The Playgoer: May 2010

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Weekend Roundup

-What, a Vanity Fair photo spread on Tony nominees?  What's next, people watching the broadcast? (Oh wait, it's only a "web exclusive"...)

-Actors Equity has a new president: Nick Wyman. First order of business: fend off the challenge from the American Guild of Musical Artists, who represent singers and dancers in general "live performance" venues--except Broadway shows.  Get this, they're arguing that they should be the union for the American Idiot cast because most of them, literally, don't act!

-Stat of the day: "Out of 114 cultural institutions polled in January, 42% anticipate canceling or postponing programs this year."  All this and more good news by way of Crain's.

-And coming up in your Sunday Arts& Leisure, Charles Isherwood's love letter to Nathan Lane, Broadway's "greatest entertainer" of the last decade. (Making up for that Addams Family review, are we?)

Friday, May 28, 2010

More Reporting on Wiesel v Theatre J

Ted Scheinman and Jonathan L. Fischer in this week's Washington City Paper give an exhaustive account of what went down between playwright Deb Margolin, Theatre J, and Elie Wiesel.  Including many excerpts from the play itself!

Basically, the theatre initially ok'd the play which was structured around an ongoing fictional dialogue between characters representing Madoff and Wiesel--a dialogue that nobody (aside from Wiesel) characterizes as anything but respectful of the Nobel laureate.  Since the Artistic Director, Ari Roth, knew Wiesel personally and knew his philanthropic foundation (which the article does not link to Theatre J financially), he sent the foundation a copy of the script as a "heads up."  When the script got to Wiesel himself, the man was furious and immediately threatened to sue.  Roth and Margolin conferred and mutually agreed to rename the character; but when Roth wanted to show even the rewrite to the Wiesel people, the playwright drew the line and refused to grant any more "veto power."

These events were well known and reported before.  The question the article tackles is did not just Elie Wiesel overreact but Ari Roth, too?  Was it ok to put his personal relationship with a play's subject ahead of the playwright?  (While few AD's may have ever found themselves in this exact scenario, I'm sure many relate to that general question.)

And is a company like Theatre J that expressly serves a distinctly defined community--it is not only housed in but basically subsidized by the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center--right to put such personal connections and "good relations" first?  (A fight with Wiesel over his good name and reputation, Roth says plainly, is "not a fight we want to have.")

Despite references in the article and some blogs comparing this fight with the 2003 My Name is Rachel Corrie controversy, I don't see them as parallel politically.  (One key difference is here the playwright herself withdrew the play and the theatre seemed more genuinely interested in going forward with at least the revised version.)  However, both tales, I think, do contain a good lesson for Artistic Directors everywhere.  Both Roth here and James Nicola of New York Theatre Workshop back then made the fatal mistake of first committing to the play, then hedging in the face of controversy, lawsuit, what have you.  But in both cases, surely, these unpleasant reactions could not have been surprising, right? Why did they not see this coming and make up their minds ahead of time how much stomach for a fight they had?

It's not just a fact of public relations that it looks worse to first greenlight and then waver on a play than to have never committed to it at all.  After all, any AD has a right to choose to do or not do plays for whatever reason.  But to renege on an artistic commitment (i.e. commitment to other artists) out of sudden fear is a damaging move and sends all kinds of bad signals throughout the theatrical community.  The question comes down to are you deciding whether or not to do this play, or is your board?  or your powerful friends?  or the press? 

In other words, we wouldn't be having this discussion if Roth talked with Wiesel as soon as he read the script.  And, I believe, rightfully so.

Roth basically argues he did right by his theatre's greater community, a community that values Elie Wiesel's reputation and good will above the expressive needs of a Deb Margolin.  It would indeed be a trial for a company called Theatre J to have a standoff in court against Elie Wiesel, of all people.  But I guess therein lies the difference between being a producing professional theatre and being a kind of "community center."  And thus is the downside to even thinking of a theatre as being more "responsible" to its community than to its artists.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Broadway Grosses Up, Attendance Down

Yes, according to the Broadway League's latest report, Broadway grosses in 2009-2010 were over a billion dollars, up 1.5% from the previous season.

The number of actual tickets sold and people attending?  That was down 3%.

You do the math.

(Answer: them's some expensive tickets!)

More info at the League site. Such as this, for those keeping score:

During the 2009-2010 season, 39 shows opened (11 new musicals, 14 new plays, 6 musical revivals, and 8 play revivals). 
Yes, more plays were produced than musicals....but they are cheaper after all.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Elie Wiesel Gets Mad

I'm way behind on this, but in case you didn't know, there's a bizarre love/hate triangle going on down in DC at Theatre J, the small but popular Jewish-themed troupe run by Ari Roth.  Roth was preparing to present a new play by experimental theatre icon Deb Margolin about the Bernie Madoff story.  Sounds like an exciting project, right?

Well, not to one Elie Wiesel who objected to being depicted, by name, as a character in the play.  Even though Margolin claimed the Wiesel character was respectfully--if fictionally--drawn, the noted author, philanthropist, Holocaust survivor, and probably most famous victim of Mr. Madoff just outright objected and threatened to sue.  Since the Wiesel character was a major role in the play, Margolin could not cut it entirely, but agreed to change the name.  Artistic Director Roth offered to send Wiesel the revised script, but Wiesel was still not satisfied and still threatened legal action.  Roth then decided to pull the play.

