Aug 30, 2012

That Birney Feeling

I wasn't a great lover of the recent Soho Rep Vanya, as regular readers of this blog know, but I remain a fan of nearly everyone involved, including actor Reed Birney, whose lovely interview with Slant magazine I just caught. I was particularly touched by this closing observation:
This generation of playwrights and directors, Annie [Baker]'s generation, they seem to understand me better than my peer group does. I don't quite know why, but they appreciate me in a way that I never was before.
Another argument for sticking with it.

Aug 23, 2012

Trampin'


The site of the original enchantment

I must have been 11 or so when my dad pointed out the cover of the Scottsdale Progress's weekend arts section: the Scottsdale Center for the Arts would be screening The Circus on the big screen. I'm sure I must have been exposed to Charlie Chaplin's films before then, and I know I'd spent hours with a fabulous book of my parents', simply called The Films of Charlie Chaplin, which dutifully traced his career all the way from Kids Auto Races at Venice to King of New York, complete with copious photos, credits, and critical blurbs (it's one of the few from my folks' shelves that is now on mine).

So we went to The Circus (probably the most underrated of Chaplin's full-length silents), and I was hooked. (Not just on Chaplin, actually; that little big screen is also where I first saw pretty much the entire canon of Chaplin, Hitchcock, Welles, Minnelli, assorted Huston and Hakws and Ford, later even some Warhol; it was my own little revival cinema, and my dad dutifully accompanied to most of it, though I remember that he couldn't quite make it through Chimes at Midnight; he came back to pick me up after that one.) But though I've since discovered the somewhat sharper films of Chaplin's rival Buster Keaton, and duly concede many points to his partisans, Chaplin remains a kind of cinematic first love. There are sections of City Lights I can barely watch without bawling (and others I can't watch without yawning, frankly), and though The Gold Rush doesn't hold up so well for me anymore, Modern Times looks better and better all the time.

So I was extra-excited to sit down recently with Rob McClure, the lucky and talented New Jerseyan who's headlining the big new Broadway musical Chaplin, and nerd out about some of the films I literally grew up on. My piece for the paper of record is here.

When Harry Sang Stevie

The happy occasion of Keen Co.'s upcoming revival of the Sondheim outtake anthology Marry Me a Little is a fine excuse to trot out this novelty, which not enough people have heard: a demo of the title tune, which Sondheim commissioned from Harry Nilsson in 1969 as a gift for a friend. (It would go on to get cut from 1970's Company, though it's now often reinstated as a first-act closer.)

If you think the Company cast album has whiffs of bell-bottoms and puka shells (those funky guitars and organs), check this out; it really sounds for all the world like Sondheim trying his hand at a sort of late-'60s prog-pop tune, something the Fifth Dimension or the Mama and Papas or Art Garfunkel could have covered. Warning: You can almost get a contact high from this recording.

Aug 16, 2012

Joel Hodgson on Criticism

At least that's the way I read this quote from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator:
Watching a movie is almost like falling asleep into the movie. You get taken away by the movie and you don’t want to be awoken, but then there are these things that keep bothering you, that wake you up as a viewer. I’m like everybody else—when I go to a movie, I want to forget that I’m watching a movie. I want to be in it. If that doesn’t happen, what do you do? Who are you then? Then you’re a person who has to evaluate why this movie hasn’t taken you away, why it hasn’t worked.
That's as good a description of the critical impulse as I can think of. As one matures, though, it's clear that the harder task is to be a good critic of the things you actually do love—the things that let you "fall asleep into them." Criticism is at least partly a form of biography, and after the initial awakening of a critical sensibility, finding and parsing your own affinities, honing your own subjectivity, becomes the real task.

Aug 14, 2012

Quote for the Day

"Old songs are more than tunes, they are little houses in which our hearts once lived."
-Ben Hecht

Aug 10, 2012

Moments Between the Moments


photo by Mark Von Holden/Getty Images North America
Had the pleasure recently of meeting and chatting with the very busy director Daniel Aukin, a new play specialist formerly of Soho Rep, now working at every other Off-Broadway theater in town, including Signature Center, where he's directing the new Sam Shepard play. I particularly liked this window into his work:
“Part of the job is to figure out, what are the things in this play that, no matter how we do it, are going to come across anyway?” Mr. Aukin said in an interview in the Signature Center’s cavernous new lobby before a rehearsal. “You could say very broadly that with a lot of plays, there are somewhere between 15 and 30 moments that have to work in a certain way — that have to do something for the storytelling to land. And then there’s room between those places.”

Those liminal spaces are where Mr. Aukin thrives. Indeed, he has few contemporary rivals in finding texture and resonance in a play’s stillness and silence, or what [Itamar] Moses called “the moments between the moments.” That may be why the delicate, fine-grained naturalism of [Amy] Herzog’s “4000 Miles” was such a good fit for his talents. Paige Evans, artistic director of Lincoln Center’s LCT3, said, “He draws drama out of small, ordinary moments, but doesn’t hit them on the head.”
My piece for the paper of record is here.

Aug 9, 2012

Quote for the Day

"There is no real world/We live side by side/And sometimes collide"

Aug 8, 2012

I Wish


I don't recall exactly how it started, but I've become one of The Sondheim Review's regular reviewers, and the winter issue will contain my evaluation of the current Shakespeare in the Park production of Into the Woods. Director Timothy Sheader's production, to my eyes, works more than it doesn't, and it feels/looks particularly English, so much so that it reminded me of Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, another play about magic and mischief in the woods that ends stirringly with a summoning of giants. I write:
If Sheader’s production never reaches [Jerusalem's] incantatory power, it has a little to do with his staging, a little to do with his casting, and a fair amount to do with the source material. Sondheim and Lapine’s 1987 musical is a brilliant piece of craftsmanship that richly rewards repeated viewings and study, both compositionally and dramaturgically. But the show’s final turns, all of them inward, usually grind the evening to a halt while the characters mopily contemplate the complications of families and morals; that stately procession of closing ballads (“No More,” “No One Is Alone,” “Children Will Listen”) can start to sound dangerously close to a series of self-help sermons.

I’ve seen very few productions, including the original one (on video, like most of humanity), that have avoided this trap; it’s my fond recollection that a tiny but big-spirited rendition at Actors’ Co-op in Hollywood back in 1994, with Janet Carroll as the Witch, was an exception, and I think what put it across was the intimacy of the space and the clear, bright contours of the characterizations. Indeed, most of the problems with the Central Park production fall along those lines: its frequent lack of intimacy and occasional lack of definition.
For the review and much more besides, you can subscribe or order individual issues here.

Aug 1, 2012

Quote for the Day

"I hate that word blog
It sounds like a large accumulation of snot"
—Melissa James Gibson, This