Dec 20, 2007

Oh Seven

As the year grinds to an end, I'm particularly hard-pressed to come up with a coherent wrap-up. A lot of it was focused on non-journalistic efforts, and I only seriously re-started writing about theater for venues outside my TDF Web purview in the fall. So I fear that the "Wicked Stage" in 2007 has neither been particularly wicked--I've avoided most of the giant blogospheric contretemps if I could help it--nor reliably stage-focused. I'll remember this year onstage as the year of Chuck Mee at the Signature, August: Osage County, Dying City, Wooster Group's Hamlet, Dear Mme, Speech & Debate, Doris To Darlene, Ohio State Murders, Hoodoo Love, Not the Messiah, McKellen's Lear, Legally Blonde, and LoveMusik. Is that a Top Ten list? Not quite, except by a yardstick of memorability.

Of course, hasn't the Web replaced our faulty memory by now? It's all up in cyberspace for a kind of eternity, or at least some version of posterity.

On that possibly hopeful, likely disturbing note, I leave you, and bid adieu to a very odd and unshakeable year.

Dec 19, 2007

Moishe's, Mama's Families

Writing about theater doesn't get much better than John Lahr's profile of Pinter and The Homecoming, in the current New Yorker, in which he identifies a specific inspiration for the play's premise: the return of Pinter's old Hackney friend Moishe Wernick from a job in Canada with his wife and family to meet his family for the first time, including a certain patriarch described as a "tough old bugger." There are many quotable insights in Lahr's piece, some from David Mamet and Peter Hall, but many, as usual, from Lahr's artful knitting-together of his subject and his perception, as in this passage:
When the characters finally arrive on the page, Pinter knows no more than what they tell him. As he told a group of drama students in 1962, “You and I, the characters which grow on a page, most of the time we’re inexpressive, giving little away, unreliable, elusive, evasive, obstructive, unwilling. But it’s out of these attributes that a language arises. A language, I repeat, where under what is said, another thing is being said.” In this sense, Pinter took the actor’s understanding of subtext and turned it into a metaphysic. This discovery allowed him to distill and reconfigure the inspiration of Samuel Beckett--he was reading Beckett from 1950 on--into his own distinctive rhythmical, alliterative idiom, which made a drama of utterance, not explanation, and where the appearance of reality was an uncompromising dissection of the unknown. Mamet, speaking of Pinter and Beckett, said, “They did what few dramatists have done in modern times: they construed the drama not as the interplay of ideas but as the interplay of sounds. That is, they understood the drama as a poem, which had the capacity to move, as does a real poem, musically—to affect on a pre-rational level.”

I haven't finished the piece; I hope it goes on for pages and pages more.

Unfortunately, at the other end of the spectrum in America's finest magazine is Lahr's colleague, Hilton Als, who coolly dismisses Tracy Letts' much-praised August: Osage County with incisive comparisons like the following:
As a character, Violet is a meaner, more logical Collette Reardon, the hopeless pill-popper whom the former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Cheri Oteri played so brilliantly...Seated at the dining-room table, Violet’s daughters all roll around in the thick mud of their shared narcissism--a scene that reminded me of the awful daughters in the old Carol Burnett sketch routine “Mama’s Place,” which was itself a parody of Tennessee Williams at his most hysterical and derivative.

And finally, Als' baffling, bottomlessly condescending coup de grace: his Broadway début, Letts clearly intends to prove himself a “major” playwright. To do so, he parodies his roots, rather than revealing them. Letts could very well end up winning prizes for “August: Osage County.” But so did the playwright Preston Jones, with his “Texas Trilogy,” in the mid-seventies. Like Letts, Jones was a provincial writer of promise who was pulled onto the Broadway boards too soon for his own good. Now his work is rarely performed at all.

If The New Yorker were not as widely read and as influential as it is outside of New York, with people who may never see the plays it covers (not as true of its film, TV, book and music reviews), I wouldn't mind this crap so much. For a magazine of record, though, this is a disgrace.

(Photo by Cecil Beaton.)

Dec 18, 2007

A Blast From the Past

The awards I started 10 years ago next month are on Wikipedia. As far as memory serves, the entry is correct.

Dec 14, 2007

Killer Instinct

A nice Friday off-topic read, from my old Silverlake/Echo Park hood: The tale of a man in a wheelchair, a cowardly thug, a smashed laptop, and one badass feline.

