Jan 31, 2010

"Lie" Remembered

Somewhere in a box full of my college-newspaper clips is my intemperate rave for Bob Woodruff's stark 1988 production at the Taper of Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind. The play that changed my life? Maybe not, but it sure did excite the hell out of me at the time, and not just because Holly Hunter was in it, along with John Diehl, Amy Madigan, James Gammon and Louise Latham. The onstage music was by Peter Case and Victoria Williams. I know I saw it twice; might have been thrice.

While the play itself had an intense impact on me at the time (I even wrote a song called "Fire in the Snow," inspired by an image from the play's last few lines), its main impact was on my career more than my tastes; I started covering Downtown L.A. theater with great interest--at the Taper, at LATC, at Al's Bar. I didn't quite become a Shepard-head--I later loved A Noise Within's Buried Child and the Hoffman/Reilly True West, though Fool for Love has always left me cold, and my next review of his work, many years later, was somewhat less ecstatic. Still, the experience undeniably formative. And though I may not get out to see the New Group's inevitably star-studded new revival, but it's nice to have it around to remind me of that pivotal theatergoing experience. (Sounds like there was also a pretty strong L.A. revival under director John Langs in December.)

Jan 29, 2010

The WTF File

Pasadena Playhouse closing Feb. 7?

Weekend Mental Health Break

Is Margulies Slamming Docu-Theatre?

Act Two of Donald Margulies' respectable but lukewarm new Time Stands Still opens with Brian D'Arcy James' character James, a war correspondent who's logged time in Iraq and Jordan, excoriating a play he and his war-photographer partner have just seen. He describes it as a series of monologues in which actors portray the misery and horror of the Iraq war's victims, and he deplores it as a culinary evening for cozy liberals to assuage their guilt. He and his shutterbug squeeze knew the real people over there, and how dare actors and theater artists presume to depict it for a sympathetic audience?

Even allowing for the fact that this character doesn't necessarily speak for Margulies--he later seems to resign himself to the view that he can no more affect the course of the war than those well-meaning theater audiences--this sounds uncomfortably like a takedown of Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank's Aftermath, though the timing of Margulies' writing (the play is more than a year old) would seem to indicate that he has a genre of Culture Project/Iraq-war plays in mind rather than any specific show. I wonder, though, what George Packer, who adapted his own anguished front-line reporting into the admirable hit Betrayed would say about this, or Lawrence Wright, who turned My Trip to Al-Qaeda into a sort of parlor piece (albeit minus any impersonators of the war's victims).

I'm glad that the Post's Elisabeth Vincentelli took note:
When James heatedly berates a well-meaning play they've just seen as caricaturing the Middle East to make an NPR-loving audience feel better about itself, you can't help but pan around the Friedman Theatre and gape at the cruel irony of it all.

Jan 28, 2010

Weird/Exciting Casting News of the Day

Replacements for God of Carnage, going in Mar. 2: Dylan Baker, Lucy Liu, Jeff Daniels, and Janet McTeer. The mind reels--and not least because the versatile Daniels is pulling an acting stunt reminiscent of the Reilly/Hoffman True West: He'll be playing Michael, the character originated on Broadway by James Gandolfini. Baker, natch, is the new Alan.

Jan 27, 2010

Fine Whine

Theresa Rebeck weighs in on Outrageous Fortune, and I for one love her oddly appropriate mistake, calling TDF the "Theatre Defense Fund" (it's "Development," for the record). Throughout, she's fairly self-deprecating about being a whiner, though she lays out plenty of good reasons. Her conclusion, which concurs with several interlocking lines of thinking on the subject:
The problem isn't that playwrights aren't being paid enough. It's that theatres all over America are looking towards New York to tell them what new plays to do. Meanwhile, New York is in thrall to revivals and movie stars. In the past six years, I have served as a Tony voter, which means I have to see everything that's on Broadway every season, and let me tell you something: If I have to watch one more play where everyone is wearing swell costumes and calling each other "darling" my head is going to explode.
Meanwhile, for all the juicy, meaty blogospheric examination of the book, I appreciated Matt Freeman's take perhaps best of all--for its relative sunniness and, I admit it, its brevity.

