thousands of our countrymen will have died, more will have been wounded, and most will be scarred forever by the memory of what they faced and did. And as to accountability, forget it. The leaders never face accountability. Robert McNamara and William Westmoreland and President Johnson died in bed, unlike a schoolmate of mine, one of the 23 names from my smallish hometown on that wall. And many of those 23, I’m sure, had no choice whether to face the risk so deceitfully demanded. That is what the draft does.

The draft deprives a conscript of perhaps most important choices anyone as a human being and a citizen could ever make: whether to expose oneself to mortal danger, whether to kill, and whether to lend one’s body and skills to policies made by politicians.

I am not saying it is wrong to choose enlistment, even though swearing the oath will deprive one of the power to make these choices going forward; obviously armies and navies would not work if soldiers and sailors could preserve such autonomy while in uniform. And we do need armies and navies.

Let’s Not Be Orwellian

But the inalienability of an individual’s preliminary decision whether or not to participate is a matter of paramount national values articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The protection of a young person’s right freely to say no goes to our nation’s very reason for being: to assure that “all men” receive protection of their “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” in a land where the laws operate only by “the consent of the governed.” As a lawyer, I could certainly frame an argument that the draft preserved those values. But as a human being, I know that that would be an Orwellian “freedom is slavery” argument. The draft you and I knew made a mockery of young men’s lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and by definition the draft was indifferent to the consent of those it governed at that moment.

Have you forgotten all this, Mr. Haberman? Why, apart from wanting us all to be able to thump our chests like John Kelly, do you turn your back on that lesson? It’s not as if we need the draft; our needs for military personnel have been met with volunteers even as we’ve plowed through two endless wars.[1]

So what, then, is your argument? It seems to be that bringing compulsory service back would assure that the middle and upper classes have some skin in the game. You suggest we might not have had those endless wars we’ve had in the all-volunteer era, had the likes of you and me had to send their sons and daughters off to play in that lottery we call war. Well, again, remember Vietnam, Mr. Haberman. There were better-off folks who did not serve, like Donald Trump and (full disclosure) me. But though some deny it, the statistics bear out that the service and the dying did, if somewhat unevenly, involve all classes,[2] and – do you remember this part? – the War still went on and on and on. Nobody could stop it, regardless of the class distribution amongst the warriors, and regardless of the fact that halfway through, the War lost popular support, especially among the better-off classes.[3]

And Let’s Not Violate the 13th Amendment

As to requiring alternative service, this would just establish a regime of involuntary servitude, rightfully unconstitutional under the 13th Amendment. And it is well to remember John Kenneth Galbraith’s comments about the economic effects of the draft:

The draft survives principally as a device by which we use compulsion to get young men to serve at less than the market rate of pay. We shift the cost of military service from the well-to-do taxpayer who benefits by lower taxes to the impecunious young draftee. This is a highly regressive arrangement that we would not tolerate in any other area. Presumably, freedom of choice here as elsewhere is worth paying for.[4]

The exact same principles would apply in the case of young people impressed into public service, which would be one of the “other areas” of which Galbraith wrote. If we had to pay youngsters what their civilian service would be worth, we would in effect be adding millions of decently-compensated employees to the public payroll every year. Morality and principle aside, I seriously doubt we could afford it. And shame on us if we forced young people to work during what should be some of the most productive years of their lives, and didn’t pay them right.

Many of those we honor this Veterans Day served because of the draft. Yet we honor them because, whatever compulsion may have led them to do it, they still served to preserve our Constitution and our values. And paradoxically, one of the ways we can best honor the values they served for is to make sure that no one else faces that compulsion.

The draft was an abomination we must never revive. Bite your tongue, Mr. Haberman.


[1]. It seems to have been true that at the outbreak of the Iraq war, recruitment by volunteers could not keep pace with demand, in either quality or quantity. See Fred Kaplan, The Dumbing-Down of the U.S. Army, Slate (October 4, 2005). However, the manpower needs of U.S. armed forces, from both a quality and quantity point of view, were being met again by 2009, as chronicled in a carefully-written paper by Louis G. Yuengert, America’s All Volunteer Force: A Success?, at 57, Parameters 45(4) (Winter 2015-16). This balance of supply and demand came about in large part because we do not need so many military personnel any more. “Compare 1971 (during the Vietnam War), when the armed forces totaled about one-sixth of the male population 15 to 24 years old, with 2003 (a time of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), when armed forces were only one-fifteenth of the male population that age and an even lesser share of the total population (because by then large numbers of women were serving in a wide range of military occupations). “ Casey B. Mulligan, Ideas, Costs, and the All-Volunteer Army, New York Times, January 14, 2015. During Vietnam, in turn, we had far fewer personnel on active duty (9 million) than we did World War Two (16.1 million). And of course now we have women filling the roughly 10% of military jobs involving combat from which they were excluded before.

[2]. Clearly, there was a substantial bias in the Selective Service system during Vietnam, a bias active in deferments as well as the practices of some draft boards, that made the conflict more of a “working man’s war” than one might have expected based upon all military-age men’s abstract equality before the law. But there were plenty of better-educated and more affluent draftees. 76% of the men sent to Vietnam were from lower or middle/working class backgrounds. This necessarily implies that 24% of the total 2.7 million troops sent there, or just under 750,000, were from higher-class backgrounds. Many of the different class outcomes were actually caused after men were drafted, not before. Then as now, statistics demonstrate that through the armed forces’ sorting of inductees into military occupational specialties, higher social status military personnel have tended to be heavily protected from the risks of combat. See Alair McLean, The stratification of military service and combat exposure, 1934–1994, Soc Sci Res. 2011 Jan; 40(1): 336–348. That said, on an anecdotal level, it is worth noting the comment of former Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, who recalled his own experience as a company commander in a Vietnam infantry unit that brought together soldiers of different backgrounds and education levels, noting that the draft “does bring people from all quarters of our society together in the common purpose of serving.”

But even granting that more affluent and whiter men were somewhat spared from the full effects of the draft even when on paper they were drafted, it would be simplistic to say that for that reason, their parents’ generation was left less inspired than it would otherwise have been to exert political pressure to stop the war. As I can well recall, there was enormous angst amongst our parents. Even where well-to-do families were successful in keeping their boys from being drafted, a great deal of family effort was often required to qualify for a deferment. And bad things happened to young men without deferments who resisted. Reportedly in 1972 alone, there were 200,600 prosecutions for refusing induction. 210,000 Americans went to Canada, as I would have done had I been left with no alternative but induction. It would be far beyond naive to think that such things had no influence on the anti-war fervor among their parents.

There may not have been a target hung on the professional and upper classes, but they were fully conscious of how at-risk their sons were. And yet the War continued. The notion that the draft would keep unpopular wars from being waged is conclusively refuted by Vietnam.

[3]. By the third quarter of 1968, the War’s fourth year, according to the Gallup organization, a majority of the U.S. public opposed it. Without a doubt, the vanguard of disapproval and resistance was on the nation’s college campuses, where present and future members of the professional and wealthy classes congregated.

[4]. Quoted from Walter Y. Oi, “Historical Perspectives on the All-Volunteer Force: The Rochester Connection,” in Professionals on the Front Line: Two Decades of the All-Volunteer Force (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1996), 46, as cited in Yuengert, Note 1, above at 59. This passage is quoted as well in many other places.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

Helter-Skelter, Seat-of-the-Pants Hilarity: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE at Center Stage

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Shakespeare in Love

Helter-Skelter, Seat-of-the-Pants Hilarity: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE at Center Stage

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 31, 2017

I’m not sure whether “the anxiety of influence” of which critic Harold Bloom writes really inhibits poets. (This, per Mr. Bloom, is the anxiety poets feel about their ability to craft something new in the face of work by their predecessors.) But I’m quite certain it doesn’t apply to playwrights. Shakespeare in Love, now gracing the boards at Center Stage, is as good an illustration as any. William Shakespeare, as we know, has more influence to this day than any other playwright; his phrases and his vocabulary permeate conversation and writing throughout English-speaking lands, and his tales and characters are such archetypes we can generally refer to them without explanation. He is Mr. Influence. But does that surfeit of influence occasion the slightest anxiety on the part of Tom Stoppard? To that we may safely cry “Nonsense!”

This play, an adaptation by Lee Hall from a 1998 screenplay by Stoppard (also author of another Shakespeare takeoff, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) and by Marc Norman, is clearly the product of three dramatists who see Shakespeare’s example and his plenitude as nothing more terrifying than an occasion for going on a lark. Shakespeare’s language and dramaturgy are everywhere in the show, which ostensibly focuses on events of 1593, the year of Romeo and Juliet. The references may be sly (“Wardrobe mistress, quickly!”) or derisive (Will: “Give me to drink mandragora!” Barman: “Straight up?”) or drawn-out and direct (the process by which a misconceived comedy named Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate King’s Daughter morphs into a much beloved tragedy of young love). But they are constant. The creators of this entertainment are glad to have Shakespeare always in the room with them, and glad to point him out. There is no anxiety and no fear about it – just high spirits.

The central conceit is that as of this early date in his career, Shakespeare (Nicholas Carriere) is really not all that good or confident a poet or playwright, and requires promptings and suggestions with both sonnets and his Romeo play from Christopher Marlowe (Avery Glymph), who is the real deal. Marlowe even has to provide in-person real-time assistance to Shakespeare with the latter’s wooing of a theater-struck young woman, Viola de Lesseps (Emily Trask), in a balcony scene that just happens to contain much language that will powerfully remind the audience of a balcony scene in another play. And, like so many Shakespeare heroines, including one named Viola, this Viola will don male garb in pursuit of her objectives, both of the thespian and the romantic nature. In other words, the events of Shakespeare in Love are outrageously depicted as inspirations for things that turn up in Shakespeare’s plays, rather than (as the audience knows full well is actually the case) the other way around. (Just as, in Back to the Future, Marty McFly’s rendition of Johnny B. Goode supposedly inspires Chuck Berry to copy the song.)

