Contributed by Vincent Marano
In college during the plague years that was the Reagan presidency, my friends and I competed in forensic tournaments where students did excerpts of plays for fun and glory. Called either Single-Interpretation of Drama (one person show) or Duo-Interpretation (for a two hander) the goal was to get the gist of the play across in 10 minutes, in the most entertaining way possible. Most schools would pick one or two edited scenes. Our school pioneered the approach of boiling down the entire work into one scene, beginning with the first line of the play and ending with the last line. The intended effect of editing the drama this way, according to our team captain, was that the character’s should “laugh, laugh, laugh… then they all die.”
Looking at New York plays this and last season; on and off –off Broadway, the stylistic hybrid of low comedy and high tragedy seems to be the norm. From August: Osage County to Detroit, from MotherF**Ker With a Hat to Clyburne Park, playwrights are jamming as many yuks into the torturous lives of their characters as possible.
Whether it’s borderline absurdist-Gran Guingnol of Martin McDonagh or dystopian giggle-fest of the next Anthony Rapp Fable, playwrights (and their directors) find the funny bone in decapitation and the smile in electroshock therapy.
While one could argue that this trend just mirrors the general gallows humor that pervades a world in recession (both economic and social). I think that this choice is more one of dramatic expediency. For a play to get noticed it is not enough to be well-crafted, about important ideas, charged with a wealth of human emotion; it has to be brutal and irreverent. Essentially, drama with BO. Our collective tolerance for violence, our collective indulgence of the crude and vulgar, and our collective obsession with art that wallows in “the edgy, the raw, the primordial,” makes the subtle and the cerebral the stuff of the Classics shelf at the Drama Book Shop.