The first season under Jenny Gersten has seen a succession of handsome shows with stunning, even lavish scenic design. So it is tempting to say that the best thing about Touch(ed) (like the earlier Three Hotels) is its sets and lighting.
That would be true, but snarky.
Touch(ed) has more going for it than a gigantic set that rolls away to make room for the final scene. This new play by the promising young writer Bess Wohl opened this week at the smaller Nikos Theatre during the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It is the theatre that has traditionally been the place where the Festival’s new works are debuted. All that changed this year with the arrival of the organization’s new artistic director, Jenny Gersten. She has turned the tables on tradition.
The traditional A Streetcar Named Desire opened on the “experimental” stage while the intimate Three Hotels took the main stage with its gigantic McSets. The Nikos sold out with the radically updated Tennessee Williams classic, while the more contemporary Three Hotels by John Robin Baitz left thousands of seats unsold. For many who treasure the WTF, this seemed to be wrong-headed. But Gersten has a rationale for these moves, and I suspect that the unsaid part of this arrangement is not only key to her quest for new and upcoming writers, directors and actors, but also for those hard to find “new” audiences. We will get to that towards the end of this review and analysis.
So let us dispatch with Touch(ed) which is pretty much a slight work, one still undergoing rewrites and repairs. While called the “East Coast premiere” it has undergone numerous changes between its January 2010 “world premiere” at the Pioneer Theatre Company at the University of Utah, and its “east coast premiere” this week at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Its director in Utah was Charles Morey, while at the WTF it is Trip Cullman. Both Cullman and Wohl have worked in Williamstown before. The problem is that while these performances are being called a premiere, they seem to be using it as more of a workshop process. We are living in an age of negotiation where new works by new authors are often perpetually workshopped.
“Trip and I have worked on this play for a long time together and it’s gone through lots of drafts. I think we came in and thought we had a finished draft and that it wouldn’t really change. In the first week of rehearsal, I completely rewrote the last third of the play. I did a ton of work on it with the actors. They have been hugely helpful in helping us learn what the story is that we want to be telling.” – Bess Wohl in the WTF program
This rewritten scene is the weakest of the play’s six segments, each of which denote the passage of time. It also makes the play seem more like a television show, with each scene break having been inserted where commercials might conveniently be aired. And indeed, it is the sort of quirky, contrived entertainment you get in that commercial medium, though the playwright will tell you she is after denser, deeply character-driven material. To these eyes it was more like a reality show, albeit one with a serious underlying theme of the mentally ill sister Emma (Merritt Wever) being cared for by her sibling Kay (Lisa Joyce). Kay’s boyfriend Billy (Michael Chernus) rounds out the trio on stage.
The reason it can be compared with a tv sitcom is the lack of depth, experience and maturity of the writing. That may well come in time. As noted in the quote above, the plot is not at the core of this work, so it drifts around, especially in the first act, inducing a flood of ennui in most of the audience. When the play opens we see Billy and Kay going through the kitchen utensils to remove those that might be used by the psychotic sister to off herself. In the process we get a flood on inanities as each spatula and gadget gets kept or tossed. Some few in the audience tittered as each item was named, but the reason why escaped me. Perhaps they had seen the play before and knew the inside jokes. But methinks you shouldn’t have to see a play twice to get its humor.Merritt Wever as Emma had the most challenging role as the sister who has suicidal thoughts and withdraws from others by setting up a verbal barrier of non sequiturs, ironic statements and the sort of irreverent and smart-ass answers you receive in text messages, tweets or hear on television today. But Wever managed to make Emma not only interesting, but even sympathetic. As her caring sister Kay, Lisa Joyce had the tougher job on stage, and there was a real problem with either the script or the acting. Perhaps both. Kay’s obsession with Emma did not come across as real caring, but more as a co-dependency in which she was sacrificing everything to watch over her sister.
But in that early first scene, when Billy the boyfriend accidentally cuts his lip with a knife, the punch line from Kay for him not to bleed on the floor because “remember this is a rental,” just falls flat, not one laugh from anyone. Kay’s delivery was the culprit here, being tossed off as just another bored comment rather the zinger it could have been. The line also undermined any illusions the audience may have developed that Kay and Billy actually cared for each other. The normal person’s reaction to their partner being injured would be to stop everything and look at the wound. That is what normal people do. The playwright failed the authenticity test here.
