“Our Town” takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century; MySpace was founded at the beginning of the twenty-first. Both had their base in high school, and are now seen as past their prime; both are said to reveal something about America. Have we gone from our town to my space, as individuals and as a culture?
These were my admittedly spacey thoughts after watching the Barrow Street Theatre’s much-praised version of the play by Thornton Wilder, directed by David Cromer, who has resumed playing the role of the Stage Manager (the character who acts as our host and narrator.) Before this current Off-Broadway production, “Our Town,” which first appeared on Broadway in 1938, was one of the most performed and surely one of the most dreaded plays in America – a favorite of high schools everywhere because it’s cheap to put on (no scenery), it has a large cast (thus a role for even the shyest freshman), and its setting in a small town in the first few years of the twentieth century makes it seem safe for even the most skittish school administrators. (The appeal of MySpace for many of its active members is precisely how skittish it makes school administrators.)
Watching such a fine professional production comes as a revelation – the play can be a touching, intimate and insightful look at everyday life and death (in Act III, the characters speak from beyond the grave) of the people in a community. It’s a fictional (even mythical) community, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, population (in 1901) of 2,642. But, given a good production, there is a sense of a real, physical community, of realistic moments between palpable people. A father confides to his wife on the day their son is getting married to the girl next door:
Dr. Gibbs: Julia, do you know one of the things I was scared of when I married you?
Mrs. Gibbs: Oh, go along with you!
Dr. Gibbs: I was afraid we wouldn’t have material for conversation more’n’d last us a few weeks. I was afraid we’d run out and eat our meals in silence…

People on the Web throw around the word “community” a lot — Google “community” and you get 1,730,000,000 results (Bing it and get 656,000,000) — and we never seem to worry about running out of things to say in our “online communities.” But in “Our Town,” the Stage Manager says, “Nice town, y’know what I mean. Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it, s’far as we know.” Can you imagine a Webnut saying that about MySpace or Facebook or Linkedin or Twitter? The whole point of signing up for these sites is to be at the very least literally remarkable – remarked upon — and surely more often to become famous, or at least infamous.

MySpace focuses in particular on music. There is a musician of sorts in “Our Town” too, the choirmaster Simon Stimson, who says that “Music come into the world to give pleasure,” but then he also says “Softer! Softer! Get it out of your heads that music’s only good when it’s loud. You leave loudness to the Methodists.” Whoa, we have been transported to a different era.

That times have changed since “Our Town” – that they had to change — is obvious. The play begins before the automobile. (Now the automobile industry is going bankrupt, but there are some 250 million cars on American roads). The town newspaper was published twice a week (Now few newspapers are published at all, but the Web is published every second.) Times had changed even when Wilder wrote the play decades after the time it was depicting; what the play is about is in part about how times change. But “Our Town” is not the sepia-toned cornball you may remember. There is drunkenness and suicide, frustration and regret.

Still it is nice to sit in a theater with people you can actually see, and feel transported back to a time when community was not a vague virtual concept. When the Stage Manager begins to speak, since it’s from a script written seven decades ago, he does not ask us to turn off our cell phones — probably the only play in New York that doesn’t begin with such an announcement.

P.S. There are 20 people on MySpace who list themselves as “Our Town,” from a 15-year-old in the Bronx to a 72-year-old in College Station, Texas.

Culture “Our Town” vs. MySpace