Early in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," the Stage Manager, who acts as a narrator, tells us what they're putting in the cornerstone of a new bank so that people a thousand years from now will know what life was like in New England in 1900. In addition to newspapers, the Bible, the Constitution and Shakespeare, the Stage Manager wants to put in a copy of this play. I have always thought it a wise idea.
For there is no better expression of the way Americans used to see themselves than Wilder's reconstruction of America in what has been called "the age of confidence." Wilder has taken the most mundane moments of everyday life and raised them to the level of poetry.
By putting homely events on a bare stage he gives them a miraculous universality that theater constatntly strives for and rarely acheives.
I feel silly describing a play I always assumed most Americans knew by heart, but from the kind of laughter rippling around me, I sensed that the play was new for most of the audience. What made it avant-garde 50 years ago is still remarkable, and its portrait of small-town life, though thoroughly unsentimental, has become nostalgia. It wins audiences as powerfully as ever.
The tony of Gregory Mosher's production, though full of lively ideas, often seems too casual. It misses the gravity of turn-of-the-century life, when grownups felt compelled to act as such. The Emily here, for example, after nine years of marriage, seems no different than she was as a girl.
But the play is actor-proof, even non-actor-proof, since Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager confirms my feeling that avant-garde performers are not really actors. He can't sustain an accent. He can't set a mood. Only when the lines are chatty- like his own material- does he succeed.
But there are marvelous performances by Frances Conroy and Roberta Maxwell as the two mothers, Peter Maloney as a Dickensian newspaper editor and Jeff Weiss as the town drunk. Eric Stoltz and Penelope Ann Miller are poignant as the couple we follow from childhoos to the grave.
Jane Greenwood's costumes have a muted dignity, Kevin Rigdon's lighting and proper poetry. Ultimately, the play is irresistable.
Life is real, lie is earnest- and, according to Thornton Wilder, it is also extraordinarily banal. And he once wrote and extraordinarily banal play, fascinatingly packaged, to celebrate that comforting and comfortable thought.
The play is "Our Town" and on Saturday it returned to New York at the Lyceum Theater in a handsomely acted production sensitively staged by Gregory Mosher for his Lincoln Center Theater.
There are two incandescent reasons not to miss this staging of "Our Town" provided by two of its new inhabitants, a dew glistening Penelope Ann Miller and a solidly volatile Eric Stoltz, but I get head of myself. First, the play.
"Our Town" became an instant American classic because it struck, and may still strike, a very special American nerve that combines the extraordinary with the universal, a combination at the heart of U.S.-style democracy.
When the play was new in 1938, it caught something of the cheauvinism and isolationism of the period, as well as extolling what could be seen as the essentially democratic virtues of mediocrity.
As Wilder himself put it: "It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life. I have made the claim as preposterous as possible, for I have set te village against the largest dimensions of time and place."
Of course he has done no such thing. He has trivialized life's eternities to the poetic sensibility of a greetings-card verse, and sentimentalized life into a comforting mush of the commonplace.
My own trouble with the play is that I rather like it. And at times I rather like it a lot. It has just that same potency of certain cheap music which Noel Coward once so accurately discerned and noted.
Even more, although "Our Town" is certainly as banal as such critics as Kenneth Tynan have observed, it has that charming, folksy cosiness to it, and a recognition of the truth that lies inside every truism, that immortal aptness that once touched every cliche.
What Wilder does is to offer credibility to all our inner hopes of outer significance; he suggests that littleness is all and that the seeming magnitude of life is only achieved by subtle use of God's multiplication tables.
He once wrote: "The recurrent wods in the paly (few have noticed it) are 'hundreds,' 'thousands,' and 'millions.' Emily's joys and griefs, her algebra lessons and her birthday presents- what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived, who are living, and who will live?
"Each individual's assertation to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner."
It is Wilder's recognition of that obvious but rarely dramatized point that will justifiably pickle the play for posterity as long as we have a theater- that and the engaging novelty of staging, Wilder's cute packaging.
Turning his back on the realistic spectacle of the theater of his time, and even more on the encroaching magic realism of the movies- it is an irony that "Our Town" almost immediately became a quite successful film in its own right- Wilder jumped bcak to a scenic simplicity he claims to have got from the Japanese Noh plays.