The result is ridiculous fun. The sly references to the actual plays and sonnets waft by, the incidents of supposed inspiration pelt the playwright to his often apparently oblivious response, and slapstick, mingled with topical and romantic comedy, is laid on with a trowel. It may be slightly nerdy for the audience to know much about who was who in the world of the late Elizabethan stage, but who won’t chortle as impresario Philip Henslowe (Barzin Akhavan) is threatened with having his feet roasted for nonpayment of a debt to a thuggish but also theater-struck usurer named Fennyman (John Plumpis)? Who won’t enjoy the contemporary feminist overlay when Queen Elizabeth (Naomi Jackson) discusses non-traditional (from a 16th-century perspective) casting – of a woman in a woman’s role, no less – and extolling the benefits of sending a woman to do what’s usually regarded as a man’s job? And who can be insensitive to the charms of a romance that, like Romeo and Juliet’s, grows up between two people we know cannot end up together (in this case an already-married Shakespeare and a wealthy young woman pledged to a nobleman under royal command) – in other words a romance condemned to Roman Holiday brevity but also Roman Holiday charm and brilliance – the more so because Shakespeare is a far more interesting lover than Gregory Peck‘s stolid news reporter?

And most of all, perhaps, is the sense of the theater as a helter-skelter, seat-of-the-pants, totally precarious enterprise, in which people start out to cast or produce a show with no idea how it’s going to be completed, without necessarily even a script, and in which the way to make the final product viable, let alone successful, is, as the script keeps saying, “a mystery.” As Shakespeare and his ever-varying collaborators teeter on the edge of disaster, in large part owing to Shakespeare’s dissolute ways, the play manages to charm and alarm at the same time.

The show comes with an interesting pedigree. Disney Theatrical Productions owned the rights, and reportedly was considering making a musical of the movie, but decided to commission a play instead. There was a 2014 West End production, but never one on Broadway; instead the show’s North American premiere was at the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival in 2016. Evidently it was a big enough hit there that it has grown into the most-produced play in America’s regional theater this season. This particular production first appeared in September at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, which co-produced it with Center Stage, and it is directed by Blake Robison, Artistic Director of the Cincinnati company.

The popularity of such a charming confection is easy to understand, but the ubiquity of the play is a bit more surprising. For all its delights, Shakespeare in Love is a heavy lift. With a large cast (21, including a chihuahua, at Center Stage, with plenty of doubling), a heavy demand for costumes, some really extensive swordplay involving many cast members (here courtesy of two outstanding fight directors, the evocatively-named Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet), and a need for a big set (this one highly reminiscent of the Globe Theater, designed by Tim Mackabee), this is not a play a company can phone in or undertake without lining up financing. It’s understandable that Center Stage would wish to co-produce, and share the expense.

But of course, when you have a theatrical property that is basically a delight delivery vehicle, why not? So perhaps the ubiquity is not such a shock. In any event, this production, which handles all the heavy lifting gracefully (Carriere and Trask are charming star-crossed lovers, the comedic timing is perfect, the swordplay looks dangerous, and the dog is well-behaved).

Since, for all its national popularity, Shakespeare in Love will only appear locally at Center Stage for the time being, you’ll have to see it there – and why go anywhere else, anyway?

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photograph. Photo credit: Richard Anderson.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Everyman Hosts INTIMATE APPAREL’s Triumphant Return to Baltimore

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Dawn Ursula and Beth Hylton

Dawn Ursula and Beth Hylton

Everyman Hosts INTIMATE APPAREL’s Triumphant Return to Baltimore

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 29, 2017

Lynn Nottage is a playwright of immense scope. She can write convincingly of the court of Louis XIV (Las Meninas), the war-torn 20th century Congo (Ruined), or turn-of-the-previous century New York (Intimate Apparel), which is currently being revived at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre. The characters the audience will encounter in her plays are equally diverse: a dwarf court jester, African prostitutes and mercenary soldiers, an Orthodox Jewish cloth merchant (to name a few). But there seems to be a constant in these plays nonetheless: the reality that people of color and women do not get many breaks or many chances for happiness or fulfillment. Whatever they do achieve along these lines is both hard-won and partial.

In fact, that constant reality of limits on the available economic opportunity and on the available happiness is precisely the theme of Intimate Apparel. Heroine Esther (Dawn Ursula), being both black and female, looks for fulfillment in love, in friendship, and in work (as a seamstress and lingerie maker), and it seems at the end that she has obtained about all of any of these that is on offer. It may not be enough, but it remains Esther’s triumph that she has fully occupied the ecological niche of happiness that the oppressive world in which she finds herself affords her. In a kind of tableau vivant at the end, all of the characters who have played important roles in her life swirl around her, and it sinks in how in every case, regardless of whether the characters have been good to her, bad to her, or some of both, she has successfully exploited whatever each could have contributed to Esther’s development.

The swirlers include: Mrs. Van Buren, a socialite, friend and confidante (Beth Hylton) (pictured above with Ursula); Mrs. Dickson, Esther’s landlady at the outset of the action (Jenn Walker); Mr. Marks, the above-mentioned cloth salesman (Drew Kopas), who might be far more to Esther than a friend were it not for the Orthodox prohibition of exogamy; prostitute Mayme, a friend who may not be a perfect friend (Jade Wheeler); and George (Bueka Uwemedimo), Esther’s West Indies pen pal who would like to become Esther’s husband. Each of them, keenly realized by Nottage, provides Esther a very distinct set of opportunities and challenges. If Esther does not negotiate all of these relationships with unqualified success, much of that comes with the territory of being a minority woman in the dawning days of the previous century.

As is generally the case at Everyman, the direction (Tazewell Thompson) and the cast are superb. Notably, Ursula, seen two years ago at Everyman as Mama Nadi in Ruined, adds another memorable Nottage heroine to her resume, less openly emotional than Nadi and perhaps less traumatized (the Congo at war generally being a far more brutal place even than lower Manhattan), but in some ways more interesting for the understatement involved. Hylton, most recently seen as Heidi Holland in The Heidi Chronicles at The REP, squeezes every drop of humor from the role of a superficial and light-hearted socialite, given to lounging around in flattering unmentionables crafted by Esther. Much the same could be said of Wheeler’s wise-cracking hooker. And it seemed that every time Drew Kopas came onstage as Mr. Marks, who was in some ways the most understatedly tragic of the characters, the audience nevertheless leaned forward a little, such was the power of the writing and the acting of the role. Perhaps Uwemedimo’s thick Caribbean accent was a bit over the top (my companion reported great difficulties in understanding him at all), but I suspect that that was a directorial call.

Which is not to overlook the splendid costuming – pretty much required in a play so much about clothing. Designer David Burdick‘s hand was sure, from corsetry and boudoir wear to sharp male outerwear, not to mention an ornate smoking jacket that becomes as significant to the plot as Desdemona’s handkerchief. And I was always a little regretful when the largely ragtime piano cues stopped, presumably the handiwork of Piano Consultant Ernest Liotti.

To those who, like me, unfortunately missed the world premiere of this play, right here at Baltimore’s Center Stage back in 2003, and didn’t make it to New York to see the play up there in 2004, when it won the Outer Circle Critic’s Award for Best Play, this is a welcome opportunity to catch up. Don’t miss it again.


Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photograph.  Photo credit: ClintonBPhotography

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Old Wine in Old Bottles

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Old Wine in Old Bottles

Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 10.3 (Summer 2017)

There are always new plays on Broadway, of course, but it will be a rare week when more than half the mere handful of non-musicals playing there are new, as opposed to revivals. And these revivals seldom hold out much promise of novelty, especially in the casting. Instead, productions of revived plays on the Great White Way tend to rely on the formula of old wine in old bottles, warhorse dramas starring actors we most likely know already, from the big and/or small screen. While we know that novelty is not an indispensable ingredient in theater, and that star-power exists for a reason, it is still a fair question whether this recipe provides adequate theatrical nutrition.

Empty Calories?

The answer to the question, naturally, is: It depends. I sampled one enjoyable mess of empty calories and one more substantial treat on a recent Wednesday, watching Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes with Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon and Richard Thomas, in the afternoon, and Noël Coward’s Present Laughter with Kevin Kline and Kate Burton and television star Cobie Smulders in the evening.

As I watched, I tried to articulate the problems that were nagging at me. What I came up with was this: These are plays written in another time for other theatergoers, preoccupied with other issues; do they speak to us? And are we over-relying on established actors?

Lillian Hellman supplied the empty calories. Her reputation has taken a tumble from heights it occupied in her heyday (she lived from 1905 to 1984). That reputation always came with a sort of asterisk for fabulation and political dissimulation. For instance, Hellman would not allow Tallulah Bankhead and the original company of The Little Foxes to do a benefit show for Finland, recently invaded by the Soviet Union. Hellman claimed she had been to Finland and “it seems like a little pro-Nazi Republic to me.” In fact, Hellman had not been to Finland, and her motive for the refusal seems to have been reflexive Stalinism, plain and simple. People had always known this about her, and it took an increasing toll on her reputation. Dishonesty and totalitarian sympathies (however congenial in modern Washington) have never been popular on Broadway.

This is not to say that probity or political wisdom is necessarily required of an artist, although it tends to matter more with artists whose work has a definite political dimension, as much of Hellman’s did. Take that issue out of the evaluation, however, and give due note to the fact that still her plays continue to be produced, the most recent case in point being Washington’s Arena Stage, which devoted much of its 2016-17 season, including ancillary programming, to a Lillian Hellman Festival.

Rating Hellman

Has the consensus that she is not of the first rank been wrong? It is time for a reevaluation? It has recently been so asserted: Washington Post critic Peter Marks, reviewing last year’s Arena Stage revival of The Little Foxes, starring Marge Helgenberger, which kicked off the Festival, argued that the fact that the play “has not been judged to be quite in” the league of Death of a Salesman or A Streetcar Named Desire “is an oversight.” Making allowances for the caveat that I do not admire Salesman as much as most other critics do, I found little, at least in the Broadway revival, to incline me to incline me to agree with Marks. The Little Foxes is, to be fair, a smoothly running drama with various crises for which the groundwork has been properly laid, and the dialogue is workmanlike, and the characterizations are strong. But none of this adds up to a cast-iron case for either reevaluation or revival.

