The Playgoer: December 2005

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Friday, December 30, 2005

Off-Broadway? Check!

Well, don't let it be said the NYT hasn't done an Off/Off-Off B'way year-end wrap. In case you thought you missed the article, you didn't. It's a "slide show"!

I guess those hip downtowners don't read.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The New York Times of London

Of course the Times year-in-review theatre pieces would focus on Broadway. Nor should a wrap-up yesterday of the year in London surprise us. (Hey, I love London theatre!) But taken together, one comes to a disquieting realization. The New York Times conceives of its theatregoing readers as more likely to go the West End than anywhere else outside of Times Square. And, sorry to say, that's probably true.

Leaving aside Off-Broadway and downtown (at least Brantley did include shows from that far afield), if the "nation's newspaper" cannot bother to even mention regional theatre in any of this coverage--let alone a "Best of Regional" piece in itself--then it has obviously given up on the very idea of "Amercian theatre." Especially when a good helping of the B'way coverage is British in origin anyway.

Yes, theatre is for jet-setters. Wherever the bucks are, there goes the coverage. As for "Flyover Country" you can read about that in USA Today, I suppose...

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

REVIEW: "Measure for Measure"

Measure for Measure
starring Mark Rylance
a production of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre of London at St. Ann's Warehouse (through January 1)
This may be an overstatement, but Mark Rylance is probably the greatest Shakespearean actor you've never heard of. (And I apologize for insulting the intelligence of those of you who do know him.) If you have heard of him it is as the artistic director of the "Shakespeare's Globe" theatre in London. Or perhaps he's crossed your radar as one of the most prominent Shakespeare deniers among active classical practitioners. (And a Marlovian no less, after all these years! Ugh)

What makes a Rylance performance so beguiling is in part how "anti-Shakespearean" he can be--that is, lacking in all the traditional "bad" connotations of that term, the bombast, the broad-brush emotions. Rylance is a master underplayer and, in roles that seem to demand the highest levels of verbosity, a virtuoso of inarticulateness. I remember my first Rylance encounter, 10 years ago, seeing his pre-Globe Henry V here in NY in a Theatre for a New Audience production at the little St. Clements Church. For most actors the pre-battle "St. Crispian's Day" speech is an obligatory chance for taking the stage with pyrotechnics. But Rylance dared to be different; he instead used it to further his interpretation of the character--that of a prince still discovering how to be a king, a boy how to be a man. I would say Rylance practically had been mumbling his way through the role up to this point--but that would belie his clearly masterful technique. He knows how to throw it away. In the "Crispian" we saw this mere lad (Rylance is a slight man, to boot) grow as he spoke, struggling through every line as he coined it fresh through his halting--yet thoroughly clear--speech patterns. Instead of the great king who condescends to his foot soldiers from on high, this Hal really was on their level, verbally at least, and one felt the obstacles he faced in winning their full confidence. And so the connection forged amongst them all was movingly real.

But onto the present. Now, New York has Rylance back, in triumph as it were, as the (departing) head of his own company. Playing the Duke in Measure for Measure--a problematic role in a problem play for sure. How to account for this protagonist who begins with a bold act of self-deposement for no apparent reason, and then proceeds to make life miserable for his subjects as he attempts to solve their problems from his secret perch as a badly-disguised monk! Rylance, once again, discovers truth through what's not said, playing uncertainty. He takes as a given the character flaws and misjudgments apparent to any reader of the play and incorporates them into a characterization all too human. His Duke Vincentio--rather than the automatically robust noble ruler many actors take the very name to imply--is an effete nebbish. It's clear this Duke, with his spectacles, high voice and meandering speech, has no real feel for the common people and perhaps this is what prompts his crazy scheme in the first place. He also makes for a very bad "Friar Ludovic"--clueless as to how to administer his expected rites and given to un-Christian violent outbursts before he barely catches himself. Embracing the Duke as a comic hero (many productions leave the low comedy to the whorehouse subplot and set off the main characters in a realm of higher drama), Rylance once again provides a fascinating and winning portrait of self-discovery--which is of course what Shakespeare has consciously written! He is described by his counselor Escalus as "One that above all other strifes contended especially to know himself."