35 Subscribers



Charles Isherwood's new mode: unlikely juxtapositions, such as seeing both South Pacific and Rock of Ages in one day, or comparing Placido Domingo's turn in Simon Boccanegra with Elaine Stritch's Sondheim show at the Carlyle. These strike me as a little stunt-y, but there's some critical substance in them, as well as some sly one-liners at the intersection of high and low:
Unlike the mercurial Mr. Domingo, Ms. Stritch began her career as a baritone and has remained a baritone ever since.
As we settled in I commented to my companion that it was a pretty safe bet that I was the only one in the theater who’d just been to see “South Pacific.”

“You’re probably the only person here who’s heard of ‘South Pacific,’ ” she replied.

Jan 26, 2010

Fast and Cheap

Good deal:
The 20at20 program offers tickets to participating Off Broadway shows for $20, starting 20 minutes before the show starts. Tickets must be purchased day-of-show at the box office. The offer is good for performances through Sunday, Feb. 7.

Jan 21, 2010

Why Don't You Go?

This week on American Theatre's Facebook page, I asked folks for the top reason they might choose not to go to a show. A great number cite money as their main obstacle. My favorites, in no particular order:

Peter J. Smith I will not go see a play if I don't like the script. That being said, I will see stuff that I have not read.
Sarah McAfee my budget, which simply cannot cover ticket prices.
Kareem Deanes mostly because i can't get others to go with me. I enjoy the social discussion afterward and if i can't get some on to go that night then all is lost for me. And price.
Matthew Wilson Once again - price. Also, I'll add that most larger theatres are catering to an audience with money whether they realize it or not.
Brenna Freestone bad word of mouth for sure, unless I know someone in it, then I go anyway.
Nick Thompson Saints games.
Lori Beth Switzer Foley Definitely the money. I know it's been said before, but it's true. I would see a show every week if I could afford it.
Sara Patterson Running time! If the show is bad I want to run from the room screaming but i'm TRAPPED!
Meg Wallace Usually because the show doesn't interest me or because I have a feeling that the production will not be good.
Margaret McCarley If I feel they are way out of line with their ticket prices. Also, if a particular theatre or group consistently produces poor quality productions. And, of course, bad word of mouth.
Matt Kopans I don't have a ton of free time - so unless I'm SURE the show won't cause me to want to chew my own foot off, I'm not going to risk the time and money investment.
Bill Yellowrobe In Montana there are no shows of diversity. Same as in northern Maine. How many times can you watch "Annie Get Your Gun," or "Annie"
Lori Slinn Sometimes I'll skip going to a show because there is no one to go with. It's more fun to see something with someone.
Charlene V. Smith money - either a. the theatre doesn't provide any rush or discounted tickets, or b. I've already seen four plays this month and should really buy groceries instead.
Gilbert Cruz I didn't get the part.
Maggie Modig Aside from cost considerations, sometimes parking is such a hassle it's just not worth it -- especially in bad weather.
Kimberly Taylor If there's a person directing who has screwed up other shows.
Rob Santana Snowstorm and bad reviews.

Jan 20, 2010

It's Official: The Times They Are A-Chargin'

This is either a game-changer or another gambit destined for the Internet ashheap. My initial thoughts on it aren't that far from Yglesias'.

Show Queen Bait

This historical database is a real find.

Metaphor of the Day

I'm not as pessimistic as Ta-Nehisi Coates about the prospects of health-care reform, but as usual he writes beautifully about his frustration with the past year of congressional/White House kabuki:
I feel like I'm watching a long, extravagant, wedding ceremony and increasingly getting the sense that someone is going to be left at the altar.

Ish List

The Times throws some blood in the water.

Jan 19, 2010

A BAM-bound Throne of Blood

One of my favorite gigs is writing for Oregon Shakes' annual play guide Illuminations. In 2008 I had the pleasure of diving into Don Quixote, which Octavio Solis adapted for last year's season, and last summer I immersed myself in Kurosawa to write about Throne of Blood, Ping Chong's upcoming theatricalization of the great black-and-white film, which is itself a Japanized Macbeth. I may or may not get out to Oregon to see it, but I need not worry: I just learned that after playing Ashland TOB is coming to BAM, which co-commissioned it for its Next Wave festival.

