The Playgoer: March 2010

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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Quote of the Day

"It seems that culture and art are important as long as they redevelop neighborhoods or have some quantifiable measure...We're continually losing sight of the value of what's created, not just as a means of social or economic change, but as art. It becomes a Band-Aid to fix the ills of society and is not about the art or the artists  anymore." 

-Rachel Zimmerman, Philadelphia's InLiquid, a visual-artist collective.

She's talking about the increasing linking of arts funding (especially in the public sector--i.e. NEA) to explicit, manifest community service. 

For more, see Philly Inquirer's Stephan Salisbury's very informative look at what's on the agenda for Rocco Landesman's NEA.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tonys Let SOME Critics Vote Again

Cara Joy David reports that the Tony Awards, after booting critics from the voter rolls this year, are now letting in the Drama Critics Circle members--the 20-odd top print critics in town. 

One has to wonder whether that number will make much of a dent in the voting of the otherwise 700-strong non-critical voting pool.

She also gets out of the Broadway League (Tony co-sponsors) yet another reason why they banished the critics in the first place:

"We don't know how the first night press list ever morphed into Tony voting privileges," Broadway League Executive Director Charlotte St. Martin said.  To hear St. Martin tell it, the press was scrapped because Tony Productions did not want people voting for the Tony Awards who weren't Broadway experts. (This explanation glosses over the fact that the initial justification offered had something to do with "conflicts of interests.") The first night press list includes major theater journalists, but it also includes people who work at The View. "The secretary to the producer of a television show might get on the first night list," St. Martin explained. "We don't have a way of knowing if that person is knowledgeable about theater."
Of course, one might wonder what "theatre knowledge" someone has who just happened to pony up six figures for a show just to get their name above the title as a "producer."  Not to mention the possibility that whatever knowledge for the art one has might just go out the window when the fate of the profits of your show is at stake!

But no, of course, Tony-voting producers and artists vote only with their most objective judgment.  Of course.

All I can think, though, is poor Michael Feingold!  The Village Voice first-stringer was practically cheering back in August over the lifting of the burden to cover all crappy "events" that happen to open on Broadway:
When the news broke that these two organizations, which jointly manage Broadway's annual Tony Awards, had decided to remove the first-night theater press from the ranks of Tony voters, my first action was to e-mail my editor that I wouldn't be reviewing Burn the Floor, Broadway's new ballroom-dance compilation, an Australian import that has been trekking around the world for some years. As a Tony voter, I might have felt obliged to go: The nominations are so eccentric that you never know what may or may not end up on the ballot, and the ballot always specifies that you may not vote in a given category unless you've seen all the nominees. My new non-voter status has liberated me from events like Burn the Floor.
So Michael, I guess condolences are in order.

Off Broadway 2010-2011

The big Off Broadway nonprofits are starting to announce their upcoming seasons.

So far:

The Public: Gatz, Lisa Kron's In the Wake, UK Tricycle Theatre's 3-part epic The Great Game: Afghanistan, Rinne Groff's Compulsion, Tony Kushner's Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (coproduced with Signature Theatre's Kushner season), and Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherfucker with the Hat (coproduced with LAByrinth Theater Company).

Playwrights Horizons: Edward Albee's Me, Myself, and I; After the Revolution by Amy Herzog; Adam Bock's A Small Fire; Kin by Batsheba Doran; David Greenspan's Go Back to Where you Are.

Any reactions?  Recommendations?

Interesting that the Public (aka "New York Shakespeare Festival") season is entirely new plays.  But it is admittedly quite a heavy-hitting lineup.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Roundup

-Speaking of culture vs mass production...Bay Area critic Chloe Veltman tries to lay down rules on criticism by video.

-Chairman Rocco reports on what he learned about community-based arts in his recent nationwide "listening tour."

-Corpus Christi banned yet again--at a Texas college.  A little too close to home?

-I guess Todd Haimes didn't read my memo.  Of all things, Roundabout is considering replacing the canceled Lips Together Teeth Apart with...Sherie Renee Scott's one-woman show, already seen at another non-profit theatre last year?

Truth in Advertising

"If you want to reach an audience with a household income greater than $100,000 per year, The New York Times stands above the rest."

This New York Times ad copy (appearing these days both in print and online) is part of a campaign to fend off an aggressive challenge from the Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal to go after the local market by stepping up its NYC culture and lifestyles coverage.

Says Murdoch about taking on the "arbiter of culture": "“We believe that in its pursuit of journalism prizes and a national reputation, a certain other New York daily has essentially stopped covering the city the way it once did.”

Even the Times itself has had to report on the story.

As the above ad indicates, the rivalry between the papers might not only push the Times to skew more local, but to skew more upscale in order to win over more of those WSJ readers--I mean, advertisers.  That's who such ads are aimed at.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Memo to Roundabout

Hello Todd Haimes,

What a way to end a season, huh?  Canceling your big Spring opening--in your flagship venue--two weeks before previews after one of your stars quits.  And here you are with about a month to find another show that's ready to load in and get on, if you're not going to lose subscribers who have already paid for a ticket to...something?  And if you're not going to leave your American Airlines Theatre on Broadway dark during Tony season.

