It is hard to believe that "The Cripple of Inishman" was written only a few years ago by a contemporary Irish playwright, Martin McDonough. The play, which has just opened the Geffen's new season looks, feels and sounds like something Lennox Robinson or Lady Gregory might have dashed off for the Abbey Theater in the early part of the century. It not only is rooted in rustic, begorah Irish culture but reveals all the makeshift qualities of play-construction that we associate with that earlier, more primitive period.
Jonathan Tolins' first play, "Twilight of the Golds," caused a strong tremor when it was produced at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1993. A science-fictional comedy, it bounced off the provocative theory that sexual orientation could be biologically determined by analyzing the DNA of the fetus, and dealt with the terror of a New York Jewish family faced with the prospect that they were shortly to become the parents of a "bent" son.
"The Merchant of Venice" is 400 years old. The play was first entered on the register of the Stationer's Company in July 1598, along with a proviso that it shouldn't be published till the Lord Chamberlain gave his consent. And that didn't happen until 1600. It may be of some small comfort to know that, even in Shakespeare's day, artists and managers had to shear their way through red tape.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, with front-runners such as T.S. Eliot, Christopher Fry and Archibald Macleish, there was a concerted effort to revive language in the American theater. The buzzword was "heightened speech" and, although all of these writers essentially wrote verse, producers tried to steer clear of the word "poetry." They sensed that American theatergoers would recoil from any attempts to have anything as exotic as that foisted upon them. Just as, at around the same period, when they were risking capital on shows like "The Most Happy Fella" and the early works of Gian Carlo Menotti, they avoided the word "opera." Music-drama seemed a safer rubric.
Between about 1910 and 1939, no one in the theater made a move without consulting George Jean Nathan. In the midst of scriveners, hacks and stringers, Nathan was the real thing: an erudite theater critic with more than 20 books to his credit, a fabled association with H.L. Mencken behind him (they co-edited "the Smart Set") and a range of European-bred tastes that gave him a sophistication that few of his colleagues could rival. He not only promoted the early Eugene O'Neill, but was a close friend of the playwright's and his staunchest champion. He elucidated G.B. Shaw for the masses and created the appetite that eventually established Sean O'Casey.
Rachel Rosenthal, her bald pate gleaming withsweat and her stark features grooved like gashes in alabaster, lookslike a female Erich von Stroheim -- who, let's face it, could himselfhave been a woman in drag. Short, stubby, Teutonic, and with the kindof wracked expression one imagines Rimbaud wore after his season inhell, she could just as easily be the commandant of a Nazi death campas the most senior and compelling Performance Artist inCalifornia.