Friday, December 31, 2010

Ringing in the New Year

Just a reminder (and an invitation) to everyone out there: I'm going to be in Times Square tonight, working as a moderator for the livestream and blog coverage of all the New Year's festivities. The video link below starts at 6:00, you can get a mobile app here (which lets you submit pictures and comments), or join us the old-fashioned browser way right here. I hope you will: we're connecting the whole world, and there's no feeling quite like this.

2011 on Broadcast Live Free

Short-a-Day: Steven Millhauser's "Getting Closer"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Jan. 3, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 95.

But now, as he stands at the end of waiting, something is wrong.... If he goes into the river he'll lose the excitement, the feeling that everything matters because he's getting closer and closer to the moment he's been waiting for. When you have that feeling, everything's full of life, every leaf, every pebble. But when you begin you're using things up.... He sees it now, he sees it: ending is everywhere.

The third person voice is a little odd, caught between omniscient and being a little boy -- "nine going on ten, skinny-tall, shoulder blades pushing out like things inside a paper bag, new blue bathing suit too tight here, too loose there" -- but as with most Millhauser stories, it works, because he's after the bigger ideas in his moments. And this is one of his most realistic ones yet: on an annual family trip to Indian Cove, the boy pauses before entering the creek, taking in his surroundings and savoring the excitement that has been building to this point.

The writing itself slows way down, too, refusing to get to the action, lingering on details, and the impatient reader may give up, but the last paragraph more than justifies the wait. All of a sudden, we see the other end: not getting closer to the moment, but getting further away from it; the sun, already risen, is now closer to setting; at some point, the boy will no longer be growing up, but growing old. It's a poignant moment, realizing that one cannot fight the tides of time, cannot stop just out of its reach and observe, and Millhauser's choice of this sweet, innocent little boy ("He brings this out in people, who knows why: Cap'n, my good man. It's something about him.") makes the revelation snap all the more -- can you recall that day you first understood death? Big stuff, short story = nicely done.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Short-a-Day: George Saunders's "Escape from Spiderhead"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Dec. 20 & 27, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 69.

What makes us human? What makes us tick? This is the sort of unanswerable philosophical conundrum some turn to fiction for, and what I, particularly, appreciate about the speculative satires of George Saunders, who takes things to extremes in order to deal with some very basic truths. In this possible future, Jeff works as a glorified lab rat, doing this world's form of prison service, and he'd be angrier about it, save for the fact that what they're testing on him are drip-controlled modifications to humanity itself, from the physical of Vivistif (a sort of Viagra) to the mental of Verbaluce (a boost to one's IQ re: verbal communication), and now the emotional of ErthAdmire, which in the first segment is simply being used to make nature look better, but in the rapidly escalating second section is being used to convince Jeff that he's in love with fellow subject Heather . . . and isn't he? And therein lies the tragedy of this opening, as the drugs wear off:

"I spent all lunchtime thinking. It was weird. I had the memory of fucking Heather, the memory of having felt the things I'd felt for her, the memory of having said the things I'd said to her. My throat was like raw from how much I'd said and how fast I'd felt compelled to say it. But in terms of feelings? I basically had nada left."

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Short-a-Day: Nuruddin Farah's "YoungThing"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Dec. 13, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 29.

Brilliant opening line: "A Yankee cap- and Ray-Ban-wearing boy of indeterminate age gets out of a car that has just stopped." Note the familiar use of American signifiers, and how readily they cloak the boy's true purpose, revealed at the latter part of this paragraph: "new conscripts drafted into the Shabaab-led insurgency." By throwing these terms around -- without attaching the weighted opinion of a word like "terrorist," -- we are better able to focus on the nameless everychild for what he is, and what he is not. After all, for all his bravado in carrying explosives and a gun, he is easily tricked (by a "body tent"-wearing woman, who sadly sees him for what he is, a killer) into going to the wrong rendezvous point, and his posturing is naked mimicry: "His gun poised the way he has seen it done in movies" or "He moves stealthily forward, as silent as the leopard in stories he has heard." Ultimately, "A young thing like him can't comprehend the intricate political games adults play," games in which he is clearly a pawn.

Sadly, these are all generalities: Farah ultimately leaves us with as vague an idea of child soldiers/martyrs as we had before; the character is indistinct, the plotting tedious and blandly written.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Short-a-Day: Jim Gavin's "Costello"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Dec. 6, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 73.

Somewhere along the line, someone convinced fiction editors -- particularly those at The New Yorker -- that description was the key to any good story, forgetting, in the process, that unless it truly communicates something, it's all just words. What does a good image truly accomplish? At best, it snaps you out of the story for a moment, as you see it with the eyes of your own experience, and when you slingshot back in, perhaps it feels realer, more vivid -- despite the fact that you've been skimming surfaces, far from immersed. I bring this up because Gavin's opening details and dialogue -- Martin Costello, plumbing sales rep extraordinary (well, at least for this section of Anaheim), is smoking on the diving board, fishing a lizard out of his greenish pool, and talking with his landscaping neighbor, Jesse Rocha -- are great, but bogged down with stuff like this: "Saturday, an extra layer of brightness, Saturday brightness, like God opening a window in the sky" and "The trimmer snaps on, the noise making a million tiny cracks in the afternoon." It takes away from the mundane greatness of this: "The back yard needs work. Weeds flaming up from cracks in the concrete, all the flowerpots empty, the patio cover rotten with termites." See the difference in evocation?

It's odd, too, because this opening doesn't really fit the rest of the story, for Gavin soon lapses into a more direct, borderline abrupt, rhythm: "Keys, doors, faster. A fucking zombie attack," he thinks after running into a mentally handicapped acquaintance at Mass; "Dick Dale on cassette, black coffee from McDonald's, a trunkful of defective ball cocks," he writes, describing his drive to work. There are a few sour notes that sound out of character ("Let them throw his body over the side of a transition loop, commending his soul to Trafficus rex"), but at least the story's built enough momentum by this point -- what exactly happened to his wife to turn him into a sloth, a recluse, a social-engagement-avoiding-liar? -- to pave over these patches.

Monday, December 27, 2010

THEATER: Nutcracker Rouge

Photo/Steven Schrieber

Of the many types of candies that dance in The Nutcracker and, consequently, in Austin McCormick's "Baroque Burlesque confection" Nutcracker Rouge, cotton candy isn't represented. Well, not in person, at least. The show itself resembles that treat: lighter than air, sweetly spun, and sticky when wet. Though Company XIV is once again adapting what is mainly treated as a children's fairy tale (as they did with Snow White and Le Cirque Feerique), the production is their most risque yet, a bold return to the format they did so well with Le Serpent Rouge and The Judgment of Paris. And when Drosselmeyer (Jeff Takacs), our doll-making host, announces that he's got "some kinks to work out," I can assure you -- if the opening "horizontal polka" doesn't convince you -- that he's not referring to any definition with "mistake" in it.

After a prelude in which Drosselmeyer's god-daughter Marie-Claire (Laura Careless) ventures through a forest filled with dancing snowflakes and regal wolves, the audience is seated in the Kingdom of the Sweets, and the next seventy minutes are filled with such eye-candy that you might want to save the complementary chocolate under your seat for later (lest you get an instant cavity). As sultry remixes of Tchaikovsky classics waft through the air, a trio of sexy maraschino cherries dance on stage (Marla Phelan, Mina Lawton, and Delphina Parenti); they are followed by dancers (in fewer and fewer clothes) who represent desirable Turkish Delights (Yeva Glover, Marisol Cabrera, and Parenti) or leashed and latexed bits of Licorice (Sean Gannon and Michael Hodge).

There's a peppery sort of Chocolate (Cabrera), doing what feels like a Flamenco, and then a positively comical flood of macaroons, who tumble to and fro on their swings (or atop one another) as Takacs, dressed as a grotesque Marie Antoinette, regales us with their bloody origin. Through it all, Careless is far from careless, as she manages to transform from a prude young girl to a tempted child, to a sexually confident lady and then to a terrified woman -- for too much of any good thing can be a bad thing -- until, after a good old can-can, reclaiming the stage for herself, a Sugar Plum who isn't afraid to pole dance as she waits for her Nutcracker Prince (David Martinez).

Food metaphors aside, it's hard to imagine anyone not eating this up: from the slow and sensuous to the speedy and silliest, from the technique of the ballet to the performance of the burlesque, from the shyness of the actor to the confidence of the dancer, Nutcracker Rouge isn't just a crackling success, it's the best show Company XIV's done yet.
[Bonus: You can get an even clearer sense of the show's vibe with this extended teaser, here.]

Saturday, December 11, 2010

THEATER: The Land Whale Murders

If Mad Magazine collided with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the result would be something like Jonathan A. Goldberg's The Land Whale Murders. With one foot in Nielsen-like parody and the other in sincere homage to old adventure serials, Goldberg's play is a sublimely shallow affair, snappily directed by Tom Ridgely (who is doing his best impersonation of Sherlock Holmes's Guy Ritchie). It's highly entertaining, but precariously so, especially if you don't find the idea of Teddy Roosevelt (Rich Hollman) dressing up as a superhero named The Big Stick to be funny. (Their last collaboration, The Luck of the IBIS, had more meat to it, but let's be honest: who doesn't find a super-heroic, super-egotistical T.R. hilarious? "Bully!")