Not that a big Broadway revival of a mild twenty-year-old Terence McNally comedy was what the New York theatre was crying out for in the first place.  (But hey, Manhattan Theatre Club is devoting their mainstage to supersizing a fifteen-year-old Donald Margules play that no one was clamoring to see again either.  Misery loves company, I guess.)  And not that the strategy of casting such "stars" as, um, mid-level Comedy Central comic Patton Oswalt and sitcom second banana Megan Mullally was quite "money in the bank," either.

So look on the bright side: Ms. Mullally's sudden weird departure (reportedly over disapproval of her even less known co-star) perhaps has spared you the collective shrug that might well have greeted this production--as enjoyable as director Joe Mantello might have made it.

Here you are, the richest, biggest nonprofit theatrical enterprise in not only the city, but probably(?) the country. You now have three--count 'em, three--Broadway venues attracting automatic media attention whatever you put on there, plus a sizeable and very prominent Off Broadway space.  How have you decided to use those precious resources this year?

On the classy side, you did have a Miss Julie (in Patrick Marber's Brit-appeal update).  Your recent Noel Coward fluff Present Laughter (remounted from Boston's Huntington) I heard did quite well and pleased many.  Too bad it just closed in the AA, since an extension of that would have solved this problem nicely.  But maybe you can move in the very well-reviewed Glass Menagerie (imported from Long Wharf) you just opened in your Off B'way space?  The fact that all three are either plays and/or productions from elsewhere may not look great artistically, but at least with these projects you've fulfilled probably your most successful role as a decent touring house.

But then there was Wishful Drinking, another import, where you surrendered another of your B'way venues (Studio 54) to cheap one-woman show featuring a one-step-from-reality-show Hollywood ex-star telling naughty stories about Star Wars.  (Personally, I would rather you book this guy.)  Now in the same theatre you have a very expensive Sondheim tribute show show, which would seem like a low-rent cabaret if not for Steve talking on a video screen throughout.

Then there was Birdie.  You moved mountains to get yourself yet a third Broadway venue--on the site of the old Henry Miller's, but completely rebuilt and custom made for you (and now renamed, what else, the Sondheim!)--and your master plan for it was to open Bye Bye Birdie there and just let it run forever.  Unfortunately, a miscast production, critic-nauseating cheesiness, and your inability to find two actors in the whole wide world who could take over the leads in Bye Bye freakin' Birdie after January...forced you to closed ahead of schedule.  Leaving you with a dark theatre until you put it up for rent and in came Dame Edna and Michael Feinstein.  And we all know how that's going. (67% capacity so far isn't so bad, I guess, so let's hope they can at least pay their rent.)

I would say the Roundabout seems downright Job-like this season given such fortunes.  But then I think of all that you didn't do with your enviable real estate this year.  Think of all the playwrights with new plays (no, not just Theresa Rebeck) you could have gotten out there.  Think of all the, ahem, qualified stage actors that could have taken lead roles and wowed the Broadway audiences with their talent if not their names.  I mean, these may not have been advisable box office decisions strategically, but...can you say Plan A worked out either? 

In other words: What have you got to lose?  You've still got your four swank theatres--nay, five if you include your little blackbox, originally meant for edgier new plays, but now you're renting out even that!  (and to this oddity, no less)

I can just imagine some ambitious producer out there reading this, salivating at the mouth with dreams of what to fill those stages with, and saying with resolve to his or her computer screen: "Mr. Haimes, if you're not gonna use them five stages to produce some actual dramatic events, step aside.  I will."

There's still time for Roundabout 2.0, Todd.  What do you say?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Letting Playwrights Earn

Two of the big NYC nonprofits have finally acknowledged they are not Hollywood studios and ceded ground on the "subsidiary rights" issue.  Both the Roundabout (who had been the biggest offender) and the Public this week announced they would mostly waive the usual percentage they used to demand of any future income resulting from a play they premiered.


Leaders of the Public said in interviews that they were immediately altering their policy on so-called subsidiary rights to help provide “a living wage” to playwrights, who often turn to writing for film and television for their livelihood. While the Public previously took an average of 10 percent of royalties for productions mounted over a 10-year period, it will now forgo that percentage until playwrights earn $75,000 in royalties from runs elsewhere. The policy change will mean a loss of at least $100,000 in annual income for the Public, which has an operating budget of $19 million. “The playwright needs the money more than the Public does,” said Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director.

[...]

Roundabout had previously taken as much as 40 percent of future royalties but now will negotiate a percentage only for works that are major hits at Roundabout and [or?] run for more than 18 weeks at its Off Broadway theater, the Laura Pels, and will not seek a percentage from plays done in its Black Box theater
Just curious: can the Public really maintain they are sacrificing a hundred grand a year over this?  I wonder if they're factoring into that the money they take in from past megahits like Hair and Chorus Line--which they would certainly not be giving up, it seems.  Is it really fair to assume that x number of new plays they premiere every year go on to make boffo subsidiary rights?  If only playwrights were that reliably lucrative!

