My friend, John, joined Angie and I last night for a reading of a new play at The Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood. The play was called 'Bob' and was quite clever. Reminded me a little of an old Terrence McNally one-act called 'Adaptation.' With a dollop of Woody Allen in his 'Without Feathers' days. A witty, unusual and apparently, brand new, play. With some innovative staging I could see it becoming an entertaining evening of theatre. I'm glad I made the trek over to see it. The evening was part of a bi-monthly play-reading series from The Echo Theatre Company.
I'm not quite sure how I feel about a group of actors sitting in a semi-circle, one of them reading the stage directions, and simply speaking a script out loud in a public forum. For one thing, I can't really think of a better way to do it, introduce a new piece of writing for the stage, that is. But it seems a tad cruel to the playwright, who spent so much time and effort and energy and creativity on the piece to have it presented that way. It's sort of like spending years making a film and then only have the trailer shown.
Now, that is not to say I haven't done it myself. I have. A couple of times, in fact. But I never really liked it and it is certainly not a very good barometer of how the play might be recieved in actual performance mode. I prefer a 'staged' reading. That is to say, blocking the actors to suggest a full stage treatment and using minimal lighting and sound. I did this with my last full-length, Bachelor's Graveyard, although I used a good deal of sound and music for that one. I think, in the final analysis, it gives the audience a much fuller, richer idea of the actual merits inherent in the script and also safely guides the entire proceeding away from 'oral interpretation.'
Oral Interp, as it was known, is probably not even taught in academia anymore...those reading this in the business that are over 40 will no doubt remember it. It is the performance of literature, taking writing meant only for the page and transferring it to the stage in a minimalist fashion. As my buddy John said last night, "Oral Interp was generally considered the lowest level of entertainment back in those days." He's right. It never quite got the respect that other classes got. And no one ever said, "I don't want to be an actor, I want to be an oral interpreter." Plus, and I'm just guessing here, there's probably not a lot of money in oral interp.
So when one goes to one of these readings, actors all sitting immobile on the stage, script in hand, turning the pages (and if the play is not going well, the audience becomes uncomfortably aware of how many pages are left to turn), pausing for 'stage directions,' using what was called in 'oral interp' terms as 'offstage focus,' at the mercy of the audience's imagination, it can be a rather static experience.
Fortunately for everyone involved, audience and actors alike, this piece, 'Bob,' was at times an extremely witty, language-driven, flat-out absurdist comedy. And, like most comedies, it felt a little ashamed of itself by evening's end and tried to dress up briefly as it's more respected cousin, the drama. It needn't have done so. Being a comedy all by itself was just fine with everyone. I call it the 'M*A*S*H Syndrome,' the inexplicable need for writers to justify their comedic writing by introducing a moment of solemnity right at the very end. GB Shaw used to pull that little trick all the time and may be the one aspect of his writing I never liked. Anyone who knows even a little bit about writing for the stage knows that comedy, GOOD comedy, is infinitely more difficult to write that standard 'drama.' However, I suppose, collectively, the run-of-the-mill audience doesn't know this, so the playwright feels obliged to tack on a 'serious' purpose to their work. A more subtle version of the 'crying clown' image, if you will.
And while comedy often feels the need to do this, pure farce never does. "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," as the old quote goes. That's one of the reasons I've always felt farce was the way to introduce the younger generation to live theatre. When done well, it's just pure, unadulterated fun and who could not enjoy that?
Our premminent comedic playwright of the twentieth century, Neil Simon, did this, too. Always slightly turning the comedy at the end of his works to suggest a larger purpose, a deeper meaning, a more poignant turn. Not to say this doesn't work sometimes. 'Lost in Yonkers' is devastating because of it. My point is, sometimes it feels apologetic rather than intrinsic, as it did in this new work, 'Bob.'
Nonetheless, any time a play can generate genuine, out-loud, wheezing, belly-laughs from an audience simply by saying the words out loud, well, that's pretty impressive all by itself. And this new play, 'Bob,' did that quite a few times. There was some very, very funny stuff in this odd, little piece and, frankly, I'm happy I heard it.
But sometimes these 'readings' can be the very essence of boredom. Last year Angie and I traveled over to a theater in NoHo to see a play about... well, I don't know what it was about, something to do with a mentally-challenged young girl who painted 'pretty pictures.' If I had had a very sharp razor near me I might have been tempted to end it all somewhere in the middle of the first act. It was two hours of my life I shall sincerely regret not having back as I approach my final moment on this earth. It was so bad I started getting the dreaded 'church giggles' in the middle of it. You know...the nearly overwhelming urge to just burst into unpremeditated laughter at the sheer awfulness of it all. We attended this dismal piece of sloppy writing at the behest of the Artistic Director of that theatre who told us, "I was weeping uncontrollably by the end of the reading when I saw it in rehearsal." Can't say as I blame him. I was doing a little clandestine weeping, too, when I saw the damned thing.
Fortunately, this was not the case last night. In fact, more than a couple of times, I found myself doing some hefty guffawing. And that's really saying something.
Look for it at a theater near you sometime soon, because I think it deserves a full staging. 'Bob' by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. Part of the free public reading series hosted by The Echo Theater Company, one of the more prestigious small companies working today in Los Angeles.
See you tomorrow.