The Job of Theater
The summer movies are upon us like a runaway speedboat. You and I are about to have our nerve endings blasted to smithereens and pay billions for the privilege. Yet it's easier, I find, to be trampled again by dinosaurs and ravished again by aliens, than to buy one thin theater ticket and watch real live people interact.
That's because theater is work, hard work. It's as rough on the audience as it is on the actors. As movies get more and more amazing, that rift between the ease of watching film and the angst of theater seems to widen. And after years of pondering that sad fact, I'm finally glad for it.
Take last weekend.
At the beginning of each tourist season, every nonKennedy in Massachusetts heads north. Most end up stalled at the Hampton toll booth where we squeeze them into the Seacoast at a dollar per car. It's sort of a revenge tax for those days when the Mass Bay Colony had the gall to impose tariffs on New Hampshire. Many tourists push on through to Maine where our downeast neighbors exact even stiffer duties on their former owners, What goes around...well, you know.
The tourist influx leaves Boston Harbor unprotected. So we make our annual holiday trek southward to frolic in the deserted streets of Beantown. We dance down the food aisles of Fanueille Hall Market, breeze through empty shops and museums and stroll unmugged along the Freedom Trail. It's a lark. Sometimes we get the urge to toss a couple of British Breakfast tea bags in the harbor just to drive the point home. And unless one of the big hotels begs us to lodge in luxury at half price during the deserted weekend, we're back home by dusk.
On a whim this time, we snagged a couple of half price matinee tickets at the theater bubble near the Market. Our first choice was a drop-your-pants-style comedy that the poster called "outrageously funny" but the ticket-seller described as "gossamer thin". He seemed to sneer when he said that, so I asked if he had anything more meaty. Good theater, you will remember, is hard work. He mentioned a revival of Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story" in the North End. We were there in minutes and after pasta to die for at a flowered window booth that opened on Hanover Street, we rolled over to the funky New Neighborhood Playhouse.
The hundred year old brick community center does not stand on ceremony. It looks like a community center, or more so like a plumbers' union, which it also was. The two year renovation and revival of the 175 seat theater there continues under actor-director Frank Annese. After half a lifetime in "showbiz", with 300 TV appearances under his belt, Annese turned his back on the false hopes of Hollywood and returned to his own Boston neighborhood to do some "real" acting.
That day Annese was doing Beckett. As prelude to Albee's one-act "Zoo Story" Beckett was a bitter pill, a grim monologue about a failed elderly man. The main character sat alone in the spotlight drinking wine and listening to a tape he had made of himself 30 years before. This is a play about a man listening to a tape. Krapp (Yes, Beckett really named his character "Krapp") mumbled caustic comments and smashed things on-stage as he listened to his own morose recording. The audience, unfortunately, had to listen to Krapp in stereo. It was an excruciating experience, exactly, I suppose, what Beckett had in mind.
By intermission, I was ready to give up on live theater. It had been raining when we arrived, but from the industrial hallway of the converted plumbers' union, we could see cracks of sunlight reflected in the streets of the North End. The urge to flee was strong. By the time the girl at the makeshift concession stand handed me a canned Pepsi from a Styrofoam container, I was giving up on life in general. The bleakness of Beckett was taking root like a mushroom in my soul.
In contrast, the Albee play was a fresh sea breeze. Sure it's a dark story -- two sad characters in a verbal duel to the death at a dingy spot in Central Park. But the performances were vivid, believable and engaging. The little set was truly New York. Annese was so full of his troubled character that he seemed to write the dialogue as he spoke it. Co-star Will Becze of Cambridge played the perfect mewling counterpart to the depressed intelligent mugger who accosts him in the park. "Zoo Story" ends awfully, thoughtfully, suddenly and perfectly. In minutes we were back in the Italian neighborhood breathing the perfume of gasoline and marsala sauce. In an hour we were safely returned to New Hampshire.
Inch per inch, like restaurants and historic homes, our 18 mile Seacoast has more theaters than it deserves. The balance is out of whack with the population. I can tick off most of the dramatic venues here by rote --Garrison, Mill Pond, Player's Ring, Hackmatack, Hampton and Exeter theaters, Pontine and Generic, Prescott Park and Seacoast Rep, Music Hall and NH Theater Project, Hennessey and Johnson.
Once upon a time I reviewed local plays. Started back when our cherished Theater by the Sea was still run from an old grain warehouse off Ceres Street. The 100-seat site was so cramped that people in the front row had to rest their knees against the stage and the actors would step around them.
