Monday, March 31, 2008

Silver Bullet Trailer

Photo/Dixie Sheridan

You know things are going bad for you when your hallucinations stop and remind you how much worse things could be. The hallucinations -- which include a creepy vaudevillian man and his trio of burlesque sidekicks and a bile-spewing spider straight out of a twisted Alice in Wonderland adaptation -- don't stop to tell the audience at Silver Bullet Trailer how much worse the play could be, but we get it, about as fast as we get that Julie Shavers's play is about the death of the American Dream.

Sari (Shavers) sits in a cheap fold-out chair by an icebox, a projection of a desert mesa and random rock outcroppings the only comfort on the wide, bare expanse of the stage. As she sprawls back, baking in the heat, a voice suddenly startles her awake: her unborn baby, calling out from the womb. Even when she's not full-on hallucinating, this apology of a woman (her name is "Sorry") lives a broken life: "I was a dancer," she says, and the baby sasses back: "In a strip club."

It's a funny line, and we laugh, but Silver Bullet Trailer never gets beyond crude shocks and grim entertainment. Unedited and unbalanced, Shavers's writing often goes too far: for instance, a Clown (Michael Hannon) makes a valid point about our supersaturated culture when he rages "Why go to the circus and see nine grown men in stupid outfits climb out of a Volkswagen when you can go to Whateverpalooza and see Sideshow what's his ass covered in tattoos shooting himself in the face with a nail gun while dangling a family of midgets from his testicles." But this nifty bit of comic hyperbole is followed up with a rant on unionized hobos, a bit of imagination that is fiercely pointless. (Similar things happen when Sari, fearing for her child, goes to a doctor only to be told that "If you don't have insurance, we let you die." It's another zinger of a line, but it's preceded by cheaper exaggerations about how backed up doctors are with golf games and interior redecoration.)

The plot itself becomes an exaggeration taken too far, especially in the scenes with Sari's child (Brent Popolizio), who has run away from his mother -- despite being unborn -- to find his father, Cowboy (Chris Hury). Here, Shavers gets trapped in symbolism, with Child as the unrealized, unnamed hope of America's future and Cowboy as the debauched once-upon-a-time hero. She traps her director, Dan O'Brien, too, for he's forced to stage these scenes in a bland and straightforward fashion, restraining the creative, nightmarish impulses that at least make Sari's scenes engaging to watch. Additionally, Shaver (as a frightened but outraged Sari), delivers a sound performance that helps to ground the more ridiculous characters, like a manic nincompoop of a Doctor (Ryan Woodie), who practices his golf swing more than his medicine. Child's scenes -- especially one with Begging Drunk, Sits on Grass in Dirty Tee Shirt, and Sweating Doritos (Chris O'Brien, Moti Margolin, Cate Bottiglione) -- just cringe with poor jokes that have no characters to bounce off of.

As if this weren't enough, Shavers ends Silver Bullet Trailer by cramming in all the jokes she hasn't had a chance to tackle: a silent movie wonders when the cute on-screen family cornered the market on "The American Dream," an animated PSA mocks the "Let's All Go To the Movies" song with Wal*Mart items (". . . and buy ourselves some crap!"), two talking claymation breasts pitch how nourishing beer is, and the classic American family is boiled down to three strangers who live in the same place. It's a heavy dose of consumerist backlash, like a mash-up of George Saunders short stories, but without the focus.

Shavers nails one thing in her play: "Where there's nothing, there's the possibility for anything. And that, kid, is terrifying." Silver Bullet Trailer, then, which starts with nothing and squanders its possibilities, is terrifying.

Friday, March 28, 2008

What's My Line?

Photo/Genevieve Rafter Keddy

Way back in 2006, I entered The Atlantic's "Word Fugitives" contest, trying to come up with a word for "nostalgia for a time when I wasn't alive." Though I didn't win (that honor went to chronderlust), I'm glad I have the opportunity to use mine now, because I'm severely precedentimental after seeing What's My Line? Sure, I could always flip on GSN and tape one of the many late-night reruns (it ran from 1950-1975), but, far more satisfyingly, I could also head down to Barrow Street Theatre, and check out the live version playing there. More cool than kitschy (though there's certainly a wide variety of old-school gimmicks and cutesy pandering), the premiere "episode" (the 75th hosted by J. Keith van Straaten, but the first in New York City) suffered only from some technical issues, issues which it more than compensated for with its the host's hokey charm and the hilarious contrast between the panel's tuxedos and gowns and the set's flimsy yet funny charm. (There's even a house band, Shane Rettig & The Occupations, not to mention a hostess, Patti Goetticher, a pleasant dinner-theater Vanna White.)

The format for What's My Line? is simple: four panelists (a new set every week) try to guess the "line" (read: old school for "job") of several ordinary guests with less-than-usual occupations. The catch is that they're only allowed to ask yes or no questions, and if they run into a "no" ten times, the guest "stumps" the panel and "wins" the game. (To be fair, the panelists aren't paid, and the contestants all get complimentary tickets to Barrow Street Theater, win or lose.) To top off the evening, the panelists are blindfolded (more like blind-goggled, in a retro-chic fashion) and must guess who the Mystery Guest is, a task made only slightly easier by the knowledge that this person is a celebrity.

For this special premiere, the panel featured Barry Saltzman, a staple of the live show's CA incarnation (he's been on 17 times), Stephanie D'Abruzzo (the sweetheart and sass of Avenue Q), Betsy Palmer (an original What's My Line? panelist and, more notoriously, the original "Jason" in Friday the 13th), and Michael Riedel (NY Post columnist and co-host of Theater Talk, which helps explain what drew me -- and I'm very happy it did -- to What's My Line?). As for guests, the only trouble What's My Line? will have is in topping Patricia Porterfied (now Pat Finch), who appeared three times on the original show -- as the first panelist (hat check girl), a five-year-veteran (Broadway performer), and the last panelist (the farewell show). You couldn't ask for better symmetry than that: it's the sort of human element reality television "writers" only dream of. Hard to top the other guests too -- Alan Rosen, who brought enough food from his "office" to share with everyone (which is nice considering he runs Junior's Cheesecake), and Liang Wong, the youngest principal cellist in the history of the NY Philharmonic Orchestra (no surprise, either, if the two quick movements he played for us were any indication). And who's not happy to see Norm (George Wendt), the night's Mystery Guest?

The live version of What's My Line? is only supposed to be 75 minutes long, but I hope they reconsider; the night I went, not counting the technical delays in starting, was almost two hours. But these were full hours, not long hours: time well spent admiring how alike we all are, even given our different jobs and personalities. More than that, it's time well spent laughing -- not just at the staging, or the specific sort of questioning necessary to "win" (elimination-heavy questions are key, such as "Would I find this at the drugstore, hardware store, or grocery?" to which led D'Abruzzo to exclaim, "What? That's how people spoke back then!"), but at the good humor of the panelists, who are as serious about winning as they are comical when losing. Ms. Palmer, who's been down this route before, knows the drill better than the rest: "Does this piece of wood have to do with music? Can I put this piece of wood in my mouth? Does this piece of wood have a hole?" It's a shame that J. Keith van Straaten has a time-limit that forces him to moderate just enough to keep them on track (though at least he's funny about it); I could live off of questions like "Are you now a grown-up version of what you were then?"

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Playwrights Horizon: "Dead Man's Cell Phone" and "The Drunken City"

- Dead Man's Cell Phone, by Sarah Ruhl

Photo/Joan Marcus

Dead Man's Cell Phone is a marvelously quirky, beautiful love story. It's incredibly specific in tone, with poetics taking precedence over sense, but between Sarah Ruhl's easy control of language, Anne Bogart's gentle aesthetic minimalism, and the cast's unequivocal focus, the show works. It is, however, marred by a sloppier second act that reaches for extremes that end up blurring the precise magic of the first (and no wonder, given that Ruhl spent a year between acts). Sloppy or not, I've got no complaints at seeing more of the magnificent Mary-Louise Parker, who despite playing a mousy, timid do-gooder, is arresting even with her short, sparing snippets of text. Her physical control (and her powerful pauses -- I'd kill to see her do Albee or Pinter) fill in the rest of the blanks, and even seem to justify the aphorisms about cell-phones that are thrown around by the other characters, particularly the cool and direct Mrs. Gottlieb (Kathleen Chalfant) and her shadowed son, Dwight (David Aaron Baker), who anchor the show. It isn't so important that we make something of dead man Gordon's (T. Ryder Smith) monologue, or of Jean's arrival in a Beckett-like hell (think Play Without Words I), so much as we let the show, with its weird, wonderful rhythms, wash over us.