But look, let's not quibble.  This is good news for playwrights, at least a good step--a step in the (apparently radical) direction of theatre companies assuming responsibility for the livelihoods of playwrights.  (As opposed to seeing the theatre-playwright transaction primarily as the acquiring of a property. See Tuesday's post.)  Christopher Shinn, a playwright interviewed for the Times article, makes the revealing claim that, "a lot of theaters assume you’re writing for film or television, and don’t realize how important this money is."  Obviously they don't assume this of the totally unknown writers--then again, they don't really produce those sorts much.  What I assume Shinn means is they treat playwrights like lead actors; they assume you're making you're "real" money in Hollywood, so when you "come back" to the stage you're working just for the love of it, right?

And this is basically a self-fulling prophecy, is it not: pay theatre artists (or take a percentage of their pay) as if it were their "second" career and guess what--it won't be their first career.  And the American theatre will be the poorer for it.

So, yes, good to see the big boys coming around to that. Now let's see if Manhattan Theatre Club does, too--Times says they're now "reviewing" their policy of taking "different percentages from playwrights’ royalties depending on the length of a production’s run."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Roundup

-Tracy Letts acts!  One Chicago playwright honors another as the August: Osage County scribe plays Teach in Mamet's American Buffalo, in a Steppenwolf production visiting the New York area at Princeton's McCarter Theatre.  (Closes Sunday.)

-Best of LA: a rundown of Monday's LA Drama Critics Circle awards.

-A good explanation by Philly Inquirer's John Timpane of that odd new Shakespeare "discovery."  Is Double Falsehood indeed the legendary lost Cardenio?

-Memphis and Addams Family may not quite be up to the level of Joe Turner, but at least Michelle Obama keeps going to the theatre.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Stephen Sondheim Theater

The Roundabout apparently has been raising a lot of money lately in a "naming opportunity" campaign to rebrand the new Henry Miller's Theatre that they bought and completely rebuilt as their third Broadway venue.

And the winner is...Stephen Sondheim!  It wasn't his money, though.

A small group of Stephen Sondheim devotees "initiated a generous contribution to the renaming dedication of the theatre to support Roundabout’s Musical Production Fund," according to the Roundabout, which also operates Broadway's Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre. At the donors' request, the amount of the contribution to the Musical Production Fund will not be disclosed.
It's fitting in that Roundabout has made something of a fetish in the past decade of Sondheim's work, becoming a veritable Sondheim rep company.  One of their current offerings is the concocted revue Sondheim on Sondheim currently playing at their...Studio 54 Theatre.

By lending Sondheim's name to the Henry Miller, maybe they're hoping to draw people to the desperate rental client there, the Dame Edna-Michael Feinstein oddity, All About Me.

FYI, no need to protest in the name of the great author Henry (Tropic of Cancer) Miller.  The Miller of the old Henry Miller's Theatre was a quite different, and now totally forgotten, chap.

Too bad they couldn't rename their "American Airlines Theatre" instead, huh?

The Work of Theatre in the Age of Mass Produced Culture

notes toward a longer essay

In an age of mass-produced entertainment and culture, the work of theatre will always be disadvantaged in the marketplace because it cannot easily reproduce and commodify itself for mass consumption.

Movies, music, and even the visual arts, survive in our economy because their products can endlessly sell.  A film may play two weeks in a cinema, but it then sells tv/cable rights, then dvd rentals and sales.  A consumer can go to Blockbuster (or, more often, click online now) and own the movie.  That work of art that was labored over for so long by so many artists (whether it's Transformers or the latest Lars Von Trier "arthouse" product) can be perfectly commodified, and hence sold alongside any other product in the marketplace.  (Just browse through Amazon.)

Music, like theatre, originates in live performance.  But ever since recorded sound was able to isolate the audio from the experiential a century ago, an individual song can become a "hit single," endlessly circulated (i.e. sold) on the radio, on discs, and basically throughout an entire entertainment/broadcasting complex that needs constant music to underscore its programming, advertisements.  Sure, people still like to go to concerts.  But the music "industry" wouldn't exist without the ability to package the music experience in unlimited shrink-wrapped CDs for individual sale--or, of course, now in quickly downloadable digital bytes that are even more endlessly reproducible in that they are totally noncorporeal.

They say the downloading of music will ruin the music industry as we knew it.  But it will only replace that older model with another.  Someone is still profiting off of digital downloads--it's just Apple ITunes and not a "record" label.

As for how the artist profits, that's not really the point here.  For the survival of ones artform in this economy depends not on whether you make a profit.  It depends on how big a profit others can make off of your art.  How does your art feed the economic gears of the culture industries?  Can your producers sell "ancillary" rights to your art to other media?  Can newspapers, tv shows, and websites generate more ad revenue as a result of mentioning or sampling your art?

If not, then the economy will simply ignore you, and you might as well be strumming your guitar in Astor Place collecting loose change in a hat.

The visual arts have particularly thrived in the current economy.  Paintings and sculptures, for instance, are ready-made commodities, ready to be sold.  (To owners who are then paid to lend them out to be exhibited.)  Even if they cannot be mass-produced, their uniqueness enables a much higher price.  And while not mass produced in sellable units, media outlets can virtually reproduce their images to attract their own advertisers and audiences, so they will want to photograph your paintings and sculptures.  And you will have a gallery and/or press agent to mediate those transactions. 

Of course the "old masters" make most of their money through outright reproduction: postcards, posters, t-shirts, and, yes, "reproductions."  That profit, of course, usually goes to museums in their gift shops, where they conveniently shrink and commodify all the "live" art you just saw. 

