Apr 17, 2014

Hall Monitor

I happened to catch Michael C. Hall in two early-ish stage roles: as the young kid in the Taper's exquisite production of Skylight (with Laila Robins and Brian Cox) and as the emcee in Cabaret, opposite fellow replacement Susan Egan (a great Sally in the Julie Harris mold). His sinuous performance in that last role helped land him the first of his two iconic cable series, and he's seldom been back to the stage since. So it was a pleasure to sit down with him recently to talk about Will Eno's strange new play on Broadway, The Realistic Joneses, in which Hall is excellent, for the paper of record.

Apr 14, 2014

Shaking in the Grass

The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama has just been announced, and I'm so happy to hear it went to Annie Baker's The Flick, I played I thoroughly enjoyed and admired. I don't know how Annie got the news or what she's up to today, but I happened to be interviewing Quiara Alegria Hudes recently for another publication; she was the only playwright on this year's Pulitzer committee, and she won the award, quite unexpectedly, in 2012 for Water by the Spoonful. Here's how she found out, and how she reacted:
The play had only been done at Hartford Stage Company. I guess maybe I asked, "Did you guys submit it?" But it was far from my radar. I didn't even know it was the day the Pulitzer was announced. I was at Wesleyan teaching, and my phone was off, which is when it got announced. My class was three hours long there. So everyone knew before me. I had so many voice mails from my husband and my agent. There are all these weird, hysterical messages--it's funny, I've saved them, and my husband gets so mad about that, he sounds like he's hyperventilating. The way he found out is he was looking at the New York Times site, and he was like, "Whaaat???" And his friend came in from the office next door and said, "I think I just saw your wife's name." He was like, "Oh my God!"

No one from the committee calls to tell you the news?

No, they just release it to the press. You find out when the world finds out, and in my case I found out after the world found out. Then everyone's calling me, and I'm in Connecticut and I have to drive home. And usually for me the drive is really relaxing; I put on music and I take the country roads. My husband was like, "You gotta come home, we gotta celebrate!" And I was like, "I can't come home right now, I will crash the car." So I just sat in the grass at Wesleyan for a few hours until I was kind of calmer, and then I got in the car and drove home. It was amazing. By the time I got home, a few friends were already here. We celebrated that night.

Apr 11, 2014

Unnaturalism

I came across this lede in an old review of mine while working on my recent feature on Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, and it struck as worth highlighting. The review is of the Mike Leigh play Ecstasy, and though it may not sound like it, I intended this as a compliment to Leigh:
Like documentary filmmaking, theatrical naturalism implicitly lays claim to direct, unmediated truth: This is how things really are, how people really behave, how time really passes. That's rot, of course. From the time we're children, it is storytelling and play-acting, and the distorting stylizations that accrue to them naturally, which come to us easily, almost unconsciously, and which thus express much about who we are and imagine ourselves to be. Authentic observation and reportage, on the other hand, take herculean effort and soul-searching--and inevitably involve more conscious interpretation, circumspection, and, yes, stylization.
Given more time and space to develop this line of thinking, I'm not quite sure I'd come up with. But I'm glad I put this down as a kind of marker for further exploration.

Apr 3, 2014

Full Circle

One reason I was so disappointed by Classic Stage Company's muddled, soporific staging of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle last year was that two of the most formative theatergoing experiences of my life have been adaptations of that difficult, sprawling political fable: Cornerstone's Central Avenue Chalk Circle in 1995, in which playwright Lynn Manning reset the action in a near-future dystopian California, and Bill Rauch staged it all around a former union hall in Watts, with a deftly interwoven cast of pros and non-pros, a live band, several memorable coups de theatres, and a palpable sense of immediacy and locality that, of course, put audiences directly in touch with Brecht's original themes of justice, avarice, and compassion.

The other, in 2000, was Chuck Mee's ambitious, seriously playful The Berlin Circle, which confronted head-on the bitter, double-edged irony that the communist "republic" Brecht had made his home had crumbled along with the joyously dismantled Berlin Wall, and Western liberalism, both economic and political, had accordingly scrambled old alliances and left/right verities. Mee's version kept the skeleton of the original plot but made several witty gambles and feints; his Azdak, for instance, was Heiner Muller, the inheritor of Brecht's Berliner Ensemble. John Fleck played the part with nervy authority, in a production that kicked off a run of great theater at one of L.A.'s best companies ever, Evidence Room, in its former bra factory space in the Rampart area near downtown, just down the street from the first paper that employed me, the Downtown News(That original troupe later fractured; the space remains but the company is itinerant.)

