The Playgoer: June 2006

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Friday, June 30, 2006

REVIEW: King Lear

King Lear
by Actors' Shakespeare Project
starring Alvin Epstein
At LaMama. (closes July 2)

There's a moment in Alvin Epstein's performance of King Lear when it is movingly apparent that this is the same actor who introduced American audiences to Beckett's Lucky when Waiting for Godot came here over 50 years ago. It is during that stretch of sublime insanity that takes hold of the play in Acts III and IV, with the king adrift in the wilderness, attended by his reduced court of misfits, losing his mind while gaining his soul. Lear's babble at this point is famously incomprehensible (today, at least) and must be one of the greatest challenges of the role. But Epstein rips through the passages gleefully, even giddily. Nonsense is this actor-mime's favorite language, we suspect. The fact that he is stripped down to a baggy loin cloth, exposing his small and worn 81-year-old frame (yes, the actor's, not just the character) only adds to both the pathos and absurdity. The image of this old man in a diaper, worn by age and toil, yet irrepressibly spritely, brings out the Absurdist in the Bard in a way that transcends written language and speaks to an eternal dramatic spirit.

Sure, Epstein is not a "central casting" Lear. Less the stern father figure than the feisty grandpa, his is not the chilling tyranny of Paul Scofield, nor even the regal disengagement of Christopher Plummer. The early scenes lose a little tension from the absence of the kind of "authority" referred to in the text, and the fact that most of his family towers over him. But when Lear loses all, Epstein finds the part, and communicates more vulnerability and honesty in the character's journey than his more commanding predecessors were capable of. I've never seen the death scene, for instance, so unforced and so believable.

The production surrounding Epstein--by the Actors' Shakespeare Project of Boston--provides a generally watchable staging of the complete text to support him, but with few memorable moments. The Beckett associations begin and end with Epstein; otherwise, it is more or less by the numbers. Benjamin Evett's Edmund and Colin Lane's Gloucester offer compelling readings of certain scenes, but for the most part the supporting cast reminds us all too regrettably that the play is about a lot more people than just King Lear. Thankfully, however, director Patrick Swanson and his design team (David R. Gammons, Mark O'Maley, Elizabeth Locke, and Bill Barclay) have worked some magic in the LaMama Annex space, transforming it into an earthy, woodchip-floored dimly lit box which sucks us in immediately with its primal elegance. The staging's chief asset is how it exploits the intimacy allowed by the space and its small cast.

A compelling star and nice production values make this a Lear ultimately worthy of recommendation. But the acting is definitely uneven, with some choices truly head scratching. Just what Ken Cheeseman's Fool is supposed to be, with his baseball cap, culottes, and Nikes, mumbling through his routines like a vagrant out of a trailer park...who knows. (I realize I may be making this sound like a more interesting interpretation than it is.) Maybe no one can make the Fool funny anymore, but director and actor here only succeed in making him incongruous with everything else going on. And still definitely not funny.

Although this is not as martial as Lear as some, Robert Walsh provides the requisite and
impressive fight stagings and violence. It is an impressively mounted production for its small budget and modest origins. Its greatest design fixture, of course, remains the simple human presence of Epstein, with a lineage as royal as Lear's, theatrically. One might find oneself nodding in new ways at Edgar's concluding eulogy: "The oldest hath borne most: we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long."

Lloyd Richards, RIP

Lloyd Richards--whose directing milestones ranged from "Raisin in the Sun" to "discovering" August Wilson--has died. The announcement is being circulated by Yale Drama, who says he passed away last night.

A major figure not just in African Amercian theatre (he was one of the first black directors to work on Broadway) but in the latter 20th Century American theatre as a whole, having reigned over three hugely influential institutions: the Yale Repertory Theatre, Yale School of Drama, and the O'Neill Playwrights Conference.

The obits should be interesting reads tomorrow.

Talk Among Yourselves

"Ninety-nine percent of anything that's watchable and can be described as political theater is theater of the left."

-Tony Kushner, in today's NY Times. (Scroll to very end of this.)

True?

Does that include such unwatchable liberal feelgood exercises like, oh...Embedded?

The article, btw--celebrating the Public's "War Plays" season--bares an eerie resemblance to Matt Wolf's similar article to be found in the "Macbeth" Playbill itself. (I wish it was linked so I could show you. See the play and see for yourselves?) My charge is not plagarism at all. Just begs the question, what is the difference these days between feature reporting and printing a theatre's own publicity materials?

Some Headlines

  • Trevor Nunn is out to save "Porgy and Bess". From itself. Read about his new, improved, streamlines 2.0 version.
  • Curious about how "On the Third Day"--the winner of the UK "Play's the Thing" TV contest--actually did with the critics? Here's a convenient summary. (Hint: they're mixed. At best.)
  • The Public's Kevin Kline "Lear" has already moved beyond the workshop phase, as a full production is announced.
  • Christopher Walken joins the Mouther Courage cast in the park. As "Chef"--I mean, "Cook."

Thursday, June 29, 2006

"Corrie" in Vancouver

On the other side of the border, but very much of that Pacific Northwest culture from which Rachel Corrie emerged, the Neworld Theatre of Vancouver attained the rights to present a reading of "My Name of Rachel Corrie" last week, in advance of a full production down the road. According to this write-up, it seems interesting in combining a sense of community theatre (in the best sense) with an experimental sensibility expanding the play beyond a typical one-woman show.

for this reading, the company decided to parcel out Corrie’s words to a group of 11 community-based actors, ranging in age from 11 to 60. The effect was powerful and moving, underscoring the broader resonances of Corrie’s uniquely personal story.

Again, whatever the merits of MNIRC as political theatre, the fact is political communities seem hungry for material to rally around and stage.

FCC & PBS

The new FCC anti-naughtiness campaign is definitely taking its toll. It's not just commercial networks afraid of more Janet Jackson moments. Even PBS is quaking in its boots, and ready to bleep out (and more) anything gritty from even their finest programming.

In shows that air before 10 p.m., compound words that are part obscenity, which used to be only partially bleeped, now must be bleeped in full. And if it's still possible to discern the word by reading a person's lips, his mouth must be digitally blurred.

The concern now is for its edgier documentary films. Ken Burns, too, is worried. But obviously this could further impede PBS's already diminishing interest in airing contemporary (or post-1970) drama.

Arthur Miller, target

Here's a story I missed in the American press: Arthur Miller's FBI file has been now been opened up. Read about it here, courtesy of Canada's CBC.

Apparently despite lack of evidence, the FBI was convinced Miller was an active Communist Party member.

His FBI file, stretching from 1944 to 1956, showed he was under close surveillance through press clippings and informants. The FBI studied his plays to detect Communist sympathy and noted who in the cast had left-wing connections.

The FBI kept records of Miller's political statements and his affiliation with organizations such as the American Labor Party ("a communist front") and the "communist-infiltrated" American Civil Liberties Union.


As for Marilyn, she must have been in on it, too, of course:
When he married screen idol Marilyn Monroe in 1956, the FBI had an informant at the scene.The report at the time says "an anonymous telephone call" disclosed that the Jewish wedding was an obvious "coverup" for Miller, who "had been and still was a member of the CP (Communist party), and was their cultural front man."

Just think what the new post-Patriot Act FBI might be getting up to with artists who dare to express doubts about the "War on Terror" or sympathy with Arabs--or, worse, the French!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Misleading Headline of the Day

From Playbill Online:

"Two Cops Investigate Revenge Killing in NYC Showcase Nia Tey Soung"

Turns out it's just the characters taking revenge. Not the playwright. Or the audience.

You never know with those showcases.

"Springer" Opera done in by protests

The terrific UK musical Jerry Springer: The Opera can't keep up the fight anymore against organized campaigns by christian fundamentalists, which are finally taking their toll on tickets sales of its ambitious national tour. Polly Toynbee opines in the Guardian with lots of chilling details:

For 552 performances in London it was a smash hit with no controversy. It even had good reviews in the Church Times and the Catholic Herald. It wasn't until the BBC broadcast it that the evangelical extremists of Christian Voice saw their chance. Rude, lewd and raucous the show certainly is - but not enough to stop Cherie Blair [wife of PM Tony] taking her children to see it. Blasphemous it barely is. It is just not true that Christ is presented as a coprophiliac - but then the protesters never bothered to see the show. Even if it were blasphemy, outrage has to be tolerated. But Christian Voice got more than 60,000 people to protest to the BBC and put the home addresses of BBC executives on the internet, attracting death threats requiring police protection.

The tour was planned for 39 cities, but the furore panicked many venues, especially those run by local councils. Christian Voice wrote to every theatre, warning of prosecution if they put the show on. If it wasn't the blasphemy law then it would be the new, untried "incitement to religious hatred" bill then progressing through parliament. After more than a third of the theatres pulled out in panic, only 23 weeks of bookings remained - too few to have any chance of recouping costs. The authors waived their royalties and the producers decided to take the loss; the Arts Council tipped in a little so people in the regions could see something they regarded as excellent....

Far from all publicity being good publicity, it put off the usual audience for musicals, who assumed this show must be all filth, shock and schlock. Fear of running the gauntlet of rabid zealots also kept many away. Most local reviews were raves, but too late for ticket sales. No wonder evangelicals gloat on their websites that they have won and that the production is "under a curse" financially. Censorship has many weapons.
As you can imagine, the show has had significant trouble finding any US producer or company committed to taking on the Christianists on these shores. Nor will any American television network--even PBS or cable arts stations--air the BBC version.

(The "incitement to religious hatred" legilsation referred to, of course, is the measure taken up by parliament to appease angry Muslims, Mohammed-cartoon style.)

