I’m just back from a 110-mile roundtrip drive to see a play that isn’t any good. I didn’t know in advance that it wasn’t going to be any good — and how could one know that? — but I discovered it almost as soon as it began. Almost nothing in it was believable; the dialogue was uninspired; two of the characters seemed dropped in from another play, largely for easy comic relief; and it isn’t clear whose story this play is, or what’s at stake.
I’ve seen bad plays before. In fact, after seeing hundreds, or perhaps thousands by this point, of plays before, I’ve seen plays far worse than this. I just wish this weren’t a bad play by a gifted playwright whose last play I so thoroughly enjoyed. I wish I weren’t writing about Rest by Samuel D. Hunter.
His last play at South Coast Repertory, The Whale (which I wrote about briefly here), left an indelible impression on me. Its portrayal of a morbidly obese man endlessly apologizing for his existence while trying to leave a legacy for his daughter was shocking in its depth of feeling and its piercing insights into that situation. Moreover, the play was filled with conflict and also with genuine humor that arose from the inner workings of the play. After seeing the play, which has stuck to me like a second skin, I decided that I wanted to see anything and everything by Samuel D. Hunter. Hence the 110-mile drive, through pouring rain and backed up freeways and construction: a three-hour commitment just to get there and back.
Do I wish the play had been better? Absolutely. Did I almost leave during intermission? You bet — I even texted two trusted theatre friends to say I was thinking about it. Instead, I stayed for act two — and thought it was even worse than the lifeless and meandering first act. Everything now seemed so arbitrary: characters in a nursing home that’s going out of business now eat in the main room ostensibly because the dining table suddenly has been packed up. Real reason? Because there’s a single unit set (i.e., one location, so we need to keep everything set in this main room). When the power goes out during a bitter snow storm, the remaining residents sleep in that same room — which is the entry way, with large glass doors and windows, and which would therefore be the coldest room. Why are they all sleeping individually there, with thin blankets, rather than in their rooms with full bedding? Again, it’s an excuse to keep them in that sole location. At another point, two people are theoretically captivated watching some reality TV, while another couple have an earnest heart-to-heart not five feet away. These are just three examples. When the underlying mechanics of a scene don’t work, it’s hard to invest in anything going on with the characters. Judging from both of his plays that I’ve seen, I would speculate that Mr. Hunter is kind-hearted. Based on just this new play, it might be good if he were more tough-minded.
And yet, despite all this, I’m glad this play got produced and I’m glad I went to see it. Why? Because good playwrights need productions. And because we need to support our artists — the playwrights and the actors and the directors, and all the rest of them. I don’t expect every work by anyone — playwright or novelist or musician or painter — to be great. Or even good. As much of an admirer as I am of Harold Pinter’s work, I can’t stand The Lover or No Man’s Land (I saw the latter years ago with Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards in it and even they couldn’t save it). I don’t expect all of Julian Barnes’ novels to be on the level of, say, “The Sense of an Ending,” but I’ll read whatever he writes. In supporting all of the work by an artist I admire, even the bad work, I’m supporting the factory that produces the good work too.
And playwrights need productions. Not just readings and workshops — productions. Plays are a performance vehicle. Until a playscript is produced, it’s just a script, not a play. I don’t begrudge a playwright for a misfire, and I don’t think less of him or her. I’m not even surprised any more. My theory is this: Sometimes you write a good play, and sometimes you don’t. It’s probably the same way with pro athletes — sometimes they’re at the top of their game, and sometimes they aren’t. I didn’t like Paul Auster’s last novel at all, but I’m still looking forward to the next one. Just as I’m looking forward to the next play by Samuel D. Hunter.