Nov 6, 2019

“The haunting nature of an idea, vehemently expressed”: The complete Will Arbery interview

Will Arbery (photo by Korde Tuttle)

Like August: Osage County, Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning is much, much better than its clunky title. Also like August it’s a veritable feast of a play about a white American family, drawn intimately from its author’s life and observations, though in this case it’s not primarily a blood-related family he puts onstage. Instead he sets it on the back porch and yard of a home in Wyoming, where four 20-something alums of a Catholic college there meet up after a party to compare notes on how they’re faring, and their erstwhile professor, Ginawho is based on Arbery’s mom, Virginia Arbery, an actual professor at Wyoming Catholic Collegeshows up later on to take stock. Danya Taymor’s production at Playwrights Horizons has been justly lauded for its peerless cast and tonal range, which encompasses high-flown debates, fugue-like flights of language, bristling sexual tension, and as much political and theological grist as any play since Kushner was in his heyday.


I sat down a few weeks ago with Arbery for this story in America magazine. Like many Catholics who’ve seen and enjoyed his play, my America editors hoped I would suss out Arbery’s own religious and political commitments. Though he wouldn’t reveal them to me (a liberal Protestant, for the record), we nevertheless had a rich conversation about his work and his relationship to the white, conservative, Catholic culture in which he was raised.


The following interview has been edited and condensed (but only slightly!) for clarity. Not sufficiently conveyed here: the laughter that punctuated much of the conversation, even or especially on the most serious topics.


I know you grew up in Texas. Which part? Was it Plano?
That’s an unfortunate thingpeople assume I’m from Plano now because I wrote that play. I grew up in Oakcliff in Dallas. Where are you from?


I’m from Phoenix. And just to lay my cards on the table in regard to themes we’re going to talk about: I was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran, which is basically evangelical-adjacent, politically if not theologically. But then I went to Jesuit high school and had my world opened up. I didn’t become a Catholic, but I was deeply influenced by the Jesuit approach to the social gospel, and to an ethos of exploring and questioning.
That was the exact kind of Catholicism I was siphoned away from. It sounds like a Catholicism I could get behind.


How would you describe Catholicism you did grow up with?
I mean, it was Roman Catholic. It was very informed by my parents’ work. They both teach; my mom teaches political science, political philosophy, and my dad teaches literature. Both of them sort of thrive in great books curriculum. So there was a lot of literature: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, up through Melville, Faulkner. Building this Western canon.


So, a literature-steeped Catholicism. Is there a certain Catholic order or tradition your family identifies with?
We hopped around to different parishes in Dallas. I did go to a Cistercian prep school from 5th through 12th grade, run by Hungarian monks who'd fled the revolution in 1956. And their life was sort of bottled up with Bernard of Clairvaux. But my family followed the Vatican, kept up with the pope. My family were good Catholics, and were sort of skeptical of anything on the fringes, like charismatic Catholics.


Did they go so as far as preferring the Latin Mass?
My parents wouldn't take us to Latin Mass. But because my sisters all went to Catholic universities, they would have friends who were really into the Latin Mass, and they would go. My parents would be like, “Oh, I see you're going to the Latin Mass…” There were different levels of intensity, I would say.


Were they skeptical of Vatican II?
I didn't grow up with a whole lot of skepticism of Vatican II. Or if there was skepticism, they didn't convey that to us. They really followed the pope. They were non-schismatic. They were very skeptical of schisms, or any rumblings of schisms.


So mainstream Catholics, but on the conservative side. I would say that for me, the Jesuit brand of Catholicism I was exposed to was a kind of an intellectual playground where we could try out ideasit felt like it was okay to ask anything or address anything. There was total confidence that God was in charge, so we weren't threatened by atheism or pop culture or by the larger world. We could talk about it all.
I would say our Catholicism did feel a little bit more threatened by all that than what you're describing. Even in the response to this play, I'll come across responses in Catholic cultural circles, and people are looking for cluesbasically clues about my soul, I would say. The question of whether I go to Mass or not, whether I'm lapsed or not, as some sort of indication of...


Of what the play means, is trying to say.
And that sort of response, that sort of myopia, just immediately sent me back to the feeling I had in high schoolin the play I call it the panopticon, like you're being watched.


You have to declare a side.
Right, you can't just question without an initial declaration.


