When it comes to writing bad plays, there are no barriers to entry. It’s an equal opportunity endeavor, and anyone with a laptop, tablet or smart phone can jump right in. An entire playwriting industrial complex with classes and instructors (many former playwright wannabes themselves) is standing by ready to help.
But where the sailing gets a little stiffer, where the company grows more select, is producing bad plays. When it comes to putting a full version of that idea about a singing tea kettle or flying bath tub or three cutthroat real estate saleswomen in front of a live audience, rarely does a bad play get the nod. In theory.
In theory, there is a gatekeeper function in place at theatres to protect audience members from bad plays. Gatekeepers are the performing arts equivalent of a bomb squad, and they fan out daily in flak jackets and helmets to poke and prod that stack of newly arrived envelopes or PDF’s down at the literary department. Are the contents friend or foe? Artistic directors and the higher ups watch through binoculars, safely outside of blast range, as staff and volunteers undertake this potentially lethal first encounter with a new play. If the experience proves survivable, the script may move up the feeding chain. If something blows up, the play gets filed.
Unfortunately, not all clear and present dangers are detected early enough in the process. Plays get passed around, they get a reading, they gain a certain momentum. They become interesting or desirable to theatres because of subjects they address (whether or not they effectively dramatize said subject) or demographics they tap. In short, obvious problems get missed. And then the next thing you know, holy mother of jaysus, there they are up on stage. And there you are sitting in the audience wondering why why why this play was ever selected for production.
Such is the case with THE COMPARABLES by Laura Schellhardt at Seattle Rep.
But even if the filtering/selection step breaks down at a theatre and a decision is made to do a bad play, all is not lost. Yes, the defenses of the outer wall have been breached and barbarians are spilling pell mell toward the audience’s green zone. There is, however, still one more sizeable weapon in the defense arsenal waiting to be rolled out.
After gatekeeping (or the lack thereof), there’s another separate, key role in the theatre ecosystem to defend against bad plays, and this one can ride onto the stage cavalry-like at the very last minute (how dramatic) and save the audience’s bacon.
Introducing: the clear-eyed reviewer. If the play is bad, that usually means a bad review (meaning well written but rendering negative judgement) will issue forth.
Critical, hard-hitting reviewers are essential. They are the snipers of the theatre. Stowed away in trees or up on rooftops, a critical reviewer sees what apparently no one on the artistic staff of a theatre does: that we have a bad play on our hands here. With meticulous and careful rat tat tat analysis, the reviewer points out all the flaws and issues that should have been caught far upstream and shares these with the potential audience wondering whether this is how they want to spend their time and money. In the nick of time, the reviewer shouts “INCOMING!”. Audience members paying attention simply step to one side and skip the play. No harm no foul.
Now ideally we’d all like to live in a world where there are only good new plays and good reviews. But when a bad play does hit the stage, it’s nice to kick the tires of the critical reviewing apparatus and make sure it still works.
And in Seattle, it most definitely does.
The good news about the lacklustre new play THE COMPARABLES at Seattle Rep? An almost uniform stream of bad reviews has issued forth. Why is that good news? It lets you know reviewers are on the job.
Good reviewers work for the audience. They are not boosters bestowing five gold stars on every show, crowing about “the wonderful conversation!” a play engenders. Their job is not to summarize in dumbed-down synopses under bold-faced headers what the “Line of the Night” or “Take-away” or “Significant performance” was – as the new regime of puffball, geriatric non reviews at The Oregonian does.
Reviewers are supposed to engage with the play, have an opinion, and warn the audience if what’s on offer simply isn’t worth much. As is the case here.
Next time, maybe a good new play will get in the hopper. We saw how crazy successful good plays at Seattle Rep can be last December, when Robert Schenkkan’s massive LBJ duo basically took over the jet city for a month.
If it were easy to write great new plays, everyone would be doing it.
But even if a bad play somehow finds its way to the stage, the critical function of good reviewing can save the audience from stepping on a land mine.
Well done, Seattle critics. Even the little old Queen Anne News weighs in with a level of frankness and focus you would never in a million years see in the Oregonian!
3.12.2015 Seattle Times: “If the point of Schellhardt’s misfiring satire is that women can be as rotten and unethical in the pursuit of corporate power as men can be … Well, hey. Tell us something we didn’t already know.”
3.20.2015 Queen Anne News “The problem with this play is the play itself: The script fails… Its tired satire is riddled with clichés and boring sound bites… I did perk up near the end, thanks to the knock-down, hair-pulling, screaming catfight between Monica and Iris. But even that couldn’t redeem the mediocrity of the evening.”
“RIDICULOUS SCRIPT!!!!! Not a play I will recommend to anyone.” Audience member feedback on Seattle Rep site.