The two-character play is an invention of the 1970s, a response to a high-inflation period that rendered most Broadway plays unprofitable because of mounting costs.
Producing organizations found that significant reductions were the only way to stay afloat—and that dispensing with actors was one ironclad way to control expenditures. The two-character play thrived on Broadway throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, and remains alive today, at least in the U.S.
Without giving the matter much thought, I cannot think of a single two-character play that is fully-satisfying or durable. All two-character plays that come to mind are one-dimensional, commercial vehicles whose roots all-too-clearly may be found in television.
Friday before last, Joshua and I took Josh’s sister, visiting us over Columbus Day Weekend, and my middle brother to Saint Paul to see Park Square Theatre’s production of John Logan’s two-character play, “Red”.
“Red” presents the story of painter Mark Rothko working in the late 1950s on murals for The Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. The only characters onstage are Rothko and his assistant, a young man who wants to become a painter in his own right.
For ninety uninterrupted minutes, Rothko and his assistant work on the murals while discussing the subject of art—as well as Rothko himself.
Rothko was a difficult man who never came to grips with his demons (unless one views suicide as a satisfactory resolution to such matters). Rothko was opinionated, stubborn, coarse, insecure—and mildly violent. He was also passionate about art, a genuine student of the subject, and unafraid to set out on his own course, all admirable qualities.
All this, and more, was portrayed onstage in “Red”. Within its built-in limitations, “Red” succeeded as a modest entertainment. The play was engaging. The role of Rothko was well-written. Numerous conflicts arose between Rothko and his assistant, and they provided the bases for thought-provoking arguments about the nature and purpose of art (as well as the intersection of art and commerce).
At the same time, there was an odor of Art Appreciation 101 emanating from the play’s text. The play’s discussions of art were middlebrow; the audience was treated more to name-dropping than penetrating analysis, and there was not the slightest trace of originality in the play’s dialogue, construction or themes. “Red” was a PBS script that had made a wrong turn, and somehow found its way to the legitimate stage.
Logan is a successful screenwriter of commercial films. “Red” was not Logan’s first play, but it was the first Logan play that generated any enthusiasm among critics and audiences. (“Red” won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play.)
We did not object to “Red”. The play held our attention. It demonstrated some skill and some thought. It was, however, nothing more than another two-character play, with all the constrictions imposed by the genre.
The Park Square Theatre production was quite good. Both actors acquitted themselves with distinction, and the director had found the proper “tone” of the play, which may not have been easy to do.
I would characterize the production as a success.
The play itself, I predict, will disappear.
[Two days after we attended a performance of “Red”, one of Rothko’s Seagram murals on display at Tate Modern in London was defaced by a visitor.]
Christopher Hampton is better known for his translations and adaptations than for his own plays, none of which has managed to maintain a place in the repertory in North America or Britain.
Hampton cites “Tales From Hollywood”, currently in repertory at The Guthrie Theater, as his favorite among all his plays.
A week ago Saturday, Josh and I took Josh’s sister and my sister-in-law to the matinee performance of “Tales From Hollywood”.
For me, this was the most keenly-anticipated production of the year, not only from The Guthrie but from any theater company in town.
“Tales From Hollywood” presents the story of German émigrés living and working in Hollywood after fleeing a Europe about to self-destruct because of its inability to challenge an abject totalitarian monster. Ödön von Horváth, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger are only some of the characters in the play, all shown trying to adapt to life in the movie industry while simultaneously trying to adapt to civilian life in a new and alien land.
This is a great premise for a tantalizing play—but Hampton failed to deliver the goods.
“Tales From Hollywood” premiered in Los Angeles at The Mark Taper Forum in 1982, received bad reviews, and has been little-seen since in the U.S. (The play has never received a Broadway production.)
“Tales From Hollywood” received its London premiere at The National Theatre in 1983, received middling notices, and failed to go on to a commercial run. (The play was revived in London once, in 2001, in a limited run at Donmar Warehouse.)