This being a transported Globe production, the director, John Dove, has tried to replicate at least some of the conditions of that outdoor playhouse in the refurbished interior of St. Ann's Warehouse. (Jennifer Tiramani's adjusted set nicely shifts us from the Globe to a pseudo-replica of the famous Inigo Jones "Blackfriars" inner chamber--replete with candelabras--used by Shakespeare's company as well.) For all Rylance's deep and subtle interiority--he has probably succeeded more than any other contemporary actor in marrying Shakespeare and Strasberg--he also can shamelessly play to the crowd, as the logistics of the Globe would demand. And yet even this is totally in character. In the final scene (Shakespeare's best continuous 30 minutes of pure dramaturgical craftsmanship, for my money) Rylance and Dove take their cue from the public ceremonial aspects indicated in the script. Here is where the Duke is at his most mischievous, making the grieving Isabella suffer yet more humiliation just in order to set up her antagonist, Angelo, for an even bigger fall. In disguise, the Duke has been her ally, but now for much of the scene, as "himself", he renounces her in public. Rylance shows us the Duke as actor here, pulling the strings of the proceedings and manipulating public (that is, our) opinion, often to comic effect. Yes, the addled elitist of Scene One has now become, nay discovered himself as a master politician.

I dwell so much on Rylance because he really is the one reason to see this Measure for Measure. I did wish the rest of the production and the cast were up to his inventiveness. For those who have never seen a Globe production before there is certainly some value for the scholar and buff in seeing what they call "an original practices production" defined as "exploring clothing, music, dance and settings possible in the Globe of 1599 featuring an all male company." It is often an elegant and beguiling experience visually and aurally, with the live musicians placed historically-accurately in the set's rafters. But the all-maleness emerges as part of the problem in a play centered so much on sexual politics and particularly the plight of the violated Isabella. Of course, the male casting could have illuminated the issue by representing gender and sexuality in fresh ways (the way Declan Donnellan's famous As You Like It did a decade ago). But in Edward Hogg's performance, the production settles on an Isabella relegated to the most constricting cliches of over-corsetted repression and religious righteousness, rather than showing (as Shakespeare heartbreakingly does) the cracks of her disillusionment. As a result Isabella remains a cipher and a huge emotional void is left at the center of the play. This is a shame since in Liam Brennan he/she has that rare gift of a compelling Angelo to play against. Brennan's brogue (intentionally or not) lends some Scottish Presbyterian dryness to the role, making the marriage of Christian and bureaucratic fundamentalisms in the character very tangible. That he is an attractive Angelo (not an ogre), who visibly gives into his own forbidden sensuality, also adds potential if only his Isabella were not so one-dimensionally priggish.

So without mining the riveting serious plot at its core, this cannot be a fully successful Measure. (The low comedy didn't fare much better in my opinion, despite other--i.e. Isherwood's-- glowing reviews. The treacherous courtroom arraignment scene with all the "punks" I found slow and wandering. And even in a play about prostitution the ol' pelvic thrust/crotch grab delivery gets stale fast.) But the Duke is indeed the hero of the play and Rylance gives a star turn, even in his modest anti-star posture. It runs in Brooklyn until January 1, so if you can afford the $60--and you can get a seat down front or on the sides of the stage, preferably--go see this great performance by the unlikeliest of classical heroes.

UPDATE: click here for PBS Newshour's interview with Rylance with scenes from the production!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Quote of the Day

"True theatrical collectives - companies of actors and artists who repeatedly work together to hone their craft, establishing a cohesive aesthetic - remain a vital part of the European theatrical landscape. By contrast, the phenomenon is virtually nonexistent in the upper realms of New York theater, where the demands of the marketplace reign supreme and even the finest casts are assembled for a single production.
What we lose out on is what I found so transfixing in the productions mentioned: the singular ability of a unified company of actors to conjure a world that compels us with its truth, whatever the style or tone of the material. This is something different in kind from assembling an array of terrific performers for just one occasion."

- Charles Isherwood, using his Times year-end wrap up to confront the New York theatre on why it cannot match the ensemble work on display here in recent tours from Europe. Here here. But does he beathe word anywhere of funding? Dream on...

Ben Brantley's pseudo "best of" list is here.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Naughty Brits

Here I was looking forward this morning to learning about the history and context of that strange form, English "panto", when Alan Riding's NYT article morphed into this monstrosity. What the hell happened to this piece? As you'll see he spends the first paragraph actually introducing the stated topic, then starts rambling about those embarrassing Brits and their unique quality of "bathroom humor." (Riding has never seen South Park or a Farrelly brothers movie, I guess.) From there he gets to German deconstructionist-directors inserting sex acts into Mozart operas. Huh???

