Day Four in London

Day 4 – Being written on the morning of Day 5

As suggested yesterday, Thursday was a great day, perhaps the most informative and varied of the tour so far. But why dwell on the positive? Why not, for a change of pace, start irritably?

As in… why, with the biggest two-day sales total in Theater J history, can we still only manage getting 90 and 93 people into our theater on a Wednesday and Thursday night to see a hit show? That’s playing to 40% capacity? (As you can see, I’ve been reading our DC night-end box office reports over here) In London, we’ve been to the theater on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night and every single show has been sold out. And we’re talking depressoid shows. Shows where the protagonist falters and dies. Sold out. In London. A “quietly superb” and “genuinely warm” Off-Broadway comedy at Theater J in DC? 40% capacity. Yes, we’re selling out for the weekends. Yes, Saturday night is the night of choice in the busy DC professional’s appointment book. But how depressing, in a way, to see how slowly it takes to fill up the Goldman theater. You want success to be like a lit match to gasoline; instead it’s a slow and steady water hose, filling up a big backyard pool; not even Olympic size; just a nice standard backyard pool. It takes its time.

FAMILY SECRETS doesn’t open to universal acclaim, as it turns out. Lisa Traiger in The Washington Jewish Week (together with Nelson Pressley, the only critic in DC to have seen virtually every production at Theater J since I got there in 1997-8, and a very articulate reflector of our work, simpatico to our mission) she blasts FAMILY SECRETS for being cornball and overdone schmaltz. Sharper, less dependable readers of our work, like inveterate blogger, gossip, and George Nathan Award winning critic Trey Graham appreciates the play and the performance through and through, not at all allergic to the high-cholesterol-content. Interesting what sets people off.

Speaking of… let’s focus on a complaint from the trip. We’ve had lousy seats. For basically every show. If there’s steps to take, we’ve taken them, up to a balcony, off the side to a stall. It’s the function of having waited, I suppose, until 6-7 weeks ago before collecting all the money from the trip and buying the group tix only at the relative last minute. Nobody’s happy about the seat location. Yes, the tickets were hard to get; for these prices, however, we could’ve scalped and done better.

There. A complaint. Should we think of more? Yes, why not?

There’s been a change on the schedule. People seem upset about it. This morning, Friday, is a free morning, with a meeting in the afternoon at the Cabinet War Rooms, originally scheduled for 3:30. But earlier in the week, I requested that we get a little tour of the National Theatre in advance of our book talk presentation from Max Stafford Clark and the 7:30 performance of THE REPORTER. To accommodate the newly arranged 5 pm tour of the National, we’re trying to bump up the Cabinet War Room tour to 3 pm. But it’s not confirmed as of Thursday night. And people are annoyed by this. They’re on their own till 3 and they need to know what time they should be where, and this lack of a confirmed appointment rankles just about everyone. Now why is that, I wonder?

I think there’s a bit of low-level dissatisfaction with the whole transportation issue on this trip. We’re expected to always get to our next destination on our own; there’s never a bus or a van or a fleet of taxis waiting. Marcella Brenner has hired a car and driver for herself and for Monty Combs, and she’ll take whoever else wants to go on her time-table, but it’s not a coordinated effort, nor should it be. The question: should transportation have been a more coordinated effort in general, or is part of the genius of this experience having us e experience London theater the way Londoners might, getting there via the Tube, sitting in the back and part of the populace, learning the city on foot and with a modicum of independence? “It’s part of the Treasure Hunt experience” quips Jim Ryan, our tour director. I think people get the charm of it, and they appreciate the independence. But they’d like better seats. That’s my reading of it.

And so there’s a bit of cantankerousness on this subject of a schedule shift and the uncertainty as to whether it’s been confirmed. By Friday morning, it’s supposed to have been confirmed, but nobody sees Jim around, so they come to me, still a bit piqued that nobody knows exactly when to meet, so I say, “Yes, it’s confirmed,” even though I’m only hoping it is. If it’s not, of course, I’ll beat Jim’s butt. But I’m sure it has been, right?

