To cover the New York theatre lately is to suspect that today's playwrights and producers only took two classes in high school: biology and sex ed.
The two big New York openings of the week had to do with underwear and its removal. These were Broadway's The Graduate and Off-Broadway's The Underpants. Nearly all of the talk surrounding the former—a London import stage adaptation of the seminal 1967 counterculture film—concerned star Kathleen Turner, who as the predatory Mrs. Robinson, spends about 15 seconds on stage in the altogether. (This is what made the show a hit in London and is selling so many tickets over here.) The Underpants, meanwhile, has quite a literary pedigree: Comedian-author-playwright Steve Martin penned the modern version of German writer Carl Stenheim's satire. But it's been hard to conduct a serious conversation about the play due to the titters continually inspired by the title.
But these are just fringe examples of a building preference for blue theatrical subject matter. After all, The Graduate is about a lot more than nudity and the amusing sexual situations found in its plot (or at least the original novel and the movie were); and The Underpants isn't really about skivvies per se, but traffics in larger social questions. Other recent shows, however, wholly wallow in, shall we say, below-the-belt matters. I have no fear of contradiction when I say we have Eve Ensler to thank for it all. It took theatregoers a while to get used to The Vagina Monologues. Nevermind the play. The title alone unnerved people—though the media and comedy clubs were mighty grateful for the fodder. But after some time, we grew used to it and even began to think of the show as a noble venture of sorts. Consciousness-raising and all that.
Such was our Ensler-born enlightenment that, when Urinetown came along, we were ready and treated it reverently as a trailblazing and refreshingly candid musical. Why, it's even being considered for the Tony and the Pulitzer. Only the prudish and pompous would sniff at it now simply because the moniker and plotline are somewhat squeamish- making.
But then Puppetry of the Penis arrived. No, we couldn't really call this one noble or inspired. Instead, side show attractions came to mind. Was it even art, even theatre? And what about Menopause: The Musical, which opened this week? This property probably would have never seen the light of day if it weren't for the trail of body part and bodily function related entertainments that preceded it. One begins to wonder whether things haven't gone too far. Shouldn't certain subjects stay in the doctor's office (general practice and psychiatric)? No, apparently not. Streakin' will soon be here to revel in the 1970s phenomenon of running about in the nude. And something called, In Search of My Clitoris will play at Symphony Space April 17-19. The piece is a one woman show by West African-born writer-performer SiaAmma and concerns the horrible and horribly true Third World ritual of female genital mutilation. A serious topic, no doubt. I'd gladly read a news account about it to be better informed. But, a night in the theatre...
The week at New Jersey's Paper Mill started out well and ended rather roughly. April 3 brought the first performance of its new revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, starring Kevin Gray and Carolee Carmello. Twenty-four hours later came the dethroning of the theatre's own long-reigning king, artistic director Robert Johanson. Officially, he and the board of trustees "have decided to redefine" Johanson's "relationship with the Playhouse." Unofficially, Johanson was ousted among accusations of vast expenditures, a budget deficit and personal issues such as the 50-year old's frequent casting of himself in youthful roles such as Candide and Peter Pan.
A different musical theatre controversy finally came to rest. It look as if in June 2003, Stephen Sondheim will finally see the curtain rise on the musical he's been working on for over 40 years. As expected, Chicago's Goodman Theatre has booked Gold for its 2002-03 season, according to the New York Times. The show will bow in June of next year. No exact dates or cast have been announced, but Harold Prince is the expected director. The announcement is the first happy news to be associated with the tuner in some time. Late last year, a high profile legal battle between composers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, and producer Scott Rudin, over the rights to the long in coming musical Gold, succeeded temporarily in ejecting the show from the Goodman Theatre's hopper.
Summer in Central Park won't be the same this year. The two show line up of classics habitually presented at the Delacorte Theatre by the Public Theater has shrunk by fifty percent. Audiences will be treated to only one production, Twelfth Night. However, that single drama will have a longer run than usual. It also may feature a bevy of stars, a la last year's The Seagull. The award season has begun in earnest. The 2002 Lucille Lortel Awards nominations, honoring Off-Broadway theatre, found much to like in Urinetown and Metamorphoses—two shows born Off Broadway but now full-fledged Broadway successes. The productions lead the pack with eight and six nods respectively. The Pulitzer Prize for Drama will be revealed on Monday, April 8, with the heavy betting surrounding Suzan Lori-Parks' Topdog/Underdog. Other candidates include Urinetown, Metamorphoses and Lobby Hero. Future award nominees are sure to include Alan Bates and Frank Langella, who opened in Fortune's Fool on Broadway this week.
Finally, The New York Times, which is not accustomed to a lot of backchat from the theatre community it judges daily, has been getting a few slaps in the face of late. Last week, the producers of The Smell of the Kill took out an ad openly attacking Bruce Weber's review of the Broadway comedy. Just a few days later, the plug was pulled on a "Times Talks" panel with the creative team of Sweet Smell of Success, moderated by Times theatre columnist Jesse McKinley. Of course, the event could have been called off due to "scheduling conflicts," as both sides insisted. But after Times critics Ben Brantley and Margo Jefferson gave the musical back-to-back pans, one imagines that John Lithgow's plans to wash his hair that night or John Guare's desperate need to clean his glasses would be "conflict" enough to call the whole thing off.
—By Robert Simonson