- The Drunken City, by Adam Bock

The characters of The Drunken City all suffer from either loving too hard or being loved too hard; the problem is that just as the actors slip so well into the drunkenness of their roles, they also end up either overplaying their parts (Barrett Foa), or not going far enough (Alfredo Narciso). However, for this giddy, bubbly midnight hour (and twenty minutes) of play, Adam Bock totally pulls us into his world, with an exaggeratedly lush comic tone that turns into a rich, dry drama about the men and women trapped on the shaky ground of love (literally, thanks to David Korins's slick, sleek set). Trip Cullman's direction uses a chic and minimal modernity that fits "the City" and his actors, though sometimes unbalanced alone, make a wonderfully sloppy chorus. Cassie Beck, as the pressured Marnie, is a marvelous anchor, not wasting a single drop of talent even at her tipsiest; Maria Dizzia, as the jilted Melissa, makes the switch between carefree and cautious go down smoothly; and Sue Jean Kim, as Linda, is always good for another shot of comic relief.

Note: use code DCBL for $35 tickets to any performance of The Drunken City.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Fifth Column

Photo/Richard Termine

In his introduction to The Fifth Column, Ernest Hemingway writes that "while I was writing the play the Hotel Florida, where we lived an worked, was struck by more than thirty high explosive shells. So if it is not a good play perhaps that is what is the matter with it. If it is a good play, perhaps those thirty some shells helped write it." Like the statement, his play is wishy-washy: at some points, an ironic, self-deprecating look at the lifeless insistences of counter-espionage, at others a cheesy romantic comedy styled in the mannerisms of '30s movies (the play was written in 1937), and also a play about slow, hot days -- Tennessee Williams with the booze, but without the passion. Everything about Jonathan Bank's direction of this play is slow, including the scene changes, and perhaps that's meant to help the text itself seem more urgent -- but it's a failure, even in the interrogation sequences. What once may have been a startling look at the dirty truths of war is now a passive play filled with cryptic remarks and unfinished characters. (This is most obvious in Max [Ronald Guttman], who always seems eager to fight for the party, but just as ready to beg out of any actual consequences: "Please, please, please. I go.)

At heart, The Fifth Column tells the story of the doomed love between Dorothy Bridges -- " a bored Vassar bitch" -- and Philip, a notorious drunk and all-around mannerless man (not only does he steal Dorothy from Robert Preston [Joe Hickey], but he takes the guy's room, too). To that end, Heidi Armbruster is magnificent: she plays a bright-eyed optimist, too conceitedly American to know any better, and makes as a great foil for Kelly AuCoin's easy-going sarcasm. But as Philip, Mr. AuCoin is far too groomed and nothing shakes up his character: not the heavy drinking, not the night-time excursions looking for insurgents, not even the flirtations with the local tramp, Anita (Nicole Shalhoub). As a result, there's never any chemistry between the antihero and the dim damsel, and their love is as artificial as the quips that spring from their lips. Even the boozing, which can be a sort of heroic or romantic character trait, is cheery and edgeless -- so much so that if not for Jane Shaw's sharp sound design waking us with the crisp sounds of midnight shelling or the roiling chants of dissenters outside, there'd be no indication of Madrid being a war zone.

Perhaps, in an escapist sense, that's what Hemingway does here, retreating to the safety of writing from within the walls of a hotel that's actively being shelled. Hemingway even creates two personalities for Philip, a stark and dismal day-time self, and a starry-eyed night-time self. (Neither Hemingway's writing nor Mr. AuCoin's performance adequately capture this mood.) The result is a play that seems written day by day, in a mess of jangled nerves, and which was never cohesively edited back into a whole. There's no focus in the scenes either: at one moment, the play is making tacky jokes about Spanish citizens, with Carlos Lopez milking a terrible accent for comic relief in his role as the needy Manager. In another, Hemingway is boldly condemning American ignorance: Dorothy tells the maid, Petra (Teresa Yenque), that the shelling was lovely, as only someone disassociated from violence can. Petra replies: "In Progresso, in my quarter, there were six killed in one floor. This morning they were taking them out and all the glass gone in the street. There won't be any more glass this winter." What sells it, however, is Mrs. Armbruster's casual response: "Here there wasn't any one killed."

One could argue that The Fifth Column works as semi-historical documentation of the author's service as a war reporter, or as an intriguing contrast for Hemingway's novels. I don't agree that this play -- or this production -- works (unless one's battling insomnia), but I would urge them, simply on the occasional strength of pseudo-domestic life on the fringe, and the early signs of American foreign ignorance, to archive this play. I'd urge them to archive it today.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In The Heights

Photos/Joan Marcus

"Why learn the language when they still won't hear you?" asks a character from Lin-Manuel Miranda's cheery musical about community, In The Heights. It's a valid concern, but really of no more consequence to Miranda's show than it is within the show, for this young, charismatic actor/writer/musician has learned the language of Broadway, and his transfer to the Great White Way is a smooth one. He's greatly assisted by Andy Blankenbuehler's merengue-flavored choreography, Howell Binkley's (fire)working light design, and Thomas Kail's constantly moving, urban-flowing direction, but most of all, by his fusion of familiar Broadway tropes with the shaken-up spasms of his rapping, or his multicultural rhythms.

Of course, that line about language is also the one problem In The Heights is still saddled with. The person scowling that line is Benny (Christopher Jackson), and it's the one all-too-brief moment of racial angst in this play -- the only moment, in other words, of real drama. Kevin (Carlos Gomez), is a proud Puerto Rican, and while Benny might be good enough for his car service, he's not good enough for daughter, Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), though you'd have to bring your own cultural knowledge to know why. The rest of the individual plights are dim echoes of those familiar Broadway tropes: Usnavi (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is trying to build the courage to ask out Vanessa (Karen Olivo), the salon girl working next door to his bodega; Sonny (Robin De Jesus), Usnavi's cousin, is trying to make something bigger out of his street smarts; Daniela (Andrea Burns) and her cohort, the ditsy Carla (Janet Dacal) are all about the gossip; Nina's got a secret she's keeping from her parents (she lost her financial aid because she couldn't study at Stanford while also working the two jobs she needed to afford it); hell, even Piragua Guy (Eliseo Roman) has a story to sing about "scraping" by.

There are a few slivers of truth -- the harshness of Olivo's grim posture, the comic timing of De Jesus, and Miranda's energy -- but most of the solo songs are either too slick (as with Jackson's song "Benny's Dispatch") or lack conviction (Gomez's "Inutil," which needs far more sorrow and regret in the words "useless") and power (Priscilla Lopez's "Enough," which was out of her vocal range or not miked properly: either way, not enough). In this respect, I found even Olga Merediz (as Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood's proud and doting mother) to be a bit underwhelming in her big number, "Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith)," in which we learn that Abuela has just won $96,000. (Deciding how to split up that much money is good for a song about hopes and dreams -- the aptly titled "96,000" -- but it's far from being a dramatic spine.)

These are problems in miniature, though, and In The Heights does far better when it's larger than life. After all, this isn't so much a dramatic musical as it is a show about community: what defines a neighborhood and, more importantly, what keeps it going. The people are essential, but not as individuals, and this is what Thomas Kail and Andy Blankenbuehler tap into with their direction and choreography. Most of the smaller songs are punctuated by slow, subtle movements in the shadowy backgrounds of Anna Louizo's realistic street-side set, and all of the segues between numbers or scenes are handled deftly with brief dances -- buttons, if you will -- that bottle and tie together the mood of the musical. Furthermore, in order to be a true fusion of styles, Miranda needs a lot of people on stage at once, which is why ensemble songs, like "In the Heights," "96,000," and the finales to both acts are so effective.

You can boil the message of In The Heights down to one famous phrase: "There's no place like home." When Miranda and company are at the top of their game, truer words have never been spoken -- even for those in the audience who don't live in (or have never even been to, or heard of) Washington Heights. They do an excellent job of conjuring up the neighborhood, even if they obviously exaggerate the sights and sounds as they downplay the violence. (It turns out that Graffiti Pete is actually an alright guy, the people who fight in the local clubs -- well, they're first and foremost great dancers -- and although a store gets looted, nobody's hurt.) Besides, while there may be a trend for edgier new musicals, there's something to be said for flavor and style over substance every once and a while. I'd still primarily recommend Passing Strange or Spring Awakening, but the commute to In The Heights -- a fun, fresh new musical -- ain't that bad.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bride

Photos/Richard Termine

Yes, I'd marry this show. Lone Wolf Tribe's Bride is that sort of weird wonderful that brings butterflies to the stomach and flashes of color to the eyes. Inventive, unique, and a superlative work of theater, it is so intensely fascinating that one can imagine settling down with it for the long haul. Not that director Ken Berman, ever lets Kevin Augustine's show settle down: it begins with a floating head pushing itself against a plastic scrim, as if trying to pierce the barrier of some Asian horror flick, and ends in a giant goddess's embrace, pallid and veined, as if the monsters of Akira were drawn by R. Crumb. For the 85 minutes that span those moments, Bride is a macabre dance that fuses miniature puppets (Augustine) right out of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas with a large set (Tom Lee) pockmarked with anachronistic terminals and gramophones straight from Terry Gilliam's brain.