The play opens by introducing a fellowship of scientists who identify themselves as The Four Elementals: serious Hiram Blud (Robert Michael McClure), a watery whale-enthusiast; his sister Maryanne (Jennifer Joan Thompson), a fiery poetess; his one-time love, Angus Troup (Amy Landon), who has been disfigured by her earthy love of plants; and Eugene Neddly (Carl Howell), an bird-brain who unrequitedly loves Maryanne every bit as much as he is foolish, foppish, and wealthy. But in an act of ichthyterrorism, Hiram is stabbed to death by a swordfish, and it's up to our surviving heroes to find the culprit: could it be whale oil magnate Henry B. Lubbins III (Nathaniel Kent), or is it perhaps the masked Pirate Penny and her Blowhole Gang? Say what you will: this fishy plot, which involves the abduction of a fifty-six-foot whale, comes up with some rather good, rather literal, red herrings, and Goldberg is clever enough to trawl the depths for every last laugh. (If anything, he floods the show with too much: jokes with little relevance -- like a window-repairman's jingle -- go on far past the point of humor, Family Guy-style.)

That The Land Whale Murders remains so ship-shape is a credit to Ridgely and his crew; Jason Simms's simple hand-painted curtains set the tone and Deanna R. Frieman's sleek and sexy 1896-ish costumes then enhance it, clearly defining the play as good-natured fantasy. In fact, M. L. Dogg's sound design goes so far as to borrow music from films (in addition to some nice squishy, squid-y effects), a clear reminder that the play is meant to operate on the pop-cultural level that's all the rage these days. Of course, without a steady cast aboard the vehicle, the thing would sail around in circles, so it's nice to so easily praise them, particularly Kent, who attacks the stereotypical accents of his three characters with exceptional gusto, and Howell, who succeeds in making Neddly more than just a fool -- without spoiling any of the jokes that rely so heavily on him being just that.

The Shelby Company is quickly making a name for itself with its professional, comic, and original material. So far as plays go, The Land Whale Murders is a bit fatty, but like fatty tuna, it's delicious nonetheless. Or as Goldberg puts it: "Ambergris That Ends Well."

Friday, December 10, 2010

THEATER: Emancipatory Politics

Photo/Morgan Anne Zipf

So imagine that you're hanging with fifteen graduate-school buddies, a philosophical yet fun-loving bunch. It's three in the morning: you've got a second wind on your buzz, and everything looks, feels, and sounds good. This must be life. But wait, set your cooling pizza down for a moment and look across the fourth wall of the room. There's an audience out there, complementary beers in hands, and that is as it should be: after all, you're playing yourself (or a character with your name) and you're living Eric Bland's Emancipatory Politics. This is, perhaps, what it's like to be part of Old Kent Road Theater's ensemble.

If a young Will Eno turned into a Neo-Futurist and wrote a play, this is what you might expect: a carefully curated "dam of consciousness," a bit of political theater that has been freed from the obligation to be (a) political or, strictly speaking, (b) theater. (It takes place, according to one character, in "what the New Yorker refers to as a Mannerist, smash-up era.") At two intermission-less hours and with sixteen characters, the play is too long, especially since it lacks the narrative drive of Bland's previous show, Jeanine's Abortion. However, Emancipatory Politics features an engaging (though somewhat uneven) cast, a group that provokes not the usual physical intimacy of stage (proximity and catharsis) but a mental intimacy (distance and insight). In that light, it hardly matters that characters suddenly decide to wrestle one another, break character in order to do a modern dance, or become the mouthpieces for puppets: at worst, these devices are twee; at best, they put film's so-called mumblecore to shame -- particularly in their low-budget, authentic indie aesthetic. (Abernathy Bland's floor-length drawing springs to mind.)

Though the show aims to make artificial stage dialogue into organic conversation (by removing the traditional "stakes" of a drama), the result is not always compelling enough. It is, however, certainly interesting, and written in a beautifully elliptic style. Beowulf Jones and Morgan Anne Zipf argue about whether or not our society is doomed, quickly shifting from the cynical ("If you're not a bi-curious vegan working for Greenpeace these days, you're not allowed to ride the L train") to the hopeful ("Despite everything, we haven't annihilated one another yet. And this points to something deep in the human soul, a desire to live and go on living as a species, a species that is insecure, violent, and irrational, but also proud, adaptable, and fundamentally decent").

Victoria Tate will muse about the sexuality of eating a peach; Megan McGowan's will offer grim reminders of human cruelty both in and outside our borders. What would be awkward transitions are instead casual in the hands (and mouths) of this cast of smooth talkers; Gavin Starr Kendall calls it being Southern: "Our metaphors don't have to resolve themselves and when we digress you're supposed to find it charming." Consider the way in which Anne Carlisle must connect these thoughts, after a friend asks to borrow her bicycle (to ride from New York to Arizona): "Yeah, just don't scratch it. Or do. I don't care, at all. If you had a choice, would you rather be Orwellian or Kafkaeseque? ... I think Animal Farm is missing a cockroach."

And yet, Emancipatory Politics ends with a feeling of emptiness, for it is an artificial, almost arbitrary, play, no matter how convincingly delivered. OKR claims to be on a "search for meaning in the lives of 20 and 30-something contemporary New Yorkers," and yet that search seems tame, the sort of thoughtful safari that we watch through stained-glass windows: our eyes are glazed over with the beauty of the language, but our hearts are frosted.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

MOVIE: Black Swan

Does any filmmaker tie music into his movies as well as Darren Aronofksy? His latest, Black Swan, has healthy helpings of the spiraling madness of Pi, The Wrestler's authentically grim look at the cost of being a professional, and the tightly orchestrated rhythms that made Requiem for a Dream so compelling. The end result is slighter, however, in that the film is meant to mirror a fantasy ballet -- that of Swan Lake -- and thereby really only succeeds in showing the precarious edge between genius and madness: the potential cost, that is, of perfection.

It's an art-house suspense flick, in which the hero, soloist Nina (Natalie Portman), is hunted as much by her preening rivals within the company -- most notably Lily (Mila Kunis) -- as she is by herself. And yet, the film is exquisitely shot by Matthew Libatique and scored by the reliable Clint Mansell (and with healthy doses of Tchaikovsky) to the point of suffocating tension: her pressures and struggles are larger-than-life phantasms and everyday demons, all at once. The film mainly focuses on Nina's troubles, but it does at least hint at the wider implications of fame: her career mirrors that of the company's former star Beth (Winona Ryder) -- now a drunken, broken, discarded wreck -- and rebels against the never-a-lead-dancer ways of Erica (Barbara Hershey), who is now little more than a vicarious, controlling stage mother.

What Aronofsky captures so brilliantly is the sense of high-stakes pressure: there are constant close-ups of the en pointe twists and the agonizing sound effects of physical therapy (foot joints acrackle), the infinite reflections of mirrors (closing in and endless, all at once), and a sense of isolation for the lead -- scorned by her fellow dancers, castigated by her forceful director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), and given her own room. Nina is shown constantly in motion and usually in white, all aflutter and spun around -- manipulated, even -- by those who would lift her up for their own gain. This, of course, fits perfectly with the ideal of beauty that Odette -- the White Swan -- represents, and it's no surprise that Nina begins to crack as she attempts to also portray Odile, the evil Black Swan. After all, she has been told to "lose herself" in the role, to "loosen up" in order to be more perfect, to find the passionate misstep that is in fact the right step toward transcendence.

The thematic motifs -- color shifts between white and black, to say nothing of Portman's increasing aggression, or of Swan Lake itself -- are what elevate the film to art itself, what make it more than a one-note descent into madness. At the same time, the limited colors -- polar opposites, setting the film always at one extreme or another -- are what keep Black Swan from being a masterpiece. The craft is perfect, and so the transcendent surprise is absent; the airtight pressures choke us up, but also suffocate our emotions. It is a swan that does not fly, and yet whose grace nonetheless keeps us spellbound. ---- B+

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

THEATER: Baby Universe

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Puppets are rarely taken seriously, so it says a lot about the puerile premise of Wakka Wakka's Baby Universe that the terrifically designed and meticulously operated puppets are the most serious part of their show. Much like The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, the show takes place in an apocalyptic future, with humanity on a desperate mission to save itself -- in this case, from a dying galaxy in which the sun, in one last burst of apocalyptic heat, is burning out. The elaborate scheme of the slapstick scientists (Kirjan Waage and Andrew Manjuck) is to birth a new universe, 7001 (Peter Russo), and to have its "mother" (Gwendolyn Warnock) raise it out of its big-bang infancy to a state of growth large enough such that it can be entered by the remnants of humankind, represented here by the resolutely un-dour host of Apocalypse Radio (Manjuck).

Wakka Wakka's last show here, Fabrik, was an excellent and heartbreaking work, but it was grounded by its subject matter: the Holocaust. This time around, they are untethered by anything realistic: their choices absolve humanity of its environmental recklessness (the Earth is fine; it's the Sun that is dying) and the play carefully skirts the morality of medical testing by largely ignoring the previous seven thousand "failed" baby universes, and by making the scientists such bumbling and innocuous fools. And while Baby Universe resembles a child's fairy tale, especially with a sinister Sun (Manuck) and Moon (Waage) creeping in the shadows, working to abduct and destroy 7001, the play has no consequences, no moral ending.

