Friday, October 31, 2008


Photo/Simon Kane

If Beckett had balls, Blasted is the play he would've written, stripping the physical comedy from his hopelessly hopeful looks at humanity. In Sarah Kane's world, the goad doesn't just force us onward: it anally rapes us; water isn't dangling just out of reach, it's locked in the corpse of a dead baby, awaiting our desperation. What's most troubling--and powerful--about Blasted is that it doesn't take place in some surreal landscape, where women are progressively buried in mounds of sand, or where men sit around in a wasteland, or spend their time in garbage cans. It begins in a fancy hotel room (meticulously created by set designer Louisa Thompson)--a place in which our anti-hero can say only "I've shat in better places than this." And thanks to Sarah Benson's unremitting direction, the play remains condemningly fixed in reality, even as it deconstructs into bleak surrealism.

To some people, this may sound rather unpalatable, but that's largely the point: in the midst of our blissful ignorance is an almost accidental violence, one which we are a part of, whether we choose to open the door or not. It's no accident that the central character, Ian (Reed Birney), is a misanthropic reporter: though he carries a gun, he's the most passive of people, something made even clearer when a soldier (Louis Cancelmi) breaks down his door. Even when the story is at his doorstep, he tries to ignore it, explaining things away first as a dream, then as something nobody cares about. And that's where Kane is so effective, and why Benson's direction is so brutal: this world cannot be mistaken as a nightmare nor can we ignore its characters.

You see, Blasted begins with picture perfect domesticity: Ian has brought his girl, Cate (Marin Ireland) to a fancy hotel room for some privacy. Except that by the looks of things, Cate isn't entirely grown-up (she giddily bounces on the bed), and as it turns out, her first dalliances with Ian were as a child. And although Cate cares for Ian--it's tragic to see her try to protect Ian from his self-destructive use of gin and cigarettes--she doesn't want him (and again, it's a sad, quiet moment when Ian undresses for her, only to be laughed out of the room). This doesn't excuse Ian's pathetic violence--he whines like a child and grabs her arm, forcing her to assist in his masturbation--or the next step, a between-scenes rape that's left blood on the sheets, but it keeps it framed in an understandable need.

The success of this production of Blasted is that the frame never collapses, even when the world explodes. Instead, there's the sense of a camera slowly panning out, going from the specific domestic and civil questions "How can we rape the ones we love?" to "How can we excuse things like this?" to the broader social questions ("How does it feel to have done to us what we have done to others?") and ultimately human questions ("How do we go on with what we've done?"). In conjunction with this, there's an outstanding cast that's able to capture such small gestures and miniature moments: even when the scene has pulled back to an almost unrecognizable distance, the underlying humanity is clear, and in that clarity, heartbreaking.

A perfect example: Ian, who has been raped, blinded, and left alone in the ruins, begs Cate for his gun--and she gives it to him, but not before removing the bullets, a moment that is equal parts spite and compassion (and Ireland is one of the few actresses who can carry that across with a single action). Ian then places the gun in his mouth--only to take it out long enough to make sure that Cate isn't standing behind him. The desperate sadness on Birney's face overrides the increasingly fragmented tone of the show, and in quick flashes--a perfect summation of life--we see him go through the stages of grief as he hovers between life and death.

This isn't just marvelous storytelling, it's marvelous everything, and it's through such intense work like this that we are better able to distinguish the hope at the end of this tragedy, just as we are able to pick out the moments of grim comedy and relentless truth. ("You hurt me," says Cate. "No, I love you," says Ian.) Tear down the walls, then, and see what's left.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

metaDRAMA: What Makes the FLEA Tick?

I'm proud to introduce another "trusted theater" to my site: The Flea, a downtown staple which first got my attention for its focus on training young actors (The Bats) in a similar fashion to what I've been working on with Theater Talk over at the New Theater Corps. If there are sometimes misses in the programming, that's simply because Jim Simpson takes risks, not just booking stuff from Beau Willimon, Will Eno, and Adam Rapp, but also wildly experimental stuff, like Offending the Audience or seating ARRANGEMENTS. Currently playing is Cato, the sort of revival I'd expect from Metropolitan Playhouse, but done--I'm told--very nicely here; and coming soon are World Premieres from Thomas Bradshaw (Dawn) and Itamar Moses (But You Will Get Used To It), not to mention the prolific A. R. Gurney and a comissioned piece called Kaspar Hauser, which is a contemporary opera. What's most impressive about The Flea is that much of their work is generated with the young resident company in mind: not only does this results in a lot of hip and edgy work, but it makes it a lot easier to justify paying those already low ticket prices. It's nice to feel connected to development like that.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

metaDRAMA: Roundabout's Turnabout

UPDATE: As Isaac points out, and I admit this isn't exactly clear as I worded it, Roundabout did not produce Journey's End. What I mean is that their casting (especially for this season) seems to follow the same mold as Journey's End: their stars are generally selected for their hard work, not on their celebrity (look at The Overwhelming, although Isaac has a point about Cyndi Lauper), and the productions are always nicely done (David Grindley is an ace director for them). As for putting butts in the seat, the HIPTIX program really is a nice touch, along with not just the social events for that, but for all sorts of age groups. As for Woolly's season: I can't speak for anything outside NYC, I am tied to this place. But I stick by what's below: I'm psyched for this entire season, whatever that says about my taste.

For some reason, Roundabout took a lot of flak last year, although I have to say, their HIPTIX initiative has always been very kind to younger theatergoers (as is their only slightly obstructed rush policy). They seem genuinely interested in putting butts in the seats, and in making revivals interesting, casting theater stars (not film stars) to do so, even when it sometimes hurts a show (like the brilliant Journey's End). Flaws aside, I think it's safe to say that Roundabout has the "Best Season on the Books," with David Rabe's Streamers being joined by Hedda Gabler (with Mary Louise Parker now joined by Paul Sparks and Michael Ceveris) and a Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin love-fest in Waiting for Godot. To say nothing of Matthew Broderick in the anti-Moliere The Philanthropist (directed by David Grindley). Even shows I'm not interested in (A Man for All Seasons and Pal Joey) have AOI (Actors of Interest) like Frank Langella and Martha Plimpton giving me reasons to attend. As for the mystery show, Distracted . . . I may not be a Cynthia Nixon fan, but given a line-up like this, I feel obligated to trust Roundabout's direction. Oh! And of course, let's not forget that their Underground series has what I'm told is a terrific new second production, The Language of Trees. This is a good time to subscribe, if you're into that sort of thing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

David Foster Wallace, "McCain's Promise"

It seems a little inane to review McCain's Promise, a $9.99 republication of an essay ("Up, Simba") that already appears in David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster. Then again, it's a little crazy to be living in a world without DFW, and one in which John McCain, the subject of this 2000 essay (originally "reported" for Rolling Stone) is ungallantly repeating the mistakes of his primary campaign against Bush (a k a "The Shrub"). But and so then, because it would be crazy to imagine intelligent readers out there somehow missing this redundantly published yet wholly original essay, an ode to DFW, in review form:

First off, the genius of DFW, who--in footnotes, blocks of run-on text, or parentheical asides--always found a deeper connection to his material. In his fiction, this sometimes led to a solipsistic recursion, logical digressions and nested loops of introspection. But in his nonfiction, a new form of journalism was born, a synechdocal-gonzo hybrid that associated everything to everything. (Charlie Kaufman should be adapting Infinite Jest.) McCain's Promise proves to be no exception, "...not so much the campaign of one impressive guy, but rather what McCain's candidacy and the brief weird excitement is generated might reveal about how millennial politics and all its packaging and marketing and strategy and media and spin and general sepsis actually makes US voters feel, inside, and whether anyone running for anything can even be 'real' anymore."

