Shock Value Starts to Wear Thin in London

Even as debate over excessive onstage violence continues, one of the most popular shows in town pushes boundaries

London theater has been grabbing a lot of attention this season -- not just within the confines of arts coverage, but in major news headlines.

First, there was the dramatic great escape of popular comedy actor Stephen Fry (''A Fish Called Wanda,'' ''Peter's Friends'') from his starring role in ''Cell Mates.'' The actor left the show completely after opening night, following criticism that Fry said had made him rethink his vocation.

Pushing the taste barriers

Following on the heels of this, a high-profile debate erupted in the press over stage blood, gore, and various grotesqueries in response to the recent debut of the Royal Court Theatre's ''Blasted,'' by new young British dramatist Sarah Kane. The debate resulted in an unusually serious public analysis of the nature of modern theater itself.

''Blasted'' is a perfect example of the shock-effect trend in stagecraft today. As audiences have become less easily shockable, each season seems to push the taste barriers just a little bit further. But the extremities of this play's bizarre sex and violence, strung together with barely a discernible plot, have instantly slipped into legend.

Few people would deny that one of the functions of theater is to shake up establishment notions and attitudes, to urge people to think in new ways. That said, ''Blasted'' has brought clearly to the fore the fact that there is a line between intelligent shaking up and an unfocused, immature desire to simply attract attention.

Defending 'Blasted'

Royal Court's international award-winning artistic director, Stephen Daldry (''An Inspector Calls''), spoke on national TV to defend his theater's production, largely by reading excerpts from reviews of controversial plays from decades past, now considered classics, suggesting that ''Blasted'' may eventually be judged similarly.

Hardly. And the reason is all too evident when you compare it with another unremittingly gritty, violent, and earthy new play that is the undeniable hit of the season.

''Killer Joe,'' at the Vaudeville Theatre, is also a new play, in this case by American actor Tracy Letts (a man, despite the first name). Both ''Blasted'' and ''Killer Joe'' are the epitome of excess -- but there is a world of difference. And while ''Blasted'' was uniformly trounced by the critics, ''Killer Joe'' has been hailed as a production of near perfection.

This is not a case of the British embracing a show that affirms their stereotypes of Americans, a phenomenon that clearly happens in reverse when British productions arrive on Broadway. In fact, an American transplant to the British stage often falls flat precisely because it is seen as a too-cliched view of Americans.

''Killer Joe'' has made such an impact here for several reasons. By sticking to theater basics, which modern drama -- whether British or American -- frequently does not, it holds the audience's attention with a tale that has a strong beginning, middle, and end. When the excesses do occur, rather than being gratuitous, they arise out of a tight structure that actually serves to ratchet up the dramatic tension. On top of this, the skillful interplay of hilarity with dramatic tension makes audiences reflect on what they are seeing and laughing about, even days later.

Moral inquiry at the center

Displaying magnificent ensemble acting by an all-American cast from Chicago's Hired Gun Theater Company, the story is set among a family living in a rundown trailer park on the outskirts of Dallas. This clan is, however, about as dysfunctional as it can be. The father, Ansel (Marc A. Nelson), places little value on anything apart from the quality of reception on his constantly droning TV set. His son, Chris (Mike Shannon), a failed rabbit farmer, has since decided to turn his hand to the thing he knows most about -- drug dealing. But Chris is now in debt to the mob. His payback scheme is to hire a man called Joe, a high-ranking member of the Dallas police force who runs a thriving hit-man business on the side, to murder his alcoholic mother for her rumored $50,000 insurance money.

The play barrels on with not a shred of morality, save the oddly incongruous touches of Christian observance, such as the holding of hands and saying grace before their meals of greasy take-out food. At the play's end, after a catalog of unspeakable happenings including incest, the audience learns that more horrors are in store for the next generation.

Where ''Blasted'' failed, ''Killer Joe,'' in the best dramatic tradition, links the actions of its characters with fundamental moral inquiry at every turn. We come to realize that these exaggerated but wholly recognizable people are not amoral, but premoral: Poverty, lack of education, breakdown of a recognizable family structure, plus a society that breeds crooked authority figures, all contribute to creating people who are not inherently bad. They simply have never learned how to be good. There are no strong models of morality and goodness within their existence.

Moreover, although the cultural references of ''Killer Joe'' are American, there is a universality about the play's message that transcends such parochialism. What it says about the problems of modern society today could be applied to England, Germany, or even Russia. It is this that makes the play such a gem.

The rest of the London theater season has been mediocre. The West End currently boasts its usual parade of productions, but the problem lies in the fact that British producers are fixing an eye on the all-important American-tourist dollar and, better yet, the Broadway transfer. The Anglo-American connection succeeds when British producers bring American shows such as ''Killer Joe'' to London, where native-audience appreciation for plays, as opposed to musicals, is still comparatively high. On the debit side, when those same British producers' perceptions of American tastes are allowed to dominate London productions, it is disturbing.

There is, for instance, the season's big musical event, the revival of ''Oliver!'' at the London Palladium, starring Jonathan Pryce (of ''Miss Saigon'' fame). This is a worthy offering, but devised to please audiences with its familiarity rather than innovation. Pryce, not coincidentally a former Broadway Tony Award winner, is competent and a sure crowd puller, yet, for all his natural presence, he is not a versatile enough singer, dancer, or comedian to set the pivotal character of Fagin alight.

''Only the Lonely,'' at the Piccadilly Theatre, formulaically follows other American rock singer stage ''bios.'' In this case, it's Roy Orbison. the show is the usual faithful re-creation of the man, his era, and his music. But, given the thin story line, you do have to be an Orbison fan to enjoy it.

''A Passionate Woman,'' at the Comedy Theatre, is the tale of a post-middle-aged housewife who does not know how to escape her humdrum lot. Eventually she discards it all to forge her own off-beat path, the play's cheerful ''Shirley Valentine''-reprise message being: It's never too late to be true to yourself.

New York sensibilities

And there is the multi-award-winning ''A Night With Reg,'' at the Criterion Theatre. Yet again, the perceived sensibilities of New York are creeping too obtrusively into London's West End, with homosexuality the ''in'' topic on stage here at the moment. Throw in a theme centered around AIDS as well, and the dramatist is virtually guaranteed critical acclaim; ''A Night With Reg,'' a comedy-drama, has all three.

Yet, if given a hard, unflinching look, the play barely goes below the surface of mildly amusing stereotypes and suggestive one-liners. More significantly, what began as part of the shock-effect trend has long since transmuted into predictable political correctness that will ultimately kill off audience interest in the play.

A raft of reasons are typically cited for dwindling theatergoing, but close to the heart of the matter is that less of the crowd-pleasing mentality is needed on stage today, if the art is to be kept vital and vibrant.

Few people would deny that one of the functions of theater is to shake up establishment notions and attitudes, to urge people to think in new ways.

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