The Playgoer: May 2005

Custom Search

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

REVIEW: SPAMALOT

Monty Python's Spamalot
Book & Lyrics by Eric Idle, Music by Eric Idle & John Du Prez
Directed by Mike Nichols
On Broadway at the Shubert Theatre

In short, it delivers. And here's one thing I thought I wouldn't say: thank god for the songs! Everything that is best about Spamalot is what's new, not what comes from the film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (in which, you may trust, Playgoer is well versed). Eric Idle and Mike Nichols have created something very distinct, something just a wee bit Python, and a lot... well, Mike Nichols.

As good and funny as Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce, and Tim Curry are in their own rights, what they offer in the "book" portions of the show is essentially a high-rent karaoke of the movie. Anyone familiar with the original only hears what's missing of the Pythons' inimitable
insanity and the memory of hearing a line like "your father was a hamster and your mother smelled of elderberry" the first time. Anyone oblivious to said film might still chuckle at the silliness of all this transposed dialogue (and, admittedly, many in the audience do more than chuckle), but if this were a "straight" dramatization of Holy Grail the show just would not be a hot ticket. (The very words dramatization and Monty Python just do not go together somehow.)

Hence, my slight disappointment for the first twenty minutes of the show, which--after a zany, though labored, non-sequitur of a curtain raiser--rehashes some of the movie's opening scenes. But then Nichols's forty-plus years of Broadway showmanship take over, and for the remainder of Act One you are in Musical Comedy Heaven. While gags about NBA "Laker Girls", Vegas casinos, and Andrew Lloyd Webber may seem beneath the talent involved, they embrace the silly task with such gusto, sending everything up so energetically, efficiently, and improbably that you just bathe in the ridiculousness of it all. One reason is Nichols knows to keep moving on before overkill is reached. Another is the contribution of relative newcomer choreographer Casey Nicholaw; his employment of the entire range of musical theatre gestures--from the parading of leggy chorus girls to the angular thrusts of Jerome Robbins lunges--gives Spamalot that extra savvy and, frankly, pizzazz. It's one of the ironies of good parody that it must love and even outdo the original.

Not coincidentally, the show settles into this glorious groove with the entrance of an entirely new character, Sara Ramirez's Lady of the Lake. The size of Ramirez's presence bursts out of her from the moment she appears and never lets up; her intensity is totally serious and totally ludicrous and totally on key--in short, the most Pythonesque performer on the stage, surprisingly. (Her Act Two front-of-curtain diva-ballad "What Ever Happened to My Part" is the most hilarious of the show's many metatheatrical commentaries, mostly because Ramirez can both mock and sell what the number is referencing so expertly.)

So what happens in Act Two? More of the same, which is fine. But that magical momentum Nichols and Idle found for forty-odd minutes has gone. Perhaps the intermission helps to dissipate that, during which you observe everyone showing off their new Spamalot toys from the concession stand. (A cow-hurtling slingshot can't be gotten at just any show, after all.) Highlights follow, to be sure: David Hyde-Pierce pulls off Idle's provocative patter song "You Won't Succeed on Broadway (if you don't have any Jews)" in perfect Noel Coward/Rex Harrison throwaway style, until he is upstaged by one of Nicholaw's most outrageous coups: a line of hassidim knights donning holy grails on their heads while executing the famous shtetl steps from the opening of Fiddler. If nothing else, such a gleefully bizarre "overdetermined" sights are rare enough on Broadway to justify a visit.) But toward the end you do sense the team running out of ideas of how to keep the show fresh, especially when they resort to audience participation at the end.

The pleasures of Spamalot are thoroughly forgettable a few days later, while some people (no names) can quote the lines from the movie ceaselessly for years on end. What does that say?
Earlier, I speculated that there will be no future life for a clever parody song like "The Song That Goes Like This." I should revise that prediction now that I've seen (and heard) just how hilarious the song is ("Now we change the key/ We're moving up to 'G'/ We should have stayed in 'D'")--but still this is aided by the perfectly neat context Nichols's production has put it in. A New Yorker sneak-peak article a while back quoted Nichols at a production meeting saying something like "Well of course we have to end with confetti."And so they do. And--y'know?--it works. After so much drek, it is fun to feel yourself in the hands of a master entertainer.

JOHN SIMON LIVES

Yes, reports of Simon's demise were indeed premature, as he has now been picked up by two (arguably) bigger outlets. He will now have a monthly column in the uber-rightist Weekly Standard and a weekly on Bloomberg.com!

(See you in the blogosphere, Herr S. Playgoer welcomes the competition...)

It should be no surprise that he has found a home in two essentially Republican organizations, not only reflecting his obvious sympathies, but, more importantly, those of his most (and last) devoted readers.

Playbill.com has the story. (So did the Times). Interesting tidbit from the Playbill overview is that Simon

also reviewed for New York's Channel 13, but was forced out in 1967 because the station considered his notices misanthropic.
Ah, the days when misanthropy got one kicked off the air...

The biggest story might here, though, might well be..... Bloomberg??? Right now the Bloomberg.com site features precious little arts of any kind. (There's a link to something called Culture under News & Commentary, but it seems like just listings for artsy jetsetters going to Zurich.) Is this business-media conglomerate taking a cue from its eponymous founder-mayor's "enlightened" arts-friendly Republicanism? Or are the arts hot!

