Nov 29, 2006

Against the Dying of the Light

It's overly fawning and self-referential, but Daphne Merkin's NY Times Stoppard profile was worth reading just to get to this gobsmacking thought:
One of the questions that haunts me—it’s a question for philosophers and brain science—is, if you’ve forgotten a book, is that the same as never having read it?

Extrapolate that any number of questions of memory and identity—plays seen, love made, miseries endured, milestones passed—and, well, yes, it is a question for the philosophers. It reminded of a dispiritingly funny quote from the movie Slacker, which I can't find online but which went something like: "I don't like to travel, because later I can never remember if I was actually there or I just saw it on TV."

Nov 28, 2006

Beslubbering Fen-Sucked Pumpion

Stumped for just the right putdown? A friend sent me this handy Shakespeare Insult Kit.

Combine one word from each of the three columns below, prefaced with "Thou":

Column 1............Column 2............Column 3

artless.............base-court..........apple-john
bawdy...............bat-fowling.........baggage
beslubbering........beef-witted.........barnacle
bootless............beetle-headed.......bladder
churlish............boil-brained........boar-pig
cockered............clapper-clawed......bugbear
clouted.............clay-brained........bum-bailey
craven..............common-kissing......canker-blossom
currish.............crook-pated.........clack-dish
dankish.............dismal-dreaming.....clotpole
dissembling.........dizzy-eyed..........coxcomb
droning.............doghearted..........codpiece
errant..............dread-bolted........death-token
fawning.............earth-vexing........dewberry
fobbing.............elf-skinned.........flap-dragon
froward.............fat-kidneyed........flax-wench
frothy..............fen-sucked..........flirt-gill
gleeking............flap-mouthed........foot-licker
goatish.............fly-bitten..........fustilarian
gorbellied..........folly-fallen........giglet
impertinent.........fool-born...........gudgeon
infectious..........full-gorged.........haggard
jarring.............guts-griping........harpy
loggerheaded........half-faced..........hedge-pig
lumpish.............hasty-witted........horn-beast
mammering...........hedge-born..........hugger-mugger
mangled.............hell-hated..........joithead
mewling.............idle-headed.........lewdster
paunchy.............ill-breeding........lout
pribbling...........ill-nurtured........maggot-pie
puking..............knotty-pated........malt-worm
puny................milk-livered........mammet
qualling............motley-minded.......measle
rank................onion-eyed..........minnow
reeky...............plume-plucked.......miscreant
roguish.............pottle-deep.........moldwarp
ruttish.............pox-marked..........mumble-news
saucy...............reeling-ripe........nut-hook
spleeny.............rough-hewn..........pigeon-egg
spongy..............rude-growing........pignut
surly...............rump-fed............puttock
tottering...........shard-borne.........pumpion
unmuzzled...........sheep-biting........ratsbane
vain................spur-galled.........scut
venomed.............swag-bellied........skainsmate
villainous..........tardy-gaited........strumpet
warped..............tickle-brained......varlot
wayward.............toad-spotted........vassal
weedy...............unchin-snouted......whey-face
yeasty..............weather-bitten......wagtail

Nov 27, 2006

Did I Get Out Just in Time?

Linking to my much more diligent peers, each sounding a funereal note for arts criticism: George Hunka, quoting Eric Bentley, and Garrett Eisler, citing a blog by a Florida film critic. On the other hand, when I look at Terry Teachout, or consider Alex Ross, I see glimmers of hope.

Nov 22, 2006

That's Entertainment?

I hate comedy clubs. The overpriced drinks, the spectacle of comics dying, the Darwinian feeding frenzy which rewards the loudest and crassest voice in the room—what one comic once described to me as a competitive situation in which someone would gladly set themselves, or a colleague, on fire if it would get a laugh.

As part of the race to the bottom, which dictates that the darker and more misanthropic and outrageous you can be the better you'll fare, a particular and ancient form of ugliness is bound to surface. Michael Richards' "n"-word outburst wasn't, as far as I know, part of his prepared set. But the following was a well-honed bit by a Brooklyn comic named Freddie Rubino, whom I had the distinct displeasure of seeing last night at Gotham Comedy Club (I was there to support another friend). He started with some very old-school Jew jokes, then unleashed this tirade, to the delight of much of the crowd:
Jews are stereotyped as cheap, but that’s not really fair. Who here hasn’t hated Arabs for overcharging us for oil? It’s the 21st century, we should all be driving electric cars. Let's get all the gas out of this country. That way we can go back to hating Arabs because they smell bad.

I got in a cab the other day, and I thought the guy had a monkey in there, it smelled so bad. Seriously, I was looking for a tail and a banana peel. I said, “Where’s the monkey? You have a monkey in here!” Later I found out that Ahmed had had a monkey sandwich for lunch that day. That’s what I was smelling.

Thanks for the stench, asshole.

UPDATE: By the way, Happy Thanksgiving!

