Live theater is most lifelike entertainment

By Ron Hellman

If you’re a regular reader of this column, as well you should be, then you’re probably a person who enjoys and values theater. For me there’s nothing like it, introduced to the stage by my parents at an early age — “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Brigadoon” come to mind back in the ‘40s.

Movies remain the more popular entertainment when you leave the house, but if you’re not into vampires, zombies, space aliens, superheroes and other fantasies, all rendered in computer-generated images, then there’s not much left except the all-too-rare film for adults.

Theater, on the other hand, is the art form most like life — performed by real people, in real space, in real time.

A few months ago, Alexis Soloski, a critic for the New York Times, lamented how she spent more than a month without seeing a play — after her son was born — when she was usually at the theater four or five nights a week. “A good play,” she wrote, “feels meditative, even therapeutic … it’s the sense of liveness, the thrill of the present tense.”

Take, for example, a play called “Disgraced,” by Ayad Akhtar, the most produced play in recent years in this country, according to American Theatre magazine. It won lots of awards, including the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. After several productions, it made it to Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, where I saw it. But you haven’t seen it in Queens, since our local groups tend to shy away from contemporary works.

The subject of “Disgraced” is Islamophobia and religious faith, set at a dinner table with an ex-Muslim, an African-American, a Jew and a WASP. No, they don’t all walk into a bar, but yes, it’s timely, engrossing and a wonderful theater experience. Maybe you’ll get a chance to see it locally one of these days.

Theater lives on in memory, as I was reminded recently over at the Alley Pond tennis bubble when chatting with Rich Ramirez. We were talking about Laurence Olivier, and The Outrageous Fortune Company’s production of “Orson’s Shadow,” by Austin Pendleton, came up. (Olivier was a character in the play.) That performance was more than 10 years ago, but Rich vividly remembered actor Lindy Roger’s portrayal of Vivian Leigh, how natural she was in the role. That’s another play the locals might like to do.

The essential element of a good play is, of course, the playwright. Many people think they can write a good play — I’ve read a lot of published scripts and a lot have been submitted to me for my opinion — but this skill may be the most difficult of all creative writing. Aside from a compelling story, one has to be able to write dialogue that both sounds natural and advances the plot. Easier said than done. The late August Wilson had this gift, as does such modern playwrights as Martin McDonough and Stephen Adly Guirgis.

Many fine plays are produced Off Broadway, generally with limited runs. Good reviews aren’t enough — a big-name celebrity is needed to sell tickets. So there’s a lot of good material out there waiting to be debuted in Queens, and an audience that will appreciate it. Remember, the play’s the thing.

Reach Ron Hellman at RBHOF[email protected]il.com.

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