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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Index of Play Reviews

Play Reviews on The Playgoer 
Links to all my reviews posted on this blog, mostly between 2005-2009

The Good Person of Szechwan The first incarnation of Lear deBessonet's production of Brecht's classic, starring Taylor Mac. At La MaMa.

Clive Ethan Hawke's adaptation of Brecht's Baal.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Broadway revival starring Scarlett Johansson, Benjamin Walker,  Ciarán Hinds.

Passion Play NYC premiere of Sarah Ruhl's epic theatrical history of the passion play.

Paradise Lost Daniel Fish's bold re-imagining of a forgotten Clifford Odets Depression-era drama. (At A.R.T., Cambridge MA)
Oleanna Broadway revival of the Mamet play starring Bill Pullman and Julia Styles.

Brighton Beach Memoirs Broadway revival of the Neil Simon play, directed by David Cromer, starring Laurie Metcalf.
Othello Peter Sellars directs Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago with members of the LABrynth theatre company.
Aftermath Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's documentary/verbatim drama about Iraqi refugees. (At New York Theatre Workshop)

November David Mamet's Broadway-premiere Washington satire, starring Nathan Lane, Laurie Metcalf and Dylan Baker.

Hamlet Oskar Eustis directs Michael Stuhlbarg at Delacorte Theatre, Central Park.

Stretch: A Fantasia (New Georges, 2008) Interesting play by New Georges AD Susan Bernfield about Rose Mary Woods, one of Watergate's funniest supporting players.

Rapunzel Touring production from UK's Kneehigh company, at New Victory Theatre.

Church by Young Jean Lee, performed at Public Theatre's 2008 Under the Radar festival.
Terminus Irish play by Mark O'Rowe, also at Under the Radar 2008
Oh, the Humanity, and other exclamations  Evening of one-acts by Will Eno, at Flea Theatre.

Jerry Springer, The Opera US premiere of the controversial British-born (but American-written) musical. (At Bailiwick Theater, Chicago.)

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny John Doyle's staging of the Brecht/Weill opera at LA Opera, Los Angeles, starring Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone.

Have You Seen Steve Steven A quirky, appealing script from Ann Marie Healy (presented by the 13P playwrights' collective) in a terrific staging by Anne Kauffman and a standout performance by Matthew Maher.

Gatz A pre-New York staging of Elevator Repair Service's epic verbatim staging of The Great Gatsby. (At Philadelphia Festival of the Arts)

Gypsy Pre-Broadway staging at NY City Center Encores of Patti LuPone in the classic musical.

Grey Gardens The Broadway musical by Scott Frankel, Michael Korie, and Doug Wright based on the famous Maysles Brothers documentary. Starring Christine Ebersole.

Coram Boy Broadway transfer from London of the National Theatre's music-drama about the genesis of Handel's "Messiah."

Journey's End  Broadway revival of R.C. Sherriff's beautiful WWI drama following one doomed British army squadron. Starring Hugh Dancy, Jefferson Mays, and Boyd Gaines.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs  Fine revival of the William Inge play by Transport Group, directed by Jack Cummings. Starring Donna Lynne Champlin and Michele Pawk.

Dying City The New York premiere of Christopher Shinn's post-9/11 play, directed by James Macdonald, starring Pablo Schreiber and Rachel Brooksher. At Lincoln Center Theatre.

The Fever Wallace Shawn revives his haunting monologue in a revival by Scott Elliott for The New Group. (With guest appearances by Tom Stoppard and Mike Nichols!)

The Thugs by Adam Bock, directed by Anne Kauffman. At Soho Rep.
The Internationalist by Anne Washburn, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. At Vineyard Theatre.

My Name is Rachel Corrie The controversial London play about an American pro-Palestinian activist finally opens in New York at the Minetta Lane Theatre.

Shaw Festival 2006 A visit to Canada's Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Day 1: Shaw's Too True to be Good 
Day 2: Ibsen's Rosmersholm

The Birthday Party Emily Mann directs Pinter's early masterpiece, starring Allan Corduner. (At McCarter Theatre, NJ.)

Mother Courage Meryl Streep & George C. Wolfe do Brecht in Central Park.

No Child... Nilaja Sun's one-woman show about her experiences teaching theatre in the NYC public school system.

Pig Farm Greg Kotis' farce on a family farm. Starring Dennis O'Hare & Katie Finneran, directed by John Rando. (At Roundabout Theatre Company.)

