Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Writers' Blocks

November 08, 2011

Stockard Channing and Rachel Griffiths with Stacy Keach in the background Photo: Joan Marcus
Broadway is lousy with writers this fall. That might seem a perpetual condition, but I’m referring to writers in the sense of those serving as characters on stage. They populate two new plays that are running just two doors down from one another on 45th street. And while superb actors portray all of them, the plays themselves that these writers inhabit are not always so successful. Let’s start with Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Jon Robin Baitz’ Other Desert Cities, which was resurrected from its Off-Broadway run two years ago and is now again seeing the bright sun of a California Christmas Eve. It’s not a happy holiday, though, for Brooke Wyeth, played with a beautiful ferocity by Rachel Griffiths. After a multi-year slump following her first celebrated novel that was punctuated with some time on suicide watch in a psychiatric hospital, she has returned to her parents’ Palm Springs home to share her latest book, a memoir, before it is published. She is anxious that her parents, a former ambassador Lyman (Stacy Keach) and his wife Polly (Stockard Channing), may react negatively to the book. In contrast to Brooke and her siblings, the senior Wyeths have a high profile reputation as right-wing Reagan Republicans and the memoir promises to drag family skeletons before the public. Brooke it turns out has good reasons to bring up some of these issues including the suicide of her older brother when she was still in school. And she is not alone in her conflicts as both her younger brother Trip (Thomas Sadoski) and her just-back-on-the-wagon maternal aunt Silda (Judith Light) are there to participate in the verbal sparing that careens back and forth between hysterical and scalding.

Baitz’ play goes for fairly big fish in a story that indirectly shadows real life figures including the Reagans and their one-time dissident author/daughter Patti Davis. The Wyeths are friends with the Reagans in the play and direct references to the parents’ right-wing connections are made repeatedly without being heavy-handed. But Polly and Lyman aren’t caricatures, and the story is as much about reconciling a family’s personal tragedy as it is how an increasingly politically fractured American population finds a common ground. The Wyeths have a deeply held commonality, but it is one steeped in a painful history and what they share won't be rekindled through simple platitudes. There are numerous searing, passionate speeches in this play, and Baitz couldn’t ask for a better ensemble. Audiences who know Light only from television may be shocked by the guts in this performance and Broadway royalty like Keach and Channing leave no doubt to how they achieved such status. Director Joe Mantello contributes a masterful feel for this particular California Desert community.

But strangely, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat disconnected from Other Desert Cities. The Wyeths are certainly filled with entertaining histories and ideas, but all of it can feel esoteric as well in a family of ambassadors, TV producers, screenwriters, and famous authors. These are American lives to be sure, but ones that are more familiar through constant exposure to television and other media than through most peoples' lived experiences. Baitz is not opposed to the melodramatic either, and some of his more glossy moments are rescued by actors who could make just about any dialog sound great.

Alan Rickman and the cast of Seminar Photo: Joan Marcus
Theresa Rebeck is not afraid of sentimentality either and her latest comedy, Seminar, is currently in previews before opening later this month. Rebeck recently gave a very funny and satisfying new play to CTG in Los Angeles, Poor Behavior, and the characters in Seminar are not much better behaved. This time there are four young authors who’ve paid a famous author and editor Leonard, played by Alan Rickman, to guide them in a ten session weekly creative writing seminar. The young authors played by Lily Rabe, Jerry O’ Connell, Hamish Linklater, and Hettienne Park (all but Rabe making their Broadway debuts) have had various levels of success so far in their careers including Douglas (O’Connell) who is about to appear in The New Yorker and has another famous writer for an uncle. Rickman is the bad boy character who dispenses terse, bitingly funny advice that is more likely to produce tears than calm reflection. Though he can be cruel, his roasts of the young writers’ own pretensions are easy to identify with. Soon the focus of the play hones in on Martin (Linklater), the wallflower and perhaps most talented member of the group. His own blossoming raises questions for everyone during this tight single act under director Sam Gold.

And like Other Desert Cities, Seminar has a melodramatic streak in it that comes to the fore in its largely comic surroundings. Rebeck is also interested in the life of the writer’s mind and the play uses the artistic process as a source of both comedy and pathos. Again excellent performances from the entire cast, especially Rabe, Rickman and Linklater, make more pedestrian moments believable. But again there’s a certain distancing going on that makes Seminar feel like it is, in fact, what it is, a play. Take for instance the many times characters read sections of text to themselves instantly and then claim they are either signs of genius or disaster. This will probably not be recognizable to many people from their own experiences reading and writing, though its likely unavoidable in a play about the writing process. Baitz gives his readers a comparatively generous scene change, and an afternoon, to get through Brooke's lengthy memoir. On the bright side, Seminar and Other Desert Cities would almost convince you that America is still a nation of serious readers, especially of fiction. Although as Leonard points out to his students, the tragedy of being a great writer is realizing that all the art you make is, in the end, made for a public that may not be up to appreciating it. Which may be the opposite problem that Rebeck and Baitz have with their own plays, which are imminently likable despite significant contrivances and a conventional theatricality.



I strongly considered getting tickets to "Seminar" while I'm out here in NY, and I happened to be free on the first night of previews; however, I just could not bring myself to pay $135+/seat, especially for a "preview" -- and that isn't even VIP seat pricing.

Broadway theatre pricing has gotten ridiculous. A bit surprised there hasn't been an Occupy movement . . .
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