In one stroke he does away with scenery- using a few chairs, some stepladders, lights, and an appeal to the audience's Shakespearean imagination- and in another he stresses that artificiality of theatrical convention by giving a Godlike commentator and master of ceremonies (whom he trickily calls the "Stage Manager") to keep reminding the audience that it is watching a comment on life, not life itself.
This mixture of the seemingly avant-garde with the sentimental pulp fiction must in 1938 have been irresistable, and even now, its betteries run down by age and familiarity, it contains a charge. Certainly when I first saw "Our Town" in its London premiere in 1946, it seemed, for a minute there, before thought took over from feeling, like a whole brave new theater.
So now, familiarity and all, "Our Town" has become not just an instant classic but one to be classically revisited- just like the inhabitants of Wilder's Grover's Corners going up to the static Dantesque purgatory of their own graveyard.
Mosher's direction carries fidelity to unusual length. There is scarcely a gesture added from the stage directions, and the staging concentrates on a transparent clarity.
Despite this, there is one glaring error, which sticks out like a severed thumb, in the casting of Spalding Gray as Stage Manager. Gray is altogether too contemporary and too removed from the Middle America of the first decades of the century.
This properly stressed could have been made a production viewpoint (there is no reason why God shouldn't be our generation as much as Wilder's), but somehow, through either Gray's fault or Mosher's, the role is not differentiated as one period or another- and Gray falls jeering through the crack.
The best Stage Manager (and I only saw him in the movie) was unquestionably the first, Frank Craven (Brooks Atkinson defined him as "the best pipe and pants-pocket actor in the business"), but I recall that darling playwright Marc Connelly in the London premiere, and such other notable Stage Managers as Fred Gwynne in Stratford, Conn., and Henry Fonda in the last Broadway production in 1969.
They all had one thing in common, a corny unshamed love for the people they were talking about; they were gruff, twinkling, and small-town. Gray comes from outer space, and Mosher left him there.
Of course all these roles are more difficult to play now thatn they were then, because they were written within the dramatic character conventions of their time, mostly as lovable or ornery eccentrics, or both.
This production does moderately well with the adults, especially with Roberta Maxwell and Peter Maloney as the elder Webbs, and Frances Conroy as a curiously ethereal Mrs. Gibbs.
But what makes the version glow- and what will forever be remembered about it- are the two young people, Penelope Ann Miller as Emily and Stoltz as George. These two lit up the stage with truth, honesty, and unexpected tragedy as a village Romeo and Juliet.
I have rarely seen such intensely honest playing as these two offer in their famous declaration of love over Wilder's milkshake, with the young actress trembling with life, or at the end of the play Stoltz's tinal silent agony over the grave as a young man's first stumble over death.
A play is as good as it gives, and in the hands of these two, Wilder's image of a microcosm expaning to the infinitude of Einstein's then newly discovered universe becomes real- and sufficent to a great classic statement.
Thornton Wilder wasn't bashful about revealing his own high opinion of ''Our Town.'' Late in Act I, the play's narrator, the ubiquitous Stage Manager, tells the audience that he will leave the script in the cornerstone of a new bank, so that people ''a thousand years from now'' can see ''the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.'' Let other writers worry about whether their work will survive the season; Wilder had his eye on a millennium.
That millennium still has 950 years to go, but, a half century after its premiere, ''Our Town'' remains a most stageworthy and sometimes touching American play. Does it tell us ''the way we were''? One wonders. As prettied up by Wilder, the sleepy Republican town of Grover's Corners, N.H., from 1901 to 1913, seems to say less about the country we live in now than does the earlier New England of 18th- and 19th-century literature. As an example of American playwriting of the 1930's, ''Our Town'' is closer in weight to Kaufman and Hart than to O'Neill.
Yet if Wilder is at his most treacly when celebrating diurnal living -and advertising just how universal his observations are - he is completely at home with the finality of dying. When the author briefly interrupts his idyllic opening narrative to announce that the nice Grover's Corners paperboy will die in World War I or that a husband will long outlive his seemingly healthy wife, the casual obituaries are rending. The Act III cemetery scene, a masterly feat of reticence in which the living and dead share the stage, really does achieve the timelessness that the rest of ''Our Town'' tries to fabricate with poetic rhetoric.