In other words, Bride is a twisted, clever work of theater: the first thing Father (Kevin Augustine) does, after Monkey (Rob Lok) wakes him up, is to shoot himself. (You would too, with a switchboard full of backlogged prayers.) As comedy would have it, Monkey runs over to "The Book" (a sort of "best of" compilation of the Koran, Torah, and Bible) and, scanning it with a pen that reads the words aloud, reminds our definite antihero that he is, unfortunately for him, "everlasting." From there, He attempts to come up with a good idea, shaping bits of crumpled paper into the next messiah, a creation that, step by step, slowly grotesques into a child-sized puppet. (And by any definition, God is the original puppetmaster.)

Bride isn't exactly easy on religion; aside from the fact that Father seems to be senile, he's also a dessicated, yellowed figure walking around in a tattered bathrobe and garters. (Ana Marie Salamat's make-up is horrifyingly good, and Shima Ushiba's costumes are just real enough to help us imagine ourselves in His position.) Nor is it forgiving to mythology: Father is the one and only god because he's killed all the others, and those bits about "salvation" and forging "a covenant of peace" have conveniently been charred out of his Book. It isn't even kind to him as a person: he isn't a kind Father -- he's prone to zapping Monkey with what little energy he has left -- and he cruelly pushes his son (literally twisting him in half when he becomes the puppeteer) to complete a dance that's symbolic of a crucifixion or passion play.

For all this darkness, Bride remains a stark and beautiful work of art. As Father imagines his perfection, James Graber appears, flawlessly dancing what the crusty puppet can only gawk in wonder at. (And yes, these puppets can gawk -- with haunting familiarity.) Later, as the son imagines what his father has in store for him, he plunges deep into the skeleton-strewn depths of hell, walking through smoke and and over white bones as he looks at all the dreams that have not just died, but been chewed to death by red-eyed rats. (Beauty exists even in nightmares.) All that's saying nothing of the puppeteers themselves (Lindsey Briggs, Jamie Moore, Jessica Scott, Alissa Hunnicutt, Frankie Cordero), ninja-clad stealth artists who make more of the play by making less of themselves.

What's most astonishing is that, despite using puppets, there is nothing small about this show. (Hell, there's even a fully discordant band, led by Andrea La Rose and featuring soprano Rachel Carter White.) From the epic plot to the full use of P122's wide upstairs space, Bride features a larger-than-life atmosphere that is filled with beauty, surprise, and heart-thudding creativity. So yes, I do; I wouldn't have my plays any other way.

Michael Riedel LIVE

I'll briefly shill for the show I'm seeing tonight, a live adaptation of the old school game show "What's My Line?" simply because, as theater fans, some of you might want to check out MICHAEL RIEDEL and STEPHANIE D'ABRUZZO as celebrity panelists. I know next to nothing about this, but if you've ever seen Riedel on Theater Talk, or read him in the Post, that should be enough to convince you to check it out. It's $25, Monday nights at 8:00, at the Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow Street).

[Full release, as follows the jump:]


“What's My Line? - Live On Stage”

van Straaten Entertainment, inc. announces updated panel lineups for the East Coast debut of What’s My Line? – Live On Stage, a live, non-broadcast stage presentation of the popular game show that ran on American television for over 25 years. Host J. Keith van Straaten (Comedy Central’s “Beat The Geeks” and VH1’s “Best Week Ever”) will be joined for the March 24th opener by BETSY PALMER (Longtime regular panelist on TV's "I've Got a Secret" and recurring panelist on original "What's My Line?"), MICHAEL RIEDEL (New York Post theatre columnist and co-host of "Theater Talk" on PBS) STEPHANIE D'ABRUZZO (Tony-nominated star of Avenue Q) , BARRY SALTZMAN(Los Angeles stage actor and most frequent panelist on Los Angeles production of "What's My Line? - Live On Stage"). Weekly surprise celebrity “Mystery Guests” will also appear. Past Mystery Guests have included Larry King, Drew Carey, and Shirley Jones. Departing from the 30-minute format of the original TV series, the 75-minute stage version will also feature live music and performances. “What’s My Line? – Live On Stage,” which had an initial run of six shows in November and December of 2004 in Los Angeles and ran over three years, will open Monday, March 24th with its 75th installment and play Monday evenings at 8:00 pm through April 28th. All tickets are $25.00. For tickets and information call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.Telecharge.com. The Barrow Street Theatre is located at 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue, South of Christopher Street. The show website is www.whatsmyline.org.

Other scheduled panelists for the run are as follows:

March 31
Pia Lindstrom - Emmy-winning journalist,WNBC-TV, guest panelist on original "What's My Line?"
Frank DeCaro - Host of "The Frank DeCaro Show" weekdays on Sirius Satellite Radio,
Laurie Kilmartin – Comedienne/writer, regular on VH1's "Best Week Ever" and blogger for 236.com
Jonathan Ames - Award-winning author (The Extra Man, Wake Up Sir)

April 7
Phyllis Newman - Recurring panelist on original "What's My Line?"; Tony-winning actress and singer.
Kitty Felde - Award-wining Special Correspondent for National Public Radio.
Paul Doherty - Partner of Cunningham-Escott-Slevin-Doherty Talent Agency

April 14
The Amazing Kreskin – World-Renowned Mentalist; Panelist on original “What’s My Line” TV show
Shari Albert - Actress (Brothers McMullen) and Blogger (Huffington Post)
Cynthia Szigeti – Improvisation to the stars, including host J. Keith van Straaten

April 21
Len Wein - Comic book writer, Creator of Wolverine
Ophira Eisenberg - Comedienne, creator of "Sweet Paprika" comedy show
Mink Stole - Fan favorite from every John Waters movie (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, etc.)

April 28
Jarrod Emick - Tony-winning Broadway actor/dancer/singer
Andy Zax - Music historian and producer, star of "Beat The Geeks"
Adrianne Frost - comedian and author of I Hate Other People's Kids

“What’s My Line? – Live On Stage” follows the format of the classic TV game show that premiered on CBS in 1950: Four celebrity panelists try to guess the occupation of a guest, asking only yes-or-no questions. This stage show, however, is not broadcast; the only audience is the folks who show up in the 199-seat theatre. It’s a real game with real people with real occupations and genuine celebrities --the show is not scripted and runs approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission.

Recent New York press accolades include a feature article in the March 20-26 issue of TimeOut New York (“Wry, unexpected, and hilarious!”) and a blurb in the March 19 edition of Page Six.

During its three-year run in Los Angeles, “What’s My Line? – Live On Stage” earned such praise as: “Highly Recommended!... The decorum and spontaneous, champagne wit of a bygone era.” --LA Weekly. “Witty... Charming... Stays true to its TV show roots.” --LA Times. “Spontaneous fun!” --Paper Magazine.

Past installments of “What's My Line? - Live On Stage” featured stars such as Rose Marie, Fred Armisen, Nanette Fabray, Jose Canseco, Larry King, Drew Carey, Noah Wyle, Alan Thicke, Amy Brenneman, Andy Dick, Ann Magnuson, Bruce Jenner, Bruce Vilanch, Dick Van Patten, Ed Asner, Elliott Gould, and Fred Willard.

J. Keith van Straaten, panel moderator and co-producer of “What’s My Line? – Live On Stage,” hosted Comedy Central’s “Beat The Geeks” game show and is also known from TV as a panelist on VH1’s “Best Week Ever” and various clip shows on E! Entertainment Television. J. Keith blogs the Oscars for Yahoo! Movies and writes their seasonal movie guides. His personal website and blog is at www.jkeith.net.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Rainbow Kiss

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Part your lips, stick your tongue out, and take a deep breath, because Rainbow Kiss is, hands down, the most jolting play this year. As unsettlingly angry as any of Martin McDonagh's plays (only without the farce) and as comically tragic as anything from Conor McPherson (without the mysticism), Simon Farquhar's first play is messy only in its Scottish slang and depiction of life: it takes the best of Abby Spalleen's (Pumpgirl) grimy poetics ("I'd piss barbed wire to see her again"), the rhythmic cursing of Mark O'Rowe (Terminus), and the dissonant energy of the Play Company's last playwright, Robert Farquhar (Bad Jazz), and puts them all to shame. Will Frears, with his intensely physical direction, gives legs to this bleak world, and his outstanding cast uses those legs to run down the audience (I still shiver thinking about Scobie's entrance).

