Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Another plea for Comedy

Back from New York where I saw several theatre pieces (besides mine). DEAR EVAN HANSEN, which is fabulous because of Ben Platt’s performance and THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN is a serious musical that is extremely well-written with songs from the LA LA LAND guys, and it is packing houses. But expect that to change once Ben Platt leaves the show. Let’s be honest – he’s the whole reason for seeing this. He’s extraordinary. I wouldn’t be shocked if the show closes soon after he leaves in November. And when DEAR EVAN HANSEN tours, probably starring some AMERICAN IDOL finalist or kid from the Disney Channel, good luck.

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG was hilarious. Played strictly for laughs it delivered in a big way. The premise is a British murder mystery where everything that could go wrong does… spectacularly. There’s no redeeming quality, no themes, no exploration of the human condition or commentary on society – it’s just two hours of non-stop laughs. That show too is playing to sold out crowds. And if a cast member leaves (or rendered unconscious by a falling chandelier)  I’m sure they’ll be able to replace him.

There have been some articles lately bemoaning the fact that straight dramatic plays have not been faring well on Broadway. Even Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning plays with remarkable casts are closing early. Meanwhile, THE PLAY GOES WRONG continues to pack ‘em in.

Now you would think the lesson learned here is that people like comedies. And yet, look at the new plays being developed in theatre companies and for the most part they’re dramas, they’re edgy, they’re serious, they’re bleak.

Comedies remain second-class citizens even though that’s what audiences want to see. There is a level of pretension that exists in many theatre companies. Any play that might be considered “commercial” is dismissed. And yet, it is possible to mount a play with serious themes, heartfelt emotion, and still be very funny. An audience can be moved while still having a great time. It's okay for theatergoers to not want to slit their wrists. 

Part of the problem is that young playwrights are not encouraged to pursue comedy. And so instead they turn to television where, in success, they make way more money than even celebrated playwrights. Great for them but a real loss for the theatre.

Again, the comedy writers themselves will do fine. Maybe even better than fine. But meanwhile, back in the “thee-ay-tuh” -- people want to laugh. Especially now. And as a comedy writer myself, there is nothing better than getting a live audience’s reaction. I would hope that theatre companies at least explore the idea that crowd-pleasing comedies are not such a bad thing. Hey, who knows? They might even bring in some money.

19 comments :

Pat Reeder said...

My wife Laura and I were in NYC in August for her debut at the Metropolitan Room, and after that, we stayed a few days to take in some sights. We saw the musical "War Paint" (which she really wanted to see, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was) and "The Play That Goes Wrong." I knew nothing about it, it was just the only thing that looked funny and remotely of interest to me. We managed to get balcony tickets for only about $30 just 90 minutes before showtime.

This time, it was Laura's turn to be pleasantly surprised. We both thought it was absolutely hilarious. I've seen critics complain that it wasn't as good as "Noises Off" because you don't learn about the characters' back stories. But I've seen "Noises Off" several times, and my interest usually wanes about halfway through. "The Play That Goes Wrong" is fall-down hilarious from start to finish. It's like the early Paramount Marx Brothers movies: no extraneous subplots or musical numbers or young lovers, just one joke after another until you're exhausted from laughing. The only problem is that you probably have to see it on Broadway or maybe a national touring company. If you see it in a local production, the timing probably won't be as dead-on, plus there's a good chance that the scenery will kill somebody.

Covarr said...

I think many people, especially in theatre, get wrapped up in this notion of genre adherence, this a comedy they shouldn't have drama in it, and a drama shouldn't have laughs. Maybe they're scared that mixing the two will lead to an inconsistent tone. Maybe it doesn't even occur to them. I make no claims at being a mind reader, but I do know that whatever the reason for it, this notion is ridiculous.

