New York in History and Anecdote
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How Things Seem

New York Press, November 6, 2001

Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things; Strindberg’s Dance of Death with Mirren and McKellen; Artistic disarray at the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater

There’s some first-rate acting going on at the Promenade Theater, where Gretchen Mol is appearing with Paul Rudd, Frederick Weller, and Rachel Weisz in a new play by Neil LaBute called The Shape of Things. The play is part comedy of sexual manners and part drama of sexual intrigue, which is to say that it feels a little like Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago or Howard Korder’s Boys’ Life while you are watching it, and like Dangerous Liaisons afterward.

LaBute is a filmmaker with something of a reputation for “misogyny,” or so reviewers keep saying. Actually, his work appears no more anti-woman than Mamet’s. It may be anti-people, but there’s nothing wrong with that, to my mind. LaBute seems to be primarily interested in power and cruelty. The young people he writes about commit emotional atrocities for no reason other than that they can and the amusement the fact affords them.

LaBute’s first film, In the Company of Men, was about the calculated seduction of a young deaf woman by a pair of businessmen. The Shape of Things has a similar plot: Adam (Rudd), a nebbishy undergraduate, falls for a shrill and pusillanimous art student with advanced ideas who sets about trying to destroy him. What’s curious is her choice of weapon, which is positive influence. She brings him down by making him over into a more attractive and self-confident person than he was before. LaBute isn’t advocating superficiality; on the contrary, in the play’s own most superficial strain he makes this horror-show of a girlfriend spout pseudo-intellectual apercus about dishonest art and our surface preoccupation with “the shape of things.”

If this sounds muddled, it is. LaBute’s intellectualizing is almost indistinguishable from his anti-heroine’s. Moreover, nearly everything about the play is artificial: the plot, the two central characters, the denouement. That it’s also riveting—and it is—is largely due to the quality of the acting, not from Weisz, who is strident and pedantic, or Rudd, who has an impossible task (playing an intelligent man hoodwinked by a woman who is obviously up to no good), but from Weller and Mol, who play two friends of Adam’s, a former not-quite-girlfriend and the former roommate to whom she is ambivalently affianced. These are contemporary humor characters—the almost-insipid blonde, the testosterone-happy best friend—and Mol and Weller play them with great subtlety and humanity. A couple of scenes in which Adam fails to recognize his repressed feelings for them, or theirs for him, are electrifying.

Two good characters and two great scenes are nothing to sneeze at, and there’s an art to making us want to see a predetermined story play out. The Greeks did that a lot. So did Mamet in Oleanna, where our knowledge of what had to happen seemed to militate against what we saw in front of us. Watching The Shape of Things, I found myself admiring the way in which LaBute had taken into account one of the contemporary realities of theatergoing: the knowledge we come to the theater with about where a play is going. It’s knowledge derived mostly from hype and buzz, things without which theater can’t survive.

LaBute has The Smashing Pumpkins blaring out at deafening levels between scenes, reportedly to keep audience members from talking to each other. He runs the two-hour play without intermission, like a movie. And he keeps us asking ourselves, “How are these characters going to get where they have to go?”—which doesn’t make his play literature. It’s a potboiler, but it’s good commercial theater.

What exactly constitutes “commercial” theater is a question I found myself pondering during a recent performance of The Dance of Death at the Broadhurst. There I was in a big Broadway house, watching Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, two of the greatest living actors of the English-speaking theater, acting their hearts out in one of Strindberg’s most unrelievedly grim and cerebral plays. There before me was one of those breathtaking Santo Loquasto sets that contrive to evoke squalor pleasingly and express a life of mind-crippling tedium while offering us no end of interesting things to look at.

Nothing very pleasant or uplifting was happening onstage: a husband and wife who loathed the sight of each other were battling it out, alternately abusing and tormenting each other, while a third character, played by David Strathairn, tried to make sense of it all, allowing himself to be used and manipulated by both. Not jolly stuff; yet all around me hundreds of people seemed, like myself, to be having a perfectly swell time. There was no restlessness, no checking one’s watch every five minutes. We were engrossed, entertained. And if, during the intermission, we found ourselves talking about other things, if the play stopped short of actually moving us, it wasn’t for anything lacking in the production or the performances. It just wasn’t King Lear, that was all—that was the worst you could say.

