Dec 15, 2012

Battle Scars


(photo by Scott Landis)
Incredibly busy at the moment, but I'll take a moment to point you to my latest review, of a particularly high-profile Broadway property:
There’s a classic bit of advice for actors: Walk into the audition thinking of yourself as the solution to the director’s problem; be that solution and you’ve got the part. Closing the deal is a steeper challenge for the cutthroat salesmen in David Mamet’s 1983 masterpiece Glengarry Glen Ross, now getting a gripping if lopsided Broadway revival starring Al Pacino. The customers these salesmen go after—mostly offstage, with one telling exception—must be convinced they have a problem in the first place, one that only a costly real estate investment can solve. The salesmen’s job, then, is to hunt for signs of vulnerability, of weakness, in their fellow men, to isolate and circle the victims, then pounce without mercy. The dramatic irony of their situation, though, is that this rapacity doesn’t harden them; instead, their extreme sensitivity to human frailty, even though it’s used for exploitive ends, seems to have shredded their nerves and wrecked their composure. These are by and large an oddly fearful and touchy bunch, as if their worst nightmare is to become marks themselves.

Hence the itchy, sweaty, sweary back-and-forth that constitutes the trademark Mametspeak, which is closer to a music than a language.
Read the whole thing here.

Dec 10, 2012

History, Decentered

If Lincoln improves upon reflection, it is partly because it inspires reflection at all. That may sound like a low bar—there are plenty of subpar entertainments that may get stuck in our heads for the wrong reasons, like evil pop earworms—but in this case, though I found the film of uneven quality, I must credit its ambitious scope and intelligence for the quality of the reflections it's prompted, and certainly hardly only from me but from a wide range of smart folks who know a lot better about the issues it raises, and have prompted still further reflection on my part.

Yes, I've read the lefty takedowns of the film's treatment of the radical abolitionists, most notably Aaron Bady's, and I've followed the back-and-forth led by my favorite thinker on the Civil War, Ta-Nehisi Coates. (I was most intrigued, though, by the suggestion that Spielberg and Kushner, far from cribbing or dumbing down received wisdom about the 13th amendment fight that is the film's narrative engine, may have actually advanced a novel and historically grounded argument about Lincoln's arguable motivations that adds to our understanding of the period. Who'da thunk it?)

Much of this criticism boils down to a problematic if totally understandable kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking—a line of critique that "proper" culture critics are supposed to refrain from, in which they don't so much give their opinion of the work as it stands but instead offer their prescriptions for the story the artists should have told. From experts whose field is overlapped by a hugely influential film claiming some degree of historical authority, this kind of feedback is valid enough as far as it goes. My problems with the film, though, had less to do with the film Spielberg and Kushner didn't make than the one they did. And most of my issues could be filed in the familiar Spielberg-as-manipulator complaint file. It's not a position I resort to reflexively—I found Schindler's List, for example, almost entirely beyond reproach on this front—but it's reaction I often couldn't avoid. To give one example, in the pivotal scene of Thaddeus Stevens' capitulation, the great egalitarian, played endearingly by Tommy Lee Jones as a kindly bear in a flesh suit, is seen to temper his views on racial equality for a utilitarian end. There's a sharp subsequent scene in which he explains his actions, quite convincingly, to an indignant colleague, which should have sufficed to let us know that Stevens was at peace with the wisdom of his decision. But during the speech itself, Spielberg can't leave well enough alone; he must instead show us faces that are first shocked, then sagely approving, as Stevens' allies "get" his larger point.

There was also, for all the film's fine-grained detail and historical intellect, a perhaps inevitable prestige-historical-picture haze about too much of it (we might finger John Williams' score here, though I think it's only a symptom of the aesthetic cul-de-sac the film fails to avoid too often). Daniel Day Lewis' magisterial performance may be more aptly called a work of sculpture than of portraiture, with both the three-dimensionality and the cold surface that implies; there were at least a few scenes too many whose point seemed to be to show Lincoln's forlorn retreat to his distant interior depths, the place where are made the hard decisions beyond the ken of mere mortals.

Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury talking with David Krut about the art of William Kentridge; video courtesy of Soho Rep's Feed

One well-worn line of critique about historical dramas is the question of not only who gets to tell the stories, but more broadly around whom the "great" stories are centered. It's to Corey Robin's credit, for instance, that, while he shares many of Bady's critiques of the film from the left, he recognizes the extent to which Lincoln "decenters" the 16th president from the story of emancipation—an all the more striking and subversive achievement given the film's title and its clear framing as a kind of Great Man of History drama.

I thought of these issues of historical representation in a new way, though, while watching Jackie Sibblies Drury's We Are Proud To Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 at Soho Rep (now extended through Dec. 16). Sensationally staged by Eric Ting and fiercely acted by a six-member ensemble, for me the piece's unique achievement is to situate us in the fraught space between parable and documentary, and to interrogate our motives for retelling the past's horrors—for reliving them vicariously, through nonfiction theater and the essential interpretive fictions it accrues.

Taking a not-widely-known colonial genocide as her subject, Drury seeks both to honor its specificity, to treat it not as a "rehearsal Holocaust" (the perpetrators were Germans) but as an irreducibly particular atrocity in itself, and to widen the lens and ask who by rights should tell such a story, and by what artistic means. Does it make sense merely to present a prosecutorial case against a clear crime that, with the benefit of hindsight, we can all too easily deplore? Or should we be asked to consider, even cathartically inhabit, the dilemma the perpetrators felt they faced? And if we do manage that dubious feat, where do we go from there? This is thorny stuff, given vibrant, unsettling stage life, and most impressively, in a seemingly freewheeling but tightly controlled form that mimics a piece of ensemble-devised theater as well or better than many actually ensemble-devised pieces (without the benefit of a program, my wife found it hard to believe it had been written by one woman rather than by the six actors themselves).

We Are Proud To Present... certainly prompted as much reflection as Lincoln did, with the added benefit of also being viscerally involving in the moment in a way the film simply wasn't for me. I couldn't help thinking of another provocative, historically minded meta-play, a tendentious analogue between the Weimar Republic and Reagan America called A Bright Room Called Day, staged nearly 30 years ago in a tiny Chelsea theater by its own promising young writer. That upstart's name was Tony Kushner. In sum, as much as I have come to admire the eminently admirable Lincoln, I look forward to the day when our great stories are in the capable hands of another generation of storytellers.

Nov 19, 2012

Katori's List

Katori Hall recently gave the keynote at TCG's recent Fall Forum, which I didn't get a chance to attend, so I'm glad to see that the speech is now up on the TCG blog. It's worth listening to in full, but a particular highlight comes around the 13:50 mark. Here are reasons, Hall recounts, that she was given for rejection of a play she sent around in 2009, from unnamed theaters:

1. "We don't know if we can find that many talented black actresses."
2. "We've already done an August Wilson piece this season."
3. "We don't know if our audience can relate."
4. "We've already done a play about a black lesbian."
5. "We've already done a play set in a barbershop."
6. "Our February slot has been filled."
7. "We've already done a black playwright this season who is not August Wilson."

As she bears down into the topic of diversity, she starts with excuse #1 to highlight one of the real challenges facing efforts to diversify American theaters, both onstage and behind the scenes: It's not so much a problem of recruitment but retention, not how to get artists and audience of color in the stage door, but how to keep them there. Retaining and rewarding talent strikes me as a trade-wide problem for theater, but it's clearly magnified in the case of artists and audiences of color. What's promising to me about this discussion, then, is that leadership on diversity, defined broadly along age as well as ethnic and other identity valences, might help rise the tide for all boats. One can hope, can't one? (The recent election's ratification of diversity, for example, points a way forward for all of us.)

Bonus: A Charles Isherwood diversion begins at 27:27.

Nov 16, 2012

"Bare" Back

Hartmere and Intrabartolo (photo by Linda Lenzi)
In 2000, a scrappy little rock musical—sorry, "pop opera"—called Bare became a sensation in the confines of Hollywood's Hudson Theater, the same place (though not exactly the same stage) where Reefer Madness had earlier been born. A coming-out love story set at a Catholic boarding school, it was intense and youthful and very crowded on the small stage; I remember there being quite a lot of lighting effects, amplification (in a 99-seat house!), and even stage fog (I may be misremembering). I wasn't as in love with it as some of my colleagues, but clearly Bare was something special, and marked the arrival of at least three theater talents to be reckoned with: Bookwriter/lyricist Jon Hartmere, composer Damon Intrabartolo, and director Kristin Hanggi (who would later make her name helming Rock of Ages).

