The Playgoer: February 2008

Custom Search

Friday, February 29, 2008

Quote of the Day

[He] chalked up the split to "artistic differences. We thought it should be good."
Rick Elice, Jersey Boys co-librettist, commenting on why he and partner Marshall Brickman bailed "Father of the Bride: The Musical."

(As reported by Riedel.)

O'Neill Center Retains Leadership!

The O'Neill Playwrights Center has remarkably not replaced their leadership! Wendy Goldberg is now signed till 2010.

For those of you who's she doin'?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Avant Garde Crossovers?

Charles McNulty has an interesting LA Times piece considering a slew of recent avant-garde/pop hybrid pieces from Wooster Group (Hamlet), Will Power (The Seven), and even Les Freres Corbusier.

While commending all to a degree, when contrasted with the more severe alienating aesthetic of something like The Living Theatre's The Brig (currently touring in LA), he can't help wondering if the new generation of iconoclasts are chickening out a bit.

There's something usually quite rarefied about such theatrically assembled works. The audience, for the most part, is the already initiated or the intrepid few willing to stretch their performing arts paradigms, while more mainstream attendees are typically left scratching their heads. Recall what happened when Robert Wilson's "The Black Rider" played at the Ahmanson Theatre and subscribers unaccustomed to the stylized storytelling were reported to be leaving in angry droves, some before intermission.

Perhaps this accounts for why the new breed of innovators seems to be rebelling against the example of their sometimes obscure forerunners. Yearning for wider appreciation, these artists want their avant-garde attitude and their accessibility too.
Yes, it's hard to think of current celebrated enfant terribles actually surviving the poverty and fringe-existence a group like the Living Theatre thrived on forty years ago. But one could counter that the younger generation has less innate scorn for pop culture than did the predecessors (who came of age in the relatively homogonous and limited white-male fare of 50s and 60s Hollywood). In the age of the internet and all things "streaming," the current crop sees no shame in the current multi-cultural pop culture and perhaps a genuine opportunity to reach out to more people and build a bigger community.

It's an argument at least.

I do agree with McNulty, though, that the sheer indifference to audience pleasure you get from The Brig today is...well, refreshing!

I knew John Cougar Mellencamp was SCARY, but...

Why do I have a feeling this is not coming to a theatre near you anytime soon.

“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” a new Southern Gothic musical by Stephen King, above left, the horror writer, and John Mellencamp, above right, the musician, is to open in April 2009 at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. In a recent interview in Rolling Stone Mr. Mellencamp said that if the musical, about the reverberations of a tragedy in small-town Mississippi, did well in Atlanta, it would head to Broadway.
Strikes me as the poor man's Capeman!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In Bay Area, Torches are Passing

"Bay Area theaters are undergoing the greatest amount of flux since the mid-1980s," says the SF Chronicle, turning our attention to a new crop of AD's at Ashland and San Jose, as well as new associates and initiaves at the biggies ACT and Berkeley.

Let's see if it leads to a theatrical Renaissance in what is already surely one of the country's top 5 playgoing regions.

REVIEW: Moliere's Don Juan

"Yehuda Duenyas IS Don Juan!"

In today's Voice, my snapshot of Don Juan by way of Moliere, by way of "The National Theater of the United States of America."

No, we still don't have a real national theatre. You didn't miss anything. You can read about this Obie-winning group here. This was my first time with them, and I had fun. Curious to see more.

It was also nice to get out of Manhattan and explore another emerging theatre scene in Long Island City. The Chocolate Factory there has an interesting line up for the Spring, as well. Looks like they're out to become the St. Ann's Warehouse of Queens!

(And they're not to be confused with London's Menier Chocolate Factory--originators of the current Sunday in the Park with George.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Fantasy Casting Calls"

Yes, that was me in the Times' "Spring Theatre Preview" Sunday.

But you dead-tree subscribers missed me, because I was only deemed cool enough for web-readers.

So check out the online version (or as I like to say "bonus edition") of the "Fantasy Casting Calls" piece, and read what A-listers like me and Kim Catrall had to say on the topic. An online exclusive!

And while you're at it, let's continue to conversation here and tell me who you would like to see on stage in a great classic role?

To get things started: I also told them it's time for Ivo Van Hove to take on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with two of his favorite actors, that real-life fiery couple Bill Camp and Liz Marvel. God knows what liquids they could throw at each other in this one!

Bentley, Brustein, & Kaufmann: The Transscript

Back in the fall, three giants of oldschool, intellectual American theatre criticism--Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, and Stanley Kaufmann--gathered at a roundtable here in NYC at the Philoctetes Society. Since neither I nor anyone I know could find the damn place(!) I'm grateful to American Theatre fpr printing an edited transcript this month.

(The complete text--and even a video!--are available on the Philoctetes website.)

Lots of scintillating and provocative statements all around (some fresh, some grumpy). But I found myself nodding along most with Brustein. Here he is explaining how he got fed up with "conventional" reviewing even after making a good career at it:

It was very boring to be continually banging your head against what you thought to be the really deleterious and second-rate mediocrity of the Broadway stage. You gained nothing. You were probably losing readers. So the task I set for myself was to put theatre into a context and try to see how this or that play fit into our particular time, our particular society, our particular culture, our particular political life, and how it reflected on that. I don’t think anyone can write a word without somehow creating that kind of reflection. You just have to find it. Then I began to get happier about my criticism.

