The Playgoer: June 2005

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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Middlebrows in the Park?

An all-too-rare theatre piece in Slate timed to the opening of another summer of (quality-)free Shakespeare in Central Park. I kid. But read on for some interesting observations about the tradition.

Billy Elliot: The Dissent

From John Lahr, of all people. Anglophile and generally forgiving critic that he is, still cannot abide the new London (and, no doubt, B'way-bound) hit:

When a story gets at something elemental in the dream life of its audience—here it’s the longing to discover your desire and to seize your destiny—narrative vulgarities are often overlooked. This, it seems to me, explains how a show with a mawkish, melodramatic book, and without a single memorable melody or lyric, could have worked its way so deeply into the public imagination.
Ouch! (Take that, Brantley!) On that rare occasion Lahr doesn't like something, he can be ruthless. But the man's thorough intelligence and good taste is enough to raise doubts. (I mean, Elton John. What were we thinking...)

Napster saves Classical?

The BBC Beethoven downloads continue, with stunning implications. Herewith, read Norman Lebrecht on La Scena. Check out his lede paragraphs:

...When the first five symphonies of Beethoven went on-line in the opening week of this month, the Radio 3 website registered 657,399 individual downloads, a figure so immense it exceeded the annual sales of any classical record label and should, by rights, have qualified each of the symphonies for a slot in Top of the Pops.
Last night the BBC let loose the second tranche – from Pastoral to Choral symphonies – amid growing confidence that the demand for free Beethoven will cross the million mark, transforming the future of musical dissemination.

Could classical downloading possibly be less "evil" than pop-napstering, simply because there are fewer (yes, some) rights issues? Who will be the enterprising and forward-looking imressarios to seize on this?

The downloads themselves are here. (Warning: it's so popular it takes a while...)

Susan Glaspell

Here's a good promo piece on a new biography of Susan Glaspell. I heard the author lecture at NYU and it seems like not only the rescuing of a good playwright from obscurity, but a valuable window onto the world of expressionist American theatre "experiments" in the 'teens and 'twenties. And, not to mention, an example of a very significant woman writer in a field the histories have taught us was dominated by men.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005


by Euripides
adapted & directed by Tony Harrison
starring Vanessa Redgrave
a Royal Shakespeare Company production
at BAM (closed 6/26)

I'll stand up for this production, despite the tepid critical response. Yes, it was a bit flat, and the political messages were both too blunt and too muddled at times. But I often sleep during Greek Tragedy stagings today and Hecuba kept me awake. (Sounds like a low standard, I know, but read on.) Tony Harrison--a poet and classical translator I've always admired and should be more known in the US--writes language that cuts like a knife; for all its idiosyncrasies and "anachronistic" flourishes (the free use of buzz words like "terrorist"--used against the Trojans-- and "coalition" to describe the Greek army) this is a superb spoken text that an audience can hang on every word of. And in the booming voice of Vanessa Redgrave and an unusually articulate and in-unison chorus, every word was heard, even in the notorious upper balcony of the BAM opera house. It is so hard to capture the Dionysian, physical energy embedded in these plays that I feel grateful to at least be able to enjoy the Apollonian elements and have a meaningful listening experience. Saying a production communicated a play as great literature is not always damning with faint praise.

But politics more than Great-Book-worship was clearly on the agenda for such radical animals as Harrison and Redgrave. The stunning set by Es Devlin (another Apollonian delight, see photo) presented you with an endless landscape of tents, evoking both the battlefields and refugee camps of recent wars. Devlin's costumes seem particularly Serbo-Croation, but much in text--and in the George-Bush-swagger and American r's of Darrel D'Silva's Odysseus--point to the conflict on our TV screens every night. Occasionally a line--like Hecuba's "Great power must use power wisely"--really cuts through. I liked Harrison's transformation of the chorus (always a problem in modern Greekdom) into an austere Brechtian commentator, even singing lines to interject into the main characters' dialogue; the Hanns Eisler-esque sprechtstimme of composer Mick Sands' odes serves this purpose well, especially when Harrison employs that old trick from the Brecht playbook, turning on the houselights, in a confrontational ode here delivered face out as "You'll have to pay!" Yes, even though this is a production originated in the UK and has toured elsewhere, the tone of Brits lecturing Americans was unmistakable. But, hey--who at BAM disagreed?

Other reviews:
NY Times
Village Voice
NY Post

The interactive "Glengarry"?

From a post on Broadway's uber-chatroom "All That Chat"... about a recent Glengarry performance, where one audience member took some umbrage at Mr Mamet's F-words:

"Watch Your Language, You Idiot"--Shouted out at Liev Schreiber last night, a
couple of minutes into the second act, by some misguided/naive theatergoer who
apparently had no idea where he was (perhaps at a town meeting) or what he had
come to see. And giving LS full credit for the script! The result, hundreds of
spinning heads and a 3 second glare from LS that was beautful to see.

Is this the prize audience the increasingly expensive Successful Broadway Play now attracts?

"Imagine...something awful" what one of the San Fran. papers said about Lennon: The Musical in its tryouts. Michael Reidel has all the down & dirty about what promises to be a critics' feeding-fest in a couple of weeks. Look for it...

Personally, I'm waiting for Lenin: The Musical

Monday, June 27, 2005

Plays on Broadway: Curse of Success?

Variety has an interesting study of the "Average Paid Admission" figures for the recent season. The headline hails good news in that, overall, the ticket only went up 20 cents this year. But if you read the finer points, it's musicals that were kept in check. Plays went up!

Play fans, however, have reason to fret, as the APA for plays skyrocketed by a whopping $5.52, to $60.79, according to the league. This is largely attributed to just two shows -- the high-priced "700 Sundays" with Billy Crystal and "Julius Caesar" with Denzel Washington. But hits like "Doubt" and "The Pillowman" also helped pump average tix.
And there you have the "resugence" of the Drama on Broadway. Praised to the skies and priced out of range of the true theatrelover. The more successful and commercially viable plays on Broadway become, the harder it will be for many of us who care to see them. Who is being served here? (Don't assume the artists are getting their fair share of this intake.)

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Producers cum laude?

Jesse McKinley's Sunday A&L piece on Hal Prince does provide interesting opportunity for reflection, on the changes in what a Broadway producer does. I certainly agree that the great "creative producers" of the past did some good for the American (commercial) theatre. But does Columbia University really need to feel responsible for endowing a program devoted to this?

...Mr. Prince has now teamed with Columbia University to establish a fellowship
program devoted to developing those "creative producers." The program...will
give student producers the chance to develop shows from scratch, culminating in
a presentation before potential investors.

How about providing funds for writers and/or directiors to create the work in the first place? The new Republican culture ministers at NEA & PBS should be happy that learning how to kiss up to "investors" is part of the new arts curriculum.