As Toynbee indicates, the fuss--as usual--is over something kind of incidental to the play, the appearance of Jesus as a character in the "Jerry in Hell" finale. Yes, Jesus in hell, I know. It's definitely irreverent--but no more than "South Park." But enough to qualify the show as a political football. Perhaps what's more threatening is the idea of a successful piece of satirical popular theatre that mixes high and low and dares not to declare Christianity off-limits.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Guthrie ribbing

Many thanks to Kevin A. for posting in Comments the link to James Lileks' f-ing hilarious arhctiectural skewering of the new Guthrie. Scott Walters, also in Comments, is right when he asks "Will we never learn?" about theatres "being part of surrounding communities."

My favorite of Lilek's stabs is about the cyborg-like gentleman pictured here:

And then there’s the face. Can’t build a new Euro-style cultural complex without inadvertent anthropomorphizing. Here we have the face of a fellow whose wife dragged him to the Guthrie, and it’s the middle of the third act, and he really, really has to use the bathroom.

There's more, and it gets worse. Read on.

"Corrie" Context gets Crazy

Obviously any idle speculation on my part here in recent days about things, uh, calming down in Israel by the time "My Name is Rachel Corrie" premieres here in October was just that, idle. Today the headlines continue to bring news of another Gaza standoff.

Couple that with the interesting reappearance of the infamous "flag burning" photo of Corrie (right) in many of the press stories, here and abroad, covering the play's announcement . (Like here and here.) If you're a news editor, this is obviously the graphic that makes the story more interesting to a lay audience: New York doing a censored play about a crazy anti-semitic flag-burner. Makes New York Theatre Workshop almost look good, doesn't it!

One can't--and shouldn't--deny the photo. Although I do think that's a lame excuse for a flag. (Do crayon drawings even count?) But given this bill making its way through Congress again this election season, don't be surprised if we start seeing the picture even more often in connection with the play. After all, "Corrie" will open in October and play through November.

We may make O'Reilly yet!

Des McAnuff to Stratford

...Ontario, that is.

Slings & Arrows meets The Who's Tommy?

Well, the guy has a history there, at least. But it does look pretty figurehead-ish, with two other "co-artistic directors" sharing the burden.

Read all about it in Playbill and Times. Good Canadian links and gossip welcome!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Parks & Public: "365"

Something the Public is doing well!

To produce Suzan-Lori Parks's ambitious cycle of 365 short plays--entitled 365 Days/365 Plays (yes, she wrote one a day for a year)--the Public knows it can't do it alone. So they're looking for collaborators. So if you're a small company anywhere in NYC, apply!

You can also read more about the project here.

Guthrie 2.0

Can you believe this...

...is the new Guthrie?

Minneapolis' Graydon Royce, my former O'Neill "Critics Camp" bunkmate, has all the details in the Star-Tribune.

Now, in light of Terry Teachout's compelling plea for more props for the regionals, you may be thinking the Guthrie may not be the best poster child. After all, how many theatres in or outside of NYC can boast: "11 shows on three stages, with an annual budget of more than $20 million."

Still--isn't the failure of even the Guthrie, then, to be reviewed regularly in the Times, further proof of Teachout's point? Why is the Guthrie not a name on par with the Art Institute of Chicago as a "must-see" cultural destination?

Yeah, yeah, poor Guthrie, I know. But I do wonder that if even the biggies in "The Stix" are ignored, what hope is there for those with the the twenty-thousand dollar budgets?

Sunday, June 25, 2006

"Regional" Theatre= American Theatre

Terry Teachout asks the right question: "why are America’s best regional theater companies not as well known as our museums, symphony orchestras, and opera companies?"

For more, he points us to his freely available WSJ column on the topic here. Money quote:

When a museum in Los Angeles or Philadelphia puts on a major exhibition, nobody in the world of art assumes it to be second-rate merely because it doesn't travel to the Metropolitan Museum. The same thing ought to be true of a theatrical production. That's why the time has come for American playgoers -- and, no less important, arts editors -- to start treating regional theater not as a minor-league branch of Broadway but as an artistically significant entity in and of itself.

As I've said, we already have an American National Theatre, performing the finest plays by our finest trained artists, maintaining a national repertory. It's just not in New York, and not in any one city.

Just ask any good New York actor, director, or designer who spends most months out of the year on the road.

Arts & Leisure 6/25

Actually a good Sunday for theatre over at Arts & Leisure today.

For those still curious about that "Play's the Thing" show over in Channel 4 across the pond, a good summary of what we've been missing, including portraits of those who didn't win.

Also, our friend George Hunka does the Lord's work by bringing a good dose of downtown to the Times pages, with a profile of the Brooklyn-based Theater of a Two-Headed Calf (responsible for a Kabuki-styled Major Barbara this past season). After grilling Sam Sifton all week, I will say the culture page did themselves a favor by taking George on.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Alvin Epstein

A must-read this week, if you haven't seen it already: Michael Feingold's profile of veteran actor Alvin Epstein, in this week's Village Voice.

A promotion of Epstein's brief run downtown at LaMama as King Lear, in an already much praised performance. A must-see.

UPDATE: NYTimes.com now features an "audio slide show" where you can listen to a little of Epstein as Lear.

Free Willikers (or, $hakespeare in the Park continued)

From the Public Theater website:

A Statement on Festival Seating Policy

Tickets to Shakespeare in the Park are free and distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis during designated hours on the day of the performance. To help underwrite production expenses and to make it possible for those who cannot wait in line to attend the theater, a specific (but limited) number of seats in alternate rows are made available to contributors for each performance. Tickets for contributors are reserved and are received in advance by mail. The policy of alternate row seating for contributors and non-contributors helps to preserve the democratic character of Delacorte Theater audiences.

What's the "democratic" part of that again? Are we concerned some seating sections won't have enough rich folk in them?

And is something wrong with my reading skills, or are they saying that it's the contributors who can't "wait in line" and that's why they get a special deal?

By the way, to refute what one earlier comment here suggested about simply subscribing to the Public to get a hold of tix...close, but not quite. As the website clearly spells out, subscribers get $50 off a "Summer Sponsorship" which, in turn, provides you with one free ticket to one of the park productions. How much is a Summer Sponsorship?
Summer Sponsors provide support for one of New York's most beloved summer traditions and help keep Shakespeare in the Park free for new generations. Summer Sponsors may reserve seats for select performances of Shakespeare in the Park for a contribution of $150 per seat. These reserved seats are available only as long as supplies last to assure that the highest number of free seats are available for the general public on the day of show.

So, yes, that's only $100 a seat if you're a subscriber--or, more specifically, only if you buy a "6-Play Package" for $240. (There are cheaper packages for fewer shows, but no summer weenie included.)

Six plays for $240 is not a bad deal, I agree. That's why I'm big on subscribing in general. (It's how I get to see amazing stuff at BAM for less than $30 a pop, after all.) But notice the only way to guarantee yourself a seat ("as long as supplies last") is to pay $340 for 7 plays--which gets us a lot closer to $50 a play, much more than $40.

Also, there are some mixed signals in the policy about how many tix Summer Sponsors actually can get. It's clear that your $100 or $150 entitles you only to one seat to one of the offerings. But if you follow the order form, it's also clear that as long as you can shell out four figures, you can order up to 10 tix for both shows. Where I come from that's called hogging. Yes, limited availability, I know. But if the first few individual Sponsors buy, effectively, 20 "Sponsorships" each...well, that's not fair to all the "little" sponsor, is it?

Look, I appreciate all the rhetoric (inserted at every line!) about how the few "generous" ones subsidize the "free" tickets to the masses for whom waiting hours in line is no big deal. Obviously someone has to "pay" for it all. (I thought the city and few corporate sponsors used to be enough?) But I think these data illuminate a gap between patrons that is not a little discomforting. And no matter how justified it may seem on paper, Mr. Eustis, it sure don't look too "democratic."

In conclusion...

There is no future for the theatre in free tickets. Theatre will always have to survive as a business, for profit or not. Even the fully subsidized theatres of Europe rely on income from ticket sales. The goal--the longterm goal--of subsidy and fundraising should be to keep tickets affordable for the rest, not to support occasional lavish giveaways. I worry that idealists like Eustis focus on untenable goals of free tickets (which will always come at some spiritual price and only increase class divisions, as seen above) instead of working to lure the working middle class back to the theatre with the kind of reasonable ticket prices that bracket can and will afford for something it deems worthwhile.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: What the average American playgoer needs is a good $30 theatre ticket.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Sam the Man

My friend Joe Penhall, the London playwright, flew to New York last month to sit down for three hours with Sam Shepard, interviewing him for the Guardian, in advance of a big West End revival of Fool for Love with Juliet Lewis. They've now run it as a lengthy profile--a must-read for Shepard fans.

Ask the Arts Editor II

Some more excellent questions for the Times's Culture Editor, Sam Sifton. I don't feel bad not including his answers here since you can click here to read them yourself!

Q. I feel like the Arts section is very unsurprising in its coverage. (Article on latest hot novelist? Check. Article on latest hot actor? Check. Et cetera.) What percent of your coverage is made from reporters getting ideas from publicity reps and press releases versus ideas that the Arts section or individual reporters come up with? How often do you encourage a reporter to go after an obscure item that might be representative of a larger, interesting phenomenon?
Sifton happily points the questioner to something Times ombudsman Byron Calame did last month on the subject of where story ideas are coming from. The piece basically exonerates the paper from charges of collusion, but even Sifton has to admit that the "role publicists play in the lives of journalists... [is] like flies on elephants, something like that." I remain suspicious and share the questioner's perception.

My favorite question remains (as cited here before) the one about why so much Brangelina & co. in the "Arts" pages. Sifton's response--basically, that Jennifer Aniston is not such a bad actress--still astounds me. Would he argue Paris Hilton is "kind of a good"....anything? Yet there she is semi-weekly, it seems, in Arts Briefly. Pete Doherty may be musically noteworthy if you like The Libertines, but do his courtroom shenanigans also merit so much ink? Why do I suppose that has more to do with being Kate Moss's boyfriend? Oh I know why: because that's always mentioned in the second sentence. Don't believe me? Well let's look up today's Arts Briefly... Lo and behold! Next, enter "Doherty + Moss + court" in the NYTimes.com search function and you'll see what I mean.

