Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Last Cargo Cult (The Public Theater)

The Last Cargo Cult
December 5, 2009
Mike Daisey (writer)
Jean Michele Gregory (director)

In The Last Cargo Cult, Mike Daisey attacks a simple idea—money—from several angles. In a delightfully pinko series of slices and thrusts, Daisey detaches bills from their economic value simply by using words (which are also abstractions, right?), notes that it's illegal to burn a US dollar but not the American flag, and has ushers hand out the cash he's paid by the Public then asks the audience to decide if he's earned it.

Alone onstage with his yellow legal pad—but abetted backstage by director Jean Michele Gregory and a team of designers—Daisey is simply a storyteller, but an incredibly gifted one. He's got a knack for taking his own measure through remarkably candid self-disclosure. But he's less the heir to Spalding Grey—the resemblance is only formal—than to Kurt Vonnegut. A hilarious and dyspeptic observer of the human animal, Daisey weighs with equal irony a picayune moment in his marriage to Gregory and the mob behavior of hedge fund managers during last September's TARP bailout. 

Much of Cult describes Daisey's expedition to the South Pacific, where he met a tribe that uses cell phones but not money and worships a semi-mythical American GI in the form of a volcano. But the work is vitally political too; it broaches the taboo fact that on September 12, 2008, the world's economy nearly collapsed. Despite that seismic catastrophe, Americans do not have a post-9/12 mindset. Daisey means to provide a catharsis for our economic near-death experience. His success shouldn't be measured in the cash that audiences return to him but in the paroxysms of our laughter.


The Last Cargo Cult plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street, betw. E. 4th & Astor Place), closing on December 13. Tickets?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

American Treasure (13P)

American Treasure
13P at the Paradise Factory
November 28, 2009
Julia Jarcho (playwright & director) 

Julia Jarcho has written and directed a thriller about the blood curse of American history. A postmodern plot lifts its set-up from Dashiell Hammett—a waif asks a PI to find her sister's killer—but their search through history gets well and truly weird, more Pynchon than Chandler. It's not a spoiler to reveal that the theme of American Treasure is the genocide of America's native people, or that the spirit that animates this script is, in the end, an enigma.

Or it ought to be. American Treasure is compelling stuff, but it's also proof that playwrights should rarely direct their own scripts. With its fragmentary scenes and hopscotch structure, American Treasure should hurtle along like an Indiana Jones movie, albeit one written by Stephen King. But Jarcho saps her script by double- and triple-casting the actors, maybe to save cash or maybe cuz that's modern convention. But more actors would lend the conspiracy weight; in this show, some actors need to be hiding knowledge.

Still, I don't blame the performers. Jenny Seastone Stern, at least, has an uncanny presence that fits the show's tone perfectly (after her perfs here & in The Bereaved, I can't wait to see her again). Aaron Landsman, however, gets in the script's way, and ends up looking tense and confused. He doesn't communicate the double-meanings and dramatic ironies that the dialogue's packed with. But another director could've guided him better.

All this adds up to a stiff climax, which has Jarcho busily underlining the play's message instead of playing up the riddle of history. To say that American genocide is literally unspeakable makes a good graduate thesis but it's tough theater—although the lovely set, designed by Jason Simms to look remarkably like a human diorama at the Museum of Natural History, is itself a sort of winking clue that ironies can be staged. Jarcho's script gives me the heebie-jeebies; it's worth a read. But onstage, the mystery is missed.


American Treasure plays at the Paradise Factory (64 East 4th Street, betw. Second Ave & the Bowery), closing on December 12. Tickets?

Photo credit: Rob Strong

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Or, (Women's Project)

Women's Project
November 11, 2009
Liz Duffy Adams (playwright)
Wendy McClellan (director)

The ebullient Or, (comma included) is a period drama, a sex farce, a spy thriller, a backstage comedy, even a bit of a feminist burlesque. That Or, can be so many things without spinning apart speaks to the strength of its 17th-century protagonist, Aphra Behn. The ex-spy was the first Englishwoman to make an independent living as a poet. So playwright Liz Duffy Adams dreams up a pivotal night in which Behn must compose her first play while handling two lovers (one of each sex) as well as a former contact with intel on a plot against England.

Adams plainly adores her heroine. Lucky she's got Maggie Siff as her indomitable lead. Siff's got perfect control over her pale face, strong jaw, and hard brow, which give silent expression to every thought. She's also a generous actor, listening visibly to her scene partners. Together, Adams and Siff give us a woman who is cool, intelligent, and devoted to her work—she never forgets herself even during lovemaking. As an agent too, she's a consummate playwright, appraising her contact's motivation and assessing the holes in his plot like she's his dramaturg.

The only problem is, Adams' exuberance threatens to derail her own dramaturgy. She draws a comparison between the 1660s and 1960s, but stretches it too far sometimes and finally drops it altogether. The confusion of genres means director Wendy McClellan must switch tones abruptly, and she doesn't always finesse it. But the biggest problem is that Behn doesn't actually do much except write, leaving other characters to do her dirty work. Uncharacteristically, she dithers over betraying her contact, and the plot demands she must literally sacrifice her spycraft for her art. Anyhow, Adams' strength is her dialogue: she deploys subtext deftly, exploring the 17th-century fondness for double-meaning in a lyrically modern idiom.

Adams and Siff's vivacious Behn so dominates Or, that it's easy to forget the rest of the show. A pair of actors play a dozen extra roles, complete with quick-changes—Kelly Hutchinson's turn as Nell Gwynn, a sort of 17th-century Marianne Faithful, is especially delightful. The design elements cohere beautifully, with a set and costumes just sumptuous enough, their bright colors underscored by deft lighting and adding to the high spirit. Or, is a juicy, overstuffed delight, a rococo concoction of sex, spies, and stagecraft.


Or, plays at the Women's Project (424 West 55th Street, betw. Ninth & Tenth Ave.), closing on December 13.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Americana Kamikaze (PS 122)

Americana Kamikaze
PS 122
October 28, 2009
Kenneth Collins
William Cusick (co-creators)

Americana Kamikaze (teaser) from Temporary Distortion on Vimeo.

I'm not into horror, mostly because I don't find fear too thrilling (mostly it's just stressful). But Temporary Distortion's Americana Kamikaze offers the sort of scare that I imagine others find in the genre. After a quick shock or two early on, this cutting-edge merger of stage acting and video drops the standard kit of scares. Instead, creators Kenneth Collins and William Cusick build a sort of dramatic hall of mirrors designed to unsettle the rational mind.

Collins and Cusick leave just enough traditional dramaturgy to keep the audience engaged. The plot's got several characters, and it does come to a climax. It sees a Japanese salaryman (Ryosuke Yamada) slowly losing his grip after having witnessed an uncanny attack by a succubus upon a couple in a subway station. But this straightforward description erases what's so cool about Kamikaze: its structure is shaped like an infinity sign.

