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Theater about Theater

A woman on stage
You Cant Take It With You with Kristine Nielsen. 

There are some terrible playwrights on Broadway this season. The worst is probably Mrs. Penelope Sycamore in You Can’t Take It With You who began her playwriting career when a typewriter was delivered to her house by mistake; she now alternates between tapping away on her war play, her labor play, and her sex play, Sex Takes A Holiday.

But she has great competition from Elliot Cooper, the loser middle-aged son of a famous actress in The Country House, who conducts a reading of his first play in her country home that puts the rest of the characters nearly to sleep; Private Brodie in The Real Thing,  imprisoned for vandalizing a war memorial, who writes his first play to express his muddled/radical world view and get out of prison; and Peter Austin in It’s Only A Play, who has written a bomb entitled The Golden Egg, for which all the other characters attend a party at the producer’s townhouse awaiting the reviews:

“I love playwrights,” says Gus, the neophyte waiter and aspiring actor at the opening night party.

“Wait till you work with one,” replies the actor James—which, since James is portrayed by Nathan Lane, comes off as a witty rejoinder.

Two actors on a couch
The Country House with Daniel Sunjata and Blythe Danner. Photo by Joan Marcus

That so many shows that opened on Broadway within the past few weeks depict playwrights as awful and ridiculous is something more than a coincidence, since, with the exception of the Hart and Kaufman comedy You Can’t Take It With You, these are shows about the theater. Also, with the exception of You Can’t Take It With You, I found them disappointing, and sometimes irksome.

Theater about theater is certainly nothing new, going back at least to the Greeks, with Aristophanes’ The Frogs. Indeed, of the Broadway shows of the genre that opened over this past month, only The Country House by Donald Margulies is a new play—and even it is inspired by a classic, Chekhov’s The Seagull (with a little Uncle Vanya thrown in). Similarly, last season on Broadway, there were two new shows that were adaptations of previous works about the theater, Bullets Over Broadway, Woody Allen’s poorly received musical adaptation of his movie, and Act One, James Lapine’s lumbering adaptation of Moss Hart’s memoir of life in the theater.


At a time when an increasing number of people are questioning the vitality and relevance of live theater...these Broadway revivals of theater about theater felt almost like a declaration of surrender.


It would be difficult to argue that theater about theater is a failed genre. Entertainment Weekly’s list of the top ten musicals and fifty best plays of the last 100 years, as well as the Library of America’s list of the top sixteen American musicals from the Golden Age, feature several works that fall within the category, including Stoppard’s The Real Thing. The others are: A Chorus Line, Kiss Me Kate, Gypsy, Noises Off (which is scheduled for its third Broadway production in 2015), and Six Characters in Search of An Author.

But, at a time when an increasing number of people are questioning the vitality and relevance of live theater—if not explicitly, then by how they are spending their money and time elsewhere—these Broadway revivals of theater about theater felt almost like a declaration of surrender. If the theater appeals to a shrinking audience, they seem to be saying, let’s just cater to the in-crowd.

This struck home in a short scene in The Country House, which is about the great actress Anna (Blythe Danner) and her family returning to their country home near the Williamstown Festival a year after the death of Anna’s daughter. Michael (Daniel Sunjata), whom Anna has invited as a guest, tells them about his volunteer work building schools in war-ravaged Congo, and how he was able to make a connection with a small boy who wouldn’t speak or even make eye contact. But Michael is a once-promising theater actor who has become a TV star, and the conversation soon swerves into talk of his life as a celebrity and how he’s trying to do something useful with it. We never hear about the Congo again, but we get plenty more about celebrity, and the life of an actor.

Margulies, who was so insightful about marriage in Dinner With Friends, and offers a few astute scenes of family interaction in The Country House as well, has decided to focus his energies in this play on observations about his characters as theater people—how stars just play themselves over and over again; how male actors are treated better as they age than female actors; how the Williamstown festival is “where all ambivalent successful actors come for absolution.”

“There are no Broadway stars, dear,” Anna says grandly at one point. “Not anymore. Oh, there are stars on Broadway but they're not Broadway stars.”