And more and more, I found myself subordinating the judgment that was so necessary to criticism, and that we’re all looking for: Does he like it? Does she hate it? When I read criticism, I find that to be the least interesting part. I began to call that “Himalayan criticism” after Danny Kaye—when he was asked whether he liked the Himalayas, he said, “Loved him, hated her.” It’s essentially what we’ve all been practicing—Himalayan criticism.

Indeed. Other subspecies of this kind of review include: Let's rate everyone's accent! Or, compare the actors to the stars who did the role in the movie!

And on the perennial question of where are the new great American plays...
It’s not that there are no playwrights in this country—I think there are more playwrights in this country of high quality than ever before in my memory. They just don’t have a place to have their plays produced. Broadway has turned away from them altogether, as has even the resident theatre movement, which is no longer being supported either by the National Endowment for the Arts or the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation (though there is some support from Mellon and Shubert and Jujamcyn, but not enough to keep them going). Therefore, [the resident theatres] have begun to turn themselves into commercial producing organisms. And they’re putting on things that have been successful elsewhere and not taking the chances on the new. As a result, we have succeeded ourselves out of existence, I think.

Isn’t it also an incredibly impoverishing pressure on a young playwright who wants to see his or her work produced when he or she is told, “Look, two or three characters max, one set”? What kind of constricting effect does that have on the dramatic imagination of somebody who wants to think epically, who wants to think about class?...And if that playwright does write that play, he or she is told, “We’ll give you a reading, a workshop, another reading, another workshop.” They never get productions.

And if that's not depressing enough, imagine how my heart sunk at these encouraging words from Mr. Bentley:

Some of you young people here who might be thinking about becoming drama critics, I think the advice is, “Don’t.”

Oh well.

(By the way, his counter-advice is we should all become playwrights!)

So if you're not an American Theatre subscriber already (or pilfer it from your office) print it out for a good long read.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Too Many Plays?

"I don't think the market can support so many plays."

-Bob Boyett, producer of many of this season's high profile dramas on Broadway.

He oughta know. As Variety's Gordon Cox illustrates, the abundance of dramatic fare in commercial productions ended up crowding the market, leaving solid critics' darlings like The Homecoming and even The Seafarer irretrievably in the red, it appears.

Other highlights?

Jeffrey Richards--another last-of-the-drama-lovers producer--argues: "Plays were in a good position, because there was no musical that really took hold of the public's imagination this fall."

On the other hand, Manny Azenburg says it's apples and oranges since, "we have two different audiences."

At least two.

Dennis Letts

If you're a fan of August: Osage County then you probably already know that the author's father was in the original cast. Sadly Dennis Letts has now passed away after struggling with cancer through much of the run.

Mr. Letts created the role in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's world premiere of August in summer 2007, and moved with the troupe to Broadway. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in September 2007 after the Windy City run.

"His choice to persevere with the New York production in the face of his devastating diagnosis is a testament to his love for the project and the people involved," Tracy Letts said in a statement. "Dad had a full and fascinating life, and August: Osage County was the cherry on top."

Having still not seen the show yet, I'm sorry I will have missed him.

He reportedly left the show only a few weeks ago, and is still listed on the official website's cast list. I assume his understudy, Munson Hicks, has taken over the role?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Diddy, "Raisin," TV

The trailer for the upcoming ABC Raisin in the Sun movie with Sean Combs & co. actually looks pretty hot! I didn't see the Broadway revival, but this just might vindicate his performance after all--especially since the camera might favor it far better than the stage.

There's also Phylicia Rashad and Audra MacDonald, of course.

And just the whole atmosphere and look of the film (directed by Kenny Leon from his stage production) just seems right. Very in period and very tough.

Worth watching, I say. This Monday, February 25.

(But with the trailer, you may want to skip past the first minute of Diddy's weird introduction.)

Whatever Happened to The "Playwright in Residence"

I feel late to the party with the current "Reading Group" discussion of August: Osage County. (Maybe because I still haven't seen it!)

But some interesting comments from Frank Rich and Marsha Norman, as well as more literary (i.e. "Reading Group") peeps Eliza Minot and Blake Wilson.

Like Isaac, I found especially valuable Norman's comments on the importance of the Steppenwolf relationship with Tracy Letts--something sadly unheard of these days in New York and indeed much of the country.

I like what this play represents: a life-long association of a writer with a group of actors and a theater. This is why Shakespeare wrote so much, he had a whole gang of actors waiting to do his work. Go down the list — the writers who wrote a lot of wonderful plays were always associated with a community of actors they could write for: Shepard, Chekhov, Brian Friel, Alan Ackbourne, David Mamet, Lanford Wilson, Caryl Churchill, Richard Foreman, Wendy Wasserstein. Playwrights who live apart from theaters and actors have a lot of trouble getting their work done. Playwrights need to be around actors, need to be a part of a theater’s life.


