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Playing at Theater 

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To the editors:

Charley Custer's article, "Look What They've Done to My Play" [December 18], paints a fairly clear picture of the hell that is new play development. It also presents a convincing argument for the reason there is so little dramatic writing of value being done in this country today. We are presented with a writer whose script is seen far more clearly in his mind than ever on the page; a director who seems to believe in allowing his actors to wander about aimlessly in search of their characters (as witness the poor actor from outside the company who was, mercifully, replaced), and who considers the notion of authorial intent idiotic; and a cast who consider the characters they've "found" (i.e., invented out of whole cloth and imagination) more real than the characters as written in the script. With such confusion, how can anything approximating a "work of art" emerge?

Unwittingly, perhaps, it also exposes the underlying flaw of any number of Chicago's various theater ensembles. More than once, Custer refers to the members of the ensemble joining together to avoid the "endless heartbreak of auditioning." In other words, a group of actors who cannot otherwise get jobs join together in order to create their own. This may not be true of all the members, but to assume that it is untrue of any, or indeed many, is naive at best. Custer admits that "in an open casting call, outsiders without the sawdust on their knees will have to not just outperform ensemble members but blow them out of the water to receive a part." As a young playwright, I'll admit quite frankly that this philosophy gives me an advanced case of the heebie-jeebies. What it means is that if a play of mine is being cast by a company such as CAE, the best actor for a role will not necessarily get that part. A very good actor who has not hauled enough wood or painted enough flats may very well lose the role to a mediocre actor who is a member of the company. The result of this philosophy is immediately visible in the wide range of the competence of performance in any one production at a theater such as CAE, the Center Theatre, or the Commons, just to name a few that start with "c." (Nor is an established company, such as Steppenwolf, free from this disorder. I might add that Steppenwolf makes some notoriously bad choices in terms of new play selection--last season's Bang! for example, or the recent Little Egypt. It seems that no one reads these plays in their entirety--the actors merely read their intended parts, and if they are presented with a sufficient number of good individual moments, the play goes up. But I digress.)

In the long run, however, the article is reduced to nothing more than a tempest in a teapot by the fact that Ghost Watch is simply not a very good play. Custer hints at this by selectively quoting Anthony Adler's review of the play, concluding, however, that Adler "enjoyed the show." Adler says he enjoyed the effects, but can one truly enjoy a play in which "the script itself is a confused, chaotic spirit that hasn't the vaguest idea--and may not want to know--what it's about"? There are some interesting ideas in Ghost Watch, ideas Adler sensed and expanded upon, giving the play more credit than it deserves. In this sense, the play that Adler thought about--a play about "male violence as a kind of contagion of the soul that we acquire by breathing in the sickness of generations"--is more interesting than the play he saw.

As written, Ghost Watch is a mess; as staged, it was a misproduced mess. Custer tells us that Richard Engling sold a novel to NAL, so he must be doing something right. My response is that novelists are not necessarily playwrights, and as a play Ghost Watch does little right. The end is telegraphed from the first scene--at least for anybody who has ever seen a horror movie--and not in an inexorable, tragic sense, but merely in a predictable one. The play has less to say about possession than it does about what the movies have already said about possession. The characters are dismal one-note creations, forcing actors to fill them with enormous, yet inexplicable energy, as did Bob Pries in this production, or simply play repeatedly upon that one note, as did Nancy Kresin. (To give Ms. Kresin her due, she was stuck with a character which provided her with no dramatic action to play. As written, Alana is little more than a talking reproductive organ with legs, a camera, and no visible motivation.) Custer praises the work of Mary Derbyshire as Jessi. This only makes me grateful that I was fortunate enough not to see the actor she replaced. This actor, according to Custer, provided no reason for the two men to be in love with her. I spent the entire evening in the theater waiting for Ms. Derbyshire to have her head staved in by a member of the cast--any member--and the notion of an actor bringing even less life to this role fills me with pity and fear. Left with a script that offered little new in the way of plot, theme, language, or character, not to mention playable action, Richard Helweg resorted to the reliable method of keeping the actors in motion, hoping that the act of adjusting their eyes would be sufficient to keep the audience awake. For me, the moment of greatest irony occurred during Paul Dillon's dreadfully jaw-breaking monologue about his dinner with the hawk/werewolf/she-devil executive back home. (Poor Mr. Dillon was saddled with some of the most embarrassing writing of the play, as evidenced by his almost constant pained expression, and this speech was the biggest howler of the evening.) Alana tapes this speech as an audition piece, and throughout I found myself engrossed in trying to make out the image on the video monitor. This, perhaps, is the true message of Ghost Watch: that under the proper circumstances, television can be far more entertaining than theater.

As Charley Custer asserts, the Chicago Actors Ensemble is a coming company. Despite my despair over Ghost Watch, I still await their upcoming production of Medeamaterial. I would recommend, though, that they avoid new plays unless they are willing to choose their material with more care. Ghost Watch is a far less innovative piece than Medeamaterial, Brecht's Duchess of Malfi, or We Won't Pay, their other three offerings this season. And if they do stage another foray into original material, I hope they do so with a stronger view not only to their own needs, but to those of the writer. As for Mr. Custer, he claims to be a friend both to Richard Engling and to members of CAE. To him I would suggest that his friendship would be better served by offering them both clear criticism of their work, somewhat less tainted by personal affection.

John Bliss

N. Wilton

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