Susan & God Mint Theatre rediscovers an odd but intriguing 1937 dramedy by Rachel Crothers.

Macbeth Moises Kaufman directs Liev Schreiber & Jennifer Ehle for the Public's Shakespeare in the Park.

King Lear A memorable performance by Alvin Epstein in an intimate staging at La MaMa.

The Threepenny Opera Scott Elliott's highly idiosyncratic of the Brecht-Weill classic, starring Alan Cumming & Cyndi Lauper. On Broadway, produced by Roundabout Theatre Company.

The History Boys Alan Bennett's prep-school dramedy, directed by Nicholas Hytner, starring Richard Griffiths & James Corden. (Broadway transfer from UK National Theatre) 

Red Light Winter Adam Rapp's acclaimed three-hander (though not acclaimed by me!) 

Awake and Sing! Bartlett Sher's landmark revival of the Odets classic, presented on Broadway by Lincoln Center Theatre. Featuring stellar cast with Mark Ruffalo, Ben Gazzara, Zoe Wanamaker, Pablo Schrieber, and Lauren Ambrose.

Peer Gynt Robert Wilson directs Ibsen's fantasy-epic at BAM. In the original Norwegian!

Entertaining Mr. Sloane Alec Baldwin & Jan Maxwell star in Joe Orton's comedy. At Roundabout Theatre Company.

Hedda Gabler Cate Blanchett's US stage debut in the Ibsen tragedy. Australian production from Sydney Theatre Company at BAM, also featuring Hugo Weaving. (Plus companion review of Off Broadway staging of Ingmar Bergman's Doll's House abridgment "Nora.")

Heddatron Elizabeth Meriwether's postmodern Ibsen riff. Directed by Alex Timbers for his Freres Corbusier company. At HERE Arts Center.

San Francisco Reviews
Mystery Plays by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa at SF Playhouse.
Nero: Another Golden Rome World Premiere of Duncan Sheik & Steven Sater's follow-up to Spring Awakening that never came to New York. At San Francisco's Magic Theatre.

Mr. Marmalade Early play by Noah Haidle, starring Michael C. Hall. At Roundabout Theatre Company.

Measure for Measure Mark Rylance leads his Shakespeare's Globe company in an all-male production at St Ann's Warehouse.
A Touch of the Poet Gabriel Byrne stars in O'Neill's challenging late drama. On Broadway via Roundabout Theatre Company.

Miss Witherspoon Kristen Nielsen stars in NYC premiere of Christopher Durang comedy at Playwrights Horizons.

Super Vision The multi-media Builders Association explores identity theft. (At BAM.)

Hamlet Michael Cumpsty stars in Brian Kulick's production for Classic Stage Company.

Sweeney Todd The now-iconic John Doyle restaging of Sondheim's operatic melodrama, in its Broadway premiere. Starring Michael Cerveris & Patti LuPone.

Reviews from Shaw Festival 2005 (Niagara-on-the-Lake. Ontario)

Reviews from Lincoln Center Festival 2005
Modern Noh Plays Japanese auteur Yukio Ninagawa's stunning stagings of two of Mishima's "Modern Noh Plays."
Arlecchino Piccolo Teatro di Milano remounts Georgio Strehler's classic Commedia-style staging of Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters
Le Dernier Caravanserail Ariane Mnouchkine's Théâtre du Soleil performs their epic two-part devised work based on the travails of modern refugees across the globe.

Twelfth Night by the Anglo-American Aqulia Theatre Company.

Glengarry Glenn Ross Broadway revival with all-star cast led by Liev Schreiber & Alan Alda, directed by Joe Mantello.

Orson's Shadow Steppenwolf Theatre presents Austin Pendleton's backstage comedy about the true story of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier's unlikely 1960 collaboration on Ionesco's Rhinoceros. Off Broadway at Barrow Street Theatre.

Border/Clash Monologue by spoken-word artist Staceyann Chin about cross-cultural backgrounds, queer identity, and hip hop poetry. At Culture Project.

The Skin Game Mint Theatre revives John Galsworthy's 1920 drama of aristocracy versus bourgeois climbers in the English countryside.

Hecuba Vanessa Redgrave headlines a new Tony Harrison modernized translation of Euripides' war tragedy. At BAM.