Okay, in fairness, here's Sifton's full defense:
This is a slippery slope, of course. But it's still fun to ski. Which is another way of answering your question. Celebrity walks hand in hand with artistic success and has since before the Medicis made art stars rich. We try to balance that fact against our interest in the art itself. And, having done that, we try to balance the art itself against other arts. We place pop culture against high. High culture against the middlebrow. Low culture against them all.
If the Times wants to imply it is the "court paper" to the modern Medicis, they can be my guest. But then please don't call yourself a serious Arts section. I wish Sifton would just admit the economic imperatives here and stop dressing it up as some kind of egalitarian editorial policy. We all know the truth is the Times now sees itself in competition not with The New Yorker and ArtNews magazine... but with USA Today and People magazine. Obviously there have been editorial decisions in the last few years (perhaps above Sifton's head) to engage tabloid journalism on its own level, not rise above it. Just too much marketing $ is at stake.

Plus, the Times more than ever seeks to be a "national" media outlet--i.e. not just for snotty New Yorkers anymore. So while Sifton can plead irony as an acceptable reason to chuckle at celebrity silliness, the coverage clearly must satisfy more earnest celebrity gazing readers as well. (Case in point: Alessandra Stanley's weird above-it-all take on Anderson Cooper's selling out to a one-on-one with Angelina Jolie. Um, who's doing the selling out here? She covers it like she has to--but they don't have to, do they?)

Another Sifton answer reveals the disappearing line between Arts coverage and gossip in quite bold terms. Bold indeed, since he was asked about why the Times discontinued its more honest attempt at a trashy gossip column, "Boldface Names" (which ran not in Arts, but in the Metro section). Denying any connection between Boldface's demise and the scandal over at the Post's "Page Six" Sifton cites an internal memo from head honcho editor Bill Keller:

[Keller] continued his memo, "conspiracy theorists will undoubtedly connect this with the bonfire at Page Six. For the record, Joe Sexton suggested, and we agreed, that Boldface had run its course several weeks ago, when the current author of the column, Campbell Robertson, began a romance with the Culture Department."

And you know what? Campbell Robertson married the culture department soon after. He is now our theater beat reporter. All of which is to say, I don't think you'll see gossip in our pages any time soon. Celebrities, though, are a different matter. We've talked about Brangelina in this space already. The brilliant Alessandra Stanley watched Angelina Jolie on Anderson Cooper's show last night. You can read about that online now. But for some of my colleagues here, this is the guy who gets the most buzz of all.

Notice how Sifton needs to puff up the Times's commitment to gossip in the Arts since the questioner was bemoaning the loss of "Boldface Names." So the answer is to "marry" arts and gossip, see?... As for Campbell Robertson, I can't fault his reporting so far, but does Sifton think he's reassuring arts lovers by encouraging this "romance"?

Look: I understand if the Times wants to be all "Arts for the people" or whatever they want to call it. They're a business not a service, and if this is what the company has to do to compete in a frighteningly shifting media universe, who am I to scold them for doing so. But I can call it for what it is and what it isn't. It is not a serious arts section anymore. And those of us who want serious arts coverage have known for a while now we have to look elsewhere. And I don't even get the feeling they're sorry to see us go.

more "Corrie"

Not much more follow up today on yesterday's announcement of the New York premiere of "My Name is Rachel Corrie" in a commercial Off-Broadway next fall. Here's the report from Playbill.com with an innocuous Alan Rickman statement. On the political front, here's an interesting post by TPM Cafe's Marc Parent, juxtaposing the play's continued life with a recent Israeli Supreme Court decision on the West Bank bulldozing policies there.

Parent cites in full a recent NY Times op-ed this week by an American who's spent time in the Israeli army, advocating against the very policy Rachel Corrie died opposing:

Israel can't stop hunting down its enemies. Can it do so without bulldozing houses that harbor terrorists? Certainly it can. Raiding a house is a dangerous operation, but good intelligence, proper planning and careful execution can, in most cases, reduce the risk to a reasonable level.In some cases, the risk may be too great and the operation may be canceled or postponed until the next opportunity comes around.

...Getting rid of the bulldozer may well mean that some terrorists will get away, and sadly, that more soldiers will die. But in the final analysis, Israel and its soldiers will not be less secure. They will occupy the high ground, and that is the most secure place to be.


By Fall, 2006, Rachel Corrie may very well be less controversial than at the time of its premiere in Fall, 2005. At least in New York. (In London it wasn't controversial to begin with.) So was New York Theatre Workshop right that the play needed to wait until "the right time"? Maybe--on some specific occupation issues themselves, that is. No doubt there will always be many here at the ready to accuse anyone questioning Israeli policies of anti-semitism, no matter how much reasoned debate you have in your post-show discussions.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Corrie Off-B'way!

Well, reports of the demise of commercial Off-Broadway may have been premature. Two adventurous producers have made the deal to bring the London production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie to one of its last outposts, the Minetta Lane Theatre, this October.

Nut graph from the Times today:

Pam Pariseau and Dena Hammerstein, partners in James Hammerstein Productions, are bringing the play, critically acclaimed in London, to the Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village. Previews are to begin on Oct. 5, with an opening scheduled for Oct. 15. The play is to run for 48 performances, closing on Nov. 19.

This seems a perfectly fitting venue. The Minetta Lane is a beautiful small space, it's in the Village, with a politically sympathetic audience built in, and which also attracts the kind of adventuresome tourists that made the play such a success on the West End. Seems like a good choice.

And so the guessing game is over. Who knows what took so long. Waiting on the Public and other high profile non-profits? They must have passed. Ironically, Alan Rickman & co. may profit by default... But all along, a commercial mounting has seemed the only way to go with this controversial piece of material. No funders, no grants, no board. Just a committed producing team who doesn't have to answer to anyone. Could it be that such a model is the last best bet for guarantees of free speech in the theatre?

I won't pick bones with the article's account of the controversy. Obviously to say "what happened is a matter of debate" is itself...a matter of debate. The Times does get a highly diplomatic response from NYTW:
"Although the Royal Court and its collaborators have decided to produce 'My Name Is Rachel Corrie' commercially, the New York Theater Workshop is pleased to learn that New York audiences will have an opportunity to see this powerful play," Richard Kornberg, a spokesman for the workshop, said yesterday. "We're especially pleased that Dena Hammerstein is the producer because she produced in London one of the workshop's biggest hits, 'Dirty Blonde.' "

I can hear the relief in that actually. Although we'll see if the fall run of the play stirs up the old ghosts. No doubt the reviews will have to assess in paragraph one, was canceling it the right decision.

You gotta love, by the way, "Although the Royal Court and its collaborators have decided to produce 'My Name Is Rachel Corrie' commercially..." As if NYTW was still awaiting a call? As if it was still the Court who dropped out, and for money!

The big question a commercial production raises, of course, is... what about that "context"? One thing that most distinguishes the experience of going to a commercial production as opposed to a company is the absence of any supporting materials or, usually, post-show talkbacks. Commercial producers are great believers in letting the play stand for itself because...it's cheaper! (And generic program services like Playbill keep it that way.) Non-profits may get special grants and funding to cover all the dramaturgy and events they do around a play. So it will be interesting to see if Hammerstein and Pariseau make any gesture toward contextualizing at all. Will they feel pressure to do so? Or will they assume--rightly--that by this point the press coverage is providing the necessary background?

BTW, for the record, yes, Dena's father-in-law was the Hammerstein. (She must be married to son James?) How fitting. In their own way R & H, of course, made a specialty of taking on mildly confrontational social issues. Some might even say the play's Rachel Corrie even seems like a Mary Martin-esque plucky heroine!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Eustis profile

A worthwhile up-close-and-personal in New York Mag. on Oscar Eustis at the Public, by Jeremy McCarter.

I take issue with both Eustis and McCarter's basic assumptions at the end, though.

For all his modest stands and impersonal choices, Eustis has been nurturing a big move of his own, one that might out-Papp even Papp. He has spoken in the past of his belief in “radical accessibility.” When I ask him to elaborate, he speaks deliberately. “There should be nobody economically excluded from seeing this work. I don’t know the best way to do it, but we do have a very successful model in the park: We give them all away."

For decades, steep ticket prices have hampered every attempt to reform the New York theater: high cost creates risk, which limits audiences and excludes the young, which leads to conservative programming, which saps energy and diversity, which sticks you with the overpriced superannuated mess we’re in today. If Eustis could somehow make every ticket free, that particular Gordian knot would be cut. Is that really what he intends?

First of all, as I have argued already, I strongly object to holding up the Shakespeare in the Park free tickets policy as a "successful" or admirable model. I also have had enough of people assuming young people don't go to the theatre just because of cost. We all know plenty of "yutes" of all economic backgrounds pay plenty (north of $80) for concerts. They don't go to theatre because they think they'll be bored. If they thought it might be halfway engaging, they'd gladly pay the $10 the pay for a movie. (A much more realistic and worthwhile goal for a ticket policy.)

NYTW rewarded?

New York Theatre Workshop has just been awarded a $100,00 "Tony Randall Grant", bequeathed by the estate of the late actor. The money is to support one particular production, Martha Clarke's "Pirandello Project," premiering there in the fall. Clarke is surely an important and visionary dance-theatre pioneer, but I hope NYTW does not use this to further boast of its preeminence in presenting "challenging theatre." It certainly is expensive theatre, though:

Grant will go toward the show's budget, which, coming in at more than $750,000, is one of the costliest in the org's history.
Don't worry, I'm not calling for funding organizations to boycott NYTW for its shameful backing out on its commitment to "My Name is Rachel Corrie." But I wonder if some funders who strongly believe in free speech may wish to make a statement about the company's actions. What's interesting about the Randall grant is that it's brand new and--as Variety reports--was chosen this year solely by Randall's widow. In the future it will be administered by committee. So all it took was cozying up to one person.