The puppetry is admirable, and shows a variety of styles: from hand-and-rod babies to hand-in-puppet adults and actor-in-giant-puppet-suit planets. The aesthetic choices work well, too: the Bunraku outfits of the ensemble (which also includes Melissa Creighton) resemble a cross between spacesuits and apocalyptic protective wear (gas masks), and the set (designed by Wakka Wakka and Joy Wang) shows the increasing emptiness of the dying galaxy. But the technical and artistic choices are meant to enhance existing material, material which, in the case of Baby Universe, is largely absent. For a while, it is enough to simply watch the adorable 7001 in its infancy: it can detach limbs in order to play ball with itself, treat its penis like a dog that plays tricks, and throw a cosmic-level tantrum. But at some point, the play needs to grow up; its inability to do so shows a failure on the part of its parents at Wakka Wakka.

Monday, December 06, 2010

THEATER: Angels in America

Photo/Joan Marcus

Threshold of revelation, guys: Angels in America is one of the most over-hyped plays I've ever seen. Irresponsibly long and cripplingly ludicrous, I'm thoroughly convinced that if not for the novelty of the "epic" form coming in the midst of a dark time (1990), to say nothing of the light shed on those living with AIDS ("We will die silent deaths no longer"), Tony Kushner's script might have gotten the paring down it needed. Instead, it remains a gelatinous mush-up of three different (and slightly overlapping) plays, a set in which the only good one is entirely too preachy and chock full o' angels with a penchant for the obvious: suffering is a part of life; it is not the end of it. The flimsiness of Signature's revival -- it feels as if an eighty-person dinner party is being hosted in a studio apartment -- can only be blamed for so much, though you can feel free to lay more blame at the feet of Zoe Kazan, who treats Harper Pitt as an acting exercise.

For all that frustration, Angels in America isn't a bad play, nor is this production unwatchable, thanks to people like Christian Borle, an A-level actor who humanizes Prior Walter's insufferable pathos, captures the hilarity of the angel intrusions, and demonstrates both the unmanageable and manageable poles of life with AIDS. Though Kushner forces Prior to hash out the same accusatory conversation with his boyfriend Louis (Zachary Quinto), who has abandoned him out of fear, Borle manages to find new notes each time, as does Belize (Billy Porter), a sassy drag-queen-turned-night-nurse who, although forced to listen to highbrow rants from Louis and to have redundant conversations with Prior, peppers his own rebuttals with adequate spice. But at the same time, this is the good play: repetitive, whiny, preachy.

The other two major segments should hope for as much: Roy Cohn is a Scrooge-like lawyer who is visited by the ghosts of the people he has wronged in the past, and to his end, he remains an unrepentant bastard, a representation of pure evil: the secret gay who works to destroy gay rights. Frank Wood doesn't find an ounce of nuance with which to present the guy, and the nasally, spittle-flecked accent he chooses for the role is often distracting. Kushner, and director Michael Grief, by extension, treat him like a human pinata, except one who is filled with bile instead of candy: the worse he gets, the nastier he grows. As for Harper Pitt, she's really nothing more than a hallucinating, Valium-popping agoraphobe: it's a thankless, unresolved part that Kushner seems unclear on, glossing over her Mormon beliefs and heartbroken feelings toward her husband, Joe Pitt (Bill Heck). She doesn't come of age here; she just wanders off and isn't pursued. As for Joe, Heck's fine when he escapes the orbit of his play and that of Roy's (he is Roy's chief clerk), and provides one of the few fully developed characters -- a religiously closeted man who begins to open up, to take what he wants, after falling for Louis. And yet, though his mother, Hannah (Robin Bartlett), shows up in the epilogue, he is nowhere to be seen, so perhaps he wasn't that important after all.

Angels in America is littered with soapboxes and straw men, and for all Kushner's lauded genius, it's about as subtle as a thorn in your side. Twenty years later, there are still some uplifting moments, but the six-plus-hour length is unearned, the drama is cheap (it plays on deep emotions the audience is likely to already carry), and the Millennium feels passed by.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

THEATER: Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart

Photo/Rick Ngoc Ho 

Three years ago, the Production Company premiered a short version of Lally Katz's Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart, a romantic and quirky look at life after death, in which a depressed Caroline visits -- for her friend's wedding -- the "city" of Myspace New York, which has been recreated by the many people who have committed suicide in the real world. While there, she becomes an avalanche dweller -- obsessed and in love with Thornbury, one of the dead -- and just barely escapes before the whole fantasy world crashes. There's a Charlie Kaufman-esque appeal to the concept (think Eternal Sunshine), and a Sarah Ruhl-ish vibe to the language (similar in weight and tone to Dead Man's Cell Phone), but the last three years haven't served Katz's play well: as a full-length (ninety minute) play, it's too stretched out and consequently dry.

Nicolle Bradford -- who played Caroline in the original production, too -- has grown into the role, and gives plenty of life to her character, approaching the sorrow with equal parts of optimism, stubbornness, and anger. But she's surrounded by avatars, not characters, and these shallow representations keep her from connecting with flesh and blood. People like her ex, Andy (Brian Robert Burns), fly in for a scene, peppering the script with curses, and then vanish, without any growth -- and without any real impact. The actors do a fine job, particularly the comic relief of Sally and Claire (Erin Maya Darke and Danielle Slavick), two would-be-vegan chefs, but their role -- giving Caroline a job -- is far too slight, and they wind up a distraction. Some characters -- like Miss Jacklyn (Polly Lee), the flustered, far-gone leader of Avalanche Dwellers Anonymous -- are too cleanly reduced to a function: in this case, representing Caroline in fifteen years, a cautionary zombie. The result feels artificial, especially when the exposition of the dialogue meets the poetry of Caroline's monologues, and it buries the doomed (and one-sided) "romance" between Caroline and Thornbury (a fascinatingly reserved Ryan King) for too long.

These things stand out, as they must, because Valerie Therese Bart's set is meant to be a drab, expressionistically modern, background. It is everywhere and nowhere, and it keeps the emphasis on the more colorful characters (especially in Carolyn Hoffman's outfits) trying to give this fantasy life. But director Oliver Butler -- who has achieved great magic with his own company, The Debate Society -- seems restrained by this too, too solid set: it reduces movement (on the balconies or cramped apartments, or in Caroline's barred apartment) and creates some unfortunate sight lines (courtesy of the giant poles that are part of HERE's space). It doesn't feel as if Myspace New York is slowly fading or "crashing" all around them: rather, it feels like they've been living in the land of the dead from the start.

One of the themes of Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart is that although nothing is lost in this digital age, those who believe that wind up losing themselves, for they disassociated from the present, from what's real. The same goes for Katz's play, which, in refusing to lose anything, has cut its own heart out.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Short-a-Day: Barry Hannah's "Rangoon Green"

Originally published in Harper's Magazine, November 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 46.

Hannah's story is from a posthumous collection, so I won't be overly critical, but boy did this story need editing. There's a masterful voice to the anti-hero Goon Green, a brash, rambling Southern-fried style that sucks you in (even though he tells us early that "On the mean-o-meter, if there was such a contraption, all right, I might score high"), and that goes a long way to explain this story's publication. At the same time, however, the story begins with his veiled complaints about being cheated out of first place in the National Storytellers Tell-Off (of Murfreesboro, Tennessee), and ends up with an encounter with a random woman (the saintly girlfriend of one of his most drunken customers) who speaks philosophically about "misincarnation, where millions [miss] being born to their correct art and [spend] their days in sorrow wondering what [is] wrong" and basically treats him like "a goddamn ear you work on till it's callused all over," all because he "werewolfs" up the sweat on her neck: "The price you pay for some harmless licking."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Short-a-Day: T. Coraghessan Boyle's "What Separates Us from the Animals"

Originally published in Harper's Magazine, October 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 86.

Is there any sort of character, any tone, that T. C. Boyle cannot write? Smooth as ever, he quickly introduces us to the first-person manners and mannerisms of Margaret McKenzie, a good old slightly homophobic, racist, old-fashioned, and orderly committee member of a small township. Parenthetical asides enforce her leanings and repeated phrases belie her affability. ("Of course, I didn't want to dominate the conversation but I'm afraid there were long stretches when I was pretty much resigned to listening to my own voice.")

The story revolves around the doctor she has helped to hire for the community -- "Dr. Murdbritter (yes, that's right, it does sound Jewish, and we batted that around like a shuttlecock before we made him the offer)" -- and his differences from her. She, after all, is the one who sees herself as the doctor, considering how slovenly the man is: "[A]s far as I was concerned," she says, paying him a visit, "there was nothing to be examined, or no point to it, at any rate, because I was here to check up on him, not vice versa."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Short-a-Day: Samantha Hunt's "The Yellow"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Nov. 29, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 88.

"They were total strangers except for this dead dog."