Which is what your character Kevin tries to say to Gina, the professor: You say you want us to question, but you all want us to come to the same conclusion, really.
Right, so any sniff of not getting to that conclusionthe questioning actually gets shut down and the debate stops, because suddenly the unholy has entered the sphere, the secular has entered it somehow. At a certain point I remember feeling very lonely in my questioning. Which is inevitable for anyone.


The feeling that people want to know about your soulit's touching in a way, but also a little scary. When I read Rod Dreher’s piece about your play in The American Conservative, it really reminded me of the way people who have long felt underrepresented onstagepeople of color, gay people, immigrants, trans people, people of lesser economic meansthe way they respond when a good play is written about them, by someone who’s part of their culture. They feel very represented, they feel seen. There's a version of that happening with conservatives and Catholics and your play.
This is something I've been thinking about a lot. First of all, I have to say: I can't help but point out that there is a bit of irony in this thrill of representation from people who tend to be either mildly or vocally annoyed when other kinds of representation happen. And I think it's a little overblown, the idea that these are characters we never see. We've seen so many Catholics and so many Christians, and so many conservativesthey have been represented for a long time. I think that something else is happening here that goes beyond representation. That's why I sort of still feel called to exist in this spacemy mom called it the fissure space. I am in that fissure space right now, and I feel responsibility toit's weird, I feel called to deny both sides a full, complete understanding ofyeah, my soul. Because both sides are clawing for it, like, what does he think?


I wonder if I could ask how much calculation you put into which arguments go into which character’s mouth, and what tone they take. The pro-life argument that Teresa makes, for instance, sounded so strident to my ears, but Rod Dreher quoted it approvingly in his article.
I think that gets to the heart of what is actually going on with this piece. It's basically a mirror. In their responses to it, people reveal themselves. It's as much about what they don't object to as what they do, and as much about what they notice as what they don't. I think what's happening, in large part because of Teresa, is that things are getting said more bluntly than they usually get said. And whether that thrills you or terrifies you says more about you than it does about me.


Your play does feel like a big idea play, where people argue out their differences. A lot of plays I admire, by Shaw or Brecht or Kushner, say, are polemical plays, dialectical plays, where even though they take in many points of view, what they’ve done in part is built an argument. You've portrayed an argument, certainly, but is your play making an argument?
If it is, it's an argument for something more mysterious. Maybe the simplest way to put it is that it's an argument for listening. But the play was designed to linger in people's minds long after they saw it, to create conversations that couldn't be resolved in one post-show drink. I'm not providing a diagnosis, I'm not providing an answeryou won't find an easily articulable conclusion. But that's not to say that I don't think that there's a real shape to it. It goes beyond words for me, but I feel itI feel the shape of that piece. I know how it's working viscerally. Even with the arguments, I'm not someone who likes arguing.


Really?
I like listening. And I'm interested in the animal nature of debate and the way ideas can take over a body, and what talking for a long time very fast does to a body, what listening does to a body. These are the things that interest me more, and I sort of have to cultivate a level of delight and curiosity in the nuances of these ideas that hadn't really been there before. My goals with this play were more primal than they were intellectual, at least at first.


Still, you put a lot of meat on the table with this play. And folks like Tony Kushner, who also have characters arguing all sides of things onstage, are pretty clear about their politics outside their work. I’m not trying to pin you down too hard here, Will. But the magazine I’m writing for wants me to at least ask where you stand.
I guess I just wonder what that question...I'm just so suspicious of it.


Do you identify as a Catholic person?
I don't think I have any choice.


Another way to address this: With many plays based on a playwright’s life or worldview, you can often tell which character onstage sort of stands in for them. With yours, I really didn’t feel like any of them were you.
No, they're not.


So you really were a listener.
I think that if you are a listener, truly, and you're listening more than you're talking, and if you don't want the focus to be on you that much, it's inevitable, I think, that… (15-second pause.) I think that listening is what I'm offering to everyone, and arguing for. Catholic conservatives ignore that call at their own peril, that's how I feel about it. And that's how I always felt growing up; there wasn't enough listening to what the other side was actually saying.


Right. When you say this play is in favor of listening, we liberal New York theatergoers receive that as, "Oh, you mean we have to listen to all these conservatives." But you also mean they're not listening to each other, or to the world outside their bubble.
Yeah. I would almost argue that progressive publications are modeling a better kind of listening than is happening at conservative publications. Why can't conservative publications go see A Strange Loop with the same level of openness and willingness to be challenged that progressives had going to my play?


