Let’s at least stop the dumbing down of theater

“Being current, being responsive to the world we’re living in, is simply good theatre.”

So says Jim Simpson, artistic director of the Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan. Simpson, married to Sigourney Weaver, chooses a lot of provocative and political plays to showcase in his 80-seat venue. Audiences at the Flea have to pay attention — to bring something to the table, as my daughter likes to say — and when the curtain falls, the payoff will be a lot to think and talk about.

So much of what passes for entertainment today is mindless — something like the Republican candidates’ debates — trivial, unreal and easily forgotten. Most movies are marketed to 15- to 24-year-olds, most television is simply distraction and the typical theater production lacks substance, while walking among us are those with hand-held devices that text, Tweet and play games.

Okay, not that there’s anything terribly wrong with any of that, but this dumbing down of our culture leaves little time for anything else. My advice: get out of the rut and look for something that’s a challenge.

For those in the know, the plays of William Shakespeare remain relevant today. And they’re constantly produced more than 400 years after their original performances. So much is in them to be discovered and interpreted — they never grow old. The language may be tough to follow and the meaning sometimes is a mystery, but when you get it, you’ll come back for more.

Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright, considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is best known for “Waiting For Godot,” which he wrote in French. That play, which has been revived several times since its debut in 1953, has been described as one in which nothing happens, yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. Beckett himself, when asked to explain the play, said: “I know no more about the characters than what they say, what they do, and what happens to them … I do not know who Godot is. I do not even know if he exists. And I do not know if they believe he does or doesn’t, those two who are waiting for him.”

If all this is a little too much, let me recommend a new TV series that revolves around the creation of a new Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.

The show is called “Smash,” now into its fourth episode Monday nights on NBC. It’s got a lot more going for it than the typical channel stuff, especially for you theater types. Created by Theresa Rebeck, a playwright and television writer, and produced by Steven Spielberg, the pilot episode was directed by well-known stage director Michael Mayer. The cast has a lot of familiar faces, headed by Anjelica Huston.

Although the critics have been positive, I hear that the all-important ratings have not been dazzling, so you may want to catch it now.

Once again I make a request to the local theater community: if there are any subjects you would like covered or any news about what you’re up to, let me hear from you.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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