The Rational Exuberance of Ragtime

We’re happy here, for the most part, in our coastal bubble. We know, or at least we’re repeatedly told, on the cable-news stations and in political dialogue, that the rest of the country isn’t like us and doesn’t like us. We joke about how we sometimes visit “America,” in which we certainly don’t live, and we think we’re being ironically clever, appropriating and re-purposing what’s intended as a slur, like gay people adopting “queer,” asserting our own not-like-them identity.

But doing so also means we’re accepting that we’re not like them. We dismiss the Glenn Becks and the Sarah Palins; but we also know, or think we know, that on some level they’re right, that we tolerant, progressive, cosmopolitan, European-vacationing urbanites are not, really, real Americans. We don’t watch Fox News; but, deep down, we know that real Americans do.

The great argument and great pleasure of Ragtime—both E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel and the 1998 Broadway musical interpretation of it—is that in fact we’re just as American as they are, and perhaps more so. The affecting revival of the Terrence McNally–Stephen Flaherty–Lynn Ahrens musical, which opened Sunday night at the Neil Simon Theatre, leaves us Blue Staters with an often unfamiliar sense of emotional patriotism. (It’s perhaps no coincidence that this production originated in Washington, at the Kennedy Center, in the early days of the Obama administration.)

Ragtime is set at the start of the 20th century, and it tells the story of three American families: One a well-off brood of Westchester WASPs that sees the world changing around it, Father warily and Mother enthusiastically; another headed by an immigrant Jew on the Lower East Side who has dreams for his daughter’s future and reinvents himself as someone who can make those dreams come true for her; and the last a proud and gifted African-American jazz musician in love with a domestic servant who loudly—and ultimately tragically—demands his government treat him with the rights and respect to which he’s entitled.

Their stories intertwine, and also intertwine with those of real historical figures—J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini among them—making fictional histories integral to the actual history. The black man demanding equal treatment, the immigrant creating a new life, the repressed suburbanite discovering her own ideas—they, Ragtime reminds us, are who made modern America.

I don’t remember much about the original production, but I remember being underwhelmed by it—which is something hard to say about a staging that featured not just Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie but also a full-size Model T onstage and fireworks at its finale. Marcia Milgrom Dodge, in her first Broadway effort, directs and choreographs this simpler revival, and by paring back the overwhelming stagecraft, she allows Ragtime to deliver a much bigger emotional punch.

She’s helped in that by Quentin Earl Darrington’s powerful performance as Coalhouse Walker Jr., the wronged jazz musician, whose climatic “Make Them Hear You” echoed in my head for the next few days, and Christiane Noll’s beautiful singing as the increasingly liberated suburban matron, Mother. (She’s also helped, of course, by Mr. Flaherty’s memorable score.)

There is essentially a single set (by Derek McLane), an enormous, tri-level, metal-framed edifice that evokes New York’s old Penn Station. (Stanford White, its architect, is among the historical cameos.) Other bits of scenery that come and go within that big set—the house in New Rochelle, that Model T, a piano, J.P. Morgan’s famous library—are similarly simple evocations. It’s a sort of lush minimalism, and it’s lovely. (Santo Loquasto’s costumes are more lush than minimal.)

The weakness of Ragtime is, unavoidably, Mr. McNally’s adaptation of Mr. Doctorow’s epic novel. Such a project must inherently leave large chunks of its source material on the adapting-room floor, but much of the genius of Mr. Doctorow’s work is the serendipity with which his fictional plots brush up against each other and against the actual history; Mr. McNally’s book, while smartly minimizing the role of the historical characters—even with the novel’s sprawl streamlined, there remains a cast of 40—ends up often leaving them as awkward and slightly comic intrusions. (In a novel full of historic-figure run-ins, it makes sense to learn in the epilogue that Father went down on the Lusitania; in the musical it lands as a joke.)

That ending is almost cloying—the three families have coalesced, leaving one happily multiculti Brady Bunch of black, Anglo and Jewish children—and yet somehow it’s not.

With 20th-century U.S. history splayed across the big stage, with one of Mr. Flaherty’s anthems, with the whole story so confident in the promise of the future, us not-quite-real Americans are happy and hopeful and, at least for the moment, ready for our new century, too.


THE BROTHER/SISTER Plays, which opened at the Public Theater last night, are about yet another America, one alien to both Fox Newsers with their tea parties and New Yorkers with their cocktail parties: Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy takes place among poor African-Americans in the Louisiana bayou.

A very strong cast of mostly young, mostly black actors perform the three plays in repertory, portraying a group of neighbors, relatives, friends and lovers in the fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana, at a somewhat mystical time the Playbill describes as the “distant present.” Together, the three paint an impressionist portrait of coming of age in that world, whether female and alone (“In the Red and Brown Water”); a man bound to his brother (“The Brother Size”); or young, gay and confused (“Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet”).

(The trilogy is performed as two evenings, which becomes confusing when you consider that two of the titles contain conjunctions. “In the Red and Brown Water” is one play, directed by Tina Landau, performed alone. “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; or, the Secret of Sweet” are two plays, performed together, directed by Robert O’Hara.)

Mr. McCraney, also an actor, is just a few years out of Yale School of Drama but already the recipient of a range of accolades, and the writing in the trilogy is spectacular, a fascinating, haunting mix of the mystical and the vernacular, of dialect and standard speech, of dialogue and (oddly but very affectively) recitation of stage directions. The stories are grounded and earthy; they also unfold as fables. And they’re not happy stories, but they’re profound.

These three leave you thoughtful, not hopeful.


The Rational Exuberance of Ragtime