Posted on May 14, 2007 at 4:23 pm
I saw three shows this week while I was in New York. Two of them received reviews of such overblown ecstasy that one would have expected to burst into spontaneous orgasm the minute the curtain rose. The other one got tepid reviews and is having trouble finding an audience. Guess which one I thought was the best?
I’d heard about Coram Boy when I was in London last year; friends were raving about it when it was playing at the National. When I’d heard it was coming to New York, I expressed more than a little skepticism that it would find its audience. Without having seen it, I assumed it was very heavy and very British.
In fact, it’s an absolute delight from one end to the other, and I can’t imagine what’s going on that there is so much resistance to it from the theatrical community.
Coram Boy is, to put it plainly, a thrilling dramatic experience stuffed to the brim with so much inspired invention and theatricality that it exposes most of the claptrap currently suffocating Broadway for the calculated, half-assed, numbingly competent flotsam that it is. You will not find anywhere in New York another production that is so convinced of the magic of live theater, or one that is so convincing. The direction by Melly Still is nothing short of brilliant, one magnificent image after another. And the cast could not be bettered. The story (adapted from Jamila Gavin’s novel by Helen Edmundson) is gripping, exciting, and ultimately enormously moving.
I sat in the theater transfixed for the entire two and a half hours. And at the end of the first act, I looked at my friend, and I said, “This is awesome!” I could not, and cannot, imagine what anyone could find objectionable or unworthy of praise. It’s a first-rate experience.
So I re-read Isherwood’s review in the Times, trying to figure out what on Earth the problem is. Because I’m not actually one of those people who reflexively thinks that critics are stupid. I don’t disagree with the Times critics most of the time; even Brantley, who’s tone-deaf, generally comes to the same conclusions I do when he talks about non-musical pieces, though he is (believe it or not) much easier on many things than I am. The fact that the New York Times has never positively reviewed any of my shows is one of those things that has caused me on occasion to doubt my own talent. Until now.
As far as I can tell by reading Isherwood’s review, the problem is this: Coram Boy is not Copenhagen. Nor is it The Coast of Utopia, Hamlet or The Master Builders. Of course, it doesn’t claim to be. It’s a cracking good melodrama, directed and performed to a fare-thee-well. It is not an intellectual exercise. It is not a philosophical treatise. It’s just the most fun I’ve had in the theater in ages. And not stupid fun, like many other shows that Isherwood praises, but sharp, beautifully detailed and entirely compelling fun. This is apparently not enough. For some reason, I get the sense reading the review that this deeply felt and marvelously realized epic is not worth your time because it lacks the nuanced psychological depth of Death of a Salesman. I’m mystified by this.
It’s not like Isherwood’s the only person who’s less than entranced by Coram Boy. For the entire week I was in New York, I didn’t meet anyone who hadn’t heard that it was sort of a mess. None of those people had actually seen the show, however. And my mother, who’s a tough critic and who does not always share my tastes, saw the show and thought it was absolutely sensational.
So this entry is a corrective. Let it be spread far and wide. I preach the gospel of Coram Boy, because it is the kind of theater I love best in the world; committed, inventive, smart, professional, emotional, accessible, innovative. I’m out of superlatives, but I’d happily invent more. There are few things on Broadway that are worth the price of a ticket; I think Coram Boy is unquestionably one of them.
UPDATE: And of course, in keeping with my typical gift for understanding the desires of the theatergoing public, that party’s over. I highly recommend seeing it before it closes, and I look very much forward to whatever the creators come up with next.