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A CurtainUp Theater Feature
The Solo Play — Part One
The Solo Play Has Given New Meaning to Greta Garbo's "I Want to Be Alone!"
Part One will continue with Part Two: Theater Pros (actors, playwrights, directors and critics) Talk About the Solo

Some Background
The Solo Play's Appeal
The Solo Play's Growing Prestige
Recent Super Hits
My Full Disclosure Take on the Genre
I Want to be Alone = The phrase uttered by Greta Garbo's Russian ballerina Grusinskaya in Grand Hotel (1932), and long used to describe her early and very private retirement at age 35.

Monologue = A form of dramatic entertainment, comedic solo, or the like by a single speaker.

Monopolylogue = a theatrical entertainment in which the same performer plays several parts or characters.

In the world of the theater the one-man show is perhaps the closest thing to having it all, a supreme test of assurance and ability, of magnetism and charisma. The format is both seductive and frightening; there's no one to play against, to lean on, to share the criticism. But, for an actor, the prize at the end of a successful solo performance in not only applause but also acclaim-unshared. — Enid Nemy, New York Times October 5, 1984)
Hal Holbrook, Julie Harris, Chazz Palminteri, Christopher Plummer, Billy Crystal, Jefferson Mays, Jim Brochu, Anna Deveare Smith. These are just some who've given new meaning to Garbo's famous "I want to be alone" wish. For them and a blossoming of others the program with just one name next to the cast listing is a case of "I want to be alone on stage!" The price of not having any other actors to interact with is offset by being the undisputed star of the enterprise, and not having to share the curtain call applause and critical acclaim.

Some Background
The solo drama as an accepted theatrical genre is an outgrowth of all manner of solo performances dating back to classical Greece. It evolved from the lectures of authors like Charles Dickens and the one-acts during vaudeville's heyday. One of the earliest performers to build a career with monodramas was Ruth Draper (1884 -1956), an American actress who with a chair, shawl and occasional table as her only props, entertained audiences in a half dozen languages worldwide for nearly forty years.

The Solo Play's Appeal
Spurred by rising costs and diminishing budgets, this genre has proliferated with the force of a tsunami. And there's no sign of its abating.

This format's seductive appeal is that it gives unknown actors a platform for strutting their stuff and gain recognition. For established actors it's a chance to have a steady income stream.

Hal Hobrook's Mark Twain solo which he put together from Twain's writings is a case in point. Julie Harris did very well as Emily Dickinson in Belle of Amherst. In her case, the play was written by William Luce for whom it was as much a golden egg laying goose as it was for Harris. In an essay "The Solo Performer" ( Mr. Luce wrote that he didn't set out to become a one-person play specialist. However, having New York Times critic Walter Kerr declare that The Belle of Amherst "functions just as a full-fledged play does" no doubt led to his being commissioned to write plays about Charlotte Brontë, Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, Isak Dinesen and John Barrymore." Even though Julie Harris is no longer with us to reprise it, this season Luce's solo-specialist launching play will have a new life off-Broadway with Joley Richardson.

The increasingly difficult economic reality of putting on a play, not just on Broadway but anywhere, have made one-person plays an attractive proposition for artistic directors dealing with tight budgets. Many of these plays can be mounted with minimal production values, often just a few props. Even when the performer is a big name, a single set is likely to suffice. My favorite character in Andrew Langer's witty novel Ellington Boulevard is Josh, a wannabe actor/director/set designer has metamorphosed into a successful real estate broker who uses his business savvy to take charge of a floundering off-Broadway theater company for which he proposes a season of one-person versions of classic plays to finance a musical. While Langer's story is over-populated, that character would himself be a good bet as the main man in a one-person play adaptation.

The Solo Play's Growing Prestige
Naturally the extraordinary success of some one-person plays has continued to boosted the status of the genre.
I Am My Own Wife won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for dramatist Doug Wright and a Tony for Jefferson Mays who played all of its forty roles. Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing) was a Pulitzer finalist in 2005. Chazz Palminteri became a star when his semi-autobiographical Bronx Tale moved from its modest beginnings Off-Broadway to Broadway and the silver screen.