I saw my first Albee play there, a kick-butt production of "Tiny Alice." I was moved. When the whole company moved to a kind-of-plush new facility on Bow Street, before it all died away, there were knock down-drag-out philosophical battles over the meaning of "real" theater versus "commercial" theater. There were even more fights about money. Do you sprinkle in a little "Sound of Music" with your "Equus?" Same applies today. Will the audience pay to be challenged, or is it all about slickness and safety? Cash or art? The lady or the tiger? And with each $100 million dollar thrill-a-second movie, does the attention span of the audience grow dimmer?
God, I don't know.
I've seen phantoms swinging from chandeliers and helicopters land on-stage in the finest London theaters. But you expect that for $100 a seat. But making a small serious playhouse pay? With all this in mind, Frank Annese's decision to open his new Boston theater with "Krapp's Last Tape" was driving me nuts. If he wants to lure us from the movies, that's like taking on T-rex with a spit ball. Not that Beckett isn't a heavyweight in his own right, but get real. The Boston Herald called Annese effort a "bold misstep." Other critics were not so kind.
"There's a powerful tone in that piece. No matter how bored or how much you disagree or dislike it," Annese says from his office in the North End. He has kindly taken my phone call. Having trained a thousand acting students, he's still willing to guide one lost member of the audience.
"It's a peculiar piece," he admits. "It is poetic, but it's poetry from the mouth of a drunk, from a man who has lost all feeling."
Annese pauses. I have the uncomfortable sense that he is about to tell me something deeply personal, and then he does.
"Krapp is poetic in a dark way. He wants so much for something to be real in his life. He's a lot like I was -- a pompous arrogant guy."
Annese is referring to his early TV acting days. He struck out to LA to win fame and fortune at the age of 28. He had the best acting teachers, made a couple hundred grand a year and ended up as the heavy on everything from "LA Law" and "Hill Street Blues" to "The A Team" and "Wiseguys." There was a movie with Charles Bronson and three years on "Days of Our Lives."
"I was always the guy who pushed the action," Annese says, waxing nostalgic, then sour. "That's over... It's a mill. Hollywood is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that owns newspapers, theaters...I really tried to learn the Hollywood game, but I was just no good at it. If you didn't win the Oscar, who the hell were you?"
Despite income and offers, some teaching and even scriptwriting, Annese says the "dream" began to fade. His last film "Baywatch The Movie" left him at sea for two weeks with TV star David Hasselhoff.
"I had to really sit down -- it was a dark dark time for me -- and decide who I was." When Annese talks, the darkness rides along the fiber optics and oozes from the my receiver. I think I'm beginning to understand. After "Baywatch" perhaps Beckett isn't so absurd after all.
Back in Boston just two years, the prodigal son has started his little theater company, helped rebuild the New Neighborhood Playhouse, directed and acted in six plays. His "Mouse Trap" at the Wilbur ran eight months and was a financial and critical winner. He's directing "Beyond Therapy" next and is working with Arthur Miller to reprise "View From a Bridge" this fall. It's been hell, he admits, but then theater is hard work.
"The theater the way I approach it, is the last genuine place. You can't even get genuine in relationships any more," he says. "The big problem in Hollywood is that no one even has an idea what the goddam job is."
In theater, he says, the way is clear. He wants to put on good work by good writers. He's grown secure with his gift for "real" acting. He knows people are moved by his performances. He can sense his power from the stage.
"You know the scene where I pull the knife in 'Zoo Story'?", Annese says, and he seems to be reliving the moment. "I love the sound of a hundred people all gasping at the same second. I tried out 40 knives before I got that one right."
From now on, he says, it's an honest day's acting for an honest ticket price. No more TV crap. Just Beckett's Krapp.
"I had to pull that," Annese says with unKrapp-like honesty. "I really came to hate that play. It was a mistake. I was tired, working on the theater. It wasn't the right piece."
But now I'm protesting. It was hell, I admit, but we made it through together, actor and audience. There's a boot camp sort of bond here. We're not just a couple of wimps with tubs of popcorn coming out of "Batman VII."
Man, we did Beckett. I'm thinking of a tattoo that reads, "I Survived Krapp."
Frank Annese picks up the vibe. The playwright's bile has filled us both with adrenaline and a giddy sort of hopefulness.
"In 'Lost World'," he says, "you can get the shit scared out of you. You can go home and that lasts an hour. But here you are -- two weeks later -- still interested, still asking questions about a performance you're still struggling with. People will always be affected by writers who say core things."
The man has a point. I have never felt compelled to call up Spieilberg to know why he serves up dinosaurs, aliens and sharks. I've never called Hasselhoff to discuss "Baywatch."
There's an embarrassing silence over the phone. Actor and audience have nothing much left to say, although the silence speaks volumes. It's like we're waiting for Godot, or something.
J. Dennis Robinson
Photo courtesy of the New Neighborhood Theater, Boston, MA
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