In the eight weeks since theaters across America closed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, artists have labored in real time to translate their work to new and sometimes unforgiving mediums.
The process has been one of trial and error, playing out online as audiences around the globe watch from the safety of social isolation. The latest option — represented by Spotlight on Plays, an outgrowth of the burgeoning long-form feature content website Broadway’s Best Shows — involves one-night only streams of pre-recorded staged readings with starry casts (individually isolated wherever they are), retaining a theatrical ethos while eschewing the potential chaos of live transmission.
To some, this defeats the purpose of theater. What makes the genre so enticing is its immediacy, the looming possibility of mayhem under even the most polished of circumstances, the thrill of watching actors deepen and discover their craft in real time.
Even with the mass-gathering aspect removed, these aspects have come through in the finely wrought portraiture of Richard Nelson’s What Do We Need to Talk About?, which my colleague Joey Sims wrote about for Exeunt; or the undeniable energy of Michael Urie’s Buyer and Cellar, which felt fresh and original even though Urie has performed the play hundreds of times. Even the inherent glitches remind us that we’re enjoying a live experience — a frozen Zoom screen can be the technological equivalent of an actor going up.
Still, watching “Zoom” theater will never totally approximate the experience of seeing a play, just as the filmed performances I consumed voraciously as a kid failed to adequately prepare me for the overwhelming experience of the real thing. Because of that, I’ve tried to be less prescriptive about how content should be delivered and consumed under the present extraordinary circumstances. The first offering from Spotlight on Plays, David Mamet’s November, suggests that the platform is already headed for success.
It was a little jarring when the transmission started precisely at 8 p.m. — a punctuality unheard of in the theater that has, unsurprisingly, translated to the digital arena. Yet once the performance began in earnest, the advantages of this approach were immediately glimpsed. The readings are rehearsed and professionally edited, according to an overview in the New York Times, and the level of polish was, I confess, slightly breathtaking after weeks of on-the-fly deliveries. When Dylan Baker, reprising his Broadway role as fixer Archer Brown, seamlessly “handed” a phone to John Malkovich’s President Charles Smith, I gasped.
Yes — Malkovich’s Zoom screen momentarily froze, his unmistakable voice trailing on while his mouth stood stock-still for a few seconds. And yes, some performance aspects could have used a touch more finesse — more on that in a moment. But in terms of moving remote theater forward, Spotlight on Plays has keyed in on a valuable format, one that I hope other platforms will consider adapting, at least partially. In all other aspects of our pandemic lives, we are not pretending that we’re perfectly replicating how we existed in The Before. Why should we expect the same from our theater?
If I have one quibble — and, I suppose, it’s a large one — it’s with the inaugural choice of play. A stale election-year satire, November already seemed covered in mothballs when it debuted in 2008, at the tail-end of George W. Bush’s presidential tenure. It reflects Mamet’s rapid descent into conservative idealogue mode, with a lot of Old-Man-Yells-At-Cloud posturing about political corruption (inevitable), identity politics (weak), and blatantly racist “humor” at the expense of Native Americans and Asians (hilarious to the author, perhaps, but not this viewer). The then-nascent marriage equality movement, which Mamet uses as a gleeful punching bag and source of ridicule, is now fully integrated into American law, rendering his potshots not just offensive but hopelessly dated.
When I first saw November, it was still possible to hold out hope that Mamet could deliver a script reminiscent of his boundary-breaking work in Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow or Edmond. That ship has clearly sailed — just ask anyone who saw The Penitent. But the original production at least benefited from Joe Mantello’s careful, well-paced direction and lively performances by Nathan Lane, Laurie Metcalf, and Baker. This reading has strong actors, but it lacks the director to draw them together cohesively.
Individually, they find moments to shine. Malkovich is a master of arched eyebrows and wonderfully off-kilter line readings; dressed in navy suit and bright red tie, his eyelids slightly sunken and his cheeks streaked with stubble, he makes a convincingly untethered President Smith. Mamet veteran Patti LuPone is compelling as his speechwriter, a lesbian who agrees to aid his dubious cause in exchange for the right to marry her partner. (Insert Liz Lemon-sized eye-roll.) Baker is the kind of actor who effortlessly projects an underlying slipperiness beneath his dad-like exterior; that characteristic is put to good use here. Ethan Phillips and Michael Nichols reprise perfunctory supporting roles they played in the original production.
Mamet himself directs, and since he famously rejects the concept of character work, you’re left with little clue of the deep relationships at play. This is likely something the actors themselves could develop over the course of a long run, but in the context of a one-shot presentation, we’re left with several intriguing individual performances that fail to coalesce. The actors are literally and figuratively separated.
One hopes this won’t be the case for subsequent presentations — already announced are Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other, with the original Broadway cast (May 14); and A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters, with Sally Field and Bryan Cranston (May 21). Especially since these readings support a worthy cause: The Actors’ Fund, which has dispensed $8.2 million in emergency relief to the theatrical community since the beginning of the pandemic. Even with my reservations about November, I felt compelled to donate.
Spotlight on Plays productions are offered on Thursday evenings at 8 p.m. eastern only. For more information, visit broadwaysbestshows.com.