Randall, of course, idealistically (if naively) sought to bring the nonprofit rep model to Broadway in the 1990s with his "National Actors Theatre." (I won't say it failed since it produced more than a few notable productions and survived for over 10 years. But let's just say his dream couldn't be realized for all the economic and cultural reasons that have been rehearsed on this blog often.) I can't comment on Randall's personal politics, but I did admire his betting-it-all in his last season on what I thought was an astounding and ballsy production of Brecht's Arturo Ui. I'd like to think he wouldn't approve of what happened at NYTW and--as a proud Oklahoman Jew, nee Leonard Rosenberg--might have staged "Corrie" in protest. But that's just my speculation.

In the meantime, if you want to go see what 3/4 of a million dollars on stage looks like at an edgy Off-Broadway downtown theatre, buy your subscriptions now to New York Theatre Workshop.

Sifton: "We don't work for B'way"

I just had to quote this particular reader exchange with NYTimes Arts Editor Sam Sifton in full. Regarding the Times's relations with the B'way biz...methinks the editor doth protest too much?

Q. I am a member of the Actors Equity Association and am currently on tour with "The Phantom of the Opera." I read The Times online and pick up the paper at Starbucks whenever possible. As a member of the theatrical community in New York City and as someone who is also meeting the public outside of New York City (I have been on tour for over five years, in more than 60 cities), I know that there is a hunger out here for legitimate reporting on New York's special theater events as well as the long and short runs of Broadway shows.

On Fridays, in the back of the Weekend section, there are capsule comments under the title of each running Broadway show that, inexplicably, have gone from being helpful and intriguing ­ quotations from reviews, plot descriptions ­ to sarcastic, jokey, completely useless paragraphs that not only give no information about the shows, they do not, in any way, encourage attendance. It would seem to me, that the national edition of The Times Arts section would want to encourage visits to New York's Broadway theaters. These capsule comments do nothing toward that end.
-- David C. Anderson, New York

[Sifton:] It is not our job to encourage attendance in Broadway theaters. [Ha! Note the Times's own link here!] News flash: We don't work for Broadway. We work for the reader. And it is our job as such to tell readers what's on Broadway, what's new there and what's old, what's coming and what's still hanging around — and whether readers interested in spending an average of $74.55 a ticket are getting what they pay for.

We do a number of things to fulfill that mandate. We have a fulltime theater reporter, Campbell Robertson, who walks along the Rialto every day, gathering news. We have two fulltime theater critics — Ben Brantley on the first string, Charles Isherwood on the second — to evaluate the productions the street brings forth. And we rereview those productions when they undergo major cast changes, or when years go by without them. Beyond all this, in the Weekend section, we list every production that's currently showing on Broadway. For long-running shows — like "Phantom" — we ape the vestpocket reviews that accompany the listing of movies on our television grid, and which used to be written with wonderful economy by an editor here, Howard Thompson. You don't like them. Hey, that's the music of the night.
I don't expect a Times editor to admit to any favorable treatment of Broadway. But the "news flash" sarcasm is kinda insulting to our intelligence.

Of course, there was a minor scandal a couple of years ago over what the Times was doing with their arts "listings" in the back of both the Sunday and Friday sections. What used to be a democratic assembling of descriptive short blurbs of shows not only on Broadway but Off and Off-Off, the editors wanted more control over it--over which shows got listed and what they said about them. And, as Sifton reveals here, more explicitly a consumer guide. While I don't sympathize with the questioner's wish for more promotion of shows like "Phantom," I do agree that the listings should be the place for snarky put-downs of shows. That's what reviews are for. Or blogs.

Also, do catch the sopt-on question about why Times "Arts" (that's "Arts") needs to cover Brangelina and Jennifer Anniston. Sifton's answer: "Well, here’s the thing. Jennifer Aniston is kind of a good actress." Again, the link is the Times's.

Ask the Arts Editor

Sam Sifton, the NY Times culture editor is taking reader questions all week at NYTimes.com. So let him know what you feel about Times arts coverage. You can also read his answers so far.

Here's one interesting piece of NYTimes history he offers, about the ordering of the Arts & Leisure sections:

In part, the past is the culprit: "Arts & Leisure" was once the "Sunday Drama Section," where Broadway -- and, presumably, Broadway advertising -- was king. (The front page always delivered a Brooks Atkinson theater review or essay, along with a caricature by the great Al Hirschfeld and a film review by Bosley Crowther -- what great names they all had!) Theater's place in Arts & Leisure probably reflects that history.

Yup, there once was a big thick Sunday Drama Section. Albeit still dominated by B'way advertising. Still.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Stratford diversifies

Stratford, Ontario, that is. The "jewel in the crown" of the Canadian theatre since 1952, has announced its first production of a play by a black writer, of any nationality: Djanet Sears' Harlem Duet, a riff on Othello.

I'm sure, as a "classics" theatre, they have all kinds of excuses for such a milestone to come so late there. Still, a tad embarassing. I wonder if the same question has been asked stateside, of similar "rep's" like Oregon Shakes?

Or should expectations of diversity depend on the mission statement? Is it unfair to expect a classical rep to produce plays by nonwhite writers? (as opposed to hire other nonwhite artists--actors, directors, etc.)

Me? I'm just enjoying imagining what a great, awkward "Slings & Arrows" episode this would make.


"Play's the Thing" winner

And the playwright of the play that is the thing is...

Kate Betts, "51-year-old teacher and mother of three." Read all about it.

If the goal of the Channel 4 (UK) "reality" series was to unearth daring writing of the next generation, then... well you be the judge:

The play is set in London where "a young woman catches the eye of a stranger in a bar. Before the night is over they have told each other secrets that will change their lives forever."
Oh well, it's TV. Wait, worse, it's the West End.
The television show's objective is to illustrate the complexity of bringing a first-time playwright's debut work directly to the West End. According to [producer Sonia] Friedman's research, 50 years ago there were 16 new plays in the West End. When On the Third Day opens, the play will represent the West End's only new play.
Interesting to see the London commercial theatre as dramatically barren as Broadway. (If not more so. At least we have their dramas!) But once again we have to ask: why? The commercial market clearly doesn't want a wide selection of interesting new plays. Why force them there?

Any of our London readers see this yet?

Endangered Film Critics

Interesting prophecies of doom amongst our brethren in the cineamtic quarter. Here's a good primer article laying out the problem: basically the dumbing down of film criticism in major newspapers and media outlets to be barely a step above blurbdom. If that.

The pontifical voice of the old-school critic grows faint; his insight, his syntax are no longer required. No time now for elaborate intros or long retrospective glances. What editors want, according to Kehr, is capsule reviews, eye-catchers, quick reactions, recycled celebrity gossip, and chatter about ``the industry." Personality cults, of the sort achieved by the swaggering Pauline Kael at The New Yorker in the `70s, are out: The writer should sound, if possible, like a reader who has just strayed onto a computer terminal.

What? You mean blogging? Speak for yourselves Boston Globe.

If you don't think the same thing awaits theatre criticism down the road, think again. Or just look at a smaller regional daily...

(For more on this I also definitely recommend following the Globe article's links to davekehr.com and aintitcoolnews.com.)

Monday, June 19, 2006

Weiss on "Sharon/Herzl"

I unfortunately was unable to go the Epic Theatre Center reading last week of my friend David Zellnik's play Ariel Sharon Stands at the Temple Mount and Dreams of Theodor Herzl, but mideast expert journalist/blogger Phil Weiss did and gives an intriguing glimpse.

Awards Season Hangover?

Terry Teachout has a disarmingly honest reflection today on the futility of awards in the arts. (I say honest, since he admits to being a judge/voter for more than a few of these himself.)

...I have a feeling that the reason why awards in the arts tend
irresistibly toward irrelevance is that they contradict the essential nature of
art. The fact is that there are only two “prizes” worth having, short-term
success and long-term acclaim, neither of which can be conveyed by any means
other than the uncoerced consensus of the relevant public.

One could counter that awards judged by peers or "experts" can serve as a "corrective" (or to put it less snobbily) necessary supplement to mass opinion. But do we honestly think that's the kind of verdict we get with a "Jersey Boys" win?

Terry's thoughts spring from his snarky reaction to Neil Simon getting the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain humor award. So for that and more, check him out today.

Fun with Quotes

As obvious as the problem may be, I'm glad Charles Isherwood has fought back at the quote mix-'n'-matchers of the Broadway PR industry. I'm surprised he doesn't mention the obvious instance of how the words of his colleague Ben Brantley were sneakily enlisted in the "Drowsy Chaperone" campaign, which I reported here.

Sure it's an old practice, and Isherwood goes into some of the delicious David Merrick tricks of old. But Merrick was an acknowledged madman. Have these "respectable" firms really lost any sense of standards? Forget about the english language...

As Isherwood puts it: "advertising copywriters are becoming bolder, more inventive, more inspired — which is perhaps to say more desperate — in their revisions of critical history."

The end effect may very well be glut and numbness. As producer Liz McCann has recently said, after you see your 100th "Incredible!" or "Amazing!" on a marquee the words kinda lose their impact, no matter what they were originlly referring to.

Yet another way critics are becoming less and less relevant on Broadway? or on B'way business?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Alternate "Corries"

Theatre artists continue to make their own performance pieces out of Rachel Corrie's journals. With productions like this--to be performed in Provincetown this summer--the "authorized" My Name is Rachel Corrie risks becoming a little less special in this country each day.

What's filling the void left by the New York Theatre Workshop's cancellation of the play back in February/March is the considerable activist movement--involving a lot of young people--around the cause of Palestinian rights. They are creating their own plays and events around this controversial figure. Is this perhaps a more authentic political theatre than a slickly crafted professional play from the West End conceived and directed by a movie star?