It was something of a disappointment, then, when after sweeping the L.A. theater awards and garnering a lot of interest from New York producers—a deal was struck with MTV, the Roths, and the Public Theater at one point, but it fell through—Bare made it only briefly to New York in 2004 and got mixed reviews. A cast album was released in 2007, along with a licensed script, which has led to a jillion productions all over the world—a heartening development for the show's tolerant message, certainly, but not one that pointed to a future life for a show that may even have become a bit dated in the age of "It Gets Better" testimonials and a matter-of-factly gay Senator.

So it was with great pleasure and interest that I reported on a new Off-Broadway revival/revisal of Bare for the paper of record. As the piece details, the show has changed a bit to reflect the times—they've cut a gay-wedding fantasy scene from the original, since that's no longer so fantastical—but the core of its heartfelt message hasn't. My favorite quote on that is from Hanggi:
‘Bare’ is about the definition of God as love, and about erasing judgment, especially when we’re young and we feel surrounded by judgment, and the only light and divinity that can be found is in love.

Oct 24, 2012

Ringside Seats for "Golden Boy"



From the sleep-deprived depths of daddy leave, I come to you with a ticket giveaway offer: two tickets to Lincoln Center's revival of Clifford Odets' boxing drama Golden Boy, which will start previews on Nov. 8 in the same theater it debuted in 75 years ago, the Belasco. The revival, directed by Bart Sher, stars Danny Burstein (South Pacific, Follies, "Boardwalk Empire"), Danny Mastrogiorgio, Seth Numrich (War Horse), Tony Shalhoub (Lend Me A Tenor, "Monk") and Yvonne Strahovski ("Chuck," "Dexter").

It's the first of a pair of Odets revivals slated for the Main Stem this year; Bobby Canavale will star in a revival of Odets' Hollywood morality tale The Big Knife in the spring. I happened to see both of these vintage plays in fine 99-seat productions in Los Angeles back in the 1990s: The Big Knife at the Victory Theater and Golden Boy at Pacific Resident Theater.

To pick up two free tickets to Broadway's new Golden Boy, go to Lincoln Center's Facebook page, click "Like," then post on that page using the phrase "Wicked Stage giveaway." The first reader to do so will receive a pair of ringside seats.

Oct 17, 2012

Punk-Rock Chekhov

C Lavrov and Sasha K Tuzova in an illustration from TEATP
Writing a feature on CSC's new production of Ivanov gave me the enviable homework of reading this lesser-known, infrequently seen Chekhov play, his first full-length. (Wish I'd seen Bart DeLorenzo's in L.A. earlier this year.) I'm not sure how it will play onstage, but it's a huge joy to read; it comes off almost like a latter-day playwright's angry, funny riff on Chekhovian themes, where subtext is made text and characters just come out and say the hateful, craven things that tend to creep out more artfully, ruefully, or indirectly in his later masterpieces. Even the fact that the central character's depressive paralysis remains relentlessly centerstage and stubbornly undiagnosed has a self-parodic but deadly serious edge to it—what actor Ethan Hawke calls, I think aptly, "something punk rock about the play."

The feature for Time Out NY is here.

Oct 6, 2012

Here Comes the Son (Again)

This past week my little family grew by one, so I'll be on official daddy leave for the next month or so, not only from American Theatre but from this blog (more or less).

I leave you in the meantime with a pair of shortish pieces I recently put together, one for TCG's in-house blog re: the gratifying inclusion of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun on this year's most-produced-plays list. This is a clear byproduct of Bruce Norris' Raisin-inspired Clybourne Park (#2 on the list), and it makes Hansberry the only non-living playwright represented (Shakespeare and holiday shows aren't tallied). As I point out in the post, nearly all the upcoming productions of Raisin have some kind of link to a nearby production of Clybourne, with two sets of productions actually offered in rep (by Playmakers and Milwaukee Rep). The rundown is here.

The other is a program preview for BAM's import of Théâtre de la Ville's Rhinoceros, which afforded me the pleasure of revisiting Ionesco's masterpiece on the page and on a French-language DVD of the original production, though not, thanks to the busy home life of the moment, the production in the flesh (it closes this weekend). While Ionesco's play is clearly rooted in his experiences resisting fascism and Stalinism, I was struck by an important point from the director of the new production:
[Emmanuel] Demarcy-Mota is...quick to point out that while the piece’s antitotalitarian, anticonformist implications have kept it all too relevant (a stage adaptation with Iranian film stars was reportedly the hottest ticket in Tehran in 2009) the analogy between “rhinoceritis” and authoritarianism is imprecise.
“It can be heard as a denunciation of fanaticism, of the lackeys and henchmen that are the faithful surrounders of the dictators against whom the people rise,” Demarty-Mota concedes. “But it is interesting to underline that in the play it is a voluntary servitude with no specific tyrant; everyone becomes a rhinoceros, just like that, by cowardice, convenience, sometimes even laziness, without being specifically asked. As Ionesco said, fashion also has its tyranny.”
Writing the piece also gave me the excuse to reread the definitive essay about 20th-century spirituality, about God in the shadow of the bomb: Thomas Merton's "The Rain and the Rhinoceros." If you've never read it, I can't recommend it highly enough. And that, I think, is a fittingly meditative note to close on for now, as I return to the clarifying demands of the nursery and the rich complicity of the hearth.

Oct 1, 2012

A (Social) Media Empire

Playwright Katori Hall on the cover of the October issue

This blog is still an indispensable platform for some of my thoughts about the theater and related arts, but it's hardly the only, and many times not the main, one. Over at my day job, there's not just my in-depth look at Boston's hard-to-define but very promising Center for the Theater Commons, which you may know best as the folks who bring the world HowlRound (but there's oh, so much to it than that).

An essential part of my day job has become running the American Theatre Facebook page, and as of today, we've joined that other social medium, Twitter, and at an opportune time: Not only is our October season preview issue out today, but along with it the much-hashed-over "Top Ten" list of most-produced plays for the coming season (it's actually 11 this year, due to a tie; and it should not be confused with a previously released, and equally conversation-worthy, list of most-produced playwrights).

Over at TCG's blog, I'll have more on one of that Top-11-plays list's happiest surprises soon (you might be able to guess what it is).

Sep 26, 2012

Quote for the Day

L.A.'s best stage director, Bart DeLorenzo, is profiled in LA Stage Times, in advance of his production of Cymbeline at A Noise Within:
Earlier in DeLorenzo’s career—particularly, he says, the Evidence Room days—he went through a “Tarantino period” when he was interested in “tough, nasty theater.” But, he says, “You reach a certain age and there’s a little bit of an eye roll—really, do they have to die? Does there have to be incest and murder? Isn’t there another way?—and also, what does this have to do with my life?” It is in this light that DeLorenzo sees Cymbeline. He feels Shakespeare is saying, “A comic resolution is a more profound ending than a tragic one.”
Two thoughts: One, this echoes the recent Terry Teachout essay and subsequent discussion; and two, having seen Bart's exquisite productions of both Edward Bond's Saved and the noir adaptation No Orchids for Miss Blandish back in those early days, I think he's selling his youthful attraction to the dark side short. Still, I know exactly what he means about how tiring "shocking" theater can be (wild horses could not drag me to this or this, for instance). And though I've never seen a satisfying production of Cymbeline, I'd love to see what Bart and ANW does with it.

Sep 18, 2012

How We Live Next


Sarah Sokolovic, Darren Pettie, David Schwimmer, and Amy Ryan in Detroit (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

As much as I share Charles Isherwood's love for Playwrights Horizons, which in so many ways is an exemplary theater and a powerful counter-argument to anyone who reflexively dismisses either new American writing or institutional support for same (or both), I'm starting to get the sneaking worry that it's typing itself a bit too much as the default home for the "how we live now in America" play, and/or that it feels that that is its mission—to be the kind of furrowed-brow liberal conscience Spy magazine once memorably parodied the NY Times Magazine for being (it's great that Google has digitized all the old issues of Spy, but I don't have time to track down that particular issue at the moment).

From Maple and Vine to Rapture Blister Burn to the new Detroit, which I saw this past weekend, I feel like we're witnessing a trend-let of serious state-of-the-culture plays, which is a mixed blessing. This is the kind of play Terry Teachout too handily dismisses (as he did in the case of Jerusalem, albeit in re: a different national culture), and the kind of thing John Lahr gives too much of a pass to (Labute, I'm lookin' at you).