Friday, May 27, 2005

HIP HOP THEATRE FEST, NYC 6/11-18

If I were to claim Playgoer is the site for the latest on Hip Hop Theatre, that would be a lie.

But this is.

Who knows where this is leading. Def Poetry Jam did not exactly bring the form into the theatre establishment mainstream as it had hoped. (Though it did offer some best recent verse speaking on Broadway, seriously.) But in the mainstream that counts it's everywhere, HBO and beyond, whether it's called "Poetry," "Slam" or whatever.

So if you're serious about questions of theatre's relevancy, the possibility of theatre as popular culture again, or just an original, evolving and unpredictable new trend.... then check it!

RARE STOPPARD SIGHTING

One of my favorite plays, Tom Stoppard's Travesties is making a rare American appearance at the Long Wharf in New Haven. Starring Sam Waterston! See Isherwood's review here, which is mixed, but gives a sense of the play.

Oh, it's Stoppard at his most Stoppardian, alright. A twisted retelling on The Importance of Being Earnest through the prism of James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Lenin, set in 1917 Switzerland. At its core is a (very 70s) critique of all absolutisms--from Bolshevism to Dadaism--in the context of the historical crisis from which they emerged. And, especially, it is about the appropriation of art for all the best and worst political reasons...And its narrator/protagonist is a real life footnote from Ulysses!

Maybe one day Stoppard will get his due for being among the first playwrights to bring postmodern and documentary techniques to the "mainstream" theatre--which is what makes this play still experimental.

DEATH OF THE MOVIES (REPRISE)

Times headline today: "WITH POPCORN, DVD's AND TIVO, MOVIEGOERS ARE STAYING HOME"

My God, what chance does the theatre have now, you ask?

The bottom line comes from a UCLA senior: "I want to do things that conform to my time frame, not someone else's."

Maybe it's time again for traveling players, Hamlet-style, to tour the country and stop at places like this boy's castle and ask if he'll have a play today out of their repertory.... Or I suppose they call those things Escort Services today.

Yes, once again, the movies are over--at least in theatres. But nowhere does this article remind us this exact same panic spread 25 years ago when VCR's hit. Not to mention 60(!) years ago when suddenly everyone had a television. And yet somehow, we still shell out ten bucks to watch "Fandango" commercials and listen to people's ringtones, followed by two hours of Monster-in-Law.

Bold (or simply wishful) prediction: if the moviegoing experience continues like this, theatre attendance will outpace it by 2050.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

REVIEW: THE PILLOWMAN

The Pillowman
by Martin McDonagh
Starring Billy Crudup, Jeff Goldblum, Zeljko Ivanek, and Michael Stuhlbarg
On Broadway at the Booth Theatre

Give me a good interrogation drama any day. But despite the classic set pieces of a windowless room with a bright hanging bulb and rickety old chairs, Martin McDonagh has decidedly not written one. His The Pillowman is instead a somewhat awkward allegory of the beauties and perils of storytelling, the necessary suffering of the artist, and other seemingly self-serving concerns for a playwright. That the play is such a hit is a testament to the rarity of originality of any kind on Broadway. Audiences are also, understandably, responding to McDonagh's sharp dialogue and his constant rigging of scenes to maximize intense face-offs between the characters. He is served by an estimable cast who ride his rollercoaster with ease (a little too much ease, I felt, at a recent Tuesday night performance), and the standing ovation they get feels for once genuine. Good actors on stage confronting each other in clear life-or-death situations is something people will always come back to the theatre to see.

Because McDonagh has cleverness in spades, what he really needs are actors with soul, however, to make his play anything more than a good class exercise. Thinking-woman's-heartthrob Billy Crudup is definitely a serious actor, and skilled enough to brush off McDonagh's incessant 4 -page monologues with total fluency. But there's also an arrogance and smugness that--while it's presumably a trait of the character, Katurian, a twisted children's story writer--doesn't make me want to listen to him for over two and half hours. I say listen because Katurian talks an awful lot, and his telling of his own stories--which seem like something by Roald Dahl on a killing rampage--must constitute about half the play's wordcount. In the mouth of a more poetic sensibility these would be far more compelling. But Crudup's smug contemporary everydude gives me little to care about.

As a play, what are we to make about a story that yanks our chain all evening about whether certain children were murdered or not just to take us to an ending we pretty much expect and which offers us not much more than "an artist's work lives on". (Some sense in the message a more naked defense of McDonagh's against those who accuse him of empty theatrics. A kind of apologia for the Good Yarn over all else.) Katurian's persecutors are hapless oafs, really. Interrogators without a state, they represent god knows what to McDonagh. He throws around the word "totalitarian" but to what end? No politics are ever broached. I suppose censorship is a topic hanging over the proceedings, but never comes into play. (And how does Katurian even get his ugly little stories published in such a supposedly repressive state anyway?)

Jeff Goldblum is very funny and charming as the self-acknowledged "good cop" of the pair of heavies. But he's all surface. You realize watching him what a talented light comedian Goldblum can be--while you also yearn to know what darker, more human notes Jim Broadbent must have brought to the role in London. His partner the "bad" Zeljko Ivanek--a little guy who takes out his own childhood demons in punishing others--ends up winning much more sympathy, oddly, just because Ivanek is that deep an actor. But it's the lyrical Michael Stuhlbarg who tugs at the heartstrings the most as Katurian's manchild brother, even though he may just be the greatest evildoer of the whole quartet!

