Without new voices, stages will just echo the familiar

When the Kennedy Center puts its estimable weight behind a big theater project, the results can have inordinate impact. Consider the importance to culture in this country of staging the late August Wilson’s complete 10-play chronicle of black life in 20th-century America, as the institution did in 2008. Or the value in rolling six of composer Stephen Sondheim’s musicals into a summer repertory, the impressive offering back in 2002, near the start of Michael M. Kaiser’s term as center president.

These heavy lifts fulfill one of the key responsibilities of a multiuse complex that likes to think of itself as a national home court for theater, ballet and music. But a monument to the performing arts should not only present other monuments. In the marquee commitment of resources over the past decade to large-scale retrospectives and handsome revivals — a number of which have been popular and critical successes — the center has allowed another of what should be its core missions to atrophy.

By looking almost relentlessly to the past for the works it chooses to produce under its auspices, the Kennedy Center has neglected substantial chunks of the theatrical future. Only in the area of children’s theater has it dedicated itself in a potent way to the support of that elemental force in art: novelty.

It is certainly true that in a time of economic scarcity, particularly for the arts, even the field’s powerhouses have to pick their spots and conserve. Still, an influential institution can become a bit intoxicated with a certain brand of risk-aversion if it tabulates the donations and box office intake and books the Broadway tours and international festivals but loses track of the need to provide forward thrust for a home-grown art form struggling to chart its trajectory in a new century.

The high points of the past several years in productions originated by the center have typically had a curatorial tilt, from the success of a finely rendered “The Glass Menagerie” (2004) to a rejiggered “Ragtime” (2009) that transferred to Broadway. At times, it has opened its stages to local companies in need of space, such as Synetic Theater and Woolly Mammoth, and at others it has been a haven for old properties that might not be obvious candidates for reconsideration, such as the comedy-drama “Mr. Roberts” (2005) and the musical “Carnival” (2007). It even, in a rare instance, served as funding source and testing ground for a new musical, Sondheim’s troubled “Bounce” (2003), later to be called “Road Show.”

Yet the center has evinced little skill in or appetite for developing the work of contemporary American playwrights, a community of creative minds with almost no hope of seeing its work at the Kennedy Center, unless it happens to show up in the annual page-to-stage play-reading festival, a national tour or as part of the yearly American College Theater Festival. The center’s arm for outreach to original work, the Fund for New American Plays, seems to have withered, and so one wonders: Where in this palatial crossroads for drama is there an opportunity to hear from such exciting playwrights as Tarell Alvin McCraney, Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage, David Lindsay-Abaire or Christopher Shinn?

The 2011-12 theater season is particularly lopsided. You can see where the heaviest emphasis is placed: on touring Broadway musicals — six of ’em!: “Memphis,” “Billy Elliot,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Come Fly Away,” “The Addams Family” and “Les Miserables.” An additional musical, a revival of “Pal Joey,” will be produced by the center. The most intriguing international component is an Australian production of “Uncle Vanya” starring Cate Blanchett, who scored a triumph for the institution with her visiting “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 2009.

The sum total of new American plays on the agenda is a three-day visit of Mabou Mines’ touring “Dollhouse” and a month-long stop by Holland Taylor, portraying Ann Richards in a one-woman show.

This is a pretty bare dramatic cupboard. Where is the native daring? By contrast, look at what that other multifaceted arts institution, Lincoln Center, has exposed theater audiences to over past six months: an ambitious new musical (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”); a sprawling new American play by an old master (John Guare’s “A Free Man of Color”) and a new comedy-drama by a big younger talent (Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities”).

Of these, only Baitz’s bristlingly perceptive family play can be called a success. The other two, judging from the critical response, might even be deemed major misfires. But with novel attempts, there are going to be failures. And failing is something a vibrant center for the arts has to be willing to do. Because it’s a rule for the art of creation: You can’t bat even one-for-three if you don’t show up on game day.

marksp@washpost.com

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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