Dec 13, 2007

Herrmann Vs. Brecht

In this brief interview clip about Sweeney Todd, Sondheim avows the undeniable influence of Bernard Herrmann, and strenuously disavows the influence of Brecht--by which, I think, he doesn't mean the show's aesthetics but its politics. He singles out one line from "A Little Priest" for some demything--as if that's the only line in the script or lyrics that supports a political reading of the show's revenge drama! Of course, one mark of a great and lasting work is the multiplicity of meanings it contains and allows, and it's probably true that Sondheim/Wheeler's worldview is closer to Webster than to Brecht. Still--I think the man protests too much. Judge for yourself. UPDATE: Ray Greene's mostly negative review of the Burton film for Box Office inflames a long discussion on the Brechtian credentials of the Christopher Bond play on which Sondheim and Wheeler based their musical. For my money, I'd love to see that particular "B" word not thrown around so indiscriminately. Still, with the release of Burton film, the debate is opening wide, so to speak.

Dec 12, 2007

Trumpery, Big and Small

Just saw Farnsworth Invention, about which I may post more thoughts in the future. The short version: Aaron Sorkin has so many obvious weaknesses (the showoff pedantry, the square-jawed, men-were-men preachiness, the tidy morality) that it's all too easy to underrate him. If we're going to have recent history told as hustle-bustle, pseudo-mythic infotainment--if we know that's the bargain going in--we could do a lot worse.

And it reminded me, unfavorably, of another play about an uneven race between two men for scientific credit: Peter Parnell's Trumpery, about Darwin and Wallace, at the Atlantic. I found it pretty dreary, though I confess I was not in the majority.

(Photo by Doug Hamilton.)

Dec 11, 2007

Et Als

The man who called August Wilson "the worst kind of moralist" and thinks PJ Harvey is a soul singer now has a blog, ladies and gentleman. His first few posts are mostly meandery name-drops, but this opener promises a steady diet of the sort of tone-deaf overreaching that is Als' stock-in-trade:
Kim Gordon, the guitarist and vocalist for the alt-rock band Sonic Youth, has eyes like a lynx. The muted eroticism they project is of a piece with the shy, knowing glances of Sissy Spacek in Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” the classic 1973 film in which youth and desire are like succulent giblets tossed down the American maw.


Extended "Speech"

Great news: The Roundabout Underground's pretty awesome new play Speech & Debate has extended through Feb. 24. It's gratifying to see a show one likes have a good run.

(Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Dec 10, 2007

Spin & Crackle

The season at Playwrights' Horizons just looks (and sounds) better and better. My review of Jordan Harrison's disarmingly excellent Doris to Darlene: A Cautionary Valentine is here.

(Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Dec 7, 2007

The Fourth Wall Breaks the Other Way

We've all heard cellphones go off during a performance. We've heard candy wrappers open, and open, and open (something in the indoor air of theatres seems to make candy wrappers more sticky). We've heard that weird hearing-aid whine. Most of us have probably heard people mutter comments aloud they may think we can't hear (and the just-as-annoying, if justified "shushes" that follow them). And surely we've noticed that when a character lights a cigarette onstage, a certain number of patrons suddenly break out in coughing fits. But last night at Playwrights Horizons, I think I witnessed a first: A patron spoke directly to an actor onstage, in a clear, intelligible voice. Her words:
Why don't you put out that cigarette?

The actors paused noticeably and took this information in. The actor with the cigarette seemed clearly to be weighing his moves, as if he were contemplating whether to extinguish the offending item or ride out the scene at the risk of further opprobium. An awkward moment, to say the least. As we head into the weekend, I freely invite your favorite theatrus-interruptus anecdotes--the dreadfuller the better.

Dec 5, 2007

"August" Assembly

I join the official chorus of praise here. UPDATE: There's always one dissenter, I guess. This time it's The Journal News' Jacques Le Sourd, who has every right to think August: Osage County a "big, messy play" but who steps a little out of line in dismissing Letts' Killer Joe and Bug as "little Off-Off-Broadway plays," then jumps way over the line by giving away the play's biggest spoiler. Don't click here if you haven't already seen the play.

(Photo by Michael Bresilow.)

Dec 4, 2007

The "Lady" Resurfaces

I've long cherished the little-watched, lesser-known Hitchcock classic, The Lady Vanishes, so it's great to see it given its due as "Hitchcock's first Hitchcock film." Now where's the essay about Foreign Correspondent? And yes, I'm looking forward to the Broadway import of The 39 Steps, though I'm a little chuffed that star Catherine McCormack hasn't come over with it.

Mee Again

I wanted to like Queens Boulevard, and for the most part I did.

(Photo by Carol Rosegg.)

Dec 3, 2007

Yes, Letts

A few years back, Doyle's Sweeney Todd was the sort of Broadway show I'd gladly recommend to friends of mine who don't go to Broadway shows (quite a few, actually, even in the seemingly adjacent fields of media and/or criticism). Now I would add unequivocally Tracy Letts' August: Osage County to that category, as well as to the all-around must-see/don't-miss/believe-the-hype/run-don't-walk category. Yes, it's that good. If you haven't already nailed down a ticket, do. (Even better, get 'em here while they last--I have it on good authority that a bunch just went on sale in the membership area).