I guess this trend would be a better thing if I'd felt more moved than instructed by these well-crafted, thoughtful plays; Lisa D'Amour's Detroit, which my employer published last year and which I've been looking forward to seeing ever since, may in fact be the juiciest and rawest of the three I've mentioned. But I can't help feeling that Anne Kauffman's well-wrought, well-acted production now at Playwrights has drained some of the play's unpredictable, volatile energy.

It's about two couples in a crumbling exurb of the title city, one barely hanging on to the lower middle class, the other essentially squatting uncertainly in their orbit, and the ways these four broken people mingle aspiration, despair, and other substances into a toxic, explosive stew. I fear I've made it sound dreadful, far more portentous and less nimble than it actually is; though an air of inevitable doom does hang about it like secondhand smoke, it is a very funny, lively play, and I'd still very much recommend seeing it; every actor has a chance to shine, in particular Sarah Sokolovic as a waifish rehab-rebound dreamer.

And for all my issues with the how-we-live-now genre, it does earn its keep with well-turned observations and subversions of, well, how we live now. It was true of the priceless Google-map/porn analogy in Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, it was true of so much of the mesmerizing first half of Maple and Vine. And it's no less true of D'Amour's work.

I was struck especially by this exchange between Sharon, the waif played by Sokolovic, and Ben, a laid-off financial services guy slowly laboring on his own web-from-home-based business (and played with a sort or riveting blankness by David Schwimmer). It starts with Ben's wife, Mary (played with a pinched soulfulness by Amy Ryan) questioning his business model:
MARY I still don't understand how just a website is going to attract customers. I mean it is just hanging out there in the ether. Is someone just going to decide they need a consultant and then—poof—find your website?

BEN I've got it, baby—

MARY No, I just mean there are like what, a gazillion bazillion websites out there—

BEN I've got it.

SHARON Anyway, I heard the "next Internet" is coming out soon. Something that we can't even imagine. This superfast thing that will change everything. Change everything so much that like we won't even have to own things anymore.

BEN Do you mean—I don't understand. I mean, what will happen to websites? I just don't understand.

SHARON That's just it. I can't explain it, and it's outside of our understanding at this time—

BEN I mean I'm sure there'll be some sort of conversion, a way to convert the website into—

SHARON Ben. No worries. Our tiny brains can't conceive of it, it's totally new, like finding out...this table is actually alive, and has been for a long time. We can't understand it yet, but the inventors of the "next Internet" are doing that part for us. So you, Ben, should just unfurrow—is that a word? Unfurrow that forehead and enjoy some bean dip and Delta caviar.
The way that moment plays onstage encapsulates the best of this kind of play: The ground shifts a little under Ben's feet, and ours, until we're gazing at an abyss of insignificance with only wisps of words to hold onto. It's bracing, and it's the kind of moment that plays like this are shooting for—moments in which we feel the free-floating dislocation and anomie of our 21st-century American lives and aren't simply either shown or told about it.

Sep 12, 2012

The Joy of Sam


Joy Zinoman; photo by Todd Franson

My friend and colleague Isaac Butler has said repeatedly of Joy Zinoman, the founding artistic of D.C.'s Studio Theatre, that she saved his life (something of an explanation is given here). That's why, when Joy resigned from her post a few years back, I had Isaac write a farewell piece for American Theatre. In the years since, I've also become friends with Joy's son Jason, a NY Times critic and fellow new dad.

Now that Joy is making her New York debut after four decades in the theater business, I finally had the privilege of sitting down with her recently to chat about the production, a Beckett anthology-with-music called Sounding Beckett. My favorite quote, regarding the strictures placed on interpreters by both the playwright and his estate:
A certain degree of constraint can be inspiring, of course. "It gives you limits, and within those limits, I think you can be more creative,” says [Zinoman]. “If someone gives you a 
big, open field and says, ‘Do a play in this cornfield,’ you’re fucked. So I welcome it, and I engage in it in an antagonistic way as well.”
You can read the whole thing in Time Out here.

Sep 4, 2012

Tragedy, Schmagedy


David Rakoff, 2010 (Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

I had no intention of wading into the tragedy-vs.-comedy mini-debate that Terry Teachout started last week with his Wall Street Journal column, which had the relatively self-explanatory headline, “Why Comedy is Truer to Life Than Tragedy,” and the inevitable response from tragedy's self-appointed defender, George Hunka. I tweeted a few thoughts about how reductively binary I found Terry's initial piece, which held up Twelfth Night over King Lear in part because, as Terry put it, Lear "ends, like most of Shakespeare's tragedies, with a mile-high stack of corpses, a horrific spectacle that precious few of us have had the misfortune to behold"—a somewhat provocative statement in an age of smartphone atrocity videos, not to mention a century of well-documented genocides (are tragedies intended only for those suffering from PTSD, I wonder?). Along these lines, Marilyn Nonken's comment, as George records it, does indeed cut to the heart of the matter: "When I read Terry’s pronouncement that 'comedy is truer to life than tragedy' to my wife, she immediately got to the heart of the matter: 'That depends on whose life you’re talking about, doesn’t it?' she said."

I know that a lot of this boils down taste and temperament, as Terry freely admits; for my money, as much as I love both Twelfth Night and King Lear, I dread strenuously unfunny renditions of the former nearly as much or more than I dread self-importantly harrowing productions of the latter.

Then I happened to belatedly catch This American Life's tribute to the late writer David Rakoff, and the replaying of several of his bleakest, funniest stories sparked a few related thoughts. If Rakoff's view of life's randomness and cruelty wasn't essentially tragic, I'm not sure what would qualify; and the fact that his stories were nevertheless unfailingly entertaining doesn't mean that he somehow softened their core horror or sprinkled some one-liners over the despair to let us off the hook. Rakoff was true to his own sense of both the ridiculous absurdity and the punishing terrors of life and death, but he was always terrifically, mordantly funny. One did not feel that he was buttonholing us or hectoring us, trying self-consciously to shake us out of our complacency and see how much life sucks. In many cases, that would indeed be the takeaway, as in this chilling, clarifying interview with Terry Gross, but Rakoff had the saving grace and sense of proportion as a storyteller to see and render a hopeless world with as much humor as horror.

Truthfully, to keep this theatrical, I feel the same way about the best work of John Guare or Tracy Letts or August Wilson or Tony Kushner or Chris Durang or Annie Baker or a name Terry mentions but brushes past all too quickly, Chekhov. Looking back, indeed, I think this is also true of earlier 20th century titans: Beckett, Pinter, Albee, Williams, Brecht, Ionesco. I'll admit that Arthur Miller may stand apart in his self-appointed task of making Greek-worthy tragedy out of the American experience (and, in another medium, David Simon made an entirely worthy effort to do something similar). But by and large, I think the observation holds that a truly tragic view of the world often finds its best and truest expression in forms and modes we might think of as essentially or at least outwardly comic.

Ultimately, what I'm trying to say is that as much as I resist the binary comedy/tragedy argument, I'd like to align myself with a more nuanced version of Terry's case for a comic view of the tragedies and indignities, small and huge, that life visits on us all, or, as the evangelist had it, on the just and the unjust.

If nothing else, George has done us the service of digging up this extremely entertaining comment-palooza on David Cote's blog from 2007.

Aug 30, 2012

That Birney Feeling

I wasn't a great lover of the recent Soho Rep Vanya, as regular readers of this blog know, but I remain a fan of nearly everyone involved, including actor Reed Birney, whose lovely interview with Slant magazine I just caught. I was particularly touched by this closing observation:
This generation of playwrights and directors, Annie [Baker]'s generation, they seem to understand me better than my peer group does. I don't quite know why, but they appreciate me in a way that I never was before.
Another argument for sticking with it.

Aug 23, 2012

Trampin'


The site of the original enchantment

I must have been 11 or so when my dad pointed out the cover of the Scottsdale Progress's weekend arts section: the Scottsdale Center for the Arts would be screening The Circus on the big screen. I'm sure I must have been exposed to Charlie Chaplin's films before then, and I know I'd spent hours with a fabulous book of my parents', simply called The Films of Charlie Chaplin, which dutifully traced his career all the way from Kids Auto Races at Venice to King of New York, complete with copious photos, credits, and critical blurbs (it's one of the few from my folks' shelves that is now on mine).