So run the next 124 pages, a jampacked collection of observations not really about McCain, but about how McCain affected the political landscape, and about how badly we needed to feel something other than "the enormous shuddering yawn that the political process tends to evoke in us now in this post-Watergate-post-Iran-Contra-post-Whitewater-post-Lewinsky era, an era in which politicians' statements of principle or vision are understood as self-serving ad copy and judged not for their truth or ability to inspire but for their tactical shrewdness, their marketability." It's hard not to quote; as hard as it is to not absorb the richness of complex sentences like these, which nonetheless unfold like origami (hard to put together, easy to take apart).

It's all too easy to get lost in the abbreviation heavy language--not purple prose, but rainbow prose, effective prose, necessary prose--until you realize that despite the inclusion of words like "styptic," it's easy to stay afloat. Why? Because this essay is timeless, or at least prescient enough to describe America c. 2008: these observations transcend candidates and campaigns, and get to the root of what's wrong with politics: "It's easy to tell the truth when there's nothing to lose." How nice for DFW, then, who makes a point of reminding us that he's not a political journalist, and who punctuates this point by deriding the "12 Monkeys" (big political reporters for the MSM, distinguishable by their lack of distinguishability) and spending most of his time with the camera crew, with people like Jim C. who, because he's holding a boom mic just out of frame, is probably paying more attention than most people. Including this analysis of negativity:

Well no shit Sherlock H., the ABC techs in essence respond, good old Frank C. then explaining more patiently that, yes, if there's a low voter turnout [because the ugliness of the race has gotten voters so "bored and cynical and disgusted with the whole thing that they don't even bother to vote"], then the majority of the people who get off their ass and do vote will be the Diehard Republicans, meaning the Christian Right and the party faithful, and these are the groups that vote as they're told, the ones controlled by the GOP Establishment . . . [L]ow turnouts favor incumbents for the same reason soft money does.
As it turns out, DFW spends a great deal of time speaking in the vox populi, and it's this common tone that justifies all of his perfectly human and ultimately comic digressions ("Is it any wonder that over half of all US suicides take place in chain hotels?... Is it any coincidence that McCain's POW prison was known as the Hanoi Hilton?"), nay, which demands such momentum-stifling reports on the meaningless banality behind a campaign: "Editorial Meeting w/Detroit News. Press Conference at Weird Meth Lab-Looking Internet Company in Flint. Red-Eye to North Savannah on Chartered 707 with Faint PanAm Still Stenciled on Tail. Spartanburg SC Town Hall Meeting. Charleston Closed-Circuit TV Reception for McCain Supporters in Three States...Six Hours Flying for Two-Hour Fund-Raiser with NYC Supporters. Congressman Lindsey Graham Hosts Weird BBQ for a Lot of Flinty-Eyed Men in Down Vests and Trucker's Hats in Seneca SC." Could any other writer capture such mundanity (which is really the ghost of humanity) in the political machine?

This isn't an essay about the 2008 campaign any more than it's about the 2000 campaign, or about John McCain. It--like most, if not all of DFW's work--isn't actually even about politics, even though its observations and eerie parallels are always accurate. It's about life, the pulse of which persists in even the most artificial moments, and the hope behind all that stylized writing that we will always seek out, discover, and eventually achieve change. Here's a promise: read this essay--in fact, the whole collection. You will enjoy it.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Like You Like It

Photo/Jennifer Maurfrais Kelly

Transposing Shakespeare to high school is nothing new--Taming of the Shrew became 10 Things I Hate About You, Othello simply stood for O--and that's to say nothing of all the giddy musical riffs out there, like Kiss Me Kate, or the current production of Ilyria. But don't just shrug off this '80s take on As You Like It with a laconic "Whatever," or a lacerating "As if!" Sammy Buck (Book/Lyrics) and Daniel S. Acquisto (Music) may not be particularly ambitious with Like You Like It, but they are in firm territory, and in a fine production from the Gallery Players, in this, their second original musical production (following last year's Yank!).

Despite cutting out the social satire (and Jacques himself), the musical hews rather closely to the original. The one addition, the "narrators," rockers Jackie West and Eddie Van Beethoven (Jennifer Blood and Lance Olds) and their band, the "Seven Stages of Man," only make it easier to self-satirize the plot, enhancing the crowd-pleasing narrative, (now with 80s affectations that include Molly Ringwald, Rubik's Cubes, Swatches, and Wonder Twin powers). Apparently, cannibalizing a show is fine, as long as you use authentic spices, and keep a smile on your face. (For an instructive glimpse on how to make the most of something, keep an eye on Elisabeth Ness, who plays the hell out of the bit chorus part, "Neckbrace Girl.")

As for the story, Orlando (Nathan Johnson) is dating popular girl Audrey Shepherd (Caitlin Kent), but worries (in the aptly titled "The Song About Orlando") that nobody really likes him. The one exception is Rosalind (the fantastic Alison Luff), but she's just as shy about taking a risk as he is--a problem that is solved when Orlando's brother, Oliver (Clint Morris), suspends Rosalind and her cohort, Celia (Hollis Scarborugh). In order to spend the day wisely--shopping their cares away at the enchanting, newly opened Arden Mall--Rosalind disguises herself as a boy, Corey, while Celia channels a rebellious Madonna. They're joined, of course, by the car-driving class clown, Walter "Touchstone" James (a delightful Trey Compton), who has a crush on Celia. In one clever gender-bending twist, Sylvie and Phil (originally shepherds, but now role-reversed students, played by Brynn Curry and Michael Lowney) are best friends, dealing with the sudden revelation that Phil has fallen for Corey. (As does poor, misunderstood Audrey.) There's a lot going on, but despite the very clever Act I closer, "Complicated," the jokes are as broadly painted as the plot.

Where Like You Like It suffers isn't in the story, nor is it in the surface (Keith Andrew's choreography and Hunter Kaczorwski's costumes nail the period), but rather in the music. Musical director Jeffrey Campos isn't to blame--the large chorus numbers sound just fine. But with the exception of Luff and Scarborough, too many of the lead singers are tame (which is ironic, given a song like "Be a Little Wild"), and while they generally hit their notes, there's little behind it. (This is most apparent in the sloppy "So Close, So Far Away" number, in the short duets between Sylvie and Phil, or when Orlando takes center stage.) Comedy needs more truth, not less: that's how you sell the humor.

