Sun, 13 Mar 2005


Off-Broadway shows explore fear and loathing

Michael Billington, Guardian News Service/New York

The British, as ever, are busy on Broadway. With David Leveaux, Edward Hall and Anthony Page about to direct, respectively, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, American classics have fallen into British hands.

Even the season's most keenly awaited new musical, Monty Python's Spamalot, is largely the work of Britain's own Eric Idle. That show has taken US$14 million in advance bookings, but Idle apparently remains nervous. Told that the show was getting standing ovations in preview, he replied: "That's not enough -- what I want is flying ovations."

Broadway, though, isn't the place to go if you want to know what currently concerns American dramatists. For that, you have to go off-Broadway.

This spring, there is an exceptional crop of new work by living writers including David Mamet, Stephen Adly Guirgis (Jesus Hopped the A Train) and Stephen Belber. Watching these plays, it becomes clear that American dramatists are obsessed by the failure of existing legal, religious and political systems to deal with the rising tide of prejudice. They suggest you can actually smell hatred in the air.

This is certainly the big idea behind David Mamet's Romance, getting its premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company. In his early classics such as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross (which is about to be revived on Broadway), Mamet dealt with the use of words to mask feelings and the pressures of a competitive, capitalist system on working men.

His new play is a total change of pace: a zany, Ortonesque courtroom farce that reveals the rabid loathing that exists under the formalities of forensic exchange. Significantly, the action takes place against a background of Middle East peace talks -- and Mamet asks how we can hope for world peace when we can't even control our own irrational hatreds.

Mamet's fictive courtroom owes a debt to Lewis Carroll and Kafka. A Jewish chiropractor is in the dock for some unspecified offense; as proceedings spiral out of control, private fears are publicly revealed. The judge is a nervous racist who, at one point, enquires if Shakespeare was a Jew. The prosecutor is an establishment pillar tormented by his gay lover.

In the play's most biliously comic scene, the defendant consults with his loathed Catholic attorney: "God forgive me, what have I done?" he asks. "I hired a Goy lawyer! It's like going to a straight hairdresser." To which his anti-semitic attorney responds: "You people can't even order a cheese sandwich without mentioning the Holocaust." That's just for openers in a breathtaking catalog of racist abuse.

You get Mamet's point: that America today is a society where people bolster their insecurities by demonizing others. This, he implies, is reflected globally by the Arab-Jewish conflict or the hostility between the west and Islam. Unfortunately, Mamet's courtroom farce buckles under the weight of so much cargo.

As Mamet himself has wryly admitted, it is his tough luck that his play is opening at a moment when there is a tenuous hope of Middle East peace. More seriously, Romance lacks the iron logic of farce in which closely observed reality descends into chaos.

However, the play reveals a different side of Mamet: a passionate moral concern with the state of the nation. And even if it's not up there with his greatest plays, it's excellently acted in Neil Pepe's production, by Bob Balaban as the hypocritical prosecutor and by Larry Bryggman as the Jew- and fag-baiting judge.

If there is scant hope of justice in Mamet's Romance, there is even less in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by the phenomenally talented Stephen Adly Guirgis at the Public Theater. Like Mamet's play, it is a courtroom drama: one set in a fantastical purgatory where Jesus's New Testament betrayer is on trial. Although it bears signs of Guirgis's last-minute delivery, it is an extraordinary play: one that argues that, even if Judas was guilty by earthly standards, there is a divine mercy that transcends justice.

Guirgis's method is to summon biblical and historical witnesses to argue the case for and against the catatonic Judas. Caiaphas the Elder is shown to be as morally reprehensible as the accused in handing Jesus over to the Romans. Mary Magdalene affirms that Judas was always Jesus's favorite disciple. Freud, meanwhile, argues that suicide is always a sign of mental illness. Of course, Judas is found guilty -- but the final, moving image is of Jesus washing his betrayer's feet.

It may not, in the technical sense, be a good play. But it is something more important than that: a play about the possibility of goodness. What Guirgis is saying, not unlike Mamet, is that we live in a wretchedly imperfect, hate-filled world in which the law is an instrument of revenge: beyond that, however, lies a vision of redemptive mercy.

Not since Tony Kushner's Angels in America have I seen a play so unafraid to acknowledge the power of the spirit.

Like all Guirgis's work, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman for the Labyrinth Company. Even if Hoffman often indulges Guirgis, his production contains striking performances from Eric Bogosian as a diabolical Satan, Sam Rockwell as a self-hating Judas and John Ortiz as a beneficently loving Jesus.

This gulf between law and justice is everywhere: the theme continues in Stephen Belber's McReele at the Laura Pels Theater. The eponymous hero, charismatically played by Anthony Mackie, is a black man who has spent 16 years in the pen for a murder he supposedly didn't commit. When he's released from death row, with the aid of a Delaware journalist, his reformist zeal leads him to be adopted as the state's Democratic senatorial candidate.

Frankly, the idea of a recent jailbird being politically fast- tracked struck me as incredible. But as in Tape, seen in London at the Soho Theatre, Belber is chiefly concerned with the mysterious elusiveness of truth. Mixing social comment with metaphysical enquiry, Belber leaves us guessing right to the very end about McReele's true character.

Is he a man of blazing political conviction? Or is he simply a clever con artist with a dazzling turn of phrase? The merit of Belber's play is that it suggests, in a media-driven world, it is possible to be both.

Even on Broadway, the fascination with criminality continues. Aside from Spamalot, the season's big new musical, opening this week at the Imperial, is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It's based on the 1988 Michael Caine/Steve Martin movie about two con artists coining it on the French Riviera. The good news is that Jeffrey Lane's book and David Yazbek's music and lyrics show the same flair they brought to The Full Monty.

They also confirm the trend, exemplified by The Producers, to bring comedy back into musical theatre. One number, cheekily entitled Oklahoma, turns into an ironic hymn to the aridity and racism of a state where there's "not a tree or a Jew to block the lovely view".

The long-established John Lithgow plays, with smooth finesse, the senior con-man. The real revelation of the show, though, is an actor destined for comic stardom. Norbert Leo Butz is not the best of monikers to put on the billboards -- but he runs away with the evening as Lithgow's vulgar protege. Butz combines furious animalistic energy with superb comic timing: the gloriously bad-taste scene where, as a supposedly paralyzed war victim, he levers himself up from his wheelchair in hobbling pursuit of a seductive blonde brings tears to one's eyes. Mark my words: Butz is the new Nathan Lane.

Judging by Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the moral on Broadway is that crime pays.

Off-Broadway, however, every show I saw was an open or oblique attack on America's inherent injustice and unstemmable racial prejudice. Lest we think this is new, it was instructive to see, at Theater at St Clement's, a highly polished revival of Elmer Rice's 1931 play Counsellor-at-Law. With its 23 characters and three-hour length, it's the kind of play no one writes any more. But Rice's portrait of a Jewish attorney battling accusations of malpractice from the anti-semitic country-club set is filled with political rage; and John Rubinstein, in a part made famous by Paul Muni, storms through the play like an angry tornado.

It was moving to be reminded that American drama, at its best, has always possessed a strong social conscience -- and that, well away from the bright lights of Broadway, writers such as Mamet, Guirgis and Belber are keeping alive the tradition of theatre as a vehicle of radical protest.

Romance is at the Atlantic Theater until April 3. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is at the Public Theater until April 3. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is at the Imperial until September. McReele is at the Laura Pels Theater until May 1. Counsellor-at-Law is at St Clement's until March 6.