So we went to The Circus (probably the most underrated of Chaplin's full-length silents), and I was hooked. (Not just on Chaplin, actually; that little big screen is also where I first saw pretty much the entire canon of Chaplin, Hitchcock, Welles, Minnelli, assorted Huston and Hakws and Ford, later even some Warhol; it was my own little revival cinema, and my dad dutifully accompanied to most of it, though I remember that he couldn't quite make it through Chimes at Midnight; he came back to pick me up after that one.) But though I've since discovered the somewhat sharper films of Chaplin's rival Buster Keaton, and duly concede many points to his partisans, Chaplin remains a kind of cinematic first love. There are sections of City Lights I can barely watch without bawling (and others I can't watch without yawning, frankly), and though The Gold Rush doesn't hold up so well for me anymore, Modern Times looks better and better all the time.

So I was extra-excited to sit down recently with Rob McClure, the lucky and talented New Jerseyan who's headlining the big new Broadway musical Chaplin, and nerd out about some of the films I literally grew up on. My piece for the paper of record is here.

When Harry Sang Stevie

The happy occasion of Keen Co.'s upcoming revival of the Sondheim outtake anthology Marry Me a Little is a fine excuse to trot out this novelty, which not enough people have heard: a demo of the title tune, which Sondheim commissioned from Harry Nilsson in 1969 as a gift for a friend. (It would go on to get cut from 1970's Company, though it's now often reinstated as a first-act closer.)

If you think the Company cast album has whiffs of bell-bottoms and puka shells (those funky guitars and organs), check this out; it really sounds for all the world like Sondheim trying his hand at a sort of late-'60s prog-pop tune, something the Fifth Dimension or the Mama and Papas or Art Garfunkel could have covered. Warning: You can almost get a contact high from this recording.

Aug 16, 2012

Joel Hodgson on Criticism

At least that's the way I read this quote from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator:
Watching a movie is almost like falling asleep into the movie. You get taken away by the movie and you don’t want to be awoken, but then there are these things that keep bothering you, that wake you up as a viewer. I’m like everybody else—when I go to a movie, I want to forget that I’m watching a movie. I want to be in it. If that doesn’t happen, what do you do? Who are you then? Then you’re a person who has to evaluate why this movie hasn’t taken you away, why it hasn’t worked.
That's as good a description of the critical impulse as I can think of. As one matures, though, it's clear that the harder task is to be a good critic of the things you actually do love—the things that let you "fall asleep into them." Criticism is at least partly a form of biography, and after the initial awakening of a critical sensibility, finding and parsing your own affinities, honing your own subjectivity, becomes the real task.

Aug 14, 2012

Quote for the Day

"Old songs are more than tunes, they are little houses in which our hearts once lived."
-Ben Hecht

Aug 10, 2012

Moments Between the Moments


photo by Mark Von Holden/Getty Images North America
Had the pleasure recently of meeting and chatting with the very busy director Daniel Aukin, a new play specialist formerly of Soho Rep, now working at every other Off-Broadway theater in town, including Signature Center, where he's directing the new Sam Shepard play. I particularly liked this window into his work:
“Part of the job is to figure out, what are the things in this play that, no matter how we do it, are going to come across anyway?” Mr. Aukin said in an interview in the Signature Center’s cavernous new lobby before a rehearsal. “You could say very broadly that with a lot of plays, there are somewhere between 15 and 30 moments that have to work in a certain way — that have to do something for the storytelling to land. And then there’s room between those places.”

Those liminal spaces are where Mr. Aukin thrives. Indeed, he has few contemporary rivals in finding texture and resonance in a play’s stillness and silence, or what [Itamar] Moses called “the moments between the moments.” That may be why the delicate, fine-grained naturalism of [Amy] Herzog’s “4000 Miles” was such a good fit for his talents. Paige Evans, artistic director of Lincoln Center’s LCT3, said, “He draws drama out of small, ordinary moments, but doesn’t hit them on the head.”
My piece for the paper of record is here.

Aug 9, 2012

Quote for the Day

"There is no real world/We live side by side/And sometimes collide"

Aug 8, 2012

I Wish


I don't recall exactly how it started, but I've become one of The Sondheim Review's regular reviewers, and the winter issue will contain my evaluation of the current Shakespeare in the Park production of Into the Woods. Director Timothy Sheader's production, to my eyes, works more than it doesn't, and it feels/looks particularly English, so much so that it reminded me of Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, another play about magic and mischief in the woods that ends stirringly with a summoning of giants. I write:
If Sheader’s production never reaches [Jerusalem's] incantatory power, it has a little to do with his staging, a little to do with his casting, and a fair amount to do with the source material. Sondheim and Lapine’s 1987 musical is a brilliant piece of craftsmanship that richly rewards repeated viewings and study, both compositionally and dramaturgically. But the show’s final turns, all of them inward, usually grind the evening to a halt while the characters mopily contemplate the complications of families and morals; that stately procession of closing ballads (“No More,” “No One Is Alone,” “Children Will Listen”) can start to sound dangerously close to a series of self-help sermons.

I’ve seen very few productions, including the original one (on video, like most of humanity), that have avoided this trap; it’s my fond recollection that a tiny but big-spirited rendition at Actors’ Co-op in Hollywood back in 1994, with Janet Carroll as the Witch, was an exception, and I think what put it across was the intimacy of the space and the clear, bright contours of the characterizations. Indeed, most of the problems with the Central Park production fall along those lines: its frequent lack of intimacy and occasional lack of definition.
For the review and much more besides, you can subscribe or order individual issues here.

Aug 1, 2012

Quote for the Day

"I hate that word blog
It sounds like a large accumulation of snot"
—Melissa James Gibson, This

Jul 31, 2012

My Three Uncles


Blanchett and McElhinny in the Sydney Theatre Company production; photo by Lisa Tomasetti

So I've now seen three Uncle Vanyas in as many months. Which takes the gold? If you count length of run as a measure of success, Soho Rep's Annie Baker/Sam Gold version, which has been extended through the end of August, is the clear winner. On the other hand, if you count how far a production has traveled, then the Sydney Theatre Company production, recently in town as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, clearly takes the prize. Target Margin's odd meta-take, which I saw in May, would win only in the first-out-of-the-gate category.

I should preface remarks about my own response to this triptych by saying that while Chekhov's rueful comedy may be my favorite play, as I've mentioned before, and though I've aired my dissatisfaction with the Soho Rep production, I honestly don't feel like I have a dog in the how-Chekhov-should-be-done derby: I get what my colleagues David Cote and Jason Zinoman are saying—roughly speaking, the argument is whether Chekhov's plays are nuanced, layered dramas of everyday disappointment or rip-roaring Russian comedies of passion and excess—but at the risk of copping out of the argument, I'll just say that I've seen enough productions of his plays to be an agnostic on the question. If I take anything away from these three wildly various Vanyas, not to mention the furious, punk-rock Seagull I saw in Moscow in April (which would give purists of any camp conniptions), it is that Chekhov's plays are not fragile, delicate hothouse flowers; they can take, and deserve, a wide range of interpretations.

In fact, what I think has been overlooked in the discussion of this recent spate of Vanyas, and in particular, in comparisons between the Baker/Gold version and the Sydney version (directed by Tamás Ascher from an adaptation by Andrew Upton), is that neither of these two is a stuffy, traditional samovar-and-cravats approach. Both strive for a kind of faithfulness to the text, certainly, but one is set at a vaguely 1940s, possibly-Australian outpost, while the other is set in a kind of casual-contemporary attic limbo. Neither is "traditional," as was the one I was part of in L.A. years ago.

But yes, these two can stand in as case studies for either side of the century-old argument about whether Chekhov's plays are primarily comedies or dramas, ruminative or raucous (while Target Margin's made its own modest case for deconstruction/experimentation). Again, that we have this debate at all signifies to me that the answer is, of course, they are both. They are capacious plays with both grand architecture and fine filigrees; they can be played broad and played tiny. I can think of no better argument for remaining open to interpretation than the Malle/Gregory film of the Mamet adaptation, Vanya on 42nd Street, which makes a quiet, no-frills case for both the humor and the pathos; it gets the rumination and fine-grained behavioral observation without losing the larger shape of the piece.

