By Isaac Butler
So. According to TCG, the fifth most produced regional play for the 2012-2013 is (or will be) Katori Hall's The Mountaintop. It's not atypical for plays that have been on Broadway and garnered box office success to end up making the regional rounds. One of the other top ten plays is The Motherfucker With the Hat. What I cannot recall, however, is a play that garnered such a cool reception from both critics and awards voters ending up in the list. (Here, for example, isMotherfucker's Stagegrade).
I was not a fan of The Mountaintop (I saw an earlier workshop of the play with different actors although I'm told the text remained largely the same) and I didn't see Hurt Village. I was living in another state during both productions. I am, however, a fan of Katori Hall in general, both as a human being and as an artist.
Certainly, there are plenty of cases of shows and playwrights that are regularly ignored by New York winding up on the list. Amy Freed's The Beard of Avon was a regional sensation prior to coming to New York, Steven Dietz is regularly produced everywhere except, it seems, for the isle of Manhattan. But it's an interesting moment, to have this show blowing up regionally despite its reception here. So her seeing more success is, I think, a good thing.
But I remain befuddled by the play's post-Broadway success. The cynical way to look at is that it is cheap (it's a one-set two hander) and, given the star studded nature of its Broadway cast (which featured Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett) it will have name recognition despite what critics said.
But there's also another, more hopeful way to think about this. Perhaps this shows a lessening of Brantley and Isherwood's influence over what regional producers will program. The running joke about Isherwood, after all, is that as the #2 reviewer at the Times and the one most likely to encounter and review mainstreamish new work, he is the de facto literary manager of American Regional Theater. But if American Regional Theater is going to be truly regional, which is to say, focused on its region, producing plays that don't have a great pull quote from the Times is important.
Meanwhile, in this profile written by Alexis Soloski, Katori Hall talks about her work's critical reception:
Yet American critics didn’t warm to the play as the English ones had, and it received no Tony nominations. Hall attributes this difference to U.S. attitudes toward King. Americans, she believes, prefer to see King as a saint rather than a man. Her play desires the opposite, as when Camae scents King’s shoes and crows, “Dr. Kang got stanky feet. Oooo! And you got holes in your socks, too?” Besides, says Hall, displaying some of the outspokenness she often reveals in interviews and in her lively Twitter feed, “I think critics tend to be dismissive toward young women writers anyway.”
Certainly, they didn’t react any more kindly to her next play, Hurt Village, which launched her tenure as one of Signature Theatre’s “Residency Five” playwrights, a five-year program that commissions and produces three plays per writer. James Houghton, the artistic director of the Signature, who had seen a workshop of Hurt Village during Hall’s time at Juilliard, calls Hall “fierce” and “fearless” and the play “an incredibly powerful piece of writing.” Set in a derelict housing project slated for demolition, it centers on Cookie, a mouthy, precocious 13-year-old, and the drug-doers, drug dealers and hard-scrabblers who surround her. “Folks round here so po’ we can’t even afford the r at the end,” Cookie tells us.
Only a few critics applauded the production, and several wrote reviews revealing a refusal to engage with the play and its characters. In some ways, Hall seems resigned to such analyses. “I can’t make them learn about being poor and black in Memphis, Tennessee,” she says, even as the play attempts to do just that. But then she adds, rather more darkly, “I must say, those critics do not want to be in a bar with me.”
There are a couple of inaccuracies in this section. First off, critics did not ding the play for its desire to paint Dr. King as a man rather than a saint. If anything, the Stagegrade roundup that the article links to leaves the reader with the opposite impression: that critics believed the play to be at times too saccharine and idealized (or to use David Cote's formulation "mawkish" and "triumphalis[t]"). In addition, most critics responded negatively to the production as much as the play, disliking the "miscast" leads (who were both over a decade older than the parts they were playing). Critical reception of Hurt Village was also significantly better. Critics gave The Mountaintop a C- with the most frequent grade being in the D range, while giving Hurt Village a B, with the B rangealso marking the data set's mode. The reason why "only a few critics" applauded it is that half as many critics reviewed Hurt Village.
Alexis is right about the lower-end reviews in Hurt Village reflecting a lack of willingness to engage with it. I did the Stagegrade for that show and came away from those reviews disgusted-- actually revolted-- by some of what I read. For many years here at Parabasis we've advocated for and talked about ways to increase diversity in theater programming. The trouble some critics have with actually seeing the work in front of them when they confront cultural difference is a serious barrier to those efforts.