The Cherry Orchard Refreshingly comedic take on Chekhov by the Atlantic Theatre Company, in a new script by Tom Donaghy, featuring Alvin Epstein as Firs.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Broadway revival with Kathleen Turner, Bill Irwin, David Harbour and Mirielle Enos.

Score Anne Bogart directs Tom Nelis in a solo performance as Leonard Bernstein in a devised work taken from the composer/conductor's own words. At New York Theatre Workshop.

The Maids Jean Genet's classic revived by Jean Cocteau Repertory.

Spamalot The Broadway smash musicalization of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, written by Eric Idle & directed by Mike Nichols. Starring Tim Curry, Hank Azaria and David Hyde Pierce. (Also see my return one year later to review the replacement cast, headed by Simon Russell Beale)

The Pillowman Broadway premiere of Martin McDonagh's dystopian black comedy. Starring Billy Crudup, Jeff Goldblum, Željko Ivanek, and Michael Stuhlbarg.

A Streetcar Named Desire Famously misguided revival with Natasha Richardson as Blanche and John C. Reilly(!) as Stanley. At Roundabout Theatre Company.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Whatever Happened to Playgoer?

Forgive me Blogger, for I have sinned. It has been two years since my last post.

Actually I feel compelled to finally add something since the sight of that random April 2013 entry on the home page just made this seem like Playgoer suddenly vaporized without wrapping things up. (Dead Blog Pinging?) So here's an attempt...

For the last two years I've been teaching full time, so that has been my main focus. But I have still published the occasional article or essay. Such as...

Two book reviews for American Theatre magazine of major new publications on that iconic team of Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan. First, the new collection of Kazan letters (hilarious), and, second, the new John Lahr Tennessee Williams biography (massively depressing).

Also, the new augustly titled Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies includes my essay on Sondheim's last musical (to date, that is), Road Show--yes, a.k.a Bounce, a.k.a. Wise Guys, a.k.a. never-made-it-to-Broadway and thus forgotten. But I grew quite fond of this dark chamber musical in the course of writing my chapter, so I recommend a second look at the show, if not a first!

Hmmm, so what else has been going on.... Oh yeah, I had a baby.  Or my wife did. So, yeah, it's been that kind of two-year gap.

It would be nice one day to resume blogging. Then again, I hear blogging is dead. (So 2006!) So we'll see.

(Meanwhile, miraculously, theatre is still alive.)

The Playgoer archive is here to stay, unless Google shuts me down for inactivity. So hopefully people will still happen upon old rants and comment-wars from the past. Ah, good times....

Funny how when I started Playgoer in May, 2005, I figured I was just typing into a void. And now, ten years later, I'm pretty sure I am once again. But, hey, if you're out there, go ahead and comment! Especially if you've got any advice on what to do with this enterprise. Or if you've got a writing gig for me! (Did I mention I have a child to support now?)

Peace be upon you all, and happy playgoing!

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Still Shrinking American Stage

Terry Teachout reflects on the latest TCG list of Top Ten Plays Produced in American nonprofit theatres:

it's easy to forget that the latter-day dominance of the small-cast play is a fairly recent development in theatrical history. Large casts used to be the rule, not the exception. Indeed, most of the best-known American plays of the 20th century called for performing forces that would now be seen by penny-pinching producers as insanely extravagant. Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire," for instance, was written for a cast of 12, while Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" requires 13 actors, eight men and five women. As for Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," it's usually performed by some two dozen actors, and the original 1938 Broadway production fielded a cast of 51. Might we have lost something by forcing contemporary playwrights to work on a smaller canvas?

Of course, we wouldn't have to "force" them if the money were there to mount such works. Playwrights are chomping at the bit, I assure you!

(By the way... fifty-one people in Our Town? Wow.)

FYI, here is that most recent Top 10 list, an aggregation of season schedules across the country for 2012-2013:

Good People (17) [# of productions nationwide]

Clybourne Park (15)

The Whipping Man (14)  [cast size: 3]

Next to Normal (13)

The Mountaintop (12) [cast size: 2]

Red (11) [cast size: 2]

Time Stands Still (10)  [cast size: 4]

Other Desert Cities (10)

The Motherfucker with the Hat (9)

A Raisin in the Sun (8)

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (8)

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

REVIEW: Henry IV, Pt 1

Sorry no blogging this past weekend. But I did write a mini-review of the Pearl's Henry IV for Time Out. (Warning: contains spoilers from 1597!)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

REVIEW: The Good Person of Szechwan

Brecht's Epic He/She: Taylor Mac as Shin Te and Shui Ta.