Isaac Butler and his pinch-hitter Mr. 99 Seats have blogged the hell out of this story, so at this point I'll turn you over to them for all their links and commentary.  (Including exclusive statements from Roth, Margolin, and Margolin's agent to boot!) Start here, then here, then here, then here.

Basically at issue is whether it was, um, kosher for Roth to send a playwright's play to one of the play's subjects for some kind of approval.  Roth denies he was deferring to Wiesel's approval--only showing him the revised draft to "prove" that Wiesel would not be named.  But, I guess, at the end of the day, Wiesel did not approve and Roth withdrew the production.  So you make the connection.

Wiesel may not be literally a "patron" of Theatre J (though with the involvement of his Wiesel Foundation, that question is a little murky apparently).  But he sure is a patron saint of the American Jewish community.  So I can understand that if you're a company called "Theatre J" it probably doesn't look good to be sued by the man.  Then again, how far should Artistic Directors go just to avoid controversy?

There's also the issue of how much leeway playwrights can take with dramatizing "public figures" in their work.  I think the courts have been pretty clear and consistent on this.  (At least in regards to satire and parody, but I hope judges don't start playing drama critic and try to distinguish between genres.) But will AD's support them, too?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Not Ready for Primetime

Dr. Feingold offers a harsh but needed prescription of what ails us:

New York theatergoers, in effect, no longer possess Broadway as a venue for seeing plays; it belongs to the ultra-rich and the tourist trade. This puts Off-Broadway's nonprofit institutions in an awkward situation. They would like to take risks, to test works that are untried and perhaps unready, to let novice writers and directors spread their wings and perhaps fall flat on their faces. But their own ticket prices, like their expenses, go up every year. Their audience—the dedicated New York audience that, in decades past, used to check out new Broadway shows from the cheap seats—demands the satisfaction of a fully achieved work. Prestige-hungry boards of directors and hit-hungry commercial producers waving enhancement dollars hover over their season planning. The pressure is endless, the time available for pondering nil, the situation wholly untenable. No wonder such theaters produce many more mishaps than triumphs.
He offers this as prologue to his review of the new Lincoln Center presentation of Graceland--which another critic this week, Time Out's Raven Snook said "feels more like a Sundance semi-finalist than something that needs to be on a stage."  I haven't seen the show myself.  But that pretty aptly sums up most of the new plays I see our Off Broadway theatre producing.

Monday, May 24, 2010

More Awards

The Off Broadway Lortels and the "mixed" Drama Desk & Drama League have all announced winners in the past week.

In sum: Orphans' Home and Scottsboro Boys still continue to be the popular OB choices.  La Cage, Red, and Memphis are doing particularly well On.

In Tony news, the host will be Sean Hayes.  Residual sympathy for that Newsweek attack?

Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play"

One of the least constructive forms of criticisms is to hold forth on what you think a playwright should have written rather than what they did write.  Reviews that essentially rewrite a play reveal only the personal quirks of the critics instead of helping the reader grapple with the play at hand.

So that said...let me get out of the way all the things I wish Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play" were and how disappointed I was that it wasn't.

The play's basic concept is irresistible to a theatre history geek like myself.  It is a trilogy of one-acts, each about people performing the Passion Play in a different time and place: in Elizabethan England, where such performances are about to be banned by the monarch as a vestige of Popery; in 1930s Germany, where the otherwise secular Nazis exploited the anti-Semitism of the Passion's crucifixion narrative; and in post-Vietnam South Dakota, USA, where a cheesier theme-park style derivative of the play helps usher in the age of the "Moral Majority."

Such a scenario raises my expectations that I will see something about the meaning of theatre to different communities across time.  As well as the meaning of religion.  Also--the relation between theatre and The State; the specifics of the gospels themselves and how their meaning changes for different eras and audiences; and, well, just the good old magic of theatre.

I'm sure Sarah Ruhl had many of these themes in mind while writing the play.  But for me, they don't really show much, either in the dialogue or the action.  Instead what we get is three very different stories ("backstage dramas" if you will) for which the Passion is often just a backdrop to more internal conflicts of the particular characters.  In Act I (the Elizabethan episode), the woman playing Mary is caught between the man playing Jesus, who is respectfully devoted to her, and the man playing Pilate, who lusts after her and knocks her up.  In Act II (the Nazi episode) the Pilate and Jesus actors are secretly gay lovers (one flees, one stays and joins the party) and the company's one Jew is taken to nearby Dachau.  Act III's "Morning in America" shows one actor (Pilate, again) shipped off to Vietnam, returning with severe PTSD, only to find his fellow actor (Jesus, again) carrying on with his wife and selling out to TV.

In themselves, these are not bad little one-acts.  But so often, their historical settings (and the presence of the Passion) seemed incidental to what they were really about.  Surprisingly the most successful of the three acts at this is the last, where Ruhl poignantly juxtaposes the soldier's decline with the country's emerging Reaganite whitewashing optimism.  And in probably the best use of the actual Passion Play, we see him return to his role as Pilate, only to freak out Lady Macbeth-style during the "I wash my hands of this" scene, imagining blood instead of water in the basin.

But moments like that which fully exploit the details of the Passion narrative are surprisingly rare.  And I could just as easily imagine these three stories dramatized without the presence of Passion Play.  Again, not to rewrite Ruhl, but how fascinating it would have been to see, say, the same scene from Passion reenacted in each act in a vastly different way.  And while we do get the gospel-like themes of betrayal and martyrdom in each of the stories, the direct parallels with the Passion are always left for us to figure out.  Maybe that's sublime subtlety on Ruhl's part--but I prefer my theatre not to pull its punches.