And lest there be any doubt as to visual art's value to the culture, just look at the coverage of them in our more cultured newspapers.  Most articles are about auctions, letting us vicariously experience the pleasure of consuming something one supposedly cannot put a price on.  The New York Times, for instance, tells us why Van Gogh matters today: he can generate a seven-figure sale.  No matter that he'll never see his percentage.

And while it's been easy enough to commodify such pre-modern forms as painting, that accomplishment is nothing compared to a whole corpus of art created for the modern (or postmodern) marketplace--art that is always already reproduced and further reproducible.  Photography, video, digital media, etc.  Even Andy Warhol probably didn't foresee the ease with which the visual arts would adapt to an economy of endless commodification, and how thoroughly it would be built into the art itself.

So.  Where does that leave the art of the theatre?

Theatre can still make money, of course.  And there are still "commercial producers" who bet their fortunes on it doing so.  Even major entertainment conglomerates like Disney think the artform's relatively modest prospects for profit worth its while.

Note, though, that those commercial producers who have made a bundle in recent times have done so by making their products as reproducible as possible.  Cameron Mackintosh pioneered the "world tour" approach of "sit down" productions in multiple cities simultaneously, exporting the product across the continents.  This model has been successfully copied by not only Disney (most lucratively with Lion King), but hits like Chicago and Rent.

Note that only musicals seem to be able to capitalize on this approach.

Theatre can also avail itself of various "merchandising" campaigns (another Mackintosh legacy, thanks to the Cats t-shirts and ubiquitous logo).  Musicals have "cast albums" of course--but those profits go mostly to the record companies, don't they.  And unless you are "Cats," how much really are some overpriced t-shirts, souvenir programmes, and other kitschy crap we see peddled on our way out of the theatre going to net you?

It used to be a play was lucky enough to make money through a healthy Broadway run followed by frequent regional and amateur rights paid to Sam French. In the current landscape, that is indeed a pittance. 

There were also book sales, if a playwright was lucky.  But unless you're Sarah Palin, nobody makes real money off of books anymore.  

A play can only now be a revenue generator only by selling itself to and subsuming itself within other, more profitable mass media: becoming a movie, for instance, at which point it is no longer a play, according to the economy and enters a completely different realm of the cultural marketplace.  Indeed the playwright, after the initial sale of rights, is usually disassociated from the new product in every way.  As are his/her original theatrical producers--unless they succeed at nailing down "subsidiary rights" in the initial contract. (Hence why that's been such a hot-button issue lately in the New York theatre.)

I'm not saying theatre will die if it can't reproduce itself.  I'm not saying it even can reproduce itself.  But it will basically always be a loser artform in this economy--i.e. this country.  And I mean "loser" in many ways.

So we better get used to it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

One Way Around Development Hell

The Olivier Awards--London's Tonys--were last night, and Best New Play was The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall, a young American playwright.

Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, which premiered at a 65-seat south London pub theatre, has pulled off a huge shock at this year’s Olivier Awards, beating both Jerusalem and Enron to the Best New Play Award. The victory, which marks the biggest upset of recent years at the Oliviers, is even more remarkable because the play was only eligible for the prize thanks to its transfer from Theatre503 to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios 1, where it ran for nine weeks. It was 28-year old Hall’s second play and marks the first time a black female playwright has ever won an Olivier.
Having popular 65-seat pub theatres also helps.

Let the exodus begin!

PS. A good night for American shows: Spring Awakening won Best Musical.  All about the Larry's here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Marvellous Marvel

About time: NY Times gives a proper profile to one our great New York stage actresses, Liz Marvel.

Check out the accompanying slideshow: here's Marvel in her unforgettably haunting portrayal of Blanche DuBois in Ivo Van Hove's 1999 Streetcar:

Photo: Sara Krulwich/NY Times

This and many of the other pics are by the Times' fabulous Sara Krulwich, pretty much the best theatrical photographer working today.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Paradise" Regained

I have an article in this month's American Theatre magazine (March 2010) about new directorial approaches to the work of Clifford Odets.  No link, unfortunately, but the issue is on newsstands now, and available online via various academic databases, like Proquest.  Meanwhile, here's the opening:
Can Clifford Odets be cool again? He certainly was in the 1930s. Odets was only 28 years old when his Waiting for Lefty became an overnight sensation, and his most ardent followers at the time were in the same age bracket. For fellow scribe William Gibson, he was "the playwright most of my generation wanted to be." And director Harold Clurman considered Lefty's opening night "the birth cry of the '30s," when "our youth had found its voice."

Though he's seldom been out of production, Odets's critical and popular fortunes have varied wildly since that bright beginning. His plays' complex leftist politics - always intertwined with the personal and the sexual - fell out of favor in the conservative 1950s. And when he reluctantly cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee to avoid being blacklisted - Odets depended on his screenwriting to raise two children as a single parent - he was shunned by many who once worshipped him.

Then, as fate would have it, when his politics at last came back into favor, after his death in 1963, it was his realist dramaturgy - and the association of his work with so-called Method acting, a legacy of the Group Theatre for whom he wrote - that made him seem passé. Reviewing a 1984 revival of Odets's Awake and Sing! in the New York Times, Frank Rich faulted the characters for lack of "psychological depth" and concluded that while the play "endures as a social document, its status as a stageworthy play has declined." A decade later Peter Marks, in the same paper, said of Waiting for Lefty. "Lacking the economic disaster and political context that once validated it.. .the play now is oddly airless."

