Virtually every drama critic in New York, myself included, praised the revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests that opened on Broadway last week. One, Richard Zoglin of Time, went so far as to declare that Ayckbourn is “the greatest living English-language playwright” (an exaggeration, but a forgivable one) and complain that his work is rarely seen in America:
For this American fan, following Ayckbourn over the years has been a cycle of hope and frustration. First there’s the trip to London to see each new Ayckbourn play…Then the wait, often in vain, for a New York City production (his work turns up more often in regional theaters) or the dismay of seeing it done poorly by American actors.
I’m glad that Zoglin admires Ayckbourn as much as I do. On the other hand, I have more than a little bit of a problem with the parenthetical throwaway in the paragraph I just quoted. For it so happens that Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are produced with some frequency by America’s regional theaters, a fact of which I’m aware because I’m the only New York-based drama critic who makes a habit of seeking out and reviewing these productions. Indeed, I may be the only New York-based drama critic who knows about them, even though some take place close enough to Manhattan for any critic with a dime’s worth of initiative to go and see them.
Zoglin, for instance, said of Ayckbourn’s Time of My Life that he’d “never seen it staged (though Chicago’s Steppenwolf gave it a try some years back), but it reads like a dream.” Well, guess what? Westport Country Playhouse, a well-known Connecticut theater located fifty-one miles from the Broadway house where The Norman Conquests is currently playing, performed Time of My Life last April. I was there, and gave it a rave in The Wall Street Journal. Where, pray tell, was Richard Zoglin–or, for that matter, any of my colleagues save for Anita Gates of the New York Times?
I haven’t read each and every review of The Norman Conquests that ran on Friday, but so far as I know, I’m the only critic who made a point of mentioning that this production was not the first American revival of Ayckbourn’s trilogy since it was last seen on Broadway in 1975. What’s more, I know for a fact that I’m the only one of my brethren who reviewed the last revival, which was given by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater a year and a half ago and was exactly comparable in quality to Matthew Warchus’ Broadway staging.
Why am I going on about this? Partly because I’m proud of the exhaustingly hard work that I put into covering American regional theater, but mostly because it disturbs me that The Wall Street Journal is the only national general-interest publication that bothers to cover plays outside the New York area with any regularity. Yes, the Broadway transfer of the Old Vic revival of The Norman Conquests is big news, and I strongly recommend that everyone reading these words go and see all three installments. But it’s also big news that the Milwaukee Repertory Theater has already revived The Norman Conquests, not just once but twice–and the biggest news of all is that equally great revivals of equally great plays are taking place from coast to coast, not once in a while but week after week.
That’s the stop-press news about American theater. You don’t have to go to New York to see first-rate shows. You can see them in the place where you live, or in a city not too far from your home town–but save on the rarest of occasions, you can’t read about them in Time or Newsweek or the New York Times. You’ve got to pick up a copy of the Friday Journal and see where I went last week. This summer I’ll be seeing shows in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin. I expect that many of these shows will be very, very good. I also expect that I’ll be the only out-of-town critic covering most of them.
It embarrasses me to say it, but most American drama criticism is provincial, and New York City is every bit as provincial in that regard as the smallest town in America. I’d like to see that change. Sure, I’m fiercely proud to be America’s drama critic, and no less proud that The Wall Street Journal is willing to put up the money to send me all over the country in search of great theater. Without that commitment, I couldn’t do what I do. Still, I’d much rather be one of a dozen traveling critics–and until somebody joins me out on the road, I’ll continue to be embarrassed for my benighted profession, which operates on the mistaken assumption that if it doesn’t happen in New York or London, it isn’t happening.