If name-dropping was one of the main weaknesses of “Red”, it became a fatal avalanche in “Tales From Hollywood”. No major cultural figure from Central Europe of the 1930s went unmentioned—and few major Hollywood figures of the era were left out, either. The play was little more than an exercise in checking names off lists for two hours and forty-five minutes, a good thing as preparation for an appearance on “Jeopardy” but not a good thing for drama.
I would like to make clear that I was not once bored—unlike much of the audience, which clearly was bored to tears—but my absence of boredom was due solely to the fact that I have long been fascinated by every single character portrayed onstage. If I had had no interest in the era, the issues discussed, and the personalities presented, I would have found “Tales From Hollywood” to be the totally incompetent play that it is, near-impossible to endure.
Act I takes place in the years 1938 to 1941, and shows the German émigrés settling into Hollywood. Act II represents the years 1942 to 1950, and shows how dissatisfied and unfulfilled they remain in a land they have never grown to understand and embrace. The end of the play attempts to draw parallels between Hitler’s Germany and incipient McCarthyism—and this final part of the play is by far the weakest and clumsiest.
What went wrong in the playwright’s handling of such failsafe material, seemingly surefire in the hands of even the weakest dramatist?
The first problem is that the dialogue in “Tales From Hollywood” is not good. The dialogue does not flow, it has no rhythm or shape—and of eloquence or poetry there is none.
The second problem is that the playwright did not like or respect his characters. All except Brecht are written as whining fools—and Brecht, given the best lines, is the least attractive figure of the piece, at least in Hampton’s telling. The characters are not written as compelling, admirable figures, which they were in real life. Instead, they are portrayed as feeble, bitter losers, with a gripe always on their lips and a settling of old scores always on their minds. This is especially true of the female characters, all depicted as horrific to greater or lesser degree.
The third problem is that the playwright never decided, conclusively, what kind of play he was writing. For ten minutes at a time, the play becomes—in turn—narrative chronicle, history play, tragedy, comedy and biting social commentary. It never once settles on a sustained tone—and it is the absence of any sustained tone that prevents the audience from submitting to the play.
The fourth problem is that the playwright did not shape the play into a satisfying whole. An aimless, meandering series of random scenes, “Tales From Hollywood” reminded me of an unsuccessful adaptation for the stage of a collection of short stories—a collection that should have remained on the printed page.
“Tales From Hollywood” may be impossible to stage, a veritable director’s nightmare. How can a director find the essence of such a jumbled and incoherent script, and devise a stylish and uniform means of presentation?
The Guthrie director, Ethan McSweeney, brought nothing to the material. The intellectual parts of the play did not come off, the emotional parts of the play did not come off, the funny parts of the play did not come off. Pacing was labored, and the few set pieces of writing, designed to provide climaxes, fell flat.
McSweeney failed to find any tone for the play, some kind of key signature by which all the parts might have come together and “sounded”. The failure of the production was, largely, McSweeney’s failure. I have never seen a more lackluster piece of direction in a major theater—and I am surprised McSweeney was not replaced during the rehearsal period.
The cast was unimpressive, and prone to overacting. The actor assigned the part of Thomas Mann played Mann as a one-dimensional, pompous bore. The actor portraying Brecht was too firmly of the belief that he was the life of the party. The actor in the role of Horvath brought such eager, single-note cynicism to his role, he might as well have been appearing as the jaundiced narrator in the musical, “Grand Hotel”. (In real life, Horvath died in 1938. Horvath’s inclusion in the play was, I thought, a major miscalculation.)
Amid this pile of wreckage, one thing stood out: the stage design.
And the stage designs, costume designs and lighting designs for “Tales From Hollywood” were magnificent. I have seldom seen anything as fine on any stage. “Tales From Hollywood” may have been the single best-designed production I have ever experienced, in the U.S. or Europe, in any theater or opera house.
I may write about the exquisite design of the show in coming days.