Sunday, November 9, 2008

This Week (or So) in Theater

I finally have an opportunity to talk about the theater I've seen recently. It's been a mixed bag: one show was kinda lousy, one was not very good and one was the best production I've seen in years (and I've seen some pretty good work lately).

First, the not very good: Beau Willimon's Farragut North at the Atlantic Theater. I'm sure the Atlantic crew thought, "Hey: let's put on a play set during the Iowa caucuses about the behind-the-scenes machinations of a presidential campaign—it's the perfect production for an election year!" It may just be bad timing: perhaps I'm too optimistic about the potential for our country since the election to be interested in watching scheming, self-serving political operatives screw each other over... but I don't think that's the only reason this play doesn't work for me. It's not badly written, but there's nothing much here that feels new or fresh: it's a lot like the last season of The West Wing without characters who make me care. The actors do a satisfactory job—John Gallagher, Jr. looks incredibly sincere and acts anything but, which worked well for his role; Chris Noth (Sex in the City's Mr. Big) is engaging onstage and does a very good job with The Monologue That Puts Everything Into Perspective (a requirement for these kinds of plays, I guess). Director Doug Hughes does all right—he staged what the playwright wrote, basically. The title refers to the stop on the D.C. metro where the lobbyists' offices are located on K Street, a fact that is merely mentioned in passing and has virtually nothing to do with this play, actually. The script has already been optioned for a feature film and, personally, I think they could have just skipped the stage version altogether: unless it's a really kick-ass movie, I'd be surprised if we'll be seeing many revivals. Maybe some Iowa company will get a wild hair in 2011/12... but I doubt it.

The kinda lousy play was 2econd Stage's revival of Howard Korder's Boy's Life (which was, coincidentally, first produced by the Atlantic in 1988). The production, directed by Michael Greif, is decently executed (although the sets on huge wagons that the actors had to shove around the stage to change locations was conceptually unsupported... but it looked cool—which I suspect was the actual goal), but I kept asking myself during the evening, "Why did they think the time was right to bring back this play?" It's basically a series of vignettes that revolve around three friends—young professional men a few years out of college—and their poor treatment of women. There's nothing especially interesting about these guys: they're the 20-something urbanites with juvenile attitudes about sex and relationships that I'd pretty much expect to see in a play like this. As with Farragut North, the writing isn't bad—the dialogue is natural, the scenes well constructed if somewhat regular in their rhythms—but Korder doesn't offer us any perspective: the main characters are just three pathetic boys behaving badly. And so what? I can't imagine that I would have cared about them if I'd seen the '88 production, when I was a 20-something myself just moved to the big city; I care even less at 45.

As is my wont whenever I can, I walked into St. Ann's Warehouse knowing nothing at all about The National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch. Many people whose opinions I trust had raved to me about it when first came to St. Ann's last season, but I hadn't paid any attention to what they'd actually said. So I had what I consider to be the perfect theater experience: I saw a beautifully conceived and exquisitely executed production that constantly surprised and amazed me.

The Black Watch (since 2006 known as 3 SCOTS) is a Light Role Infantry battalion in the British Army. The play is based upon interviews conducted by playwright Gregory Burke with members of the regiment shortly after their return from Iraq in 2004. The script shifts back and forth between Burke's interviews with the soldiers in a pool room on an Inverness army base and their lives on deployment near Basra. Or, more precisely, it hurls back and forth between the two locations, as the NTOS's website states: the performance space is easily 200 feet wide, with the audience on two sides, and the actors spend most of the evening running, fighting (and often both) from one end to the other. It's one of the most physically demanding pieces I can remember seeing. Director John Tiffany and his spectacularly talented cast have created a remarkable production: in one instance, the entire company performs a series of balletic costume changes on an actor while he's talking—in full view of the audience, with military precision—to beautifully illustrate the over 300 year history of the regiment.

Unlike many works about the military these days, Black Watch is not strictly anti-war: it's a celebration of the men (I assume that there are no women in the regiment—there aren't any in the piece) who sacrifice their youth and, too often, their lives in the service of their country. I imagine that the young men who participated in the interviews for the play can point to it proudly and say that it reflects their perspectives accurately, honestly and with great dignity. The audience the night I saw it were certainly moved by the performance—many people were wiping away tears during the curtain call, including me. The production has been extended through December 21st—I recommend everyone go see it.

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