If we wanted to do one single thing to improve the theatrical climate in America, we’d assign one playwright to every theater that has a resident acting company. People wonder why so much great work came out of Actors Theatre of Louisville in the early days. I was there, so I know it was simply that you had everything you needed: actors who wanted to work, empty stages ready for plays and an artistic director who gave everybody a chance to do whatever they wanted as soon as they could think of it. Playwriting in America has suffered a devastating blow from the development process that keeps writers separate from the rest of the company, working on the same play for years. What playwrights want is what Steppenwolf has given Mr. Letts: a way to get a new play done, see what works, and then go on to the next one. “August: Osage County” is way more than a wonderful play. It is how we get back to having American plays on Broadway. We get them written for actors who want to do them, then producers get on board and start selling tickets.

Indeed--why not a "Resident Playwright" program? Well, first I guess you have to bring back the idea of a resident acting company! The biggest, most well funded ones I can think of are Oregon Shakespeare Fest, ACT in San Francisco, and ART in Boston.

I imagine these and other such companies have occasionally had such visiting writers. But from my experience these tend to be very short-term "residencies" where the playwright gets, at best, a reading or two of works already read to death and maybe a commission for some new children's show or community oriented documentary theatre piece that they'll never get published or performed anywhere else.

The Chekhov/MAT, Lanford Wilson/Circle Rep, and (may we add) Odets/Group Theatre model Norman is referencing has effectively died, institutionally. Certain playwrights still like collaborating with certain actors and directors. But no framework supports that anymore.

And it's worth investing in, the next time someone devises a new grant program for "emerging writers."

I believe TCG has such a program--but can anyone elucidate what it entails?

(BTW--you may notice I snipped out of the Norman quote her remarks about how playwrights benefit from having been actors, like Letts. I'll leave that to the scribes out there to argue with.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bitty Bear's Last Bow

You may remember how the American Girl empire has been in an Actors Equity fight for a little over a year now, over the demands of their in-store performers to join their professional union.

The company's solution? They're folding the whole repertoire. American Girls Revue, Bitty Bear's Matinee, all the classics. The Trib's Chris Jones has the story.

Explains he:

"Management felt that the time was right to find new entertaining experiences for our guests," Parks said. Those experiences, however, won't include live performers.
Might I suggest...Revolt of the Beavers?

"Passing Strange"--Stranger to B'way?

Today, Riedel reports on the backstage buffonery over what to do with a genuine rock musical once you've pored millions of dollars into bringing it uptown to Broadway.

The other day in the green room of "Theater Talk" (the talk show I host on PBS), Stew, the founder of the band that bears his name, said he's often baffled by the Broadway argot.

For example, the term "button": the big finish to a song that's supposed to get the audience to applaud.

Shubert chairman Gerald Schoenfeld (who, even when he's on his cellphone, still says "hold the wire" when another call comes through) thinks there should be more "buttons" on Stew's songs.

"I had no idea what he was talking about," Stew confesses. "In the rock world, you don't necessarily expect applause at the end of every number. Sometimes, songs just flow into each other."

One area of contention is the noise level. The Shuberts and McCann think the band is too loud.

"The drummer is too exuberant," Schoenfeld often remarks in a booming voice of authority.

He might as well have screeched: "Turn that noise down, you rapscallians!"

Liz McCann, the lead producer, is the embodiment of good intentions. But she also ruined Well (another Public Theatre creature) by transferring it from downtown glory to Tony-fizzer, and sticking it with a flashier new clunky set in the process.

This will make a fascinating comparison with In the Heights when it opens down the street. I assume the producers of that will not be so stupid to pump down the volume.

I mean--with all the over mic-ing and Young Frankenstein sound blitzes on the Rialto these days, these people are worried whether a five-piece band will rock out a little too..."exuberantly"???

REVIEW: The Jazz Age

This week in Time Out, my review of The Jazz Age, about--what else?--those wacky Fitzgeralds, and their buddy Ernest Hemingway.

Why do I bet that the real story of Scott and Zelda (pictured at right) would be a lot more fucked up and interesting than this masturbatory soap opera of macho man-love.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

NEA not so hot after all

Well just when I was feeling good about our National "Endowment" for the Arts, along comes Louisville Courier-Journal's Andrew Adler to kill my buzz.

Tucked away in the thousands of pages [of Bush's proposed FY 2009 budget] covering $3 trillion worth of proposed expenditures was a $16.3 million cut in support for the National Endowment for the Arts. That would reduce its operating budget from $144.7 million during fiscal 2008 to $128.4 million in 2009.

You heard right. Barely two months after signing off on a $20 million increase in the NEA's budget -- the largest in the endowment's history -- our nation's chief executive quickly shifted into fiscal reverse. In budget-speak, this is called a "rescission." In plain-speak, it's an outrage.

Now the congress--the Democratic-controlled congress--has yet to vote on this. But what are the odds that this bunch, and in an oh-so-cautious election year (i.e. one they could win!) will actually challenge the Republicans on the arts?

A fitting farewell fuck-you from W., isn't it? Considering this is the budget he wants to leave us with in '09...when he's gone!