The play opens with sloppiness of life: Keith (Peter Scanavino) fumbles with the keys to his flat as he tries to get Shazza (Charlotte Parry) into his apartment and into his pants. His apartment is dark, the wallpaper has cracked, and trash hangs from the doorknob, but for a while, in the reckless flush of whiskey and the carefree flicker of pot, all that fades away, and all that empty clutter is kept at bay. It can't last, and the rest of the play teeters on the verge of that first orgasm, with Keith trying to hold on for one more second, only to find himself losing it, always losing it. Keith, like his neighbor and best friend Murdo (Robert Hogan), is a good loon, but when it comes down to it, he's just a "spare prick at an orgy" who is perpetually told -- not even harshly, but nicely, easily -- to just fuck off. Sitting alone, taking his medication, and looking after his baby, he's just dying, slowly.

It's no surprise, then, that Keith and Murdo often consider suicide. (They've jokily labeled the veranda of their slum a "suicide suite," one that's all set with a "ready-made escape route if the pressures a high-rise living get too much." As Keith says: "That's the thing about living so high up. The only direction you can head for is down.") Their jobs are shite -- Keith works a literally dead-end job in Directory Enquiries ("You just find the number and press a button and the computer reads it out ti them") and Murdo has just lost his job as a seasonal Santa ("I told a kid ti fuck off"). Their neighborhood is shite, too: fourteen-year-old drug dealers freeze to death on the streets, seven-year-old prostitutes offer blow jobs for fivers, and the coppers are too frightened of the crime to come around. Shazza is Keith's last hope: he has even mortgaged his present to a loan shark, Scobie (Michael Cates), for a shot at her in his future.

What makes Rainbow Kiss so powerful, though, is that it's not all talk. Keith doesn't just tell Murdo that he canna cope on his own; we can see it in the play. Each scene is another nail in his coffin, each blow worse and more desperate than the last. Will Frears piles on the disasters, unrelenting in his pace (there's even a gloomy presence to the scene changes), but it's Mr. Scanavino, as Keith, who sells the play. It would be all too easy for him to emote his way into melodrama, but instead, he twists and turns, running headlong from lust to love to panic to fear: a man drowning in needs, trying desperately to stay afloat with his futile actions.

I would nae change a thing in Simon Farquhar's play: the repetition of scenes and themes fit Keith's redundant life, and the dialogue is so punishingly good that I'd be more than happy to listen to more. (Not enough people thank the dialect coach, but Stephen Gabis deserves notice.) This is a mature, intelligent, realistic play that puts Farquhar at the top of his game . . . but don't think for a minute that he's playing around.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Break-Up and The Happy Sad

Photo/Joan Marcus

Ken Urban's new one-act, The Happy Sad, is as bipolar in tone as it is in title. At times, it is quirky (characters do not break into song so much as they deliberately pause the action and drift into a reverie) and at others it is profoundly honest (scenes between Marcus and Aaron seem particularly exposed and raw), but it is never wholly comfortable within its own skin. The play is almost chitinous, the way the scenes crinkle half between one world and the next: what begins as a seemingly simple roundelay of scenes (Stan and Annie break-up in Aaron's diner, Aaron and Marcus talk about love, Stan and Marcus have sex) slowly begins to collapse, starting with Annie's friend, Marcy, who is having a nervous breakdown in the wake of her father's pending double-amputation and her mother's mental retreat into the world of greeting cards (a bit too imitative of Jenny Schwartz's God's Ear, for that device not nearly as substantive here).

Along the way, we also briefly meet Alice (Jane Elliott) and David (John Anthony Russo), two incredibly vague characters/rebounds (Russo does squeeze the dry, narcissistic role for all its worth), but the play is ultimately unsatisfying. Annie notes, "I think there's more to comedy than just, I don't know, laughing. Think of something really painful in your life. Make it really raw. Make it funny." As such, there's a lot of promise in The Happy Sad. For instance, the way Havilah Brewster handles Mandy's collapse, it's as if her smile is made of silly-putty, and she has to keep holding it up, lest it slip permanently, along with the rest of her body, into a frown. The same can be said for Felipe Bonilla, who plays Marcus with such unflinching maturity that we understand the hurt that makes him cheat on Aaron: "I need something," he explains, half-drinking, half-throttling a beer. "Something that's mine sometimes." (Pete Forester, as Aaron, is the ideal scene partner for egotists: he gives plenty to everyone else in the scene without ever being strong enough to grab the audience's attention.)

Stephen O'Reilly and Annie Scott, who play Stan and Annie, are good actors stuck in leaden roles (I'm giving O'Reilly the benefit of the doubt that it's just a badly written opening): however, if there's vulnerability beneath Stan's headphones or Annie's nest of hair, it never shows. And that's what Ken Urban struggles most with in his play: showing the truth beneath his tacky, stylistic trappings.

(As for Tommy Smith's ten-minute The Break-Up, which precedes Urban's play, I have nothing -- nothing -- positive to say. Sorry.)

Friday, March 21, 2008

metaDRAMA: On Perfection

One can't be a good critic through limitation (any more than they can through imitation), so to bring other conversations back to theater (which to be fair is a type of magic itself), here's a quote from Adam Gopnik's "The Real Work: Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life" (The New Yorker, Mar. 17, 2008):

[T]he Too Perfect theory says . . . that any trick that simply astounds will give itself away. . . . At the heart of the Too Perfect theory is the insight that magic works best when the illusions it creates are open-ended enough to invite the viewer into a credibly imperfect world. Magic is the dramatization of explanation more than it is the engineering of effects. . . . But the Too Perfect theory has larger meanings, too. It reminds us that, whatever the context, the empathetic interchange between minds is satisfying only when it is "dynamic," unfinished, unresolved. Friendships, flirtations, even love affairs depend, like magic tricks, on a constant exchange of incomplete but tantalizing information. . . . When we say that love is magic, we are telling a truth deeper, and more ambiguous, than we know.
There's a lot to digest there, but I think it may help to explain my feelings on Hello Failure, a show which has sparked discussion over at Culturebot and The Playgoer. For me, Kristen Kosmas's play is too perfectly stylized -- the emphasis is so strong, that one spends more time looking at (or for) the trick more than they do within the world of the work. (Similar, perhaps, to the problems people have with, say, Infinite Jest.) It is not enough "the dramatization of explanation" so much as it is "the engineering of effects." Furthermore, the play forces a resolution -- in this case, by shifting into direct address -- that diminishes what really should remain tantalizingly incomplete.

I have similar feelings about Dead Man's Cell Phone, which has a great first act and then a second act (written a year later, and it shows) that changes the pace (and plot) of the play. It survives the shift because Sarah Ruhl turns the break into a shuffling of the deck (so to speak), and keeps teasing out new details which, while superfluous, keep us bound to this "credibly imperfect world." (It doesn't hurt to have Mary-Louise Parker, a real magician, grounding the show.) It's dynamic while being quietly quirky, and it's the sort of play that one wants to puzzle over a second time. It's not, in other words, Too Perfect, and that's why I can stand it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

metaDRAMA: Is It Possible to Express the Value of Theater?

I fell in love with the French word frisson only within the last four years, picking it up in (probably) the pages of the New Yorker. But I'd fallen in love with theater many years earlier, first because it was one of the only things my mother and I could agree on; second, because in high school, it had helped me get outside of myself -- emotionally, intellectually, and physically; and third, while in college, because of how close and how cool it was, a more intimate proximity, a more dangerous presence, a more open-ended thrill. One summer, we did Constantinople Smith and Sure Thing in a girl named Raquel's loft apartment in SoHo; after school, I worked with MCC Theater's youth company and instantly felt more connected to and more comfortable with that diverse bunch of kids than I would've anywhere else; in college, I got some friends together and we just decided to mount a production of Speed-the-Play. Why not? We were young, willing, and eager to explore.

Which leads me to March 19th, 2008, to the question Matt Slaybaugh asks, "What is the 'value' of theater?" and to that word, frisson, which sits right up there with John Patrick Shanley's use of the word exquisite -- it's got a certain sliver of pain, or terrible terrible joy, in it. Well, aside from the aforementioned educational, exploratory, and entertainment value, here's why theater is so much more important and powerful than other arts: it brings people together.