It’s a fair point. But I think the conservative response is, they’re already inundated with culture they feel is hostile to their values.
But are they really? Everyone's inundated. We live in a beautifully complicated world, and there are so many people in it. I think what's happening when they say that is, they're not being inundated by the people, they're being inundated by what they see as an agenda, and they're not actually listening. Those things that they're supposedly being inundated with are being categorized before they even have a chance to be observed by the viewer's soul.


Right, there’s a feeling of threat, that if you let in too many ideas, if you're open to all that, it’s a slippery slope. Why go see a play in which gay people are fully human characters if you already have decided, and have an ostensible faith commitment, that says they can’t be?
I would just sayI mean, I get it. That just sounds like fear to me. It doesn't sound like an actual Christian mode of being. Aren't we supposed to care about each other? I don't know. I mean, I know very intimatelythey worry that an agenda is being forced upon them, that they are being forced to, as it says in the play, not just tolerate but affirm something they think will ultimately lead to the destruction and collapse of their faith and the institution. Sort of like "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie."


But really, how strong is your faith if you feel it can't withstand the world it’s supposed to be saving? If it can’t face the world, what is it even for?
This is part of what has been sowhat you're witnessing in real time right now is part of what has been the entirety of my life, this sort of toggling back and forth between these two ways of seeing the world. That's probably why I get so touchy about the church question, because it seems to me that whatever I answer, it's: “Okay, if he's arguing for listening, if he's someone who apparently listens, let's see how that filters into his life.”

John Zdrojeski, Jeb Kreager, and Zoe Winters in Heroes of the Fourth Turning. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

One thing Tim Sanford thought I should ask you: You’re 30 now, and this is based on conversations that must go back many years. So why this play now?
It just takes a while. The first full-length play I ever wrote was about a priest going to confession, and the arc of that piece was this very torturous process of him finally just saying the words, "I'm a homosexual," and all the ways he dances around it and distracts from it, diverts from it. So I've been interested in writing about Catholics and those structures from the very beginning.

I think this play was something I had in me. It really came out of my experiences growing up in the house that I did, where they would always have students over. But also going to the boys school that I did, and the experience of sitting around a firepit late at night and hearing the competitive one-upmanship of provocative conservative ideas. To be honest, the initial idea that this play came from was going to be something called Douchebag, about just a bunch of guys sitting around and saying these horrible things. It took years for it to dawn on me that the much more provocative idea was to approach it with significantly more grace and love. And yet that feeling was what I was after, of sitting in the dark, and what the darkness does to an idea and the way it floats above your head and sort of oozes into your bodythe haunting feeling of that. The haunting nature of an idea, vehemently expressed. 


Hauntingthat’s a good segue to ask you about the supernatural elements in your work. There are a lot in Plano. In this one there’s that loud feedback noise that comes in unexpectedly at various times. I know that Justin first says it’s his generator, then admits he has no idea why it happens. Can you talk about what that’s supposed to represent?
Just dramaturgically, that noise functions as a sort of extremely aggressive, seemingly random antagonism and contradiction. It also has the effect of yanking us out of the potential of solving this here on this night. It's like: No, you're not going to get to reach a consensus. Even if all five of you got really close to consensus, that noise would somehow come in to mess that up.


Beyond that, everything I write is a ghost story. Within an hour of people in my family getting together, at a certain point it will start becoming about ghost stories.


Literal ghost stories?
Like, truly real stories, things that we've experienced. Stories from people that we know; this thing that happened that we can't explain. It's such a part of the fabric of the way that we communicate and love each otherit’s through the unexplainable, through these sort of disorienting messages from an invisible world.


Are you talking about actual dead people communicating from the beyond, or synchronistic coincidences, or what?
The noise in the play for me is the perfect example of something thatyou know, when my sisters or parents saw that, they didn't bat an eye. It's like, “Yeah, that checks out.” The example in Plano would be the red ribbon that sinks down the staircase. It's a real thing that happened in my family: It was going down step by step, tracing the outline of the staircase, in a way that just didn’t make sense. That's sort of links back to Emily's thing at the end, when she says, "We love pain, we love it." It hurts us to have these things that we can't explain, but we almost don't want them explained, because we love it.