Nov 30, 2007


Since I'm randomly linking videos as we head into the weekend, I offer you something a colleague at TDF discovered today: an obscure (i.e., not on YouTube) commercial for malt liquor starring Broadway's current Cyrano, Kevin Kline. Relish reponsibly!

And Now for Something Completely Different

Tres Jodie.

Nov 29, 2007

The Art Vs. Commerce File

You've got to hand it to Disney's Tom Schumacher: When he's unplugged, he can be very bluntly quotable, as he was in The New Yorker a few weeks back. I'm ambivalent about his and Zambello's positioning of Little Mermaid, but this juicy blurb could almost be a rejoinder to the likes of Mark Ravenhill:
“Our job is not to put misery on the stage,” he said. “Our job is not to make it uninteresting, so that it is interesting to the two per cent of the population that likes the uninteresting. Robert Patrick wrote a play called ‘Kennedy’s Children,’ and there’s an Off Broadway actor in it, and someone says to him, ‘What are you doing now?’ and he says something like ‘Oh, one of those shows where they make the audience crawl in on their knees and hit them in the face with a bag of shit.’ That is not our job.”

Beat the Rush

It's just a hunch, but today might be a good day to visit the booth.

Casper the Friendly Host

Years ago, so long ago it seems like another lifetime, I went to USC Film School as a production major but got sidetracked by journalism and music. The film classes I tended to enjoy most were about watching and thinking and writing about movies, not about how to expose film properly and cut "coverage" across an imaginary 180-degree line...I get bored just typing these words... I took at least four classes, and crashed many more, taught in the capacious Norris Cinema by the inimitable, irrepressible Dr. Drew Casper, an ex-Jesuit priest and an inveterate Hitchcock and Doris Day freak with encyclopedic knowledge of film and film theory. How great to catch up with him again after all these years, and realize how much he influenced my tastes. Though I already knew before I went to film school that Notorious is Hitch's best, I didn't know much about the Catholic iconography in his films (particularly Vertigo and The Wrong Man). Nor had I yet discovered the might-as-well-be-secret joys of Calamity Jane and Love Me or Leave Me.

A Citywide Sigh of Relief

It's 10:57 as I write this, and it's over. Whew.

Nov 28, 2007

Tritone, God of the Cs

Just finished Alex Ross's magisterial, eminently re-readable survey of the 20th century in "classical" or "concert" music. I can't recommend it highly enough to readers with any interest in contemporary cultural life outside the stampeding hegemony of pop. The book answers a question so obvious that no one had thought to ask it, exactly: What was it about 20th-century classical music that still raises hackles on all sides? Ross's answer is twofold, I think: First, look at the 20th century itself. Was it an era of unending harmony and consonance in which Western civilization earned its ascendance? Didn't think so. Second, and just as crucial, composers didn't just react passively to the century's challenges but pursued their own willful solutions in ways that were variously technocratic, populist, escapist, and fascistic.

Among Ross's many gifts as a critic is his precision and breadth of musical knowledge; he reads the scores as well as listens, in other words, and I think he artfully balances the two approaches well enough for "lay" readers. I wonder, though, how much a non-musical reader will pick up on what seemed to me to be the book's most recurring reference: to melodic jumps and chord changes across the infamous "Devil's interval" of the tritone (think the first two notes of West Side Story's "Maria"). It's there in the first opera Ross focuses on (Strauss's Salome, with its telltale G to C# modulation), and it seems to crop up regularly whenever a composer working in even a remotely tonal realm (Shostakovich, Britten, etc.) reaches for a transfiguring sound. I didn't do a formal count of it, but the last one I saw was in a reference to Lutoslawski's bracing Third Symphony, in the book's final chapter. Forget 12-tone writing (please): I would nominate the tritone as the distinctive harmonic sound of the 20th century. As this diverting BBC article makes clear, it's now everywhere from the "Simpsons" theme to heavy metal.

Of course, there's so, so much more in Ross's meticulously evenhanded, enthralling tome, which combines erudition and elegance, circumspection and skeptical acuity--and on a series of notoriously knotty, trip-mined topics--like few writers I've ever encountered. And how cool is this?

UPDATE: From Gary Giddins' recent New Yorker piece about bossa nova:
Jobim and Gilberto belonged to a generation that had grown up with bebop. While the tunes written by bebop innovators like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell were often too volatile and complicated for contemporary listeners, Jobim found a way of using bebop harmonies—especially the tritone, or flattened fifth—as the basis for irresistibly lyrical melodies. One of his most famous songs, “Desafinado”—the title means “slightly out of tune,” or “off key”—is built almost entirely on discords.

