Cool city blues

A Dallas stage critic's troubled fling with New York theater

"How they gonna keep him down on the farm once he's seen Paree?" was roughly the question in some friend's minds when I told them I was going to cram as much theatergoing as I could afford into my eight-day Manhattan vacation. After I arrived--during various conversations in which I told people that I was a theater critic in Dallas--a few reactions were sympathetic, a few smirky, and a few were smirks disguised as sympathy. Surely I'd feast so hungrily at the theater capital of America's smorgasbord that I'd do anything necessary to stay, from peddling lousy hash in Washington Square to cleaning up the empties left by drunk, well-heeled Broadway patrons after intermission was over.

I'd been warned by a friend who was raised around New York City that, as far as keeping the flame of New York cultural provincialism burning, the most obnoxious torchbearers would be non-natives, relatively recent transplants who had a big emotional investment in their move. He was dead-on--there's no fool like the fool who believes he's stopped being a fool simply because he's moved to a cool city.

No doubt about it, New York is a cool city. My maxed-out credit card will attest to that. Running a close second to the expenses for two Chianti-soaked meals a day were the three plastic digits that went toward plays. I have some delicious, irreplaceable memories of what I saw sitting in the dimness behind the footlights of New York. They will mix with the irreplaceable memories of the best productions and performances I've seen in Dallas over the past year. In the cocktail party of my memory, the New Yorkers might attempt to snub the Texans, but the host will sit silently in the corner wearing the smug smile that recently acquired wisdom tends to induce: Good theater happens wherever talented people are determined to make it. But it depends on an audience free of petty outside concerns--like, say, "How hip is my city?"--to be appreciated.

Eschewing spectacles like Chicago and Titanic, I instead chose a one-man show for my Broadway experience--Christopher Plummer as John Barrymore in Barrymore at the fast-deteriorating Music Box Theatre. It was a hilarious, high-pitched impersonation of a high-pitched ego--latter-day screen idol turned Shakespearean hero. Trembling from an advanced state of alcoholism, spewing dirty limericks and the occasional insult at his off-stage prompter, Plummer-as-Barrymore seemed blissfully unaware of the Tony he'd won this year. The pathetic taint was there in spite of the high volume required for delivering his performance in a large theater. I don't imagine I'll ever see self-pity infect the back rows the way the masterful Plummer managed.

Queen Amarantha was my move into smaller, more experimental theater. At least, it was an experiment for playwright-director-actor Charles Busch, whose reputation for elaborate spectacles such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium--drag vehicles for himself as lead actress--had obviously led audiences to expect the easy laughter of camp. Instead, Busch carved himself space to give an impressively un-ironic performance by essentially playing a butch woman, a queen who likes to dress as a man and romance both genders. There was no vamping here, reminding us that the campiest old movies weren't intended to be laughed at. Ticketbuyers spent half the time stifling their guffaws, suggesting that this audience wasn't quite prepared to follow drag where Busch was taking it--out of comic bitterness and back into big-hearted melodrama.

The two biggest disappointments of my trip nosedived from the stratosphere of universal buzz and crashed before me. Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, tucked away in a small theater on a sidestreet near New York University, featured an exquisite portrait of disintegration in the character of Wilde and too much interference by writer-director Moises Kaufman. Right near Chelsea and the West Village, you can see the commercial incentive for Kaufman to shoehorn so much post-Stonewall sensibility into the fall of gaydom's reigning Christ figure, but Wilde, though he advocated decadence as part of his shtick, never suggested it should replace imagination. Kaufman nearly smothers one of English literature's great tragic love stories in post-closet indulgences like scantily clad men and queer-studies cheerleaderism.

Most egregious of all, there was As Bees in Honey Drown, Douglas Carter Beane's comedy about fame and illusion, which has been mentioned by many gossip columnists because of the long parade of Hollywood actresses lusting for the lead. Alex Vere de Vere, charmingly played by the Louise Brooks-wigged J. Cameron Smith, is a Pennsylvania nobody who recreates herself as a fabulous, fast-talking predator of the almost-rich and famous. At the performance I saw, people were laughing and doing impressions of Cameron-Smith before the curtain went up. They fairly busted a seam at every other line she uttered, which led her to modulate her performance into an anticipatory series of reactions, holding an expression for so long, it broke the play's natural rhythm. Then again, the playwright didn't allow much natural rhythm in his script, an inchoate series of amusing vignettes that'll make as flaccid a big-budget Hollywood comedy as it did a night at the theater.

After all this, I was left to try to reconcile my New York theater experiences with what I'd seen in Dallas. In comparison, it doesn't seem Dallas theater lacks talented performers--we're barren of attentive, appreciative audiences. This is partly because mainstream ticketbuyers across the United States rarely consider live theater when they're budgeting their discretionary income (this is true even in New York). But in a city like Dallas, many who might fortify a theatergoing core are too busy loathing themselves and their city to meet the productions here on their own terms: They automatically assume the inferiority of theater in a city that isn't known as a "theater town." This situation doesn't encourage talented artists to continue their journeys here.

The inverse of that is what I'll call the New York hick, a noxious philistine who can't recognize the trendiest, most superficial script even when it marches up to him, shoves a groping hand into his pocket, and collects every last coin of his hard-earned money. Creativity in Dallas is killed from lack of attention; in New York, it's killed by too much. And it doesn't matter whether you're blinded by the "dark cloud" over Dallas culture or the tinsel nimbus around New York--you've still lost the ability to see what's happening in front of you. Meanwhile, there is outrageous, heartbreaking, nourishing theater in both cities that's being ignored for different but equally ridiculous reasons.

The funny thing about theater--still among the most primitive of human expressions--is that it doesn't rely on the technical resources of a nearby industry or coastal location to succeed. The only ingredients needed are talented people willing to work hard and smart and an audience willing to watch with a passionate and intelligent mind. I've seen the talent in both New York and Dallas. But their efforts are burdened by the identity crises of the audiences, who seemed to be paralyzed by dual complexes of superiority and inferiority.

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