In the eyes of many resident theatres around the country today, though, that economic disaster, and its attendant context, may now have arrived again. The 2009-10 season boasts no fewer than nine Odets revivals at TCG member theatres. And the new century has produced a new generation of directors who came of age post-cold war and post-Actors Studio, and who accordingly might be equipped to approach Odets without the cultural baggage that has weighted his work in years past. In their hands the archetypical playwright of the Great Depression may still have something to teach us about our own Great Recession.
In addition to emphasizing the timeliness of Odets's work I wanted to focus on how a new generation of directors are embracing this writer, normally considered an uber-naturalist, in more experimental ways.

My starting point is Bartlett Sher's Awake and Sing, produced by Lincoln Center on Broadway to mark the playwright's centennial in 2006, which won new accolades for the play including a Tony for Best Revival.  But aside from a landmark tribute, Sher's expressive use of scenery and insistence on this as a poetic play dared us to completely reconsider Odets's legacy and significance for a new audience--one not mired in either Group Theatre/Actors Studio nostalgia or 1950s communist witchhunt politics (during which he compromised himself by cooperating as a "friendly witness").

I also noticed another director taking on Odets in 2006--Daniel Fish, whose Rocket to the Moon I saw at Long Wharf.  Like Sher's production, it combined rigorous naturalistic acting and expressive stagecraft to force us to see the play in a new way.  As I describe in the article, it involved a revolving set that let us peer into the proceedings of this notably claustrophobic and intimate play (set in a Depression-era dentist's office) through windows and walls.  Kind of an expressionist naturalism, if you can imagine such a thing.

So when I heard Fish was taking on perhaps the biggest challenge of the Odets canon, the rarely revived Paradise Lost (a box office failure originally), I knew that, a) I had to see it, and b) I wanted to write about it.

The article went to press long before the production went up, so I was writing based on Fish's plans for it without having seen it.  But now that I've been up to Boston to see it at ART, I can gladly report that it is quite a momentous event in this writer's tormented afterlife, and something well worth seeing before it closes this Saturday (March 16).

Paradise Lost resembles Awake and Sing in some obvious ways--a three-act "living room" family drama about struggling to survive in the Depression.  Except here, the family loses everything.  And, Paradise's Gordons, being more upper-bourgeoisie than the lumpen Bergers of Awake, fall from a greater height, as we watch their fortunes wither away over a few years as they and the country sink deeper and deeper into an economic wasteland.

So this is quite a "depressing" play in more ways than one, unlike Awake, which at least features an uplifting and optimistic ending.  When I asked Fish why he thinks this play gets produced much less, he said, "Look at the two titles!"  Indeed this painful meditation on loss--both spiritual and material--would be a tough sell on Broadway.  (It was even back in 1935, with the Group Theatre actors no less.)

In fact Fish could barely get any nonprofit theatres to bite either.  So ART and its new AD Diane Paulus deserve a lot of credit for investing confidence and real resources into a tough--really tough--but important and wonderful play.  Part of what is thrilling about watching Fish's Paradise is how BIG a production it is.  Our only chance of ever seeing this in New York I imagine would be in a scaled down Off-Off/ Mint Theatre-style version.  So to see it playing out on that big ART stage with all the tools at a modern director's disposal really fulfills what the play is capable of today.

Now as you can see from the photos, this is indeed a modern production.  An updating? Yes, but not in the text.  Fish and his team have simply placed Odets's characters in a tangibly contemporary environment--the better to remind us that "The Great Depression" was not some distinctly historical time, some sepia-toned snapshot from the annals of the "Greatest Generation."  It is what we are living through now.  Right now.  So rather than the suit-and-tie world of 1930s nostalgia, we get a recognizably middle class world of middle-America, 2010.

One shocking thing about this to Odets purists might be how "white" the world of the play becomes.  The Gordon family has always been considered by Odets scholars a barely deracinated Jewish family, one coming from a culture that talked in the writer's Yiddish-influenced cadences and whose story reflected specifically the legacy of "the immigrant experience."  Fish makes no gesture to this being a "Jewish play" at all, and as a result it plays out on a broader canvas. With Andrew Lieberman's expansive set of fragmented pre-fab suburban housing materials, the image recalls Sam Shepard more than Clifford Odets; and the play becomes more obviously about America (as in the suburban middle-class image we usually see in the media) and its deeply embedded capitalist framework, rather than just another period piece about our Jewish grandparents in New York.  You'll feel the shock of this approach right away when you walk into the theatre and a loud and overblown Western shootout is playing on the huge upstage projection screen, as the "new" Gordons sit around the dinner table watching in numbed silence.

The extensive use of video projection is another startlingly contemporary aspect of the production.  And one apparently the Boston Globe critic couldn't abide--complaining she didn't know where to look as if she'd never seen this before on stage.  Most often this was used to enlarge the action already happening on stage (close-ups of actors talking in corners, e.g.)  and so I also don't understand her complaint that the video didn't have anything to do with the play.  I also don't understand how one can review this play and not discuss the parallels between 1930s America and today; she treats the modern touches as simply random and unexplainable, thus declining to spell out the underlying concept, good or bad.  But there you go.  The Boston Phoenix's Carolyn Clay at least seemed more attuned to the production's sensibility.