What exactly is the value proposition of The Little Foxes? Well-made drama? Exposé of Southern gentility? Eruption of bitterness at the folly of life? Or just a star vehicle? I’d argue against any of these responses but the last. The play is set in “a small town in the South” in the year 1900, and concerns the efforts of three Hubbard siblings, Oscar, Ben, and Regina, middlingly prosperous but not aristocrats, to establish an aristocratic level of wealth, via construction of a cotton mill which requires a bit more capital than they can summon without tapping the wealth of Regina’s ailing banker husband Horace, who does not want to contribute. In the end, thanks to considerable skullduggery by all the Hubbards, the money is secured, Horace is dead, effectively murdered by Regina, and in the process Regina has lost all hold on her young adult daughter Alexandra, who sees her mother for what she is.

Mismatched Title

It is worth considering before proceeding how the title and this plot fit together (or, more accurately, don’t). The title refers to a line from the Song of Solomon, which reads (in the wording of the New American Standard translation): “Catch the foxes for us, The little foxes that are ruining the vineyards, While our vineyards are in blossom.” In the biblical context, the vineyards are the paradisal environment of the lovers at the heart of the poem, and the foxes despoilers of that environment.

The quote does not well match the play. The opening dialogue makes clear that any paradisal environment in this southern town is long gone. Oscar’s abused wife Birdie is the only actual aristocrat. Oscar married her for that status and wealth. But that wealth has faltered. Her family’s plantation “in its day was the best cotton land in the south,” but apparently does not yield as it used to. In the Jim Crow era of 1900, Regina and Horace’s household has two African American servants, who are not mistreated but who live in an obviously troublesome power imbalance with their employers. Nor is there a paradise in Regina and Horace’s union; they have a sort of standard-issue failed marriage: on his part “fancy women” whom he does not bother to deny, on her part a refusal to sleep with her husband of ten years’ standing. Obviously, the “foxes,” Regina and her brothers, are not disrupting any existing paradise; arguably, in their rapacity, they are helping build one up, at least a paradise for the Southern oligarchs of their day.

A better, if slightly oversimplified, title might be Bad People Behaving Badly. Yet the play does not invite us to derive entertainment from that kind of spectacle as do, say, The Beggars’ Opera or A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder or Chicago. There is no tongue in Hellman’s moralistic cheek. But moralizing is more familiar and workable in plays with some kind of strong moral center, exemplified by an identifiable hero or heroine. Here, we may have sympathy for Horace, who with his candor and his terminal illness certainly has his pathetic side, but he has not been a good husband, and he is ineffective in the end against his scheming wife. Birdie, the put-upon and beaten spouse who has retreated into alcoholism to escape her unhappiness, is certainly a kind and gentle soul, but she too is ineffective. Regina and Horace’s daughter Alexandra comes closest, but all she can do is make her escape at the end; she redeems herself, but she is a character with one significant scene only; it is not her play.

So: yes, this is a well-made drama, but one in which we can only bring ourselves to care for the losers, and the losers are not tragic figures. Better well-made dramas will induce us to care.

Taking Down the Already Taken Down

And if the play is an exposé of anything, it is of crass arrivism, but the crassness cannot be justly blamed for debasing an admirable society, since post-Reconstruction Southern wealth had little to recommend it, at least in Hellman’s condemnatory view. (Hellman herself had grown up in mercantile New Orleans.) And even if we accept it as a takedown of the South of that era, so what? By the time the play premiered in 1939, that era was nearly forty years in the rear-view mirror, and now it is going on three times that. Notwithstanding Faulkner’s crack about the past not even being past (especially in towns like the one where Foxes is set), in fact this past differs quite a bit from the present. An argument could be made, I suppose, that the Hubbards are not dissimilar, spiritually, to the rapacious yahoos running our country right now, but I could list as many differences as similarities. Foxes does not seem topical to me.

An eruption of bitterness at the folly of life, then? If so, it is not a perceptive one. If there is anything forcing so many of the characters to be so nasty, Hellman has failed to point it out. They might well be typical of us all, for all the clues in the script to the contrary. But this is no Brechtian cry of despair at human perversity either. The bad characters are simply bad people. Hellman does not think it necessary to explain them or excuse them (there is a hint, not greatly elaborated on, that Regina’s hardness comes from her having been passed over in her father’s will for the male heirs), and in that failure disappoints the modern sensibility. Much of today’s best dramatic writing is for long-form television, and we have all become used to that genre’s signature flawed heroes and villains with redemptive qualities. In contrast, Hellman’s characterizations may be, as I said, strong, but their flatness tells against them.

Great Actors to the Rescue

This all begs the question why then we have had two major productions of the play in a year. The answer, I think, is Regina: a big role for a big actress. In the current remounting, there are two Reginas, alternating, with the role of Birdie serving as a consolation prize for the other lead. The afternoon I saw it, Laura Linney was Regina and Cynthia Nixon was Birdie. Both were wonderful, of course, but Linney was stunning in her villainy, her voice going low and guttural when she was doing her worst, dishing out evil, even death, with a charming smile. Nixon tremulously made the most of a role that called mostly for dreamy alcoholic neurasthenia and vulnerability. I hear good things about the shifts in which she takes over the helm as Regina.

I would add that it was a pleasure to re-encounter Richard Thomas, now much older than when audiences first encountered him, as the moribund Horace. In Horace’s long second- and third-act duel with Regina, where most of the hostilities are carried out with some residual friendliness and warmth before the killing starts, there was still a trace of boyishness in him that played well.

So if there is a reason to see Foxes, it is as a showcase for actors. I would argue that this is seldom enough. Without getting into philosophical debates about the relative importance of the performer and the work, an audience generally does best checking off both columns.

Prewar Play, Postwar World

Present Laughter was written in 1939, the same year that The Little Foxes premiered, and was nearly produced in that year, but production was halted by the War. The play did not reach the West End until 1942, and the original Broadway production had to wait until 1946. Though there is a reference in the script to events in 1937 that seem recent, nothing in the script absolutely rules out a setting in a postwar world. Nonetheless, this play, like Hellman’s, somehow exudes a prewar air. In The Little Foxes, that air derives from the treatment of race relations and the depiction of Southern social structures based on segregation without any apparent need to critique them deeply, something that would not have been possible after the war. (Read James Gould Cozzens’ 1948 novel about white people, Guard of Honor, set on a Florida Army Air Force base during the war, to see how inescapable race relations had become by that point – though clear thinking about them did not necessarily ensue, as Cozzens’ confused wrestling with the subject betrays.)  In the case of Present Laughter, the sense of pre-war-ness derives from a studied and determined frivolity that does not seem consistent with Cold War strictures, nor with the postwar austerity that structured so much British humor at that time. (See Kingsley Amis’ 1954 masterfully frivolous Lucky Jim for a useful illustration: the pinched circumstances of that world which so limit Jim Dixon’s opportunities in life become the very soil from which the comedy grows.) By contrast, the humor of Present Laughter is the humor of plenitude: a plenitude of money, social capital, sexual opportunity, and fame: things England was not to enjoy so comfortably again until the time of the Beatles and Carnaby Street.

What Coward was being frivolous about in Present Laughter was himself. The protagonist Garry Essendine is without any dispute largely a self-portrait: a star performer as dependent upon an entourage as its members are upon him. They are a family: a bickering and transgressive family, to be sure, but a family nonetheless. While Coward devotes a limited quantity of comedic attention to Garry’s art, largely through Garry’s near-stalking by Roland Maule, a working-class would-be playwright who inexplicably idolizes Garry, the main focus of the play is Garry’s management of his chaotic sex life. Separated from his wife Liz, who, still part of the entourage, has taken on the role of a complaisant ex-spouse, he seems to subsist on a steady diet of one-night stands, including one with the stage-struck Daphne (who in another generation might have been called a groupie), and (more dangerously) one with Joanna, the wife of one member of the entourage and the inamorata of another. The farcical and romantic complications of the lifestyle, not to mention the strains they place on Garry’s psyche and schedule, are resolved when, at the end, Garry and Liz reunite, literally fleeing the “studio” which has been the scene of Garry’s sexual hedonism.

Coward Straight and Gay

I have said that Garry was largely a self-portrait, but with at least two important limitations. In the 1940s, it was widely known that Coward was gay (he told Gore Vidal he had never slept with a woman), so only in certain respects could the events of the play be said to have been based on life. There are at least two double-entendre lines in the play that might be interpreted as suggestions that Garry is bisexual, but the character is basically straight. That meant, inevitably, that there was a cleavage between Coward and Garry, because a straight Coward would not have been Coward. As Coward’s biographer Philip Hoare has pointed out, Coward was not effeminate in manner nor did he particularly approve of gays whose persona was effeminate. But there was still a difference between gay and straight matinee idols, if only as a matter of distinct social networks, and the availability of marriage to heterosexuals. (Garry’s retreat into marriage was not just the resolution of the plot’s problems; as Hoare points out, it also served as an inducement for the Lord Chamberlain to license the play, risque subject matter notwithstanding). In the current revival, unlike the original West End production, which starred Coward himself (whose homosexual reputation had preceded him), Garry is played by Kevin Kline, so the straightness of the character is reinforced.

Secondly, except for freakish ultra-self-referential pieces like [title of show], the difference between the creator of the work and any character in the work is that the character is not the creator of the work in which the character appears. Garry is not the playwright of Present Laughter, and probably would not have sent himself up the way Coward sends up Garry. Garry is vain, as witnessed by this exchange between Liz and Monica, Garry’s secretary:

Liz I’ve brought him a dressing-gown.

Monica How thoughtful – he’s only got eighteen.

Liz Don’t be acid, Monica, you know he loves peacocking about in something new.

