The Playgoer: February 2007

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

REVIEW: Nelson (Time Out)

My review of the new play, Nelson. In Time Out NY.

While I can't fully recommend this one, I still have fond memories of the playwright, Sam Marks' earlier work Craft, which I saw at HERE all the way back in '02. Just a modest little slice of life about weed salesmen. But how often do you see that! I remember it as gritty, yet humorous, unpretentious and, most importantly, authentic. There was a scene where the dealers have to scramble as the cops approach and hand the goods to whoever is least likely to get searched, or can most afford to be arrested. At last, a play with practical advice.

Anyway, I'm glad to read in Marks' bio that HBO has optioned Craft for development into a series. At least, I hope that's a good thing.

LMDA Auction

To make up for the dig at dramaturgs in the last post, here's a fun way to help out some young 'uns aspiring to that profession, by bidding on some cool theatre stuff in this week's LMDA eBay auction.

Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) is pleased to announce their second annual eBay Auction. The auction will be held from 2-9 March 2007. The items for bid include tickets and subscriptions to some of the nation’s premiere theaters (including Atlantic Theater Company, HERE Arts Center, Steppenwolf Theatre, and McCarter Theatre), a weekend package to attend the 31st Annual Humana Festival of New Plays, autographed scripts from Doug Rand and signed posters from the Humana Festival and The Drowsy Chaperone, rare T-shirts from such Broadway productions as Kiss of the Spiderwoman and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, special back issues of Theater magazine, and a unique collection of 16 different Beanie Babies! The funds generated by this year’s auction will support travel expenses for Early Career Dramaturgs to attend LMDA’s annual conference....

Check out, or search for Seller “Literary_Managers_and_Dramaturgs,” starting March 2 to see the array of items up for bid—and claim some for yourself!

The "Slow Death" of New Plays

"Dramaturgs kept asking me: ‘Sarah, what did you learn from this reading?'...And I would silently think: ‘I learned that if I keep re-writing this play for chairs, it will die a slow death before ever being what it was meant to be.'"

- Sarah Ruhl, on the development hell her now-celebrated play "Eurydice" had to go through, along with many other notable, though less fortunate new American plays.

Part of a terrific survey of the problem by Kate Taylor in the Sun.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Alterman on "Utopia"

He likes it. But for his own more liberal reasons.

Wow, political pundits taking theatre seriously! Hopefully it doesn't have to keep taking a Stoppard (i.e. a Brit) to get attention.

Bard Island?

If you're on any theatrically related listserv's these days, chances are you've received at least several identical pleas to "Save the Globe!" No, not the planet. Not even the London "New Globe" theatre replica. But a proposed replica of a replica on the ghost-town spot of NYC known as Governors Island.
The artist's rendition above looks nice enough. But is yet another Shakespeare venue really what's needed here? And will it revitalize the area? Seems like just the pet project of some wealthy enthusiasts.
Personally, I just shudder to think of how much time it will take to get there and back. Nothing worse than a long ferry ride after a lame "Midsummer Night's Dream" with still a subway ride to go before home is in sight.
I mean, really, as if BAM isn't enough of a trek!
Anyway, check out the proposal yourself. I think an all purpose concert venue might be more appropriate. And probably what would happen anyway, since there just ain't enough Bard to sustain a project like that here.

In Search Of...Acharnes

Archeologists have just unearthed one of the many "lost" ancient Greek ampitheatres--at what then to be the "Acharnes" district of Athens. (As in Aristophanes' "Acharnians," of course.)

So far they've "discovered 13 rows of limestone seats which formed part of an open air theater" and "the steps were buried half to two meters (yards) underground. The orchestra and stage are under a city street and other parts are under nearby building lots."

I hear a board of directors has already assembled to fundraise for a new lobby and an adjoining parking garage. And that limestone will just have to go.

Monday, February 26, 2007

"First Look"

From Jesse Green's Ars Nova profile in Sunday's Times:

But Ars Nova has nothing financial to gain. It doesn’t even ask playwrights to grant the industry-standard “first look” option. As a result the playwrights are not hobbled with obligations to anything except their plays.
Anyone know of any theatres claiming "first look" rights in exchange for a reading?

Other notable quote from the piece, from Jon Steingart, Ars Nova co-founder:
“A lot of not-for-profit theaters are driven by middle-aged women buying $100 tickets....But you can’t build a younger audience that way. And you can’t support younger artists if you charge $50 a ticket, because no one knows who they are."

Amen, brother.


So why did Martin Scorsese have to wait 30 years and several masterpieces to win an Oscar for "The Departed"?

Because this one was successful.

Still, despite the film's disappointments and the stupidity of awards in general, I can't begrudge the overdue acknowledgment of one of my favorite dramatic artists, and one of the most original America has ever spawned.

REVIEW: The Fever

The Fever
by and starring Wallace Shawn
directed by Scott Elliott
presented by The New Group
at Theatre Row

In his monologue "The Fever," Wallace Shawn is simply a "man in chair." Not the nostalgic narrator of "The Drowsy Chaperone," a role Shawn could pull off in his typecast Hollywood nerdy-troll mode. But never has the contrast between that outer clown-Shawn (known to moviegoers) and the inner Marxist nihilist Shawn (known to anyone familiar with his writing) been more drastic or more foregrounded than in "The Fever." And Shawn's genius in the piece--with some assistance, probably, from director Scott Elliott--is in exploiting the tension between these two personas.

The piece is an old one and has been through many phases since Shawn began writing it in the 80s. (Here's where I out myself as such a Wally Shawn geek that I went, at 16, to hear him read excerpts from the then-work-in-progress at the 92nd St Y. On the same program? Durang reading "Laughing Wild.") According to Shawn, his original intention was to perform "The Fever" for small audiences at cocktail parties in rich people's homes. Which he did for a while. (In this and many ways, it's a fitting sequel to the real-life origins of "My Dinner with Andre.")

You see, "The Fever" is about that select breed of New Yorker--what Whit Stillman in "Metropolitan" memorably dubbed the UHB. ("Urban Haute Bourgeoisie," of course.) Shawn has a unique access to the UHB world thanks to being not only an intellectual celebrity in his own right, but he was born into it as the son of a legendary New Yorker editor. "The Fever" is his anti-love letter (not hating, but damning) to his class.

Shawn had a brief, more public run of "The Fever" Off Broadway in the 90s and then filed it away. It has since been performed by others here and there and been read with interest by students of Shawn's diverse oeuvre. Now that Scott Elliott's New Group has in effect rediscovered Shawn and made him practically a playwright-in-residence, we've been able to revisit his idiosyncratic work. (From highlights like "Aunt Dan and Lemon" to lowlights like the embarrassingly male-menopausal "The Music Teacher.") But "The Fever" is the ultimate Evening with Wally. The man himself channeling all the various and contradictory facets of his many identities--writer/performer, doomsayer/schlemiel, Marxist/aristocrat.

The monologue itself is framed by an episode where "The Traveller" finds himself alone, puking in the bathroom of his room in a strange hotel in an unnamed Central American country. He has taken this journey to prove something--to himself? to society?--about the need to reach out and understand the less fortunate. But all he gets in return for his good intentions are nightmares and nausea. This central moment launches The Traveller into numerous recollections of his privileged upbringing in an unnamed wealthy neighborhood of a major metropolis, as well as stories of class tension between members of his class and those who serve them--usually immigrants from ravaged countries like the one he ends up visiting.

In some of these ways, "The Fever" shows its age--certain cliches of Latin American juntas and revolutions (Nicaragua clearly looming in the background) hearken back to the good ol' cold war days of the 80s. I haven't examined the original script, but it doesn't seem like he's done any updating. (The Arab world would be a natural contemporary counterpart.) Still, even if The Traveller's portrait of the "Third World" seems out of Woody Allen's "Bananas" sometimes, we must remember that we're getting a skewed story, through the eyes of a somewhat befuddled and clueless UHB.

As director, Scott Elliott aggressively reinvents the piece for the stage--theatricalizing the idea of a drawing room after-dinner chat so that Shawn can slip in and out of that setting at will. Shawn may sit--Allistair Cooke style--in a leather arm-chair in front of a prop-bookcase. But it's an unreal sliver of reality amidst a mostly bare stage, and it at time disappears from view. Personally, I could have done without the "God voice" mic and dark lighting that descends whenever we're back in the hotel bathroom. Elliott is not a director known for subtlety. But it does all serve the piece, in theory.

I haven't mentioned yet the biggest "choice" of the production, which is the pre-show "cocktail party" simulation enacted on stage with the audience. Presumably a gesture toward the play's penthouse origins, it is a master stroke of audience "implication." Plus, it's just so refreshingly different in the theatre. You make your way up the crowded Theatre Row stairs to the top floor, get your ticket torn, and enter a fun party! As tasteful jazz-trio music plays over the sound system, the stage of what you thought was yet another "one-man show" is crowded with people chatting, drinking real champagne, and having--can you believe it--a good time. Shawn himself of course is there to mingle, and is swarmed for autographs and bon mots. Eventually and seamlessly, the catering staff takes away your glasses, people meander back to their seats, Wally signs a few more programs before a stage manager taps him on the shoulder. With the houselights still on, he begins haltingly and casually from the aisle, telling us how much the atmosphere of the party reminds him of Hugh Heffner's "Playboy After Dark" shows from a time gone by. (No doubt, a carefully chosen analogy.)

I wouldn't say this "prologue" succeeds in making the audience feel any more "guilty" over what is to follow. But it sure succeeds at making the play a lot less pretentious and sententious than it might otherwise feel. And the bond it forges between us and "Wally" comes back nicely to haunt us when he starts spewing more confrontational rhetoric at us an hour later.

I imagine the participatory nature of the pre-show also allows for each night to be different. At the performance I attended, for instance, it was impossible not to be affected by the presence on stage of Mike Nichols and Tom Stoppard sipping away, enjoying some shop-talk, a little island unto themselves as passerby's encircled, desperate for a soundbite. I myself didn't get much from them, but enjoyed watching Tom, as he was taking his seat by Mike, pulling Wally aside just before "curtain". What could one old playwright be asking another at this point. (Nichols, I guess, was the link between them--having directed "The Real Thing" on Broadway and starred in Shawn's "Designated Mourner" in London.)

At first I felt ashamed of continuing to sneak peeks at the dynamic duo to my left during the play, curious for any reactions. But by the end their presence actually heightened the dramatic tension in the room surprisingly well. There's a section toward the end of "The Fever" when The Traveller launches into a grating tirade on the need of the less fortunate to be patient. After dabbling in revolutionary sympathies for a while (even reading Marx's Kapital) he returns to his own class loyalties. We can't give you everything you want yet, he reasons to his imagined social inferiors, because then we'll have nothing. Gradual change, not revolution, he concludes will have to be the way. Just trust well intentioned middle of the road liberals like himself, and all will work out in the end.

What was hilarious to me about this that night is that "Gradual Change" is exactly the rallying cry of Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia"! There was poor Tom in the audience, being challenged for his 9-hour defense of a position now being savagely mocked on stage in a show 1/6 the length and 1% of the budget. What could the man have been thinking. He wasn't laughing, I'll tell you that.

But all seemed well at the end when Mike and Tom jovially cornered Wally in the foyer afterwards. (Shawn makes his exit as I assume he makes his entrance, down the aisle, to and from the "real world.") To see Shawn cozy up to the rich and powerful (in show business, the famous) was a good reminder of the many ambivalences in "The Fever." It may speak truth to power, but it, quite consciously, implicates itself, and us, as part of the problem in many ways.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Arts & Leisure Discovers Blogging!

Well, ok, I myself was lucky to get a mention a while ago.

But today the Times goes theatre blogger wild! Not only does Parabasis get cited by Campbell Robertson in his big feature on the puzzling flourishing of dramas on Broadway, but there's also this spotlight on some of our blogger colleagues, the four guys over at ShowShowdown (including Aaron Riccio, David Bell, and Patrick Lee) racing for the title of most shows reviewed in 2007.

Kudos to all.

Yet I'm dismayed that a line like this--in reference to the site's "rules"--still gets into such a piece: "No concerts, despite Barbra Streisand’s inherent theatricality."

Naturally, the "pull-out" quote in the print edition was the Barabara line.

So that's what the media still thinks theatre blogs are? Gay men ranting about Barbara Streisand?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Shakespeare Denial: Xtreme Edition

From a recent press release:

Midsummer Night's Dream: A Comic Jewish Satire" by the Dark Lady Players will be the world's first Shakespearean production using the Amelia Bassano Theory....

Could Shakespeare's best-known comedy be a Jewish religious lampoon written by a woman?

Quote of the Day

"A censor pronouncing a ban, whether on an obscene spectacle or a derisive imitation, is like a man trying to stop his penis from standing up... The spectacle is ridiculous, so ridiculous that he is soon a victim not only of his unruly member but of pointing fingers, laughing voices. That is why the institution of censorship has to surround itself with secondary bans on the infringement of its dignity."

-J.M. Coetzee, Giving Offence.
(Quoted in this interesting censorship survey here.)


Lyn Gardner is a theatre blogger after my own heart, I must say. A great ranter, ready to let fly against whatever in her playgoing is peeving her these days on the other side of the pond.

Her target this week in the Guardian is..."programmes." That is, The Playbill.

Now in London you actually pay for the full programme. But you get a lot more with it. (Some theatres, like the National will still give you a bare-bones cast list free.)

Personally I'm a glutton for reading whatever a production wants to give me on the show. But Lyn takes some amusing swipes I think we can all relate to in at least some cases.

There are plenty of other things I know I don't want in a programme. I don't want to read a dull essay from a dull academic about the importance of Shakespeare/ Ibsen/Shaw etc. I never, ever want a note from the director telling me what to think about his or her production; I'll decide that myself, thank you very much.

Ok, I can do without some of the Directors Notes I've seen. Still, I do think the paucity of interesting content in our programs here is embarassing compared to the European model.

If you don't want 'em, Lyn, send them to me!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

RNT 07-08

Royal National Theatre just announced its upcoming season.

Classics by Shakespeare, Sophocles, Pinter, and Shaw, sure. But also a few premieres--genuine "premieres," that is!--including Joe ("Blue Orange") Penhall's latest "Landscape With Weapon," about arms dealers. Plus... Gorky? "19th century Swedish author Victoria Benedictsson"???

A season to make New Yorkers weep out of envy for the variety of the Royal National Theatre's three stages of healthily subsidized rep.

And yet--A.D. Nick Hytner went out of his way at the "launch" to rail against current gov't freezes in arts funding.

At the press conference, Hytner took the opportunity to comment on U.K. government warnings that arts orgs should expect, at best, standstill grants in the forthcoming spending round. Hytner, whose theater receives an annual grant of £16 million ($31.2 million), argued that arts institutions weren't looking for grant increases but that standstill funding represented a deleterious cut.

The U.K., he pointed out, has created tax breaks and investment opportunities for British film that are visibly paying dividends in the form of the British presence at this year's Oscars. Helen Mirren, Stephen Frears, Judi Dench and Patrick Marber, all of whom learned their trade in, and continue to work in, the British subsidized theater sector, have lent their voices to a plea to maintain funding levels.

Marber said, "It would be a huge blow -- both for the theater and the future health of the film industry -- if reduced funding forced theaters to take fewer risks and deny writers the chance to develop and find their voice."

Indeed, maybe talking about theatre as "research & development" is our only way to get through to our increasingly corporate politicians.

Then again, our theatre-film link in this country is not nearly as strong as the UK's.

And based on this year, at least... who made the better films...?

"World Premiere Reading!"

From an email from California Shakespeare Festival...

World Premiere of the Second Play Created through Cal Shakes' New Works/New Communities Program.

Join us this Saturday, February 24, at 3pm at ACT's Hastings Studio in San Francisco for a world-premiere reading of King of Shadows, a new play by acclaimed playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Remember when "Premieres" had red carpets, rotating searchlights, and full press junket?

Well now apparently it can mean 4 music stands, some Evian bottles, and actors in sneakers.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Harry & the Horseplay

Some amusing reportage from the notebook of Michael Riedel on the opening of the West End "Equus" revival marking the great Richard Griffiths' first stage performance since his triumph in "History Boys" as the star of this seering Peter Schaffer psycho-drama.

Oh yeah, and it also has the Harry Potter guy. Getting naked.

"You've got to be a serious pedophile to find him sexy,"one person says. "He's a teenage boy who is not fully developed yet."

The sexual chemistry between Radcliffe and the actress who plays his girlfriend seems to be lacking. There should also be some sexual tension between him and Griffiths, but that, too, is not apparent yet in this production. (Maybe we should be grateful for small favors.)

Since some theatergoers are there to get a glimpse of Harry Potter in the nude, the house is full of security guards. Right before Radcliffe disrobes, they fan out into the aisles, looking everywhere for cameras. They've missed a few, however, and pictures have appeared all over the Web.

The upshot?
"Equus" will open next week with $3 million in the bank, the highest advance for a nonmusical play in West End history.

Yes, in this age of uncertainty, naked celebrities on stage may just be the last bankable bet in a producer's arsenal...

Quote of the Day

“Corporations are not Medicis; they never have been, they’re not supposed to be...They’re not in business to be philanthropic.”

-Nancy Perkins, a professional "fundraising consultant."

Read it and weep, development directors. According to today's Times, "Over the last decade, the portion of corporate philanthropy dedicated to the arts has dropped by more than half."


When companies do support culture, they are increasingly paying for it out of their marketing budgets, which means strings are attached to the funds: from how a corporation’s name will appear in promotional materials, to what parties it can give during an exhibition, to the number of free or discounted tickets available to its employees.

The impetus for the article is the long rumored pullout of Altria (formerly--cough, cough--Philip Moris) from much of its A-list arts funding portfolio, leaving such illustrious org's like BAM and Alvin Ailey in a panic.

Just think of where this leaves the little guys of the nonprofit world.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

ALW: Somebody Stop Him!

Yes, he's now talking Phantom II:

"I can confirm what I told the studio audience whilst on the set of 'You're The One That I Want' last week in the U.S., that I am considering writing a sequel to Phantom of the Opera based on an idea presented to me over a decade ago. I will be returning to the U.K. shortly and hopefully have a blog for you, but let's just say, I am full of ideas!"
As if casting-by-reality-show were not a traumatic enough legacy...

RoadKill, continued

One thing not helping the uncertain state of theatrical touring is crooked and/or incompetent producing organizations like Baci's "Performing Arts Productions"--currently causing an uproar in the DC area over numerous cancelled (and un-refunded) productions. Read the exposé in the Baltimore Sun.

In a nutshell:

Ricky Wiles, an employee of Chevy Chase Bank, subscribed for the first time this season. Attracted by the lineup of shows, he paid $351.25 for box seats. "I'm a subscriber - supposedly - but no shows have happened," he said.

True, given this is all over "Aida" and some stage version of "Casablanca"(!) one might say he's better off. But he should definitely get his money back.
Then there's this odd course of events:
In the case of a revival of On Golden Pond, scheduled to open in Baltimore last November, the cast was to have included Richard Chamberlain and Hayley Mills. When the tour went out with Tom Bosley and Michael Learned instead, Baci removed the show from its seasons.

Huh? Chamberlain gold, Bosley poison? No wonder these Baci guys can't run their business. Go with Mr. C. and the crime-solving priest over the "Thorn Birds" guy anyday!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Acting: Brits vs Americans / Stage vs. Film

I suppose this might be considered unpatriotic on "Presidents' Day" but I can't resist sharing this shot across the bow from Charles McNulty at the LA Times. While filed under "Oscar Preview" it is actually a subversive assertion of not just the values of "British acting" vs American (as if there were just something in the water there) but an implicit defense of the continuing importance of stage acting (and stage training) as part of a good film actor's makeup.

Now this is an old argument and one subject to continuous ongoing debate. But one canard that I hope can be laid to rest is some simple swipe at British actors (or indeed all stage actors) being too "big" or hammy for film. McNulty takes as his cue the fact this year's Oscar nom's--like so many in recent years--have favored so many Brit-performances that were hardly over the top; Helen Mirren and Judy Dench being this year's self-effacing examples that he dwells on most.

I like that McNulty also dares to take on the issue of intelligence in acting. Not that the Yanks are dumber. But that so much less is expected of actors in the US--that they are treated as dumber.

Artists enlarge our world, and art is an inescapable part of the landscape. Painting, poetry, music should be as real to our actors as the range of emotions they're so careful to catalog. When [Judi] Dench's Barbara [in "Notes on a Scandal"], a human-scale villain with Shakespearean cunning, mordantly describes the pupils in her school as "proles," one assumes that not only has this fearsome history teacher read George Orwell, but the actress herself is conversant with the author — and knows how to italicize a cultural marker for maximum effect. The same is true for Winslet in "Little Children," who, in playing a passionate woman trapped in a suburban New England version of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," conveys a fine-grained literary understanding of her situation that's appropriate to her overeducated character.

One doesn't get this sort of intellectual frisson from, say, Leonardo DiCaprio, not because he doesn't read (I'm sure he had plenty of Joseph Conrad to dip into on the set of "Blood Diamond") but because the kinds of roles that often come with his level of stardom have little interest in these, shall we say, more delicate values. Action films don't have time to revel in the inner life, never mind the color, nuance and literary rumblings of words. Distracted by irony for too long, an adventure hero could easily find himself with a bullet in his brain.

It's important to understand this point beyond a "they're smart/we're dumb" schematic. The difference is between two cultures. I suppose, for instance, that growing up in Britain where Shakespeare and his language is more prevalent would make his plays easier to internalize. But also think of the complex verbal and intellectual skills that are instilled from years at drama school and rep. Performing not only Shakespeare, but other word-dense Elizabethans, Jacobeans, and Edwardians week after week. All with complicated imagery and rhetorical knots to be surmounted in performance.

The difference is not just UK vs US, but specifically London vs Hollywood, too. It helps to have a film industry not entirely (and proudly) cut off from the nation's more high-art centers as a balance.

McNulty also identifies a notable phenomenon that puts this ancient rivalry into new perspective: the continuing success of old stodgy British actors in not only British cinema, but hip US (and Canadian) indie film, as well.

Notice how popular actors like Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon, Ben Kingsley and Tom Wilkinson are with the current indie directors. Then look at the contributions of younger English stage-trained thespians to our better cinema--Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett (ok, an Aussie), Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths.

Again, material matters, as McNulty reiterates is the case with these films:
[M]aybe the difference has as much to do with the types of independent films British actors are likely to be starring in as it does with the refreshing qualities the best of them bring to their work. There's something mutually reinforcing about this scene, which is of course nourished by a long-standing and still vibrant theatrical tradition that accepts aging and doesn't need to prettify everything for a big phony close-up.

Yes, "mutually reinforcing." These filmmakers and these actors have found a suitable partnership. Putting aside all possible accusations of persisting Brit-snobbery, is it possible that the indie directors really value actors with highly honed technique? Who can internalize the kinds of complicated Indie scripts based on Russell Banks or Andre Dubus novels without extra rehearsals or "coaches"?

Random examples: if you've seen them, think of the eerily restrained performances Atom Egoyan got from Holm in "Sweet Hereafter" and Hoskins in "Felicia's Journey."

As for "Notes on a Scandal," it's no fine masterpiece. Tawdry, in fact. But definitely a case where a performance--Dench's--almost elevates the material to the level of classical tragedy through its multilayered and unpredictable shifts and textures. (As an all-Brit production essentially, it should have been more of an art film. So I blame producer Scott Rudin and his composer of choice, Philip Glass, for souping up the "Fatal Attraction" factor.)

So--does an actor have to be a great stage actor to also be great on film? Of course not! To pick just two venerated male movie stars, and two personal faves, Nicholson and DeNiro are camera animals completely. (Anyone remember DeNiro's one stage turn, "Cuba and his Teddy Bear"? Didn't lead to more command performances, I recall.) And, from recent evidence, Julia Roberts and Julianne Moore may be similarly blessed/afflicted with a connection to the camera so intense that their presence shrinks without it. Far be it from me to take anything away from their undeniable talents. But also think how many of the great "movie stars" did prove their chops on stage--Brando, Burton, Bette Davis, even Bogart. And don't forget Ms. Streep, of course.

But to look at the formidable work being done in film now--good films--by actors who might previously have been written off as "stagey" does throw new light onto this question and remind us that good acting does require technique, skills, and, yes, maybe some culture and intelligence to boot. At the end of the day, good acting may just be good acting, in whatever medium. And, dare I say it, good acting is theatrical acting.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Slings & Arrows: Season 3

McKellar & McKinney, sage stage satirists

Yes, not only the best but also the only(!) primetime series about a professional theatre company... is back for a third and final season. And it premieres tonight on Sundance.

Here's an excellent primer and background piece on the show from the LA Times. In the sensible tradition of British telly, the creators are exercising admirable restraint in calling it quits in advance at 3 seasons, saying that's really all they need to tell the story they set out to tell. And that was the plan when it originated on Canadian Broadcasting Company--but now that it's a hit in the US, naturally Sundance is pushing for more episodes.

If only more fine American TV knew when enough was enough.

(Aside: the tv series is an odd animal that way from a writing standpoint, isn't it? In what other medium does a writer not have control over when his/her work actually ends?.... I guess it's more analagous to being an author of airport/serial-mystery thriller machines like Robert Parker, Sue Grafton et al than a playwright or screenwriter.)

I admit to liking the show mostly because it is about the theatre. But it sure helps that--for all the over-stating and romantic comedy tropes that come with wide-audience television--it is actually very smart about theatre. Each season has been very carefully and deliberately built around a Shakespeare tragedy that the fictional company is doing. The "Hamlet" season involved an institutionalized director (and a spoof of Keanu Reeves' now-forgotten Canadian tryout in the role); the "Mackers" season put the focus on power games and actors' competitive egos; and now they are ending, fitfully, with "King Lear" giving veteran Stratford thespian William Hutt (now an octogenarian) a chance to reprise his famous King Lear there as part of a storyline of an old actor returning for a farewell performance. Sounds also like a metaphor for a dying theatre in a dying tradition.

Death has been a notably dark and relentless theme in this otherwise goofy comedy. The hovering over the proceedings of the former artistic director's ghost would be just Topper-esque silly if it didn't dovetail so nicely with the madness and ghost images in the plays themselves. One episiode even had great fun with the problem facing all resident theatre co's: their audience is dying! After an old subscriber is found dead in her seat at opening curtain, an "edgy" ad agency goes wide with images of geezers on life-support, leading to much hilarious damage control.

That old Canadian standard bearer, the Statford Fest, of course, is the unsubtle model for the show's "New Burbage Festival" (clever renaming that--but what would have been the Old Burbage--the Globe???). Among the many revelations to me in the LA Times article is that the actor playing deceased hack of an AD (Stephen Ouimette) in real life actually ran the Stratford for many years! So really, the show is a collection of theatrical inside jokes. Which is exactly why I love it. Let's enjoy our elitism whereever we can these days, eh?

And if that's not enough of a lure, it's co-written and stars "Kids In The Hall" genius Mark McKinney (as the Managing Director, no less!) and the team behind "Drowsy Chaperone", including the hilarious Don McKellar who shows up once a season as a Eurotrash wannabe director with another awful concept and new plans to abuse actors in rehearsal.

Busy tonight and don't have DVR? Check the Sundance schedule for repeats. (All of Season 2 is being repeated tonight in advance of the permiere.)

Friday, February 16, 2007

Reports Riedel today:

Is 'Talk Radio' too risque for talk radio? Ads for the upcoming Broadway revival of Eric Bogosian's play have been rejected by a number of radio stations, including CBS 880, WOR and WINS. The reason is that the spots contain a phrase from the play: 'pet's orgasms.' Maybe they should try satellite radio, where pretty much anything Howard Stern-ish goes.

Yup, all occasions do inform against today's Broadway theatre ever expanding its repertoire--and its audience--beyond a G-rating.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Actors & Directors

The Guardian has a fun quickie roundrobin of interviews with some interesting actor-director pairs from the London stage on what makes for a good longterm collaboration. From Nick Hytner and Alex Jennings to Antony Sher and his real life boyfriend (now "civil partner" in the UK) Greg Doran.

"Corrie" in Seattle

Brendan Kiley of Seattle's "The Stranger" has his own theory of how the Seattle Rep is handling their current production of "My Name is Rachel Corrie". His hunch is they regret they took it on so long, long ago, "before the shitstorm hit," as he aptly put it, and before the middling reviews.

Still, my hunch is it will do well there, if for no other reason that the activist community of Corrie's native Northwest will come out in droves.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine's Day Reckoning

Back on November 10 I made a very bold prediction: that Spring Awakening, Grey Gardens, and Company would all have closed shop on Broadway by Valentine's Day.

0 for 3, you say?

Fair enough. Obviously I was overstating the challenges they all face. But I still stand behind the argument notwithstanding the hyperbole and gloom-and-doom:

All three of these shows will get great reviews (already the case for Gardens) and generate great excitement among the theatre community and even the cherished younger audiences. But this audience will soon exhaust itself (if they can even afford the tickets, that is) within a few months. That is not long enough to recoup the investment of a musical on Broadway today. A true commercial success (i.e. profitable returns) depends on well over a year of continued business, which means pleasing not the critics, not the insiders but the average US consumer who sees Broadway as part of a Vegas-like "entertainment package." You have to fill your theatre with at least 800-900 of those folks every night, and they have to enjoy it so much they tell 800-900 more folks that it's worth $75.

Well let's look at the current stats, shall we? "Spring Awakening" indeed continues to gain strength, signalling genuine word of mouth. Their capacity last week rose to 80% and they just announced extended ticket sales through April 22. (Not quite Tony time, but close.) "Grey Gardens" is at 75%, but offering more visible discounts I see. "Company," though, still can't break 60%.

So it is perhaps good news for the future of quality on Broadway that these shows have survived. But has anyone talked of profit yet? My guess is these produces have made a commitment to keep sinking cash into the shows, praying for Tony-gold--which is still 4 months down the road.

The truth is, "Spring Awakening" obviously has the cheapest overhead, so stars, and came to Broadway fully formed from a risk free nonprofit development process. They can most afford to stick it out. The others are more expensive shows. (Despite John Doyle doubling his Company actors as musicians, I'm sure they still have to pay a musicians union minimum fee, I think. Then again, his "Sweeney" did recoup relatively quickly.) Plus, the others are less flashy shows, and, I bet, are really selling tickets based on their lead performeres, Christine Ebersole in "Gardens" and Raul Esparza in "Company."

What does this all add up to? Nothing, really. I was dead wrong and so I'll just fess up.

And no more predictions.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Road to Nowhere?

Another interesting Variety article today?

Road sales for big touring musicals declined in 2005-2006.

Can't fool all the people all the time? Has the tide turned in the heartland for the romance of Broadway?

Actually the news from the report isn't all bad, so check it out.

Another NYTW "Postponement"

You'd think that--almost a year to the day after the "Rachel Corrie" fracas began--New York Theatre Workshop would think twice about using the word "postponed." And so far, clearly an indefinite postponement.

Originally scheduled for this March was the play "24 Hours Are Not a Day" by German playwright-director Rene Pollesch. I had not heard of Pollesch, but some quick Googling has revealed him to be an artist of the moment in Berlin, and someone you'd certainly expect to be on NYTW head Jim Nicola's radar. He's known for tackling issues of globalization and corporate capitalism in a very abstract Handke-like style, where text is dispersed among actors, not structured into characters and plot.

Well for some unannounced reason, NYTW has made clear it is "postponed" and currently replaced by a one-man show by and with John Fugelsang called "All the Wrong Reasons: A True Story of Neo-Nazis, Drug Smuggling and Undying Love." According to Variety:

"Reasons," which ranges from Malawi to Bangkok to Hollywood to Brooklyn, follows an ex-nun who marries a former Franciscan brother and has a child.
Tale may sound ambitious for Fugelsang, a comedian who has hosted "America's Funniest Home Videos."

Indeed. But, then again, may be easier to sell to said piece than an abstract ensemble multi-media German exploration of globalized capitalism by a writer unknown in the States. Or is it that it would be lower overhead?

Rampant speculation, I admit. So let's hope NYTW--for the sake of their own pr!--clarifies soon just what the problem was.

Meanwhile, Variety reminds us that Fugelsang has more in his toolkit than laughing at toddling toddlers.
But he's also appeared on shows with a political bent, including "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher" and "The ACLU Freedom Files."

So political theatre is certainly not dead at NYTW.

PS: The complete text for Pollesch's "24 Hours" was published in Yale's "Theater" journal in their 2005 Issue 1. Not available online, but you can check it out if you have access to the hard copies.

Hat tip: Mr Excitement.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Bruhaha over Hoohaa

Censorship often poses as anti-"obscenity" law. Rendering certain topics "obscene" controls the publc discourse. Sex, for instance, can't be publicly discusses in a mature, constructive fashion because we are not permitted the vocabulary with which to do so.

I have no special attachment to Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues." Never seen it. And I don't mistake the enthusiasm of millions of college students for a geniune political movement. Still--every time Ensler's work encounters resistance, it's a fight for all of us.

Sometimes quite humorously!

Last week, after a complaint from a passing driver who became upset because her niece had seen "vagina" on the theater marquee, Bryce Pfanenstiel of the Atlantic said, "We decided we would just use child slang for it," reported. Down came "The Vagina Monologues." Up went "The Hoohaa Monologues."

But two days later, on Thursday, in response to a demand from the organizers of the production, the original title was restored. The organizers are a group of Florida Coastal School of Law students who insisted that the original title be displayed because they had rights to the play only if they refused any censorship.

Yes, author's rights might trump community board muzzling in the end, thankfully.

Read more in today's Times.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

"Restoration" Comedy

“If there is going to be a restoration fee, there should also be a Renaissance fee, a Middle Ages fee and a Dark Ages fee. Someone must have men in the back room making up names, euphemisms for profit."

-Veteran B'way producer Manny Azenburg, on the fraud of the "Ticket Restoration Fee"--quite openly exposed in an interesting NY Times article yesterday.

Runner-up quote, from same article:

Philip J. Smith, the president of the Shubert Organization, which owns Telecharge, said that the company would offer no comment on the charges. “We will not talk about this,” Mr. Smith said. “We do not ask you to comment on how much you charge for the newspaper.”
Second runner-up?
Many theater owners contend that ticket buyers do not care about this added expense. “That is not what people complain about anymore,” said Daryl Roth, who is both a producer and the owner of an Off Broadway theater. “People are understanding of it.”
Oh really??? And who are these "people" Ms. Roth?

And they wonder why the audience is dying...

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Tale of Two Cities, cont.

"New York audiences and critics have clearly taken Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast of Utopia to their hearts much more than their British counterparts. Over here, the three plays about mid-19th century Russian intellectuals opened at the National back in 2002 and won respect but no real enthusiasm from either critics or reviewers. Unlike the ecstatic response to Stoppard's current hit Rock'n'Roll, British reviews for 'Utopia were unusually reserved, and I know plenty of people who decided not to book for the second and third parts after sitting through the first."

- The Guardian's Lyn Gardner, speculating over what accounts for a much more ga-ga reception for "Utopia" here than in London. Not a little facitiously, she asks, Are Americans smarter? Do they just like doing their 'homework' more? I would say, no. Just that we like saying how well read they are. New Yorkers, at least....

Friday, February 09, 2007

Christopher Shinn interview

"Once institutions start to see themselves as superior to the works of art they are presenting, I think artists are in big trouble. It means that they might be forced to submit to the desires of institutions in order to have their voice heard at all, leading to a watering down of that voice, or a contradiction of that voice even."

-Playwright Christopher Shinn, in conversation with Mr. Excitement himself, Mark Armstrong in an interesting Brooklyn Rail interview.

Shinn's play, "Dying City"--a rare production of an American play dealing with the Iraq war--goes into previews next week at Lincoln Center.

Legally Blegh!

Uh oh... "Legally Blonde The Musical" may be a hit.

According to Riedel today the word from San Francisco is good:

On the heels of "The Wedding Singer" and "High Fidelity," "Legally Blonde," which opens in New York in April, seemed more of the same, especially when stacked against "Spring Awakening," a genuinely original musical that's captured the industry's imagination.

But on the West Coast, critics and audiences have found "Legally Blonde" - bright, peppy and relentlessly pink - irresistible.

The strategy? Women, women, women. And teenage girls. Lots of them. "Wicked," with laughs and better fashion.

"Feminism gets a coat of bright pink paint in 'Legally Blonde,' a smart, sparkling homage to girl power," said the Contra Costa Times.
Have you retched yet?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Culture Project/ Mosher collaboration

Culture Project lives on, in its new space and just announced a very unusual project:

Gregory Mosher will direct My Trip to Al-Qaeda, a solo work starring and written by the best-selling author of the book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," Lawrence Wright.

The Culture Project will present the work at its new space March 1-April 14 following the current run of Iris Bahr's Dai (enough), which ends Feb. 25 at 55 Mercer.

In My Trip to Al Qaeda, Wright "utilizes never-before-seen evidence, transcripts and court documents to illustrate how this organization fomented and implemented their attack on America — and became a defining force in America's foreign policy and national psyche." The piece is culled from interviews with over 600 people (including members of Al-Qaeda) from across the globe.

I have no idea how good an "actor" Lawrence Wright will be. But apparently he's no stranger to show business--having penned the screenplay to prescient 1998 terrorism film, "The Siege."

That Mosher, always thinking out of the box! But I do hope the show proves more than one guy's slideshow posing as "theatre."

UPDATE: I guessed I missed the much bigger piece on this in the Times yesterday, which includes some interesting remarks by Culture Project's Allan Buchman. Like:
Mr. Buchman said that because of the uneasy global political climate, there was a greater urgency in the dramatic world to find new approaches to commentary. As a example, he said, officials from the aid group Doctors Without Borders approached the Culture Project about forming a story out of their work.

“We’re finding that people are coming to us who feel that their stories will be more effective if they can climb off the op-ed page,” he said.

It's a lot cheaper than making an Al Gore-style documentary, I guess.

So, a new front in political theatre? Public lectures? Sounds like the 19th century! And maybe not a bad thing. Better than a lecture pretending to be a "play," which I've seen a lot of lately...

Lincoln Center moves East?

Like, Middle East!

From Kate Taylor in today's Sun:

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts may join the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Louvre in establishing a foothold in Abu Dhabi, according to an Abu Dhabi official who is involved in designing the planned cultural district.

Abu Dhabi is "in early stages of talks with Lincoln Center, as part of the plan to attract the world's largest and best-known names to the project," the official, who did not wish to be identified, said in a statement released to The New York Sun. A spokeswoman for Lincoln Center declined to comment. The planned cultural district — developed by the Tourist Development & Investment Co., a corporation created by the Abu Dhabi Tourist Authority — is to occupy 670 acres on Saadiyat Island an will include four museums and a performing arts center. The Guggenheim will establish a contemporary art museum, designed by Frank Gehry. The Louvre is in final negotiations to license its name to a classical museum designed by Jean Nouvel. And, although the official did not specify, Abu Dhabi is apparently wooing Lincoln Center to fill the five theaters — two concert halls, an opera house, a theater, and an experimental theater — of the Zaha Hadid-designed performing arts center.

Read the rest of this ongoing odd, odd culture story here.

I'm not sure how Wendy Wasserstein would go over in
Abu Dhabi, Andre...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"Vertical" goes Hoizontal

Wow, here's something interesting, hot off the NYT online presses:

“The Vertical Hour,” David Hare’s play about the political divide between Americans and the British, will close on March 11, three weeks earlier than scheduled. The play, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Julianne Moore and Bill Nighy, opened at the Music Box Theater on Nov. 30 to reviews that ranged from glowing to glum. Weekly grosses dwindled in January, a hard time for most Broadway shows.
Indeed, according to the stats, the show is now hovering just above the 50% range lately, dipping almost 4% (from 58% to 54%) in the last week. That's not significantly better than "Little Dog Laughed"! Especially when you compare it to the still-going-strong Phantom, which actually went up last week from 59% to 69%.

Playbill has the complete press release statement:
"The Vertical Hour is expected to recoup its entire capitalization with the week ending March 11. In order to maintain that advantageous financial position for the play's investors, the producers will end the limited engagement three weeks earlier than originally announced."
Wow. No "Ms. Moore has a film commitment." Just--"We made our profit. Let's get out while we're ahead." Apparently after March 11, they're not very confident that they could stop the hemorrhaging. Perhaps one might even be so bold as to say that--to borrow the metaphor from the play's own title!--the time left to save this wounded patient is ticking, ticking and running out.

What do we learn from this?

A) That, apparently, Julianne Moore is not enough to sell tickets on Broadway to a "straight" play after all. (Non-straight plays in the other sense have their own problems, of course. See yesterday)

B) That Juia Roberts is just a bigger star?

C) That "Three Days of Rain" weathered its own bad reviews thanks to just lower overhead? (Three actors, the other two much lower paid, presumably.) Also, I believe, less of an advertising budget, since ads were just not necessary after they instantly sold out.

D) British plays aren't necessarily guaranteed to sell tix either.

E) That Julianne Moore was just that bad?

F) That Hare's script is just that lame?

G) That there really isn't much of a Bill Nighy fan club on these shores yet.


H) Whoever you are, Broadway doesn't want your political stuff. "Three Days of Rain" may not have been British, but it had the advantage of passing as "romantic" and not challenging its audience a whit. "Vertical Hour"--for all we heard about how wonderful it was to be addressing the Iraq war from a Broadway stage and how the timing was right now after the Democratic election victory--was, in the end, not helped by politics, whatever else its possible flaws.

Remember the Broadway audience is now less than half New Yorkers. (Even less than a third at many shows.) It seems the New York audience came out for a while. Now they've seen it. Or I should say--the New York audience that was willing to shell out north of $75 has seen it. I know I would like very much to have seen it. But with a star cast and good early sales, the producers apparently felt no incentive to offer any substantive discount or outreach for this "socially minded" play.

But think of the poor marketing directors! Only a short while ago they were advertising "Final 11 Weeks." My God, 11 was short enough!

PS: Back in November I cited what turns out to have been a pretty prescient quote from Sir David: "The straight play is a very endangered thing on Broadway....[T]here are so many clever people in New York. They mostly don't go to the theatre - but they'll go once a year."

At the time I ventured that the "one" this season would either be his or Stoppard's. Interesting that the more conservative writer won.

Quote of the Day II

"Mr. Ball’s dialogue rings with acerbic commentary about our chronic self-absorption, American decadence and the emptiness of a consumerist culture. The problem is that Mr. Ball’s analyses themselves seem glib, prefabricated and marketed past the point of freshness. They clutter up the play like last season’s leftovers stuffed on sale racks at the Gap. As the play’s eloquently self-aware characters trot out the usual therapy-speak about their issues and the self-protective habit of 'avoiding emotional risk,' a running gag comparing Dwight’s world-weary effusions to verbal flatulence strikes a little too close to home."

-Charles Isherwood on Alan Ball's first post-American Beauty/Six Feet Under play. (At New York Theatre Workshop.)

I know we take Mr. Isherwood to task often for not supporting new writing (Sarah Ruhl aside). And I don't know anything about this particular play. But I do think he's onto something here (despite the jarring Gap reference) about what makes so many plays today annoying to me. Overly arch, hyper-articulate , over-educated "characters" simply stating what they feel, usually--one surmises--simply because that's what the playwright feels and thinks. (Richard Greenberg is probably the most talented of this school, but I've never warmed to his work.) I worry we're losing sight of the importance of the role of dramatic irony and distance, of structure and setting. Of creating a "world of the play", not just a convenient place for your voices to just vent.

Plus, I hated American Beauty and could never get into Six Feet Under. So I'm inclined to agree in this case.

Quote of the Day

"The reality is, if you go to the theater in New York, if someone doesn't have 'Law & Order' on their Playbill biography, they either just got off the bus or they're really bad actors."

- Dick Wolf, creator/producer of said "Law & Order."

See Barbara Hoffman's humorous story in the Post about at least one successful actor who's not embarassed to include in his playbill bio: "has not appeared in Law & Order." But not for lack of trying...

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

REVIEW: Gone [Village Voice]

My review of Charles Mee's latest, Gone--which I liked--will be in this week's Voice, and is now up online.

Not always a Chuck Mee fan, but it's a good production, and his ideas and romantic spirit can certainly catch hold sometimes.

And, man, those cats are creepy. (Yes, that is the official poster. Though they're barely in the show.)

Addendum: Wow, Jonathan Kalb (reviewing in the Times) seemed to hate the very things I liked about it! We both agree on Mee's essential worth and track record. And I do agree this is not one of Mee's stronger works. If I had a few more than 300 wds in the review, I would probably have gone further to "warn" the reader about there being not even a threadbare narrative and that the whole thing is a bit haphazardly put together. But somehow I didn't mind that, and I feel an audience that goes into it with an open mind not insisting on linearity and narrative might not either.

B'way: Under The Gaydar?

Variety's Robert Hofler offers the provocative thesis that the unimpressive (and soon to close) Broadway run of "The Little Dog Laughed" might signal a defection of one of the Great White Way's most loyal consituencies: gay men.

Now there's a lot wrong with his argument, some of which he acknowledges. For instance, musicals still have the power to lure this--and indeed all--audiences. So it's not a total bailing. But--asks Hofler--has tv stolen the thunder from gay comedies and dramas?

If the failure of "Little Dog" is any indication, it appears the so-called gay play on Broadway has gone the way of lawyer dramas and frothy sex comedies, and likewise, been usurped by television. This is thanks not only to "Will & Grace" but more important, the constant homophilic output of Bravo, Logo, Showtime and even HBO and IFC with their airing of films like "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Celluloid Closet," respectively.
Yes, yes. We've known for years that movies were going to kill off theatre, and tv was going to kill off film. (So, wait, does that mean tv then saves theatre???) And all that happened, of course. Oh, wait-- it didn't.

Still, there's something valid underneath all this, and it has less to do with gay demographics than just comedy itself as a fading Broadway genre, believe it or not.

I find these citations of Hofler's compelling:

In the final analysis, "Little Dog" might have succumbed to a more pervasive marketing liability than either "gay" and/or "nonmusical."

According to Dietz, her record-producer friend Clive Davis [not the blogger!--ed.]cautioned her about promoting Beane's play as a laugh riot. "If I want to go to a comedy, I'll go to a movie," he opined.

Charles Busch's "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," from the 2000-01 season, is the last flat-out comedy [i.e. on B'way--ed.] to recoup.

"It's difficult for a play that's just a fun evening," says Busch, who returns to the fray this March with his new laffer, "Our Leading Lady," at Manhattan Theater Club. "It's hard for people to spend that kind of money."

This all rings very, very true to me. At $100 a ticket, people want more than some laughs. (Maybe if a major major star makes them laugh--like Billy Crystal, but that wasn't even a play!) "Little Dog's" Problem was not gay or straight. It was that there was no Julia Roberts in it. Or that it wasn't British enough.

What it did have going for it--according to all reports--was a star-making performance by Julie White, the main motivation for many of the ticket sales. But note how the audience at large did not flock to see a "newcomer of the year" when she's a 40-ish non-singing woman who hasn't been on tv.

I'm shocked, though, that Hofler misses one obviously major factor: price. He begins by lamenting:

Does gay no longer pay on Broadway?

With the premature closing of Douglas Carter Beane's gay-themed "The Little Dog Laughed," on Feb. 18 after only 112 perfs, it appears that one of legit's built-in auds, Gotham's gay theater-going crowd, is suddenly missing in action.

Plays are always a risky commercial proposition, but didn't "Bent" (1979), "Torch Song Trilogy" (1982), "M. Butterfly" (1988), "Angels in America" (1993), "Love! Valour! Compassion!" (1995) and the tangentially gay-themed "The History Boys" (2006) all recoup? "Take Me Out" might have lost money in 2003, but it nonetheless ran an impressive 355 perfs.

Well let's start by noting how most of these plays from the "glory days" of gay theatre were more than 10 years ago! What's increased more--homophobia or stratospheric B'way budget and ticket $ increases? (Okay, maybe a little of both.) I need to check my statistics, but I'm pretty sure people gay and straight could still have checked out "Bent" and "Torch Song" for less
than $30 all those years ago. Even the economics of producing and selling "Angels" and "Love Valour" were arguably more hospitable then.

Another factor barely alluded to in analyzing "Little Dog's" "failure" is that the difference between an Off-Broadway hit and a B'way flop can be a simple matter of capacity. According to the most recent stats, the show is currently averaging 43% capacity of a 1,082-seat house. I'll do the math for you: 465.26 patrons a night.

(Let's attribute the fraction to the one child that might have been accidentally taken to this fatally family unfriendly show--another factor, of course.)

At the nonprofit Second Stage Theatre, where the show originated, it played to sold-out houses last year at its Off-Broadway home. Capacity: 296.

Now you do the math.

In short: I'm afraid we've hit the ceiling folks.

And so the sliver of the spectrum that the Broadway market will allow just got a little narrower...

Monday, February 05, 2007

Off Broadway Gambles on 20 Bucks

It became apparent last summer that Off Broadway--or at least commercial Off Broadway--is facing a crisis. I know this because people who work there kept saying it!

And now the rumors of producers and artists huddling in corners holding strategy meetings seem to have been true, as the announcement of something called the "Off Broadway Brainstormers" attests. Their site is under construction, so stay tuned. Basically their aspiration seems to be to grow into the junior version, the little sibling to the Broadway trade and lobbying group, LATP.

Meanwhile, they're rolled out their first idea: a one-week $20 rush ticket at select shows. At 20 minutes to curtain. March 4-11.

Wow, how confident!

Well, it's something at least. But imagine if they announced: "All seats at all these theatres, $20, for one week. Advance or at the door." Maybe make it cash just to add some downside--and to get the theatres some immediate flow!

Yes, a lot of shows would lose money for that given week. But that would be a rush, I bet. And one that will encourage more people to come back than waiting all day just to be turned away at 7:40 from Jewtopia.

So mark your calendars March 4-11. Actually some quite notable shows are participating. The complete options are listed here, but let me save you some time:

The Voysey Inheritance
Room Service
Some Men (if you like McNally)
Mary Rose
Gutenberg: The Musical
The Fever

As for Jewtopia, 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, A Jew Grows in Brooklyn, and My Mother's Italian My Father's Jewish and I'm in Therapy... you'll have to make up your own mind of what 20 bucks is worth to you.


Notice the complete visual overhaul of the site? Playgoer has switched to Blogger 2.0, or whatever Google is calling it.

Okay, no diff so far. Partially because I'm too stubborn to change anything that radically yet. And still very much a work in progress in the margins.

But perhaps this is a good occasion for me to solicit any free graphic design/website logistics advice any of you may have. I'm pretty nearly a complete illiterate when it comes to HTML, and would never have started the site if Blogger weren't so idiot proof. But I would definitely appreciate hearing anything the more tech savvy--and especially those familiar with the new Blogger--can recommend.

Just tell me in English, please!

UPDATE: Isaac's question in Comments raises a good point. Yes, I imagine the new Blogger has f'd up any RSS or similar feeds from the site. Very sorry. I hope all of you who do "subscribe" will take the steps to reprogram..... Also, apologies for the continued messiness up right. Blogger Beta don't like widgets, apparently.

When Good PR Happens to Bad Shows, continued

I'm grateful for all the comments to Friday's post reflecting on the widening gap between press buzz and quality in certain Off-Off productions I've been seeing.

So provocative are they I will try to address them one by one...

YS--I agree that word of mouth ultimately trumps all bought and paid for chatter. Professional producers learn that very quickly. Which is why you can't fool all the audience all the time.

Parabasis--I think we have very different definitions of "Payola." A newspaper printing a review by a professional critic who was invited by the production to attend press night is not Payola by any widely used definition. Payola is when those behind the "product" (like a CD, to use the industry from whence the term originates) pay media outlets in either cash or goods (i.e. free stuff) in clear expectation of positive media exposure.

Indeed I did write previously about "payola" issues in theatre blogdom...but I was explicitly taking off from the case of a fansite raving about "Drowsy Chaperone" after getting free tix. I don't think that situation is analgous either to those of us bloggers who try to do honest "criticism", or to print outlets who simply "review shows."

The key distinction between Payola and just free tickets is: a) are you free to write what you want, and b) how locked in you are to having to give exposure to the product at all. Yes, b) can be a shady grey area, I admit. The bigger the show is (and the producers and pr folk are) the greater price you'll pay for taking their tickets and not printing a review. Still--that's a long way from play this track on your radio show, say it's "rad", and we'll pay you $$$. (Or as it's known in its political form: the Armstrong Williams scenario.).

In short the issues are quid pro quo, and who's paying who. Now some might say theatre criticism is still compromised by the free tix and can only be objective if they're paid for. I'm proud to say I still buy many of my tickets myself to what I write about here. But obviously if I were full time, that would bankrupt me! (Especially if I were to buy seats that actually allowed me to appreciate the show!) So I have no problem in principle, say, of a newspaper itself buying the tix. But I don't imagine that would increase the number of shows reviewed.

(FYI, here's the Wikipedia definition of Payola.)

JW--Personally I see no problem with "heteronormative eye candy"! If only "Linnea" offered some actually pleasing version of it.

Which also was my problem with the "Tryst" ads. From what I gathered from the response, it was a bit of a "bait & switch." Erotic stimulation is one of the most basic stimulations theatre can provide. But when its cheaply invoked just to cover up a square and fumbling script or production, it's laughable.... So, no, I don't think the two points are analogous.

And besides, I see nothing wrong with some graphics (any graphics) on this blog to offer something more eye catching than my ranting black-on-grey prose.

Aaron--If by "ill-produced" you mean simply low-budget, then I'm not saying they shouldn't be reviewed for that reason. As simple and naive as it sounds, I just wish that "good" shows would get reviewed more (and more exposure) than "bad" shows. (And, yes for now I guess I just mean "good" and "bad" in the reviewer's opinion. But I swear the shows I'm talking about there would be a fair consensus about as to professional standards, at least. Even Martin Denton, for instance, panned "Billboard"!) My futile complaint was simply against the "bad" shows that somehow masquerade as "good" thanks only to savvy pr and expensive posters. My complaint is not that they shouldn't exist, but that media outlets should just not be susceptible in falling for the tricks.

Then again, as David Cote admirably concedes, the outlets aren't stupid, they're often just "playing the game." It's a dance between the pr and the press, where both parties know the product may not always be up to par.

On the other hand, I actually agree with what Aaron says about there being some obligation to cover what's "on the radar" if for no other reason that if it's out there, people may be buying tickets! In other words, "Tryst" may win by buying all that attention. But if you're a critic and you feel a responsibility to the public, then it's a good thing if you review it and tell people "save your money and order-in Adult Spice on cable if you want that kind of stimulation." Or better yet--go see this other really good play you haven't seen posters for.

Cashmere-- "Stenography" is exactly what drives me up a wall, and the fault we have to watch out for. I see it most in the "features" and "profiles" that preceede a big opening.

Alison-- I very much like the "canary in the mineshaft" analogy for critics. And if there were truly unlimited space, then I would think it fair to review all shows no matter how dubious.... But alas, that seems less and less possible, especially in NYC given the vast number of productions plus the shrinking arts coverage.

So how are the selections to be made, eh?

David's points about the value of professionalism press rep's can provide is not negligable. He also made the good point to me personally that, as a critic, it's a very good thing to have a reliable contact that reserves your seat and gets you the info you need. A lot of ragtag companies have trouble doing that on their own.

Before you write off this concern as snobbery, consider what it's like when you're seeing (for your job) several shows a week....And forget about when the limo isn't even on time!

LASTLY... I'll leave you with this. Instead of picking on little Off-B'way fare, let me suggest that I don't even think the NYT should have covered In My Life. Or the Suzanne Sommers one-woman freakshow. The only thing that separates them from community theatre is about 4 or 5 decimal points.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Coast of Ka-Ching!

From Riedel today:

WHAT'S the hottest ticket in town?

Believe it or not, "The Coast of Utopia," Tom Stoppard's demanding trilogy about 19th-century Russian philosophy.

The VIP waiting list grows longer every day, and ticket brokers are getting $300 on a $100 seat. For the upcoming marathon days, when all three plays are done together, the scalper price is $750 to $800.

Of course, Lincoln Center can't be happy about all this dough going into other people's pockets!

Good thing Stoppard's not a Marxist, eh?

REVIEW: Linnea [Time Out New York]

Yes, another Time Out review.

Now don't get too excited by the photo. Those devil-horns were by far the raciest thing about this show.

I must confess to a kind of crisis of conscience on this one. Namely--I left the show wondering if it was even worth reviewing at all. I mean that not as the greatest possible insult but as a sign of respect, respect for the passion and enthusiasm of the people involved with the show and respect for what it was, given the somewhat sub-professional level of accomplishment.

Unfortunately in a wide-circulation print review, though, I feel it's a copout to say "A for Effort". People open up Time Out New York for info on professional entertainment. It's only responsible for me to let the readers know in no uncertain terms this does not rise to professional standards.

Of course my conscience did not prevent me from filing the review and getting paid. (Though not yet! Ahem, Mr. Cote...) But my doubts did inspire me to at least begin an open discussion with David as to how media outlets like Time Out (just one example of all the major media that do this) choose what to review. We both agreed that it's a shame to give valuable print space to say, "Oh by the way, this off-off b'way show you haven't heard of with no one you know about involved in it... go on ignoring it." Who does that help?

I don't mean "help" as in criticism doesn't "help." Exposing the flaws of prominent productions that are taken seriously by others is an essential function of criticism. (See Richard Gilman's famous contrarian essay "On Destructive Criticism.") But something like "Linnea" seems the result of some part-time theatre enthusiasts (no doubt with serious ambitions) who are just not ready for prime time. I'm all for letting them hone their craft out of the public eye until they have something really ready.

So, to return to the central question: why are they getting covered? Well the main reason is they pulled together the dough to hire a press agent! And, as we all know, it's press agents that get shows reviewed. Theatre editors sifting through the gazillion faxes and emails they received announcing indistinguishable souding performances are grateful for any filtering system--and when pr firms have good reputations it lends some stamp of worthwhile-dom.

But something has happened in the last few years, it seems. As David Cote put it to me: "Press representation for mediocre amateur theater is a thriving business I'm afraid." I hardly blame the Press Rep's for this. Hey, it's their business. A client is a client. They're in the promoting business, not criticism, aesthetics, or theatrical training.... What's regrettable to me, though, is that a lot of the shows I've been "assigned" to lately seem to have spent more effort and resources on their marketing than their content. I'm developing a theory that in the world of Off-Off Broadway at least, the glitziness of the marketing campaign and number of expensive print ads is inversely proportional to the quality of the show.

Victimless crime, you say? Maybe. I do get concerned, though, for the ticketbuyers out there who might assume that just because a show is reviewed in a respectable publication and has professional looking ads that it is actually on a par with Broadway or our finer O.B. nonprofits. In fact, such a slick looking "little show" is more often somewhere between vanity project and community theatre, dressed up to pass in the NYC scene.

Do you remember this show "Tryst" a couple of years ago? You know the one with that poster all over town with the shirtless hunk and the bodiced femme? What else does anyone remember about that one? Or the recent one-woman show "Duse"--if I got one more postcard or email reminding me that George Bernard Shaw said something nice about the real Duse a hundred years ago and therefore I should shell out $50 to see a fictional monologue about her dresser(!), I woulda...

Tell me if I'm wrong and you liked either of these. But it seems to me there was no reason for anyone to pay serious attention to either of them. Commercially mounted by basically wealthy armchair producers, the attention they got was bought by the pound and interest soon vanished once people saw the utterly conventional tired product.

Ban such shows? Of course not. But I hope our theatre culture in general can exercise more discretion (in the best sense of that word) and clearly separate the fledgling and (again, in the best sense) amateur efforts from the work of more accomplished and/or just adventurous artists--whether they can afford p.r. or not.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Arts Funding: Tale of Two Cities

Interesting to see the big cheeses of the NYC arts institutions bristling a bit in today's Times in response to what was heralded just a few days ago as a great reform in city arts funding. I can only assume that after the initial celebration, the CIG bigwigs (that's Cultural Institutions Group--City Hall lingo for the big museums and performance companies housed on city property) maybe made a call over to the Times to share their side of the story?

To quote:

But for organizations that did benefit from the system, receiving sizable Council add-ons that they came to rely on each year, the changes could mean a significant loss. Inevitably, those involved in the process say, more for some organizations will mean less for others, since the overall pot has not increased. Every year 34 organizations in city-owned buildings — including some heavyweights like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, the Bronx Zoo and the Brooklyn Academy of Music — are guaranteed city funds. City officials announced last week that in the 2008 fiscal year they would share $115.3 million, as well as $4.4 million from a “new needs” fund, for a total of $119.7 million.

That is $4.3 million less than the $124 million that these organizations — known jointly as the Cultural Institutions Group — ended up with last year after $22 million in Council restorations.
Interesting to see what might happen to the initial proposal if the biggies start throwing their weight around a bit. You see, all that talk of how glad arts org's were not to have to lobby anymore didn't apply to the CIG's, who already have defacto lobbyists on staff! (Or on their boards.)

But buried deeper in the article is yet more disturbing signs that all arts org's are going to be increasingly held accountable to corporate rather than aesthetic standards of "performance":
Under the new rules, starting in the 2009 fiscal year, which begins in July 2008, the 34 arts groups will also have to work harder for their money, receiving only 90 percent of their funds up front. The rest will be conditioned on their performance through an evaluation process called CulturalStat, a program modeled on the Police Department’s performance-monitoring system.

Arts groups will be reviewed in areas like audience development and financial planning and may receive a portion of the 10 percent balance if they do not qualify for the whole amount.
Modeled on the Police Department!

Notice once again that the current philosophy of civic arts funding rewards those groups who already have money (and thus can develop corporate, or even civil defense-style, management and accounting structures) more than those who most need it. The message inevitably is: spend money (i.e. raise money) to get money. Answer: bigger "Development" staffs and more creative time and effort put into your "Gala" than your plays.

Meanwhile, over to London, where Lyn Gardner has an eerily relevant post on the Guardian blog about the unsatisfying politics increasingly going into funding there.

The Tory approach was simply to stifle the arts by cutting off as much funding as it could, but Labour's approach has been more insidious: the Arts Council - set up to be independent and at arm's length from government--is increasingly acting as a state agency, implementing the policy of an administration that sees no intrinsic value in the arts themselves.

In theatre, projects are increasingly assessed not on their artistic merits but on their measurable outcomes, whether it is preventing teenage pregnancy or contributing to social or economic regeneration. The arts are no longer valued for themselves, but only for what they can contribute to government policy. They have been rebranded as cultural industries whose value must be measured and weighed. This week saw
an announcement of the Arts Council's priorities for 2006-8, which include participation, celebrating diversity, children, the creative economy, vibrant communities and internationalism. I can't argue with any of those, but what I would question is whether it is up to the Arts Council to be setting "the agenda", as Sir Christopher Frayling, Chair of the Arts Council, calls it. Artists are increasingly tired of the tick-box culture that decides who does and who doesn't get the money, and what kind of art can, and cannot, be made.

Her overall point, about how theatre companies get more grants for "educational" projects than for anything else, and how that can skewer them away from the work they should be doing, couldn't be more relevant here as well.

Old Trout Puppet Workshop

As I raved yesterday, the Old Trout Puppet Workshop's "Famous Puppet Death Scenes" was a highlight of the Public's recent Under the Radar festival. And blogger Jaime waxes even more effusive and descriptive than I, so read more there.

He also points us to the Old Trout website, where you'll find photos of this and other work of theirs. Puppet Theatre enthusiasts take note!