The play cuts back and forth across time, and the characters relate dreams and urban legends, but there's no narrative signposts to help you orient yourself in the story. Yamada's unhinged everyman doesn't provide an anchor for the literal-minded either. He's got the draggy monotone of someone whose mind has been befogged by his glimpse of horror. Kamikaze is the dramatic equivalent of an MC Escher print: your mind can't find the point of focus.

It's not all great, even for those who like their horror cerebral and their theater hermetic. When the show breaks its sleek modern atmosphere—as it does in an ironic parody of a sad-sack karaoke song—its strength and focus ebb. And a subplot involving an American couple seems lifted from another genre altogether. But on the whole, Kamikaze is one seriously disturbing show, a 21st century haunted house for the avant-garde.


Americana Kamikaze plays at PS 122 (150 First Avenue, betw. E. 9th & E. 10th St.), closing on November 14.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Embraceable Me (Theater Row)

Embraceable Me
Theater Row
October 26, 2009
Victor L. Cahn (writer)
Eric Parness (director)

It's a truism that goes all the way back to the Greeks: drama requires conflict. And yes, Embraceable Me has an overt conflict, a version of the When Harry Met Sally struggle to shift from friendship into romance. But the problem with this show is, the opposites-attract characters of Allison and Edward (the chemistry-free duo of Scott Barrow and Keira Naughton) are too amiable to strike sparks. They remark on (but don't wrestle with) job frustration and romantic disappointment. Does she drink too much? He may think so … or he may just be teasing. Did loveless parents screw him up? Perhaps, but it's vague. The script shies away from thorny emotions and discomfiting actions (though to be fair, so do the actors). When one finally does muster up enough bitterness to insult the other, she uses the limp epithet “icicle.” A scene of vicious rancor would've gone a long way, building momentum and enlivening the characters.

That, in turn, would've given the illusion of something at stake. As it is, I can't tell what drew the company to the script, or why Cahn felt compelled to write it. Certainly, no one seems inspired. Parness's direction consists of fussy blocking around Sarah Brown's cluttered set (I wish she'd jettisoned the bookcases to show off her cool chalk-drawn backdrop). The script, pointlessly structured mostly as direct address, undermines Barrow and Naughton's aimless performances by making them speak to the audience more than each other. Even at a intermissionless 70 minutes, Embraceable Me is gormless and dull.


Embraceable Me plays at Theater Row (410 W. 42nd Street, betw. Ninth & Tenth Ave.), closing on October 31. Tickets?

Photo credit: Jon Kandel

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement

The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement
Under St. Marks
October 16, 2009
Clay McLeod Chapman (writer)

You'd expect a play about graduation to be vernal and forward-looking, but Commencement is a better fit for autumn. The reason is, it involves a school shooting. It's a subject I don't find that compelling, so I credit Clay McLeod Chapman's triptych of monologues with offering something more than the typical Manichean morality of violent perversity in the white suburbs. In fact, Commencement is a cool, brisk ghost story edged with melancholy.

In the middle monologue, Chapman pictures a high school haunted by a “bogeyman mascot”: the late, yet still vital, valedictorian played (as the other two characters are) by Hanna Cheek. This, the best of the three stories, suggests a primal rupture in the community, which will be healed in a private ceremony: the victim's mother has the shooter's mother recite the late valedictorian's unfinished, unrecited speech. It's a mournful moment, a paean that captures what's tragic about violent, too-early death.

Commencement is strong stuff, and moving. But Chapman can be too writerly. His best conceit involves a pen-pal friendship between the future shooter and the class valedictorian in the margins of library books. His strength lies in his prose style, which paints evocative metaphors and pictorial observations. But he comes up short when he tries to create characters. The first and third monologues take the POVs of the mothers of the pen-pal students. But Chapman doesn't quite show us how the attitudes of two mothers must've given birth to their children's personalities.

Fortunately, he's partnered with Hanna Cheek. This very fine local actress bridges the gaps that Chapman's monologues contain. She uses her tone and manner to peel away her characters' wounded psyches and subtextual impulses (which is usually the writer's job in character monologues). Cheek's skill at transformation and her range of emotion would make Commencement worth seeing even if the monologues were duds. This autumn ghost tale is a treat.


The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement plays at Under St. Marks (21 St. Marks Place, betw. First Ave. & Avenue A), closing on October 31. Tickets?

Photo credit: Cedar

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Circle Mirror Transformation (Playwrights Horizons)

Circle Mirror
October 10, 2009
Annie Baker
Sam Gold (director)

Who knows what to expect, with a mystical title like Circle Mirror Transformation? But on the other hand, there's the realistic set—a generic rehearsal room, a mirror along one wall—doesn't inspire flights of imagination. Somewhere between the title's fancy and the set's mundanity is the show itself: an quirky bit of meta-theater.

Circle tidily takes place within a six-week community center acting class. The set-up offers room for the gentle mockery of acting exercises, especially when performed by a set of four over-earnest adults (the lone teen sulks, “Are we gonna do any 'real' acting?”). It also doubles as a clever device to open up the five characters. Though it initially sketches in broad strokes, the silly exercises slowly fill in the characters' vulnerabilities and aspirations. What's more, the script manages to suggest that there's a larger story to these befuddled adults and their sardonic voyeur, but that we're only getting the in-room snippets of it.

Annie Baker's script benefits from several extremely talented Off-B'way mainstays like Reed Birney (who plays a vulnerable middle-aged divorcé with gusto). But the standout is newcomer Tracee Chimo as that solo teen. Though Chimo initially plays the clown, goggling at the ludicrous behavior of the adults, she slowly emerges from her shell to display her new confidence and self-understanding.

With its simple scenario, there are short stretches of Circle that frankly are a little dull, a fact that Sam Gold's direction can't overcome. And non-theater types may resent the knowing chuckles that the in-crowd delivers every few minutes. Circle doesn't bowl you over with pyrotechnics or boggle you with plot turns. It's a cameo, yet with its small but satisfying catharsis, it's quite lovely.


Circle Mirror Transformation plays at Playwrights Horizons (416 42nd Street, betw. Ninth & Tenth Ave.), closing on November 1. Tickets?

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Night Watcher (Primary Stages)

The Night Watcher
Primary Stages at 59E59
October 3, 2009
Charlayne Woodard (writer)
Daniel Sullivan (director)

If you enjoy watching a charming performer confide in an audience like you're his or her oldest friend, you can stop reading now: head over to The Night Watcher for a pleasantly diverting evening. And if you like sentimental stories about children, you'll get your fill. But if you get impatient listening to self-serving monologues, or if you cringe when an adult imitates children by adopting wide eyes and a lisp, then skip Charlayne Woodard's one-woman show.

In between her acting gigs, she explains, she's an active godmother to several friends' children. But at every moment, Woodard is a consummate actress. That's great when she stretches onstage like a cat in sunlight, offering warm stories of surrogate parenting with expertly-timed quips and snatches of Sly and the Family Stone; not so much when she's casting herself as the heroine in harrowing melodramas that resemble after-school specials.

The evening's climactic anecdote is particularly telling. In it, Woodard doesn't comfort a child, she confronts a bullish subway rider who condemns her lack of children. She shreds this straw man with a sermon of self-justification. The final beat of self-deprecation—her monologue has caused her to miss her stop—disguises the fact that her catharsis belongs only to her.

Still, courtesy of Geoff Korf's subtle lighting and Obadiah Eaves' warm blanket of music, The Night Watcher looks and sounds lovely. The total effect, thanks to Daniel Sullivan, is that of a bedtime story. But I'm suspicious of any work that's as anodyne as Watcher: in this case, Woodard and her team uses their talent to mask her narcissism.


The Night Watcher plays at 59E59 (59 East 59th St., betw. Park and Madison Ave.), closing on October 31. Tickets?

Photo credit: James Leynse

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Killers & Other Family (Rattlestick)

Killers & Other Family
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
September 21, 2009
Lucy Thurber (writer)
Caitriona McLaughlin (director)

I'm thrilled to hear that Killers & Other Family, Lucy Thurber's fever-dream of a drama, has extended its run. It may not be perfect, but it's such an intense 80 minutes that my critical faculties are overwhelmed by its ambition. If you love modern American theater, you must see Killers. Got it?

The show's depiction of savagery invites comparisons with Sam Shepard or Adam Rapp, but the dark sociopathy at the play's heart reminds me most of Jim Thompson, the '50s crime novelist nicknamed the Dimestore Dostoyevsky. Partly, it's the set-up, pulp-simple yet stagy enough to power a one-set/two-scene drama: Lizzie's past catches up when her on-the-lam brother hides out at her NYC apartment with her murderous ex-boyfriend Danny. But Thurber invests her scenario with metaphoric weight, showing how the repression of childhood trauma rips apart the illusion of adult safety.

Much of the credit for the Rattlestick's stupendous production goes to Samantha Soule's fearless performance as Lizzie. Soule throws herself into whatever the script (and her nightmarish ex) demand, but ties everything together with conviction—it's all in her reading of the line “I never did change, I just moved the pieces around.” She's partnered expertly by Shane McRae as Danny: you can see the neural misfires in that sicko's brain.

After my friend and I saw Killers, we wondered if the tonal instability (seesawing from fine-grained naturalism to lyric surreality and absurdist violence) was a problem. But I think Killers has the dream-logic of a fairy tale, one aimed at 21st-century urbanites. If McLaughlin can't quite sustain a sense of imminent danger, or if Aya Cash, as Lizzie's wholesome roommate, breaks the tension a little too jarringly, it's all outweighed by the way Thurber depicts violence as a real threat and not as a plot crutch. Killers is raw, wild theater for our time, a drama that's bracingly alive.


Killers & Other Family plays at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place), closing on October 17. Tickets?

Photo: Sandra Coudert

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In the Daylight (Vital Theatre)

In the Daylight
Vital Theatre Company
September 17, 2009
Tony Glazer (writer)
John Gould Rubin (director)

From the audience, the vertiginous angle of the stark white set looks like the a film-noir still in negative. Christopher Barreca's design is one of the coolest in town. Too bad In the Daylight, the show it sets the stage for, doesn't measure up. Playwright Tony Glazer tries on styles, tones, and genres like clothes, but he can't find the look he's going for.

Daylight starts out as a vicious modern drama that echoes Greek tragedy. Think Orestes: a louche son returns to his family estate (here a Jersey McMansion) where his mom and sis bicker over a terrible secret. Ashley Austin Morris, as a bumpkin with her own secret, applies lessons learned from Charles Busch to create a surreal intrusion into the realistic drama. But the show scuds sideways under John Gould Rubin's direction: halfway in, who knows what the play's really about? That fact plus the show's brevity equal valid reasons to cut the intermission.

The second-act twists work their own satisfaction, in the boulevard tradition of Agatha Christie stage adaptations. But I'd guess that Glazer had hoped to write a modern noir: his spiffy dialogue, femmes fatale, and late-inning twists suggest savage and cynical pleasure. Still, if that's the case, why does so much of Daylight follow Aunt Agatha's pattern—including a storm cutting the power and an exposition-laden climax? Glazer over-reaches by adding a sense of fatalism, when he's simply written a potboiler. In the Daylight is passably entertaining, but it's also pretty silly.


In the Daylight plays at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre (2162 Broadway, betw. 76th and 77th), closing on October 5. Tickets?

photo: Gili Getz

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side (Theater 80)

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
Theater 80
September 13, 2009
Derek Ahonen (writer/director)

One of the many surprises about Derek Ahonen's Pied Pipers is how traditional it is. Artists generally design a work's structure to mirror its content. But this tale of tribalist radicals is a shaggy melodrama that your grandmother could follow happily, as long as she's okay with a splash of youthful nudity. But what makes Pied Pipers a true pleasure is how its characters are radicals, its structure is conservative, and its moral substance is liberal—that is, non-judgmental.

This open-minded approach to character is Ahonen's strength (not incidentally, it's also the mission of his company, The Amoralists). His script's an actor's dream: all six roles mingle good and bad attributes, which get displayed through their actions and interactions. The quartet of titular hippies are lovely goofballs: idealistic but sanctimonious, they'd be parodies of knee-jerk radicals if they weren't so lovingly portrayed. Tastes probably vary, but I especially enjoyed Sarah Lemp's understated perf as the most mature (relatively) of the Pipers.

Like most melodrama, Pied Pipers' plot could be tighter. The second act starts to drift till a new character arrives to raise the stakes. And an out-of-nowhere epiphany helps to resolve one Piper's loss of faith. These flaws do feel a little cheap, but only in retrospect. In the moment, they're all part of a lovely, bittersweet play. Ahonen's clearly fond of his little tribe, and so, it seems, is everyone who sees this show. The Amoralists aren't just a company worth following (and I definitely will). They've created a play that deserves revivals in dozens of small theaters in hip neighborhoods across the country.


The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side plays at Theater 80 (80 St. Mark's Place., betw. First and Second), closing on October 5. Tickets?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Oohrah! (Atlantic Stage 2)

Atlantic Stage 2
September 11, 2009
Bekah Brunstetter (writer)
Evan Cabnet (director)

I'm thrilled to see a new playwright's work onstage. The play, by new (to me) playwright Bekah Brunstetter, has a naturalistic, Chekhovian dramaturgy that demonstrates compassion and objectivity. Her dialogue is specific to place, time, milieu and personality, an invisible style that's a rare and valuable talent. And she gets structure: she's got a subplot that's as substantial as the main plot without overwhelming it.