Even as an opponent of NYTW's decision, though, I must admit I was taken aback to read one account of the controversy in a story about the protests against Caterpillar bulldozers, who made the vehicle that killed Corrie. From the Inter Press Service News:

Recently, a play about Rachel Corrie's life that had two successful runs in London was banned from the New York Theatre Workshop after protests from some Jewish groups. Copies of the play, composed of letters and journal entries, and titled "My Name is Rachel Corrie", were taken off bookshelves and only a few are now available in the United States, the campaigners say.

Sloppy reporting is sloppy reporting, and IPS must have a pretty tunnel-vision approach not to do some independent sourcing on this. (Maybe someone out there has a better idea of who/what IPS is?) There were no ADL-sponsored "protests" in the streets, and certainly no book burning. In fact, I hear TCG Press will be releasing the first US edition soon. Even I, who did not hesitate to call this censorship, did not call it a "ban." ... But it is noteworthy that this is the legend about the episode already spreading in the activist community. And, inaccurate as it is, it is not good for New York downtown theatre for this rumor to be out there. One of the many lethal consequences (even if unintended) of restricting and over-controlling free speech in the first place.

Google Shakespeare

Google's getting smart with Shakespeare and with theatre. Launching their "Explore Shakespeare" portal right in sync with the Summer Shakespeare season--replete with a corporate sponsorship of no less than the Public Theatre's summer in the park--they're banking on the Bard's staying power in the digital age. You can read more about it here.

Of course, complete Shakespeare playtexts have been available online for years already. (Mine of choice is the MIT site.) That's not quite what you get on Google, due to their ongoing feud with publishers over rights to archive all books. The full texts they do offer are basically PDF's--which are fine for reading, but harder for using. I've found the main value of online Shakespeare text is the ability to cut & paste and then edit--for instance, when you're directing or adapating the plays. (As opposed to typing it all out from scratch.) I'm sure others have been as grateful for the MIT site for the same reason.

So the Google site is what it is for now, basically a hub for the basic kinds of Google searches you would probably do on your own about Shakespeare. But interesting portents of things to come? Let's hope they don't lose interest in this project when the men-in-tights fests wind down.

Friday, June 16, 2006

End of Off-Broadway?

Someone (thanks, Ashley) has tipped me off to two articles that have run this year in "Crain's New York Business" which constitute the best reporting so far on the decimation of commercial Off-Broadway. Miriam Kreinin Souccar there has been on the case since January and has proven once again that the more revealing arts reporting often is to be found in the "business press," or at least on the Business pages.

If you have Nexis-Lexis--or keep a shelf of Crain's back issues, like I know you do!--Souccar's pieces are from January 16 and June 5 of this year. Otherwise, lacking link access, let me quote some highlights without crossing the line into outright illicit wholesale reprinting.

First, though: this being a business perspective for a business readership, the point of view in this coverage is the producer's, naturally. Hence a slight distortion that all theatre Off Broadway is in jeopardy, and only passing reference to nonprofit companies as part of the problem, poaching from these producers' product and ticket sales.

...[T]he growth of regional theater in New York's bedroom communities is taking away some of the people who used to rely on off-Broadway for serious theater. New York's burgeoning nonprofit theater industry, which is cushioned by donors, is siphoning off audiences as well.
"Burgeoning" in what way, I wonder. I can imagine more than a few Artistic Directors whose response to that would be, "Where can I find these cushioning donors!" It's hard to see our LORT theatres (many often running deficits) as "winners" in all this. And truth is, I'm not sure commercial Off-Broadway has been a source of much "serious" theatre for quite a while. (As Souccar points out the two aberrant runaway successes remain the indefatigable Stomp and Slava's Snowshow.) Still, for the more artistically-minded independent producer the nonprofits of course present competition for ticket sales.

It's also important that much of the commercial off-Broadway "hits" of recent years actually emerged from those upstart nonprofits. I'm thinking of Gross Indecency and Shakespeare's R & J, for instance, which came out of very small downtown companies. Donald Margulies' Dinner with Friends, was one of the last major plays (in this case a Pulitzer winner) to have a commercial NY premiere--even though it began in that regional hub South Coast Rep...The days when the little 200-seat houses of the West Village were brimming with the latest by Albee, Shepard, or Fugard are long behind us. The next generation of writers is much more comfortable with the support apparatus a good Artistic Director and a nonprofit company provide.

A healthy commercial Off-B'way scene would be one where the producers do more of the poaching, giving promising small shows a chance at longer life after they sell out their 3-week run at the resident companies. This is the ideal "transfer" for most serious new plays. Without viable rental houses like the Promenade or the Perry Street, a show must be able to survive the 1000-seat capacity demands and $90+ ticket-price expectations of Broadway if it is to enjoy an extended or open-ended run. This vanishing of the "midlevel transfer" marks a major change in the landscape of New York theatre.

So you don't have to be a moneyman (or moneymiss) to care about the question: can small theatrical productions still be profitable? After all, some playwrights might have a stake in that, too.

What a good business reporter like Souccar can provide is the hard data.

While there is no entity to track box-office receipts for off-Broadway, producers say attendance at most shows has been hovering at around 55%. Most tickets are being purchased at a discount at the last minute.

[...]

Once considered a cheaper alternative to the high costs of Broadway, the average off-Broadway show now costs more than $500,000 to produce. One of the problems is that, in order to cover rising costs and attract investors, producers need to set ticket prices at $50 to $65. That's around the same amount many discounted tickets go for on Broadway. To attract audiences at all, off-Broadway producers need to offer their own discounts, leaving them without the money to cover weekly expenses.

In other words, Broadway is still the main competitor--and threat--to Off. And when the ticket costs the same, the customer says "What's the dif?" (The new "little" musical Burleigh Grimes, for instance, actually advertises a $70 ticket.) If it's too high for the "layman" (especially if they don't at least get to see a movie star) then forget about other theatre artists, who are more predisposed to "support" smaller new work. At least nonprofits offer more in the way of discounts (subscriptions, student rates, rush tix) or, frankly, comps--or "pay what you can"
nights to the theatre community. So who's left buying tickets for these shows other than disgruntled tourists who know next to nothing about the show and would rather be seeing Julia Roberts. Stomp and Slava's Snowshow have thrived because they are "unique theatrical experiences" which are just odd enough to not fit on B'way but just user friendly enough to please millions. (They also don't require any knowledge of English.)

So $500,000 is what the average small Off-B'way show costs to mount these days. Sorry to state the obvious, but that's half a million. I remember when a million-dollar capitalization was still unheard of on Broadway, except for musicals. Now add weekly operating costs including rent. (Souccar cites the 140-seat Manhattan Ensemble Theatre going at $20,000 a month now. So another 5,000 a week there.)

Now do the math: a house of 199-399 seats, filling at an average of 55% capacity = 100-200 tickets sold @ $50-65 = $5,000-10,000 intake a night. And that's probably a good night. If you actually are lucky to repeat that eight shows a week, you could potentially get up to $80,000 a week. Again, definitely a maximum. And that can be even with good reviews. Souccar doesn't even go into the the typical operating costs (like, uh, paying the actors), but you can imagine those cutting into any net gain pretty fast. (Theatre entrepreneurs among you, please feel free to flesh out the figures in Comments, below.)

All this is not to lament the lot of the theatre capitalist, but just to show what it takes. Nonprofits actually have to deal within the same parameters--but you can see how presold subscriptions can make a big difference. Plus, they don't have to, what do they call it--profit.

And Producers are definitely not the only victim of these empty, soon to be demolished, venues. There's the professional artists who could be earning salaries there (even if it's beating a "Drumstruck" drum and other non-verbal tourist-pleasing quasi-theatrics). And then there's the audiences for whom these theatres were neighborhood nightspots.

[R]replacing the old neighborhood playhouses with new theater complexes has changed the face of off-Broadway. Many of the houses closing now are anchored in residential neighborhoods, where they have attracted visitors to the area.

"The small theaters that have been the lifeblood of off-Broadway theater, we're losing the charm they bring to neighborhoods,'' says Scott Morfee, who runs the Barrow Street Theater in the West Village. ``Once you lose something that is part of the fabric of the community, it's hard to get it back.''

You can imagine what's replacing them:
Still, with real estate at a premium, developers are trying to dislodge theaters wherever they can. Daryl Roth, a producer with two theaters, has seen an increase in calls from tenants who want to take her spaces, especially her Daryl Roth Theater, housed in a landmark bank building on Union Square."Over the last few months, I've had inquiries from three restraunteur and two retailers,'' Ms. Roth says. "But right now I'm holding on.''

Many don't have that choice. David Fishelson, artistic director of the Manhattan Ensemble Theater in SoHo, spent the last year looking for another theater company to take over his lease for the 140-seat space, but couldn't find anyone able to pay the monthly $20,000 rent his landlord wanted. Instead, Mr. Fishelson is helping his landlord find a restaurant to take over the lease. "I have to destroy my beautiful theater,'' he says.

The script is similar at playhouses throughout the city. The Perry Street Theatre was always given a good deal on rent from its landlord, the Trace Foundation. Now, the foundation is rumored to be selling the three-story building to a family that wants to put up a single home in its place. The foundation didn't return calls for comment.

The Lamb's Theatre has been housed in a building on West 44th Street owned by the Church of the Nazarene since 1979. The church is selling the turn-of-the-century building to the Hampshire Hotels Group.

Sources say the Century Center [off Union Square] is being sold to a church, but the theater didn't return calls for comment.

Damn churches. But seriously, if you think theatre is elitist, what impact will more luxury homes and exclusionary restaurants have on these neighborhoods? One of the shames of this real estate grab is that the proper heirs to Off-Broadway (which, notice, I invoke in the past tense) are the current nonprofits--and they're not able to bid on these spaces. Eduardo Machado--in his much-blogged recent harangue--still has no home for his INTAR theatre after rejecting a plan to move his progressive Hispanic collective into the ground floor of a luxury high-rise. Such prominent companies as the New Group also have no "home"; a small theatre devoted to adventurous new writing could fit quite nicely into one of these residential neighborhoods, building a strong subscriber base from among its neighbors.