But hey, if all the world's a mall, then we have to accept the odd Pottery Barn out along with all the other good shops, and taken as a whole--as in the fantastic, song-blending and utterly satisfying "Finale"--Like You Like It ends up quite likeable indeed.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Catching Up . . . Being Sick . . .

I've been sick for the last few days, which is making it hard to write as considerately as I'd like to be of the shows that I've seen. In Show Business Weekly, you can find my review of Kindness, and in Time Out New York, you can find my coverage of Crawl, Fade to White.

You must find a way to get tickets for Blasted. If you can't, PS122's Blind.Ness pays homage to Sarah Kane, in a twisted, messy, broken-doll of a tone poem (with heavy pop song sampling) that somehow manages to effectively convey how women are used--the intensity of the actors, most likely, because the multimedia screens are by and large for show. And if you're looking for something gentler, terraNOVA's Blue Before Morning does a very nice job of building characters. The problem is that for all the good humor and cramped nerves, none of that energy is ever unpacked by Kate McGovern--it just takes an quick, easy detour through melodrama to blackout. This is a terrible time to be sick: there are so many great shows out there, and it burns me up (even more than my fever) to think of how I'm missing them. At least I didn't miss The Pumpkin Pie Show for the tenth year in a row: go, damn you, go.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Pumpkin Pie Show

There's a mad glint in Clay McLeod Chapman's squinting eye as he launches into "The Pool Witch," an energy about him so gleefully fresh that you not only see him as a thirteen-year-old, but see the hook his character dreams of having, too. The manic pirate speak--grossly exaggerated--sets the mood and rhythm of the story, while at the same time, somehow giving this baby-faced actor/playwright the ability to slip in poetic phrases: "Sizing up every slide Water World had to offer, it was as clear as chlorine to the seafaring three of Freddy, Chub, and me that our maiden voyage of the day had to be down the ride they called Moby's Nozzle." Later, voice aquiver, he will end up in the lap of an audience member, holding on for dear life, and you'll be hugging him back: welcome to The Pumpkin Pie Show.

This is storytelling at its most basic and finest: no set, no costumes, just bedroom stories for the adult crowd (or for some really twisted children). Tuck yourself in tightly: just don't expect to fall asleep. What makes Chapman such a terrific playwright--and entertainer--is that, as in his fiction, he is a master of voice. Ten years of the Show have only made him more confident, and the total lack of embarrassment is simultaneously endearing and terrifying: what won't they do? (He is joined by his long-time Show collaborator, Hanna Cheek, who matches his text blow for blow. The night I attended, she smoothly evoked a mother giving her prom-going son a "pep" talk in "Vagina Dentata, a jealous drunk at her younger sister's wedding in "Bridesmaid," and a seductive Southern-grown killer in "Overbite.")

The stories twist and turn--often darkly, as when a bum describes his "Poor Man's Mermaid" as having "eyes as glassy as a couple of jellyfish left on a beach of pale skin"--but what sells the show is the intensity of pure character on display. These aren't just trick stories: they are lives--admittedly, the lives of those we struggle so hard to ignore. How else to explain the tricky emotion embedded in each tale? The way the protagonist of "Overbite," despite her iron-jawed tendency to bite off a man's tongue, can still sweetly promise not to bite, or the way an elderly man can find happiness in his wife's Alzheimer ("Oldsmobile"), for that dementia makes them both young again. There's more to the Bridesmaid than the literal skeletons under the swing set: there's an honest pain in the way she feels spurned. That's the trick that Chapman has over, say, the Cryptkeeper: there's plenty of humor, but we find ourselves caring for these characters, no matter how flawed they are. (It's the same special sideways storytelling that makes Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" so anthologized.)

In one of the best moments of the evening (which, to be fair, changes at every performance: six of the fourteen plays are selected at random), Chapman's voice breaks as he observes the tan lines on the so-called "pool witch" up close, the way her name--Tabitha--is spelled out in block letters on her lifeguard-red swimsuit. It's a squeal of love, summed up in a few lines, and at the same time, a realization of the blurred line between fantasy and reality, ugliness and real beauty.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Master of Horror

Photo/Aaron Epstein

"Resist the tendency to kill the messenger for the message," says a pale-faced and red-eyed Patrick Shearer to the audience, quoting from Stephen King. "Evil is basically stupid and unimaginative and doesn't need creative inspiration from me or anybody else." That said, he can't help but take a cue from Misery as he goes about chopping off Marsha Martinez's leg, no more than his rabid co-director and Blood Brother, Pete Boisvert, or the ditsy murderess, Sister Blood (Rebecca Comtois), can refrain from splattering the front row of the Endtimes Underground theater with stage blood. However, Nosedive's third frighthology, The Master of Horror, is an adaptation of Stephen King stories, which makes this a series of secondhand plays from thirdhand actors, and while nothing's butchered, the plays frequently flatline, lacking the imagination (and freedom) of their original, themed works, Grand Guignol ('06) and Pulp ('07).

For instance, James Comtois's contribution, "Nona" (Skeleton Crew), looks at what happens to repressed emotions when the once passive Loverboy (Jeremy Goren) becomes unfettered by the enabling Nona (Jessi Gotta), leading him to go from pummeling truckers to taking out drivers, good Samaritans, and the cops as he tries to show his capacity for love. Falling back on the pulp first-person narrative, Comtois manages to convey Loverboy's plight, and Shearer's direction charmingly superimposes classic tunes over some violent acts, but Comtois's normally playful voice (as seen in his scene-changing "The Last Waltz" vignettes) is straitjacketed by the bland, single-direction plot.

Qui Nguyen, adapting "Quitters, Inc." (Night Shift), is more successful keeping his action-oriented voice intact, excitedly beginning in media res. However, the subtle menace of the original tale, in which Vic Donatti's implied violence is meant to scare Richard Morrison from ever smoking, is done in by the over-the-top "conflict" between these two, a gleeful Marc Landers and indignant Michael Criscuolo. The same goes for Cindy (Martinez), who hardly seems shocked by the bruises inflicted on her for her husband's smoking. Given the large deviations from the original (which takes the anti-smoking to the next level of regulation, weight loss), and the emphasis on a punchline ("Here's my card!"), you can practically see Nguyen trying to unburden himself from this mottled corpse of a story.

And then there's Mac Rogers, doing "In the Deathroom" (Everything's Eventual). You can see him trying to fill out the frame of King's original work, in which Fletcher (Ben Trawick-Smith) is tortured for information by a South American government. Fletcher now has an alterior motive that provides a plot twist; the torturer, Heinz (Christian Toth) is now a sadistic, nerdy, homophobe; and Escobar (Goren) is an intelligent tyrant, convinced of his own righteousness. It's admirable, but as with the other plays, it has nowhere to go, stuck as it is in the shadow of King's pacing. Even with great lines, strong direction from Boisvert, and nice acting, it ends up doing little more than producing an eye-popping effect.

