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March 29, 2013

TT: Filling up a stage

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column I discuss the latter-day decline and fall of the large-cast play. Here's an excerpt.

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venuss.jpgWhat will be the most frequently produced American play of the 2013-14 season? I'm betting on David Ives' "Venus in Fur," a smart, serious comedy about the role of power in sexual relationships. Not only is it terrific, but "Venus in Fur" requires only two actors, making it cheap to produce. No wonder everybody wants to do it.

Theater professionals know all too well that few American companies are willing to take a chance on large-cast plays nowadays. Because of the recession, regional companies have grown steadily more risk-averse, and playwrights who long to see their work performed onstage are responding accordingly by writing smaller-scaled shows....

It's easy to forget that the latter-day dominance of the small-cast play is a fairly recent development in theatrical history. Large casts used to be the rule, not the exception. Indeed, most of the best-known American plays of the 20th century called for performing forces that would now be seen by penny-pinching producers as insanely extravagant. Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," for instance, was written for a cast of 12, while Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" requires 13 actors, eight men and five women. As for Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," it's usually performed by some two dozen actors, and the original 1938 Broadway production fielded a cast of 51!

golden-boy-main.jpgMight we have lost something by forcing contemporary playwrights to work on a smaller canvas? In recent months I've seen revivals of three large-cast plays originally written in the Thirties and Forties that offer a priceless reminder of how things used to be....

Most impressive of all was Lincoln Center Theater's revival of Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy," a 19-character play about the rise and fall of an ambitious young boxer that was originally produced on Broadway in 1939. By enacting his modern tragedy on the largest possible physical scale, Odets gave near-operatic scope to what might have ended up being an over-obvious story of ambition gone astray....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted March 29, 2013 12:00 AM

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