Film, at its heart, divides. The very thing itself, a cold, two-dimensional image, is distant (hence projected), and what you are watching is no more than a wall, a wall that separates you, the audience, from them and the experience. There may be common themes, bound together by a powerful score, but it's artificially produced (sometimes very cleverly) by some puppet master focusing us on what they're interested in, cutting us off from the thing, perhaps, that we care about.

Art, if it has a heart (I jest, to an extent), withholds. It locks its secrets up within a frame (boundaries) and allows you to experience it, but not always to interact -- sometimes, not even to really react. It never changes (though you might), and as a perfect constant loses a certain reality: I find immortality unsettling.

Music is nothing more than the heartbeat of theater; a live performance is just that, performed, on a stage, and the instruments are simply props of actors playing specific scenes. The best learn to improvise, to make each time fresh and new; the worst burn out telling the same story without the ability to teach, or, more importantly, to learn. If you like music and not theater, you are either too lazy to open your eyes, or your attention is segmented into five-minute chunks.

But theater . . . theater can do anything. It can be a happening, anywhere. (We used to do scenes while riding in subway cars; we never bowed, we never broke the curtain.) It can work work as intimately as with one, or with hundreds; it can put the audience on the stage, or it can come down into the audience. (I still remember Bill Irwin, in Full Moon, spilling popcorn all over me; I still think of the time I danced on stage with the cast of Five Guys Named Moe.) It can use art to tell a story, it can use music, too -- even film. But it remains, throughout it all, more present, for you are not necessarily in control. Again, the frisson.

It's also more accessible. Theater requires nothing. At heart, it needs no stage (for all the world's a stage, no?), nor does it need props, costumes, or even lines. Art requires, at the very least, a pedestal, but theater -- at the heart of catharsis every time you have a tantrum -- may not even need an audience. There's a limit to the sort of music you can do without any money, certainly only so far you can go with art, and good luck making a film if you can't afford a camera, but theater needs only a spirit. That's what makes it part of a community, what helps it grow.

We live in a world, we're constantly told, that is increasingly anonymous and isolated. Well, of course, if we retire to the safety of television programs and their comfortable versions of reality. No wonder, if we resign ourselves to the passive-aggression of video games, where the most we can achieve is a high score. No surprise if we assume that canned life -- by which I mean film -- is more real than life itself. Without intimacy, there's no surprise, without surprise, everything is safe, if everything is safe, what's the point?

This blog is the start of a conversation I'd rather be having with someone in person, right now.

UPDATE: Praxis Theatre's Theatre is Territory is compiling (and updating throughout the day) a list of quotes that should help to spark discussion; after The Drunken City tonight, this'll be a great way to get back up to speed in this very valuable and important discussion.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Poor Itch

Photo/Joan Marcus

It's not easy to write about Iraq. [Draft A.] It's not easy to write theater about Iraq. [Draft B] It's not easy to write theater. [Draft C] It's not easy to write.

A flash of lights, the unchecked, photographic full-bright of a boxing ring, the sound of a bell (see David Ives's "Sure Thing," perhaps) echoes -- ominously -- in the background.

[Note to self: scratch that bit. You're putting the description before the plot.]

That's how a proper review of The Poor Itch would be written. It would do more than mirror the unfinished play's fragmented forms; it would shed light on the creative process, allowing the reader to understand the steps I, as a writer, took to match words to thoughts, and ideas to themes. It would be a bold review, no doubt, but that's what it would take to do justice to John Belluso's play, for that is the way in which Lisa Peterson has staged her late friend's last work. In the interests of keeping things straight, imagine, then, that this review parallels the first act of The Poor Itch (which is largely complete and unbroken), and then use your imagination to consider the second, which is not only more symbolic, but more representative -- in fragments -- of Ian's physical condition (he is paraplegic) and mental decline (he suffers from PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder).

Ian's a typical anti-hero, but while his ends are the same, Christopher Thornton plays the means against type. He's bitter, yes, but he's proud of being a soldier, and when he inevitably snaps at his fussy mother, Coral (Deirdre O'Connell), it's with a frightening physicality that we don't expect. He regrets having sex with his best friend Curt's (Michael Chernus's) now-pregnant girlfriend, Erica (Susan Pourfar), but not so much that he won't do it again, simply because he still can. He takes recreational drugs, but refuses to take his OxyContin, not running from anything so much as wheeling alongside his problems, trying to run them down. And although he writes letters to his Army buddy McGowan (Marc Damon Johnson), he's well aware that his friend is dead. Nowhere is his inner turmoil clearer, though, than in the way he treats Katie (Alicia Goranson), a spirited physical therapist with a need for attention. In his other scenes, Thornton most resembles a cog that has been sharpened into a specific use, a use that -- post-Army -- has left Ian abrasive and without a place, but around Katie, he allows himself to soften (well, part of himself).

With Thornton in command of his role, Lisa Peterson is free to concentrate on altering the rest of the world around him, which she does, smoothly. At first, he only sees the singing translator (Piter Marek) in his dreams, as he floats endlessly downstream with McGowan, but it isn't long before the very furniture he sits on suddenly changes (with lighting cues from Ben Stanton) into the raft, or a wall being hammered by gunfire (Robert Kaplowitz's gunshots even come with the sound of spent casings hitting the floor). As the play moves from dive bars and ratty apartments into Ian's repressed memories, doors fly into the foreground, full of mystery and symbolism, the figures behind them (Churchill at one point, Bush at another; both as they divide up Iraq) grim parallels for the true figure lying there, handcuffed, with endless water sloshing over his face.

Even unfinished, those are some pretty hard to miss statements, and Peterson fleshes the rest out by having the actors read the stage directions or notes for scenes that were never written. (A grim observation: all of the incomplete scenes had to do with reconciliation. Doesn't it say something that it is easier for Americans to write -- to comprehend -- torture than kindness?) In conjunction with the alternate versions of scenes, played one after another (the actors skip around as if it were no big deal to fill in such Sapphic blanks), The Poor Itch is as good a glimpse as you're ever going to get into the inner workings of a playwright's mind. We're all the richer for this production, even if it leaves us with some nagging itches in our hearts.

Monday, March 17, 2008

metaDRAMA: Critical Thought #4 - Yes, But What Do You Mean?

When I first started writing criticism, I split my reviews and my ramblings between this site, That Sounds Cool, and my sister site, metaDRAMA, out of a desire to separate fact, if you will, from fiction. But the more I write, the more I notice how everything bleeds together: a review isn't informed simply from the show one sees, but from personal experiences, reactions, and the world itself. Since both sites sift everything through a dramatic filter, I see no need to keep the thoughts separate, and this gives me a good chance to collect myself and catch some of you up on where I stand.

I started with a miniature manifesto back in April, "Criticizing Criticism," which got me thinking not just about why I reviewed, but what the purpose of a review should be. I reviewed, after all, out of love for the theater, not hate or embittered passion, and accordingly, the review would have to represent the experience of each individual play -- the soul of each well-intentioned (one assumes) production -- and to try to reflect and record that view as honestly as possible. In particular, a phrase of Cynthia Ozick's stuck with me: the idea of making a review into a "ghostly twin" of the work in question.

By December, these thoughts had percolated into what I called "Critical Thought," which was my struggle to find a better way of writing in such spectral support. John Updike and W. H. Auden both provided valuable touchstones for what I felt were increasingly negative reviews on my part, with the former noting that the goal was to "understand the failure," not just to record it, and the latter speaking of the value even an inflammatory and potentially wrong review could have if only it were able to spark discussion. As long as one remained true -- passionately, sometimes angrily true -- the review would take fine shape.

So I started considering what had to go into the craft of a review. For instance, were spoilers alright? And did a critic have a duty to fight for the integrity of his viewpoint, i.e., to champion a play, even if that meant coming down on other critics? (The rule of thumb remains that there is no rule of thumb: writing is what it must be, not always what it should be.)

Which leads me to my current problem: density. I found that all of this was making me write more and more for each review, which is not really a problem for me, or a difficulty for the seemingly infinite white space of the Internet (I've started to invert the colors on my screen so that the space isn't so dauntingly empty). And though I'd blurb my reviews at the New Theater Corps to make them more accessible, or shorten them to capsules as race entries at the Show Showdown, I wondered if all the citations and references weren't perhaps hurting the review. The thought came to me while reading the March 19, 20008 issue of The New Yorker, in particular John Lanchester's review of a book on perfume, of all things:

The idea that your palate and your vocabulary expand simultaneously might sound felicitous, but there is a catch. The words and the references are really useful only to people who have had the same experiences and use the same vocabulary: those references are to a shared basis of sensory experience and shared language. To people who haven't had those shared experiences, this way of talking can seem like horse manure, and not in a good way.
The emphasis is mine, and granted, he's talking about scientific terminology used to lock down a description of perfume, or, in this example, wine. But apply that also to theater: the overly specific (such as when we call the style of a play Chekhovian or Albeeish), while concise and effective for that in-the-know audience, is also strangely alienating to people who want to see theater, but come into it as a casual observer (like, say, my father). The best review, then, would be one that would both educate and describe -- it's also one that would be more sensory, which goes back to mirroring the play itself (which would be a stylistic example in of itself). "Imaginative writers," writes Lanchester, "tend to flee as far as possible from the too-specific nomenclatures of the expert and toward pure evocations of sensation. It is possible to feel envious of people who wrote . . . before the tyranny of expert descriptors . . . " In light of all the dismissals of blogitics (blog-critics) or casual but creative reviewers by the so-called "experts" (like Frank Rich), color me envious.