The director John Crowley and his entire production team--all imported from the Royal National Theatre original--succeed in haunting us throughout. The eye-popping visuals for Katurian's stories--enacted by a silent cast of extras who appear out of nowhere, as if projected onto the upstage wall--elicit the most effective audience gasps, and hint at the potential power of McDonagh's idiosyncratic violent imagination, which seems stifled here in both the progress of the play and the timidity of some of the acting.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

THE ANTI-TONYS

The Village Voice announced their "Obies" this week.

(For the record, for anyone new to this: the O stands for "off", the B stands for "b'way" and the -IES, well... Voice co-founder Jerry Tallmer has a funny story about confusion over the name here)

What a perfect antidote to Tony season. Here is a concept of "awards" as celebration, actually saluting the outstanding work of theatre artists--as opposed to pitting them against each other in a nonsensical competition. (Hmm, which was a more "special theatrical event"--Mario Cantone or Whoopi Goldberg?) Here is a definition of "theatre" as performance that might happen outside of the quadrant of 40th to 55th streets and 9th to 6th avenues--and maybe even in places that seat fewer than 500 people! (yes, in other words, productions which might not sell a lot of tickets.)

While the difference might be simply understood as: the Tonys do Broadway, the Obies don't, and so why can't we all get along... it's worth considering how murky that line is increasingly becoming. Doubt, for instance, can be considered for both awards because it was premiered by the Off-Broadway, non-profit company Manhattan Theatre Club. What is on Broadway now is essentially the same production, which means it was initially financed by government & foundation grants and private donors--in other words few Broadway producers would have taken a chance on such a play about controversial material (in this case the American Catholic church) without it being tested (not just for quality, but for prestige factor) in the non-profit sector... Anyway, a little digression there about the importance of subsidized theatre in America. But you see how the Tonys capitalize now on (depend on) the development of material in the non-profit realm. (The eligibility for Tonys of such mega-non-profits as Roundabout and Lincoln Center does complicate--or even prove!--this theory. It is also to the consternation of commercial producers that such institutions can win tonys for shows they're not really "investing" in)

Some might notice the absence of musicals from the Obies this year, and perhaps many years. Certainly, the "big" musicals are factory products made for Broadway (big Broadway houses and big Broadway budgets). But don't forget--such mega-hits as Avenue Q, this year's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and a modest hit from the recent past, Urinetown, all were hatched in off-broadway non-profit houses. The fact the Obies chose not to recognize Spelling Bee this year, for instance, is their choice--in other words, just because it sells a lot of tickets doesn't mean it's extraordinary and a reason we go to the theatre...

But notice how the OBIES can recognize what the Tonys cannot. The Tony nominations for Best Play, again, are: Doubt, Democracy, Gem of the Ocean, The Pillowman. Not a shabby selection-- but, again, just four out of the five (that's 80%!) of the new plays that opened on Broadway this year! August Wilson and Michael Frayn, worthy as they are, are now perennials who would (and do) get nominated (and produced) for everything they write. Frayn and Martin McDonagh are basically London playwrights, so according to the Tonys, Shanley and Wilson wrote the only two American plays of note this year.

Compare to the Obies list of awards in "Playwriting"...
(Notice the award goes to the playwright, not the producer. Did you know for a brief time in the 60s the Tonys gave separate statuettes to and Best Play and Best Producer??? Even today, with musicals, one show (like Urinetown) can win for Best Score and Best Book--in other words the best content--and another show (that year, Thoroughly Modern Millie) could still be Best Musical.)

[And, by the way, there are no "nominations" in Obie-land, just awards--but multiple awards, no one winner. (The suspense and competitiveness of nominations only drums up excitement and publicity--doesn't help the art.) Even categories are not fixed--the judges decide each year not just who gets the awards but what they will call the awards. So no arbitrary filling up of obsolete categories, either...]

So, the Obie in "Playwriting" this year goes to:

Christopher Shinn Where Do We Live
John Patrick Shanley Doubt
Caryl Churchill A Number
Lynn Nottage Fabulation

Isn't it nice to honor all four of these at once? What an interesting, and informative, list. None of them (except Doubt, I suppose) will make any money. (The other three have closed!) But here's an honest statement of what these judges thought were the most notable achievements by a playwright this season. Yes, it--like the Tonys--includes one well-established Brit (Churchill). But to anyone who saw it, A Number (in a very American production starring Sam Shepard and an amazing set by Eugene Lee) was the theatrical event of the year. Chances are people outside of New York never got to hear about it. It ran for about 5 weeks at New York Theatre Workshop downtown. But the Tonys allow no way for this to be recognized--which is fine if the Tonys want to continue being the Tonys. But it will just become increasingly irrelevant to what's actually going on in New York (let alone American) theatre.

As for Nottage and Shinn, their plays this season were not universally acclaimed, will have no movie deals, and, again, will draw a blank to most people who even call themselves theatre fans. But bless the Obies for saying, "Here are two young American playwrights that are keeping the artform alive and are writing about what is actually going on in America today in a compelling way." What better purpose for a stupid awards show is there?