Brunstetter uses that craft to depict the homefront during the Bush Wars: an officer's return to civvies and a handsome young man's hunger to join up despite his asthma. A ode to work, Oohrah! shows how service gives these men purpose. The actors in the Atlantic's production grab the opportunity to play such rich characters. Darren Goldstein, as the demobbed captain, stands out in a uniformly good company, showing the quiet physical confidence of a career soldier and the inadmissible anxiety of a warrior during peacetime.

But the play's ragged thread is that it doesn't portray women's sacrifice with the same keenness. It suggests that their dutiful sacrifice doesn't carry the same sense of fulfillment that the men's does. But the final scene, which brings together the play's three female characters, lacks the power of the previous two scenes of masculine fortitude. This scene peters out, and so does the play. This production is also hampered by merely-serviceable direction from Evan Cabnet, who overindulges in Brunstetter's only substantial flaw, a generic fondness for Southern eccentricity.

Still, Oohrah!'s value is its honesty in approaching a question that too many dismiss out-of-hand: why men (and women) serve in the military, especially right now. Brunstetter, in possession of intelligence and craft, offers an answer.


Oohrah! plays at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th St., betw. Eighth & Ninth), closing on September 27. Tickets?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Bereaved (The Wild Project)

The Bereaved
The Wild Project
September 3, 2009
Thomas Bradshaw (writer)
May Adrales (director)

Thomas Bradshaw has established bona fides as an anarchist pitted against liberal shibboleths, and his latest piece happily continues the savagery. The middle-class family of The Bereaved may have bleeding hearts, but they pump hot blood, not milk. The play's engine revs up when a coke-related incident hospitalizes the matriarch: from her deathbed, she insists her husband marry her best friend, lest her death leave the family destitute. This wish frees his and his son's most reckless impulses and leads to deeply kinky sex and drug dealing to students (among other transgressive pleasures).

It's hard to tell whether Bradshaw celebrates this emancipation from convention or condemns it, but he definitely enjoys it. A “proper” play would see the mother recover and work to re-impose order (successfully or not). But this isn't a proper play. It's great that the show moves forward, but it pretty obviously doesn't have a destination in mind. Instead, Bradshaw improvises plot twists until he ends the show more or less arbitrarily. Nobody learns anything—that's for squares—or has any other arc of development.

But this dramaturgical flaw is covered by director May Adrales by keeping the momentum at full throttle. Gutsy performances by the actors help too: nearly everyone gets naked at some point, and they simulate sex with special enthusiasm—whereas drug use is wickedly performed with all the mundanity of drinking water. Bradshaw and company offer a grand, cathartic release by setting free the perversity of modern American liberals.


The Bereaved plays at the Wild Project (195 E. Third St., betw. A & B), closing on September 26. Tickets?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Bacchae (Shakespeare in the Park)

The Bacchae
The Public Theater

August 22, 2009

Euripides (writer)

Joanne Akalaitis (director)

A great production of The Bacchae transforms the theater from a secular stage into a temple dedicated to a primitive god whose only demand is submission. Joanne Akalaitis, a director of alienating theater and a pillar of American experimental drama, should be a good match for the complex, ferocious show. But she delivers a production that's notable mostly for its moderation. The music, by Philip Glass, is all driving drums and pensive horns. And David Neumann's choreography, sign language as much as dance, helps the audience focus on the lyrics of the chorus's long speeches.

But the show's too cool to engage us on a primal level. In the lead, Jonathan Groff makes Dionysis a seductive, slightly sinister presence but he can't handle the transition to vengeful god. The play's climax lies with Joan MacIntosh as the mother and unknowing murderer of the King of Thebes. But after an hour of chilly and remote drama, she plays her scene in hysterics. Her performance is partly the translator's fault too: who could find the emotional truth in a line like “Ah, I cannot look! And yet look I must at what these hands have done”? The Bacchae is a play of intoxicating heat; Akalaitis and company give it a chilly distance instead.


The Bacchae plays at the Delacorte Theater (Central Park at 80st Street), closing on August 30. Tickets?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Coney Island Avenue (NYTW)

Coney Island Avenue
SixDollarsInMyPocket Productions
August 11, 2009
Charles L. Mee (writer)
Anjali Vashi (director)

This review comes too late to encourage audiences to see Charles Mee's Coney Island Avenue, which closed last weekend. Too bad, because it was a pretty good production by an exuberant young company. It moved quickly, it was never boring, and it had that over-caffeinated, go-for-broke artistic sensibility that's best Off-Off-B'way in the thick heat of August.

To bring Brooklyn to life, director Anjali Vashi unpacked her toolbox of experimental devices: modern dance (popular, modern, and ballet), recorded and live music, backdrop projections, ambient noise, no fourth wall. She'd suggest the borough's bustle by placing intense conversations or focused speeches in front of scenes involving violent, mimed activities. She'd insert beats that lacked context, like a girl in a bikini hunting for her lost top or a dancer in googly antennae scuttling around like a cockroach. All she forgot was projected text, a la Brecht.

But to what end? Mee's script (available online) offered nothing specific to Brooklyn, except an obligatory quote or two from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There was no plot or theme holding the montage structure together, no sense of setting or character. Most big cities have hipsters, immigrants, carnivals, and folk songs; just look one borough over. Vashi and her company of diverse actors, dancers, singers, and bodybuilders made the stage into a fun place, but it never felt like home.


Coney Island Avenue played at New York Theatre Workshop (83 East 4th Street), closing on August 16.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Lifetime Burning (Primary Stages)

A Lifetime Burning
Primary Stages
August 8, 2009
Cusi Cram (writer)
Pam MacKinnon (director)

A Lifetime Burning is one of those dramas about rich New Yorkers in crisis: not my favorite genre. But it's got a few saving graces, especially a performance by Jennifer Westfeldt that spackles over the cracks in her character. She's Emma, a blonde socialite in a swank Soho apartment (gorgeously decorated by Kris Stone) who's fabricated an impoverished East Harlem childhood for her glossy new memoir.

The reason Lifetime works as a play is that playwright Cusi Cram actually dramatizes her characters' intelligence. Where most playwrights suggest smarts by plugging characters' mouths with facts and wit, Cram's therapized New Yorkers deduce each other's motivations by observing behavior. Cram provides fodder for these deductions by nesting flashbacks within a confrontation between Emma and her bourgeois sister. The structure works better than the plot itself, which climaxes with Emma confessing her most recent spiral was triggered by a romance (with a teen from East Harlem—see how that connects?) that ended in date rape and, later, an abortion.

Emma's a little too diffuse to be a great role, but Westfeldt draws the loose strands together. Her seesawing emotions and febrile impulsiveness imply that Emma's white-hot intellect is inseparable from the curdled chemical cocktail of her mind. And director Pam MacKinnon is one of the Off-Broadway's best: the show's a la mode tone is essential to its pleasure, while its momentum keeps the playful structure clear. In its brisk 90 minutes, A Lifetime Burning satisfies an audience without testing our patience.


