Can Nostalgia Propel Theater Forward?

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  • Niki Hatzidis

The Exes, written and produced by Lenore Skomal, making its debut at Theater Row is a call back to the situational comedies reminiscent of Noel Coward and Neil Simon.  The play opens with Dick and Richard, longtime friends, preparing for the wedding of Richard’s daughter Victoria on Christmas Eve.  Then enters Mavis, and in an anti-love triangle, we find out that she is both Dick and Richard’s ex-wife.  Mavis is eager for Dick to sign the divorce papers so she can marry Marcel, the Danish Dandy she left him for. And with that were being met with the main conflicting of the play.

If you’ve come for a nostalgic, light-hearted route to escape, you have come to the right place.

The play offers the comedic release that accompanies the style but with a modern twist. In The Exes, we are initially lead to believe that these high powered, wealthy men are the ones calling the shots.  In reality, the women have them wrapped around their fingers.  I spoke to Lenore about why she wanted to write The Exes and her response was “we honestly don’t laugh enough.”  “There's something about a cleverly written play tinged with the absurd that pokes fun at our human condition that really resonates with me,”  Skomal said about the works of Neil Simon and Oscar Wilde, playwrights that she admires, “situational comedy is also appealing to the masses and the best way to get your message across.”  The influence for the plot came from something that happened to a former college friend of Skomal’s and grew from there.

What struck me most about the play were the roles of the women as they seemed to move the narrative forward the most.  Mavis, played by Karen Forte, is not only a hopeless romantic that follows the whims of her heart but is a determined, self-possessed heroine (though set up to be the villain of the story.)  She is described to be the women that brought both Richard and Dick to their knees, falling head over heels in love with her and marrying her.  In the backstory of their relationship she was married to Dick when she met and fell in love with Richard, and then married to Richard when she eventually meets Marcel.  Both Richard and Dick can be described as still very much pining over her.  She has inserted herself into the ‘boys club” and in the end gets what she wants.  She gets the divorce papers signed and gets to leave with another, romantic, charming man she genuinely seems happy and fulfilled with.

Similarly, the character of Victoria, played by Alison Preece, comes in like a tornado and sets everything askew.  She may be the spoiled, only child of a very wealthy man, someone who combats and challenges Mavis the most, but she is strong-willed, and poised in her own right. She needs her future husband to sign a pre-nuptial agreement and she uses her wit and charm to get her father to help her.  Skomal succeeds in making these women complex, multi-layered people, not stock characters, and ones in charge of their own fate.  “Both Mavis and Victoria are surrounded by powerful men but are forces of nature themselves--predominately because they are invincible women who know exactly what they want,”  Skomal says.  “And that scares the men in the play because they will not be denied.  In fact, they have the strongest and most pressing wants of any of the characters, so they literally propel the action forward and much of what unfolds in Act II that changes the lives of the rest of the characters is their doing.”  They are the crucial factor of the story, not the wealthy boys club.

The Exes, perhaps predictively is a window into the lives of the ultra-rich, but through the audiences view we do get to see some relatable characters.  Lenore said, “I wanted to satirize the arrogance and hypocrisy of the nouveau riche--this new wave of ultra-wealthy that has expanded our version of American aristocracy.  I wanted to create that world and then populate it with people with whom we could relate.”  She doesn’t hold back on poking fun of these characters, but they are brought down by their own doing.  The end of the play leaves us with the notion that Richard, played by Tim Hayes, is about to lose everything because of nothing else but his own ego.  We see what being completely wrapped up in his own success has caused him to lose in his personal life.  

When asked what she hopes her audiences leave with when the play is over she told me this; “This is a comedy for the very simple reason that we first need to laugh at ourselves.  If one can leave the theatre with a smile, I've succeeded.  But it's the type of play that after one is away from it for a bit, I'd like some of the deeper themes to emerge; namely, the importance of human relationships, the absurdity of the class structure, the folly of chasing affluence, the hope that people can and do change.  I mean, if someone like Richard, a narcissistic, self-consumed, capitalist can actually find his heart, then who's to say that others-- either in the public eye or within our own social circles--can't as well?  Love, respect and mutual understanding are elements I like to explore, through the construct of human relationships and interactions; focusing on what brings us together not what draws us apart.”

