Dec 7, 2011

Entertainment and Its Uses

I've been wondering for a while whether StageGrade ruins my theatergoing experiences. When I saw War Horse, for instance, I had just read every review and was thus familiar with what purported wonders were in store, as well as with the lines of criticism advanced by a number of even its admirers; I found the wonders (the horse puppets) pretty wonderful but the show itself as trite and over-earnest as some critics had warned.

With Seminar, which I saw last week, I feared a similar fate. Even the good reviews, of which there were enough to give it a B+ median on StageGrade, made me fear that I would be more likely to agree with critics who found it glib, contrived, brittle. Rather than ponder too deeply what that expectation says about me, or dwell overly on the fact that I've been underwhelmed by Theresa Rebeck's work in the past, I can report that I thoroughly relished Seminar as a crisp, smart, thoughtful, and very funny piece of entertainment. Lest that sound like faint praise, it's not (or, at least, I'll get to why I don't think it should be faint praise); the play is so tightly constructed and directed, and the cast is so definitive and committed (really, no one is coasting on their type or their tricks here, least of all Alan Rickman—another unjustified fear I had going in), that it fully rewards one's attention for its 90 minutes or so, and spurs plenty of post-show buzz, conversation, and reflection, if not of the earth-shaking kind. (My wife, a fiction writer and a veteran of many writing groups and seminars, particularly enjoyed it, which strikes me as an important bona fide—she didn't even have a problem with the tendency of the characters to assess each other's writing after glancing at a mere page or two, a recurring complaint among some critics.)

But why do I feel the need to go further than to say it's entertaining and leave it at that? I agree with one of the more astute critics I read, David Barbour, that the play does have more to say than may meet the eye—for one, there's that extraordinary monologue, delivered by Alan Rickman, at maybe the two-thirds-point, which anatomizes a writer's dissipation in terms at once hilarious, acrid, and finally existential. But how much does a play that entertains us this well in the moment need to also satisfy our sense that it's also deeply valuable on some world-historical level, and/or that it will "survive" and somehow measure up beyond this production, i.e., without the first-rate cast and director it has now? (It's not unlike the dilemma I outlined in my thoughts about Jerusalem.)

It has a lot to do with what we mean when we say we're entertained—with what parts of us a play tickles, flatters, stimulates. We feel cheap if it's just pumping us for laughs, flattered if we're allowed space to think for ourselves about what we're watching, stimulated if we're surprised or teased into thinking about something more than what we're watching (other than the grocery list). But are a tickle, a tease, and a release of laughter enough?

You might call this as a tension between theater as performance and theater as literature. But if you see a play, as I do, as a kind of literary performance which, at bare minimum, must arrest our attention and hold it for the moment we spend with it, then I'd say that what Seminar accomplishes is enough—enough to be called a good play that's worth your time. Whether it's great in that larger, lasting sense, I can't be absolutely sure. (Can anyone? Though my hunch, and this surprises even me, is that it might be—that its insights about aspiration, literary and otherwise, about gender relations, ambition, and the perils of sensitivity, may speak to us in interesting ways in, say, 50 years.) For now, I honestly don't think that judgment needs to be called; what I do think is that Rebeck and co. are offering a first-class literary performance at the Golden Theatre that is worth catching while it's there.

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