Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ragtime, God of Carnage, Time Stands Still

Posted by Bruce Miller
On Saturday evening of our recent whirlwind visit to NYC, Hannah and I went to see Ragtime. Since we knew we were going to both matinee and evening performances (and therefore wouldn't be able to stand in the TKTS line until 5:30--two and a half hours after discounted tickets went on sale), we purchased our Ragtime tickets before we left Richmond. We went through www.BroadwayBox.com, and took advantage of their 40% discount.

I know a lot of theatregoers who firmly believe that Ragtime is one of the best musicals ever. I myself love the cast album and the score. But now that I've seen the show, I can say that the show itself is not on my list of favorites.

The story is so epic, the cast of characters so large, and the themes so grand, the show never has time to examine anyone or anything with very much detail. The entire show is painted with very broad strokes, and so I failed to connect on a personal level with anyone.
This despite the fact that at least two of the leading actors were outstanding, in my opinion. Christiane Noll as Mother and Bobby Steggert as Mother's Younger Brother poured their hearts into their roles, finding depths of emotion, in my opinion, that other actors glossed over.

Quentin Earl Darrington in the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (pictured above holding his baby) had an impressive singing voice, but the most honest, deep emotion I saw on his face all evening was when he became overwhelmed by audience appreciation during curtain call. On the night before closings, which this was, audiences are often packed with those who really LOVE the production. They can be very adoring. If I'd been Mr. Darrington, I'd have gotten emotional too. I just wish he'd been able to tap into those simpler, more honest emotions during the play. All his emotions in the play seemed to me to be overly operatic.

But all this is a reflection of my taste more than the show or any particular performance. As I said, many theatre lovers whom I respect think that both Ragtime the show and this particular revival are exemplary. Their opinions are just as valid as mine.
On Sunday, we bought all our tickets on the TKTS line for half price, with a $2.25 per ticket service charge instead of the $7 per ticket service charge that is standard with pre-orders. We saw God of Carnage (pictured above) in the afternoon and Time Stands Still, the new play be Donald Margulies, in the evening.

When I'm in New York, I try to see shows that will add to my overall knowledge of contemporary theatre production, and shows that we may want to produce some day at Barksdale. God of Carnage (currently starring Jimmy Smits, to the right) fits both bills. As a Tony Award Best Play winner, and a four-actor, single set comedy, it's been recommended to me by several Barksdale subscribers who have seen it.

Hannah and I both loved God of Carnage, but there's a catch. There's a scene in the middle of the play in which one of the two women involuntarily commits a major faux pas. I don't want to give anything away. Suffice it to say that her actions are very realistic and graphic, and have the potential of causing quite a stir in a theatre as small as Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn. The scene is very funny, but I worry that in a small house, it could also be very disturbing. I've asked Phil Whiteway to try to catch the show on his next trip to the Big Apple so he can give me an additional perspective.

If you're headed to New York, and you find a very contemporary comedy with a significant amount of vulgar language appealing, then I encourage you to take in God of Carnage and let me know if you think it would make a great Barksdale offering.

Time Stands Still starred Laura Linney, one of my favorite actresses, and was written by Donald Margulies, a contemporary playwright whom I greatly admire. In the last several seasons, we have produced two of his plays, Collected Stories and Brooklyn Boy.

As much as Hannah and I both admired Time Stands Still, I don't think it's a play we'll be producing at Barksdale. The story of two journalists who build their careers and their lives around recording and reporting horrific events that take place around the world is very thought provoking. It is also very intense and fairly dense in it's language and thematic exploration.

There is virtually no comedy or sentimentality to lighten the heavy lifting. In Richmond, I think it would appeal principally to the most serious theatregoers. I would worry that the remaining 60% to 70% of our audience would not choose to take so demanding a journey.

So those are the shows we saw, in a nutshell. Going to Broadway has been in my blood, and in Hannah's blood, since our earliest teens. I can't imagine my life without it.

My strongest hope is that I can take at least a fraction of what I learn on these theatre trips and put it to good use back home, here in Central Virginia. Regional theatres have the great privilege of recreating some of that terrific Broadway experience in their home towns. And Broadway, in turn, benefits from the actors, directors, designers and sometimes even plays and musicals that are "developed" in the regions, before moving upward to larger markets.

I hope you'll continue to support Barksdale as we serve our role in the national theatre scene.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that I find a lot of vulgar language appealing, but it's high on my list of things I want to see.

Bruce Miller said...

Regarding the language, perhaps I should put it this way. God of Carnage contains a significant amount of language which would have caused about 20 to 30 members of the Barksdale audience of two or so seasons ago to walk out mid-show and write me a lot of letters. Once the action heats up, the F-bombs come fast and furious. The language didn't bother me or Hannah at all, but then again colorful language doesn't phase us. We realize that it's a tool the playwright uses to develop characters. These four characters are nothing if not colorful, contemporary, and filled with passion.