At his age, Garry’s promiscuity is no longer suitable

Garry What’s on your mind?

Liz Your general behavior.

Garry Really, Liz! What have I done now?

Liz Don’t you think it’s time you started to relax?

Garry I don’t know what you’re talking about….

Liz You’re over forty, you know.

Garry Only just.

Liz And in my humble opinion all this casual scampering about is rather undignified.

Garry is unrealistic about his artistic scope (maintaining he is capable of playing Peer Gynt when his handlers know he is not), conscious of how much his entourage owe him while ignoring his dependence upon them, given to overacting both onstage and off. If Coward actually thought himself to be just like his creation, it would probably have led him to despair or reform.

Moreover, the resolution of the “casual scampering” problem, a return to monogamy, was not Coward’s resolution at all. In fact, there is little evidence Coward saw it as a problem in the first place. At around the time the play was produced, Coward took up with Graham Payn, with whom he then maintained a sexually open relationship for many years, with ample room for “scampering” on both sides. Payn therefore was in somewhat the same position that Liz occupies at the beginning of the play, the complaisant significant other; he never sought or achieved the position Liz occupies at the end.

So, what we have at the center of the show is a self-portrait with huge exceptions, exceptions big enough to justify downplaying the self-portrait aspect altogether. Kline plays the role as a generic British pre-war matinee idol, not as Coward, and this is a sound choice.

Narcissism Not Such a Draw

So we return to value propositions. We can ignore the self-portraiture of the artist, since, as we have seen, it was never seriously meant: just the work of a very talented playwright having fun with his image. We can likewise ignore any semblance of a moral tale, because, regardless of what in the play might have placated the Lord Chamberlain, it too is unserious. Promiscuity is a delightful if slightly exploitative game Garry plays, and if he gives it up, he does so because it has become too much trouble to go on with. What is restored at the end is not the moral order, merely the peace.

There are two things of potential value left: the chance to spend a couple of hours in the company of Garry, who is simply fun to watch in his comic self-absorption, and the farce.

As to the first of these things, the comically self-absorbed artist, lost in self-serving narcissism, was probably more of an original figure once. Now he comes close to stock. Think of Gulley Jimson, the exploitative painter in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944), conductor Sir Roy Vandervane in Kingsley Amis’ Girl, 20 (1971), Georges Seurat in Sundays in the Park with George (1984), prima donna concert musicians and conductors depicted in the Mozart in the Jungle series (2014 – ) and of course the cavalcade of egomaniac thespians portrayed in one-man and -woman shows like Looped (2010) about Tallulah Bankhead, or Barrymore (1996). It would be nice to say that Garry is more amusingly or even insightfully depicted than many of his successors, but to be candid, many of the later ones are done better, and, while it is unfair to Coward, even if one is hearing the words in Garry’s speeches for the first time, many of them now carry the ring of over-familiarity.

For instance, when Garry is brushing off his first conquest of the play, Daphne, he says:

Listen, my dear. It isn’t that I don’t love you, I do … but my life is not my own – I am not free like other men to take happiness when it comes to me – I belong to the public and to my work.

In today’s world, Coward could not have written these words, no matter how tongue in cheek. If Daphne had read or seen the works listed just above, she would have rolled her eyes at the cliched self-importance of the line, and have understood she was being put on. Instead, being a creation of 1939, she goes away dejected, looking a bigger fool than Coward could have meant her to be – particularly since she is bright enough by the end to work out how she has been had, and to exact a very witty revenge on Garry.

In short, Garry as a personality is not the fun today he might have been once.

But, Hey, the Farce!

That leaves farce. Fortunately, the best farce is just about timeless. And on this score Present Laughter qualifies. The set contains the requisite complement of doorways, and the script contains sufficient indiscretions that must be concealed, sources of confusion (like a phone wired to ring in the wrong place), and manic characters like the unstoppable young leftist playwright. It remains good for plenty of laughs.

There is even an interesting variation on the typical progression of farce. The usual pattern is that matters get more and more excruciatingly complicated until at the end of the play the dam bursts: secrets come out, confusion is dispelled, and the characters must finally adjust to whatever the burst dam has washed up. That, or a variation where everyone’s deceptions somehow carry the day, is usually where the play ends. Here, the dam bursts in Act Two, and Act Three returns us from farce to the world of ordinary comedy – but with what amounts to a farcical dynamic. There are no more secrets: Garry’s (and others’) secret liaisons and Garry’s character flaws have already been revealed in comically catastrophic fashion. In Act Three, Garry is going away for an extended tour in Africa, and finds, to his surprise, that the unmasking of those liaisons and flaws has done nothing to quench the ardor of his admirers Daphne, Joanna and Roland – all of whom plan to come along on the tour with him. Self-delusion of Garry’s admirers has taken the place of concealment, lies, and misunderstandings and has become the new engine of the plot. Now Garry is in a comic dilemma, as he possesses little ability to say no to ridiculous demands. And if he fails to say it, he will wind up immersed in the hell these fellow-travelers would inflict upon him. The resolution, Liz taking him in hand, reinstating the marriage, and fleeing the scene with him, is straight, character-based comedy played as farce, complete with two of the interlopers isolated behind separate doors as the couple escape. It is, incidentally, the same use of flight to cut a Gordian Knot in the plot that Coward employed in his own Hay Fever (1925), where the histrionics of a theatrical family caused a group of visitors to the household to end the play by fleeing, but with this twist: this time it is the theatrical family doing the fleeing and the visitors who are left behind.

As I have said, the best farce is timeless. The farce of Shakespeare, Moliere, and Goldsmith all continue to work, just as Noises Off and Boeing Boeing will probably continue to do. The reputation of that part of Present Laughter may likewise be deemed secure. The problem (if there is one) lies in the fact just mentioned, that farce is only intermittently the predominant element. It is only a small part of Act One and a smaller part of Act Three. Satire and classic comedy of character take up at least as much space. And that part, for reasons already largely discussed, creaks quite a bit. It requires masterful execution to hush the creaking.

Fortunately, the revival here is up to the challenge. It starts, of course, with Kevin Kline rocking dressing gowns and smoking jackets, a pencil-thin moustache, hypocrisy and world-weary one-liners; the audience would expect no less. But there is much to be said for the direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel; having immersed myself in the script in the morning before seeing the show, I detected many little changes: changing a place name to something American audiences might more likely recognize, boosting Garry’s alleged age from 40 to 45 (Kline exceeds that by over twenty years, while Coward by contrast was 42 when he appeared in the role), and the like, all emendations designed to smooth potential rough edges. Having the excitable Maule played by Bhavesh Patel with a somewhat Indian accent and playing into stereotypes (fair or not) of excitable South Asians worked well. Smulders as Joanna and Burton as Liz were each superb too. Most of all, the pacing was spot-on, a thing that matters, particularly in farce. (I recently saw a Noises Off that simply went too fast for the audience to absorb enough facets of the carefully orchestrated chaos.)

In consequence, the audience was willing to be indulgent during the unavoidably creaky parts (which were still noticeable). The show, then, is not perfect, not profound, and has value primarily as a vehicle for clowning and farce. But, as Mercutio remarked in a rather different context: “‘Tis enough, ‘twill serve.”

Old Bottles

The more interesting question is whether devoting two among Broadway’s mere forty-one stages to these revivals, and among the perhaps six devoted to plays on this particular Wednesday, was what zoning lawyers call “the highest and best use” of these venues. There is no definitive answer to the question; the scarcity of seats and the height of the prices at both shows establishes that the producers were behaving sensibly from a financial standpoint. Revivals with familiar faces certainly do sell. The biggest value proposition for such a production is probably one which, frankly, motivated me too somewhat: the ability to say “I saw [insert name of star]!” But is that really a good enough reason to sell so much old wine in old bottles when so much deserving younger wine goes undrunk?

Should we be focusing so upon sales or should we be talking about nourishing the theatergoers’ artistic souls? As I’ve said before in these pages, we are in the midst of a golden age of playwrights, with great new scripts competing for attention every day. And most of it, if it ends up in New York at all, will find itself Off-Broadway, or Off-Off. Don’t newer playwrights deserve center stage in their lifetimes?

And what goes for the shows goes for the performers as well. Yes, Kevin Kline is brilliant as Garry, but he is over a quarter century older than the original script calls for. If he weren’t doing this show, he would probably still be working. But somewhere there are various actors who could show us equally good if not even better things in that role. We probably won’t get to see them do it. The same goes for the other big-name performers I’ve mentioned here.

I recognize that I’m suggesting the desirability of a certain paternalism on the part of Broadway producers, a certain responsibility to keep the public taste from being satisfied too easily, with too many comparatively empty calories. And I know that it’s not likely anyone with money on the line would listen. But a critic can dream.

A critic can go on maintaining a cardinal rule for the paternally-inclined: The sensible parent would not ordinarily let the child start dinner with the dessert; the main meal should come first.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review


Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review


Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 10.2 (Spring 2017)

Plays are not real in the sense that bullfights are real; none of the performers is fighting for his life, or his love, or his standing in the community. Each player will still be there, breathing and unchanged, at the curtain call. But if the show is any good, we in the audience shall have been responding with part of our minds as if we had actually been attending a bullfight, or a wedding, or whatever.


That half-belief comes partly from self-persuasion, but pretense in our own minds is seldom sufficient. We require artifice as well. We want acting, makeup, costume, setting, and lighting – and not least the corporeality of the performer – to help us half-believe.

To that end, some kind of verisimilitude in the actor’s appearance seems tremendously helpful. All other things being equal, we in the audience usually do best at persuading ourselves of the reality of this unreal spectacle when presented with a plausible physical correspondence between the actor and the role, what the EEOC in its regulation allowing sex discrimination in casting speaks of as “authenticity.” In English-speaking theater, for at least three hundred years, the conventions of the artifice have usually relied upon such authenticity. We have historically looked for men to play men, women to play women, the old to play the old, the young to play the young, and (though we have, as will be seen, tolerated some defections from this norm) for the racial divisions of the characters to be matched by those of the performers.