This is, more or less, the raison d'etre of Hunt's story, in which a man, Roy, chooses to make his ordinary situation -- forty-two, living at home again, "'A pity,' his grandmother had decided" -- into an extraordinary one. He does this, in the first of many reversals that sound out the narrow line between ordinary and extraordinary, through normal means: painting his room a bright, optimistic yellow. His father sets him back in reality -- "Son, did you turn faggot over the weekend?" -- and so Roy goes for a drive, snapping into unreality with a very abrupt and regular collision with a dog. Total strangers, except -- the romantic essence -- for this dead dog (a very appropriately named "Curtains"), and the "turning" for both Roy and the dog's owner, Susanne. They choose, out of depression, to welcome in the irregular, and Susanne literally does, opening the door for Roy, who apologetically comes bearing her crushed dog: "Roy grabbed its tail and yanked the broken thing from under. Something tore like fabric. The neck was soft and floppy, like a harshly used work shirt. The dog was dead for certain."

THEATER: The Science of Guilt

It's ironic that Fixitsolife's mission statement is to create "simple, pure theater" with "no tricks or turns," considering that their inaugural production, Jason Odell Williams's The Science of Guilt, is a twisty, unrealistic bit of flimflam. It's a lot like Paul Grellong's Manuscript, which played the DR2 Theater five years ago, save that the writing isn't as sharp and speedy, nor is the cast as talented. The basic premise is good: two estranged brothers discover a pharmacological cure for "guilt," which is just the thing they need, since they're about to screw each other over in order to win the girl they both love, Marcy (Sarah Kate Jackson). Dramatically, it's not as effective: Kevin (Vincent Piazza) who is called a "crackpot half-a-PhD addict" never comes across as anything more than an confidence-lacking con man, and John (Anatol Yusef) is reduced to being the stereotypical "vicious businessman" (is there any other kind?), and that's before he takes a pill that makes him guilt-impaired.

What's left, really, is the script, which is a forcefully convoluted affair -- a story stretched for the sake of surprise, one that leads characters to act even more unnaturally. Then again, we're never really given the opportunity to see anyone acting "naturally"; we're simply told that Kevin left Marcy at the altar eight years ago, informed that John has married her, and never given the slightest indication that any of them actually care for each other. (So far as Jackson's portrayal of Marcy goes, it's impossible to believe that anyone would want her: she's a screechy bitch, a clumsy seductress, and -- by the end -- on the verge of being a sociopath.) This leads to a lack of consistency and a lack of plausibility, the sort of hackneyed writing in which anything can happen. For instance, when John implies that Marcy wants him to "take care of" Kevin, Kevin assumes -- as does the audience--that he's using a euphemism for "kill," which is really just as believable as anything else. There's some mild entertainment in watching the reversals, but there's no faith that makes us actually care. (The actors certainly don't seem to, but then again, it's hard to tell: their characters constantly give up and walk away; so much for drama.)

Given how much the script squanders its own rare moments of insight (the placebo effect, Marcy's version of "guilt"), refusing to connect them in any deeper way to the play itself, it's perhaps unfair to kill the messenger (director Francesco Campari) for all the unnatural rhythms and dead space that's wound up on stage. Arguments, already lowered to tedium by their schoolyard-level wit, often lose momentum mid-sentence as Yusef and Piazza wait to be cut off, or grasp for a sense of purpose. The most egregious bit of direction is the play's opening: thirty seconds of silent, unnatural staring -- enough to make everyone in the theater feel uncomfortable. Real conversations don't often have those sorts of gaps; theatrical silences must either be pregnant (ala Pinter) or aborted, like much of this stunted play. To be insensitive with my metaphors: Williams, please salvage the stem cells of your script and begin anew.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Short-a-Day: E. L. Doctorow's "Assimilation"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Nov. 22, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 93.

Ramon, recently promoted from dishwasher to busboy, has been paid by his employer to fly to a nameless foreign city. Though it has not been said directly, it's clear that he is being asked to marry a stranger, on account of his citizenship: "You sell yourself washing dishes, little bro. This is the country of selling yourself," Leon tells him. (Likewise, it's clear that Leon's in jail, though that's never expressly said: "On Sunday morning, Ramon took the bus upstate to see Leon. They talked through the phones." Consider how Doctorow uses assimilation in his own cultural shorthand, affixing extra weight to his words.)

To that end, Doctorow turns the marriage into a comical, barely functional affair:

  • "There was just time to change into the suit and they were calling from downstairs." 
  • "The girl from the picture gave him a quick glance of appraisal and nodded. No smile this time." 
  • "When Ramon's shoulder accidentally brushed hers, the girl jumped as if from an electric shock." 
  • "Some sort of city functionary married them. He mumbled and his eyes widened as if he were having trouble focussing. He was drunk.... He clearly didn't understand the situation because when he pronounced them man and wife he urged them to kiss."

THEATER: In the Footprint

Photo/Carol Rosegg

In the Footprint is the most sincere, clever, and enjoyable show to ever represent Marty Markowitz with a basketball, Bruce Ratner with a hand-puppet construction truck, and Jay-Z with a Yankees hat. It is also one of the year's most sincere, clever, and enjoyable shows, period. The docutheater approach (refining on the unbiased--or at least unjaded--magic The Civilians brought to their last work, This Beautiful City) has captured more than just nostalgia for neighborhoods and communities: it has given faces and names to the numbers, has turned generalities into specifics, and has identified the subtle tragedies of the modern day. It's Theater of the Everyday, an everyday wonder.

Steve Cosson's writing, editing, and directing begins with a childish view of the politics involved in the Atlantic Yards project -- hence the puppets and some lightly audience-interactive trivia -- but it organically shifts with the politics as it moves from 2003 to 2010 (buzz to protest to groundbreaking), from the past of the neighborhood to its gentrified future. As usual, he's well-met by Michael Friedman, who turns facts into songs, jamming words well past their meter for comic effect, but also out of necessity: there's so much to say about ULURP, UDC, and ESDC ("And that's how eminent domain works!"), to say nothing of redlining. These songs come across as a spoof of school pageant plays, and are balanced by half-rapped songs that call more natural rhythms (hesitations and all) to mind, like a far more realistic In the Heights.

In fact, most of In the Footprint is balanced -- not when it comes to Big Government, which is routinely mocked, but among the various views, hopes, and disappointments of Brooklyn citizens, all represented by melting-pot of six energetic, utterly convincing actors. (The Anna Deavere Smith-level accuracy of these performances will have to be judged by those more familiar with people like Patti Hagan, Bertha Lewis, and James Caldwell.) They take on everyone, from political bloviators and  citizen fighters to area restaurateurs -- like Ravi, who changed his bagel store's name from ARENA to AREA after he learned of the backlash -- and long-time residents like Shaheem: "Ah was round heah when it was RUGGED so I SEEN the transition." It's one thing for Greg McFadden to be somewhat jokey in his portrayal of Jonathan Lethem, but he can't be anything less than serious as Daniel Goldstein, the last tenant to be forcibly bought out (by eminent domain).

With all these stories flailing about for purchase, In the Footprint does occasionally lose momentum, but that lack of cohesion is as much a part of the larger play as anything else. It's how we can go from the indignation of Bertha Lewis (Donnetta Lavinia Grays) -- "I got gentrifiers, namely you, who don't give a damn about this neighborhood" -- to an annotated commentary on what the proposed iterations of the stadium might look like ("It kind of looks like an alien space ship has landed on the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush"), to a scene with a Greek chorus of bloggers, to the frustration of Bob Law (Billy Eugene Jones) as he rails against affordable housing for the poor -- which is no substitute for raising the wages and the education of the poor. It's engaging, tantalizing stuff -- raw information, in some cases, presented more or less rawly on the stage of the Irondale Center (which still has the imposing/welcoming stature of a church).

"The ghetto home depot, Park Slope Co-op, the Target, Cellar's Bar, Marcy Projects, the shootings, the hipsters, Spike Lee, Jay Z, the Time Out article the day the rents doubled...," may not seem like much more than a string of words, especially to outsiders, but they make a chilling final chorus. They're not just things; they're memories, and for better or worse, they'll soon be paved over and forgotten -- the drama of the everyday, no less tragic for its subtlety, and all the more powerful when called out on the stage: "You are only entitled to the space that you have," come the final words, dying in a fade to black, "You are not entitled to the space that's all around you." In the Footprint manages to preserve what it can, and more importantly, to cherish what it's got -- an ephemeral bit of theater for an ephemeral moment.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Short-a-Day: Tessa Hadley's "The Trojan Prince"

[Will be playing around with different ways of recapssessing this stories this week.]

Originally published in The New Yorker, Nov. 15, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 50.

THE "FIRST" LINE: "It's an April morning and a young man waits at a black-painted front door on a decent street in Tynemouth. It's a much more decent street than the one where his home is."

From a reader's perspective, a story that opens with description -- particularly lifeless, generic, paid-by-the-word descriptions like these -- is already fighting the tide. Only one thing stands out, simply by contrast, and that's the idea of a "decent street," and its relationship -- "much more decent" -- to him.

THE FIRST PARAGRAPH: "The year is 1920. This young man has missed the World War; he has closed his mind now even to the thought of the war, which, it seems to him, has devoured everyone's pity and imagination for too long." 

The humble, declarative sentences of this first paragraph don't look like much, but again, they actually work well in contrast with these final lines of the opening. This young man thinks not of pity nor imagination; consequently, Hadley's writing has neither.