Passion Play's other tease is political.  This is the most outwardly political play Ruhl has written.  But while her introductory program notes are full of requisite Bush-bashing, her play constantly sidesteps the nitty gritty of her stories' political implications.  Nowhere is this more evident than in what should be the play's biggest coup de theatre--the recurring appearance of the autocratic leader at the center of each era.  While the grand surprise entrances of Elizabeth I, Adolf Hitler, and Ronald Reagan (all played by the same actor--in this production the superbly creepy T. Ryder Smith) should all climax their respective acts, the writing in each case is notably anticlimactic.  By Reagan's turn, the idea becomes a gimmick, a winking joke, rather than a dramaturgically galvanizing device.  Each of the three monologues drifts in and out of historical trivia related to the figure's performative aspects--Elizabeth's obsession with white facepaint; Hitler's hammy showmanship; Reagan's showbiz background--which makes sense, sure.  And Ruhl certainly illustrates their political ruthlessness and/or cluelessness (Elizabeth's police state; Hitler's genocidal dreams; Reagan's confusion of war with war movies).  But these moments still came off to me as unfocused and, frankly, wasted opportunities.

The truth is, as much as she may try here, Ruhl does not seem to be an innately political playwright.  Most writers taking on the subject of 19th century doctors inducing orgasm in their female patients with electrical devices would capitalize on the situation's inherent narrative of misogynist exploitation.  Not Ruhl, whose In the Next Room: or, The Vibrator Play--as likeable as it is--plays as a coy sex comedy where men are just silly asses out of touch with their feelings.  Perhaps the belittling of the oppressor is a more secure feminist (or postfeminist) statement.  But again, a missed opportunity, I felt.

In Passion Play we get snapshots of politics and art colliding.  In a speech taken mostly verbatim from history, Hitler addresses the Oberammergau about the need for the Passion's demonizing of the Jews.  But why does a similar sense of danger not pervade the Elizabethan episode, where performing the Passion Play is about to become a banned, religiously heretical and politically subversive act?  In Act III our tortured Vietnam Vet experiences conflict mostly in his head, not with the state; yes, there is an interesting scene at a VA hospital, but even there he is treated rather civilly, rather than encountering the indifferent bureaucracy many real life vets did suffer.

The very subject and form of Passion Play also cries out for a playwright intensely concerned with religion itself.  But Ruhl seems neither especially political or religious.  I don't know anything about her personal spiritual beliefs or practices.  All I know is that the Passion narrative raises so many theological and deeply communal questions that are only addressed here in the most abstract terms.  (Betrayal, Martyrdom, Spirit vs Flesh, etc.)  When acted out on stage, the scenes from the Passion Plays rarely resonate and touch us the way these plays were meant to.  They rarely transcend Ruhl's use of them for simply a framing concept.  They are not allowed to work their timeless stage magic on us and turn an audience of hip 21st century secularists (like me) into believers just for a minute.  That's because the script itself seems written with an air of too much hip secularism.  Ruhl's tendency to waver between ironic shrug and unabashed sentimentality leaves little room for the tragic poetry of the Bible.

Finally, there's another dramaturgical device that ultimately stymies the play: Ruhl's insistence that the same actors play basically the same roles from act to act, and that they keep being identified with the Passion roles of Jesus, Pilate, and Mary.  When it works, we get a nice long story-arc of basically a 400-year love triangle between the three.  But the unintended effect is of a numbing sameness to all three playlets--when jarring shaking up is sometimes badly needed.  I would have been much more interested in seeing the casting overturned in each act to make the play-within-the-play seem as different as possible.  Instead, over three and a half hours I got quite frankly bored watching the same three actors play out similar scenarios.  Adding to the similarity are the bare-bones design and production values--tastefully minimalist and perhaps budgetarily required, but still barely changing from one act to the next.  In retrospect, it is the Elizabethan Act I--played in the same flat American accents as the rest and speckled with inconsistently anachronistic props and costumes--that suffers most from this approach.  If each setting were more aggressively made strange from each other and highly specific to its era (i.e. alienated in the truly Brechtian sense) the overall effect would have been much richer and thought-provoking.

I will say, though, that in the production Dominic Fumusa's brooding intensity as the "Pilates" nearly justifies the concept--especially in Act III, when his frightening delivery of the character's shell-shocked rages do more to puncture the "Morning in America" myth than any of Ruhl's prose.

Fumusa and Ryder are the standouts of the otherwise able cast.  Mark Wing Davey's sparsely beautiful  staging employs much rough magic and dreamy atmosphere.  And for the little Epic Theatre Ensemble that mounted this huge project--at the splendid Irondale Center in a Brooklyn church--this NYC premiere of a major play (and a majorly difficult play) by a major new writer is a triumph, after a decade of tireless work and rising from nowhere.  I say the play is a "major" one quite sincerely.  Our playwrights unfortunately are not often allowed to be as ambitious as this.  I'm sure many others found these ambitions fulfilled and, as I said above, this ultimately boils down to what we each want out of the play's concept.  And for myself, it was a play that did not live up to its premise.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

AP's Michael Kuchwara dies

One of Broadway's longest serving critics, Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press, died yesterday at the age of 63.  He was working almost right up to the end.