Rejecting Authenticity

Of late that has been changing explosively, with a vogue for “nontraditional” casting (spelled both with and without a hyphen). The phrase gained currency after a theatrical industry survey and a conference in 1986 generated the so-called Non-Traditional Casting Project.

The quintessential show of 2015, Hamilton, did not merely tolerate nontraditionally casting our white Founding Fathers (and Mothers) with nonwhite performers; it caused a controversy by recruiting replacements for its original cast and members of a touring company cast with a casting notice that specifically called for only “NON-WHITE ACTORS” [all caps in the original]. After the outcry, the non-white language was brought down to lower case and a confusing additional phrase was added: “Performers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are encouraged to attend.” A 2015 production of Spring Awakening previously mentioned in these pages cast many of the roles with deaf actors whose American Sign Language speech and “singing” was tracked by differently abled performers voicing what the actors could not; one of the performers navigated the stage, even the dance numbers, in a wheelchair.

One argument for nontraditional casting is uncontroversial: it is well-recognized that there are too many roles which, if the demands of authenticity were strictly complied with, would go to fully-abled white men, leaving not enough roles left over to give anything like parity to other performers. There is little need to discuss the obvious parity problem. But there are more reasons for eschewing authenticity than simply avoiding a lack of equity.


The multiplicity of reasons has given rise to an accepted taxonomy. Scholar Angela Pao in an indispensable 2010 study, No Safe Spaces, has summarized the types: color-blind (and I would add gender-blind and ability-blind) casting (aiming for the best performer), societal casting (putting ethnic, female, or disabled actors in roles they might perform in the real world, though I’d argue this actually conforms to authenticity’s agenda), conceptual casting (nontraditional casting to give the play greater resonance), and cross-cultural casting (transposing the entire world of the play to a different setting).

Whatever the motivation or the rationale, it is a problem. We’re none of us race-blind, gender-blind, age-blind or ability-blind. And we think plenty about ethnicity too. We do notice, much as most of us wish we didn’t, when confronted by anti-authentic casting. Anyone who says he or she doesn’t notice all these differentiations is simply lying. And since we do notice, we find the suspension of disbelief harder every single time with non-authentic casting, and we always shall. It will not slip by and it will operate to discourage the suspension of disbelief.

That axiom is hardly a reason never to engage in unconventional casting. But we’d better do some hard thinking about what in unconventional casting works best and what works worst, and why. As it happens, I do have some thoughts.

Ignore the Female Innkeeper and Lola

Let’s set to one side for this discussion roles that, within the expectations of the culture in which the play was written, do not call for a particular, gender, ability, age, or race. It probably would not have mattered much in Louis XIII’s time whether the innkeeper who stuck Athos in the cellar where he drank up all the wine was male or female, so any dramatization of The Three Musketeers can cast either a man or a woman in the role. Dumas wrote the character as male, but I saw a woman do it this last summer and it hardly registered. Likewise, there are cases where historical authenticity is unimportant. If a witness at the Caine mutiny court-martial is black and not a mess attendant, the fact that the Truman’s order fully desegregating the armed forces, fighting men on destroyers among them, came three years after the action isn’t going to rob it of much credibility. Conversely, if the witness were female, it would probably seem more out of place, since, as is commonly known, the gender desegregation of Navy fighting vessels began a quarter century later. Nor, speaking of ships, is anyone going to care about gender or race in the chorus/crew of the S.S. American, where Anything Goes.

In similar vein, let us (momentarily at least) set aside casting like Hamilton’s or that of Hairspray’s Edna Turnblad, casting which deliberately transgresses our expectations for a reason. Nor am I speaking of characters who straddle sexual boundaries in some way, like Lola in Kinky Boots or Dr. Frank N. Furter in Rocky Horror.

Who Owns Tevye and Tzeitel?

I am speaking of casting a performer who looks or sounds different from what the context would seem to call for, and that casting raises serious problems of proprietorship or plausibility.

Problems of plausibility, for instance, were posed in a 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof that cast as Tzeitl Sally Murphy, an Irish rose who by her looks did not plausibly come from an Eastern European Jewish gene pool, and in the same production raised questions of proprietorship by casting gentile Alfred Molina as Tevye, who might have looked the part, but raised some offense among Jewish theatergoers by occupying a quintessentially Jewish role. Problems of both proprietorship and plausibility were raised by casting African American female Lizann Mitchell as the Stage Manager in Our Town in 1998 (fictive Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire standing in for towns that would have been all-white and arguably being about white concerns, and the role having been written for a man). Likewise with cross-cultural stagings of Hello, Dolly (1967) and Guys and Dolls with all-black casts, raising in the former instance the argument that there were no blacks in the Yonkers of the 1890s, and certainly in that era no prosperous black culture of the nature depicted there or anywhere, and in the case of both shows the protest that the black performers were not believable enactors of the supposedly Jewish characters. (Pao and also Warren Hoffman, in his recent book The Great White Way, look skeptically at claims that either show highlights a particularly Jewish milieu, although Hoffman acknowledges the problem with presupposing a prosperous African American merchant class in the Yonkers of that era.)

A Korean-American WASP

I shall return to proprietorship, but let us go further for the moment with plausibility. There is obviously something flexible about it. Let me give a recent example from my own experience. I saw this last spring a revival of Harvey at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. This 1944 play is a comic fantasy about the liberating effect that belief in a human-sized invisible rabbit (who may just be real) can have. The hero, Elwood P. Dowd, can see the rabbit, and no one else can. Those who can’t include the WASP ruling class of his western town, including his sister Veta and Veta’s daughter Myrtle. In the Guthrie production Veta was played by a conventionally cast white woman, while Myrtle was played by a Korean-American performer, Sun Mee Chomet, an accomplished actress and a terrific comedienne with a gift for falling to pieces hysterically, which is what the role calls for. But no one could mistake Ms. Chomet for a WASP or a realistic target of the play’s social commentary. Worse, much of the comedy surrounding Myrtle and Veta concerned mother-daughter conflicts, and the physical unlikelihood of that family tie in that era (by coincidence the U.S. movement for interracial adoptions began in 1944, the same year as the play) just made it harder to suspend disbelief than it ought to have been. By contrast, the role of cabbie E.J. Lofgren was played by an African American man, probably not quite realistic with that name in the specified place and time, but not totally implausible. Referring to the earlier-referenced taxonomy of the nontraditional, Myrtle’s casting was color-blind, whereas E.J.’s was societal, or something close to it. And as I have commented above, societal casting does not challenge authenticity or our craving for realism.

But when that challenge does occur, we must ask ourselves some difficult questions about what our desire for realism really means in the artificial world of the theater, and whether our taste for “realism” is pure, or is instead an unacknowledged nostalgia for the hegemony of the white, the male, and the fully abled. (Hoffman and Pao each quote liberally from critics whose pleas for realism were pretty transparently, if unconsciously, motivated that way.) I was actually relieved when, shortly after the Harvey production, I found I was feeling the same way about a production of Wendy MacLeod’s Schoolgirl Figure, a black comedy about anorexia, in which two of the three performers portraying teenaged girls engaging in a starvation competition were not skinny enough to be credible to me. My desire for a performer to be body-plausible seems not to have been confined neatly to racial and gender categories, after all. But I still distrust myself.

Three Frames

And I still ask myself why I care about authenticity. And why I seem to care more in some contexts than others. Pao has an explanation for the context sensitivity too. She writes:

All more-or-less traditional dramatic theater productions refer to between one and three frames of reference: (1) the era of the author, (2) the era of the director/actor/spectator, and (3) the era of the fictional world of the play. These frames may all coincide (e.g., a 1950s American production of Death of a Salesman or A Raisin in the Sun); the first and second may be the same (e.g., a production of Racine’s Andromaque at the court of Louis XIV); the first and third may be the same (e.g., a Molière comedy being performed in the twentieth century); or all three may be different (e.g., a nineteenth-century production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar).

She posits, and my own reactions seem to conform to her proposition, that the more distant from contemporaneity these three frames move, the less nontraditional casting disturbs audiences. The locus classicus of relief from the cravings for realism, for most modern audiences, is Shakespeare, whose works in all three frames are at least four hundred years removed from us. And over those four hundred years, as almost every theatergoer knows, casting conventions have radically changed.

Shakespeare Is No Touchstone

Richard Burbage, the Globe’s impressario, cast all of Shakespeare’s roles, both male and female, with males. Burbage had no choice in the matter; women were not permitted on the stage. So casting men in women’s roles was, for Shakespeare, a baseline artifice, like stage lighting today. By coming to the theater, his contemporary audiences had bargained for it, had, to use a recently popular phrase, baked it into their expectations. That is not the same thing as to say that they were inured to unconventional casting; they were simply inured to different casting conventions.

But I would maintain that, like modern audiences, they noticed. I’d theorize that it was because Shakespeare knew they noticed that he had so much fun with the recurring device of female characters, Rosalind and Portia and Viola and Julia, disguising themselves as males so convincingly that the characters around them do not notice and are completely taken in. What a relief it must have been for Shakespeare’s original audiences to be freed, if only for a time, from the burden of noticing – for a man playing a woman playing a man is going to be able to be far more authentic as a man than he can ever hope to be as a woman. (So far as I can recall, there is only one case in Shakespeare of a male character disguising himself, and only briefly, as a female one: Falstaff in Merry Wives.)

There has been a recent vogue of all-same-sex Shakespeare productions, but the directors, I’d maintain, are doing the very opposite of what Burbage did. He cast traditionally within the usages of his time, and they are casting nontraditionally. Whatever the agenda, it differs fundamentally from Burbage’s.