Also of note in the article--some growing frankness about how non-profits are increasingly responsible for developing the prize products of the commercial theatre.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

What's Going on at the Signature? (and the Times, and with August Wilson?)

Hey, did you read that piece in the Times Thursday about the Signature's new August Wilson season? Well, guess what? It was wrong. See for the real story, which is that it's been delayed a whole year (not just half a year). So the Signature's mission of celebrating one master playwright a season will become just "highlights" from their faves.

(The other focus of the article, Signature's attempt at a $15-a-ticket season is notable, something Playgoer will follow up on.)

Unremarked upon, though, re: Wilson is... what about Radio Golf? As I understood it, the "climax" of the Signature season was to be the big NYC premiere (Off-Broadway, of course) of this, Wilson's "final" installment in his epic 20th-century cycle. Yes, it got tepid reviews in its Yale Rep premiere. But that bad??? The play certainly continues to live: this summer it travels to LA (at the announced at Baltimore's Center Stage for March, 2006. Hmm, just when it was originally supposed to open at the Signature. Has Wilson decided to hold out for another shot at Broadway? (Despite his perseverence there, it is less and less welcoming.)

Theatre journalists, get your sleuthing caps on. (And wake up, Grey Lady!)

Hat tip, Contrapositive

Regional Seasons: Steppenwolf

Some interesting announcements from Chicago's Steppenwolf. New plays by Mary Zimmerman and Don DeLillo(!). And yet another 4:48 Psychosis.

Fate of Classical?

Music, that is. As if in a conspiracy of anxiety, a slew of books are coming out this month offering post-mortems on classical music in America (if not the modern world, in general). Joseph Horowitz's generically titled Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall is reviewed in today's Times (unfavorably, but gives you the sense of it, at least). Mark Katz's Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music covers all genres of music, and even includes a CD of rare archival recordings! Robert Philip's unadorned title Performing Music in the Age of Recording also considers the technology impact, and the symbiotic relationship it has had with musicians. (Alex Ross in the New Yorker had a great overview of these last two books in the June 6 issue, no longer online, alas.)

A good prep for any of these books would be today's Times article by Anne Midgette on the business end of the problem for various symphony orchestras. Most telling, though--and unremarked upon--is the sheer size of concert halls. The lede of the article gloomily tells of the woes of the Chicago Symphony filling only 2,000 seats of its 3,000-seat summer venue. Hey, 2,000 seats! I'll take that in the theatre any day! Does no one consider the size of the "core" arts audience is just adjusting to smaller (but still sizeable and loyal) elite? And that maybe three thousand (!) seats is grotesquely too large for even a Wagner concert? (If you've been to one of these "festival" concerts and sat in the back listening to tinny amplification, you see the problems of attracting new listeners.)

Again, the profit-margin in non-profit will be the end of us...

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Regional Theatre seasons: Wilma

The Wilma in Philadelphia has announced an interesting season for next year, including a Caryl Churchill double bill of the now-classic Cloud 9 and the new gem A Number. But especially intriguing to me is the scheduling of recent Tony-winner I Am My Own Wife in a "re-imagined" production. What exactly that means will have to wait, I guess, but it seems a smart move on playwright Doug Wright's part (who has tacitly approved through his association with the company). The original production, I felt, was so linked to Jefferson Mays's bravura performance that I really questioned the future legacy of the play. Not that the writing isn't good, but it simply begged the question: is the play viable without Mays, or without a Mays-imitator? It will be interesting to see if this staging involves more than one actor, for instance.

I posit that such an "open" view of the pervasive one-person play genre will be necessary if contemporary playwriting is to have a future not dependent on performance values. However, if you don't see any need for theatre to be literature at all, well...

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Summer Season: Williamstown

Williamstown Theatre Festival (in the Berkshires) has announced its lineup. Not particularly flashy. But revivals of Bus Stop and Stoppard's On the Razzle might attract interest. Most notable--a rare non-student production of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls!

Monday, June 20, 2005

Quote of the Day

"There is already debate about whether 'Billy Elliot' will eventually move to Broadway. Certainly, it lacks the surface glitter and arch references to other musicals that now seem de rigueur for big Broadway hits. Instead of winking condescendingly at the sentimental clichés that drive its plot, it finds the eternal life in them. For all its conscious craftsmanship, it's the most unself-conscious musical in decades. Speculation has it that with its thick regional accents, local slang and period political references, 'Billy Elliot' may be too British for Broadway. A more alarming thought is that while this show forges a visceral connection with its audience in a way American musicals were once famous for, 'Billy Elliot' may simply be too full of real feeling for the synthetic Broadway of today."

-From Ben Brantley's review of the London premiere of the musicalized Billy Elliot. For those of us who have been fans of director Stephen Daldry ever since An Inspector Calls days, the hype is utterly believable, Elton John notwithstanding...

Anyone seen it already?

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Sunday Papers: Leisure & Leisure

Today's Times Arts & Leisure theatre section is particularly pathetic. This page (yes, now a single page) is one of the most important organs of theatre coverage in the nation. That they can't come up with more than a celebrity profile of Elizabeth Berkley (no matter how much irony Isherwood masks it with) and a pr-bought promo for a minor independent producing team (masking as a women's theatre collective)... well, it doesn't bode well for what we can expect from major-media arts coverage in the future. (Oh save us, Columbia Journalism!)

The full effect of the glossy superficiality of this is best gotten in the print edition. In the link above, see top two stories. The third, a love-letter to the Redgraves from the bite-sized "Directions" page, is the icing on the cake.

Then, to feel like a person with a brain again, read the Charles McNulty's Village Voice interview with Vanessa Redgrave (along with a multi-bite discussion of her upcoming Hecuba) for the kind of article we used to expect from theatre journalism.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Vegas Avant-Garde?

So much for the theatre renaissance in Sin City. The Vegas non-profit SEAT ("Social Experimentation and Absurd Theater") has folded after two years of offering Beckett, Shepard, and original works to an Off-Strip audience. Even Mamet and Bogosian were apparently too risky. Backstage has the (depressing?) story of what it takes to produce alternative non-commercial theatre in "real" America.

Lane Smith, R.I.P.

Too bad Lane Smith never came back to the stage after his praised performance in the original Glengarry (as the dupe, Link). I will always remember him, though, in the underrated ABC 1989 TV film of The Final Days. His was one of the best ever Nixon performances (even if not an exact impersonation).

While on the subject, my other favorite Nixon performance would have to be the loopy Rip Torn in the 1979 mini-series Blind Ambition starring Martin Sheen as John Dean. Neither of these films are currently out on DVD. If you're a Watergate freak, demand them!

(Amazon does show one used VHS copy of Final Days. So act fast.)

Friday, June 17, 2005


Playgoer introduces a new feature summing up the notices from the dailies (and whatever else is available) for prominent openings. Look for the "RR" tag for a shortcut, with links, to what the critics are saying. Playgoer doesn't want to overvalue reviews, of course. But it is part of the game.

Apologies for lack of access to the pay-only sites. When will these rags understand--their reviews belong to the public!

Headline: Roundabout's revival of The Constant Wife, a 1926 comedy by Sumerset Maughm, did not get the review they wanted from the New York Times, but other dailies are strongly enthusiastic, even if in a nostalgia-kick vein. The play is a social comedy about adultery starring Kate Burton and Lynn Redgrave.

Charles Isherwood, NY Times: You know the Roundabout's collective heart sunk (does it have one?) at the early paragraph: "Broadway has been in the reupholstering business for a long time, but producers do not often forage deeply in the antiques fair of theatrical history for material as obscure as this to restore to the repertory." He's all over Kate, but basically dismisses the play for its "manicured language" while also accusing the production for distracting from the chatter with bits of physical farce. (Between this and Cherry Orchard Isherwood sure seems awfully pricly about physical comedy these days.)

Clive Barnes, NY Post: The Brit-born Barnes welcomes the old warhorse, but acknowledges it would seem a "dangerously old vintage" if not for director Mark Brokaw's "adroit new bottling." Brokaw and Burton save the day, for Barnes, overcoming overacting in the supporting roles (by Michael Cumpsty and John Dossett) and an "ugly" set of "Chinoiserie."

Howard Kissel, NY Daily News: Also finds new value in the play, "stimulating as well as enormously entertaining." Loves the set. Loves Cumpsty and Dossett. Gets extra points for fitting in the word "flibbertigibbet."

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: Online Journal is pay-only, so go see for yourselves if you subscribe. He does give away his lede for free on his ArtsJournal blog About Last Night,
basically praising the play as "Henrik Ibsen rewritten by Oscar Wilde."

Helen Shaw, New York Sun: Again pay-only. (Blast that NY Sun. Some of the best arts coverage in the city and yet so stingy!) So far, her lede also reflects some interest in Maughm's text, for its "rather refreshing view of the hoary institution" of marriage. (For more, just get out of the house and pay the 25 cents at the newsstand, I say.)

Anyone see this show for themselves yet? Hit "Comment"!

CORRECTION (1:30pm): Sorry, but I was mistaken earlier in saying the Times review was by Brantley. It's not. I have since amended.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

the old Ludwig Van...

BBC has been revolutionizing Classical Music on the web by beginning to offer downloads of entire Beethoven symphonies. (Even on a cable modem, though, it took a really long time, just for the relatively short Symphony #1.) The whole Beethoven site they've set up is first-rate. Just the right balance between accessible and informed. It's ideal for the casual classical listener but still not dumbed down for the fanatic. A peek at high culture's future (or what it could be) on the web...


The Cherry Orchard
by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Tom Donaghy
directed by Scott Zigler, starring Brooke Adams and Larry Bryggman
Atlantic Theater Company.

Atlantic's new production of The Cherry Orchard is already looking like the whipping boy of the post-season. But I was at the opening last night and saw a completely different show than what is described in today's papers. In full disclosure, I'll admit I have some associations with Atlantic, but had no connection to this production. And I'll stand by my objective judgment that this is one of the most successful (and, at least, interesting) American stagings of Chekhov I've seen in recent years. Its only sin is in its refusal to accept any pat critical notions of what Chekhov is supposed to be and deal with the text afresh. Don't mess with Chekhov, has been the response so far.

The critics today would have you believe director Scott Zigler and his playwright/adaptor Tom Donaghy simply took Chekhov's old (ambiguous) dictum of the play being a "comedy" too far and sullied it with "slapstick" (NY Post). What they have done, though, is far more subtle and thoughtful than an all-out pratfall & winking Chekhov (and believe me, I've seen that). True, they let the funny lines be funny! They let the characters be as contradictory, foolish, and unfeeling as they have been written. But they do so without alleviating that with any of the ancien regime nostalgia we theatre snobs still come to expect from this play. Yes, we like to trash Stanislavsky for ruining Chekhov's comic spirit with sentimentality--but we still want the play to be beautiful and touching. The NY Sun's Helen Shaw says, "Jokes land but the pathos floats by; notes of individual need sound clearly, but the chords necessary for romantic relationships don't play at all." That's right. There is no romance in this play--no requited or fulfilled romance, at least. What do these people want from poor Chekhov?

I think the problem is Zigler is an intellectual director (or should I just say intelligent) who is offering a somewhat (yes) cold but meticulously detailed reading of the play. Granted, cold isn't everyone's style, but to question the skill of the production confounds me. I was astonished by the specificity of so many of the characterizations. Isherwood in the Times
rightly (but grudgingly) singles out the magnificent clowning of veterans Larry Bryggman and Peter Maloney. But he dismisses so many others in this impressive cast, including Diana Ruppe's Varya. I'm sure Ruppe--a little stick-figure of tightly wound energy--is turning off these critics with her neurotic and hardly glamorous portrayal of what, I suppose, comes closest to a female romantic lead in this play. But it rang totally true to me for a young woman trying to forestall the disintegration of her aristocratic family and who ends up in pathetic circumstances (as Donaghy's version bluntly puts it "a housekeeper"). Quite a statement. And sure to piss off many. But that's what you get for daring to interpret the play rather than "the tradition."

Isherwood says a lot of outrageous things today. (What buttons did this push, I wonder?) He calls the casting of the African American actor Isiah Whitlock Jr. as the serf-turned-capitalist Lopakhin "taste-blind" (over "color blind") and that "this distracting choice hints at parallels with American history that are simplistic and irrelevant." Equating the specific historical crimes Russian serfdom with American slavery would be insensitive, in a history class, I agree. But just "irrelevant"??? Even as a theatrical point of reference? I did have reservations about Whitlock's acting, but in an American Chekhov why not use whatever we have in our own culture to demarcate race and class in ways that are at least analogous. Isherwood, of course, ignores the strong precedent for such casting in countless productions already (including one at Princeton's McCarter Theatre recently where Emily Mann cast even more along racial lines to emphasize parallels to the old South and slavery). And I, for one, felt the shudders when Lopakhin in Act III boasts of buying the land his father was enslaved on. (Note to Isherwood: serfs were human property.)

Isherwood closes with a beaut:

Strangely, Chekhov's plays have a way of disintegrating entirely when they are presented in ineffective productions like this one. Despite our affirmed knowledge of this dramatist's artistry, we find ourselves mystified, staring at a stage full of ill-defined characters hurling sighs, gripes and non sequiturs at one another. Where did all the genius get to?
What Zigler, Donaghy, and the cast captures so well are the "non-sequiturs" endemic to Chekhov. After seeing so many American method actors struggle to smooth over the bumps, to justify so many "weird" lines--like Gaev's constant play-by-play of an imaginary billiards game--how refreshing to see such contradictory impulses and changes of subject embraced, and committed to. Yes, the effect can be to make us wonder at these strange characters--in other words, the characters Chekhov wrote. Reading such criticism above makes me feel I'm back in 1910, when people were saying exactly the same thing about Chekhov.

Lost in all of this myopia is the achievement of Tom Donaghy's adaptation of the text, which has even more virtues than I have time to go into now. But even with all the zillions of English Cherry Orchards out there, I recommend getting the rights to this for your next production. Yes, it "breaks a few eggs" in finding a comfortable American vernacular (especially for the non-aristocrats) but I didn't feel anything was truly anachronistic. As for the acting, I do have to admit I wish Lopakhin and Madame Ranevsky (Brooke Adams) were better--which might strike you as a startling admission since they're usually considered the two stars! But so strong is the ensemble (and the production so strongly conceived of as an ensemble play) that those weaknesses never take over. In addition to those mentioned I also want to single out Erin Gann's runt of a Yasha; Scott Foley's surprisingly stage-worthy turn as the angry grad student Trofimov; and, finally, the great Alvin Epstein reinventing the role of Firs, the aged butler left behind by history. Frank Scheck, in the Post, uses Epstein's legend as the original American Lucky in Waiting for Godot against him by deeming his performance "more Beckett than Chekhov." That's a criticism??? The silent tableaux Zigler and Epstein make of the play's ending is indeed a chilling (and even moving!) Beckettian miniature. But you won't read anything about that in these notices today.

I urge readers out there interested in Chekhov to give this production a try. At the very least, you won't see a better Cherry Orchard (or maybe any Chekhov) this year. Top ticket is a reasonable Off-B'way $50 (available on but I'm sure discounts are to be had. (Especially, alas, after these reviews.)

Once again, here are the links to the above mentioned culprits--ahem, critics:
Charles Isherwood, NY Times
Helen Shaw, NY Sun (pay-only for full text)
Ralph Scheck, NY Post

[Update: at least Feingold and McCarter see some the fine virtues]

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
by Edward Albee
Starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin
On Broadway at the Longacre Theatre

Kathleen Turner's voice has gotten a lot of attention over the years. Too manly, or where's that accent from, say the detractors. Yet it's also been the epitome of breathy sexuality--the voice of cartoon femme fatale "Jessica Rabbit." Either way, it's made her a good living, on film. In the theatre the voice is the primary vehicle for the actor's soul and presence, especially in a play as exhaustively verbal as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Albee gives his leading characters, George and Martha, not speeches but arias packed with double- and triple-entendres, literary references, and philosophical heft. Such a play demands from an actor a supreme instrument, in range and sensitivity, both to communicate its complexity and to keep the audience awake.

So while Turner casts a great visceral physical presence on the stage as Martha, that deep monotone of hers cannot match the expressiveness of the writing over three acts. She's brassy alright. Seductive, yes. But I didn't feel that volatility so essential to the character. We--like her trapped guests--should be somewhat scared of Martha, of what she may do at any moment. Turner, with her expert wisecracking and world weariness, makes for somehow oddly comforting company. Maybe it comes with being a movie star. (There is, of course, the requisite applause for her entrance at the top. Not really the ideal way to begin this play.)

The surprise of the evening, then, is how big brassy Martha is eclipsed by her mousy husband, thanks to Bill Irwin. The play has now become the Triumph Of George, the little guy over the "big bad wolf." Unlike the severe and imposing acerbity of such butch George's as Richard Burton in the movie, Irwin cuts a slighter figure--a close relation to other Albee impotent bookworms like The Zoo Story's Peter, but with the poking wit of that play's Jerry, as well. Irwin impresses not by "proving himself an actor" and "disappearing into the role"--but by bringing so much Bill Irwin into it! Only he could make George so winning a clown, a twisted jester at Martha's dying court. Employing the well-honed tricks of his vaudevillian art--mimicking his opponents' voices, punctuating his Albee-esque puns with elbow juts and quick takes--he locates the sick circus in the play and becomes its master of ceremonies.

But with such a likeable George and Martha something goes wrong. (Aside from the fact there's basically no romantic chemistry between the two.) The play feels too easy under Anthony Page's direction. In 1962, the brutal (and dirty) jokes shocked; now they titillate an audience numbed by Married With Children. Which isn't to say the play is dated, just the bar is now raised for any production of this play to have its intended disturbing impact. I personally feel--no matter how "universal" we all know The Great Plays are-- it works best as a period piece, piercing through the veneer of 50s America. Page and his team have set it instead in such a generic American-Family-Play-Land there is no social context. (John Lee Beatty is one of the great designers, but his reputation for providing cozy sets you "want to live in" is not an asset here.) I would even argue the play also cries out for a more abstract, experimental staging to restore its full pity and terror. But this is Broadway after all, and a thoroughly Broadway-friendly production it is. A producer's dream. Albee has even cut a crucial scene at the end of Act II to make sure everyone makes their 10pm train. (When curtain is at 7:00, that is.)

I haven't mentioned the cast's other half, and won't drag on. Mirielle Enos does bring something new and less annoying to Honey than others and is fascinating to watch in her eccentric spasms. She gets Albee's twisted spirit. But hunky David Harbour I just found boring. Nick's two long dialogues with George, I realize now, form the fulcrum (fulcra?) of the play's "argument" against success-driven Americanism. Just because Nick is a dolt shouldn't mean that the actor can't still match George's complexity and intensity. Page doesn't find anything to activate Nick in these scenes and--despite Irwin's impressive rhetorical skills here--the play just sits there on the couch along with the static blocking.

I was indeed haunted when I left--but not by inklings of my own complacency, or by lingering questions of imaginary pregnancies. It was the thought that Albee's masterwork might only live on as slightly naughty domestic comedy. To paraphrase a recent movie-sage, "So this is how the American Theatre dies--with thunderous applause..."

But hey, that's just my opinion. Check out these other reviews...
Ben Brantley, New York Times
Michael Feingold, Village Voice

Adventures in Corporate Sponsorship

Haven't gotten used to saying "American Airlines Theatre" yet?

Well, you're not gonna like this either. Get ready for...the Snapple Theatre Center!

(As Lisa Simpson says upon seeing a sign for a Yahoo Serious Film Festival: "I know what all those words mean individually, but together they make no sense.")

Apparently Snapple is buying out the small space in Times Square that has been home for seven (!) years to that tourist trap Perfect Crime. You know that show--the one you're staring at in bewilderment any time you wait at TKTS, wondering: "Has anyone actually seen this???"

(Seriously, has anyone? Please tell me about it if you have.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Death of Criticism?

Enrique Fernandez has a provocative (or do I mean, depressing?) little essay on the implications of Columbia's abandonment of its NAJP (see Columbia story below). It's in the Miami Herald (free registration site), link courtesy of ArtsJournal.

"The phenomenon of 'zagatization' is taking over," says Fernandez, an NAJP alum. Man, he's got that right. (Remember the Zagat Theater Guide attempt a couple of years ago? Just audiences filling in ratings on cards with pencils.) Fernandez blames many factors--including blogs! But also, print newspapers ceding the "opinion" ground in general.

So, do we need newspaper critics? Andra Szanto, who heads the doomed National Arts Journalism Program and, joined by well-placed NAJP alums, is now trying to keep it alive, believes we do. Admitting that art blogs have an important role, Szanto worried about the loss of ``the civic role of newspapers....Arts criticism had been a newspaper's way of saying that you cannot conceive of reality without the arts being part of it,'' he said.
Are serious critics now dependent on the commitment of print media to our standards? Or is the web a sensible refuge?


Blog rec: Mark Steyn

Yet another quirky conservative voice in the field, Mark Steyn is always a good read. His site is a collection of published writing on many fields, but I recommend skipping over the directly political stuff on the war, etc. and going straight to Steyn on Stage--which, unfortunately, right now is limited to his once-a-month pieces in the (gulp) New Criterion. His latest there, on Spamalot, is a must-read for anyone interested in an intellectual assessment of its meaning in terms of contemporary Broadway and musical theatre history. (Or maybe that very formulation about such a show just made you laugh right now.) While appreciative and balanced about the show, he makes a compelling case about the bankruptcy of our increasing gravitation toward a Theatre of Parody. I'm on the record (see below) as liking Spamalot but I also think there's something to this argument.

Along with his fellow right-wing-media bedfellow Terry Teachout (on whose blog I found the Steyn link) these guys certainly make no secret of their distaste of liberal orthodoxy and embrace of the free market (while elitists, they easily accept the dictates of the commercial theatre), I find in each a strong aesthetic sense and great historical grasp. If you haven't read Steyn's Broadway Babies Say Goodnight then do. (As they say, If you love musicals--or even if you don't!) He is often acerbic, wrongheaded, and annoying, but it's a great rambling journey through twentieth century stage biz--with lots of rigorous musical analysis to boot (ie., not just a gossip book).

Any Steyn-detractors? Write in!

Monday, June 13, 2005

Season Preview: Roundabout

The Behemoth announceth...

...well, at least two of next season's big shows. First, the already buzzed about Threepenny Opera directed by Scott Elliott, starring Alan Cumming and Edie Falco. There's a lot here already to make Brechtians wary. Elliott shows time and again (case in point: "Hurlyburly") he is a master of gritty naturalism. But the alienation and irony of "Threepenny," both a classic, and a musica (forms in which he has been less successful)... well, we'll see. Cumming as Macheath? We'll try to keep an open mind. (I anticipate a decadent runt, not the traditional blasé roué). And who is Edie Falco playing??? Sopranos shows the required world-weariness in her, but can she transform that into deliberate social gesture?

The surprise news (to me, at leats) is the return of Gabriel Byrne, continuing his challenge to the great Robards O'Neill roles in A Touch of the Poet. Doug Hughes directs. Will Roundabout bring back the Studio 54 "cabaret" table seating so we can all raise a glass? Tune in Fall 2005...

Recommended Theatre Blogs

No, Playgoer is not alone in the Theatre Blogosphere. But as still something of a Blog neophyte, I am only still discovering who my colleagues are in this niche.

The granddaddy so far would appear to be Terry Teachout, who I find very interesting for, among other reasons, there just isn't a lot of conservative theatre criticism out there. Teachout also is expert in dance, classical music, and jazz, so the site is an elitist's cornucopia! (I don't shy away from elitist myself, and I assume he doesn't.)

Teachout is hosted, by the way, by ArtsJournal, which I'm embarrassed to report I've only just stumbled upon. But it's probably the best arts site I've seen yet--at least for commentary. They also have nifty headline links of the day, including a page of them for theatre, so I hereby am adding it to Playgoer's daily "must-reads," clickable here to the right.

I'm also glad to discover fellow blogspotter, LA-based Steven Oxman and his Theatre Matters, a "national perspective"--which I will be consulting to break out of my NYC myopia.

Columbia Journalism disses Arts

For 11 years the Columbia School of Journalism has run a National Arts Journalism Program, which has studied arts coverage in the media as well as subsidized interesting arts critics and writers (like the Voice's Michael Feingold) with residencies.

Well, no more. The new J-School Dean Nicholas Lemann has announced pulling the plug. Apparently the program's privately/self-funded status has proved complicated and led to its demise. But why does Columbia not get behind it?

In an age when serious arts are lucky to get space in a local paper's Weekend Fun! pull-out, the NAJP was an essential gadfly and advocate. And in the age of media, if "we" are not covered, we cease to exist. This is true for no art more than theatre.

You'll have to go to Backstage, of all places, to read about it all.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Cornerstone Theater Company

For many years Cornerstone has been practicing their own distinct brand of community based theater--involving as much outreach and activism as aesthetics. So for an alternative kind of political engagment possible in theatre, here's a rare piece in today's Times about them.

Is it in the Arts section? No, in "Religion." (Though you'll find it on the online version of the "Theater" page.) That's two for two in a week, that Arts has missed out on the best theatre articles in the paper. Of course, "missed" would be giving them credit...

Adventures in Theatre Real Estate

The Voice reports this week (scroll down here) that the popular HERE Arts Center downtown--home to a true plethora of diverse arty theatre and performance pieces--has purchased their prized Soho location, which they developed into a very cool artist hub, with performance spaces, galleries, and a small cafe. The theatre you see there can be...eclectic, but always a pleasure to visit.

Watching so much of Soho get taken over by big companies like the Gap, French
Connection, and Starbucks, while so many local businesses have been getting
priced out, has made it essential that "HERE put down permanent roots and
guarantee artists a place to keep creating risky work," says artistic director
and co-founder Kristin Marting.

Here, here.

Friday, June 10, 2005

addendum: Drama on Broadway

David Sheward's write-up on the Tonys in Backstage (in print, online soon, I expect) includes the following context no one else seems to have provided for Doubt: "Though he has been writing plays for 25 years and won an Academy Award for his screenplay for 'Moonstruck,' this is Shanley's Broadway debut." Wow.

Now, certainly, not many Shanley plays would make sense on Broadway. But when you consider the guy has written about 20 plays, is widely produced regionally and off-B'way, and has carved out a voice and energy all his own on the landscape... you realize not how unfair Broadway is but how irrelevant to American Drama.

Not to mention, the Tonys. The Nobel committee may wait until a Shanley, Mamet, or Shepard is of "lifetime achievement" age. The Tonys have no excuse.

more BAM

Ever wanted to check out a play by Lessing? Now's your chance. The complete BAM Next Wave season is now official. (Direct link for theatre events here.) No less authorities than the Deutsches Theatre Berlin is coming with their production of Emilia Galotti (1772).

That's Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, of course, 18th century German playwright and the first Dramaturg!

Also of interest to some might be the very techno, multi-media Builders Association with their Super Vision. Their Alladeen, last year--a meditation on Indian telemarketers among other cross-cultural high-tech phenomena--left me cold. But they're at the cutting edge of what the new media can do in the theatre. Of course, ever since the Wooster Group some 30 years ago, multimedia hasn't been new, and hasn't taken the theatre by storm. It will always be a fringe movement. Challenge or defend, anyone?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Perils of Non-Profit

Yesterday's Times story on the woes of the Manhattan Theatre Club raises a lot a key issues for the "mega" non-profit companies in New York--not only MTC, but the Roundabout and Lincoln Center as well. (Gerard Schoenfeld of the decidedly for-profit Shuberts insists these rivals of his be labeled non-taxed instead.)

Part of the story here is MTC's ongoing quagmire with the huge Biltmore theatre they recently bought and renovated for themselves. (Frankly a desperate and ill-advised try at going toe-to-toe with the Roundabout's transformation of the old Selwyn into the "American Airlines Theatre." If you're gonna sell out, Roundabout shows us, sell big!) MTC has so far not been able to fill this theatre with a bona fide hit. Instead a string of plays ranging from the promising but unrealized (Richard Greenberg Violet Hour, Donald Margulies's Brooklyn Boy) to the downright thudding (Drowning Crow and the current Elaine May cringer After The Night and the Music) I'm all for (good) plays that are not hits, but what else is the point of buying a huge theatre!

But there's a biting irony here, not pointed out by the article, nor anyone else I've heard (but surely on the lips, or at least minds, of everyone at MTC headquarters). MTC finally is back on its feet with the Tony-winning Doubt, a play they originated in their smaller (original) Off-Broadway space. Gee, why didn't they put that in the Biltmore? The answer is it was already booked with the Elaine May one-acts, which the Sun's Helen Shaw compared "the weaker skits at the end of Saturday Night Live."

The larger picture here is not whether MTC ever can fill their behemoth while still doing "honorable" plays. (I must say Roundabout has not done a bad job at that over at "AA". It's their casting and production choices that sometimes lack honor.) Instead, I leave you with: where should new plays (or even just "straight" non-musical plays) be produced at all? Here's Donald Margulies himself commenting on his two recent MTC productions, Brooklyn Boy and the not-thudding and somewhat well received revival of his Sight Unseen:

"Sight Unseen" was the first play that worked at the Biltmore," Mr. Margulies said. "It was an appropriate choice to remount on a Broadway stage - a play that M.T.C. had produced half-a-generation ago. 'Brooklyn Boy' was a different gambit because it's a new play. I don't think [the MTC producers] would disagree that they haven't quite mastered the Biltmore. It's a Catch-22 because it's a Broadway theater that's a subscription house and each production has a finite number of weeks. I would think twice before opening a new play at the Biltmore again until we figure it out."
To be continued later: Great New Plays Ruined by Their Producers' Stupid Insistence on Taking Them to Broadway...

Holy Cow-- just after I posted, guess what Variety scooped this article on: "The Manhattan Theater Club has canceled its Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson's "Talley's Folly," which was to have been helmed by Tony winner Doug Hughes ("Doubt")." For the skinny, read here...

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

"Stuff" DOESN'T Happen in NY

While Broadway delusionally feted itself with its barely watched Tony awards... a quiet US premiere opened on the other side of the continent, in that supposed cultural wasteland, Los Angeles, of David Hare's Stuff Happens. In case you don't follow the London scene, Stuff is an epic play denouncing the war in Iraq. Its characters are Bush, Blair, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Powell, etc. Their real names, not fictionalized, and often quoted verbatim. This play opened at the Royal National Theatre last fall. The reviews were mixed, and even some liberals don't go for Hare's heady preaching and unsubtle polemics.

But can you imagine any theatre in New York (let alone on B'way) staging at the current time a play where actors--impersonating our leaders--stand downstage center and criticize the US Government and the war? So bravo to the Marc Taper Forum's Gordon Davidson, who has chosen this sure-to-be controversial play as his grand send-off. In his words:

"Initially, I wanted to 'retreat' into the world of the classics to say goodbye, but I could not escape my feelings about our society, about where we are now and how we got there.”
I dare say, a Profile in Theatrical Courage?

Annals of Art & Commerce

Interesting collaboration reported in Playbill between the Royal Shakespeare Company and Cameron Mackintosh. It takes the mega-producer's bucks to ensure RSC Shakespeare in London, believe it or not.


The Nielsens are now in for the Tonys. And the bounce from Billy Crystal and Aretha Franklin et al's coattails? Zero. According to the Times:

...according to preliminary numbers, the celebrities did almost nothing to increase the flat overnight national ratings, showing only a slight increase of about 160,000 viewers. In years past, a number of factors have been blamed for the low ratings, including competition from the N.B.A. playoffs and new episodes of hot HBO shows like "The Sopranos" or "Six Feet Under." This year, however, the show had no such competition, but still drew only 6.6 million viewers, up 2 percent from last year's audience of about 6.5 million viewers.

Variety , of course, goes into more details about this "Kudocast". (Love that Variety lingo. But what does it mean???):

After getting a solid lead-in from "60 Minutes," the aud for the Tonys peaked in its first half-hour (roughly 7.2 million), then stayed above 6.1 million the rest of the night. This year's overall audience was only slightly higher than the 6.46 million that tuned in last year.

Show, hosted by Hugh Jackman, also averaged a meager 1.4 rating/4 share among adults 18-49, placing fourth or lower in its timeslot pending cable results. It pulled a 6 share among women 35-54 and performed best (a 13 share) among adults 55-plus.

Yup, 55-plus. That's our audience.

Still, is the lesson that Americans don't, and can't care about theatre? Or that it was an awful show! (If I didn't consider it my "job" lord knows I'd rather watch the Simpsons reruns that I ended up missing.) Again, my solution is: more elitism, not less. Cocktails, unscripted (uncensored?) repartee. So for the unitiated, at least it becomes a cool private club, not a Bob Hope special. If it has to be on cable so be it. Plenty of people have HBO--and maybe they'd be interested! Honestly, wouldn't the theatre be better off that way?

Any thoughts? Who has the best idea for revamping the Tonys? As the guy on Channell 11 used to say: What's your opinion? We'd like to know...

(Postscript 6/13: Turns out "kudocast" just means "
Variety term for an awards show". I looked it up, no kidding, in the Variety dictionary! The website features an online database of its own "Slanguage". Useful tool!)