And, finally, the Obies, too, have a "Special" citation. But notice here, that could be an opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of a modest, perhaps even flawed, endeavor like Sin: A Cardinal Deposed--a documentary retelling of Cardinal Law's obfuscators testimony on the church's child abuse scandals. I would rather give an award to an imperfect play that hits a nerve and connects with an audience over a crucial public issue... than to a summer resort lounge act posing as a "night at the theatre," no matter how "special" Dame Edna may be.

Again, here's the Obie list. I urge you, dear reader, look it over, and ask you to think back on this past season not as one dominated by a flying singing car, a foot-impaired tv starlet, and repackaged naughty 60s British comedy.... but for a daring re-staging of Hedda Gabler, an excellently acted new play by prolific American dramatist Lee Blessing (Going to St. Ives), loving rediscoveries of at least two neglected classics (Elmer Rice's Counselor-At-Law and WS Gilbert's Engaged)... and on and on in this yearly presentation, which shows up anyone who bemoans The Death of the American Theatre. Psst--it's just not where you're looking for it...

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

HUFFINGTON DOES THEATRE!

... sort of. The new Huffington Post--the darling of the blogosphere (as evidenced by the interest of the clueless Charlie Rose last night)--features among its resident bloggers no less than four theatre luminaries. True, two of them are Mike Nichols and David Mamet, who perhaps are more associated with film and basically professional celebrities now. But kudos to Ms Huff for also tapping two lesser-known playwrights, the estimable Jon Robin Baitz and the downright "emerging" and decidedly off-broadway Seth Greenland.

Then again, given that every one of Arianna's California friends and their illegal nannies seem to have a blog on her site (my, what an endless list) the least she could do was acknowledge our corner of the world as still relevant...

Of special note--both Baitz and Mamet weigh in on the departing John Simon (see below). Baitz's take is wonderfully honest, yet respectful, and yet justifiably unforgiving. (Looking over my own post, I must have been in a good mood. Baitz is right--whatever cultural knowledge Simon has he has wasted in cheap shots. Period.) What's more he turns his assessment into a mini-manifesto, worth quoting:

The theatre needs geniuses to criticize it; it needs passionate advocates and firebrands, not to mention writers of gorgeous prose. [Simon], instead, opted for parlor tricks and reruns.

Words of warning (and inspiration) to us all.

Mamet, on the other hand, gladly dismisses Simon mercilessly in 41 words.

Especially odd in light of that, catch the strained hat-tip to Mamet in Simon's farewell New York Mag column this week. Surprisingly humble, yet without any sign of regret or apology...And, oh, he does disappoint us not applying that savagery just one more time to Sweet Charity which (as I admit to hypocrisy) might have been fun all the same.

Monday, May 16, 2005

BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY--or not at all, please

The latest in "special theatrical events"--i.e. various live entertainment calling itself "theatre" (and covered as such in the NY Times. Although this is from "Arts & Leisure", and when was the last time they covered actual theatre...)

This one--Drumstruck--tells the moving story of struggling corporate motivational speaker who sat his clients at bongos one day... and next thing you know he's charging general admission and calling it a play. Go at your own risk...

Most distressing to me is this is the kind of event that the promising Dodger Stages has to turn to do to fill seats and stay afloat. Last fall, this venture by those enterprising commercial producers The Dodgers to gut an abandoned Cineplex Odeon multiplex and transform it into five nice little off-b'way houses seemed a godsend to all those smaller serious shows looking for just a sliver of market to support more daring work (or at least some new plays!) at less risk and less overhead. How encouraging they opened with Basil Twist's abstract puppet show Symphonie Fantastique. Now it's Altar Boyz and Mr Drum Therapy.

(Interesting thesis to be written, by the way, on these "interactive performances"--to put it nicely--as a uniquely international phenomenon. Drumstruck is from South Africa, then there's the Korean "iron chef" fest Cookin', don't forget the recently departed Aussie Puppetry of the Penis, and the granddaddy of them all the Brazilian acrobat-a-thon De La Guardia. Yes, half of these examples are still Anglophone, but the conventional wisdom behind the genre's success is: no English required. Remember, without tourists there is no theatre business.)

My faith in the future of theatre is always that people will never stop wanting live performance. But performance of what....? I'm reminded of a question an old teacher of mine--a theologian—posited, "How many limbs must a man lose before he is no longer a man?" Substitute "theatre" for "man" and... well, something for "limbs" and you catch my drift.

PBS, NPR... R.I.P.?

Another installment today in the adventures of Kevin Tomlinson, the White House's man to "fix" the Public Broadcasting Corporation. (Part of that great Republican tradition taking care of the agencies they hate by appointing jerks to run them by destroying them from within--James Watt, anyone? Reagan's Interior Secretary.) Now he's taking on NPR, after appointing an additional conservative "ombudsman" at PBS.

Tomlinson made his case last week for more "balance" in public broadcasting on, where else...Fox News! I guess no transcripts on The O'Reilly Factor site but a summary: "Personal Story Segment: PBS Chairman Under Fire." Aww, poor guy.

Bill O'Reilly's "last word"?

The Factor questioned whether taxpayer-funded public television is even necessary in today's marketplace. "I don't think you guys should get any money. Why don't you just compete like everybody else? You need to come up with some programming that is compelling and that people are going to want to watch."

