McGinn/Cazale Theater 2162 Broadway (76th St.), 4th fl., 279-4200, through Oct. 31.
Tinpot Cromwell Three and a half centuries ago, following a catastrophic civil war, the government of England was entrusted to a man with even more contempt for pluralistic democracy than the current Mayor of New York. According to his biographers, Oliver Cromwell wasn't by nature a pinched puritanical bully like Rudy Giuliani but rather a charismatic military commander who privately prized republican government and felt that despotic repression was sadly necessary to preserve the Puritans' political gains and unpopular moral principles.
It may seem strange to compare a Protestant famous for persecuting Catholics with a Catholic supposedly pumped up these days with religious indignation over what he thinks is a shitty painting (among other supposedly "sick" artworks in the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" exhibition), but Helen Edmundson's The Clearing, set in Ireland during the years 1652-'55, suggests some chilling similarities. The stiff-necked former prosecutor has obviously convinced himself that the moral gains of his tenure?based on the dream of an antiseptic, Disneyfied, economically ethnic-cleansed New York?justify the most egregious autocratic excesses and abrogations of civil rights. And he hides his inquisitorial bad faith (from himself above all) behind a mask of earnest civic duty, while accusations of despotism and tyranny, as well as the simplest requests to own up to small mistakes, bounce off him like so many clumps of dried elephant dung.
The Clearing takes place during a period when Cromwell, unable to pay the army that helped him consolidate his power, engaged in real ethnic cleansing, confiscating Irish land belonging to Catholics and anyone else who supported the Royalists in the civil war and awarding it to those of proven loyalty to the Commonwealth. The hatreds created in this campaign, which also involved arrest, deportation and servitude in the West Indies of Irish women and, later, Nuremberg-style laws depriving Irish Catholics of political rights, persist to this day. In Edmundson's play?produced with almost the same cast in Hartford last spring and in Poughkeepsie in 1997?an English gentleman named Robert Preston (Michael Countryman), married to a courageous and loving Irish woman named Madeleine (Alyssa Bresnahan), mistakenly imagines he can hold on to his land by repeatedly placating the English authorities.
Preston refuses to take a moral stand, even in the face of mounting outrages such as the arrest and rape of Killaine Farrell (Patricia Dunnock), Madeleine's closest friend who also worked in their house. He is soon forced to make irrevocable choices, though, which eventually cost him his marriage, the beloved child he hoped to save, and what's left of his moral fiber. His is a tragedy of appeasement different only in degree from the one the directors of New York's major museums dallied with during their week of silence before finally protesting the famously vindictive Mayor's attempt at unilateral censorship.
This Blue Light Theater production of The Clearing, directed by Tracy Brigden, is held together primarily by Bresnahan's superb performance as Madeleine. By turns luxuriously passionate and ferociously determined, Bresnahan is so compelling in the role that one often forgets how improbable such a mentally and physically independent woman would have been in 17th-century Ireland. Countryman is quite strong as Robert as well, but the work's insurmountable weakness is political one-sidedness. Edmundson obviously convinced herself that the psychosexual details of the Prestons' disintegrating marriage provided all the complexity needed in an action set against a political evil as infuriating as the one in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Puritanism in this work is represented solely by a priggish, one-dimensional villain named Sir Charles Sturman (Sam Catlin), the local governor, who says things like: "The Irish are devils... In truth, there are many of Cromwell's men who swear they found tails on Irish corpses." At least Miller gave his Salem witch-hunters a few interesting speeches of justification.
Which brings me back to Giuliani and a point I think has not been sufficiently stressed in the widespread coverage of his attacks on the BMA. The Mayor's holier-than-thou ignorance, like all know-nothing public argument that is dignified by indignant posturing, has made the job of every teacher, critic and curator in our educationally beleaguered country just a little bit harder. In perpetuating the lazy-minded idea that anyone's opinion about an artwork, no matter how uninformed, deserves wide attention as long as he claims to be offended, Giuliani has edged this glibness-plagued culture one inch closer to mental oblivion. Every smugly cynical interview he gives on the subject with a fawning talk-show host makes the task of pointing out, say, the broad-brush simplifications of a play like The Clearing seem slightly more exhausting and futile. And Giuliani has distinguished fellow travelers in reductionism.
