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Hey You, Prestige Television Fan: Here's Why You Should See A New Play

Michelle Wilson and Johanna Day star in <em>Sweat</em>, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage.
Joan Marcus
Michelle Wilson and Johanna Day star in Sweat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage.

It's not just Hamilton.

Musicals have always had a built-in advantage as cultural products. Individual songs can translate and build interest via cast albums or Tony telecasts in a way that's very difficult for plays to emulate. A lot of kids grow up on musicals like Grease and Annie -- and, yes, now Hamilton — while early introductions to plays, however great, might make them seem impenetrable or like homework. (I'm looking at you, William Shakespeare, and doing so lovingly.)

Last week, all five top-grossing Broadway shows were musicals; all five "underdogs" were plays. If you've ever been to the TKTS booth in Times Square that sells same-day reduced-price tickets to Broadway productions, you know that the line for plays is much, much shorter than the line for musicals. When people who aren't theater people do take an interest in plays, it's often because they're headed by celebrities known from film or television, which isn't always the ticket to the best possible experience. (For more on the current super crowded Broadway season, please check out this piece from our man on theater, Jeff Lunden.)


And in terms of popular-culture penetration, it's hard to remember the last time a Tony-winning play — at least as a point of reference — reached as many people as recent Tony winners for Best Musical like Hamilton and Fun Home and The Book Of Mormon and Once. It is my suspicion, though it's hard to prove, that musicals are part of many New York tourists' basic New York vacation planning in a way that plays are not — even if they're not toting kids who want to see The Lion King or Aladdin.

But here, I step on a limb and say that this is the right moment for people who don't currently attend plays to rediscover them, whether in New York or at home. Why? Prestige television.

For a long time, most people's day-to-day exposure to comedy and drama came largely in the form of television. (Film, too, but not for nearly as many hours.) And even the best television was made for broadcast, with the limitations that brings with it. It was designed to appeal to a large, moderately engaged audience that needed to be able to miss an episode or two without completely losing track of the show. That's perhaps why the best words we have to describe good and interesting television are borrowed from other forms. We describe it as "cinematic" or even "literary," because those are the words we have often used to connote art that doesn't need to be for everyone at times when television needed to be.

Where there's truth to the idea of a television "golden age" (ask me over a cup of coffee or a whiskey ginger someday), it's in the fact that cable and streaming outlets have allowed shows to flourish when they appeal to more deeply invested but smaller audiences. This is what I have called in the past The Age Of Enthusiasm. It has also encouraged the proliferation of shows that are more idiosyncratic, personal, and experimental than television was before. Now, drama and comedy enthusiasts have daily exposure to stuff that's weird and complicated and formally experimental. They are a good, prepared audience for interesting plays in a way that I, as a teenager in the late 1980s, was not.

Do I sound like someone freshly intoxicated by plays? Guilty as charged. On the recent trip to New York that took me to Groundhog Day, I also managed to squeeze in two plays. The first is Indecent, a Paula Vogel play that's about (follow me here) the staging of another play called God of Vengeance in the 1920s. God of Vengeance, by Sholem Asch, was written in Yiddish and includes a love scene between two women. It led to the arrest of the entire company of the play for obscenity. Indecent tells the story of how the play was written, put on, and challenged, and it tells deeply personal stories of Asch and the other people who were involved in its creation.


The other play I saw was Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, which won the Pulitzer Prize about 24 hours after I saw it. (Dear Broadway plays: I am good luck!) It takes place mostly in a bar in Reading, Penn., in 2000, and it follows several steel mill workers who are coming to grips with automation and other causes of economic insecurity. While there's nothing new about exploring the stresses on blue collar workers in and of itself, Nottage focuses primarily on three women who work at the mill, one of whom is black and two of whom have sons who are young men also working there. So there is more here than an ode to the noble laborer. There are also questions about race and gender and parenting and friendship — and in particular, there is wrangling with the difference between empathizing with anger and absolving people for the ways they act on it. The play argues, it seems to me, that economic and community circumstances are a matter of wider public ethics, but the matter of how the frustrations they create are translated into action still has a personal moral dimension.

Both plays raise exactly the kinds of questions about characterization, social dynamics, ethics, and the like that are raised by the best and most respected television shows of the last 15 years or so. If you like the deep dives into cinematography and form that accompanied shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, you'd be absolutely mesmerized by an effect at the very beginning of Indecent that involves the costumes and that, even though I'd already read about it, made me gasp. Similarly, the entire cast of Indecent is seated on the stage when the audience arrives, which flips the entire experience of going to the theater. Normally, you are there, and the cast has an entrance. With this play, it's the other way around. Why they do this and how it affects the production and resonates against the show's themes are exactly the kinds of questions that people who have spent the last 10 years talking about The Wire have all the experience necessary to talk about — and have learned to love talking about.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to see Michael Urie in Buyer and Cellar, a comedy in which he played Alex, a young man who goes to work in the shopping mall that Barbra Streisand set up in her basement to display her things. (The mall is real! The story of Alex is not.) It's a solo performance, funny and strange and absolutely delightful. That one was in D.C., not on Broadway. I also saw Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan in New York on a different trip — and I wrote about it here.

What I said then, I will say again: There is something in live theater that cannot be duplicated in any other setting. You see sweat, you see spit — not on film, but in the same room as you. You are in a room having an experience that will only ever be fully shared by the people who are in that room with you. As I said when we saw Hamilton, lots of other people saw Hamilton, but only the people in the theater with me that night saw the same Hamilton that I saw. Television and film that you can share over and over, copy over and over, and experience over and over with new company in precisely the same way has its charm. But so does walking out of a room and knowing that the experience is complete; it is ended. You cannot have it back, and you can only wrestle with your imperfect memory of it. At the end of Sweat, which is not a play that overtly appears to be one that would make the actors out of breath, I noticed at the curtain call that one was essentially panting. He had not been during the play. It was tactile and unexpected, like seeing anyone finish a bout of hard work.

You don't have to live in New York to seek out a new play. Yes, geographical advantages are considerable if you happen to be there, or in Chicago, or in another big city. (I just learned — hello, Minnesotans! — that Indecent will be at the Guthrie in Minneapolis during its 2017-18 season). But that's true of musicals, too. When you think of theater, don't just look for a musical or a play you know or a movie actor. Take a deep breath and see a play you've never heard of and know little about, full of people you don't recognize. If you can turn on HBO or Netflix and engage with something unexpected and challenging, something not for everyone, you can do it in a theater, too.

Find a new play. See a new play. Take a friend and go have coffee after. Believe it or not, it's the next logical step after Netflix.

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