Next segment? Bill shows footage of a high-speed chase, with the suspect shot--dead--live on tv.
"People like to watch real time crime.... The only possible upside is that people who may have criminal intent see this and say I don't want to lose my life that way."

What better argument for the existence of non-ratings, non-viewer driven (non-"competitive") television and radio in our culture.

(memo to Tomlinson: if deathly car chases makes PBS too queasy, look into live executions. They're good for moral instruction, too...)



Saturday, May 14, 2005

THEATRE AND THE AMERICAN MALE

I just heard a very odd commercial on the radio, for Glengarry Glenn Ross. (It was on WQXR.) A middle aged husband and wife, very Long "G-Island", have a Mamet-esque volley including exchanges like (forgive the paraphrase)...

HE: I hear there's lots of swearing in it.
SHE: You love swearing!

and

HE: Do I have to dress up?
SHE: No, you don't have to dress up.
HE: What if I want to dress up?
SHE: That would be nice, if you dressed up.
HE: Can you buy me clothes?

The announcer comes in at the end to "close the sale":

"That's right, ladies. There IS a show on Broadway your husband will want to see!"

Interesting trend here. Jesse McKinley had a Times piece April 10 called Spamalot Discovers the Straight White Way....Get the pun yet? (Here's the only feed I can get on this article now--it was picked up by the Kansas City Star(!) which the Spamalot producers probably feel will reach an even more ideal reader...) The ad above even echoes (lifts?) McKinley's lede about the lines at the men's room.

The trend of interest here is not necessarily whether or not more schlubby house husbands are or are not in fact willing to venture into such girlie man arenas as the Shubert Theatre. What's weird is how gaga the B'way establishment itself (the PR machines fueling the radio spot and even the Times, I'm sure) has gone at the mere thought of a new demographic! The producers feel they've hit paydirt.

Has it gotten this bad for the non-fabulous male? (Playgoer knows he has not been the only one carrying the torch these three decades--okay bad metaphor.) True, all the latest surveys show that if it weren't for women--and their daughters--there would be no Broadway. Surveys have not been tracking sexual orientation, though. Matter of time...?

And so what next can we expect from producers eager to cash in on these stray Y-Chromosomes that have wandered into their theatres? ("Jack Black, as you've never seen him before...") Or is the real unspoken message here that if you present quality work, written and crafted by serious artists, maybe even culturally helpless hetero manchildren will show. Hmm...

(In a related story, stay tuned for Adam Sandler's The Wedding Singer: The Musical. I kid you not. Or should this be filed under Bad Musical Ideas below...)

Friday, May 13, 2005

REVIEW: STREETCAR

A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Edward Hall
Starring Natasha Richardson & John C. Reilly
Roundabout Theatre Company


I wonder if every theatre-loving NY Times reader emitted the same collective groan the Sunday the first big ad appeared for this production. The Roundabout had long ago announced "Natasha Richardson as Blanche Dubois"-- to which we may have shrugged Ok, let's see what she can do. In retrospect, we should have noticed the announcement of no co-star as an ominous sign. When that ad finally appeared, we looked to Natasha's left in the poster image and found.... Mitch! Huh? , we asked at the sight of Reilly's lovable-loser pug-nosed puss, But who's Stanley?.... Oh. Yes, then that sinking feeling that those guardians of theatrical culture at the Roundabout had once again given into the oddest and most fruitless kind of celebrity casting.

True, Reilly is not a bad actor. He's actually a real treasure. Someone we should have back more often. Imagine the authenticity he could lend some choice roles by Mamet and Lanford Wilson (a mastery of Shepard he already proved in True West) --or even going back to O'Neill and Odets. And just think of the sympathetic Willy Loman he might give us further down the line, or Eddie Carbone. His rough-around-the-edges totally natural earthiness is the kind of quality our finer drama schools are whipping out of the next generation of robo-thespians.... But Stanley Kowalski???

I have a theory. One that gives the Roundabout more credit than just selling out (I suppose they would try to book Bruce Willis--or some Reality Show hunk--if they were really determined). English director Edward Hall must have felt under enormous pressure to "reinvent" the role in the wake of Brando. And from his outsider's perspective he must have rationalized Stanley is not a monster, he is not exceptional-- he is an American everyman. He is every woman's boorish, beer guzzling husband. And so if you ever wanted to know see what a cross between Ralph Kramden and Homer Simpson would be like--speaking the sensual hyperboles of Williams's N'Orleans--then get yourself a ticket. (Even The Simpsons had the sense to give that role to Ned Flanders in their memorable musical tribute, Streetcar!)

But the problem is... Stanley Kowalski is exceptional, he must be. He is representative, yes, but of a powerful force in America that is overtaking the Blanches and belles reves of yesteryear.

Reilly's spare-tire physique (much commented upon--but what could they expect: they hardly mask it) is less of a problem than his voice. It's a tinny, even high little tenor, not ideal for the character's sultry come-ons and abusive slurs. Stanley's potentially menacing entrances now play as sit-commy "Hi honey, I'm home" moments; "Hey Blanche! Hey Stella!" barked out like a little puppy....Get the picture?

