Often when a writeris really smitten with an elegant phrase, she'll repeat it once or thrice so you don't miss it. That's why, if memory serves, Ed Naha included the pithy yet thought-provoking line "Aagghh!" so many times in his critically ballyhooed screenplay for C.H.U.D. 2: Bud the Chud. Lines constantly make encore appearances in Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown, usually through preternaturally accurate quotations from earlier onstage conversations. Were this Zach Curtis-directed Theatre in the Round production less entertaining than it is, I might have been more than mildly irked by Beane's rather artless repetition. I might even grouse about other textual shortcomings. But I wasn't and I won't, on the grounds that--here comes my guiding criterion--I had a pretty good time.
Despite the play's title, the hero of Bees isn't a sweet, penniless apiarist, but a sweet, penniless author (write what you know!). Evan Wyler (Mark L. Mattison, sensitive and fidgety) has an acclaimed first novel to his name, but he's still poor. Too poor, apparently, to even pay attention, which is why he misses the signs that his new patron, Alexa Vere de Vere (Sally Ann Wright), isn't the show-biz mogul she says she is. Alexa has borrowed her obnoxiously phony manner from Holly Golightly, Sally Bowles, and other fictional divas, which gives Wright the chance to do a lot of amusing vamping and camping.
Wright leads the cast, but let's give props to Dale Pfeilsticker's able utility work. As a high-end clothier, Pfeilsticker is as winningly goofy as his terrible wig; and as a plainspoken painter, he's as warm and likable as Beane's little script.
Last year we reported on the Guthrie Theater's improving but still rather dismal record of producing female playwrights. From 1995, when Joe Dowling became the Guthrie's artistic director, through the current season, 10 percent of the Guthrie's selections have been written or co-written by women (excluding tours, and counting A Christmas Carol once). While the 2003-'04 season was more woman-powered than usual, the recently announced 2004-'05 season is closer to the manly norm.
Of the nine non-Dickensian shows in the coming season, one, or perhaps one and a half, are by women. Julie Marie Myatt's The Sex Habits of American Women will play at the Guthrie Lab and Lisa Peterson will direct Ellen McLaughlin's adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus the King on the main stage. We'll count that latter offering as a sort of long-distance male-female collaboration, which brings the Guthrie's Dowling-era percentage of female-penned plays to almost 11 percent.
Typically, classics-based theaters like the Guthrie attribute the low turnout from female playwrights to the dearth of women in the canon. But since the Guthrie is doing more and more new and recent work, that excuse is less viable than ever. "It is a fact that increasingly in American theater, women playwrights are coming to the fore," Dowling said in an interview last week. "And if you look at the number of women playwrights that we've commissioned here, and the number of women playwrights who are involved in [Guthrie literary director] Michael Dixon's new play program, then there's a real growth. But when we choose a season, gender is not an issue, and it never will be as far as I'm concerned. The issue is the quality of the work."
Dowling's argument that quality, not gender (or, presumably, race or sexual orientation or left-handedness) is the artist-curator's first concern is fine to a point. But given the numbers, it obviously suggests that men are more than eight times as likely to produce quality work than women--a suspicious claim to say the least. On the bright side, Dixon is in fact commissioning, and collaborating with, a great many female playwrights. And considering that the Guthrie's new complex on the river will present more opportunities to do new work, we can, without undue optimism, expect to see an increase in distaff dramatists in the Guthrie's future. Right?