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December 21, 2007

Why are playwrights writing such short plays these days? Feels like an hour and a half is the limit on a lot of new work. Occasionally I'll see a muscular little thing, whose compactness seems only to enhance its brilliance. An example is Caryl Churchill's A Number. When I saw a production of this play at A.C.T., I was left wanting more. But in a good way.

But more often than not though, an hour or so will pass, the actors will take their bows and I'll exit the theatre feeling like I'd been invited to someone's home for dinner and been given a couple of slices of cheese, a few crackers and some nuts. Rebecca Gilman's latest effort, The Crowd You're in With, left me feeling decidedly underfed.

This was also the case last night when I went to see Adam Bock's The Shaker Chair at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage. If this riff on the theme of environmental activism had been half of the show, with another drama presented in the second half, I may have felt a little less let down. But the play came across as a one-act and a flimsy one at that. If I'd actually paid for my seats (I was reviewing for SF Weekly so I had press tickets) I would have felt robbed.

Like many playwrights perhaps driven to believe that plays have to be short in order to sell these days, Bock has written a number of plays of modest length lately, like The Thugs and The Receptionist. My impression is that these works have been very well received, although I haven't seen them myself. Les Waters of Berkeley Repertory Theatre raved about The Thugs.

I don't think that plays have to be any particular length to be enjoyable -- to make us feel like we've learned something new or been transported to another place. But they need to have substance, whatever the length.


  • Yay! I'm so happy to read a critic or anyone speak in favor of longer plays, which some unspoken rule deems bad and a poor sell by definition. I've seen good and bad 90-minute plays, and good and bad 5-hour plays. Running time was not the problem in any case. As you say, substance is indeed the main point, not length. Thanks for voicing this. --Mark J

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 21, 2007 at 3:52 PM  

  • thanks for your thoughts Mark
    i just wrote at length on this theme for an upcoming essay in SF Weekly (coming out on 1/2). i think whatever the length, you've got to leave your audiences feeling like they've been engaged. leaving people "wanting more" can be a good thing if you've been engaged during the journey. but i usually find that this feeling has nothing to do with length.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At December 21, 2007 at 4:30 PM  

  • "August: Osage County" left me wanting more after almost three and a half hours.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 21, 2007 at 5:41 PM  

  • i'm going to try to catch this play in nyc in january, kerry. i felt the same way about steppenwolf's production of The Crucible. Three hours flew past. I was completely engrossed. I've seen this play performed countless times before but this production made me feel like i'd never seen the play before.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At December 22, 2007 at 12:05 PM  

  • Very interested to hear what you think of the Letts piece. I'm obviously on record as loving that play immoderately, but I tend to think that even people who don't find it the most groundbreaking thing ever will still find it hugely entertaining and exquisitely directed and performed. (To quote a colleague of mine here in Chicago: "Amy Morton has ruined me for other women." Indeed. If we can find a way for the Tonys to arrange a tie between her and Deanna Dunagan, that would make me really happy.)

    I think I'm going to plan a trip to NYC in February, so I can see A:OC and also this other great Chicago import:

    Of course, I'll try to take in some shows that didn't originate in Chicago, as well. Though I just looked at the Top Ten SF Chronicle list and noticed that three of the shows ("After the Quake," "Argonautika," and "The Bluest Eye") all premiered in my lil burg. So that's some comfort for not always being able to travel to see shows as much as I'd like.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 30, 2007 at 10:46 PM  

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