That Circle also kicked off another great run: In the cast were Megan Mullally, just then at the lift-off of her TV fame on Will & Grace, and a young Chicago actor named Nick Offerman (in only his second L.A. stage appearance; I'd caught his memorable first appearance, in the altogether, in Mike Leigh's Ecstasy). And thus began one of Hollywood's stranger, funnier power couples (see video above). It was gratifying, then, to sit down with Megan and Nick recently after all these years on the occasion of their return to the boards: Sharr White's Annapurna, which Evidence Room's Bart DeLorenzo staged last year at L.A.'s Odyssey Theater, and which begins performances April 13 at the New Group's Acorn Theater right here in NYC, and for the paper of record.

(Annapurna, by the way, marks Megan's return to the New York stage, where she's appeared fitfully over the years, but it's not technically Nick's Gotham stage debut: He subbed in for a few nights in the non-singing role of the boss in The Adding Machine at the Minetta Lane, while his wife was uptown warbling in Young Frankenstein. The last time I saw him in person, actually, was after catching him in Adding Machine; then he hopped on his bike and rode back down to his boat-building studio in Red Hook.)

Mar 19, 2014

Why I Haven't Been Blogging

This is the 10th year of the Wicked Stage blog (predated by its few years as a weekly-ish column in the inky pages of Back Stage West), but so far it's been a sparsely populated, as you may have noticed.

I have a number of excuses, most in the form of links, which include
These are just the features and reviews that have made it to print or online to date; that All the Way review isn't the only story I've filed that's yet to surface.

The other, over-arching excuse is that I'm the proud but exhausted father of a 17-month-old and a four-and-a-half-year old, who are fed and clothed in part by the work represented above and whose raising-up constitutes a second career in itself. These days, in short, it's every hour for itself, and blogging take the hindmost.

Mar 5, 2014

Can't Keep a Good Score Down

When I spoke to Jeanine Tesori last year about her new Encores! summer series, at the top of her wish list of musicals she wanted to revive was Randy Newman's Faust, which had a mostly great concept album in 1993, a splashy bow at La Jolla Playhouse in 1995, and a not-quite-Broadway-bound production at the Goodman the following year. So I'm beyond excited to see that Tesori has resurrected the musical for a one-night-only reading on July 1, and that Newman himself will sing the part of the Devil (as he did on the record). I happened to review the La Jolla premiere for Back Stage West, and here's what I wrote, in its entirety, in the Sept. 28, 1995 issue:
Faust is a grandiose goof of a musical that could only have sprung from the encyclopedic pop imagination of Randy Newman, a composer as idiosyncratically American as Charles Ives and a satirist as free-ranging and deceptively straightforward as Jules Feiffer. Newman also wrote Faust’s book, which counts as his first play ever, and as such it’s a shticky mess with a lot of blasphemy and irony, but not storytelling, on its mind. He’s clearly having so much fun putting on a show--with the remarkably complementary support of director Michael Greif, an inspired production team, and a seamless cast--that he can’t be bothered to make sense of it all.

In place of a story, Newman presents a tart vaudeville parody of a cosmology. Heaven is all green fairways and rousing gospels numbers, while Hell is a stuffy trailer where honkytonk and soft-shoe prevail. Between the two is a world of senseless violence and heedless materialism that baffles the devil (David Garrison, a kvetchy bantam) almost as much as it does the Lord (cuddly, mellifluous Ken Page). When Lucifer explains to Henry Faust (Kurt Deutsch), a grungy freshman brat, that he’ll gain the world but lose his soul, Faust responds, “So what’s the catch?”


Along the way, Newman has an excuse for several rousing blues romps, ragtimes, rock sendups, and Kern-pure Americana. Eight musicians and the cast--especially Page and a clarion Bellamy Young--exult in the score’s challenges, as does choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett. James Youmans’ kitschy sets get an assist from Alex W. Papalexis’ projections, while costumer Mark Wendland riffs as wide a palette of periods as the score.


Above all, it is creative joy that sings from every element of the show, and it’s Faust’s saving grace. It is the sound of artists pumping fresh blood into the American musical, and it’s why we get so much more out of this, for all its faults, than any new musical in recent memory. 
Not sure what the concert reading might mean for Faust's future, but the last time Tesori put on an Encores! one-night concert, it turned out well.

For further reading, here's Christgau's take on the record, Laurie Winer's review of the La Jolla production in the LA Times, and Brantley's review of the Chicago production in the NY Times.

