Sunday, June 30, 2013

Our Town on Long Island

I got a tip to see the Hofstra University-hosted production of OUR TOWN which closes today (Sunday), and on the spur of the moment decided to go Saturday. It was a big deal getting there and back from Astoria without a car - I had to take two subways, a train and a taxi each way. But I had never seen much of Long Island (not counting the NYC parts) except for a couple of quick drives through on big highways, and a couple of brief visits to Oyster Bay on theater business over five years ago, and so on the way to Hofstra I enjoyed seeing the towns go by, mellow in the setting June sun through the Long Island Railroad train window.

This is the first time I've seen OUR TOWN in person. My daughter gave me tickets for Christmas 2009 to see the acclaimed production directed by David Cromer, but I was sick the night of the show and so my daughter took a friend of hers instead.

Ironically the first time I saw OUR TOWN, I was home sick from work and caught the public television recording of the Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Gregory Mosher with Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager. Maybe because that was the first production I've seen, and maybe because I'm a playwright, but I think the Mosher/Gray version is right way to do the play.

Frank Rich gave the production a fairly critical review, but then he doesn't seem to actually like the play itself very much:
As prettied up by Wilder, the sleepy Republican town of Grover's Corners, N.H., from 1901 to 1913, seems to say less about the country we live in now than does the earlier New England of 18th- and 19th-century literature. As an example of American playwriting of the 1930's, ''Our Town'' is closer in weight to Kaufman and Hart than to O'Neill.
But you can't win with Rich because although he thinks the town of the play is "prettied up" he complains the production's aesthetic isn't pretty enough:
With such stylization, Mr. Mosher seems to be attempting to justify his unadventurous saunter into ''Our Town'' by linking it to such other Lincoln Center productions of the year as ''Waiting for Godot'' and ''Speed-the-Plow.'' This esthetic statement is made at a price, because it has led to one major casting miscalculation, Spalding Gray's flip Stage Manager, that constantly disrupts the fragile text, the firm staging and the otherwise well-chosen cast.
Rich couldn't be more wrong. This isn't "unadventurous" at all. In fact I would say it is adventurous to do what Mosher did - stick to the text for once. American directors seem to think that it is their duty to make each and every play their bitch, tarting them up with pointless intrusions, just to put their personal stamp on it. It's this way of thinking that led the loathsome Edward Einhorn (with the full support of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society) to make a legal claim that since he directed the second production of my play TAM LIN all subsequent productions owed him a royalty.

But back to OUR TOWN. Spalding Gray had just exactly the right demeanor as the stage manager - dry and matter-of-fact. He was very upset by Rich's claim that he was too post-modernist and mentioned that in one of his monologues.

One of my complaints about the show I saw last night was the way the Stage Manager was played - too emotional, even maudlin at times, and too much a part of the town, rather than the  meta-observer he should be. Although at least the actor could do a New England dialect when he wanted to and a standard American dialect the rest of the time. (Not an issue for Spalding Gray in any case since he is a native of New England.) But the rest of the cast was all over the place, dialect-wise: some used their native Lon Guyland dialect and some sounded like they thought Grover's Corners was in Alabama. I would rather they stuck with their own native dialects, even if it was Long Island.

I should say that one of the big problems of the production was that it was presented in a black box theater that was too small to set the stage the way it should be set. Instead of having the Gibbs family table and the Webb family table cleanly balanced horizontally from stage right to stage left, with lots of playing area in between they were forced into the middle of the stage with the action going on all around.

The space issue was especially bad when, in the scene with Howie Newsome and Doc Gibbs at the beginning of Act I an actor walks right through Bessie, the pantomime horse. One of the magical aspects of OUR TOWN is the way that scenes work with imaginary props and set pieces. But they only work if you respect the rules - you say where everything is and you don't forget where they are. That's what gives the pantomime the sense of reality.

The small black box setting was perhaps not the director's fault but it didn't help that he kept putting actors on stage when they weren't supposed to be there. In the Stage Manager's opening monologue, he announces the actors' real names. In this production all the main actors come out on stage to wave to the audience as their names are announced. No. Just no.

The stage was too small for the garden trellises specified in the play, and I don't blame the director for leaving them out. But it did make it harder to establish the wives gardens without them. And that doesn't excuse what the director did to the garden scene. Here is the scene in the script:
(Mrs. Gibbs fills her apron with food for the chickens and comes down to the footlights.) 
Here, chick chick, chick. No, go away, you. Go away. Here, chick, chick, chick. What's the matter with you? Fight, fight, fight, - that's all you do. Hm... you don't belong to me. Where'd you come from. 
(She shakes her apron.) 
Oh, don't be so scared. Nobody's going to hurt you.  
(Mrs. Webb  is sitting on the bench by her trellis, stringing beans.) 
Good Morning Myrtle. How's your cold?" (etc.)
 While this is going on, a bunch of male actors were huddled together in one corner of the stage making loud chicken squawks. I thought they were about to break into the Pick A Little production number from THE MUSIC MAN.

But the director of this OUR TOWN is certainly not alone in pointless, distracting changes to the script - I guess Frank Rich would call it "adventurous." I don't like things Joanne Woodward did to the play in her 2003 production - for one example in this Youtube clip, you can see Paul Newman as the Stage Manager showing us Grover's Corner not by pointing out the features of the town all around us but by pointing to a chalk map that is wheeled in. Just another director who thinks they have to do something to make the play "better" than what's in the script.

My other big complaints about last night's production was the way the actor playing Mr. Webb hammed it up, and the excessive use of extras in various scenes. But I will say that the actor playing Simon Stimson was very good, as was the actor playing Emily Webb.

It may well be that the play itself is director-proof: you can cheeze it up, set it in the South, and have people doing chicken squawks in the first two acts, but the last act will always come out right. Frank Rich agrees:
...perhaps nothing can or ever will dismantle Wilder's finale, in which black, rain-splattered umbrellas emblematize the mourners at a burial while serene actors sitting in straight-backed chairs speak to us as the graveyard's dead. ''It goes so fast,'' cries out Miss Miller, the scene's one radiant figure in white, as she looks back on her evanescent existence from the other side.
In spite of all my disagreements with the director's choices, I cried during Emily's good-bye scene, like I suspected I would. And in fact I was afraid I was going to lose my shit entirely when George returns alone to cry at Emily's grave. This was one time I was glad that the director did not follow the script - not for the sake of the play but for my own sake. If the director had done it this way, I probably would have bawled my head off:
It's George. 
(George enters from the left and slowly comes towards them.) 
And my boy Joel, who knew the stars - he used to say it took millions of years for that speck of light to git to the earth. Don't seem like a body could believe it, but that's what he used to say - millions of years. 
(George sinks to his knees and then falls full length at Emily's feet.)

This is what it's supposed to look like.

More of what I think about the play OUR TOWN.