Mirrors Up to Nature…Anything Else?

Three recent off-Broadway productions – Horton Foote’s The Roads to Home at Primary Stages, A.R. Gurney’s Two Class Acts at the Flea Theater, and En Garde Arts’ Wilderness at the Abrons Arts Center – made me ponder how much accurately depicting the lives of specific people not often given the time of day on stage should be valued. Though holding up a mirror to nature has always been one of the foundational tenets of art, after years of audiences being treated to ‘reflections’ of almost every different type of character imaginable, I’m now left wondering if plays that achieve nothing more than presenting these now-familiar reflections can justifiably be criticized for not striving for, well, more… 


Whenever I’m about to share my thoughts regarding a new production of a Horton Foote play –for instance, Primary Stages’ revival of The Roads to Home earlier this seasonI feel compelled to preface them by citing my respect for the intent behind much of his life’s work. And I don’t use that term flippantly, but rather almost literally: much of his plays/work throughout his life dramatically – but still truthfully – recorded the small-town Texas lives of his younger self and his ancestors, often (though not always) cutting through the conventional quaintness usually associated with these types to find the universally shared, resonant realistic humanity underneath. His rare skill at capturing the small behavioral tics that give people their ‘character’ is exceeded by very few other playwrights. And since even fewer playwrights have so passionately devoted so much of their life’s work to capturing the lifestyles of those far away from the theatre capitals of the world, the importance of Foote’s contributions to American Drama – and to basically historically archiving the culture of a very specific area of this country that rarely gets paid any attention, especially in popular culture – cannot be understated. 

Yet with AAAAAALLLL of that being said, does any of it necessarily mean I should enjoy spending time with Foote’s characters? I’m always interested in learning about other types of folks, but Foote’s particular brand of most probably realistic albeit cripplingly boring, expository-heavy, story-filled dramaturgy just can’t keep my attention. Foote is a master at creating and presenting fictional lives inspired by reality that feel legitimately lived in, and that in itself is a noble endeavor. But after seeing a bunch of these plays, one begins to realize that almost all of them are populated by the same sort of characters who often do nothing more over the course of their play than continue living their relatively similar lives. Can I respect his anthropological and historically-important artistry while still walking away from most of his plays feeling like they once again remind me why I’d rather live in New York City than in the Midwest amongst the people that are so beautifully recorded in his plays?

I’m sorry if that makes me sound like a snobby elitist philistine, but I honestly spent much of the first of the three acts that comprise The Roads to Home struggling to remain engaged in the seemingly endless stories of nothing but context-giving – but still context-less – exposition being told by three women around a typically rural kitchen table (the perfunctorily minimalist sets were by Jeff Cowie). These quasi-monologues may expertly build character – always a strong suit for Foote, which is why his casts often so adeptly turn in fully fleshed out performances, as is the case here – while still staying true to the cadences of the very real people his characters are palpably modeled after, but none of that keeps my mind from meandering as much as their stories do. 

Even upon the arrival of a fourth, this time male character later in the act that finally brings with him moments of actual stakes in the present – as opposed to the series of stories merely pertaining to OTHER, mostly past moments with stakes – the audience hasn’t yet learned enough about him to sufficiently care about the proceedings. The second act continues to feature present stakes, and even improves upon the first act because these scenes focus on the characters the audience already got to know in the previous act, thus allowing them to care more about their trials and tribulations.

Yet even while enjoying the simultaneously dramatic and comedic – and always vivacious – rapport of his well etched characters, I struggled to lose myself in a play that feels more like a time capsule than a substantive work of drama, regardless of its aforementioned noble historical function. Foote admirably ensures these 1920s lives are dramatically recorded for posterity, but that has nothing to do with giving the audience a reason as to why they should revisit the lives of these characters today. The argument can be made that the past is always worth revisiting as a way to understand how the present came to be, but any such evolutionary connection to the much more relevant – thanks, Trump! – depictions of similarly small town folk contained in other, more modern plays this season such as Samuel Hunter’s The Harvest and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat would have to be entirely projected onto The Roads to Home because Foote was never in the business of making explicit social commentaries. Rather, he seemed to prefer to present these people’s lives simply as they lived them, without forcibly inserting any of the sort of polarizing implications on how they influenced his contemporary culture. He left it up to the audience to glean how his old-fashioned depictions commented on today.

Except Foote’s ‘today’ was very different from our ‘today’ since The Roads to Home was written in 1955. As such, for the play to feel like it has something to say about today more than just revisiting a past decade that led to today, Primary Stages’ production needed to bring a certain level of modernity to the piece. By no means does that entail forsaking the historical authenticity required to do right by a Foote play, but director Michael Wilson should have made every effort to convince the audience that the play does indeed speak to modern conditions in more ways than the obvious.

