Yesterday Joshua and I went out to attend a couple of plays: we attended an afternoon performance of the musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Lyric Stage Company Of Boston and we attended an evening performance of William Inge’s “Bus Stop” at Huntington Theatre Company.
We had never seen either work performed—and neither of us had seen the film version of “Bus Stop”.
I did not understand the appeal of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. It is not a strong show: the score is weak, the book is weak, the premise unpromising.
The show presents a group of school children, all of whom are very odd in one way or another, participating in a spelling bee supervised by a group of adults, all of whom are also very odd in one way or another. The material, which sports a very nasty edge, cannot settle upon whether to extol these individuals, whether to parody them, or whether to skewer them—so it does a combination of all three, ineptly. It is all fundamentally very unpleasant.
Often the show became positively irritating. My irritation largely arose whenever the authors attempted to display what they believed to pass for sophistication. The authors’ notions of sophistication were not sophisticated in the least, and much of the show fell flat as a pancake.
The songs of the score all sounded alike, and the script seemed borrowed from a bad 1970’s situation comedy. Is there a more untalented composer for the theater than William Finn? And a more untalented writer than Rachel Sheinkin? Both should seek to find more rewarding lines of work.
There’s nothing in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” to sustain an audience’s interest other than the energy and enthusiasm of the performers. Energy and enthusiasm were in abundant supply yesterday afternoon—although I cannot say I observed any genuine talent on the stage—and watching the cast members enjoy themselves was the only pleasure Josh and I were able to find in the performance.
The show was short: one hour and forty-five minutes, without intermission. Nonetheless, we were enormously relieved when we were released from the proceedings. It is very tiring to have to sit through synthetic, manufactured, “forced” entertainment. If a show such as “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” can be a commercial success, which it has proven to be, then the American musical is, indeed, most assuredly dead.
We had a much better time at “Bus Stop”, even though the play was weak and the performance undistinguished.
First, “Bus Stop” had a great stage set, and the stage set was ideal for the audience as well as for the actors: it was great to look at, and provided a great playing space for the cast. In fact, the stage design of Huntington Theatre’s “Bus Stop” was the best stage design Josh and I have encountered in Boston. It was fully worthy of The Guthrie Theater—and I cannot say that of anything else we have encountered in Boston.
Second, the performances in “Bus Stop” were interesting. The performances were not good and the performances were certainly not unified, but the performances were interesting enough for us to enjoy watching the actors go through their maneuvers. Some players overplayed and some players underplayed and some players attempted stylization and some players did not, all of which needed to be overlooked—yet the cast members worked hard trying to bring their characters to life, and we enjoyed watching them trying to bring the material to life.
Their task cannot have been easy. “Bus Stop” is not a good play, and probably does not warrant revival.
Unduly schematic—the plot involves a group of persons trapped overnight at a bus stop in rural Kansas during a snowstorm—and filled with tired, formulaic writing and one-dimensional characters, “Bus Stop” is a pure 1940’s vehicle, out-of-date by a decade before it was even written (the play was created and first produced in the mid-1950’s). One part Tennessee Williams (without the poetry and eloquence of Williams), one part Clifford Odets, and one part pulp-novelist James M. Cain, “Bus Stop” does not genuinely work on any level. It is not particularly entertaining, it is not at all thought-provoking, and it lacks a single spark of originality or flair.
Of perhaps greater significance, Inge’s use of language is exceedingly plain. His characters utter their dishwater-mundane thoughts in dishwater-mundane prose—which has always subjected Inge, with some justification, to the charge that he was the perfect playwright for amateur theater.
“Bus Stop” is a less strong play than “Picnic”, another Inge play that Josh and I attended almost eighteen months ago.
Josh and I were surprised that “Picnic” had been deemed worthy of revival, and out of curiosity we had driven up to Stoneham in April 2009 to attend Stoneham Theatre’s production. “Picnic” is anything but a masterpiece, but “Picnic” is far superior to “Bus Stop”, probably because the female characters in “Picnic” have some degree of individuality (in “Picnic”, Inge had recreated female characters known to him from his childhood).
The characters in “Bus Stop” lack that same small degree of individuality. Moreover, the sense of community that holds “Picnic” together is absent in “Bus Stop”.
I doubt that I shall ever want to see “Bus Stop” again—but I am pleased that I have now seen the play. It is certainly more durable than the God-awful musical we sat through yesterday afternoon.
After the late-afternoon theater performance and prior to the evening theater performance, Josh and I visited a French bistro for a light dinner. One purpose of our visit was to find an interesting restaurant for my parents’ visit in November.
The menu was disappointingly small, and not very imaginative. We settled for mussels, followed by Eggplant Napoleon. We skipped dessert.
The food was barely satisfactory, the prices unduly high, the décor and atmosphere somewhat gloomy.
Unlike General MacArthur, we shall not return.