The original casting conditions are not the only reason nontraditional casting goes down easily in Shakespeare. With Shakespeare’s plays probably more than with the works of any other dramatist in our canon, authenticity is almost meaningless anyway. Not only can’t we go back to his time and his casting conventions, we can’t or wouldn’t want to recreate Shakespeare’s staging, costumes, lighting, or anything else. Add to that that so much of Shakespeare is set in fantasy worlds anyway (Prospero’s island, the Forest of Arden, the woods of Midsummer Night’s Dream), real places freely reimagined (fair Verona, Ilyria, Elsinore), or in historical settings that Shakespeare and his contemporaries could only have had sketchy ideas of, like Caesar’s Rome, Titus Andronicus’ Rome, Cleopatra’s Egypt, or even England in the reign of King John. When one searches for ways to be authentic with Shakespeare, one scrambles for one’s footing. There is no there there. The texts are like vessels into which we are obligated to, and thus freed to, pour a tremendous amount of our contemporary imaginations. Shakespeare is seldom done in doublet and hose, but instead almost always in some more modern form of dress, with part of the fun being to see how it’s adapted.

And in such a context, the demands of authenticity of gender, ability, race or age seem to be considerably relaxed. And much the same goes for classic Greek or Roman drama.

In the middle distance, a current production of a work set a couple of centuries ago, there is the current revival of of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 playing on Broadway as I write these words. I have not seen it (though I reviewed the earlier production in these pages), but I have seen videos, and am aware that Tolstoy’s heroine, a member of the Russian gentry during the Napoleonic wars, is sung by Denee Benton, an African American performer who does not plausibly physically resemble the Natasha Tolstoy would have had in mind. It might be a challenge for a minute or two to see her in that role, but worth it. On video, Benton checks off all the other boxes: young, pretty, passionate, elegant. Some stretching of audience expectations may be required, but audiences can obviously deal. And why not? Frames 1 and 3 (as Pao summarized them) are considerably removed from today.

The Opposite Extreme

But what about at the opposite extreme? What about modern works whose force seems to depend upon their ability to speak to what we understand about contemporary America – particularly the modern domestic drama (exemplified by modern masters like O’Neill, Miller and Williams)? As with everything else, it seems to depend. Color-blind casting creates the greatest challenge in these contexts, both because, as with the Harvey example, it is likely to suggest family relationships that are genetically impossible, and because, if taken literally, it would contradict what we know to be plausible about the entire world of the play or detract from the concerns of the play. Whatever one thinks of Death of a Salesman (and, unlike most critics, I don’t think much), if Willy Loman is anything other than white we are going to be distracted by thoughts of how he fits into a predominantly white business world. Miller is trying to make us consider Willy’s dilemmas in light of failures of integrity, his own and that of the company which employs him, not in the light of racial dynamics. It would alter our focus as an audience.

Well, it might be suggested, what if we make the company he works for and most of the people in his orbit nonwhite? Would the problem drop out? That is the key question about cross-cultural casting. Mostly the cross-cultural shift does, at a minimum, alleviate the problem – not because it makes the show more realistic, but because it does the opposite. If Willy and his employers and his family are all black or Asian, they are in a nearly-Shakespearean neverland, because Arthur Miller wasn’t writing about a world populated that way, and the one he wrote about probably had no near-equivalent anywhere that such homogeneous nonwhite populations were to be found. And neverlands, like the world of the classics, seem far enough away so we worry less about realism. Or there may be ways to transpose the play, with some alteration, more realistically to some nonwhite context – and in that context, probably the insertion of white actors would be equally disruptive.

The same holds true about gender, I think, and applies equally in the sphere of comedy. Take The Odd Couple. Felix and Oscar could be black, but they could only be men. To be sure, in 1985, Neil Simon rewrote the play to make the leads, now named Florence and Olive, believably female, but it did require rewriting (out with the poker, in with Trivial Pursuit). Tony and Maria have to be a young male and a young female and must at least appear convincingly white and Hispanic, respectively, because their age, ethnicities, and genders are crucial to everything that happens in West Side Story. (Actually Maria was first played on the stage by Italian-American Carol Lawrence and on screen by Russian-American Natalie Wood.) Similarly, a female or juvenile Tevye is almost unthinkable.

Race and gender, however, are not comparable when it comes to cross-cultural shifts, because there is no culture in which everyone is male or everyone is female. A production in which all the parts, whether originally written for male or female performers, are instead played by members of only one sex can only be conceptual casting, i.e. casting designed to alter the “resonance” of the production. And exactly what the resonance of such casting might be is a problem.

Single-Sex Shakespeare

The most obvious (and probably most frequently sought) resonance would be to recreate the effect of a Shakespearean stage wrought by all of the performers being male. There have been a couple of celebrated all-male productions recently: the Globe Theater’s Twelfth Night and Washington’s Shakespeare Theater Company’s Taming of the Shrew (with songs by the composer of Spring Awakening). But when you’ve achieved that kind of historically accurate casting, have you actually achieved anything more? The one thing you can be certain of is that you give roles to players who wouldn’t ordinarily get them, and enlarge their possibilities.  (Though I’ve not seen it, I’ve read good things about Rylance’s Olivia in the former production, which crossed the Atlantic to New York twice.) But anything in addition to that? What insights does a historically accurate cast bring? I’ve never heard a convincing account.

With women playing all the parts, including those traditionally assigned to men, the question becomes even more fraught. Shakespeare did not write for any actresses at all. There’s no historical accuracy to be achieved. An informal Web search suggests that the most commonly all-female casting in Shakespeare occurs in productions of As You Like It. As it happens, I did see one of these recently at Baltimore’s Center Stage. Clearly, Goldberg’s production was setting out to convey something. My thought at the time was that it was a largely lesbian message. Rosalind, even before her transformation to a “man,” looked and acted quite butch. The rusticity of the Forest of Arden suggested, and the director and designers went with, a sort of L.L. Bean look to both set and costume, and I commented in my review that it was a “lumbersexual” production. And while that look is more associated with male gays than with lesbians, I don’t think I was dreaming when I understood this tone the way I did.

What Goldberg said for public consumption was not quite the same, however. She told the gay publication Metro Weekly that: “This 400-year-old play is the most gender-bending play in Shakespeare’s canon. It is an invitation to explore gender and identity, and the fluidity of gender.” On the other hand, she disavowed any goal other than the banishment of gender-consciousness: “My ultimate goal is that gender becomes neutralized and you just forget who’s doing what and it’s just about these characters.”

Even taking her at her word, this is still a fairly unusual take on the play, not well-supported, in my opinion, by the text. My point, though, is not whether Goldberg was right or wrong (whatever that means when we’re speaking of Shakespeare), but to point to Goldberg’s casting choices as one strategy for making an unconventional statement with unconventional casting. You can like or, along with me, dislike what she did, but you cannot deny that the casting helped make whatever her point truly was. If it was what I think, the butch Rosalind and the lumbersexuality did in fact convey the feeling of “We’re here, we’re queer, get over it.” And if Goldberg’s intent was what she said it was, the single-sex casting did discourage worrying about the complications of gender, and accepting Goldberg’s stated view that Shakespeare never wanted us to take the plot, and hence the characters’ nominal genders, terribly seriously. Either way, her choice was akin to the subversiveness of the deliberate casting of minorities as Founding Fathers in Hamilton.

So there is something to be said for making everyone one sex, just as there is for making everyone of a different race than that for which the play was written. Something: but not always a great deal.

Patient Outcomes

In my day job as a lawyer I once had to spend a lot of time reading surgeons’ post-operative notes. A common phrase there was “the patient tolerated the procedure well.” The phrase recurred in my mind while writing this. The contract we instinctively prefer to make with a stage performance is: you make it as believable as you can, and I’ll believe as much as I can. But with nontraditional casting, a prop of authenticity is being removed, gradually but unmistakably, as people who don’t look or sound the part are being swapped in. How well are we going to tolerate that procedure? How much are we going to rebel?

One form of rebellion is the modern iteration of I call the one-way ratchet, a ratchet which used to run the other way. Once upon a time, white performers, but hardly ever nonwhite ones, were permitted to play nonwhite roles. For instance, the original 1951 production of The King and I, a show in which most of the characters were Asian, featured few performers of Asian ancestry. Among the leading Asian characters, the King was portrayed by Swiss Russian Yul Brynner, Tuptim by Italian-American Doretta Morrow, Lady Thiang by Jewish American Dorothy Sarnoff, etc. Even most of the children were of non-Asian ancestry. There was, preceding this, a long history of blackface performances by white performers (think Al Jolson singing Mammy). But there was almost no nontraditional casting of nonwhites in white roles. In Hoffman’s book, the history of blackface, and the near-exclusion of black performers from sharing the stage with white ones are described in detail.

One-Way Ratchets

Now, however, even as white roles open up to nonwhite performers, there is serious resistance to going the other way. As a sign of the change, the purportedly “archival” production of The King and I currently playing at the Lincoln Center featured nearly all performers of Asian ancestry in the Asian roles. Lincoln Center’s alteration of course may be traceable back to a 1972 complaint filed against the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center (which then operated the Vivian Beaumont Theatre within the complex, where The King and I is now playing) with the New York State Division of Human rights on behalf of some Asian actors in connection with four plays with Asian settings and characters (including Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan) where whites were cast in Asian roles. The company won the legal battle, but promptly went out of business, and in the process effectively lost the war.

This seems to be mostly about race. It caused some controversy that sighted and speaking Abigail Breslin was cast as the deaf and dumb Helen Keller in a 2009 revival of The Miracle Worker, just as sighted and speaking Patty Duke had been in the original production half a century ago. But unlike the situation with Asians in The King and I, it was not unthinkable.

Attempts to give nonwhite roles to white performers have run into authorial resistance as well. There was a striking instance in 2015, when Katori Hall, author of The Mountaintop, a play about Martin Luther King, Jr., learned that a white actor had been cast as King in a production at Kent State University; Hall wrote an angry denunciation and changed the standard language of her contract with companies producing the play to prevent the companies from putting white actors in either of the play’s two roles. And of course the casting controversy with Hamilton has already been mentioned. (To be fair, the Estate of Samuel Beckett has until recently been equally adamant that Beckett’s plays, set in neverlands if ever any plays were, but apparently white and male neverlands, not be nontraditionally cast. The break in resistance on the racial front came when the play was transposed to post-Katrina New Orleans, and African American players were cast as Vladimir and Estragon. The Estate is apparently still refusing to allow women to be cast in male roles.)

