Why American-born playwright J.T. Rogers' plays are repeatedly produced first in England rather than this side of the Atlantic is somewhat beside the point, but here comes another one, his best to date and a must-see, especially for news-analysis junkies. First presented in a chilling production at London's National as expanded from Rogers' The Great Game: Afghanistan segment, it's Blood and Gifts, now at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse. Obviously disturbed at the endlessly exasperating United States involvement in Afghanistan and with inscrutable Pakistan, Rogers looks at the process by which this country clandestinely supplied matériel to ostensibly friendly forces following the 1979 Russian invasion.
James Warnock (Jeremy Davidson, fine but also perhaps auditioning for a tv police-procedural series) is a C.I.A. operative trekking back and forth from Pakistan and Afghanistan to locate sympathetic allies through the promise of rifles and, eventually, drones. Spending time with a Russian counterpart, amusing propagandist Dmitri Gromov (Michael Aronov) and with England's acerbic MI6 counterpart, Simon Craig (Jefferson Mays), Warnock also puts much delicate but unflagging effort into cultivating Abdullah Khan (Bernard White) and subordinate Saeed (Pej Vahdat) as U.S.-disposed supply recipients for the information et al. they can provide.
During the nearly three-hour-long play with its focus on the varieties of global politicking that go down on a daily basis, Rogers visits Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.) offices, which have been in the headlines more recently, of course, in tandem with the Osama bin Laden killing. He also has Warnock angling for the important support of a United States Senator (Robert Hogan, playing fictional Senator Jefferson Birch). There are numerous stops at international water-holes and watering holes of a totally different nature where the rifles are on more prominent display.
The point Rogers makes with extremely disturbing implications is that foreign policy -- certainly in the time of war and wherever it's being waged and by whom -- is strictly a pragmatic matter, exclusively expedient. There's no particular news in demonstrating that under those circumstances friendships between individuals can thrive while relationships between and among contending nations founder, but Rogers expresses the unchanging reality with gritty grace, and Bartlett Sher directs with equal harsh sensitivity. In the last minutes, Rogers also throws in a twist that's all the more crushing for what's preceded it.
Theresa Rebeck's Seminar at the Golden is enjoyable as long as those enjoying it understand the premise on which she builds the 100-minute comedy-drama is entirely bogus. The set-up is that four wannabe writers (Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry O'Connell, Hettienne Park -- all acquitting themselves well as directed by Sam Gold) have each paid $5000 for 10 sessions with Leonard (the mercurial Alan Rickman) a novelist who seems to have passed his story-writing peak and now makes ends meet by insisting to his seminar victims that good writing is only accomplished through an editor's no-holds-barred, line-by-line evisceration.
While Rebeck writes funny lines for all five sophisticated scribes to spew while becoming entangled in a couple of raunchy affairs that also dot her phony plot, it remains a puzzlement as to where she got her notion about how the best novels emerge. Maybe she either heard about or studied with Gordon Lish, whose publicized methods appear to have influenced her take on Leonard's. But where are all the writers Lish apparently read the riot act to before promoting in Quarterly, the new-writing periodical he published for several years? Is, say, Jonathan Franzen, the result of this type of training? Would John Updike have agreed that Leonard's attacks are obligatory?
At one point, Rebeck has Leonard mention Robert Penn Warren's creative writing course at Yale. The implication is that the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author instructed with the same tear-down-in-order-to-build-up technique. Full disclosure: This reviewer took that course. Nothing of the sort went on. A superb mentor, Robert Penn Warren was constantly encouraging and believed that reading great literature aloud was as helpful as anything he might say.
Perhaps Rebeck took his course, and it had changed in the later years. Probably not. More to the point, why are audiences being exposed to yet another of Rebeck's almost-but-not-quite-there plays? Persistently produced and commissioned (not to mention regularly connected with television series) she has a reputation that far outstrips what she puts on view. If she really believes Leonard's approach is necessary, maybe she should find someone like him and pay the $5000.
There are any number of reasons why musical comedy lovers may what to shell out $100 or as much as $500 to attend the November 30 concert at the Ambassador for the joint benefits of The Actors Fund and Vineyard Theatre. Being notably offered is The Visit, which songwriters Fred Ebb and John Kander adapted with librettist Terrence McNally from Friedrich Durrenmatt's play of the same title and which in this treatment stars Chita Rivera and John Cullum.
Since the tuner has yet to reach a Broadway stage -- though it's played Chicago and Arlington's Signature theater -- this may be the only chance to see what the Kiss of the Spider Woman trio were up to with a drama of even darker intrigue. It's also an opportunity to see Rivera, now 78, throw her legs as high as she ever has in a stately tango with six male dancers, all choreographed by the ever-Bob-Fosse-influenced Ann Reinking. (Yes, bowlers are snapped by hands with fingers extended just so.) Cullum, late of the Ebb-Kander-David Thompson Scottsboro Boys, is back for more of the tunesmiths' jauntily biting output. (But he is back in what could become a for-real Vineyard production?)
Possible the most intriguing reason to catch The Visit is to be able to decide whether the treatment of the scathing melodrama about forgiveness and retaliation -- in which Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne tendered magnificent performances the likes of which haven't been seen often since --remains essentially Durrenmatt or has become too Kander&Ebb. Viewers: ready, set, assess!