Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Irony Alert

ConEd wants me to help save energy . . . by installing air-conditioning. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the best way to save energy to not have air conditioning? According to my calculations, the single fan that I use -- only when I'm at home, and only roughly four months a year -- costs at most 1 kwH a day ($0.13). A single window unit uses 20 to 30 times as much energy. Oh, and ConEd's "energy-saving program" requires participants to install at least two window units. I understand the principle of taking baby steps, sure, but they should be toward dependence on A/C--they should be away from it.

Well, at least all this mistaking-trees-for-forests will come in handy once we no longer have any forests.

To tie this into theater news, by the way, I must congratulate the Brick on getting a new A/C system just in time for their Too Soon Festival (and to prevent overheating during their upcoming Game Play Festival). But I will say that whereas audiences have sometimes been uncomfortable in the summer heat of the Brick, I was totally freezing the last time I was there. I warn you all in advance, since their shows are still totally worth seeing.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Charles Smith's history play, Freed, is often slow, repetitive, and creaky, but the story is of such importance and--at times--elegance, that these flaws can largely be overlooked. It tells the story of John Newton Templeton, a freed slave who, in 1828, became one of the first African Americans to graduate college. More importantly, it tells the story of a man who was content to learn what he was allowed, but who grew to demand that he be allowed to think for himself, rejecting the "Claims of Liberia" speech that he had written for the American Conservation Society, and refusing to be a puppet figurehead for their movement--which wanted to return these men to Liberia, Africa. (Damn the natives, too.) Most importantly, it tells the story of a man who, as of Monday, June 28, 2010, at 2:50 PM, does not appear in Wikipedia, and is therefore in danger of being revised out of our country's problematic past.

Lest that lead mislead you, Smith's play is as much about the man as it is about the story, and thanks to Sheldon Best, who plays Templeton, that's actually where it shines brightest. Best's experience working with the manic Vampire Cowboy Theatre Company (he played a talking teddy bear in their recent Alice in Slasherland) has only enhanced his range, and he's able to bring both a mature, thoughtful solemnity and a youthful, brash anger to the role. Both are needed, for while he starts out as an eager pupil content to rely on the kindness of his "rescuer," Robert Wilson (Christopher McCann), he slowly comes to realize that Wilson is not so much helping him as using him, a fact that's pointed out all too often by Wilson's bitterly oppressed wife, Jane (Emma O'Donnell). Moreover, since there are only three actors, the majority of the key moments are recounted as memories, and Best brightly relives those moments, from the way he trembles at the understanding of what "Mongo the Monkey" represents to the horror on his face when he recognizes his own unintentional actions against the "renegade" Native Americans in the area.

This is also where the play falters. Smith is forced, time and time again, to put offstage actions into onstage words, and this leads him to repeat himself. This is particularly the case with McCann, who reduces the role to such small-minded objectives that at times he's hardly distinguishable from the simple wooden wall that makes up Joseph J. Egan's set. It's not until he's spurred to anger toward the end of the play--which is also where he stops dropping his lines--that he acts with intent and reveals his narrow-mindedness as blind arrogance. O'Donnell, of the inconsistent accent, also suffers from information overload, although she's at least given an inequality of her own to fight against: She is not permitted to ride her own horse, as it would be unseemly, nor even to attend her husband's college. She's also allowed to speak to the tragic weight hanging in the background--the death of her son--and O'Donnell makes the most of this opportunity.

There's no denying that Freed is shackled by Smith's laborious pacing and his tendency to have characters over-explain themselves and their situations. But those chains cannot hold a story like this--or an actor as irrepressible as Best--down, and in some ways, the struggle of the actors against the play itself is almost as captivating as the subject matter.

Monday, June 28, 2010

TV: Hung

Maybe it's partly because I--like many others--am about to become unemployed right after the COBRA subsidies are repealed (because I guess nobody is getting laid off any more), but I found the second season of HBO's sly cure for depression, Hung, to be a delightful diversion. My innuendo filled review is up at Slant, so check it out, especially if you're hiring.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Jeannie's Abortion

Eric Bland is a genius. Not the best playwright, but certainly one hell of an observational, poetic, philosophical hipster genius. His rambunctious new show, Jeannie's Abortion, feels a lot like Waking Life--plot is never a pressing concern; the ideas are--and his writing is best summed up by the way his characters describe themselves: as ironic (in the "weird and indifferently extravagant or aloofly quirky" sense) and "Post-" (perhaps the Post-Beat Generation). The play is also neatly balanced between light and charming dialogues ("You ate like all the waffles." "Bullshit." "Bull-fact.") and deep digressive monologues ("The body is like Patrocles was to Achilles.... The mind is like Sex and the City, a friend or a good lover...") If you've ever wanted to hear someone talk about Pedro Almodovar and The Legend of Zelda in the same breath, this is the show for you.