Jan 14, 2010


When I moved to New York five-plus years ago, I had to learn to double-tie my shoes--that minor adaptation has been, for me, a neat way to sum up how walking-intensive this city is, and how little I'd previously had to rely on foot transport.

Now that I have a child, I have a new adjustment that neatly sums up the division of my attention: I've become quite adept at typing with one hand, as I am in fact doing now.

All done, sir?

Jan 13, 2010

Advanced Search to the Rescue!

Well, it's been sitting right under my nose here at TCG, but the answer to this whole most-produced quandary might be easier to come by than I'd thought. While it seems that the database is pretty spotty the further back you go, if you go here and do "Advanced Search" by play title or playwright for the years 2000-2010, the results are bracingly corrective. More to come! UPDATE: And Isaac is off to the races.

Sobel on Teachout

Ed Sobel at Philly's Arden Theatre saw a similar flaw with Terry Teachout's recent "Top 10" article, but he lays it out much more clearly than I did:
Say 20 TCG theaters across the country are doing the same new play in a given year. That title will show up on the most frequently produced list for that year. But if those same theaters, in an average four-play season, are all also producing three different "classic" plays, then those titles would not show up on the most frequently produced list. But the proper score at a given theater would be one new play for every three classic plays. And across the field nationally it would be one new play for sixty classic plays. This would represent not a lopsided predisposition toward new work, but rather the opposite.

A quick hypothetical illustration:

Steppenwolf does Endgame, All My Sons, Mother Courage and Intimate Apparel.

Arena does Waiting for Godot, Tartuffe, Guys and Dolls and Intimate Apparel.

McCarter does Oedipus, The Children's Hour, The Most Happy Fella and Intimate Apparel.

Tally: 9 "classic" plays, none of which make the list of most frequent, but the one new play, Intimate Apparel does.
That's true enough, and it brings up the point that if you're using the rubric "classic," there's a much huger pool of plays and authors arrayed against new plays--just not necessarily any single blockbuster play that pops out and gets done all over the place in any given season. Which leads to Sobel's other observation, again making my point better than I did:
A related problem: The TCG lists are cross-sectional and not longitudinal. In other words, if Death of a Salesman receives three productions every year for 10 years it would not make the most frequently produced list in any year, despite receiving 30 productions in the decade, while Intimate Apparel, receiving 9 in one year and 16 in a second for a total of (a lesser) 25, would.
This is why as a side project, I'm going through the TCG seasons data from 2000, mostly by hand, and I'm seeing some circumstantial evidence that points to a preponderance of classic work (particularly if you include Shakespeare, who's off the charts). But I'll withhold judgment until I'm done with the tally.

Smart Fans

We got to this a little late, but yesterday's American Theatre fan page question was, "For you, what was the most significant play or theatre event of the last decade?" The responses are worth reprinting here, from the axe-grinding (check out the High Fidelity one) to the sobering (the Moscow theatre hostage crisis).

