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November 1, 2013

TT: Romping with Bertolt Brecht

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I report on two much-discussed New York shows, the Public Theater production of Good Person of Szechwan and the Broadway revival of Betrayal. Here's an excerpt.

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Bertolt Brecht's plays have a reputation for being preachy, but they needn't be. Yes, he used the theater as a pulpit from which to promulgate the social gospel according to Karl Marx. At the same time, though, he was also a dramatic poet who understood exactly what it means to put on a good show, and the best of his plays, when staged with flair and flexibility, float free from their ideological moorings and permit audiences to revel in their sheer theatricality. It's not that you forget what he's trying to say, but in a first-rate revival of a masterpiece like "Galileo" or "Mother Courage and Her Children," the moral of the story is never presented rigidly but with an openness that allows for multiple interpretations--as well as for pure fun.

Lear deBessonet's Foundry Theatre production of "Good Person of Szechwan," which has now moved to the Public Theater after a highly successful Off-Broadway run earlier this year at La MaMa, fills the bill on all counts. It's one of the best Brecht stagings ever to come my way. It's also a gender-twisting romp so infectiously silly as to make you wonder whether Ms. deBessonet grew up watching "Pee-wee's Playhouse" on Saturday mornings, taking notes all the while....

stahl-web1.jpgMs. deBessonet's hole card is Taylor Mac, a drag-queen performance artist whom she has cast in the central role of Shen Te, a sweet-natured Chinese prostitute (normally played by a woman) whom the gods have mysteriously singled out as an honorable person deserving of favor. She gets it, then regrets it, for as Brecht assures us, "No one can be good for long if goodness is not in demand." That's the moral of "Good Person," which posits that no matter how hard you try, you can't be good in a corrupt world....

As for the staging, it's best described as vaudevillian, a high-spirited mélange of low-comedy clowning that has the paradoxical effect of heightening the presentational detachment--you never forget that you're seeing a show, not an illusion of life--that was the hallmark of Brecht's theatrical technique. When it's time to get serious, though, Ms. deBessonet obliges...

Harold Pinter's "Betrayal," written in 1978 and last seen on Broadway a quarter-century ago, has now returned there in a big-name revival directed by Mike Nichols and starring Daniel Craig, otherwise known as James Bond, and Rachel Weisz, to whom Mr. Craig is married in real life. An autobiographical play about adultery that is told in reverse chronological order, "Betrayal" is much less opaque--and much more obvious--than the radically original stage plays of the '50s and '60s that made its author famous. To me it feels paper-thin and overly schematic, and while Mr. Craig and Rafe Spall, who play the cuckold and his faithless friend, are worth seeing, Ms. Weisz's performance is a bit on the flat side. Likewise Mr. Nichols' cool-to-the-touch staging...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted November 1, 2013 12:00 AM

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