That the problem is bigger than quaint outdated proscenium houses is obvious from the troubles of even the new kids on the gentrified block are feeling the chill:
As off-Broadway continues to decline, even the midtown theaters are struggling. At New World Stages, two of the five theaters are dark. The Little Shubert has been empty since a planned production slated for last January fell apart. And within the next couple of weeks, 37 Arts will have three empty stages.

For those of you playing at home, "New World" used to be the much ballyhooed Dodger Stages, which that gang dumped after lackluster tenants and a big merger. The Little Shubert seemed a promising investment in Off-Broadway by the "big boys", especially when they took a chance on importing the brilliant Shockheaded Peter there. But even that show couldn't fill the house for long and couldn't lower ticket prices enough for its core audience of young folk. And 37 Arts started auspiciously last summer with a transfer of the New Group's excellent "Hurlyburly" but now has become a overgrown standup venue for limited-engagements by visiting comedians Billy Connelly and Lee Evans.

If you're wondering about the very successful Theatre Row...it's actually a nonprofit entity. (Plus they had a box office meltdown last Friday and totally lost my ticket order for New Group's "Jayson with a Y" last Friday night, along with hundreds of other patrons all crowded in their claustrophobic lobby....Okay, that's a more personal gripe.)

So it's not the end of the world. But I do think it's the end (or beginning of the end) of Off Broadway as we know it. Or as our parents knew it. The nonprofits will be survivors of this evolutionary extinction. But how will they adapt to the harsh post-dinosaur environment?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

cool links

Two interesting performative links courtesy of playwright Jeffrey Sweet, who's been contributing to the Backstage blog lately.

One archiving some great footage from the history of Second City.

The other, a BBC radio play about Orson Welles filming Othello, starring that loveable ham and Welles biographer Simon Callow.

Tony impact, II

From Playbill.com:

Last Friday, when Jersey Boys sales were extended to July 2007, the take was $500,000. On Saturday the take was $250,000. The day of the Tony telecast, June 11, sales hit $380,000, much of it happening during the broadcast. History Boys is expected to hit $200,000 in sales by the end of Monday June 12. That number is considered huge for a non-musical. (The usual Monday take for the Alan Bennett play is $100,000.)

The Tony telecast inspired theatregoers to buy during the broadcast, spokesman Adrian Bryan-Brown said. There was a "huge bump" in sales. They box office took in $200,000 Sunday night, a real "knee jerk" reaction to the Tony honors. Much of that told came in between broadcast and midnight, he said.


Maybe we can finally call the Tonys what they are: an infomercial.

Not that there's anything wrong with that...

Handke & The Problem of the Artist as Pundit

K.A. Dilday has a refreshing--though debatable--take on the Peter Handke affair at OpenDemocracy.net.

Do artists inevitably get into trouble when venturing into political commentary because of their inherent appreciation of ambiguity, ambivalence, and seeing the other side?

When I worked as an editor on an opinion page we routinely asked novelists to write about political and social events in their country because they wrote well and engagingly; they made events vivid and real. Were they the sagest or the most politically astute? Probably not. But it is still the pieces by novelists that I edited that I remember most: Colm Tóibín on the road through Tara in Ireland, Javier Marias on terrorism in Spain and elsewhere, Emmanuel Dongala on the Rwandan genocide.

All were spectacularly beautiful, profound pieces, and as I remember them I realise the element they shared: the writers did not try to cloak the elusiveness of certainty - even as they advanced a particular position, they acknowledged its contradictions.

And that's perhaps why we give novelists fora outside of their medium. Pundits rarely admit ambivalence. They are like Isaiah Berlin's famous hedgehog, seeing only one big thing. There is little space for textured arguments in the age of television and lighting quick internet leaps, the pithy soundbite representing one particular argument is what producers are hoping for.

One could say that appearing at Slobodon Milsosevec's funeral is hardly an "ambiguous" gesture. Still the larger point is well taken, I think. This doesn't have to be considered a different standard, or lowering the bar of punditry. (As if that's possible!) Nor should this reinforce old saws of artists being insulated from "real world" politics and be allowed, like children, to play with ideas without consequences. It's just a different enterprise artists are engaged in than political scientists, or partisan hacks. A different way of interpreting and articulating the same problems we all live with.

Indeed, how does a work of art "argue" anything? I think that's a very, very complicated question.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

"Slings & Arrows" on DVD

As close readers here may have picked up on, a certain Canadian tv series has crept its way into theatre lovers hearts in these parts, as least those of us who have the Sundance channel. Sure "Slings and Arrows" is just a tv show, sure, and not particularly challenging or subversive... But how many tv shows will we have in our lifetime about a theatre company? And--since we're talking Canada--about a nonprofit repertory state theatre!

Well Sundance-less theatrelovers, sigh no more. The DVD box set of Season One is imminent. Pre-order yours in the Amazon box above.

And, yes, for better or worse, much of the creative team is also responsible for "The Drowsy Chaperone." If Don McKellar's writing contribution to that is half as great as his Eurotrash director-from-hell performance in "Slings," then I really should give that musical a chance.

Our New Cultural Elite?

From today's NY Daily News:

It was a Wednesday night at Cottage, a restaurant off of Union Square, and a preppie 25-year-old woman was giving six of her girlfriends an in-depth lesson on oral sex.

The occasion? A meeting of her book club.

These days, "book club" is more like code for girly gab session than a meeting of the Algonquin Round Table.

"It's great that we oftentimes get off our slated topic of discussion and talk about things of a more racy nature, because if you can't talk about it with your girlfriends, then who can you talk to?" says Jen Bolt, 28, whose all-female book club was meeting that night.

[...]"We generally end up talking about everything from sex and relationships to world events, and then we tie in our own personal anecdotes to segue back to the book we chose to read for that month."

The book that night at Cottage?

"Night," by Elie Wiesel, a memoir describing his Holocaust experiences.

Too bad the article spares us that fallatio-crematorium "segue."

To the offended, please send your outraged letters to "Jen" c/o Cottage, New York, NY.

Or to CBS's "Tuesday Night Book Club"--the best (worst?) thing to happen to the publishing industry since Oprah.

Reading: Ariel Sharon play

My friend the playwright David Zellnik has written a play that might be of interest to those following Israel-Palestine issues. There'll be a reading Thursday presented by the Epic Theatre Center.

Plus, I hear Alisa Solmon will be doing a talkback for some, er, context. And no one better to get it from, I say.

Ariel Sharon Stands at the Temple Mount and Dreams of Theodor Herzl
By David Zellnik, directed by Carlos Armesto
Featuring Adam Dannheiser, Glenn Fleshler, Derek Lucci, Harris Doran, NilajaSun, among others...

"Vienna 1895. A failed playwright of boulevard farces envisions a country where "weak European Jews" can be remade into warriors... ARIEL SHARON STANDS AT THE TEMPLE MOUNT AND DREAMS OF THEODOR HERZL intertwines
the life and political career of the father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, with the life and career of his legacy: current head of the State of Israel, Ariel Sharon. Is Sharon the frightening culmination of Herzl's utopian vision of a new kind of Jew? Real history collides with theatrical fantasy in this play, where dreams of the future and dreams of the past meet in a politically charged confrontation"

June 15, 3pm@ the Beckett Theatre,
Theatre Row Theatres

410 West 42nd Street (between 9th & 10th Aves.)

ADMISSION FREE for reservations call: 212-636-9254


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Cabaret Theatre

Visiting a new show presented by the "Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret" piqued my interest in the idea of "cabaret theatre" as an area ripe for resurgence here in NYC. A recent piece in Time Out Chicago gave an example of how one company has made the form work there, in a city where theatremakers seem to just have a knack of how to reach out to people. (Or is it that audiences there are more open? From experience, I can say they do seem more ready to have a good time!)

The new Yalie show, "The Terrorist" by Howard Pflanzer was a bit of a mess in the early preview I was invited to. But given the cool informal space downstairs at the West Bank Cafe, that was part of the charm at times. Director David Paul Willenger exploited the close quarters well by having the cartoonish characters play a little "Spy vs Spy" in and around our tables, almost knocking over our drinks with the tails of their tacky trench coats. (All to the beat of Ithai Benjamin's fetching minimalist funk-score, I must add.) I honestly couldn't follow what there is of the logic in Pflanzer's absurdist tale of a somewhat generic crazy bomb maker. And despite the title, the play doesn't feel very current; the anti-hero (the likeably insane George Tynan Crowley) is definitely more old-school anarchist than in-the-news Islamist. The focus instead is more on the merciless targeting of "different" individuals by government spooks... But with all the rambling and scattered arguments, an audience armed with lefty political sympathies and a drink in one's hand could have an amusing 80 minutes.

If that sounds like one adjusts to different standards for cabaret theatre, then that's kind of my point. And that's the good thing about it. Plays not quite "ready" or cohesive enough for formal production can still go over when you strip away some of the proscenium-bound rules of behavior.

So come to the cabarets! Let's have more.

This just in: People Watched the Tonys

"After two years of stagnant ratings, the Tony Awards telecast managed to draw in more viewers. According to preliminary Nielsen ratings, there were about 1.3 million additional viewers this year — 7.8 million, up from last year's 6.6 million — an increase of around 20 percent. The awards show started the night in first place for its time slot then slipped to second, behind the N.B.A. finals."

- From today's Times. The convention wisdom that Oprah herself was able to singlehandedly grow the viewing audience by bringing along just a fraction of her audience rings true. But who knows.

I also agree with Campbell Robertson's pronouncement in the article that "Only in the awards universe can a show be said to have the best music and story, but still not be named the best musical." Drowsy Chaperone in this respect is this year's Urinetown, which lost "Best Musical" to that year's Drowsy Chaperone, Thoroughly Modern Millie. Following?