One thing I (and many others) have observed about real life is that comedy is everywhere. A coworker who doesn't realize their necktie is backwards, a barista telling a joke while she makes your coffee, the dumb criminal who shows the gas station attendant his ID... Some level of comedy is inescapable in the real world. And theatre is supposed to be larger than life, right? I would think that means the comedy should be exaggerated too, even in a drama.

If a drama can't make me laugh, chances are pretty good I won't be able to keep up my suspension of disbelief well enough to accept any other feelings it's trying to throw at me. Even STEEL MAGNOLIAS, as dramatic as they come, isn't afraid to throw a couple of guffaws in its first two acts to earn the tears in its third.

There is some truth the other way around, but only a bit. A comedy without drama won't be any more realistic or believable than a drama without comedy. However, by its nature and purpose, it doesn't really need to be. That's why something like THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG can succeed.

Unknown said...

Went to NYC for the first time with my family last year. Being frugal I bought my tickets to an unknown play that wasn’t going to open until we got there. I have two teenage daughters and saw the description that mentioned high school, cool and balcony only $25 ea. We go to the play knowing nothing else and become completely blown away by the leads performance. Like mouth open, wtf, that was intense. My family thinks I’m a genius and the great broadway prognosticator. I’m thinking wow are all broadway plays like this? Can this guy really bring this performance every night? Four more people now ready for more theater, but actors bring it!

Aaron

Glenn said...

I recently did a run of "Moon over Buffalo", Ken Ludwig's (in my opinion) best farce. We almost sold out every night. Meanwhile, the other shows in the season (all dark, edgy, bleak shows) barely hit half capacity. You can't ignore the numbers...these days, audiences want to laugh and enjoy themselves.

WOKcreativeWritings said...

Who wrote "The Play That Goes Wrong"?

Katie said...

You sure do like musicals and make actors.

McTom said...

Interesting. You and Mark Evanier frequently toss props to each others' blogs, and he didn't like "The Play That Goes Wrong". FIGHT!!!

blinky said...

Comedy comes in many forms, and speaking of that... Has Ken Levine seen The Eric Andre show on Hulu? It is the strangest comedy I have ever seen. I admit to laughing harder than I have laughed in years and I wasn't even stoned. And it must be a hit with stoners because: this shit is bananas! It starts with The Ali G Show and mutates to a level of insanity that is indescribable.

thestromboliman said...

WOKcreativeWritings, the play was written and produced by members of the Mischief Theatre Company in London, and the play won the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. I saw it in London and it was hilarious. They also have a play on the West End called "The Comedy About A Bank Robbery," and it too is very funny. My wife and I were fortunate enough to talk to one of the producers in the theater lobby and he said they were hoping to take their production to Broadway and asked us if we thought the play would resonate with American audiences. We couldn't speak for the entire country, but we told him we thought the plays were hilarious. Two hours of escapism with lots of laughs.











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flurb said...

Here in Seattle, a city which has grown wildly in the last thirty years, we've lost theatre attendance like crazy - except for the two musical houses, which are doing all right, even though more than half their productions are only okay. We've lost several professional straight-play houses, with one operating at a fifth of its former power, and at least one other millions of dollars in debt. The still-standing ones have cut weeks off their regular runs; even opening nights are easy to get tickets for. There's a komedy (sic) version of "Pride and Prejudice" running now, and it's doing well, even though it's pretty stupid parody of Austen, so far from its roots it should have been called something else. But at least it's selling a few tickets.

The problem, as you've laid out, Ken, is that Artistic Directors - a lot of them expensively trained and obsessed with seeming intellectual - think comedies are cheap and dispensable, if not contemptible. When they do choose one, it's picked almost deliberately to be the poor cousin in the pack, and assigned a director who hasn't the faintest idea of how to stage it. I've talked to AD's who tell me with desperation in their voices that they "need to find a comedy" for the next season. My reply is: You need to find FOUR, and then you can do two Serious rub-the-audience's-nose-in-the-bleakness-of-existence plays.

