Sep 26, 2012

Quote for the Day

L.A.'s best stage director, Bart DeLorenzo, is profiled in LA Stage Times, in advance of his production of Cymbeline at A Noise Within:
Earlier in DeLorenzo’s career—particularly, he says, the Evidence Room days—he went through a “Tarantino period” when he was interested in “tough, nasty theater.” But, he says, “You reach a certain age and there’s a little bit of an eye roll—really, do they have to die? Does there have to be incest and murder? Isn’t there another way?—and also, what does this have to do with my life?” It is in this light that DeLorenzo sees Cymbeline. He feels Shakespeare is saying, “A comic resolution is a more profound ending than a tragic one.”
Two thoughts: One, this echoes the recent Terry Teachout essay and subsequent discussion; and two, having seen Bart's exquisite productions of both Edward Bond's Saved and the noir adaptation No Orchids for Miss Blandish back in those early days, I think he's selling his youthful attraction to the dark side short. Still, I know exactly what he means about how tiring "shocking" theater can be (wild horses could not drag me to this or this, for instance). And though I've never seen a satisfying production of Cymbeline, I'd love to see what Bart and ANW does with it.

Sep 18, 2012

How We Live Next

Sarah Sokolovic, Darren Pettie, David Schwimmer, and Amy Ryan in Detroit (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

As much as I share Charles Isherwood's love for Playwrights Horizons, which in so many ways is an exemplary theater and a powerful counter-argument to anyone who reflexively dismisses either new American writing or institutional support for same (or both), I'm starting to get the sneaking worry that it's typing itself a bit too much as the default home for the "how we live now in America" play, and/or that it feels that that is its mission—to be the kind of furrowed-brow liberal conscience Spy magazine once memorably parodied the NY Times Magazine for being (it's great that Google has digitized all the old issues of Spy, but I don't have time to track down that particular issue at the moment).

From Maple and Vine to Rapture Blister Burn to the new Detroit, which I saw this past weekend, I feel like we're witnessing a trend-let of serious state-of-the-culture plays, which is a mixed blessing. This is the kind of play Terry Teachout too handily dismisses (as he did in the case of Jerusalem, albeit in re: a different national culture), and the kind of thing John Lahr gives too much of a pass to (Labute, I'm lookin' at you).

I guess this trend would be a better thing if I'd felt more moved than instructed by these well-crafted, thoughtful plays; Lisa D'Amour's Detroit, which my employer published last year and which I've been looking forward to seeing ever since, may in fact be the juiciest and rawest of the three I've mentioned. But I can't help feeling that Anne Kauffman's well-wrought, well-acted production now at Playwrights has drained some of the play's unpredictable, volatile energy.

It's about two couples in a crumbling exurb of the title city, one barely hanging on to the lower middle class, the other essentially squatting uncertainly in their orbit, and the ways these four broken people mingle aspiration, despair, and other substances into a toxic, explosive stew. I fear I've made it sound dreadful, far more portentous and less nimble than it actually is; though an air of inevitable doom does hang about it like secondhand smoke, it is a very funny, lively play, and I'd still very much recommend seeing it; every actor has a chance to shine, in particular Sarah Sokolovic as a waifish rehab-rebound dreamer.

And for all my issues with the how-we-live-now genre, it does earn its keep with well-turned observations and subversions of, well, how we live now. It was true of the priceless Google-map/porn analogy in Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, it was true of so much of the mesmerizing first half of Maple and Vine. And it's no less true of D'Amour's work.

I was struck especially by this exchange between Sharon, the waif played by Sokolovic, and Ben, a laid-off financial services guy slowly laboring on his own web-from-home-based business (and played with a sort or riveting blankness by David Schwimmer). It starts with Ben's wife, Mary (played with a pinched soulfulness by Amy Ryan) questioning his business model:
MARY I still don't understand how just a website is going to attract customers. I mean it is just hanging out there in the ether. Is someone just going to decide they need a consultant and then—poof—find your website?

BEN I've got it, baby—

MARY No, I just mean there are like what, a gazillion bazillion websites out there—

BEN I've got it.

SHARON Anyway, I heard the "next Internet" is coming out soon. Something that we can't even imagine. This superfast thing that will change everything. Change everything so much that like we won't even have to own things anymore.

BEN Do you mean—I don't understand. I mean, what will happen to websites? I just don't understand.

SHARON That's just it. I can't explain it, and it's outside of our understanding at this time—

BEN I mean I'm sure there'll be some sort of conversion, a way to convert the website into—

SHARON Ben. No worries. Our tiny brains can't conceive of it, it's totally new, like finding out...this table is actually alive, and has been for a long time. We can't understand it yet, but the inventors of the "next Internet" are doing that part for us. So you, Ben, should just unfurrow—is that a word? Unfurrow that forehead and enjoy some bean dip and Delta caviar.
The way that moment plays onstage encapsulates the best of this kind of play: The ground shifts a little under Ben's feet, and ours, until we're gazing at an abyss of insignificance with only wisps of words to hold onto. It's bracing, and it's the kind of moment that plays like this are shooting for—moments in which we feel the free-floating dislocation and anomie of our 21st-century American lives and aren't simply either shown or told about it.

