Domestic ferment stars on Broadway

Mark Czarnecki December 26 1983

Domestic ferment stars on Broadway

Mark Czarnecki December 26 1983

Domestic ferment stars on Broadway


Mark Czarnecki

The closets of American theatre are full of family skeletons. From Eugene O’Neill to the virulent contemporary satirist Christopher Durang, complex and distorted domestic relationships have always crowded the country’s stages. That is again the case currently in New York. After a financially crippling season on Broadway last year, nothing seems safer for the box office than to draw attention away from nuclear bombs with even more analyses of the nuclear family. And from that increasingly restricted perspective, mainstream American theatre continues to ignore the potential for expansion and revitalization evident in works imported from other countries and cultures.

Tennessee Williams was America’s high priest of domestic ferment, and the initial monument to his memory on Broadway since his death earlier this year is a star-laden production of his first hit, The Glass Menagerie. Instead of reducing the play to window dressing for a showcase performance by that archetypal faded southern belle, Amanda Wingfield (Jessica Tandy), director John Dexter has tried to give all elements their due. But the production never comes together. Ming Cho Lee’s towering, boldly lit set struggles unsuccessfully to soften a harsh St. Louis tenement with the gentle contours of memory. Tandy’s muted pugnacity and Bruce Davison’s cheerfully sanitized rendition of Amanda’s doubt-ridden son, Tom, leach the passion from their poisoned relationship. Only in the quivering scene between her daughter, Laura (Amanda Plummer), and the gentleman caller (delicately played by John Heard) do the creatures in Menagerie resemble flesh and blood more than glass.

Just as domesticated is director Anthony Page’s revival of Heartbreak House, George Bernard Shaw’s despairing parable about paralysed humanity’s inevitable self-annihilation. The production is an import from London’s West End, which appears as anxious as Broadway is to avoid social comment: the lines “Can’t you think of something that will murder half of Europe at one bang?” and “Give me deeper darkness. Money is not made in the light” drift away like ships from their moorings. As a result, the play’s household of dilettantes, who gleefully applaud an air raid as if it were theatre, are left with

little more than a witty drawing room comedy. In the role of the ancient Capt. Shotover, Rex Harrison is a paradigm of how not to be a star: his understated portrayal is so inaudible that it is exhausting and it diverts attention that should have been focused on Shaw’s pessimistic prophecies, not Harrison’s performance. Rosemary Harris, on the other hand, makes Shotover’s bohemian daughter, Hesione, glow with unselfish exuberance, and her excess of gushiness is easily forgiven.

Such light entertainment is more common in musicals, but two of the season’s successes frame traditional family themes in unusually enlightened perspectives. As a political statement, La Cage aux Folles has triumphantly popularized homosexuals’ natural claims to dignity. But its opulent facade conceals

a witless travesty. The point of Harvey Fierstein’s libretto—that homosexuals play the role of parents as well as heterosexuals—can be strongly argued. But the sad fact is that the ultramodern homosexuals in La Cage behave as hypocritically as conventional Victorians. As entertainment, moreover, the show is pure dullness, relieved only by George Hearn as the transvestite mother.

The problematic issues of child rearing raised in La Cage surface in Baby. During the overture, a droll voice-over recounts the facts of life while photos of sperm rushing to meet their egg play on the curtain. No ordinary musical, Baby monitors two pregnancies and the amusing but futile attempts of a third couple to conceive. The production carries an almost insuperable liability in John Lee Beatty’s ugly, noisy sets, but

its scrubbed-cheek virtues shine through, backed by David Shire’s sweet, yet never saccharine, music.

Having accepted that babies and sentimentality are inseparable, Sybille Pearson’s humane and perceptive script candidly lays out the three couples’ fears and expectations. As a result, Baby provides an acceptably optimistic antidote to the more common misanthropic views about children which Christopher Durang’s off-Broadway production, Baby with the Bathwater, typifies. Although Durang combines the moral astringency of Lenny Bruce

with the coarse hilarity of Joan Rivers, Bathwater is only an extended cabaret sketch, guaranteed to give its audience postcurtain letdown.

At an exhilarating opposite extreme is Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen, an 83-minute distillation of Bizet’s opera. Reacting against the tendency in opera to have drama play second fiddle to music and spectacle, Brook has reduced the orchestra to 14 instruments and eliminated elaborate costumes and sets. The empty stage, covered with sand and stones, employs minimal props for the familiar settings of town square, tavern, mountain hideout and, most important, bull ring. That is the dominant metaphor in Brook’s vision, a wheel of fortune in which Carmen, like the bull, battles fate and ultimately yields to the bloody cycle of life and death. Just as the stage is stripped of convention, the characters, blind with passion, ignore conventional behavior: when Carmen lures Don José, she

throws him a flower and then herself, twisting her thighs around his. Don José’s passion is equal to hers. At the end, after killing a rival and her husband in vain attempts to regain her love, he quietly leads Carmen back to the place where she had read her fortune in the cards and kills her too.

Brook’s Carmen is not an opera but a landmark in the rare genre of music theatre. The singing roles rotate for every performance (there are five Carmens in all) and demand as much dramatic as musical expertise. Brook’s staging is a miraculous blend of simple,

potent details. The crunch of sand and rock underfoot, the scented smoke from fires around the blanket where Carmen and Don José make love, the blaring pink of the toreador Escamillo’s capeall evoke visceral responses without being obtrusively symbolic or abstract. There is also unexpected humor: Escamillo mockingly undercuts his bombastic “toreador” aria by casually slicing oranges into a jug of sangria as he sings. But most striking of all is the revelation of the dark powers incarnate in Carmen: although she loves several men, she is never unfaithful to her passion.

Brook has transferred Carmen from his theatre in Paris, where he is not searching for new stories but new languages with which to tell old tales. In New York similar experiments go on at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, where the acclaimed young dramatist David Henry Hwang is playwright-in-residence. In the two one-act plays collec-

tively titled Sound and Beauty, Hwang explores male-female relationships with an Oriental cast in the context of traditional Japanese culture. Also at the Public are the three vignettes that make up Vaclav Havel’s A Private View. Havel is a prominent dissident in Czechoslovakia who was once imprisoned, and his plays are banned there. Clearly autobiographical, A Private View presents Vanek, a dissident writer, who refuses to bend in moral confrontations with an employer and close friends who no longer argue against the regime. Under Lee Grant’s

pinpoint direction, the cast convincingly captures the schizophrenic frenzy of bitter comedy and despair which possesses those trapped in a seemingly insoluble dilemma. Even the saintly Vanek veers close to betrayal when his boss berates him for adhering to principles at the expense of human beings.

The impact of Havel’s work would be less powerful if it were relevant only to his immediate situation. But Vanek’s dilemmas are not peculiar to tyrannies. Daily life everywhere requires ethical decisions with political implications in the largest sense. That crucial dimension is totally absent from mainstream New York theatre, where the only recognition that a life beyond domesticity exists is the complacent line from La Cage aux Folles, “The best of times is now.” Havel believes otherwise, as did Shaw. But if any playwrights on Broadway are in agreement, they have not yet broken out of the family closet to let the world know about it.