When the professor, Gina, shows up later, she looks at these four stragglers and wonders whether the college has failed in raising up good Catholics. Do you feel like it’s failed, and do you intend that as a larger critique of Catholic institutions, even the church itself? Like, is it raising good people or breaking them?
It's important to note that Emily asks that question of Justin: Are they the weird lingerers? Justin says, “I think this school makes 99 percent great people, and I’m so heartened tonight seeing how everyone ended up, happy, healthy, humble, building families.” I think there is a sense that these are four characters who, for whatever reason, are not following that very Catholic model of starting to build a family within the first couple of years of graduating undergrad. A vast majority of their classmates have started that work, and here we are with, for four very different reasons, people who have not started that family building. I would never say that that's what they should do: “Well, if they just started building families they would all be fine.” But I do think that might be what the church and the school has modeled for them. So the fact that they're not contributes to their feeling of isolation and despair, and makes their energy go into those strange other places that we see them putting it.


I think this play, which doesn't get talked about a lot, is so much about motherhood and the woman's body and the way that the church sort of has real provenance over their bodies, and the effect that that has on women. And also fatherhood, and the ways men feel called to uphold thisto be the kind of man who can build a family, who can be the strong head of the household. All of that stuff is so alive in this night, and is sort of the unspoken link between everything that they talk about and everything that they're obsessed with.


I was thinking when you said motherhood, you were talking about Gina, who’s based on your own mom and is sort of a mother figure to these four characters.
I mean, that's part of it.


But the link to the pro-life argument is what you're talking about, right?
Yeah, and the argument that Emily and Teresa have about abortion; and the conversation that Kevin and Teresa have about the Virgin Mary; and Gina's ultimate takedown of Teresa, hinging on this idea of motherhood being the way white Western civilization will continue, and the pro-life movement being linked to that. Some people have said that the play is about the dangers of repression, and I don't think that’s actually what's going on. I think the restraint in the play is actually quite charged and sexyin the room, we were like, “This restraint is so hot.” I think it's actually more about the fear and the desire of creating a family and that level of commmitment. What are you willing to die for? What are you willing to put your body on the line for? Obviously Teresa has taken up this idea of a coming war, and she's using that language. I'm not saying Gina is right when she says, “You're turning your fear of motherhood into false machismo.” But I think that for them, the standards and expectations that they're living underthat's what's happening with these people.


So are you personally pro-life?
Well... (11-second pause.) I don't want to make it that easy for people. Look, I grew up with seven sisters. And this is what I'll say: My work is so much about women trapped in and upholding a system that's designed to limit their autonomy. Part of the reason I don't want to lay out really clearly, tempting though it might be, what my positions are and what my personal life is like is that part of what this play is trying to do is to topple some of our dependency on that as experiencers of art in this day. Can we get back to a place where we're experiencing the thing itself on its own terms, rather than looking to the creator for clues about where exactly it stands politically, and whether it falls into some sort of party line?

Susannah Flood, Crystal Finn, and Miriam Silverman in Plano. (Photo by Elke Young)


Did you ever consider the preisthood?
My mom certainly wanted me to become a priest.


I know firsthand that any serious, bookish, religious boy gets told that they should consider some sort of pastoral calling.
I never seriously considered it. But there have been times when I've thought it would be great to have that structure.


Was there a point after Catholic high school that you started to question your faith, or see other alternatives? Was it at Kenyon College?
No, I would say that happened before. I became an enormous film buff, starting in eighth grade. It was the Criterion Collection and Roger Ebert's great movies books and Pauline Kael. It was cinema.


Why did you end up writing plays? Do you want to write movies and TV as well?
I do want to. Plays I didn't quite anticipate. It was sort of spiritual. It was a charge in the room, and an experience of breath, and sort of a challenging calmlike, the event of calming down and listening did actually have a real sort of primal recurrence in my body. It reminded me of Mass. I just felt totally drawn: I have to be a part of that. I was acting and directing, and I'd been writing the whole time, I really wanted to be a writer and couldn't find a way to make it all fit. And then when I started writing my first plays, everything fit together. I also just felt like, to be honest, it was the hardest one. That's the hardest one to pull off. So if I can do that...


It's a fundamental craft. I have had great communal experiences in a movie theater, though that’s really about the audience, not primarily what’s onscreen.
Yeah, I've had great experiences in a movie theater. But something about theater for meit’s, yeah, I'm writing, but more than that I'm creating an experience. It's entirely about, what are we going to do to the people that come into that room?


Does your family like the play?
Yeah. What I said to them was, this was a really difficult offering, but thank you for receiving it. It is ultimately a gift. But it's a difficult gift. My dad said he felt a little soul-scouredthat was the word he used. Which...I'm not trying to scour anyone's soul!


Do you think your play gave him that panopticon feeling you mentioned earlier?
Yeah, I do think that my parents were a little taken aback at how closely I'd been watching and listening.