And that's, finally, what I responded to most in the Ascher/Upton production, apart from some of its undeniable pleasures (which would include, yes, Cate Blanchett's deliberate yet disarmingly messy take on Yelena, as well as Richard Roxburgh's angry-turned-catatonic-clown Vanya): that it revealed the shape of the play as much as its component parts. I can imagine, in theory, the value of being so immersed in the play that you can't see or feel its edges, and I think that's what the Baker/Gold version aspired to (and seemed to achieve, I should hasten to add, for the large majority of critics); and it's possible that some of the problems I had with the Baker/Gold version were simply a matter of the technical difficulties I alluded to here.

But I do think that discerning or guessing at a play's larger shape and movement while remaining alive to each moment as it happens is not only part of the satisfaction of theater, which is both a performative and literary art; it is also very close to life as it's experienced. We don't invariably live in the moment, and we don't experience life as simply a series of events, unless we have a serious dissociative disorder; we make narrative, we infer and/or impose meanings on events, we plan and perform rituals and routines, we daydream. One of the joys of a play is that it reflects these experiences within a dramatic shape, and the unique joy of Chekhov is that he seems to have found ways to conjure these experiences more directly, without shaping his plays into rigid plot forms. But they do have shapes and rhythms, and it was clear from the moment Sandy Gore's Maria Vasilyevna blew in to pick a fight with any takers (Roxburgh's Vanya being only her most obvious target) that Ascher's production crucially understood the play as a series of arguments between bored, dissatisfied people—arguments some were spoiling for, some were at pains to avoid, and still others didn't even realize they were in.

This conflict-driven interpretation fired the whole evening, even the scenes of ostensible comity, as in the risky choice to play the Sonya/Yelena reconciliation as a giggly, vodka-fueled slumber party (a bridge too far for me, actually, and a bad sign for Hayley McElhinney's Sonya, who was far too much the needy, grabby child for my taste; if you wanted to point to a casualty of Ascher's high-pitched approach, it would be his Sonya, though she rallied by the end).

Ultimately, my reaction to the Sydney Vanya was closest to Scott Brown's: bracing but not definitive, with occasional and forgivable lapses of taste. I liked Zinoman's tart observation that "an Uncle Vanya with no trace of vulgarity betrays the work," though this is hardly a deficiency of the Baker/Gold version, which envisions the Vanya/Astrov drunk scene as a fratty, pants-optional romp; that production's problem isn't too much reverence or decorum, by any stretch. And though I ended up responding more to the Upton/Ascher version than to those of Baker/Gold and Target Margin, I'm heartened enough by this outbreak of diverging Chekhovs in New York to suggest that, far from feeling glutted, my appetite is only whetted for more, and not just merrier, productions.

Jul 27, 2012

Friday on the Links

Jul 23, 2012

Doers Vs. Watchers

On HowlRound today, Sherri Kronfeld brings fresh passion and (seeming) common sense to an age-old debate (or at least one that's been raging as long I've been in the arts journalism racket). Essentially:
Why aren’t there more theater practitioners among theater critics? Why is ours one of the rare fields—unlike sports, books, economics, etc—where esteemed practitioners can’t comment on each other’s work? In fact aren’t they the best people to do this?...Why should theater practitioners only write about theater in the most oblique ways, and on blogs? I want Adam Rapp to review the next Stephen Adly Guirgis play, and in the damn New York Times (if he wants to). I want a busily working lighting designer (too many to name) to review plays in Lighting and Sound America. And no, I do not think it’s a conflict of interest. I think it would be a celebration of the art form we’ve dedicated our lives to. Why, in theater only, is enthusiastic advocacy and lifelong experience viewed as a conflict of interest?
In response I could cite my own previous thoughts about sometime practitioner/critic John Lahr, roughly to the effect that this line of thinking hugely undervalues the role of the seasoned aficionado (and Matthew Freeman's related thoughts); I could mention my colleague David Cote at Time Out, who's been a practitioner before and is dipping back into it; or WSJ's Terry Teachout, former jazz bassist, now part-time playwright. I stand by all that (and I'll use this opportunity, again, to plug my favorite piece ever on the purpose of criticism). I can add that I agree in part with Kronfeld's point; I'd like to see the conflict-of-interest canard challenged more vigorously, and I for one would like to read more intra-theatrical dialogue, something we definitely encourage at American Theatre, where we frequently publish practitioner/journalists. I'd like to do my part to break down the wall on the editorial side of this impasse, and pieces like Kronfeld's serve as good reminders that we have further to go on that score.

But the resistance of editors and publishers is not the whole story here; artists also have an aversion to practicing criticism in the public square. Some of that is for entirely self-interested and political reasons, the old don't-shit-where-you-eat conundrum. But I would argue that it goes deeper than that, and that there are practical and personal reasons you don't see more crossover. In my own experience as a full-time arts journalist/critic and sometime theater composer/musician, I can say that the cliché about the "inner critic" is entirely true; it is surpassingly hard to shut off one's evaluative, analytical mind at will when trying to be creative, and vice versa. It's a switch that most artists worth their salt don't flip back and forth lightly, and I can say that putting an emphasis on one over the other, in my own case, has had its costs.

And these costs aren't just internal; they're also eminently practical. Arts journalism is a trade and a craft (if increasingly a tough career), and not only are there are only so many brain compartments into which one can file critical and creative thoughts; there are only so many hours in a day. Kronfeld alludes to this issue but I don't think she quite gives it the weight it deserves. She quotes playwright Jason Grote, who used to do a fair amount of theater journalism and blogging, as to why he doesn't do that anymore:
“I never had a problem with writing for The Brooklyn Rail or American Theater—but everyone else seemed to. I’d just ignore stuff I didn’t like or wasn’t interested in, and offer something closer to analysis than criticism. But I stopped, mostly because of burnout, but also because many people didn’t seem to understand ‛what I was’—I felt forced to choose between thinker and artist.”
To the extent that Grote means he felt external pressure to fit into one career box or another, that's lamentable; I think that kind of prejudice about job description should be set aside as much as possible. But I think Kronfeld underestimates the extent to which that choice between thinking and doing, reflecting and creating, is a genuine artistic crossroads. The folks who can keep straddling those two roads without strain are few; heck, the list of folks who can do either playwriting or criticism well is short enough.

Speaking as an editor, I'd love nothing more than to publish eminent playwrights' writing about their peers; who wouldn't? But I understand why I get vastly more pitches from people who've dedicated themselves to writing about theater than from people who are busy doing it.

Most Revelatory Bloggingheads Ever?

This frank diavlog between self-confessed media manipulator Ryan Holiday and Fark.com's Drew Curtis about how the media business really works in the age of HuffPo and Gawker is alternately depressing and hopeful, cynical and bracingly clear-minded. Bottom line: It's going to get worse before it gets better, but it will (probably) get better. If you look at the Internet at all, the whole thing is worth watching, but I was particularly struck by this back-and-forth about the mark of the worst kind of link-baiting, faux-provocative bad journalism: the question-mark headline.

Jul 20, 2012

Quote for the Day


"Solitude seems to oppress me. And so does the company of other people." -Berenger in Ionesco's Rhinoceros

Jul 18, 2012

Who Makes a Play?

Maybe because it was the first speech at the opening plenary of the recent TCG conference, maybe because it was more sobering nuts-and-bolts than rousing stump speech, maybe even because it offered a somewhat challenging if nuanced point of view to a field that had many other topics and agendas pressing on its mind for the week—whatever the reason, Woolly Mammoth a.d. Howard Shalwitz's speech, "Theatrical Innovation: Whose Job Is It?", hasn't yet gotten the wide play and discussion I think it deserves. Now that the full text is up on the TCG blog, I hope it does. To me it reads as a patient, clear-minded, and quietly urgent wake-up call for American theaters seeking ways to be at once aesthetically daring and beloved by audiences, both humane and rigorous in their process, both artist-centered and institutionally sound.

Shalwitz starts with European theater as a jumping-off point of comparison, but not before getting past the familiar they-have-funding-and-long-traditions-of-respect-for-artists-and-we-don't refrain:
At first I was tempted to dismiss the work I saw in Poland—and later in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Russia—by saying to myself that their tradition is more Brechtian while ours is Aristotelian, they have a director-driven culture while ours is playwright-driven, they get more government funding so they can rehearse longer and aren’t so dependent on the box office, they sustain whole companies of artists while we have more of a freelance culture.

