There are a lot of theaters in and around this city. Many have identities and missions that overlap, or that may even be seen as indistinguishable from one another. The American Century Theater (TACT) is not one of those theaters. Its mission is crystal clear. It does American plays written in the 20th century. If a play doesn’t have that pedigree…they ain’t doin’ it.
Before he launched TACT, Jack Marshall, its Artistic Director, had a list. It consisted of about thirty plays and musicals that fit this mission. They were also shows that people had heard of perhaps but had never had the chance to see staged. Or they were works that were “landmark, vital, important, unprecedented, groundbreaking.” No one around town had done them for a while. On that list was Arthur Kopit’s Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad.
Marshall told me that Oh Dad… is kind of a “legend at Harvard. It’s a weird story the way it came into being.” Marshall (a Harvard grad himself) described the path of the play from student-written college production to extended run at Harvard to, eventually, Broadway and Hollywood. Harvard put Oh Dad… into The Agassiz Theatre in an open-ended run “after the initial production had been a kind of a sensation.” The Agassiz Theatre is on the Radcliffe campus, and “it’s a wonderful little jewel box of a proscenium theater. It’s incredibly intimate, pinpoint acoustics. Any show looks good in that theater.”
“It’s a scary play,” Marshall continued. “It scares companies off. The title costs a fortune to put in an ad. But it’s an important play, actually, important and influential.” That production at the Agassiz was directed by the legendary Jerome Robbins, “which is mind-blowing — you wouldn’t think of him as a match for an absurdist comedy. However, music, rhythm, and choreography are a big part of the underlying DNA of the show.” Ticking off the cast of eleven (“Did I mention the fish?”), Marshall called that “a moderate-sized cast for TACT.” (More about that later.)
Marshall explained why it took so long for a title on his initial list to get produced at TACT. “I have been waiting for someone who is enthusiastic about doing it.” Tyler Herman, who had assisted the directors of a couple of recent TACT productions, approached Marshall about directing a show on his own, and Marshall showed him the slate of shows he was planning for this season. Herman had never heard of any of them. Then, Herman remembered: “Wait a minute. I have a script in my bookcase!” Turns out that, on a lark, Herman had bought a copy of Oh, Dad… which had been signed by playwright Kopit. After reading it, Herman told Marshall, “I love this play. Let me do it!” This enthusiasm plus the coincidence of the signed copy (which Marshall decided was some sort of sign: “Fate is too clear!”) resulted in Herman being hired to direct the show. (In his review for DCTheatreScene.com, Jeffrey Walker wrote that “Director Tyler Herman was inspired to push the daring limits of Kopit’s play” and “His cast is more than up to the task.”)
So how do absurdist plays work for the TACT audience? After all, the theater’s location is in suburban Virginia, and some subscribers are, no doubt, older, attracted by the chance to see some of the early mid-century, more traditional work TACT has done, such as S.N. Behrman’s Biography from last season.
Marshall explained that this sort of play actually appeals to his subscriber base. “For some reason, the 60s dark comedies seem to be working. They seem not to be as dated now as even ten years ago. I’m not sure what that is. We’ve done several recently, and people who were around in the 60s are instantly transported back to the zeitgeist of the time.”
“We once did a demographic study of our audience and found that they are unusually literary,” Marshall told me. “More than half have advanced degrees.” Marshall said that he gets in the biggest trouble with his audience when he ventures into more contemporary fare with “newer ideas.” However, plays from earlier periods, even if quite challenging, work well. “It’s fascinating when you do a show like that. A lot of stuff just resonates.” As an example, he pointed to Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders from a couple of seasons ago. “We had really good, lively talkbacks.”
Oh, Dad…, according to Marshall, “makes sense to me. It makes sense to anyone around in the 60s…or around now! It was written in 1960, and it’s a primal scream of the 50s trying to break out of the 50s” into the psychedelic decade that would follow. But it is also aware that “what we’re walking into ain’t going to be pretty. The play is smart enough to see that. That’s hard-wired into the show. And although the subtitle calls it absurdist, it compels you to consider what it is. It’s very smart in that regard, but it’s not really absurdist. It’s a black comedy with an absurd overlay.”
