The Bountiful Month of May
It’s been a thrilling spring season for new plays on the New York stages.
I’ve already reported on two notable ones (Sweat and Oslo) in previous months, but since they’ve moved to larger venues and are both up for Tony Awards on June 11, they merit repeat recognition.
Sweat on Broadway
Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s provocative new political play (this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner) features a western Pennsylvania steel tubing plant community in crisis. A tight-knit corps of co-workers and lifelong friends are torn asunder by issues pertaining to race, competition, and the economy.
Nottage’s compelling play offers an ensemble of finally etched characters enacted with passion and precision – including Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), an African-American worker who gets promoted while her best friend, Tracey (Johanna Day) loses her job. Friend is pitted against friend, husband against wife, mother against son – as the community breaks down under the strain. Directed with a sure hand by Kate Whoriskey, Nottage provides us with a timely insight into Trump-torn America, its mindset, and its struggles.
Oslo at Lincoln Center
In Oslo (at Lincoln Center), playwright J. T. Rogers reveals a hitherto unknown chapter in history, concerning the secret back-channeling negotiations between Israel and Palestine that led to the Oslo Peace Accord of 1993. Thanks to a pair of determined, idealistic Norwegian diplomats (played by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle), that strife-torn region reached an agreement that up till then would have been unimaginable. (Tragically, as we all know, the peace was short-lived).
The talented Bartlett Sher directs an impressive ensemble of 21 actors on Lincoln Center’s expansive Vivian Beaumont stage. When I wrote about the production last summer, it was playing in the smaller Mitzi Newhouse, and subsequently has transferred upstairs to the grander space. Now on the Beaumont stage, this historic series of events – dramatized with such passion and focus by Rogers – acquires even more significance. It underscores the high hopes that history might again repeat itself – if only two sides would sit down once more behind closed doors, on their own, and work out their differences, face to face.
More new writing on the spring stages
Indecent on Broadway
Paula Vogel is another writer who has delved into history to discover dramatic gold. Her new play, Indecent, tells the story of yet another play – Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, a Yiddish language work written by a Polish/Jewish playwright. Asch’s highly controversial play concerns a Jewish brothel owner whose daughter falls in love with one of his prostitutes – and contains scenes of lesbian love and the defiling of the Torah.
Indecent follows God of Vengeance from its premiere in Warsaw in 1907 to its journey through Europe and ultimately to America – where it played downtown and finally opened on Broadway in 1923. There, it was shut down after only six weeks. The cast and producers were arrested, tried, and convicted for obscenity. However, the play continued to be performed in Europe until 1941, when it was staged again in Warsaw with actors wearing yellow stars.
Indecent is an admirable work – an epic tale (1907-1952) addressing multiple themes including prejudice, bigotry, the plight of the immigrant, and artistic suppression. On top of that, it’s a thrilling theatrical experience. Director Rebecca Taichman has been collaborating with Vogel for years to develop this work. Their vision – to stage a play-within-a-play as well as to follow its development historically – is an ambitious one. Combining a Brechtian approach (scene titles, projections) with an ensemble of seven actors playing multiple roles and instruments, Taichman makes magical use of an empty space. The pace is swift, the story is gripping, the staging is inventive – and the recurring scene of two women together, dancing in the rain, is heartrending, given the consequences that this play suffered.
In the final moments of Indecent, Asch (who settled in the United States) is approached by a young American writer who admires God of Vengeance and wants to translate it, saying how tragic it is that the play has lost so many audience members over the years because of intolerance. “I, too, have lost audience members,” replied Asch. “Six million. I will not let this play be produced any more. I wrote it at a different time.”
The Antipodes at Signature Theatre Center
Annie Baker, one of the most innovative, and adventuresome playwrights of her generation, gives us a new play that once again demonstrates her talents. The Antipodes is, essentially, a story about storytelling and its intrinsic value in the human experience.