Nov 21, 2006

It Don't Worry Me


Robert Altman, RIP. I had the honor of interviewing him some years ago. UPDATE: Great obit in the Guardian, though this sentence seems daft: "It is hard to see which filmmakers he has left his stylistic mark on." Um, how about Alan Rudolph, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Steven Soderbergh, Paul Haggis...for starters.

Nov 17, 2006

Friday Shuffle

On my very thoughtful iPod this morning

"Far Away Blues," Maria Muldaur and Tracy Nelson
"Bim Bom," Morelenbaum 2/Ryuichi Sakamoto
"La Vie," Manu Chao
"Baby Driver," Simon & Garfunkel
"Il Mio Tesoro Intanto," from Don Giovanni
"My Kind of Night," Kurt Weill (from one of those cheesy Ben Bagley CDs)
"Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," Billy Joel
"Dorothy's Oberek," Norm Dombrowski's Happy Notes
"Mama Liked the Roses," Elvis Presley
"Tango Calambre," Astor Piazzolla
"Raising Arizona," Carter Burwell
"Width of a Circle," David Bowie
"Wig in a Box," Polyphonic Spree

Nov 15, 2006

Print Valiant


Hmm. I can only wish this just-announced print publication covering commercial New York theatre all the best. It's set to debut in March, which indicates a focus on tourist audiences--the season will be heading toward the Tony countdown by then, after which the summer after-season cash-in typically occurs.

The publishers are nothing if not ambitious. Consider:
Combining original interviews, reviews and previews with the finest theatre writing first published in venues like The New York Times and The New Yorker

Really? That would be a historic copyright coup.
With an initial circulation of 150,000 copies per issue, BROADWAY MAGAZINE will debut in 2007 as the largest theatre-themed magazine in history

The cover price? 0$.

Maybe it's not theatre that's the cockroach, as Isaac has it--it's print. Or print about theatre.

Nov 14, 2006

TimesWeb?

I'm not sure how big a deal this is, but The New York Times seems to be venturing into new Web-vs.-print territory with two theatre reviews today, both marked "Web exclusive" (here and here). I don't read enough of the rest of the Times online to know if this is a new phenomenon, or if this is just a fluke--a way to run a few reviews that might otherwise have been axed due to space considerations. But it seems worth noting when the nation's preeminent print publication "prints" something you can only get online.

Nov 13, 2006

Telemarketers' Nightmare

Apologies if you've heard this before, but a friend just sent me this genius prank. It's sophomoric and snickery, like most phone-based gags, and I didn't think I'd ever hear something that made me feel for a telemarketer just trying to do his pathetic job. Definitely worth a listen.

Seeing Straight


I've been reading some classic Didion with relish lately (wish I could say "rereading," but alas this is pretty much my first exposure, after being told for years that I must). I came across this interview today, touching on the upcoming Broadway debut of The Year of Magical Thinking, which she's adapting from her book for a March opening. I was struck by this exchange:
Guernica: You’ve done quite a bit of screenwriting, mostly with your husband. Are there things that are transferable between screenwriting and playwriting?

Joan Didion: No, none. Once in a while there were things in screenwriting that taught me things for fiction. But there’s nothing in screenwriting that teaches you anything for the theater. I’m not sure I’ve ever fully appreciated before how different a form theater is.

Guernica: How would you distinguish screenwriting from playwriting or playwriting from fiction?

Joan Didion: Something I’ve always known and said and thought about the screen is that if it’s anything in the world, it’s literal. It’s so literal that there’s a whole lot you can’t do because you’re stuck with the literalness of the screen. The stage is not literal.

Nov 10, 2006

Too Much Information


You can't walk around New York these days without seeing this face (on posters for an exhibit at the Morgan Library of early Dylanania). It's an iconic photo from the cover of The Times They Are A-Changin' record, and it serves as a handy reminder that the casting of Cate Blanchett as one of a chorus of Dylans in Todd Haynes' upcoming I'm Not There makes an odd kind of sense (even if that multiple-Dylan thing sounds a little too close to the deadly premise of the musical Lennon, or Todd Solondz's Palindromes). This and other youthful photos definitely suggest a strong physical resemblance, but I've been wondering: Can Cate sound like him? According to costar Heath Ledger (also one of the film's Dylans), she goes even further than that:
"Cate Blanchett has done such an incredible transformation in this movie, it's gonna blow you away. She walks, talks, sings, smells like Bob Dylan."
(emph. added)
No word on how Heath's musky scent measures up to the original. Meanwhile, not to be outdone, Bobby Z. is trying to play Cate Blanchett himself, or at least borrow her hair color.

Nov 9, 2006

Holiday Cheer

The Boston run of David Hare's Stuff Happens has added a very timely line. It begs the question, though: Will Hare have to keep tweaking this play as long as he's alive and it's done? At what point can he lock it? I'm among those who preferred the L.A. version to the NY version, mainly because I thought Hare's tweaks in the interim had weakened it (though the cast here was in some key ways sharper). Or maybe reality had gotten less dramatic?