(hat tip: ArtsJournal)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Taking Kids (and Kids' Theatre) Seriously

London's Royal National has apparently been nuturing a quite a mature and innovative theatre for young audiences program, "Connections."

The basic idea seems at once simple and, of course, unheard of in the US: commission really good playwrights to write plays about adolescent characters, without any censorship restrictions whatsoever. (Other than limiting scripts to a 60-minute running time.) The result?

Playwrights are simply asked to write their next play, rather than adapting or censoring their vision.

Thus [Mark] Ravenhill's "Citizenship" handled the decidedly touchy subject of a 15-year-old boy wrestling with sexuality, while [Bryony] Lavery's "More Light," a startling play about creating art, included oral sex, castration and cannibalism in a story of 15 concubines buried alive in a Chinese emperor's tomb.

Now if you went to some education-minded grant organization here in the States and proposed bringing kids to plays by the authors of Shopping and Fucking and the child-molester drama Frozen, I think you might get a...well, frozen response.

Makes you wonder. While there is the reputable Childrens Theatre of Minneapolis, NYC boasts no similarly serious young adult venue. (Sorry, but Theatreworks USA with their "Sarah Plain and Tall" fare may be perfectly fine at what they do, but no one's called them "challenging.")

But given the flourising of a young adult book market in this country (for which even Adam Rapp has written a few) and risquee teen-themed cable tv shows, you would think there would be a payoff to taking kids seriously and and acknowleging how media saturation has already numbed them to the subjects parents (and producers, and funders) are still so afraid to expose them to.

One of those payoffs, of course: fostering a new generation of adult theatre goers one day, by showing them--at a young age--that theatre can sometimes take their side, not just their parents'.

Spring Awakening, alas, is probably the best example in the US right now of how successful this idea can be. But I would argue that's only because someone finally had the balls the put Wedekind on Broadway.

By the way, the article mentions ACT in San Fransisco as one of the many international theatres the National has partnered with in some of these plays. Have any Bay Area playgoers out there seen any of this work?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A New Stanislavsky

Stanislavsky's An Actor Prepares has been the bedrock of American acting training for generations.

But guess what, the version you've been reading all these years is totally bunk! OK, well that's what the scholars are saying. And thanks to one of them, Jean Benedetti, we'll now be able to read something closer to what he actually wrote.

Released in the US in severely edited and liberally translated versions spanning 3 volumes--An Actor Prepares, Creating a Role, Building a Character--these were the best we could do given the complications of Russian translation and cross cultural publishing during the Cold War. (Word used to be you could only get accurate Stanislavsky translations via Cuba!)

In fact, what the man wrote--starting only in the 1930s, toward the very end of his teaching and his life, mind you--was a massive two-volume set simply entitled The Actor's Work on the Self and The Actor's Work on the Role.

As London Times critic Benedict Nightingale explains:

[T]he obvious problem - that there can be no totally authoritative text - is worsened by the fact the two volumes were published many years apart. The result was that Stanislavski's disciples, especially in America, absorbed the first, which is largely about actors' need to explore and exploit their inner selves, and neglected the second, which talks in detail of technique and the discipline required onstage.
Benedetti's new condensation of the work into one big volume--being sold as just The Actor's Work--is still "edited," though. So I do hope someone will publish (or first, translate!) The Full Stanny one day.

Dana Gioia's NEA

"My objective has been to insist that there are things in our society that are neither right nor left...What I sought to do was to take arts and arts education out of the divisive and destructive rhetoric of the culture wars."

-Dana Gioia, the Bush-appointed Chair of the National Endowment of the Arts.

Gee, why not art from both right and left?

Having survived the entire Bush tenure, Gioia certainly deserves credit for keeping it from liquidation. And I suppose his strategy of inoffensiveness has been part of that.

Still--such a cowering statement is so sad, compared to the more vital and unafraid embrace of the arts in Europe. But, hey, this is America.

Gioia does offer some good ideas on how to "meet demand with supply" by matching unemployed actors and artists with underserved communities. And I like his outreach to military bases.

Of course, what a Democratic president will do with the NEA is a total mystery since it hasn't even come up in the primaries, so you can bet it won't surface at all in November.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Photo of the Day

photo: Sara Krulwich

A Broadway stagehand helps load Passing Strange into the Belasco Theatre.

Reminds you what the strike was for.

(via NYT)

Writers Strike a Wash for Theatre?

Hooray for the settlement of the Writers' Strike. Especially since it turns out that despite some hopes it would send some Off Broadway expatriates back to the boards, many scribes (according the LA Times) found that well dried up when they returned to it...

David Rambo, [a] playwright ("God's Man in Texas") who gravitated to television several years ago as a writer-producer for "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,"....decided he would write a play that had been simmering in his head. Except, he discovered, the theater muse wouldn't take his calls -- not while he was burdened with anxiety from walking a picket line, uncertain what the future holds.

"I thought, 'Boy, am I going to write that play,' " Rambo said. But "I can't. I've tried, and I just can't. I don't know anybody who has."

