Is it just me, or are new plays getting shorter? It's a truism that life seems to accelerate with age, so perhaps that explains why on so many occasions lately I've left the theater feeling as if I'd only just walked in. Somehow, though, I suspect that my graying hair and yellowing teeth have nothing to do with it. Maybe it's a by-product of our increasingly hectic pace of life and the performing arts community's ever-decreasing budgets, but the American stage scene seems to be advocating strongly for the "feature-length," 90-minute-maximum play these days over anything long enough to require an intermission.
I'm a firm advocate of conciseness. After all, why should playwrights take three hours to get their message across when they could do it just as elegantly in two, and give their audience enough time to discuss the intricate knots of their latest masterpiece over a pint at a nearby bar? Every now and again, I'll stumble across a compact powerhouse of a play — the kind that ticks like a time bomb, or makes you feel as if you've seen the universe explode before your eyes. Caryl Churchill's A Number, a muscular, 50-minute riff on the theme of genetic engineering, came close to making me feel this way when I experienced Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production at the American Conservatory Theater in 2006.
I can't think of any contemporary playwright, with the possible exception of David Mamet, who can match Churchill's ability to marry economy with dramatic force. Most of the 90-minute-max plays I've experienced in recent years, like the Magic Theatre's production of Rebecca Gilman's The Crowd You're in With and Theatre Rhino's presentation of Carol Lynn Pearson's Facing East, have been skimpy hors d'oeuvres masquerading poorly as three-course meals. Canadian playwright Adam Bock's The Shaker Chair is no exception, though I get the feeling that buried underneath the vaguely activist message, the garbled histrionics of the plot, and the flimsy characters is a play of real substance, dying to burst out of the confines of its 65-minute cage.
Shotgun Players and Encore Theatre Company's new joint production of Bock's contemporary drama is set in the suburban home of a 63-year-old American woman and tells the story of her journey from complacency to action in the face of an environmental disaster (a sewage spill at a nearby pig farm). The play takes as its central symbol an austere piece of furniture: a chair designed by the Shakers, a puritanical sect best known for its hard work, cleanliness, and no-nonsense approach to product design. A simple, high-backed chair occupies center stage in director Tracy Ward's sparsely designed production. The chair, especially in contrast to the only other object on the otherwise bare, white stage — a low-slung, padded armchair upholstered in elegant satin — provides the outlines of an unusual and potentially far-reaching visual metaphor. Inasmuch as it was made in the Shaker tradition, the chair represents bustling activity and unfettered initiative. At the same time, it stands for inactivity — it provides a place to sit and take the weight off your feet. This piece of furniture is at the heart of Bock's exploration of the tension between passivity and activity. Yet the play fails to exploit the fascinating paradox embodied by the chair to the full. It remains the ghost of a symbol, something that sits right before us and yet feels mostly extraneous to the rest of the action.
Many of Bock's previous plays show him to be a master of minimalist dialogue. Characters rarely finish their sentences. Their lines sometimes consist of an "er," "ah," or just a wordless shrug. He leaves the audience to supply the meaning, often to profound effect. But while the obliqueness of the exchanges in a largely plotless play like The Typographer's Dream (which Encore brilliantly mounted in 2005) reveal deep insights into the human condition, the approach backfires in the action-centered denouement of The Shaker Chair. Though Ward and her cast make the ambiguous monosyllables of Bock's staccato prose chime like bells, we quickly find ourselves getting frustrated by the monotonous opacity of exchanges like this:
Dolly: I got an e-mail.
Marion: From whom?
You got an e-mail?
Dolly: From this
Dolly: From this
Dolly: This. This woman
Jean: Blunt. Okay.
As the actors rush on- and offstage breathlessly mouthing the sounds, our impatience mounts. Just tell us who the fucking woman is already and get on with it, we think. It takes almost the entire play before Bock reveals the basics of the storyline, but the suspense is wasted. The denouement unravels most predictably, and we're left wondering why the playwright wasted so much time holding back on the most basic plot details when he could have been exploring the richness of his themes and characters instead.
Bock should be commended for writing a play with several strong parts for older female characters. There's something endearing about the play's protagonist, Marion, sympathetically portrayed by Francis Lee McCain. Her arc from fussy homebody to deep-feeling activist provides the largely spineless play with something of a backbone. But the other characters seem much more simplistic in comparison. Environmental anarchist Jean (played in a butch, strident fashion by Scarlett Hepworth) follows a much more stereotypical course. The same goes for Nancy Shelby's wimpy Dolly, who seems less like a full-blooded person than a self-centered neurotic whose main purpose is to serve as a foil for Jean and Marion's activist leanings.
Beyond Marion, only Heather Basarab's emotional lighting effects seem to go beyond the perfunctory. In one sequence, when all the actors leave the stage, the lights actually perform a narrative function. They take us from the clean white of Marion's living room to the floodlit pig farm, then to the fiery reds of an environmental activist group's 3 a.m. arson attack at the farm, and finally back to Marion's place subdued by darkness in the middle of the night. Theater productions rarely give this much space to their lighting designers, a fact that seems all the more surreal in this wisp of a play. I found myself wishing that Bock had given himself similar permission to develop his dialogue, characters, themes, and ideas.
Rumor has it that a couple of Bock's recent works, The Receptionist and The Thugs, though equally short, are extremely powerful. Both have been exciting critics and audiences in New York. The Thugs, in particular, got theatergoers talking, with its depiction of an unnerving, unknown evil taking place just beyond the fringes of the banal workplace set. I'd like to see those plays someday, not least because their success indicates Bock's ability to craft a really punchy hour-long play.
Even so, I'm wondering if theater companies aren't selling us short by marketing what essentially constitutes half of a program of one-act plays as a full evening's theatrical experience. Brevity isn't always the soul of wit. Perhaps if Encore and Shotgun had presented The Shaker Chair as part of a two-hour offering with The Thugs or The Receptionist, I would have come away feeling that I'd actually been at the theater rather than just poked my head through the door.