A Lifetime Burning plays at 59E59 (59 E. 59th Street) thru September 5. Tickets?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Al's Business Cards (Theatre Row)

Al's Business Cards
At Play Productions
August 6, 2009
Josh Koenigsberg (writer)
Laura Keating (director)

It's not easy to write a good comedy, so I'm willing to forgive the length of Al's Business Cards (55 minutes). Writer Josh Koenigsberg has the mechanics of humor down, spinning a smart plot from a simple situation. He riffs on a gag from Seinfeld—half-Indian Al Gurvis is mistaken for Hispanic, while Eileen Lee, despite her name, isn't Asian at all—but where Jerry and the gang took aim at America's boorish behavior, Koenigsberg draws out deeper issues.

In its short runtime, ABC touches on cultural identity, immigration, home ownership, divorce and addiction. By rooting the story in the cultural moment (and not just thru pop references), Koenigsberg increases our stake in Al. It helps, of course, that Azhar Khan is so affable as Al, a schlub who makes one dumb remark for every two smart ones and is self-aware enough to aspire to more.

At heart, ABC is an unlucky comic romance. Al meets Eileen, a real estate broker, after their local NJ printer has mixed up (and misprinted) their business cards; he mistakes her flirtatious hustle for romantic interest and gets drawn into her disastrous love life. As Eileen, Lauren Hines plays well with Khan and rattles off her banter with flair. Director Lauren Keating keeps the momentum up, even when scenes drag and supporting actors flag, and gets mileage out of an obviously tight budget. In its too-short hour, Al's Business Cards may be about as substantial as a sitcom, but it's an honestly funny sitcom.


Al's Business Cards plays at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd Street) until August 22. Tickets?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Columbine Project (Actors Temple Theatre)

The Columbine Project
Actors Temple Theatre
Aug. 5, 2009
Paul Anthony Storiale (writer/director)

On the tenth anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School, Paul Anthony Storiale means to provide fresh insight into a shocking story. But his play, The Columbine Project, is a fumbling and wooden mess that tosses out the same confusion of answers that the talking heads on a 24-hour news network would offer.

The title suggests that Storiale was inspired by the drama-journalism of The Laramie Project, a suspicion reinforced by the montage structure that mingles interviews, court transcripts, re-enactments of 911 calls, and fictional dramatic scenes. Storiale indicts everyone and no one: blithe parents, bullying jocks, winking school administrators, incompetent officials and cops, hormonal teenagers,
video games, and the murderers' own sub-Nietzschean philosophy.

The show's worst moments are the fictionalized scenes, for which Storiale should have his dramatic license revoked. They resemble generic TV versions of teen life and digress to offer shaggy ironies (one of the boys was born on September 11!). The actors display the worst cliches of their craft, like staring off into space above the audience's heads when they're saying something profound. As the show goes on, a white spotlight means to give these moments even more gravity. The show finally hammers itself home with a speech that begins, “The world changed on April 20, 1999.” and ends with an acoustic version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. No matter what Storiale's intentions were, theater this clumsy is a disservice to the victims' memories.


The Columbine Project has an open run at the Actors Temple Theatre (339 W. 47th St.) from July 27.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Slipping (Rattlestick Th.)

Phoenix Rising / Rattlestick Theater
Aug. 3, 2009
Daniel Talbot (writer)
Kirsten Kelly (director)

Slipping, now playing at the Rattlestick, has my favorite kind of mistakes: those of inexperience. Daniel Talbot's emo drama about high-school queer confusion wears its youth like a t-shirt logo. It's all very serious—high schooler Jake has just moved from SF to Iowa after his father's suicide—with its best beats involving a sicko conflation of sex, love, and self-loathing. Self-mutilation is key to the plot, which also flashes back to a secret relationship that poisoned Jake's psyche.

Talbot, like many inexperienced playwrights, toys with standard modern dramaturgy (non-linear structure, direct address) but he also misreads his own story. Slipping wants to be a straightforward romance, right down to the thinly-drawn male ingenue whose love will heal Jake's psychic wounds. But Talbot leans instead on his protag's grief and self-loathing, turning the play into a melodrama. There's not enough contrast between the hero's dark California past and his sunny Iowa present. A more seasoned playwright would also find some optimism in Jake's youth, and lift the dour off the perfunctory resolution: at 17, this kid's not irrevocably damaged.

Still, I can see why the Phoenix Rising Company produced Slipping: it's fresh-faced and sexy, and with scenes of adolescent kanoodling and tortured love, it's nicely theatrical. Its lead role offers many opportunities a hot young man (in this case, Seth Numrich) to emote. And stealing the show is gloomy, rangy Adam Driver as the jock ex-boyfriend who isn't sure whether he wants to kiss Jake or punch him. Slipping is passably entertaining, and its playwright shows some promise.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Mother (The Wild Project)

The Wild Project
July 29, 2009
Lisa Ebersole (writer)
Andrew Grosso (director)

What I can't figure is, why comedians Buck Henry & Holland Taylor agreed to be in Lisa Ebersole's Mother. When an actor picks a bum script, the problem, ironically, is that tempting lead role: what makes the show a great vehicle also leaves the show's dramaturgy behind as roadkill. But Mother's got nothing like that to offer its cast. The script isn't a complete washout: the dialogue sounds natural and the family dynamics are richly layered. But what there is of a plot is a dysfunctional WASP get-together.

The direction's invisible; the set's serviceable. Ebersole plays the daughter and Haskall King plays the son: both are wooden. But Henry and Holland flash their wit, helping to suggest there's more driving their characters' spaciness and petulance than just senior moments. Of course, the script deals out a few last-minute revelations to explain their behavior. But they've been shoehorned in for drama's sake, far too late to energize the drifting, aimless play.

Mother seems more like an playwrighting exercise (“write a scene in which every character has a subtext”) than a drama. Ebersole's naturalistic dialogue apes Harold Pinter, but without the fury that makes Pinter so vital. And she teases us with a subplot involving a feud with a rival family—is she fusing Mexican-style kidnappings with 21st-century corporate financiers? No, she's just dangling another plot thread in front of us. Mother isn't about anything; after 75 minutes of gathering yarn, it leaves the audience wondering why good actors pick dull scripts.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wedding & honeymoon

It's been waaay too long since I posted here. I only caught a few shows in July, and reviewed Anne Hathaway in Twelfth Night for Metromix (as well as posting regularly on their blog). But I also got married and honeymooned, & that's what left me no time to sit on the Fifth Wall.

Of course, the wedding was a show in itself. Lady Hotspur & I held it at the Hudson Theatre, an old Broadway house that got renovated in the mid-1990s, along with the rest of Times Square. I satisfied Lady Hotspur's lifelong desire for an outdoor wedding by dressing the stage as a NYC park. We borrowed a forest backdrop from MTC, rented some potted trees, laid down astroturf bought at Home Depot (& returned a day later) and swiped a couple chairs from Bryant Park. My sisters-in-law constructed a elegant, simple chuppah. It's the first set I've designed in a decade, & it looked magical!

