Broadway has gotten Wilder in the past week or so. I mean, of course, Thornton Wilder - for three of the classic American playwright's earliest plays have arrived at the Circle in the Square Theater, following a tortuous journey from off-off-Broadway.
The program is called generically "Wilder, Wilder, Wilder" - a wild name for a somewhat tamer evening - and consists of three of six one-acters from a collection published in 1931: "The Long Christmas Dinner," "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden" and "Pullman Car Hiawatha."
This bill, originating from Edward Berkeley's Willow Cabin Theater Company, has already been acclaimed by many New York critics, including my colleague Jerry Tallmer; and I have nothing to add to his aptly and happily expressed enthusiasm for this particular production.
For the Circle this happens to be a Wilder homecoming, as in 1959 it staged both "Our Town" and "Pullman Car Hiawatha," while four years later Wilder wrote "Plays for Bleecker Street" specifically for the Circle.
Theodore Mann, the Circle's co-founder and artistic director, remarked to me the other day that Wilder, talking about his ideas on production, had once told him that in the theater "the eye can be the enemy of the ear." This lovely, telling phrase sums up what is most interesting in Wilder's theater.
Wilder believed that realism, and certainly naturalism, was best left to movies (and later TV), as such was the intrinsic quality of the camera's vision. In the theater, the ear was the thing to be caught; words, not visual images, were to be the traffic of his stage.
It is significant however, that although Wilder insisted on the simplest of stagings, using, as in the oriental theater, elementary, often symbolic props, his plays frequently do exert, simply through the homespun originality of their technique, a strong visual fascination.
This can be seen in these early plays; but unfortunately what can also be seen is the fundamental weakness of Wilder, both as a playwright and as an aesthetic sensibility. His plays show the mind of a bromide, but - because he did love that bit of fizz we call innovation - the technique of a Bromoseltzer.
Nevertheless, despite that real originality, Wilder now seems to be to the American theater what Norman Rockwell was to American painting. They were both dreamers of the American dream. This, while splendid in principle, proved always just a little naive in practice.
Such cozy dreaming hardly took into account what C.S. Lewis called "the problem of pain," and it leaves such things as poverty, civil injustice and America's inhumanity to America conveniently ignored.
As a character in one of these present plays observes: "It takes a lot of people to make a world." It does indeed, and Wilder evidently knew few of them, his tunnel vision apparently extending no further than that sentimentalized "Our Town" of Grovers Corners and its immediate suburbs.
Regarded for too long as the author of the High School Senior Play, Thornton Wilder was perhaps the American theater's greatest innovative genius. Often with breathtaking effect, Wilder explored the arrangement of time and space not as cosmic forces but as basic elements that define our everyday lives. Willow Cabin's polished staging of these seldom performed plays not only offers a rare chance to glimpse the origins of Wilder's great works to come, but also allows them to shine as small gems on their own.
In "The Long Christmas Dinner," Wilder chronicles four generations of the Bayard family eating turkey in an annual ritual in which nothing changes except the people at the table. A succession of baby Bayards enter through a red door on stage right, grow up, leave home, go to war, marry, take their turn with the carving knife and finally exit at their appointed time through a black portal on stage left, silently joining one another in a row of chairs above the stage, not unlike the residents of the Grover's Corners cemetery in "Our Town." In "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden," what seems at first to be a pleasant automobile trip taking the Kirby family to visit an older married daughter turns out to be a grief-stricken cortege disguised by the minutiae of daily conversation.
In both "Happy Journey" and "Pullman Car Hiawatha," Wilder began experimenting with the character of a Stage Manager. In "Pullman Car," the Stage Manager controls not only the passengers on a New York-to-Chicago train, but also the convergence of planets, the time, the weather and the precise place in Ohio the train is passing at the moment of death for one woman on board. It was a device Wilder had employed to devastating effect in "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" and one he would use again in later works.
Edward Berkeley has directed a cast of 23 young actors in an intelligent yet affectionate reading of all three plays. Michael Rispoli's Stage Manager in "Pullman Car Hiawatha" is decisive without being tyrannical and Cynthia Besteman deftly ages Cousin Ermengarde into a touching portrait in "Christmas Dinner." Among the other noteworthy players are Linda Powell as Lucia in "Dinner," Maria Radman as the mother in "Happy Journey" and Tasha Lawrence, Patrick Huey, Ken Forman, Angela Nevard and Sabrina Boudot in "Pullman Car."
If Thornton Wilder were writing today, he'd doubtless be accused of servicing cash-strapped theater groups, what with those no-set plays and stage managers filling out the dramatis personae. Such companies abound, goodness knows, and it's fortuitous that one of them - Circle in the Square - was free to house this charming production of early Wilder one-acts. It's partly ironic, too, because Willow Cabin is a young group comprised mainly of Circle in the Square graduates.
The three plays, published together in 1931, serve as a sort of sketchbook for "Our Town," seven years later. Like Wilder's masterpiece, "The Long Christmas Dinner," "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden" and "Pullman Car Hiawatha" strip everything to the bare essentials: actors on an almost bare stage, minimal props, no fancy lighting. (This is deceptive, of course, because what it really did was guise as stage manager - at center stage and in total control.)
The first play is the most powerful and most specifically anticipates "Our Town"; it is set at a dining room table in the home of a factory town's most prosperous family, at various Christmas Day dinners. The gatherings unfold over the course of more than 25 years; the meals remain the same as the family changes. Babies die, sons go off to war never to return, children marry and move away. Certain observations - "every least twig is encircled in ice, you never see that" - are repeated each year.
So is a haunting refrain about missing the opportunity to tell departed ones how wonderful they were, as the humor fades to an almost unbearable sadness. For like "Our Town," this play and its companions are suffused with death. Wilder celebrated the ordinariness of life, pointing out how little attention we pay to things and how much pain is endured just getting by - sentiments that reached their apotheosis, of course, in "Our Town."
Edward Berkeley's production is seductive. The company attacks the plays with verve and freshness, and on the whole, the evening is quite moving.
At the risk of seeming churlish, however, it must be pointed out that, excepting a few standouts, the caliber of the work is what one would expect from the cream of an acting school. It's not a Broadway production, which Circle in the Square, like it or not, is in the business of presenting. Let's blame the rare miscalculations - as when a mother in "The Happy Journey" comes off as more Fannie Brice than Newark homemaker - on Berkeley's otherwise fine direction.
So the tally must balance gratitude for reviving these plays so vibrantly with the acknowledgement that these youthful sketches of a master, performed by an equally youthful company, are refreshing to behold but will have a tough time surviving in the fiercely competitive arena into which they've been thrust.