UPDATE: More on this on my 23 September post here.
None dare call it a publicity stunt, but according to the Los Angeles Times, playwrights Neil LaBute and Theresa Rebeck collaborated on a play yesterday, in real time, for the Times‘ “Culture Monster” blog. Neither playwright is a stranger to either Broadway or large regional non-profit theatres (if there are any American playwrights who can be said to be “household names” in the way that Stephen King and Martin Scorsese are, these two would be among them), and I suspect that this challenge is meant to coincide with the Los Angeles opening of Ms. Rebeck’s Poor Behavior at the Mark Taper Forum later this month and her play Seminar, which opens on Broadway in November, as well as the upcoming London opening of Mr. LaBute’s reasons to be pretty. Mr. LaBute has no upcoming LA openings of his own plays, so perhaps he was just being a good sport.
Only a churl would suggest that you’d never find Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller doing such a thing at the height of their careers — the public relations game has changed a great deal in the past 50 years, as well as the difficulty of filling a theatre for a new straight play, and maybe today they would. But it is indicative, in a small way, of how much the given limitations of the challenge define theatre and drama in America in the early years of the 21st century to the general public. Mr. LaBute and Ms. Rebeck did not actually come up with an idea for the play itself; instead, like an audience yelling suggestions out to an improvisational comedy group or one of those collaborative “24-hour-play” projects, the Times‘ readers were invited to vote for one of six stories which the playwrights would then flesh out. It’s the assumptions underlying the choice that make for interesting contemplation. The options were, and I quote from the Los Angeles Times blog entry:
- Ann, the CEO of a large corporation, is interviewing Steve for a job, not realizing they had a one-night stand a few years ago. Will he let her know?
- Former childhood sweethearts Jenn and Joe, now married to others, reunite at their 20th high school reunion.
- Ted and Sue meet on the Internet but now they’re taking things to the next level — meeting in person for a “real” date.
- Surprise! Recently divorced Sandy and Ken are seated together on a six-hour flight across the country.
- Robin and Rick fall in love, then discover they’re both the product of a sperm donor — possibly the same one.
- Kristin enrolls in a figure studies class, then realizes that she knows the nude model, Ron, from church.
All of these “stories” (more like anecdotes) have a tone reminiscent of the more forgettable sketches from the Saturday Night Live of the late 1970s (or The Carol Burnett Show of the early 1970s, with a contemporary twist). More to the point, the six options all suggest an extraordinarily narrow range not only of form (realism) but of content as well. They are all dialogues for two; none of them seem to have any connection with larger social issues (the first option glances fleetingly at it — the employment crisis — only to sublimate it under a romantic-comedy guise); the figures all seem to be among the middle- or upper-middle-classes; and they are all likely to produce a rather wan, character-driven comedy.
Making anything of this may be making too much of it. But it does suggest what the Los Angeles Times means by “a play,” and the contemporary topics to which American dramatists should be addressing their talents. The shame of it is that this public challenge to two recognized American playwrights could have been far more interesting. Instead of one-sentence comedy sketch descriptions, the Times could have asked the readership to vote on a Biblical story for the two to dramatize (a much smaller and less ambitious project than the upcoming Sixty-Six Books project of the Bush Theatre in London, but just as intriguing for all that); a contemporary social, cultural, or political issue (of which there are legion — the rise of the Tea Party movement, the fiscal crisis, the Obama administration’s plummeting approval ratings); even a formal challenge (a wordless play, a play written in rhyming verse, a location for a site-specific play). The Times could have taken the opportunity to encourage these two writers, in a rare public working collaboration, to spread their wings — not to clip them.
The shame of it is also that perhaps the Times is right: that their readership considers these narrow avenues of style and content to be what American theatre and drama should consist of. As I mentioned earlier, this is small potatoes indeed. But it is indicative of the status and definition of the American drama by the lights of the Times and, obliquely, to these two writers. Both have done better than this, and they’ll do so again. Still, something to stick in the craw.