I wrote about two plays in today’s Wall Street Journal drama column. The first is Mother Courage and Her Children, directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Meryl Streep:
The New York stage has been infested by movie and TV stars this year, with wildly variable results: Ralph Fiennes was memorable, Julia Roberts and David Schwimmer memorably awful, while Cate Blanchett was a bit extreme but flamboyantly watchable. Now at bat is Meryl Streep, the star of the Public Theater’s outdoor production of “Mother Courage and Her Children.” Unlike Ms. Roberts, she knows her way around a theater, but her performance is a mess–though she’s probably not at fault….
Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece is set during the Thirty Years’ War, which was fought between 1618 and 1648. The Public, however, is performing it in a new “translation” (it’s really an adaptation) by Tony Kushner, who has put a thick coat of comic varnish on the blunt ironies of the original German text in order to make them more palatable to modern viewers. While some of his renderings are nicely pointed–he translates “Necessity knows no law” as “Necessity trumps the commandments”–the overall effect is too slick, and it doesn’t help that he’s littered the script with such anachronistic Americanisms as “It’s a go,” “Point taken” and “Butt out.”
I’m not opposed in principle to modernized versions of the classics, and Mr. Kushner’s gloss on “Mother Courage” might have been more effective in a less showbizzy staging, but Mr. Wolfe has glitzed it up to an enervatingly spectacular degree. I’m not exaggerating–this big-budget production contains fire, rain, snow, an onstage Jeep and flying by Foy, the “Peter Pan” people. Presumably Mr. Wolfe is also responsible, at least in part, for Ms. Streep’s bizarre decision to deliver her lines in the side-of-the-mouth manner of a take-my-wife-please comedian….
The second is the Berkshire Theatre Festival‘s revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles:
Like most of Wasserstein’s plays, “The Heidi Chronicles” is a soft-centered pseudosatire that pulls its punches, most of which are thrown at feminism, to which the play’s female characters subscribe unreservedly (if not unquestioningly) in spite of the fact that the play’s ostensible subject is the unhappiness it brings them. Instead of probing this apparent contradiction with the take-no-prisoners candor of the true satirist, Wasserstein settles for poking safe fun at such easy targets as consciousness-raising groups. As for the glib children of urban privilege with which “The Heidi Chronicles” is exclusively peopled, they all talk like escapees from the set of “Annie Hall” and appear never to have met anyone who disagreed with them about anything….