The discrepancy in this case is best accounted for by the fact that Frankie Valli couldn't be nominated for "orginal score". And that at least a few Tony voters, when faced with the question of whether the best "book" belonged to a jukebox musical or a pastiche musical, simply closed their eyes and randomly poked.

Quote of the Day

"The tragic fact of the matter is that giant media players are pulling out of minority art, a myopic strategy that gives them no chance of tapping the next quirk in public taste or contributing to cultural evolution."

-Classical music critic Norman Lebrecht, making a good case that Warner's dumping of its surprisingly successful Classical division marks a watershed moment in the standing of high culture in the greater marketplace.

Why we love "History Boys"

"Basically, the play is an attack on a shallow education system and opportunistic, go-getting educationalists — and where are they more conspicuous than in America? I should know. I’ve taught in an American university. I’ve seen undergraduates in tears when they’ve got Bs instead of As. I’ve been virtually threatened with a lawsuit for giving a D to a student who deserved nothing higher than a C. Is The History Boys touching a nerve among those who inwardly know that something is deeply amiss at the very fount of Western culture? I’d like to think so."
- Benedict Nightingale, in the Times of London, waxing innocent on the success of History Boys on Broadway. Sorry, Benedict, I think the audience is just seeing a different play than you did.

Either that, or we have another glorious case of going to the theatre to feel righteous and moral for a few hours, then leaving to go home and do just the opposite. In this case, forcing our teenagers to do extra Princeton Review classes so they can go to the Ivy's and learn to be as witty as those darling British boys on stage.

PS He also applauds Broadway for welcoming a dark and bloody comedy like McDonagh's "Lieutenant of Inishmore," but little does he know it's there due only to the determination of the Atlantic Theatre Company and a few quixotic producers ... and that it no doubt was drawing up a post-Tonys closing notice at the very moment he was writing this!

Monday, June 12, 2006

No Free Lunch, No Free Theatre

The NY Sun today takes an overdue big-picture view of the rationale behind the Public's version of free summer Shakespeare in the Park.

For one thing, did you know that one of every four seats in the Delacorte now goes to paying corporate sponsors?

"Our goal, and what we state, is that 75% of the tickets are free, and 25% are ultimately held by the sponsors," the Public Theater's executive director, Mara Manus, said. "So 25% pay for 75% to attend for free."
Okay, I get the message. If we don't reserve a quarter of the seats for "the money" then no free Shakespeare for nobody, see? But I'm just glad it's on the record now. Let's remember that when we're giving up a vacation day to camp out on the sidewalk at 4am.

My growing personal conviction about this is, no more "free" culture.

Warning: this is about to get very snobby and elitist. Reader discretion advised.

When you go to a lot of arts events around the city--lectures, symposiums, afternoon concerts--you realize there is a certain population that turns out for anything "free." Not that they don't appreciate culture. But they're there because it's free more than because of what it is. (And if there's any hint of "reception to follow" forget about it.)

Shakespeare in the Park is the ultimate, the Mount Everest in this category--especially when it's a celebrity event like "The Seagull" a few years back. As I sat there on the pavement, lined up amongst tents and sleeping bags, I thought: is this really "free"? Look at the efforts so many have gone to, the trials we must endure to nab two of these prized tickets? Giving up sleep, a day of work, a proper bathroom...I would be willing to pay the price of a ticket to be spared this humiliation. Especially when the corporate sponsors--and, let's face it, their friends and family who aren't shelling out the bucks directly--don't have to bother. So what was meant as "democratic" has turned into this weird Roman-era spectacle of class division--bring your own bread and Shakespeare will provide the circus.

This summer I don't look forward to going through the whole mess again to see Meryl Streep in the George Wolfe/Tony Kushner Mother Courage. This will be a major production I would gladly pay upwards of $50-75 for, as long as it meant I was guaranteed a seat. Even if it was the one show I saw all month. So I don't feel the Public is doing me any favor.

The celebrity factor only worsens things, of course. With "The Seagull" you had to wonder at some point--have some of these Natalie Portman fans even heard of Chekhov? Do they care? Sure, they're getting "exposed" to the play... but you can only hope they followed up by reading and seeing more of him. How disappointed so many of the Streep fans will be this time to see her uglied up in rags in a Brechtian anti-war musical.

Here's an idea: how about the Public forgets "free" and calls it "Five Dollar Shakespeare in the Park." And they announce one date when all tickets go on sale, both at the box office and on-line. I'll take those odds any day over spending a night as a bum in the park only to find out the family of eight in front of me took the last tickets....It would also be interesting to see if it would turn away those who have nothing but time on their hands and only show up when something is "free". (The people who see a line and ask "What are they giving away!")

Of course, I'm all for "exposure", for bringing theatre to those who can't pay for tickets. But is putting them through this helping? (especially when they have to work for a living) Is it helping them make a habit of going to the theatre? Or, god forbid, is this what they fear it will always be like!

Charging some money would meet with outrage, of course, over straying from their mission. But I say charging everyone--and I mean everyone--$5-10 a ticket (with as much control as possible over bulk buying and scalping, of course) is the only way to make it truly democratic...Plus there's the notion of some commitment to what you're seeing. As the Sun article shows, City Center has the right idea:

On a more deliberate level, City Center's Fall for Dance festival, a week of mixed bill performances, is not free - but almost. Tickets are $10, thanks in large part to the Peter J. Sharp Foundation and Time Warner. "We decided we would charge something but make it so low that it wouldn't prohibit anybody from coming," City Center's president and CEO, Arlene Shuler, said. "The price of tickets was less than the price of a movie. We wanted people to make a commitment to seeing dance, and hopefully make a commitment to seeing dance, going forward."

It appears to be working. Surveys found that 30% of the Fall for Dance
audience is under the age of 30. In the second year of the festival, 41% of the
audience said they had seen more dance that year, as a result of having gone to
Fall for Dance.

Nick Hytner had the same idea at The Royal National Theatre and found the sponsorship to enable Ten-Pound tix for select shows and periods--to equally great success. Requiring the audience to put down just a little cash--and not requiring them to go through some trial by ordeal--ensures that a great play can be enjoyed as a professional performance and not a freakshow.

Addendum: Kudos should also go to our own Signature Theatre Company in NYC for engineering a $15 flat-rate ticket, with the help of funders.

"The Play's the Thing"

Apparently original dramatic plays have as much trouble finding an inahbitable climate in the West End as on Broadway. And mega-producer Sonia Freedman's solution has been to collaborate with an "American Idol"-style TV contest show, "The Play's the Thing" for the UK's Channel 4.

Of course, American Idol itself was a Brit export, so let's see if a Broadway version of this ever makes its way here. Not that it's a good thing to turn a playwright and his/her work into a commodity for a freakshow.

Freedman's intentions may be good (and the show's other "judges" seem top notch), but once again we see producers of her noble ilk just have trouble coming around to the fact that ours is an era ( or at least a phase) when, for whatever reason, theatre art can only be truly developed in the non-profit/subsidized marketplace. As this Guardian promo for the show explains, the institutional theatres are now just better equipped to serve the playwright's needs.

As if to prove the point, Channel 4 itself is a "publicly owned not-for-proit broadcaster."

Peter Sellars

If you've been curious what's up with one-time badboy director Peter Sellars, the Guardian has a profile.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Bloggin' The Tonys, 2006

10:56
Double-dis to "Sweeney"! And to Patti LuPone! Obviously LaChanze benefitted from a classic split-vote scenario between her and Chita....Make no mistake, they don't like dark shows (especially dark musicals) on Broadway, no matter how praised.

And finally... Vivat the Jukebox Musical! "Jersey Boys" stands to run as long as producer Michael David's beard. That is his real beard. I've seen him on the subway on a hot August afternoon with it.

Since that's probably the most valuable contribution I can make for the night I'll sign off there.

Thanks, commenters, for a rockin' Tony party! In true Bill O'Reilly fashion, I'll give you the last word.

10:30
And the Best Play goes to... what, a Well write-in?
No, it's da Boyz. Dig Alan Bennett's flamboyant and crooked tie. The one American voice in the acceptance speech is Bob Boyett, who's watching his exclusive contract with the Royal National to bring their shows to B'way pay off. Big time. (History Boys has already paid off investors after six weeks. The Tony only sweetens it all.)

Heeeeere's Oprah! (Can we still hope for some envelope shenanigans with Best Musical...?)

10:20
Thank god some drama is making it on the show. Even though August and Wendy had to die to make it happen. How about that 10 seconds of James Earl Jones doing "Fences," huh? Really couldn't find 50 more seconds, American Theatre Wing?

Dis to "Sweeney"! Wow. As good as "Pajama Game" may be, the word is it's all about touring, as usual. And so the show commonly agreed to be the most dramatically interesting on Broadway may very well go Tony-less. Unless, Miss LuPone gets the Diva award.

Did we forget to mention that "fuck" Alan Cumming had to quietly vocalize during the "Threepenny" number? (It must have been hard to find a song in Wally Shawn's translation without one.) Dare I hope for a Janet Jackson/Bono-style bruhaha tomorrow in the media? If only they paid that much attention to us...

And cutting off Richard Griffiths reciting Whitman? Priceless.

9:45

I know the cynical among us should not feign outrage over the Tonys' treatment of "straight" plays... but the 2-minute wrap up of "these thought provoking works" seemed design to provoke nothing more than a "huh?" The literally 10-second video clips couldn't have done anything to boost ticket sales for any of these. Nice going, Tonys. Let's see what better plans you have for these three hours.

Have you noticed the corporate sponsorship of specific awards? In the last commercial break Cadilac saluted the Best Featured Actress in a Play. Imagine the possibilities!

The Hal Prince living diaroma tableau is scary. Good thing the old man stayed away.

I hope the exceptionally well-chosen "Threepenny" excerpt convinces some that my recent lone-voice-in-the-wilderness positive review may have something to it.

