On “Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo,” “That Championship Season,” and “10×25.”

My remaining theatrical experiences of the past two months can be covered succinctly: none of them had the kind of emotional, intellectual, or spiritual impact as the four plays most recently discussed.  But …

Like everyone else who paid for tickets to Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo, I made the choice based on Robin Williams’ presence in the cast.  I know better, but what’s common sense got to do with it?  Playing the title tiger, Williams went out of his way to avoid his trademark schtick.  Not that he’s not a talented actor, nor is his schtick a bad thing in the right context.  He’s given me many a belly laugh, as well as many a poignant moment in his sometimes hokey serious roles.  Here, however, he is buried behind a full beard, and completely wasted in a been-there-done-that political commentary on the folly of man.  Well, maybe “wasted” is the wrong word, because the producers clearly knew what they were doing in hiring the man:  “Put butts in seats, peiod!”

The play might well work better on a smaller more intimate stage, but the size of Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre seemed to demand an over-produced approach, despite the best efforts of talented director Moises Kaufman.  As soon as the play begins, the tiger bites off an offending soldier’s hand, and is immediately killed by the soldier’s friend.  The tiger’s spirit is then free to roam the streets of war-torn Bagdad bemoaning the murders of all the other animals, and making comments on the collapse of human civilization — a collapse epitomized by the greedy hunt for Saddam Hussein’s golden toilet seat!  I mean, come on!   I have to admit, I agreed from the get-go with most of the tiger’s political observations, as did the rest of the audience judging by their audible responses.  We didn’t need to have our minds changed about the folly of the Iraq enterprise, or about the dehumanizing process of war in general.  So, as I asked myself frequently during the entire unpleasant performance, why am I here, and why exactly did I pay for this ticket?    I may be wrong about all this of course.  The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and received a number of lesser awards.  It was a risky enterprise and hot topic of debate as to whether it would work at this time as a Broadway show.  It didn’t.  It closed earlier this month.

That Championship Season has also closed, deservedly so.   And closed despite the requisite ticket-selling Hollywood acting talent (Keifer Sutherland, Chris Noth, and Jason Patric), all outdone by stage veteran Brian Cox as the coach.  Despite the latter’s casting, this thing was a bomb.  I remember reading and loving the play almost 40 years ago when it was first produced, winning Pulitzer, Tony, and  Drama Critics Circle awards.   But here its themes of guilt, paternal betrayal, and cheating at sports come across as hopelessly dated.  Sadly, we’ve all grown way too cynical to be surprised, much less shocked, by this kind of spilling of secrets.  Patric is the son of the late actor/playwright, Jason Miller.  He was apparently one of the driving forces behind this revival, and must have felt obliged to play the role of Tom.  Too bad.  It was a major disappointment to see his father’s play so poorly conceived and badly directed.

The Atlantic Theater Company was founded in 1985 by David Mamet and William H. Macy, and has a history of mounting outstanding off-Broadway theatre.  In their recent repertoire they’ve done new plays by Mamet, Pinter, Swados, McDonough, Shepard, etc. You get the idea.  And then there is their upcoming first production of the new season:  Simon Stephens’ 1998 drama, Bluebird.  Sight unseen, I predict this one will attract a lot of attention.  It features one of the most talented and overlooked actors working in the English language (in my book) , Simon Russell Beale.  The entire 31 day run (Aug 9-Sep 9) is already sold out by subscription, so why am I even talking about this?  Because if you’re in New York and can wangle a ticket, go for it.  And because I’d rather plug the theater itself than its decision to celebrate their 25th anniversary with twenty-five 10-minute plays by twenty-five of their playwrights of record.  10×25?  Get it?

The plays were presented in the Atlantic’s tiny Stage 2 on W16th St,  in three series of 8-9 plays each.  I saw Series A on May 29, which included work by Ethan Coen, David Mamet, John Guare, Lucy Thurber, Stephen Belber and others.  Not a bad bunch of names to have in your stable.   I remember getting some good giggles out of several of the pieces, but 65 days later, despite the scribbled notes in my program, I can remember almost nothing else about them.  And I can’t claim that any of them moved me to more than a few giggles.  Some struck me as somewhat exclusionary in-jokes; others seemed to be pieces that the playwrights hauled off of closet shelves, remnants of longer play ideas, or past writing exercises.  I remain convinced that 10-minute plays are among the hardest to write.  A thin line separates them from the kind of sketch that used to be the basis of Vaudeville.  Gary Garrison reiterated the point at the First Annual Dramatists Guild Conference that unlike a comedy skit, you can’t just drop any character into a situation for laughs in a play, no matter how short.  It should ideally have structure and plot which includes complication, climax and resolution.   If these pieces had ’em, I missed ’em.

Stephen Sondheim’s Follies will not even open on Broadway until September 12.  I managed to catch it in Washington at the Kennedy Center in an old-fashioned out-of-town preview.  Next time!

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2 Responses to On “Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo,” “That Championship Season,” and “10×25.”

  1. I was sorry to read that Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was so weak, because it at least might have addressed one of our current wars — I am unhappy that most artists and art venues (like most Americans) ignore the wars. I was also sorry to read that it apparently had a simplistic approach to the war in Iraq, since theatre should raise questions, not answer them.

  2. Bill Rough says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Stephen. Two of the most powerful anti-war plays I’ve ever seen are “War Horse” (now playing at Lincoln Center), and The National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch,” which recently completed another U.S. National Tour. They serve as powerful and disturbing reminders of the shocking inanity and irrationality of warfare. But contemporary wars have always been difficult to capture in drama when too close to “home.” It took years for Korea’s “Porkchop Hill” to make it to the screen, and still longer for Vietnam’s “Full Metal Jacket.” “War Horse” rests in the more comfortable distant past, World War I, which everybody now agrees was useless and insane. “Black Watch” is Scotsmen fighting in Iraq, which lends its own kind of distance. It may take a while for the horrible uselessness of the Afghanistan blunder to hit the stage. We’re still trying to justify it.

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