A theater season of marathon productions
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Confession: I only went to the first fascinating, disturbing episode of Mike Daisey's 29 consecutive monologues, "All the Faces of the Moon," which continue nightly at Joe's Pub in the Public Theater until the next new moon, Oct. 3. I plan to catch the other 28 on the series' podcast. Really, I almost do.
Worse, I haven't gone to any of "The Hill Town Plays," five (yes, five) plays by young writer Lucy Thurber that the Rattlestick Theater is producing simultaneously in five (that's right, five) theaters in Greenwich Village through next Sunday.
In other words, I am trying to get myself into a welcoming mood for this latest challenge to conscientious theatergoing -- multiple trips to the theater in order to appreciate the fullness in an artist's head.
All-day marathons -- "Nicholas Nickleby," "Angels in America" -- can be deeply satisfying. The best of these makes you feel as if you are curling up with a big book on a rainy day. We sit in the same place with the same theatrical vision for hours and hours, taking breaks and returning to the promise of a sense of completion.
But more extraordinary demands are being put on theatergoers this season. On Broadway, we have two risky and enticing sets of two-play repertory offerings from London. Off-Broadway, we are suddenly expected to devote many evenings of a week or weeks of our brief lives (and slim wallets) to a single artist -- to take a sort of stay-cation in that person's imagination. That is a lot to ask and requires quite a bit of faith.
Beginning Oct. 1 at the Labyrinth Theater, Eric Bogosian will perform from a play list of monologues from his new book, "100," which originally were done in his six Off-Broadway shows. I doubt he expects many people to catch all the excerpts from pre-existing shows. But think about it. If he does 10 a night, without repeats, that would be 10 nights of Bogosian's riveting, angry voice bouncing around your brain.
I'm very excited about getting to see all four evenings of Richard Nelson's "The Apple Family Plays: Scenes from Life in the Country" -- at least in theory. Three of the plays have already been performed at the Public Theater through the years, visiting the same family (and the same actors) on significant dates -- the 2010 midterm election, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Obama's re-election night.
The final part, "Regular Singing," opens on Nov. 22, the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination. The tetralogy -- how many of those have we had in this lifetime? -- can be seen for the first time as a whole. Even when the Public offers two-a-day marathon weekends, however, that is an entire weekend with the Apples. Consider the pressure. That is longer than some people spend with their own families.
Coincidentally, Broadway, not accustomed to inviting people to invest in more than one evening at a time, has two major packages of two-play repertory offerings from London.
Mark Rylance, the ridiculously gifted chameleon who wins a Tony Award every time he comes to Manhattan, opens Nov. 10 with alternating performances of "Twelfth Night" and "Richard III," in all-male, more or less historically authentic productions from London's remarkable recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Then on Nov. 24, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart co-star in two genuine modern masterworks -- Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land" and Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."
Don't make me choose. In fact, though, that is exactly what all but the most theater-loving and financially comfortable audiences are going to have to do. What's more, the English are accustomed to the repertory system and enjoy watching actors morph in contrasting plays. But Americans, especially on commercial Broadway, have traditionally been slow to embrace it.
Sean Mathias, director of the Pinter and Beckett evenings, says the pairing of the two plays was "literally serendipitous... . Ian really wanted to do 'Godot,'" he told me in a recent interview, referring to a hit production the team had already done in London. "Patrick really wanted to do 'No Man's Land.' The stars seem to be aligned. The connections, the reverberations between the two plays are astonishing to me. They are very playful and terribly entertaining, but also a huge challenge and thrilling."
Both plays also co-star wonderful American actors, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley, and both productions have very different sets. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, when we can see both plays in a single day, the set contrasts are, as Mathias puts it, "visually very wild."
According to producer Stuart Thompson, ticket buyers have been responding to both plays. He tells me that sales for both are "almost identical" and that "a lot of ticket buyers are choosing to see both."
Of course, they didn't dream they would be competing with another high-profile English repertory attraction. Sonia Friedman, producer of the Rylance Shakespeares, says that coming to Broadway was "sort of a no-brainer" after the plays had a huge success on the West End. "It was not just with the traditional smart theatergoer," she told me by phone from London, "but with young people who don't normally go to Shakespeare."
At the Globe, performances are outdoors, with an up-close intimacy with the audience. "We had to create as close to an authentic experience as we could when we moved inside," she said. "It's a beautiful, simple transformation with audience onstage and very close to the actors and a stage built into the audience. Most of the lighting is candlelight. If you come 15 minutes early, you can hear a traditional Elizabethan band while the actors get dressed onstage. You can watch the men become women."
She says both plays are selling "unbelievably well. We do research every week, and so far, over 60 percent of the audiences are buying both plays," which can also be seen together on Wednesdays and Saturdays. How big a risk is this for a producer known for her high-risk adventures?
"Any play on Broadway is a risk, unless you have a Hollywood movie star and even then ... ," she says, adding, "but I don't think it is high risk, because, in my experience, New York audiences lap up good/great theater with great actors. New Yorkers respond to original and event-type theater."
Event theater seems to be important whenever audiences are asked to stay interested for more than a single evening. Daisey, for example, is unfortunately best known right now as the guy who fudged some of the facts in his 2011 monologue, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." The lies tarnished the truths in this deeply entertaining and horrifying work about the allure of high-tech electronics and the human rights abuses in the manufacturing in Chinese sweatshops.
The 29 new monologues are presented in the course of a lunar month. Daisey looks bigger, bushier, sweatier than ever, but has lost none of his disarming ability to connect the dots between amusing asides and devastating insight.
The episodes wander around many things, including his psyche and his city. The first night, he talked now and then about the "terrible moment" when he first woke up after "trying to kill myself." Without mentioning the specifics of his downfall, he talks about "how deeply I had failed. ... I know I deserve to be a broken vessel; I had done that to myself." But don't expect a shrink session about his depression. Other chapters touch on the death of the magazine industry, or the oral traditions of Dungeons and Dragons.
Of course, the program now says "all stories are fiction," so maybe none of that is how he feels. But as he recently told New York magazine, a massive project is "a very effective technique if you've just had a scandal." For theatergoers right now, he also seems just part of a trend.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described this as Daisey's first New York appearance since "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Also, the program’s disclaimer that “all stories are fiction” was incorrectly described as an insert.