I’ve read that you also shared a draft with them before they saw it.
Yes. I shared a draft with them.


Did they give you feedback, or ask you to change things?
There were references or ways that I could make it deeper that proved really helpful.


So they were good literary notes, not so much personal objections.
They had questions around how much whiteness gets talked about. I think that that's been really interesting. It's been something we've started to be able to talk about a little bit.


I know that Vinson Cunningham keyed in on how some of the arguments hinge on race, and I guess this is a matter of, like you said, earlier, what you see and what you don't see. I did not hear race as a major theme in the playor perhaps I just factor that in as part of the noise of our current conversation.
It's not to say that it's the whole thing. But I will say in terms of, what's different about this night? One of the things that's really different about this night is that Teresa is talking about this, and it's something that doesn't get talked about and wouldn't get talked about in those circles. She's broaching it in a way that indicates that she has thought really deeply into it from the other side, as a progressive, so when she's talking there's a fugue state that she almost goes intoand it's why Gina says, “You're one of them.” Because she’s seeing things from that perspective in a way that seems like the ultimate violation.


You mean the speech where Teresa says, “You call us racist, we'll call you racist. You call us white, we’ll call you black.”
And everything she says before that too. The way she's bringing up Pat Buchanan and Barry Goldwater, and saying, “Look, [race] is what it's always been about in [progressives'] eyes, and we have to start treating that as true.” Basically she's admitting that she has accepted the critique, and now we have to come up with our rebuttal. We can't just ignore it anymore, we can't just pretend that it's not there, that it's going away.


But is she embracing the full white supremacist agenda?
She's not quite doing that, but she's saying that she sees their logic and has not found a way to rebut it, and is sort of owning that, yes, we are trying to save white Western civilization; we don't want our civilization to collapse. That's where motherhood comes back in, because in a sense each woman becomes a warrior for that cause and the man has to be strong for civilization to survive.

Zoe Winters and Michelle Pawk in Heroes of the Fourth Turning. (Photo by Sara Krulwich/NY Times)


You know, for several decades there has been the understanding from white Christians of conscience that the right thing to do is to not think in terms of color, to think we're all the same, we're all in this together. I would argue, one of my main arguments would be, that no, in fact, the Christian thing to do is to acknowledge your whiteness in this country and to spend some time thinking about what that means, and how that affects your fellow citizens. It's a very simple proposal, but it's one that makes people very uncomfortable. There's a sense in which we should feel very energized and comfortable in navigating that level of guiltinherited guilt is sort of the name of the game, and yet there's a way in which that's sort of pushed down. I would just challenge everyone to ask, why? Why can't we talk about this? Why can't we refer to ourselves as white? What are we afraid will happen when we do that?


These are all things I'm going to be writing about for a long time. There are a lot questions. Part of the reason I don't want come down too clearly in terms of my own identity is that I really hope to have the ear of both sides, as much as I can. Who knows? Maybe I'll get really sick of writing about, you know, things of this world. I might just want to write a mystery. But right now I want to be able to navigate both worlds. It feels really important.


You don’t want to be pegged as a conservative writer, a progressive writer.
That also links back to the "we love pain" speech that Emily has. So many of us claim to wish that things weren't such a binary, that there weren't these clear lines in the sand. And yet we love that battle, it's such a symbiotic relationship. So much of who we are now is defined by what we’re not: "At least I'm not them, not like that." I think really all I'm trying to do is to blur those lines a little bit. I think it makes people really uncomfortable, but all that it is is love. There's a real desperately dangerous lack of love happening right now. The nation doesn't love itself, and we don't love each other. We love our factions, we love our tribes, but we don't love each other.


What you said earlier about inherited guilt reminded me that we often talk about slavery as America’s “original sin.” But if Christians took that analogy seriously we would own that it’s in us, like sinthat we’ll never fully overcome it and must constantly be repenting for it.
Exactly. All I'm asking is that we look at it with the same level of humility that we look at original sin in the religious context, if that's what you believe. 


Your play doesn't go directly into the red/blue arguments we seem to be having every day, but it does capture the feelings I know I feel when I’m arguing with my red-state family and friends. Like, does someone need to win this argument? Can we still love each other when we disagree so much? You’ve put these arguments at a slight remove, in a world that feels a little exotic for most audiences, especially New York audiences, but it’s captured with such specificity that it really feels immediate.
In sixth grade, I remember my favorite teacher at the school walked in, and before he said anything, he just wrote in chalk on the board, in big cursive, "Attention to detail is the key to success." As soon as I saw that, I thought, that's what I'm gonna dojust be really, really detailed, because I think in that specificity is where you find...


