THEATRE: And never the twain shall meet

Why do Broadway flops regularly achieve acclaim in London? And why do their critics rave over our rejects? By Matt Wolf
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Why would a quintessentially American play find an audience in London that has so far eluded it in New York? Tracy Letts's Killer Joe transfers on Tuesday to the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End on the back of nearly unanimous rave reviews; in Chicago, where the play premiered in 1993, the Sun Times critic Hedy Weiss called it one of the two worst shows of the year; Reader magazine dismissed the playwright, now 29, as "evil".

But there is also a curious reverse trend concerning the representation of Englishness. In New York, Eileen Atkins's two-hander, Vita and Virginia, has been the off-Broadway success of the season, drawing keen Bloomsburyites to see Vanessa Redgrave and Atkins play Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf; in London 18 months ago, the same play, with Atkins and Penelope Wilton, was a £100,000 flop.

How can a trip across the Atlantic make such a difference? 900 Oneonta, a Gothic pastiche by the Chicago writer David Beaird, came to London last summer, where it found ardent critical support for its portrait of a dysfunctional family - a portrait which exceeded the worst imaginings of Faulkner or Tennessee Williams, and one which American theatre-goers found hard to stomach. The fact that the avaricious cancer-plagued son Tiger identified himself with his blighted country - "I am America," he roars - undoubtedly pushed buttons of superiority in an English public: as Tiger decays, so does America.

Meanwhile, back in the land of Tiger, New York's non-profit-making Lincoln Centre Theater is devoting its two playhouses to the contrastingly erudite and witty worlds of Tom Stoppard's Hapgood and Arcadia. This unusual emphasis on one playwright is guaranteed to cater to an anglophilic public eager to leave behind exactly the violent, down-market, seemingly all-too-American milieu described in, say, Killer Joe. (Wait until these same New Yorkers see the all-too-English, all-violent Blasted off Broadway next autumn.) Killer Joe, incidentally, barely registered in its off-off-Broadway stint last autumn, beyond getting its author and director an agent. Only now is it being mooted for a commercial New York run on the strength of a London response that, Letts says, has "been kind of hard for me to grasp".

"We import things partly to go on holiday," explains Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of the Bush, where Killer Joe began its London run. In other words, Otherness is all; that's how American and British plays of no more than passing significance in their own countries can become events in the shift overseas. The English have for years embraced visceral American theatre in a manner not always matched in America. On Broadway, John Malkovich's performance in Lanford Wilson's Burn This was generally seen as an OTT display of shaggy-haired bravado from a talented actor whose gifts needed reining in; it was the play's muted co-star, Joan Allen, who ended up winning the Tony Award.

In London, though, Malkovich's performance was elevated to the level of archetype and was seen to embody the same fearless theatrical abandon present in Killer Joe. "It's a high-octane, impolite method, which you just don't get over here," says Dromgoole. "[The Chicago actors] are explicit in a way we're always implicit, open in a way that we're closed."

New York's love affair with Bloomsbury, by contrast, has long been recognised, as witnessed by the success of Atkins's previous off-Broadway role - her Woolf solo show, A Room of One's Own. Vita and Virginia's English co-producer, Robert Fox, points to "a hunger for quality language in the theatre" in Manhattan, in comparison with a "blase" English audience that sank the play at home. In New York, the evening feeds the same appetite for literary civility that made a public television hit out of Middlemarch or an Oscar-winning film out of Howards End.

These responses, of course, ultimately reveal as much about the prejudices and perceptions of the host culture as they do about the work itself. How many British actors (mentioning no names) have coasted their way to acclaim in New York, getting by on technical and vocal finesse by sheer dint of classical training?

Broadway audiences like nothing more than a well-rounded vowel, which accounts in part for the dominance of the British in the Tony Awards over the last decade. In light of the lamentable quality of too many productions of the classics in New York, that audience's preference is hardly to blame: far more excitement and anticipation come attached to the Ralph Fiennes Hamlet - due on Broadway in April - than to watching theatrically unpractised film stars struggle through Shakespeare - as Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum et al did with Twelfth Night several seasons ago.

That's not to say every rough-and-ready evening of American theatre succeeds in London any more than every elocution lesson succeeds in New York. Despite the mostly good reviews, 900 Oneonta was a West End flop, which suggests that audiences were a lot more resistant to Beaird's hyperventilations than the critics were. Hapgood is a New York hit, but in a small, subsidised theatre; the same play in the Broadway marketplace would never have lasted a season.

Even An Inspector Calls, now in its 10th month on Broadway, is marketing promised effects - not J B Priestley or notions of Englishness - to sustain its New York life: "One of the more astonishing spectacles on Broadway. Stunning," reads the New York Times quotation cited in the ad. As the play's director, Stephen Daldry, points out: "The social responsibility the play is proposing is part of our national consciousness [in Britain]; if you fall on your heels in America, it's probably your own fault." Small wonder, then, that Americans are likely to remember the extraordinary collapse of Ian MacNeil's set over that of the Birling family's smug, hermetic world. Priestley's impetus is as specifically British as the production's visual allure is universal.

Universality, of course, remains the best hope of any dramatist, a fact Tracy Letts acknowledges as he recalls "mixed feelings" about the audience reaction to Killer Joe at last summer's Edinburgh Festival. Says Letts: "There was some sense of the British tsk-tsk-ing those nasty Americans: I thought, boy, that's really not what I'm shooting for. It makes me happier to think that the play cuts across boundaries, that it communicates something across the board. I would hope it has some universal truths in it."

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How we see them

British audiences saw their worst fears of moral dereliction in the US confirmed in David Beaird's 900 Oneonta: "I am America!" roars cancer-plagued Tiger...

How they see us

Appealing to the American anglophile by portraying British stereotypes of reserve and repressed passion, Howards End became an Oscar-winning film...