Writing a play, he said, means having to "suggest a world with all the right details, the right words, the nuances. You have to get to a place of deep thought where those things can be discovered. I can't get to it with the stress of a strike."

Jane Anderson, a "media-hyphenate" who -- like many in L.A.'s creative set -- tries to carve out time for the theater work she loves amid the screenwriting and directing that earns most of her living, had an idea for a play germinate while she was picketing in the strike's early days. But it took nearly two months, she said, before she could find a "writing rhythm" to do something with it.

"Every writer I talked to who wanted to work on something said, 'I'm having the same problem too,' " she said.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dramas on B'way: An Update

Yes, a cold, slow time of the season. But still...

August:Osage County, 65% capacity
Is He Dead?, 47%
November, 59%
Rock 'n' Roll: 54%
Farnsworth Invention: 43%
Homecoming: 47%
Seafarer: 65%

Keep in mind these are the "hit" plays--great reviews, known playwrights (Mamet, Stoppard, Pinter, Sorkin) and, in some cases, even marquee names (Nathan Lane).

The only plays doing better than 2/3rds capacity currently are the just-opened Come Back Little Sheba at 70% (a rare hit at MTC's Biltmore) and Roundabout's 39 Steps at 85%. Given these nonprofit venues only have 650 and 740 seats respectively, though, the overall number of attendees is probably the same.

Which means that the audience for "straight plays" on Broadway right now--under optimal conditions of reviews and buzz, if not weather--looks like it's maxing out at around 500 a night.

Aaron Sorkin's Farnsworth Invention--probably the least well reviewed of that bunch--has now posted a closing notice for March 2. Seafarer's "faring" better, but they've posted, too, as if quitting while (presumably?) ahead. But that's March 31, so it's probably just to drum up sales.

In other news, while it's no surprise, Passing Strange in previews is not even at 40%.

Morning Yuks

The Onion debuts the advice column to end all...

Ask The Stage Directions To Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Dear Stage Directions to Tennessee Williams'
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,

Two years ago, my husband and I decided our son should take piano lessons. We told him that if he didn't like them he could quit when he turned 13. Well, his 13th birthday is coming up, and I think he is leaning towards quitting. Should we force him to continue despite our agreement?

—Perplexed in Portsmouth

Dear Perplexed,

(As the curtain rises, someone is taking a shower in the bathroom, the door of which is half open. A pretty young woman, Margaret, with anxious lines in her face, enters the bedroom and crosses stage left towards the bathroom door. When she talks, it's as if the tone of her voice has the inflection of a beautiful bird, a lilting cadence that evokes a sense of innocence, but masks her true motivations. She speaks…)

Personally I take my own advice from O'Neill's....

Monday, February 11, 2008

Some Quickie Reviews

Falling way behind in my "free time" (i.e. nonpaid) reviewing, here are some dispatches from 3 recent prominent productions that I was fortunate enough to be invited to, and do want to (albeit belatedly) hold up my end of the bargain.


Church by Young Jean Lee
Having missed this last year at PS122, I was eager to catch up with this piece, and with Ms. Lee in general, whose work I haven't seen yet. Church is an odd play--oddly structured, that is--even for experimental work. Which this is not. As a collection of "sermons" in an imagined generic middle American service, it works well as a monologue play. The interspersing of pseudo-sprirtuals, dances, and, at the finale, a full choir are nice ideas, but in the staging at the Public (directed by the playwright) they seemed so incidental as to be immaterial to the proceedings. (That collection of 30-40 "extras" for the choir seemed a particular waste of everyone's time, for no particular effect--satiric or otherwise.)

The main buzz coming out of this show from its premiere was the question: is it mocking of religion or not? Obviously the 1st question that occurs to a downtown hipster audience. But it's clear within minutes what Lee has maintained herself--having grown up attending such services, she was more interested in turning the finger at the secular audience itself for a change. And that is the best thing by far about Church, even though the Public staging only gave glimpses at it. The lead preacher (the actor's name and the program currently escape me, sorry to say) was particularly effective at this; with the charm of a Mike Huckabee, he could switch on a dime between gladhanding the crowd and denouncing them for their self-indulgence.

Lee's ultimate challenge to us (yes, you and me) is to examine the potential moral smugness of self-empowering modernity against the bedrock Christian principles and community building. Are obsessions over smoking, diet, and dating really leading to a better life, we are asked. In these confrontational moments--some subtle, some unpolitely direct--Church provides a good much needed jolt. But whether it was an inherent lack of craft or a shoddy festival-remount execution, the performance itself did not do justice to the concept.

Terminus by Mark O'Rowe
I have been hearing much about O'Rowe's US debut Howie the Rookie (and his screenplay for the Irish film Intermission). So I was eager to check out his latest, Terminus. In an Irish dramatic tradition that dates at least back to Brian Friel and continues strongly in Conor McPherson's work, this is essentially a monologue play, split three ways. O'Rowe ups the ante by writing in full-out rhymed verse. (The meter and rhyme scheme escaped me.)