They also say "God is in the details."
So that's the answer to, "Do you go to church?" God is in the details.

Jan 26, 2019

Julia and Paul and Some Guy Named Bradley

Actors Paul Rudd, Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper appear onstage during curtain call at the opening night of “Three Days of Rain” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on April 19, 2006 in New York City | Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images
I recently caught the so-so Amazon series Homecoming (a sharp 90-minute paranoid thriller unaccountably stretched to 5 hours) and found myself mostly enjoying Julia Roberts's sturdy yet labile performanc. After all these years the camera still loves her and she loves it right back, but with a mature, confident, middle-aged-married-for-life kind of love, not with the needy, eager, puppyish affection of her past, which also had its appeal. Clearly she's not going anywhere and I count myself happy—nay, contented—to know we'll be watching her for many more years. You can also sense her relief that it's all going to work out; there's a certain settling down about her, if not quite settling for less. (This serene control makes the contrast with Bobby Cannavale's nervy, jumpy performance all the more fascinating.)

Then I happened to remember the time I reviewed her one performance on Broadway, in Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, for Broadway.com. She wasn't very good onstage, it turned out, and her co-star Paul Rudd wasn't a whole lot better. But there was a young upstart I think I'd noticed on Alias who made a strong impression in his Broadway debut: Bradley Cooper.

In any case, I for one find interesting to look back, though of course one of the lessons of Greenberg's play (if not of Homecoming) is that the past doesn't always provide you the answers you're looking for.

Three Days of Rain

Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Broadway.com, April 20, 2006

Star power is a fragile thing. It can be measured in box-office dollars and eight-figure salaries, it can be burnished by sympathetic lighting and framed by deft publicity spin, but ultimately it's reducible to the flesh-and-blood presence of a single human actor. Nowhere is this more true than in the real time and shared space of the theater, which can prove to be a most unforgiving microscope for an actor's instrument, particularly if that instrument is accustomed to different registers. In the case of Julia Roberts, who uneasily headlines the new Broadway production of Three Days of Rain, the stage is more like a telescope through which her star flickers, recognizably but dimly.

With her Easter Island bone structure, gulping smile and preposterously red cheeks, Roberts is the kind of sui generis star Hollywood supposedly stopped minting decades ago; a soft-focus hybrid of Joan Crawford and Audrey Hepburn, she's a gamine with backbone. But in Richard Greenberg's meditative gem of a play, which has seen better productions elsewhere (including one at L.A.'s Evidence Room five years ago), Roberts is all spine and teeth. First as Nan, a woman mourning her father and tending to her messed-up brother, Walker (Paul Rudd), then as Nan and Walker's blowzy mom, Lina, Roberts gives careful, stilted line readings and moves with a studied diffidence that doesn't seem to belong to the same lithe physical comedienne who caromed so winningly through Erin Brockovich or My Best Friend's Wedding. She's on slightly surer footing when she's still, in tete-a-tetes that play like virtual close-ups, though even from Row D these moments resonate faintly at best.

Roberts' reticence seems to have sent Rudd into hysterics. In the first act, in which Nan and Walker have a tense reunion in the abandoned former studio of their architect father and his partner, the fine-featured, shaggy-haired Rudd paddles furiously, as if he's trying to keep a sinking ship afloat, but he can't strike sparks against Roberts' flinty passivity. Sure, Walker is a raw nerve prone to dramatic disappearances and emotional blackmail, but Rudd plays his highs and lows with such strenuous exertion that Roberts' Nan seems to have little choice but to recede into pity and disapproval. There's little evidence of director Joe Mantello's work in these early scenes, except possibly as a referee.

It takes a third wheel to balance this wobbly frame. As Pip, a happily shallow TV actor whose late father was the other half of the architecture partnership, Bradley Cooper gives a preternaturally assured performance, working himself up to a first-act aria of exuberant pique that kicks the play into vibrant life. With an equal sparring partner, Rudd suddenly has a plausible target for Walker's overcooked anger, and even Roberts rises, with disarmed amusement, to the occasion presented by Cooper's undeniable presence. She may have star power, but Cooper has stage power.

In calling out Walker's self-important angst, Pip doesn't just clear the air; he also clears the way for Greenberg's themes, which had languished under wraps like the old furniture on Santo Loquasto's set, to take dramatic shape. What had seemed until Cooper's entrance like a rough passage from a Lifetime movie starts to resemble the essence of Greenberg's play—a delicately mournful parable of dashed hopes, of well-intended legacies gone awry and of pleasures barely grasped before they fade. And Mantello's production begins to breathe a little.