But the more work I saw, the more it became impossible not to be envious of a few things: first, that the variety of different kinds of work on their stages seemed wider; second, that it all felt like new theatre whether the script was new or old; third, that every play felt like an exuberant civic event because of the way the actors owned the material and seemed to be sharing it as an ensemble with the audience; and finally, that the audiences were noticeably younger than American audiences.
I won't steal all his thunder, but what Shalwitz goes on to explore is a way America's institutional theaters can strive toward these goals without becoming European state-run theaters, in part by becoming production developers as much as play developers, and by extending responsibility for and ownership of the art on the stage beyond the playwright's silo to everyone in the company (and to somehow do so without turning the creative process into a free-falling free-for-all).

It's not a silver bullet or a universally applicable program, and Shalwitz does pause to acknowledge that many small ensembles in the U.S. have been and are doing just the kind of European-style innovating and young-audience-building he covets (Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Rude Mechs, Pig Iron, Neo-Futurists are just a few names that come to my mind). But I remain extremely impressed by the way Shalwitz manages to tie together so many of the daunting challenges theaters face in the 21st century: audience engagement and retention, new play development, the divide between artists' and institutions' priorities and needs, the ongoing search for theater's purpose and relevance in a digital age.

These are not easy topics; indeed, they're so big that each one could practically spawn a conference all its own. Credit to Shalwitz, then, for seeing a practitioners' way through some of these thistly questions, and for teasing out their fundamental interdependence.

Jul 16, 2012

Celeste Holm, R.I.P.

On Masterpieces and Magellan

How can you tell a masterpiece? It may be harder to recognize or even make them now, in an age of single-song downloads, longform episodic TV narrative, and multi-year film franchises; we seem to live in a time in which we expect to prolong good things, if not quite great things, in dribs and drabs over months and years, and for our art and entertainment to accumulate the lived-in familiarity of beloved friends rather than the life-shattering impact of a brilliant stranger whose arrival makes us quit our job, move across the country, or otherwise rearrange our lives around what's left after the shattering.

Apart from its aesthetic and experiential qualities, this doling out of cultural product can be a fine way to create economies of scale and amortize production costs, not to mention employ artists in an ongoing way (more or less) doing the work they love (more or or less) without the pressure of making The Best Thing That's Ever Been Made. And it's not a bad bargain for audiences, either: It's a lot easier, and in many ways more sane and humane, to live in a world where we all manage to find our groove, our tastes, and go on about curating our Netflix queue and our Spotify playlists (and, if we're of a certain age, order our subscription seasons of theater and the symphony). I mean, how many life-changing, conversion-level experiences do we have space and time for our in our lives? Maybe no more than we have for falling in love.

These thoughts have been stirred by the arrival this past week of the new Dirty Projectors album, Swing Lo Magellan, which has hit me with a force I wasn't prepared for, despite my having loved their last two records, Rise Above and Bitte Orca. Those records felt like tangible, irreversible leaps forward for art pop; lead Projector Dave Longstreth essentially uses the standard rock quartet, plus an indispensable complement of harmony singers for which the term "backup" is entirely inadequate, to compose music as dense but delightful as the best music ever written for bands, from Mozart to Ellington to Zeppelin.

Now, if one measure of great art is that it not only seduces us at first acquaintance but holds up to further, even seemingly infinite examination, the trick with a clever, almost freakishly talented artist like Longstreth has been to strike the balance between immediate appeal and embedded intricacy; we won't stick around to tease out the layers of a complicated work if it doesn't tease us a little into loving it first. These are matters of taste, but for me that balance was struck beautifully on Rise Above and in particular on the sweeping Bitte Orca, which included both a faux R&B single, "Stillness Is the Move," that could be danced to without a sprain, as well as the abstruse but uncannily exuberant time-signature clusterfuck "Temecula Sunrise":

I was prepared for more unsettling brilliance of that sort with the new record, and for the slight but entirely pleasing effort of appreciation that goes with it—more brain-tickling, and occasional booty-shaking; more nourishing headphone snacks for my commute. Instead, what floors me about Swing Lo Magellan is that Longstreth has somehow managed to make a record that's both instantly lovable, light and smiling as a summer breeze, and deeply, inexhaustibly beautiful. He's broken that delicate balancing act in half like a twig; he's turned the dial way up on both the treble of pop sweetness and the bass of compositional complexity and met us in the mid-range. The center holds, and at the moment it feels to me like the center of the universe.

Apologies for the hyperbole, but this is why I started this post with thoughts on masterpieces and their rarity; I haven't fallen for a record this hard for decades, I don't think. Individual songs, yes (cf. Tom Waits' "Hell Broke Luce"), and more recently much of the output of certain artists (Rufus Wainwright, Midlake, Janelle Monae, Alabama Shakes, Fleet Foxes). Indeed, I can't even recall the last work in any medium that's knocked me out like this; since I barely see movies or read books anymore, I have little to say there, but obviously I see plenty of theater, and the last plays I felt could be called masterpieces were probably August: Osage County and Circle Mirror Transformation. Obviously, on the small screen The Wire is an inarguable gold standard, though its greatness is attenuated by some thin narrative strands in ways that make it hard for me to consider it—or any great series, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer—a masterpiece in toto.

I have no such misgivings about Swing Lo Magellan, not a note of which is out of place. I would love to take apart several songs and demonstrate its world-shaking significance, and perhaps I will in future blog posts. For now I simply want to leave you with three choice tunes that I hope give an indication what I'm so excited about.

1. "Gun Has No Trigger" is the closest the record may have to a pop single, mainly because it's got an uninterrupted 4/4 drum track and a standard pop structure; that it's catchy as hell is another bonus (although one step Longstreth mostly hasn't made as a songwriter, for all his growth as a melodist, is to deliver great, full choruses; instead, as before, he largely tends to write long, verse-like structures that climax with a "chorus" that's simply the title line repeated). I would just point out a few things that send me over the moon about the song, apart from the way its ominous minor key gives way to a soaring major, and then to the surging one-line chorus.

First, there's the way Longstreth fills the first two phrases of the verse differently each time, not randomly or sloppily but in a way that makes each version haunt the other with unsung notes and dials up the song's insinuating, eerie tone. The first time he sings (at :21), "If you had looked, you might have just seen them/Stretched in the background," and then there's just a lacuna of unfilled-in beats. Next time he fills them in (at 1:21), "If you had looked, you'd be no one's coward/Distance, justice, power," and those two extra syllables of "power" have, well, a lot of power, because there were no notes in that space before. Finally, third time around, amping up a conversational, even confrontational tone (at 2:20): "If you had looked, you might reconsider/Or just maybe you already have." Chills.

That's worth listening for, as is the tiny but significant two-note slip Longstreth includes twice in every verse, in which for a passing moment he changes the chord from major to minor; it happens on "background" at :33, "colors" at :53, on "justice" at 1:32, "master" at 1:52...You'll get the idea. These tiny details shouldn't matter on first listen, and they certainly won't mean anything if you don't find this song as immediately compelling as I did, but they are there and they are very satisfying:


2. Then there's the title tune, which is just heartbreakingly beautiful and which seems to owe a lot, both in writing and arrangement, to Dylan's not-quite-fully-electric sound on "Bringing It All Back Home." It's there in the skittering drums, the bright alternating chords on guitar, in Longstreth's relaxedly leaping vocal; there are even ghosts of Dylan melodies here (just listen to the words "to the naked eye" and tell me you don't hear a faint jingle-jangle following you).


3. God, there are so many more songs worth mentioning: Amber Coffman's breakout vocal solo on "The Socialites," which is 20 times the faux R&B single that "Stillness" was; the unspeakably gorgeous, Kid A-meets-Graceland ode "See What She Seeing"; the Elvis-at-Sun-Records-reverb beauty of the album's perfect closer, "Irresponsible Tune"; the lovely dance between chiming, spraying guitar and angelic vocals on "Just From Chevron"; the cathartic whipsaw turns of the opening track, "Offspring Are Blank"; the sprawling, free-timed "Maybe That Was It"; the disarmingly, earnestly goofy "Dance for You"; the openhearted sweetness of "Impregnable Question."

But I'll leave you with "About To Die," which may be most typical song on an album that manages to be both stylistically diverse and unified in sound. This is the sound of Swing Lo Magellan in a bright, glittering nutshell: a melody line with a sneaky but catching shifting meter, in counterpoint with bright, jewel-like guitar chords, while Brian McOmber's percussion clatters and chatters ahead to the ecstatic chorus, where Longstreth's stretchy, soulful melisma is met with the celestial, limber harmonies of Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. There's even a short surf over some low strings that evokes "Village Ghettoland" (at 2:27).