To make things worse, that ultimate costume pro William Ivey Long has not done a thing to help poor miscast Rilley look more imposing or attractive. I sense the conceptual interference of director Hall in the choice of those befuddling short-sleeve & tie combinations Stanley comes home from work in (instead of Brando we get Dilbert). Again--the Brits love that whole imagery of American 50s conformism.

There's much to say about Richardson and about the rest of the production-- but in trying to limit my space, I might as well stick with the lead story, which has to be Reilly. I agree with the crowd (c.f. Brantley) that the lovely Natasha is ultimately just too bright and shiny and, well, lovely to buy as the deeply f-ed up Miss Dubois, who men run away from when they get too close....As for Hall's production as a whole, Michael Feingold, in his thoughtfully complex criticism in the Voice, makes a plausible case for the virtues of its unobtrusive "dull competence" (i.e. you do get to see a clear version of the play, as written!) Yes, no "reading" of the play gets in the way. But the irritants are many, from the excesses--the interpolated "spiritual" stylings of Wanda L. Houston's "Negro Woman" (British directors sure like to romanticize the African American experience, so exotic)--to the laziness. I share John Lahr's (New Yorker) outrage at the exclusion of Stella's baby at the end from the disturbing "family picture". Now there's no tableau, and the whole (major) plot development of Stella's pregnancy has no payoff!

Plus, Hall has staged the lamest rape scene this playgoer has even seen on a professional stage, I'm sorry.

It's no secret there's a lot of resentment of the young English directors in the theatre community here--among both artists and critics. (See Feingold's ongoing disaffection with David Leveaux, e.g.) Playgoer is a huge unabashed anglophile so I won't pile on. But Charles Isherwood brought this to the fore in his February 27 Times column "The New British Invasion," exposing the season's big three American classic revivals (Streetcar, Glass Menagerie, Virginia Woolf) as having been outsourced to the Limeys. The bold and provocative defense of this by the producers involved was basically--hey, they're better. They're trained in the classics and so no on-the-job training. So, Playgoer asks.... what's the verdict? Now that the shows have opened, why doesn't someone follow up and ask: So what has all this "experience and wisdom" wrought on our beloved classics? Seasoned insight and professionalism, or just head-scratching moments of huh???

THEY CONSPIRE, THEY STRANGLE, THEY SING!

Here's a new show I just received an email promotion about (I'm happy to publicize it in exchange for the ridicule)...

"THRILL ME: The Leopold & Loeb Story" is a new musical drama that recounts the chilling tale of the legendary duo who committed one of the most infamous and heinous crimes of the 20th Century. Set in 1924 Chicago, it chronicles the events that lead childhood friends Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb to forever be remembered as "the thrill killers
Performances begin May 16
The York Theatre Company
619 Lexington Avenue at 54th St


Do Leopold & Loeb really need a musical??? Whatever crisis Musical Theatre is in is not going to be resolved by taking on subjects that just don't cry out for it. The genre of true "Music-Drama", serious material which aims at a kind of chamber opera, is a valid and sometimes very satisfying one, in its elitist way. (Mark Blitzstein's treatment of The Little Foxes--Regina--is an interesting early example in the American theatre.)... But Leopold & Loeb??? Well, if it features a dissonant jazz-age score and does for 1920s murder trials what Chicago did, then I could be swayed. But it just seems so many misguided musical teams fix on a source that are either well worth avoiding to begin with (The Spitfire Grill, anyone?) or just fine as they were (yes, I'm talking to you, Anna Karenina).

Okay, maybe those examples are strawmen. And "Thrill Me" is obviously not reflective of a mass conspiracy (what could possibly be the motive? certainly not money!)--just the dream of a possibly very talented musical team. But, musical writers of the future, take note! Choose your sources wisely...



WOODY LIVES!

Wow, A.O. Scott creates real news from Cannes, with his post on the new Woody film. At first I feared this was a sick joke (such cruelty we Woody fans have suffered) but read on...

My head is still spinning. A truly shocking thing happened this morning. I saw a really good Woody Allen movie. Really. But wasn't there just a new Woody Allen movie, like a month ago, you ask. Well yes, and now there's another one. But this one (called "Match Point") is different. It's longer than most of his recent ones have been (more than two hours), with a scratchy old opera record playing over the opening titles instead of a scratchy old jazz record, and it was shot (beautifully, as usual) in London, with a mostly English cast (except for Scarlett Johansson, who plays an expatriate struggling actress from Colorado).

It's also serious, in the manner of "Crimes and Misdemeanors," and marvelously witty. When he's not trying to force out comic dialogue (the one-liners haven't been sharp for at least a decade), the man can really write. Not only at the level of what the people on screen say. This is one of the most crisply and ingeniously plotted American movies I've seen in some time. If there's one thing critics hate, it's a surprise twist, but Mr. Allen planted one near the end of this picture and the audience at the early morning press screening clapped and cheered.