I enjoyed the mingling of theater and ritual; for me, it took the edge off the more religious aspects of a Jewish wedding. The rabbi helpfully noted drama's origins as a religious observance in her speech. And my friend Sweet Pea reminded me that I'd once hoped for (demanded?) a future when all houses of worship would be repurposed as venues for art.

Post-wedding, Lady Hotspur and I spent ten days in Turkey. We saw no theater, or even a perf of dervishes (more religion refitted as art: originally the whirling was an ecstatic meditation, but now it's more of a region-specific art form). Instead, we marveled at the mosques and mosaics, ate lots of lamb kebab, and read in the hotel courtyard.

When I travel, I like to read lit & history about my destination. So, instead of 50-100 words on recent shows, here's a few paragraphs on books about Turkey:

A Short History of Byzantium (John Julius Norwich)

Short = 500+ pages, but it's still a highly readable history of a 1200-year empire, if slightly fusty & donnish. The maps, genealogies, & tables of emperors & popes help keep the protagonists straight, but it's easier to just go with the flow of decades and centuries. Norwich approaches history traditionally: it's all political factions, pivotal battles and great men (& women too: Byzantium had several empresses), but it describes economic conflicts & cultural movements too. And he's got an eye for drama: the final chapter, on the Ottoman siege of Constantinople, is riveting and emotional.

Istanbul (Orham Pamuk)

The 2003 memoir of Nobelist Pamuk is a portrait of the artist as a young man: his childhood in a post-Ataturk (ie secular, modern) Turkey with a large family that's slowly falling from the upper class. Pamuk adeptly blurs the distinction betw. himself & his hometown, which he characterizes as deeply melancholy and pathetically picturesque. Though it matches my own vibe of Istanbul, I found its tone a bit adolescent in the way the writer romanticized his depression.

Memed, My Hawk (Yashar Kemal)

Kemal's novel was Turkey's entry in the mid-century explosion of international middlebrow lit. It's thoroughly romantic: a indentured scamp takes to brigandage in the Anatolian hills, and becomes a hero to the downtrodden. There's also a love subplot, natch. The okay style lifts the plot above its pulp-fiction cliches and one-dimensional characters. But if you're looking for a realistic depiction of rural Turkey, you won't find it here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Coraline (or, A Theatrical Concept Album)

All season, I'd been anticipating MCC's Coraline. It's got some top-notch artists: a novel by Neil Gaiman adapted by Stephin Merritt (of Magnetic Fields) and David Greenspan (of some truly mesmerizing perfs off-B'way). Director Leigh Silverman brought out some of Off-B'way's most interesting talents, starting with an imaginative flair by casting middle-aged Jayne Houdyshell as a nine-year-old.

The story (if you missed the quite good animated movie) sees the bored titular kid exploring her new suburban home. She's especially curious about a bricked-off door which, at night, becomes a portal to a mirror universe. There she finds her Other Mother, who showers her with love and attention. But a hep stray cat advises Coraline that she escape before she's eaten by the Other Mother, who's actually a witchy monster.

Silverman isn't a flashy director, but generally she's clear and uncluttered; here she's downright reserved. She dispatches Gaiman's most ominous visual -- denizens of the mirror world have buttons rather than eyes -- with a dull gesture instead of a flourish. As the Other Mother, Greenspan's unconventional presence is also muffled, despite the diabolical treat of a role. His adaptation is also bland (a word I never thought I'd apply to Greenspan) but at least it defers to Merritt's work.

Because Coraline may be dull to watch but it's worth listening to. The performances have more substance aurally than physically. Merritt, fashioning a modern style on grand, toy, & prepared pianos, provides a sonic canvas that's far richer than the show's visual one. His work, played superbly by Phyllis Chen, is probably enough of a draw; the virtue of lackluster staging is that it's unobtrusive.

Recently I've been listening to a pair of narrative rock albums: the Thermals' The Body, The Blood, The Machine & the Decemberists' Hazards of Love. Merritt's work on Coraline is just as musically strong as these, but it's ahead of them story-wise due to Gaiman's craftsmanship. I'd suggest Merritt & the cast book time at Electric Ladyland Studios a few blocks away & record the show. Coraline is a much stronger concept album than it is a work of theater.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Into the Hazard (or, Henry by Another Name)

The title Into the Hazard may be snazzier than Henry V, but the show itself is a standard production of Shakespeare's history. It's a lean & brisk two hours (and change), performed by 6 actors. Director/adaptor Jessica Bauman depicts Henry as a dirty, violent, bully who treats his subjects as cannon-fodder for his glory. Bauman offers a few bits of fine theater, like a pair of soldiers who chat while stacking empty boots after the battle. Lead Nick Dillenberg plays King Harry as a hard-boiled warrior who, in his scene with the French Princess, treats her like another plot of France soil that he's won. So far so simple.

In a bid for 21st-century relevance, Bauman cast a flatscreen TV as the play's chorus. Her videos are clever pastiches of modern televisual styles: the play's description of the English encampment, with its mellow voiceover and slow pans of still photos, burlesques a PBS documentary. Bauman would probably justify her TV as a 21st-century reflection of the play's meta-theatrical theme. And, since she seems like an intelligent director, she'd also probably say that the TV shows the disconnect between the reality of our current wars and the sanitized perspective we see in the media.

It's a sophisticated idea but it's not great theater. Having Harry deliver “Once more unto the breach” as if he's reading from a TelePrompTer is clever in concept, but it's dull to watch. Use of the TV slows the pace and distracts from the clear, smart version of Henry that's onstage. I also wish Bauman had edited the script more willfully: the subplot involving the Welsh soldier Fluellen may be part of Shakespeare's play, but it's neither funny nor relevant to her concept. This is a simple, clear production muddled by a few over-clever ideas.


Into the Hazard plays at Walkerspace thru June 20. Tickets are $15 (a steal!).
Photo: Lisa Dozier

Friday, June 5, 2009

MN visit: Kushner at the Guthrie

While in the Twin Cities to celebrate our upcoming wedding, Lady Hotspur & I saw Tony Kushner's new play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide*, at the Guthrie. Lady H. noted that the show could lose 45 minutes. Of course, a 105-minute Kushner play is farfetched. But we did see a work-in-progress, so please read my notes accordingly.

The basic conflict is a clever irony: a family of Marxists gather to decide who'll inherit their home. Or that's the pretext, anyway: the patriarch, Gus (Michael Cristofer), has called a vote (w/ a consensus rule) on whether to kill himself. Gus is a zesty role: a Brooklyn-bred Italian-American, a former dockworker & union leader, and an overbearing father who, ironically, is closer to his daughter than to his two sons.

