By Richard Seff, DCTS columnist: NY Theatre Buzz
Though I am fast approaching my dotage, I feel like an outsider when I read the reviews of many of my aging almost-contemporaries, the current run of so many NY theatre critics. Many of them revel in the wildness, energy and ear shattering sound of rock and roll, claiming it brings them joy, release, connection to the now. To me it merely brings a need for ear plugs and a long walk in the woods. I know full well that there is surprise and insight in many of the lyrics, if only one could hear the lyrics. But the decibel level makes mud of all choral numbers, and turns very pleasant sopranos and high female altos into shrieking harpies. There, I know that dooms me as a relic from the middle of the past century, but until someone pulls the plug, my joy in the form Americans created, Musical Comedy (or Musical Theatre) is over. Ask any girl under 18 what show she can’t wait to see (boys don’t want to see anything), you can bet your booty it won’t be anything on Broadway, except perhaps “Legally Blonde” or “Wicked”, and even “Legally Blonde” is beginning to run out of tweenies and teens with rich parents, so I don’t think it’ll be around come Labor Day.
Of course this column isn’t about musicals at all. But even with straight plays, I seem to be playing in a different ballpark than the critics. In a recent week, I saw two Important Plays in New York, one on Broadway, the other in a staged reading at the Players Club with an all-star cast. The former, TOM STOPPARD’S “ROCK ‘N’ ROLL comes to us courtesy of the Royal Court Theatre in London, complete with most of its British cast and director, Trevor Nunn. No problem there. It has had hugely favorable New York reviews.
It’s beautifully staged, and the actors are top notch. I’d not known Rufus Sewell could be so charming and funny. Brian Cox was absent the night I was present, but his understudy, Joe Vincent, was just fine in the role, remarkably fine. A cast of 13 actors devoted themselves to telling us this very complicated story about a Czech’s return from Cambridge, where he has been living, to his homeland on the eve of the Russian invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia in the late l960s, and carries us along until 1990. You knew you were in Czechoslovakia because the scenery there was very dark and depressing, and you knew you were back in England, because the garden was in full flower, and the walls were painted pale yellow. But I had the feeling, all evening long, that I was in the middle of a soap opera with the vocabulary of a Rhodes scholar. Whenever a scene ended – well, you could hardly call them scenes, they were more like sketches – we were blasted out of our seats by a bit of the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, a lot of Pink Floyd and a smattering of a Czech group called the Plastic People of the Universe. We heard as much of a number as it took to change the scenery, then abruptly the rockers were sent packing in mid phrase. Not that it mattered, as I had no idea what they were yelling about (I mean ‘singing’) for reasons mentioned in my first paragraph.
The reviews on the Stoppard play were, as usual, favorable. Ben Brantley in the NY Times seemed to have a splendid time, called the play ‘triumphantly sentimental’, and most of his colleagues were almost as excited. The public, in reviews I’ve seen on the internet, ranged from ‘a snoozefest’ to ‘self important twaddle’. By evening’s end, I felt I’d learned a little, but as Mary Poppins taught us, a spoonfool of sugar makes the medicine go down. No sugar in this one; just a lot of speechifying.
Which brings me to my other evening out. This time, I was treated to a barely rehearsed reading of a little known play by George Bernard Shaw, who wrote it in l938 when he was in his 70s, about the age Mr. Stoppard is now. Shaw too was angry at the world, so he wrote a play called GENEVA, set it in the office of the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation, and in the office of the Secretary for the League of Nations. He was wise enough to know that war was just around the corner once again, so he sat himself down and wrote a three hour barrage attacking everyone.
He started with a charming but seemingly idiotic British secretary, named her Begonia Brown just so we’d know she was a comic character (think Goldie Hawn with a British accent), a man simply called “The Jew”, a widow who sounded like Wilde’s Lady Bracknell. Then, to make sure no one was left out, he added a Russian Commissar, and three dictators named Battler (Hitler), Bombardone (Mussolini), and General Flanco (Franco). Get it? They don’t show up until the fourth of four very long acts, and when they do the whole evening takes on the shape and feel of a sketch on “Your Show Of Shows”, circa l950. Again, I felt assaulted by information and attitude.
David Staller directed the piece with great esprit, and found in the likes of Carole Shelley, Boyd Gaines, Peter Flynn, George S. Irving and Simon Jones a fun loving group of expert comic actors who gave their all. I talked with several of them after the performance. They’d rehearsed for a mere 4 hours, and most of them had no idea what the play was about, which was probably a good thing – for had they probed, I think they’d have found it wasn’t about much. Better to just plunge in, say the words loudly and clearly. I don’t think they expected laughs, for they rarely waited for them. But, as with the Stoppard play, there were many. I just could not feel engaged in any way. I didn’t give a fig about any of the characters; instead I began to empathize with the actors and that is not a good thing. When one has no idea what The Widow is blathering about, but is merely thinking how well Carole Shelley blathers, I do believe the play is in trouble. At least in my corner.
So there you have it. Unless you have a particular fondness for the occupation of Czechoslovakia, I wouldn’t rush to see “Rock ‘N’ Roll”. Even if you are addicted to the music, don’t bother – it only comes at you in very loud snatches.
I hope to have better news for you next time. Until then, I wish you all a happy February filled with good theatre. Which, in my mind, means entertainment from the writer, even when he’s anxious to teach me something. The actors try, the director does too, even the designers can help take you to a new world. But no more lectures, thank you very much. You want to send a message? With Western Union telegrams a thing of the past, buy yourself a carrier pigeon.
[Editor’s note: For a schedule of the once a month Project Shaw readings at The Players Club, click here.]
- DCTS Podcasts featuring Richard Seff:
- Richard Seff: A Lifetime on Broadway Click here to listen
- Inside Broadway: A Return Visit with Richard Seff Listen here.