"A Weird Chemical in My Body"

That's how French director-performer James Thiérrée, whose Au Revoir Parapluie rounds out BAM's Next Wave fest starting next week (Dec. 4-15), can tell when performers are phoning it in. From this week's Time Out:
I know that as an audience member I have this feeling sometimes: I see a show and there’s a weird chemical in my body that tells me, This is one of many performances they’re doing. I don’t like this feeling. I would like it to feel like it’s really tonight and never again!

I know what he means. Read the whole thing here.

Nov 27, 2007

An Embarrassment of Riches

Oodles o' clips from the new Sweeney Todd film. Yes, the leads can (sort of) sing (well enough, I guess). I had to stop watching after "Little Priest," 'cause I don't want to spoil it--it's like having dessert before I've had the meal.

"A Commotion of Grunts and Squawks"

This could be Norman Mailer's first posthumous award: Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award. There's no stage equivalent of this award, though I'd love to start one for bad lyrics (I've taken a stab before).

Nov 26, 2007

The Critics We Deserve?

I'm not going near the Isherwood hornet's nest--life's just too short--but I did notice that George Hunka's plaintive wish for better, more socially engaged, Brit-style theater criticism happened to nearly coincide with this think piece by The LA Times' Charles McNulty. McNulty uses the bicoastal entertainment strikes as an opportunity to reflect on the dearth of plays that engage with the emergent "new gilded age" meme:
Why aren't more playwrights offering us images of an age that's perhaps best characterized by the fetishization of the Dow Jones industrial average on the nightly newscasts? Where is the new "Six Degrees of Separation," John Guare's acute comedy of materialism, when we could really use a glimpse of the deception going on inside those megamillion-dollar condos that have been cropping up like Starbucks in the last few years? What about a new "Caroline, or Change," Tony Kushner's challenging musical memoir of growing up in Louisiana in the early-civil rights '60s, transplanted to post-Katrina New Orleans to help us better understand why, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, only one in five African Americans feels they're doing better than they were five years ago? How about a sequel to Lorraine Hansberry's classic "A Raisin in the Sun" to fill us in on what happens to the Younger family after the house they fought so valiantly to attain goes into foreclosure with the rest of the homes built on sub-prime quicksand?...

Comedy has historically been more adept at reflecting contemporary crises...Consider this an APB to the ablest of our comic playwrights--David Mamet, Craig Lucas, Paula Vogel, Richard Greenberg, Lisa Loomer, among countless other talents known and not yet known--to assist us in recognizing the tectonic shift that's been widening the disparity of wealth in American society and threatening the equilibrium of democracy. Rich or poor, all of us are affected by the new reality, one that makes it hard to feel secure about retirement even if you're lucky enough to live in a house that has tripled (at least on paper anyway) in value.

I for one am not particularly stirred by McNulty's preoccupations or prescriptions--I actually don't hanker much for topical plays that critique late capitalism at yet another of its inevitable crossroads, or for topical plays at all; for me, "topical" plays are too often just that, skin-deep. The problems, and our hopes, run deeper than Blackwater, the Fed, and Jan. 2009. And one can certainly quibble with that APB (Mamet's November opens soon, and Loomer has dealt frequently, and recently, with issues of class). All that said, it is good to have a theater critic argue for theater's place at the adult table, no?

Nov 21, 2007

McShane to the Max

Years ago I had the complicated pleasure of seeing Ian McShane in Larry Atlas' Yield of the Long Bond at the Matrix Theatre in L.A. And I'm a dyed-in-the-woolen-underwear Deadwood junkie. So it was with great pleasure that I sat down recently with this native of Blackburn, Lancashire (where, he assured me, there are not in fact "4,000 holes") to talk about his soon-to-be-opening-strike-willing turn in The Homecoming. UPDATE: You can get a free look at the show at New World Stages this Sunday, Nov. 25.

(Photo by Lance Staedler.)

Keep a Cool Heart

My review of Noah Haidle's Rag and Bone is here. (Photo by Sandra Coudert.)

Nov 16, 2007

Wade in the Waters

I liked the original Hairspray movie, but I loved John Waters' follow-up, Cry-Baby. It didn't hurt that he brought the film to USC for a special screening when I was a film student there, and that I had just discovered the great movie musicals of Minnelli, Donen, Walters et al. In the years since I haven't followed Waters' career as closely, and hadn't given CB a thought for some time. So writing about the new Broadway-bound adaptation was a welcome reimmersion in Waters' world.

