“Lifeboat Drill,” an obscure 1979 play by Tennessee Williams, and “For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls,” Christopher Durang’s better-known 1994 parody of Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” were presented on a double bill simultaneously on stage and online, supplemented by live interviews with Durang and with Carroll Baker, the actress, now 89, who made her Hollywood debut in “Baby Doll,” Williams’ 1956 film.
It was an odd matinee, presented by the Food for Thought theater company and offered me much food for thought about the future of theater and digital theater. Here are three thoughts:
- Zoom can be better.
Food for Thought has been presenting monthly matinees on stage since the summer; I went to the one in October at Theater 80, another double bill called “Different Shades of Comedy,” It was one of the first times I had traveled anywhere since the March lockdown. I was nervous, even though the company was very careful – there were only eight audience members in a theater that in normal times seats 160 people, and we all had to show a negative COVID test, keep masked, and social distance. I wasn’t that impressed with the scripts, to be honest, but I especially enjoyed hearing the audience’s applause, a sound I hadn’t realized I had missed.
That matinee, like this one, was filmed live and presented simultaneously on the Zoom platform. The whole point of attending the play then was to see something on stage, but now I was just curious about the plays, and the production, and opted to stay home to watch it on Zoom.
I don’t know whether it says something specific about the production, or about me, or about the toll of spending a year watching screens, but I found the experience superior. Yes, the scripts were funnier, but it was also easier to see the performers.
To be fair, this was not a typical Zoom experience; no Zoom boxes. This was a livestream of what was happening on stage.
But the interviews with Durang and Baker were conducted on Zoom boxes from their respective homes. The only members of the audience who could see them were the ones at home watching on their computers. The audience in the theater (now grown to 20) could only hear them.
And, as for audience interaction, there was a robust exchange in the virtual chat room. The audience in the actual theater had to keep masked and quiet.
The experience buttresses the growing belief that the digital experience will remain to accompany the stage experience even after theaters completely reopen.
2. There are different kinds of comedies.
One can guess why Food for Thought chose to pair these two short plays together, but doing so had perhaps unintended consequences.
Durang’s play is a silly, pointless and completely hilarious parody of The Glass Menagerie, with Laura and her collection of glass animals changed to Lawrence and his collection of glass cocktail stirrers, and the movies Tom escapes to changed to gay porno movies (an anarchic outing of a hidden subtext in Williams’ play.) But it also derives a surprisingly large part of its humor from making fun of a character’s disability. When Tom brings home fellow factory worker Ginny, whole chunks of the dialogue revolve around her hearing impairment.
Amanda finally says: “You know, dear, a hearing aid isn’t all that expensive, you might look into that.”
“No, if I have the gin, I don’t really want any gator ade,” Ginny answers. “Never liked the stuff anyway.”
I laughed many times during the play, and occasionally felt guilty for doing so.
It is easy to see Williams as also mocking his characters’ infirmities in “Lifeboat Drill.” In the short play, a couple in their nineties, Mr. and Mrs, E. Long Taske are taking a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth II but are so disabled they are essentially stuck in bed in their stateroom. They both have dentures and several initial lines of dialogue are garbled before they put them in, Mr. Saske can’t see well, Mrs. Taske is easily outraged, verbally and even physically assaulting her husband, and also railing about the ship’s steward, whom she assumes is being lecherous because he caught her as she was falling down. They try to ready themselves for a lifeboat drill but are too incapacitated to do so.
If my description doesn’t make it sound like a comedy, I found nothing funny about it. I suspect the laughs are supposed to come primarily from the slapstick –the couple’s attempt to put on their life jacket, their searching for the instructions and eyeglasses under the bed – yet there was no slapstick at this literal table reading. The performers Bob Dishy and Judy Graubart are talented comic actors, but they sat in chairs around a table.
Williams reportedly called “Lifeboat Drill” a “comic-tragic work” and, given that he was in declining health when he wrote it and would die four years later, it’s possible he felt more empathy for these characters than is immediately apparent. Their bleak personal circumstances and lack of basic communication between the two characters feel reminiscent of Beckett’s Happy Days, but Beckett in effect protected Winnie and Willie by presenting them wrapped in a metaphor; Williams’ more literal presentation leave Mr. and Mrs, E. Long Taske more vulnerable to ridicule – especially when “Lifeboat Drill” is paired with a no-holds-barred laughfest like Durang’s play.
3. Will theater be more casual?
I’m struck by how seat-of-the-pants Food for Thought seems to have been in the two productions I’ve seen of theirs. For example, people can still view a recording of the double bill, for $25, but to do so, they have to call 646-366-9340 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
I won’t call them amateur, because that would be interpreted as an insult, but the two matinees I’ve seen seem to share the spirit of a daytime TV talk show – unrehearsed, casual, relaxed; we’re here to have fun together.
Even though the performers have done impressive work in the past (some have been outright stars), these staged readings are not showcases for their talent. Everybody is on book during the play, and, then afterwards, they stick around good naturedly (much like actors making daytime TV appearances to tell funny anecdotes or perhaps help to make a soufflé)
Artistic director Susan Charlotte founded the Food for Thought theater company in 2000; I just discovered them during the pandemic, so I can’t speak to what their productions were like before, although in their mission statement they say their aim is to present one-act plays with the philosophy “less is more….Less production values, less contracts, more room for creativity….” I do wonder how much of the informality I saw is a result of the present moment – the technical challenges, the necessary attention to safety protocols (which is at the very least time-consuming and distracting), the need to boost morale – and whether this informal, do-it-yourself aesthetic will remain when theaters completely return.