Taylor Mac is giving the performance of the year down at La MaMa in The Good Person of Szechwan. And unfortunately most of you will not get to see it. This low-budget revival of the Brecht classic (co-produced by La MaMa and the Foundry Theatre) has sold out its one-month run in its 199-seat house and will probably have difficulty extending or "moving" any time soon due to Showcase Code restrictions. (Which I assume was how this was produced* [*update: see comments section for more].) Oh well. Maybe with enough resources and flexibility from Equity, Foundry and La MaMa will some day be able to share with the public this rare American Brecht staging that will not leave you wondering why anyone ever made a fuss about Brecht in the first place.

Until then, I'll do my best to describe what's so special here, starting with Lear deBessonet--a barely-30 director who has been consistently working around the edges of the downtown and nonprofit scenes for at least five years now. I first became aware of her in her first Brecht outing, Saint Joan of the Stockyards at PS122 in 2007. There, too, on a shoestring budget and Showcase Code cast, deBessonet forged ahead with her eccentric but crystal clear vision of a difficult play. What delighted me was not only that someone had successfully resurrected this totally forgotten (and admittedly odd) early Brecht gem, but had also infused it with a totally genuine contemporary American pop sensibility without flinching from the play's politics at all. The key was Kristen Sieh's winning performance of Joan as an honest-to-God happy Christian, an interpretation amplified by a live bluegrass score which situated that religiosity in a recognizable and playable down-home context.

DeBessonet--who has spoken about the challenges of bringing good-faith spirituality into our atheistic theatre culture--may have miffed some Brecht purists for not treating Joan's preaching with snyde sarcasm. But her concept worked because Brecht--while no believer--was himself clearly fascinated with religion, which is why he wrote so much about it in his plays. Even a Marxist must admit and contend with the power of that "opiate of the masses." In Brecht's work--and especially in Szechwan--religion is often the countervailing force to capitalism, just an ultimately ineffectual one. In Sieh's performance, Joan's likability and infectious optimism made her tragic failure at the end all the more heartbreaking.

Szechwan may be a more well known and frequently produced play than Joan. But that doesn't mean it's any easier to pull off. At least in most performances I've seen. This relatively late Brecht drama (as well as the similar, almost interchangeably produced Caucasian Chalk Circle) always comes off in performance as stiff, grey, and interminable "epic theatre" that occasionally tries (with great labor) to be fun. Despite the lively elements in its story, the sheer length and wordiness of most translations--combined with a prevailing tendency to play such a "classic" with the solemnity of Shakespeare--often weighs down what is, at heart, a simple fable, a folk take. What this production does that I haven't seen anyone else do, is strip away a lot of the dead weight (even efficiently cutting many walk-on characters) and restore the folk tale element--even down to childrens-theatre tiny cardboard houses that populate Matt Saunders' outwardly makeshift set. The show plays here with the energy of a commedia farce--further enabled by an almost bare stage of planks, quick-change costumes, and lots of direct audience address (and solicitation). I knew this production had a chance when the play's quasi-narrator, the often-annoying water-boy, Wang, delivered his opening monologue entering down the aisle...and was funny!  Actor David Turner--one of the many eccentric players DeBessonet has populated the cast with--deserves much credit for setting and sustaining the joyous yet caustic tone of the evening.

Speaking of tone, much of it is also supplied by yet another contemporary on-stage band DeBessonet has recruited, The Lisps. Their eclectic score ranges from rockabilly to Motown to garage-rock, constantly bringing the story into the now, even while DeBessonet and her designers always pay winking homage to the story's early-industrial Chinese setting. (Much fun is had throughout with scattered red petals.) As in her Saint Joan, DeBessonet's use of local dive-bar bands reconnects with the cabaret impulse in Brecht's use of music. It helps here that the Lisps' specialty seems to be percussion, used to consistently jarring, stirring, dare I say even "alienating" effect.

