How long will we keep going to plays?

I am a longtime playgoer. I have had a subscription at the Huntington Theater in Boston for more years than I care to think about, and for many years had one at the American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge.

I love plays. I also love trains, and my experiences on Amtrak are, regrettably similar to my recent experiences in playgoing.

Last night I saw The Miracle at Naples, by David Grimm. It is set in Naples in 1580, in is what suppose could be called a “comic romp”: a commedia dell’arte troupe comes to Naples, and the various members get into various scrapes, mostly sexual. There are some vague attempts to connect what happens to the miracle of the liquefaction of the blood of St. Gennaro, a local tourist draw, but the blood is eventually forgotten. It has the vaguely limp feel of the comic relief sections of a Jacobean drama, without the drama. There is nothing even vaguely 16th century about the characters, their issues, or their reactions. There is no plot, no real characters, and few good jokes. But the stage set, a courtyard dominated by a huge statue of St. Gennaro as bishop, was incredible, using perspective to make it look like the courtyard extended way back behind the stage.  But, as Dorothy Parker supposedly once said, the actors kept getting in front of it.

The play, to use a precise critical term, sucked. Most of the new plays the Huntington puts on suck. Some are just inept, while others are active offenses to the soul. The previous one we saw, Two Men of Florence, was a painfully earnest and labored play about Galileo (what do these people have about the 16th century?) by Richard Goodwin, speech writer to JFK and husband to Doris Kearns. This too had a great set, with a big turntable, stars that appeared in the sky, and dramatic experimental apparatus. But man was it dull. Not bad. Not even inept. Someone in a play workshop would probably feel justifiably proud of having written it. But it had no business wasting the time of a bunch of good actors (including Edward Hermann) or an audience, as part of a season of works to which we are supposed to pay attention.

Even the fairly good new plays by new authors the Huntington has put on (Sonia Flew by Melinda Lopez, Boleros for the Disenchanted by Jose Rivera, Well by Lisa Kron) suffer from poor structure, lack of ambition, and a kind of easy spiritual uplift. And the bad ones (most notably Persephone by Noah Haidle) are almost mesmerizingly bad. You have to rely on established writers, like Theresa Rebeck, Tom Stoppard, and David Lindsay-Abaire to get anything maybe worth watching.

Why should younger writers go for the theater?  There's more fun to be had, and more money to be made, in TV and movies, not to mention video games, YouTube videos, and corporate training videos.  I presume they write them as prestige resume builders.

So why do I go? I like to go to the theater, I like getting together for dinner with my friends, and I am always hopeful. But that hope is not immortal. And it’s not like the Huntington’s choices are bringing them in: playgoers are a graying demographic, and the performance I attended was more than half empty.

I keep wondering if I’ll ever have the nerve to boo and catcall. Routine standing ovations show that the form is moribund. Hearing a boo might reassure people that it still lives.

Who’s with me?