The slice-of-life structure of Jeannine's Abortion (subtitled "A Play in One Trimester") follows the serious Morgan and her too-cute lover, Emily (Morgan Anne Zipf and Emily Perkins); the chill Daniel and his sweetheart, the charmingly lush Lindsey (Daniel Kublick and Lindsey Carter); the unshakable Jeannine (Siobhan Doherty); the cultured Sarah (Sarah Engelke), who is off in China; and the deadpan loner, Jeff (Jeff Lewonczyk). The synopsis, however, may be a bit too on the nose: "They exist with one another, and Jeannine has an abortion." That is, the characters are fun to watch--it's like hanging out at a house party--but the play is exactly what it is: three months in the lives of your peers. It's an exercise in, or a reminder of, normalcy. When the show is on--especially in the scenes with Daniel--you want to grab a drink and join in; when it's off--unfortunately, many of the distant scenes with Sarah--you feel like you've outstayed your welcome.

Thankfully, Hope Cartelli's a very welcoming director, and if anything, she's played up the sweetness of the show, allowing actors (like the aptly named Perkins) to round out their roles. You're bound to like this cast, even when they're idly stuffed into the background of scenes they don't belong in, like a sour and out-of-place dream sequence or an angry, unnecessary flashback of a road trip to the Jersey Shore. It boils down to something Daniel says early in the show--and no, not his cereal-box metaphor for choice, or the lack thereof, though the play could stand to be more active. "I'm not just caffeinated. I'm serious," he says. Which begs the question: what happens when that buzz wears off? For some, Jeannie's Abortion may be too chock full o' ideas.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Little One

Photo/Daniel Winters

James Comtois is a fanboy when it comes to comics, horror, and film, and not a play from his company, Nosedive, goes by that doesn't have some mixture of the three. The same goes for his long time co-artistic director, Pete Boisvert (a fan of the well-placed blood packet), who has by now mastered the tricky feat of staging parallel scenes, working in fight choreography (courtesy of Qui Nguyen), and making the weirdest of scenes seem just normal enough that they still have bite. However, their own desires sometimes get in their own way, leading to gratuitously empty scenes and bloated scripts that could use a great deal of editing. Comtois is at his best when he's creating his own rules or stretching classic scenarios to balls-out extremes; respectful homage isn't always flattering.

Thankfully, The Little One--a modern vampire story--most often finds Comtois at his inventive best. Rather than dwell on the soppy forbidden romances of Twilight, the campy politics of True Blood, the supernatural action of Underworld, or the classic Gothic horror of Dracula, Comtois has crafted a creative character piece that embraces the otherness of vampires and the sense of isolation that immortality can bring (like a bloodier Tuck Everlasting). Cynthia (the formidable Becky Byers) learns this the hard way, because her creator, the sadistic Artemis (Ryan Andes), kills himself before she can be properly mentored. It falls to Artemis's all-business partner, Marie (a delightfully mature Rebecca Comtois), to show her how to "hunt" (in nightclubs, and with flashy, leg-baring dresses), and to the savage governor Gogol (a cockney Patrick Shearer, in a much appreciated to-the-hilt performance) to show her how to fight. By skipping ahead 350 years during intermission, Comtois is able to show how these two figures influence Cynthia--their "Little One"--as she struggles to figure out what sort of monster she wants to be.

It's not always clear, however, that the company knows what they want The Little One to be. Characters like the traditional Sergei (Christopher Yustin) and the cultured Flora (Stephanie Cox-Williams) are shoehorned into the first act, largely to serve as plot devices in the second. Ancillary characters like the weaselly Jeremy (Jeremy Goren) and Flora's partner, Francis (Stephen Heskett), lack even that purpose and make the story feel like a pulpy heist novel. The play is on far firmer--and richer--ground when it keeps things from Cynthia's point-of-view. From the moment she first realizes she's become athletically enhanced to her first encounter with the alien-looking humans (credit Betsy Strong's costumes and Leslie E. Hughes & Melissa Roth's make-up/masks), her world feels new and exciting. The finest part of the evening is a lengthy montage in which Cynthia attempts to return to her old life--boyfriend Kyle (Goren), mother Mrs. Walters (Cox-Williams), and best friend Michelle (Roth)--only to lose track of time and watch them die. (The choice of music, The Postal Service's "This Place Is A Prison," hints at the dolorous yet evocative atmosphere.)

There's good stuff in the second act, too: for instance, did you know that vampires wore white to funerals? Did you suspect that in the future, men would act more and more like Keanu Reeves? Best of all, did you realize that a four-hundred-year-old vampire would still be capable of acting like a spoiled, petulant child? All of these humanizing details help to bring closure to Cynthia's growth. The trouble lies more with the  momentum (quite a few scenes seem to echo or flat out repeat earlier scenes), which stems back to the lack of editing and the ever-shifting focus of the plot. The finale is frustrating--not because it isn't a fun resolution, but because it takes the easy, splashy way out.

In general, though, The Little One leaves audiences with more than enough to sink their teeth into. It would take a true monster--or someone with no tolerance for vampires and genre theater--to spit an otherwise succulent show out on account of a few dull bones and overcooked edges.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Photo/Avery McCarthy

Ayn Rand's theory of art, according to Ideal, is that "an artist tells. He does not explain." In this case, she also tends to repeat herself (as with her overwritten and melodramatic novels) to the point of exhaustion. We never have an opportunity to see Kay Gonda (Jessie Barr), the world's most adored film star, in her element. Instead, we watch a heavily structured series of thin vignettes in which she is betrayed and martyred by six of her biggest fans. It's a patronizing mess, at best the PowerPoint presentation of a high-school debate team; at worst, a stillborn imitation of Rand's work, suffocated by a lack of conviction. Ideal is actually fairly relevant, given today's shallow and celebrity obsessed culture, but you wouldn't know it from watching this production: if the actors don't take these words to heart, why should we?

