THEATER LIE-DETECTOR TEST Dec. 2016 Roundup Edition
TRUE: Daniel Craig has real acting chops.
If you doubted this because you thought the role of James Bond required nothing but charisma and hunkiness, or because you believed the lazy and snobbish critical reactions to his finely nuanced performance in Pinter’s Betrayal three years ago on Broadway, then I can’t sympathize with the trouble you will have getting tickets to the sold-out Othello now at New York Theatre Workshop. Craig’s Iago is eerily resolute and terrifyingly credible in his lightning shifts between submissiveness and belligerence—a truly disconcerting study in stolid, implacable malevolence. What’s more, he is thoroughly blended into this Off-Broadway ensemble. Except for the ticket-return lines and shiny black cars out front you’d never know he was a movie star—incongruous humility indeed in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
FALSE: A glib and sardonic Beatles reference can add substance to a flimsy social critique. Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which came to Broadway last year after a triumphal London run, was a clever and deeply thoughtful play that found tremendous social resonance in psychological speculations about Britain’s royals. His new play Love Love Love, alas, isn’t nearly as tight or insightful. Its main characters are a couple, Kenneth and Sandra (Richard Armitage and Amy Ryan in Michael Mayer’s Roundabout production) who meet cute (and reckless) in 1967, bamboozle Kenneth’s brother, and then develop into absurdly neglectful parents as the play follows them to 1990 and then 2011. These two are amusing monsters of self-involvement, horrifyingly fascinating in a sit-comish way as the stakes of their thoughtlessness keep rising with their kids’ desperation. Unfortunately, while they are credible enough psychologically, their appalling shortcomings never really hold water as a generalized social malady—notwithstanding the narcissistic zeitgeist now thrust upon us all in the wake of the 2016 presidential election (read ITWOTTPE from here on).
TRUE: Plausible connections exist between apartheid South Africa and present-day America. The title character of Athol Fugard’s 1982 play Master Harold and the Boys is an angry white kid in 1950 Port Elizabeth who hides his frustrated longing for love, paternal support and friendship behind a mask of racist aggression and ends up wounding those (who happen to be black) who should be his closest allies and comrades. Sound familiar? The production directed by the author at Signature Theatre closed just as the United States was coming to terms with its own shockingly self-destructive bout of angry and impulsive adolescent aggression ITWOTTPE.
FALSE: Assaulting women with machine-gun shouts of “shut up” can be funny in Trump’s America. All of the farcical shouting in The Front Page—and especially Nathan Lane’s incessant “shut up!” yawps at every hapless female who gets in his way as the newspaper managing director Walter Burns—is simply embarrassing ITTWOTTPE. The producers of this star-studded revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 screwball comedy, directed by Jack O’Brien, no doubt counted on its topical relevance during election season, what with its famous satire of bottom-feeding journalists and its spotlight on the Trumpian blowhard Burns. The way the election turned out, though, has buried for good the appeal of such boy’s club humor based on bullying and misogyny. The elixir of escapism has no bite. It’s all grown too gravely serious to be funny anymore.
TRUE: Fiery social conscience (Brecht and his irritations aside) actually trumps realism in the theater when it’s made intensely personal. I’m thinking, of course, of Anna Deavere Smith and her searing show Notes from the Field at Second Stage, about America’s prison-industrial complex and school-to-prison pipeline. Take Smith’s impersonation of Michael Tubbs, for instance, a Stockton City Council member forty years younger than her and the opposite sex—a black guy who graduated from Stanford and could’ve done lots of easier things with his degree than return to his chronically depressed home town and try to help it. Smith bears no realistic resemblance to Tubbs (or most of the other 18 subjects in her show) but she slips into his laid-back posture and vocalisms as if they were a sport coat—which is all she uses for his costume. As in all her shows, she uses herself as witness and conduit for revelatory words—taken from public appearances and her own interviews—that the rest of us need to hear but couldn’t hear so well in other contexts because they’re muffled behind various layers of mediation, fear and avoidance. By selecting these statements and precisely impersonating the tone and mannerisms of the speakers, Smith turns recitation into personal encounter and draws us in more closely than we anticipate, even if we’ve seen and savored her before. After hearing Tubbs’s chilling observations about Stockton—there “really [are] no other alternatives or options for our boys and men of color” than “prison or death”—we’ve more or less forgotten the speaker, interesting as he is, and focused entirely on the shameful conditions he describes. That’s how Smith’s theater becomes a unique force of resistance to silence, indifference and inertia. We will need it more than ever now ITTWOTTPE.
FALSE: The whole of Othello actually benefits from being set in a generic modern military barracks.
Director Sam Gold and designer Andrew Lieberman have encased NYTW entirely in raw plywood, lined the floor with discolored mattresses, green plastic storage lockers, portable work-lights, Guitar-Hero consoles, AK-47s, and so on. It’s interesting for a while to imagine the grim environmental starvation suffered by men who, like Othello (David Oyelowo—amazing!), might have lived the bulk of their lives in such spaces. By intermission, though, the airless barracks feels constricting and dubious. Othello’s catastrophe is much more than a side effect of soldierly menace or machismo. It’s brought on also by decidedly domestic and romantic pressures that aren’t steeped in war. Mashing everything together into a stylistic monolith, especially ITWOTTPE, is reductive and confusing.
TRUE: Better acronyms certainly await us ITWOTTPE.
Photo by Chad Batka