Gregory Mosher, the director of the play's new Lincoln Center Theater production at Broadway's Lyceum Theater, is attuned to Wilder's melancholy. His ''Our Town'' is dark, with a Beckett-like grayness to the physical production - yes, the scenery and props are still minimal, but the costumes, tables, chairs and stage walls are all gray - and with an urban edginess to some of the acting. With such stylization, Mr. Mosher seems to be attempting to justify his unadventurous saunter into ''Our Town'' by linking it to such other Lincoln Center productions of the year as ''Waiting for Godot'' and ''Speed-the-Plow.'' This esthetic statement is made at a price, because it has led to one major casting miscalculation, Spalding Gray's flip Stage Manager, that constantly disrupts the fragile text, the firm staging and the otherwise well-chosen cast.
Mr. Gray notwithstanding, the virtues of this production are there to be savored. In Penelope Ann Miller and Eric Stoltz, two occasional stage actors with growing film careers, Mr. Mosher has a most attractive George and Emily. Miss Miller, in particular, takes the goo out of the Andy Hardy-like sequences of courtship and marriage; she's a beauty, all right, but just enough stuck-up about her prowess as a star high-school student that we still resent her ability to bring the affable, red-haired Mr. Stoltz prematurely to heel. The couple's parents are also decent without being cloying: Peter Maloney's generous-spirited newspaper editor, James Rebhorn's stern doctor, and Roberta Maxwell and Frances Conroy as their constricted wives.
In Ms. Conroy's Mrs. Gibbs, at once loving and astringent, we can sense some discontent in Grover's Corners. The speech in which she pines in vain to travel to France - ''a country where they don't talk in English and don't even want to'' - reveals an undertow of bitterness about the provincialism of her community. In Mr. Mosher's reading, the passage in which the Stage Manager is questioned from the audience about the town's drinking, social inequities and lack of culture also has unusual bite. Jeff Weiss, cast as the alcoholic church organist, sounds discordant notes of his own. Though the character has few lines, Mr. Weiss, a hollow-eyed and spindly figure in black, haunts Grover's Corners as if he were the repository of its citizens' smashed hopes and the lifelong victim of its mean, unspoken bigotry.
But Wilder was primarily a celebrant of the small town and the American century; he was not a debunker to be confused with Sinclair Lewis or Edgar Lee Masters. The attempt, through Mr. Gray, to turn the playwright into something he's not derails Mr. Mosher's ''Our Town.'' While it would no doubt be sickening to see a Stage Manager resembling the lovable old codgers in wine-cooler commercials, Mr. Gray swings too far the other way, presenting the narrator as if he were a narcissistic new-wave raconteur exactly matching the storyteller in his own autobiographical performance pieces. Much as one may have enjoyed Mr. Gray's ''Terrors of Pleasure'' and ''Swimming to Cambodia,'' their blase TriBeCa hipness belongs to another planet than that of ''Our Town.''
Mr. Gray's silver hair and New England accent do serve the role. His smart-aleck attitude and lapsed preppie outfit do not. ''Nice town, y'know what I mean?,'' says the Stage Manager early in the play; in Mr. Gray's delivery, the second clause of the line is punched with a snide cynicism, as if to imply that Grover's Corners is less a nice town than a precursor of the setting of ''Blue Velvet.'' One can't really fault the performer; he's just doing his star turn out of context, following the Lincoln Center company's indulgent example of Robin Williams in ''Godot.'' Mr. Mosher should have realized, however, that ''Our Town'' becomes merely unpleasant, rather than revisionist, when our guide through Grover's Corners seems to be condescending to his fellow performers, the audience and the play.
The more emotional scenes in ''Our Town'' - notably the Act II wedding - suffer from the lack of a warm Stage Manager. But perhaps nothing can or ever will dismantle Wilder's finale, in which black, rain-splattered umbrellas emblematize the mourners at a burial while serene actors sitting in straight-backed chairs speak to us as the graveyard's dead. ''It goes so fast,'' cries out Miss Miller, the scene's one radiant figure in white, as she looks back on her evanescent existence from the other side. If ''Our Town'' is still a prototypical slice of Americana, it is because Wilder's almost jingoistic certitude in the mission of our nation is ceaselessly undermined by his terror of the dark, unknowable wilderness beyond.