I've made clear here previously how my guard is always up against monologue plays. Here the script was certainly helped by the original trio of powerful Irish actors from the Abbey Theatre premiere. But to me this was purely a listening experience. A stunning initial tableau of the three ghostly figures (one that got printed in every review) was ultimately deceptive; after that initial "woah" moment, the visual picture was as static as, well, a train at the end of the line. Each actor in succession would pop up when it was their time to deliver their 15-20 minutes of spinning locutions--often clever, with lilting cadences, but also often just sensationalist to my mind, with easy attention grabbing images of sex and violence.

To those listening more closely, I'm sure there were some interesting narrative twists and turns. But after the effects of atmosphere and the charisma of the actors wore off for me after the first 20 minutes, I would have preferred to sit in bed and read it on that cold night, rather than watch a recitation.

Oh, the Humanity, and other exclamations by Will Eno
at the Flea Theatre
Yet another example of catching up with someone's work I had been embarassed not to know.

I never saw Thom Paine, and so could never weigh in on the "Is Will Eno All That Charles Isherwood Says He Is" question. And I still don't feel I can, since the recently closed Oh the Humanity was nothing more than a collection of five flimsy sketches.

They could not have been rendered better by Brian Hutchinson and Christina Kirk. (I indeed felt fortunate to see the always marvellous Kirk, who replaced the more marquee-worthy Marisa Tomei after the run's extension.) Both actors have the requisite deadpan and offbeat likeability to put over Eno's peculiar brand of deadpan absurdism. I wish I could remember other examples, but the line "I am a girl who likes music, and who doesn't like a girl who likes music," stands out as typical of his sometimes-amusing gift for capturing inane emptiness in solipsistic mock-aphorisms.

But that trick wore fast on me. Especially when it seemed in the service not of any social commentary or Beckettian philosphical rigor--but merely whimsy. The darkest piece, by far, is where a hired pr spokeswoman tries to do "damage control" for an airline after a major crash. I could have dealt with the bad taste of the joke...if only it made me laugh. Hovering in between that awkwardness and a half-formed character study, it seemed no less exploitative than a weepy movie of the week on the same subject.

There's a strong dose of Thornton Wilder, I feel, in Eno's writing here, and that's a good thing. (Wilder being probably our original great homegrown absurdist.) But again, without the breadth and ability to strike existential terror, the way even Our Town at its best can. Without that, Eno's sketches just come off as so...well, white. Insular, complacent characters, with not a material care in the world, disappearing into the circular locutions in their heads. I sense Eno chooses such subjects deliberately, with social awareness. But neither he nor we ever get out of those annoying heads. At least not in these slight toss-offs.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Showtime for Hillary & Barack

Remember the big Dem debate in La La Land at the Kodak Theatre? Well, sure enough, the LA Times sent Charles McNulty to review it as an opening.

Obama is the far better Method actor of the two. Which is to say there's less of a visible gap between the role he's playing and the self he has freely exposed since he became a marquee draw. He connects with crowds -- he rouses -- through his comfort in his own skin and story. His past is complicated, but from that complexity he's discovered the power of honest reckoning and straightforward emotion. He's a natural performer. Clinton you can imagine rehearsing her lines in front of the bathroom mirror.

Her advantage is that she knows her text inside out. She's like one of those actors -- Maggie Smith is reported to be one -- who are always studying backstage, underlining and dog-earing their script. Professionalism goes a long way in the theater.

Apparently the show did so well it's extending. Maybe even through the summer!

Not to mention the "tour."

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Mike Daisey's Manifesto

AKA his latest monologue performance, How Theatre Failed America.

For those of us not lucky enough to catch it on tour presently, Mike has given something like a teaser in the Seattle Stranger and it's a knockout read.

Very angry, very moving, and very, very right.

I could quote so much--about the brilliant Seattle actress who has to retire at 40 when she realizes even her local idols live on poverty-line budgets, about the compulsive need for all corporations, profit or non, to "grow" senselessly beyond purpose--but here's just two points I found particularly salient. And singing.

One, on the failure the attract new audiences:

Most regional theaters make less than half of their budget from ticket sales—they have the power to make all their tickets 15 or 20 dollars if they were willing to cut staff and transition through a tight season. It would not be easy, but it is absolutely possible. Of course, that would also require making theater less of a "luxury" item—which raises secret fears that the oldest, whitest, richest donors will stop supporting the theater once the uncouth lower classes with less money and manners start coming through the door. These people might even demand different kinds of plays, which would be annoying and troublesome.
This hits on something rarely spoken--that at some level it's not really in the interest of many theatre institutions to cultivate younger--or just different audiences. (After all, filling the seats with just the children and grandchildren of your existing subscribers might not change the tastes much at all.) Do we really want to speak to people who aren't old, rich and/or white? Or are we asking the young, nonrich and nonwhite to simply learn to appreciate the finer things?

Notice what inevitably happens when a theatre dares to push those boundaries of language, sexuality, and violence that are by now no biggie to the kids, but bring on piles of angry letters (yes, letters, not emails) from subscribers and board members. Guess which response is weighed more: the full-price subscriber and $500+ donor? or the kid who got in on a ten-buck rush ticket?