My impression was the Riding was some senior cultural correspondent. I guess his age and generation show in this. But one would hope experienced journalists could at least write coherently. Are his editors on vacation? Who can be trusted over there to write sensibly about the arts at all!

Bah humbug.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The New Off-Bway

Interesting--and even hope-lifting?--feature in today's Times about a few of the more enterprising Off-Broadway houses getting some ink. (Evidence: here's some ink about them!, saith the Times.)

Of course there are many "successful" small Off-Broadway shows. But one of these impresario sums up the problem nicely:

"If you're a theater owner, the dream is that you're the Westside Arts Center, and you have 'I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change' upstairs and 'Jewtopia' downstairs," Mr. [Jon] Steingart of Ars Nova said. "But for us that's a worst-case scenario, because then the 10 things that are in the queue that want to come in wouldn't get their chance."
I think we can all agree that particular scenario is "worst-case" all around, no?

I will second here that the downtown "Culture Project" is a real success story, and it's because it has carved out a real niche--unapologetic lefty activist theatre. Exonerated and Guantanamo (US premiere), for instance, were introduced here and had boffo runs for the faithful. Personally, I found both surprisingly tepid as political theatre--and as theatre. (Guantanamo ended up being a play about lawyers!) But who cares. People came in droves and used the theatre as a focal point of public discourse and outrage. (Yeah, yeah and then went to nearest wine bar to forget about it, whatever...) I do like how Allan Buchman, who runs it, expresses his mission: "I think of this as 'salon theater.' " Yes, a salon. Why do we always have to appeal to everybody?

One thing the article completely misses--and that may not be clear to an out-of-town reader--is that the examples are indiscriminately drawn from all over town. Robert Lyons, the mastermind of the downtown hotspot Ohio Theatre (in the heart of deep Soho) is asked whether he feels "competition" from the very-near Bloomingdale's 59E59, specializing in Terrence McNally and various nostalgia-acts. Duh! Lyons's audience wouldn't be caught dead in squaresville, and the uptown Daddios are not going to cab down to a sidestreet in Soho for a night of Sarah Kane done by naked foreigners ( to choose but one example of their varied programming). A little context, please.

In fact the success of nice middlebrow smaller spaces doing something other than "Jewtopia" is newsworthy, so I'd like to see an article on that. There's been no problem getting the hipsters to drop in and take a chance on new theatre. No news there. But will the Bloomingdales set take a chance on anything not already endorsed by the NYT. Or that isn't that inexplicable juggernaut I Love You You're Perfect Now Change? (click at your own risk)

Let the "Awards" Begin

Playgoer doesn't really see the point of "10 Best" lists in the theatre--especially when one is expected to do it twice a year! (At year's end and then "season's" end. Tony-time, that is.)

But I'm happy to link to others' wrap-ups. New York Magazine gets us started with some safe, yet not egregious picks, and (Obie-style) eschews the usual categories. NYM critic Jeremy McCarter follows up with a brief thoughtful essay and a tribute to the deserving New Group.

Shall we start our own? Submit your nominations to the comment box...

Friday, December 16, 2005

Mamet on Williams

A professor of mine once laid out a symple psychological formula: what A says about B tells you more about A than it does about B.

In that spirit, I heartily recommend this "revealing" assault on Tennessee Williams (particularly Night of the Iguana from David Mamet. If you don't like Mamet, your feelings will only be confirmed. And there's nothing here that hasn't been said about Williams (especially late Williams) before.

But it's quite a credo, of what Mamet is about. Sample: "If the dialogue does not advance the objective of the character, then why would he say it?" And: "The suggestion that a drama is 'poetic', then, should not be a post-facto apology for the soporific, but rather an accolade to the mechanical purity of the dialogue."

Read on here for more on the struggle between two very different dramatist-poets. The minimalist and the maximalist.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Women Directors WHERE?

What to make of Sunday Arts & Leisure's "roundtable" on the plight of female directors on Broadway. Advocacy journalism? Or the business-as-usual myopic commercial focus posing as progressivism?

First, why the format. Is the Times afraid to have someone actually take a stand on this in a proper article? Or by just opening the microphone to four successful women and two status-quo men (how can their comments be expected to be anything other than defensive?)...is this just a pro-forma gesture to alleviate the flack for their condescending profile on playwright Sarah Schulman a few weeks back?