A Strikemare

Courtesy of the inimitable Ljova:
Somewhat inspired by the current stagehands strike on Broadway, and the writers strike nationwide, I had a dream last night, in which..:

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra went on strike. I was called in to fill in for a special arrangement of Mozart's The Magic Flute (the Julie Taymor production), in which the orchestra was reduced to one on-stage violist (yours truly), and one on-stage violinist, played by some 10-year old girl who was chaperoned on stage by her dad, and placed on the opposite side of the stage from me. James Levine conducted to a packed house.

At some point, police dressed in Cuban army uniforms came in to arrest both musicians and Levine -- but the music continued, and our disappearance went seemingly unnoticed..

I woke up 10 minutes before our alarm clock.

Let Up by "YF"

Is "letup" the opposite of letdown? I was surprised by how much I did not hate the new Young Frankenstein musical--the stream of bad to mixed reviews had prepared me for the worst. At worst Mel Brooks' new show is mediocre; at best it's almost like fun, in a theme-parkish or time-capsule sort of way.

To give you some idea of the kind of night I had: During one of the show's many (many) forgettable, just-OK musical numbers (The Producers had a lot of those, too, folks), I was lucky enough to have a good enough seat to be mesmerized by a Polish circus poster by Jan Sawka (below), included in the set of the Transylvania train station. One takes such pleasures as one can.

UPDATE: The New Yorker has Pauline Kael's review of the 1974 movie up. Wowee, is she missed.

The Unexpectedly Moving File

The LA Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris hangs out with alt-comic Mary Lynn Rajskub, now best known for her role on a popular pro-torture TV show, and gets to a surprisingly existential place, particularly for anyone who's living in the "big city" (Rajskub hails from Trenton, Mich.) and following some kind of creative muse down the wormhole.
“People get married back home,” she reflects. “They settle down. They get jobs. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts and my things.’ But I don’t want to force it. Maybe it’s just who I am, and I have to give in to that. I had a teacher who was surrounded by objects. Maybe that’ll be me. Or, soccer practice with the kids in Woodland Hills.”

She smiles wistfully.

“People here live as children, living their dreams. You can do that for a very long time.”

(Photo by Orly Olivier.)

"Backwoods Barbie"

That's the name of one Dolly Parton's new songs for her stage musical version of 9 to 5, which will premiere next fall at the Ahmanson Theatre (according to the LA Times). Megan Hilty (pictured above) will play the role Parton originated in the film, while no less than Allison Janney will take on the Lily Tomlin role, Stephanie Block will play the Jane Fonda role, and Marc Kudisch will play the boss. Time to warm up the blender at El Chavo.

Nov 15, 2007

Marxist, Sympathetic or Un-?

For subway reading I've printed out Jay Rayner's much-discussed, ultra-long Guardian essay about why "political theater" always means left-of-center theater, and though I haven't really read it yet, I'm already bored by it. Not fair, I know, but it's an old and tiresome topic. But a quick skim revealed this odd detail, an attribution to Guardian critic Michael Billington:

'There is one dramatist who is emotionally conservative and that's Tom Stoppard,' [Billington] says. He points to the unsympathetic portrayal of the Marxist academic in his most recent play, Rock 'n' Roll, and talks about the way Stoppard draws on his experiences as an emigre from eastern Europe and the part the failed Communist project played in the narrative of his life. 'Tom is an articulate, reasoned champion of small-c conservative values.'

Problem is, that doesn't quite square with Billington's review of the play:
Stoppard treats Max's convictions seriously and allows him to score strong debating-points: he is, in fact, the first sympathetic Marxist I can recall in all Stoppard's work.

I've added the emphasis here, obviously, but I'm wondering what accounts for this difference. Is Billington's baseline perception of Stoppard's conservatism already sufficiently far to the right that Max is, by that standard, relatively sympathetic, but that in the larger left/right context, outside Stoppard's ouevre, Max would be considerd unsympathetic? David Cote noticed something similar, though he curiously inverts the point of view, in his recent Time Out NY review:
Worst, [Stoppard] refuses to give Cox’s absurdly doctrinal Communist (an intellectual bully only this playwright could love) his proper comeuppance. Such absence of moral courage causes the work to conservatively fade away, not burn out in a blaze of rock glory.

My take is that Stoppard is wise enough to know that we bring plenty of anti-Soviet baggage to such a play (I mean, I know I do, at least), and that the far more interesting thing to do with an apologist for the Soviet experiment is not to demonize Max but to show his conflict with Jan as the sort Shavian struggle of right against right, or as someone recently put it to me, of justice vs. responsibility.

UPDATE: All right, Rayner's piece isn't that boring, but it certainly does natter on, don't it? If the G hadn't been running so (typically) poorly last night, I wouldn't have finished the piece.

