Robert Brustein on Theater

DOUBT (Walter Kerr Theatre)
ROMANCE (Atlantic Theater Company)
THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT (LAByrinth Theater)
THE PILLOWMAN (Booth Theater)
THOM PAIN (BASED ON NOTHING) (DR2 Theatre)
THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA (Vivian Beaumont Theater)

Contrary to received opinion, the American theater is currently hosting as many good playwrights, and as many strong plays, as ever before. Although virtually none of these dramas originates on Broadway, a handful eventually enter the mainstream through the channels of resident, Off-Broadway, and London theaters. What follows is a brief roundup of six new works, submitted with my apologies. Not all of them are noteworthy, but most deserve more attention than I can provide here. To generalize about the direction of recent drama from these examples, it seems to be informed by an interrogatory spirit and a courtroom style: by some curious coincidence, four of these plays are driven by prosecutions.

After a long career of journeyman writing for the stage (Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Dirty Story) and screen (Moonstruck, Joe Versus the Volcano), John Patrick Shanley has finally caught the larger public's attention with Doubt.The play has already won a Pulitzer Prize and the Outer Critics Circle Award, and will be a strong contender for the Tony as well. While Shanley's style remains relatively conventional, it is his considerable achievement to have taken a subject about which everyone has formed an opinion--sexual abuse among the Catholic clergy--and dramatized it without prejudice or preconception. Something has transpired between Father Flynn (Brian F. O'Byrne) and a young student at St. Nicholas School that Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones) firmly believes to have been transgressive. In her remorseless prosecution of the case and interrogation of the priest, she systematically destroys his reputation, not to mention his love of teaching and perhaps of the church. By the end--too late--she is finally developing some incertitude.

Shanley may leave the audience in doubt about the guilt of Father Flynn, but there can be no doubt about the power of the production's big theatrical performances, directed with precision and confidence by Doug Hughes. O'Byrne's warm interpretation of the harried priest is in impressive contrast to the cold serial killer he played in Frozen, and Jones gives the performance of her life as the tightly wimpled female Javert who pursues him.

This is the strongest play about the Catholic clergy since Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You, which also featured a splendid characterization (by Elizabeth Franz) of a less-than-charitable nun. Shanley's appreciation of "negative capability"--Keats defined it as the capacity to remain in "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason"--may sometimes be expressed a bit too positively and unambiguously, but the play is a significant advance for him and for the Manhattan Theatre Club, which produced it.

ROMANCE is David Mamet's latest departure from the staccato realism for which he became famous, an older style currently on display in the Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross. Instead, Romance is a legal farce in the tradition of the Marx Brothers. (A Day in the Courthouse? A Night in the Pokey?) Appearing before an exasperated and slightly loony pill-popping judge--a character inspired, I would guess, by Liam Dunn's frazzled magistrate in the movie What's Up, Doc?--a Jewish chiropractor named George Bernstein has been indicted for an unspecified crime. He is being defended by a Gentile lawyer ("It's like going to a straight hairdresser") and questioned by a gay prosecutor. With everyone in a continuous state of fury, the subsequent exchanges produce some of the most ferocious, most unbuttoned, most politically incorrect racial and religious slurs in recent drama, delivered while the bailiff doggedly tries to take orders for lunch. (Jewish defendant: "You brain-dead white socks, country club, plaid pants, Campbell's soup fucken shaygetz Goy … with your wives named Marge"; Gentile defense attorney: "You rug merchant, greasy, hook-nosed, no-dick, Christ-killing son of a bitch.… You people can't order a cheese sandwich … without mentioning the Holocaust"). Even the judge is anti-Semitic, until he confesses that he's a "sheeny" too, with a secretly Jewish father.

All this takes place against the background of a peace conference between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The court proceedings come to a halt when the chiropractor announces he has discovered a way to bring peace to the Middle East (by re-aligning the subdural areas on the necks of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders). The farce goes on a bit too long, and it wanders off track when the prosecutor's boyfriend enters the court to discover that the Jewish defendant is a long-lost lover. But Romance is never less than an engaging jeu d'esprit, directed in lively Mamet style by Neil Pepe, and acted with alacrity and relish by a spirited cast.

THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT is another courtroom vaudeville, this one by Stephen Adley Guirgis. This report is based on the highly readable script, since the production closed before I was able to see it. But I think the play confirms Guirgis's place as one of our most electric young dramatists. After watching this playwright's Our Lady of 121st Street, I suggested he might be an heir to O'Neill. His Judas play reveals he has a much sharper sense of humor. As in Romance, the courtroom scenes feature an angry judge out of movie farces ("When I come to court dressed as Ethel Merman in a one-piece bathing suit," he barks, "that'll be my signal to you that I want your opinion"), while most of the other characters speak in the street language of urban blacks and homeless derelicts.

Guirgis is quite familiar with both Testaments of the Bible, and while the defense attorney is a winged female philosopher and the prosecutor a Muslim who fawns on the judge while thirsting for the blood of the defendant, the witnesses for and against Judas include figures from the Gospels--Satan, Mary Magdalene, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, and Saint Thomas--not to mention Freud, Mother Teresa, and Saint Monica (the mother of Augustine, and the namesake of a Hollywood suburb). The play does not exonerate Judas so much as humanize him, and in the end he is embraced by Jesus, who washes his feet and begs him for love. Judas cannot give it. The climax is unsatisfactory, but how do you conclude such an enterprise? Merely to undertake it is an act of considerable courage and audacity--and slapstick skill.

THE PILLOWMAN is the last in the string of prosecution plays, and a major departure for Martin McDonagh. Set in the interrogation rooms of a prison in an unidentified totalitarian state, it does not rely, like the playwright's two previous Irish trilogies, on local color or provincial Irish speech. Though hardly perfect in form, The Pillowman represents a real growth spurt for this extraordinary dramatist, an exponential leap in his imaginative powers.

Much of the work is (perhaps by design) extremely derivative. It starts off in a Kafkaesque manner, reinforced by similarities to Pinter's The Birthday Party, Havel's Interview, and Beckett's Catastrophe. A writer of mostly unpublished stories is being questioned by a volatile cop named Ariel (Zeljko Ivanek) and a self-possessed detective named Tupolski (Jeff Goldblum) concerning a crime whose nature is not at first entirely clear. The name of the writer (played by Billy Crudup) is Katurian Katurian Katurian, familiarly known as Katurian, and before long Ariel has stuck a pen in his ear as a prelude to further torture. Katurian's brain-damaged brother Michal (Michael Stuhlbarg) is in another room, ostensibly being tortured as well. And as the plot develops, we learn that Katurian's stories about the murder and mutilation of little children have been acted out in reality, unbeknown to him, by his next of kin.

Brothers figure as prominently in McDonagh's plays as in Sam Shepard's. But the relationship between Katurian and Michal ("Tell us a story, Katurian") is almost identical to the bond between George and the feebleminded Lennie in Of Mice and Men ("Tell me about … the rabbits"). And when Katurian learns that Michal has murdered three children in the identical manner as his stories describe, he treats his brother the same way George treated Lennie after he killed Curley's wife: he ends his life as an act of mercy.

That event concludes the first act, and at the blackout I thought it should have ended the play. But it is in the second act that McDonagh's real, and less derivative, theme emerges: whether violent art stimulates violent behavior. This issue has been debated endlessly by sociologists, psychologists, legal theorists, and philosophers (starting with Aristotle's theory of catharsis), but never, to my knowledge, has it been treated so well by a dramatist. In Katurian's case, we learn that the reverse is true: his parents' vicious treatment of his brother has inspired his grotesque stories, which in turn have influenced his brother's crimes. As it turns out, Katurian, with his own history of violence, accepts his execution, caring a lot less about his own survival than about the survival of his writing, regardless of its effect on others. And the ending, oddly triumphant for such a "downbeat" story, re-affirms the stubborn will of the creative spirit.

