Important subjects do not guarantee decent playwriting

This week, I have seen two plays about Jews and the Holocaust.

The first was Indecent, a new play by Paula Vogel, in a reading that was very well acted and directed. Complex, full of imagery, song, and dance, the show blew me away. After I finished blowing my nose—not because of some easily sentimental claptrap, but because the play is beautifully painful—I felt wonderful, because I’d seen something so inspiring.

Vogel is still rewriting, getting ready for a full production.

The second was Stella Dreams of Trains, by Joanna Rosenberg. Several roles were extremely well done. But I left the theatre in a royal rage.

This play was selected from 100 submissions to the Gloria Ann Barnell Peter Playwright Competition of Aurora, New York, probably because it dealt with the Holocaust. The show would make a lovely film, but as a piece of theatre, it had some problems.Playwriting.Vs.Movies

This 90-minute play required six locations. In none of the scenes did anyone say anything indicating where they were, you know, like Shakespeare’s “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.” Standard playwright technique—let ‘em know where and when you are without being obvious. So we had to have sets for all six scenes. On a stage about as big as my coffee table.

See, in film you can jump cut between scenes because you have a full set. Not so much in theatre, unless you want to sit around waiting for sets to change. Which I do not. I’m not sure this writer had seen many plays.

Then there were the “confrontations.” Dialogue went something like this.

  • Please tell me
  • No.
  • You have to.
  • I’m leaving. (but she doesn’t leave, and we have no idea why she doesn’t, because she is not Waiting for Godot..)

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Finally, there were the connections among the characters. The writer set up an interesting, Dickensian group of characters who were all linked. And never gave us the payoff. Either they find out, or they definitely do not find out, about their links. But this show was as daintily unfinished as one of those French or Japanese films everybody but me loves.

In film, you have popcorn, darkness, lovely editing, delicate visuals.

In theatre, you have only darkness. If the story doesn’t grab you, there’s nothing else to do except climb over all your friends and leave, noisily. Because the acting was so good, I didn’t want to insult the performers.

But I am enraged. Aurora may seem the back of beyond to you city folk, but it’s close to Ithaca, which is absolutely crammed with theatre, and only 4 hours from the Big Apple. And this competition proved to me, as if I needed it, that all those competitions where we send our plays may or may not have any idea what makes a good one.

I think I’m going to set myself up as a judge of new music, with a competition. I don’t listen to much of it, and wouldn’t bother to learn much about it, because as long as it’s about something Important, with a Strong Message, I’ll go for it.

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