This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Hosting the world premiere of a new work is a big deal for a theater. It gives the company a boost of publicity plus lasting bona fides if the play goes on to better things — it also helps the theater attract talent, as top actors and directors like to be able to say they were there first.
All of this factored into what was going to be one of Southern California's biggest world premieres a few seasons back — the Old Globe in San Diego was all set to premiere Kenneth Lonergan's new play starring Matthew Broderick.
Lonergan, as theater fans know, is the playwright behind This Is Our Youth and The Waverly Gallery (which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) who then went on to gain fame in Hollywood with the film You Can Count on Me. Broderick starred in that film and is, well, Matthew Broderick. It all sounded good – but it never happened. Lonergan reportedly couldn't finish the play in time and San Diego lost out. They didn't get the world premiere or Matthew Broderick.
The play, titled The Starry Messenger, finally opened last month in New York and well, Southern California can count itself as lucky. The meandering three-hour drama (about an astronomer going through a midlife crisis) was a mess. Broderick did show up on stage to play the astronomer, but he might have well have been in San Diego. He seemed lost in the stars -- as did the playwright, who created some interesting sketches of characters (especially a student who's addicted to taking night school classes and rigorously critiquing the teachers) but lost sight of any overarching structure or tension.
The Starry Messenger is a perfect example of a talented artist in need of a director or producer or someone in authority who can say, "Here's what's working" and "here's what you need to go back to the drawing board and fix." Unfortunately, there's too few operations with the courage to say "no" to stars these days, and the result is too many new plays that are much more earthbound than they should be.
A similar problem plagues the world premiere production currently running at the Mark Taper Forum. Palestine, New Mexico, the newest theater piece by the troupe Culture Clash has some really interesting ideas, but it feels as if it were rushed to stage without perfecting the material.
Palestine, New Mexico is about a Captain in the US Army (played dutifully by Kirsten Potter) who returns from Afghanistan to deliver a letter written to the father of a fallen soldier. She winds up on a Native American reservation where the tribe turns out to be a wacky mix of Anasazi and Ashkenazi. (Give Culture Clash credit, not even Mel Brooks thought of a menorah-shaped cactus).
Like the troupe's other works, Richard Montoya's script plays fast and loose with history (described as "more than a cable channel") and contemporary politics (the night I went, one of the characters name checked Tiger Woods and the Detroit Underwear Bomber in the same sentence). Its mood is always irreverent and its ideas are usually pregnant (its no coincidence the title is Palestine, New Mexico) but the satire and the substance never comes together. Even though it runs less than 90 minutes, the play drags and feels labored, like a skit from the back half of Saturday Night Live that the writers don't quite know how to wrap up.
The Center Theatre Group commissioned Palestine, New Mexico, and now they've premiered it. Perhaps next they'll take the time to work out the kinks and get it right.
Palestine, New Mexico runs at the Mark Taper Forum through January 24.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Banner image: Craig Schwartz