In truth, Stephen King's short stories, especially his early ones, aren't that clever, original, or even good: many of them are flat. Even when they're well-performed, as with Gotta's crazed recitation of King's 100-line poem, "Paranoid: A Chant," it seems that putting King in three dimensions makes his flaws all the more visible--like watching something in high-definition for the first time. They dull the strengths of these three playwrights, the morbid special effects of the crew, and the energy of the cast, until the whole evening can do little more than shuffle, zombie-like, along.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Quote of the Week

I enrolled in a fiction-writing workshop, just so that I'd be able to balance some of the professional "review" work that I do with the artistic "writing" that I so enjoy, whether I ever publish or not. (Read: I need an agent.) But that's given me cause to start reading a lot of short stories and, along with David Foster Wallace's final syllabus (cribbed from the Internet), I wound up reading William H. Gass's In The Heart of the Heart of the Country:

Sports, politics, and religion are the three passions of the badly educated. They are the Midwest's open sores. Ugly to see, a source of constant discontent, they sap the body's strength. Appalling quantities of money, time, and energy are wasted on them. The rural mind is narrow, passionate, and reckless on these matters. Greed, however shortsighted and direct, will not alone account for it. I have known men, for instance, who for years have voted squarely against their interests. Nor have I ever noticed that their surly Christian views prevented them from urging forward the smithereening, say, of Russia, China, Cuba, or Korea. And they tend to back their country like they back their local team: they have a fanatical desire to win; yelling is their forte; and if things go badly, they are inclined to sack the coach.
That's from 1968. If I were a magazine editor (read: somebody, hire me), I would contact the alive-and-kicking Gass (or his agent) and try to pull him away from the novel he's working on (Middle C), long enough to write a non-fiction essay on the current political climate: "A Return to the Heart of the Heart of the Country." Because while the above may have been fiction, it sure doesn't read that way forty years later.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Steven Millhauser, "Dangerous Laughter"

Steven Millhauser's new collection is clearly inspired by Borges' Ficciones, with eight of the thirteen short stories bound into the category of either "impossible architectures" or "heretical histories." But he's come a long way since he started chronicling lives in 1972's Edwin Mullhouse: the comically existential interpretation of a mutually destructive Tom and Jerry cartoon ("Cat 'n' Mouse") comes across as a polished George Saunders; the solipsistic refusal to speak and newfound pleasure in language ("History of a Disturbance") could be an accomplished Paul Auster. Not to mention the fainter echoes of contemporary wordsmiths like Ben Marcus ("A Change in Fashion") or the genre-dabblings of Michael Chabon ("The Wizard of West Orange"), who has an equal appreciation for the decor of an era.

This collection catches Millhauser at his inventive best, which is good, for he still has difficultly grasping (like many of the authors above) on actual characters. That is, this is a man better suited to describe situations and machinery than the people thrust into or operating them. Sometimes this has a neat payoff--in the most affecting piece of the collection, "The Disappearance of Elizabeth Coleman," the careful analysis of a mystery is turned back on the narrator, remarking on the significance of insignificance--although sometimes, as in the too-long "The Room in The Attic," it only serves to keep us in the dark. Others, like "Dangerous Laughter," fall into a middle place, where the story remains endlessly fascinating (in this case, the depiction of "laugh parlors" and their natural development in the endless quest for something new) even as the characters remain disaffecting and disaffected.

That's why Millhauser is best sticking with his Borgian instincts, and delving deeper and deeper into our the ever-changing (inwardly spiraling) trends of our world, as in the all-encompassing world of "The Dome," the dissatisfaction associated with perfection in "In the Reign of Harad IV," and the Babel-like distance created--our fluctuations high and low--by "The Tower." There's a sheer genius in Millhauser's ability to invent something totally new--and then to follow it through to its logical end, and his writing style follows that same clockwork precision. The joy of reading Millhauser may largely be an intellectual one, but it is a pleasure all the same to spend such provocative moments in the company of chroniclers of the ever disappearing present ("Here at the Historical Society") or reading the magical-realism behind a new form of highly life-like paintings (the verisimlist movement) that were "A Precursor of the Cinema."


[Reviewed for Show Business Weekly]

Photo/Joan Marcus

We've all wanted to kill our mothers before; in that, Adam Rapp is dead on. It's not even all that hard to understand why Dennis (Christopher Denham), an obedience-challenged son, wants to kill his cancer-stricken mother, Maryanne. Annette O’Toole, in a wonderfully fragile performance, emphasizes the “mother” in “smother” as she alternates from sweet concern to selfish demand.

But the cruelness bound up in Kindness, (foreshadowed by a hammer that appears, all Chekhovian, at the start of the far more interesting second act), seems to scare Rapp. He runs from the plot of his most human, and certainly most naturalistic play, swapping out Maryanne for Frances (Katherine Waterston), a fey plot device. The two, of course, start drinking and flirting—“Are we falling in love?” Dennis asks in the middle of a lip-synch to “White Rabbit”—and it’s a charming distraction, but it’s less than kin, and far too kind.

Kindness continues to delay actual drama (barring the suspenseful but implausible plot) by describing Rent-like musical (Survivin’) that takes shots at neatly summarized theater—but gets back on track in Act II, as Maryanne returns. With her is a new acquaintance, Herman (Ray Anthony Thomas), a black cab driver, and he restores a sense of sincerity (and racial subtext) to the play. It also elevates the unspoken tragedy of this “jubilant” trip to New York City: with only a month to live, this is Maryanne’s last chance to be treated with anything deeper than a sterile, clinical kindness, and her interactions with Herman (just like the easy, all-too casual conversations between Dennis and Frances) show what’s behind the short spats between mother and son.

Things are deeper than that, but it’s not until the “real” (but tangentially so) slices of life fade—Dennis’s father, sobbing from yet another casino; Frances, looking for, and fearing, independence—that Kindness focuses on the underlying conflict. Here, buried in Denham’s quiet, tragic rage, and far from Rapp’s loose, comic range, the play at last reaches its shuddering truth.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Clay McLeod Chapman, "miss corpus"

Every author, by definition, uses artifice to shape a story. What determines their skill is the level of truth beneath that technique. Clay McLeod Chapman makes one mistake in miss corpus, relying on a too-literal (and literary) metaphor, one that makes the novel his child and his Southern setting the mother (I-95's both the backbone and the umbilical cord). In truth, that's just a purr in the engine as it warms up, and the moment Chapman launches into the first of his two collision-bound protagonists, William Colby, you might as well chuck Chuck Palahniuk to the side, crown a new king beyond Stephen King. This is not detached horror, or genre fiction: this is violence used to communicate the bruised, fleshy side of love, and it is shockingly sincere.