The outline of his career is clearly one of a past era:

He began his 40-year career at The A.P. as a reporter in the Chicago bureau and later moved to New York as an editor on the national desk. He took over the theater post in 1984. 
One must wonder: will the AP replace him?  More likely, if they're like any other news outlet, they will phase out the post altogether.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

1920s Theatre, Eugene O'Neill, and Jazz

Sorry I was out of commission the last couple of days.  Among the things I was busy with was guest-blogging over at the CUNY/Martin Segal Center site for an event devoted to Professor David Savran's new book Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class.  David happens also to be my thesis advisor, so obviously I had a vested interest!

But the book genuinely is fantastic, as you can read about in my two blog posts.

Preview:

Highbrow/Lowdown gives us a fascinating case study of the role of jazz in the formation of American theatrical taste in the 1920s.  In my journey through the book so far, I am most stimulated by the intensity (”symbolic violence” as David’s guiding spirit Pierre Bourdieu calls it) of the cultural battles it relates: between musicals and dramas, between jazz and classical, between populist and elite, and between “legitimate” and “popular” venues of performance.  Most surprising of all is how his narrative marches toward such a foundational moment in US drama as the emergence of Eugene O’Neill–an artist as far from the American Musical Theatre tradition as there is.  But by that point in the argument, O’Neill’s entrance onto the stage makes perfect sense as the triumph of drama over music, as it were, that has come to define the historiogaphic trajectory of “US Modern Drama” ever since.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Roundup

-In Tony news, a rare example of rescinding a nomination.  (I thought no backsies!) Turns out, maybe someone shouldn't be nominated for the same designs they were nominated for twenty years ago...

-Folks in NYC are talking about Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play, but the real-life once-a-decade Oberammergau spiel is alive and well. Bloomberg's Catherine Hickley reports from Germany.

-Memorializing the demise of Soho's Ohio Theatre a tad prematurely (it won't shutter till end of summer) Eric Grode in the Voice tracks down various downtown luminaries for their favorite memories of thirty years of experimental performance in that quirky yet signature Off-Off space.  (Including Tony Kushner recalling an NYU show he did there in 1983!)

-Self-appointed "Shakespeare Cop" Ron Rosenbaum eviscerates the Arden Shakespeare's claim of the Bard's authorship for the mess of a play known as Double Falsehood.

-For chuckle-worthy reminiscences of a veteran critic, check out Benedict Nightingale's farewell to the Times of London.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

OBIES 2010

The Village Voice's Off Broadway citations (hence, "O.B.") as announced last night:

The Sustained Achievement Award
David Greenspan
Best New American Play (w/check for $1000)
Annie Baker, CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION and THE ALIENS
Performance
Ensemble, CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION (Playwrights Horizons)
(Reed Birney, Tracee Chimo, Peter Friedman, Deirdre O’Connell, Heidi Schreck)
Dane DeHaan, THE ALIENS (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)
Jonathan Hammond, THE BOYS IN THE BAND (Transport Group)
Marc Damon Johnson, THE BROTHER/SISTER PLAYS (Public Theater)
Laurie Metcalf, A LIE OF THE MIND (The New Group)
Wendell Pierce, sustained excellence of performance
Juliet Rylance, AS YOU LIKE IT (Bridge Project/BAM)
Rocco Sisto, sustained excellence of performance
Playwriting
Enda Walsh, THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM (Druid Theatre / St. Ann’s Warehouse)
Directing
Sam Gold, CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION (Playwrights Horizons) and THE ALIENS (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)
Pam MacKinnon, CLYBOURNE PARK (Playwrights Horizons)
Design / Music
Steven Dufala and Billy Blaise Dufala (machine design), MACHINES MACHINES
MACHINES MACHINES MACHINES MACHINES MACHINES (rainpan 43 /
HERE Arts Center)
Stephin Merritt (music & lyrics), CORALINE (MCC Theater)
Tyler Micoleau, sustained excellence of lighting design
Neil Murray (sets and costumes), Malcolm Rippeth (lighting), Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll (projection design), BRIEF ENCOUNTER (Kneehigh Theatre / St. Ann’s Warehouse)
Special Citations
Ariane Mnouchkine & Théâtre du Soleil, LES ÉPHÉMÈRES (Lincoln Center Festival)
Taylor Mac, THE LILY’S REVENGE (HERE Arts Center)
The Ohio Theatre
Hoi Polloi and Rachel Chavkin, THREE PIANOS
(Hoi Polloi: Alec Duffy, Dave Malloy, and Rick Burkhardt) (Ontological)
Philippe Quesne and Gaëtan Vourc’h, L’EFFET DE SERGE (Vivarium Studio / Under the Radar)  
Chris Wells, SECRET CITY
The Ross Wetzsteon Award (w/check for $1000)
Foundry Theatre
Obie Grants
Harlem School of the Arts
Ontological Incubator
Vampire Cowboys
In other awards news: the Outer Critics Circle also announced yesterday. Best Musical: Outer Critics From Outer Space!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Just HOW Big a Loss is "Law & Order" to NY Actors ?

This big:

Some actors who worked chiefly in New York theater, drawing weekly salaries of $500 to $1,500 for their stage roles [um, more like $250-$500--ed.], supplemented those paychecks by playing judges, jurors and police officers on “Law & Order.” Pay for those jobs ranged from a few hundred dollars to $1,000 or so a week for only a few moments of screen time.