How exciting! Playgoer will come clean and go the record as a lifelong Woody fan. But it's been hard being his apologist for the last, oh, decade. (Especially after his latest morose exercise of a play this year Second Hand Memory. God Bless the Atlantic Theatre Company, though, for making sure one of our national treasures has an artistic home, at least.)... Scott has been as tough as anyone on Woody, but also understanding. (See his March 13 column, "Why We Won't Let Woody Allen Grow Up", now pay-only on NYTimes.com)

The relative success of Melinda and Melinda--trifling and senseless as it is--marks an interesting, and totally unpredictable upswing. Forget critics and disappointed fans like yours truly--people are actually liking this movie, or else it wouldn't still be playing. Will Allen Konigsberg reinvent himself further with an oddly British tennis saga....?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

EXIT JOHN SIMON

New York Theatre cognoscenti are abuzz--mostly gleefully--this week about the outright dumping of critic John Simon by New York Magazine after 37 years of memorably mean reviews. Perhaps the real "butcher of Broadway" (if Frank Rich would deign to share the title), Simon always seemed to enjoy--nay, cultivate--the hatred of theatre artists by never holding back the awful catty things we all might say at the bar at intermission but never consider "criticism." (Hence the pleasure/disgust in reading him would be My God, he didn't just review her breasts, did he???) In his Mittel-Europa/ old white guy way, he was actually our shock-jock of the Great White Way, but cloaked in the trappings of cultural snobbery. He deployed his learned English tongue as a weapon indeed, to smokescreen the tawdriness of his comments underneath the cleverest cocktail party discourse. What this all amounted to may have been bankrupt criticism... but also undeniably engaging to read.

To be fair, Simon loved the theatre, and at least had about 50 years of experience with it by the end. To read him celebrate his cherished cultural icons--like the neglected Schnitzler--could even be moving. Then again, he also exhibited a weird soft spot for goofy musicals with leggy chorus girls, and--if memory serves--Tom Sellek's tour de force in A Thousand Clowns! Interestingly, his replacement at New York, the Sun's Jeremy McCarter, is not yet 30. (Playgoer shudders at this thought, but maybe will recover upon actually reading McCarter. The New York Sun pay-only website is of no help--sorry no link for you, Sun!) No doubt this age difference is only a plus--if not the precipitator--of Simon's firing to begin with. For all of Simon's elder statesman status, no one can claim he was very relevant to the scene anymore. (You never saw him quoted-- and he did like things sometimes. ) It's still Ben Brantley's world on that front, so we're probably lucky New York didn't cancel the column altogether. By going with McCarter, they're more likely going head-to-head with Time Out--increasingly the bible of those under 40 who actually think every once in a while of checking out something "live" that's not in a club.

Finally, let's remember Simon was, all in all, a true conservative. (Remember, he wrote movie reviews for National Review!) This will come as no surprise to those who have been following his "un-p.c." escapades these many years (e.g., his obsession with actors' racial attributes and, oh, joking about AIDS relieving him of all those "faggot" plays). But without forgiving Simon his meaner excesses, one can appreciate the value of a broader spectrum of theatrical commentary. Let's have a good right-wing critic in New York! Any reminder that conservatives may care about the theatre anymore is at least heartening...

For an intro or refresher course on Simon's style and occasional substance, catch his archive at New York online before they destroy the evidence! But wait, there's more-- they haven't slammed the door on the old guy yet. Look for his "farewell column" next week, when he's scheduled to file on what show....? Sweet Charity! I sure hope he doesn't disappoint us by liking it...

(PS: Speaking of conservative critics, Playgoer is not a reader of Terry Teachout at the Wall Street Journal, but getting interested, after seeing a C-Span talk around the cauldron of the American Enterprise Institute. And let's find out more about McCarter himself. Are the Arts pages of the New York Sun immune from the rest of their paleo-politics?)

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

THE TONYS--ACT II

There is some news this year, actually, even if a snore to most-- Revenge of the Designers. As the Times confirms today, the Tony committee this year has added three more design categories (hence, opportunities to win) by offering separate awards for designing plays and musicals. This continues the trend over the last decade of splitting up Musicals and Plays. First there was the question of Revivals (a new category to begin with) and then the Directing award was divvied up. What's going on here? It's hard to object to more hard-working theatre artists getting statuettes, so more power to 'em. And those still hankering for the glory of "the drama" should be pleased not to be drowned out by musicals always....But do I sense some potential ghetto-ization here??? I can imagine the folks at CBS are thrilled at the idea of three more untelegenic designers taking up air time away from JAG to thank their loved ones. (To a TV executive, this is the Oscar technical awards but less sexy.) Remember, for a while CBS "outsourced" the whole first hour of the show to PBS, to dispose of such unimportant citations as, oh, directing and writing, as well as design. Somehow, a couple of years ago, they decided they could afford the whole three hours again. But you gotta wonder--how long will it be before they just bump all the non-musical awards. Whatever national audience there is for the Tonys, they figure, only cares about who sings & dances, so just imagine, Tune into CBS from 9-11 for the Musical Tonys, and meanwhile catch the "Legits" on overnight C-Span...

Does Billy Crystal really need a Tony????
Well, that's what it seems all this "Special Theatrical Event" is good for. It was created a few years back--at the beginning of the acknowledged "Crisis of the American Play"--when it seemed the only non-musical things happening on Times Square stages were Jackie Mason and Defending the Caveman (remember that??? I wish I didn't). Yes, they had the good sense not to recognize Jackie Mason as a "playwright". But why does he need a Tony at all? Well he doesn't, but his producers want them--and that's how we know who this is all about in the end. But whatever integrity the Tonys may have once had is now complicated by Mario Cantone's made-for-Showtime stand-up act being described as a "special theatrical event." Funny, I remember applying that phrase to Peter Brook's Mahabarata. Guess times have changed...