The family's architecture is solid, rooted in their shared history but living in a dramatic present. But it's also where the script needs work. Of the three children, Kushner focuses mostly on a queer love triangle between the elder son, his husband and a hustler. This subplot loops, drifts, & sometimes just kills time, but it never quite justifies itself. And it's at the expense of the younger son, who fades away in the third act and takes other minor roles with him. I'd like Kushner to pare the romantic subplot (maybe resolve it earlier, in Act 2?) and add substance to the youngest son.

Probably the show's great strength isn't the script, or Michael Greif's direction (which is inversely related to the number of actors onstage -- the more there are, the less sure he is). It's the cast. Linda Emond (as Gus's daughter) and Kathleen Chalfant (as his serene, gnomic sister) again prove they're perfect vessels for Kushner's characters. Cristofer matches them, esp. in a final speech where Gus describes an earlier suicide attempt, conflating sex with death in an almost mystical way. But the youngest son and the hustler both need actors with more presence.

It's odd to see radical Kushner try on the most traditional American genre, domestic realism. All that family resentment, the threats of suicide and revelations of quasi-incest, and a juvenile rage at the American way of life! It's not a dialectic, it's a cacophany. The genre's thrills & twists suit him well, but he's still learning how to deploy them. Something to look forward to!

I also can't wait to catch the play in its final iteration: comparing the '01 draft of Homebody/Kabul with the '04 version was a rare dramaturgical experience. Meanwhile, my MN pals should catch it now.

* full title: The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Black History, Black Citizenry

Strictly speaking, Pure Confidence (at 59E59) is “pre-Obama”: its first major production was at the 2005 Humana Festival. But Carlyle Brown's play about Emancipation gains a length in historical perspective with a black man in the White House. Using an athletic footnote (most jockeys in the antebellum South were slaves), Brown takes us back to the original sea-change in the African-American's status as a US citizen.

The show's essentially a four-hander involving a jockey, his owner, and their wives, focusing with varying degrees of concentration on how the Civil War altered the relationship between (former) masters and their slaves. It's surprisingly uncynical--maybe it prefigures the optimism that Obama's election brings to Black America?--without being Pollyanna-ish about the shortcomings of Emancipation.

As entertainment, however, the show's uneven: when director Marion McClinton had worked on August Wilson's plays, he'd balanced the historical sweep with the intimate human stories. But this play, with its tricky shifts of pace and tone, rides him instead of vise-versa. At least McClinton gets fine perfs from the cast, tho' Chris Mulkey's slaveowner is mannered and dull.

Between acts, Brown and McClinton trade a sloppy, episodic verve for a more nuanced realism that's offset by a deflation of energy. It clumsily marks the play's jump from antebellum to post-Reconstruction America. It's too bad: the play's great strength is its vivid evocation of the periods (especially by set designer Joseph Stanley) is what I like most about Pure Confidence. In the middle of a seismic advance in Black American citizenship, Brown's show reminds you that the stakes of history are human beings rather than grand ideals.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What B'way doesn't Desire

Partly because I'm planning my wedding & covering the awards season for Metromix, I've been lazy about blogging. Which is too bad: I've seen some great shows. Generally I'm bored by plays about suburbia, but Next to Normal hit me hard. I'm a sucker for stories about mental illness, & this one didn't compromise with a happy ending (unlike Distracted, whose flip finale undermined a funny look at ADHD). Normal also left Lady Hotspur in tears, & she's not easily moved.

But I especially want to take note of Desire Under the Elms, which closes this weekend. I'm not surprised at this news (Lady H. called it “the worst play I've ever seen on Broadway”), but I am disappointed. It's not arid or anodyne like most legit drama. Director Robert Falls has cut away about half of Eugene O'Neill's script & replaced it with bold theatrical gestures. It stumbles and it misfires, but it's not boring.

This show fits on a Broadway stage, which I can't say about most modern drama. A good show is conceived to a specific type of space, & O'Neill belongs on a huge stage like the St. James. Desire is bold melodrama: its personalities are fervent and its emotions are grandiose. Desire gets a lot of its energy from an Oedipal triangle, with a Yankee kid stealing the farm and third wife from his father. That young wife is a gorgon of sexual desire (thus the title--O'Neill, like Strindberg, finds women horrifying).

Desire is bizarre, which Falls accepts. That's why I like the show, and probably why it couldn't find an audience. Falls replaces O'Neill's elaborate & over-explicit dialogue with expressionistic dialogue-free scenes backed by raggedy Bob Dylan. Stars Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino, accustomed to realistic emotional arcs, look skittish or dumbstruck. Yeah, Falls should've coached them better, but they just don't have the acting skill set. And a Broadway crowd has the same problem: they don't know how to interpret such a strange, unconventional show.

O'Neill's lurid tale of adultery and infanticide sounds like he based it on a 19th-century newspaper clipping. It's from the era when rural folks visited the circus tent on Saturday and the revival tent Sunday, and the railroad line led straight to damnation. Robert Falls' Desire is set in that folktale America, a long ways from the clean crossroads of Times Square. I can't imagine a Broadway where this show could be a blockbuster, but it's a more interesting one than ours.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pretty Theft / Desire Under the Elms

I've been pushing my writing by conducting more interviews recently. Last week, Metromix published my best so far, a phone conversation with Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, who's writing music for a stage adaptation of Coraline. My piece turned out well, mainly because Merritt's so charming & articulate but also I'm finally figuring out how to interview. I also caught a pair of shows last week: Desire Under the Elms on Broadway and Pretty Theft off-off. I'd like to write Desire up for Metromix, but here's a quickie for you:

I loved Desire, but Lady Hotspur called it “the worst show I've ever seen on Broadway.” Director Bob Falls takes a big risk by editing a Eugene O'Neill drama down to 100 minutes. It interferes with the natural narrative flow, which turns the play's arc into a series of weird, almost expressionistic events. Carla Gugino & Pablo Schreiber, trying to play it realistic, couldn't find a through-line, but Brian Dennehy nailed his role. Add a crazy set (boulders & a 19th c. farmhouse hanging above the stage) & you've got the weirdest show I've ever seen on B'way. I loved it, but I can see why it's not for most tastes.

After the grandiosity of Desire, I found Pretty Theft refreshing. I'm only 34, but I'm probably older than anyone in the show. Generally when that happens, I figure (rightly or not) that the young company is just damned hungry to do theater wherever & however they can. That the show's on the 4th floor of a Chinatown walk-up only reinforces that impression. The Flux Theatre Ensemble has created one of those no-budget productions where the artistic director tears your ticket & the lighting is mostly on an overhead track. Pretty Theft has a few bum notes, but its mistakes are those of youth -- which I easily forgive.

The play involves an autistic ward, a father's death, the kind of friend your mother warned you about, and the kind of stranger your mother *really* warned you about. But playwright Adam Szymkowicz balances those heavy elements with a zany tone and oddball characters. His protagonist is Allegra, a nice-looking naïf who's spending the summer before college volunteering at a hospice. Possessing a warmth way beyond her years (a trait matched superbly by Marnie Schulenburg), she makes a connection with an autistic man.