For instance, take Mr. Perkins (Ted Caine), who has just become the assistant manager of the Daffodil Canning Company. He's got a nagging mother-in-law, Mrs. Shly (Kim Rosen), and a cold housewife (Emily Marro), and he longs for something more than the everyday necessities of a family. But director Jenny Beth Snyder's not given any time to establish these points, nor the budget to use a theatrical shorthand (by way of set) that adequate demonstrates his feeling that home equals prison. And Rand--who only tells and never explains (let alone shows)--doesn't bother building to Perkins's radical decision to demand his wife to have an abortion. The bullet-point drama continues when Gonda arrives on scene: she stresses exactly what she expects her adorers to give up, and after they mull it over, each subverts or refuses her request.

To be fair, some of these situations are clever--at least so far as they allow Rand to belittle her opponents, whether they be communists, priests, or artists. What they lack is enough depth to be convincing, either as dramatic scenes or simply as political statements. We learn very little of Chuck Fink (Andrew Young) and his radical policies, save that when push comes to shove, he'll betray his morals for money. Brother Hix (Lee Kasper) grows quite animated when defending his church from the crass commercialism of Sister Twomey (Rosen)--"Five hundred dollars for the Temple of Eternal Truth?" he exclaims--but struggles to articulate a reason for Gonda to turn herself in. It's hard to feign outrage when each moment is so forcefully calculated. Why shouldn't Count Esterhazy (Sean Ireland) attempt to rape Gonda? Why shouldn't Langley (Bill Griffin) accuse his artistic muse of being a fake? Motives are beside the point.

And even when making that point, Ideal is, well, less than ideal. Gonda finds what she is looking for in Johnnie (Dan Pfau): a selfless man who understands that true idolaters must be willing to sacrifice themselves for their idol. But between a missed sound-cue, clunky staging, and lethargic acting, the scene lacks punch. Then again, this should be no surprise: such selfish characters, each looking for something profound to live for, would never share their findings, let alone their feelings, with the audience.

Monday, June 21, 2010

TV: Burn Notice

Burn Notice represents everything I hate about television -- it's meaningless entertainment -- and yet remains fascinating enough that I find myself watching, week after week. Join me as I puzzle through the antics of a fourth season in my review over at Slant Magazine.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

metaDRAMA: Okay, Now I'm Seeing Stars

A couple of days ago, I was reading through Matt Freeman's fair questioning of the somewhat misleading Time Out New York star ratings (and Time Out's well-reasoned response) and I remember being surprised by Derek Ahonen (of the Amoralists) lashing out at Matt (a fellow playwright) for not being 100% supportive. And now I read about this Leslie Jordan v. Elizabeth Vincentelli feud (RTWT at Upstaged) and I'm shocked again by this whole sense of an artist's "entitlement"--that because you're in the "same camp" as a fellow artist, you should just automatically support--or more accurately, indulge--their work. To not do so, well, that makes you bitter.

I've been paying a lot of attention to stars and ratings lately, especially since I started aggregating some reviews for StageGrade, and while I stick to their description of grades when doing their work, and purposefully don't use grades on my own site (except for during the Fringe), I thought I'd explain my own stance on how grades should work, in an ideal world. When I was taking Advanced Scene Study up at Binghamton University, under the direction of Theodore Swetz, he said something that to some was a wake-up call, but to me was a delight: everybody in the class started out with a "C," and if they came to class every day and did every assignment, they would leave the class with... a "C." That's right. "C" means "average," so if you simply did what was expected, you'd get a "C." You are not entitled to an "A"--as so many students think they are--simply because they attend the class. They're not entitled to an "A" even if they do their level-headed best: that's just not always enough, though some extra-credit assignments and other extracurricular outreach may bump that up to a "B."

Though I'm more biased than my old professor--I'm looking for the best in every show I attend--each production still starts with a "C" in my book. If the acting is terrific, that's up to a "B." If the direction's great, too, that's an "A-." If the script is outstanding, that's a perfect "A" in my book. Poor design elements or other noticeable flaws in the lighting or sound, well, that can lower the score. Point is: if it's passable, it has no effect on the review--often times, I won't even mention something that's neither good nor bad. It's really only worth mentioning if it adds to the show or takes away from it (and in both cases, we "graders" have an obligation to explain why, so that the subject understands where we're coming from).