Uh oh, Julia's coming up. Get the popcorn ready...

9:05 What does it say when your classiest presenter is Joe Pesci?

Seriously the no-host format isn't working out too badly, since it cuts down on dud monologues at least. The question for still is--without the design awards, without rambling host syndrome...why is this still a 3-hour show? Beware a massive "Salute to..." number, featuring mismatched stars, in the final hour. (Remember last year's head-scratching Hugh Jackman-Aretha Franklin Sondheim tribute?)

Wisely they seem to be using the time to showcase the shows, at least the musicals, with lengthier excerpts than usual, I believe. But they haven't convinced me that "Jersey Boys" is much more than a PBS-telethon filler or that "Drowsy Chaperone" isn't a more tongue-in-cheek "Thoroughly Modern Millie." Meanwhile, the jaw-dropping spectacle of "Wedding Singer" is definitely the performance highlight so far.

Omigod, Hal Holbrook is talking about Mark Twain's grave. Not a CBS-scripted moment, I'm sure. And congrats Frances De La Tour. And sorry Jane Houdyshell, Well's only Tony shot--you were doomed to lose out to the Brits in every way.

Yay, Odets! Bravo on your first Tony on your 100th birthday.

8:00pm
Welcome to Tony Blogcast 2006.

It's 8pm EST, Harry Connick is singing in lieu of a host, and the first ten awards were already given out. As for that webcast showing that part... what webcast? The design awards are summed up here. (Already a History Boys sweep. Good for Awake and Sing on costumes, though.)

Again, no host, just "60 stars". "Our first two stars--Kyra Sedgwick and Josh Lucas." Wow!

Featured Actor in a Play? Ian McDiarmid, the creepy Star Wars guy, beats Mark Ruffalo. Brits rule tonight it's already clear.

Tune in as the night goes on. It will clearly be a long three hours...

Saturday, June 10, 2006

pre-Tonys

It's hard to believe CBS still agrees to give the Tonys three full hours for a broadcast that only sinks lower and lower in the ratings. They once cut back to two, pushing many important awards into a pre-show oblivion that never got on the air. Now that the Tony folks have their third hour back, though, what do we make of the fact the first ten awards will still be given out before 8:00! What are they doing with that whole three hours???

Looks like one boring show, so far.

Luckily TonyAwards.com will be providing a webcast of the first part:

The first ten awards will be webcast exclusively at www.TonyAwards.com beginning at 7:15 PM ET on June 11. Those awards include Best Orchestrations, Best Lighting Design of a Play, Best Lighting Design of a Musical, Best Costume Design of a Play, Best Costume Design of a Musical, Best Scenic Design of a Play, Best Scenic Design of a Musical as well as the Regional Theatre Tony Award (Intiman Theatre of Seattle, Washington), the Special Tony Award (Sarah Jones for Bridge & Tunnel) and the Lifetime Achievement Award (Harold Prince).

So if you care about such trivial matters as, say, design, you may want to log on to the webcast. I myself will probably have to settle for whatever pixels I can see with the ol' dial-up.

And don't forget, live Tony blogcast of the ceremony "proper" on Playgoer, updating periodically between 8:00 and 11:00pm. (Eastern Standard Time, of course. Those of you on the West Coast won't get the broadcast till three hours later, so get it here first!)

REVIEW: Threepenny Opera

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2006
The Threepenny Opera
directed by Scott Elliott
starring Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper translation by Wallace Shawn
Roundabout Theatre Company
at Studio 54

As I wrote after seeing a preview in April, I knew Scott Elliott's Threepenny Opera at the Roundabout was probably going to be received as some kind of disaster.

And so it has been. The reviews have been savage and Michael Riedel even reports the Tony nominators were embarrassed to have to fill out the Best Revival category with it. Yet I must stick to my guns and defend why I felt this production remains a worthwhile and sometimes rewarding "experiment" even if it violates some of the sacred tenets of Brechtianism and often of just good taste.

Let's be clear: Elliott's rethinking of Threepenny is a "queer"reading. Along with Isaac Mizrahi, he has repopulated it with leathermen, cross-dressers, and, in a particularly jarring finale, a scantily clad gold-lamee muscle-bound winged messenger. Mack's hideout is a club scene--obviously inspired by the very Studio 54 where the show is performed. The most questionable "adaptation" is casting Mack's mistress Lucy Brown with male countertenor Brian Charles Rooney, who plays the character quite clearly as a man in drag. (An interpolated "Crying Game" moment settles this.)

Visually this approach allows Elliott to deliberately jettison any old ideas of what we think Threepenny ought to look like--namely the Victorian trappings of Brecht's stipulated setting. I for one was glad to see someone disrupt this, especially since some revivals (I'm thinking of the 1989 one with Sting!) have drifted too easily into a Masterpiece Theatre nostalgia that inevitably serves up "culinary" delights to an American audience, no matter what the intention. So what we get from Elliott, Mizrahi and company is an intriguing post-punk milieu for the play, the inspiration clearly being the play's own Weimar Republic era, but with some updated decadence. You can't exactly say such a scene was unknown to Brecht, especially when you look at his early work, like the hedonist world of Baal. The minimalist neon settings (more outlines) by Derek McLane also may seem "anachronistic" yet cleverly conjure up in their elegant shorthand urban decadence--that of the old Times Square, really.
I'm surprised more attention (positive or negative) hasn't been given to Wallace Shawn's super-scatalogical translation. (And it is a translation, not a second hand free form "adaptation." Shawn reportedly knows German and started from scratch with the original.) I regret I can't recall lines in detail, and don't know the original text well enough to critique it intelligently, but I'll admit to bristling often at its vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity. We do need to be reminded of Brecht's "gutter Deutsch" to be sure, but is it overkill to interpolate obscenity into every line when Brecht didn't? Or is this necessary today to jolt us into the play's intended shock effects.
All this reinvention, though, downplays one crucial element of Threepenny: the, uh, politics. Not a small caveat to be sure. Elliott clearly intends to offend the audience and confront it with Brecht's unpleasant statements in blunt fashion. But is all the decadence on stage a little too cool? The beggars here come off as less poor than trendy. The great scene where Peachum schools one into how to panhandle has moments of audience awkwardness, when Elliott has his the actor, an African American, go into the posh front rows to beg and then tells the patrons to fuck themselves. But the fact the gym-toned beggar is clad in impeccable leather gear kind of dissipates the social meaning of the moment. The abstractness of the design scheme also deprives the "world" of its social determinist context--in short, where's the poverty that Weill''s anthems so powerfully sing of? And if the "message" of Threepenny is that capitalism makes thieves and beggars alike into shrewd businessmen in order to alleviate the poverty the system subjects them to... well that outer system isn't really dramatized here.
So the production ultimately fails at fulfilling the Brecht-Weill vision. But that doesn't mean it fails as theatre. It is best appreciated as a riff on Threepenny, then as any "definitive" staging. And some of the modern touches are quite effective: Jim Dale's cheap pastel-blue suit, capturing the idea of the cheap bourgeois businessman in modern terms; Tiger Brown as the archetypical "corrupt cop," replete with state-trooper sunglasses. I also thought the whole production is musically very strong--something gone uncommented upon in most reviews. The band, flanking the stage in the Studio 54 box seats, plays with power and whenever Elliott assembles his cast at the footlights to preach the Brecht-Weill gospel, it seems nothing can rob these songs of their polemical potency. (I also liked the original use of surtitles for certain songs like this--the effect was sometimes an ironic "bouncing ball sing along" effect, but it also aided the songs' "didactic" quality and made sure you heard Brecht's words!)
Cumming is definitely not your standard-issue Mack--but for lanky elegance and hetero charm he substitutes a compelling runtish outsider-ness that works for the character as a punk outcast. Cyndi Lauper, I felt, is the "find" in the show; her eerily quiet rendition of the "Ballad of Mack the Knife" makes for an entrancing beginning (who cares if there's no Brechtian "Streetsinger"). Someone should tell her, however, that the "Solomon Song" is not an eleven o'clock torch song, that Pirate Jenny doesn't care about Solomon et al, and that it's all a cynical lesson taught by an aging hooker, not a tearful lament. But who wants to spoil her fun, right?... As for the others, Dale and Ana Gasteyer make the Peachums as hatefully arriviste as their clothes, but the charm of Nellie McKay as Polly was lost on me, perhaps because her faux-ditziness came off as just ditziness from the balcony.

I'm glad to say I'm not alone in this dissenting opinion. Time Out's David Cote reviewing the show on TV for New York 1 rightly states it is "anything but dull" and that "there's no denying theproduction's theatrical gusto and visual excitement. In a Broadway scene almost entirely devoid of risks, this Threepenny dares to enrage, bewilder and offend." (Nice to have some cover on this, David!) This sums up my experience as well, "visually exciting," "bewildering," and infuriating as it sometimes truly was. I never doubted that there was adventurous interpretation going on, even when I completely "disagreed" with it. Sometimes "wrong" theatre is better than bad theatre.

I still maintain this production, if a failure (and it commercially isn't, btw), is some kind of noble failure. Unusual for Broadway--and for its greatest nonprofit player, the Roundabout--the failure, for once, is not in caving into commercial pressures or in watering down the text or in selling out to an untalented TV star. It's the kind of failure that I imagine is routine in the state institutional theatres of Europe--directors with bold concepts making messes of great plays. In other words, the kind of failures worth having, in that they signal a theatre that's alive and trying things, not one on autopilot.

Say what you like about this Threepenny. But it has a pulse.
CORRECTION: As you'll see in "Comments" here in this box, Mr. Lucy Brown himself has weighed in to set the record straight on both his vocal range (a "sopranista" not a countertenor) and Lucy's gender in the production (not drag but "pre-op transsexual"). Most interesting is his going on the record to clarify the concept behind the casting decision: "the point of making Lucy male was to introduce themes of homophobia, gay marriage."