Bad Choices

Although Hadleyburg, U.S.A. will have closed by the time you read this, ACME Acting Company's mistakes in choosing this play warrant a postmortem -- especially if South Florida venues seriously consider mounting new works as part of a steady theatrical menu. ACME's artistic director Juan F. Cejas and many other small-theater operators hope that their companies might one day be known primarily for developing the work of obscure young playwrights. It's true that regional theaters, such as those in South Florida, will be more likely to gain recognition with original productions rather than with revivals of old chestnuts done better elsewhere. But putting on new works simply because they're new has no validity and no place in any area of the country.

The savvy producer must bring both originality and quality to his stage. Jon Jory knows this well; he's the producing director of the Humana Festival in Louisville, the largest annual airing of promising new plays. He's found that a good play, not just a new play, is the ticket, and for that, a selection committee needs a talented dramaturg, an individual schooled in the art of selecting dramatic literature.

ACME claims that hundreds of plays were perused before Hadleyburg was chosen to become the only fully produced piece of its 1993 New Play Festival, which ran from early July to September 5. (In previous years, three to four new works received the full treatment, but owing to financial problems, ACME was forced to scale back this year's event considerably.) Were scores of submissions overlooked in favor of Matthew Witten's propagandistic, leaden two-act about anti-Semitism in a small upstate New York town? If so, then I've concluded that one of two things (or both) must be true: 1) All the other plays submitted to ACME's selection committee were dreadful, or 2) ACME does not have a skilled dramaturg -- in other words, no one there knows what they should be looking for when reading a script.

Witten's other plays have enjoyed limited success in smaller theaters from New Mexico to Boston. Cejas, the artistic director, dubs him a promising new playwright. Perhaps. I would never glean that from this work, but then again, David Mamet had his off moments as well. And of course Edward Albee had his Tiny Alice. There are people who might argue that Witten's work is still in progress, and the kinks can be ironed out over several productions. However, no true progress can be made on such an unsteady foundation.

What's wrong with Hadleyburg? Just about everything, except for the dialogue, which contains a nice if not brilliant blend of realism and wit. The plot concerns a Jewish auctioneer named Harry Rosen who involves the ACLU in a suit against local town officials. Hanging over the public school auditorium looms a huge painting of the Crucifixion, which Rosen rightly feels muddies the division between church and state. But the good God-fearing folks of Hadleyburg don't see it that way. The picture was painted by a favorite son of the town killed in Vietnam, and besides, they argue, it isn't about Jesus, it's about American values. Being American and being Christian, to them, is one and the same thing. "When in Rome...," one of Rosen's neighbors advises him.

So starts a mounting quarrel, which predictably begins with mild bickering and escalates into violence, especially when a neo-Nazi agitator from Albany shows up and gets Mayor Tim Herbert's son Richie rattled enough to start a hate campaign. The simple dividing lines between right and wrong turn murky, as good men become bad men when pushed too far by a combination of economic troubles and liberal legal harassment. Witten's point that a citizen's cash flow problems often lie behind racial and religious hatred is well-taken but shopworn and overdone. The mayor's son becomes a fascist when he loses a possible job opportunity to minority candidates, while the mayor himself turns against his Jewish friend because he needs the support of the town to sell the apples from his orchard.

What's missing here is the fine mask of art, the skill of the playwright drawing a subtle analogy about a situation rather than blatantly describing the premise -- and therefore making the whole work sound more like a political speech than drama. Today's young playwrights often go awry because of such grandstanding. The glory of storytelling lies in showing, not telling, in moving an audience through manipulating their feelings, rather than throwing dogmatic bricks at their heads and telling them what to feel. But Witten lays it all out: this is what bigotry looks like in America, and it's terrible. Yes, and...what else?

Every character in the play fits a neat stereotype. Mayor Herbert is weak, his son Richie is a beer-drinking hooligan, the mayor's girlfriend Alice a long-suffering liberal, the Jews (all two of them) kind and true, and the white supremacist Don Clay horrible and stupid. Tell us something new. Or better yet, Witten should use a metaphor to get the point across. I don't need to go to the theater to watch a flat story of prejudice; it's featured all too often on --- current Affair or 20/20.

If the flagrant cliches of character and situation weren't enough to diminish the work, the script contains as much dramatic action as a George Bush press conference. The setup for the story consumes most of Act One. Various townspeople reveal their biographies and opinions, over and over again. Act Two begins with more talk, talk, talk, and then, out of the blue -- as though the author suddenly realized the play was moving as slow as molasses in winter -- he throws in gratuitous brutality. The play dribbles to a close, so much so that the audience on the night I attended didn't know whether it was time to clap until the actors took their curtain calls.

For the most part the direction by Cejas adequately served the work, although the cavernous stage of the Colony Theater didn't help. It dwarfed the impact of many two-character scenes and certainly showed in the worst possible light set designer John Lengel's amateurish work, which consisted solely of a shaky-looking, badly decorated housefront.

As for the actors, their efforts to be realistic and sincere rarely rose above competent, with one exception: Jerrod Hise as Richie. Hise stole the show as he poured honest venom, frustration, and the cruelty of ignorant youth solidly into his role. Paul Michael Quick as the white supremacist also did some fine work, particularly during the moments when he earnestly and glibly explained the terrifying, twisted logic of his sect. But Tom Amick as Mayor Herbert played the milquetoast so weakly that he lacked any noticeable presence, and Miriam Kulick as Alice often strayed dangerously near sheer phoniness.

Many people say that I should encourage new plays no matter how good or bad they are. That's akin to saying, "I want a hamburger restaurant in town and don't care if it serves squirrel meat, rat meat, or sirloin." Miami deserves sirloin.

All companies wishing to present original work should seek a dramaturg. New-play festivals can only serve the community if their stages shine with true artistic creativity, and to achieve this, the wise producer hires a professionally trained, discerning eye; he doesn't rely purely on the actors and directors in his company to choose new plays. Everyone has a special skill in this collaborative business called theater; it's time more South Florida theater owners recognized the skills of and the desperate need for the dramaturg.

Stage Notes
The second annual Key West Theatre Festival, scheduled to run from September 22 to October 3, looks like an artistically promising and enjoyable event. Playwrights, directors,and actors from New York, Los Angeles, Florida, and other spots around the nation will be traveling way down U.S. 1 to participate. The eighteen new plays chosen for production will use the facilities of all four theatrical venues in the area A the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center, the Waterfront Playhouse, the Red Barn Theatre, and the San Carlos Institute.

In addition to the plays, highlights include a rendition -- in full Blanche DuBois drag A of scenes from Tennessee Williams's -- Streetcar Named Desire to be performed by his brother, Dakin Williams; and a two-day dramatic writing seminar by Backstage columnist and playwright Jeffrey Sweet.

If writing nasty letters about my work isn't enough, you finally have another option: call me. I'm now a regular guest on the Michael Aller WSBH-AM (1490) call-in radio show (dial 532-1490) from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. every Wednesday. I'll be talking about general theater topics, such as whether or not critics, wracked with guilt, wear hair shirts to bed.


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