Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Sledgehammer Treatment

NY1’s Roma Torre earned her money sitting through The Culture Project’s Abu Graib inspired propaganda play, The Treatment. Her pan included phrases like:

“the execution is disappointingly heavy-handed”

“without identities, the characters fail to come to life. They are merely generic figures going through the contrived motions of trading roles as torturer and victim.”

“And both characters seem to degenerate into mouthpieces for the author as they sermonize about the new rules of war.”

“this anemically plotted work stretched so painfully thin makes 70 minutes feel awfully long.”

“Ensler’s sledgehammer treatment is numbing.”

I haven’t seen The Treatment (for the record, I’d be happy to review it with an open mind, if invited), but I’ve seen the poster (reflective of the play’s lack of subtly), so I have pretty much seen the play. Unfortunately, this is the state of Off-Broadway, with protest posters stretched into protest plays. Remember when the word “nuance” was celebrated as a fig-leaf for John Kerry’s flip-flopping? Well, nuance is out of style now. The sledgehammer approach is now in for Off-Broadway drama.

Two hours of hitting theater patrons over the head does not accomplish anything. Anyone even slightly undecided will be put off by the heavy-handed manipulation. Plays like The Treatment are not even preaching to the choir, but abusing the choir, hitting them over the head repeatedly.

Allan Buchman, the director of the Culture Project on an On Stage round table (evidently, no on-line transcript) last week sounded less interested in the events of 9-11 than the later political debates, saying: “The specific plays about 9-11 are a little less interesting to me than the effects of 9-11 on our country, and our people, and the choices our government has made.”

Nearly three thousand dead and scores of stories of heroism and sacrifice are not particularly dramatic to Buchman, but terrorist rights and the patriot act make good theater.

Actually they don’t according to Torre, at least in this case. Agit-prop theater pieces like The Treatment and Tim Robbins’ widely panned bomb at the Public Theater Embedded have been poorly received and have done nothing to advance their agendas. To be effective, political stories have to have a story that pulls you through, despite its point-of-view. A good example is The Constant Gardner, which is an extremely effective thriller, despite its anti-pharmaceutical company biases. We’re not seeing that kind of writing Off-Broadway.

At one point in the round table Buchman said: “We’re not ready to have an unbiased conversation about this [issues of terrorism and the Middle East].” That was certainly true of the On Stage panel discussion, with no voice of dissent invited to support the War on Terrorism. It was just another display of group think conformity, so common in New York right now.

One wonders what Torre and the loyal supporters of the Culture Project will have to suffer through next. A revival of Embedded perhaps?