One of the hundred reasons this short, horrifying coronavirus moment has felt so long culturally is that its artistic questions don’t seem to change or advance. What makes something filmed theater as opposed to digital performance? Should we call any performance on a screen “television”? We go around and around, wondering if definitions even matter. On the one hand, I spend hours thinking about categorization. On the other, I know fussing about genre is how critics have always entertained themselves. We have to argue about something.
At least HBO’s foray into quarantine creation, Coastal Elites, offers the swift gift of clarity. This show is clearly theater, regardless of the delivery system. It was theater at its birth: Originally conceived by the playwright Paul Rudnick as a group of comic political monologues, it was on track to appear at the Public Theater this year. Canceled by current events, then rewritten in the light of COVID-19, it was ported over to HBO, and the “special presentation” was shot remotely.
It’s theatrical in its execution, too. The filmmaker Jay Roach directed the microanthology — five 15-or-so-minute speeches delivered straight to camera — and you would think at some point that the logic (and magic) of TV would have dominated the result. But no, HBO polish aside, a monologue always smells of the stage. Venues large and small have been releasing tons of this material, all of it made in quarantine. Actors did this sort of webcam performance for the Public’s own The Line (the documentary-theater-style tribute to medical workers); the 24 Hour Plays folks have released more than 200 in their Viral Monologues series. It’s been about six months of watching Zooms and forcefully reminding yourself that all of us are doing a lot with very little.
So why can’t I forgive Coastal Elites for being not so good? I think it’s because the show reminds me of the things about the form I hope don’t come back, even though I spend every day missing live performance. Every medium has its own sins, and Coastal Elite’s failures are the ones that specifically plague too much of our theater. The way it panders to an assumed New York audience? The arrogant cracks about Nebraska? The hero’s journey from doubt that theater can save the world to joyful affirmation of the form’s total cultural and moral domination? Ugh. TV would never.
There is a little burst of very good writing in the show, right at the start. (That’s no surprise. Rudnick has been a deft comic playwright since at least 1991’s I Hate Hamlet, which was — in a community-theater production — my gateway drug.) In that first, best monologue, Bette Midler plays Miriam, a retired teacher and widow, bereaved but fighting for the resistance, mostly through tweeting. She’s a liberal, a theater subscriber, a New York Times devotee (“On the census, when it says religion, I don’t put ‘Jewish,’ I put New York Times!), a tote-bag toter. She’s a cliché, but she knows it — Midler gives her a winning, oh-shucks-you-know-I’m-kidding twinkle.
When we meet Miriam, she’s in a police station explaining herself; we eventually realize she’s talking to a cop taking her statement. Fine, fine, she stole a guy’s MAGA hat and ran all the way to the Public to escape him. So sue her! She shakes a small fist at Hillary’s unfair treatment, she rants against Trump, she does some light boulevard raillery. “You like the theater?” she asks, leaning confidingly into the camera. Her eyebrows arch. “You like Phantom? So that’s a no.”
Theatergoers, and I shamefacedly include myself, are always eager to believe that theatergoing itself is inherently courageous. Rudnick, an old pro, knows just how much we like to be flattered. So Miriam, when pushed to her limit, takes her stand in the lobby of the Public Theater, swearing that “Every ticket is a weapon fighting that bastard!” If the show had happened as planned at the Public itself, she would have been applauded with smug whoops and hollers. On TV though, she’s obviously met with stone silence. In that quiet, her season-ticket “defiance” reveals itself as absurd and narcissistic. Rudnick seems to have written Miriam as essentially righteous, but by simply moving her onscreen, he and Roach show her as a woman charmed mainly by herself, lost in a terrifying self-regard. Was that intentional? Rudnick’s wry title and Midler’s knowing smarm argue yes; the rest of the show argues no.
The other four monologues are all flat by comparison. Dan Levy appears as an actor auditioning to be a gay superhero, worried that the producers want a kind of flamboyant minstrelsy; Issa Rae is an insulted high-school not-quite-chum of Ivanka’s (“She’s Dracula with a blowout!”); Sarah Paulson plays a meditation guru who admits she can’t ohm her way through a Trumpist family gathering in the Midwest; Kaitlyn Dever is a nurse from Wyoming who’s come to help fight COVID-19 in New York. Taken together, they do reveal that Miriam’s snobbishness is not just a character foible — it’s built into Rudnick’s work. In all of the monologues, the non–New York parts of the country are a hell from which to escape. Culture certainly doesn’t happen in any of the middle zones. Worse, the nurse meets a patient who makes jokes about a coronavirus test. “Well, let’s hope it’s cancer,” the indomitable New Yorker says. The nurse marvels: “People don’t say shit like that in Wyoming,” she says, a tear in her eye. Sorry, what? People don’t have gallows humor in Wyoming? People don’t joke?
It didn’t have to be this enraging. At one point, watching Coastal Elites, I tried to imagine the same piece run on some closed-down theater’s YouTube channel rather than on HBO, and I could imagine adopting the by-now standard appreciative attitude to this kind of keep-the-car-warm material. I have seen some adventurous productions made in the shutdown; gorgeous things made on tabletops; performances that punch through the computer screen. But much of the monologue-based work needs — and has been getting — some generosity from the viewer. It needs an audience leaning forward, eager to be pleased, happy to be supportive. Goalposts haven’t just been moved; they are in mothballs.
So the weird thing about HBO releasing Coastal Elites is that it props the goalposts back up and moves them farther away. A lot of the changed context is the gloss of a well-resourced shoot. We watch a starry and gorgeous cast, all well-coiffed and costumed, all sitting in actual (not virtual) sets. With those visual markers, we expect a script that has also been polished and buffed. But instead there hasn’t been time to work out how to manage the conversion from in-person to onscreen, how to write Rudnick-style comedy that doesn’t rely on getting in-the-room responses. Anyone who has seen a show in a too-big venue knows that a room can kill a play, that the arrangement of seats or the sound-draining suck of a high ceiling can take a jolly intimate production and make it seem lost and desperate. The HBO glow-up does the same thing — it puts a little by-us-for-us play, made in a rush, appear in a setting that’s all wrong for it. But on the bright side, it would have been worse to experience it with an audience. Sitting among theatergoers all giving themselves a pat on the back is a good way to get an elbow in the eye. Imagine the fury you would feel if that Wyoming line had gotten even a single laugh. Insufferable! I’d rather go to Phantom.
*A version of this article appears in the September 14, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!