“There are no real producers anymore,” she says at another point. “People with vision and balls.”

Her son-in-law Walter (David Rasche), a once inventive theater director who now makes schlock blockbuster movies for teenage boys, proclaims:

The grandiosity of theater people who have convinced themselves that what they do is of a higher order than all other forms of make-believe! What an odd pursuit, when you stop to think about it: Grown people shouting in rooms missing a fourth wall?

There is some entertainment value to these apercus, as shop-worn as most of them are, and both the acting and Daniel Sullivan’s direction are first-rate. But how much fresher the play would have seemed, and how much more poignant and compelling its familial scenes, had Margulies made his characters a family of doctors instead of actors.


If the theater appeals to a shrinking audience, they seem to be saying, let’s just cater to the in-crowd.


It’s Only A Play offers similar generalizations about the theater, somewhat tarted up: “The theater has become the Statue of Liberty for movie actors: Give us your tired, your poor, your washed up, your strung out.”  There are no intimate, familial scenes in Terrence McNally’s play; one may consider it the purest form of theater about theater in a down and dirty kind of way. It takes place entirely during opening night of a new Broadway show, and is as catty as some of its characters. McNally has updated his comedy, which he wrote thirty-five years ago, by changing the real names he drops and the actual people he targets. In the 2014 production, the New York Times chief drama critic Ben Brantley is called “a pretentious, diva-worshipping, British-ass-kissing twat” three times. In the script published in 1990, it’s the then chief Times critic Frank Rich who is cursed, more simply, as “full of shit.” There is a distinct whiff of score-settling in barbs like this, but what to make of his insulting such veterans as Faye Dunaway, Rita Moreno, Frank Langella, and Tommy Tune? All of this is done in the name of humor.

Two actors sitting
The Real Thing with Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There is no such real name-calling in The Real Thing. Stoppard instead traffics in tricks. The first scene, in which husband Max accuses wife Charlotte of adultery, turns out to be a play-within-the-play. Charlotte and Max are actors. Charlotte’s actual husband is Henry, the playwright of the first scene. Henry is having an adulterous affair with Max’s actual wife Annie, who is also an actress.

What distinguishes the Tom Stoppard play from the others is that he does not seem to have created characters who are theater people as a way of commenting on the theater or poking fun at it, or settling scores. He is employing theater characters and settings as devices to explore something else—the conflict and confusion between reality and artifice in love, as well as in politics and in art.  This helps explain the subplot of Brodie the bad playwright. Annie champions his cause, and wants Henry the good playwright (who in the second act she has married) to fix the play Brodie’s written.

In response, in a vivid defense of good writing, Henry shows Annie a cricket bat, and then launches into one of his (Stoppard’s) arias:

This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly...  What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might... travel.

Henry then picks up Brodie’s script:

Now, what we’ve got here is of wood of roughly the same trying to be a cricket bat,
you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting “Ouch!” With your hands stuck into your armpits….

What’s disappointing about The Real Thing is not the play itself—the cricket bat—but the current Broadway production the way it’s swung—as I detail in my review.

A more successful, if more fleeting, illustration of theater being used to illustrate larger issues came in a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author presented one weekend this month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by the Parisian theater company Théâtre de la Ville as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival. In Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 classic avant-garde tale, a family with a tragic story of suffering seeks out a theater company in the midst of rehearsal, and asks them to tell their story. 

“Where is the script?” the impatient director asks.

“The tragedy is in us,” the father says. “We are the tragedy.”

Although almost a century old, the play’s blurring of the lines between reality and art is still both shocking and confusing, and both entertaining and thought-provoking. This theater about theater is not just about theater.

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There's a science fiction author named Ken MacLeod, who once said about science fiction
that it was "...an argument with the world. When it becomes (solely) an argument within science fiction, it breathes recycled air."

I think this probably applies to most kinds of art and expression; there's nothing wrong, of course, with writing plays about plays or writing plays about playwrights, but there comes a point when you've got so many of them that it's worth asking just what the point is of yet another play that doesn't bother communicating with the rest of the world outside of the theater.