In 1920, New York's Theatre Guild asked Bernard Shaw for permission to open his "Heartbreak House" in September.
Shaw refused in a thrifty cable: "Inexorable."
In a letter Shaw explained: "The theater . . . never even knows a presidential election is on until it finds that the public is not paying the slightest attention and won't until the Monday following the first Tuesday in November in a presidential year. So the Guild put off its premiere until Nov. 10 and the public elected Harding.
Sixty years later, "Charlie and Algernon" went from the Kennedy Center to New York in September and flopped -- just as "A Texas Trilogy" had in 1976. There were, to be sure, other reasons for these failings. "Charlie and Algernon" persisted in showing us Charlie in decline when we could imagine it for ourselves and "A Texas Trilogy" had to contend with the ignorance of Gotham critics who haven't a clue about life beyond the Hudson.
Still, election years are no time to lug new works onto New York stages, and cagey David Merrick's "42nd Street," which bowed in late August, is a handy corollary: "I won't open till it's ready," Merrick said, "and if it's not ready before Labor Day, look for it Christmas Eve."
Nonetheless, a few productions have ventured their New York bows. And the critics, poor things, aware that costs and ticket prices are so high that audiences need force-feeding, have scurried for unmerited praise.
"Division Street," greeted by some hosannahs, is a loose, forced piece that runs steadily downhill. It attempts to follow what happened to the passionate protestors of the '60s. Its author is Steve Tesich, who wrote the admirable, well-controlled "Breaking Away." But director Tom Moore attempts to resolve the comedy's increasing improbabilities by treating them as farce. Led by John Lithgow and Theresa Merrit, the cast does its job more resolutely than either the author or director. It's a matter of tone and, imported from the Los Angeles Mark Taper Forum to New York's Ambassador Theater, "Division Street" has not been able to infuse farcical zing into comedic perspective.
"The Suicide" has had a rare history. It is the second and last play by Nikolai Erdman, whom Soviets of the '20s acclaimed as "out new Gogol." Though Meyerhold and Stanislavski gave "The Suicide" an 18-month rehearsal period, the Soviet Central Licensing Board finally turned it down because of its anti-government cracks, which hardly seem all that devastating. Erdman died in silent obscurity in 1970, but his unacted script found its way to the Royal Shakespeare Company last year.
The Broadway production at the ANTA Theater stems from last season's American introduction by Rhode Island's Trinity Square Company. Arena Stage has promised its own production in mid-January and one hopes it will profit by the errors of this Broadway version.
The production of this story about a minion named Senya who ultimately finds life preferable to death is initially arresting yet ultimately defeating. fOne is intrigued by Santo Loquasto's elaborate, three-tiered, multi-directional setting and by the personified passions that inhabit Senya's nightmares. Jonas Jurases, a self-exiled Soviet director, has been marvellously resourceful -- alas, too resourceful. The production buries the play.
When that fine British actor, Derek Jacobi (of TV's "I, Claudius") keeps his balance in a coffin just over the heads of Row A, one thinks not of poor Senya but of the actor and those reckless ticket-holders just below him. There is the usual distracting clash of accents when a mellow British voice is mixed with varying Yankee metals. Were director Jurases inherently attuned to English, he might have profited by cuttin the scripts. One can admire "The Suicide" more easily in theory than in its present performance, elaborate though it be.
Circle in the Square's Broadway effort to face up to Euripides and "The Bacchae" (in a lackluster translation by director Michael Cacoyannis) again seems a case of a second-language director venturing into unfamiliar sounds. Leo Brady once did a stirring version of this play at Catholic University. And where are the glorious, soaring translations of Edith Hamilton?
Evidently distrustful of so many words and so little action, Cacoyannis has blundered by allocating "music by Theodore Antoniou." The result is an errie flash-forward into something like Gregorian chant, but not quite. Instead of hearing the stark, clear torrent of the chorus' words, one is lulled by singsong efforts to dress up their crystalline pruity. This is a terrible idea and the gypsy-like garb of the singsongers doesn't help.
Also distressing is designer John Conklin's concept of the lion's head that Agave carries about in her fury. Since the face looks exactly like that of the actor playing Dionysus -- the son she doesn't know she has killed -- one assumes that Irene Papas as Agave must be blind as a beetle. Nor is the Greek actress at home in English. Only Philip Bosce (as Cadmus) and Paul Perri (the messenger) are impressive in verbalizing this 3,000-year-old story.