However, the show (& Allegra's boyfriend) are stolen by the sidekick, a bad girl named Suzy. Both in Szymkowicz's writing and in Maria Portman Kelly's performance, Suzy is the type of girl who compensates for low self-esteem by throwing herself at boys & stealing lipstick from drugstores. Both Suzy and Allegra are warm, vital characters; that Szymkowicz mines laughs from their neuroses suggests he'd be great at sex comedy. The show's high point, where Suzy seduces Allegra's moronic boyfriend at the movie theater, had me hoping Pretty Theft would be a teenaged screwball comedy. No such luck, but the direction it takes is so different and unexpected, I didn't mind. The girls go on the run, Thelma-and-Louise style, eventually meeting that dark stranger in one of the more chilling scenes I've seen recently.

But there's those problems I mentioned come up. Director Angela Astle gets good perfs from her actors, but she doesn't have a good eye for stage composition (yet). I found my eye focusing on the “wrong” spot: the heroines often get upstaged by secondary or tertiary characters. Astle and Szymkowicz also indulge in not one but two expressionist scenes to illustrate the autistic man's mental collapse. On their own, they're effective enough. But they steal narrative focus away from Allegra & Suzy, & slow the show down when it should be ramping up (whereas a scene depicting Allegra's dream builds her psyche while offering a break from the play's realism).

Structure is one of the hardest devices to master, & anyway I believe we live in an era of sloppy construction. But in the future, Szymkowicz should be cunning and vicious with his editing, and Astle should be confident, even merciless with her playwrights. They, and the entire company, have got enough vim & talent that they can afford to take the collaborative risk. Pretty Theft runs for two more weeks.


photo credits: (1) Liz Lauren (2) Isaiah Tanenbaum

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On the Eve of the Pulitzer

(FYI, I'm trying a different format, to see how it affects my voice.)

(Update: the news from Columbia University, around the corner from my place: Ruined won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But my assessment stands: it deserves a Broadway run, & a Tony, but it's not a play for the ages. - A)


I've never heard so much talk about the Pulitzer for Drama before -- at least, not before it's awarded. Most folks favor Lynn Nottage's Ruined to win. Also in the running are: Becky Shaw (Gina Gionfriddo), Our Enemies (Yussef el Guindi), The Good Negro (Tracey Scott Wilson), & fading fast, Reasons to Be Pretty (Neil LaBute).

What kind of shows usually win the Pulitzer? Epics like Angels in America are rarer than you'd expect. For every thrilling piece of funky experimental drama like Topdog/Underdog, there are five works of realism seasoned with a touch of neurosis, academia, or morality (Rabbit Hole, Proof, Doubt).

Pulitzer-winners are solid and heavy, like sturdy furniture made of walnut or oak. When they're adapted into prestige films, they're a little too stagy to sit quite right onscreen. They're almost invariably set in the US, & address grand themes like death and illness, American history, race or sex.

So what about Ruined? I finally caught it at MTC last week. It's satisfying to see a show about Africa that avoids tourism & impotent hand-wringing. Unlike most critics, I find its universal themes more compelling than specifics like its African setting. It's undeniably strong & affecting.

Ruined is a war story. Mama Nadi runs her bar/brothel as a DMZ in the Congolese civil war: all are welcome, leave guns & politics at the door. The war tests her philosophy, but so does her relationship to two young women she buys in the opening scene: Sophie, a victim of rape & mutilation, & Salima.

Because of Sophie's mutilation, she's useless to Mama as a good-time girl, but, resourceful & literate, she balances the books and gains Mama's trust & sympathy. Salima, meanwhile, deals with pregnancy till she's tracked down by her one-time husband, now a soldier. All three roles are phenomenal.

But if I hadn't heard the rumors, I wouldn't put Ruined in the running for a Pulitzer. For one thing, it doesn't fit the formula. Its subject is international, with no mention of how America fits into African civil war. But it also lacks the solid craftsmanship that a great realistic drama should have.

This is a play that moves in jerks. The main characters have holes & caesuras in their arcs -- Sophie herself doesn't do much except work as a catalyst for Mama. Supporting characters, especially the men, tend to disappear for stretches & then return, as if out of a hat, to serve a plot function.

Nottage relies on the machinery of old-fashioned melodrama: stupendous revelations of buried secrets, tragic coincidences of timing, a literal storm gathering as the war approaches Mama's bar. Rather than relying on complex psychology & social insight, Nottage falls back on manipulative sentiment.

As a cynical operator, Mama N. is supposed to evoke Brecht's Mother Courage. But in spirit she's closer to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (“I stick my neck out for nobody.”). The problem is, her cynicism's all talk: from adopting Sophie forward, her every decision stems from sentiment, not pragmatism.

So do I think Ruined will win the Pulitzer? Probably. It's realistic, it's noble-minded, it's international at a cultural moment that's repudiating US isolationism. And I think Nottage's Intimate Apparel deserved the award over Anna in the Tropics in 2003. But it's not the best American script of 2008.

For all my quibbles, however, I echo the wish that MTC had placed Ruined on their Broadway stage. It's also a sad irony that the Goodman brought Ruined to MTC's City Center site but will move their starry Desire Under the Elms to the St. James. A Pulitzer for Ruined? Naw. But a Tony? Most def.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One Hundred Nights of Bardolotry

In 1990, fired up by an AP Lit class, I attended the Guthrie Theater's day-long bill of history plays: Richard 2, Henry 4, & Henry 5. The day literally changed my life by making me into a regular theatergoer and voracious consumer of Shakespeare. A few weeks ago, I saw Theatre for a New Audience's Hamlet, the hundredth production of Shakespeare that I've attended.

Yes, I've kept count.

Some highlights have been Peter Brook's Hamlet, Propeller's all-male Taming of the Shrew, the Globe's Measure for Measure, the Aquila Theatre's Much Ado, and the Red Bull's Pericles. The lowlight is probably the Central Park Twelfth Night in 2002, starring a dumbstruck Julia Stiles.

I've watched Lear in Japanese and Macbeth in Polish. A college girlfriend & I trekked through a subzero winter night to see As You Like It. I traveled to London just to see Michael Gambon play Falstaff. I've seen Hamlet deconstructed, reconstructed, cut to 90 minutes & played by a chubby 40-year-old.

Why do I love Shakespeare? What's he doing that I can't get enough of? And where does Shakespeare's dramaturgy end & mine begin? These are some of the questions rattling around my brain, & I'll try to answer in my next few posts.

In the meantime, you can read my review of Hamlet, and also check out a photo spread I produced & wrote for the Off-B'way production of The Toxic Avenger. Happy Passover!

Top pic: Richard 2, Guthrie Theater, 1990
Bottom pic: Hamlet, TFANA, 2009