The editor's note makes this funny admission:

When Arts & Leisure asked half a dozen producers and directors why, a number of the respondents noted by e-mail that women have been responsible for some of the most successful shows on Broadway. As the producer Robyn Goodman said, "Maybe the question should be 'Why aren't more men directing the top grossing shows on Broadway?' Of the five top earners, three of them are directed by women: 'The Lion King' (Julie Taymor), 'Mamma Mia!' (Phyllida Lloyd) and 'The Producers' (Susan Stroman)."
Indeed. Why proceed with this piece, then!

For me, of course, the real issue is--yet again: why just Broadway? Look at the lead-in to the piece:

OF the 39 plays and musicals that opened on Broadway this year, 3 were directed by women (a husband-and-wife team directed a fourth, the short-lived "Blonde in the Thunderbird"). Of the 34 new shows in 2004, women directed 2. These are not particularly encouraging figures for those looking for the new female directorial voices. Many women can be found directing shows off Broadway and running regional theaters, but the best-known and biggest-budget venue has not been all that welcoming. (emphasis mine)

In other words... if it ain't on Broadway it don't count. Hey, how about those women running regional theatres? Hey, what about that far off land of Off-Broadway where one hears of women--nay, even black, brown and yellow folk--directing and producing their own work? How about an article (or roundtable, or conversation, or whatever) on that!

This reminds me a bit of debates about "the canon" in academia. Once you define visual art by its medium or genre you end up circumscribing, liming the profile/demographic of who the "artist" is. For instance, once you define visual art as "oils on canvas," or film as narrative Hollywood production... guess what: your artists end up being mostly white men of a certain class and cultural range. Notice how the diversity of theatre practitioners becomes clear when you diversify your definition of theatre practice. (That is, beyond Phantom and Rent.) Obviously--there's nothing genetically or even culturally stopping someone non-male, non-white, non-western from excelling in the forms dominated by the "dead white males." But if you're stumped about where all the women directors are... maybe you don't want to limit yourself to the old boys club of Broadway.

The constant justification privileging Broadway as simply American theatre's "best known venue" is revealed here for what it is: a self-fulfilling prophecy. Gee, how do Broadway shows--and their directors--get to be so "well known"? Could it be because people read about it more in the papers...?

Memo to NYT: considering that one of the 39 productions on Broadway in 2005 was "The Blonde in the Thunderbird"...you may want to reconsider your theatre coverage in general.
By the way, if you add In My Life, Good Vibrations, and Lennon, that accounts for 10% of the season right there!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Lahr

John Lahr this week covers two shows of particular interest to this blog (and its readers!): the Pinter plays and Touch of the Poet.

Definitely worth reading him on both, even if he's a bit noncomittal on the former (but provides excellent analysis) and downright blunt on the latter! (O'Neill fans be warned.)

coming soon...

Some surprisingly brave British drama for Broadway announced recently by optimistic producers. Yes, you may say, it's hardly brave to go Brit these days, but consider these titles:

The Homecoming. Pintermania may be here to stay for a while, it seems. And that's a good thing, no? Let's just hope the Glengarry team producing it doesn't cave to glitz again.

Journey's End. You may have read my rave of this play as seen at the Shaw Fesitival in Ontario last summer. Well now the London revival which sparked all the re-interest, may be coming our way. I suspect this trench drama's intensely detailed and moving portrait of disillusioned army officers will still have resonance in 2006 America.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

REVIEW: A Touch of the Poet

A Touch of the Poet
by Eugene O'Neill
directed by Doug Hughes, starring Gabriel Byrne
Roundabout Theatre Company, at Studio 54

The payoff for Gabriel Byrne's casting in A Touch of the Poet lies, of course, in his brogue. Not that you'll hear it for more than two hours into the proceedings, for up until then Byrne is playing essentially a different character. His performance is an impressively schizoid rendering of this oddly compelling late creation of Eugene O'Neill--Major Cornelius ("Con") Melody: braggart, climber, victim of the American class system circa 1828. The arc of O'Neill's narrative requires Con to strut and plume his officer-class pretensions for most of the play, until his own foolhardiness and society's snobbery against his Irish upstart origins end up humiliating him to that point in tragedy where the hero will either redeem himself through self-mutilation or a really, really long speech. After watching Byrne play Con the "gentleman" for most of the evening (decked out in a flashy redcoat uniform, with an indeterminate accent of "class")--playing it with great and enjoyable relish, to be sure--both actor and character seem magically simultaneously liberated in this climax. Witnessing Byrne rip through these final pages with such maniacal fury, giving full voice to his natural sharp-edged mother tongue is a theatrical thrill. Ah, we say, this is why this man is playing this role. A great feeling in the theatre.