Unfortunately, that’s just not Mr. Wilson’s forte, and as such his production seems to strive to achieve nothing more than to stage Foote’s text. This has been the case for most productions of his plays, probably because the exact same artists are almost always entrusted to bring his plays to life, from Hallie Foote – his daughter – playing a lead role to Wilson at the helm. Like with their past Foote work,[1] everyone involved with The Roads to Home expresses no interest in approaching the play in a different way than they have his other plays in order to bring to light new dimensions of Foote’s writing.

This is actually becoming somewhat of a trademark of Mr. Wilson: though he thrives at leading his actors to sensitively convey the truthful emotional cores of their characters – and surrounds them with productions that accentuate these intimate details – he very rarely brings any level of innovation to his productions. Though he may stage a play well, Wilson does not add anything to his given texts, and thus does not inspire the audience to think about or understand what they’re watching in unexpected ways. This textual fidelity has always endeared Wilson to Foote’s work because it lets Foote’s unique voice almost speak for itself. Yet after years of basically seeing slightly different – but not really – texts packaged in slightly different – but not really – productions, I personally feel it’s about time for a vastly different production of a Horton Foote play, one that perhaps makes a case for his continued relevance to the theatrical world being more than just as a straightforward recorder of history.

Even so, those who do enjoy spending time with Foote’s signature old fashioned relics from a bygone era probably would’ve loved The Roads to Home.[2] For the most part, you know what you’re getting with a Foote play, and you either like them or you don’t. Personally, I prefer to be surprised when I walk into a theatre, and I definitely prefer to see something that actually pertains to the world to which I return after walking out of that theatre. There’s obvious merit in seeing life through the eyes of people whose experiences vastly differ from your own but whose perspectives still ring universally true, but that doesn’t nullify the feeling that Foote’s plays now feel woefully detached from the reality we all occupy just past the lip of the stage.

Being reminded that all humans – regardless of the time and space in which they exist(ed) – share certain behavioral truths is well and good, but do I really need that same reminder for the same people play after play after play after play after play?[3]

Since Playbills/programs/whatever-else-you-want-to-call-them were not handed out for these productions, I’m left with having to merely use their official artwork.

I often ask that very same question of the plays of A.R. Gurney, who had two one-acts – individually titled Ajax and Squash, and together billed as Two Class Acts because both involve classrooms in some way given their world premieres by the Flea Theater earlier this season.[4] Much like Primary Stages’ production of The Roads to Home, neither of these two average-at-best hours with Gurney will change his reputation nor legacy. Though he’s had a remarkable and impressively productive career by any standard – a two-time Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist, numerous Broadway productions, a seemingly never-ending number of off-Broadway and regional outings – he’s still oft-considered as nothing more than Neil Simon-lite, largely because they’ve both spent much of their careers exploring the comfortably domestic lives of the upper-middle class through a palpable New York perspective (Simon was born in the Bronx; Gurney in Buffalo). And unfortunately for Gurney, he could never match Simon’s near unparalleled knack for mining these lives for some of the most hysterical – and widely relatable – humor ever put on stage, while simultaneously shedding real insights into their psychology. Gurney can be funny, and he intermittently touches upon some insightful observations regarding his characters, but like with Foote, simply recording the lives of a specific type of people over and over and over again does not equal theatrical greatness.

Yet in the same way that Gurney can detrimentally never totally leave behind his New York sensibilities when dealing with other subjects, he’s also now a bit too removed in his old age (85!) from some of his characters to depict them accurately. Ajax and Squash bear witness to this increasingly common trend in different ways. The former – about an intensifying relationship between a student and his teacher who intimately connect over sharing their interpretations of the Greek tragedies they’re studying – does directly discuss some intriguing notions regarding how art often unavoidably rubs off on the real lives of its audiences, but the play is hampered by Gurney’s inability to accurately channel the way that teachers and students much younger than himself actually speak today. The latter is a much more straightforward coming-out story set in the 1970s (with an expectedly stylized production design to boot) about a teacher coming to terms with his sexuality by following the lead of one of his students experimenting with Platonic homoeroticism. Besides the play having no higher ambitions than telling a familiar story that leads to predictably familiar dramatic scenarios – mildly enjoyable at best, tolerable at worst – Gurney once again can’t find the right voices for his characters. Though he may have lived through this era, everyone still sounds like they’re talking in the 21st century. 

