The writer D. H. Lawrence, who lived in New Mexico in his later years, was unsentimental about America.
“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
In that opinion, the famed British writer is in sync with a trio of Broadway shows this season limning the American dream with dark and disturbing shadows. That is to be expected from the stage adaptation of “Network,” based on the 1976 film classic in which the late Paddy Chayefsky drew an excoriating portrait of corrupt corporate power manipulating a pliable public. The show, starring Bryan Cranston, opened to rave reviews and continues at the Belasco Theatre through June 8.
And, come April, cynicism will abound at the American Airlines Theatre generated through the Roundabout’s revival of “All My Sons,” Arthur Miller’s 1947 sulfurous drama implicating a military contractor in the deaths of dozens of airmen because of cowardice and greed.
But what to make of director Daniel Fish’s revival of “Oklahoma!”, which casts a jaundiced eye at what has heretofore been regarded as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s wartime paean to sunny, can-do American optimism “as high as an elephant’s eye”?
When the production was at St. Ann’s Warehouse last year, Sara Holdren in New York Magazine wrote, “Fish’s production… retains the vivacity of the 1943 musical about two girls, four boys, and a box social, while revealing just how much sinister fog is mixed in with the show’s ‘bright golden haze.’ The production’s sense of menace isn’t grafted onto the material but dug up from inside it, like a murky subterranean stream trickling beneath a sunny cornfield.”
Since this revival opened, first at Bard College in the summer of 2015 and then at St. Ann’s, this re-imagined “Oklahoma!” — which opens on Broadway April 7 — has attracted both devotees and detractors. The former have been electrified by its bold staging, including modern dress, miked scenes done in blackout or enlarged on video screen, and a kangaroo court intended to wash off the stain of a possible murder. Purists have been mystified by the radical changes, even though not one line in the original script has been altered. Fish maintains that he has nothing but respect for the original.
As for the moral ambiguity, the director maintains it’s in the text. “I think the idea of a community sacrificing justice in the name of a wedding night is something that I’m interested in,” he said in a recent interview with ALL ARTS. “I thought I knew [the show] very well but then I read it and realized I didn’t know it very well at all. I wanted to give the audience a chance to really hear it.”
Though the original musical is set in 1906 when Oklahoma was a territory on the cusp of becoming a state, Fish insists that the revival is contemporary. He calls it “a work that is about how the world is that we’re living in right now.” Hence, the lead couple is interracial, with Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey and Damon Daunno as Curly. The flirtatious Ado Annie is played by Ali Stroker, who is wheelchair bound. What is most provocative is that the sheriff, Cord Elam, who attempts to call the good country folk to account for their skewed justice, is played by Anthony Cason, an African-American actor.
Mary Testa, who plays the flinty matriarch Aunt Eller, said that her interpretation pivots around the concept of who is an insider versus who is an outsider in the community, and the potential threat posed by the latter. She noted a “back story” to her performance, which adds another layer of racism to the proceedings. “I’m watching Anthony [as Cord] flirting with the girls and in my mind, she’s thinking, ‘You can’t be fresh with the white women, black boy.’ Aunt Eller decides what is right for this community,” Testa said.
Like Sheriff Elam in “Oklahoma!”, Howard Beale, the mad prophet of “Network,” calls attention to corruption in modern-day society, aided and abetted by a media hungry for ratings and fueled by a complicit American public. He rants, “If there’s anyone out there who can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in and tell me man is a noble creature, believe me, that man is full of bullshit.”
Though Chayefsky won his Oscar for his coruscating screenplay decades ago, the parallels to current times are evident. Ben Brantley, reviewing “Network” in The New York Times, wrote, “It seems safe to say that such emotions are very much with us again, if they ever really went away. And when it’s in sensory attack mode (as opposed to podium lecture mode), this revamped ‘Network,’ piously adapted from Chayefsky’s screenplay by Lee Hall, feels as pertinent to our time as it did to its own.”
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The populist rage expressed in the “Network” mantra, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore,” was stoked in the aftermath of Watergate, which exposed the id of American politics. While soul-searching in America today seems as prevalent, given the daily blast of cynical headlines, writers have always found fertile ground in dissecting the dissonance between the ideals espoused by those in power and the sins they commit. Few writers were more devoted to holding America’s feet to the fire than Arthur Miller, who for his pains was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956.
What got Miller in hot water was “All My Sons,” in which he laid bare the lengths to which a ruthless businessman, Joe Keller, would go to hide his role in a scandal that would destroy many families, including his own. The playwright sketched his morality play contrasting Joe’s expediency versus the idealism of his son, Chris. When the truth is finally revealed, Chris confronts his father: “I know you’re no worse than other men, but I thought you were better.”
Chayefsky and Miller never stopped dissecting America’s struggle to live up to its ideals. And while “Oklahoma!” may seem an unusual vehicle through which to address the country’s moral quandaries, Rodgers and Hammerstein were not skittish about tackling dark subjects, whether racism in “South Pacific” or the nasty specter of Nazism in “The Sound of Music.” It is a matter of debate whether, if they were alive, the famed team would run screaming from the Circle in the Square Theatre where “Oklahoma!” is now ensconced. But it is also arguable that they would be amazed that a show they wrote more than 70 years ago still had lessons to impart to a troubled and questioning America.
Top Image: Bryan Cranston in "Network." Photo by Jan Versweyveld.