What do I really mean when I say a show isn't "good Enough" to review? Last week I came home after two shows in a row, and had nothing to say about them. Each one was an old classic dusted off, they were both done by companies with good track records, and there were people involved in each whose work I have loved in the past. They weren't bad. But neither seemed good "enough". Why?
Maybe it was me. I have seen excellent and embarrassing shows at the Boston Conservatory, I've nominated shows by the Delvena Theatre Company for IRNE awards and cringed at some others. I think the work that both these very different groups do is by now fairly well known to me. And, frankly, I expected better from both of them. But these weren't obvious disasters. I think the final judgement on each of them was that, while watching each one, my mind wasn't eagerly interested in each unfolding moment; I was thinking of other things.
"Brigadoon" at The Boston Conservatory was all about dancing, about precisely pointed toes and stretched insteps and Celtic styles done not in noisy clogs but delicate ballet slippers. The dancers looked great from the waist down, though the lifts could have been better, and the singers sang. But no one gave much real attention to the sense of their lines, and there was a lot of limp, unenthusiastic acting. Actually, not a bad job for a student production --- if you didn't have "Side Show" or "Where's Charley" or "Three Sisters" to compare it to, as I did. The show slid indifferently past my eyes and ears, and without anything really intensely interesting to focus on, my mind wandered.
I could see, or felt I could see, the oddly fantastic plot, with bailing-wire and Scottish tape holding all its sprawling parts together, as a hasty and un-thought-out committee effort. Lots of good stuff, but floating about in a jello-mold with no clear through-line anywhere. For all its potential charm, it just looked old-hat.
There were a couple of glitches with the sound system, and suddenly that was all I was thinking about. Of course, a school intending to train a lot of talented kids to work as theater professionals would have to teach them how to use head-sets, I reasoned. Hell, even the Turtle Lane Playhouse and The Footlight Club are miked these days, and at even Ye Wilbur Theatre they miked much of "W;t" --- a straight play in a comfortable, congenial house. Better learn to use sound systems or these kids would never make a dime. Besides, these young voices probably needed help to be heard over the orches...
Then it hit me: The ORCHESTRA was miked as well! And in an auditorium that had no need whatever of electronic enhancement --- Bad electronic enhancement at that, since there was a tinge of tinfoil rattling every thin upper register. That brought me up short. Why lean on a bad sound system when none of it was really needed? Surely the shows I saw even down in the Big Barns didn't need amplification until "Hair!" and rock concerts made industrial-strength fortissimo's de rigeur, did they?
Or did it have something to do with styles? You have to stand and belt out the notes to be able to fill a house with two balconies, and it's damn hard to act while trying to hit those high ones --- that's what makes opera so incomprehensible to me --- and yet the t-v/movie generation have come to expect tender intimacies in fictionalized interrelationships. It's even harder to simulate close tenderness when the score calls for you to outshout the pit-band. Ergo: amplify! --- even if it means the sounds all come not from anyone's mouths but from, well, from everywhere at once, or maybe just from stage-left. If characters have to be as real and as human and as nuanced as they are in movies, something's got to help them hit those notes while they do it.
See? A show lets the mind be distracted, even for a moment, and it just Goes!
"Come Back, Little Sheba"
The three principals in this show were all good, old friends I had seen doing brilliant work before, separately or with one another. What I was getting from each of them, though, was standard, brand-x generic. All the lines, though I'd never really heard them before, felt familiar. These weren't interesting new people whose lives were in crisis, they were stencillized postures I had seen before --- new words, old techniques --- and no one seemed ever to notice one another very much.
But it's really an old play, I thought. William Inge was exploring fresh ground when he actually dealt with the drably terrifying problem of an Alcoholics Anonymous novitiate trying to live One Day at A Time with the awareness of failure and self-loathing that sent him to the bottle in the first place. That style of psychological case-history drama can look a little quaint and heavy-handed these days, when self-confessional Oprah like-a-looks clog the afternoon airways.
And another idea leaped to mind behind that one: what a huge cast! It called for a next-door neighbor, a milkman, a mailman, and a Western Union messenger, as well as four principals, and two walk-on A.A. men --- all necessarily different actors. Man, didn't that date this play! Imaging anything but a Lloyd-Webber extravaganza paying that many Equity salaries today? I thought of the large casts that the big Tennessee Williams plays I'd seen recently had demanded, and the incredibly shrinking dramatis-personae in Mamet or Durang, or even Beckett or Albee. And Inge knew the difference between star and support back then that has been blurring more and more as styles have economized. These days a playwright has to Use every actor to the hilt; who auditions to play a mailman anymore?
And then suddenly the show's over, the performers must be applauded, and I must walk past them and their directors, choreographers, designers, aware that all of them expect a review, aware that they will know if I say nothing that I probably had nothing good to say. I remembered two very good friends who, touched by a breath of fire from the Boston GLOBE had to be talked back patiently from the edge of never acting again --- and I knew that my friends (Isn't anyone who stands before me on a stage my friend?) didn't deserve silence. The work --- in neither show --- was "bad" at all. It just wasn't good Enough. I knew I had to give their efforts their due, that I had to say something. And I knew, at one and the same time, that instead of reviewing their shows --- I signal my mind that I am reviewing by asking a second program, and I start reviewing when I sit down in an audience --- instead of doing the work they all expected of me, I had simply been thinking of something else.
So maybe it was just me after all.