Theater may not always invoke the harder-to-nail-down physicality of taste and smell (unless, say, you're Ivo Van Hove), but art itself demands something more sensory and less sedentarily measured in terms of "good" or "bad" in comparison to another show. My goal? To write a review as powerful as Luca Turin's description of Lanvin's perfume Rumeur as "baseless." And how would that look in critical format? Would it be more personal? Perhaps, as in Turin's review of Lancome's Tresor: "I once sat in the London Tube across a young woman [sic] wearing a t-shirt printed with headline words ALL THIS across her large breasts, and in small type underneath, "and brains too." That vulgar-but-wily combination seems to me to sum up Tresor . . . " Would it be more culturally referential? Sure (I was never one of the people offended by Caryn James's habitual usage of television.), although I would still push myself more to make the connection to something more mutually experienced than mass media.

OK, so that's what I mean: now, is any of this possible? Given how rushed I sometimes become, trying to get the thoughts out of my head before they mix and mingle with the next show on my list, I don't know. But don't I have an obligation -- especially while still working for myself -- to try?

metaDRAMA: Now There's No Excuse

This just in:

The new musical PASSING STRANGE, which opened on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre (111 West 44th Street) on February 28th to rave reviews, will offer a new $25 day-of rush ticket to anyone interested to the new musical which USA Today calls "truly unlike anything you've seen on Broadway," as well as the chance to win show merchandise and the opportunity to text a review of PASSING STRANGE into the show's official website (www.PassingStrangeOnBroadway.com) at each and every performance!

The $25 day-of rush ticket will take the place of the previous "Youth ticket," which stipulated you must be 25 or younger to purchase a ticket. With the new $25 day-of rush ticket, anyone interested may purchase tickets (limit 2 per customer) at the Belasco Theatre (111 West 44th Street) Box Office the day of the performance (subject to availability). Ticket locations will be throughout the theatre, including prime orchestra locations.
In other words, now you have no excuse for not seeing Passing Strange. It's already clear that Passing Strange is a young, hip, vibrant show, unique in its stubborn charm to Broadway. This incentive carries that energy on by making Broadway really accessible to anyone passing through -- in the neighborhood and want to see something? For little more than twice the cost of a movie ticket, now you can. And because it's day of, you can even plan ahead, which is great for people who are touristing. I'll be keeping my eyes on the attendance charts to see if this actually fills the house: critically acclaimed Journey's End couldn't get butts in the seats . . . maybe a "we'll cut prices until we fill the house" policy is what it takes. (Though I'm skeptical of the other part of this initiative, a "text us while at the show and we might give you a prize" because, well, don't we want people to stop texting at the theater?)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Fight Girl Battle World

Photo/Jim Baldassare

If you open your play with a series of outtakes between an action-figure Boba Fett and his tonton buddy, you've either got huge balls or you know exactly who your audience is. Vampire Cowboys Theater, the undisputed king of the action parody genre, has huge balls and they know their audience, returning to the same ground they covered in last year's Men of Steel, only this time, with a science-fiction spin: Fight Girl Battle World. They've got the vocabulary ("kilofraks," "durk," and "qward," for starters) and the hot guns and hotter girls to prove it. They've got a soundtrack that would make Quentin Tarantino proud: chase scenes set, tongue-in-cheek, to the Bob Dylan's "Handy Dandy," infiltration scenes accompanied by Beastie Boys' "Intergalactic," a hyperspace riff on 2Pac's "California Love," not to mention a climactic fight set to Evanescence's "Bring Me to Life." Beneath it all, Qui Nguyen's even got a passively subversive riff on the creation myth, as the last woman alive, E-V (Melissa Paladino), is sent on a quest by General Dan'h (Temar Underwood) to "bump uglies" with the last man alive, Adon-Ra (Noshir Dalal), a quest that pits them against the villainous President Ya-Wi (Jon Hoche).

Not that you'll have to read into anything in Fight Girl Battle World: the bad guys have sinister laughs (Elena Chang's Mikah Monoch), horrible accents (Andrea Marie Smith's Commander G'Bril), and ridiculous facial hair (Kelley Rae O'Donnell's Zookeeper); meanwhile, the good guys are filled with sarcastic quips (Paco Tolson's LC-4, a k a, the most endearingly arrogant robot since Marvin the Paranoid Android) and roughish charm (Maureen Sebastian's J'an Jah, not just a pilot, but the male of her species). Exposition is straight-up laughed at (after breaking in to kill the president, Adon-Ra explains: "I could go into the long explanation, but it'd be merely expository"), and Robert Ross Parker's direction seamlessly jumps from scene to scene, with actors suddenly dropping out of sight as others pop up into view, like a revolving reel on an old toy viewfinder.

You won't have to think about much, either: the dialog is filled with geeked-out in-jokes for both sci-fi and theater buffs ("Z-Class starfighters" and the diss "Wanna phone home?" go right up there with a play LC-4 wrote called "Death of a Space-Man"), and whether you get them or not, you'll laugh just from the pure energy and charm of the whole cast. Even the slowest bits of the play -- like a reminder from some sort of Smokey the Ursa Minor that "only you can prevent humanity" -- have a purpose, like letting you (and the actors) catch their breath right before another fight scene.

Oh, yes. There are fight scenes. Qui Nguyen doubles as the choreographer, and he take the opportunity to try out a lot of techniques I've never seen before. In an early clip of a "grainy video", the shifting positions of a flashlight behind a scrim cast amplified silhouettes that jitter against the screen, playing with depth perception and height. In another, Nguyen uses body doubles to allow him to play with perspective, a cinematic move that helps him nail the instant replay. And, c'mon: the dude also turns a puppet spacefight into a martial arts showdown: "What in the qward was that?" asks Dan'h, as three actors fly hand-guided ships at one another. "I think they just bit us." Granted, there have been smoother fight scenes on stage before (like in The Jaded Assassin), but they've never been so funny. (And kudos to the actors without professional training: that makes their physical control even more impressive.)

Given the current trend of film adaptations (Spider-Man, Batman, and The Addams Family musicals), it's only a matter of time before Broadway taps someone for Star Wars: The Musical. Hopefully they'll ask Qui Nguyen and Robert Ross Parker for some advice, because they've done a really durking good job.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Hello Failure

Oh, the horrors of being a submariner's wife. If we take Kristen Kosmas's word for it, every moment becomes excruciatingly poetic. If you're Rebecca (Kosmas), you feel submerged in a too-large home, until one day you can't ("I can't. Not today. Not today I don't think I can. Maybe never again.") bring yourself to get out of the bathtub. Or if you're Karen (Aimee Phelan-Deconinck), you feel trapped in the confines of a meaningless life, which you'd be fine with, if only the people at the soup firm could remember your name. And then there are the other four wives: Kate (Joan Jubett), whose self-obsession keeps her as closed off as submarine steel from the ocean; Gina (Tricia Rodley), who channels her frustrations into rage; Netta (Maria Striar), who tries to manage her own crises by carefully controlling everything around her; and Valeska (Janna Gjesdal), who has to maintain her own hippie-like perspective, lest the optimism chip away far enough for others to see her pain. Not to mention the New Girl, Margerie (Megan Hart), who -- in fear of her own fragility -- makes herself out to be incredibly strong in person. Perhaps you recognize something of yourself in them -- Hello, Failure, you might say -- or simply understand what might drive Karen to try learning Japanese, Kate to have an affair with her hairdresser, Netta to create another person out of her own happier past, or Rebecca to write letters to the long-dead, Civil War submarine innovator, Horace Hunley (Matthew Maher), in whom she feels she can safely confide -- even when he shows up in her bathroom.

All this is rich, excellent, substantive stuff. However, the way in which Kosmas has chosen to present it -- in overlapping scenes, fragments of introductory text, or gasps of self-confession that abruptly surface (and just as quickly submerge) -- is often hard to handle. These seams of isolation fit the characters more than they fit the framework of the play, and this self-inflicted style seems to be, like the characters, compensating for an absence of purpose. Ken Rus Schmoll navigates through those choppy waters with real purpose (and I suspect his work with Clubbed Thumb has well-prepared him for such deliberately damaged narratives), and as a result, there are pockets of scene work that hit like bursts of fresh air.

