Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Women Playwrights Foiled Again, Still . . . What About "The Scene"?

There’s been a great deal of internet chat lately on the American Society for Theatre Research listserve, ASTR-L, about a brief piece called “Women’s Voices Missing from the Theatre: Does Anyone Care?” published online by the Women’s Media Center (see Writer Melissa Silverstein, reporting for the Center, suggests that because so many famous women actors are appearing on Broadway right now, and because some of the top grossing musicals tell women’s stories (she lists The Color Purple, Grey Gardens, and Wicked), “you might think women in theatre are doing great these days.” But she goes on to note that appearances to the contrary, women are “struggling for parity with their male colleagues.” Despite the fact that women comprise over half of the Broadway theatre-going audience, plays by women are frequently ignored by producers, and women playwrights continue to toil in the largely invisible world of workshop productions, waiting to be noticed and taken seriously.

Silverstein refers to a landmark report sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts in January 2002, co-written by Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett. Jonas has long been a staff associate for NYSCA (although she’s currently on leave), and Bennett was, until recently, the Associate Artistic Director of the Women’s Project and Productions, whose artistic director was still, then, founder Julia Miles. (The report can be accessed at; it’s housed here with the Fund for Women Artists, an important advocacy group for women in theatre and other arts.) Sadly, little seems to have changed in the five years since that important study was distributed and discussed. Plays by women are still considered risky propositions for the most heavily capitalized Broadway productions, and regional theatres too often follow suit, playing the money card when they opt out of plays by women. There remain relatively few Pulitzer Prize winners in Drama who are women: Marsha Norma, Beth Henley, Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, and Suzan-Lori Parks pretty much round out the contemporary ranks.

What we can do about this sad and very static state of affairs? How can we prevent the next generation of arts writers from being required to make the same observations about the disempowerment of women playwrights as their predecessors? Silverstein’s comments really only echo those made by critics and scholars for the last at least 30 years. Why is there no movement toward equity in Broadway theatre?

The evidence seems to point to economics. Silverstein says that “In interviews with artistic directors for the NYSCA report, Susan Jonas noted that a common theme was, ‘Plays by women have limited interest and we’ll lose money on them.’” But this is the same lame excuse producers have offered for years. Many straight plays fail to recover their investments on Broadway; producing any homegrown American play (rather than a pre-approved British transfer) is, however shamefully, an economic gamble for the committed capitalists running theatres in Times Square. But that doesn’t explain why so many more plays by American men are given the chance to fail on Broadway.

Silverstein mentions that the new Theresa Rebeck play, The Scene, seems poised for a Broadway transfer, although her play Bad Dates was mentioned for the same move several years ago and never made it. Unfortunately, The Scene is a complicated example for this conversation, because although the play might have received some (though not universally) good reviews, its representations of women are so appallingly limited, I think it’d be a very good thing if fewer instead of more people saw the play. But before I discuss The Scene, which is currently playing at Second Stage on 43rd St., it’s worth pointing out that another Second Stage-produced straight play, The Little Dog Laughed, by Douglas Carter Beane, easily moved from 43rd Street to the Cort Theatre on Broadway after Ben Brantley gave it a glowing review in the Times.

Having seen both productions, I honestly can’t see why Rebeck’s play shouldn’t transfer, since it’s cut from the same cynical, ironic, sadly hopeless perspective on human endeavor as Beane’s. In Little Dog Laughed, the four characters—two closeted gay men, one young artsy woman, and one older, conniving and striving woman—have at each other while trying to navigate the shark-infested waters of Hollywood stardom. One of the men (played by Neal Huff) is a closeted famous actor. When he engages the services of a rent-boy (Johnny Galecki) for an evening, the two improbably find themselves drawn to each other and begin a relationship that threatens the male star’s public stature.