I can't speak for New York, which has its own problems, but Art is one of the reasons that regional theatre is largely stone dead. I know it's not-for-profit, but lately it seems it's not for anybody. Theatre doesn't have an audience of millions, but it's still a mass medium: you have to try to leave most of the audience satisfied. You can't please everybody, but at $75 a ticket, you can't just please yourself, or your pals with Master's degrees, or the critics. You have to assume that some of your audience has never seen a play before, because this is America, dammit, and most people haven't, and you have to make them want to come back.

VincentS said...

I know what you mean, Ken. I'm an actor and I went into the Drama Book Shop yesterday to find a new comedic monologue to use for auditions. The women at the information desk - who made my day when after telling her my age range told me I "looked younger" - pulled out three books of monologues from contemporary plays to look at and about 80% of the plays the monologues came from were either dramatic or "seriocomic." The only monologue I found that I thought I might be able to use was a guy who talks about a theater in Germany Hitler used to perform Wagner - yes, it was funny believe it or not.

SwiftPope said...

After a long hiatus I have seen as many plays as I can in the last twelve months. Apart from two excellent comedy classics that played to packed houses (Noises Off and Hay Fever) the remainder were either about sad, dysfunctional families or terminal illness or BOTH. Needless to say none of those plays had full houses. The other thing that struck me was that 90% of the audience was over 60 and the majority of those were women. That should make theatre companies very, very nervous. That demographic is loyal beyond measure but it is a bad omen for theatre companies if that is the demographic keeping your company alive.

Retsibsi said...

For anyone wondering what The Mischief Theatre is like try "Peter Pan Goes Wrong" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNCutxWbpIU

Ellen said...

Here's another plea for you to STFU.

Dorie said...

Ken, have you stopped monitoring blog comments to weed out trolls? I've noticed there's been a definite increase in troll crap lately.

Chris said...

I'll second flurb as another Seattle resident with a twist. A number of years ago I went to an open house that the local theater community threw to try to brainstorm ways to bring in audiences. Probably the most telling aspect of it was that there were only two people in attendance out of a hundred or so people who WEREN'T part of the Seattle theater scene. I was an audience member and the other guy was from a local arts blog. Not good.

Really the biggest takeaway for me was that the most grousing was about how they'd lowered ticket prices and student prices and STILL nobody was coming to see their shows. I really wanted to point out that cheapness doesn't enter into it. I'm not sure about dropping $20 to see a play I've not heard of... but when Avenue Q came through that year and mid-range tickets were $75 a throw, I didn't hesitate. Meanwhile this year, Hamilton is going to come through with cheap seats selling at $500 a throw and it'll sell out because of course it was.

But, no no clearly...

Steve said...

Dramas are like those documentaries you have on your Netflix queue that you plan to get around to watching sometime. Maybe they're very rewarding, if you have the intellectual and emotional energy to watch them, but most people when they sit down in front of the tv or going to a play want something fun and relaxing. I think a lot of people who make their living thinking about Art -- critics and people involved in producing it-- approach it from the point of view of someone who can afford to dump 85% of their emotional energy into a drama without realizing that the rest of us have jobs.

Covarr said...

flurb: The community theatre I'm with, just a few hours from Seattle, does five shows a year. Since I've joined, the general pattern has been a fall musical, a Christmas play (mostly for kids), two comedies, and a drama. In fact, they only recently started doing dramas again; they'd given them up quite some time ago because I guess they used to do a lot of them but the comedies were always more commercially viable (doubly important for a small community theatre without much budget)

Chris: It's interesting you should mention pricing, because I have found that pricing tickets too low can actually scare people away. It's very easy, as a prospective audience member, to think that if a show were worth seeing they would be charging more. Now, I'm not saying every single show should charge in the hundreds, but perhaps instead of charging less, they should be advertising more.

unkystan said...

Walking down Times Square and seeing that the marquee signage for “The Play That Goes Wrong” is upside-down made me want to see it. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had in the theatre.