Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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Longing for Live Theatre

Vineyard Gazette commentary by Arnie Reisman

My passion for live theatre is now on hold. The Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, where I serve as board chair, remains dark in these dark times. I am fated to be soothed by virtual versions of inspiration, excitement and delight until further notice.

Elizabethan theaters in London were frequently closed during outbreaks of the bubonic plague. Officials ruled that once the death rate exceeded 30 per week, the curtain would come down and stay down. By the last outbreak, a third of London had died. During plague times, Shakespeare, now out of work as a playwright as well as an actor, managed to turn out scripts for King Lear, Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra and The Tempest, plus a slew of sonnets. During his 52 years on the planet, the Bard’s career was stopped five times by epidemics.

My passion was first stoked by Shakespeare. As a teen I saw his plays performed in the majestic space of the Red Rocks amphitheater carved in the Colorado Rockies. My passion blossomed through summer stock visits and into college forays to Broadway and Off-Broadway.

At 23 I became the Boston “tryout” critic for Variety, the weekly show business newspaper that’s served as the industry’s “most trusted source” since 1905. In one swoop of the pen, I nearly decapitated that slogan. I’ll get to that in a moment.

My job was to review each Broadway-bound show trying out in Boston. Productions would open in such places as Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Haven and Washington DC, work out the kinks for a few weeks and then make the giant leap to Broadway, holding its breath, dreaming of success.

At the same time, I was the arts & entertainment editor of the Quincy Patriot Ledger, a suburban daily on the South Shore. Since my job there was to review any theatre in the Boston area, the Variety gig fit easily into my schedule. When I think back on it, back to the late ‘60s and ‘70s, my working habits were right out of Damon (Guys & Dolls) Runyon. I would go off to an 8 p.m. tryout opening at Boston’s Colonial, Schubert or Wilbur theatre, take my aisle seat, scribble notes all over the Playbill program in the dark, then dash out before the curtain call. I’d run about four seedy blocks to a Western Union office on the downtown fringe. There I sat at 11 p.m. in the back of a Dickensian message shop on its last legs, tapping away at what looked like a typewriter with a thyroid condition, a pencil over one ear, an unlit cigarette over the other, a brimmed hat pushed back over a fevered brow. Critic at work: Do not disturb!

Somewhere past midnight, my life-affirming proclamation or death sentence was on its way to Variety’s office in New York, thanks to Western Union’s historic technology. And I was off to find my car and go home to bed.

In 1966 along came a musical called Cabaret on the threshold of stardust, if only it could get past me. A Brechtian show about nightclub life in Berlin on the eve of the Nazi takeover, it is based on a play that was based on a book. The cast starred Jill Haworth and Joel Grey and featured the songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Not exactly household names at the time. My take on its initial long-windedness was not very kind. I banged out my pan and off it went to that Broadway bible.

Before I could leave Western Union, there was a call for me. After a quick glance, my editor in New York said of my review: “Are you sure you want to go with this? The show’s getting a lot of good advance buzz.”

In my youthful certitude, I replied: “Who wants to see a Nazi musical?” I said this two years before Mel Brooks released his film “The Producers.”

Okay, so I was wrong.

A few months later came redemption in the form of the Royal Shakespeare production of The Homecoming by Harold Pinter. On its way to New York, this stunner of a play put the fun in family dysfunction. Pinter created a pregnant pause like no other, dark enough to hold Rosemary’s baby. The woman seated in front of me must have read the Salem witch trials into them. She abruptly stood up in the second act and announced, “This isn’t Christian! This is Boston!,” then promptly dragged her husband out of that den of theatrical iniquity.

Right after my praise hit Variety, Alexander Cohen called me. The American producer of The Homecoming expressed his gratitude: “The same critic who knocks Cabaret digs Harold Pinter! I’m sending you a dozen tickets to Broadway shows. It’s the least I could do.”

That production won four Tony awards including Best Play.

At the time, the Boston-Cambridge theatre scene was quite vital and experimental. It was also a hot bed of rising stars. Dustin Hoffman, Blythe Danner and Paul Benedict trod the boards at the Theater Company of Boston while a few blocks away Al Pacino and Jill Clayburgh honed their craft at the Charles Playhouse. Across the river at Harvard, I saw plays featuring John Lithgow and Tom (soon to be Tommy Lee) Jones.

So now I await the return to normalcy and live theatre, to marvel at what can transpire on a stage, to take my place as a brick in the fourth wall. I have memories to make me smile. Nathan Lane put it best. One Christmas week when he was performing in Guys & Dolls on Broadway, he was so distracted by a couple smooching in the front row, he walked down to the stage apron and yelled at the culprits: “What am I – a Yule log?!”

Can’t wait for those lights to go up again.

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