For me the buried gem is David Hare's piss-take on Beckett:
'Of course there's very little theatre which openly argues a hard-right programme,' [Hare] says. 'But the dominant strain in most modern art theatre is fatalistic. The tone of a great deal of avant-garde work, in particular, is of prettified acceptance of life's seemingly inevitable hardships. Some of the most famous playwrights of the past 60 years have reacted to suffering by implying there's not much you can do about it. As Beckett said: "The tears of the world are a constant quantity." The number of playwrights who believe the opposite - that the quantity of the tears is adjustable - is interestingly small.'

I don't even know where to start with that--Peter Hall weakly counters that "you can still make a case for Sam Beckett being, if not of the left, then radical." I think this may be a job for Mr. Hunka.

Mee Closer To Home

I was admittedly cool to his last play, but I'm looking forward to Chuck Mee's Queens Boulevard (the musical), currently running at the Signature but not officially opening until Dec. 3. I spoke with him recently about Queens, Kathakali dance theater, Giuliani's police state, and why you didn't go east after dark on 45th back in the 1960s.

(Photo by Carol Rosegg.)

"Tale" at Town Hall

Or how my employer, TDF, found a classy way to accommodate yesterday's student matinee of A Bronx Tale (it helps that Palminteri is the writer as well as the star).

Nov 14, 2007

Hedda Hoppin'

How awesome is this image? Can this count as an early entry in Garrett's poster contest? It's Robin Goodrin Nordli in character in a promo for Oregon Shakes' production of Jeff Whitty's play, which opens next April.

Bingo With the Indians

I guess I want to like Adam Rapp more than I actually do. At the other end of spectrum is this mash note from Jenny Sandman of CurtainUp. Chacun ses goûts.

(Photo by Joan Marcus.)

"Lightning Strikes" Twice, Thrice, Etc.

"But lightning hasn't struck twice." --David Rooney, Variety

"But, although there is plenty of electricity in the air at 'Young Frankenstein,' lightning doesn’t strike twice." --John Lahr, The New Yorker

"Spooky lightning may flash and rumble throughout 'Young Frankenstein,' but compared to the polished vibrancy of its predecessor, it never strikes the same place twice." --Eric Grode, The New York Sun

"Can lightning strike twice? Plenty of sparks fly in Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks' follow-up to his big hit The Producers. But this time the gags are lamer, the songs (again by Brooks) more generic, and there's no Nathan Lane--though the monster's big moment, doing 'Puttin' on the Ritz' in top hat and wails, almost saves the show. Almost." --Time

"And, true to horror-movie clichés, lightning will strike twice--and thrice--before the night is out. Just don’t take such meteorological activity as a sign that Brooks has repeated his 2001 blockbuster, The Producers." --David Cote, Time Out

"Now [Brooks] and his backers are hoping that lightning will lucratively strike twice in the same place as this eagerly awaited reworking of his 1974 Young Frankenstein picture opens on the Great White Way." --Charles Spencer, The Telegraph

"The musical...has millions of dollars' worth of pyrotechnics and other special effects with which to light up the stage, and it deploys them with abandon. Unfortunately, though, that doesn't mean that lightning strikes twice." --Louise Kennedy, Boston Globe

"Brooks has attempted to attract second-time-around lightning not just with the property, which is based on his 1974 film comedy, but also with musical theatre itself." --Matthew Murray, TalkinBroadway

The reanimation/come-to-life metaphors could take up a whole 'nother post.

Nov 13, 2007

Ray or No Ray?

Two wildly divergent reactions to Suzan-Lori Parks' and Sheldon Epps' new take on the jukebox musical: Charles McNulty in The L.A. Times and Bob Verini in Variety (who also wrote a profile of Epps in the most recent American Theatre).

(Photo by Gary Friedman for the L.A. Times.)

Nov 12, 2007

Tan Tale

My review of Pan Asian Rep's new revival of The Joy Luck Club is here.

Nov 9, 2007

An August Volume

The L.A. Times' Charles McNulty has a thoughtful, and gently revisionist, overview of August Wilson's 10-play ouevre, now in a fat $200 edition. I haven't read Wilson's plays in a while, though I've seen most of them in some form or another, so I'm not sure I can agree with McNulty's main thesis--that the sprawl of Wilson's plays came from a "corrective" rather than a poetic impulse, as if the playwright's main aspiration was to introduce mainstream theater audiences to what McNulty calls "the quotidian rituals of African American experience." But I would agree with his corollary points: that Wilson's plays were in no sense experimental or modernist, and that they rely on great actors to put them across.

Now can somebody please put this volume on Hilton Als' Christmas list?

