The Play’s The Thing: Challenging plays will prove more memorable in the end

By Ronald B. Hellman

It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.

That’s a line you’ll hear toward the end of the first act of “Arcadia,” the wonderful and profound comic mystery by Tom Stoppard, now in revival at the Bernard Jacobs theater on West 45th Street. But you’ll only hear it if you’ve been able to follow all the ins and outs of the complex dialogue set two centuries apart. Mathematics, English landscaping, poetry, Lord Byron and sex, among other things, are all part of the mix.

When The Outrageous Fortune Company produced “Arcadia” at Queens Theatre in the Park 10 years ago, in March 2001, a program note posed the question: “What do we expect from a theater experience?” My response was that, even if not everything is understood and not all questions answered, if the characters and the story interest us, and the human relationships move us, then we have a play worth seeing, as well as talking and thinking about.

So much of what is offered to us on television and in the movies is quickly forgettable, usually incredible and mindless, and far from relevant to our lives. I know that audiences want to be entertained, but I strongly believe that they enjoy a challenge at the same time. That’s why I urge our local theater companies to search for new material, especially contemporary works that have something to say. Why keep doing the same plays and musicals again and again? Isn’t it time to give Neil Simon and Agatha Christie a rest? There’s a large untapped youthful and ethnic audience out there — check out the latest census figures — waiting for a reason to show up.

(When it comes to music, however, I’m out of the loop with today’s pop charts, so it wasn’t surprising that I recently made my way to the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College for “’S Wonderful,” a touring musical featuring more than 40 songs by George & Ira Gershwin. What great music and what great lyrics! Two of my favorites: “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (“Porgy and Bess”), which appeals to my iconoclastic nature, and “Someone to Watch Over Me” (“Oh, Kay!”) for my more sentimental side.)

Judging by the listings in recent years, producers of local theater may be getting somewhat more adventurous, certainly as compared to their Broadway counterparts. The professionals continue to be risk-averse, perhaps understandable with so much money on the line — only about 30 percent of shows cover their investment. And they have to be tourist-friendly, since two-thirds of the tickets go to those big spenders. That’s why there are so many revivals with celebrity names in them.

Musicals like “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys” continue to fill all their seats, grossing well over $1 million a week, without the benefit of well-known stars, and “The Phantom of the Opera” is nearing its 10,000th record-breaking performance. Rights to “Phantom” may now be available locally, along with long-runs “Les Miserables” and “Rent.” Be careful about “Rent,” however: out in the country concern has been raised about the rock show’s content, which includes homosexuality and prostitution. So much for “Seasons of Love,” a Tony Award and a 12-year run.

Getting back to “Arcadia,” see it or read it and you’ll find another telling line about the pursuit of knowledge and what makes us tick.

It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.

Right on, Mr. Stoppard!

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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