I'm trying to read more plays in 2017 and also post brief thoughts on what I've read. For my first script review roundup of the year: an obscure play by Lue Morgan Douthit, an acclaimed comedy by Stephen Karam, and two quite different plays by Craig Lucas.
Honor Bright: A Play in Two Acts by Lue Morgan Douthit
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Meet Edie Barrett Barnett. She has emotionally distant parents named Charles and Marian, and dutiful older siblings named Chip and Kate, and a loyal family cook/nanny named Sarah, and a boyfriend at Harvard Med named Jessie, and a sensible sidekick named Janet. She has a mischievous streak and a drinking problem and a desperate need to rebel against her family’s strict expectations.
In short, Edie is the epitome of a troubled WASP girl, but that means Honor Bright sometimes feels more like an anthropological study than a drama. The play is a series of vignettes from Edie’s high school and college years, as she tries to figure out how her life became a downward spiral. Edie (played by three different actresses) is a reasonably complex character, but everyone else in the play is a one-dimensional archetype. Maybe that’s because Edie filters the story through her own perspective and fails to recognize the full humanity of her friends and family, but it can feel like she’s stacking the deck. At the same time, the play’s tragedy is how the other characters fail to recognize Edie’s full humanity: unable to understand how alienated she feels, they dismiss her as a “moody” girl who just needs to “get over it.” WASP emotional repression cuts both ways.
The playwright, Lue Morgan Douthit, is best known these days as the longtime dramaturg and literary manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Honor Bright, her M.A. thesis play, was produced Off-Broadway in 1984.
Speech & Debate by Stephen Karam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Speech & Debate is about three smart, alienated, awkward high school students in Salem, Oregon, brought together by a sex scandal involving their drama teacher. As a former teenage misfit from Oregon, I may be predisposed to love it. But I think lots of people will enjoy this funny, offbeat, clever script.
The three protagonists—frustrated theater-geek Diwata, dogged journalism-nerd Solomon, and cynical ex-Portlander Howie—are excellent roles for young actors. Stephen Karam expertly wrings humor from how teenagers can be confident and tech-savvy and smarter than adults give them credit for, while also completely unaware of their own vulnerabilities and follies.
Each of the play’s scenes is named and loosely modeled after a speech-and-debate event (Extemporaneous Commentary, Declamation, etc.), and in its 100 minutes, the play makes use of a remarkable range of communication techniques: instant messages, podcasting, interpretive dance, radio journalism, and more. Through this variety of media, the message comes through loud and clear: these kids are desperate to be heard.
Reckless by Craig Lucas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There’s an entire sub-genre of American drama in which, through forces beyond her control, a sweet but scattered woman gets thrown into increasingly bizarre situations involving an array of oddball characters. These plays tend to be fast-paced lampoons of television, psychiatry, the nuclear family, and all the other ways in which we try to pretend that everything is all right. And while your initial reaction such a play is likely to be “How wacky!”, by the end of it you may be saying, instead, “How sad!” Christopher Durang has written several plays like this; David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers is another example. And after reading Craig Lucas’ Reckless, from the mid-1980s, I’m willing to bet that it helped codify a lot of the elements of this sub-genre. It’s the story of a young wife and mother named Rachel who is forced to flee her house in bathrobe and slippers one Christmas Eve after her husband confesses he’s hired a hitman to kill her. From there, the play mounts a satirical assault on the institutions and customs of “normal” American life. No one’s who they say they are; psychiatrists are useless; bizarre violent crimes abound. And if Rachel makes a reckless decision or two along the way, it’s only because, as another character says, “life’s been reckless with [her].”
Small Tragedy by Craig Lucas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
For most of its length, Small Tragedy is a sharply observed backstage comedy about 6 people in 1990s-era Boston trying to stage a small-scale production of Oedipus Rex. The characters are the usual suspects—the pompous director, the earnest young actor—plus a handsome and taciturn Bosnian refugee, whose presence spurs romantic intrigue as well as conversations about the relevance of Greek tragedy. The dense overlapping dialogue, frequent use of split scenes, and minimal stage directions pose a worthy challenge to directors, actors, readers, and theatergoers.
However, near the end of Act Two, there are some sudden and implausible plot twists, followed by a rushed ending. The mood of the play shifts from easygoing comedy to portentous drama. This all seems intended to illustrate how we (like Oedipus) are willfully oblivious to the true, tragic nature of things, and possibly even make us feel guilty for preferring the low-stakes humor of Act One. But this shift in tone, and this thematic point, seems like it'd be very hard to pull off in performance.