But let's get back to Taylor Mac. In case you didn't know, casting a man in the starring role of Shen Tei is not the norm. Shin Tei is a young prostitute who begins almost as a deliberately "hooker with a heart of gold" cliche. She is also one of the great female roles in modern European theatre. But since she spends a good third of the play in the guise of her invented alter-ego, "Mr. Shui Ta," one can see the temptation to cast such a gender-bending male performer as Mac (who has made a career downtown and in cabaret exploring gender and sexual identities in his own devised pieces.) The choice brings up some of the same issues faced when dealing with how all those Shakespearean "breeches parts" (Rosalind, Viola) were all written for boys playing women playing boys! Recent all-male Shakespeare productions (especially by English troupes Cheek by Jowl, Propeller, and The Globe) have reminded us of some of the lost dynamics built into those plays' original casting. (For instance, the men who interact with Rosalind as "Ganymede" or Viola as "Cesario" don't seem like gullible idiots any more.)

Brecht of course did not write Shen Tei for a man or boy, or a queer/trans icon like Mac. But without taking anything away from the fine actresses who have played the role (I still remember Cherry Jones at A.R.T. in 1987!), something special here happens when Mr. Shui Ta appears on the scene. "He" becomes very convincing!  Bursting onto the stage with an almost goosestep authority to a martial drumbeat, dressed as a classic Weimar-era pinstriped and bowler-hat capitalist, Mac makes quite a chilling entrance.

Or should I say, Shen Tei does. Because one thing this casting "trick" reveals is how good an actress Shen Tei has to be to pull this "act" off. (She has to invent Shui Ta to be the ruthless "bad cop" businessman to her more charitable "good cop" storekeeper when she can no longer do good works without going broke.) Obviously it doesn't take only a male actor to play a male convincingly. But rarely have I seen an actress cast in the role who can. (As a female "lead," Shin Te is often lazily cast with either a classic ingenue or a Shavian/Ibsenite "strong woman" who can get one side of the character but not the other.)

Then again, the issue isn't really being "convincing" in any naturalistic sense. Because Brecht deliberately set up this built-in "play acting" in his story in order to model his acting ideals--which called for the performer to both credibly inhabit and comment upon the character simultaneously. (Brecht wants us to see Shin Tei  "performing" her idea of "The Businessman.") Taylor Mac does this brilliantly not because he is a man, but because he is a powerful and (in the best sense of the word) self-aware performer. We see the soul-crushing effort it takes Shen Tei to become this monster. (She doesn't do it as just a lark.) So not only is Taylor Mac good enough to convince us he's Shin Tei; this Shin Tei turns out to be so good an actress that she can convince us she's...well, Taylor Mac!

There is a spellbinding moment towards the end of the first act where this whole Brechtian "genderfuck" comes together and fuels the argument of the play. It's during one of Shin Tei's songs. (Yes, these late Brecht plays are musicals, too. As if they weren't hard enough!) The song is the one that's sometimes translated as "The Song of Defenselessness" (I couldn't catch in this show's version) and in it she rails against the gods for leaving her to shoulder the burden of tending to the poor. But theatrically, Brecht undermines her self-pity by showing her donning Shui Ta's "mask" all the same, even while she claims she doesn't want to. What DeBessonet and Mac (and The Lisps in one of their most aggressively rocking selections) do with these few instructions takes the idea to the hilt. Mac, beginning as Shen Tei, strips off her feminine garments and--all the while singing at full voice at breathtaking speed--begins to don the black pinstriped suit and mustachioed visage of her alter-ego and self-inflicted nemesis. When the song climaxes, the transformation is complete--Shen Tei has become Shui Ta right before our eyes, and not just in clothes. Mac lands immediately in the next scene--in full Shui Ta mode--without even a pause for applause.

Such transformation of character before our eyes was a favorite device of Brecht's. In Galileo we watch the sensible priest who once supported the scientist turn against him in the course of one scene--a scene in which he is enrobed as the new Pope. ("The clothes make the man" must have been a favorite expression of Bert's.) One of Brecht's many challenges to "Aristotelian" conventions was his rejection of "character" as a stable entity. While most playwrights have striven to "develop" characters who are "consistent," even when they are challenged by a cruel world, Brecht saw mankind as utterly mutable given the circumstances. (Marxism, after all, is premised on the primacy of material circumstances in shaping all aspects of our lives.) Hence, in this story, we can't just easily excuse Shen Tei for doing the cruel things she does as Shui Ta. She is changed by the process. Struggle though she does, she has learned to accept "the lesser evil." Her tragedy is not that of a John Proctor, going to the gallows with his "dignity" intact, the way so few of us do in real life. No, like most of us poor souls, she does what she needs to do to survive, no matter how shitty she feels about it.