Douglas Aibel, the artistic director of the Vineyard Theater, an Off Broadway theater, who is also a casting director for feature films, said the premiere of “Law & Order” in 1990 was a watershed for actors based on the East Coast. “Many actors used to have to choose between pursuing a theatrical life in New York or going to L.A. to earn a living,” Mr. Aibel said, “but one of the lovely things about the ‘Law & Order’ franchise is that it provided actors an opportunity to do both."


Jan Maxwell, a longtime New York theater actress who has been nominated for two Tony Awards this season, recalled fondly that she played murderers in her three appearances on “Law & Order” during the 1990s [...] “The writing was decent enough so you didn’t feel like shoving a knife into your head when you got home,” Ms. Maxwell said. “And the money was helpful to have in between theater jobs. A lot of us counted on ‘Law & Order’: It was built on the back of theater actors in New York."

For lesser-known actors, the prestige of a “Law & Order” credit outweighed the earnings. Frank Senger, who lives in Astoria, has played small roles (a biker, a strip-club bouncer) in two episodes of the original show, which is known in the trade as “the mother ship,” as well as in two episodes of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and one of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” He said he was paid union scale of about $500 or $600 for his work but had continued receiving royalty checks in dwindling amounts, some for as little as 33 cents.  All told, his earnings from those five appearances may have totaled $20,000 or so, over 15 years, he said. “I know that doesn’t seem like that much,” he said. But he added, “You’re taken as a serious working actor in New York if you’ve done ‘Law & Order.’ ”
Well at least there's still SVU and CI, right?  Right???

Friday, May 14, 2010

Gandalf the Broke?


Ian McKellen, currently playing Waiting for Godot's Estragon in Australia, tweets:
'During the dress rehearsal of Godot, I crouched by the stage door of the Comedy Theatre, getting some air, my bowler hat at my feet [and] seeing an unkempt old man down on his luck, a passer-by said, 'Need some help, brother?' and put a dollar in my hat.'

Thursday, May 13, 2010

That Newsweek Gay Actors Controversy

So I've finally caught up with the now-infamous Newsweek piece by one Ramin Setoodeh that claimed, among other things, that nobody is buying Sean Hayes as heterosexual in the current Promises Promises revival on Broadway.

Setoodeh, an openly gay man himself, is now defending himself against charges of homophobia and insensitivity (and can we throw in lazy theatre criticism?).  And I find him persuasive that he did not mean to slander a whole class of actors.

But when you read the original piece, the flaw in his argument is glaring: everything he says about Hayes is clearly predetermined by his pop-culture knowledge of the actor's offstage life and public persona.  (And it should here be noted, Setoodeh seems to be some kind of pop-culture columnist/blogger at Newsweek, not their theatre critic, thank god.  Then again, they don't even have a theatre critic.)

What Setoodeh is really saying is that once a gay male actor outs himself, audiences will no longer find him credible as a hetero romantic lead.  He even goes as far back as poor Rock Hudson, who did perfectly fine convincing American moviegoers he was straight--until Setoodeh now claims Pillow Talk is absurd because of what we know now.  Is that really fair to Rock's acting?

The unspoken message of Setoodeh's argument seems to me simply that gay male actors should not come out if they ever want to become starring leading men and not be relegated to the ghetto of gay characters and/or gay stories.  In other words, don't come out because popculture watchers like Setoodeh will call you out on it--even though most of the rest of us don't know actors' personal sexual preferences and don't care.

Now despite his attention to Promises Promises, Setoodeh's focus is mostly film and television.  (Jonathan Goff in Glee comes in for ridicule.)  But the experience of gay actors in the theatre business actually disproves his point most effectively.  Odds are we see many, many gay actors on stage playing hetero men than we are aware.  Partly this is because stage actors don't have their private lives under public scrutiny the way their screen counterparts do.  (Anonymity and obscurity have their benefits.)  So without knowing much about them when we walk into the theatre, we are not bothered by this at all.

In short, I think we have plenty of gay actors on the New York stage who "butch it up" quite well, thank you.  And maybe Mr. Setoodeh should meet them.

And why does Setoodeh's argument seem to imply that gay actors have a problem because they're too effeminate?  Many appear quite "butch" in real life, too, Ramin, so why should they have any problem playing straight characters?  And what about the plenty of hetero male characters that are not so butch?

This gets to perhaps the real issue here--differing ideas of "masculinity."  "Butching it up" is exactly what Setoodeh is accusing Sean Hayes of not doing.  But does he pay any attention to the character he's playing?  He contrasts him with Jerry Orbach who originated the role in the 1968 musical.  But one name shockingly missing is that of Jack Lemmon--who created originally originated the role in the source material, the 1963 movie The Apartment.  Is Jack Lemmon anyone's idea of a he-man?  In that movie especially, he was a loveable dweeb, a socially inept nerd who's lack of tangible testosterone encouraged the office women to ignore him and his bosses to exploit him.

Now I haven't seen Sean Hayes' performance--but knowing what I do about the Lemmon performance, I don't immediately rule him out as obvious miscasting in this case.

So let's put the fault where it really is.  Not on fine actors who are doing their job.  But on a media (and an obliging entertainment industry) so obsessed with personal celebrity that it does not allow actors to have private lives separate from their work.  We usually pull that off in the theatre quite well, comparatively.  It's only the poor TV stars who come to town that face such disapproval.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What's up at Center Stage?

I posted a while ago the announcement of Artistic Director Irene Lewis' departure from Baltimore's Center Stage, after nearly two decades in the job.