Anyway, as the opening mythical Western clip announces, what unfolds on stage is a ruthless dismantling of The American Dream, piece by piece.  The play will end on a practically bare stage, the Gordons dispossessed and cast out into a strange world.  Their business and their house is gone, and their children (in whom all families stake their future) have in various ways been picked off--Mother Courage-like--one by one.

The clash of visual anachronisms and the 1935 text certainly does raise eyebrows throughout.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.  Having the play open with the daughter Pearl talking to her boyfriend not alone on the hallway telephone, but at the dinner table on her cell phone makes her an instantly recognizable teenager from today, immediately demystifying the play's period trappings.  On the other hand, the intermittent lines about Hitler and the future prospects of "television" just don't yield dividends to offset their jarringness (and probably would have been better off being cut, so rarely do they occur).  But overall, the risk pays off by how surprisingly easily this plays as a contemporary play.  It is, after all, about people living through financial freefall and the prospect of neverending war.  The anachronisms just remind us Fish is not trying to "fool" us into believing it wasn't written in 1935 and the dialogue we end up having with it across time is fascinating. 

And as a contemporary play, Paradise Lost is a burst of fresh air, since so few plays today (especially "family plays") are so infused at every turn with the effect of the economy on our daily lives.  (It makes  new plays today that claim to be about class--like Becky Shaw--seem so tame by comparison.)  As the Gordons' home and dreams are gradually, painfully dismantled bit by bit in front of our eyes, we don't see them as mere passive victims of greater forces--they are victims of their own obliviousness to them.  One son, a former Olympic athlete, now can't get a job to support his wife and so turns to petty crime; the father's business partner invites an arsonist over to seriously consider burning the store down to collect on the insurance.  Both drastic measures result in part from an earlier baseless optimism in the American Dream, in the system working, always working.

While Odets calls for the last act to be played Cherry Orchard-style in the house's now-empty living room, Fish offers another equally haunting tableau all too common today: the family cast out to its own front lawn, with everything they own in a U-Haul.  In a nicely sardonic touch, costume designer Kaye Voyce dresses various characters in leftover T-shirts bearing logos from recent political/financial disasters: AIG, Enron, and the Kerry/Edwards campaign. (They're good liberals, these Gordons.  And all the more clueless for it.)

The nearly three-hours of Fish's Paradise Lost is not a walk in the park.  But its tough-goingness is appropriate in making us feel the Gordons' dreadful progress from one economic disaster to the next.  Employing much in the way of alienation effects and long painful silence, it reminded me of another epic deconstruction of capitalism I saw at ART years ago: Robert Woodruff's chilling staging of Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities.  But here we have Odets's more emotionally expressive language and characters to counterbalance the coldness; Odets thus plays very well in such epic staging.

This is helped by a wonderful cast that pours its collective heart into every impulse.  I particularly liked Michael Rudko as the odd character Pike--a rabble-rousing handyman who forms part of the eccentric extended family of neighbors and hangers-on in the Gordon household.  Outfitted in a old baseball cap, down vest, with a big white Grizzly Adams beard, Rudko's Pike may look nothing like what Odets had in mind--but he certainly looks like the kind of heartland radical you see today on Democracy Now.  His impassioned arias denouncing "the war to end all wars" that killed his son requires no "translation" to apply today; Rudko's at times direct address to the audience shames us, as he says, "Who are we if we remain silent while they make the next war--who then are we with our silence? Accomplices, Citizen!"

Also affecting were longtime ART actor Thomas Derrah as the ineffectual neighbor Gus--who I always considered a kind of boring spineless distraction until I saw Derrah walk out in old biker-leather gear and play him as just a good ol' boy with a heart.  (Gus is after all a motorcycle enthusiast in the text.)  Fish's expansive staging--where characters continually wander on and off stage or otherwise lurk in corners--also actually enhances certain roles that normally would get short shrift in performance.  Therese Plaehn's unsentimental Pearl gets to play away at her piano not offstage but visibly up on the set's higher levels, buried in her headphones and her teenage angst.  (No ingenue, she.)  And by allowing Adrianne Krstansky's Mrs. Katz to actually make an impression on the audience by letting us see her for more than the few walk-on's Odets specifies, pays off in her big Act II explosion, revealing the lies and desperation behind her marriage, the family business, and for that matter all middle class families when the bountiful riches run out.

Again, Paradise Lost closes this Saturday and I strongly recommend it.  To the adventurous, that is.  I would even acknowledge that not knowing the play (and most don't) could be a hindrance.  Fish's staging and the actors' delineations strike me as clear enough for a newcomer to the text, but there are some experimental "doublings" and other effects that might obscure certain plot points and character identities.  (Partly to scale back on the immense casting requirements of the play--24 characters in all--in one scene three shopworker characters are represented by "real" people onscreen, dubbbed over, the results of which are admittedly mixed.)  That said, even merely reading a synopsis of the play--if not the whole script--can only enhance one's appreciation here.  I consider myself very much an Odets fan and could not have liked this staging as much as I did if I didn't feel it stayed true to both the spirit and the letter of the text.