Where Daisey really throws down the gauntlet, though, is of course the messgae inherent in his title. That whole 1960s vision of those great Ford Foundation grants, the philanthropic mission of the MacNeil Lowrys, the model held up by the original Guthrie--all of it came to naught. Provocative, eh?

That dream is dead. The theaters endure, but the repertory companies they stood for have been long disbanded. When regional theaters need artists today, they outsource: They ship the actors, designers, and directors in from New York and slam them together to make the show. To use a sports analogy, theaters have gone from a local league with players you knew intimately to a different lineup for every game, made of players you'll never see again, coached by a stranger, on a field you have no connection to.

Not everyone lost out with the removal of artists from the premises. Arts administrators flourished as the increasingly complex corporate infrastructure grew. Literary departments have blossomed over the last few decades, despite massive declines in the production of new work. Marketing and fundraising departments in regional theaters have grown hugely, replacing the artists who once worked there, raising millions of dollars from audiences that are growing smaller, older, and wealthier. It's not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don't want to actually make any theater.

Gee, Blogs DO Matter? Chicago, at least. According to TOC's Chris Piatt, writing in the local PerformInk:

this [2007] was the year blogs made their presence known in our community, and all but devoured the collective consciousness of Chicago theatre.

In the first two years of Time Out, our weeks revolved around a tough production schedule and keeping up with our competitors’ news cycles. Whom did they feature this week, and did they do it better than we did? What did they think of the new Goodman show, and did they say it more intelligently than we did? In short, the conversation was generally about content, ideas and the currency of those ideas.

These days, though, the thoughts on most arts journalists’ minds aren’t, “What did I think of the play, and what did my colleagues think,” but rather, “What does this blogger think about me?”


The psychological grip these bloggers and their commenting minions hold on journalists can’t be underestimated. If you merely read what was printed about Chicago theatre this year, you only got the text. If you read the blogs, you also got the vital, constantly shifting subtext, postings that drilled their way into journalists’ psyches and leaked into their coverage.

I'm sure there are some in the New York scene that would say similar things. But no doubt the potential for blogs to have more reach and impact is greater in a city not dominated by Broadway and where nonprofit and/or "storefront" theatre comprises most of the advertised theatrical activity.

In New York, it would take a lot more to break through the coordinated noise of major Broadway marketing machines and communications blitzes--still the source of theatre info for the core NY theatre audience (tourists, NY Times readers, retired professionals, intellectuals with disposable income, and even impoverished show queens and obsessed Broadway fans). Which is why I can't resist a brief moment of hope in the chaos Piatt compelling describes in the Chicago theatre media: "In this weak era for journalism, in which publicity and marketing departments are accustomed to driving news coverage, this is tantamount to Dodge City circa 1873."

Yes, a revolution in the "driving of news coverage" is required for the kinds of changes wished for in the theatre on this blog and others. But I agree with Piatt (and more doomsaying blog-skeptics) that it comes with a price, and a challenge to bloggers to take som, some responsibility for promoting a civil kind of coverage that isn't just about getting inside artists and critics' heads.

I would like to think if there is any "psychological grip" of the blogs, it's in the mind of the be-gripped, not the alleged "gripper."

(Hat tip: Ratsass)

Friday, February 08, 2008

Michael Stuhlbarg's Hamlet

Stuhlbarg in his Obie-winning
Voysey performance.
At last.

The unsung Michael Stuhlbarg, one of the best classical stage actors of his generation, finally gets the role he was born to play. And since I believe he's now in his late 30's, not a moment too soon!

So kudos to Oskar Eustis at the Public for staking his flagship Shakespeare in the park production this summer on not a movie star, but just a damn good actor ready to play the role.

Stuhlbarg has certainly gotten his due a little more of late--thanks to winning turns in The Pillowman and The Voysey Inheritance, where his tour de force performance anchored that whole wonderful production.

I myself have been a Stuhlbarg fan since his Richard II at the Public back in '94, when he was just 22 or 23, just out of Juilliard. Even then, I knew here was that rare actor with a natural poetic gift and unassailable craft that could deliver a memorable Dane.

So this is one I will gladly camp out for. Luckily, though, the lines will be short since he ain't been much on the TV.

Oh, and they're bringing back last summer Diane Paulus Hair revival as a full production for the 2nd Delacorte show.

POSTCRIPT: My later review of the Hamlet is here.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

And the Little Dog [redacted]

Who would have thought it, but a Douglas Carter Beane play has generated controversy!

In Chicago, the gay troupe About Face for some reason nixed the called-for nudity in a key scene. And somehow didn't tell Beane before inviting him to opening night.

Well they had told him--and he said no. But then they did it anyway.

His response?

Beane attended the Chicago production's Jan. 16 opening performance and found that a nude scene he said is important to the plot had been altered (the actors remain in their underwear) and that lines were slightly changed to accommodate the trim, the author told


Beane said the theatre had made the request to cut the nudity as early as Jan. 7, but the playwright said no at the time. Nevertheless, Rosen went ahead and changed it.

The playwright addressed his concerns at intermission Jan. 16 and said he was told that the nudity would be added back into the production at the next performance.