Bethany Anne Lind Mendenhall:
Doc Waller: The development of the "Free Night of Theatre" program was truly significant.
Chris Milner: Ditto. Metamorphoses!
Peter J. Smith: The Pillowman. And August:Osage County
Jodi Cramer: Rent.
Doc Waller: Yay, Rent closing was big.
Tascheena Kimberly Umanah: Spring Awakening
Ben Griessmeyer: Wicked
Aleia Ramsey: Vagina Monologues! Ooh and Elektra!
Rik Deskin: Live Theatre Week (Seattle) and Free Night of Theatre.
Alison McCormack: Billy Elliot in London.
Molly McDevitt: The Laramie Project and Epilogue
Abby Royle: Blackwatch.
Bill Yellowrobe: "Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers," the fact Lou Bellamy and Oskar Eustis made it happen...
Scott Miller: Working on the brilliant "High Fidelity" in St. Louis and proving to the critics, the show's writers, and whoever else that it's a far better show than its badly misguided Broadway production suggested. Rave reviews (one critic named it the best show of the year), sold-out houses, and now many subsequent productions by other companies!
Susan Olmos Sabel: Ragtime!
Charlene V. Smith: RSC Histories cycle, no question.
Mark Kaplan: August Osage County
Kirk Wilson: 365 Days 365 Plays.
Barbara Hawkins-Scott: The Serynga Tree at Horizon Theatre or Skin at Dad's Garage Theater in Atlanta
Sarah Weissman: musical: Next to Normal
Trevor Biship: Productions that have stuck with me in the aughts, thus making them significant: "Avenue X" (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis), "The War of the Worlds" (SITI Company), "Vienna Lusthaus (Revisited)" (Athaneum Theatre, Chicago), "Doubt" (Pasadena Playhouse), and "Caroline or Change" (Ahmanson Theatre). Craig Lucas' "Singing Forest" may have been the Best New Play I read in the 2000's.
Kerry Reid: The opening of "August: Osage County" at Steppenwolf, and seeing Jefferson Mays in "I Am My Own Wife" at the Goodman, and seeing "Urinetown" on Halloween night, 2001, about six weeks after the September 11 attacks -- great to see New Yorkers (for it was mostly a hometown audience at that point) out enjoying themselves at a homegrown show.
Kerry Reid: Oh, and seeing David Cromer's "Our Town" in the basement of the Chopin Theater in Chicago before it went off-Broadway.
Katy Stafford Moore: As an audience member, Spring Awakening on Broadway with the original cast. Those kids told that story brilliantly. As a cast member, The King and I. It's themes still resonate, even in the new millenium.
Michal Daniel: Passing Strange
Cathy D Thomas: Tantalus. The biggest risk the Denver Center took, which it met, save the disappointing script.
Caitlin Sheaffer: Syringa Tree at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. The Kushner Festival at the Guthrie.
Paul Mackley: 2002 Moscow theater hostage siege. 129 hostages died, including 17 cast members.
Stephen John: Top three... Laramie Project... Sweeny Todd revival on Broadway New Years Eve..... and finally... Metamorphosis at Circle in the Square in NY....
Lisa Wolford Wylam: Room directed by Anne Bogart with Ellen Lauren as Virginia Woolf is definitely the most haunting and influential piece of theatre I've seen in the past decade.
Tonya Glanz: 'ruined'. then 'pillowman'. then 'secret in the wings' and 'the miser' by de la june lune.
Deborah Martin: for me...it was Fiona Shaw's performance as Medea on Broadway. She redefined how Medea can be played and its the first stage at which I literally jumped in my seat because a moment scared me. monumental performance!
Angela Sommerfeld: i was really blown away by coronado by dennis lehane. i don't know if it qualifies as the most significant event of the decade but it was the most thrilling, exciting piece of theatre i have ever seen.
Bridget Kathleen O'Leary: Blasted at Soho Rep was one of the best theatrical experiences of my life.
Cindy Marie Jenkins: 365 Days 365 Plays and A Free Night of Theater were hugely significant in bringing our disparate theater scenes together.
Bev Appleton: "Oedipus" at the National Theatre GB w/ Ralph Fiennes); "Ivanov" (w/Kenneth Branagh)at the Donmar Warehouse; The Coast of Utopia, National theatre GB
Nicole Boyer Cochran: Ariane Mnouchkine's LES EPHEMERES and LE DERNIER CARAVANSERAI, McDonagh's THE PILLOWMAN, Elizabeth Heffron's MITZI'S ABORTION, and ALL POWERS NECESSARY AND CONVENIENT by Mark Jenkins

Jan 12, 2010

"Sob in the Spine"

Positively riveting, and inevitably creepy, video of Nabokov and Trilling talking about Lolita, not least because of the way these courtly older men of letters dance discreetly, even coyly, around the topics of sex and passion before taking them more or less head-on.

In part 2 below, I can't quite decipher Vlad's accent, but I think he says something like, "If sex is the sermon made of art, then love is the lady of that tower." Even Dylan and Waits don't drop quotes like that.

(h/t Chait)

Jan 11, 2010

Quote for the Day

Writing a play is like trying to fold a parachute so it fits into an Altoids container.
Justin Tanner, on his Facebook page

No History?

