Friday, February 12, 2010

Seasons For Sale: An apology to Theatre Memphis' playfinding committee

Posted By on Fri, Feb 12, 2010 at 4:43 PM

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I assume that every review I write, even the positive ones, will result in a few nasty emails. Theater people are a curious breed and many will call you all sorts of terrible things for complimenting their hair when the play was so obviously about their shoes. Still, I had no idea that my one sentence review of Noel Coward's Fallen Angels would set off an avalanche of angry phone calls, ugly emails, and grumpy comments. Most took issue with my style while ignoring the substance of a gimmicky little post which was every bit as complementary as it was caustic.

Here's a link to the original but there's no point in not quoting the whole thing

The cast is ideal, the direction is thoughtful and the costumes are absolutely fabulous but
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what in the hell kind of cleaning products were being freebased when the playfinding committee scheduled this pointless obscurity to appear on Theatre Memphis' Lohrey Stage?

It's sad that I need to break things down like this but for those who can't see the steak for the parsley, this single sentence is what we in the business call a mixed review. Miraculously, its deliberate lack of subtlety doesn't preclude nuance. Many things about the show are obviously quite good and I don't even question the validity of staging such a trifle. I do however question the judgment behind putting this third rate tripe by a first rate wit on the big 'ol Lohrey stage.

Before Playhouse on the Square opened its new state of the art facility in Midtown last week the The Lorhey stage was the Boardwalk and Park Place of theatrical real estate in Memphis. With Hotels even. And it's still Marvin Gardens, at least and there are very good reasons why seasons are chosen by committee rather than fiat. As it turns out I owe Theatre Memphis' playfinding committee a huge, huge apology. Sorry guys. I now know that you had little or nothing to do with picking Fallen Angels. If my grapevine can be trusted—and considering the vast and varried outpouring of juice I'm very sure it can be— this show was presented to them by the powers that be as more of a fact than an option. Here's the back story

In 2008 when Memphis arts patron Dorothy Kirsch was presented with the Eugart Yerian award for lifetime achievement, the highest honor bestowed at Memphis' annual theater awards, she told the assembled crowd that she wanted somebody to produce Fallen Angels. This season she got her wish at Theatre Memphis. Kirsch is listed as the show's primary sponsor and in a recent telephone conversation Theatre Memphis' Executive producer Debbie Litch told me that Angels had been funded above cost, making it difficult for the show to lose money. That's an important consideration in these troubled economic times but I have to wonder if Fallen Angels, which even Noel Coward described as being “extremely slight," could have ever made it onto the main stage if the fix hadn't been in. Perhaps it would have but we'll never really know.

Let me be very clear. Kirsch is a local hero to the arts community and deserves nothing but respect. She has done nothing wrong and I don't begrudge her special love for this silly show. The heart wants what the heart wants. Hey, I've been known to sneak off into a corner and stuff my face full of Vienna sausages (our secret, okay?) but I'd never serve the horrid little weenies at a party. Not the best analogy, but my detractors will at least be able to have fun with the imagery. You're welcome.

To be even more clear I think it's swell that a local arts group was willing to do this show for one of the city's most important arts patrons, even if I question the wisdom of putting it on a main stage. On the other hand Theatre Memphis has a reputation for being clubby to a fault. Fallen Angels is an extremely weak script, and the whole affair has resulted in more than a little self parody. Consider this promotional email that Theatre Memphis dropped in my inbox yesterday:

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See what they did there? Theatre Memphis quoted Dorothy Kirsch of ArtsMemphis' Rants and Raves. Not Dorothy Kirsch, show sponsor or Dorothy Kirsch play finder or even Dorothy Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, all of which would have worked. But instead we're presented with a Gordian knot of conflicted interests made both hilarious and rather sad by her proper identification one line later. People may question my professionalism whenever the language gets colorful but this is the definition of sketchy. It's like letting the mother of the cook review the restaurant.

Theatre Memphis' subscriber base is notoriously blue-haired and this show will probably appeal to the geriatric set. The slim and aged audience that took in last Sunday's matinee seemed to be at least occasionally engaged. But audiences under a certain age may find it difficult to relate to Fallen Angels' particular brand of amorality. And I worry. Even if this show doesn't damage the theater's bottom line, it's not going to do anything to enhance its reputation. It's difficult to account for how many subscriptions won't be sold on a balance sheet.

As is always the case when I say such things I hope to high heavens that I'm wrong.

Was my one sentence review too harsh? That's probably not for me to decide. But an author, whose name eludes me (and Google) at the moment once wrote, “Those who aren't misanthropes by middle age never loved humanity” or words to that effect. I believe that. And I've loved these people and places that I write about and I do still. When I see bad judgment cloaked in even the best intentions I'm not going to cheer. I'm going to—as the kitty says— frow up. Tampering with a thorough play vetting process for the assurance that money won't be lost strikes me as poor decision making on behalf of an organization that has previously made great strides toward renewed artistic relevancy.

And that's all I have to say about that.

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