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.