Byrne has more going for him than his accent, of course. But if the rest of his performance doesn't communicate all the complex depths O'Neill's nigh-impossible script seems to demand, part of the failing has to lie in the inexplicably tired production director Doug Hughes has constructed to house it. Hughes seems to give into all the potential pitfalls of the script: since people sit and talk a lot, for instance, he lays out two convenient sets of table-and-chairs down front so people can do just that, incessantly, and nothing else. Santo Loquasto presents us with an impressive amount of wood and a faux huge fireplace and chimney dead center stage, which, though non-working, still manages to suck up all the air on stage nevertheless. Nowhere in this dull setting and Christopher Akerlind's(surprisingly) generic lighting is any sense of atmosphere. I mean, how often to you get to realize the world of early America in 1828 rural Massachusetts? I focus on the externals of this production as typical of how Hughes and co. have stretched so little imagination in approaching script that demands to be interpreted. (And, sorry Doug, the live presence of a Uilleann pipes player isn't enough. It may please our ears but gets us no deeper into O'Neill's troubled Irish souls here.)

Unlike Ben Brantley, I lay the blame squarely at Hughes' feet more than the supporting cast. Byron Jennings is giving it all he's got as Con's sidekick, Jamie, and I found Dearbhla Molloy quite affecting in the problematic martyred role of his wife, Nora. (And kudos to Hughes for casting them both to be sure, and for sensing the benefits of Molloy's authentic Irishness.) Kathryn Meisle may be too young for the Yankee rich-bitch Mrs. Harford, but does exactly what the role calls for in a subtle and commanding way.... No, it is Hughes' squandering of these fine resources on a routine, perfunctory staging of a difficult play that is the regrettable story here. A Touch of the Poet may not be top-drawer O'Neill. (A curious digression for someone in the midst of his masterful late period of Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey.) But all the raw material is there for a memorable and searing evening of Irish tragedy by way of O'Neill's gloomy modernist mind.

One more parting note about the play--when Con made his final, blood-soaked final transformational entrance, rediscovering his repressed ethnic roots--it was hard not to think of August Wilson. The bullying masculinity, the forces of social discrimination, would all be equally at home in Wilson, too. Poet invites the comparison especially since it was O'Neill's first play in a projected cycle of his own (the eleven-play grandly titled A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed). Perhaps not encouraged by his first installment (Poet was never even performed in O'Neill's lifetime) O'Neill abandoned it, burning all his notes and manuscripts save some fragments of More Stately Mansions. But compare the project itself to the similarly saga- and historically-minded August Wilson ten-play cycle on the African American 20th Century experience. Of course, its the dramaturgical vision I'm comparing more than the sheer form, but so many were the echoes for me in this play. Or, rather, the echoes were of that common forefather of both playwrights. When Con takes out his act of self-mutilation at the end on his poor horse, the reference was clearly to Ibsen, whose "Wild Duck" faced the same fate as a convenient symbol. Wilson may have claimed never to have read Ibsen. But, with his obsessive use of symbolic objects and blood and sacrifice, I maintain his death this year marked the passing of the last American Ibsenite. The first, of course, was Eugene O'Neill.

Friday, December 09, 2005

LA Theatre Scene

An informative hard-data piece on the status of small professional/regional theatre in a big city. Case study: Los Angeles. Yes, there is a serious theatre scene there, one I hope to hear more about once ex-Village Voicer Charles McNulty takes over next month at the LA Times.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pinter Speaks

The link is up on the Nobel website to the video of the video of Pinter's long-distance (and hoarse and wheelchair-bound) acceptance speech. The wait may be long as the traffic is high, and I myself haven't been able to access it yet. Transcribed text is also available there, and from what I've seen so far, the speech seems anything but "phoned in." And, yes, it is mostly political, of the incendiary kind.

Here's a quick summary from today's Times, for the highlights.

In this sampling, am I alone in hearing the echoes of Pinter's late friend and comrade in arms, Arthur Miller?

I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road [in the abuse of human rights]. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be, but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self-love.

