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The Young Man from Atlanta

The Young Man from Atlanta by Horton Foote
Signature Theatre
The Pershing Square Signature Center

Score: C

This week, I finished teaching a class on acting theory and practice at the “senior-peers” program I am involved in at The New School.  One of the most rewarding comments from the participants in this peer-learning study group was that my class changed the way they will be watching acting in the NYC Theatre.  That prompted a story from my days teaching at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, California.  One day, in my Introduction to Theatre class, a student asked whether I can enjoy a play with all the analysis that I do.  I responded that if the production is good, the play affects me like anyone else.  If it is not good, at least I have something to think about and analyze.

So, it was ironic that I had exactly that experience as I sat through the Signature Theatre revival of Horton Foote’s “The Young Man from Atlanta.”  The 1995 Pulitzer Prize play is set in Houston in 1950, and it lives in the shadow of another, much more deserving Pulitzer winner, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”  Foote’s portrait of the failure of the American dream is about a life-long employee (now the COO) of a produce company who is replaced by a younger man that he trained.  Rather than the lower-middle class environs of Miller’s masterpiece, Foote shows us a well-to-do executive, who lives beyond his means, facing the same disillusionment that drove Willie Loman to his end.  But in spite of the differences in economic status, the two plays are very similar, except that one is a masterpiece and the other only makes you wish the playwright had a new and engaging take on American dreamers.

But instead Foote litters his play with WASP-ness in the 1950s.  The former exec, Will, just built a mammoth home and has always given his wife, Lily Dale, everything she ever wanted. Not only do they have a loyal black housekeeper, but their former servant appears in the second act to tell the couple about her cherished memories of working “in someone else’s kitchen.”  In a less than subtle reinvention of Willie Loman’s obsession with his sons, Foote’s Will and Lily Dale live with a constant pain that they might have failed their son who evidently committed suicide. Foote has several other plot twists, some unresolved, that might have engaged an audience if the Signature production had been up to its usual quality.  It was not.

The acting was mediocre at best.  Aidan Quinn as the fallen provider was one dimensional. He had a lot of brooding mixed with outrage, but never revealed anything about this character’s struggles.  I am a great fan of Kristine Nielsen, but here she is miscast.  She is well known for her comic roles; she can make you laugh simply with a look on her face.  And usually her comedy is rich with reflection.  Foote has written a sort of “past her time” Southern Belle in Lily Dale.  Unfortunately, I felt that Ms. Nielsen got more laughs than Foote ever intended and, after repeatedly reminding the audience of her comic perfection, was incapable of getting the audience convinced by her emotional breakdowns. The rest of the cast’s performances were not worth talking about.  However, Harriett D. Foy, a well-established character actor, made the most of the faithful and busy maid, even if Mr. Foote’s portrait of African Americans sometimes makes you cringe.

Director Michael Wilson did little to shape the production.  Characters walked on- and off-stage seemingly with no consistent sense of the layout of this “very large” house.  Mr. Wilson also seems to have left his actors with very little sense of believable interactions. He seems to have clearly selected effective character actors but never really shaped their characters, something that was at the core of Foote’s success.  Even the set design made no sense.  We are repeatedly told that this new house is among the costliest in Houston circa 1950. But the steps in the living room to the upper level are open-slabs and the railings are painted pipes.  The set is meant to suggest three walls of the living room and some characters exit up the steps and through the doors at the back of the set.  However, others simply walked off stage in either direction, not always in the same direction for the same destination. Sloppy!

Signature Theatre has a well-deserved reputation for excellent revivals of significant plays.  They always bring a high standard of talent, values and resources to their productions, not to mention that they have managed, through generous benefactors, to keep their ticket prices at just $35. But significant plays can have significant weaknesses and Signature’s strength has been to show us the play’s strengths.  This production lacks those strengths. But it certainly provided one more example of “how you enjoy a play” that I described to my college students old and new.

“The Inheritance”

“The Inheritance” by Matthew Lopez
Barrymore Theatre on Broadway
Score: A-

One of the most anticipated plays of the 2019/20 season opened this weekend.  Matthew Lopez’ “The Inheritance” comes to Broadway after rave reviews and multiple awards for its premiere in Britain last year.  Oddly, this very American play, set in New York City, written by an American playwright and cast with predominantly American actors found its first production at London’s Young Vic. The play unfolds in two two-and-half-hour parts and, for me, it was a sort of “Boys in the Band” circa 2019.  At last year’s Tony Awards, Mart Crowley’s controversial (and break-through) portrait of gay men in the late 1960s won the best revival award.  Of course, “The Inheritance” is deeper and more ambitious than Crowley’s depiction of repressed homosexuals on the verge of the gay-liberation movement.  But both plays try to capture the state of young gay men in their time and place. 

Many critiques of “The Inheritance” have compared it to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” the searing two-part portrait of gay life in the throes of the AIDS crisis.  But Lopez dramatizes what the current generation of gay men have inherited from that period as well as from the generations before that time when being gay evoked in many the image of an incurable disease.

It is difficult for a gay man like myself to separate my identity from my response to “The Inheritance;” after all, my life as a gay man started in the 1960s and continues through the present – I have lived from “Boys in Band” to “The Inheritance.”  I have no idea how a straight man or woman would respond to this play.  It is full of very graphic descriptions of gay sex, one brief nude scene, and lots and lots of pretty boys in speedos.  Of course, the play goes way beyond its salacious attractions, and there are certainly plenty of “straight” plays that have used explicit sex as part of its zeitgeist.