Speaking of actual Plays... Playgoer won't weigh in yet on the "leading" nominees (Doubt and Pillowman) having not seen either. But what a nifty little debate has already sprung about among the heavy hitting critics over this comparison--with a special eye to de-valuing Pillowman as "entertainment over ideas." Christopher Isherwood's Times essay seems to follow Charles McNulty's Voice blast against both Martin McDonagh and Neil LaBute for good measure, belittling both as cynical, overpraised (i.e. by Ben Brantley) hacks. Still, a Tony award might trivialize either one, seems to me... As for the other nominees. it's hard to begrudge such major artists as August Wilson and Michael Frayn another nod. Just funny that no one in the Broadway establishment seemed to care much for either play. (They may have done the right thing for the wrong reasons--again, filling the category. I'm still racking my brains for what other non-revival plays actually opened on B'way this year (that is, since last May). Anyone want to chime in?

Lastly, some "cheers & jeers" for individual nominees: As ubiquitous and rightly loved a designer William Ivey Long is, his work on the overall misguided Streetcar was exceptionally odd. That Dilbert-esque short sleeves and tie for Stanley Kowalski? Sure didn't help poor John C. Reilly's "it" quotient... A hearty cheer for actors Michael Stuhlbarg, one of the hardest working Off-Broadway classical actors finally getting his due in Pillowman, and for Dan Fogler, an old colleague of mine at B.U. whose explosive and expert funniness has long been obvious to those who know him, and so it's no wonder everyone who has seen Spelling Bee responds to him so viscerally... And while every year the Regional Theatre Award is a cause for celebration--and for showing up the Broadway establishment for what it's not doing--Minneapolis's "Jeune Lune" will greatly benefit from the exposure. They're a great example of the "other" American theatre--experimental, physical based, classically oriented yet thoroughly hip--that most Times Square ticketbuyers have never seen.

(Correction: After some cursory research, I discover there was indeed one other non-musical, non-revival play to open in a Tony-eligibe house this season: Donald Margulies's Brooklyn Boy. No one seems particularly outraged about that omission this week, but I bet some people liked it more than Democracy or Gem of the Ocean.... Oh, and the Theatre History voices in my head remind me that the "Crisis of the American Play" did not start ten years ago, but basically whenever there first was--or wasn't--an American play...)

THE TONYS

At some later date, Playgoer will discuss what is so wrong and evil about the Tonys. But for now, let's enjoy the sport of it...

First for the newsflashes-- well, none, actually. C'mon what would actually constitute a surprise here? Each season a small number of shows open at the 40-odd eligible theatre buildings around Times Square and every May, guess what-- nearly all of them get nominated! When On Golden Pond and La Cage Aux Folles can bag nominations (as Best Revival) you know it's a grab bag. Not that those shows haven't been entertaining people-- but Best??? One has to wonder what the very word means in this context. We have to start reading these categories as signifying: Musicals that actually opened this year, etc. I remember one year when "the committee" could only nominate two musicals: one was by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the other wasn't. And that's about all anyone cared about either.

Spamalot--Again, big surprise. The real story here, though, is this is Producers Redux. No one is commenting on this very strange trend-- not just movies into musicals (take a number). But I mean film comic geniuses (Mel Brooks, now Eric Idle) exploiting their own youthful masterpieces late in life, only to water it down and peddle it to the Times Square tourists. Plus, I would imagine the songwriting profession must be very worried that after the years spent by practiced craftsmen laboring over every note, Mel Brooks can just sing some funny lyrics into a tape recorder one day and, voila, he wins a Tony for Best Score. I don't know about Idle (who did collaborate with a real musician, John Du Prez) but Brooks has admitted he can't read or write a note of music. That didn't hurt Paul McCartney, some might say, but is this what's become of the legacy of Tin Pan Alley? (Okay, Irving Berlin, too, but at least he could play and compose his songs on the piano himself!) The really interesting question to me is: will any of these songs ever enter "the catalogue"? Will they form any kind of musical theatre tradition? Somehow I can't imagine Michael Feinstein or Barbara Cook slipping "Springtime for Hitler" or "The Song That Goes like This" into their cabaret acts. Not that that has to matter so much-- they're great, funny songs, and totally work in their contexts (and, hey, the "integrated" musical is what it's all supposed to be about, right?). But we know about Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers to this day because we still sing their songs. Will anyone be interested in reviving Spamalot in ten, twenty years? (aside from some geeky High Schoolers?) Probably not.

This rant has nothing to do with the Tonys, I guess. Probably it would be better to post after Spamalot actually wins it. But part of what's in the air, nevertheless. And has Playgoer actually seen Spamalot...? Of course not. But when he does, you, dear reader, will be the first to know.

More Antoinette Perry deconstruction to come later...

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Welcome

Welcome to The Playgoer...

A casual collection of Theatre Reviews, and other observations on the arts and issues pertaining to culture.... but mostly theatre. Not a Broadway fanzine, not a Press Release clearinghouse.

Stay tuned for an idiosyncratic, but hopefully helpful guide to what's going on in the world of a perpetually and proudly irrelevant artform...