In early August, STC scheduled a private (closed) reading in New York of Jeffrey Hatcher’s new adaptation of The Critic. Michael Kahn, our Artistic Director, is directing it this year, in rep with Tom Stoppard’s Real Inspector Hound. We had decided to commission our own adaptation so we could pair these two classic comedies about critics. As Michael says, “The critics have had so much fun with me over the years, so why can’t I have some fun with them?” Jeffrey volunteered to shrink the three-act Sheridan play (the entire third act is an operatic naval battle) down into one act, and to alter the cast configuration so the roles could double easily with Hound. As Jeffrey says, “the real star of the show is going to be velcro.” That may be so, but Michael still wanted to hear the play read out loud by a talented group of actors before we hit rehearsals. He also wanted Alan Paul, our Associate Artistic Director, to direct the morning session so that he could hear the piece with totally fresh ears.
These kinds of closed readings can be invaluable for the development of a new work. They can also be nerve-wracking, and tend to have the air of an impromptu audition: by the actors, by the playwright, by the play. There’s a famous story of a closed performance of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum where the producers were so unenthusiastic that Sondheim & co. rushed back to write a new opening song, though they wouldn’t end up finding “Comedy Tonight” until the show’s tryouts here in Washington.
Anyways. I took the train up and was there for the afternoon reading, arriving roughly the same time as Michael. We booked one of those New York studios in Chelsea that has nonstop auditions for touring productions of Broadway shows. Jeffrey had flown in from Minneapolis that morning, and had done some minor line rewrites during the rehearsal session with Alan. We talked on a break about his movie Mr. Holmes, which had just opened.
When you read a play, whether new or old, the same thing always happens. The production team is face to face with the material, as it truly is, no marketing blurbs or costumes getting in the way. The trick with a new play is to approach it as if it’s a classic: everything is there for a reason, and you need to figure it out without first recommending changes you think should be made. The trick with a classic is to approach it as if it’s a new play: this was a play written by a living person for a real company, once upon a time, and you have to understand how it was operating as a new work to decode its meaning for today.
After the reading, Jeffrey and Michael held an impromptu master class in dramaturgy. As Tim Treanor has recently pointed out, Michael Kahn is a jedi, and Jeffrey Hatcher is one of the fastest wits and rewriters in the contemporary American theatre, next to David Ives. For more than two hours, they talked through each beat in the show using these rubrics, what its function was, what information it contained, how it could be improved. It was a fascinating conversation.
The breakthrough came when we realized Sheridan had been satirizing show biz archetypes of the 1770s: the Hanger-On Critic, the Negative Nancy, the Puff Artist, and so on. But he hadn’t bothered explaining any of these jokes to the audience, figuring they were self-evident. We realized with a shock that we were sitting on top of a mountain of satirical jokes, whereas before we had only laughed at the ones arising from the farcical situation. I took notes and circulated them a few days later and voila!, Jeffrey sent a brand new draft of Act 1 reflecting this conversation and (not a coincidence) much, much funnier.