Let the pile-on begin!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Same Old New Playwrights

I'm not sure what exactly the ultimate thesis of Charles Isherwood's latest Sunday think-piece is... but I applaud him for writing the kind of article on new plays long overdue at the Times. It's about time someone stood back and surveyed what kind of scene we have now for new American drama. Usually an article on "new plays" just concludes there are none, or talks about British imports. But Isherwood is right in reflecting upon what it means when a mediocre Richard Greenberg play at the Roundabout is the closest we get to a major American premiere.

If you haven't read the article yet, and you're not in New York, then this is an excellent primer for what's going on in the most elite ranks of our "new writing" here. A must-read, I dare say, for understanding at least a piece, some of the factors going into the life of our drama.

Isherwood is especially on target in addressing the role of "the big three"--Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center--in the producing of new American drama. (I would also add the Public Theatre as a "big 4th" to that list, though Isherwood keeps it separate. It may be downtown and not quite as rich, but equally active, influential, and just as huge an organization.) As I have said before, these non-profit behemoths constitute, like it or not, our de facto National Theatre. They are the closest we have--and are likely ever to have--to a subsidized, commercial free zone for serious theatrical work, for both revivals and new writing. The fact that none of them can afford to be remotely commercial free, though, bespeaks the problem.

I agree with Isherwood that these institutions are so risk-averse they cannot not do yet another Richard Greenberg play with yet the same directors. Funny thing is, I bet our colleagues in London would complain about the same syndrome with the National and Royal Court with writers like David Hare. However--at least the National has two other stages free when they're doing the new David Hare. It's encouraging the Roundabout has transformed their new smaller space (the Laura Pels) into a cozy venue for new work--unfortunately they've mostly used it for the same kind of mediocre work by already known writers (Paris Letter, McReele) we get plenty of on their mainstage. MTC also still has two small spaces in the old City Center building, but we just haven't heard much out of there recently. Ever since they bought up the huge Biltmore on Broadway (to directly compete with Roundabout's "American Airlines Theatre", it should be noted) they 've been consumed with the folly of trying to fill it with a new play anyone cares about. If only they stayed small and stuck to their mission. After all, both their two great "finds" of recent years--Proof and Doubt--started in their smaller spaces. There's a lesson there--and it's not just to pick new plays with one-word titles.

Let me play Devil's Advocate for a moment, though, and offer a counterargument to this point of Isherwood's:

the case of Mr. Greenberg's "Naked Girl" rankles. The presence of this slight, uninspired comedy on Broadway can only be ascribed to a lazy decision to stick with a branded product - the new Greenberg - even if the goods are shoddy. I could cite numerous other works, mediocre or worse, by other well-known playwrights that have peppered the slates of these companies in recent years.

Point taken. Obviously if there's a better play out there than Appian Way--and by all reports there must be--then that one should get the Roundabout's attention instead. (Let's not forget the Times's attention either, by the way. Isherwood, of course, is silent on the relentless free promotion "Arts and Leisure" gave to the show, in effect, pre-anointing it "the play of the season" sight unseen.).... But is there a case to be made that our theatre owes something to its major writers? Isherwood's phrase "the new Greenberg" makes me chuckle, in that it (consciously?) evokes echoes of tuxedoed 30's playgoers name-dropping "the new Philip Barry" or "the new Coward". Somehow, the prefix "the new..." can only come before artists who mass-produce new works like a machine; or maybe that's just another word for "professional"?

My rambling point here is... may we not want a theatre scene where we have playwrights around long enough to complain about "the new Greenberg"? One of the problems facing playwrights today is building a career, not just starting one. I think it's good for producers/theatre companies feel committed enough to a writer to produce his or her work even when it is not at their best. And I think it's awful, for instance, that Arthur Miller could not find an artistic home in New York at the end of his life--no matter how lame his late plays may have been, didn't we deserve to see them? Another example (though a very different writer!) is Christopher Durang, who I just took to task (see below) for putting forward a pretty weak script that's beneath him. Some might very well criticize Playwrights Horizons for staying loyal to Durang at all costs, when the slot could go to a better play by an unknown. But I would still counter that even when the play is as bad as Miss Witherspoon, we would still be a worse off theatre community if the Christopher Durang's and Wendy Wasserstein's (another pertinent example right now) were allowed to disappear. (Or just go to Hollywood.) We have so few playwrights left of real achievement, even if it is in their pasts.

The real problem is economics, of course. If Philip Roth writes a new book that stinks, it will still get published since, aside from his own remuneration and royalties, a book is a cheaper commodity than a theatrical production. And many will (rightly, I think) want to read it no matter how badly it stinks because it's "the new Roth" and American letters is better off having him active.