Even if Gurney may not be the most adaptably diverse of playwrights, he still deserves recognition for dedicating his career to giving voice to his upper-middle-class peers. In fact, I’d argue just as much credit is due to him as Foote. Critics have long respected Foote more than Gurney because the former focused on recording the lives of people very different from the norm, but the latter should not be penalized at all for nevertheless expertly recording for posterity more frequently chronicled lives.

And yet, like with Foote, I’m still left wondering whether or not merely recording lives is, to be blunt, enough? Art has long been a mirror up to nature, but after repeatedly being presented with very similar mirrors by Foote and Gurney, I find myself wanting their mirrors to do more than just reflect.[5] In Foote’s case, he’s sadly no longer around to help us understand his legacy in different ways, thus that onus falls on the theatrical practitioners tasked with reviving his words for modern audiences. Luckily, Gurney is still alive and churning out plays, thus he does have the opportunity to prove that he’s more than just Neil Simon-lite.[6] Will either of these outcomes ever come to pass? Who’s to say, but I do believe it’s worth continuing to see productions of their plays out of respect for the potential of one day actually being floored by their work instead of that work just once again reaffirming what I already know about them.

Ditto the memo above regarding a lack of Playbill/program/whatever-else-you-want-to-call-them.

Since I’m discussing different ways to artistically document real life here, I’d be remiss not to mention En Garde Art’s Wilderness, an interdisciplinary, multimedia, docudrama that recently played the Abrons Arts Center. Simply put, docudramas attempt to hold up a mirror to nature in a more direct fashion. To depict kids suffering from often unacknowledged, misunderstood, or flat out ignored behavioral disorders who seek solace in therapy that entails re-connecting with the world through spending time in nature with others, the writers of Wilderness interviewed such kids and their parents to document their personal experiences, and these transcripts comprise much of the script that’s acted out by conventional performers. Yet the most affecting moments of the production come when the original videos of those interviews with the parents are projected on the back wall, which allow the real people whose words and lives inform the characters to finally speak for themselves.

Yet the production suffered when it couldn’t rely entirely on this sort of documentary filmmaking. The rest of the scenes – which theatricalized the other transcripts in both direct and artistically indirect ways – were amateur at best. No one can question the nobility of the project, but successful art needs to achieve more than just bearing a moral intention. The main problem with Wilderness, in fact, was that the plethora of artistic elements on display here – as captured in the aforesaid mouthful of a descriptor: interdisciplinary, multimedia, docudrama – were all used with one simple purpose in mind: to educate the audience about the lives of these kids and their parents. Theatre can be a great tool for such education because the human connection created by people looking at other, real people – as opposed to a screen – while sharing the same space can enhance empathy for our fellow, often unconsidered man (and woman, obviously) in illuminating ways. But if the piece ONLY has that education in mind, it becomes dramatically inert, and honestly just made me think that they should’ve simply made a conventional documentary. 

No matter how inventive the staging – and Wilderness had plenty of that, mostly in random choreographed numbers – a drama that feels like nothing more than a public service announcement intended to record something for historical posterity will never have the same illuminating effect as a more nuanced piece stuffed with the sort of subtext that inspires audiences to keep wrestling with what they’ve seen long after they leave the theatre. As much as these P.S.A.s should be respected, they will never make for the most engaging of dramas, and an unengaged audience will most probably end up forgetting what they’ve just watched. If audiences fail to remember what an artist wants to record, well, then what’s the point of recording it at all?




[1] At least I lasted 1,000 words until succumbing to that easy wordplay…

[2] PLENTY of those people exist, thus the reason he had such a long and successful career that continues past his death in 2009.

[3] Before we move on, I do want to address a fairly unrelated subject: Primary Stages – one of the most underrated off-Broadway institutional theatres – unfortunately swapped their previous modern digs at the Duke on 42nd Street for the Cherry Lane Theatre this season. As much as the historic role this venue played in the development of off-Broadway theatre should be respected, its current state pales in comparison to the much newer Duke, and I fear the more decrepit constraints of the space may end up limiting what Primary Stages can do with it. Once again, historical respect is not sufficient justification!

[4] Coincidentally enough, like Primary Stages already did, the Flea will be moving theatres after these productions. Yet unlike Primary’s downgrade, I sincerely hope the Flea’s move will be an upgrade on their two current spaces (each of which housed one of these plays) that cannot contain artistic director Niegel Smith’s abundant vision. Every show I’ve seen at their current venue – including these – have felt constrained by the extremely unusual – and small – parameters of their theatres. Hopefully their new space will no longer make the Flea feel too big for its britches…

[5] I wonder if others have longed shared that feeling, thus the reason neither have ever won a Tony Award?

[6] Not that that praise-filled moniker is anything to scoff at.

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