Et Tu, Felix and Oscar?

As we get further into this new age in unconventional casting, then, a lot seems objectionable or pointless, but little is truly impossible. We can cast the old, unrevised Felix and Oscar with women, if we really want to. But we’d better have a point, since we’re doing it in roles that really depended in their conception upon the maleness of the characters. We can cast a white man as Martin Luther King, Jr., in a play focused right on King. But we’ll elicit predictable and perhaps justified indignation. Such choices will probably not be worth it.

The big gains for unconventional casting will be in cases like that of Natasha in the reworked Great Comet, where somehow we can be persuaded not to go on noticing some kind of inauthenticity. The Spring Awakening example, with many of the actors communicating in American Sign Language while other performers spoke and sang their lines, partly worked, but where it didn’t, it wasn’t because of that split between the two kinds of performers. I think I can speak for the audience that we all got past that part very quickly. (As I wrote in an earlier piece, there were other issues in the show like an overcrowded stage, inadequate dancing, and vocal talents that did not measure up to the original Broadway cast’s.)

Despite all the theoretical talk, it looks to me as if there are in the end only two rules with nontraditional casting. First, and paradoxically, the unthinkable (and you’ll know it when you see it) had better be well-thought-through. Second, with every other kind of unconventional choice, one should ask whether the audience can be persuaded to overlook the mismatch between performer and role enough not to have its suspension of disbelief itself suspended. Two principles so broad and anodyne can hardly promise infallible results, but anything more prescriptive would ignore the genius of the theater, which is that the rules are always being successfully broken. You can’t know till you’ve tried it, thank goodness.

It seems a certainty that we’re going to see a lot more trying.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

A Beautifully-Acted Tragedy Of Ideas: SALLY McCOY at Cohesion Theatre

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

A Beautifully-Acted Tragedy Of Ideas: SALLY McCOY at Cohesion Theatre

Katherine Vary

Katherine Vary

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com September 15, 2017

Fifty years ago a Norman Mailer novel followed a young man and his combative, conservative, hyper-masculine father on a grizzly bear hunt in Alaska. The book hardly referenced the Vietnam War, yet the title was Why Are We In Vietnam? The connection, of course, was the toxic masculinity and conservative moral blindness of the father, who stood in for all of the tendencies in America that had drawn us into that cataclysmic conflict.

I was thinking a lot of that book while watching the premiere production of Alice Stanley’s play Sally McCoy, being staged through October 1, courtesy of Cohesion Theatre at its home at United Evangelical Church in southeast Baltimore. Though the play focuses on an obscure event in an obscure bit of history encrusted with legend, the Hatfield-McCoy Feud, it is clear that playwright Stanley views that event as a first-rate microcosm of the perennial central conflict in American culture and history: between a humane, forgiving, religious, and female-friendly outlook personified in the matriarch of the McCoys, the eponymous Sally (Katherine Vary), and the hard, eye-for-an-eye, acquisitive, vengeful, and intensely clannish world view for which the patriarch of the Hatfields, “Devil” Anse (Jonas Grey) speaks.

The event which forms the nucleus of the play occurred in August 1882, when the Hatfields had captured the three sons of the McCoys with plans to slay them for their roles in the killing of a Hatfield. Their mother Sally walked four miles to confront the Hatfields, and most particularly “Devil” Anse, where they lived. Stanley fills in what may have happened next with their playwright’s imagination.

What they fill it with might be called a tragedy of ideas. One by one, Sally runs through all the reasons the Hatfields should show mercy and the Hatfields deflect those reasons as best they can. Which is not to say that this is a sedentary talkfest. There is threatened gunplay, the brandishing of a knife, fisticuffs, screaming and anger. There are also moments of sweetness, when Sally effectively seduces the Hatfield men off their pedestals of obduracy, and offers tenderness to which none of them is wholly insensitive. Sally is passionate, and the Hatfields are hardly less so.

Not that it is all ideas, either. This is also a clash of personalities. Sally, as realized by Katherine Vary, is amazing to watch, as she constantly calculates what tactic, rhetorical, pugilistic, or personal, to employ next. When her bag of tricks appears empty to us, and apparently empty to her for a moment, she keeps coming up with one more – and you can see her own delight and relief at her creativity as she yet again digs up something else. Jonas Grey’s Devil Anse is not oblivious to Sally (after spending most of Act One offstage refusing to deal with her at all); he cannot ignore the power of most of her arguments, but he cannot ignore the pull of his own code, either, which demands that a clan, and especially its head, enforce blood vengeance. That code is paramount in his eyes over any appeals like Sally’s to social order, religion, or fairness.

In the end it comes down to a feminist, liberal worldview versus a conservative, tribal, masculine one. In other words, the great divide in American culture throughout our history.

The acting in this production is astonishing. There is not a weak performance in this cast of five. Vary I have already mentioned. Grey, whom I think I last saw as Richard II at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, brings us here a performance far removed from that icy, indecisive monarch; this is a strong, dominant male, with a great deal of self-confidence who affords an audience, when he does, and a hearing, because that is what strong men do. Thom Sinn, as Valentine Hatfield, a judge who feels he must abandon judicial impartiality and fairness when one of his own family is attacked but does not entirely lose his objectivity or humanity in the process, shows much depth within that complicated job description. Jane Jongeward does an admirable job as Johnse Hatfield, the youngest and most sensitive of the Hatfield men, torn between fundamental decency and family loyalty. Betse Lyons conveys well the glowering aggression of older son Cap Hatfield.

Yet I must say a few words here about Jongeward and Lyons, who occupy these roles thanks to non-traditional casting. Playwright Stanley’s note at the head of the script explains that choice: “It would be ironic at best and hypocritical at worst to shine a light on women’s voices and perspectives with this piece while casting majority white men. Therefore, … it is encouraged that the director employ cross-gender casting [for Johnse and Cap], particularly for Cap, whose hypermasculinity must be performed anyway.” With true respect, I disagree. The corporeality of performers is an indispensable aid to the audience’s suspension of disbelief. And in a play which, as the playwright themselves (Stanley favors third-person plural pronouns) acknowledges, opposes “women’s voices and perspectives” to those which comprise the dominant male voices and perspectives, the more effortlessly we in the audience can see the male characters as such with all of their flaws, the more powerfully Stanley’s point will be made. They have placed one female character in a room with all male characters, and for good dramatic and thematic reasons. Those reasons should not be undermined.

A different kind of point could have been made by having someone who clearly does not belong to a group satirically critique the group by playing a member of that group (e.g. the Asian actors critiquing European imperialists in Pacific Overtures). But this play was not a satire, nor were Jongeward and Lyons critiquing men through their portrayals, only playing them. As I’ve already noted, Jongeward and Lyons handled their roles skillfully, but I have to say it was never possible to cease to be conscious of the fact that they were not men. It weakened the overall effect.

Another thing of a completely different nature that weakened the effect was the length of the play. As good as Stanley’s script is, it would be even better if there were less of it. Every time Sally reaches into that bag of arguments, she comes up with something worth listening to. But until the end she never apparently changes anything. Each brilliant argument seems to be won, but without effect. At some point, the process begins to remind one of the comment of some critic (I wish I remembered whom) about J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea, a tragedy which focuses on the loss of the last of seven family members each of whose six predecessors has ridden to the sea and drowned. As the critic pointed out, if we had had to watch the process going on with each of the six, we would have been helpless with laughter by the time we reached the seventh. It was craftsmanlike of Synge to show us only one. I do not suggest that we should have only have had one of Sally’s arguments, but there does come a point somewhere where one must call a pause. I would suggest that the point here would be the moment when the audience is bound to understand the way the play will end, somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes before the curtain calls.

Fortunately, Sally McCoy appears to be a work in progress. It has had two different readthroughs elsewhere, and it absolutely deserves to be produced and developed further. There is still time to tighten it.

And notwithstanding any critical comments here, I heartily recommend it. Stanley is an playwright of immense talent and with something to say about large subjects. And in this beautifully-acted production, that is plain.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

An Embrace of Dangerous Illusions, Stunningly Portrayed: M. BUTTERFLY at Everyman

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

An Embrace of Dangerous Illusions, Stunningly Portrayed: M. BUTTERFLY at Everyman

Tuyet Thi Pham and Vichet Chum

Tuyet Thi Pham and Vichet Chum

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com September 11, 2017

Our local Equity companies don’t always march in lockstep, but sometimes they do. Case in point: this spring Center Stage presented us with The White Snake, an Asian-themed novelty rich in exotic production values. Now Everyman Theatre has presented us with David Henry Hwang‘s M. Butterfly, an Asian-themed novelty rich in exotic production values. To which I say: keep ’em coming. Audiences, including this critic, love to get away from the familiar.

And not just for novelty’s sake. The story of this play could not possibly be told in any familiar way, because it’s about the encounter with the unfamiliar: a married French diplomat’s affair with a Chinese opera star. That would be enough of an immersion in the unknown, but far more strangeness than that is involved. The diplomat enters the liaison with many notions that he knows are questionable, for instance the opera star’s similarity to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, which he self-consciously fetishizes while acknowledging the possibly illusory nature of the correspondence. Those are what a former Secretary of Defense called Known Unknowns. But it turns out there are some huge Unknown Unknowns for the diplomat, Rene Gallimard (Bruce Randolph Nelson), because of blinders he wears as a Westerner, as a heteronormative male, as a member of an insular foreign policy elite, even as a believer in the world-view of Madame Butterfly.

Gallimard’s feckless plunge into this pool of unknown unknowns will cost him his marriage, his reputation, and his freedom, which the audience can see from the outset, as the play opens with him nearly at the end of his story, in a prison cell. Even then, does he care? Should he care? These are the questions Hwang leaves us with at the end.