To achieve this effect, Chapman alternates between past and present, so that we begin to fall in love with Will's wife, Shelly, just as we learn that she is dead. He litters the page with delicate images, a culmination of the oxymoronic ugly beauty that he has perfected in his plays. As Will bends over the corpse--"Her neck looked like it had attempted to turtle her head down inside her rib cage, her shoulders swallowing up most of her throat"--he recognizes the manubrium, and suddenly we're seeing Shelly as she "wrapped her lips over the thin rim of bone, sealing those two hollows together." A moment later, as he "straightened out each of her limbs, kneading the rigor mortis free from her joints," we catch a lighter moment, mid-massage, as the two plan their road-trip honeymoon to Florida. Stricken with grief in the present, Will attempts to cling to the past in a way that, as narrated, is only slightly improbable, bundling his wife into coolers, and the coolers into the backseat, driving down I-95.

This journey gives Chapman the opportunity to play with the monologues of other characters, the sort of people who are largely ignored in fiction. There's Wallace Reese, who describes what it's like to work in a toll booth (he brings an empty jug to work), and also Audrey Dow, who sadly recalls what sex is like in a meatlocker--not to mention Will's strange encounters with a boy with a corncob for an arm, the "preggers special" of an abortion doctor, and through it all, his sweet memories of life with Shelly. Cumulatively, it distorts the normal material of fiction, hewing to a familiar narrative, but skinning off the cliched descriptive fat and boiling it alive. We could all live for lines as gothically descriptive as the lonely son of a motel owner's "Counting sheep didn't help. I simply scraped them off my skull, one by one," or his eerie descriptions of a fire (which could've come straight from his play, Volume of Smoke): "With those kids still in their evening attire, looked to me like they were all dancing--the boys with their molten tuxedos, the girls in their scorched gowns. They partied until they dropped, one by one. Bet it was the best prom they'd ever had."

Every time things get too dark, Chapman switches gears, which allows him to continue down I-95, and to fittlingly describe the unsettling and often unwritten flipsides to every happy story. In the largest of these shifts, the narration switches to follow Phil. As the cops at last dredge his son's corpse out of a Florida swamp, he bundles the corpse into his car to reunite with his wife, up in South Carolina, the opposite direction of Will, but along the same road, which allows us to continue reading more or less in tandem. This device (Northbound/Southbound) is unnecessary, but it does get across the unversiality of grief.

Miss Corpus is a tragically sweet story that catches Chapman as he transitions from short story to novel form. If there are a few bumps in the telling, better to simply appreciate the courage it takes to drive an off-road tale like this. Better still to simply roll down one's blinders and enjoy the bold breeze of the ride.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Waves of Mu

The first sign that Waves of Mu is trying just a little too hard is when, to enter the theater, you have to take off your shoes and walk through an art installation that resembles the mind. You go in one ear and it all comes out the other, but that's actually pretty neat: walking on squishy foam that bounces like brain tissue, getting bossed about by a secretary who happens to be the thalamus. No, what's working too hard in Amy Caron's world is that we're offered chocolate and champagne, neither of which represent anything, and for a play that's obsessed on how our senses (mirror neurons) translate information to produce empathy, it doesn't do to send out mixed signals.

After the exhibit, we're loaded into a theater-turned-laboratory, made to sign waivers, and prepared to participate in several psychological experiments. As it turns out, another disappointment, we're actually just meant to watch (there's perhaps too much emphasis on the video of this mulidisciplinary work). At first, we look at random dots and gradually associate them with human shapes; next, we move on to a video of a baby, and our inherent understanding of the complex facial expressions it is learning. It's obvious, but not painfully so (unless cuteness irritates you).

However, these moments are surrounded by some very loose connections to an interview with the quite charismatic V. S. Ramachandran. Sarah flips out in a demonstration of compulsive echolailic language, two assistants describe Amy's balloon blowing in a literal and then figurative fashion, our shoes are given to us as presents--but these events have little to do with empathy. Other scenes--a video of the 2008 NFC Championship, the ensuing relaxation conjured up by watching a cat, and a meditative exercise about gravity--go on long after the point is made. Caron is clearly fascinated with this world, and wholly at play, be it with small-talk and string or interpretive dance. However, audiences may find their mirror neurons out of sync with her ultimately cloying presentation.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Lee Blessing: "A Body of Water" and "Two Rooms"

Lee Blessing's latest work, A Body of Water, focuses on the loss of memory but the retention of body, and what that means for a relationship; a revival of his older play, Two Rooms looks at our struggle to keep a memory alive once the body is gone. Both works show the effect of time: Two Rooms comes across as a little dated, although emotionally relevant, whereas A Body of Water shows a modern playwright who is utterly exhausted.

- A Body of Water

Photo/James Leynse

If you somehow managed to condense Lost into a two-person play, added a third character to twist the plot in a Memento-type fashion, and then stripped out the drama, you'd have Lee Blessing's aimless new play, A Body of Water. Normally, plays either suffer from characters in search of a plot, or a plot in search of characters: here, Blessing suffers both simultaneously, for his characters are in search of their character, and that, in effect, is the plot.

Moss (Michael Cristofer) and Avis (Christine Lahti) awake to find themselves naked in bed together; after casually regrouping in bathrobes that conveniently fit them, they set about rationally exploring the situation. There are some comic bits, particularly involving a search for scrotal birthmarks that might trigger some insight, and then Wren (Laura Odeh) enters, clarifying that A Body of Water is actually a drama, and that Moss and Avis, married, are on trial for murder, and that she is trying to get them to remember enough to defend themselves.

Just kidding! Actually, as Wren confesses--fifteen minutes later--she's actually their daughter, and she's just messing with them because their memory loss, which has made her a live-in nurse, drives her crazy, and this is her revenge. As for the accident, it's a murder-suicide. Or not. We're as much in the dark as Moss and Avis, and considering that they change personalities each time they wake up (this is called a dramatic device: it keeps things "interesting"), the plot is a liquid mess of falsehoods, always rippling in new directions. Maria Mileaf directs broadly, trying to eke out some small shred of entertainment, but when you're stuck going down shit creek without a paddle, the last thing you want is to watch a clown juggling in the backseat.

- Two Rooms

Photo/Aaron Epstein

When Lainie's (Angela Christian) husband, Michael (Michael Laurence) is kidnapped by terrorists on an oversea trip, she resolves to continue to live her life in parallel to his, convinced that living in a dark room, devoid of furniture, will somehow make her feel closer to him. Two Rooms uses this heavy-handed metaphor, to draw the attention of Ellen van Oss (Adinah Alexander), a professional shrew for the State Department, and the manipulative friendship of Walker Harris (Patrick Boll), a reporter obsessed with forcing the government's hand.

The play that follows is too structurally clever to seem real, and Peter Flynn's literal direction (the two rooms are the same set, cued only by a difference in lighting) often confuses the thrust of the action--especially since the actors often sit in the visible wings, watching. These artificial moments don't seem so bad, though, with a blindfold on, and Mr. Laurence does a wonderful job--smooth, strong, and even--living in his dangerous present or, ghost-like, interacting with his comforting past. (Again: it's the same room.) Ms. Christian also feeds nicely off this energy: it gives her a rawer emotion to play with than the intelligent and collected soundbites that she shares with her restrained and professional visitors. Quips and metaphors about birds, for example, are straining to put the hostage situation into context; Lee Blessing does his best writing when he's simply dealing with the actual circumstance (or the dream that Lainie has conjured up for it) and ignoring the lecturing from Ellen (there's a literal PowerPoint presentation of war photos).