Turns out it was not voluntary.  And the Baltimore Sun now piles on and pretty much implies good riddance.  What were Lewis' faults?  Reportedly a combination of the usual: growing disengagement from the local arts community, not enough schmoozing, not hiring enough homegrown talent, and ineffective directing.

Anyone know another side to this?  Or does no one deserve to be Artistic Director for Life?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Quote of the Day

If only life were like The Onion:

WASHINGTON—In a decisive and vulgar 7-2 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court once again upheld the constitution's First Amendment this week, calling the freedom of expression among the most "inalienable and important rights that a motherfucker can have."

"It is the opinion of this court that the right to speak without censorship or fear of intimidation is fundamental to a healthy democracy," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority. "Furthermore, the court finds that the right to say whatever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want, is not only a founding tenet, but remains essential to the continued success of this nation."

Added Ginsburg, "In short, freedom of speech means the freedom of fucking speech, you ignorant cocksuckers."

The decision came Monday in response to the case of a Charleston, WV theater troupe that had been sued by city officials for staging a sexually explicit play with public funds. Reversing the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the theater, an outcome free-speech advocates are calling a victory and Justice Ginsburg called "a bitch-slap in the face of all those uptight limp-dicks."

The ruling in City of Charleston v. The Kanawha Players marks the first time in 220 years that the nation's highest court has taken such a fiercely profane stance.
If anyone can tell me how to donate to these Kanawha Players let me know...

Happy Graduation, Drama Majors

In case you needed further confirmation...

We salute and congratulate the graduates whose interests (and hard work) have led them to the following degrees--the lowest-earning degrees on PayScale's list.

10. Drama (starting annual salary: $35,600; mid-career annual salary: $56,600)
Some mega-millionaire movie stars with drama degrees (Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, for instance) may be skewing these numbers upward--for every Denzel and Meryl, there are thousands of thespians struggling to make ends meet. But you don't study drama because you want to get rich--you study drama because you love the theater. (And an ability to act comes in handy in many professions.)
Wow, $35-$55K!  Get me my tap shoes!


Where do these folks get their statistics???  Their #1 was "Social Work" at $33K/$41K.  I know a lot of actors who would kill for that.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Another End of a Downtown Era

In yet another "farewell to the stage" Richard Foreman makes little news in claiming he's going to focus now more on film and video. But he does seem to be serious about moving out of his longtime home at St. Mark's Church.

Dear Friends,

The Ontological-Hysteric Theater announced April 16 that it will leave our theater space of eighteen years at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery at the end of June. This is a big step for the theater and for me personally, but it signifies a shift in my work--not an end to it. In addition, I'm happy to tell you that the Incubator presenting programs will take over the theater at St. Mark's July 1st.

Since making St. Mark's our permanent home in 1992, the Ontological has produced my annual theater works and fostered a new generation of independent artists. Our relationship with St. Mark's has been and remains one of respect and generosity. I may continue to work occasionally in the theatrical world, but my immediate next steps will focus on film and video work. While the Ontological-Hysteric Theater will not seek a new permanent home, it will remain active and you can hear about upcoming events through this very email list and through our website.

The Incubator will continue its commitment to emerging artists, while making room for longer residencies with more established companies. New work development and world premieres will continue to be the focus of the work.
While Foreman was already creating work for over twenty years before moving into St. Marks, for those like me who only came of age with his work in the 90s, his aesthetic will always be inseparable from that cramped little crashbox. No one else's work has really looked as good in there, and I will miss it.

But I'm glad the valuable Incubator program will continue to do the lord's work in that sacred space.

Enough with the Facebook already

Uber-arts manager Michael Kaiser (he runs the Kennedy Center, after all) puts his finger on it:

It is not the nature of marketing that attracts any segment of an audience but the work itself. Of course we must use marketing techniques that reach the audience we hope to attract, but simply putting something on Facebook does not guarantee that younger people will come.
Yes.  Dear theatre companies--stop pressuring me to join your Facebook page.  I know you all need friends.  But who wants to be friends with a marketing department.


And, by the way, you can now follow The Playgoer on...Facebook!

Can't beat 'em, join 'em, I guess...

Friday, May 07, 2010

Changings of the Guards

New AD's just appointed for DC's Studio Theatre and Williamstown.

off b'way is back?

Crains bucks the trend and says that despite recent woes over shuttering spaces and marketing difficulties, commercial Off Broadway is (forgive me) staging a comeback.  First there's the reverse-transfers of Broadway hits Avenue Q and 39 Steps to the New World Stages "multiplex" venue, where they are both doing well.  Now another OB entrepreneur is staking some real estate:

In the past few months, Catherine Russell has been receiving calls constantly from producers trying to rent a stage at her off-Broadway theater complex. In fact, the demand is so great that Ms. Russell—whose two stages are filled with the long-running shows The Fantasticks and Perfect Crime—plans to build more theaters. The general manager of the Snapple Theater Center at West 50th Street and Broadway is in negotiations with landlords at two midtown locations to build one complex with two 249-seat theaters and another with two 249-seat theaters and a 99-seat stage. She hopes to sign the leases within the next two months and finish the theaters by October.
“There are not enough theaters centrally located in the Broadway area,” says Ms. Russell, who is looking for a corporate sponsor for the new theaters similar to the deal she now has with Snapple. “There is a need for more comfortable, clean, off-Broadway theaters with lovely dressing rooms and a good location.”
Yes, the Snapple Theatre is a hit.

