There is no more demanding job in the theater than running a company. And among an artistic director's many daunting chores, none is more challenging than selecting a season: To what extent do you cater to your audience? Is it wise to choose plays even before you know that you can cast the leading roles? How important is it to balance the titles? Play selection is a precarious business, fraught with pitfalls. But the worst way to do it is to rummage through play catalogs or surf the Web, simply looking for something new.
Here's a thought: How about something old? I can think of any number of unstaged plays that could still engage theatergoers. Surely there are valid reasons (some of the casts are large, the works are obscure) for not producing any of these titles. But as a potential audience member, here are some shows I would most like to see restored to life.
The Autumn Garden Whatever has happened to Lillian Hellman? Once the most esteemed female playwright in America, now she is in eclipse. Yet The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine and Another Part of the Forest retain their well-crafted melodramatic fireworks. The Autumn Garden (1951) was one of her least successful efforts, but she claimed it as her favorite, and the great theater critic Harold Clurman (who also directed the original Broadway production) pronounced it her best play. Set in a rambling manor on the Gulf Coast just after World War II, the play is an allegory for a nation that, having survived the war, was uncomfortable with its past and unsure of its future. This twelve-character ensemble piece is the closest Hellman ever came to evoking the rueful manner of Chekhov. Although infrequently staged, a production last summer in Williamstown, Massachusetts, was so glowingly received that I hoped it might move to New York. Not to be, but the reviews did confirm the play's engrossing sense of heartbreak.
A Class Act Was ever a show more aptly titled? Edward Kleban is best remembered as the lyricist of A Chorus Line. Much of this buoyant paean to Kleban's songbook occurs during his classes at the BMI Musical Theater Workshop. While attending an evening of effervescent melody, the viewer is treated to a veritable master class in the making of musicals. And what a quirky leading man. Kleban comes off as eccentric, irascible — and hopelessly in love with theater. The musical was such a smash when it debuted off-Broadway in 2000 that it promptly moved to Broadway, where it sputtered. Five years ago I happened upon an intimate production in Boston that was so joyous and sensual that it blew the audience out of its seats. Ever since, I have been waiting to see it here...alas, in vain.
Incident at Vichy Arthur Miller is the American theater's most stern moralist. To see a Miller drama is to wonder if the playwright isn't waiting for us in the lobby, prepared to slap our knuckles with a ruler if we don't exit the theater as outraged at life's inequities as he is. Although classic works like The Crucible and Death of a Salesman get staged time and again, Incident at Vichy is rarely seen, perhaps owing to its cast of 21 men (though that could be shaved). When the text is also shaved (as it was for a gripping public television adaptation in 1973), it reveals a parable of stunning power. In a detention room in France in 1942 after the Nazi occupation, several men who are suspected of being Jewish await interrogation before either being released or sent to concentration camps — which are still only rumored to exist. As the provocative story plays out in real time (80 minutes without intermission), it asks uneasy questions about the nature of compassion and sacrifice. I think this is Miller's unrecognized masterwork.
My Fat Friend Thirty years ago, while passing through Detroit, I happened upon the national company of Charles Laurence's sweet, tender, acerbic comedy about a girl who thinks she must thin down in order to capture the heart of a man. The original Broadway cast — John Lithgow, Lynn Redgrave, George Rose — was touring with the show, and they were brilliant. Although I thought the play was wildly funny, the audience hated it. Who was right? I don't know, for I've never seen My Fat Friend again. I keep hoping for another chance.
Peterpat I've not seen this two-character romantic comedy by Enid Rudd. But then, who has? After the original Broadway production with Dick Shawn and Joan Hackett died a quick death in 1965, the play sank from view. This saga of love and marriage (and divorce) was apparently too sarcastic even for dinner theaters. But this sad-happy tale of several years in the lives of Peter and Pat reads so funny and so true, surely the script merits resurrection.
That Championship Season Jason Miller's juggernaut won the 1972 Triple Crown — Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, New York Drama Critics Award — and ran for 844 performances, the longest Broadway run for a drama since A Streetcar Named Desire 25 years earlier. It is a galvanizing account of a twentieth reunion for a champion high school basketball team. Intelligent and witty, it grabs the audience by the throat early on and never lets go. Yet this undeniable crowd pleaser is no longer staged. Why not? Some have suggested that because our nation has endured so many paroxysms in the past four decades, a play that captured American life in 1972 now seems quaint. Perhaps. But with the right five-man cast, I have to believe this play would as exciting as ever.
Wild Honey Michael Frayn is best known as the author of Noises Off, one of the most delightful farces ever written. But he also has devoted much of his life to translating the plays of Chekhov. Wild Honey is both a translation and an adaptation of an early, obscure, untitled Chekhov effort. The messy script has received occasional stagings under the title Platonov (named for the leading male character). There are stirrings here of themes and actions that will find fuller life in The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters. But as freely adapted by Frayn (and retitled to point up the story's emphasis on forbidden sexual attraction), Wild Honey satisfies on its own account. Frayn has packed it with humor. The premiere production in 1984 at England's National Theatre, with Ian McKellen dazzling in the lead role, was one of the most memorable evenings of theater I've ever known. When McKellen repeated his performance with an American cast in New York, the show faltered. I've never heard of another staging. Hence, this is not only lost Chekhov, it is lost Frayn.
Space precludes my adding Heinar Kipphardt's docudrama In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Brian Friel's Irish elegy Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Terence Rattigan's British classic The Winslow Boy to the list. Had I written this same column a year ago, I would have included Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, the debut offering by the St. Louis Actors' Studio; and Paul Osborn's delectable portrait of small-town Americana, Morning's at Seven, which is to be staged next month by Stray Dog. For both, much thanks.What about you? If there are plays that you would especially like to see staged in St. Louis, e-mail [email protected] or post to the comments thread of this article online and well run your suggestions in the near future.