Despite what many playwrights like to think, I believe that any work is written three times: by the author, by the director, and by the participating actors. A produced play then could be compared to a three-story building. The all-important foundation and first floor of the structure is without a doubt the play itself. With a shaky basis, the building will not even survive a breeze (for the purpose of this analogy, less than adequate actors) no less a hurricane (a horrendous cast and director).
Next comes the director, building the second floor, stamping his or her vision firmly on the work. Either he chooses to faithfully follow the playwright's intentions or, in more creative cases, adds twists and slants to the work which serve to enrich it. Still, even if director and playwright closely follow the same lines, the play per se only exists on paper. The director's challenge remains to bring the manuscript to life, to make a visual statement out of a written work. Some playwrights purposely leave ambiguities in the script, preferring various directors to see the work in different creative ways. For example, I've witnessed five distinctly separate interpretations of Waiting for Godot. Three worked wonderfully and two failed miserably. Among the three successes, all adopted different tactics but nonetheless enhanced the play.
Finally, right on the top floor in clear sight, the actors themselves further create the script. They bring their own personalities, activities, imagination, mannerisms and interpretations, beyond the instructions of the director. With a weak director, strong actors may even take over the guiding process and triumph purely due to their own inventiveness.
Edward Albee once said that playwriting is the only creative art in the theater. Directing and acting are interpretive arts. Obviously, I don't agree, and neither should any schooled reviewer. To blast a production because the actors failed, when the play and direction stayed sound, is a crime against the collaborative magic of the theater.
Almost synchronistically to this thought, I saw three productions this week, which ended up serving as textbook cases of the above principles, clearly demonstrating what happens when the foundation is cracked, or the second and third floors aren't built to standard.
The offering that comes closest to an inhabitable three-story structure is Terrence McNally's award-winner, Lips Together, Teeth Apart. In the Coconut Grove Playhouse's current production, adequate if not brilliant direction and acting sit nicely atop a rock-solid foundation. Starting from the deceptively simple set-up of two straight couples spending the Fourth of July weekend in a beach house located on predominantly gay Fire Island, the master writer deftly shows how people, no matter how close they seem, can never communicate their true selves to one another. While the title is meant to represent on one level a cure for nervous teeth-grinding at night, it also refers to the silent scream within each of us, the personal secrets yearning to be shared, but kept back, right behind the lips. "I can stand anything but being misunderstood," one character admits. "We're all pathetic," correctly notes another.
McNally's dramatic action and dialogue cannot be faulted as he traces a brother and sister and their spouses trying to break through personal walls and in the process find personal freedom. Nothing is neatly resolved, as in life, but the very truth of the piece yields authentic dramatic catharsis. Carbonell winner Tony Giordano directs the piece with more simplicity than vision, but adds charming touches which emphasize both the realism and potency. Three members of the cast A Judith Delgado, Samuel Maupin and Michael O'Hare A sometimes falter by mugging and forcing out emotions, but they still manage to create interesting characters. The remaining actress, Leslie Hendrix, as a well-meaning but motor-mouthed neurotic, offers moments of absolute acting splendor and since a great deal of the drama comes from her character's actions, she helps the play roll along smoothly.
Finally, the set and special lighting effects by James Tilton shows both vast skill and creativity. For a real treat, stop up to the balcony of the Playhouse before you leave and check out this full set from above. You'll understand why once you do it.
At ACME Acting Company, Elizabeth Egloff's The Swan demonstrates what happens when the foundation, first floor and second level all possess serious cracks, and only the top floor of acting manages to overcome and succeed. Ellen Rae Littman, Teo Castellanos and Gregg Davis produce vivid reality on the stage in the midst of a quasi-fantastic, mucho-pretentious piece about an abandoned, confused woman who falls in love with a swan/man A a story based of the myth of Leda and the Swan. Egloff does begin with an interesting, romantic premise but goes nowhere with it; virtually nothing of interest happens after the first fifteen minutes. To say the play is unfinished would give it too much credit. More accurately, the play was never truly written. And Ms. Egloff yearns to be poetic but is no poet. Lines like, "There was a great sound over the earth," and "I'm a man, I'm a bird, I'm a man," didn't do much for my literary edification.
At the second level, Carol Cadby's direction adds more undue weight to an already leaden piece. Long pauses, long blackouts, and too many meaningful glances just serve to accentuate the work's lack of dramatic effect. The only way in which such a piece could work effectively would be as a one act swiftly driven. Cadby keeps holding back the horses, brushing your lips but always stopping the kiss before it happens. Although this may seem charming at first, it ends up tedious.
But nothing contributes to the sense of a wasted evening more than a production in which the entire three floors should topple over at any minute, thanks to a flawed play, thoughtless direction, and misguided acting (in this case, overacting). From the usually impressive Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches comes this celebrated (?) New York piece called The Sum of Us by Australian David Stevens. Stevens was previously a screenplay and teleplay writer A damning credentials for theatrical work, that show their evil influence in cliche-ridden dialogue. The plot involves a straight but overly understanding father and his gay son who live together and love each other but can't seem to find love from anyone else. While the script possesses moments of great potential, again the entire piece ends up on a road to nowhere. J. Barry Lewis stages awkwardly and directs everyone to overact as though someone told him that Australians are loud and boisterous but nothing else. Not one actor displays any depth or subtext in the roles and the relationships seem superficial at best. And only Jim Cordes as Dad exhibits something close to an Aussie accent; everyone else tries straight English, Cockney or who-knows-from-where.
As Hurricane Andrew ably proved, structures built with the slightest crack or missing nail easily come undone. Theatrical productions suffer from the same problem. But, as Terrence McNally proves in Lips Together, Teeth Apart, the most important work done on any building lies in its foundation. When directors and actors start off with a great play, their subsequent jobs become easier and the potential for a three-tiered triumph is possible. Playwrights Egloff and Stevens doom the whole project from the start by writing works that serve as virtual dramatic quicksand. Even with the great actors from ACME, eventually the drowning effect takes over.
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