On the list of things we could be complaining about, this ranks pretty low down. We could talk about the shows themselves. I suppose I’m a little disappointed in the shows. Our group has loved the quality of everything – superb acting, superb sets. All this is true. It’s exhilarating and daunting to realize that of the 30 actors we’ve seen on stage so far, there hasn’t been a single sub-par performance. This leads, later in the night on the walk home from the Tube after JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN, to a talk about the relatives depths of the acting talent pools in Washington, London, New York and San Diego. Yes, San Diego. Walking back to hotel with Linda Morfield, a relative newcomer to DC from California, she’s delighted and exhilarated by just about everything on this trip — save for the demise of Archie Rice in THE ENTERTAINER which she did not love – and this schedule change today which is very vexing for her. But the acting she’s seen is simply breathtaking. Then again, she’s loved virtually all the acting she’s seen in Washington since moving to the area ten years ago. She marvels at the relative bounty of DC theater – so much to see and so many great people on view to be seen. “What do you think of the talent in DC?” she asks me.

It’s good but a little thin, I tell her. Especially if you’re casting ethnic. Look for a leading man in his 40s in DC. Then look for someone Jewish. Or how ‘bout someone Semitic of any other variety? Any good Arab actors in our town? And about what actors who can sing, dance, and act. And play the violin. Find all four and we’ll have cast our David for the lead in our world premiere musical, DAVID IN SHADOW AND LIGHT. But more on that in about a month when we announce! The Big News! DC loves its season roll-outs early and so the scamper to line up our subscription seasons as early as possible. I’d like to take a little more time on that front. Look at the New York theaters’ time tables. No early spring announcements from Playwrights Horizons or Manhattan Theatre Club. There are good artistic reasons to wait a while before announcing what you’re going to be producing a year and a half from now. The world could change. That new play that’s in development could turn the corner and be ready sooner than you think. Something hot and new might fall from the sky.

Do I digress? Yes. Is anybody reading? The Blog meter suggests not so many. Do I care? Do I want to be high-rated professional blogger when I grow up? No. I wanna be a faithful diarist, as I am in my own private diary, so I’m trying to find an authentic voice here.

Am I in a bad mood this morning only as a kind of “performance” to add conflict and edge to what otherwise would be an overly cheery report? Yeah, I finished breakfast this morning and thought I’d try a different tack. Let’s talk about everything that’s not perfect about the trip.

And to that end, let’s skip the writer’s salon and the walking tour of Old Jewish East End and the High Tea that followed because those were all PERFECT EVENTS. So full and fun and informative and what’s the point of reading that first thing in the morning? We gotta work ourselves up to that. Or maybe that’ll just be in Entry #5 because people, I’m sure, like shorter blog entries, this being an American site and we Americans invented USA TODAY, after all. So shorter is better.

Not so on the British stage.

Every show we’ve seen here has run 2 hours and 30 minutes or more. Two forty-five with either one or two “intervals” has been the average. And I love how that’s not an issue for playgoers. Or the artistic staff. Let these plays take their time.

The results, generally, are that the best scenes are the final scenes. Certainly in THE ENTERTAINER and JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN, the plays are worth doing perhaps only because of their endings.

BORKMAN is an insane play, the second to last in Ibsen’s career. Again, it’s totally worth doing because of the ravishing design of the surprise last act, when the walls at the back of the set ascend (every theater here has such enormous fly space!) and what’s revealed is a snow-swept landscape with tall gnarly birch trees, pure white carpet covering every inch of the floor and snow flakes a falling. After two hours cloistered in two floors of a prison-like Norwegian home with only the occasional flake dancing in one of a few recessed windows, the escape into nature, where our horribly-behaved main character Borkman meets up with the elements, is positively bracing. And totally unforgettable. But the plot leading up to that moment, and the relationships that comprise this wildly static play beforehand, is really nuts. Here’s a brief synopsis, courtesy of The Oxford Ibsen, Volume VIII, Oxford University Press:

John Gabriel Borkman is a former bank-manager who, sixteen years before the play begins, has been imprisoned for financial fraud. He believes he was innocent. He had used the customers’ money to invest in an industrial empire, and before he could pay back all the loans, he was reported by his friend Hinkel, who was in love with Ella Rentheim, Borkman’s sweetheart in youth.
Since being released from prison eight years ago, Borkman has been living on the upper floor of Ella’s property. His wife Gunhild, Ella’s twin sister, lives on the floor below, but the two of them have no contact with each other. Their son, Erhart, now in his twenties, is a student in the city.
Borkman never goes out, but is occasionally visited by Vilhelm Foldal, one of those who lost everything as a result of Borkman’s financial speculations. Foldal encourages him in his conviction that one day the staff of the bank will come and ask him to return to his old position as bank-manager.
As a young man Borkman deserted his great love Ella, and instead married her twin, Gunhild, “in return for” the post as bank-manager. When he was imprisoned, Ella took care of Erhart, and became closely attached to him, but he has now become acquainted with a divorcee, Fanny Wilton, and goes abroad with her and Foldal’s daughter, Frida.
At the beginning of the play Ella has come to ask that Erhart may live with her and take her name. She has just found out that she is suffering from a mortal disease. Borkman agrees, but his wife Gunhild refuses to allow her twin Ella, with whom she has had no contact all these years, to take over her son. There is a bitter reckoning between the two sisters. Erhart turns up and says that he cannot live for either of them, or for his father. John Gabriel Borkman leaves the house and goes out into the winter night with Ella, and dies.

So there you have it. Marcella Brenner tells me at intermission that “regular people don’t talk this way.” I tell her that my favorite part is when Ella accosts Borkman and tells him, “You did the worst thing you could do to a person. You destroyed my capacity to love. You smothered all the love out of me forever.” I like writing like that. She says, “but people don’t say those kind of things. They may think them…” Linda Morfield, on our walk home, feels quite the opposite from Marcella, or that Marcella’s objection is beside the point. “Those are two souls talking there. They’re not regular people. They’re stripped away to their most elemental. And that’s how the play leaves them at the end; exposed to the raw elements of nature.” And she’s right. Borkman dies in the cold; the iron hard of nature gripping tight his heart.

I’m not sure I’ve made the case as to why this play’s insane. It strains credulity, shall we say. “The guy’s a misogynist,” my wife says – not Ibsen, but Borkman – who was callow towards every person he ever met in his life. An industrialist who ruthlessly extracted minerals from the ground and used nature for his own gain the way he wound up using people as well, the play, perhaps, has an environmentalist critique of human behavior. Rape and pillage the land and you contaminate your soul and poison everything around you. And you eventually pay the price. And then nature gets you in the end. I like that message. A redemptive experience.

I loved being at the Donmar Warehouse. Just as we all loved being at the Tricycle, Royal Court, The Old Vic, and tonight, no doubt, the institutional highlight, The National. To aspire to be a Great Theater. Not just to be a great theater artist, but a great theatrical institution. I never thought I’d have that dream. Watching Ibsen last night, I was elated by the sense of permission bestowed—and it’s kind of like watching Mamet or Labute—that an author can work up the permission, or earn the right, to write about anything if he does so with a fury and an integrity and a full head of steam. And the plays and plot can be ludicrous, or so particular as to cause for serious head-scratching, but the authors underlying intensity of concern, the grassy bottom of it all in that rag and bone shop of the heart, that’s why one writes – to get to that point – to touch bottom, even if it means getting there through circuitous means. And there seems, in this theatrical culture of London, to be a permission to get there; so long as it’s well acted and gloriously designed and concealed by smart efforts, the relative insanity of a plot-line can become entirely beside the point.

Watching lesser Ibsen gives a writer hope, as one discerns greatness amid the shabbiness, that it’s always worth it, the act of creation, even when it’s not perfect; even when the vessel you’ve built that’s carrying your light, even when that vessel is leaky or less than perfectly sea-worthy, there’s still reason to carry forth with the journey; because the river reveals hidden treasures; unexpected pleasures; even with mishaps along the way.

And as I end this entry, a knock on the door. The bellman delivers a typed message that we’re to be meet at the Cabinet War rooms at 2:45 pm for the tour. Nobody’s in the hotel right now and there’s no one I can inform of the schedule change. Jim Ryan is gonna be f…d I didn’t say that. It’ll be fine. Or not. Let’s see how our seats are tonight at the National.

More soon.


2 thoughts on “Day Four in London

  1. Good Lord, Ari – how to you find time to write with your itinerary?

    I’m really enjoying your warts-and-all description of the trip. There’s nothing duller than reading the official blogs of most theatres – they’re usually just a branch of the PR department and as a result, boringly rah-rah. I like your candor.

  2. Ari:

    Next time call me and let’s work together to get better seats on your next London trip. Remind people to listen to the fantastic podcast/interview I recorded with Sherry Glaser. Click on Podcasts on the left side buttons. Looking forward to hearing what you thought abiut Billy Elliot. Joel Markowitz

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