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The Wicked Stage takes on D.C.




We at the Wicked Stage have been late in posting the results of our wickedly wonderful trip to Washington, D.C., (beautiful weather and good theater – the happiest of combinations). First up: the musical Parade at Ford’s Theater. So I’ve always wondered why the Vexler theater in San Antonio hasn’t mounted Parade. Jason Robert Brown’s Tony-nominated show from 1998 boasts a lovely score, an okay book (by Alfred Uhry), and a compelling, socially-aware theme: the true story of a Southern Jew unfairly convicted of rape and ultimately lynched by a mob, all in the name of Southern ‘honor.’

But even with a star turn by Euan Morton, Parade comes across as just too didactic, even plodding: in the already-historical space of Ford’s Theater, it actually looked a bit like a diorama. Now, I loves me some educational theater—Brecht, say—but you’ve got to pull it off with flair, and Stephen Rayne’s reverential direction just exacerbated the flaws rather than masked them. So I was happy to head over the next night to the Studio Theater for The Habit of Art, the latest from History Boys scribe Alan Bennett. (As playwrights go, San Antonio has been fairly lucky in our productions of Bennett, with a solid production of The History Boys in the Cellar, and a fantastic production of Talking Heads at Trinity.) The Habit of Art, in its US premiere, strikes me as exactly the sort of thing a master playwright doodles between masterpieces. The set-up: aging poet W. H. Auden and aging composer Benjamin Britten meet for one last (fictional) conversation about—as they put it—their ceaseless habit of art: the will to create art, every day, until they die. (Or until they have writer’s block, which is a sort of metaphorical death.) But there’s a trick up Bennett’s sleeve; it seems that this meeting is actually a play-within-a-play, as the National Theater of Britain struggles to mount a creditable production of this interior play (with the sorts of hijinks you might expect: a temperamental playwright, an overeager junior lead, a frustrated stage manager, etc.). I’m not sure that these two, concurrent plays add up to one great play, but it’s an enjoyable evening: nobody can draw a character like Bennett, and with two pros like Ted van Griethysen and Paxton Whitehead on stage, one can only approve of Bennett’s own habit of art.

Meanwhile, the Woolly Mammoth grabs a hot play from New York—the Obie-winning A Bright New Boise by Samuel D. Hunterand gives it a post-Manhattan premiere. The gist of A Bright New Boise is this: if the Rapture is going to happen anywhere, it will happen in the parking of Hobby Lobby. The truth of that statement might strike others as self-evident, but it hadn’t occurred to me before last Friday. The thesis of the play—as opposed to its plot—is that the Rapture will be happily greeted at a Hobby Lobby because, for those poor blokes working there, the Rapture is actually preferable to Hobby Lobby. The play thus makes a statement concerning class and religion in America.

It’s not a bad statement, and not a bad play; it says something interesting about current trends in America, and John Vreeke’s production is strong. But the actual plot of the play—involving a father and a long-lost son—struck me as a bit too melodramatic: there’s some humor here and there (black, rather than bright), but it’s nevertheless a bleak production of an admittedly bleak topic. I prefer my Rapture-themed plays to be more slapstick.

Speaking of which, at the Shakespeare Theater, there was The Heir Apparent, hot playwright David Ives’ “transladaptation” of a mostly-forgotten French farce by Regnard. First of all: nobody lavishes more attention on a set than the Shakespeare Theater, even when it’s just a single room. (Here, it’s an ornate chamber absolutely loaded to the rafters with valuable bric-a-brac—and padlocks. Seems that the main character is a miser.) While most of the plot is a rip-off from Molière's The Imaginary Invalid, the real star of the evening is Ives’ silly, dizzying script, composed entirely in rhyming couplets. (And just when you thought America couldn’t produce another Richard Wilbur, voila!) Now two hours of couplets is actually sort of exhausting—the evening really can’t stretch its length another minute—but Michael Kahn’s excellent direction generally keeps the farce humming at breakneck speed. I prefer IvesBroadway-bound Venus in Furs, but as an oddity, The Heir Apparent has its charms.

Your man in the White House (well, ok, next door to the White House),

Thomas E. Jenkins, Current theater critic.


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