A group of even young writers sit around a table in a windowless room for two hours, pitching story ideas to a team leader (played by a sinister Will Patton). He, in turn, reports to a “Big Brother” voice on the phone console, promising that the team will come up with “the right story.” Who are these people? Where are they? Who are they working for? A TV studio? A film producer? We’re never quite clear.
Trapped in this “no exit” Sartre-like existence, the writers lose sense of time, and so do we. They sit for hours, days, weeks, months (we can tell because the sweater that one writer begins knitting at the top of the play is finished by the end). Their stories become more and more preposterous and grotesque (“My sister has two uteruses. I have a gill. My Mom is a Cyclops”, offers one writer, played by the knitter, Emily Cass McDonnell).
This “head trip” that Ms. Baker is taking us on (deftly directed by Lila Neugebauer) is a sly one. On the one hand, it’s a wicked satire on the story-making industry of (most likely) Hollywood. On a deeper level, it’s about our addiction to film and television. “We need stories as a culture. It’s what we live for,” says the time leader, knowingly. That means us in the audience. We are the compulsive, clueless consumers.
On a deeper level, it’s an existential inquiry into the essence of stories. As the title suggests, they’re universal and timeless, reaching through the world and throughout the ages (hence the play’s title). Looking for “the right story” isn’t the point. They’ve always been with us. They unite us.
A Doll’s House Part Two on Broadway
The sound of the slamming door, as Nora Helmer walks out her husband, is one of the most famous, universally recognized cues in the theatre. Many theatre historians call it the moment that signals the dawn of modern drama.
But what happened to Nora? And to the husband and children and household (and maid) she deserted? Hmmmm….What if she were to return?
That’s the provocative premise that playwright Lucas Hnath poses in A Doll’s House Part Two, his devilish sequel to Ibsen’s classic that takes place fifteen years after Nora left. From the very first moment – when we hear that knock on the door and Nora (Laurie Metcalf) appears on the threshold, Hnath has the audience in the palm of his hand. “Nora, Nora, Nora,” says Anne Marie, the maid (Jayne Houdyshell), “You’ve gotten a little fatter. I, for the record, never thought you were dead!” That line got a huge laugh, the night I saw it.
What fun Hnath has with this premise – and with us! Nora (that is, Hnath’s reimagined Nora) has become an author, writing books about women under a pseudonym. Why had she left? “We ache for more,” she explains to the doubting Anne Marie. Why has she returned? For a divorce – their marriage had never been formally terminated.
The party really gets started when Torvald enters. As played by the wonderful Chris Cooper, he’s as surprised as the audience to see who has turned up. “I don’t know what to say. I did not expect this.” (Even bigger laugh). What ensues is a modern debate about marriage and its unfair economic consequences on women (Torvald still has a legal claim on all her royalty income). Nora lays out all her options under the current law – all unfavorable to her.
The ante gets upped again with the entrance of Emmy, Nora’s daughter (Condola Rashad). But instead of an emotional encounter, it’s more “talking heads.” Emmy plans to marry, and suggests yet another option – that her mother “die legally” (yet another big laugh). Torvald reenters the boxing ring, and the play degenerates into a bloody marital battle scene out of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
All this is enacted by a fine ensemble in a self-aware, often cynical tone. Laurie Metcalf – an excellent actress – is caught “between a rock and a hard place,” as they say. She’s inherited a classical role from a great 19th century melodrama– but now she finds herself in a black comedy with an edgy 21st century colloquial tone (even Annie Marie swears like a sailor). Hnath is a clever writer with a terrific idea – but it’s hard to have it both ways, so to speak. Is he an Ibsen surrogate, or is he writing a new, contemporary play, borrowing a classical playwright’s characters and themes? (If so, what about the period costumes? Would a maid really curse like that at the end of the 19th century?!)
Despite the surprising, shifting tones, it’s a thought-provoking play about marriage with an up-to-date perspective. “Some day, everyone will be free – freer than they are now,” says Nora. Now that’s a hope that both Ibsen and Hnath can share.