Russell has a point about "location, location, location".  Both Snapple and New World are basically in the Times Square/Broadway theatre district, and thus have a better chance of roping in some of the tourist trade who only go there to see a show.

On the other hand, there are still those daunting "givens" for producing OB:
Despite the renewed interest, off-Broadway still faces many challenges. The average ticket price is just $37.50—compared with around $80 on Broadway—and the theaters are small, with the maximum number of seats at 499, so making the weekly nut is tough. And with weekly advertising budgets of around $5,000 (compared with $75,000 on Broadway), these productions rely on reviews, which are getting harder to come by because the advertising downturn has forced news outlets to lay off critics and run fewer reviews.
Show me where that $37.50 ticket is to be had, by the way!  Last I checked The Public was selling that hip youth-oriented downtown musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at $70. And they're nonprofit!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

In Other Awards...

All eyes may be on the Tony race, but the NY Drama Desk (who include both all professional shows Broadway and non) also came out with their nominations.

And an especially fractured NY Drama Critics Circle announced whatever winners they could--after failing to reach consensus on a Best Foreign Play and a Best Musical.  Their Best Play is the Horton Foote Orphans' Home cycle.  Then they went all Obies and gave out citations for "sustained performance" (Viola Davis) "emerging talent" (playwright Annie Baker) and to last summer's Lincoln Center Festival for "visionary international programming" (in lieu of Best Foreign Play, I guess).

Meanwhile, the Time Out's David Cote lets fly some good ol' Tony nomination carping.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Right to Offend and be Offended

"No one has the right to live without being shocked.  No one has the right to spend their life without being offended.  Nobody has to read this book.  Nobody has to pick it up. nobody has to open it .   And if they open it and read it, they don't have to like it.  And if you read it and you dislike it, you don't have to remain silent about it.  You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things. But there your rights stop.  Nobody has to right to stop me writing this book. Nobody has to the right to stop it being published, or sold, or bought, or read."

-Philip Pullman, when challenged by an offended Christian about his latest novel The Good Man Jesus and the Soundrel Christ.

I'm glad he put it that way.  Freedom from abuse--yes.  Freedom from offense--no.  From Mohammed cartoons to flag-burning, from Corpus Christi to Rachel Corrie, beware those who deliberately confuse the two.

The ability to distinguish between "offensive" words or art on the one hand and actual physical violence and intimidation on the other is indeed a nonnegotiable clause in social contract of a free society.  The right to not have yourself, your religion, or yo mama merely spoken badly of...is not in the constitution.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Tony Noms 2010

They're out.  And they're...pretty much what you expected.

I'd say the headline coming out of this is the number of bona fide celebrities included.  Look at the Best Actor category alone: Denzel Washington, Jude Law, Christopher Walken, Liev Schreiber, and Alfred Molina.  Might as well be the next Jerry Bruckheimer buddy film! Also nominated: Scarlett Johansson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury,Valerie Harper, Linda Lavin, Kelsey Grammer, Laura Linney, Sean Hayes.

Oh, and Green Day.  Not that they're nominated personally.  But they'll be there, you betcha.

So CBS must be thrilled for the broadcast.  A red carpet worthy of the name and lots of A-list presenters. And with David Hyde Pierce getting a special honor (for his charity work) you got a Frasier reunion, too!  (Especially if Bebe Neuwirth bothers to show after being snubbed for Addams Family.)

Other mild surprises and newsworthy details:

Best Play: David Mamet turns out not to have a lock in the category: his Race was shut out.  But after all, it's really not a good play....Instead, the committee chose to remember Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room, which closed back in January.  So Ruhl makes it on Broadway....A shout out to the little play that might, Next Fall, and the very-respected Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies. The British snob hit slot goes to Red (since everyone hated Enron) and it will probably win.

Patrick Healy's analysis of the Best Play nom's over at NYT are worth considering:

the four nominees for best play are all shows that have or had performed modestly at best at the box office. Two of the plays, “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)” and “Time Stands Still,” were both not-for-profit Broadway productions; “In the Next Room” struggled badly to fill seats,” and “Time Stands Still” performed unevenly. A third nominee, “Next Fall,” has had some of the lowest grosses of the spring season.
More confirmation that drama is not back on B'way.  But Red is doing well.  And the biggest hit drama of the year, A Steady Rain (starring Wolverine and James Bond) was also shut out.  I'd say that's just an example of good taste on the part of the committee.  Then again, if it were still running, it might have had more clout among producers.


Best Musical: The big story will be the absence of The Addams Family. But you knew that.  That show may not need Tonys to keep running--BUT it will really, really want a spot on the TV broadcast.  How will they finagle that?  Stay tuned to Michael Riedel....Twyla Tharp's Sinatra-fest Come Fly Away also left out, though she got a choreography nod...Also note that among all four nominees, only one has an original score.  The fact that that show is Memphis surprised me since I (like many, probably) assumed it's another jukebox musical.  But no, it only features faux-R&B songs by Bon Jovi's David Bryan....And yes, half of the four nominated musicals (Memphis & Million Dollar Quartet) are nostalgic recreations of early rock 'n' roll in the same city!

Best Score: Because 75% of the nominated musicals featured only repackaged music, the committee had to expand this once-crucial category, renaming it "Best Original Score Written for the Theatre."  So not only did they have to descend to Memphis and even The Addams Family (must have been hard for them), but two plays! Fences (Branford Marsalis's classy & jazzy incidental music) and Enron.  Which everyone hated.  Talk about filling the category.