Ultimately, it's not the room that's important, but what's inside it--or, in Lainie's case, what's missing from it. The more that Blessing and Flynn fill that world with clever metaphors and literal interpretations, the harder it is for the actors to actually deal with their loneliness and grief.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Photo/Jocelyn Gonzales

If one is going to call Edgar Allen Poe's Eureka a prose poem (it's an essay), one might as well call Hanon Reznikov's theatrical adaptation of it a play. But if one wants to be honest to the hard work that Judith Malina has put into the choreography, it's far closer to interpretive dance: Fuerzabruta for the New Age crowd.

After all, by placing the audience in the middle of the action--no, by asking them to participate in this highly ambitious re-creation of the world (it is not, unfortunately, as recreational as intended)--it becomes near impossible to absorb what is going on, and that lessens what Poe calls "the rhythmical creation of beauty in words." Instead, we are absorbed, traveling from the elemental stage (in which we are instructed to "embody" an element, as if we were in an Alexander class) through evolution (a slideshow that could be right out of Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi) and finally to what is meant to be an empowering moment of self-actualization--taking one's place in the universe--that unfortunately comes across as cheesily as the audience running on stage for Hair's "Let The Sunshine In."

The problem Eureka! faces--aside from the average theatergoer's unfamiliarity with Alexander von Humboldt and transcendental thought--is that these ideas are expressed with such sincerity that they cannot help coming off as utterly hokey up close. It's a wonderful thought to believe that one can change the world by dancing on stage with the cast of Eureka!--and that's assuming you don't simply feel uncomfortable as you are gently pushed and prodded to follow along--but it's quite naive, too. Still, it's a brave exploration, in line with the Living Theater's commitment to something greater than mere art: not quite "Eureka!" but perhaps worthy of a solemn "Aha!"

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Wig Out!

Photo/Carol Rosegg

One of the pure pleasures of theater involves being exposed to something fresh and original, like a unique voice or a little-known sector of the world. In his NY debut, Tarell Alvin McCraney brought an African rhythm to an urban life, turning a familiar tale into epic poetry; in his latest work, Wig Out!, he breathes a sassy glamour and turns a few linguistic tricks for the house ball scene, a world of drag competitions (read: not racing). The subject matter, like the language, is very pretty, but the dresses are on manniquins, so unless you're already into, say, Project Runway and drag queens, the show's a confusing jumble of interesting acts without any big idea.

In terms of attitude, Wig Out! is the freshest thing to go on stage since Passing Strange (in fact, "If you looking for 'the real,' you missed it, Stew wraped that ditty up a couple months back, baby), and it's certainly more authentic than the fumbling Bash'd. What it lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in breadth, starting with James Schuette's runway set (with "dressing rooms" visible in the elevated wings and a large stage in the middle of the normal seating area) and going through Toni-Leslie James's absolutely fabulous costuming (particularly the chorus--three real women--who paint the whole (mo)town red). As for Tina Landau's direction, it maintains a thrilling edge of mystery, going from cheap pull-curtain effects straight to the elaborately choregraphed dance-off.

When it comes to character, however, the lack of depth can't be ignored. Although each member of the House of Light gets a monologue in which they explain the origins of their current identity ("My grandmother wore a wig"), all the in-house flirting and complex relationships come across as absolutely foreign to the layman, particularly the competition between the muscular, controlling father, Lucian (Erik King), and his graceful and deliberate counterpart, mother Rey-Rey (Nathan Lee Graham). In particular, King powers through his lines ("Real nigga shit"), and it's not clear what he wants out of the House of Light. The more recognizable relationships between the on-again/off-again Venus and Deity (Joshua Cruz and Glenn Davis) and Ms. Venus's seduction of the perfect stranger, Eric (Clifton Oliver and Andre Holland), give a clearer touchstone, but even then, it's not clear why Eric is so quick to cheat on his new love (nor why he's called "Eric the Red"), save for it being dramatically convenient.

If Vineyard is expecting Wig Out! to make us flip our wigs through culture shock, they need to make the show more aggressive (more scenes with Daniel T. Booth or a night at Lucky Cheng's might help) and do more than provide a glossary for clueless audience members. Simply opening a window to another world isn't enough: you've got to make us feel it, too.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Michael Weller: "Beast" and "Fifty Words"

The magic of Michael Weller's writing is such that his characters are so well-defined, so alive (even when dead) that whether they're silent, limited to fifty words, or given the fullness of a full-length, they are absolutely clear. However, as a playwright, Weller is far from economic: that's fine for the rough relationship drama of Fifty Words, in which repetition and the runaround of words threaten to kill a marriage, but the "fever dream" of Beast's comic look at war stress the same chords in all six of its hopelessly melodramatic acts.

- Beast

Photo/Joan Marcus

War is another place, another world, and we cannot hope to understand it from afar. So Weller doesn't bother trying: he just distills a secondhand vision into comedic form, literally trying to put a new face on an old dream. However, aside from one fresh (albeit decaying) face in the face of Benjamin Voychevsky (Corey Stoll), who is a war-hero turned literal zombie, the play simply repeats the same broad message over and over again. Along with his best friend, ex-GI Jimmy Cato (Logan Marshall-Green), the two encounter corruption in an arms-dealing captain, decay in the services of a pimp's blind prostitutes, violence at Benjamin's home, religion in the attitude of a trucker, and even opportunism in George W. Bush's own home. And through it all, they are the ones who turn their back on America: they are accepted (dead flesh, quirks, and all) but cannot adapt.

The aesthetics, as usual for a New York Theater Workshop production, are superb: Eugene Lee's cold set, Tal Yarden's saturated video clips, and Nathan Johnson's terrifying makeup keep things watchable. But the deeper meaning of the US flag cheaply painted on each box (Lego-like blocks that make up the sets) doesn't penetrate what is essentially an indulgent buddy comedy (with a monster). Talking about the glib surface of America is important, but even when dealing with Bush himself, things remain superficial. It's fair for Benjamin to demand his "inspiring" face on Mount Rushmore: after all, he's got as much of a pulse as the country, or for that matter, this play.

The cast is also notable: the fluttery Lisa Joyce and Steve Martin-like Dan Butler provide some nice double- and triple-casting, and both Stoll and Marshall-Green (who has finally stopped looking for the cameras) fill the play with a dangerous subtext, as if any moment the play might snap. But it doesn't: the play simply stretches further and further, a rubber-band without an exit strategy. At the end, there must be more than the parable that we need to confront the ugly truths of this country with a little more honesty.

