In a 1930 introduction to The Philanderer, George Bernard Shaw writes, “There is a disease to which plays as well as men become liable with advancing years. In men it is called doting, in plays dating. The more topical the play the more it dates. The Philanderer suffers from this complaint.” Reading it, one might be inclined to agree with Shaw; though it nicely lampoons both those who pride themselves on being intellectual progressives and the stodgy men who stand in their way, the social problems it addresses are by today fairly trite: is a man’s love more important than his respect? What is women’s place in intellectual society? How is the “Old Guard” to deal with outrageous sexual behavior of the young, turn-of-the-century Londoners? Mrs. Warren’s Profession, another of Shaw’s “plays unpleasant,” was revived at the Comedy Theatre in London several years ago and the result was leaden and plodding; those characters’ problems were simply too alien, and director Michael Rudman took no effort to make them relevant today.
Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., can remember the precise moment when she knew that words would be her life’s work. It is her fifth birthday and she begins to read The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter. She asks her father what “soporific” means, and then is delighted to see his definition realized in the illustration: “The little bunnies in the picture are asleep! They’re sleeping! Like you said, because of soporific!” This is a particularly clever scene, since Vivian will go on to become a professor of seventeenth century poetry, with a specialization in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Now, with Stage IV metastatic cancer, she is once again seeing something she knows academically fulfilled in real life—Donne most famously wrote about death and dying. Furthermore, Donne’s most famous sonnet concludes with the line, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.” Vivian’s final encounters with language, then, are looped back to her first.
We’ve all seen the photos. A sign that reads, “Do Drunken Driving.” Another warns, “Slip and Fall Down Carefully.” Or a can labeled, “The Jew’s Ear Juice”—perhaps the most unappetizing beverage on the planet. These comical mistranslations provide the springboard for Chinglish, David Henry Hwang’s new play about the failure of language as a means of communication. Much more optimistic than his previous M. Butterfly, it is a sort of mash up of Eugene Ionesco and Hartzell’s Harmony in Conflict: Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), a disgraced Enron executive, tries to internationalize his failing family business, Ohio Signage, by offering high-quality translations for a new cultural center in an up-and-coming Chinese province. He employs Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci), an English teacher posing as a consultant, to weave through the language and the customs of China, meanwhile falling for the Deputy Minister of Culture, Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim).
In the opening moments of The Glass Menagerie, Tom tells his audience, “The play is memory.” The same line could be used by Brian Friel in Dancing at Lughnasa, which is narrated by Michael (Michael McMonagle), a man who recalls the summer of 1936 as a cataclysmic time in his life: he would meet his father, Gerry (Kevin Collins), for the first time, and his household, previously dominated by his mother (Annabel Hägg), a senile uncle (John Tyrrell), and a gaggle of aunts, would be reduced to just four. The group struggles to make ends meet and maintain traditional, Catholic values as a colder, modern world steadily creeps into their domestic space.
The setup to Lydia Diamond’s new play Stick Fly follows a comfortable theatrical formula: a well-to-do Black family meets up in Martha’s Vineyard, ostensibly for an ordinary get-together, but in fact to lay themselves bare and hash out decades-old resentments and secrets. Kent “Spoon” LeVay (Dulé Hill), the youngest in the family, shows up with the manuscript to his first novel as well as his entomologist fiancé, Taylor (Tracie Thoms), who happens to have slept, six years ago, with his older brother, Flip (Mekhi Phifer). Flip, in turn, has brought his new squeeze, Kimber (Rosie Benton), a white teacher who minored in African-American studies as an undergraduate. All compete for the attention and approval of the family patriarch, neurosurgeon Joe (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), who has a suspicious relationship with the family maid’s daughter, Cheryl (Condola Rashad). The mother remains conspicuously absent and the result is something like Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but with Parcheesi instead of whiskey.
Katori Hall begins The Mountaintop by taking a man whose face is plastered all over New York City, a man who is compared to Jesus and Gandhi and who has just biblically bellowed before his final audience, “I’ve seen the Promised Land … Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” and presenting this lion as a mere human being. As the curtain rises, he asks his companion Ralph Abernathy to buy him a pack of Pall Malls, urinates in a motel bathroom, and gasps at the stench of his own feet. It is an important point—by deifying King, we undermine his struggle while also excusing ourselves for not living up to his standards—so yes, the sound of his piss hitting the toilet bowl is, in its own way, a progressive beat. Ms. Hall also has fun with dramatic irony, so when he reads something he doesn’t like in an advance copy of the next morning’s paper, mumbling, “Over my dead body,” the audience can Ooh with satisfaction; his occasional, derogatory references to “Jesse” also get a bit of comedic mileage.
Chekhov is one of the most difficult modern playwrights to stage. His writing, like Tennessee Williams’, is incredibly flat on the page–lines like “It’s just six years ago father died, and only a month later our baby brother Grisha drown in the river” read as painfully expository–and thus an incredible burden is placed on his actors. Even the most well-intentioned productions can drag on with stultifying endlessness and many of the highly-touted translations still feel stilted and brittle; one wrongly cast actor, one poorly delivered line and the entire thing shatters. Perhaps because of this, when done right, Chekhov can provide an unmatched theatrical experience, a reminder of why we go to the theater in the first place. The Classical Stage Company’s new production of The Cherry Orchard falls into the latter category.