THEATER: Mistakes Were Made

[Originally published in Show Business Weekly]

Photo/Ari Mintz

How do you put an original play on Broadway? To Craig Wright, the comically dazzling writer of Mistakes Were Made, it involves selling out your playwright, placating your celebrity, denigrating everyone else’s agent, threatening the theatrical bookers, and, oh, a little bit of overseas negotiation with angry Afghanis and truckloads of sheep. Don't be fooled by the title: It’s just more of the show’s self-deprecating insider wit. Between director Dexter Bullard and the Atlas-like performer Michael Shannon (poised to devour Jeremy Piven's career), there's not a single mistake in this outstanding one-man farce.

The show begins with cheapo producer Felix Artifex (he’s done Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Erik Estrada and Rosanne Barr) assuring the star he's wrangling that his only job is to do what's right for other people. It's not long before he switches phone lines, however, to butter up the playwright with some complementary lies ("He loves the script: his words, not mine") before suggesting a few rewrites. "Life is unbearable and short," he says of this epic French Revolution play, "and people want to be entertained." However, as the phone lines begin to light up faster and faster, driving Artifex to pace around the room on headset, a cartoonish, suspender-clasping caricature — but one with good intentions and a generous heart (watch him feed his fish) — the lies and the stakes grow larger.

Mistakes Were Made is filled with absurdity, but since it's all handled over the phone, filtered through Shannon's gravel-serious cajoling and chiseled horror (his eyes grow rather wide, his jaw plummets precipitously, his hair seems to grow whiter), we get caught up in what would otherwise be a shallow situation. (Consider the way Mark Rylance elevated Boeing Boeing.) Additionally, the novelty of verbal reversals (as opposed to physical pivots) reinvigorates the farce: because he's forced to work from his desk, without the ability for actual violence, his energies are channeled and amplified, as is his pitiable and ultimately helpless situation. It makes Shannon seem simultaneously subdued and frenetic, psychopathic yet endearing, and — in the biggest reversal of all — allows him to play against his normally dead-serious types (Boardwalk Empire, Bug).

Here's the lesson: When it comes to theater, there's no mistaking talent.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Short-a-Day: Jim Shepard's "Boys Town"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Nov. 8, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 62.

Art imitates life imitating art in this aggressive but ultimately dispassionate story of Shepard's, which revolves around Martin, an ex-GI with a cache of weapons and a hardened heart, and how different his life could have been -- hence him blaming everyone else -- if he'd been treated like the orphans of the 1938 film Boys Town. ("If he had one friend when he was twelve he wouldn't be standing here like this.") He's disappointed in the world: "I thought you said that if we were good, somebody would help us," he thinks, quoting from the film, and this fuels his increasingly delusional narrative. But while the first half works, that italics-emphasizing first-person voice is asked to carry too much of the story and, absent real characters or settings, soon flattens out, no empathy in sight.


Photo/Joan Marcus

First, take the The Odd Couple. Then, have a Norwegian author, Ingvar Ambjornsen, adapt it for the whimsical climate of Oslo. Specify that, although it begins in a madhouse, neither of your characters--persnickety momma's boy Elling and excitable, explicative-prone, orangutan-like Kjell Bjarne--are actually ill, just a little off. Now, have a playwright, Simon Bent, put it back into English (and on the stage, based on a film adaptation by Axel Hellstenius and Petter Naess), and then import the whole thing to Broadway with some eye-catching stars: Denis O'Hare and Brendan Fraser.

The result, Elling, manages to be both highly compressed and all over the place, a rather mundane play with a few extraordinary characters, a show with a lack of dramatic tension, but a ton of individually pleasant scenes. The casting is spot-on, and yet also uninspired: Jennifer Coolidge plays a ditsy sexpot, Jeremy Shamos channels a frustrated social worker, and Richard Easton portrays an eccentric poet. In other words, there's no reason for Elling to be a play (it longs to be a sitcom), but then again, it's already here, all innocuous and tender-hearted, so why not, after exhausting all other options, see it? There are plenty of dogs that don't want to learn new tricks.

In any case, should you find yourself at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, you need only remember this bold declaration of Elling's--"Logic is the enemy of reason"--for the play has neither. Elling hides in closets, refuses to go outside or answer the phone, and has conversations with his dead mother . . . and then he doesn't. Kjell Bjarne considers himself to be dressed if he's wearing boxers and a T-shirt and has no idea how to converse with women (even casually talking about them makes him hard), except that when he meets his drunk, pregnant upstairs neighbor, Reidun (Coolidge), all of those issues go away. Elling simply follows two odd friends on their very ordinary adventures, and that's it. Hearing excerpts from bad poets doesn't help us to better understand Elling's transformation into the underground artist known as the "Sauerkraut Poet," but it's funny enough on its own.

That's the rub, however: Elling is merely "funny enough." That may be enough for Fraser, who is only asked to scale up his hormones and outrage, but O'Hare seems wasted in his role. To clarify: he's terrific, nailing every line, every movement--in fact, elevating what are otherwise some rather bland lines--but it's like watching Roger Federer play tennis against a neonate. Thankfully, he's at least guided by a talented director: Hughes slows the second act down, adding some much needed silence and reflection; this keeps the genuinely sweet moments between Elling and Kjell Bjarne--thoughtfully unexpected Christmas presents, shared underwear--from turning into cloying ones.

At the end, Elling gropes for some sort of conclusion, and ultimately comes up with this: normal is as normal does. That seems fitting for the show, which is simply what it is: simple.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Short-a-Day: Frances Hwang's "Blue Roses"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Nov. 1, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 51.

Here's your classic story of relationships, both with Lin Fanghui's family--three children, and her falling out with the oldest and closest--and her "good friend" Wang Peisan, who seems to do nothing but irritate her. (And yet, by the story's end, she describes this as "we need these small daily irritants, a bit of sediment in our mouths, to keep life interesting.") I don't think enough has been done with the story in terms of plotting--the events in the present aren't really fleshed out, and the flashbacks are more quaint than they are relevant--and I don't get a sense of the setting or the characters. But I do find Hwang's writing very easy to wade through--it's not particularly deep, but it has a few nice things on the surface, particularly the descriptions:

  • "Ever since she was a child, she has been indulged, her life as delicate as a teacup. She had weak lungs and her parents didn't expect her to live. They bought her larger and larger coffins as she grew."

  • "'His poetry was so-so, not a horse and not a tiger. But somehow his kindness and sincerity touched me.'"

  • "He was an amiable man, a bit plump, with thick square glasses. He looked soft as a sponge. If you squeezed him, the moment you let go he would return to his original shape. Of the two, he seemed much the healthier person. How could any of us have known that he'd be dead before the winter was over?"

Friday, November 19, 2010

Short-a-Day: Richard Powers's "To the Measures Fall"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Oct. 18, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 86.

"Your recent change, of course, has crushed your father. He long hoped that you would follow through on that Kennedy-inspired dream of community service. You, who might have become a first-rate social worker. You, who might have done good things for the species, or at least for the old neighborhood. But life will be books for you, from here on. Nothing has ever felt more preordained."

This is a gimmick story, and that's a shame, because it's got a strong, muscular heart, one that reminds me of similar all-in-one stories from, say, Jonathan Safran Foer. Powers takes a firm hand with the second person, almost jokingly at times--"You are, by the way, female"--but uses it well, to convey the experience of reading, or more specifically, the sensations from reading.

THEATER: Long Story Short

Long Story Short is, to make a long story short, an awful show. In a year of theater filled with killer comic monologues, Colin Quinn is overwhelmingly underwhelming. This isn't a total surprise, given his paleolithic humor, but it is a disappointment: he makes his director, Jerry Seinfeld, look bad, too. Perhaps Quinn paces around so much because he fears a cane from the wings; perhaps he climbs David Gallo's pointless Aztec-temple-like steps in contemplation of human sacrifice. Take these insults with a pinch of salt (or perhaps a handful; sodium poisoning might be more enjoyable): stand-up acts are notoriously subjective, and there were plenty of people in the theater laughing.

Then again, what they were laughing at was, essentially, a History 101-Cliff Notes-Wikipedia mash-up, dry, broad, semi-facts that have been repurposed by Quinn as further proof of how we're all assholes. The resulting "jokes" are little more than crude exaggerations, tossed out like live grenades (though they're pretty much all duds) and quickly moved on from. Cheap and thoughtless, these jokes are rarely more than one level deep: when Quinn bemoans the difference between Greek tragedies and MTV tragedies, that observation ends up being the joke. (Well, OK, he name-drops Snooki, but she's her own punchline.) With some elbow grease (read: wit) and Robin Williams-like speed, he might get away with that; instead, we get a "quip" like "I know now that I know nothing . . . kind of a dick move" and then a pause for applause.

Nor does Quinn manage to keep on his own topic: there are dozens of long, unconnected, and unfunny digressions like the one about how well he knows the "white teacher teaches unteachable black students and learns something himself" movie formula. At least when he ties this derivative shtick to his equal-opportunity bashing of world cultures (minus Japan, though perhaps he thinks that's the same as China), he and his accents don't seem as racist and uninformed. Yes, there were plenty of people in the theater laughing, but they were laughing at cheap jokes about Arabs (who always sound gruff with their friends and pleasant with their enemies), stereotypical jokes about South American drug culture (which is apparently what happened to the Mayans), and contempt--hardly even jokes--for England (with its fixation on neighboring France).