I'll stop there. Suffice it to say that DeBessonet and Mac's work here did much to clarify this conflict in the play. And "clarify" is the apt word here. Rarely have I seen such a lucid, uncluttered, streamlined staging of one of the Brecht epic tragedies. Think how hard it is to pull off Mother Courage, too. I look forward to DeBessonet scaling that mountain in the near future--perhaps starring the indomitable Lisa Kron, who also appears here, hilariously, in two supporting roles. (Shen Tei's mother-in-law, let's just say, arrives in Sezchwan by way of the L.I.E.) After the sententious "Mother Meryl" in the Park a while back, I would welcome this director's eclectic, irreverent, yet thoroughly text-grounded "Brecht 2.0" remix.

(PS. You can see Mac give an in-studio approximation of his moving closing speech as Shin Tei in the Times' "In Performance" video series.)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Playgoer's Rules of Playgoing

You thought attending the theatre was entertainment? It's hard work! But if you abide by the following proscriptions, you will make playgoing pleasanter for you and all around you.

First, dinner.  Always, always eat near the theatre.  I mean, one-block-radius near. There is no more stressful 15 minutes for the serious theatregoer than the time between realizing it's 7:45 and you haven't gotten your check yet and that moment when you are finally, safely ushered to that seat. It's challenging enough to accomplish this feat when you're down the block. But when you have to negotiate five blocks of heavy Time Square pedestrian traffic? Worse, imagine the poor soul who has gotten fleeced into dinner uptown?  You might as well have just sold those tickets on StubHub, pal.

I know this isn't going to make theatre any more appealing to those who already see it as a chore, but...Going to the theatre is in many ways like air travel. Getting there is often the hardest part (especially in a cab), but you have to get there on time. It will take off without you. And , unlike the movies, you can't just wait around for the next show. (Not without paying a pretty price, at least. Neither business is in the habit of giving refunds just because you were late.)

The Dinner Rule plus the Airport Rule together lead to a third rule: do whatever you can to have the tickets--your "boarding pass"--in your hand before dinner. Aside from getting them mailed to you--worth the fee--today you can sometimes even print them at home (yes, like the boarding pass). Otherwise, go pick them up from the box office before dinner. Of course, in order to do that you need to be eating nearby. See Rule 1.

Another (unfortunate) comparison to airplanes is the claustrophobic seating. Both spaces try to pack as many bodies into their finite square footage as possible. So therefore: no carry-on luggage, please. You'll have room on your lap for a coat and/or a purse, but not much else. (And, worse than a plane, no overhead.) If you are unavoidably stuck with a messenger bag, backpack, or shopping bag... underneath the seat! Believe me, there is room under there. (You'll just have trouble standing up because the seat won't flip up.) This is not just to be considerate to your neighbors, who may want to pass you from time to time. This is for your own good. You don't want to sit through a three-hour play submerged in enough gear for a hiking party. Especially if that includes bags that crinkle or crackle. Paper or plastic? Neither!

Obviously this means no big shopping sprees immediately pre-theatre. This may be tough for tourists who go from one "event" to another and don't see the inside of their hotel rooms till midnight. But, tough. Plan the shopping for another day. This is theatre, dammit! (Or see a matinee.)

Yes, coatcheck rooms should theoretically solve this problem. But, seriously, when was the last time you checked something at the theatre?  I gather Broadway houses still have them. But can you imagine the lines?  Still, if they're an option, go ahead and use them. Just be prepared to be the first one there (super-early) and the last one out.

Speaking of "baggage" you tow to the seat... This may surprise you, but there is no rule that you must hold your Playbill in your hand throughout the performance. In fact, please don't. By all means look at it before curtain, but once the show starts, put it away. If you have a bag, it goes in there.  Otherwise your lap--or even the floor!--will do fine. You see, if you hold onto it, the greater the chance you will...well, do something with it. You might drop it. (Which in some spaces makes some noise.) You might start flipping through it, consciously or not. (More noise.) And, worst of all, god forbid, you might start reading it. During the performance. Yeah. Not cool.