Dec 30, 2013

Tops of 2013

As my modest theater blog enters its 10th year, it now feels chiefly like a venue for links to my feature writing as it comes along (though I was too busy recently to trumpet my latest piece for the paper of record, on that endearing little Bacharach show, in this space, so here goes), and/or a trough for spillover from said feature writing. The remaining posts here tend to be quasi-reviews, or meta-reviews, or newsy/opinion-y tidbits, written for a variety of reasons: because I either imagine or know with some certainty that no one else has or will make the point I feel needs making, or I just have something to get off my chest that no venue would, or has bothered to, ask me to write about. I wish there were more posts like the latter--and I'm honestly surprised at how many there still are, actually--but in any case, here were the top dozen or so posts of the past year, measured in the cold hard metrics that already rule us all, and in the darkness bind us, in the word trade.

Making Good
Really, all I did with this post did was prove that I have a scanner at home, and that I can save theater playbills. But I was pretty confident that no one else would post the budget figures for the original spring LaMaMa staging of the Foundry's Good Person of Szechwan alongside similar figures for the Public transfer in the fall. Anyone who saw both and kept the programs could have done this, as the Foundry has printed its budgets in its programs for the "last seven or eight years," according to Melanie Joseph, to whom I spoke because of the popularity of this post. (She also told me that comparing the two budgets was an apples-and-oranges deal, given not only the fixed-cost differences in venue but also the disparity between a generative production and a remount.) But no one else did. I wish I'd posted about how and why it was the best show I saw all year, maybe in many years, and how it's one of the two best Brechts I've seen, in part because of its nimble, embracing queer spirituality/politics...but instead I posted about how much it cost. Maybe this tendency is what that program quote, "The truth is concrete," is talking about.

Should Plays Be Artist-Proof?
This post sprang from an offhand comment by playwright Rajiv Joseph about his play Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, from an interview I did with him at my day job. He confessed that he feels he underwrote a character because the actor who did the original role filled in so much of its depth, and he's seen productions since that made him cringe. That reminded me of similar misgivings from Bobby Lopez and Annie Baker, and I was off the races.

Who Needs Critics?
When Backstage announced early this year that it would cut theater reviews altogether, it hit me close to home; I was the founding editor-in-chief of its West Coast branch, and of the West Coast Garland Awards; theater coverage was simply a given all those years ago and in the years since, there and at any number of now-shrinking or vanishing publications. This post had me wondering out loud: Who really reads all those damn reviews and features about theater? And if nobody does, what the fuck have I been doing with my life?

Suffering Made Flesh
My reaction as a (non-Catholic) believer to The Testmant of Mary, an impassioned hodpgepodge of Colm Toibin's alt-gospel from Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner, surely garnered extra hits because it was linked by my sometime employer, the Jesuit magazine America (which had a very exciting year in its own right, I should note).

Putting the "God" in Godot
Herewith, a quick spin on an arguably trivial hobbyhorse of mine--the correct pronunciation of Beckett's masterpiece.

Got Scot?
My only ticket giveaway of the year, for the Lincoln Center Macbeth. The winner, for the record, was Meaghan Monahan. (And sorry it wasn't such a hot show.)

The Book of Bobby
This post merely cued up my Denver Center Theater program piece on The Book of Mormon, returning for an encore in LDS-adjacent territory--a piece that gave me an excuse to talk to the show's nearly secret weapon, the undersung Bobby Lopez.

Filtered Water
Another cue-up post for a program piece, this one for BAM and an intriguing piece about climate change and personal atomization, Water, by the British company Filter.

Cromer's Town
Yet another cue-up: I sat down with the NY-based genius director for his hometown magazine Chicago as he prepared to play Ned Weeks in the (still-running) TimeLine revival of The Normal Heart.

"I Can Talk in a Fine Circle": Eliza Bent's Hotel Colors
In this disarming chat with my coworker at American Theatre, the multitalented Eliza Bent, she told me about how she translated her new play into English (her first language), and I confessed some squirrely moments in hostel living.

Drinking With Stew (and Heidi)
This was the first in a series of "overflow" interviews with the Negro Problem/Passing Strange folks about the state of the rock musical, and all things theatrical and musical, conducted for this American Theatre trend piece.

Mourner Has Broken
A post I felt I had to write, essentially in mourning for the person I used to be--a person who used to love Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner, but found its newest incarnation at the Public a stiff.

No Time Like the Present
Rounding out this baker's dozen on a positive note, this post had me waxing generous about the current generation of playwrights, against what I feel is the default hand-wringing--or worse, scolding--posture among my peers about the current state of theater and playwriting. There is indeed much cause for concern, even a case for despair, but surely I wouldn't still be at this if I felt it were entirely a lost cause--and you, whoever few you are, wouldn't still be reading it.

Here's to a brighter 2014.