Along the way to this conclusion, Hwang and Everyman are going to show us some things we probably have not seen before: an evening at the Chinese opera, a Cultural Revolution-era red flag-brandishing ballet a la The Red Detachment of Women, the clubby, snootily dissolute world of the French diplomatic corps. And we witness again, at second hand, the hubris and folly of the Vietnam War. We will also hear a lot of Puccini and a lot of Miles Davis, two artists it is hard to hear too much of. And it will all be done with smashing theatricality. Plaudits are due to, among others, lighting designer Jay Herzog, set designer Yu-Hsuan Chen, choreographer Chu Shan Zhu, whose work collectively evokes a place of lovely, dangerous differences from our own.

But the biggest credit for this spectacular feat must go to director Vincent M. Lancisi and the cast, particularly Nelson as Gallimard, and Vichet Chum, who takes on the physically, vocally, and kinetically challenging role of Gallimard’s inamorata, Song Liling. Which is not to ignore Christopher Bloch‘s genially cynical turn as Gallimard’s treacherous foreign service supervisor, Tuyet Thi Pham’s puritanical Communist spy-handler, Deborah Hazlett as Gallimard’s wife Helga, nearly but not quite clear-sighted enough for her own good, and Katharine Ariyan’s Renee, a younger woman with whom Gallimard also takes up, breathtaking in her carnal directness. (Pham and Chum are pictured above.)

I asked myself at one or two points whether all this production was being lavished on too small an object, and concluded, after thinking it through, that this was not the case. Though the deluded M. Gallimard and his morally abysmal lover are in no way in and of themselves proper subjects for epic treatment, the grinding together of civilizations, of which their affair is a tiny feature, and the obliviousness with which the West has traditionally approached that grating encounter, not to mention the human capacity for self-deception which is properly a perennial subject of drama, both justify the scale of the show.

It has been widely publicized that in the runup to this production, Messrs. Lancisi and Nelson seized an unexpected opportunity to meet with the gentleman who was the real-life pattern for M. Gallimard, who now resides in an assisted living facility near Rennes. It is impossible to tell whether that meeting yielded insights that were useful in what, after all is Hwang’s play, which was first staged (and won the Best Play Tony and the Pulitzer) in 1988. Despite a two-page writeup in the program, very little of substance comes across in terms of the nature of the man, which may chime with Gallimard’s arguable hollowness. But it is written that Nelson was busy noting his subject’s “gestures, mannerisms and speech patterns.” So it may be that the meeting bore some actual fruit in this production. This much is clear: whatever it may or may not owe to the historical figure’s own personality, Nelson’s portrayal is authoritative: all the glibness of a would-be mandarin who cannot quite pull it off, a lyrical self-awareness that does not quite go far enough, and a touch of madness. Every line rang true.

In about a month’s time, just about when this production closes, the play will be revived on Broadway with Clive Owen, and I’m sure that staging will deserve the accolades it receives. But it will have to be a pretty impressive production to top this one.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: ClintonBPhotography.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review


A Generation and a Movement Considered in THE HEIDI CHRONICLES at The REP

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

A Generation and a Movement Considered in THE HEIDI CHRONICLES at The REP

Beth Hylton and Rex Daugherty

Beth Hylton and Rex Daugherty

Posted on BroadwayWorld September 11, 2017

The Heidi ChroniclesWendy Wasserstein‘s Tony- and Pulitzer-winning 1988 play, returning to us courtesy of The REP Stage in Columbia, has always been hard to characterize. It’s funny, but not a comedy, and sometimes sad, but it’s not a tragedy either. This tale of a kind of upper-middle-class Everywoman making her way through much of the second half of the 20th Century is sui generis, a sort of generational case study. While I have seen it argued that the issues around feminism that the play explores still have currency, I suspect that it mainly holds our attention now as something less specific: an illustration of the interplay between a very specific set of times and a generation, and in particular the women of that generation.

These were the women who, like the protagonist Heidi Holland (Beth Hylton), were told and by and large took seriously that they had the right to succeed in all aspects and at all levels of the workplace, that sisterhood was powerful, that the personal was political, that homosexuality was as respectable as heterosexuality, and that marriage and parenthood need not be the inevitable goals of life, but if pursued, they were compatible with a career. These were also the women whose lives were battered by such things as the loss of Sixties idealism as embodied in the doomed Clean for Gene movement, the death of icons like John Lennon, the onset of the AIDS epidemic, and the moral ugliness of the Reagan administration. All of these ideas and events have their place in the play.

Finally, these were also women who, to a much greater degree than any of their predecessors, had the chance to encounter and thus fall prey to the “glittering prizes syndrome,” the impact upon your life and your integrity when you become a professional success. As Heidi Chronicles trenchantly demonstrates, you may not always want what you get, and you may a worse person if you get it and succumb to its blandishments.

Inevitably for a play thus tied to a particular time, place, and social stratum, the question may arise whether it has weathered well enough to deserve our attention nearly forty years on. Broadway audiences voted on this question with their feet when the play was revived there in 2015, starring Elisabeth Moss, scheduled for a five month run, but could not make it even two months after the official opening. One would have thought that Moss, then still finishing up the role of Peggy Olson in Mad Men (a sort of Outer-Boroughs older sister of Heidi), would have been a huge and perfect draw.

My own take, however, is that the play has aged well. Maybe it does not belong on Broadway again, but it does deserve a place in the repertoire. Women are, of course, still grappling with some of the casual sexism and some of the glittering prizes issues that Heidi confronts. But it is not the specific issues that make the play last and lead me to predict that there will be revivals a century hence. Those issues may or may not completely pass. (One thing is for sure: the pop culture time-stamps like specific songs redolent of particular years will surely almost certainly elude our grandchildren.) But the interplay between bright, somewhat idealistic people and their times is bound to continue, and stories about that interplay are bound to go on holding the attention.

This was brought home forcefully to me as the play began. Wasserstein’s biographer Julie Salamon recounts that the opening was originally to have been a scene at a 1965 high school dance, but it was pointed out that the actors who would perform it would all be in their thirties and not really convincing as high schoolers; the choice was made to flash back to that dance from an opening which introduces us to the mature Heidi, a self-confident art history professor presenting a slide lecture decrying the academy’s overlooking of female artists. In the REP’s new rendering, at least, the staging of the inserted opening did little to hold the interest, perhaps because the idea of projecting the slides onto a white floor may have seemed nifty but in practice made the pictures hard to see, perhaps because Hylton rushed the lines a little, making the lecture qua lecture hard to follow. The scene came across as the after-thought it was. It showed us only a little about Heidi and did not hold much interest as a lecture.

But when the original first scene began, and the real business of the show started, with the introduction of lifelong female pal Susan Johnston (Melissa Flaim) and of lifelong gay soul-mate Peter Patrone (Joseph W. Ritsch), things start to crackle. And they truly light up in the next scene, when Heidi three years later meets the second lifelong male connection, the amoral, seductive, but always perceptive Scoop Rosenbaum (Rex Daugherty, pictured above with Hylton). The story of Heidi and these guys, and to a lesser degree of Heidi and the women around her, a story of connected lives in a changing world, is what has lasted and will last. In a hundred years bright women will still be meeting soul mates. In a hundred years bright but vulnerable women will still be meeting men like Scoop, with similarly incandescent results. And in a hundred years men and women’s lives will still be buffeted by the prevailing winds of the time they live. The winds will be different, but the buffeting will not. And there will still be people that one knows throughout one’s life, through changing circumstances.

The male friends are of greater consequence in the play than the female ones. That may seem strange In a play usually looked upon as a feminist work, and I would regard it as a largely avoidable weakness. The bones are there in the play to make the female characters stand out more. But Susan seems more a foil than a fully-fleshed out character. And in the casting of the play, going right back to the 1989 Broadway production, which I saw (there had been an Off-Broadway avatar the previous year), there was been an surprising amount of doubling among the female performers, with each member of the supporting female cast but one (Susan) carrying at least three significant speaking roles. The original doubling patterns are precisely replicated in this production, with Hallie Cooper, Alina Collins Maldonado, and Madeline Rose Burrows doing the somewhat thankless honors. I say thankless because so much doubling tends to make the woman characters blur where they could be distinct. (A high-school production I once saw, with an unlimited supply of cast members and no doubling, made the characters easier to keep straight.) There is also one male doubler, Anderson Wells, who plays five different roles.

So this is definitely a play with three (and only three) principals. And in this production all are superb. Beth Hylton, quite familiar to Baltimore audiences, primarily for her work with Everyman, gives us a Heidi with all the highs, like the passionate embraces with Scoop, and the lows like the breakdown while giving an address to her alumni association, together with the hesitancy and the observant nature that nonetheless characteristically comes off the sidelines at some point. Joseph Ritsch, whose work in local regional and academic theater has often been in a directorial, managerial or authorial capacity, is serviceable throughout and great in communicating the pathos of Peter’s confrontation with the trauma the 1980s New York gay community went through as AIDS cut through its ranks. I have not previously seen Rex Daugherty, though he comes with a distinguished pedigree, but he is a revelation. He nails Wasserstein’s juicy lines, whether they are lustful, arrogant, or rueful, and makes us understand how this heel could nonetheless carve out such a large place in Heidi’s heart.

A last thought. I wrote above that the play is sui generis. That is not strictly true. I can’t think of anything in American theater or literature that is similar, but there are two British comparators that come to mind: Anthony Powell‘s A Dance to the Music of Time and Frederic Raphael‘s TV series The Glittering Prizes. Both works, like Heidi, follow a group of young people from an elite educational background over time without much of an overarching plot, but rather observe the evolution of the community as its members age, many of them into influential and prominent social roles. The passage of time and the individual and communal changes are the main thing. They tell us something about being a generation – not so much a particular generation as a generic one. That may sound nondescript but in practice it is a singularly valuable thing for a play to do. It is a common experience that does not receive enough dramatic attention.

And if, in the process, the play also delves thoughtfully into reminiscences of the debates over important issues like the women’s movement, as this one does, that is a terrific bonus.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo. Photo credit: Katie Simmons-Barth.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review