At the top of Act Two here was another relationship failure when Kay returned after a long absence and found Billy, a novelist in the play, at work on his laptop. “Wait,” he says before greeting her, his arm extended in a “stop” position, “I want to finish this thought.” After fussing a bit they then talk and the scene begins. That might happen after a quick grocery run, but not if several months have gone by as in the play. Unless they don’t care that much for each other, which could be the case here. Without a crystal ball, the playwrights intention is unclear.
There was something weird going on with the audience too. Throughout the performance there were only half a dozen times the entire audience actually laughed, or about once every twenty minutes. Even so, there was a constant flow of very quiet giggles and titters that was most puzzling. They came from the younger women in the audience who seemed to be reacting very personally to the slightly embarrassing situations and lightweight witticisms that emanated from the stage. Perhaps they were identifying with the situations on stage, or connecting with the responses the characters had to each other. Without a chance to explore the reasons behind these ripples of response it leaves it open to conjecture.
I think these giggles, gurglings and half suppressed laughs could have been a sign that this play was speaking volumes to the younger women in the audience. (It was almost exclusively the young women who were doing the nervous laughing.)
At the end of the play it was this cadre of younger folk who immediately stood and gave the cast a standing ovation while the other 80% of the audience remained firmly in their seats. Most people were not that amused by this play, didn’t get or appreciate it. About half way through the first act I became aware that there was a whole different theatre dynamic at play here, and that the audience’s response depended largely on which side of a generational and gender gap they lived.
Which brings us to the point of this whole review, which is that this play may be a significant fork in the road as theatre is passed from one generation to the next. Earlier plays by Bess Wohl were seen at Fringe Festivals, so the appearance of Touch(ed) at a mainstream theatre festival is a significant career milestone for her. That the play is not at all ready for prime time is not as important as the fact that WTF has offered her a prestigious venue in which her work can grow and find a larger audience.
However, the older audiences that tend to make up the funders and board members of any theatrical enterprise do not react well to these stumbling early works that appeal largely to those coveted “young” audiences. It is clear that those within a decade of age 25 enjoyed this play the most, but those over 60 were left largely clueless as to its appeal. There were empty seats after the intermission, never a good sign.
When the boards of theatre companies get together after these sorts of new audience initiatives, they complain that they didn’t like it, and generally make it hard to find the money for future works to appeal to the younger demographic. Thus the theatre continues to wrestle with this Catch 22: do plays for young audiences and the supporters will leave in droves, while doing more experimental and quirky works is the best way to capture the younger ticket buyers. Oh, and the young crowd often has far less disposable income for tickets, so these challenging works have to be heavily subsidized.
Meanwhile, Wohl is already being scooped up by Cable TV and Hollywood, which does not require as much from a writer as does live theatre. The “Gossip Girl” team at CW are setting up “The Luxe”, based on the bestselling books by Anna Godberson, at Paramount and have brought in Bess Wohl to pen the screenplay. “The Luxe” tracks four teens set in 19th-century New York and features conflicts between old money and new money, the upper class and lower class, and star-crossed lovers. So whether we like the work of the playwright Wohl may not matter much as she moves on to Hollywood and a different kind of success.
How the WTF decision makers will vote on the success of this particular production is hard to predict. My feeling is that Touch(ed) might have been better suited to an even smaller venue, and less lavish sets. At the ’62 Center there is a third performing space, the Center Stage which is a flexible studio theatre which has not been used by the WTF since Roger Rees left. In the future works that are skewed to younger audiences might be presented there, and veteran theatre-goers would know they are entering unfamiliar territory. If Willliamstown wants to develop a younger following, and to really nurture its enormous rolodex of alumni as the writers and directors of the future, it should carve out a niche especially for that work, and fund it accordingly.
Williamstown Theatre Festival presents Touch(ed) by BessWohl, Directed by Trip Cullman, Andromache Chalfant (Sets), Emily Rebholz (Costumes), David Weiner (Lights), Jill BC DuBoff (Sound), Hannah Cohen ((Production Stage Manager), Jeremiah Thies (Production Manager). Cast: Michael Chernus (Billy), Lisa Joyce (Kay), Merritt Wever (Emma). Two hours plus one fifteen minute intermission. August 3-14, 2011, Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival.