The Playgoer: June 2007

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Saturday, June 30, 2007


“In the best of all possible worlds it really would be wonderful if there were no entrance applause and even no applause within a show. But it’s part of the enthusiasm of American audiences.”

-Frank Langella, commenting on a common phenomenon that happens to be almost ruining his present show "Frost/Nixon." (I take it anyone else who's seen it on a packed night can attest.)

Funny how the evidence in this article at least seems to indicate that in this too the Brits really are better. At least according to Guardian critic Michael Billington:

Mr. Billington recently went to see.Patricia Routledge, a popular British television star [e.g. the PBS brit-com staple "Keeping Up Appearances"], in “Office Suite” at the Chichester Festival Theater. When she entered, he said, one person clapped, and was promptly shushed.
Chicago, too, is extolled as a model of decorum. But a key distinction is overlooked throughout simply between profit and non-profit venues. In London, "Frost/Nixon" played at the Donmar. Ms. Routledge was at Chichester, a state-supported festival, not on the West End. Ditto the examples cited from Steppenwolf; I'm sure audiences at the touring houses in the official Loop "theatre district" are just as clap-happy as Broadway.

To my mind, it really harkens back to a 19th century grandstanding tradition, where the star was just unabashedly the attraction and who the crowd came to see. Entrances and exits and death scenes were milked for all they were worth, and built into the show. Perhaps even with room for an encore or added interpolation. After all, we still have room in our vocabulary for something called "Stopping the Show," right?

Of course, the problem is when this pre-modern custom clashes with the fourth-wall of stage naturalism. Just another reason why that species of serious modern drama is jeopardized on today's Broadway. The Great White Way has reverted to its circus roots.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Playing "Period"

I haven't seen the Roundabout revival of the 1940 comedy "Old Acquaintance"--which even Clive Barnes, in a one-star(!) review, calls "inexplicable"--but I think Ben Brantley puts his finger on something broader in the following critique:

Playing combative best friends of long standing, Margaret Colin and Harriet Harris share a stage and star billing in the handsomely upholstered production that opened last night at the American Airlines Theater, directed by Michael Wilson. But they are living in different time zones.

Ms. Colin comfortably inhabits the era in which the play is set; she makes the decades fall away. Ms. Harris presents the same world through the perspective of a contemporary comedian who has watched a lot of old movies; she makes a distant age look even more distant. Fans of fine-grained acting will admire Ms. Colin, while fans of diva-spoofing drag queens may well adore Ms. Harris.

Lesson: nothing makes a period piece seem more dated than trying to play the "period." Rather, as the most effective recent revivals have shown ("Journey's End," "Dark at the Top of the Stairs") nothing makes an old chestnut seem more "relevant" than pure simple honesty.

Even in such seemingly exaggerated times as Restoration London and Roaring Twenties Chicago, people still had genuine unforced emotions. Honesty is never anachronistic.

Photo of the Day

The Theatre Royal Brighton, built 1807.

Read about the bicentennial celebration in The Guardian. It was built by George IV and opened with Charles Kemble as Hamlet.

Many renovations have ensued, but some whiff of olden times remains:

From the fly tower, the theatre looks more like the rigging of a three master ship, and has scarcely changed since the building opened. It is one of a handful of surviving "hemp houses" in the country, where every piece of scenery is lowered into position and then hauled out again by gangs of men dragging ropes. The sailing ship resemblance is no coincidence: the theatre often hired local fishermen as stage crew, who sat mending their nets backstage between acts. The only change is that the rope is now synthetic, kinder on the hands and less likely to snag. The technical manager swears by the system: for a recent musical they used one motorised lighting bar - the motor failed on the second last show, and a man had to be sent up into the rigging wearing a safety harness to replace it.

Yes, that's what we need in the theatre: more hemp. And less computerized scenery.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

William Hutt

The veteran Canadian classical stage actor William Hutt has died at 87. Here's the obit from the Toronto Globe & Mail.

I never had the chance to see him live. But the final season of Slings and Arrows was practically a valedictory to the man, featuring him as a dying "Lear." (check out video for Episode 4 for a clip.)

HS War Play "Voices in Conflict" gets 2 more NYC perf's

If you're curious to check out "Voices in Conflict" the little HS antiwar play that could (despite its censorious principal) there are three more free performances at the Vineyard coming up on July 11-13.

REVIEW: Ian Hill's Hamlet (Village Voice)

I wished I had liked Ian W. Hill's Hamlet (at the Brick's Pretentious Fest) better, Hill being a blogger and all. But the Voice pays me for my objective opinion.

As someone who once directed a bad Hamlet myself, I can appreciate the passion and sweat that goes into such a grand venture. Attempting to realize Hamlet onstage is almost always, I imagine, a matter of measuring the gap between the idea and the reality.

This actually appeared in print last week, but the vv-dot-com's theatre page has been way slow on the uptake lately. I have a review out this week, too, but it's not even online yet.

(It's of "Fall Forward," a nice little site-specific piece at an old church in the financial district. It's free and worth an hour if you're down there. Closing Saturday. Info here.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"Briefly" Arts

Sorry, Sam (NYT Arts Editor) Sifton, but when your "Arts, Briefly" devotes space to both Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan in the same're not allowed to call yourself an Arts section anymore.

What, was Pete Doherty not in court again yesterday???

"Corrie" @ CATF

According to WaPo, West VA's Contemporary American Theatre Fest's staging of "Rachel Corrie" is helping foster a good helping of holy land plays in and around our nation's capital this summer--including our fellow blogger Jason Grote's 1001 (also at CATF) and David Zellnick's Theodore Herzl play at DC's Theatre J.

Once again, good things can come of controversy. Despite the usual grumbling.

One CATF board member and donor resigned and some regular subscribers canceled after Artistic Director Ed Herendeen chose the play, objecting to its critical portrayal of Israel. CATF Associate Producing Director Peggy McKowen wrote in an e-mail to Backstage [WaPo's theatre column] that subscriptions are "holding steady" compared with the previous two years.
Yes, holding your ground can pay off.

Spike Lee: Theatre Director

Today's Theatre Oddity story, via Robertson and Riedel.

Actually I don't know what's odder: a Spike Lee Joint on stage, or just the idea of a revival of Stalag 17!

Or that he'll be getting rewrites out of the 87-year-old white man who wrote it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Labute to Voice: Fuck You (Playgoer unharmed)

Wow, and I thought I had Neil Labute problems...

In last week's Village Voice--the very same issue, in fact, as my own more respectful thumbs- down of Mr. LaB's In a Dark Dark House--ran this slightly more, uh, unguarded? take by James Hannaham on a one-act by said dramatist in the latest E.S.T. marathon.
Things We Said Today, by hateful Neil LaBute.
Tired idea #547: Draw parallel between "us" and characters from Greek drama, using extreme violence as "proof." Dana Delany fights to lend credible emotional arc to scene in which wife's discovery of husband's years of infidelity with sister leads her to abort own fetus w/ handy steak knife in crowded restaurant. Would that LaBute's mom had done same. Fact that people won't ignore LaBute better evidence that humanity sucks than his stupid plays.
Well turns out playwright reads the Voice. Hence, this week...
Re James Hannaham's "The Five Spot [June 13-19]: I'm usually very tactful in my letters to critics, but very few of them talk shit about my mother--pleasebe kind enough to tell Hannaham that he's a pussy and that if my mom doesn't drive to New York and wash his mouth out with soap, kick his ass, and laugh in his fucking face over his pathetic I-wish-I-was-a-playwright review, I just might. Thanks for delivering the message--you folks are really doing terrific work, keep it up.

Neil LaBute
Los Angeles, California
As for that "keep up the good work," perhaps he's picking up from another letter just last fall...
Please pass along my thanks to Michael Feingold for almost reviewing Wrecks ["Unnecessary Evils," October 25–31]. I'm sorry that he didn't enjoy it any more than he did, and I hope he enjoys the next play a bit more (it has "jerks" and "twists," so he should, as it takes one to know one). As for me, I'll wait happily to see his next translation/adaptation of a more suitable play for the New York theatergoing public.

Neil LaButeLos Angeles, California
Now I feel insulted he hasn't puffed his chest at out at me, too. I'll have to be meaner next time.

Nice how the letters all come from LA.

Note: No link as of yet on the 1st letter, so I just typed it in from the print ed. Don't know what's up at this last week, but as you may notice many pages--including theatre--have not been updated. Including my latest review! But I'm on that.

Monday, June 25, 2007

What IF the Rain it Raineth Every Day

In case you ever wondered what goes into making the call at the Delacorte when clouds loom, Playbill takes us inside what must be one of the most maddening Stage Manager jobs in town.

Soyinka @ TCG

Readers: Sorry for the light posting last few days. Been in Chicago, where I was hoping to blog on the road, but too busy enjoying it. So stay tuned for delayed Chicago dispatches in the days to come reporting on the latest from Mary Zimmerman, Steppenwolf, and the US premiere of Jerry Springer: The Opera!

Ok, so I can finally post something on what went down at the TCG (Theatre Communications Group) conference a few weeks ago. Apparently Wole Soyinka, the keynoter, dropped Louis Farrakhan's name in a way that was or was not controversial/offensive, depending on whom you ask. And apparently I wasn't the only one getting emails the next day from one particularly angry Artistic Director present. But now that he also was blasting the Voice's Michael Clancy, I can link to something more legit.

According to Clancy's reporting, here's what happened:

In his keynote address about the importance of ritual in healing communities (or something squishy like that; it’s all above our pay grade), Soyinka talked about three people who have used pageantry to soothe misery and anger. First, you got Aeschylus; no problems there. Then you got Sartre; a bit of a stretch, but whatever.
Then you got Farrakhan, and the Universal Day of Atonement he proposed a few years back. Whatever you think of Farrakhan’s nastier side, Soyinka said, he was on to something there. If we could only return to the notion of humanity apologizing together on one day, the world could begin to turn away from war and greed.

That led Tuvia Tanenbom (of the Jewish Theatre of New York) to challenge Soyinka in the Q & A, accusing him of lionizing the Jewish-unfriendly Nation of Islam preacherman.
Soyinka replied that Farrakhan may be a schmuck, but that shouldn’t preclude us from using him as a metaphor. And then he made his second mistake: he deployed
an oblique reference to people who consider themselves victims. According to one attendee, the audience understood him to be referring to self-important theater professionals, including himself. But to Tanenbom, that could only mean one thing: those mouthy Jews.

Among the many recipients of Tanenbom's subsequent email blast (go ahead and read it here for his side of the story) was the ADL. It got their attention enough to get a quick press-release/denunciation out of them. Until...
Ah, but then the staff at the ADL went and actually read Soyinka’s speech. And promptly learned that Soyinka’s point was considerably more complex, and that he had clearly denounced Farrakhan for, among other things, defending brutal African dictators. The ADL scrubbed the release from its web site and began the time-honored process of hoping this would all just go away.

And so now Tanenbom's still pissed (at both Wole and ADL's Abe Foxman) and still nobody else can read the text of Soyinka's speech itself because TCG claims they're not authorized to publish or release it. And looks like the Nigerian Nobelist doesn't quite see it in his interest to fan any more flames.

Anyone actually there who'd care to tell it yet another way...?

Friday, June 22, 2007

"Purple" People

...and they're "eating" it up! The Color Purple, that is!

Who said I can't write for Entertainment Tonight.

(Then again, no one under 35 probably got this joke. "Purple People Eater?" Anyone?)

Well let me turn it over to a real tabloid, the NY Post, and its theatre man Michael Riedel for his breakdown of The Color Purple's continued success--moreover, in-the-black success--on Broadway despite very middling initial reception:

On Wednesday, she [82 year old Lucille Goldsborough] and 55 other "Jewels of the Ebenezer" (as the seniors call themselves) boarded a Peter Pan bus at 6 a.m. to make the 61/2-hour trip to New York to see their idol....

The Jewels of the Ebenezer - which included a few grandchildren and the odd husband - is just one of hundreds of groups from black churches around the country that have made the pilgrimage to see "The Color Purple" since it opened in the fall of 2006. The groups have become a marketing phenomenon, turning the $10 million musical, which received mixed notices when it first opened, into a very profitable show for its backers, who include Oprah Winfrey.

Stand outside the Broadway Theatre on any given day, and you'll see four or five buses, some from as far away as Chattanooga and Atlanta, unloading their passengers. (Not all the groups are from churches. The show also attracts student groups, labor groups, even family reunions.) What was a steady stream of business last year has turned into a torrent since Fantasia joined the show in April. "The Color Purple" now regularly grosses more than $1 million a week, and advance ticket sales are nearing $10 million.

Church groups are an enormous and, for Broadway, which has long struggled to attract black audiences, relatively untapped market.
Now let us pause over this "long struggled to attrack black audiences" part. My sense is that most Broadway producers couldn't care less about the diversity of the audience. Diversity is all well and good for pr, but can drag you down if it means lowering your ticket prices (and hence profits) to attract them. So let's be clear--despite the decrying of Broadway as a rich white enclave by some for many years, I don't think "Broadway" itself--as personified by the people really making the decisions--has made black attendance any kind of serious goal.

Now on the subject of African Americands simply not going to Broadway shows let's remember some recent shows: P. Diddy in "Raising in the Son"; Usher in "Chicago"; even Brandy in "Aida," I seem to recall. In each case we heard from the white press, "Wow, black people at the theatre! Finally!" But isn't the pattern obvious? An audience--any audience--turns out for performers it really wants to see. In this case it's Fantasia, of course. If the material speaks to this audience--as Color Purple obviously does, not just in content but in its gospel- and soul-infused idiom--even better. Though note how "Aida" and "Chicago" are certainly white musicals--even if Elton John thinks he's black and "Chicago" does address the very relevant issue of corrupt justice better than any other play currently on.

Needless to say, people of any race, ethnicity, or culture will respond, I believe, to something of quality, something genuinely entertaining and stirring. However, the art of marketing is convincing people they will enjoy something, even when their perception of the show tells them otherwise. That's probably the biggest obstacle in Broadway/Black relations.

By the way, we always hear that the racial barrier is a price barrier, but look at this:
The cost [for the Jewels of Ebenezer trip] is $160 per person and includes an orchestra ticket, transportation and dinner after the show at Applebee's.
Ok, I guess that's a good value for a DC-NYC roundtrip, dinner, and a show. And I'm sure any B'way producer would prefer to pocket that whole $160 as "premium" seating. But still, it's not "cheap."

Insert Applebee's joke here.

My point is: attracting "different" audiences to Broadway--or the theatre in general--is no rocket science. Lower ticket prices, yes. But usually the $30-$40 range will do the trick if the show is attractive. No one wants to be the only black person in 1,000-seat house of white people--just as the vice-versa is true. So attracting--nay, soliciting groups also works.

Just more money in Oprah's pockets, you say? Perhaps. Still, gotta hand it to a show that defies the conventional wisdom. And, who knows, perhaps there's lessons here for nonprofits and regionals as well.

And it doesn't hurt that Fantasia reportedly really delivers....Can anyone verify that?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Old Places

The Guardian's Maxie bemoans the imminent loss of one old London theatre--Wilton's Music Hall (above)--and puts out the call for other reader faves with a possible wrecking ball in the future.
(I think the Wilton is that brittle old thing featured in the Mamet-directed "Catastrophe" for the "Beckett on Film" series, starring Pinter.)

So let me do the New York version! What are your favorite old theatre spaces in the city?

To get things started, I'll actually give a shout out to the Connelly Theatre, believe it or not. That dingy high school auditorium in alphabet city. Spacious, and certainly does have atmosphere. And you know you're not in The Hilton Center for the Performing Arts.

Chime in! Especially if the site is endangered.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Tonys: A "Sound" Decision

Whoever complained about slighted sound designers on this site at Tony-time can now take a victory lap. You're getting a category!

Now you can now be slighted the way a Broadway designer should be: by being unceremoniously pushed off the stage before air time at 8:00.

Speaking of which, as said link notes, CBS has unbelievably renewed the world's least watched awards show for another year.

“Platanos & Collard Greens”

Heard of this show?

NYT's Gina Bellafante checks out another "little show that could," in this case one totally off the radar of the commercial, nonprofit, or downtown theatre worlds. But it has gotten word out to a very enthusiastic and loyal urban audience "of color." But, no, it is not a "chitlin" show.

Bellafante is right that the show's success (even its existence) reminds us of how much theatre there is in this town that isn't white, isn't upper-income bracket, and isn't even artsy. And thus it is totally under the radar of coverage, the New York Times? (Ok, good for them!)

Mr. Lamb’s play represents the strongest evidence at the moment of the blunt racial divide that marks so much cultural consumption — particularly in the theater, where projects attracting ethnically diverse audiences, either by design or in effect, come upon us with the regularity of orange groves in a cold climate. André 3000 is a crossover artist. Tyler Perry is not.

“Platanos & Collard Greens” concerns itself with the tension between the African-American and Latino communities in New York and the overwhelming majority of men and women who go to see it, some over and over, are nonwhites.

Good point on the Andre/Perry comparison. Though based on what I've seen of the movie of "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," I'm not sure how much "crossing over" I'll be doing to his stage work.

(Personally I might prefer Madea's Family Reunion, which, when I first saw the title on the Beacon Theatre marquee I imagined some crazy Greek tragedy rewrite...So, Medea, are you married? Do you have kids?--Medea: Yeah, I have kids. Well, had.)

Whatever one may think of "Plantanos" (I haven't seen it) it seems a good sign of the artform to me whenever any play attracts an audience outside the Times Square tourist or (uh, sorry again) New York Times demographic.

Check out the inspirational story, by the way, of how the playwright, David Lamb, made it happen:
"Platanos & Collard Greens” was first produced in a tiny Midtown theater — 70 seats — in 2003 and has moved gradually and intermittently to larger spaces since, with virtually nothing but conversation to endorse it.

Though the show’s creator, David Lamb, had taken out a few spots on urban radio over the years, he relied primarily on his audiences to do his promotional work for him. The show functions without a press agent; until a few weeks ago it had no Web site. The cast is entirely anonymous, in the purest, hoariest sense of the term. The production notes for “Platanos & Collard Greens” may be singular in the world of New York theater for featuring not one actor whose credits include an outing on “Law & Order” or its subsidiaries.

By the end of its run at Gould Hall [a rental house at the tony Alliance Francaise in midtown] in September, though, about 90,000 people will have seen “Platanos & Collard Greens” a figure that exceeds the number who have taken a seat at “The Year of Magical Thinking” on Broadway by close to 20,000.

Bellafante says it required an initial $20,000 investment from him and his wife, and the two of them still produce the show as a production company. No other producers are listed, so I don't know if it's fully funded by ticket sales or what.

Here's a clue: that reference to no "Law and Order" credits? Why do I have a feeling Actors Equity won't be happy reading this today...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Wilton HS Update

I've been provided with a copy of this official notice from Wilton HS in Connecticut, regarding the fate of drama teacher Bonnie Dickinson, whose class is responsible for the Iraq play "Voices in Conflict."

To those of you who took time to write, kudos! You just might have made a difference.

We have received a number of emails expressing support for Bonnie Dickinson and concern over potential disciplinary action. I wish to clarify the situation. In April, we received a complaint from a parent about Ms. Dickinson. After receiving the complaint, we followed an investigative process that included administrative review of the complaint, an opportunity for both parties to be heard, and examination of the facts. After a thorough review we found no evidence that would justify disciplinary action against Ms. Dickinson. We consider the matter concluded.

On a separate note, we congratulate the students on their successful off-campus performances of the revised “Voices in Conflict” project.

Gary G. Richards
If you ask me, looks like the school is eager to get the controversy behind them, even if that means standing up to their more right-wing parent constituencies. It's always good when the intolerant are not the only ones exerting pressure.

Thanks again to Alisa Solomon for bringing the latest developments to my attention. The website for the project is here. Looks like the kids are doing their last show this Friday night. In Fairfield!

Singapore says Nix to Sir Ian's Naughty Bits

For an upcoming tour stop in Singapore this summer, the Royal Shakespeare Company has agreed to make Ian McKellen keep his knickers on during the storm scene in "King Lear," so as to avoid the theatrical equivalent of an 'R'-rating in the city.

I guess it was either that or get caned.

Guardian's Lyn Gardner has humorous analysis, as always.

NY Critic Myopia

“If it’s not in The New Yorker, it doesn’t exist in the culture.”

So said John Lahr, reportedly, to the crowd at a recent NEA conference for arts journalists at USC's Annenburg School. In case you didn't know, Lahr is the lead critic for... The New Yorker.

In this article, Missoula, Montana critic Joe Nickell begs to differ.

I actually respect and enjoy reading Lahr quite a lot. Even if I think he's wacky on what he likes sometimes. (Neil LaBute, Mr. Marmalade.) And I want to allow for the possibility he's quoted a wee bit out of context. (Would he really want to walk into a room of regional theatre critics and say Fuck You???)

But at the very least, he should have a sit-down with Jill Abramson and determine once and for all just who is the arbiter of culture!

You also gotta laugh when you realize how hypocritical Lahr would be in saying the only theatre that matters is in New York when he famously lives in London most of the year. (I know, same difference.)

Monday, June 18, 2007

"Viral" Marketing

A little NYT item you may have missed today in the Business section...

Typically you are told to turn off your cellphone before a performance. But at a recent Saturday matinee of “Spring Awakening”[...] the audience was told to do just the opposite.

“Win Your Chance to Come Backstage!” said a flier inserted into the Playbill, which encouraged theatergoers to send the text message “bdway spring” to a five-digit number before the end of intermission.
And so the lucky winner is "texted" and invited to come backstage post-show for some rudimentary tour.So much for banning cellphones from the theatre...

Oh, and just in case you thought this was just for fun:
At the performance, 62 people sent text messages, which included their telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, in hopes of winning the contest. All of their information went into a database that will be used to pitch Broadway tickets and other promotions.
Big Brother, or at least "Situation Marketing" is watching.

Cote's Carpet Competition

David Cote wasn't kidding about Triumph The Insult Dog.

So if you're one of the few who haven't seen it by now, behold.

It's really awful, but if you're a theatre lover I guarantee you'll laugh at least somewhere. Do hang in there for Abe Vigoda. And for the cute "Phantom" mask at the very, very end.

(Trivia of the day--how many of you can say you saw Abe Vigdoa's last Broadway stage appearance? I can!!! Yep--"Arsenic and Old Lace," 1986. I lived to tell the tale...Check out the man on ibdb, though. Some surprisingly impressive 1960s credits!)

"Twenty-five awards were doled out during the Tony ceremony June 10 -- and 23 of them went to productions linked to nonprofit legit orgs."

-Variety's Gordon Cox in a nice lengthy piece of reporting about the ins & outs, pros & cons, ups & downs of nonprofits "supplying product" for the commercial Broadway theatre.

My question continues to be, when will citizens and their political representatives finally realize, accept, and embrace that most of what they see and love on Broadway has probably been funded in part by their tax dollars! (As opposed to simply a product of the free market, self-reliant enterprising spirit, and capitalist risk.) For all the downsides to this phenomenon, I do think that's a plus worth exploiting, in order to change the debate on arts funding here.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Some Metaphors Write Themselves II

In this case, take your pick.

Lloyd Webber, 59, was working on the score [of his sequel to "Phantom"] at his computerised grand piano when his six-month-old kitten Otto clambered into its frame and managed to delete everything he had written so far.

The digital Clavinova piano has an inbuilt computer and the ability to play back thousands of songs from its memory.

But Lloyd Webber was unable to recover his work from the high-tech instrument after Otto, a rare-breed Turkish Van, had done his worst.

Says the composer: “I was trying to write some new music; Otto got into the grand piano, jumped onto the computer and destroyed the entire score for the new Phantom in one fell swoop.”

Turkish Vans — also known as the swimming cats — cost up to £400 and it had long been Lloyd Webber’s ambition to own one.
It's getting to be like shooting fish in a barrel with this guy...

And we know Phantom II will be boffo because his collaborator is acclaimed centagenarian spy novelist Frederick Forsythe! (Guess no one else would touch this.)

Saturday, June 16, 2007

CT HS censorship case not over

I just want to second and further publicize Alisa Solomon's plea in last post's Comments to speak up for the rights of Bonnie Dickinson, the teacher at Wilton High School in Connecticut, who sheparded her class in the "Voices in Conflict" docu-drama project consisting of testimony from soldiers in Iraq.

Solomon saw the show and heard in the talkback that despite the show's success both at home and now in some command performances downtown, Dickinson is still being threatened with suspension.

Here's Alisa:


The censorship was bad enough. Now, Bonnie Dickinson, the drama teacher who developed and directed the play with the kids in an acting class, is in serious jeopardy of being suspended from her job on the grounds of fomenting an artwork that lacks "balance". (Familiar bugaboo on this blog.) It will set a seriously damaging precedent if she's reprimanded or punished, said the first-amendment lawyer Martin Garbus in a discussion after the performance.

Letters supporting Dickinson and the project can be sent to: Timothy Canty, Principal, Wilton High School, 395 Danbury Road, Wilton, Connecticut 06897.

If you need to learn more about the play and the school's squelching of it, see: If you are a reader of this blog, you don't need to do any backgroud homework on the wider issue of cancelling plays for their lack of "balance."

Not that this is a particularly anti-war play, though. It's just honest about the hell that war always is, regardless of one's pov on the merits of its justifications. There's no discussion whatsoever of the non-existent WMDs, etc. in this verbatim collage of letters, emails, and diary entries from soldiers.

Some express thorough commitment to the cause; some reveal doubt or confusion; one describes his split-second decision to shoot a woman who could have been a suicide bomber but turns out to have been harmless; another, back from the war, tells about his PTSD; all of them miss their moms. And so on. There's no rhetoric -- other than a pro-military rap song -- and no discussion of policy.

Some service members (some from Iraqi Vets against the War) were in the house and praised the students for telling the truth about the situation on the ground for their courage in persevering. (The kids were subjected to lots of harrassment by fellow students. Common slur: "theater fag.")

Sure, I over-identified, as anyone who was stage-struck in high school would have done. Still, I have to say, it was one of the most moving evenings I have experienced in the theater in a good while. One kid in the cast said during the discussion that the experience convinced him that he could make theater that left people thinking and talking long after the houselights came up. And his teacher is the one who might lose her job? What a sad commentary on education system. And on our theater.


Amazing how dangerous a play can still be, eh? I mean, if a kid gave a speech at an assembly, or put up an art display, he or she might be called to the carpet, I suppose. But something about the critical mass of a group of performers--reaching out to groups of audiences--will always give theatre its unique power, I suppose. And threat.

Save the teacher!

Friday, June 15, 2007

CT HS Anti-War Play has legs

Remember back in March the scared Connecticut High School principle who banned his students from performing their own protest play against the Iraq war? (Cause that's such a minority fringe wacko opinion, right?)...Well the kids are just fine, and have been taking their show on a veritable downtown tour of some fancy venues, including the Vineyard and the Public.

Details here, courtesy of NYT metro section.

Encouraging that downtown theatre came through this time.

After an article about the ban appeared in The New York Times, “the whole New York theater community called,” [drama teacher] Dickinson said.
Then again, it's easier when it's not really a controversial position anymore.

Then then again, does this mean the only play about Iraq on the boards now is by some teenagers?

Playgoer @ Drama Book Shop, Today!

Oops. I can't believe I haven't plugged this yet.

I'm actually appearing at Drama Book Shop today(!) at 5pm along with other contributors to the 2007 New York Theatre Review, for which editor Brook Stowe was nice enough to solicit from me an essay on the "Corrie" controversy appears.

But forget about me. Since the volume includes some hot new downtown plays this is also a chance to hear excerpts from such talked about works as the Pulitzer-nominated "Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue," the modern-day "Three Sisters" riff "Food for Fish," and Anne Washburn's "I Have Loved Strangers." Fellow "essayists" George Hunka and Alan Lockwood will also appear.

Complete details here, where you can also buy the book! It's also for sale over the counter there today or any time.

So if you're free at 5:00 or you work midtown, come on down! Drama Book Shop is at 250 W. 40th St. Since the basement "performance" space is teeny tiny, reservations are recommended. Call the store at (
212)944.0595, ext. 417 or email them info_at_dramabookshop[dot]com.

And if you haven't been yet to the new expanded store (already five years old, I guess), it is indeed a great, great resource for the theatrelover, being the only bookstore in NYC left of its kind! Now that Applause shut down the brick & mortar.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

RNT gets Digital

So that Nick Hytner really is trying to follow through on his talk of rejuvenating the profile of his Royal National Theatre. Not only do they have a Facebook page (yes, the Royal National Theatre on Facebook--what would Lord Larry say!), but can you imagine YouTube! Yes, they are producing video "trailers," interviews, and other treats to feature their classy nationally subsidized productions on YouTube.

Dumbing down? Hardly. Check out the snappy trailer for that rad new play, Gorky's Philistines.

Naturally I wonder if:

a) any NYC non-profit theatres will try this. (I'm sure B'way producers already have.)


b) if so, whether they would be so lame no one would watch.

Actually, I do hope some try it. It's often said how tv advertising has long been prohibitively expensive for most theatre productions--profit or non. But how much to slap something nice together online?

You can read up on RNT's foray in the Guardian.

Some Metaphors Write Themselves

From today's Riedel column on the fortunes of the upcoming Xanadu The Musical:

Carpinello [male lead James Carpinello] broke his foot just as he was warning some cast members to be careful about skating on certain parts of the set.

"He was saying, 'You've have to watch out for this,' and then he went down," a production source says.

In short: they need a new lead.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

REVIEW: In a Dark Dark House

A Village Voice review.

In which I dissent from Mr. Ben Brantley's esteem for this latest threadbare play by Mr. Neil LaBute.

The headline isn't mine, but I gotta hand it to my editor Brian Parks for getting it exactly right: "MCC decides mounting another Neil LaBute play is a good idea."

I liked Frederick Weller in it, though. The photo already gives you an idea.

Note the LaBute debate going on over at Parabasis, btw.

Frederick Weller and Ron Livingston.
photo: Sara Krulwich

UPDATE: Looks like I'm also dissenting from David Cote! Did I miss something about this play? I really don't consider myself a LaBute-hatah. Maybe I have to see/read more of his really bad plays to appreciate this one?

Tony Winner Takes All

Both NYT's Campbell Robertson and NYP's Michael Riedel have the numbers from Sunday's Tony fallout.

"Spring Awakening," of course, enjoyed a big surge Monday at the box office (and on the all important online box office ever since 8pm EST Sunday night). But sadly, none of the other nominated shows who really, really needed it got any kind of Tony "bounce" and thus such strong shows as "Grey Gardens," "Radio Golf" (which was still an underdog favorite for Best Play to the end), and "Company," which has been on life support a long, long time now, but one would think that knockout rendition of "Being Alive" by Raul Esparza on the broadcast would have done something. (Maybe would have helped if he didn't lose a charity vote to Niles--I mean David Hyde Pierce.)

As for the ratings, says Robertson:

The Tony ceremony, broadcast on CBS, came out bruised once again in the ratings battle, but you must consider what it was up against — you don’t really have to ask at this point, do you? According to preliminary Nielsen ratings, the ceremony drew a meager 6.24 million viewers, down nearly 20 percent from last year (and a lower number than most episodes of the reality casting show “Grease: You’re the One That I Want”). If the final numbers agree, they would make this the lowest-rated Tony broadcast ever.

Still, CBS came out on top Sunday night among the networks — but that was largely thanks to a strong ratings performance by “60 Minutes.”

I have no idea if in the bubble of network television that still counts as a "win." American Theatre Wing and the League helped their chances for renewal next year by coming in just on the three-hour mark. But I'm not even sure it's worth it for either party anymore. After all, with the ol' "Rabbit-Ears" finally being forced into extinction and everyone being forced to buy cable, there goes the audience who watched the three networks only because they had no choice.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Red Carpet Confessions

No, not a latenite Cinemax skinflick. Just our man at Time Out, David Cote, reporting on what it's like to man the microphone at the poor man's (i.e. theatre man's) Oscars:

I found myself wedged between a reporter from Clear Channel and none other than Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, on assignment for Conan O’Brien to mock and jeer at the Tony Awards. Yes, it was going to be that sort of night.

Never having worked a red carpet, I had some foolish notion that it proceeds in an orderly and relaxed fashion. It turns out to be a hellish cross between senior prom, school newspaper and a Soviet-era line for moldy bread.

Read his full journal of war stories here.

Wally Shawn with a British Accent (and taller)

News to me: Vanessa Redgrave has made a film of Wallace Shawn's intimate political monologue The Fever with her son directing, and HBO is showing it this week--Wednesday, June 13, 9:30pm EST.

Video clip available at the HBO site. And for those premium channel-free, a DVD release is planned this summer.

From what I can tell from the clip--no, Vanessa does not "play" Wally Shawn. It's been retailored for a woman, I guess.

According to NY Mag, the network is burying it in the schedule without fanfare. Wonder if they'll do the same for her upcoming "Year of Magical Thinking" film, which I hear Scott Rudin has already sold to them. (Perhaps the rationale for that play all along?)

That lady could just speak into a camera solo for the rest of her career! Doing other--less telegenic-- writers' memoirs, that is.

Ok, Fever's not a memoir. But kind of a fictional one, if you follow me...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Raw Numbers: West End edition

Here's a recent piece from the London Telegraph profiling a West End producing team who've had a good run of commercial dramatic (or at least non-musical) hits, like "Art" and "Play What I Wrote." They're currently responsible for the humongous and B'way-bound "Equus"revival.

So, ok, comparison time. Here's the article's breakdown of their expenses on "Equus." Remember the current $/£ exchange rate is basically 2-to-1. (£1=$1.97)

Set-up costs

£100,000 - rehearsals

[the article mentions an unusually long 6-week rehearsal period]

£300,000 - physical production costs (set-design, costumes etc)

£150,000 - marketing/advertising

£150,000 - fees to creative team

Subtotal: £700,000

Operational costs during the run

£90,000 per week (rising post-recoupment in excess of £100,000)

Of which:

£20,000 - theatre "contra" deal (staff costs, theatre running costs)

£10,000 - rent

£60,000 - company costs

Equus recoups after nine weeks

£300,000 - max gross figure of takings for capacity house per week

From gross box-office takings: sundry royalties to creative team

Then, once operational costs have been deducted, net profit divided 60 per cent to the investors, 40 per cent to the producers

Anyone out there familiar enough with Broadway budgets to do a quick trans-Atlantic comparison?

Tony Wrap-Up

Thanks to all who tuned into The Big Blogcast. It was a record hit-count for a Sunday.

Turns out yours truly was not the only one blogging the night away. You can check out Playbill's Andrew Gans' blow-by-blow here, and see what it's like to do it from the official Tony press room. And get paid for it!

Among Andrew's revelations: apparently the "Spring Awakening" kids couldn't get away with singing "breast" on CBS? He also gets Michael Mayer on the record to explain what he really meant in his acceptance speech by "This is not heinous." Apparently it didn't have anything to do with the idea of selling out. Let's just hope is new "Flamingo Kid" musical is not...heinous.

Here's something else I bet you didn't know about the Tonys. Or at least I didn't:

To stage a musical number at Radio City, individual shows are required to foot most of the production costs. That can set a show back more than $200,000, a figure that has producers seeing red.
Bloomberg's Philip Boroff has the story. Read on, the infighting over this is fascinating. Apparently this is why you saw "Grey Gardens" and "Company" opting only for solo numbers by its respective stars. Those chorus boys/girls needs to be paid! Hence, it makes sense that Disney's "Mary Poppins" could afford the most lavish production number; a worthwhile investment for The Mouse, who can afford to drop the 200 grand if it boosts ticket sales.

What's that old story of the Nazi's making victims pay for their own trials? Don't know why I would compare that.

Meanwhile, watch out for two sets of numbers by the end of the day: who's up in box office sales and how down the CBS Nielsen ratings went last night.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Bloggin' the Tonys 2007

'nuff said. But results (predictable as they are) are here.

Wow. CBS has really kept everyone on schedule this time. "Spring Awakening" awarded at 10:57pm for, in the words of its producer "a musical that rocks" for "audiences [i.e. ticketbuyers] of every age" and "raising the roof" [I kid you not].

Well, good night everyone! The orchestra is playing, Angela is saying "Come to Broadway,
so it must be over.

The real winner: CBS. I mean, it's only 10:59!

I gotta hand it to Michael Riedel (I think?) for predicting David Hyde Pierce's upset for Best Actor/Musical as a shout-out to Kander & Ebb. (Sorry, Raul) And, sure enough, CBS is cutting him off...

And now Ben Vereen & his "godson" Usher. Aww...

We are running way over, folks... We're only up to Bets Actress/Musical..

And that's Christine Ebersole, btw. There is some justice

So they let "Spring Awakening" do "Bitch of Living" despite FCC concerns. Good for them. And whoever's directing the CBS cutting/camera angles was "totally" into it.

BTW--in case you're wondering about the absence of Paris Hilton jokes at the Tony's... official sponsor: Hilton!

So wait: Legally Blonde doesn't get a spot, but the year-old "Color Purple" does, thanks to American Idol-crowned Fantasia? Oh, and , as they say, in honor of Alliance Theatre, Atlanta. Right.

She's not even singing in character. (In character wig & makeup, at least)

At the end of the day, "Lord" Tom Stoppard (he may not be yet, but he will) did well, by taking us back 40 yrs to his first trip here for "Rosencrantz and Gildenstern" (remember when Stoppard was cool?): Back then, he says, "There were ashtrays on the back of the seats and the author got 10% of the gross."

And so, Lincoln Center Theatre's gamble pays off...

"Ladies and Gentlemen, an accomplished actor-director, Zach Braff"???

Less than 30 minutes to go...

Mistake for Grey Gardens not to pick Ebersole's "Around the World" as their number instead of "Revolutionary Costume"--which, with the laughs of the Tony audience, only hightens the problems of the show I foreground in my review here...Still, if you haven't seen the show, I hope you can see just a bit of why Ebersole is so great.

Hey, if anyone's reading this and not watching Sopranos... please comment! It's lonely out here.

Then again, that's what all theatre lovers say at one point or another...

Okay, enough with this Rosé crap. I've switched to Johnnie Walker Black for the last hour.

Justice, at last! "Company" beats "110" for Revival Musical. Even if 3rd producer got least gracious orchestral cut-off for his speech.

I know it was a while ago, but just wanted to praise whoever's responsible for not pushing Bebe Neuworth and David Hyde Pierce to make Frasier jokes during their co-presenting.

Julie White wins! Tony voters' memory longer than 4 months!

What the hell did they just do with Best Play??? Teasing us with the "And the Nominees are before 10pm??? Should play-lovers be flattered that CBS thinks a Best Play-tease would even help?--and over to Best Play revival!

Not good TV, just downright confusing, I say.

And now "Journey's End" reaches its inevitable...well, end. (It finally closed, by mercy-killing, this afternoon.) A billion producers on stage (including one in tartan pants, I believe), more than the audience on most nights....Producer Bill Haber's first line, appropriately: "Contrary to rumors, I did not bankrupt myself in this show."

Hey, for Tommy Tune's tribute to "those we have lost" very classy for CBS not to let us see the names of any of the departed on the screen above him. Pathetic television.

Maybe Michael Mayer can relax now. He finally got his Tony..... It's clear that he's craved this ever since getting snubbed over for Millie and countless other musicals. He's known to really love musicals, while instead he's been more acclaimed for plays... So don't be surprised if his speech seems very well rehearsed.... I couldn't help noticing when I saw Spring Awakening at the Atlantic last summer, how struck I was that Mayer and Steven Sater were still watching from the back of the house (several weeks into the run) laughing and trying to whoop up applause. My sense was there were "people" in the house who could help with the move to B'way..... Congrats, Michael. It all paid off.

So Mayer beat John Doyle for director/musical. But will Doyle's "Company" finally get the nod over "110 in the Shade" in compensation for last year's "Sweeney" snub? As much as I liked "Company" and like Doyle, I predict he will be snubbed again. It opened too long ago, and people just don't like "Company." Stay tuned...

Interesting, the "Company" number is Raul Esparza's solo in "Being Alive." In the context of this production it's kind of a "spoiler." But this is all about Esparza's career. And, as you can see from this number, Esparze is pretty damn good.

Quick theory about why CBS continues to indulge the Tonys. To give them guilt-free license to hog free air time to air 2-minute promo spots for shows like Vegas rip-off "Viva Laughlin."

Hmm, I believe John Mahonney's scripted "Goddamned" was awkwardly, and too late, bleeped by CBS during the lame attempt to spoof the American Theatre Wing obligatory sermon before the soup. (Ok, at least they tried to do something with it.)

Aha! "A Look Back in the Year in Musicals"--so it's all a compromise to give "Legally Blonde" something! (But then, they also have to include "Pirate Queen," "High Fidelity" and "Times They Are A Changing"!--I believe the over-dubbed different music for "Fidelity")

Don't expect them to do anything more for the Best Plays, other than some garbled video excerpts when announcing the nominees.

My god, "A Look Back in the Year in Plays!" Plays! What are those?...A whole 1 minute. (I kid you not, was looking at the clock) And they gave the intro to CBS Early Show's Harry Smith!

Response to Mary Poppins excerpt: prediction--Poppins will win the "Tony bounce" contest for b.o. sales tomorrow morning. It's family entertainment, it's Disney, it's Mary Poppins! (With chimney sweepers!)

Seeing Jack O'Brien get his inevitable (and, let's say it, well deserved) Best Director award, I realize something: "Coram Boy" was written and directed by women! Something that went unmentioned in the wildly divergent reception of the show. But worth mentioning. Espeically since it was effectively an import, and not many other Broadway musical/plays with an all- female creative pedigree.

Interesting that O'Brien piggybacks on Ehle's's remarks about "Coast of U" hoping to inspire a massive call (yet again) for A US National Theatre! Says O'Brien, "Let no one question any more the State of the American Theatre." Or words to that effect.... Good point, Jack. Your production was beautiful. But your playwright was British, your subject Russian, and your lead Irish. What does that say?

My god, as pathetic as it was that Best Special Theatrical Event only had two nominees, the ventriloquist dummy one wins over Kiki & Herb? Uptown will always defeat downtown in the end. (I say Uptown because it looks like the dummy guy had some bonafide producers.)

Eddie Izzard is (thankfully) drunk.

Some highlights: cool to see Bill T. Jones jump the stage and maul his presenters. Way to show them some downtown style, Bill T.

Also, I believe I saw Duncan Sheik stop to give a manly hug to Michael Cerveris on his way down the aisle. Cerveris is a known rocker in his spare time. And, as Mr. Sheik tells us, "Musical Theatre Rocks!" Take it from him.

And, yes, the Tony voters are officially starfuckers. Jennifer Ehle, best featured actress. Even though no one honestly admits she gives good performances in any of the three parts of "Coast." AND...she's not even a star!

But hush--it's "Mary Poppins" time. And we can see if Matthew Bourne really did give fellow highbrow modern-dance man Bill T Jones a run for his money.

(And we're only 1/3rd through...)

Note the Oscar-esque voice-over now covering after every winner is announced. "Mary Louise Wilson is a veteran of blah blah years," and then: "This is her first Tony award for her superb performance in Grey Gardens." So I assume they have equally "superb" copy prepared for each nominee? ("The superb Orfeh's superb performance in Legally Blonde!")

For the record, the official Playgoer drink of the night is a 2005 Rosé from Bastianich. Not bad. Actually not a Rosé drinker, but it was a gift. So I'm just saying up front, if the blogging's off--blame the Rosé.

Just one comment on the "Curtains" number: it's amazing, isn't it, how composers and choreographers just know that magical, pavlovian callibration of music and steps to automatically generate applause with a kickline. No matter how lame the song or the context, if you get the ritardendo right, and have just enough legs kicking--it gets them (ok, us) every time. It's the only "sure thing" in show biz.

Note the new "coming attractions" approach to keep people from switching over to "Sopranos." Like, just now, having McDonald and Cullum give a 5-line "preview" of "110 in the Shade". (A preview of the excerpt, that is.) Seems to just fall flat and take up yet more valuable time.

1st commercial break: note the hard-sell Lion King ad. "10 years and counting!" Disney's in this one for the long haul, you can bet the farm. Somewhere in a board meeting in Mouseland, someone at Disney Theatricals (or higher) as said "We will bury Phantom!"

Spring Awakening sweep, Part 2. Best Book. Glad Stephen Sater thanked Wedekind. A recent inexplicable piece in NYT talked about the show as some new crazy openness about sexuality. Man!

Hey--question has been circulating as to whether CBS would let them sing "Bitch of Living" in prime time.

Best Featured Actor, Musical--the big-hair kid from "Spring Awakening." Again, signs of sweep are early for the faves.

I was starting to get persuaded by pre-show predictions of upsets by such underdogs as "Frost/Nixon" or "Mary Poppins" But no. They had opportunities in both categories so far to toss bones to "Radio Golf," "Legally Blonde" or even "LoveMusik" and "110 in the Shade." I'm willing to commit to the conventional wisdom. The voters like these shows. Really, really like them!

Billy Crudup! Or, as he reminds us, Crude(as in Dude!)-up.

Yup, it's a "Coast of U" sweep.

Welcome to the 3rd Annual Playgoer Live Tony Blogcast!

In case you haven't been glued to the live feed on of the pre-show "creative" awards, let me catch you up on those little categories already handed out and not deemed ready for prime time on CBS. (And that's saying a lot).

(The official site is posting winners as they go here.)

ORCHESTRATIONS: Duncan Sheik, "Spring Awakening"
SET (PLAY): Bob Crowley & Scott Pask "Coast of Utopia"
SET (MUSICAL): Bob Crowley, "Mary Poppins"
COSTUMES (PLAY): Catherine Zuber, "Coast of Utopia"
COSTUMES (MUSICAL): Wiliam Ivey Long, "Grey Gardens"
LIGHTING (PLAY):Brian MacDevitt, Kenneth Posner, and Natasha Katz , "The Coast of Utopia"
LIGHTING (MUSICAL): Kevin Adams, "Spring Awakening"

and the big suspense...

the Pre-Announced Regional Theatre Award to Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.

Excellent, excellent points in Comments recently about the total disregard of Sound Design, which long ago came into its own even above 14th St.

Oh god, it's starting. With "Chorus Line," of course, Hamlisch at the piano. And they're getting cute with "places please" with all the other musicals, revival and non....Oh, it's even worse. They've adopted the whole Chorus Line casting call motif to introduce everyone. Unfair edge to Chorus Line!

Note on the "headshot" bits announcing the presenters... since some are revealing their real faces, you know the others didn't show up for the pre-taping.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

2007 Live Tony Blogcast

If you're at all Tony-inclined Sunday night, don't forget about the 3rd Annual Playgoer Live Tony Blogcast! The official show on CBS starts at 8pm. I'll try to cover some of the pre-show earlier if I can.

The more the merrier, so come join the virtual party!

You can catch up on the '05 and '06 archives as a warm-up.

And don't worry. I'm TiVO-ing "Sopranos" and will send you a VHS if you're conflicted.

PR Macht Frei?

"You have so many of those emails and promotions and you try to kind of do something to stand out."

-So says the head of Glendale, CA's Luna Playhouse in explaning her controversial "outside-the-box" ad campaign for their production of Charles Busch's WWII genre parody "The Woman in Question." What part of this did people not understand?

"Come see The Lady in Question dressed as a Nazi and get $10 off."


And she's not backing down, this Lilly Thomassian gal. A big overreaction: "I guess the word 'Nazi' just kind of shocked people, because if I had said, 'Come dressed up as a German soldier from the '40s,' nothing would have happened."

Wait, it gets better.

In response to those in the Glendale community expressing reservations over the prospect of Obergruppenfuhren in their local parking garages and restaurants pre- and post-show: "Even if people see a person in a Nazi uniform on the street, they would probably think they were going to a party or something. Nobody would take it seriously."

Some party!

Or did she mean party rally?

Is Luna Playhouse revoking the promotion? Nein!
"Whoever has the courage to do that deserves to have $10 off," Thomassian said. "Come to see it as a Nazi or not as a Nazi. I don't care. Just come to see the show."
(I told you it gets better)

Lily, babe, right sentiment, wrong phrasing. The ad copy should read: "So if you're a Nazi--or even if you're not!--don't walk but run schnell over to Luna Playhouse!"

I hear the Telecharge code for the $10 offer is HEIL.

Man, who put this person in charge of a theatre!

Oh wait--she did. (She's identified as "co-founder.")

Tony Pre-Show: Designer's Ghetto?

Don't forget the awards that start before the awards:

Seven Tony Awards — deemed the "Creative Arts Tony Awards" — will be presented prior to the telecast on CBS-TV. will offer a live webcast of those seven awards beginning at 7:15 PM ET. The CBS broadcast begins at 8 PM.

Although the seven categories have not been officially announced, they will likely include Best Scenic Design of a Play, Best Scenic Design of a Musical, Best Costume Design of a Play, Best Costume Design of a Musical, Best Lighting Design of a Play, Best Lighting Design of a Musical and Best Orchestrations.

Yes, those nice little designers. How..."creative."

Just imagine what big Tony winners--like the mammoth "Coast of Utopia"--owe these folks. "Spectacle" is all that matters on Broadway any more, and this is how they thank those who provide it. Lack of time? Think about that while you're drinking your way through the American Theatre League infomercial or bad-joke repartee between the presenters.

Not even PBS will cover the pre-show anymore!

Then again, as a subscriber on a backstage tour of her local regional theatre once said, "Oh, I thought the actors' brought their own costumes."

Friday, June 08, 2007

A little Tennessee...

A Friday sendoff from Williams, Kazan, and Leigh. The at-first lovely, but then horribly butchered(!) ending of "Streetcar." Yup, can't let Stella forgive Stan for the spousal abuse. But doesn't that really, really go against the grain of the play?

The proof that Williams' immorality makes better drama is in how badly this ending is written! I mean, "Never going back, never going back...." That's the best they could do?

Note how they get the Brando "Stella!" in there a few more times, though.

Have a nice weekend. Don't forget to tune in Sunday for the Tony Blogcast Spectacular...

Photo of the Day

Tony's 2007 "Best Actors": Schreiber, Gaines, Langella, Plummer, and O'Byrne.
(photo: Sara Krulwich)

"You know, Frank, this guy next to you; he looks like your butler, the one on the end is your gardener. The tough guy at left is your bodyguard, the man next resembles your driver. You're obviously in charge."

- Impromptu caption overheard by Liz Smith.

Did we mention the Tonys are silly?

"Quite a few of the 740 Tony voters don't bother to see all the nominated productions yet still vote in all the categories. It's a big no-no, but pretty much everybody does it."

So says tattle-tale Michael Riedel today. While it should come as no surprise note how this can really impact a particular show's fortune:
This season, fewer than 500 voters have caught August Wilson's "Radio Golf" and "110 in the Shade," which won't stop them from voting for Best Play or Best Revival of a Musical.
I mean, if someone is not at least curious enough to see a new August Wilson play---for free!--are they even qualified to sit in judgment over the top American theatre award? I guess they figure, why bother. I did my time at Coast of Utopia and I know I'm voting for that. Of course that's the charitable explanation in this case...

As longtime readers here know, Playgoer doesn't do "predictions." But is happy to indulge in the guilty pleasures with a LIVE TONY BLOGCAST! So, the tradition continues this Sunday night. For the nostalgic among you, you can live through again those memories of Tonys '05 and '06.

For predictions I refer you to only the best-sourced--the Riedelmeister and Campbell "Soup Man" Robertson.

Wow, both pick Julie White over Eve Best! Maybe some justice in this world, after all.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

REVIEW: Grey Gardens

Little Edie: Live (left) and Real (right)

Grey Gardens
by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, Michael Korrie
starring Christine Ebersole
On Broadway, at the Walter Kerr Theatre

I've rarely had feelings as mixed as those I walked away from Grey Gardens with. What to say? On the one hand this is a slick but satisfying musical, showing off some of the best of professional Broadway-level craft. And it is certainly an adult entertainment, aiming at a cut above Legally Blonde and getting there.

Yet I also can't shake the feeling that it just shouldn't be.

It may seem "unfair" to some to compare a work of adaptation to its source material. But when the source is that disturbing 1975 Maysels Brothers documentary--a record of the pathetic deterioration of real people--then it is hard not to feel not a little queasy at seeing it enacted under bright lights with beautiful stars to rapturous applause.

I should be clear that what's most questionable about Grey Gardens the musical is the choice to do it at all. The artists have clearly tried to translate and enact it tastefully. It is clearly a labor of love for the Beales, that mother-daughter team of dispossessed aristocrats. But right there, in merely describing the "outline" of the Grey Gardens as a narrative "plot", you see how real life automatically gets sentimentalized by commercial theatre. (And whatever the show's origins in the nonprofit worlds of Playwrights Horizons, Sundance, etc, its aesthetic strategies clearly place it in the commercial aesthetic, not a more challenging one.)

From the creators' perspective, the sentimentality is, no doubt, the tribute. But when addressing class upheaval and mental illness (which is what the real Beale story is about) sentimentality does a disservice. I say mental illness because that is what's clearly missing when you compare the theatrical version to the filmed documentary. The people captured by the Maysles' camera are clearly not just eccentric wacky folk. Yes, they are ultimately lovable and sympathetic. But in the film you are never allowed to forget these are people exhibiting the recognizable behaviors of the psychotic. Part of what is so pitiful (and yes, moving) about the film is watching two inmates in an unstaffed asylum, with no doctors and no meds. Those society has left behind.

What? Bouvier-family aristocrats--cousins of the first lady--left behind? Who cares, you say, when millions of families live through the same nightmare of abandonment every day without ever having known the comforts to which these women were once accustomed? Well this brings me to the "class upheaval" part I mentioned. Part of the appeal of the film, I suppose, has been its resonances of Chekhovian and Tennessee Williams tropes of faded or doomed aristocracy. In drama that invites sentimentality--people of a more delicate time preyed on by a coarser contemporary world. Of course, good productions of, say, Cherry Orchard and Streetcar avoid such an easy dichotomy by showing you the seeds of the old order's own self-destruction. And the distant cinema verité camerawork of the Maysles' film also reinforces a clinical look at what's changed over time--not just for the Beale ladies but for America.

A great missed opportunity in the musical Grey Gardens is this bigger picture. Its two-act structure allows some neat contrasts between 1940s luxury-nostalgia and 1970s tackiness. But little is noted of what's changing in the outside world. Yes, the old Beales are isolated at the end, and, yes, they have a visiting kid who brings some modern sensibilities (mostly just in speech and dress) into their bubble. But the film, I believe, is almost premised upon the audience bringing its own context to bear (in the case of the original release, a 1975 audience) on what's changed since the Beales' heyday. "Camelot" ended, Watergate and Vietnam happened, and the economy went down the toilet. No reference is made to these elements in the musical. Or the film, for that matter--but by not sucking you so aggressively into the Beales' own myopic perspective (as sentimental storytelling tends to do) the documentary encourages the spectator to fill in the gaps.

The one exception in the musical is a mock-Norman Vincent Peale gospel number called "Choose to be Happy" chiming in from a radio. Nice touch. But it's a brief an anomaly in an otherwise micro- not macro-focused show.

In short, the feeling we get watching the play is, "what a shame these difficult yet lovely people fell on hard times." What we--or at least I--think during the film is, "such may be what befalls those unprepared for any life other than that of 'Grey Gardens' and being married off to the Kennedys." (The fact that those arrivistes the Kennedys managed to skirt the changing times and still--all these years, deaths, and scandals later--still hold their status of power is another unremarked upon, though relevant point.)

Back to the "crazy" factor for a sec--It's a common flaw of fictional narrative accounts of mental illness that the victims are really just normal people underneath affected by traumatic incidents that disrupted their otherwise normal lives. Science tells us know that mental disorders may be suddenly triggered an unexplainable chemical shifts in the brain, and may even more likely reflect genetic dispositions that become especially aggravated. Ok, I'm no psychiatrist. But my point is that real life doesn't follow the patterns of cause-and-effect character-based narrative. (Duh.) Grey Gardens the musical, naturally, has to locate a "cause" for Little Edie's crazy behavior in Act II (i.e. 1975). So the girl we see in Act I is mostly (yes, I say "mostly"--more about that later) a normal happy rich girl preparing for a wedding. Then she gets betrayed by her mom and gets dumped--and lo and behold, that will prompt the very extreme character transformation leading to the odd creature (played no less by a different actress even) that we meet in Act II, who is, of course, the film's Little Edie.

Again, I'm no psychiatrist. But I think they would tell you the signs of the kind of condition so clearly displayed by the film's Little Edie aren't "caused" by bad things that happen to you. The signs are usually there all along, I imagine. Now it's true that the GG musical team is not blind to this and does plant some seeds of "acting out" behavior in the young Little Edie. Better yet, Erin Davie's performance in Act I really does go there, sometimes; she manages to turn from little blond debutante to clawing desperate animal on a dime a couple of scary times. But I still felt at intermission some whitewashing of what the real Little Edie was like when she was "little."

I'm going to stop for a second to note that my language is unfortunately creeping towards judging the mentally ill in negative terms. ("Whitewashing what?" you may ask.) I'm sorry our vocabulary still makes that all too easy, and the nature of blogging makes it less desirable to spend a week researching psychology further before writing this theatre review. I will expect those more knowledgeable will chime in with either criticisms or (hopefully) clarifications. So please do. (I'm also aware that if you've never seen the film you may not be able to picture the kind of extreme symptoms and behavior I'm referring to.)

If anything, though, I'm suggesting that rigged narratives like GG The Musical--as well intentioned and "sympathetic" as they are--are part of the problem, too. It does a disservice to the truly ill to suggest that the onset of such a debilitating mental state is anything like the conscious "motivations" of a fictional character's rational subjectivity. Nor is it fair to suggest--as is done here--that Little Edie's fate is the consequence of bad parenting or (in this case) grandparenting and jerk boyfriends. (As we all know by now, never date a Kennedy.)

Musicals are very good at--in fact thrive on--endowing characters with rich subjectivity, beautiful inner lives that sing to us in solo spotlights of their innermost desires and torments ("Rose's Turn", Billy Bigelow's "Soliloquy"). The key to these is the character's self-awareness--a concept much more complicated in regard to extreme mental conditions. And so writing an "11 o'clock number" for a deranged protagonist is no easy task, nor necessarily advisable.

The grown-up Little Edie has a classic 11 o'clock-er, "Around the World," in which the writers here really try to get at the "real" Edie, not the facade she puts up in the film. But notice how that implies a straightforward surface/depth mentality in a condition that is probably much more fluid. In other words, inside that crazy woman is a normal person like you or me. Again, I know this sounds unsympathetic, but I think mental illness is best respected by recognizing the extreme cases as different. (If not, then we in fact end up blaming the ill for behavior they can't control, which is definitely not helpful.)

Then again--audiences are not supposed to be able to feel for a character that is profoundly different from them, are they? We have to see Edie's real self is just like ours in the end in order to "relate," "identify," "empathize" and all those other responses drama is supposed to elicit like Pavlov's dog. I think it's possible to depict mental illness on stage in a compelling way, but this toolkit of audience-identification would have to be challenged. (See C. Churchill's The Skriker, for instance.)

Seems unfair to spend all this space attacking the musical Grey Gardens for what it isn't? For turning it into a misguided tract on our treatment of the mentally ill, against the artists' wishes to morph it instead into a Chekhovian/Williamsesque bittersweet troubled-woman character portrait? Maybe. But someone has to point out, I think, the enormous difference between watching that film on the one hand, and, on the other, feeling compelled to applaud and "bravo" a star Christine Ebersole at her curtain call when she safely steps out of Edie's madness, as any other "role." Again, no one's fault. (As I'll get to, Ebersole's magnificent.) But it's the nature of the beast--theatre as entertainment, that is.

(In reference to more "realistic" and anti-sentimental stage portrayals of such heroines, by the way, I point to the best Blanche Dubois I ever saw--Liz Marvel's desperate strung-out junkie in Ivo Van Hove's radical rethinking of the play.)

Ok, so what's good about Grey Gardens The Musical? Yes, there's Ebersole. Her performance as the mother, Edith, in Act One actually contains more social commentary than anything explicit in the show. She brings to the part the levels of both a Madame Renevskaya and a Philip Barry socialite--in short women completely dependent upon their privilege--namely their father's property and the husband's wallet. Also, in the rendering of Edith as an interminable amateur singer at parties, Ebersole knows how to sing badly well, and not turn Edith's numbers in Act One into showy vehicles for herself, but rather reflections of the character.

Ebersole's Little Edie in Act II, though, is the reason everyone comes to see this show. Having said all I have about the show's simplification of madness, her performance certainly honors the real woman by replicating her in every degree. That she manages to so entertain us with Edie's rants is not a disservice, since the real Edie is awfully engaging on film, too. In fact, in Ebersole's hands, the uncharming side of the logorrhea--the way the trajectory of her speech suddenly takes you on a sharp left turn from witty to bizarre--is quite evident. This is probably helped by the inclusion of much of the original "dialogue" (I should say transcript) from the film. In fact the problems of this show in Act II surface whenever you sense we are leaving the film's "text" behind for the imagined (i.e. normalized) dialogue of the librettist and lyricist. The seams are there for those listening closely.

I mentioned the fine Erin Davie already. Likewise, the other Big Edie, Mary Louise Wilson, should not be relegated to the shadow of Ms Ebersole either. Wilson's performance as the mostly-bedridden mother of Act II, is stirringly brave. Baring her own age honestly in stripping down to her nightie, the occasional vacant gazes of her character's loneliness are not something you're allowed to see usually in a Broadway musical.

Purely artistically (if I can say such a thing) the show is a triumph of the old ideal of the "integrated musical" the subordination of song to character. The score by Scott Frank (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) swerves in and out of a variety of idioms to match what's going on in Doug Wright's book. Wright's main task in the show seems to make a sensible balance between the two Acts, which are different in many, many ways. Act I is actually the "add-on" in the piece, since it's not directly from the film but reconstructed from the real life family history of the Bouvier-Beales (some of which is recounted in the film). So the approach seems to have been to concoct an archetypally 20s-40s dramatic world. The score gives us plenty of pastiche-Gershwin and Porter which is appropriate and interesting in a Sondheimian way. (I liked how some of the songs Edith prefers are outright pre-p.c. ditties of negroes and Indians. Unfortunately the b'way style staging of Michael Greif and choreographer Jeff Calhoun still tries to charm us with at least the Indian song. Again--the traps of total empathy.)

The huge contrast between the two acts is part of what's intriguing but also iffy about the whole show. They're almost stylistically incompatible. They certainly could each exist separately as one-acts. (The brief inclusion and "ghosting" of some 1941 characters in Act II is a cool gesture, but incomplete.) Theatrically, the shift in worlds, and of the set of the Grey Gardens manion itself, is a nice stunt, a coup de theatre. And Greif deserves credit ultimately for giving some kind of shape to all these disparate elements in the end.

Ultimately, though, without Ebersole this would be a something of a curiosity. To see someone of her charisma, intelligence, and fearlessness take on a role (scratch that, two roles) like this is to realize what star power is all about in the theatre. In fact, here's a definition of a "star" that came to me as I watched her: a star is that performer who seems to have a circus going on inside them, but shows us that with hardly any effort at all.

So Grey Gardens fails at its higher aspirations of giving meaning to two sadly drifting lives once captured in a film, but succeeds in turning serious, adult, complex material into an entertaining Broadway event. Which is what the theatre rewards most of all.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Ageism at NY Mag?

Well, Mr. Hytner, don't accuse New York Magazine of propping up the "dead white males" anymore. Renowned classical music critic Peter G. Davis--their "longhair" man for 26 years--has just been axed, making for a hat-trick of codger-sacking at that magazine's arts dept.

It also marks the third time New York has fired a longtime, senior critic, raising the question of serious age discrimination. Dance critic Tobi Tobias was axed four years ago, after 22 years at the magazine, theater critic John Simon was let go on the eve of his 80th birthday two years ago, after 37 years. He was replaced by a 28-year-old theater critic.

Yes, there is a dark side to "out with the old." Too bad a paper can't just put them side by side--as Hytner finally suggests in his latest statement.

Oh wait, I guess side by side would mean more coverage. Never mind.

No offense to Jeremy McCarter! Who I believe is now a mature 30-something. Maybe it's time to replace him with a tween.

Playgoing with the Playgoer!

If you've got a few grand to drop this summer, some free time, and want to study with the Playgoer, I teach a class every summer at Tisch Drama at NYU called "Theatre in New York." It's 6 weeks (June 26-August 4), meets Tuesdays and Thursdays (some Wednesdays) and we see shows twice a week on Tuesday & Thursday nights.

It is a real college class, so there's writing, reading, maybe even a test or two. But if you happen to be in college, you get a transcript and a grade so that your school might give you credit for it. There's a $300 ticket fee on top of the roughly $3200 tuition. (Ouch, I know. And no, I wish it were all going to me. I'm lucky to get my tickets free.)

So if you're interested for yourself, or for that special undergraduate in your life (I'm looking at you, Professor Humbert) you can download an application through

On the off chance you happen to already be an NYU student, then you can probably register directly through the usual channels.

Do feel free to email me [playgoer_at_gmail_dot_com] if you have questions.

Possible shows include the following:
"Radio Golf"
"10 Million Miles" (new Michael Mayer/Keith Bunin musical at the Atlantic)
"Gypsy" Encores reading with Patti LuPone
Robert Wilson's Fontaine Fables piece with the Comedie Francaise at Lincoln Center Festival
"St. Joan of the Stockyards" at PS122
Rinde Eckert's piece at NYTW
Sara Ruhl's "Eurydice"
...and many, many (ok, not so many) more. Probably 10-11 shows in all.

Please note that this list does not necessarily reflect my opinion of what's the best out there, but a combination of what will be out there these 6 weeks, at an affordable price, with tickets available. Feel free to suggest other shows you'd think we be good for an educational experience!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Ayckbourn Exits

More British theatre news. Alan Ayckbourn has been called the British Neil Simon. Well, try to imagine Neil Simon in charge of his own regional theatre, directing his own plays for nearly 40 years and that might approach the scope of this career. (The fact that Simon basically shriveled up when the Broadway that he knew disappeared shows another difference between the two theatre cultures.)

Anyway, Sir Alan is calling it quits as of next year, stepping down from the helm of Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre.

There'll always be a home for him at Manhattan Theatre Club! Another crazy play-cycle of his can currently be caught at the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59. (In all gazillion parts.)

McKellen's "Lear"

...has finally opened. And the London reviews aren't as bad as they were rumored to be expected. The Guardian summarizes.

Again, the BAM run in NY in September is already sold out. I don't have a ticket.

AD's as Public Intellectuals?

Isaac points us to yet another installment in the Nick Hytner vs the London critical establishment spat, and makes an excellent point along the way.

One thing this points me to in our ongoing envy of Britain's theatre scene... their artistic directors are public figures, which makes sense given that theatres are a public trust to some extent. When was the last time the artistic director of The Public, The Roundabout, Lincoln Center Theater or Manhattan Theatre Club wrote an essay for the Times, the Voice, TONY or the Sun?
Absolutely right. Theatre can't become a player in public discourse if theatre people are not active players.

Now perhaps Mssrs Eustis, Bishop et al are submitting op-ed after op-ed to no avail. It wouldn't surprise me if the Times, for instance, routinely passed them up for, say, Henry Kissinger or David Sedaris. Maybe theatre as a topic fails to catch their interest. But theatre people don't have to limit their commentary to plays and playhouses. Why not the arts and the culture in general? When everyone was debating if our culture is too violent after the Virginia Tech shootings, theatre artists are no less qualified to talk. (And cite Titus Andronicus in defense, for instance.) Tony Kushner has probably been the most successful at breaking this "barrier" by his interventions into the Matthew Shepard killing and other political issues he takes a vested interest in. (Indeed, I worried for a while he was writing more op-ed's than plays.)

I also can't help wondering if sticking your neck out on the Times op-ed page on a controversial issue is even something an NYC Artistic Director sees as a prudent thing to do. In the current funding climate, are our leaders happy to err on the side of staying "above the fray" lest they attract the "wrong" kind of attention?

Not to point the finger exclusively at the AD's. Sure, it's a 2-way street. But the media ain't gonna notice us until we start making some noise.

The Hytner piece by the way is good. A kind of apology--only to qualify and make more reasonable what he was saying about diversifying critical opinion and not letting the privileged "Oxbridgers" (as we would say Ivy Leaguers) have a monopoly on arbitrating theatrical culture.