The play does drip with nostalgia of theatre-style that is dying out.  It is a structure that calls back to sitcoms of the 70’s and British farce.  It made me think about its value and place in the theater world now.  As a person who is inundated in the art form and someone who is trying to make her stamp on it herself, I cannot help but look around and get a deep fear and apprehension of where things are going; or rather where they are not going.  As someone still on the fringes, I am aware that those with money are making important decisions and those who have it to spend are the ones who are coming to watch.  Having worked in off-Broadway theaters, I’ve noticed that subscription members are mainly made up by those over the age of sixty-five, the majority of those in the audience are made up of the older generation of theater lovers and then small fractions are those like me make up the rest.  We are the new, young generation trying to make things happen themselves.  Who is strikingly missing is everyone in between and children.

When theater and creative arts are being cut from public schools and a ticket to the show can sometimes be more than two weeks worth of groceries, who do hope will come along and pick up the mantle?  I witnessed first hand how in the UK theater is as commonplace an activity as going to see the latest Blockbuster is to us.  Theater there is subsidized, yes, but it is also embedded in the culture and in the school curriculums.  A pantomime show is an event the whole family attends at Christmas time, new and familiar farce-type plays are still ones that bring in crowds of people on the weekends in communities all over the country.  It is more accessible and it is hard to imagine that theater will ever die in Britain.  

For anyone trying to produce theater in New York, it is hard to ignore that things become increasingly challenging and that things are changing in a way that could make the process downright impossible.  “I firmly believe that the model for Off-Broadway is broken,” Skomal told me. “And I have for a long time and I am not alone. It's become a mini-version of Broadway, with prohibitive costs and a lot less curation.”  Lenore Skomal and her husband started the Broadway Bound Theater Festival in an effort to make theater production more accomplishable.  “The mission of BBTF is to train playwrights to self produce.  My fervent hope is that more talented new work can find an affordable home Off-Broadway.  I want to see theatre accessible to all.  But the old way of doing things has to change.”  Lenore compares it to changes in the publishing industry.  “The indie movement forced that industry to crumble at its foundation and ushered in a whole new era where everyone has accessibility to publishing their work.  The medium is affordable and open to all.  The public decides what they want to read. That's the revolution that's got to happen to theatre.  It has to be shaken at its roots, with the old systems and mindsets that cease to work blown to bits.  Pedigree, resources, commercial appeal and industry connections shouldn't dictate what plays get produced. 

Talent has to be the main factor.”

What do audiences want to see now? The most obvious answer is the one that is most likely the truth and in this case, the obvious answer is that it is a mixed bag.  It’s not to say that this isn’t true in places like the UK, but here older audiences want to see something familiar, younger creatives what to see something gritty, shocking, perhaps gut-wrenching.  In all the times fellow playwrights, actors and I have discussed theater, we always talk about how we need to move in the direction of the more grotesque, eccentric and immersive style, but maybe this effort is our own demise?  How do we lure audiences, both used to certain structures and those hungry to see something that shatters everything?

To me, the more important question is how do we get people who have never stepped foot in a theater to come, spend money and see a play?  Because let’s face it, the two groups above are going to keep showing up no matter what.  They’ll see what they want, just like readers read what they want.  I think the solution may lie in a play like The Exes.  It’s in first making theater affordable and second, making it approachable.  We’re not going to bring a person into the fold who is coming to see theater for the first time with a show like Blasted by Sarah Kane.  It doesn’t lie in presenting something perceived as high brow like Hamlet.  Some of these first-time theatre-goers just want a place to escape, a place to laugh. They need to be eased in with poking fun at something as absurd as a wedding at the Ritz on Christmas Eve.  We need to give people the opportunity to like the art form first and then experiment with something slightly out of their comfort zone the same way we all fell in love with theater.  We all have that one memory of a show that ended up changing everything.  I bet it wasn’t Mercury Fur.  Mine was a rock-opera about a frog I saw on a second-grade field trip.

As for The Exes, Skomal plans to take on the Community theater circuit, and I believe that is where it will thrive.  “I happen to be a big supporter and fan of community and regional theatre--primarily because they provide a space for people to pursue their dreams,” Lenore said.  “They are inclusionary, filled with devoted people and the breeding ground for talented performances.”  The accessibility is something that was at the forefront of writing it.  “I wrote The Exes to be an affordable comedy that could be done just about anywhere, with my sights set on community theatre.  The play is one set with no significant costume changes and employs an older cast.” 

Perhaps the answer is that those who love theater will find a way to continue to make it.  They’ll convince someone who has never seen a play to come see it and they will fall in love with the art form.  The next time a show gets put up in the local community theater, they’ll spend their money to come and see it, even if they don’t know anyone involved. Maybe that show will be by Sarah Kane or maybe a revival of Noel Coward, filtered in with some modern touches.  The important thing is that they show up.  We need them to show up.

Niki Hatzidis is an actor and award-nominated Playwright based in New York City.