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A CurtainUp Feature
Notes From a Sidelined Theater Critic
Part Three: The Play Reading Experience

By Elyse Sommer
To read Part One Katie Roche Made Me Do It Katie Roche Made Me Do It, go here ; for Part Two: Lively If Not Live Theater on my IPad--House of Cards via Netflix and Margaret, at HBO go here

Except for Shakespeare and other classic playwrights first encountered in text form in high school and college, I usually like to see a new play without knowing more than what's included in the advance promotional material: Author, director, actors, creative team, running time, and brief description of what it's about.

I do like to read a play script AFTER seeing a play. Theatergoers usually don't have access to reading copies of new plays either immediately before or after seeing a performance. (An exception to this is playwright Charles Mee who has long made all his work available to one and all on his website, But plays do make their way into print either individually or as part of anthologies for post-premiere reading. So play reading isn't an esoteric, exclusive way to have an in-depth look at a play you've seen or hope to see somewhere, some day.

For me playreading has become especially important since that doggoned misstep on th subway put the kabosh on my theatergoing. I was particularly disappointed to be unable to see the new plays by Amy Herzog, Annie Baker and Craig Lucas.

As it turned out, experiencing Herzog's Belleville and Baker's The Flick on the page —make that the electronic page —. but not on stage had its own reward in that it heightened my appreciation of playreading as a free-standing activity that really gets down to the bones of the play and visualizing it with the author's intentions out front.

Instead of considering the text within the context of a particular director and cast's interpretation, reading a play does reveal its ability to qualify as a work of literature that does or doesn't have the potential of a life beyond its premiere presentation. Naturally, playwrights do want their work to be performed. However, if what they write is good enough a careful and attentive reading will enable a reader to "see" and "hear" exactly what the writer envisioned without actually seeing it stage. A post-performance reading has its own value in extending and deepening the viewing experience tests and as a test of whether the director and actors have been true to the playwright's vision or have in fact, as is often the case, enriched it.

Notes On Reading Belleville and The Flick
The press agents for these plays kindly sent me copies of the scripts for each of these plays that Simon Saltzman was reviewing in my place. I therefore read each play about the same time as he was seeing them. This did give me a chance to compare my reaction to reading the script to his reaction to seeing it on stage. Following some notes on these readings. I'm therefore including links to the reviews rather than go into details about plot and characters.

I'm definitely an Amy Herzog fan. She writes entertaining, meaningful plays about intersting people. Her dialogue, like her characters, is real and natural. Both After the Revolution, which I saw first at Williamstown and again at Playwrights Horizon, and 4000 Nukes were moving family dramas.

Though I found her last play The Great God Pan, a bit too schematic to be as satisfying as her previous works it, had enough going for it to keep her on my list of talented, prolific playwrights sure to turn out a fine body of work, maybe a really great play. Herzog is commendably not locking herself into the comfort zone of the family scene she knows first hand. In Belleville she is again venturing into new territory by trying to combine a psychological thriller while still exploring relationships with parents and lovers. What's more she has set her play in new territory, a Paris suburb, for which the play is named. It's a story of two young Americans abroad, courtesy of his job as a research doctor.

It didn't take more than a few page turning clicks on my Kindle to see that this isn't an idyllic situation and that Maria Dizzia'and Greg Keller and director Anne Kauffman have their work cut out to make the Abby and Zack's relationship more than just another story relying on extreme dysfunction to become caught up in the rather predictable tragic finale.

While some passages leaped out from the too carefully plotted text, by the time I came to the "End of Play" I found myself hoping that the staging was indeed strong enough for the production at the New York Theatre Workshop be more riveting and believable to watch than I found it to read. Sure enough, Simon was totally hooked ( Review) which makes this particular play reading experience second best to being there and watching the actors' interaction.

The Flick
Annie Baker, even more than Amy Herzog, has been swamped with praises for the authentic and original voice with which she makes the stories of ordinary people extraordinarily fresh and memorable. As it happens the director most consistently and perfectly attuned to her style is Herzog's husband Sam Gold.

The Flick once again unites Baker and Gold and introduces us to a trio of people who portrayed by anyone else would be viewed as not interesting enough to write about. But this is true blue Baker, a decidedly unglamorous setting (in this case a delapidated movie house still showing non-digital movies), characters working at low-end, go-nowhere jobs (the two male characters are the cleaner-uppers, and the sole female has the more coveted job of working the projection booth.)

While I'm not a cinephobe, Baker drew me right into her story about the trio that manages to lighten the monotony of their routines with highly amusing talk that's not only entertaining but works to unfold a plot that with more Baker-style-talk than action nevertheless is another feather in this sensitive young playwright's work. She does try your patience in the way she outdoes even Pinter with her pauses and reading The Flick instead of watching it but being familiar with her style and knowing that the run time of this play is 3 hours, I realized that theatergoers surely sat through plenty of time without a word said.

For all its impressive detail, Baker and her characters' (especially Avery) somewhat obsessive interest in movie trivia did tempt me to take advantage of being a reader instead of a viewer and occasionally jumping a page or so ahead. Still given Simon's comments about the performances and the staging, I'd consider seeing as well as reading The Flick, the best of all worlds.

Additional Thoughts
To repeat, all plays are ideally seen in performance. Good acting, directing and interesting design work can often make a so-so play worth seeing. But reading a play can be fulfilling and enlightening even when you're unable to see it.

Naturally, a musical is less likely to satisfy as a reading experience than a play. That's why great musicals live on not just via revivals but through recordings and concerts, and the good songs of mediocre ones sometimes live on as part of a songster's cabaret or concert repertoire. You've However, reading the libretto does afford an opportunity to catch every word of the lyrics it's essential to hear the music,

When it comes to revivals of plays that have proved their durability to affirm what made it good to begin with or reacquainted with the most pungent scenes and dialogue. But the reason a play you know is back on the boards is to introduce it to new audiences and to see the current performance and direction. And so, having missed the Roundabout Companys's latest reprise of the first of Lanford Wilson's "Talley" trilogy, I can only hope that Simon Saltzman's wish in his Talley's Folly review comes true: A production of the entire trilogy, with Director Michael Wilson and Danny Burstin and Sarah Paulson on board, and yours truly in the audience.
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