You Say Fronkensteen...

Eric Grode was the critic at until the fall of 2005, when he graciously ceded the job to me and took the head-critic post at The New York Sun. So I found this contrast diverting: While today's reviews for Young Frankenstein are mostly mixed to negative, Grode's is by far the most scathing. His lead:
As Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom learned to their detriment, even the most witless musical comedy can make a bundle. The shameless hucksters at the center of Mel Brooks's "The Producers" found this out when "Springtime for Hitler," their toe-tapping salute to der Führer, became the toast of Broadway. Bialystock and Bloom...may have been crooks, but they weren't fools: They knew that "Springtime" was a crass, unfunny turkey. What's Mel Brooks's excuse vis-à-vis "Young Frankenstein"?

Meanwhile, back at, another Main Stem pundit had this to say:
It's definitely the best show I've ever seen.

Which to believe, dear reader?

Nov 8, 2007

Looking Up Out West

Three of my favorite theater companies are on the West Coast, and though I have no way to witness their work firsthand, I'm still enough in the loop to get vicariously excited about what they're up to.

First there's the Evidence Room--which I remember primarily as a place, that amazing warehouse on Beverly Blvd., where I spent many an hour not only as a (mostly) happy critic but as a musician in the insane late-night happening The Strip (and which was, in the spirit of full disclosure, the site of a send-off party for me when I left Back Stage West in '03), but which is in fact an independent company which previously hung its hat in Culver City (I remember those days fondly, too) and which this weekend opens up a co-production with the Unknown Theatre of Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life. In some alternate universe, I'm there at the opening with the proverbial bells on. (For the record, that amazing space on Beverly is now in the hands of the Bootleg Theatre Company.)

Second is Cornerstone Theater Company, longtime resident of downtown's L.A. artist loft district, which recently joined forces with a loft developer to give prospective tenants a look at the Barker Block live/work spaces. I'm not in the market for a live/work space in that neck of the woods, but I would love to have seen what odd, cool flights of improvisatory fancy were taken by Shishir Kurup, Page Leong and Bernard White (pictured above), or by Peter Howard (pictured below with an actress with whom I'm not acquainted). I was tipped off to this tantalizing but not-open-to-the-public event not by the theater company itself but by a publicist pal who's also flogged similar theatrical-real-estate events in the past. Another downtown L.A. blog has more details.

Finally, there's Oregon Shakespeare Festival, taken over last year by Cornerstone founding director Bill Rauch, which has begun rehearsals for the first season of programming programmed by Rauch--a new Bill of fare, if you will. I received heartening notice that The Clay Cart, a Sanskrit epic, has kicked off rehearsals with blasting bhangra music. It's the first non-Western classic to be staged at the Bard fest (it will open in Feb. '08 at the Angus Bowmer Theatre), but the play isn't new to Rauch: An adaptation called The Toy Truck was Cornerstone's first community production when the company relocated to L.A. in 1992, which is also when I met them.

I send whatever good vibes I possess on westerly winds. Break legs, taboos and box-office records as you will.

Ross & Ratliff

Just finished reading this great back-and-forth about music, genre and performance between one of the Times' resident polymaths, Ben Ratliff (did you read his "America's Music" piece on megachurch music, or his piece on marching bands? Next, I'm half-expecting a piece on the social economics of Muzak) and Alex Ross, whose The Rest Is Noise I'm eagerly plowing through (and whom I'm hoping to catch this weekend in my near-hood).

Ross raises some of the usual anxieties/hopes about the future of criticism in the Internet age, while Ratliff raises some challenging, fascinating meta-issues about music and performance culture. He quotes Robert Levin, a Harvard pianist and musicologist:
I think the most important thing in performing a piece of music, and likewise, even more so in the listener's apprehension of what's going on, is a sense that anything that's happening could have been something else.

Profound stuff--and, I think, a key insight into the potential energy of every live performing art.


Dude at the bowling alley was my 310 partner at USC film school (do they still have 310?).

Nov 6, 2007


A priceless lead in Robert Kahn's Young Frankenstein preview, in which Mel Brooks gets testy about his profit participation:
"What am I, a robber baron?" Mel Brooks barks into the phone from his Upper East Side apartment. "I'm giving you a performance to enjoy. I deserve whatever the hell I can get out of it...For writing half the book, all the score, being around to assist the actors, do I not deserve it?" Brooks continues.
He rips into a list of earlier Rialto flops. "After 'Shinbone Alley' - stay with me - after 'All American' starring Ray Bolger, after four or five Broadway shows where I worked for two or three years and didn't get a paycheck, am I not entitled to 24 percent of the show, if it is a big hit?"
He's winding down now. "My argument is: I supply. If the stuff is really memorable, then I deserve a fair share of the profits ... if indeed there are any."