Their assignations and glimmering hopes for a relationship are micro-managed by the star’s slimy, powerful agent (played by the indomitable Julie White) who, although she’s supposed to be a lesbian herself, becomes the mouthpiece for virulent homophobia that courses barely disguised under the play’s paper-thin surface. She can’t condone their relationship, because the star’s reputation would falter and the gravy train he provides for her would end. So she engineers a plan that puts the rent-boy on the road—with millions of dollars in his pocket—toward a new life, just to get him out of the picture, and arranges for the star to conveniently marry and raise a child with the rent-boy’s old girlfriend (a thankless role played by Zoe Lister-Jones).

When I saw the play at Second Stage last year, I was appalled by how callously these proceedings transpired, all marked by the supposedly witty, empty banter that contemporary comic playwrights seem to think human conversation sounds like. The men can barely string together sentences; they’re represented as handsome naifs with a powerful physical attraction but not enough balls to follow their desire to any sort of jeopardizing commitment. The rent-boy, because he’s less powerful and monied, is allowed more emotion than the star, who’s already soul-dead from his shallow image-making. That the rent-boy is happy to take the money and run, though, compromises any emotional potential he might have as a character, while his girlfriend and the star are happy to be hooked in a relationship with no substance but great public interest.

Pulling all these strings is the uber-agent, the rail-thin, ball-busting verbal gymnast who can crush an ego with an adjective and has no apparent life besides trying to ply her star’s trade. She has no emotion but irony and receives very little human contact in the course of the play (air kisses don’t count). For this role, Julie White got rave reviews.

I couldn’t figure out what people saw in Little Dog Laughed. Reading the promos, I anticipated a sharp critique of Hollywood hypocrisy, and a satiric inquiry into the costs of fame, all delivered with sparkling dialogue and witty repartee. No such luck. The talk is mean-spirited and superficial, the plot is driven only by fear of sexual exposure, without a thought for what might be lost in the process of hiding a person’s truth. Scott Ellis’s direction boasted a fair amount of man-on-man action, all tastefully cloaked in bed sheets and arranged so that body parts we discreetly hidden as their simulations played out. The men in the play are boorish bores; the women either cutthroat or common. But maybe that’s the point; nothing in this play challenges anyone’s conceptions of the world as it is and certainly not men and women as they are. The play’s queer politics are anathema, and its gender politics retrograde. Maybe that’s why it moved to Broadway.

Little Dog Laughed, perhaps thankfully, didn’t last that long at the Cort Theatre, and maybe that’s why Second Stage isn’t rushing to move The Scene, along with the added burden of its playwright’s gender. But The Scene has much in common with the earlier comedy. This, too, is a two man/two woman play; this one, too, is beautifully produced, with sets that fly in fully dressed or roll in from the wings decorated with the comfortable accoutrements of upper-middle class life. The Scene's production design is elegant and efficient; much money was no doubt spent to make the condo terrace and the two New York apartment settings in which the action unfolds. The actors are top-drawer, including Tony Shaloub (of the hit cable series Monk but also late of many very fine independent films like Big Night) as Charlie, the middle-aged fading television star (again); Christopher Evan Welch as his best friend, Lewis; Patricia Heaton (of Everybody Loves Raymond fame) as Charlie’s wife, Stella; and Anna Camp as Clea, the newly arrived from Ohio New Yorker who plays dumb but proves a wily adversary on these people’s common march toward their own blind ambitions.

Here again, despite its female origins, the gender politics are appalling. Clea first appears to be a quintessential bimbo, the cute young blond thing whom Charlie and especially Lewis ogle on the terrace outside their friend’s party. Charlie at first finds Clea’s Valley Girl inflections and her dim wit despicable, and mocks her rather cruelly. But when Lewis invites Clea to his apartment for a date, Clea’s interest in Charlie’s prior and potentially future fame seduces him into a full-blown, sexually charged affair, which they conduct literally under Stella’s nose. Of course, it helps that Stella supports Charlie by working a powerful media producer’s job while he’s unemployed. This gives him leave, in the second act, to justify his affair with Clea, when she finds them having sex in their apartment, complaining that Stella is just “too competent.” Throughout the play, Stella is accused of being a “frigid Nazi,” overly invested in keeping her desk at right angles and otherwise conducting her life reasonably. Her frigidity is underlined by her refusal to bend to Charlie’s physical administrations early in the play, and by the fact that her infertility requires her to adopt a baby from China. She epitomizes the castrating woman, long a staple of the white American male playwright’s canon. But is this all we can expect from a woman playwright?

