Boots on the Ground, No Bottoms in Seats

“Is there more?”
Thomas Schiavoni plays Henry in the Boots on the Ground production of “The Red Badge of Courage” in Southampton.

The British playwright Anthony Neilson once offered this bit of advice in The Guardian to aspiring playwrights about the length of their plays: “All writers should be made to visit the venue where their play is to be performed and sit in the seats with a stopwatch. When your arse and spine start to sing, check the watch. That’s your running time.”

My arse, or heart, for that matter, hadn’t even started to hum on Friday night at the Southampton Cultural Center when it was time to stand up and leave. “The Red Badge of Courage,” produced by Bonnie Grice’s Boots on the Ground company, took 35 minutes from lights up to curtain call!

“Is there more?” whispered an elderly lady seated behind me, even though it was clear there was not, as the ensemble was taking its final bows — that occupied about two minutes of the 35. Her male companion did not answer. Perhaps he wondered if they had fallen asleep and missed all the action. 

Clearly they were baffled. Possibly even infuriated that they had made the effort on a wintry night and paid their money ($20 per head; $12 for students — there was no one there under 50) for what they had hoped would be an evening of entertainment.

The play — or this brief semblance of one — is based on Stephen Crane’s seminal 1895 novel about a young man’s passage to manhood through soldiery. An idealistic farm boy, Henry Fleming, is played here by Thomas Schiavoni Jr., a Pierson High School freshman who absolutely deserves more time onstage. Henry joins a motley regiment of Yanks and turns cowardly at the crack of enemy fire. He dreams of “Greek-like” battles but finds him self fighting an even bigger war in the battlefield of his mind against his mother, played by Ms. Grice. 

“The Red Badge of Courage” has often been called the blueprint for the great American war novel. It was adapted to the big screen in 1951 by the director John Huston and even appeared as a made-for-television movie in 1974. This abrupt stage version in Southampton, a New York premiere, was written by Catherine Bush, who specializes in writing for young audiences. 

While full-length adaptations have been performed at regional theaters across the country, directors have repeatedly acknowledged how fiercely the material resists being adapted to the stage. Mostly, they say, that is because of Crane’s sweepingly descriptive language and because the story deals with an interior narrative about fear and battle that is set against endless periods of waiting punctuated by the sudden turmoil of war.

Joining Ms. Grice and Mr. Schiavoni onstage is a 15-year-old Southampton student, Ethan Suhr, as Billy, the flag bearer of the unit. The other soldiers in the regiment are played by Richard Adler, Robert Nelson, Mitch Selden, Deyo Trowbridge, and Christopher Levi, a real-life Iraq war veteran.

The goal of Ms. Grice’s Boots on the Ground production company is noble indeed. As stated on its website, it was “born from a passion for exploring historical and contemporary stories through the unique perspective of the East End.” Ms. Grice has also made known that her intention is to get student actors to share the stage and prominent roles with adults. 

All wonderful and necessary stuff, but nothing in the promotional material for “The Red Badge of Courage” explains that this is a student-centric production, nor any mention of the brevity of this particular staging, which is directed by Josephine Teresi-Wallace.

But apparently word was out that Southampton’s offering is little more than a scene from an acting class. There were barely 20 people in the audience on Friday night, and no students. And those there seemed to be friends and family of the cast, as evidenced by Ms. Grice and company emerging after the show, in costume, to mingle and hug.

Theater may not be as important to society as brain surgery or even plumbing, but when the brain surgeon and the plumber finish work, they go to the theater for entertainment. They don’t just go for a bit of distraction, because there’s plenty of that on TV. Nor do they go for a quasi-educational experience, because they’re grown-ups and probably read the newspaper or books. They go to the theater to be stimulated, to be refreshed, to be engaged. To be so entranced by the power of live drama that for an hour or two they forget about real life. 

They go, quite simply, to be entertained. And when theater fails to entertain, the audience will respond by slowly withdrawing its patronage.

Many might say that reviewers should be more supportive, even forgiving, of small theater companies, which more often than not do great things on minimal resources. That, above all, we should help drive bottoms into seats and ensure the survival of community theater. But my job isn’t to sell tickets. That happens when companies put on shows that really blow us away, and make us fall in love with theater all over again.

Performances continue tomorrow and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center on Pond Lane. An additional performance has been added on Sunday at 6 p.m., which will be free for veterans and their families. General admission is $20, $12 for students