Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Good Read

Looking forward to tonight’s Tony awards

Dwight Garner, theatre critic for the New York Times discovers that reading plays can be as fulfilling as seeing them.

Not so long ago in America, keeping up with new plays was part of what it meant to be literate, and publishers did good business by stocking the drama sections in bookstores. New Directions published Tennessee Williams; Atheneum made a bundle from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”; Random House issued many plays in hardcover, including “Oklahoma!” in 1943; Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” for Viking Press, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

If you didn’t live near New York, or couldn’t afford tickets, you picked up the print editions if you wanted to be part of the conversation. Those days, sadly, are pretty much gone. Readers’ eyeballs have fled elsewhere. New plays are hard to find in bookstores. They are issued, if at all, mostly by university presses and boutique publishers.

The excuses for not theater-going are easy to list: it’s hell to find a babysitter, Netflix is a lovely narcotic, and it’s hard to commit to loading that much money onto a Visa card. You could just about fly to Dublin and back for the price of a Broadway ticket and a decent meal. But what’s the excuse for not reading some of these plays?

This year, with Sunday evening’s Tony Awards on the horizon, I decided to, well, act. I got my hands on all four of the best play nominees and sat down to read them, having seen exactly none of the productions. Three can easily be found on Amazon or elsewhere: Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” Neil LaBute’s “reasons to be pretty,” and Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate,” which is published in a volume of his work called “Three Plays.”

The fourth, Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations,” has not yet been published; I tracked down a copy of the script. (The winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” was ineligible for a Tony because it has not been performed on Broadway.)

Reading this small pile of plays turned out to be a joy. If none are blinding classics destined to be heavily revived 10 or 50 years hence, the best are as sharp and thrilling and concentrated as first-rate short stories. Even the weaker ones are jangly and distinctive, and I’m not sorry to have made their acquaintance. They linger in the memory the way novels often do not.

I feel a certain kinship with Mr. Garner’s sentiment; the way I learned to be a playwright was from hours spent — when I should have been doing my homework — reading plays. It was how I first “saw” The Miracle Worker, Death of a Salesman, Pygmalion, On Borrowed Time, Othello, and many other plays, including the works of Eugen O’Neill, Edward Albee, Anton Chekhov, and Samuel Beckett. I became aware of the playwriting format, of the style of stage directions (excruciatingly long, like Shaw, or short or non-existent), of the economy of dialogue, and the vision of the play — what did it look like in the theatre of my mind. And in many ways, reading a script clues you in to some things that matter to the playwright that may not come out on the stage. After all, a performance is a collaboration between so many others — designers, actors, the director, and the audience — that can change or even obscure the intention of the author. But the script alone is free of outside influence. You hear the message and see the characters without preconception except for those that you bring yourself.

As a playwright, I see a playscript in the same way as a composer sees the score or an architect sees a blueprint; it is incomplete until it is performed or built. But if you know how to read it, a script can fill your imagination and be as inspiring as the performance itself… and sometimes better.