- Fifty Words

Photo/Joan Marcus

Everything you need to know about the marriage in Fifty Words can be summed up without any words. In Austin Pendleton's clever pre-blackout moment, Adam (Norbert Leo Butz) marches down the stairs and Jan (Elizabeth Marvel) comes through the front door, the two glide silently past one another. It's as if we've caught them naked. Moments later, we see them with their masks back on, playing the happy married couple, though now we're jaded enough to realize that they won't remain clothed for long, especially when even the cheery lines cut to the quick.

Given this underlying circumstance, Michael Weller has room to play with his cute and clever lines: in fact, by starting Adam as a goofball romantic ("In case there's any ambiguity, that was foreplay") and Jan as the intelligent thinker, he's able to make the most of the contradictions that so define humanity. It's hard to notice at first (and this is why Pendleton's actor-driven focus is so efficient), but both characters are struggling to bridge the invisible difference between them. Their first night alone in nine years (their son is at his first sleepover) has Adam trying to avoid touchy subjects with wine ("This is how arguments start, isn't it?") and Jan trying to unwind the knots that have her focusing on the food rather than her feelings. Fifty words is an awful lot, but the beauty of English language is how precisely imprecise that allows characters to be when sidestepping the bitter truth. If George and Martha's parlor games defined the last generation of Americans, Adam and Jan's doubletalk defines our world today.

Rising action, especially in a two-hander, often leads to melodrama, but Butz and Marvel are too nuanced for simple climaxes, and what's particularly satisfying about Fifty Words is the way in which truth seems to catch them both by surprise: "I had no idea you were so angry," Adam says; "Neither did I," Jan replies. Pendleton also uses props to shape the nature of these arguments. One of the most intense moments ends up being one of the most tender: it's hard to carry on when you've got a shard of glass stuck in your foot. In the midst of another meltdown, one character tries to butter toast: funny how impossible the small things become when they're swept up in a larger disaster. The greatest feat of staging is Pendleton's refusal to blackout between scenes: instead, he just shows a character, frozen in time, as one scene--one year, one lifetime--bleeds into the next. Precise yet undefinable, it's one more reason we need at least Fifty Words.

metaDRAMA: It's My Birthday

Now that I've made it to the big 25 (Allstate's already started calling me and pouring mail down my throat . . . which is great considering I don't have a car, a license, or a permit) and I start looking forward to my next big milestone (48, simply because that's the only thing I may be able to beat my footnoting idol at), I take the moment to look back (akin to how others might atone) and assess what I might do better. Unfortunately, as long as I continue to work a full-time job that's not related to theater (squeezing in blog entries and the occasional capsule review during a lunch break or stray hour of free time), I don't think I'll ever find the time I want to actually write features or interview some of the actors out there. Unless, say, there were some online way to have a conversation with someone, record it, and then save it directly to a text post. (Hm . . .)

As I look into a way to do more than try to canvas as broad a swath of theater as I can (and though I'm behind on reviews of Michael Weller's and Lee Blessing's productions, I think I've done a decent job of shining a light through some of the foliage), I thought I'd open things up to you, the readers. What, if anything, would you like to see more (or less) of? In other words, to all of you fellow bloggers, artists, and readers--the people I'm writing for--what is most helpful, most important to you? Hell, even if it's something I'm not capable of doing on my own, what is it that's still missing from the theatrosphere? (For instance, a Metacritic/Rotten Tomatoes for--at the least--NYC theater.)

I think everyone, as they grow older, fears the silent creep of stagnation. After three years of trying to find my own way (and always fearing the ceaseless but far from infinite tick-tock of the clock), I would love to hear from some of you. Format changes are fine, but I think (and especially given the current political climate, the frightening economic situation, and all the other bogies of the so-called "real world" [as if "real" could be so easily classified]) we all need to be asking ourselves the questions (a) what more can we do and (b) what can we change. Even if it's just starting to think a little differently on something as small and simple as a blog.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Brew of the Dead

In recent years, some zombie movies have evolved beyond the simplistic shock and awe of their stumbling forefathers. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, for instance, points to humanity as the real monster in any horror film, and Romero's ... of the Dead series has grown as increasingly political as it has action-packed. As one may guess from the title of Patrick Storck's Naked Gun-like spoof, Brew of the Dead, this play has no interest in drawing such heady metaphors: it just wants to see the glistening head on a fresh pour of beer, zombies be damned. (A brewery's fortified, right?)

That fixed obsession, shared by far less talented frat boys around the world, is part of the raging success of this Dysfunctional Theatre Company show. The frenzied stupor of the fast-paced, almost drunken-fist action (well directed by Justin Plowman) allows the cast to eat and regurgitate pop-culture brains, from the obvious Shaun of the Dead gameplan to the Evil Dead homage, even extending to the crowbar from the Half-Life video game series and a mood-setting series of video interludes that range from Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast to an "advertisement" for Mentos, the Fleshmaker.

As for the cast, there hasn't been a group this talented at high-octane punning since Evil Dead: The Musical. (When asked to come up with the best way to kill the living dead, Craig suggests that they "insert Tab A into zom-B.") Then again, they need to be as swift with their wits as with their feet, considering the absent plot: Matt, Derek, Kim, Craig, and Nexus are trying to survive the zombie apocalypse by hiding in a brewery, and when one of them gets bitten, they decide to test an impromptu cure--drink the virus into submission. Peter Schuyler, the rowdiest of the bunch, is the comic gem of the rough bunch--"Hey, if I turn into a zombie, can you get me to fight a shark? I got five bucks on the shark."--but he's well matched by Amy Beth Sherman's Trinity-like "Nexus," a bad-ass comic, and Eric Chase's goofy charm as Matt. Rounding out the cast are the more serious Tom O'Connor and straightwoman Amy Overman: both are fine, but the play is built for the muscular, over-the-top laughs that their characters cannot provide.

Brew of the Dead feels like it's been poured straight from the tap, but with the benefit of a good oast-like rehearsal process. It goes far beyond the simple "drinkability" of Bud Lite commercials and ends up like more of a Guinness: dark, frothy, and practically a meal in a can.

Monday, October 06, 2008


Nemesis, a new play by Michael Buckley about two friends-cum-actors-cum-rivals isn't nearly as clever as Itamar Moses's recent introspective look at jealousy, The Four of Us. This is both a boon and a curse: on the one hand, the simple structure (scenes given weight by explanatory and depricating monologues) allows the actors to be brutally honest about their insecurities and travails. On the other, the show doesn't develop very much beyond our first impressions: Dan (Buckley) is a whiner, so self-obsessed that he can't see that (unfortunately) talent isn't always what deserves recognition, and Eric (Will Poston) is simply relaxed and casual, even when he tells the audience that he's a mess. The result is an unglamourously extended episode of Entourage, with Eric abruptly seeking to be more than the highest-grossing actor in "Agent Orange" (he wants to play a "retard," and not in Tropic Thunder's satirical sense) and Dan flying out to Hollywood to provide (and recieve) moral support after his days on the rural touring circuit turn his Romeo into a drunk.

