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A CurtainUp Book Review
The Play That Changed My Life
America's Foremost playwright on the Plays That Influenced Them

Even before you begin to read the essays and interviews assembled by editor Ben Hodges for the Amercan Theater Wing, the title and subtitle will have you scurrying down your own memory lane. Your first encounter with a play may evoke an image of your being part of a grade school or summer camp. The first play you watched may not have been on Broadway but at a small town or suburban community theater.

While the memory is vague, for me the sense of the theater being a magic place was born when my family was living in Europe and my mother took me to a huge theater (or so it seemed to my 5-year-old self) to see a non-musical Peter Pan. I know all kids dream about being able to fly, but I do believe my flying fantasies were shaped by that play. Whether they were or not, the real sense of magic I can recall was just being in that to-me vast theater and watching the curtain go up. When I took my daughter to see Peter Pan , it was the musical version, but probably her own magical first theater experience, was when she too was five and participated in a summer camp revue singing "I'm a Little Teapot."

Another play geared to young children, Pinochio, while not necessarily life-changing, did warrant a mention by playwrights Jon Robin Baitz and David Ives. Baitz recalls being sufficiently moved when he saw it (again at age 5 which seems to be a popular first show age) to leap out of his seat and to shout out the following white lie: "Don't you eat that boy, my daddy is a cop!" Ives remembers being pretty impressed with a production in which all the characters were played by actors except Pinochio, who was a marionette in a puppeteer's booth . As Ives put it, "Even then I thought that was pretty interesting — this other smaller world sitting there in the middle of a larger empty space. A stage within a stage."

As the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and influential drama teacher Paula Vogel sums it up in her introduction, The Play That Changed My Life "documents desire: the moment writers-to-be were caught in the tantalizing web of theatrical allure."

Ms. Vogel's own A Baltimore Watz, was a seminal experience for Sarah Ruhl, one of the young darlings of the current theater scene. She saw the play when she was ninetten, before Vogel became her teacher. Influential as that play and Vogel's How I Learned to Drive were, Ruhl feels that it was the plays of her childhood that prepared her to absorb the vogel plays' lessons to her as a playwright: "Those childhood plays were at community theater in the suburb where she grew up, and with which her mother, an actress, was actively involved. Standouts she still remembers included Enter Laughing which she feels might have given her" a taste for boulevard humor."

Some of the play memories triggered by the question the book's title posed were in keeping with the contributors' own work. But Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) became hooked on the theater at age 6 when he saw Jumbo, a musical starring Jimmy Durante and a small elephant. It was Albee's A Delicate Balance that got David Ives hooked on a life in the theater. To be specific, a speech about a cat by Hume Cronyn, who starred in the play with his wife Jessica Tandy, that was one of the great moments in Ives' life. And it's Ives account of getting the actors' autograph after the show and his follow-up meeting with them twenty years later, that's my choice for this book's most charming anecdote.

This review coincides with a number of recent works by contributors enriching the 2009-10 theater season. I read the late Horton Foote's reminiscence about his thespian training at the Pasadena Playhouse in the early 1930s just a week after seeing the final installment of his posthumously produced 9-play epic, The Orphans' Home Cycle. Ironically, it was also the week that the closing of the 93-year-old Pasadena institution announced its closing due to financial difficulties. Writing this just two days after seeing David Margulies' Time Stands Still I'm also struck by how it would thrill Broadway producers to see more people taking theatergoing vacations as the Margulies family did — they packed nice clothes and took the subway from Brooklyn to check into a Manhattan hotel, then saw shows for six days running, matinees as well as evenings.

The prolific A.R. Gurney cites the musical Annie Get Your Gun as influencing his understanding of what makes an exciting and well paced theater work, and Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, as a lesson in stage silences. With J. D. Salinger's recent death, Diana Soon's opening statement is especially timely. It seems that much as she loved the novel and short story writer's small oeuvre "Hamlet was to the sixteen-year-old me what The Catcher in the Rye was to everyone else in high school."

If I have a quibble with this book it pertains not to the essays per se but to the omission of young and mid-career playwrights like Tarrell Alvin McCraney, Gina Gionfriddo and Annie Baker. But then there are enough established as well as emerging playwright worth hearing from for another volume.

The Play That Changed My Life
America's Foremost Playwrights on the Plays That Influenced Them
Edited by Ben Hodges
Illustrated. 173 pages.
Applause Theater & Cinema Books
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 2/01/10
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