Again, nothing for Brighton Beach Memoirs, due to (as commenter Steve pointed out) the show not running long enough for Tony voters to see it.  Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy!

More snubs: Nathan Lane in Addams Family--will he show? will he be a bitchy presenter? Let's hope so.  (I'm sure CBS is.)...Everyone involved in A Steady Rain.  I guess Hugh isn't hosting again this year....And a lot of American Idiot, which only got Set and Lighting in addition to Best Musical. So big dis to director/conceiver Michael Mayer and lead actor John Gallagher, who basically carries the show.

Special Awards to: Alan Ayckbourn, Marian Seldes, the O'Neill Center, and--in a surprise nod to the NYC nonprofit downtown community, ART/NY! (Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York)

The Big Winners: Fela (11 noms), La Cage (11 ), Fences (10),  Memphis (8), the long-ago-closed and beleaguered Ragtime revival (7)...and actress Jan Maxwell (2) for Lead in Royal Family and Featured in Lend Me a Tenor.

See you on June 13th for the return of the Blogcast!

*Correction: I didn't notice the ART/NY award earlier.  Thanks to the commenter below for reminding me.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Politician Admits to Reading Modernist Drama

Get ready to swoon.

Nick Clegg, the "third party" Liberal Democrat candidate for Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, proudly pens for the Guardian a tribute to his favorite author.

Will he go with Jesus, like Bush?  Lincoln, like Obama? Try Beckett.

My first encounter with Beckett was when I was studying in Minnesota and I acted in a student production of Krapp's Last Tape. Back then I remember images of Beckett making as great an impression on me as his work. He always looked so impressive – that beak-like nose, eyes staring dead into the camera – and he had an austerity to him, even when he was young, that makes it very easy to connect the man to the words.
Since then I must have read Waiting for Godot – of course – a hundred times. Every time I go back to Beckett he seems more subversive, not less; his works make me feel more uncomfortable than they did before. The unsettling idea, most explicit in Godot, that life is habit – that it is all just a series of motions devoid of meaning – never gets any easier.

It's that willingness to question the things the rest of us take for granted that I admire most about Beckett; the courage to ask questions that are dangerous because, if the traditions and meanings we hold so dear turn out to be false, what do we do then?
I wonder if he takes it as a badge of honor when opponents call the Lib Dem policies "absurd."

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Broadway Bomb Lays an Egg


[photo removed at request of photographer]

 No, not the newest cast member of Chicago. Just another bomb sniffing robot struttin' his stuff in Times Square.


Yes, a car bomb almost blew up The Lion King last night.

Well, ok, maybe the threat from this "improvised" fizzling device stuffed into a parked SUV wasn't that severe.
Kevin B. Barry, a former supervisor in the New York Police Department bomb squad, said that if the device had functioned, “it would be more of an incendiary event” than an explosion.
Well one thing's for sure: That would have been the first "incendiary event" on Broadway in quite a while.

("An Incendiary Event!" sure would look good on that Lion King marquee, don't you think?)

Playbill cuts to the chase and rounds up the effect on the many Broadway shows affected:
Broadway shows on or near West 45th Street include Next to Normal, The Lion King, A Behanding in Spokane, God of Carnage, Red, Billy Elliot, Lend Me a Tenor and Come Fly Away.

Playbill.com learned that the Saturday night curtain of Mary Poppins went up on schedule on West 42nd Street, as did the curtain of La Cage aux Folles on West 48th Street. The Addams Family on 46th Street began about 20 minutes late. A Behanding in Spokane on West 45th Street began about 8:30 PM, with the audience invited to move down front into any empty seats. God of Carnage began around 8:30 PM. At the end of the show, the audience was held for 15 minutes and was instructed to exit through the stage door alley, into the Milford Plaza lobby toward Eighth Avenue. The same happened at Red, next door. Lend Me a Tenor, at the Music Box on 45th, also began around 8:30 Saturday. At the end of the show, the audience filed out through a back exit through the Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street. The Enron company on West 44th Street learned shortly before 8 PM that there was a nearby police action, so the curtain was delayed for a few minutes. At the end of the performance, around 10:30 PM, an announcement was made to the audience that they should exit west toward Eighth Avenue and not toward Times Square. One observer told Playbill.com, "The police were not kidding around. They hustled people out."  A cast member from The Lion King told Playbill.com that the show began almost an hour late on Saturday night.
In short, despite the rumpus, "all shows did go on," as confirmed by the Broadway League this morning.  So say what you will, Broadway is resilient.

(Some customers may have had trouble getting past the barricades into their shows, but the League promises refunds.)

Between this and the holiday season police shootout on pretty much the same block back in December, Times Square may once again become a dangerous place.

But perhaps the most crushing blow to the theatre industry is not the danger, but the excitement!
Gabrielle Zecha and Taj Heniser, visiting from Seattle, had tickets to see “Next to Normal” at the Booth Theater on 45th Street but could not get into the 8 p.m. show because the area was blocked off. But they made the best of the spectacle. “It’s a whole different kind of show,” Ms. Heniser said, adding, “It’s almost the equivalent of a $150 show.” 
Yes, standing in the street and watching a stationery vehicle being prodded by robots has become a better bargain than a Broadway show.

photo: Hiroko Masuike, NY Times
The defused SUV finally being towed away from West 45th St. early this morning.