Sep 12, 2012

The Joy of Sam

Joy Zinoman; photo by Todd Franson

My friend and colleague Isaac Butler has said repeatedly of Joy Zinoman, the founding artistic of D.C.'s Studio Theatre, that she saved his life (something of an explanation is given here). That's why, when Joy resigned from her post a few years back, I had Isaac write a farewell piece for American Theatre. In the years since, I've also become friends with Joy's son Jason, a NY Times critic and fellow new dad.

Now that Joy is making her New York debut after four decades in the theater business, I finally had the privilege of sitting down with her recently to chat about the production, a Beckett anthology-with-music called Sounding Beckett. My favorite quote, regarding the strictures placed on interpreters by both the playwright and his estate:
A certain degree of constraint can be inspiring, of course. "It gives you limits, and within those limits, I think you can be more creative,” says [Zinoman]. “If someone gives you a 
big, open field and says, ‘Do a play in this cornfield,’ you’re fucked. So I welcome it, and I engage in it in an antagonistic way as well.”
You can read the whole thing in Time Out here.

Sep 4, 2012

Tragedy, Schmagedy

David Rakoff, 2010 (Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

I had no intention of wading into the tragedy-vs.-comedy mini-debate that Terry Teachout started last week with his Wall Street Journal column, which had the relatively self-explanatory headline, “Why Comedy is Truer to Life Than Tragedy,” and the inevitable response from tragedy's self-appointed defender, George Hunka. I tweeted a few thoughts about how reductively binary I found Terry's initial piece, which held up Twelfth Night over King Lear in part because, as Terry put it, Lear "ends, like most of Shakespeare's tragedies, with a mile-high stack of corpses, a horrific spectacle that precious few of us have had the misfortune to behold"—a somewhat provocative statement in an age of smartphone atrocity videos, not to mention a century of well-documented genocides (are tragedies intended only for those suffering from PTSD, I wonder?). Along these lines, Marilyn Nonken's comment, as George records it, does indeed cut to the heart of the matter: "When I read Terry’s pronouncement that 'comedy is truer to life than tragedy' to my wife, she immediately got to the heart of the matter: 'That depends on whose life you’re talking about, doesn’t it?' she said."

I know that a lot of this boils down taste and temperament, as Terry freely admits; for my money, as much as I love both Twelfth Night and King Lear, I dread strenuously unfunny renditions of the former nearly as much or more than I dread self-importantly harrowing productions of the latter.

Then I happened to belatedly catch This American Life's tribute to the late writer David Rakoff, and the replaying of several of his bleakest, funniest stories sparked a few related thoughts. If Rakoff's view of life's randomness and cruelty wasn't essentially tragic, I'm not sure what would qualify; and the fact that his stories were nevertheless unfailingly entertaining doesn't mean that he somehow softened their core horror or sprinkled some one-liners over the despair to let us off the hook. Rakoff was true to his own sense of both the ridiculous absurdity and the punishing terrors of life and death, but he was always terrifically, mordantly funny. One did not feel that he was buttonholing us or hectoring us, trying self-consciously to shake us out of our complacency and see how much life sucks. In many cases, that would indeed be the takeaway, as in this chilling, clarifying interview with Terry Gross, but Rakoff had the saving grace and sense of proportion as a storyteller to see and render a hopeless world with as much humor as horror.

Truthfully, to keep this theatrical, I feel the same way about the best work of John Guare or Tracy Letts or August Wilson or Tony Kushner or Chris Durang or Annie Baker or a name Terry mentions but brushes past all too quickly, Chekhov. Looking back, indeed, I think this is also true of earlier 20th century titans: Beckett, Pinter, Albee, Williams, Brecht, Ionesco. I'll admit that Arthur Miller may stand apart in his self-appointed task of making Greek-worthy tragedy out of the American experience (and, in another medium, David Simon made an entirely worthy effort to do something similar). But by and large, I think the observation holds that a truly tragic view of the world often finds its best and truest expression in forms and modes we might think of as essentially or at least outwardly comic.

Ultimately, what I'm trying to say is that as much as I resist the binary comedy/tragedy argument, I'd like to align myself with a more nuanced version of Terry's case for a comic view of the tragedies and indignities, small and huge, that life visits on us all, or, as the evangelist had it, on the just and the unjust.

If nothing else, George has done us the service of digging up this extremely entertaining comment-palooza on David Cote's blog from 2007.