American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1969-2000

By Thomas S. Hischak | Go to book overview

ACT THREE, 1984–1994
PLAYACTING DURING A PLAGUE

1984–1985

The radical drop in the number of Broadway non-musicals the previous season was only slightly corrected this season with a few more new entries and revivals to bring the total to a paltry twenty-three. Yet only four of those were British imports (two new and two revivals), so the number of new American plays climbed noticeably. Off Broadway the numbers remained about the same: thirty-nine new American works, nine foreign, and twenty-four revivals. Of course such definite numbers were arbitrary, since the line between Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway became hazier than ever. Blue Window, for example, opened as an off-off-Broadway entry but, after getting some encouraging notices, changed to off-Broadway not by moving but simply by rewriting all its contracts. Man Enough did the opposite, reverting from Off to Off Off when it needed to cut its overhead.

A similar experiment in cost cutting was tried by Dancing in the End Zone 's producer, Martin Gottlieb, who closed off the balcony and part of the orchestra seating at the Ritz in order to qualify for a “middle Broadway” contract. The show ran less than a month, so it was difficult to determine how well the experiment fared. When Doubles opened in the same theatre later in the season, the arrangement was tried again, and the result was more encouraging, although even at 277 performances Doubles failed to show a profit. In fact, only two Broadway entries were in the black by season's end: the one-person specialty program Whoopi Goldberg and the off-Broadway transfer Hurlyburly. With the average cost for a non-musical on Broadway now in the neighborhood of $600,000, realizing profits in a short term was no longer possible.

Two plays about the growing threat of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) were prominent this season and would be followed by dozens of others in the next few seasons. What was not evident during 1984–1985 was how AIDS would devastate the theatre community in the near future, silencing young artists in a wide variety of jobs and thereby altering the course of theatre history.

The season began with the debut of John Patrick Shanley, a playwright who would become a fixture off Broadway for several years. His twocharacter drama Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (6-6-84, Circle in the Square Downtown) explored the relationship between two volatile people who reach a warm understanding after a tempestuous long night together. Violence-prone Danny (John Turturro) strikes up a belligerent conversation with divorcée Roberta (June Stein) in a Bronx bar late one night. He is called “the animal” by his fellow truck drivers because of his uncontrollable temper. She is distrustful of men, having been sexually molested by her father and, years later, lost control (and custody) of her troubled teenage son. Danny and Roberta spend a night of sex, daydreaming, arguments, and then softening together, the two outcasts finding a more realistic view of each other by dawn. The little drama was generally saluted by the critics as flawed but promising, aptly described as “the equivalent of sitting at ringside watching a prize fight that concludes in a loving embrace.” The play, which had originated at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, remained off Broadway for 117 performances.

Dennis McIntyre's Split Second (6-7-84, Theatre Four), which started as a gripping melodrama then moved into a tale of individual conscience, was a point of much discussion off Broadway and had audience members debating with each other for five months. African-American police officer Val Johnson (John Danelle), a young by-the-rules cop with an untarnished record, pursues a stolen Oldsmobile into a deserted street on the West Side of Manhattan and confronts William H. Wallis (Bill Cwikowski), a white petty thief who taunts the cop with a string of racial slurs. Val,

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American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1969-2000
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Preface v
  • Contents vii
  • American Theatre *
  • Act One, 1969–1975 - Getting through by the Skin of Our Teeth 1
  • Act Two, 1975–1984 - Everything Old Is New Again 91
  • Act Three, 1984–1994 - Playacting during a Plague 237
  • Act Four, 1994–2000 - A Modest Renaissance 363
  • Epilogue 461
  • Titles Index 463
  • People Index 477
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