William Safire, in his Sept. 30 New York Times editorial entitled "Manichaean Madness," all but admitted that the isolation of art from its context was an article of right-wing faith. (How inconvenient it has been that Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, for instance, the work at the center of the storm, is a reverential painting and would seem so, I feel sure, to any unprejudiced viewer.) Safire began his essay with simplistic thumbnail descriptions of hypothetical artworks he was sure would offend if shown in the National Gallery ("a statue of Moses wearing a Nazi swastika... [A] painting of a violent Martin Luther King Jr. forcing Elizabeth Cady Stanton into submission"). Then he breezed on to other matters, assuming that the analogy of such sketchily described works irrefutably proved the BMA's "real-life abuse of public responsibility, good taste and artistic license." It plainly never occurred to him that even such seemingly taboo images might be conceived complexly in some circumstances and be selected responsibly by curators who know more about them than he does. Any Manichaeanism in the BMA flap stems from this sort of refusal to discuss the art on anything but the crudest level.
Like most critics who have reviewed the show (I recommend Jed Perl's piece in The New Republic, Peter Schjeldahl's in The New Yorker and Christian Viveros-Fauné's in last week's NYPress), I recognize that the BMA is far from innocent in this affair?after all, the exhibition is called "Sensation." I also concede that the perceived trampling of people's cherished beliefs is a legitimate gripe in a publicly financed institution?to be considered during elections and budget battles with the City Council, perhaps, but not punitively addressed through the withholding of already allocated funds and the eviction of a venerable museum from its building after 106 years. Obviously, some contemporary art is deliberately aggressive and provocative, as much important art has been at least since the publicly funded ancient Greek playwrights questioned Athenian policy in the Peloponnesian War. Although I liked most of the "Sensation" show, I'd have some sympathy with the Mayor if I thought he was truly offended in this case.
Giuliani's bad faith has been evident from the very beginning, however: in his continuing refusal to see the disputed art; in his refusal to speak to BMA director Arnold Lehman in the days before legal action made discussion impossible; in his memory lapse, revealed by The New York Times, about the detailed briefing he and his aides received on the show's content months earlier; in the swiftness of his "gotcha" response to Hillary Rodham Clinton after she associated herself with Peter Vallone's qualified defense of the BMA; in City Hall's leak of its secret negotiations with BMA board chairman Robert S. Rubin about the possibility of segregating the offending works; in the Mayor's fishing expedition for complaints other than sacrilege after the museum began defending itself (restriction of children under 17, violation of the building lease, conspiracy with Christie's); and in his selective persecution of the BMA after years of ignoring far more straightforward artistic attacks on religion in other city-supported institutions (such as the screening of classic surrealist and Soviet films).
The Mayor has obviously decided to bet his Senate campaign on the loyalty and influence of "the idiot vote"?that is, those with no desire to understand either art or the First Amendment beyond his view of it as a protection for the majority opinion as represented by him and his personal taste. The Holy Virgin herself will not help us if his cynical gambit pays off.
Epic Proportions by Larry Coen & David Crane
Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St. (betw. B'way & 8th Ave.), 239-6200.
Epic Proportions is one of those sweeping Broadway disasters whose sheer feebleness and insubstantiality make you marvel that the writers ever got a producer to pay for it. A romantic comedy by the children's playwright and director Larry Coen and the tv writer David Crane, set in an American desert during the filming of a gigantic Cecil B. DeMille-style epic, it's a painfully elongated variety-show sketch that forgets to provide any reason to care about its situation or its early-film-based humor. Kristin Chenoweth plays the lead with her expected pizzazz, and is fun to watch as a sexually active director's assistant after her little-girl Sally in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Neither she nor anyone else could possibly rescue such a lame comedy, though. The scenario might fill four minutes on late-night tv with modest amusement, but at 70 long, intermissionless minutes, puffed up with monumental sets and costumes that amount to unfunny visual jokes, it's positively deadly. Other critics report that the show ran 85 minutes two weeks ago, and two hours with an intermission during previews. The less said about it, or in it, apparently, the better.