I'm happy that Terry Teachout spent hours poring over American Theatre's lists of most-produced plays to produce a meta-list of the most-produced plays over the past decade (Proof, Doubt, Art, The Drawer Boy, Rabbit Hole, Wit, I Am My Own Wife, Crowns, Intimate Apparel, tie-The Glass Menagerie/The Laramie Project), and I'm gratified to see that axe-grinders of all stripes will find little fuel for their agendas in his results (four out of the Top 10 plays are by women, and two by women of color; only one of the Top 10 plays, Laramie Project, Teachout notes, is explicitly political--yes, I'm talking to you, Stage Right).

But Teachout, looking for an angle, claims to find evidence of another bias at work: a bias toward new and newish work, and against "classics." As he notes of his Top 10 list (emphasis mine):

No Samuel Beckett, no Bertolt Brecht, no Anton Chekhov, no Georges Feydeau, no Henrik Ibsen, no William Inge, no Eugène Ionesco, no Arthur Miller, no Clifford Odets, no Eugene O'Neill, no George Bernard Shaw, no Aristophanes or Euripides or Sophocles, no Rodgers and Hammerstein or Frank Loesser or Lerner and Loewe...no history, in other words.
This is a misleading conclusion, for a number of reasons. For starters, TCG's Top-10 lists exclude plays by Shakespeare because it's not a fair fight; he handily beats the other playwrights, living or dead, year in and year out. Also, more to the point, Teachout has compiled a list of the Top 10 most-produced shows over a decade, but the way he's worded this litany, it reads as if American theaters have produced "no" productions by these authors at all. "No history, in other words."

There's one other problem: By listing playwrights' names, Teachout exposes another flaw in his data-mining. A thorough list of "most-produced" playwrights over the last 10 years would paint a different picture. Conor McPherson, Sarah Ruhl, and August Wilson would probably be on the list, for starters; so, I daresay, would many of the writers Teachout lists above. Because while each year's Top 10 reflects that year's hottest plays while they're white-hot, it fails to register the hardy warhorses and Streetcars that don't crack the Top 10 but, over the aggregate of 10 years, are likely to outrun the temporary favorites. It also fails to account for authors, new and old, who are too prolific to rise to the top with just one defining play; maybe no single Chekhov or Williams play had as many productions as Wit or Doubt in the 2000s; but I'm willing to bet Teachout a lunch that Chekhov and Williams received more productions than did Margaret Edson or David Auburn.

Of course, since I work at American Theatre and have already had some fun with data-mining possibilities of this annual tradition, the burden of proof is on me, and I happily accept it. More to come.

Jan 7, 2010

Working It

The musical I'm working on, an adaptation of LM Alcott's Work, will get some readings at the Metropolitan Playhouse starting Jan. 18, as part of "Another Sky," billed as a "festival of women's voices from the long 19th century" (love that judiciously placed adjective). I'd blog more about it but I'm too busy writing the thing. Interesting stuff--makes me wish I'd made time to check this out, too.

Who'd Want to Live Like That?

For some reason, Isaac's blockbuster post about the state of American theater, and his place in or out of it, made me think of this priceless clip from the so-so documentary Comedian, in which Jerry Seinfeld schools an annoying young comic.

Thing is, though I love that story, I have to admit that though I've certainly known him and even been him, I'm no longer that musician in the snow; I'm much closer to the family inside the house (though that house would have to have a piano in it). Though to some of my red-state relatives, my life still seems a little odd--they can't understand how or why I'd try to raise a child in the city without owning a house with a yard and a set of wheels or two (and trust me, these are not questions my little family is totally settled on, either), let alone how someone makes a living writing about plays--I am, for better or worse, a father and a husband and family guy as much as, and even more, than I am an artist, critic, journalist, career guy.

All of which is my own self-involved way of saying, Mazel tov! to Isaac (and Anne).

Jan 6, 2010

It's Not Play Money

Just caught Peggy Amsterdam's eloquent hometown defense of two Philly theater companies unfairly ridiculed by Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn last year, and summarily pounced on by Fox News:

These arts organizations pay real wages and provide real health insurance to a group of people who face the same economic challenges as the rest of us. These are our neighbors, and they have mortgages, car payments, and college expenses. And their organizations' activities support other workers in the economy, such as plumbers, carpenters, lawyers, and accountants.

Artists need and deserve work, just as all Americans do. And their industry is a key engine in our economic recovery. More than 5.7 million jobs in this country are generated by the nonprofit arts sector, and that work touches and enriches the lives of all Americans.

