Dec 18, 2004

Theatrical Literacy Watch

Just went to see Part 1 of The Groundlings Box Set, on assignment for the Times, and while I'm contractually bound not to review it here, I did want to report on one illuminating improv, which I may not have room to mention in my upcoming review.

Director Karen Maruyama came out and asked the audience to suggest a "predicament" for three actors. She settled on "fixing a broken toilet" and let them begin. She then periodically froze the actors and called out to the audience for the names of playwrights in whose "style" the actors should continue the scene. The first was Mamet, which elicited a barrage of f-word-spiked abuse in New York mook accents (interesting how this Chicago playwright's reputation has morphed into something closer to The Sopranos). Then came the inevitable Tennessee Williams, which knocked the actors down to a lazy drawl and talk of juleps and heat and Mardi Gras. The next name suggested was John Patrick Shanley--oops. This led the performers to start speaking in Lucky Charms Irish accents; they clearly sensed this was wrong but couldn't figure out how to parody a writer who's better known in the larger culture for the film Moonstruck than for any of his plays (even the currently running Doubt).

The next moment was telling: Maruyama cut the brogue meandering short and asked the audience to suggest the names of famous film directors instead. This was immediately easier for both the actors and the audience--there was the inevitable David Lynch, the slightly unexpected Tim Burton, and a big Bob Fosse closer.

Says something about the non-centrality of theatrical voices in our popular culture, doesn't it? What if audience members had suggested Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, Athol Fugard, Michael Frayn, Paula Vogel? This isn't a diss of the Groundlings' own cultural literacy but an observation about the collective pool of references from which comedy, particularly improv comedy, must often draw for its laughs.

Of course, one could argue that our inability to boil down most contemporary writers for the stage down to a handful of instantly recognizable clichés is a tribute to their inimitable originality. Yeah--one could argue that. But I think it's also inarguable that the number of people who can intelligently compare the plays of Genet to the plays of Ionesco, or distinguish the respective styles of Jon Robin Baitz and Richard Greenberg, or hold forth on the debt August Wilson owes to O'Neill--let alone get a laugh from such juxtapositions--is an ever smaller group of people.

We few. We happy few.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"We few. We happy few."

You betcha. Why _have_ a club if it can't be excluuuusive?