The list of names at the top of a one-person play's title more and more belongs to a glittery name. While some actors might feel a bit nervours about taking on a role made famous by an iconic actor, this season Joely Richardson is not just stepping into the late Julie Harris's shoes as the latest Belle of Amherst but following in the footsteps of her renowned mother Vanessa Redgrave and her late aunt Lynne Redgrave, both of whom took breaks from multi-character performances to explore the solosphere.

Recent Super Hits
The 2013-14 seasons solo sensation was Jonathan Tolan's Buyer & Cellar. It doesn't feature a superstar actor but spins around superstar and super collector Barbara Streisand's fantastic underground mall of her carefully arranged valuables. The show ran and ran at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, transferred to another downtown venue and will no doubt have a long life elsewhere. As a fictitious struggling actor hired to care-take this unusual collection, Michael Urie though known to fans of TV's Ugly Betty series, became a stage name to be reckoned with and took the show to its Los Angeles premiere. (Tolan's comments on writing for one actor are in Part 2 of this feature)

Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Gril, which has toured in various permutations for years, became a constantly extended Broadway hit when Audra McDonald took on the role of jazz legend Billie Holiday and nabbed her sixth Best Actress Tony. With a trio of musicians to back up the star, this was a case of stretching the genre's parameters.

My Full Disclosure Take on the Genre
In case all this sounds like an accolade for the solo play, a pause for a full disclosure moment. Give me a choice between spending a couple of hours at a play with a cast of at least two or three relatively unknown actors on stage and a solo with a big box office name attached to the title, and I'll pick the one with the cast of more than one. You see, somehow I tend to find it off-putting to have an actor, no matter how famous, break down the fourth wall and enlist me as partner. Granted, My end of it is to be silent except to respond with laughter when called for.

My preference for at least one other actor on stage extends even to solos performed without direct audience address; for example, Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape written in 1958 for the Irish actor Patrick Magee, and initially titled Magee monologue.

But my admitted preference notwithstanding, I'm always ready to be smitten. All it takes is a really unique concept like Buyer & Cellar that's free of the frequently over used plot building devices to change my mind. Some of these mind changers are unanticipated, like the surprisingly winning autobiographical solo musical
The Lion at Manhattan Theatre Club's Second Stage at City Center (Director Sean Daniels's comments on the special working process are in Part 2 under Administrators and Directors) I anticipate some like 700 Sundays to be sure-fire winners since for me having the can-do-no-wrong Billy Crystal on stage is bound to be irresistibly engaging (as his biographical solo indeed was).

Sometimes, the play written for one actor takes on an intriguing newness when interpreted by another thespian. This happened with An Iliad co-authored by Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson. While intended as a vehicle for O'Hare, this epic adaptation of the Greek classic proved that when well-constructed the solo can work as a special kind of two-actor repertory production. Thus, during the play's run at New York Theatre Workshop, O'Hare and Stephen Spinella alternated and theater goers and critics found nothing repetitious about seeing the same play twice but with different solo takes.

Unfortunately, each season also brings some solos that confirm my less than 100% enthusiasm for the one-person theater experience. I don't have to stretch my memory for examples since the 2014 Berkshire summer season included one quite dispiriting example: The Berkshire Theatre Group's world premiere of TV sitcom writer Erik Tarloff's Cedars starring James Naughton turned out to be a case of a really bad play happening to a good actor. All of James Naughton's charm and box office appeal couldn't make Tarloff's narrator interesting or likeable. The direction by Keira Naughton, the actor's daughter, didn't help and neither did the company's artistic director's decision to present it on the Main Stage.

Dancing Lessons another 2014 Berkshire premiere (this one at Barrington Stage) was also economically cast but it was a two-hander. And watching it brought home the enormous difference in the experience of having two actors play off each other. Of course, the fact that the script, direction and the actors were all terrific had a lot to do with this.

Though the actors holding the stage alone are nowadays often supported by more detailed production values, the appeal for all involved remains pretty much unchanged: For an artistic director it's a budget friendly concept. . .for the playwright it's an easier, faster sell than a more populated script. . . for an actor, whether also the author or not, it's a star turn that's as challenging as it is exhilarating.

To Be continued with Part Two: Theater Pros (actors, playwrights, directors and critics) Talk About the Solo

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©Copyright 2014, Elyse Sommer.
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