Food and beverage: It used to just not be allowed. But now many theatres are so dependent on "concessions" so of course, you may bring that $6 coke to your seat, sir/madam! So we need some ground rules. First, to the theatres: no ice, dudes! I mean, really. Also, please do not sell Peanut M & M's, Jaw Breakers, or any other candy that requires severe mastication. (And don't sell them in little cardboard boxes in which the stray Goobers rattle around!) But even when it comes to smuggling in, audiences need to be careful, too. Many are in the habit of toting plastic water bottles without a second thought, for example. But then they spend the whole performance squeezing that plastic every time they go for a sip. Glass or aluminum may be heavier, but they're quieter.

As for food, there are some foods that are smuggle-appropriate. Obviously, the theatre is not the place to break out your doggie bag of ribs, lo mein, or osso buco.  One of my go-to, no-time-for-dinner fallbacks is the simple bagel and cream cheese. That's just cream cheese, no extras. You can grab one at any deli near the theatre (for just two or three bucks, mind you), wrapped in simple cellophane. Throw out the paper bag and stick in your tote or coat pocket. It's the perfect stealth-sandwich because it's doesn't fall apart, doesn't crunch (no toasting on the bagel) , and you can quietly tear little bites off with your hand if you must sneak a munch. Better yet, eat half just before curtain and half at intermission.

Drinks? Personally I'm a coffee drinker so to maintain my caffeine levels (and who can get through some of today's shows without caffeine?) I like to carry in my bag one little Starbucks "Doubleshot" espresso can. (Or the Illy version.) If you buy it just before the show (many delis now carry this, too) and stash it in your bag or pocket, it will stay reasonably chilled through intermission, when you'll need it. And you can drink it down in two or three sips, so you won't have to worry about storing an open can. (This solves a major problem of intermission "house coffee"--it takes you forever to wait in line to get a cup, then it's too hot to drink, then intermission is over before you've had a sip. And then they don't even let you take it to the seat!  Yes, I'm looking at you BAM...)

Speaking of caffeine, an even better "delivery system" is chocolate espresso beans. I mean, it's coffee and chocolate! I often carry a small pouch around to any "marathon" performances. (It's a long day's journey into night indeed without them, let me tell you...) Many Starbucks have these, too.  But if you're a real Playgoer and you know you'll need a steady supply, go to Trader Joe's and bring home the bulk size tub, from which you can then routinely transfer a handful to a plastic baggie.  How many should you take? People will respond differently to the caffeine kick, but I try not to have more than five at a time.  So having a dozen or so regularly on you (per person, of course) should do you.

Finally, we come to the really delicate subject. Bathroom breaks. It is my sworn goal never to have to use a theatre bathroom. (In fact, it is my goal never to leave the seat once seated, but that's only for diehards.) If you can hold it in, going after the show is a much better proposition. Because during pre-curtain or intermission, there will always be a line. It will always be small. You will never have time. And I'm not just talking about the Ladies', though that is always exponentially worse, and facilities may be even more off-putting. (Especially at many of our Off-Off venues.)

Naturally, the worst scenario is having to go during the performance when you do not have an aisle seat. So barring a medical or ageing condition, this you really want to avoid. (And if that's your condition, get that aisle seat.)

So what to do? It's "Nature's Call" after all, you say. Well each man or woman knows his or her own bladder best. But at the risk of over-sharing, here's my formula: If you're attending an evening show, don't drink any beverage after lunch. Then make sure to relieve yourself just before dinner. (Definitely before you take even a sip of water at the restaurant.) Then, hopefully, you should be good till 10 or 11pm.

(Ah, isn't this what a theatre blog is for? Jill Dolan may be alright, but, dammit, if this kind of insight does not deserve a George Jean Nathan Award, what does!)

I haven't even touched on the numerous noise-offenses we encounter every night from our fellow audiences. The talkers. The toe-tappers. The "repeaters" (reflexively echoing every joke that pleases one). The "breathers" (heavy, that is). The sleepers and snorers (see "caffeine," above). And, then, my favorite, the clothes-fondlers. Often men in wide corduroy who love the feeling of it through their fingers a little too much. Also beware of acrylic coats or leather pants.

One special circle of hell is reserved for not just talkers but that subset who keep talking after the curtain has risen but before any dialogue begins. So hear me now: just because no one on stage is speaking yet does not mean the play hasn't started.  Sometimes that "moving around" the actors do is important, too.