Packing It In


My last review for the foreseeable future, of the unfortunate Mimi LeDuck, is here.

Nov 7, 2006

Plink, Plonk

David Cote has a thread on what he calls Cutesy Incidental Curtain-Raising Music at New Plays." My two cents on the matter are here. (Does this count as a post?)

Nov 2, 2006

Stuck Inside a Theater With the Jukebox Blues Again


Actually that headline’s not fair. I liked The Times They Are A-Changin’, Twyla Tharp’s circus-land take on the Bob Dylan song catalogue, a lot, lot more than I thought I would—which is to say, I never felt the urge to poke out my eyes with my pen and run screaming down 47th Street.

It’s a failure, no question, but its central disappointment is not just that it doesn’t succeed as a Dylan show but that it even fails on its own extremely odd terms—which, as you've probably heard by now, involve stringing Dylan tunes into a sort of carny fable of multigenerational conflict or whatever. With clowns. What’s so frustrating about this is, unlike the songbooks of so many other fine writers of the same era—Johnny Cash, John Lennon, Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson et al—who have been sullied or overblown by Broadway treatments, Dylan's songs often contain a crucial seed of drama—they’re not simply static mood pieces or straight-up narratives. The best ones—“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Idiot Wind,” “Dark Eyes”—move; they have a sense of journey and arrival. What startled me most, even moved me, about Tharp’s bungled, often cutesy, but entirely sincere half-vision of a show is that it actually fitfully demonstrates the theatrical potential of Dylan’s best work.

Two examples struck me hard: First was a spooky, low-lit, somber rendition of “Desolation Row,” which, yes, has a literalized Cinderella figure “sweeping up” and a patient twisting under Dr. Filth’s sinister care (I’m so thankful the verse about “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood” was cut). But unlike the hideous God-on-stilts who starts off the throwaway rendition of “Highway 61 Revisited,” the images of “Desolation Row” are shadowy, half-glimpsed, suggestively gestural, and they cohere into a jaundiced, surreal tableau that I didn’t think the song could bear (again, lyrical trims certainly help here).

The other knockout is “Simple Twist of Fate,” whose sophistication on every level I’ve always taken for granted, but which rings home here with a force nothing else in the show approaches. That descending bass line, rising melody, and final crashing, graceful cadence—it's brutal and beautiful, and to my eyes and ears almost felt like the germ of the whole show. For once the show’s ostensible love triangle “story” sets the scene and gets out of the way.

It's not coincidental that both of these renditions come courtesy of the fortysomething Thom Sesma, a magnetic, Tom Waitsian figure who gives Broadway flash and volume its due without skimping on grit and intimacy. Not only that, but he trusts the songs; he does a lot less of the kind of actory pop restyling that bedevils the singing of young, ardent Michael Arden, who delivers both lighter and preachier numbers (“Mr. Tambourine Man,” the title song) with a self-consciously offbeat, I’m-not-going-to-sing-the-melody-in-time-even-once-'cause-that-would-be-too-easy phrasing. The one song he sings more or less straight, “Masters of War,” is all the more powerful for it. And I mostly admired the way Lisa Brescia, all charm and professionalism as the obligatory female love interest, solves the intriguing problem of what notes you sing exactly, and how, over Dylan’s often-sketchy, elusive original melodies. She and Arden handle this problem quite nicely on the deceptively simple-sounding but quite challenging country romancer, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” (just try singing those last three syllables right, let alone the "mockingbird" bridge).

That last song shows another side of Dylan that’s remarkably suited to the stage: the smiling showman. Some of his tunes fit eerily well into the slick pop-Broadway stylings of today (“Just Like a Woman,” “I Believe in You”). Ultimately this troubled Times, with its moments of outright desperation (“God Gave Names to All the Animals”?), its almost irrelevant choreography and tumbling, its junky Cirque-du-Soleil-in-the-dumpster aesthetic (I kind of almost liked that, actually), and its offensively shiny-happy ending, feels less like a travesty of sacred texts than a huge missed opportunity for a ripping good entertainment. Dylan and dance may not be a good marriage, but Dylan and musical theater—I wouldn’t count it out.

Nov 1, 2006

Boston Commoners


My review of Daisy Foote's Bhutan is here. Coincidentally, the appealing Sarah Lord starred in Walk Two Moons (pictured below), which I reviewed as my first published piece in New York more than a year ago. This is one of my last reviews in New York for the foreseeable future. Plus ça change, and all that.

Church Singin'


I'm among the small but powerful bass section of the New York City Master Chorale (pictured above, in our March debut at Alice Tully Hall), and our fall concert is shaping up well. If you like choral music, come on uptown next Saturday, Nov. 11, at 8 p.m. to the Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Dr. at 120th Street. We'll be singing Mozart's iconic "Requiem" and Dvorak's delightful "Te Deum." More here.