The NEA grants represent just 2 cents of every $100 of stimulus money being spent by the federal government. You might debate the value of government job creation - or any job creation - but these jobs represent a tiny fraction of our overall expenditures for that purpose. And it's foolish to suggest that this isn't real work - or that it's unworthy of support from a program established specifically for job creation.
And I'd heard the stimulus didn't work.

DIY or Die

I needn't have feared that the new unveiled 99 would pull his punches. His new post, mostly digesting Todd London's breathtaking state-of-the-new-play-industry study Outrageous Fortune, is a reminder of how indispensable he is. I'm also glad there are some quotes from London's book now out on the Internets; I read most of it last year when I was at TDF, and it's a sobering, clarifying exploration of a bundle of seemingly intractable challenges facing American theater and its artists. Don't just surf the quotes, though; get the book.

I should add that as someone who cut his teeth as a critic and sometime participant in L.A.'s anomalous theater scene, the disconnect is even starker between the Joshua Conkel/Qui Nguyen-style DIY model, which in my L.A. experience spawns a serious amount of great, overlooked work by ever-struggling-to-sustain companies, and Southland institutional theaters like the Taper and South Coast, whose sights are set inordinately on N.Y. for talent and validation. The gap may be even more gaping because of that town's other source of institutional neglect/indifference for the live arts (the film biz's, to be precise).

Maybe we're all headed more in this direction (h/t Thomas Cott), and maybe that's OK.

UPDATE: As he notes in the comments below, Hunka steps back here and gives some valuable systemic perspective--all of which, as he rightly adds, is explored exhaustively in London's book.

Jan 5, 2010

Also-Rans for the Name of What We Do

With the untimely passing of blogger and St. Louis theatre publicist Brad L. Graham comes the reminder that he jokingly coined the term "blogosphere" way back in 1999. Here's the original post, which offers a few other fun ideas:
Hello, blogiverse! Blogosphere? Blogmos? (Carl Sagan: "Imagine billions and billions and billions of blogs.")
What about those of us who blog about the stage? I'm not sure if theatrosphere really does the trick, and my joking coinage "blogo-theatrosphere" has somehow failed to catch on.

Jan 4, 2010

First Bad News of 2010

Bradley, left, with director Simon Levy.

No one who attended L.A.'s Fountain Theatre regularly could have missed the courtly front-of-house presence of Ben Bradley. This news is accordingly grim and dismaying. Send prayers/thoughts for his family and friends, inside the theater and out.

Happy New Year, I Must Be Going

J. Holtham, a.k.a. 99 Seats.

Swamped at work and with the bambino, and I'm working on a new musical with my Devil and Tom Walker crew, and things here are heating up a bit...All this is my way to apologize, in retrospect and advance both, for ultralight posting. I have been glancing at the theatro-blogosphere, and seeing things heat up all over the place, from the Prof to Parabasis. But few theater bloggers have been on as much of a tear as 99. I only hope that the revelation of his identity won't slow his impressive momentum or get him to pull his punches.

In other news, another anonymous blogger, Stage Right, unveiled his identity. I knew Larry a bit when I covered theater in L.A., and he was a gracious, smart guy with a lot of showbiz savvy and a great sense of humor. That he's become a whiny, sanctimonious Breitbart foot soldier doesn't square with my memory of the guy, but when we're in the same ZIP code perhaps we'll meet for a drink and he can explain to me precisely how the NEA, ACORN, and SEIU are destroying our fragile democracy. He did point me to this interesting article in City Journal; the theme--why aren't there more conservative voices onstage?--is well-trod and frankly a yawner for me, but there's some new stuff in it (apparently the Flea will produce Jonathan Reynolds' "strongly pro-life" play Girls in Trouble, though the only confirmation I could find was here).

Finally, speaking of City Journal, I'm proud to have shepherded into the new issue of American Theatre a provocative--and to my mind, pretty convincing--essay by John McWhorter (adapted from his fine book Word on the Street, a copy of which I literally happened to find on the street in Brooklyn last fall) about why Shakespeare should be translated into English. Marion McClinton has already weighed in...

A Happy 2010 to you and yours.