At the end of the evening, Quinn turns back to America and its prick-based culture. But in all honesty, that's where the show spends all eighty-five minutes, showing us our out-sized ego, brash and belittling behavior, and politically naive sensibilities. And in the middle of New York City, the heart of tourist-friendly melting-pot Broadway, you hardly need to pay good money to see that in a theater.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Short-a-Day: David Means's "Tree Line, Kansas, 1934"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Oct. 25, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 22.

A rough litany, but one filled with unusual--and thereby intriguing--events: as Means drills the sharp "Five days of..." (as opposed to "It's been five days of...") into us, we quickly get a feel for the cramped, listless specificity of surveillance, as Lee and Barnes hide along a Kansas tree line, waiting on the off-chance that a violent bank thief, Carson, will show up at his uncle's farmhouse. At best, the writing would mix Beckett and McCarthy, but despite the occasionally terse, existential musing ("Five days, reduced to a single conversation"), this is a dry bit of fiction, attempting to inflate its own self-worth with turgid description. Whatever tension the story might have held, it abandons in the second paragraph ("Years later, retired..." it begins), opting instead for numbered "points" (observations) that stand out about this moment in time, a moment right before disaster.

No, I've got no use for lines like this:

The imperceptibly slow shift of light over the past few days as the dirt-clod shadows stretched across the field and then shortened gradually until, after the sun’s zenith, they lengthened while the sky loosened its grip on the sun and a violet, ruddy marl blushed the horizon.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

THEATER: After the Revolution

After After the Revolution, I stood around and surreptitiously listened to a group of older theatergoers--some in tears--as they mulled over whether there was a broader appeal to Amy Herzog's play, which deals with the repercussions of American Communists some sixty years after HUAC. It's a silly thing to wonder about, however, because the appeal of Herzog's play is not in its politics, but rather in its family drama--which is why After the Revolution works so well as a political play. (As Herzog puts it, in Playwrights Horizons's freely distributed after-show pamphlet interviews [conducted by Adam Greenfield]: "The politics are serving the family story, instead of vice versa. If I'd written the play in 2005, I think it would have been a more cerebral, more bloodless play.") You don't need to know the history to get involved, you just need to understand why Emma (Katharine Powell), who is running a politically active fund in her late, persecuted grandfather's name, feels so betrayed by the discovery that her father, Ben (the terrific Peter Friedman), has been keeping secrets from her. And you don't need to agree with the politics of grandmotherly Vera (Lois Smith) to feel her disappointment in a mostly apathetic, or selling-out generation.

"It can be tough to know what's right," says Morty (David Margulies), a wizened contributor to Emma's fund, and that's why neither he nor Herzog pretend to have the answers. Instead, they both go with their guts (which seems to be how politics works); the result is a political play that isn't slickly plotted, that isn't meted out in sound-bites--a political play that is spoken from the heart. In the most effective scene of the night, we watch Emma sitting on her couch, again and again inches from picking up the phone, as Ben (whom director Carolyn Cantor has cleverly placed nearby on stage) leaves her a rambling message aimed at repairing their shattered trust. Ben's inability to get through to his daughter--literally--drives him to a variety of ill-advised tactics, but then again, to err is human, and it is only through these scenes that Herzog is able to start forgiving.

After the Revolution isn't a perfect play: Miguel (Elliot Villar), Emma's boyfriend, is trotted out first as a punchline (how progressive the very white Emma is to date a Hispanic man) and then as a political and personal foil, then promptly disappears. Ben's brother, Leo (Mark Blum), is a voice of reason, but then again, so is Ben's wife, Mel (Mare Winningham), and she's at least given a stirring anecdote about civil disobedience, not to mention enough folksy charm to work out an otherwise stiff role. As for Emma's sister, Jess (Meredith Holzman); she feels like she's dropping in from another play: she's too obviously being used as an apolitical balance, and because her character has so little invested in the stakes of the play, her scenes can't help feeling a little contrived. However, if anything, these imperfections only make the core of the play stronger, and Cantor does a good job of focusing on the key elements of Herzog's play--even if Clint Ramos's all-in-one living room set (cluttered with images) doesn't.

We don't need to agree with one another, but we should be able to talk with one another, to understand what drives us to take even the most radical of actions in the name of the things we truly believe in. Politics cannot be minimized to a two-party system, to a "pro" this and a "pro" that (-life and -choice, for example); it must be lived, must be acknowledged as a part of our ethos, of who we are. That's the world in which After the Revolution's characters live in, those are its stakes, and that is why its revealed secrets come across as such damaging betrayals. It's not a revolution in itself, but it's a stirring bit of theater.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Short-a-Day: Alice Munro's "Corrie"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Oct. 11, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 47.
[Update: There are a few spoilers in the comments, so read them only after you've read the story (or have decided not to).]

Munro's latest, like much of her work, is very simply written, and doesn't bother trying to show off, and yet once more, I find myself not really caring. This prolific writer may be well-respected and talented, but the sorts of stories she writes--chronicles that span an entire relationship--tend to bore me. An author like Jonathan Franzen (in Freedom) is at least writing about modern characters; Munro's characters always seem rooted a slow and analog past, especially in this 50s piece.

I don't feel bad disliking "Corrie," though, because it seems like a poor example of Munro: there are quite a few confusing sentences, a lot of implied and unearned relationships, and the opening itself is rather confusing, beginning mid-speech as her father tells Howard Ritchie, a young architect, that:

"It isn't a good thing to have the money concentrated all in the one family, the way you do in a place like this. I mean, for a girl like my daughter Corrie here. For example, I mean, like her. It isn't good. Nobody on the same level."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Short-a-Day: Sam Lipsyte's "The Dungeon Master"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Oct. 4, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 87.

What's the deal with pen-and-paper role-playing games? Well, in Lipsyte's tale of "The Dungeon Master," it's a means of taking back some meager control of the world around you. Hence our "hero" uses "a secret language that we don't quite understand" (note the clever first-person-plural that Lipsyte sneaks in to an otherwise straight first-person story; a temporary strengthening, the power stemming from a union of unlikely friends), but to everyone else, "They say he's been treated for it." Picture the world of this angry, rebellious child: newly divorced parents, an overwhelmingly inept New Age doctor of a father ("Play nice, my beautiful puppies"), his sniveling younger brother. Is it any wonder we meet the Dungeon Master like in a snarling spray of spit? "'Eat your fate,' he said. 'Your thread just got the snippo!'"

Saturday, November 13, 2010

RELEASE: Edgewise

I'm bummed that it looks as if I won't be able to check back in with Eliza Clark's Edgewise, especially now that it's in the hands of director Trip Cullman and the well-curated Play Company, but if it's only half as good as I remember, you're still in for a treat! Oh, and did I mention it's at the terrific Walkerspace, one of my favorite locations? Information about the show can be found here, my old notes can be found here.

UPDATE: As Asher points out in the comments below, I somehow neglected to notice that P73 is co-producing, a group that's also had a pretty stellar track record as far as I'm concerned: Creature, Jack's Precious Moment, 1001, and the tremendous Sixty Miles to Silver Lake.

RELEASE: Bring Back Buddy Cop 2

Go and check out The Debate Society's earnest little video plea for the funding they need to bring back the acclaimed Buddy Cop 2 (my review of show's earlier run, here). And then, you know, as long as you're there...

On a broader note, I'm glad that theater companies are starting to use Kickstarter to raise money; it seems like a great way to connect with audiences and to personalize that relationship (more than just a mere mention in a program somewhere). 

TV: Human Target

I grew up on comic books (though not this one), so maybe I'm just a little biased when it comes to this sort of unabashedly loose show, but there's just something purely enjoyable about the nonsense of Human Target. Read all about the dramaction over at Slant Magazine.

Friday, November 12, 2010

THEATER: Notes from Underground

Photo/Joan Marcus

A man sits in a lonely chair in a lonelier room, talking into a video camera, but really, to himself. The walls are as stained as his mattress, and striped with construction marks, as if forever waiting to be finished; his roof is a series of bars: only a few haphazard cardboard shingles remain. In this squalid St. Petersburg, every inch of his room is coated in snow--or perhaps the shredded pages of his hopeless novels. The Man (Bill Camp) sits and negates himself with his words, telling us one thing, admitting that it's a lie, and then confessing that he has lied about the lie: "I am not at all the joker you think, or as you might think." But though he considers himself to be living in the existentially bleak Underground--if not always physically, then at least mentally--, he is determined to be honest, and he snorts at his own rage: his eyes stretch and his lips lapse into momentary smirks. As if he cannot help himself, for in fact, he cannot help himself, and it is with this remarkable theatrical talent that Camp is able to find the playfulness in an otherwise caustic and unremittingly bleak play, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (in a translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky).

