Last weekend I went to see two plays. Frankly, neither one was worth my time. But in very different ways.
One was just plain bad. It was ostensibly a children’s play, but the kind of children’s play that makes the assumption that kids are just morons and a vague mish-mash of music, gyration and animal masks is all you need to capture their attention. It was just a failure, but the kind of failure that most anyone watching would have been aware of. A pure, unfiltered F.
The other one was more subtle in its problems. For me, it was a B-/C+, where a problematic script was held up by strong performances.* But the script problems were ones that were obvious to me– or at least to my particular tastes and proclivities– because I’ve had experience in playwrighting to know what I’m looking at when I lift up the hood to check out the engine.
There is a writing tick I see a lot in plays, and it bothers me immensely. Usually, it takes the form of a “thing”, be it a moment of shared history, a mutual secret, or knowledge of an upcoming event, that informs the emotional threads of the characters or the entire plot. Now, a lot of the time, characters just Don’t Talk About the thing. Where it becomes a problem, at least for me, is when you have characters Talk About Not Talking About It, aka the Dance Of Vague References. You know you’ve seen it.
Joe: I have to say, it’s nice to fly First Class.
Bob: True, but I’ve done it once before.
Joe: You have? When? Was it… that trip?
Bob: That… oh, no. Different time. But anyway….
Ideally, this sort of thing can be used to set up a mystery or plot point, foreshadowing its revelation later: the gun hanging on the wall in the first act is fired in the third act. However, in its inartful, clunky usage (which is often), you are essentially having characters screaming, “LOOK AT THE GUN ON THE WALL! LOOK AT IT! I WONDER IF ANYONE WILL SHOOT IT LATER?”
The first half of the play was essentially littered with the three characters pasting a whole arsenal of guns on the wall, many of which were fired in the back half by the use of a direct-to-audience monologue.
Now, maybe it’s just me, that I’m aware of how these things work, that I can’t not see the internal workings, and that just plain ruins a lot of theatre for me. Oddly, not movies or TV, even though often the same ticks apply. I wonder if that’s because I hold live theatre to a higher standard, or is it because the nature of stagecraft makes it harder to balance gravity and importance with subtlety.
*- As much as I like to believe that text is the most crucial aspect of a play, the truth is an excellent performance can bring a mediocre script out of the depths, and even a fantastic script will be lost if the actors can’t do the heavy lifting.