When big Broadway productions are fixed on the road before coming into town, it seems to me a good idea that everyone connected with the show is at least listening to audiences.
If something is blatantly wrong-a gag that doesn’t work, a speech that goes off the boil-the audience response will let them know what’s wrong. On the other hand, if a show panders to every bottom-line whim of the audience, it’s sure to be sunk by the equivalent of painting by numbers. The artist must listen to his own voice. But even the blatantly commercial Broadway principle of fixing things on the road in the hope of becoming a whopping popular success ought to apply to the most refined artist.
Any theater artist who ignores the audience needs his head examined. We are his unpaid house critics. But is anyone listening to the audience out there? Is anyone even looking?
At the Public Theater recently, I could see five people who were contentedly sound asleep during Stephen Adly Guirgis’ modern parable about Jesus and mercy, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Sleeping at the theater is only forgivable at matinees. Ever since the beginning of time, matinees have been the perfect occasion for a comforting mid-afternoon nap. Theaters themselves are warm, womb-like places without clocks. You’ve had a nice lunch, the lights go down, the curtain goes up, and before you know it … zzzzzzz.
“Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.”
“Long live the king!”
Now, five snorers at Judas Iscariot may not seem a calamity in the grand scheme of things. But one of them was actually onstage and another was nodding. Set in a courtroom in an allegorical purgatory called Hope, if you please, members of the audience are seated on both sides of the stage as if they’re a jury attending a trial. Wake up in court!
If the admired and outspoken Mr. Guirgis took the trouble to look at his audience, perhaps he would shrug and say, “Fuck ‘em. They just don’t get it.” But it isn’t a question of taste. Hello! They’re asleep. There could have been more than five snoozers. They could have been slumped in the dark at the back. It doesn’t matter. To be awake at a show isn’t necessarily to be fully engaged. What matters most at Judas Iscariot is that the audience is telling the playwright something is wrong.
Either a performance comes to the boil or it doesn’t. But one could sense the concentration of the audience at the Public going seriously off the boil as the evening wore on. Filing out afterward, they looked tired. At two hours and 40 minutes, Judas Iscariot is a long evening, but that isn’t quite the reason.
Mr. Guirgis’ premise for the play is intriguing: If God is all-forgiving, why is Judas damned? The ambitiousness of the new piece also represents a welcome development by the fierce urban dramatist of Our Lady of 121st Street. The two plays link in certain essentials: The gutter vitality of the dramatist’s language is obscenely alive in the mouths of biblical folk, and Mr. Guirgis’ generous heart remains with the damned.
But Judas Iscariot doesn’t work. It overreaches as both serious metaphysical drama and scatological Pythonesque farce. There are more bad Jesus jokes than I care to mention. But this is a static, extremely wordy play from a playwright who usually creates tightly measured scenes. His court scenes meander and drift, as if Mr. Gurgis were still working on a draft. He’s packed the play with earnest mouthpieces, the “witnesses” with various points of view-from a neurotic parody version of Sigmund Freud to the usual Mother Theresa (sinner or saint?), to Lucifer (or “Lou”), a righteous Pontius Pilate, a guilt-ridden St. Thomas, and guest star appearances by Mary Magdalene and St. Peter et al. I thought the role of Jesus of Nazareth too small, considering.
With two or three exceptions-Eric Bogosian’s cool cameo as an unshakably decadent Satan is outstanding-the performances from the LAByrinth Theater Company are too broadly one-note. There’s a nagging shrillness about them. Shouting doesn’t amount to high energy but noise. In the end, it drains you.
The pulse of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s production is too low. He’s lost his grip on his playwright as well as the more querulous performances. He even concedes the territory of the stage altogether by using the distracting, shopworn gimmick of actors reciting monologues from perilously high ramps. Well, these are mostly heavenly creatures. But he’s abdicated the stage. The playing area itself goes off the boil.
Nowhere is Judas Iscariot less impressive, I’m afraid, than in its long, symptomatic closing scene. An ordinary man named Butch meets Judas in hell. Butch is carrying a 12-pack. “Um, uh, Mr. Iscariot? … I just wanted to introduce myself.” He was the foreman, apparently, at Judas’ trial. “We found you guilty, Mr. Iscariot … I’m real sorry about that.”
In what must surely be the marathon monologue of the evening-an endless confession delivered in a flat drone-Butch laboriously explains how he met his wife: “I remember, I was with these two girls that night when I first seen my wife, Mr. Iscariot.” Then Butch tells us eventually how he came to be unfaithful.
The director firstly gives us a hack stage picture: Jesus is knelt praying by the comatose Judas as Everyman Butch stands over them. And the playwright gives us a needlessly pat conclusion: Butch has betrayed his wife as Judas betrayed Jesus.
Isn’t there a difference? The man who lapses and is unfaithful to his wife is not the same man who betrayed his Savior. After all, I was one of those who acclaimed the great promise of Mr. Guirgis’ last play, Our Lady of 121st Street. Is he betraying me now by not fulfilling the promise?
Of course not. He’s a fallible playwright. As for the flawed The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, I hope that Mr. Guirgis and his director, Mr. Hoffman, will modestly consider turning up at the Public one night not to watch the play. Let them watch the audience instead and see what it tells them.
I didn’t see anyone asleep in the audience at David Mamet’s comedy, Romance. But there were a lot of people not laughing. This is bad news for a comedy, particularly when it’s intended to be a madcap farce. Unless, that is, those silent, morose members of the audience at the Atlantic Theater were laughing inwardly.
But as the old theater saying goes: You cry alone and laugh out loud. Here’s the funny thing, though: Mr. Mamet’s Romance is a courtroom drama, as is Mr. Giurgis’ Judas Iscariot, and both plays have a mad, manic judge out of the Marx Brothers.
What does this tell us? Please tick where appropriate:
(a) All judges are mad.
(b) Both playwrights adore the Marx Brothers.
(c) All great plays are different, and all mediocre plays think alike.
(d) Have you read Anna Karenina lately?
(e) And how are you today?
With Romance, Mr. Mamet has returned to childhood-when custard pie jokes were deliriously funny, bad language was extremely naughty, and emotionally hysterical gay stereotypes nicknamed “Buns” wore lavender thongs and were considered shocking.
It was Mr. Mamet, of course, who made verbal abuse chic in the first place. Obscene language no longer shocks. (See American Buffalo, or Judas Iscariot.) His parodies of homosexuals are old hat. (See La Cage aux Folles, or Mel Brooks.) A drum roll accompanies his jokes, such as they are: “I hired a goy lawyer. It’s like going to a straight hairdresser.” Ta-da!
As far as I can tell, Mr. Mamet-a genius, you know-is trying to write a plotless farce about the need for world peace, particularly in the Middle East. His message midst all the stagy mayhem is that we must find peace in ourselves first.
Well, that’s certainly true. And so wise. But these demented dribblings don’t do the trick. The all-male cast is directed by Neil Pepe at a fast and furious pace on the off chance that we won’t notice anything wrong. But we do. Mr. Mamet’s farcical intention in Romance is to shake us into a new awareness about the insanity of the world.
He must be joking.