Friday, March 19, 2010

Standing Ovations

"The Subject Was Roses" is playing here in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Form. The play was written in 1964 by Frank Gilroy, won the Pulitzer, was on Broadway where it won a Tony Award for Best Play and was made into a film.This particular mounting was put in motion by it's star, Martin Sheen. Sheen was in the original Broadway production and nominated for  Tony and Jack Albertson won the Tony for his portrayal as the father -- the role Sheen inhabits today. It's a homecoming of sorts for Sheen.

Two things need to be said right off the bat: I'm a huge fan of both the Taper (It's great space and I am rarely disappointing in the productions) and of Martin Sheen. Pound for pound he is one of My favorite actors of all time. Missiles of October, Apocalypse Now, The Execution of Private Slovak, Da, That Championship Season. Those films alone put Sheen in my books as one of our best actors. Then, of course, there's The West Wing. Not just a masterpiece of television drama by Aaron Sorkin, but a brilliant cast lead by Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet. Sheen's President Bartlet spoiled me for any other President in my lifetime. But I digress....

Liz and I always love going to the Taper. We'll usually have dinner and drinks al fresco at the Pinot Grill just outside the Taper doors. We'll saunter in with the other patrons, take our seats and let the play wash over us. All of this we certainly did on this evening. The play was good enough. Just good, not great. Most people probably came to see Martin Sheen live and in person on stage. fair enough. And Sheen was fine. Frances Conroy as the wife and mother was fine. Brian Geraghty (from the Hurt Locker) was obviously green and needed a firmer hand from the director, but serviceable enough considering his relative lack of theatrical chops. The set was fabulous! Later, our ride home would be filled with an intense discussion about why this play was chosen, how we would have addressed some of the problems we saw, etc. You know, the kind of stuff all theatre folk tear apart and chew on when we go see a play. But, all in all, a pleasant enough evening at the theatre. We enjoyed it.

Then the play ended. The applause started and everyone stood up. Not to leave, but to applaud. A standing ovation.

Now I can count on one hand the number of times I have been in the midst and a willing participant in a true heartfelt standing ovation. A performance so enthralling or so fabulously moving no one present would have even known they were rocketed to their feet by some unseen force of the theatre. Antony Sher as Richard III at the RSC in 1984. Kenneth Branagh as Henry V that same year, same place. Ian McKellan in his one-man show Acting Shakespeare at the Westwood Playhouse (now the Gefffen). No question: Standing O. Brilliant, moving, tours de force, passionate, exquisite, nonpareil. Whole theatres on their feet in a flash, knowing they had seen something truly special.

Since then, however, and particularly over the past ten or fifteen years, I've noticed that audiences will bestow a standing O on anything they pay money to see. Liz and I have been the only one's seated at some of the most mediocre plays and performances of the last millennium. We have seen dreadful celebrity performances bring the house down. We have witnessed $100 a seat musicals receive standing ovations, yet not a single tune was whistled fondly on the street afterward. What gives?

Has the sheer price of tickets made us believe that what we are seeing is spectacular? Have we become so enthralled by celebrity that we will always stand for star because he or she is in the movies? Do we just not go to enough theatre to know good from bad? Are our expectations just so low that we are simply amazed that poeple can learn that many lines?

I'm worried. The standing ovation at the Taper could not have been for the performance that evening. It was fine. It wasn't fabulous. It was journeyman work. It wasn't transcendent. The only explanation must be that Martin Sheen is famous. So we should stand for the famous guy. 

I rarely agree with reviews. But for once I agree with a review in the Hollywood Reporter. It is a fair assessment of this production. Some of it is the fault of a dated play that just doesn't mean what it once did. Gilroy's play has become a period piece. Some of the fault should fall at the feet of the director for not doing more to address the play itself and for not guiding a young actor better through the minefield that is live theatre. But most of the fault lies in the clapping hands and standing bodies of audiences that demands nothing more than a nice evening out.

I hope to see a play soon that will force me to my feet without a second thought. Indeed, I long for the rush that fills my head and face as I stand in awe of a massive display of talent and words and collaboration to powerful that my very being is catapulted from my comfort. Until that show comes around, however,I will continue to enjoy my play going with my wife and friends. I will continue to work in and support the theatre and the artists who work in it. I'll just do it from the comfort of my seat.