I found it interesting to peruse the comments on this recent Parabasis post, especially when realizing how hard it is to avoid the superlatives and hyperboles and actually define the "best" stuff out there. The truth is, there are so many shows done, and most of them are going to be average, at best--not because the artists are bad, but because that's how averages work. If everything is outstanding, then a new bar is set, and I think that's what we should all be striving for. After all, it's worth wryly noting that Vincentelli's so-called "bash" of Jordan's one-man show still gave the thing 2.5 (out of 4) stars: if you're offended by anything less than perfection, take up math--something as subjective as theater is not for you.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

HACK! (an I.T. Spaghetti Western)

Ah, postmodern theater: where once we enjoyed the Greeks, now we embrace the Geeks. Following in the giddy footsteps of Vampire Cowboys, Nosedive, and Piper McKenzie, Impetuous Theater Group has collected the five episodes of their self-proclaimed "I.T. Spaghetti Western," Hack! into a "live DVD" performance--complete with copyright warnings, menu screens, and delightfully campy "Previously on" and "Next time on" trailers. This is the theatrical equivalent of YouTube or Channel101-type digital shorts, and if you're a film-savvy nerd--or someone with a healthy funny bone--you should stop reading and get a ticket before they sell out.

For those of you somehow on the fence: Crystal Skillman's script is littered with clever puns (Tchaikovsky shoes, which make great nutcrackers) and appropriates pop-culture references left and right, particularly in its verbing of the proper noun Lando (as in Calrissian, as in  "You totally Landoed me!"). It's fast-paced and smart enough to keep shaking things up: what starts as a nerd-off between I.T. duo Dash (the scene-stealing Neimah Djourabchi) and Jay (C.L. Weatherstone) soon becomes complicated by their terse, cigar-clenching boss Cal (Joseph Mathers). To identify the hacker, they call in The Soldier (the terrific Kate Kenney), who turns out to be a cute ten-year-old girl; who turns out to be a vicious, knife-wielding brat; who turns out to be a beanie-baby-loving psychopath; who turns out to--ahem, suffice to say, the show never gets boring. At worst, it gets too slow, as in the expository scenes between Cal and his counter-terrorism brother, Brian (Mark Souza, largely stuck playing the straight man), or too gratuitous, as with the holographic dance of Big Jessica (Lauren Schroeder), but it's in such good fun that it's not worth critiquing.

John Hurley's up-tempo direction also neatly fits with the Hack! model. Benjamin Kato's set is a three-foot-high barricade between the audience and the stage, so the actors often look--and act--like puppets, which works in a show filled with spit-takes, broad comedy (Dash on Red Bull and diet pills), and constant homages (watch for a "spy" sequence that might as well be lifted from Ace Ventura). Not only does Hurley poke fun of their low-budget scene changes (characters elevator themselves to the ground), but he uses the pop-up effect for surprise entrances, like that Erica (Felicia Hudson, who seems to have studied up on the Joss Whedon school of ass-kicking love interests). Between his direction and Skillman's writing, they've give the show serious moves--that is, they make mock kung-fu styles like the "Retarded Dolphin" look terrific.

Hack! just goes to show you that the old saying is true: "All you need is love." Well, love, bad accents, Battleship boards doubling as laptop computers, fight choreography, and--what?--yes, Hannah Montana karaoke. That's right, all you gray-hat theatergoers: get your spaz on.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Dreams of the Washer King

Photo/Erik Pearson

"The mind's a restless thing when you start something, trying to figure out how it'll end," at least, so says Wade (Stevie Ray Dallimore), but it's the opposite that holds back Christopher Wall's otherwise excellent play, Dreams of the Washer King. In this first scene, Wall's wisely used the narrative of the excitably young Ryan (Ben Hollandsworth)--an Asimov fan who is saturated with a belief soiled by desperation--to establish a foreboding, sweat-soaked atmosphere, one in which Ryan's lonely single mother, Claire (Carla Harting), meets the wolfish Wade with equal parts tension and lust. It's hard to tell which direction the play's going . . . until Wade leaves, a bit of foreshadow clunking off his tongue: "You got a nice laugh. I didn't remember that."

The rest of the play makes for a well-done ghost story, one that's grounded in the sweet realism of things like Stand By Me. But by pulling the curtain back this early--by knowing exactly how it will end--Wall limits the impact of his play. For the first act, it's fine: memories are especially haunting, and it's neat to realize that a lazy, beer-drinking afternoon between Elsie (Reyna de Courcy) and Ryan is in the past, whereas in the present, a forlorn Wade abruptly finds himself talking to an empty wall, folding laundry not at home, but in a prison. But at times, Dreams of the Washer King feels like watching The Sixth Sense a third time: having already enjoyed the story and the tricks, there is now only the confidence of its director--in this case, the terrific Giovanna Sardelli--and the skill of its actors.

Thankfully, this ain't Shyamalan: all of these issues are remedied by the intimate details chestnutted into Wall's writing and by his outstanding cast, both of which help to ground the show in its individual moments and not its ever-present conclusion. De Courcy is particularly good as Elsie, Wade's tomboy daughter, and she's got an easy chemistry with the laid-back Hollandsworth. Their odd, isolating hobbies give them an instant connection: she accepts that he records everything, hoping to hear his dead father's voice somewhere in the static, and he accepts that she chooses the most damaged people to be her pen pals, perhaps in reflection of her own hardened life. (She understands too well that "even if you look down for a minute at someone else's problems, you always got to look back up again.") Dallimore neatly portrays his dangerous character, one of those unintentionally violent types, with equal parts fury and apology, and Harting might as well rename herself "Hurting," because even in the heat of passion, her character's aching sorrow--the fragility of loneliness--is powerfully on display.