It helps that this is a passion project of Camp's: that he has labored to pare down the novella into a hundred-minute play (very well supported by his director and co-adapter, Robert Woodruff), only makes the play seem more lived in. Additionally, their edits--which focus on the more active second part of the novella--help the play to find a perspective with which the audience can connect. To quote from an excised section, which may have been too on-the-nose within the play: "In despair there are the most intense enjoyments, especially when one is very acutely conscious of the hopelessness of one's position." The play succeeds not by taming its anti-hero, but by ceding itself fully to the misanthropic Man's "conscious inertia," by gussying up the starkness of his world, from David Zinn's ruin of a set to Peter Nigrini's excellent (and often distortingly engulfing) projections and Mark Barton's remarkably super-natural lighting (not eerie, but something more than realistic).

What begins in a straightforward fashion, then, a strict series of rants that establish the Man's madness--and Dostoyevsky's tone--soon turns away from what might be called the Elevator Repair Service aesthetic (an emphasis on text) and delightfully approaches the physically ambitious reimaginings of directors like Ivo van Hove and Jay Schieb (who radicalize the text). The latter section --which at times can leave you gasping for air--is a stronger piece of theater, but it owes a large debt to the emptiness of the first half.

After all, Notes from Underground is an existential work, and it takes much stock in appearances--particularly in the way the Man sees (or fails to see) himself. After the first thirty minutes, the Man begins to interact with Michael Attias and Merrit Janson--previously relegated to adding ambient sounds from the wings--and we immediately hear an upward squeal in Camp's pitch, see an awkward shift in his posture, and note the ways in which he now tries to fit in and keep up with his "colleagues." At the same time, we're never less than conscious of the physical effect that has on his barely submerged rage; Camp is a time-bomb, and each shameful outburst charges him that much more. By the final third of the play--unable to hide his shame in the presence of a prostitute (Janson)--he implodes, physicalizing his self-effacing "wit," the lights and cameras fading, the torment of existence rushing back in.

It's heady stuff, especially on the page. And though this production pointedly disconnects scenes (Woodruff often has the actors perform to cameras, off- or up-stage), Notes from Underground is so vacuum-tight that it sucks you in. It is a crushing night of theater; the sort that also carries with it a triumphant breath of fresh air.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


In Doris to Darlene, Jordan Harrison attempted to tell a generation-spanning story through the power and evolution of music (specifically, Wagner); in Amazons and Their Men, he more succinctly linked Greek mythology with Nazi propaganda and escapist fantasy by distilling the essence of film (specifically, Leni Riefenstahl). His latest, Futura, tackles a more modest art form--Paul Renner's modern typography--but ties it to a less-than-impressive B-movie plot, muddying both the passion and the point of the play. What begins as a solid and engaging college lecture ("From Pen to Pixel: A History of Typography") from an on-edge professor (Mia Katigbak) is soon hijacked by a spotty science-fiction melodrama, in which the idealistic Gash (Christopher Larkin) and hardened Grace (Angela Lin) kidnap her at the behest of their leader, Edward (an awfully over-the-top Edward A. Hajj), who hopes to use her knowledge of the past to bring books--or more specifically, uncensored information--back into this paper-free dystopia.

Harrison is most effective when he's able to play on our sentimentality, but for the first half of the play, he deals in hard facts about fonts, and for the rushed second half, he's trapped by the conventions of his chosen genre, which undercut him at every turn, particularly the pulpy action sequences, which Liz Diamond is unable to stage on David Evans Morris's clever--but tiny--room of a set. Moreover, despite a good effort to subtly embed the differences of his "near-future" setting in the professor's lecture, he still winds up bogged down in needless exposition, the sort of hackneyed dialogue that both made and destroyed William Shatner's career: "With the Zero Drive, we could begin again." No, his safest, strongest moments are those that require no explanation--the professor's clear love of printed language ("A font can make meaning") and Gash's yearning to turn from bomb-making to letter-writing.

Harrison remains trapped between worlds and genres, unable to flesh out his themes as Ann Marie Healy's What Once We Felt did, or to get as harrowingly human as Ashlin Halfnight's Artifacts of Consequence, both of which covered similar themes (the importance of creative expression, the effect of its loss). Harrison's Futura would make a terrible font, confused as its individual characters are between being bold-faced, adventurers or pared-down, sans-serifed agents of rebellion. Even at its most legible moments, Futura doesn't seem to be communicating anything of real value; audit his lecture, but drop out of the play.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

THEATER: Electra in a One-Piece

Photo/Sam Hough

What has made the classic Greek tragedies so enduring? If you listen to Buddy Cox (Michael Brusasco), a television producer, it's all about violence: it sells, and he wants a piece of the pie being brewed in the dueling YouTube narratives of angry daughter Elle (Amanda Scot Ellis) and her unabashedly murderous mother, Clyt (Erika Rolfsrud). Sadly, if you listen to Isaac Oliver's Electra in a One Piece, you get much the same sense of people trying to dip their hands into a well-established pie. There are a few ambitious scenes, but they're largely lost in this tarted-up Electra for the modern age, amidst a Chorus of electronic comments and literal poster-boys (Chris Bannow, Austin Mitchell, and Ian McWethy provide voices for the posters of Jude Law, Justin Timberlake, and Zac Efron on Elle's wall) and a series of overcooked comic rants, like those of Clyt's very young, very stupid pool-boy lover, Thus (Mitchell), who is amped to be the man of the house.

Ignoring the distraction of Clyt's timid book-club friends Ethel (Melanie Hopkins) and Rhoda (played, for some reason, as a man, Matt Park) and glossing over the played-for-laughs-not-heart struggle of Ore (Bannow), who takes his willing best friend Lad (McWethy) as a lover in order to get discharged from the military so that he might return home to kill his mother, the core of Electra in a One-Piece works rather well. Popularity and appearances are flimsy covers for the underlying needs for love and acceptance, so the fact that both Elle and Clyt turn to YouTube before one another is rather telling, and unique to this day and age. And while characters like Cox and the placatingly grating therapist Patrice (Hopkins) are ancillary at best, they do at least spur the two into some terrifically once-removed conflicts, most notably a sequence in which Elle's attempts to stage a funeral for her father--bad poetry, water-soaked flowers, and all--are undercut by stage-mother Clyt, who attempts to make her daughter's fake grief look better . . . leading, at last, to a real confrontation.

Oliver's script wanders all over the place--much like the social media he's toying with--but David Ruttura is on-point, with a consistent (albeit twee) tone to his direction. That's assisted by Kenneth Grady Barker's lovely scenic design, which packs two bedrooms and a swimming pool onto a narrow stage by toying with the scale of them, making a clever point of how we tend to fill in the blanks when we're given only slivers of the whole thing. But despite these solid tricks, Electra in a One-Piece, like the on-stage pool, remains shallow, and by the end of the play, once drained of all the mythology and is left with just Oliver's consequences, the problematic construction is all too clear. The final murders mean nothing, there's a lack of resolution, and the jokes have long since dried up: perhaps what made the Greek tragedies last wasn't the violence, but the catharsis.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

THEATER: Barring the Unforseen

Sitting in the pitch darkness of IRT, with only the occasional beam of an usher's flashlight slicing through the rows, it's amazing how clearly one tunes into the talkative audience members around them, and surprising how much they share, as if they are sitting alone with their friends, as if the rest of us have disappeared. It's easy to listen when you cannot watch, and in that sense, Mike Daisey has not handicapped himself at all for his latest monologue, Barring the Unforeseen, for he spends most of it speaking in the darkness, into a microphone, a voice from afar, though he is--as usual--sitting at his plain desk, with a glass of water and his outlined notes before him. He has, however, handicapped himself in just about every other way, from largely impersonal subject matter (as removed as he tells us his psychiatrist father was) to the whispering tone of a ghost story, which subdues and cripples the sprightly energy that's usually in his surprised and outraged inflections.

Skipping over the obvious and self-deprecating puns of the title, then, Barring the Unforeseen has set itself an impossible goal: to describe madness, or the brink thereof. His story begins with a coincidental encounter that leads to a break-in seance at H. P. Lovecraft's home, but refracts all over the place from there, touching on Lovecraft's childhood (and his racism) to Daisey's own upbringing, in empty, lonely Maine, where he felt he had nothing better to do than to ponder death in between the jam sandwiches that were his only highlight. As usual, the strongest threads are those that involve Daisey's memory directly, but unlike previous shows--like If You See Something, Say Something's trip to Trinity--these threads haven't yet been woven into a sturdy narrative.

Of the seven monologues, three deal with his first childhood friend, a young girl who lived in a literal shack and who, for some reason, deigned to be friends with him. But while we get terrific descriptions of the yellowed linoleum floor and the like-new bathtub, her low-ceiling attic bedroom and the off-stage tension of her father's arrival home, their actual relationship remains unclear, as does the would-be-chilling revelation of what really went on in that home. Moreover, none of this really ties back into the Lovecraftian world introduced at the beginning of the show--save for Daisey's eerie recollections of Ouija boards--and many of the scenes are aborted without conclusion: how exactly did their seance end?

Barring the Unforeseen, despite dealing in ghost stories or in the creeping just-out-of-sight reality of true terror, fails to be unsettling in the least, though it's at least admirable that Daisey doesn't go for cheap frights in the darkness. Then again, Daisey's calm, measured intellect doesn't lend itself to the campfire narrative, and despite the interesting turn it takes at the very end, the lack of a driving urgency behind this story--and the erratic plotting--makes for an ultimately dull monologue.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

THEATER: The Halloween Plays

Photo/Steve Bartel

They're called The Halloween Plays, but they'll end performances on Halloween. They're supposed to be "scary," but given the styles of the three creators--Austin McCormick's baroque dance, Cynthia Babak's contemporary charm, and Greg Kotis's campy wit--there's little horror. They're supposed to be appropriate for young adults, but there's a tight margin with all the implicit sex, death, and violence. To sum up, whatever they're supposed to be, The Halloween Plays have ended up as a middling series of one-acts.