The second act flashes back to the same studio and shows us a past the architects' children have not imagined: Nan and Walker's yet-to-be father, Ned (also played by Rudd), is a shy, stammering nebbish who allows his partner, Theo (Cooper), to supply the ideas and the ambition he lacks. It makes sense that at first it's the alpha male, Theo, who has the girlfriend, though he doesn't have her very securely; the feisty, erratic Lina (played by Roberts with a swooping, not entirely convincing Southern accent) has the sort of willfulness that blurs with a few drinks into dissatisfaction. So it also makes sense when she turns her fluttering attentions to Ned, and, quite movingly, lends him what is probably her last shred of encouragement.

Here, as in the first act, Roberts underplays and Rudd overcompensates, but this contrast at least resembles the light friction of romantic comedy. And the appropriately rainy climax of this fraught triangle comes off with unexpected force. Ultimately, though, the weather report on this uneven Three Days of Rain is lightly cloudy, zero chance of thunder.

Three Days of Rain
By Richard Greenberg
Directed by Joe Mantello
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

Jan 18, 2019

Flash in a Pan: 'Lestat'


Rob Harvila's much-discussed recent article on the meaning and value of harsh criticism in the age of social media got me thinking back to my days as a more or less full-time critic in New York. While it's been a while since I've delivered a full-on assault (I guess this counts), the season I covered New York openings for Broadway.com (which came to an abrupt end as detailed here) gave me plenty of fat targets: Roundabout's terrible The Threepenny Opera, the wildly overpraised dramatic hairshirt called Rabbit Hole. (Of my days reviewing in L.A. and elsewhere I might offer this exhibit of a relatively high-profile slam.) But when I think back on "favorite negative review" I inevitably settle on my review of Lestat, Elton John and Linda Woolverton's short-lived Anne Rice pilaf. Looking back, if I got anything wrong it's that I predicted the show might have a future as a camp favorite. Otherwise I stand by every word (and hey, I didn't even resort to a joke about "sucking").

Lestat
Reviewed by Rob Kendt for Broadway.com
April 26, 2006

The season's most hilarious musical, it turns out, is not a comedy. It is Lestat, an adaptation of the Anne Rice vampire novels so laughable, and so sumptuously designed, that it makes for a surprisingly good time at the theater. No, musical-theater-train-wreck aficionados, it's not quite another Carrie, or even another Dance of the Vampires. Instead it comes off more like an unholy blend of the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast and the cult TV series Beauty and the Beast. In fact, I'll go out on a limb here and bet that, with its earnest embrace of Rice's labyrinthine mythology and its unabashed pop-Goth sensibility, Lestat will win over a small but ardent legion of swooning Riceheads. The rest of us will be more bemused than entranced.

Boldly forgoing the needless frills of exposition, Lestat gallops out of the gate with a senseless massacre performed in pantomime, as our title character (Hugh Panaro, dressed like a gypsy Fabio) rumbles with an unseen wolf pack and thereby unleashes his own inner beast. "Fear was never present," he sings, speaking for us all. Naturally, Lestat's newfound bloodlust means he must leave his French country estate, where his mother, despite appearing in the person of the entirely healthy-looking and full-voiced Carolee Carmello, insists she is dying, not that her son should worry.

As strange and blunt as this opening may seem, it sets the tone for the evening before us quite efficiently: Lestat will deliver a parade of characters killing, singing and painfully parting ways under the overwhelming power of inner directives that make sense only to them. When Lestat hits Paris to hang with his meek fiddler friend Nicholas (Roderick Hill), he's not there one night before a mummified Alice Cooper lookalike named Magnus (Joseph Dellger) summons him to his true calling. The queasy, faintly erotic, mostly mussy bite-and-suck ritual of vampire's feasting becomes the show's most persistent refrain: The sound goes all schwingy and woozy, while a disturbing projection of boiling orange juice is projected on the moveable bandage-flats of Derek McLane's set. As Lestat later succinctly tells Mom, who follows him to Paris after all, "He drank my blood, and I drank his blood." If only coming out were that easy.

