Playwrights Whose Plays I Can Be Friends With…But Not Date

As a director, playwright, and professor with three college degrees in theatre, I’ve read a few plays.  Quite a few, in fact.  There are some that I loved, some that I hated, and some that fell somewhere in between—somewhere between “meh” and “fine.”  And then there’s a separate category that frustrates me a bit:  the plays that I can tell are well written and maybe even historically important, but that I just don’t like nearly as much as I feel I should.  It’s like having dinner at the swankiest restaurant in town and leaving hungry.  Or, better yet, like going on a blind date with someone your friends think is perfect for you, but who you don’t feel any chemistry with.  Maybe someone you might want to go see a movie with or invite over to play poker with your friends, but not someone you want to marry, sleep with, or even kiss for that matter.  I feel that way about a bunch of playwrights.

I’ve tried really, really hard to love them, partly because everyone tells me I should.  I’ve read one of their best known, most respected plays only to find I didn’t really like it…but then I decided to move on to another of their works anyway, thinking maybe I just picked a work that doesn’t represent their best writing.  And I read that next play and go “Meh.  Okay.  Fine.  Not horrible.  I can see why some people like this, but I just…I just…I don’t know.  It doesn’t grab me, you know?  It doesn’t touch me where I live.  It’s a nice play, but I don’t see a future for us together.”

The worst part of this is that some of the playwrights on this list are kinda big.  I mean, big deal playwrights who I feel like I shouldn’t admit I don’t love for fear of having someone come repossess my doctorate or something.  I’m trying to get over that feeling, and listing my top ten (or my bottom ten) here is my first step.  (I’ve limited the list to 20th/21st century American playwrights for now.  Lists of other writers from other times who I also feel this way about will  follow.  And Bertolt Brecht will, alas, be at the top of the heap.  I feel dirty for even saying it, but it’s true.)

Ranked in Reverse Order of How Likely I Think People Are To Be Appalled by Me For Saying So

10.  Adam Rapp. His play The Metal Children opened off-B’way with Billy Crudup.  Red Light Winter was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama…in a year in which no prize was awarded.

9.  Tracy Letts. Won the Pulitzer for August: Osage County.  It was a very long play with lots of characters yelling at each other a lot.

8.  Beth Henley. Crimes of the Heart has been done by every single college and community theatre in the Western Hemisphere.  Which doesn’t mean it’s bad.  I’m just saying I don’t get the appeal.

7.  Horton Foote. Won the Pulitzer for The Young Man From Atlanta and a special Drama Desk Award for his recent Orphans’ Home Cycle. Seems like a perfect southern gentleman.

6.  David Rabe.  Wrote In the Boom Boom Room and Hurly Burly. Sorry.  I tried really hard to care about those characters.  I really did.

5.  Lillian Hellman. I wish I liked The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes as much as I liked her speech where she basically told the House Un-American Activities Committee to piss off.

4.  Clifford Odets. Awake and Sing! made me want to do neither.  There’s no denying that Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy are American classics.  But that still doesn’t make me love them.  Alas.

3.  Edward Albee. Okay, now we’re getting to the big biggies.  I love Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Goat, but I never understood the hype surrounding The Zoo Story or Three Tall Women.  And I know that he’d think I’m a bourgeois neanderthal for liking Virginia, but not appreciating stuff like The Lady from Dubuque. When I read his plays I get this eerie feeling he’s standing behind me judging me for not liking his plays.

2.  Eugene O’NeillLong Day’s Journey… is a brilliant play, but when I try to read most of his other stuff–especially the plays written in dialect–I feel like I’m being unjustly punished for a crime I didn’t commit.

1.  Tennessee Williams. I’m sorry.  Forgive me, really.  You can name all his good, famous plays and talk about how they’re genius, and sure, some of them are great…but to me, reading most of Williams’ plays is like eating an entire chocolate cheesecake for breakfast when you have a terrible hangover.

I wanted to keep the list to ten…because that seems the trendy thing to do.  Among the runners-up and honorable mentions, however, are the following:

  • Alan Ball
  • Stephen Belber
  • Nilo Cruz
  • Rebecca Gilman
  • Stephen Adly Guirgis
  • Romulus Linney
  • Ken Ludwig
  • William Mastrosimone
  • Christopher Shinn
  • Wendy Wasserstein
  • Craig Wright

Again, just to be clear…I’m not saying these are bad playwrights.  They’re all good playwrights.  And I’m sure all of them are (or were, as the case may be) lovely human beings.  It’s not them, it’s me.

Who’s on your list?  I urge you to confess in the comments section below.  I won’t judge you.  Promise.

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3 Responses to Playwrights Whose Plays I Can Be Friends With…But Not Date

  1. Joel Harmon says:

    I’m not too terribly offended by anything on here, to be honest. Albee is the most surprising. But then, you say you love the two by him that I would care about. I’m right there with you on Williams and O’Neill. Read their work in grad school because I felt I should and boy, it was a struggle. You may not be willing to say that Rebecca Gilman is a bad playwright, but I will. Can’t stand her. She’s probably my most hated playwright that others think is worthwhile.

    My own personal blasphemy is Sam Shepard. I recognize his talent, but I just don’t connect to the material.

    Your Brecht confession is disturbing though. I have a feeling I will be more shocked and appalled by your European choices.

  2. katie says:

    oh man, letts?! i really love august. but perhaps it was because i loved the live performance and not so much the written text. and, y’know, i am kind of partial to a lot of people yelling at each other.

    this is funny. most of them i’m in complete agreement with. including brecht. especially hellman — my gosh, i never understood how her writing always came across as being so bland when she seemed like such a passionate person. i’m interested to know who your favorite playwrights are. and, like the first commenter said, the european playwrights you can be friends with but not date.


  3. Mike says:

    Yeah. I really want to like Guirgis. I really want to love him, but I often feel like he quit halfway through. Last Days is amazing. I love it, but I tend to struggle with his others. I want to see another top ten list. Can you do a top ten or twenty. Of actors who are good but have really stopped trying. I would love to see that list.

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