We talked about how the theatrical landscape in town has changed since TACT opened its doors. There are now more companies around than when it started, and that means, inevitably, that there are more groups who will end up producing plays that fit the TACT mission, plays that, maybe 15 years ago, nobody else other than TACT might have looked at. “I look on that as a measure of success. TACT by itself has not achieved anything revolutionary. But anytime you do a play and it’s well-received, does good box office, gets good reviews, you never know what kind of reaction it sparks.”
“There have been five or six plays that we were the first to produce,” Marshall continued, “and then there was an uptick around the country” in performances of these plays. As an example, he pointed to Orson Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed and noted that there have been several productions around the country since his. “I send the script with revisions to directors and other companies. I think it’s terrific that they are doing more of these shows. I look at it as a mark of the impact of the mission.”
About that mission. Now that we are no longer in the American century, as we were when the company began, is there an impulse for mission creep, to include American work from the current century that is worth revisiting? Marshall is convincingly adamant that that won’t happen, and he spoke about the factors that made the 20th century such a particularly fecund period for American theater.
It was a time when “theater reigned supreme. We can hope and hope, but we’re never going to see that again. Plays were routinely dinner-table discussion; there were plays about big topics all the time. That’s when it was all happening! Theater really struck a chord and got people excited about things. Imagine a stage play causing riots, like The Cradle Will Rock did. If only plays today would have that impact. Angels in America is the last play that had social impact beyond the theater.” Eventually, theater became “number two,” losing cultural pre-eminence to film, then to TV as well. “Now, it’s number four or five, after the Internet” and other competitors for people’s time. “Theater keeps sliding into the same status as opera.”
Marshall talked about the wealth of plays that were created in the century just passed. “The repertoire in the 20th century was huge. There were more shows opening in a month on Broadway than now open in an entire season. There were playwrights who wrote two or three plays in a year. There is so much, and the farther we get from it, the more plays there are that haven’t been done. I still come across references to plays and think, ‘I’ve never heard of this thing!’ I get it and read it and think, ‘Son of a bitch, it’s good stuff!’ And no one’s had a chance to see it.”
Marshall bemoaned the tendency these days for talented writers to decamp to movies, with their higher pay checks, or TV, which can be a more dependable pay check, as well as a higher one. He noted that the high cost of play production has encouraged the small cast, single set play. So who wants to revive a play with a cast of 20 plus? The recent, strange rash of Clifford Odets revivals on Broadway notwithstanding, “those shows are always at risk of vanishing.” (I would add that the diminished attention span of the contemporary audience has encouraged the trend of the 90-minute play, whereas audiences in the 1930s, say, would be prepared to spend a full evening and three acts at the theatre, even at a comedy.)
Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad
Closes April 12, 2014
American Century Theater at
Gunston Arts Center II
2700 S. Lang Street
1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $32 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
“Coming up on our 20th year,” Marshall made a point to illustrate the abundance of titles ripe for TACT rediscovery. With the exception of Eugene O’Neill, that ground-breaking (and extremely prolific) greatest of American writers for the stage, there are only two or three playwrights into whose work the company has double-dipped. There are also some writers very prominent in their time that TACT has yet to tackle. “We’ve never done [Maxwell] Anderson. We’ve only done one [Robert] Sherwood, and that was as a reading. We haven’t done Elmer Rice.” Regarding O’Neill, since he is mostly seen in productions of his later plays, Marshall points out that there are many other of his earlier plays, “really good plays people don’t do enough.”
Marshall concluded by talking about how the success of the enterprise depends on “how good at research, how good detectives we can be” to find scripts from that period that will allow TACT to “preserve vibrant theater and still be relevant. I’m optimistic that we’ll always be able to find something neat to do.” Meanwhile, the current “neat” play from the American century that they have found to present (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad) is in its final week, closing Saturday, Apr. 12th.
[Note: Christopher Henley will play Rudolph Peterson, the Montgomery Clift role, in TACT’s upcoming production of Judgement at Nuremberg, directed by Joe Banno.]