Reading, Pennsylvania, 1973: No Nixon, No Vietnam War, No Miami Dolphins, Just Madcap Show BizCulture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Shows for Days
The noted playwright Douglas Carter Beane (The Nance, The Little Dog Laughed) got his start in the theater when he drifted into a small community theater in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1973. The first thing the theater people did was put him to work painting the floor of the stage. He did not like painting the floor, but he loved the theater and hung around. That made him fall down an Alice in Wonderland style hole in the ground to the world of community theater and all of its enchanting characters. The delightful Shows for Days at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, in New York, is his valentine to that experience, and to the experience of all the tens of thousands of people who work in community theater, all asking for nothing more than a little applause.
Beane has written a very funny play, deftly directed by Jerry Zaks, about the past that at the same time captures the pretty complex personalities of a half dozen characters. He has also caught a moment in time, in 1973, more than forty years ago, for both Reading and the nation. Oddly enough, there is little history in the play besides that of Reading. There is nothing here about Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War or the Miami Dolphins, who posted the perfect, undefeated football season in 1972.
The program says that the play takes place in Reading in 1973 and in the present, but there is not much of it in the present. There is just one single scene, just a short monologue, that tells you that quaint, pleasant, lovely Reading (I was there for a few days in 1992 and it was charming) of 1973 had by 2011, become the poorest city in America and the city with the highest crime rate. It is way out of place, but a nice reminder that as history unfolds, stories change, and change greatly.
His valentine is just that, a sweet, memory of his first stage, first friends, first lover, first dreams. It was the first time people let him write plays, and told him he was good at it (they joked that he was funnier than Eugene O’Neil. Hey, anybody is funnier than Eugene O’Neill).
Beane, 14 in 1973, saunters into a community theater run by Irene that is just about to go out of business. They have a space in an old building on an old block that wrecking balls are rapidly knocking down (’73 was at the start of the mid-70s recession). Irene has to pull strings to get the local Mayor to give them another building and get an arts council member to hand them a state grant to keep afloat.
The beauty of Shows for Days is that it tells a pretty universal tale of small city and small town theaters. Not terribly interesting plays are put on the schedule to please enough people to break even financially. Funds drives are launched perpetually, men and women who are pillars of the community are recruited for boards, promises are made and promises are broken. This play could have been set anywhere in America.
He finds that he is pretty good at it, though, and keeps writing. He is not good at romance with a young man in the play and the two lovers are found out. Lots of secrets are discovered about everybody.
The community theater moves from place to place, as many do, but the performers never lose sight of their purpose --- to entertain and inspire their audiences.
Beane has drawn memorable characters in the play. His own portrait is that of a good but irresponsible and wide eyed dreamer. Irene is a polished show biz veteran who has lots of success and lots of romance troubles. Her longtime friend Sid is the backbone of the company, eager to do any play Irene wants. Maria is a young, aspiring actress who is ready to take on the world. Clive, a fascinating man, is a homosexual actor/director bon vivant who is a play unto himself. Young Damien, hilarious as Peter Pan, does not know want he wants to do or where he wants to go.
The play is a good one and quite witty, but it has some problems. The second act is much weaker than the first. The interaction between the theater and the community is not explained as carefully as it should be. The playwright should have had more memories about his non-stage life. Except for a scene when we learn that his mom is trying to find him, we know almost nothing about him and should. We should know a LOT more about Reading, Pennsylvania, a lovely city that has gone through hard times.
The acting in the play is superb. The performers are led by the talented, experienced and stellar Patti LuPone as Irene. She is dramatic, funny and the lynchpin whose bold personality holds the play together. Dale Soules is gruff and impressive as Sid and Zoe Winters is a ditzy and loving Maria and Jordan Dean s a rough around the edges actor who seems to be in love with everybody in the theater. Lance Coadie Williams is a revelation as the sashaying Clive in an era when gays in America had to be careful of their relationships with people. Michael Urie, as Beane, is a really good twenty something actor and, uh, tall for a 14 year old kid. Jordan Dean plays Damien, who seems to be in love with everybody in the theater.
Ironically, there is another play, Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, now running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It is the story of contemporary Reading, with its soaring crime rate, sharp unemployment, poverty and the dreadful effects that they had on the residents. In 1973 Shows for Days, the playwright briefly the audience the sad fate of Reading and how the federal government’s NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) sent thousands of jobs out of the country and pretty much closed the mills and killed the textile industry in Reading, shuttering the fabled outlet malls that dotted the city. Sweatis the contemporary story.
It would be nice is some bold theater produced Shows for Days and Sweat together, in repertory, to show the history of Reading from the early 1970s to the present day. Reading was not alone, of course, as a victim of NAFTA. Dozens of cities were hurt, but not as badly.
PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Lincoln Center Theater. Sets: John Lee Beatty, Costumes: William Ivey Long, Lighting: Natasha Katz, Sound: Leon Rothenberg. The play is directed by Jerry Zaks, The play runs through August 23.
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