And so the plot coagulates, from Paris to the ends of the earth, and by the second act to antebellum New Orleans, where Lestat sets up house with his newest victims-turned-vampire playmates, sensitive Louis (Jim Stanek) and a 10-year-old bad seed named Claudia (Allison Fischer). It's safe to say that we've never seen a household quite like this in a musical before: two bickering dads raising a bloodthirsty little goldilocks who will never age past 10. Though director Robert Jess Roth allows no winking or intentional camp, this sequence practically enters Little Shop of Horrors territory, only weirder, and the fierce little Fischer knocks her big numbers—"I Want More" and "I'll Never Have That Chance"—out of the park.

A few words about those numbers, and about the rest of Elton John's score, his first with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin: Sir Elton recently boasted to The New York Times that he wrote it in two weeks, and it sounds like it. And no matter how pop-operatically ponderous or horror-movie creepy the music tries to be, it cannot be accused of over-seriousness. "Embrace it," Lestat urges Louis, in a sunny number that makes an eternity of carnivorous slaughter sound as refreshing as switching cola brands. And in a show studded with some of the worst lyrics you'll find in any Broadway show, John and Taupin's greatest crime must be the inelegant group chant, "No greater crime than to kill your kind."

To their credit, the cast delivers all this with unshakeably straight faces. Particularly impressive in this regard are Carmello, whose transformation from stately matron to blood-sucking freak offers a startlingly intentional laugh, and Drew Sarich, as an intermittent annoyance named Armand. The hunky Panaro doesn't embarrass himself, though if this role nets him offers from daytime TV, that would only be fair. Helping the show pulse with life-like shape are McLane's lush sets, Kenneth Posner's cavernous lighting, and Susan Hilferty's lavish and shockingly tasteful costumes.

Even if you feel early on a bit like the character who sings, "My need to go is hard to fight," you won't want to miss Lestat's final epiphany. "I accept what I am," he tells the man upstairs. "I am evil and I'm so sorry." We're so not.

Lestat
Book by Linda Woolverton
Music by Sir Elton John, lyrics by Bernie Taupin
At the Palace Theatre

Dec 17, 2018

I Love Him But It Embarrasses Me

Galt MacDermot.
It doesn't actually embarrass me to love Galt MacDermot, the composer of Hair and Two Gentlemen of Verona, whose death was just announced--I'm just using this opportunity to express my love for his work by using a lyric from one of my favorite showtunes ever. I had the opportunity to speak to him for my old Back Stage West column, also called the Wicked Stage. Here's the item from June 14, 2001. Wish it were 10 times longer:

I've always had a soft spot for Hair, the "tribal love rock musical" that's younger than I am but not by much. For many it evokes a world they remember firsthand; for folks my age it's a period piece that evokes a world we largely missed--which, through the disarmingly sexy and silly prism of Hair, seems to embody that great line from Sondheim's Follies about a time when "everything was possible/and nothing made sense." I spoke recently with Galt MacDermot, the composer who appears famously on the Hair cast album in a tie and crew-cut next to the show's longhaired writers, James Rado and Gerome Ragni. He recently helped lead a concert reading for New York's Encores and may do the same for the upcoming Reprise! rendition here in L.A. (opens this weekend at the Wadsworth) featuring Sam Harris, Billy Porter, Steven Weber, and Jennifer Leigh Warren. MacDermot had been toiling in Manhattan as a church organist and jazz pianist when Joe Papp hooked him up with Ragni and Rado, two young actor/writers from the East Village, to do the music for a new musical by, about, and starring members of the free-loving, drug-taking, draft-card-burning counterculture. "They said they wanted to make it a rock 'n' roll show. I was more interested in R&B," said MacDermot, who attributes great influence to a youthful residence in Africa with his diplomat father. What's more, he said, Rado and Ragni's lyrics weren't "typical rock lyrics. They were funny, witty. Most rock songs aren't funny." So is Hair a rock score? Yes and no. It is exuberant, funky, eclectic, occasionally cheesy, but above all it manages to sound both accomplished and innocent. I had to ask MacDermot about Rent, Jonathan Larson's recent through-sung youth-rock hit. He was mixed: "I liked certain moments of it; it didn't kill me." But then, he's not too sanguine on Broadway, anyway: "After a while I realized that theatre isn't where it's at in terms of music. In the New York theatre, their minds are mostly back in the '50s, or back further." He's worked on more modest projects since Hair, but that's fine with McDermot: "I don't want another Hair. One is enough."
My only other published writing about his fine work came a few years back with Time Out NY asked me to contribute to their list of "50 Best Broadway Songs of All Time." I didn't have a part in voting for the list but I was able to choose which songs I got to write about, and I happily snapped up "Aquarius":