Dreams of the Washer King also finds itself in the good hands of The Playwrights Realm, a production company that aims to provide "sustained support to early-career playwrights who create inventive, challenging material." To that end, they have brought Wall's vision to life, from Amy Clark's very '80s wardrobe, whose T-shirts nail Ryan's nerdy passions and whose washed-out colors compliment Traci Klainer's dolorous lighting and David Newell's charmingly dead set, which strews muted "vintage" washing machines across the stage set. Wall's play requires a sturdy foundation from which to haunt; I've seen too many interesting shows brought down by poor production values not to appreciate the good scene-building done here. (Keep an eye on the kitchen sink's faucet.)

All of these things keep the audience's mind from being restless--as Wade foreshadowed back in the first paragraph--and while the ending is not surprising, its execution certainly is, as are the far-from-predictable tears that well up. It may be just as well that Wall handicaps himself with a ghost story: he might otherwise kill the audience.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Can You Hear Their Voices?

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Early on, a bunch of farmers are listening to an address on farm-relief--not much else for them to do, what with the drought burning up their crops and killing their cows. It doesn't take long, though, for them to grow tired of this rich, ignorant man's speechifying so they switch off the radio. "Anyway," says one, "he's got a real nice voice." Of course, Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford's play, Can You Hear Their Voices? isn't much beyond its own speeches: it's inspired by true events first written about by Whittaker Chambers, and was first performed at Vassar in 1931 as a theatrical call to action. The difference is that although Peculiar Works Project has admirable intents in reminding us of these events (lest they be repeated), this shambling production doesn't have a real nice voice. Save for a few actors, the performances feel halfhearted, the set changes and live music seem belabored, and the projected documentary footage comes closer to truth than what's on stage.

Yes, the show is agitprop--co-director Ralph Lewis (joined by Barry Rowell) admits as much when he introduces the show--but it doesn't have to be played so dryly--or so ambiguously, thanks to poor casting.  Ken Glickfeld doubles as an old, ignorant congressman and as a young boy: he plays both roles the same way. There's a wickedly satirical message in a lavish party scene that the congressman throws for his rebellious daughter, Harriet (a terrific Tonya Canada), but it's often distracted from on account of all the cross-dressing guests (a gender-blind approach that doesn't work, and the color-blind bits ache from lines like "That's mighty white of you"). Even the straightforward bits suffer: Hilda (Sarah Elizondo) tells her husband, Frank (Ben Kopit), that their child has died, and it's not even melodramatic -- instead, Kopit reacts like Bush after hearing of 9/11: he just rolls over and looks around blankly. The play is already broken into episodes (alternating between poor and rich); this monotonous pace kills what little momentum was left.

On paper, the script is relevant and often witty, and it's a shame the cast isn't energetic enough to deliver the punch of the damning exchanges ("I say damn the drought!" "I'll drink to that!") or sincere enough to steep the monologues in their oblivious sins ("While this depression affects us all, I feel that it would be selfish to retrench--the thing to do is to keep money in circulation"). Worse, when actors do show up, they tend to overreach, like Patricia Drozda, who reduces her rich bureaucratic character, Purcell, to such villainous smugness that it's hard to believe that Communist organizer Wardell (a solid Christopher Hurt) would be able to hold his men back. (Think of a gloating Madoff; you'd raise a gun to him, too.) Despite the plainspoken text, the truth tends to get muffled under such conditions. The play ends with Wardell's wife, Ann (Catherine Porter), asking the title's question: "Can you hear their voices?" The answer, sadly, is no.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

On Patrick Lee

As far as I'm concerned, Patrick Lee was a better writer than me, a more active theatergoer, and certainly a more social person than me: he was, to put it short, a role-model for what blogging could and should be in relation to serious theater criticism (which we both did, bringing our freelancing back to our sites). That's how we connected back in mid-2006, with mutual admiration for the work we were doing, and how we wound up racing each other on the Show Showdown site in 2007 and 2008, before deciding we didn't really need a gimmick. On Patrick's personal site, Just Shows To Go You, he elevated interviewing to a new level, especially when you consider the wide range of talent he spoke to, from stars to up-and-comers and everything in between. And he was passionate about his work, too, serving on awards committees and energizing anyone he spoke to about what might be possible in the theater.

For all of these reasons, to say nothing of his terrific humanity, it was a shock for me to receive an e-mail early this afternoon, informing me that Patrick Lee, 51, had passed away. Heck, in just two weeks, Patrick and I were going to be on a panel together, talking about our love of indie theater, and I'm still somewhat numb to think that he won't be there, that I'll never bump into him at a show again. That saddens me more than I can say--I'm a shy person (I hate networking and introducing myself to people): Patrick was the sort of truly supportive colleague who helped me to overcome that, and who helped to bring people together, be it within the ITBA (where he organized the yearly awards) or within Show Showdown itself. I'll share more information as I get it, especially for those who want to pay their respects, and in the meantime, I can say only that the best way to pay tribute to a man who so loved theater is to go and see a show for him.

The wake will be Friday, June 11 between 2 - 4pm and 7 - 9pm at Robert Spearing Funeral Home (155 Kinderkamack Road/Park Ridge, NJ  07656). The funeral will be at 10am, Sunday, June 12, at Our Lady of Mercy Church, Park Ridge.