Beane said the nude scene is important to the play — and that there are later dialogue references to it. "It's the shock of two characters who have been denying that they're gay undeniably in a moment of homosexuality," Beane told

They did come to some settlement over allowing the show to go on as is, as long as director/ Artitistic Director Eric Rosen does some penance: confessing his sins openly to the press. (And thereby providing a distancing disclaimer for Beane.)

Kudos to Playbill's Kenneth Jones for getting the dirt on this story.

But I'm still left asking the question: a small, openly gay theatre, in Chicago, felt it necessary to "PG" a nude scene in an openly gay play???

Rosen's official rationale--that he couldn't change the decision now because nudity wasn't specified in the auditions as per AEA rules--seems a little lame. Unless it hints at some truer reason, like their star actor wasn't up to it?

Attention Chicago bloggers: anyone know what's up?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

REVIEW: Fabrik

photos: Nordland Visual Theater

In the Voice today, my review of Fabrik, a remarkable piece of puppet theatre by the Wakka Wakka group, who'd I never seen before. Their puppetry is more Jim Henson than Balinese or Bunraku, but a wonderful display of the artform nonetheless.

Banned in the AEA

The sad, trashy, and very, very funny saga of Mr. & Mrs. Randy Quaid v "Lone Star Love" (now the most famous new musical no one saw?) continues.

In response to complaints of various outlandish bits of offensive behavior, he's been banned from Equity!

Too bad, good actor. But, hey, I wouldn't want to be on stage with him after this...

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Self-Promotion Day

Turns out Time Out Chicago has done a round-up similar to TONY's a couple of months ago on the "everyone's a critic" nature of blogging. I like theatre editor Christopher Piatt's hailing of the nationwide theatre blogging phenomenon (in, alas, a web-only theatre perspective) as closing the gap between theatre cities and increasing national awareness of what we're all doing.

I also thoroughly approve of his assessment of one Playgoer as "the dean of New York Bloggers." Man, I remember when we called Terry Teachout that, then George Hunka. I wish we had some kind of initiation ceremony, a passing of the torch--or the mouse? That would be cool.

When my term of office is up, I will gladly pass my title down to the most worthy. Or the highest bidder.

The feature also includes some links and profiles to valuable Chicago theatre bloggers, like Rob Kozlowski and a list of lesser known Windy City muckrakers. (The essential Don Hall is covered in the web-only feature.)

In other news about me... Isaac Butler and myself, believe it or not, were interviewed for Hong Kong radio! Roving New York correspondent Neil Chase reached out to us to comment for the world on the Broadway and non-commercial scenes. A two-parter!

Why do I get the feeling touist ticket sales from Hong Kong just dipped?

Monday, February 04, 2008

"The arts have always had a difficult time competing with hospitals and diseases''

For private $, that is.

If anyone still doubts a recession is immanent, it sure ain't arts orgs. Bloomberg's Patrick Cole tells how companies are adjusting: mainly by asking for those yearly checks early, like now.

After all, competition of philanthropy dollars has always been stiff, and now gets stiffer:

Donations to the arts trail gifts to religious groups and educational and health-care institutions. Arts groups fear the pain will be worse in a recession. According to the latest figures by Giving USA Foundation, a research program of the Giving Institute, religious groups received the most donations in 2006, $96.8 billion, while arts and culture got $12.5 billion.

"The arts have always had a difficult time competing with hospitals and diseases,'' said Jane Robinson, president of the board of the Florida Grand Opera, based in Miami. "Our biggest donors will not make a change. It's the middle-of-the-road donor who has to decide how to cut back.''

Ah the wisdom of the free marketplace. Who needs government subsidy when the invisible hand will always put resources where they belong.

Like churches.

$96. 8 billion compared to $12.5??? And here I was thinking the selling of indulgences went out in the 16th century.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Cellphone Foolery

At "The Pillowman" a few seasons back, just as Jeff Goldblum was fixing to shoot Billy Crudup, there came - from front row, center - the unmistakable strains of "The Mexican Hat Dance."

The actors froze. Several agonizing repetitions later, the cellphone silenced and the action resumed.

Barbara Hoffman in the NY Post surveys the "shhh" announcements of various shows. Such as:

Jim Harker, production stage manager of "A Bronx Tale," where "very, very few" ringtones have interrupted Chazz Palminteri's intermission-free reverie about the 'hood.

Maybe it's because violators are threatened with a baseball bat beforehand.

Or maybe it's because the average audience member left at A Bronx Tale averages 106 years old.

Question: when house managers and stage managers have been turned into it time to consider the death of audience silence in the theatre? The kind of play that audiences watch in the dark in enforced silence--with the reverence due to a work of art, as opposed to the communal enjoyment of a public spectacle--has only been around 150 years or so. A blip--an anomalous one at that--in the arc of theatre history.

That said, I too have wondered--who is it out there that, when their friends go to a play, waits until exactly about 10:45pm to call them at exactly the most climactic silent pause of the evening?

And why does the offending ringtone have to so often be Mexican Hatdance?

Best Theatre-Related Headline of the Day


Okay so it's about Eva Longoria.

Gotta hand it to the Post.