You may have noticed I have not even mentioned cell phones yet. Need I? It's 2013 now. I say if you still haven't learned by now how to turn it off, how to keep it off, how to make sure it doesn't ring again when you have a voice mail, how to not have an excruciatingly poor-taste ring for when it does go off...then we'll just have to take it away from you. That's right. There's no Second Amendment in this case. License and register them, I say, with full background checks. Because in the theatre, my friends, they are lethal weapons.

I know some may say: Playgoer, you are so bourgeois. These codes of social behavior to keep us tethered to our seats, in the dark, only looking forward, uncommunicative with our fellow spectators are, in fact, only a relatively recent trend historically to deaden the live-performance experience, all in the name of some unattainable and dubious standard of "realism." Why not liberate the audience, let us behave like the social creatures we are--such as at sporting events or rock concerts, where we truly participate and respond to the action.

To which I say: yes, these are entirely socially constructed norms of behavior, specific to Western middle-class realist aesthetics and are, indeed, doomed to die out when our techno-indulgent marketplace finally bans silence and long attention spans from our culture forever.

But until then? While we're still paying exorbitant amounts to hear what Scarlet Johansson is saying on stage? Please keep your cell phones off and your Playbills on the floor. Dammit.

(What would you add to The Rules?)

Sunday, February 10, 2013


If I told you that Ethan Hawke was enlisting playwright friend Jonathan Marc Sherman to adapt Brecht's Baal for him to star in (and direct) so he could sport a Billy Idol 'do, wheeze away at the guitar, and surround himself with scantily clad babes for an intermissionless hour and forty minutes in front of a paying audience... you'd probably say: gee, that sounds pretty indulgent.

And guess what? You'd be right!

"Clive" chewed out by the mighty bear D'Onofrio.
Photo: Sara Krulwiich, New York Times

Not much more can be said about Clive (the re-titled adaptation) that already hasn't been by the first round of scathing reviews.  But I'll just add that mere self-indulgence isn't even the biggest problem with the show. The problem is Baal. Now I'm embarrassed to admit that I have never read Baal--Brecht's first play that is rarely if ever produced and/or studied today. But I do know enough to know that it's not the kind of work we now expect from Brecht. This is Brecht the angry teenager--channeling German late-romantic decadence and nihilism. (The deliberately schematic expressionistic narrative charts the slow decline and assorted crimes of a hedonistic rebel poet.) So all it would have going for it is really the poetry. Poetry, of course, is hard enough to fulfill in translation. But am I right to be extra dubious about the ability of Mr. Sherman (still known chiefly as the author of that acting school staple Women and Wallace) to match the poetry of a young Bertolt Brecht?  (Especially when Sherman admits in the program to adapting the original German text via Google Translate!)

Updating Baal, as Clive does, to the Rent-era1990s might have seemed to Hawke and Sherman (and New Group A.D. Scott Elliott who has produced it) the most sensible thing to do, this choice may be the project's fatal flaw, even if its only reason for being. This muddled and pretty generic picture of punk/grunge Alphabet City ennui ends up not nearly as interesting or arresting as Baal would be in its original period of Weimar Germany--which I imagine unfolding in a series of Egon Schiele images brought to life.

The only reason, I assumed, to do this kind of "update" of Baal would be as an excuse to stage a decadent rock-concert mash-up of Brecht's basic idea. I'd be ok with that. But while Clive is billed as only being "inspired" by Baal, the adaptation isn't nearly free enough to make the concept work. Plus, worst of all: the music stinks!  What there is of it, at least. Hawke does bear a properly debauched Tom Waits-style voice (or is that just Hawke's usual untrained, strained raspiness? the flu?), but he can barely get a chord out of his ever-present guitar. If "Clive" is supposed to be some magnetic rocker who packs them in at Bowery Ballroom...well let's just say you're not going to want his CD.

To end on a higher note, though, I will say I was most looking forward to Clive for the chance to see a rare stage appearance by the mighty Vincent D'Onofrio. My only disappointment he wasn't in it more. Playing the sidekick character, he seems miscast, being some 15 years older than Hawke and sporting some odd redneck accent+mustache. But when he actually does get to plant his big, big presence center stage--even for something as ridiculous as dog-whoofing--I wanted more.  Come back, Vincent, come back! Forget Ethan and even Bertolt and go back to Sam Shepard where you belong!