In one, Margerie leads the group in a meditative exercise: "You will never have a normal life," she says. "And that is OK . . . you will love your abnormal life the way an abnormal tiger mother loves its abnormal tiger baby. You can be at parties with other tigers who are normal tigers and you won't even bat an eye, it won't matter to you one bit because you are abnormal, and that is the way it was meant to be and that is the way it is and that is the way it will always be." What works here, and in the play, is that no excuse is made for the way these people are, and no easy solutions are offered: it's not so much learning to swim rather than to sink, it's learning how to breathe underwater once you've already sunk.

At another point, Karen, who often speaks in an aloof and distracted manner, tries to explain her recent enrollment in Japanese classes: "Because I. Because of my mind. Because I want to learn new ways of using my mind. Because I'm tired of all the old familiar ways that my mind wants to use itself. Because I want to make new pathways. Forge new paths. Like a barbarian almost, chopping away at the wilderness. I want to chop away at the wilderness of my mind. Like someone with a machete. . . ." She is having an affair with language in the same way that Kate is having an affair with Shlomy (Michael Chick), a gay hairdresser -- it's just another point of contact, a different approach.

I suspect that my resistance to the play is that it's too aware of itself, of its own structure: it's meta-realism, in which clever characters (and cleverer actors) speak well of the pain, but substitute the discussion of trauma for the actual experience of it, and leave with only the most artificial catharsis, having really dealt with nothing. These seven absent husbands are parts of the problem, but their stories are untold, and there's no way to make the expression of absence in a play ever feel complete. Kosmas compensates for this by injecting two men into the play: failing with Shlomy, a spineless character who comes across as a physical prop for Karen (and later, an improbable option for Karen), but succeeding with Horace, a quiet but commanding foil for everything Rebecca's struggling against (Mr. Maher, who has a distinct lisp, has the ability to making passivity seem either sweet or sinister, depending on the volume of his voice).

Ultimately, Kosmas has to turn to the present audience, turning her actors into a Greek chorus of tragically flawed (but suddenly -- unfortunately -- homogeneous) people who apologize for their inability to look within. It is, as they and Kosmas say, easier to look out, rather than look in. "Who wouldn't? Because sure / if you can think about all that out there / and there's plenty of it out there to think about / I say if you can think about all that then / why think about all this instead? / If you can think about all that then / you don't have to think about what is." But is that the sort of play -- the sort of ending -- that can actually challenge us to do something more? Hello Failure is most important when it's confronting what is; unfortunately, it's at its best when it's confronting what isn't.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Year One of the Empire

Photo/John Brock

The problem with Year One of the Empire, aside from the fact that it's three acts long, is that it bloodlessly tackles a large American injustice. Elinor Fuchs and Joyce Antler have assembled hundreds of texts for this "play of American politics, war, and protest taken from the historical record," but one begs for some measure of Chuck Mee-like elaboration to this collage, for without some boundary pushing flair, the show flatlines through the paces. At its best, the show is history up on its feet, but those unwilling to read a New Yorker essay about the water cure are unlikely to sit through three hours of back-of-your-seat drama; at its worst, the show features actors who would make your seventh-grade history teacher look good. Due to illness, a stand-in went on for Lee Dobson: understandably, he read lines off a clipboard. (I'm can't say why John Tobias was using a script, only that it looked very unprofessional.) It says a lot about the passivity of the play that these recitations sounded no different from anything else.

Then again, the play was written in 1973 by a critic (Fuchs) and a historian (Antler), so I'll cut them -- and the Metropolitan Playhouse, which is dedicated to producing seasons of classic American dramas (this season's very apt theme is "Virtue") -- some slack. We have a rich theatrical heritage; this play, which makes its New York premiere here, is not a part of that. Fuchs writes that they intended the play to be more "texture" than "interpretation," but while it refuses to take sides, all those sides are pretty much the same, and the play is generally nothing more than a series of recited talking points, monologues clustered, in chronological order, toward the noble end of education.

Alex Roe, both artistic and regular director for this production, does at least keep things bustling: the actors may end up quite sedentary as they speak, but the transitions between scenes and characters keep the stage busy with that American sense of industry, and there's a bit of justice in that the cramped theater forces actors to duck under an overhang in order to climb onto a large scaffolded platform. (It's a reminder that beneath all the rhetoric of men like William McKinley or Theodore Roosevelt, there's simple humanity, first and foremost.)

And there are some very nice performances from actors like J.M. McDonough (as the southern anti-imperialist senator, Benjamin Tillman, or as the upright, but ultimately compromised, Andrew Carnegie), Gregory Jones (as an oily, machinating imperialist, Senator Lodge). In fact, most of the actors have one role that they play very well, like Michael Hardart's T.R., or Michael Durkin's Irish bystander, Mr. Dooley. But the play has upward of fifty characters, and the actors do little to make them distinct, a problem that makes many of the lines seem like mere echoes, when they should be resounding calls to action.

But Year One of the Empire doesn't even succeed in teaching us about America in 1898, and any parallels drawn between our actions in the Philippines then and Iraq now, come right out of our oversaturated imaginations. Whether it's the documentary style, the monotonous presentation, or the lack of dramatic obstacles (the closest the play comes to drama are the political meetings in the Senate), much of the information that dribbles in, dribbles right out. The third act calls for a radical shift from highly personal courtroom testimonials from soldiers confessing to acts of cruelty against the Philippine citizens into a recitation of court-martials that should show the impersonality of the American system, and how easily a government can ignore such abuses of power. But even these deliberately direct sections about reconcentration camps, clear uses of torture, and orders of casual execution, come across as regular text, and by failing to capture this crucial humanity, the play simply goes on talking itself to death.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Beebo Brinker Chronicles

Photo/Dixie Sheridan

"Oh, Laura . . . -- darling -- I just can't do it," cries Beth, turning away from her lover. "I just can't can't. Oh Laura!" Beebo, currently serving as the narrator, looks at the two, Beth and Laura, and calmly continues with the story: "The whistle blew. Laura got up from her bench and walked swiftly toward the exit. Beth ran after her." The two girls share a brief, none too melodramatic look (think of Noel Coward's Still Life if you want the mood set right), and then: "Oh, Laura, Laura, please don't leave like this. Please." I know what you're thinking: it sounds hokey. And you're right, for The Beebo Brinker Chronicles is a stage adaptation by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman that aims to preserve the late 50s flair and fleshy pulp of Ann Bannon's series of lesbian fiction. But that's not a bad thing, for they've taken the clipped rhythm and one-line zingers ("We can't think straight because we always think gay"), and rooted them in a real struggle for happiness. If only the play didn't struggle so much to get its point across.

Beth (Autumn Dornfeld) lies impassively in bed with her husband, Charlie (Bill Dawes), unable to understand why she's no longer into him, and why they fight so much. "Does love have to be immoral or illegal before you can enjoy it?" he asks, and he's right on the money, for Beth has married Charlie out of societal fear, and now lives vicariously in her pulp novels, dreaming of how her life might have gone. And though her scenes are littered with exposition ("It's the 60s, not the 40s" or "We have two happy children" are my favorites), they're also harsh: "I'm not gay because I enjoy it," Beth finally confesses, shortly before traveling to New York to seek out the life she turned her back on nine years earlier.

Meanwhile, Laura (Marin Ireland) finds herself on a double date between her and a new friend, Jack (David Greenspan) and her roommate, Marcie (Carolyn Baeumler), and Marcie's ex, Burr (Dawes) that ends -- for novelty's sake -- at a gay bar in the heart of Greenwich Village. There, under the unabashed glare of Beebo (Jenn Colella), Laura starts to feel the emotions she's been repressing, emotions that Jack -- who turns out to be gay -- wants to help her express: there's no shame, he says, in being animals. (Greenspan is a riot throughout, especially armed with advisory lines like "What, do you think she'll quote a couple of lines of Sappho and she'll be ready to go pearl diving?")

The difference between the two women is striking: whereas Beth comes across as a cold fish who inexplicably hates her life, Laura is a fish out of water who -- although trembly and fragile -- plunges in, swims upstream, and finds herself. The difference between actors is remarkable too: Dornfield, as Beth, hurts her own performance by overplaying the role, and even takes the fish metaphor literally, with a constantly quivering lip that makes her insecurity into a physically repeating joke that needs to be serious, whereas Ireland, refining the high-strung energy that she's brought to roles in Manuscript or Bad Jazz, manages to grow from a comically embarrassed girl into a confident woman.