On the whole, it was like going to see a non-masterpiece performed by a world-class opera or ballet company. This in itself can be a rewarding and uplifting experience: exposing oneself to extraordinary human achievement—great dancing or singing or, in the case of Dance of Death, acting. For me, seeing Dance of Death was primarily about seeing Mirren in a stage vehicle that, unlike the Roundabout Theater’s dreadful A Month in the Country some years back, was worthy of her gifts. It’s always a treat to see McKellen doing what he does best, which is hamming adorably and what he does here.

But Mirren belongs to that rare breed of British actress who can be many different women at the same time, often within the same role. We’ve come to know her mostly through her role as the unsexualized heroine of the Prime Suspect series on television, but over the years, on film, she’s played a whole spectrum of differently tempered women in a man’s world—wives and mistresses, most of them, whose alliance with an obsessed or unbalanced man gives him a clarity or depth he might have lacked with a less interesting woman. Often, these roles have entailed little more than radiating a kind of sexualized intelligence that hinted, in silence or repose, at what Mirren hid below the surface. The Strindberg gives her a chance to be Hedda and Ophelia, Miss Julie, Lady Macbeth and Arkadina all at the same time.

There’s a long pause between acts, about three-quarters of the way through, where Mirren is offstage changing her costume and McKellen, left alone onstage, goes about in the dim light picking things up and putting them in order in a desultory way. It was during this lull that I found myself wondering what made this production any more “commercial” than any of the plays or productions New York’s institutional theaters send to Broadway. At a time when artistic directors all over the city are behaving like Broadway moguls and all the interesting, healthy, vibrant impulses in New York theater seem to be coming from outside the nonprofit sector—from institutional theaters abroad, like the Almeida in London, or from small independent producers—this seems like a valid question.

Certainly it’s worth asking in the context of the institutional meltdown that the New York Shakespeare Festival seems to be going through. Earlier this month, the theater announced the resignation of Fran Reiter from the top financial post. A former deputy mayor, Reiter was the latest in a succession of people who had tried to put the theater’s affairs in order. Then last week came the news that the two largest and most loyal donors on the theater’s board of directors had stepped down.

More than once, Times theater reporter Robin Pogrebin has characterized the situation at the Public as a dispute over money laced with personality conflicts. Her most recent article, from last week, made the current disarray sound like a function of George Wolfe’s unrealistic spending policies and an inability to play well with others. For people familiar with the history of the New York Shakespeare Festival under its founder, Joe Papp, and its subsequent fate under Wolfe, it’s hard not to suspect that there is more going on, and that at least some of it has to do with Wolfe’s lack of anything like an artistic policy and his apparent inability to behave like the artistic director of one of the country’s most influential nonprofit theaters.

Since taking over the Public, Wolfe has focused almost entirely on commercial productions, using the company chiefly as a tryout ground for productions he hopes will move to Broadway. The Times, equating “artistic” with commercial achievement (“The theater has also had its share of recent artistic successes. This season’s production featuring Elaine Stritch is already sold out…”), seems to have no problem with this but others may.

Mostly what the company has lacked under Wolfe is any serious or consistent vision, which may well be what its longtime supporters are finally responding to. Among the many basic things that Wolfe has failed to do, one was to keep up with what was happening in the nonprofit theater elsewhere in the world. Over the years, for instance, Papp had developed a longstanding alliance with London’s Royal Court Theater, a connection he mined as a source for new work. Wolfe let that relationship lapse—and just at a time when the Court and the Almeida Theater, in Islington, were becoming centers of a renaissance in writing for the stage. Under Stephan Daldry, the Court had opened its doors to unrepresented writers, while the Almeida, under Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent, had opened its to movie folk, creating a synergy between the worlds of theater and independent film. The result was a general rekindling of interest in the stage.

If Wolfe had wanted to, he could have made us, his constituency, beneficiaries of that rebirth. If he’d done anything—anything at all—to foster a spirit of non-commercialism at the Public, New York’s other institutional theaters would have had to follow suit. A rivalry might have developed, like the rivalry between the National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company, which sparked so much great theater in the 70s and 80s, or like the rivalry that exists between the Royal Court and the Almeida now. Instead, what has happened is a wholesale betrayal of the philosophies upon which art and arts patronage are based.