In the American Theatre article I hope not to draw some facile binary distinction between realism and expressionism, naturalist and experimental theatre.  Odets saw himself, in fact, as a kind of hybrid dramatist--striving, particularly in this play, for a poetic realism and struggling against the confines of the literal realism more common on the Broadway of his day in favor of a more expressive emotional truth.  (He thus embodies and anticipates the spirits of both Miller and Williams at once.)  So I have a hunch Clifford would like how Fish and his actors have let their imaginations work on his disenchanted "paradise" and let it awake and sing again for Americans in 2010.

(PS. One more note about the article.  Contrary to what it states, I personally do NOT deem Odets's last play The Flowering Peach a "slight biblical comedy" at all.  That was an editorial insertion, one I do not agree with.  I'm not saying it's a great play--but definitely a serious and a moving one.  So, caveat lector, as they say.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Roundup

-Ex-Variety critic David Rooney tells all (or some) to Time Out.

-Are we ready to expand the Shakespeare canon again?  A claim for the long-contested Double Falsehood by no less an authority than Arden.

-Chairman Rocco preaches arts education on LA's skid row, and promises a "major address" soon.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Memo to Theatre Media: Obama didn't invent African American Theatre

Here's a lede from a recent Variety article:

There's an ironically presented black minstrel show at the Vineyard Theater. There's a darkly comic wrestling match with retro racial stereotypes at the Public Theater. At Playwrights Horizons, white characters and black characters try to talk about race, and mostly fail.
See a pattern?
You know what? No!  I don't!

Of course the "pattern" allegedly is: guess what, we have a black president now!

To which I respond, guess what, there were indeed plays about black people before 2008!  There were even plays BY black authors before Barack Obama was born.

Seems to me that even if the case is that such work is now getting done more in NYC, that's pretty specious, too.  I don't see any stats in this piece, but I bet back in the 70s, for instance, there were seasons of even more African American work on Broadway let alone on the fringe.

As if the argument isn't empty enough, having as your only sources the three white AD's of the theatres you're talking--who, funny, seem to totally agree with you that they are civil rights trailblazers--doesn't help.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

"In an interview four years ago Conor McPherson, a Dublin writer of similar stature, questioned how Irish [Martin McDonagh] really was. “More like stage Irish,” he told me. Mr. McDonagh responded to this comment with a flash of anger, disregarding a pledge he had made minutes before to give up harshly judging other living writers in the press, firing off one of those hilariously belligerent rants that his characters are known for and that can’t possibly be printed here. Translated from the profane to the mundane, he said he was going to beat up Mr. McPherson next time he saw him."

-from Jason Zinoman's up-close-and-personal (-and-inebriated?) with Martin McDonagh.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Image of the Day




What the Public Theatre hopes its lobby will look like in 2012, after a $35 million renovation--"ground" of which was "broken" this week.

During the renovation the Public will stay open for business, with some reduced scheduling.

More info, and photos of Oskar Eustis in a hardhat, here, also a brochure.

Will America Be Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

High among the priorities for the proposed nation-wide K-12 education standards:

Under the proposed standards for English, for example, fifth graders would be expected to explain the differences between drama and prose, and to identify elements of drama like characters, dialogue and stage directions.
Nice that someone still thinks there'll still be plays in the future.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Props to the Props!

The propmaster--that unsung hero with no award category--finally gets his due:

For "Cave Quest," Takemoto tracked down or improvised a number of hard-to-find objects. The nun, for instance, needed a shawl of a certain color and texture that would look good under black light. The costume designer found fabric at a daunting $35 a yard. (The props budget was a few hundred dollars.) The ever-frugal Takemoto hit the thrift circuit: "I got the shawl at Goodwill for $4.95 and I got the senior discount."
Just another day in the life.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

And Then There Was Variety

Another major print news outlet has eliminating their full-time theatre critic post: Variety.

Oh, and their movie reviewer, too.

They're continuing theatre reviews, but with a fully-freelanced staff.

We knew the full-time drama critic was an endangered species.  But this is freakin' Variety we're talking about.  Variety.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Best Actor/Best Actress: Shall the Twain E'er Meet?

Making waves across the net this weekend was Kim Elsesser's NYT op-ed asking one of those good questions that seems so obvious when asked, except no one (publicly, at least) ever asks it:
Suppose, however, that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented separate honors for best white actor and best non-white actor, and that Mr. Freeman was prohibited from competing against the likes of Mr. Clooney and Mr. Bridges. Surely, the academy would be derided as intolerant and out of touch; public outcry would swiftly ensure that Oscar nominations never again fell along racial lines.

Why, then, is it considered acceptable to segregate nominations by sex, offering different Oscars for best actor and best actress?
And so I put the question not to the Oscars, but to...the Tonys!  In 2010 are we really committed to reinforcing in the theatre some idea of men and women being separate acting species?

Two of Elsesser's more persuasive points:
While it is certainly acceptable for sports competitions like the Olympics to have separate events for male and female athletes, the biological differences do not affect acting performances. The divided Oscar categories merely insult women, because they suggest that women would not be victorious if the categories were combined. In addition, this segregation helps perpetuate the stereotype that the differences between men and women are so great that the two sexes cannot be evaluated as equals in their professions.
Worth considering, no?