The obvious answer is this should not be "either/or". Something is really wrong with our theatre if we cannot produce both a new mediocre Durang or Greenberg play and a risky adventurous piece by a first-timer. But most theatre companies barely have the funds for one of those. And that's when it starts to matter that you'll sell more tickets or subscriptions to Durang than the unknown.

It's just gotten to be that small a pie...

Book ideas

I'd like to recommend George Hunka's recommendations for some theatre books for the holidays. (We all remember books, right?) Some new, some sorta new. Juicy titles for the theatre elitist.

REVIEW: Miss Witherspoon (Durang)

Miss Witherspoon
by Christopher Durang
at Playwrights Horizons

Christopher Durang, to my mind, is one of our last remaining great satirists of the stage. But his new play, Miss Witherspoon finds him a satirist without a target. Oh, there's a faint air of teasing about the culture of therapy and happy pills here and there; a whiff of New Age spoofing in the atmospherics of Emily Mann's production; even a late jab at that perennial Durang foe, Christian fundamentalism, by the end. But really what he's written is another one-woman monologue, here for one of his favorite actresses, Kristine Nielsen, channeling all kinds of rants and neuroses he's been working out for years. It's Laughing Wild again... but without the laughs.

Oh, I wanted to laugh, believe me. I came to the play with much good will, and sustained that through about the first half-hour. And Kristine Nielsen, as that charmingly neurotic put-upon Durang heroine once again, does a lot to get our laughs. But there's a point about halfway through this thin extended one-act where you realize Durang has nowhere to go. In a comedy about reincarnation, essentially, he sure enough falls into the trap of, well, repeating himself.

The premise is that Nielsen's character (not really named Witherspoon for reasons too complicated to go into right now) is so unhappy with modern American life that she wants out--and when faced with a surprisingly Hindu afterlife she fights any "return" to the death, as it were. Do we really need another set of wacky jokes about St Peter at the Pearly Gates? Didn't I see this in an old Looney Toons? More to the point--is this what we need Durang to be writing at this moment in time?

What's most disappointing (even if we allow Durang the folly of his premise) is how uninventive he is with it. The comic possibility would seem to be an endless variety of reincarnations, one more ludicrous than the last. (Let alone the potential for social satire that could ensue from such sketches.) But instead he sticks "Witherspoon" with some dreary scenarios--she's a baby, she's a dog, she's a neglected child of poor white trash--and then repeats them. But whatever plot there is is just an excuse on which to hang the monologues of Witherspoon/Nielsen (/Durang, really), which recall the "rants" we have loved from Laughing Wild and Beyond Therapy, but that's just the problem. They're the same rants. I notice a giant sucking sound of air leaving the theatre when Nielsen went--completely tangentially--into a riff on the crucifixion that seemed like outtakes from Sister Mary Ignatius. Now I'm not one to always complain about an artist repeating himself. (Hey, it ain't broke don't fix.) But here, it frankly seemed tired.

I'm surprised the play survived a preview process at the McCarter in Princeton (where Emily Mann's flat but adequate production here originated) and has actually gotten charitable reviews. (Like these major critics here and here.) That no one could apparently talk to Durang about the basic glaring problems of the play throughout two sets of previews is troubling. Again, I say this as a great fan, but I hope Christopher Durang can still write a play about something, or at least one that's really, really funny.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

some readings

Some worthwhile reading today...

-I'm glad Ben Brantley has given his imprimatur to the Atlantic Theatre's fine staging of the Pinter "bookends" The Room and The Celebration. Get tickets here (if you still can)

-Former Royal National Theatre head Richard Erye reflects on his experience directing Hamlet in Ceaucescu's Romania, after a recent visit back to that country.

-And to those familiar with the grand old Wilbur Theatre in Boston (home to many great out-of-town Broadway tryouts of the past), our new "patrons" at Clear Channel are about to abandon it, to god knows what fate. Read it in the Globe here.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Wendy Wasserstein

Playbill posted this story Friday, so it is hardly breaking news by now in the theatre world that Wendy Wasserstein is currently hospitalized with very, very serious lukemia. Reports had been circulating, in fact, throughout the rehearsal process of her just-opened play Third, that she didn't look well and needed a cane to walk.

