This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
The famous last lines of Beckett's Waiting for Godot: "Well, shall we go? Yes, let's go. [They do not move]" have evolved over the years into a familiar catchphrase, but they also have served as a license for playwrights to create static theater--i.e. plays where nothing happens. Dramas used to require death and comedies marriage; now loads of would-be Becketts simply employ clever concepts and reams of dialogue to justify the time spent on stage.
The concept of the new piece Cuttin' Up is a simple and likable one: a loose, oral history of Black America told from the seats of the neighborhood barbershop. This may have worked well for the nonfiction book of the same title (written by Craig Marberry) but simply moving colorful stories into a theater is not enough to make them come alive on stage. Cuttin' Up features a Broadway caliber set, Off-Broadway quality actors, but a community playhouse script. Charles Randolph-Wright's adapted play feels like a revue without music--except for a gag with two dueling ministers trying to out-sing each others' "Hallelujahs."
Little happens as cliché after cliché is lathered on top of stock characters swept up off the cutting room floor of old Wayans Brothers skits: cops with donuts, two-bit hoods with leather suits, a prissy black bourgeoisie couple and (of course) a young hood rat who sports Sean Jean and listens to an iPod.
These caricatures aren't offensive or even unflattering--they're just boring. Randolph-Wright's one attempt to liven up the action is a scene at the start of Act II where the characters insist that barbershops serve as newspapers, informing customers about what's really going on in the world. The actors then improvise on current events. (For example: the fifteen British Solders captured off the coast of Iran.) It's a good enough idea, but the actors--saddled with the weight of so many clichéd lines--can't snap into a genuine bull session and the result is tentative and unconvincing.
Full of bromides and Barbasol, Cuttin' Up may well work its way into theaters around the country. It's unchallenging, nondescript, faux-inspirational, and very easy to stage; but instead of the vibrant jazz of real life exchanges, Cuttin' Up's barbershop banter ultimately sounds like bland background music.
Also featuring lots of talk about dreams, discrimination, and desire is a new play by Michael Elias, titled The Catskill Sonata. Set against the changing vacation patterns of middle class Jews in the late 1950's, the play is a humorous elegy to summers spent in upstate New York. Like Cuttin' Up, Catskill Sonata features a multigenerational assortment of characters sitting around shooting the breeze.
Clearly modeled on Chekhov, The Catskill Sonata's 90 minutes feel like sketches for what could become a full, four-act, American-style Cherry Orchard. The most fully formed character is that of Dave Vaughn, an aging writer who suggests The Seagull's Trigorin--if he wrote for a black-and-white CBS comedy show. The rest of the characters make entrances and exits but rarely make an impression. Despite an accomplished cast, only Kip Gilman (as Vaughn) and Zack Norman (as scruffy businessman) feel entirely connected to their parts.
The production greatly benefits from the light touch of Paul Mazursky. A master director of character-driven films that helped usher in the Hollywood renaissance of the 1970's, Mazursky gives shape to the interactions, sculpting amorphous dialogue into fully realized scenes. He also gracefully handles the script's jarring departure from Chekhovian naturalism into sheer absurdity when Joseph Stalin shows up to dance the Cha-Cha.
Both Catskill Sonata and Cuttin' Up are steeped in nostalgia. Old summer resorts and barbershops are evocative reminders of a time when Jews and Blacks needed sanctuary from explicit American racism. But simply placing people in these interesting settings is not enough. Without complex characters, emotional catharsis, or old fashioned dramatic conflicts, these two new plays--like Beckett's pair of tramps--simply do not move.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.