I recently returned from an absolutely wonderful trip to New York. It was everything I didn’t know I needed it to be.
I confess, I can be somewhat of a jealous artist. I’ll leave a show mostly enjoying it but partially envying the performers, imagining how I could be living in their shoes. However, on this trip, I wasn’t feeling that singe of jealousy. Just pure motivation, inspiration and the power of theatre. Just a little bit of that “how lucky we are to be alive right now” mindset if you catch my drift : ) Even though it was pretty freezing, this January was an amazing time to be seeing theatre in New York. I was telling my mom, seeing the work just, reaffirmed why I do what I do. Why I’m writing about this now to let you know that the magic of theatre is still alive and well.
On my trip I was lucky to see five plays. Bryan Cranston in the Ivo Van Hove directed adaptation of Network, Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano in Sam Shepard’s True West, Elaine May as part of a stellar cast in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and fresh from the West End, Jez Butterworth’s latest, The Ferryman directed by the Sam Mendes. Typically I will make myself go see at least one musical but it just wasn’t in the cards this time. I also enjoyed the absolute treat of watching two plays at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts theatre and film archive. If you’re a theatre nerd and you’ve never done this before, I would strongly encourage you to check it out. I spent the day watching Cherry Jones in the 2014 Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie and the infamous 2005 Broadway production of The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. I wanted to watch The Glass Menagerie because I’ve actually never been able to get through the script on my own and I know it’s an important play in American theatre history. I went in thinking I was watching the recent Sally Fields, Sam Gold directed version and it ended up being Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto. It did not disappoint. The Pillowman I have been hearing about from patrons for years now. People want to know why this play is (with the exception of some smaller, more off the radar productions) rarely done in LA. I didn’t know why. I assumed that the script had either been optioned for film, since it does have somewhat of a theatre cult following or that a larger theatre company had a hold on it. But for years now…why? I read it when I was 19 and the humor and themes went completely over my head. But now that I’m older than 19, and I’m more familiar with McDonagh’s work, I was ready to try and make a better understanding of it. And of course a video of a full scale Broadway production will help with that.
Someone recently asked me to rank the shows I had watched. I told them I didn’t think I could rank them, but that I knew The Ferryman was my favorite. (I could be convinced to write about the other shows I saw…but this is the one I feel theatre-lovers need to know about.)
On my last visit to New York, far too long ago, I also paid a visit to Lincoln Center’s film and theatre archive. For some time, a stage manager friend of mine had been raving about Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. She had mentioned it was the best show she had ever seen. That phrase always peaks my interest, so I set out to read the play, and I set it down after about five pages because I could not understand the language, written in thick Pewsey/country English accents and slang. At the library a few years later, I told the librarian that I wanted to watch the recent Chris O’Dowd (LOVE) and James Franco production of Of Mice and Men, Bryan Cranston in All The Way and Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.
“If you want to watch Jerusalem you’re going to be here all day. It’s over three hours long.”
“But it’s worth it.”
This was a true dilemma for me. I could capitalize on watching two shows in one day, which was very valuable since I didn’t come to New York that often. Or I could see one show…that I was already nervous I might not even understand.
“Ok I’ll do it. I’ll watch Jerusalem.”
And to this day it is one of the best plays I have ever seen. Even from an itty-bitty TV while wearing headphones in a library. The theatre magic transcended the TV set. The plays that I remember forever are the plays that helped me to discover a new feeling foreign to my body, mind or spirit. Jerusalem is one of those plays.