Monday, June 06, 2005


By the way, did anyone notice producer Jeffrey Richards's mention in his acceptance speech for the revival of Glengarry that this, in a sense, was David Mamet's first Tony? (I say, "in a sense" since it's Richards that gets to keep the thing! ) You heard right folks. Neither Mamet nor Shepard, in fact have ever won Best Play. Shepard, in fact, has often had trouble even getting nominated. (Remember when the Steppenwolf revival of Buried Child finally was nominated for Best (New) Play 20 years after it won the Pulitzer?!?)

So what does it say about an award--about Broadway--that the Best Play category has not been bestowed on any of the work of, perhaps, our two foremost dramatists? Talk amongst yourselves...

The archives on, by the way, reveal the original Glengarry did have some stiff (and stiff-upper-lip) competition back in '84, from Noises Off and Stoppard's The Real Thing (the winner). Both, though, do seem almost lightweight in comparison today.

For those wishing to relive last night, the Tony website features the text of all the acceptance speeches, among other goodies. Happy reading!

Sunday, June 05, 2005


And we're off...

I will try not to harp too much on the evils of this conspiracy of producers known as the American Theatre Wing Antoinette Perry Awards. What's most significant about tonight is hardly any honest sense of rewarding excellence in the American (or imported British) theatre. All that remains important is--it is pretty much the only 3 hours you'll see devoted to theatre on nationwide commercial television all year! So, to me, it really matters how "we" come off to the rest of the country, and that 's what I'll be looking for.

So let the deconstruction begin...

The nice way to explain what's happening so far with the musicals is: spreading the wealth. The catty way would be: Spamalot shut out. Rumors among the critics this week of a Spamalot backlash are proving true. As if Tony voters suddenly had a conscience and chose to stiff the ultra-slick Spamalot on the "quality" awards of score and book, even though probably still giving it Best Good Time (otherwise known as Best Musical)

By the way, watching Hugh Jackman's 10-minute solo at the top made me wonder: is the Broadway establishment (inasfar as they are even responsible for this show) investing the entire future of theatre in the person of this gangly Aussie?

The worthy Doug Hughes just won Director of a Play. Good. He's one of the most serious hardest working real directors on the circuit, yet to be tainted as a commercial property (as I'm afraid Montello is).

And if you just missed Christina Applegate in her big Sweet Charity number... well, you realize how kind these critics have really been. I think it was Isherwood who saw fit to remind us all this was a show created by Bob Fosse for Gwen Verdon. So in other words.. dance is kinda important in this show.

I know we should all be appreciative to CBS for sticking with the whole 3 hours... but to relegate to the "taped earlier this evening" segments Edward Albee's Lifetime Achievement Award? Well what could we expect.

Remember when they actually used to show scenes from the nominated plays? Or at least told us what they were about? Ok, that was 20 years ago, but tonight's option of still photos and voice overs takes the cake for grudging inclusion. Plays are at the kiddie table of this party

As we await Best Musical, I'd like to offer special kudos to Playgoer friend Dan Fogler, the Spelling Bee funnyman. Always a thrill to see an unknown young actor be recognized. TONY can do some good some times.

Looks like the new idea to split/double the design awards for drama & musical ended a mixed blessing, since CBS had no intention of broadcasting those awards life. The winners were lucky to have their faces shown. Producers should be more gracious for all those times people applaud the scenery, don't you think. What an insult to some of the most essential contributors to these shows's success. (I half expected them to have to stand in the aisles, a la this year's Oscar "techies")

And the winner is...... Spamalot, of course. Voters had their conscience and ate it, too...

Good night!

MorningAfterthoughts (6/6):
It's about time we relieved CBS the burden of carrying all three hours of this poorly produced informercial. I for one would be happy with a solid 90 minutes of just awards, speeches, and scenes. And no Radio City--an intimate Rainbow Room cocktail party, like Tonys of old...

I must tip my hat to Jeffrey Eric Jenkins (see "Predictions" below) for scooping us all on Bill Irwin's surprise win. I will promptly eat my hat, Jeffrey, as soon as I wipe the egg off my face.

Didn't the Spamalot scenes look lame on tv??? I have a feeling the rest of the country must be wondering what the hell we all find so funny. What was missing, I think , was context. It revealed the importance of the momentum of silliness Mike Nichols constructs. (Again, Casey Nicholaw's choreographer remains an unsung component. Sure the La Cage kicks & flips are impressive. But Nicholaw's work in Spamalot serves its show with a sublety and wit rarely seen, a true director-choreographer collaboration.)

As for the 10-minute Hugh Jackman-Aretha Stehpen Sondheim "tribute"... hard to know what to say. Shall I start with, first, the music was by Leonard Bernstein? Maybe I'll leave more scathing cutting up to the fanzines and the chatrooms. All I know is that airtime could've gone to the rest of Edward Albee's acceptance speech.

Saturday, June 04, 2005


Yes, the Tonys will be televised and yes, they will be blogged... by Playgoer!

"Tune in" or log on Sunday night "early and often." I'll try to post at least once or twice an hour.
The CBS broadcast is 8-11EST.

No fashion police, no predictions. Just snarky blogging.

(For NYC-area diehards with Time Warner Cable, don't forget the mini-"red carpet" preview on New York One at 6:30pm. Theatre Critic-slash-utility anchor Roma Torre does the Joan Rivers honors, presumably taking breaks to check the NY1 weather forecasts in between...)

The best theatre article the Times has run in a long time won't be found in today's Arts section, of course, but in Business! Joseph Nocera's ruthless analysis of the economics of The Drama on and off Broadway is definitely a "must read."

His provocative conclusion: "If this is the future of Broadway, we should stop talking about 'investing' in a play, and start calling it what it is: an act of philanthropy." The very word philanthropy probably strikes theatre lovers as at once insulting and comforting. It's what we call the financing of museums and orchestras, don't we? In other

for the Prediction-hungry...

While Playgoer has opted out of the Tony Prediction game, I definitely recommend this thoughtful summary by my friend and colleague the estimable Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, who edits the Best Plays series, among other posts. Since it's from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for which he's a national theatre correspondent, it aims at a non-NYC audience, so I especially recommend the article to anyone still catching up on all the B'way politics this year.

(See, Playgoer can go nationwide and does know links other than

I will say I think Jeffrey underestimates the Spelling Bee appeal, even though it still won't beat Spamalot . (Oops, that sounded like a prediction, didn't it.) And I don't see Bill Irwin winning. (oops again) I am glad, though, Jeffrey makes me question my earlier dismissal of Mario Cantone. But still I ask-- a special theatrical event???