The production has been staged in high Grand Guignol style by John Crowley, featuring startling Victorian tableaux of Katurian's childhood in upstage scenic boxes. Crowley has also elicited superb performances from his cast--particularly Goldblum, who has shed his familiar mannerisms to gain a very funny, soothing sangfroid and minimalist menace, and Ivanek, whose explosive sadistic exterior conceals a basically decent and fair-minded individual. Crudup, though perhaps a bit too clean-cut for the role, is a passionate Katurian, and Stuhlbarg, a shambling wreck of an overweight half-wit with a gray spot in his hair like a stigma, both charms and repels as Michal.

The last two works under review are not prosecution plays except in the sense that they invite prosecution--one for affectation in the third degree, the other for a failure of imagination. Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), an "existential stand-up" by Will Eno, irritated me with its pretentious prolix prattle. The content of this monologue, as intoned by James Urbaniak, is accurately summed up in the parenthetical subtitle. As Lear once reminded us, nothing will come of nothing. As for Eno's titular pun on the author of Common Sense, it is fairly typical of the playwright's wit, and bears as much relevance to the proceedings as Ionesco's Bald Soprano, who, when mentioned, causes acute embarrassment.

I was less embarrassed than wearied by this stream-of-consciousness palaver that boasts of putting us "face to face with the modern mind." (Gee, I haven't been face-to-face with a modern mind since The Brain That Wouldn't Die.) The playwright's other profound reflections are delivered in telegraphic style, alternately cajoling and insulting the audience, at the same time that he is bestowing his ineffable wisdom on us. "We're on planet Earth, a planet in a solar system, one of a trillion solar systems in our galaxy, which is one of a billion galaxies in the Universe. And you think you're pretty special. Math. There's a lot of zeroes out there," etc. If you can endure this kind of bloat for more than five minutes without your eyes crossing, I'll be happy to buy you two tickets to Will Eno's next work.

THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA is based on a novel by Elizabeth Spencer that seemed dated when it was adapted into a movie forty years ago starring Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux, and Rossano Brazzi. It was one of those Hollywood anecdotes (another was A Little Romance with Laurence Olivier and Diane Lane) inspired by the contrasts in Henry James and others between American innocence and European cosmopolitanism, a theme not exactly pulsing with originality, or even accuracy, today.

Craig Lucas, who adapted the book for the musical, is a fine playwright who ought to be more careful about the commissions he accepts, while Adam Guettel, who wrote the music and lyrics, is a gifted Sondheim-influenced composer who should stop stifling his talent for melodic line. As for the plot, it is unraveled very very slowly under Bartlett Sher's deliberate direction, accompanied by frequent changes of Michael Yeargan's architectural settings and Catherine Zuber's sumptuous costumes. It is also rather preposterous. Margaret, a Southern matron (played by Victoria Clark as an alternately forbidding and compassionate soprano), and her daughter Clara (a fresh ingenue turn by Kelli O'Hara) have come to Florence on holiday. A young Italian named Fabrizio (the very engaging Matthew Morrison) falls in love with Clara at first sight, and after fumbling past a lot of language barriers, the couple plan to get married.

The hidden obstacle on the path of true love is that when Clara was a young girl, she got kicked in the head by a pony. As a result, she is now intellectually and emotionally retarded, although only her parents seem to recognize this.The audience is admitted to the secret through small bursts of plot, such as when she strokes the penis of a nude statue or throws wine on the dress of her future sister-in-law after the woman has kissed her fiance on his lips. Apart from these relatively insignificant lapses, Clara behaves no more strangely than any other glandular American girl, so the apprehension expressed by her irate father and anxious mother seems entirely misplaced, if not bewildering. As for Fabrizio's father, his only concern is about Clara's age--the match is almost called off when he discovers that she is six years older than his son. By show's end, Fabrizio and Clara join hands in marriage, and love is permitted to conquer all mental handicaps. But whether Clara will ever display any real signs of her condition remains shrouded in mystery. The greater mystery is why the Beaumont has expended such extravagant resources on such old-fashioned material.

The prosecution rests. Does the defense wish to cross-examine?

This article originally ran in the May 23, 2005 issue of the magazine.