Now it will never happen, of course. At least not at high profile glitz events like the Oscars and (albeit on a much chintzier level of glitz) the Tonys.  My theory is that in addition to the no-doubt embedded sexist underpinnings of the entire entertainment industry, there's also the issue of these shows as a kind of "movie" in themselves that need both male and female "leads."  (Like that photo you usually get the morning after of the Best Actor posing with the Best Actress.)  Plus you can look at it as "affirmative action" as Elsesser implies guaranteeing men--who inevitably win as directors, producers, technicians, not to mention hosts--will not dominate the whole show.

But in the end, it just really, really makes no sense, does it.

So I wonder: can we pressure maybe some of the smaller theatre awards--like the Lortels, the Drama Desk, yea even the vaunted NY Critics Circle--to reconsider?

(Obies already get around this by, a) having no nominees, and b) awarding all actors under the label "performance.)

Then again, maybe when we realize how ludicrous it is to say men and women can't comete against each other in acting, we'll also realize how ludicrous it is to treat acting as a competitive sport at all.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Playwright Writes for TV Show: What Else is New?

Slate's Jack Shafer rightly calls for a moratorium on "playwrights migrating to tv" stories until there's something, you know, new to report.

A quick Nexus search plays like a broken record:

The New York Times noted the "steady flow of directors, producers, and playwrights out of the theater" and into TV in a 1996 piece that name-checks writers Rebeck and Matt Williams. In 1994, the Los Angeles Times made a big deal about playwright Lisa Loomer's work on sitcoms, and in 1993 the newspaper reported the observation of Maria Gobetti, the artistic co-director of the Victory Theater, that one-third of the writers introduced to the public by the theater in the last 12 years were now doing most of their writing for film and TV.


The New York Times' 1990 piece, "Television Commissions Works by Playwrights," reported that NBC and Turner had hired Horton Foote, George C. Wolfe, and Arthur Kopit to write for them. A similar theme informs the Times' 1989 article, "Playwrights Tread the Welcome Mat in Hollywood." Playwrights named include Richard Greenberg, Terrence McNally, Marsha Norman, Albert Innaurato, John Pielmeier, Michael Weller, Tina Howe, Jeffrey Sweet, and the previously mentioned Overmyer.

A Los Angeles Times piece from 1988, "Thriving in Hollywood: Playwrights Can Work in the Industry and Love it—Artistically and Financially," finds playwrights swarming Hollywood productions. (The piece reports the hiring of Jon Robin Baitz by HBO to write a screenplay—his first!) A Los Angeles Daily News article from 1987 calls Mamet, Christopher Durang, Wendy Wasserstein, Terry Curtis Fox, and Overmyer "some of the finest television writers in America." As proof that the Journal trend is no trend, I submit as evidence the Dec. 14, 1986, New York Times article "Playwrights See New Promise on the Small Screen." The article's playwrights in TV-land include Wasserstein, Mamet, Durang, Mart Crowley, Beth Henley, Paul Zindel, Bernard Slade, Andrew Bergman, and Charles Fuller. 
Next you know, they'll be running article on playwrights working in, gasp, movies. Those stories date from the 1920s!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Co-Productions: Sad Compromise or Promising Opportunity?

This article about the proliferation of co-productions even between lower-budget theatres in the greater Philly area reminds us of what's become a staple in the regional theatre circuit. 

And so I ask you actors, designers, directors, artistic directors--co-productions: good thing or bad thing?

On the good side: longer runs (i.e. longer contracts, longer gigs), reaching more audiences, more time to hone the work.

On the other hand: Does it allow some theatres to simply get by by "importing" someone else's product? Does it stick actors for too long in a gig they may already hate and takes them away from New York or LA for too long?  Does it water down the content to whatever's agreeable to two theatre staffs? (when trying to accommodate one is hard enough!)

Talk amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Quote of the Day

"I think the theatrical machinery works today more slowly than it did in the 1930s, when the theater was a more bustling and robust industry. By the time a “topical” play has been developed and workshopped and tried out in a regional theater, say, the point it addresses may have gone stale."

-Charles Isherwood, New York Times.

Ish is right!

Monday, March 01, 2010

Off Bway & AEA

New contract agreement for Off Broadway negotiated with Actors Equity.  Note what I call the "Q Clause":

Members of the Off-Broadway League may now produce shows in the Broadway Box in Off-Broadway-sized houses of 499 or less without paying a salary premium.  This would not apply to any productions that have been on Broadway within six months of the Off Broadway opening. 
As in, Avenue Q, which swiftly reopened Off Broadway after shutting down their main stem run.  AEA seems to be protecting its actors in similar situations by minimizing their pay cuts.  And given that 39 Steps will follow the same path and re-open next door to Q at the New World Stages later this month...it looks like AEA is assuming we may not have seen the last of this phenomenon yet.

Another informative tidbit from Off B'way land:
On a weekly average, there were 13 Off-Broadway companies during the 2008-2009 and the average weekly salary was $647.
In case you're wondering, $647 a week times 52 weeks a year equals...drum roll...$33,644!

And you're lucky you work half that many weeks in a year Off Broadway.