Other farewells:
Time Out New York's Adam Feldman
Broadway & Me's Jan Simpson
The Wicked Stage's Rob Weinert-Kendt
Parabasis's Isaac Butler
SOB's Steve Loucks 
Everything I Know...'s Chris Caggiano 
FLUX Theater Ensemble's August Schulenberg 
Producer's Perspective's Ken Davenport 
Show Showdown's David Bell and Wendy Caster and Cameron Kelsall 
Stage Rush's Jesse North 
Pataphysical Science's Linda Buchwald 
One Producer in the City's Michael Roderick
Soprano-Mano's Anthony Verusso 
Gratuitous Violins' Esther Iris

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

That Old Soft Shoe

It's a good thing that Matt Freeman's That Old Soft Shoe doesn't live up to its subtitle ("A redacted comedy"). It would be a real war crime to censor out such wincingly charming pop-cultural references; it would be a shame to dismantle Freeman's mix of obliviously wry torturers and obviously manic politicians--they're quite explosive together. No redactions, just reductions--that is, the gleefully simple satire that comes by merely stating the sad facts of our country. (Reductio ad Americanum.) Consider this exchange between a new recruit, Horace (Carter Jackson), and an old contractor, Julian (David DelGrosso): "Didn't we use to have to ask a judge?" "We did forever. Then we didn't for a few years. Then we did again. Now, we don't." "That's what I call progress."

In the event that all the double-talk around torture, within Freeman's play, or in the previous paragraph has in any way confused you: That Old Soft Show is wholly entertaining. It's also fairly clever, using the tactics of the Enemy against it--directly, as when it introduces the new acronym for torturing prisoners (COMFORT, as opposed to SERE), or subtly, as when one employee remembers fondly the old days when they could play music without licensing fees--as if fees were the problem with sleep deprivation. There's also an excellent running gag about whether or not their methods are aversion therapy and, if so, whether or not they should be referred to as aversion therapy. (To wit, the program they're currently running is filed under the president's fitness program.)

The show, directed by Freeman's long-time collaborator Kyle Ancowitz, flies along, particularly once the fast-talking and salacious Senator Corpuscle (Steve Burns) shows up. Moreover, the entire cast, from the disgruntled Heather (Laura Desmond) to the military Gretchen (Maya Ferrara), kill on their lines, from the literate--"I want to be R. Crumb for you"--to the pop-cultural: "Does he just like watching TV and being Snooki punched?" Silence is handled well, too, thanks to Joseph Yeargain, who plays The Patient (a k a, the prisoner) like a forlorn puppy that has learned all too well to play dead. There are even some traces of deeper character, though for the most part, they're not meant to be much more than mouthpieces for Freeman's righteous political comedy: Jackson does a fairly good Rob Lowe impersonation, and it's always nice to see DelGrosso trying to be the voice of reason.

That Old Soft Shoe isn't particularly deep, but then again, it's promised to be sole-ful--fast on its feet--not soulful. Shock-value lines ("Martin Luther King was not shot for nothing" and "Before the Armenians genocide me") rule the day here, not the emotional subtlety of a show like Adam Bock's The Receptionist. It may be part of the Too Soon festival at the Brick, but Freeman can comfortably hang that "Mission Accomplished" banner at his next cast party: this one's just in the nick of time.

Monday, June 07, 2010

TV: Lie to Me

Photo: FOX

Lie to Me started as a guilty pleasure driven by a desire to watch the talented Tim Roth. With a new show-runner, it started to establish itself as a good show, but as you'll find from my review at Slant, it's still stuck between some schlock and a starred place.

Sunday, June 06, 2010


Photo/Larry Cobra

"I'll just order a bunch of shit and if people don't want it...fuck 'em." So says Johnny (George Walsh), the illicit patriarch of the Ricewater clan, though these words could just as easily be spoken directly by playwright Derek Ahonen as a way of describing his company--the Amoralists--and their balls-to-the-wall aesthetic. It's as good a way as any to describe the slapstick anarchy that develops over the course of shows like The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, Happy in the Poorhouse, or Amerissiah, which they've currently revived as part of their explosive 2010 season. After all, in what other show could you find a recovering junkie, Ricky (William Apps), and his socially anxious girlfriend Loni (Selene Beretta); a fanatic Republican lawyer named Bernie (James Kautz) and his shyster Democratic ex, Holly (Sarah Lemp); a would-be white rapper named Terry (Nick Lawson) and his black wife, Carrie (Jennifer Fouche), both of whom think you're racist if you don't laugh at words like "nigger" and "bitch"; and at the heart of it all, a pot-smoking hippie, Margie (Aysha Quinn), and her dying husband, Barry (Matthew Pilieci), who may or may not be God.

It's certainly as ambitious a show as anything else the Amoralists have done, but something seems off. The jokes are more scatological and provocative than usual, especially the slurs that Johnny and Barry pronounce with such amused gusto, and the characters are heartlessly manic. We can be impressed by their endless energy, but it's hard to feel sorry for them. Likewise, it's not hard to be entertained by the bickering--especially the chest-thumping variety that Apps excels at--but it's difficult to believe that it's warranted. There's a lack of a sense of genuine history: they argue because that's what the script tells them to do, and the script tells them to do it because their elevated passions are, by nature, hysterical. And Amerissiah is sort of aware of this, too: after all, the play ends with a mysterious something suddenly happening, and the reason is "Just because." Thankfully, there's at least a method to the madness: the ending is fairly explicable (albeit highly implausible), and Ahonen's direction shades the mood with a very clear and distinct red.