Playbill certainly makes the situation sound dire. If you know how, send some good karma her way. To boot, she is a single mom of a six-year old girl.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Pinter bows out of Nobel Speech

From the BBC:

Harold Pinter has been forced to pull out of the lecture given by winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature due to poor health. However, the Nobel Foundation said a lecture pre-recorded by Pinter will be shown on a big screen at their Stockholm academy on 7 December. The British playwright, 75, has been treated for cancer in recent years. He had already announced publisher Stephen Page will accept the prize on his behalf on 10 December. "His doctors have forbidden him to travel at this time," the Nobel Foundation said.
Some of us were really looking forward to that speech. And I'm sure others weren't...

REVIEW: SUPER VISION (Builders Association)


Super Vision
by The Builders Association and "dbox"
BAM Harvey Theater, Nov 29—Dec 3




I'd like to stand up for Super Vision, the new mixed media piece by the digital-friendly collective, the Builders Association at BAM. (It is also a collaboration with the group "dbox.") If the Times (and my company last night) are any indication, it will be dismissed as mere gadgetry. And I certainly thought that was true of their last effort the glib telemarketing- fantasy Alladeen. Which is why, perhaps, I was so taken with Super Vision--which presents a quite cogent series of what they might like to call "scenes of identity theft." With an improved sense of focus since Alladeen, three storylines show us familiar, yet effective, ways in which the mass collection and dissemination of personal data via fiber optics can impact our lives: a Ugandan born Indian businessman tries to hold up under the inspection of a series of INS officers, at different US airports, who all reveal a surprisingly exhaustive amount of personal information about him; a boho white suburban couple's dream house and upscale lifestyle is exposed as funded by the husband's exploitation of his young sun's identity to run up half a million dollars of virtual debt in unpaid credit cards; and a Sri Lankan young woman in New York explores a memory bank of her family's past (photos, documents, etc) via internet "cam" with her aging grandma back in the old country.

Nothing new may be said here about virtual identity and internet privacy, sure. But I did feel a powerful effect in watching the beleaguered traveller-character go through thumbprint, facial recognition, and retinal scans, with the full details of the digital imaging on display--as if we were witnessing a live dissection. (Or, is it "live" or is it theatre?) The little boy being cyber-abused by his own father is appropriately represented to us only digitally "on screen"--the interaction between the actors and this virtual child are sometimes chilling. For all the (by now) familiar nightmare scenarios, Super Vision finds some uniquely compelling--and appropriately technological--ways of visually representing/illustrating them.

And then there's the sheer technology itself. Again, if you're at all curious about the level of digital imaging possible in live theatre, it behooves you to go check this out. (And to really mix it up, you can catch William Dudley's cyclo-projections over at the other end of the artistic spectrum in the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber show.) Some say the huge screens and flashing lights overwhelm the mediocre, almost novice, acting. True, human emotions are not at the core here. But, still, I found Super Vision a memorable--and, yes, stageworthy--vision of the "artificial intelligence" of our age. And at a time when so little theatre turns a mirror on current society directly, I was glad to contemplate its breezy 70 minutes, even occasionally shuddering at the world being reflected back to me.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Divine Sarah

...no, not Silverman.

The Jewish Museum has a real treat for Theatre History junkies. (And how many museum shows can you say that about?). "Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama" open tomorrow and runs all the way through April 02. Despite the lame title, the exhibit seems a terrific treasure trove:

The exhibition will illuminate the life and art of this remarkable performer through over 250 spectacular and rarely seen objects in all media—painting, sculpture, photography, costumes, stage designs, Art Nouveau theater posters and jewelry, her furniture and personal effects, as well as a recording of her voice and selected films in which she starred.

Film clips include excerpts from her gender-bending Hamlet, by the way.

Naturally, the draw for non-specialists is Bernhardt as Celebrity:
Among the most represented personages of her time, this extremely thin, frizzy-haired belle juive fascinated her contemporaries: she sat for many of the most fashionable artists of her time, was perhaps the most photographed woman in the world, and attached her name to products ranging from hair curlers to liqueurs.

Ah, the 19th century. When theatre was the movies and stage actors could command such attention. While we assume today theatre cannot possibly have the exposure and accessibility of tv and film, notice how it once did. Exhaustive (exhausting?) touring and culture-industry and advertising machinery did their part in making such a performer "accessible" to millions. So it's remarkable that even in "real" numbers someone like Bernhardt experienced a fame quite compatible to a Britney or Madonna.

Now Britney as Hamlet, there's a boffo idea...

Here's a review (full text online, for a change) from today's New York Sun.