In short, it's the "Fixing a Hole" of Swing Lo Magellan, which, as you may be unsurprised to learn, I'm quite ready to include my personal pantheon with Sgt. Pepper's (actually, can I change that to Rubber Soul?), Imperial Bedroom, and John Wesley Harding (whose cover, by the way, I kind of think Swing Lo's may be obliquely riffing on). I'm meeting this masterpiece head on.


(crossposted at Train My Ear)

Jul 9, 2012

Monday Out of the Gate

A few unrelated links and observations to start the week:
  • Wisdom from the august Gus Schulenburg on how not to be a dick on the Intertubes (some warnings of which I could heed better).
  • The actual class struggle worth talking about in re: TCG's recent conference.
  • Drollest line in Charles McNulty's great round table with L.A.'s small theater machers: "Note was made of the passage from Gordon Davidson to Michael Ritchie at Center Theatre Group and the effect this has had on L.A.'s theatrical ecology." Indeed.
  • Nothing became this New York native like the leaving of it. (Seriously, great post, J.— do my old hometown proud.)
  • The wife and I are belatedly catching up with the first season of Louie. I haven't read widely on it, but am I the only one who vastly prefers the scripted scenes to his standup?
  • I'm a mild Sleep No More skeptic but I still found this feature and slide show on interactive theater relatively thrilling, even heartening.

Jul 5, 2012

Reports From the Not-Unrelated Day Job


It was a busy spring and I feel like I'm only just caught up before the late-summer crunch begins, but I thought I should point out a few things that have made it into print at the publication I work for by day (and often by night, given its subject). The July/August edition of American Theatre contains two meaty features, one of which I'll claim a little credit for: Wendy Smith's sweeping, fine-grained essay about the enduring legacy of Eugene O'Neill is all her own work, but I'm proud to boast that I did bring in Wendy into the AT fold after catching an excellent review by her in the Kurt Weill Foundation newsletter, of all places. (She's also the author of a book about the Group Theatre, Real-Life Drama, which sounds like a must-read when I get a chance.) Key graf:
Ranging from the first script of O'Neill's to be publicly performed (Bound East for Cardiff, included in Early Plays) through the last one completed before failing health forced him to stop writing (A Moon for the Misbegotten), the spring flurry of productions made palpable the continuity of his ambition and vision, even as his craft grew and his style shifted. "This sailor life ain't much to cry about leavin'," says Yank, the dying seaman in Cardiff, a judgment echoed in Josie Hogan's benediction for James Tyrone Jr. in Moon: "May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim, darling." O'Neill was the first great American playwright in large part because he was the first to challenge audiences with a genuinely tragic vision of the human condition—a vision that consistently presents death as the only lasting peace achievable.
The other large feature has none of my fingerprints on it, but it may be one of my favorite AT features ever, one of the kind we seem uniquely set up to do: Stuart Miller's extensively reported examination of the playwright/designer relationship, and the ways that influences the plays we see and the designs that frame them. Sound esoteric? It's not:
The process differs greatly from playwright to playwright, in part because some think more visually than others, and in part because some are more actively engaged as the play moves from page to stage. Playwright David Henry Hwang belongs at one extreme—he admits, "I never see anything in my mind and have no idea what a show I'm writing will look like. Usually when I see the set design I go, 'Wow, this world is coming to life.' It's startling and delightful." Indeed, according to David Korins, who recently designed the Goodman's production of Hwang's Chinglish that subsequently moved to Broadway, "The greatest compliment I can get from a playwright is 'You helped me see my play.'"

At the other end of the spectrum are playwrights like Edward Albee, whose writerly approach is as visual as it is literary: "You can't create people unless you know where they are," Albee says without equivocation. "From the very beginning, I have ideas about what the set of a play looks like." Jon Robin Baitz says that as a young playwright at the Padua Hills Playwright Festival in California, he spent so much time writing stage descriptions that Maria Irene Fornés, one of his teachers there, chastised him, saying, "You are too nervous to write the play!" But that turned into a pivotal moment for Baitz when he realized that Fornés's criticism wasn't applicable—his needs were in fact different than hers, "and I needed that description to invoke the spirit of the play."
It's like that at every turn; it's the kind of brilliantly written piece that both seems to answer all the questions we might have as we go along (like, where's the director in this picture?) and manages to introduce new complications and wrinkles along the way (like how set design is in many ways more front-loaded and unalterable than the script itself). In short, a great read.

Neither of these two features, though, give this issue its beautiful cover, though: The man with the horn is John Douglas Thompson as Louis Armstrong in Satchmo at the Waldorf, a new play brewed up by WSJ theater critic Terry Teachout, which premieres at Shakespeare and Co. in August and at Long Wharf in the fall. For my relatively short preview piece in the magazine (in the print edition only), Teachout told me that the play was born from previous research:
"This is not what [director Gordon Edelstein] calls a 'taxidermy play,' where someone sits around and talks about what a great guy he is," says Teachout, who wrote an acclaimed 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops. It was a reader of that book who suggested to Teachout via e-mail that "there might be a play in it. That had never occurred to me. No writing of plays had ever occurred to me, in fact."
There's a lot of other good stuff in the magazine, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my report on the Golden Mask Festival, an annual theater festival in Moscow that's a bit like a citywide Lincoln Center Festival, except with exclusively in-country entries. I was there for a full week in April and I saw a lot of great theater, some of it translated, a certain amount of it not; in the case of Yury Butusov's fierce Seagull, this wasn't a barrier to entry. And in the case of a number of bracing garage-theater productions, the language gap was bridged by an unmistakable affinity: While Russia still has a pretty robust state theater system even decades after the end of the Soviet Union, the real energy and movement there is coming from young, independent, matter-of-factly free-ranging and open-minded small companies like Teatr.doc and Praktika—little Rude Mechs-type companies doing devised and documentary work, among other things, in small spaces a lot like HERE and PS 122. Though it couldn't quite be called a full-on dissident theater movement, the shift of theatrical energy does have a lot to do with the darkening political climate in Russia, and with the fact that "state-run" now implicitly means "Putin-approved." Teatr.doc founder Elena Gremina explained the dynamic to me (the piece is also only in the print edition):
Gremina, who staged her first plays after the fall of the Soviet Union, didn’t start out with an oppositional agenda. “I never thought I would write a political play. We built Teatr.doc first of all because we wanted to have a place to do theatre which is interesting to us from the artistic perspective. Later, step by step, those very important political projects started knocking at our doors. We didn’t want them. It’s like Six Characters in Search of the Author—reality is searching for the author. Now that reality knows the way and the door to knock on, people actually send us letters now and they say, ‘Here is a horrible story,’ or, ‘Here is a wonderful story.’”
Last but not least, there was the recent TCG Conference in Boston, where I mostly worked as a garden-variety TCG staffer (which meant that no, I didn't participate in the Q&As, in case anyone is wondering) but I also had the chance to help put together a breakout session on "work/life balance" with La Jolla Playhouse associate producer Dana Harrel; essentially this was a discussion about how to be, even whether it's possible to be, a working parent and/or a fully functioning human being in the American theater as currently constituted (the answer, roughly speaking: yes, it's fucking hard to do it, but so's making the art in the first place). Boston playwright Kirsten Greenidge and new Hartford Stage artistic director Darko Tresnjak were among the panelists for our own theater-centric mini-version of the Anne-Marie Slaughter debate.

While in Boston I also got to catch most of Mike Daisey's new monologue, meet Daisey and his director/wife Jean-Michele Gregory for the first time, and talk with Polly Carl for an upcoming feature on HowlRound and the Center for the Theater Commons.

I will add, finally, that I was especially struck by Howard Shalwitz's keynote speech at the opening plenary, and I hope we get the chance to read/hear more about it (his basic point: We've concentrated too much responsibility for theatrical "innovation" in the playwright's silo, more artists should take responsibility for making the art on the stage great, and that will entail getting plays off the theatrical production assembly line and investing in "production development" as much as "play development"). The great, or at least the good, work continues.

