For a country that mounts a lot of American theatre, England doesn’t seem particularly to like it. Reviewing Tina Howe’s Painting Churhes, which expired on the West End after several weeks in February following the worst set of reviews in recent memory, Michael Billington in the Guardia wrote of a “crisis in American drama [that stems] from its maudlin domestic fixation.” Discussing a concurrent production of All My Sons, Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard used the play as an excuse to take a brickbat to “the bungalows of postwar American theatre” over which Arthur Miller’s 1947 imitation Ibsenism “towers high.”
If our contemporary theatre were really so depleted, how, then, would a Briton account for a current New York season which is seeing exceptionally bracing work from such writers as Jon Robin Baitz, Donald Margulis, Richard Greenberg and Scott McPherson, even as new plays by David Hare, Alan Ayckbourn and Hugh Whitemore have landed thuddingly on home turf?
It helps to be old or dead
The answer is that the British, whether they would acknowledge it or not, know the sorts of American plays they like, and the hard facts are these: If you want to be a successful American dramatist in England, it helps to be old or dead–or failing that, angry and political. The merest whiff of sustained emotion nearly always translates overseas as bathos, and when it comes to sentimentality, the British prefer their own version: Shirley Valentine or Lettice and Lovage, say–two sentimental pieces of varying sophistication–rather than Painting Churches, A Shayna Maidel, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, or even Our Town, all often roundly panned here.
All credit, then, to Tony Kushner for meeting this mentality more than halfway, since what the English admire about Angels in America is their feeling that it could have been written by one of them. In a sense, of course, they’re right. Millennium Approaches, the first of Kushner’s two-part epic, owes a huge debt stylistically, if not thematically, to such writers as Caryl Churchill and David Hare. Like Churchill, Kushner’s imagination is boundless; this is one dramatist not afraid to mix fact and fantasy, the past and the present, intensity and irony as he chronicles a society exhausting itself on the eve of the 21st century. But as with Hare in a play like Murmuring Judges (although never, it must be said, in Racing Demon), Kushner isn’t always able to fold his own impassioned voice into the language of his characters. His apparent alter ego, Louis Ironson (Marcus D’Amico), an employee at the Brooklyn federal courts of appeal whose lover Prior Walter (Sean Chapman) is dying of AIDS, too often delivers blanket Kushner-isms. He’s a poorly disguised–if impressively incensed–authorial stand-in, not a flesh-and-blood character inhabiting a play.
This problem might matter more if Louis were the sum total of Angels–or if the production were any less terrific than Delcan Donnellan’s current staging at the National’s Cottesloe auditorium. (This is the first foray into the American canon for Donnellan, a London-based Irishman who heads the touring Cheek by Jowl Company.) As it is, Angels is eclectic and wide-ranging enough that its occasional lapses into the generic hardly matter. Kushner’s coup is his re-imagining of the notorious McCarthy-era lawyer Roy Cohn (Henry Goodman in a bravura turn) who died of AIDS in 1986 and is here seen to embody a peculiarly American hypocrisy. “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual,” he tells his doctor early on. “Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.” What Kushner’s Cohn can’t tolerate is any potential link to a community that has “zero clout.” This Cohn gets things done, so he must be straight.
Angels in America was nominated for (but didn’t receive) four Olivier Awards, and one can only hope that future American productions will honor so well both its savagery and its sorrow. Telling of two couples in crisis–one gay (Louis and Prior), one straight (Joe Pitt, a Mormon, and his mentally unbalanced wife, Harper)–Kushner finds fresh ways to write about the pain of AIDS while rooting the disease in an atmosphere of mounting loss and dread that is sending America hurtling towards Armageddon: “Everybody is [scared] in the land of the free,” Louis announces. “God help us all.”
If the play’s ending seems rather reined-in, that too may be part of its local appeal. Overtly eschwing the deathbed finish of plays like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Kushner invokes Steven Spielberg for a conclusion that is more facetious than anything else. The result denies audiences the catharsis towards which the play seems to be building even as it confirms Kushner’s ambition: This is one writer keen to encompass more moods, approaches and dramatic strategies than most playwright ever attempt.
Blacks raising the roof
Both parts of Angels in America are due to be staged in a separate American production starting at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles later this year, which means the National’s Cottesloe will have had the same head start on an important American play that it had in 1983, when it housed the world premiere of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.
Nonetheless, for all the ongoing interest in American work, as many American writers aren’t seen in London as are. Richard Nelson by now might as well be English, since the Royal Shakepeare Company this summer offers him a third consecutive world premiere. Marlane Meyer (Etta Jenks) and Mark Lee (California Dog Fight) have had significant “fringe” productions even as Wendy Wasserstein, Craig Lucas and Terrence McNally remain virtually unknown. Last year the National passed on doing Six Degrees of Separation, claiming it was exclusively of “local interest” (i.e., too New York). John Guare’s play instead opened in June at the Royal Court with Stockard Channing repeating her New York perfomance with a British cast and director (Phyllida Lloyd).
Black American plays are a nonstarter in Britain, largely because they find a limited audience and also because the indigenous black talent (local claims to the country notwithstanding)often isn’t up to the demands of the work. (Northwest London’s earnest but dreary Tricycle Theatre production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone proved that.) Fences, starring American actor Yaphet Kotto, disappeared quickly in 1990, and plans to transfer the Broadway production of The Piano Lesson never materialized. It seems Britons would rather see blacks raising the roof than raising consciousness, as the presence of four all-black musicals–Five Guys Named Moe, Carmen Jones, The Cotton Club and Sikulu–currently attests. Once the music stops, so do the audiences.
Doing Williams proud
Where Britain does American drama a service is in its attention to established writers in a way that goes beyond the often bizarre (and, yes, sentimental) deification of Arthur Miller. It’s no accident that two of the major O’Neill revivals on Broadway in the 1980s–A Moon for the Misbegotten and Strange Interlude–represented British directors (David Leveaux and Keith Hack, respectively) remounting succesful London productions. Whereas New York honors Tennessee Williams with starry revivals of only his two or three best-known plays, the British move beyond Streetcar to Orpheus Descending, The Rose Tattoo, Summer and Smoke and, through Aug. 31 at the National’s Lyttelton auditorium, The Night of the Iguana.
Iguana has been seen twice at New York’s Circle in the Square in the past two decades but not in London since 1964. Richard Eyre’s production, then, has the force of revelation, abetted by two stars–Alfred Molina (Shannon) and Eileen Atkins (Hannah)–who find in William’s victims the proper call to compassion and to grace. The production’s success in London may be especially apt since, for all its symbolic excesses, the play offers a distillation–a muted sense of closure rare in Williams. Lowering her head at the finish, the incandescent Atkins signals an acceptance in Hannah at odds with the typical Williams heroine, who generally concludes one of his plays either deranged or dead.
The moment–and the performance–are as quietly moving as anything on the London stage in years, and they occupy a theatrical realm where words like “sentimental” have long since ceased to apply. In a way the achievement of this production is to make an American observer sad about British ambivalence towards our plays. For the truth of the matter is that when they choose to embrace them, it’s fair to say they do them proud.