Such differences in performances wouldn't be such an issue if the show were better about distracting us from them. But this is Leigh Silverman's sparest direction -- the entire set always looks like The Cellar (the gay bar that's the hub of the play) and the lights are static and unappealing -- which means the emphasis is on the actors. (At least Theresa Squire's fantastic costumes -- especially an out-of-place riding coat for obstinate Beebo -- always make them look good.) Most of the time, Beebo Brinker Chronicles is sharp enough to thrill the audience, but that deeper surface rarely comes to light, as it does, for instance, when Beth's pulp-inspired fantasy is pitted against Laura's reality, with Beth excitedly reading a torrid scene aloud as Laura and Beebo turn the text to flesh.

That idea -- text as flesh -- is what's so sorely missing from the show. The swagger is there, the feel of the period is there, but the actual substance often gets caught up in the style. Nowhere is it more apparent than with the miscasting of Jenn Colella as Beebo: Colella does a great job acting, but she's always struggling with the fact that she in no way, shape, or form resembles a husky butch and her overcompensation takes away from the depth of Beebo's character. She grows violent, drunk, and possessive, but only the words take on menace: the flesh is dull. On the other hand, she's often paired up with Mrs. Ireland, who is able to amplify her own frailty so plausibly that Beebo seems tough (by comparison).

When the play is on, it's spot on -- something the comic timing of Carolyn "I'll be in the kitchen getting some chips!" Baeumler and the dry wit of David Greenspan nail down. And for all the struggling, Beebo Brinker Chronicles comes out largely ahead: funny, yes, but with well-crafted moments of sadness beneath that perpetual smirk or unflagging quiver. As an ode to pulp novels, the play succeeds; but as a narrative of sexual awakening, it's a little sleepy.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Passing Strange

Photo/Carol Rosegg

There's a lot of talk about "passing" in the excellent new Broadway musical, Passing Strange: our hero, a Youth, passes himself off as a choir boy, punk rocker, European rebel, troubled urban youth, and German artiste, as he struggles to find his identity, his song. But most fortunate of all is that Passing Strange has managed to pass itself off as a Broadway musical, when it's more of a rock-and-roller-coaster ride -- philosophy set to a beat -- that defies every standard it can get a hold of. And that's a good thing.

Stew, the narrator/writer (and Youth, all grown up), opens the show without a mic, then calmly announces: "We're gonna play some music." Later on, he'll cut from the action to announce the intermission, or to relay a story about a particularly deep pretzel vendor. There's no set, just a shimmering curtain, and behind it, a light wall (a cross between the minimalist neon of Spring Awakening and the pointillistic chromolume of Sunday in the Park with George). There's dancing, but it hardly seems choreographed so much as agitated: a physical necessity brought about by the intensity of the song. And even when the show falls into classical stage tropes, as in "The Black One," it's tongue-in-cheek on the level of, say, Urinetown. And the songs, they pass, too, as anything they want, be it a punk-rock send up on "Sole Brother," a psychedelic soft-rock hit for "Must've Been High," jagged avant-garde screeching on "Surface," not to mention drips of industrial, funk, soul, gospel, or simply songs that can do it all at once, as with the theater-shaking power of "Keys." While our hero can't hear the difference between the sacred and the profane, we can: and these songs are all the former, colored with splashes of the latter.

In the six months or so that this play has spent transferring from an Off-Broadway run at The Public (where it was plagued by poor acoustics and a three-fourths-in-the-round staging), Passing Strange has grown into an ever better show. Portions of the first act have been rearranged and the jokes seem punchier; more so, Daniel Breaker, who plays the Youth, seems to have a lot more to do. Those who remember him from Well know that he's good at physical comedy, and although the stage at the Belasco is bigger than at the Public, Annie Dorsen has made Breaker's presence more visible, while still allowing him to grow, scene by scene. And Eisa Davis, who returns as his mother, is even better at switching between a cheerful Today-like dialect and what Stew calls "the Negro dialect." As for the rest of the original cast -- Colman Domingo, de'Adre Aziza, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Chad Goodridge -- they're still excellent in their tripartite roles, splitting between disaffected youths in Los Angeles, friendly pot-smokers in Amsterdam, and revolutionaries in Berlin. Domingo's still the scene-stealer, spry and serious as the Reverend's repressed son, Franklin (he wishes he were a slave, for they had options, whereas he, as a coward, has only consequences), and cagey and crazed as Mr. Venus, a cross between Riff-Raff and the Emcee.

Unfortunately, there are still problems with Passing Strange. While the first act is much slicker, and bounces strongly from the comic to the serious, the second act, for some reason, seems to have lost the emotional resonance it had off-Broadway. It's not an intimacy issue -- if anything, Dorsen's direction has tightened the focus of the actors who interact around and with Stew, not to mention their easy and often entertaining rapport with the musicians (Heidi Rodewald, who co-created the show; Jon Spurney, Christian Cassan, and Christian Gibbs). And it's not like Mr. Breaker lacks credibility -- his Youth's arrogance has softened and cooled through regret, shame, and sorrow by the time he delivers the climax's eulogy. But something seems rushed through, almost as if the play ends after the emotional duet between Narrator and Youth on "Work the Wound" (though it continues for another two songs).

But don't let that indefinite quibble stop you from seeing Passing Strange. More accessible than ever, yet still just as provocative, it passes with flying colors (literally, if you count the light wall). And ultimately, as Stew promises, the music overpowers everything else, a roar of sound that bills itself as a religious experience, that really Real that can, ultimately, only be found in Art.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Liberty City

Maybe every child should have to attend a school where they're in the 1% minority; maybe we should all have to watch our parents divorce and lose faith, live through race-incited riots, or have our father chain us to the rusted remains of slave shackles. On second thought, scratch that: April Yvette Thompson is a one-of-a-kind performer. Even if we recreated the exact circumstances that molded her childhood, there'd never be another actress able to convey those stories with such honesty, comedy, heartache, and strength. Her one-woman show, Liberty City, is filled with unabashed pride and embarrassing details, and it's one of the strongest solo shows to grace the stage not just because it's brave, but because it's necessary. We've had richly performed shows like Bridge and Tunnel or I Am My Own Wife take center stage, but it's been a long time since seeing such a pure (albeit processed) and relevant show.

The show begins with Tal Yarden's mood-setting video collage of retro 70s-landscape sketches, bubbly depictions that make the grime seem homely, and then lights introduce us to the various homes of April's characters. From stage right: a salon chair, home for LaMarr, a talkative hairdresser; a kitchen, where the wizened Auntie Caroline will separate the nonsense from the truth; a cozy living room, indistinct save for an illustration of Black pride and perhaps some doorway dangling beads, in which we'll meet April's straight-talking father and her calm mother; and finally, Aunt Valerie's apartment, which has seen a few soul-shaking boogie nights. The physicality of Antje Ellermann's set is important: first, for the fences and brick walls that loom (as in the projection) behind the cozy facade; second, for the lack of borders, a casual environment that allows April to throw herself from one setting (or character) to another with the simple grace afforded only to the finest performers. Assisted by Jessica Blank's grounded direction, Mrs. Thompson smoothly propels herself between roles, ever growing the momentum and pace, until finally the tension erupts.

The last fourth of Liberty City takes these familiar, empathetic characters and pushes their narratives up against burning KMarts and National Guardsmen in the street. It's a powerful contrast between seeing her confident father go from talking about Santa ("Ain't no imaginary motherfucker gonna come down the chimney and give you shit") to being arrested for trying to cross the riot zone's border. (A frustrating situation that, as a political activist for civil liberties, he's often faced.) It's sad, too, to see her mother, a confident woman much like April, slowly lose herself as she joins a door-to-door church, looking for faith that has been slowly chiseled away by the system. Saddest of all is watching Caroline go from telling the story of how she raised April's father to having to explain how she deals with her own, when Valerie gets addicted to the crack that has blighted the neighborhood. And through all these bedraggled situations, April keeps her own head held high. Her father might be "looking like the poetry just walked out the door" after being harassed, but in Liberty City, the poetry is always there, a profound elegance found even in her father's cuss-laden speeches.

Early on, April's father explains that she has to go to an all-white private school "to learn the enemy's rules." It's a harsh observation, and probably accurate at the time, but it's presented even-handedly in the play -- the viewpoint of one of many very real characters -- and therefore avoids the pointlessness of blind accusation. By doing so, April Yvette Thompson has given us the chance to learn -- not from an enemy, but from a fellow human . . . who just happens to be a tremendous performer.

Note: use LCBLG88 when ordering tickets for $25 tickets.