The Ferryman I had been following since its inception at the Royal Court Theatre in London in spring of 2017. Content-wise this is one of the greatest venues in England, if not the world. I had also seen the Broadway premiere of Jez Butterworth’s The River on Broadway a few years earlier, and yes, embarrassing, but my college buddy and I were mostly there to sit in the front row with the hopes of Hugh Jackman’s spit landing on us. The River was still very, very good and well done, but fell just shy of living up to the enormous reputation that Jerusalem had established. One of my great theatre companions and frequent traveler to London, Arianne, had a chance to see The Ferryman at the Royal Court and picked me up a copy of the script from their bookshop. I devoured it immediately. I must admit, I was just a tiny bit nervous. It was a challenge to keep track of the twenty-two characters along with their Irish brogues and on the page, and there was a part that I felt kind of came out of nowhere. Arianne assured me that this part of the play had much more of an onstage presence in the production than I had interpreted. The Ferryman moved from its sold out run at the Royal Court to the West End, and then on to Broadway this past fall. Was the hype true? Could it stand strong next to Jerusalem? I had to see for myself. This show was definitely an instigating factor for my trip to New York.
The day after I landed in New York, I went to go watch The Ferryman with an old NYU actor buddy of mine, Dan. Our seats were excellent. When we left the show, we were both nearly speechless, so much so that we needed to go our own separate ways just to digest it. It took me a few days to process, but the more I thought about what an overwhelmingly gratifying experience I had at the theatre that Thursday night, the more I began to realize how The Ferryman has just about everything you could ever desire in a play. Think of something that you would like to see in a play, and I bet you that it’s in this show. A big cast with pretty even keel playing time where you get to know each character. There’s mystery, there’s romance, there’s humor, there’s kids. Singing. Dancing. City folk vs country folk. Old vs young. The mob. Accents. A taste of a foreign culture. Teenage angst. The 7 year itch. Illness. Politics. Animals. Babies. 80s fashion. Using the past as a vehicle to comment on our present. Tons of suspense. Other things I won’t say just to leave you a little bit of surprise when you see it. Maybe you’re thinking that this sounds like it would be a clusterf&$#, but leave it to Jez Butterworth to tie this cathartic play seamlessly together with his magical bow of playwrighting excellence.
This might sound a little pretentious, but I made this statement out loud to another theatre pal of mine this afternoon, which gave me the confidence to stand by it. Over the past few years I’ve felt a lot of external pressure to let my guard down a little bit as far as the content I create or even just stand by in the theatre. My life’s goal is to raise the standard of LA theatre. In that, I have to be honest, there’s a lot of, let’s just say “not up to standard” work out here. And I’m not talking about low production quality, I’m talking about production value. I have seen shows done at “low production quality” that still had phenomenal production value, and I really hope you have too because that is real theatre magic, where the content transcends the environment. Anyway, it’s hard for me not to notice theatre artists in the community working on any old show or concept just to keep working. Or just running off with a concept they think is on trend. Sometimes I’ll see a show and ask myself, “why?” “Why does this artist care about this?” “Why should I care about this?” Sometimes artists just want to try something that has never been done before, or just something they’ve never done before or use the art as a quick political vehicle. We get excited about an idea and we either put it on stage quickly or we spend time preparing it but the idea still isn’t necessarily complete or honed. I am guilty of this. My colleagues are guilty of this. Huge theatre organizations are guilty of this. Heck, there are even shows that have made it to Broadway that have fallen short, and probably more than the American theatre would like to admit. Everyone has done it; put up a theatre piece just because it seems “cool” but we don’t really know what it means.
Some people (even myself sometimes) might say that I’m too picky, that I could work more if I wasn’t so selective about the theatre that I work on. But once in a blue moon, you catch wind of a truly beautiful piece of theatre that reminds you why you have the standards that you do. That was The Ferryman for me. This show reminded me what a truly complete, and therefore powerful piece of theatre looks like. And that I should stand by my standards, for the sake of my community and my fellow artists that I hope I can inspire. We need more plays where every moment is fully realized and each characters’ stakes are known. Even in a cast of twenty-two characters.
The Ferryman has now been extended on Broadway through July 7, 2019. A new cast including Bryan d’Arcy James as Quinn Carney takes over February 19th. If you can find your way to New York to see it, I would love to continue this conversation about this show with you. Going to go on the record here that I think this will (at least) be nominated for Best Production of a Play this season.