What else? It's a pleasure to see Amoralist co-founders Kautz and Pilieci playing very different roles from their last show (the former goes from an MMA fighter to a spineless lawyer, the latter goes from a well-hung mailman to a cancer-stricken invalid). And though Lemp and Lawson are somewhat reprising roles from previous shows, they do it so well that nobody's complaining. Al Schatz has built another reliable set for the company: from the mood-setting giant stuffed moose head to the Ocean Blue walls and flower-lined window, it's got a lived-in feel that establishes the comic exaggerations of the family from the very first minute. The only downside to all these regulars is that they've built up a high standard for the Amoralists, a bar that Amerissiah doesn't quite reach. Still, there's no other company making kitchen-sink dramas like these, no other company as appropriately described as "insanilarious" as this one. And if the very low median age at Friday night's performance is any indication, Amerissiah may continue to convert audience members to the Amoralist way.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Metal Children

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Act I of The Metal Children ends with the abruptness of a horror movie, as author Tobin Falmouth (Billy Crudup) comes face-to-face with a pig-masked hoodlum and his vacuum cleaner. Act II picks up gradually throughout intermission, as actors assemble on stage, one by one, to participate in a hearing at Midlothia High School that will resolve the tense question of whether Falmouth's young-adult novel The Metal Children should be banned. Huge tonal shifts should surprise no-one familiar with Adam Rapp's work or his straightforward direction, but these moments hint at the larger problem Rapp faces: he's not exactly sure what he wants his play to be about. In fact, after much whinging, drinking, and other disheveled debauchery, Falmouth himself confesses that he doesn't know what his book's about: he just felt driven to write it, as a means of coping with the abortion his wife-at-the-time underwent. The Metal Children lacks that emotional drive; instead, Rapp settles for speeches and atmosphere, bluffing his way to a seriousness that's belied by the inevitable comparison (on account of Crudup) to the far-superior The Pillowman.

As in Kindness, Rapp dances around the drama; he's comic enough that, in the moment, you don't mind, but the spell breaks at the end of each scene. Some don't work at all, like the opener between Falmouth and his agent, Bruno (David Greenspan, wasted here in an unfunny role that asks him to play David Greenspan), which is filled with unnecessary exposition and exists only to justify the play's bookending conclusion (in which a moral is tantalizingly lunged at). Once the action shifts to Midlothia, Rapp spends too much time introducing characters like Edith (Susan Blommaert), the hotel owner, or Stacey Kinsella (Connor Barrett), a local teacher who ardently defends the importance of Falmouth's novel; he mistakes color for character, and plot for action, and through it all, Crudup can do little more than gape, bass-mouthed, at the inanity of what he's walked into. It's not until Edith's niece, Vera (Phoebe Strole), breaks in that the play perks up--she's a sexy young seductress with a mind full of fresh and well-rehearsed ideas, and she forces Falmouth to take action.

But after that, the play cuts right back to proselytizing: there's a well-acted debate scene, featuring religiously fervent (occasionally incomprehensibly so) young girls like Tami Lake (Halley Wegryn Gross) and elderly witch-hunters like Roberta Cupp (Betsy Aidem), and a jovially biased moderator, Otto Hurley (Guy Boyd). These characters, like the ones Falmouth describe, have a need to speak, but they don't have a need to be in this play -- at least, not as The Metal Children is structured. And surely enough, the play soon ducks into Lynchian territory: a scene from Falmouth's novel is creepily recreated, but not even remotely explained or addressed. It just is, much like the otherwise fine ideas--particularly about the divide between Heartland values and literary rights and between censorship and protection.

The conclusion of The Metal Children helps to qualify much of what's preceded it. Falmouth's finally written a new novel: he's managed to isolate certain parts of his Midlothian experience and use it to tell a comprehensive story, to put his life together. Here, with the focus firmly on the author, the play is most able to serve as a mirror, with the man facing the consequences of his past. But this seems more like a starting point for a play than an ending point, and the quality of moments like this exposes the leaden underbelly of the even the most seemingly statuesque scenes that precede it.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Buddy Cop 2

Photo/Ian Savage

Off-Broadway theatergoers don't mind when companies ask them to use their imaginations, so long as that courtesy is returned. With the ingenious Debate Society, that creative investment is returned a thousandfold: their productions are a well-matched cocktail of cerebral cool, muscular wit, and eccentric charm. Actor-writers Hannah Bos & Paul Thureen and director-developer Oliver Butler are masters of self-improving homage: they get as much out of their productions as their audiences do. A Thought About Raya armed them with absurdity, The Eaten Heart sharpened their ability to tell short, Decameron-like stories, and the drive-through atmosphere of Cape Disappointment sharpened their cinematic aesthetic. Now, with Buddy Cop 2 (there is no "1"), they've deepened the range of their characters, mixing mind-blowing realism (Laura Jellinek's set deserves a Tony) with exquisite dreamscapes, all with an effortless charm that brings to mind a larger-scale version of L'Effet de Serge. (Mark Russell, if you're out there: the Debate Society is an excellent fit for the Under the Radar Festival.)