Friday, June 03, 2005


directed by Anne Bogart
starring Tom Nelis
at New York Theatre Workshop

When asked to assess Leonard Bernstein's conducting, Igor Stravinsky reportedly once said, "He dances a good symphony." Given Bernstein's famous podium theatrics, no wonder Anne Bogart--a director concerned with movement above all else--would take that remark as a dare in her new installment of one-person shows profiling celebrity artists. (Others have depicted Orson Welles, Virginia Woolf, and director Robert Wilson.) As Bernstein, Tom Nelis offers a gymnastic 90 minutes, constantly flowing and gyrating in patterns familiar to anyone who remembers watching closeups of the maestro on PBS. That Nelis executes this relentless and intricate choreography while rattling off pages of Bernstein's own writing and speeches is a marvel of human endurance. The audience's endurance of Bogart's work here, though, is another matter.

Part of the problem is that among Bernstein's many grand aspirations, playwriting was not one of them. Bogart and her credited adaptor Jocelyn Clarke have not succeeded in fashioning a dramatically compelling text out of lectures and reminiscences which were probably much more engaging coming from Bernstein himself. As he showed in his famous televised Harvard lectures and Young Peoples Concerts, Bernstein performed himself brilliantly in his sententious pontifications. Nelis doesn't at all capture the self-conscious grandeur of this and I suppose he and Bogart would scorn such impersonation. But without that, we get the words without the soul. Bogart seems to enjoy divorcing words from meaning, and words from gesture as Nelis's body carries on its own dialogue against the text throughout. What gets lost is not only Bernstein's unique personality, but basically any personality at all.

Outside of the extended philosophizing, this postmodern performance text surprisingly takes on a tired biopic format: highlights from a great man's life. (We get obligatory stories of studying with Koussevitzky and making his surprise debut with the Philharmonic, for instance.) And since Bogart & co. have confined themselves to Bernstein's own texts, we get only the self-aggrandizing versions of those highlights. Nowhere , for instance, do we glimpse the painfully pompous Bernstein of Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic or the (barely) closeted bi-sexual Bernstein of backstage lore. "Life is juicy!" goes a Bernstein-ism Nelis constantly repeats. But where's that life on stage?

It struck me at some point during the show, how many people know who Leonard Bernstein is anymore? (I mean, as a person, not just as a name on their West Side Story CD.) Luckily for Score, that's not an issue for the grey-haired subscribers to New York Theatre Workshop that night. But I wonder what Bogart hoped to achieve for NYTW's downtown hipsters with no previous context. Nelis tries to introduce Bernstein to us in the beginning with some strained audience participation (where Nelis "calls on" us as if we are his students). But it takes a lot more than raised house lights and Tom Nelis's charm to really engage us in conversation with such a complex and multilayered dead man.


A must for all Sondheim fans, the small label PS Classics is issuing a "Volume I" of demo tapes from '62-'72, featuring "rough drafts" and dropped songs for the scores of Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies, and Little Night Music.

The CD is called..."Sondheim Sings," of course.

Read about it in the Times here or buy the cd by special-ordering it at a great price from my friends the music mavens at NYCD.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


The Maids
by Jean Genet
at the Jean Cocteau Repertory

There is a special circle of theatre hell reserved for the half-assed concept. Not to be confused with the simply bad concept--when a director's aggressively misguided take distorts a classic beyond recognition--this is when a bold sounding interpretation ends up being completely inconsequential to the actual performance. A favorite example of mine is a NY Fringe show a few years back called Witches' Macbeth, which purported to be a staging of Shakespeare's tragedy "from the witches' point of view!" What resulted was a fairly ordinary recitation of the play as we know it while the three weird sisters stood upstage making spooky hand gestures. In the words of that fine Bardologist Yakov Smirnoff-- What a concept!

Director Ernest Johns has forced a similarly irrelevant conceit upon Jean Genet's already super-complex The Maids. If you look at the program before the show you'll see the setting is "Los Angeles--January, 1947." If you don't look at your program, you will notice absolutely no difference from any production of The Maids you have seen or imagined. (The play premiered in Paris in '47 anyway.) So what might have actually worked as a kind of "Genet Confidential," importing film noir tropes to spell out the strange power dynamics of Genet's lurid conspiracy of murder... just becomes an irrelevant--and distracting--program note. The struggle to understand why Johns's mediocre cast of young American actresses still attempt "mid-Atlantic" Euro-approximated accents, and why he hasn't even altered the text's "monsieurs" and "madames" (but does add references to San Francisco and Alcatraz) is all that kept my mind active during this eventless, and intermissionless, two-hour stumble-through of a play which deserves the attention of all a director's conceptual fundament.

Season Preview: BAM Next Wave

In the run-up to the fall (beginning already!) catch the more intriguing announcements of the coming "season" here on Playgoer...

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) has just announced its always-eagerly-anticipated Next Wave Festival. This is such breaking news, it's not even on the BAM website yet. (But check soon, I suppose.) So for now you'll have to rely on the ever-reliable Playbill.

Some immediate theatrical highlights:

-Isabelle Huppert(!) in a French staging of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis
British director Edward Hall (not permanently marred, we hope, by his Broadway Streetcar debut) presents his all-male company again, in Winter's Tale
Raise the Red Lantern, a ballet based on the Zhang Yimou film, performed by the National Ballet of China

The BAM fall & spring line-ups are the perennial must-sees for anyone curious about what goes on in theatre not only outside of Broadway, but outside of New York. So get a subscription--it's cheaper than the plane fares to Europe!

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Stupid Musical Ideas reconsidered?

Some readers apparently took offense to my previous post (see below, "They conspire, they strangle, they sing!") expressing some dread at the prospect of Thrill Me, the new Leopold & Loeb musical. (No, they are not a songwriting team.)

Well, as promised, in the spirit of fairness, I am following up to report that no less than the New York Times has now weighed in and said... not bad! Am I convinced? Not yet. But here's the link to Neil Genzlinger's review. A sample: "Who would have thought that having characters sing the text of a ransom note could be compelling rather than comedic?" Hmm, somehow I'm still wary. But, hey, go see for yourselves, dear readers. Maybe I will, too.

ADDENDUM (6/2): Ah, not so fast Thrill Me fans... The great Feingold has weighed in, too, and guess what? He agrees with yours truly that "There's almost nothing in this story that anybody could want to sing about." Yet, in his typical fairness toward talent, he can still appreciate the gifts of the show's creator Stephen Dolginoff.

Tennessee would be proud

Everyone, of course, is asking Playgoer, what happened to Christian Slater? And what are the ramifications of his arrest for a drunken ass-groping of a random upper east sider...for the already strange and troubled Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie?

Well it is for such burning questions that one swallows one's pride and registers for the New York Post online. (Yes the Times has it, too, but they just can't compete in these areas.)

Slater did indeed go on last night as Tom Wingfield after his overnight incarceration and arraignment. (Only the Post bothered to cover this aspect.) According to accounts, it took this whiff of such Williams-esque decadent-yet-pathetic self-destructive offstage shenanigans to finally give some life to the production!

A random playgoer interviewed by the Post put it best: "His performance was terrific, especially because he was arrested."