TRUE TO ITS name, New Playwrights' Theatre is dedicated to the discovery and development of new writers for the theater, and as its literary manager I read and oversee the reading of some 700-plus scripts a year. On the whole, the job is rewarding, but 700-plus scripts is an awful lot of paper, an awful lot of which is covered with writing that is, well, awful. As my predecessor used to say, "There's a difference between 'new playwrights' and 'would-be playwrights.'"
The said fact about most bad plays is that they are not bad enough to be amusing. They are bad because they are clumsy, unimaginative and boring. They also fall into recognizable categories:
THE UPPER EAST SIDE APARTMENT PLAY: This does not necessarily take place on the Upper East Side. It does take place in a well-furnished apartment inhabited by a sophisticated and bored modern couple. Infidelity hovers in the air for the first act and descends in the second. Conversation is brittle, arch and -- depending on the talent of the writer -- occasionally witty. All of the characters are inhumanely articulate. Most common line: "You know what your problem is Rick?" In its highest form, this play gets done off-Broadway and runs for months, after which the author moves on to write TV sitcoms.
THE IRISH PLAY: This always takes place in Ireland, but the time varies. Most often, it is set prior to the 1916 Easter Rebellion. There is always a spirited young woman who hates the British but who, unlike her revolutionary brother, has a moral sense. There is always an older woman who has lost at least one son. There is always a betrayal, and someone gets shot on stage.
THE SECRET-AND-ROTTEN-HEART-OF-THE-AMERICAN-FAMILY PLAY: This is not intrinsically a category that produces only bad plays: "Death of a Salesman" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" belong in it. In unskilled hands, however, it yields plays of a certain sameness. X, the young protagonist, stands in for the author. He/she has most of the good lines and is the only character with any sensitivity. The Father is a bully and hypocrite. He is also a businessman, thus symbolizing the Failure of Capitalism. The Mother is quiet and ineffectual and weeps a lot. Some times she is crazy. If X is male, he is often a Vietnam vet. The big scene is when he tells off his parents for the rotten things they have done to him. To make the play universal, he will also tell them about the rotten things they have done to the environment, the country, etc.
THE SUDDEN-REVELATION-OF-A-DARK-SECRET PLAY: In these plays, a final curtain surprise is substituted for the story. The surprise is usually something the author thinks of as shocking: "John, the girl you love is really your aunt!" Right after the revelation, whoever has made it stalks off -- sometimes to commit suicide -- and everyone else is left standing in shock as the curtain descends. There are good -- or at least well-respected -- plays on the edge of this category: "The Children's Hour," and, again, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Then there are the classics, those flights of self-delusion that transcend category and leave the reader gaping in stupefaction. In describing these, I must refer to specific scripts, but the names are withheld to protect the guilty.
There was the play about the voodoo king who possessed the body of a hapless visitor to his island. His undoing came at a party when a pop record, which just happened to have the same melody as the secret voodoo tune, was played: he danced out the penthouse window and down 12 stories to the pavement.
There was the play in which a character based on California Gov. Jerry Brown turned into green dust onstage (which, I must admit, made some sort of sense to me...). There was the musical about the discovery of a famous breakfast cereal. And, my personal favorite, a script (also a musical) as thick as the Manhattan yellow pages, about a young woman taking the oral examination for her master's degree.
There are days when, right after reading a script like one of these, I think that there's a nice little comic play to be written about the life of a literary manager. Then I look once more at the failed script in my hand, and I think again.