Likewise, Clea is the stereotypical whore (without the heart of gold), a brainless, conniving trick of surfaces looking for a ride to power by lying on her back with her legs spread (a position she assumes, literally, countless times in this production, directed by Rebecca Taichman, who also directed lesbian performer Peggy Shaw’s Menopausal Gentleman). Clea dresses in pretentious, clinging black, has a tiny waist, bounteous blond locks, and not a shred of empathy for anyone she meets. That someone who at first appears as sane as Lewis would lust after her, and that someone who at first appears as sophisticated as Charlie would fall for her reveals the sick heart at the play’s center. Only Stella sees through Clea immediately, refusing to give her a job with her company and setting off the spiral of events that finally unravels her marriage, ends Charlie’s friendship with Lewis, and nails the coffin of Charlie’s career. But because the women view each other as mortal enemies, no sense of understanding is possible between them. In fact, Clea laughs with brutal delight when Stella walks in on her and Charlie having sex, a cruel, morally bereft moment that only underlines the lack of gendered kinship in this female-authored play.

Perhaps Rebeck means The Scene as a satire of corrupt Hollywood mores; she’s written plays on this topic several times, with a vengeance apparently derived from her own years as a television writer (for NYPD Blue, among other shows). But either Taichman’s direction lost the parodic focus, or it wasn’t never there at all. The play ends where it began, with a light disquisition on the “surrealism” of the terrace setting and, by extension, the unreality of the much rearranged situation of relationships, privilege, and power in which the characters finally end. But as comic social commentary, The Scene lacks weight or substance and ends as a hateful, misogynist evening at a wealthy theatre that’s lavishing money and time on work whose existence begs its own question.

This is not the kind of work by women playwrights for which I want to advocate. But it’s the kind of work I’m afraid will transfer to Broadway, following on the heels of The Little Dog Laughed, its gay male-written counterpart. I’m as keen for comedy as the next spectator, but not for work whose cynicism provides pat answers for a social malaise it can’t even diagnose, let alone engage in any potentially productive way. If this is the material that’s going to “make it,” failure sounds like a more progressive option. In fact, maybe women’s absence from Broadway theatres isn’t such a bad thing after all, if the bulk of what’s offered there panders to some low common denominator of what white middle class straight men find fun, or how they like to imagine the moral bankruptcy of women and queer men. If that’s so, who needs it?

I loved a local, Austin production I saw of Rebeck’s play, Omnium Gatherum, and I’ve long followed her work, as she’s one of the few women, besides the late Wendy Wasserstein, writing what I more often find rather incisive comedy. The problem is not the "popular"; that is, I don't think Broadway as a venue is necessarily, always politically conservative. But although accusations of “selling out” seem retrograde and, in fact, much too simplistic and not very useful, I do wonder that her increasing success is leading Rebeck to narrow, instead of expand, her portrayals of women.

Just as a footnote, here are some women playwrights whose work I admire that I’d much rather see on Broadway, or even given a sumptuous production of the sort that The Scene received here: Naomi Wallace, Kia Corthron, Dael Orlandersmith, Irene Fornes, Alice Tuan, Naomi Iizuka, Diana Son, Lisa Loomer, Paula Vogel, Lisa D’Amour, and Heather McDonald, among more whom I’ll name, and hopefully write about, in the future.

The Feminist Spectator