Kotis's entry, "Salsa," is the strongest of the lot, mainly because he doesn't bother to mask his voice or to play for the audience. Kevin Hogan is made for such work, with a muggy face and a versatile range, he chews up the paltry diner scenery as his character, Harry, goads the hot-seeking Joe (Sean Patterson) into trying an especially potent blue-chili sauce. The punchline is a bit disappointing, as is the thrifty appearance of Chicotlitzl (Alvin Hippolyte), but the recurring gags and infectious cackling does enough to sell the short.

The same can't be said of Babak's "Too Much Candy," which starts off well enough: a middle-aged Hansel (Stuart Zagnit) goes to regression therapy with a familiar Doctor (Claire Beckman) in order to cure his traumatic addiction to candy. But while the sight of Zagnit helplessly cramming chocolate into his mouth--or attempting to hold himself back--is hilarious, the play takes several steps backward as it uses flashbacks to relay the familiar gingerbread story that we already know. Nell Balaban's direction keeps the transitions brisk, and has some nicely staged bleeding between the past and present, and Scott Voloshin draws some laughs out of his purposely horrendous portrayal of the Witch, but there's simply too much clutter. Mothers, fathers, birds, children: there are moments when it's all just a bunch of unfunny squawking.

As for "Denouement," it's the first of McCormick's pieces not directly tied to an existing framework (past shows have centered on Snow White, the Trojan War, the Garden of Eve), so it, too, winds up rambling. Jeff Takacs's narrative is fine, and delivered in a fey and ghoulish way, but the plot is so mundane--three guns, six bullets, three couples, will any survive?--that the entire evening becomes about the dancing. And while this would normally be enough, the lack of any props and set pieces, not to mention the one-note costuming, call attention to the similarity of these threadbare numbers. If you've never seen Company XIV before, the stylized twirls and dips may be enough, but it's perhaps too on the nose about "the death of the passionate ones."

Halloween is the time to dress up, think big, and be something other than what you usually are: with The Halloween Plays, Company XIV and the co-producing World Repertory Theatre have merely put themselves forward, the result being that none of them have particularly stood out.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

THEATER: (un)afraid

Photo/Anton Nickel

You walk through a dim hallway before reaching the stage, the cavernous Living (or, for this, Undead) Theater, and are instructed to sit on a series of steps, a creepy scrim behind you. It's an awkward position--if you're prone to nerves--as it allows actors to creep up behind you, and both the title of the show--(un)afraid--and the nature of the performers--the non-illusory New York Neo-Futurists--keep that possibility alive throughout the show, assuming the dark woods, campfires, bloodcurdling screams, or Ouija boards don't get you first.

Ironically, though the first of many questions directly asked to the audience is, "Who here is ready to get scared?" the four writers/actors of (un)afraid have little interest in spooking you, despite what the bloody brides and men in hockey masks with chainsaws may have you believe. In actuality, the performers--Jill Beckman, Cara Francis, Ricardo Gamboa, and Daniel McCoy--are there to bare their own fears and, by sharing them with the audience, to purge themselves of them. The show succeeds less in forcing the audience to confront some of these "nightmares" than by bringing them to consider just what it is about these things that causes a reaction. The puerile nature of many of these Neo-Futurist skits helps to enhance this: yes, Bloody Mary and all those other urban legends are totally silly, but are you brave enough to stand up and say those words into a broken mirror? Are you frightened of horror movie monsters, but totally inured to scenes of actual violence and real human suffering?

It's hard to accurately critique (un)afraid, for it has branching paths (sixteen "special" scenes, of which only four will be seen each night) that can make the evening quite erratic. It also relies--more than previous Neo-Futurist shows--on the audience, and has less of an immediate gimmick (like The Soup Show's nudity) to help them open up. And it's impossible to tell which quirky moments will penetrate your defenses enough to make an impact: do country ballads and red-spandex-clad men doing interpretively devilish dances work for anyone? Thankfully, the majority of core material is solid stuff, and the deliberately funny scenes are big hits: their demonstrations of different types of fears and suggestions for surviving a horror movie (running) or an apocalypse (Twinkies). Ultimately, the world is only as frightening as we choose to believe it is ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," right?), so make a choice and check out (un)afraid.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

THEATER: The Pumpkin Pie Show: Amber Alert

If the content of The Pumpkin Pie Show is any indication, then playwright/actor Clay McLeod Chapman would make a terrific parent. Not because he could scare the bejesus out any child with these stories--and Halloween is fast approaching--but because he's able to see the beauty in the ugliness of the world, and is able--year after year--to approach his showcase of monologues with an infectiously wide-eyed wonder, to get you pump(kin)ed up, regardless of mood. Above all, however, is his ability to empathize, a bit of craft that turns even the most vile people into victims.

This year's entry, Amber Alert, collects five new stories, but has lost some of the specificity of last year's Commencement, which, being a series of interlocked tales dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting, had more at stake. The tension is lessened, too, by the choices to split the performances between three actors (himself, the fiercely talented Hanna Cheek, and the young, admirable Hannah Timmons) and to add an original score to the proceedings (written by Radiotheatre and added onstage by Wes Shippee). The writing still pops--if you can say that about mushroom-capped cold sores or milky-thistled penises--as do the deliveries, especially Cheek's nervous and nervy portrayal of a "special" teacher on Parent/Teacher night. There's just more of a separation between actor and audience--which is odd, given the location: the highly intimate, spittle-will-fly Red Room; The Pumpkin Pie Show feels more like a showcase than a tour de force.

As a showcase, however, Amber Alert is outstanding, a conflagration of emotions delivered by an energetic cast. There aren't highs and lows in this show so much as heavens and hells, with hardly a moment of limbo in between. Without giving specifics away, wrestlers will knee-dive the stage; wives will all but caress the microphone; little boys will wistfully, tearfully dream of outer space; and troubled men will ball up within themselves--each scene brings a new series of sweet shudders, each character carries a wide variety of physical and tonal shifts. The unspeakable makes for thrilling theater, and Chapman's still got all the right words.

Friday, October 15, 2010

THEATER: Dramatis Personae

Photo/Richard Termine

There's a burnt-out window and shards of glass strewn all over Lucas's sleek bachelor pad, but Dramatis Personae opts not to explain it; instead, Ben (Gerardo Rodriguez) tells a story as he, Marla (Liza Fernandez), and Lucas (Felix Solis) tidy up. Ben's been inspired by a palimpsest of graffiti in a local bookstore's bathroom, particularly by the guy who simply writes "Boobies." "That guy I want to meet," he concludes. "Or create." In other words, Gonzalo Rodriguez Risco wants to give us the creative whimper, not the destructive bang, wants to catch the idea in action, and he aims to do it by crafting a literary ghost story in which three haunted writers--living in the terrorist-riddled 1990s Lima, Peru--face their own creations.

It's an interesting concept, but one that lacks dramatic weight: as Lucas puts it, "It's not a story. I'm just thinking out loud." And while Erik Pearson's direction is ravishing--he neatly casts Bobby Moreno and Laura Esposito as the characters within each writer's story; they pop up through beds, drop out of windows, and hang around creepily; they are everything (id, ego, superego) the writers are not--the actual process is more therapeutic than enthralling. (Ben adds, "Writing is cheaper than therapy.") What little subtext exists in what their creations might represent is quickly diminished by having in them calmly, rationally discuss it. A beautifully quirky thought like "When I die, I want to be cremated and stored in an unmarked container beside the coffee... So that sometimes people get confused and... Drink a little bit of me..." quickly becomes the mundane "I will not be remembered... Lucas will."

Pretty as that thinking may be, and well-delivered by Rodriguez and Solis, it never to leads to a confrontation. Ben is frustrated that Marla doesn't see him as more than a fuck-buddy, and jealous of the way she fawns over an oblivious--but more successful--Lucas, but he simply escapes into his fantasies. The same goes for Lucas, who feels he can only write by exploiting--killing anew--his dead brother, but that brother (Moreno) only appears to him as a glib mouthpiece, an ambivalent conscience, than as a needy specter. Marla speaks to the "Absolute control over the fate of whoever I create" philosophy, whereas Ben claims that his characters are "sneaky," but Risco is trapped by what Ben points out: "Things don't exist until you realize they're there." As the ultimate writer, Risco has realized everything, and he never loosens the reins. The occasional cleverness of his craft can be appreciated, but not its heart, not its lack of confrontation.

The longer the play goes on, the harder it is to shake its artificiality: the careful structure of writing meet-ups and hook-ups followed by revisionist writings (presented in monologue form), with the characters slowly spilling into the scenes. (Toward the end, Lucas even announces his idea of the perfect ending, and sure enough, those words are what close the play.) Dramatis Personae begins with such a promise of dramatic catastrophe, it's the mundane cleaning house that the audience ends up with.