Does the Debate Society realize what a gift it is to the downtown theater scene? That would explain their gift-wrapped set, behind which comes the persistent thumping of a handball. As this "curtain" is ripped open, it reveals the three-room-deep headquarters of a small-town police office which, due to water damage, has taken over the gymnasium of the local rec center. It also quickly tells us a lot about its residents: Don McMurchie (a serious and never-better Michael Cyril Creighton), frustratedly fields non-emergency calls while his co-workers Terry Olsen (Paul Thureen) and newcomer Darlene Novak (Hannah Bos) play racquetball in the background. As the scenes progress, we'll learn a lot more about them, from the story behind Don's background check and his community chorus-singing to how Terry's nonchalance toward administrative work is balanced by his all-business approach to horrific crime. No-one, after hearing Darlene attempt to get her mother off the phone, or seeing her compromise away her nonrefundable honeymoon suite, will have any doubts about why she's such a brisk, competitive woman. (And let's not forget the Glug.)

Learning about these characters is the story of Buddy Cop 2: the play is at its weakest (which is still pretty damn strong) in the between-scenes monologues of young Brandi and Skylar (both played by Monique Vukovic), both of which are more direct (not having anything natural to play against) and more cryptic (how else to describe shadows?) than anything else in the show. In fact, aside from the frequent racquetball challenges, there is little overt action on stage: perhaps the play is titled as a sequel to demonstrate that it is far more interested in aftermaths and consequences than in the obvious causes themselves. In any case, there is more than enough to cope with here: if the devil's in the details, this company is going to hell in a gold-plated handbasket.

The intimacy of the Theater at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery (where The Eaten Heart played) does wonders for the Debate Society, a group that--for all its illusions--has nothing to hide. Long-time collaborators like Mike Riggs (lighting), Sydney Maresca (costumes), Nathan Leigh (sound), and Amy Ehrenberg (stage management) ensure that things run as smoothly as they look, which allows Butler to focus on making the actors as casually enchanting as the beer-can-and-Christmas-presents decor. (Everyone succeeds.) Buddy Cop 2 feels like a real buddy of a play, you just want to hang out in its warm (only occasionally terrifying) glow all night.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Joking Apart

Photo/Gili Getz

It's easy to see why T. Schreiber Studio chose to close their 2009-2010 season with Joking Apart. Not only was playwright Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests a pretty hot recent Broadway ticket, but this particular play's four scenes span sixteen years: good experience for the ever-learning actor. And yet, for the same reasons, it's not hard to see why this play may not be a good experience for the avid theatergoer. It's a decidedly British play of manners, and the more it shows how to kill with kindness, the more stolid it grows.

Joking Apart is an exercise in frustration, a play spent watching how poorly "life's losers" cope with the smothering--and thoughtlessly demeaning--charity of the blessedly healthy and wealthy Richard (Michael Murray) and Anthea (Aleksandra Stattin). The scenes are stagnant, and each emphasizes the same thing: life's gotten worse for the no-longer-newlywed vicar Hugh (Michael J. Connolly) and his high-strung wife, Louise (Alison Blair); life's been drained from Richard's married businesspartners Olive (Stephanie Steward) and Sven (James Liebman); and life's passed by the pencil-pushing man of inaction, Brian (Sebastian Montoya). It's a Pyrrhic play, one that makes its points by being so listless, and Sven's description of a tennis court applies too well to the play itself: "It's too slow. It makes it difficult to play a natural game."

Playing that game, director Peter Jensen is often caught off-sides trying to compromise the dramatic need for action with the general lack of it onstage. Ironically, when he's actually given the opportunity for it--as with a few half-obscured tennis matches, or with the various incarnations of Brian's "Girlfriend" (three women, all played by Anisa Dëma)--it tends to look exaggeratedly fake. This stands out even more in contrast to Matt Brogan's impeccable set design and to Eric Cope's lighting, which--particularly during a fireworks sequence--casts just the right shade of gloom on that garden.

In fact, these effects are often more natural than the actors, who are more demonstrative of the play's theme than they are ordinary people caught within it. Murray, who need only behave splendidly, does a fine job, as does the sniping Liebman, who is somehow able to politely do the opposite, and Seward, who nicely balances him. Blair, the star of the show (in my book), at least foreshadows the consequences of living in the shadow of such bright people, and never overplays her nervous struggle to assert herself. Not so with Montoya, who only seethes when he's given lines that explicitly do so, and otherwise seems nonchalantly disconnected from the show. Not so with Connolly, either: his character abruptly confesses his love for Anthea, and never does so again. As for Stattin, she oversimplifies her character by so easily brushing off such oaths and simply rising above it.

Everyone loves a perky attitude, but not if that's all there is, and that's this production's biggest flaw: too much has been given to the physical changes (posture, hair color, wardrobe); the mental changes are largely ignored. Joking Apart is a tough play, in which much happens in the four years between each scene and so little happens within each. Both the actors and director seem ill-prepared, and having failed to fill in the blanks, is it any surprise that they come across so blankly on stage?