Actually, sitting through almost seven hours of writer Lopez’ and director Stephen Daldry’s creation felt like binging on a complex television series in a single day.  That is not so surprising since “The Inheritance” is loosely based on E. M. Forster’s classic “Howards End” that was adapted into an ever-popular PBS/BBC series. Another E. M. Forster classic, “Maurice” - this one about repressed homosexual love - is also at the core of much of “The Inheritance.” Forster himself appears in the play as a sort of Greek chorus that advises one of the central characters, Toby Darling, who is writing a play titled “Love Boy” that becomes a Broadway hit just as Toby falls victim to his own failed sense of self-worth. Forster lived a closeted life that was the only option in a country, Britain, that jailed gay people until 1967.  He wrote “Maurice” in 1913/14, but it was not published until 1971, a few years after the author’s death.  So, while Forster’s creation was repressed, Toby’s fallacious portrait of himself becomes a Broadway hit.

The charm of “The Inheritance” is the way Lopez and Daldry have interwoven the stories of half a dozen central characters with the support of a lively cast of friends, lovers, and fuckbuddies.  While the play is full of stereotypical events in the lives of contemporary young gay men, at least gay young men who are free to express their sexual identity, it is really about more profound issues.  What is true love?  What is the relation of “need” to love?  What is the difference between the self you project and the self you actual really are? What is the role of compassion in a truthful life?  And what has the current generation of gay men inherited from their predecessors and how does that inheritance impact their lives?

These are complex issues and they are also issues that a straight audience member might find compelling in this lengthily drama. Director Daldry has chosen a minimalist style that is perhaps the best use of this stark technique I have ever experienced.  A flat white platform that rises and falls slightly is the site of all of the action.  There are occasional miniature pieces of scenery at the rear of the stage to represent a house where a compassionate gay man cared for dying victims of the AIDS epidemic.  But there is no need for scenery as the lives of this group of contemporary queers unfold.  The acting is near perfect; each actor brings life and believability to his part, large or small.  These characters are a specific subgroup. While they come from different backgrounds, all have accepted their sexual identity and live as free as gay people can live at the start of the 21st Century.  Several of the supporting characters are people of color but the play has little to say about that aspect of gay identity.  And it is only in the second half of the play that we encounter a contemporary lost young man who can only survive through prostitution and eventually inherits the deadly, but now controllable, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. 

The compassionate epidemic care giver named Walter and his arrogant and self-centered multi-billionaire real estate developer partner, Henry, are the only “over 40s” in this gay world. Walter dies in the first half, presumably of natural causes, and Henry becomes a central figure in the exploration of love versus need in the second half.  The only female in the play is played by the always wonderful Lois Smith as the mother of a boy she rejected when he came out but suffered with him at his death in Walter’s retreat.  She is the only connection with the “straight world” and her appearance at the end of the play reminds us that these men, now and in the past, are not the only recipients of this inheritance.

The first half ends with a powerful portrayal of the AIDS epidemic with a compassion that evokes pure emotion from the audience.  Some viewers suggest that the play might have ended there – that there was no need for the additional 3.5 hours.  But this is not a play about that terrible period in our shared history.  That tragedy is only one part of our inheritance.  There are certainly times when the second half feels unnecessarily drawn out and, occasionally, repetitive.  But think about those series you have binged.  Any episode seen in isolation might have seemed unnecessary, but the sum of the series’ parts was compelling. That is the effect that “The Inheritance” has if you stick with it.  This play may not be an absolute masterpiece, but it asks questions and portrays characters struggling with issues that we all have inherited, gay and straight.

"The Michaels" at The Public Theater

The Michaels at The Public Theater
Score: C-

Playwright and director Richard Nelson has developed a well deserved reputation for writing and directing in an ultra-realistic style. During the Obama years, wrote two cycles of plays about liberal families struggling to survive in upstate New York. The charm of the first two multi-play cycles was the way Nelson wove social and political issues into the “life in the kitchen” of a collection of characters preparing a meal.  “The Michaels,” currently at the Public Theater is Nelson’s third portrayal of a family and friends in similar circumstances in a similar kitchen in a very similar ultra-realistic style.

Unfortunately, Nelson’s version of realism requires that his actors never project their speech making very difficult to hear what they are saying, particularly in theatre in the round, seemingly his favorite way to escape the seemingly unrealistic convention of a
“fourth wall.”   Last year, Nelson directed a highly acclaimed production of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya.”  Sitting in the second row, it appeared to me that this might be a a fascinating interpretation, if only I could hear what the actors were saying (my ear doctor tells me my hearing remains normal).  In an interview, Nelson once said that its good for the audience to struggle to hear the actors - it makes them listen more carefully. 

Well, in “the Michaels,” the good news was I think I heard 75% of what the actors said.  Unfortunately, the bad news was I could hear 75% of what the actors said.  Once again we had a truly believable portrait of life (and, in this case, near-death) in the kitchen, but there was little substance.  Nelson substitutes dance for politics and social issues, focusing on a choreographer with stage 4 cancer and her family and friends.  While facing death is certainly a profound and worthwhile subject for drama, Nelson really does little more than give us an unfocused snapshot of an evening with those affected.  He seems to believe that realism is an end unto itself.  It’s like sitting in a Starbucks and listening to bits and pieces of the conversations by people at other tables. If that’s appealing to you, I’m sure you have a near-by coffee shop that’s cheaper and less demanding than two hours in a theatre.

Dana H. adapted from interviews with Dana Higginbotham by Lucas Hnath At Vineyard Theatre on East 15 th Street BS Rating: A- Show...