We like theater. Three recent variations made us clearly aware of the range. We enjoyed them all, which may make us theater sluts or in kindest terms omni-viewers.
Consider, by proximity:
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, half mile down the hill at the Riverside Theatre Works
- Hound of the Baskerville, half hour to Cambridge at the Central Square Theater
- The Mountaintop, 200 miles to NYC at the Bernard B. Jacobs (Broadway)
I confess here and now that despite terrible accents in one and niggles with all, we had a fine time at each. That surely puts us in the easily amused category. Far worse can be said of many people. Transient happiness lies in real-time enjoyment.
The fundamental difference among the experiences speaks to the range of stage available in cities and smaller places with colleges and artsy types. Here’s a pitch to find out what high-school, college, community and professional theater is within a walk or drive. Much like school sports can be exciting (and affordable), local plays often put you next to the action. Praise the intimate.
I got this Jones in my decade living in Manhattan. Then as now, there was more theater, Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Broadway as well as public and academic, than anyone could possible attend. It was from free to a few dollars to pro-basketball-game-seat cost. Some was wheezing repertory, staged for those who truly need the familiar. Some strained so hard at cleverness, vulgarity or innovation that they were unwatchable. The vast majority please this promiscuous play guy.
So it was here on a spectrum of those three, with professionalism climbing with increased distance and neighborhood density.
Nearly everyone has seen versions of Tennessee Williams’ Cat, likely on stage as well as screen. This was at a long-time, often struggling community theater in Logan Square, which itself has a history of stagecraft back to when this area was part of Dedham. A new managing director seems to bring a greater vitality and higher ambitions, but it still fits the mold.
Most of its repertoire is predictable and some old. That, frankly, suits most theater goers. They don’t want plays that will strain them culturally or intellectually, thank you very much. Like repeatedly visiting the same restaurant and wanting the green bean side to taste exactly how they remembered it, they don’t see theater for adventure, but more for familiarity.
Yet, Cat here was good. Big Daddy and Big Mama actors had lots of credits and the younger major roles like Brick and Maggie were acted by folk who’d been through BU’s drama school. No talentless child of a producer stunk up the stage.
With the Southern heritage in this house, we were distracted by the bad accents. Yankees often don’t get Deep South anymore than Midwesterners can do Revere or Southie sounds. In Cat, though, we found Nora Hassan as Big Mama to most credible here. Regardless, it was good theater. We also sat at a table a few feet from the center of the stage — like a command performance.
Praise the intimate
To Central Square, it is our plug-in replacement for NewRep and very, very different. Back when the Newton Repertory was in a church in the Highlands, we loved the adventuresome choices and staging. An early delight was Moby Dick: An American Opera of a decade ago. It was ambitious and challenging to the actors and audience, memorable theater. We tried to transfer our allegiance with our subscription when this one moved to Watertown. Alas, they are glossy suburban pap now, hiding anything innovative in a wee room downstairs.
We get our main theater fix now on Mass Ave near Brookline Street. They do avant garde, mix in an MIT-pleasing tech one, and have highly experienced Equity actors. Even the Hound was highly updated and played effectively for comedic value.
Here too, there are no bad seats in this small theater. It’s the size of many Off-Off-Broadway ones in NYC. It’s like a Spinners game where you’re practically on the field. Because they mix ‘em up and do stretch, it’s as satisfying as NewRep used to be.
Then down to Broadway, that’s expensive (list maybe $150 instead of around $25 per seat) and it’s big in every sense — production, actors, even theater size. Of course, you can find hackneyed drama and particularly musicals in the three levels of New York theater. However, there are always dozens of innovative productions. Unlike the trial or retread runs cities like Boston get in their wee theater districts, NYC is like London in variety and newness. It’s big business there.
We got into previews of The Mountaintop. It was about 90 minutes of Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett non-stop. The young playwright, Katori Hall, created a fantasy of MLK’s last night alive, replete with a foul-mouthed maid who turned out to be a messenger angel. It more than stretched credulity. We went with the conceit and throughly enjoyed it.
By the bye, the 10/24 New Yorker will have a John Lahr review. He loved the ending oratorical and visual extravaganza that I found the worst part. He called the angel premise “preposterous,” seeming not to understand the nature of fantasy. In this weekend’s NYT, already online, Ben Brantley wanted more end-tying-up. He concluded, “I certainly bought Mr. Jackson’s Dr. King as an ordinary man for much of the play, and I felt a spark of Dr. King-like divinity in his rousing climactic oratory. What I didn’t feel was how one side made the other possible. That would require a fuller, more intricately developed play than Ms. Hall has begun to provide here.”
We must be easier to please. We appreciated Hall’s inventiveness. We applauded that play and the other two — each for what and where it was.
This is to urge you if you have forgotten the joys of theater, get with the program.