The actors are both charming, but neither is especially truthful: a real shame, especially since it's a play about actors, featuring (by necessity) actors, one of whom wrote the play. Playing on Hollywood stereotypes is, by now, a stereotype itself, and Buckley's jokes would be better if they were fresh ("hacktor" is pretty weak) or if they weren't so grimly prescient (2:1 that the CW really does try to make a "Top Gun" television series). In fairness to the shallow world Nemesis so playfully indulges in, charm does go a long way. Less so, however, when director Chad M. Brinkman tries to dress it up as "multimedia" (the actors are projected, as in a hall of mirrors, onto a screen behind them), or when Qui Nguyen's always entertaining fight choreography is used to simulate actual drama.

By keeping the characters in seperate monologues for so long, and belaboring their careers from high school through Hollywood, Buckley stretches his material far too thin. Beyond a jealousy that is only momentarily addressed head-on, there are no obstacles or actions, just long stretches of smilingly presented plot. If there is a real nemesis in Nemesis, it is the playwright on the actor, slyly limiting his characters without ever giving them a chance to strike back.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

James Wood's "How Fiction Works"

Struggle, dear readers and writers, to outwit that inevitable aging that puts novelist life always on the brink of mere convention. So concludes James Wood, a very excellent critic, after 247 raptly meandering pages through the passionate history of the novel (as we know it). So sure is he that it's near impossible to quibble with his close-reads and profound analyses: if we disagree with his perspective, it is only because he has succeeded in waking up our own literary taste buds. For lack of a better word, or perhaps because it is the best word: bam!

Though he constantly contradicts himself--either directly (as he explains why round characters are critical, but why flat ones can also be necessary) or indirectly (he frequently makes Roland Barthes play devil's advocate)--Wood holds several things in high esteem. Profound noticers trump the lengthy abstractions of David Foster Wallace, who uses the "free-indirect style" (when a third-person voice is influenced by the character it is observing) to override character. He also swoons for Gaerard Manley Hopkins's "thisness," Christopher Isherwood's "recording camera" of a pen, and Flaubert's ability to notice and compress the time signatures of an entire town.

What is more important, however, is that Wood holds nothing in low esteem (or at least does not specify the genre works that he avoids): he believes a novel fails "not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level." No surprise, then, that his strongest section is "Detail" ("While we should try to be the kind of writer on whom nothing is lost, we have no need to be the kind of writer on whom everything is found"), while his blandest section psychoanalyses: "Truth, Convention, Realism," begins by quoting Rick Moody and Patrick Giles at length, then dismisses them as "more or less nonsense." (How Fiction Works helps to draw attention to the preciseness of imprecise words, even those that fall into cliche--because doesn't even cliche tell us something?)

Then again, this is bound to happen when one sets out with the admirable, yet down-to-earth goal of asking a critic's questions and offering a writer's answers. Wood is bound to his source materials, for every time he gets hung up arguing the merits of verisimilitude and artifice, someone like Virginia Woolfe will ask "Why should a real chair be better than an imaginary elephant?" In fact, Wood is clearest when anchored to detail: his favorite metaphor is the one which "estranges and then instantly connects, and in doing the latter so well, hides the former. The result is a tiny shock of surprise, followed by a feeling of inevitability."

Would that I could give How Fiction Works as close a reading as Wood provides for his heroes, but if there's anything this book demonstrates, it's the lack of comparative experience I have to Mr. New Yorker. Allow George Eliot, then, to carry us out with a beautiful reason for fiction and my personally renewed mission: "Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot." Onwards, then, and upwards.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Estrogenius Festival: Series A

From a marketing standpoint, the Estrogenius Festival is brilliant. But when it comes to honesty and entertainment, the first week's five one-act offerings fall short of Mensa's theatrical standards (except for Ashleigh Murray's stirring performance in Cheryl Davis's "Child of the Movement"). The festival is still a success: the playwrights show remarkable range and, even in the rockiest moments, take on an energetic, unfaltering pride in their voices. If they're tripping on anything, it's not having enough to talk about.

Take, for instance, Bekah Brunstetter's "Dead Soap," which follows the much-trodden path of satirizing the soap genre. Hutch and Mackenzie (Jason Griffith and Jennifer Kailey Nelson) take center stage, emoting and gesticulating like there's no tomorrow. As the director calls ten, turning off the fan and allowing their hair to fall down, there's the hope that something fresh is coming, but instead, Mackenzie leaves Hutch onstage to talk to his idol, Farley, an embittered old star who isn't afraid to expose the hypocrisy of the small screen. However, Mackenzie's real-life stomach stapling, stipulated in her contract, is unsettlingly laughed off ("I think I'm bleeding internally"), and Hutch's off-camera rejection of Mackenzie ("It's, I mean, in the real world...") feels too compressed to go anywhere new: the play ends before it really begins.

The same goes for Montserrat Mendez's ode to fag hags, "Fag Hag/Fruit Fly: A Goldilocks Story," which, written in a cloying, insiderish fashion, has Janey (Yan Xi) worrying about the play she has to write for Lanie (Susan Slotoroff), a producer of the Estrogenius Festival. This leads her to team up with her muse (Judy W. Chen) to rewrite her bland experience at a Starbucks into a liberating release from her discovery that her boyfriend, Lance (Thomas Rowen) has a boyfriend, Gap (James Edward Becton). Mendez covers for not having much to say by saying it very loudly and then repeating it in an even louder tone, but clever jokes about minorities (particularly Becton's rage at being put in the "blackground") do not make up a play.

Andrea Lepcio's "Tumble Jumble" and Paula Caplan's "What Mommy Told Me" both fly off in the opposite directions. In the first, Lepcio throws four monologues in the air--a girl's growing independence, her mother's perfect rewedding, her father's sorrowful loss of a faithful dog, and a stranger's misfortune--and then links them with a deus ex monologue from a card player who notes that life is all about the luck of the draw. It's an interesting trick, filled with form, but it has no substance: those scattered moments are either stagnant or too neatly piled together. Caplan, on the other hand, takes a true story as her substance, but takes such a heavy-handed form--a mother's pleading address to the audience--that it becomes as hard for us to take her seriously as it is for the too obviously bigoted judge. Both plays have fine physical direction, from Dina Epshteyn and Heather Lanza, but end up trapped in symbolism.

The one play that stands out is Davis's "Child of the Movement," also based on a true story, on that of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl from Montgomery, one who preceded Rosa Parks's involvement with the NAACP, but who was ultimately cast out for being "one of the bad ones" on account of her pregnancy to an older, married man. In this single focused scene, we see Girl (Ashleigh Murray) at her strongest--a true activist--and at her weakest, defending herself against the NAACP chair (Tom Southern) who admires her spirit and despises her situation. It's Murray's fault (if you can call it that) that the rest of the short plays seem so weak. She so embodies the shining truth of her role, speaking out loudly and boldly, that it exposes the shallowness of everything before it.

It's crucial that we have a wider range of voices in the theater, women and minorities alike. But as this first week shows, it's even more important that we have something important to say.