Jun 23, 2012

A Non-Review of the New Daisey

I'm here in Boston for the TCG conference, and last night Mike Daisey offered a two-hour presentation of his newest monologue, The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure), which he'd previously presented at Spoleto. I'm not in a position to review it since, a) It's a work-in-progress and it shouldn't be reviewed, and b) I only caught, say, the last 75-80 minutes of it, running as I was from TCG staff duties elsewhere. I do have some comments and impressions to share about it, though, and frankly, just some lovely quotes I'd love to share with the world that may not survive in future drafts of the work. I'll break them down into bullet points to keep this post under control (not least because I have more TCG staff duties to attend to in less than an hour).
  • This was the perfect crowd for the piece, which interweaves a trip Mike and his wife/director, Jean-Michele Gregory, took on the Orient Express through Europe with a kind of consideration/self-flagellation over l'affaire Ira and the attending controversy. The TCG attendees are by and large people who followed that kerfuffle with great attention, so Daisey didn't have to explain what he was talking about when he referred to Chinese labor, the "retraction episode," etc. This was, by at least one account, not the case in Spoleto.
  • Given that backstory, I'm unsure whether this new piece will stand on its own as its own monologue or function as a kind of epilogue to The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which itself has already changed (and will almost certainly be re-reviewed when it returns to Woolly Mammoth next month). As the latter, it was quite an effective evening of theater (is that too review-y?).
  • Daisey is in no danger of not having a long and auspicious career in the American theater, if he wants it. He is still a spellbinding storyteller and theatrical magician. Whether he'll ever have, or deserve, a larger platform for his art or his activism is an open question.
  • The new piece's touchstones include Karl May, a popular German fabulist of the 19th century, whose tales of the American West were eventually debunked; and Upton Sinclair, whose muckraking novel The Jungle helped lead to the creation of the FDA. Daisey points out, correctly, that Sinclair was called a liar for many of the distortions and exaggerations in The Jungle but that those questions were eventually drowned out by the urgency of addressing the real abuses the book helped bring to light. The jury is still out on whether something similar might have happened with Daisey—as he points out, the American Life retraction episode, which attracted orders of magnitude more attention than his original Agony broadcast, effectively separated him and his lies from the truth about Foxconn's abuses, and who's to say that the latter is not the lede that will stick in people's minds? But there's a reason Sinclair wrote his exposé as a novel, not reportage. It's an important distinction.
  • "Vienna is the Helen Mirren of cities. It looks fabulous despite its age."
  • "I'm obsessed with death—that's why I work in the theater."
  • "Theater is not an illusion. That's its great secret. Theater is the house of the real."
  • There was also a lovely metaphor about the experience of theater being the music of the space between the audience and the performer, the strings of that being plucked, something like that—I can't reconstruct it, which was kind of the point of it, anyway.
No piece will entirely satisfy Daisey's critics, of course; I spoke to one documentary theater artist afterwards who's still pretty pissed at him for his "cheesy" theatrical embellishments, even in last night's piece. Why does the whole story have to be about him? this artist wondered; real people and their stories should be compelling enough for theater, if it's done right. Daisey will be on the closing panel this afternoon with a number of documentary-ish theater artists, and I'm sure we'll hear more on this theme. I look forward to the colloquy, and I desperately hope it's not a Panel All About Mike and Ira, but I also can say I look forward to Daisey's next piece, and the next, and so on. He fucked up, no question, but he's still got life left in him as an artist.

Jun 19, 2012

Coming To Our Consensus

As my partner Isaac Butler points out, as much in amazement as celebration, it's been 3 1/2 years since he and I launched Critic-O-Meter, which just over two years ago morphed into StageGrade.

Isaac has a great post about how working on these sites has changed his views not only of criticism and its purposes but of specific critics themselves. I too miss the lively comments section on Critic-O-Meter, and I would second his observation that while there are some astonishingly poor critics and editors out there, the value they bring to the art and practice of theater is undismissable—and I'd emphasize the they in that sentence. C-o-M and StageGrade are built on the premise that to read just one critic, no matter how good, is myopic and wrongheaded, and that the "conversation" we always hear that theater is supposed to spark is already going on to a large extent; you just have to know where to look for it.

I love this comment from a friend of Isaac's, which I'll just steal most of:
Here's one of the major things StageGrade has proved: critical consensus is largely correct. Much like in polling, where individual polls can be outliers, but the averages are largely correct, the StageGrade for every show always, without fail, replicates the word on the street. And it shows that most critics actually do understand that their job is to consider the work on its own terms. Sarah Ruhl and Amy Herzog are really different artists, but the same group of critics agrees that they are fulfilling the aims that their work sets up. When there's a legitimate split decision—Lonergan's The Starry Messenger, Shinn's Picked—it's generally because the work is legitimately divisive. In both those plays, audiences who want to see long, uncommercial plays by each of those writers weren't disappointed.
If StageGrade has helped not only to steer theatergoers to plays they'll like (and ward them off plays they won't) but to go some small distance toward democratizing the way criticism is read, shared, and used, so much the better. There might be hope for its future yet.

Jun 18, 2012

Realism and Its Discontents


photo by Julieta Cervantes

I couldn't have been more on board for Soho Rep's indie-star-studded Uncle Vanya, and not just 'cause I got the chance to report on and contemplate it in advance. A little over a month ago, I'd sat through Target Margin's meta-take on the play—a kind of surface playing-at-the-text rather than in it—and was both fundamentally dissatisfied with the production and curiously interested in it; I didn't like it, by any stretch, but I was surprised how much it didn't bore me. The experience was a bit like skimming through the play while my mind was elsewhere; it wasn't involving on its own rather modest terms, but it was still Uncle Vanya, probably my favorite play (and one I know as well as I know any play).

So I went to Soho Rep eager to see what seemed on paper like an inspired idea: to have an extraordinary cast perform it in an intimate space without period frills, to just see and hear the play without distraction, not unlike the quietly intense version captured in Louis Malle's film of Andre Gregory's gorgeously idiosyncratic production, titled somewhat unfortunately Vanya on 42 Street.

This new Vanya is most decidedly not a meta-take, or a coolly distanced one, but its soporific effect on me made Target Margin's seem peppery by comparison. I could write for a while about a lot of the show's problems, but I think their root causes can be ascribed to two interrelated problems I would call phony naturalism and technical difficulties.

The first, phony naturalism, is a rookie mistake I almost can't believe adapter Annie Baker and director Sam Gold have made, since their work together has if anything been characterized by a laser-like specificity, a reinvigorated attention to detail that can make fly-on-the-wall naturalism feel urgent, even experimental, rather than just the people-on-a-couch default of lazy theatrical imagination. This Vanya, alas, is a shruggy, desultory affair that seems to have confused casual, offhanded, non-specific mumblecore sensitivity for realism. Indeed, it plays almost like a parody of the Annie Baker/Sam Gold aesthetic, and its shabby-hipster limbo makes a frustratingly imprecise match for Chekhov's world—which, with touching perversity, Baker's adaptation keeps faithfully referring to, right down "versts" and "barley kasha."

The show's technical difficulties are integrally related to the first problem. It was a bold, quixotic idea to stage the whole thing in the round, actually more "in the square," as we're seated (quite limb-crushingly uncomfortably, it must be added) on carpeted risers against four walls of a frustratingly non-specific room. The space and the staging are challenges I don't think this production ever surmounts. The invigorated naturalism Baker and Gold do so well, as they must realize themselves, only seems effortless, but it's as crafted and calibrated as a piece of music, and it relies on us not doubting its reality for a second, and on us entering the world of the play as smoothly and unobtrusively as possible. But largely because of the weird, unforgiving space, this Vanya never feels real in that way; it's impossible to guess in what room we're in or what the characters are doing there, or where they go or come from when they're offstage (Serebryakov may call the place "a labyrinth," but I'm not sure we should all feel as lost as he does for the whole play); why, for an interminably long stretch of the first act, the actors are so dimly lit as to be inscrutable, even from a few feet away; or why, for a disorientingly long part of the second act, they must sprawl across the unattractive shag carpet floor (Was the place robbed of its furniture during intermission? my colleague wondered). And, it must be said, while I think Gold has largely earned his rep as a wunderkind director, the challenges of an in-the-round staging, of making it feel natural and simply observed rather than effortful, self-conscious, and sightline-defying, almost entirely defeat him here.

I get why he and Baker thought all this would work like gangbusters; I think almost every one of these actors would be great in their roles in another production of Vanya (as I more or less felt about many of the actors in Target Margin's rendition); and I even think Baker's quirky but doggedly faithful adaptation, with its many contrasting registers, might be worth another look in another production. The good news for Soho Rep is that most critics don't agree with me, and seem to see instead the Vanya that Baker and Gold envisioned; the bad news, as far as I'm concerned, is that those unfamiliar with this great, great play will be bored stiff by it.