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“The Play’s the Thing”

“The Play’s The Thing”

Cynthia’s Column Dec. 2006

I got an email from Aslan this week.  Aslan Wheeler, a student in County Wicklow, Ireland.  This is great for many reasons.  First of all, I didn’t realize you could name a child Aslan.  Is it an Irish name?  The only Aslan I know is the lion from The Chronicles of Narnia.  Secondly, that a young Irish bloke could find me on the internet and write to me instantly on the other side of the world.  And thirdly, because he was asking permission for his school to put on a production of my play Looking-Glass.

Those of you who’ve been reading me for a few years know this is the play I co-authored that was produced Off Broadway in 1982.  The best month of my life followed by the worst day.  Rehearsals, previews, opening night and the next day it closed.  But the play went on to be published by Broadway Plays and has been produced in many theatres in the U.S.  Notably in Portland around 1991 starring Don Stewart Burns as Lewis Carroll.  This will be the first U.K. production as far as I know.

Several other things happened this month that brought the condition and fate of the theatre to the forefront of my thoughts.

I was in L.A. for a week in October to pitch movie and T.V. projects and to teach at the gigantic Screenwriting Expo at LAX.  Flying down I saw in an ad that Doubt was playing at the Ahmanson.  The new play by John Patrick Shanley (renowned playwright, also wrote Moonstruck.) and not just that there was a production in L.A.  This was the same Broadway production that won the Tony for Best Play.  Starring Cherry Jones who won the Tony Award for best actress.  And the entire Broadway cast including Adriane Lenox who won the Tony for best supporting actress.  Original director, too.

I called and got a seat for the next night in the center Orchestra row G.  Good news, right?  The play was fabulous and Cherry Jones a revelation.  Then the cracks started to creep in here.  Is this too good to be true?  What is wrong with this picture?

Should I be alarmed that a Broadway play imported in its entirety sets and all can’t fill a theatre in L.A.?  Well, it was a Wednesday night and the Ahmanson’s a big house.  Bigger than most Broadway houses.  And it was 75% capacity.  No what alarmed me was hearing the people behind me bemoan what importing Broadway productions like this had cost us.  What had been sacrificed was the new play program.  This is one of the places where for the last thirty years the new J.P. Shanleys have come from.  A place where they’ve been nurtured, workshopped, produced and grown into American Playwrights.

The next day I had lunch with an old friend, an actor named Jim Sudik.  He’s a stage actor, one of those guys who can star in a huge musical as George M. Cohan and then step right into any Shakespearean role you’ve got.  He starred in a couple of dozen major professional productions in Chicago in the 1970s and ‘80s.  Was nominated for many, many Jeffs (Chicago’s Tony Award.)  And hasn’t acted in nine years.  This is tragic.  Not so much for Jimmy.  He has a life.  He raised a family.  He is frustrated that the community theatre he’s been helping to run for several years is going under because people in the suburbs aren’t going to plays.  No, the real tragedy here is our loss.

I’ve been going to the theatre avidly since I was a kid.  Since I still have every Playbill, I know I’ve seen hundreds of plays and musicals.  (Just look in my garage if you doubt this.)  The number of incandescent performers onstage that shine with their own inner arc-spot and make audiences leap to their feet at the curtain is small.  The Brits have a strong list, fueled by the R.S.C. but their theatre is not in trouble, so let’s just focus on our American stage actors.  I can tell you who they are off the top of my head.  Kevin Kline.  Gary Sinese.  John Malkovich.  Hugh Jackman had it in The Boy From Oz.  Cherry Jones absolutely.  Jimmy Sudik is one of these actors.  So is John Vickery.  Wade McCollum is a local star of remarkable inner illumination and is playing at the Gerding Theater at the Armory in I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright through Dec. 23.  Go and see what I’m talking about.  You won’t find this on TV or at the movies.

The ones on this list you probably know are the ones who gave up the stage for the screen.  (I don’t want to rant, but Kevin Kline’s not even sexy on screen.  On stage he’s incandescent and hot.  Even as Falstaff in Henry IV with a pot belly and beard, every woman in Lincoln Center wanted to jump him.  Not just me.  Really.)  It is a whole different realm of experience.  Gary Sinese playing the same CSI guy every week on TV is a huge shame.  Our shame.

Okay, I’m ranting a bit.  I feel passionately about this.

What can we do about it?  Go to the theatre.  Pick up the paper.  Pick up the phone.  Buy some tickets.  We live in a community with rich theatre opportunities.  Portland Center Stage has just relocated to the Armory.  Check it out.  Ashland is an incredible opportunity.  Book a three day trip next summer and see four plays in three days.  My sister Laura and I did this recently.  It was an extraordinary weekend.  We saw plays in all three spaces.  The open air Shakespearean Globe theatre was the most thrilling.  Two Gentlemen have never been funnier and Marco Barricelli’s Cyrano was incandescent.

Where, outside the theatre, can you actually even use a word like incandescent any more?  Home Depot while light-bulb shopping?

Take it from me.  Best month of my life.  Best nights of my life.  I wonder how much a flight to Ireland is.  “…such stuff as dreams are made of.”

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