The Roundabout productions currently on offer are a revival at the American Airlines Theatre of John van Druten’s inconsequential 1943 light comedy Old Acquaintance; and at the Laura Pels, Beyond Glory, Stephen Lang’s tribute to U.S. war heroes who were awarded the Medal of Honor, a one-man show imported from another nonprofit, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
The van Druten is remembered—if it’s remembered at all—for the 1943 movie version with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins as rival writers who are best frenemies. (The 1981 George Cukor remake, Rich and Famous, starred Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen). Van Druten was adventurous about the sexual politics of women, and one imagines the piece made an original contribution in its day. But as Mary McCarthy pointed out about the playwright in her waspish way: “Mr. Van Druten goes so far and no further.” Old Acquaintance at the Roundabout ambles along quite stylishly with a few amusing moments and two intermissions. As period comedies go, it went.
It’s an obviously dated drinks-cart comedy. The women are types and turns for two star actresses to show us what can they can do; the men are charming, unreal dopes; and the audience applauds the expensive sets (designed by Alexander Dodge). None of this would matter too much if Michael Wilson’s production didn’t lurch between high seriousness and knockabout farce. The excellent actress Margaret Colin, as Katherine, known as Kit (the Bette Davis role), is playing it intelligently straight and even a little earnestly as the novelist with real talent; the born comedienne Harriet Harris is content to go completely over the top as Millie, the best-selling writer of romance novels with no talent. Ms. Harris is so outrageous that she could be sending up the period play she’s appearing in.
A play about the extraordinary courage of soldiers who lived to tell the tale, on the other hand, will be parodied by no one. Beyond Glory, adapted from Larry Smith’s book of the same name, and performed by Stephen Lang, is a virtuous 80-minute show for a nation at war.
Mr. Lang changes costumes from a trunk—his only prop—and unpretentiously impersonates eight Medal of Honor heroes who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. I was disappointed, however, that his distinguished director, Robert Falls, felt it necessary to dress up the piece with somber background music and video effects. Mention of machine-gun fire is accompanied by the rat-tat-tat of machine guns; random offstage voices, like a young, awed army recruit’s, are heard; a sanctimonious recitation of the citations echoes through the theater in a ghostly way, and so on.
It’s as if we’re watching a PBS documentary onstage. Mr. Lang is doing admirable work at Roundabout, but Mr. Falls’ simple-minded effects suggest that the director is pandering to audiences who surely know much, much better.
IF ONLY ROUNDABOUT THEATRE COMPANY would risk a little more. With its 40,000 loyal subscribers and expanding colony of theaters on and off Broadway, the Roundabout ranks among the biggest nonprofit production companies in the land. Todd Haimes, its well-liked artistic director, has transformed a bankrupt downtown theater into a phenomenal success story. I’m not asking for a whirlwind of change. All I’m saying is that it would be nice if Roundabout would flex its considerable muscle and play it less safe.
Last month, in an important Wall Street Journal article titled, “The Impoverishment of American Culture,” Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, pleaded the case for the arts in a national culture now ruled by the marketplace. He argued that in a society of unprecedented prosperity, where “even the news has been reduced to entertainment, or altogether eliminated … we must remember that the marketplace does only one thing—it puts a price on everything. The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace.”
The blanding-out of our nonprofit theaters in the cause of “accessibility” is a symptom of a national culture that’s failing us. Roundabout’s Todd Haimes is known to be a very decent man, uncynically holding the precarious, giddy line midway between virtue and necessity. One of his prime duties, he explained to me in a recent conversation, is toward his subscribers: They keep his theaters afloat. Fair enough. But who creates public taste—the subscribers or the artists?
At a time of dwindling corporate support, pleasing hard-won subscribers is the name of the compromised game. But remember that our major nonprofits were founded to offer us a radical alternative to commercial Broadway values. Nationally, nonprofit theaters like San Diego’s venerable Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse have long since sold their souls by functioning as tryout houses for Broadway. (Jersey Boys began life at La Jolla; Footloose at the Old Globe.) The line between our major noncommercial theaters and Broadway is becoming dangerously blurred.
Roundabout is a cut above the blatantly commercial, but its bias is toward revival of the tried and true—forever Hedda Gabler, as it were, never Ghosts. Its conventional choices, alas, offer few surprises: the recent, tepid Suddenly Last Summer; the worthy Heartbreak House; the umpteenth A Streetcar Named Desire. The company’s 2004 production of Stephen Sondheim’s unsettling Assassins was an undeniably bold commitment—but that was an exception to its safe, predictable fare. In the past three years, there’s been a musical revival of the hokey old 110 in the Shade (1963), a vehicle for Audra McDonald; the minor (and forgotten) musical The Apple Tree (1960), a vehicle for Kristin Chenoweth; and The Threepenny Opera—which, by common critical consent, misunderstood and even butchered the Brecht/Weill masterpiece.
The Brecht/Weill apart, how many musicals are now left that are worth reviving? But there’s another question that concerns our playwrights far more: Who will encourage and stage new American drama? Like Lincoln Center, the Roundabout shops in England for its new plays (such as the recent production of Patrick Marber’s Howard Katz), or in the regional theaters. As a result, New York theaters lack uniqueness. More to the point, they’re crucially failing to generate new plays.
It so happens that Roundabout’s most successful revival began as a TV play that famously became Sidney Lumet’s first feature film in 1957. To me, Twelve Angry Men onstage is a dated old potboiler if ever there was one—why not stay home and rent the movie? The excellent 2004 production was nevertheless a hit, and it went on to a commercial national tour “direct from Broadway!”
As Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization once put it, “There’s no profit like nonprofit.” The idea, doubtless, was that the extra revenue from Twelve Angry Men would help subsidize the real work. But what is the real work? The company’s record of creating new plays is no different from Lincoln Center’s, where a world premier by an American playwright is an event. In the past three years, Roundabout has created only two new dramas: Greg Kotis’ Pig Farm and Stephen Belber’s McReele.