Every year there is at least one show I get excited about at The New Group. And then I go. About 50 percent of the time I am completely confused and miserable that I went, 45 percent of the time I'm uncomfortable at some point but happy I went and a mere 5 percent I completely, and joyously, understand what is going on. This has been happening for over a decade. And finally it hit me while seeing Sticks and Bones (a show that fell into the middle category of New Group experiences) -- Artistic Director Scott Elliott likes making people uncomfortable. That must be a guiding principle behind his choices.
I could go through the whole decade, but I'll start with just a few years back, at Russian Transport. I'm around the right age to be excited about seeing Janeane Garofalo act onstage. Plus, the show sounded like something my mother would love. A Jewish immigrant family is shaken by the arrival of a family member with a secret. Should I have known better? Well, I suppose I read it as if it was a soap opera (ala "Wait! The uncle had a kid with the mom! His sister!"). But I indeed should have known that such trivialities would generally not make the New Group stage. Instead the show involved sex trafficking and (in my vague recollection) someone getting molested with a gun.
The following year, I was thrilled when Gretchen Mol (who I think is great onstage) was appearing in The Good Mother. I found the show itself so horrible I didn't know what to do. None of it made any sense -- and then there were long pauses that made it worse because nothing before them was meaningful. (Clive that year I found bizarre; and Bunty Berman Presents..., which seems like it would be up my alley, simply lacking.)
Then last year came The Jacksonian by Beth Henley. One day I want to read the play because I can't imagine how it read. I believe it might have been hard to picture onstage. I think New Group put on the best production that there will ever be of it, with Ed Harris, Glenne Headly, Bill Pullman and Amy Madigan all giving great performances. I was happy I saw it. Nevertheless one can't escape the fact that, at points, it was confusing and maybe even squirm-worthy. (Intimacy was what you'd expect from Thomas Bradshaw; Annapurna just bad.)
Currently the New Group is putting on an acclaimed mounting of David Rabe's Tony-winning Sticks and Bones. I was excited to finally get to see Holly Hunter onstage, after years of thinking By The Bog of Cats (a show she starred in elsewhere) would make it to the New York stage somehow. She didn't disappoint nor did the rest of the cast, which also included Pullman and Richard Chamberlain. After hearing about the play throughout the years, simply as part of the David Rabe oeuvre, I was glad I saw it. However, as a sign of how divisive this show is, it had the weirdest audience reaction I've ever seen. Some people jumped to their feet, but many simply didn't applaud at all. It was as if shock caused them to be complete still.
And, thinking about it, many times I'm in shock in the audience at New Group shows, for better or worse. Elliott gets great people to do stuff there and I've heard from actors he is great to work with. Having interviewed him a decade ago, this doesn't surprise me. It's just his choices that are sometimes puzzling. But then -- is it harder to choose a risky work? Works that might be controversial are often the hardest for me personally to "get" on the page. Will it work? Is it too much? Will people understand it? Will it be too overt? Will it be too subtle? These are hard calls to make until a staging brings the work to life. (Sticks and Bones has of course been staged before, and indeed won the Tony Award, but it's so rarely produced, it's new to the majority of today's audience and creatives.)
I've come to admire people, and theater companies, that take the risk. You have to hand it to Elliott -- more than any other major off-Broadway theater company, The New Group consistently produces offbeat works. The final product often isn't for me, but my tastes aren't the tastes of every audience member. I was repulsed by Russian Transport, but the reviews weren't bad. In the end, if no theater company risked audience's ire, we'd lose something. It's not always theater's role to challenge -- I fully believe in theater as simply a form of entertainment -- but there is an important place for that sort of thing. Sometimes I even like that sort of thing.