There are also some great bits about the extent to which Roger Bart is and isn't stealing from Gene Wilder. Read the whole thing.

Nov 5, 2007

Kennedy's "Murders"

My review of Adrienne Kennedy's deeply odd, haunting sliver-of-memory play, The Ohio State Murders, is here.

Fred Thompson, "The Best Man"

Will Pasadena-based NPR station KPCC now have to give equal time to rival candidates now that LA Theatre Works is broadcasting a radio-theater performance of Gore Vidal's The Best Man starring Sen. Fred Thompson and Marsha Mason? Just asking.

It's Only Rock 'N' Roll

In the midst of his more-or-less rave of Stoppard's Rock 'N' Roll, Eric Grode gives us a spin through his iPod:
On my way to "Rock 'n' Roll," my digital music player shuffled its way through a song by the Pixies from 1990, one by Peter Bjorn and John from last year, and one by the Beatles from 1967. Kids I admired in college loved the Pixies, a coworker burned me a Peter Bjorn and John CD after taking a rare night off from watching his infant son to see them perform, and I was fascinated and slightly unnerved by my parents' "Magical Mystery Tour" album cover as a youngster.

I would never claim that these songs carved a permanent space in my worldview the way the Velvet Underground and the Plastics did for ["Rock 'n' Roll's"] Jan, or the way that Syd Barrett encapsulated a perhaps inevitable descent into obsolescence and confusion for Esme. They're just tunes with beats and harmonies, with all the comfort and chaos that implies. It's only rock 'n' roll, but I happen to like it quite a bit. Same with "Rock 'n' Roll."

Brantley, meanwhile, notices that the play has a heart, which is something I noticed as well.

Nov 3, 2007

Fancy That

I can't quite explain why but this Onion piece made me laugh like nothing in a long time.

Nov 2, 2007

Friday Mental-Health Break

A friend emailed this, says it's in the new Rolling Stone. Test your Beach Boys knowledge (this friend and I were once in a band that covered this tune, if you must know, though I sang it about an octave lower than the BBs):

Match the character in the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." with his maritime mishap:

A. First Mate
B. Captain
C. Cook
D. Constable

1. Had his trunk broken into
2. Got drunk
3. Arrested the first mate
4. Caught a case of the "fits"

(But they left out my favorite line, a touching culinary detail. For a bonus, which one of the above "ate up all of my corn"?)

Friday Mental-Health Break

A friend emailed this, says it's in the new Rolling Stone. Test your Beach Boys knowledge (this friend and I were once in a band that covered this tune, if you must know, about an octave lower than the BBs):

Match the character in the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." with his maritime mishap:

A. First Mate
B. Captain
C. Cook
D. Constable

1. Had his trunk broken into
2. Got drunk
3. Arrested the first mate
4. Caught a case of the "fits"

(But they left out my favorite line, a touching culinary detail. For a bonus, which one of the above "ate up all of my corn"?)

Nov 1, 2007

Cab Attacks Booth!

Well, not quite. As I walked back from lunch today I heard a loud noise coming from the intersection of 47th and 7th Ave. Apparently a taxi driver had somehow crashed his car through the wall around the site at Duffy Square, where the new TKTS Discount Booth is under construction, and was sitting at an angle just inside the enclosure (second photo, below). I could not, and still cannot, reconstruct how he must have made that move without overturning or causing any apparent casualties.

Alas, I didn't have a camera, but a TDF coworker made it to the site soon after. The picture above shows the breach in the wall, and the first picture below shows the car's position, post-breakthrough. The second aerial picture below that shows the scene after the car has been repositioned and the breached wall mostly put back together. The new Duffy Square hasn't even opened and already they're busting down the door for cheap tickets!
(Photos by Ray Atherton.)

Cab Attacks Booth!

Well, not quite. As I walked back from lunch today I heard a loud noise coming from the intersection of 47th and 7th Ave. Apparently a taxi driver had somehow crashed his car through the wall around the site at Duffy Square, where the new TKTS Discount Booth is under construction, and was sitting at an angle just inside the enclosure. I could not, and still cannot reconstruct, how he must have made that move. Alas, I didn't have a camera. The picture above shows the breach in the wall, and the first picture below shows the car's position, post-breakthrough. The second aerial picture below that shows the scene after the car has been repositioned and the breached wall mostly put back together. The new Duffy Square hasn't even opened and already they're busting down the door for cheap tickets!
(Photos by Ray Atherton.)

Lights, Ephemera, Action

Playgoer pulls an incendiary quote from New York's Q&A with Rock 'n' Roll star Brian Cox about American theatre being too much like television, but this quote jumped out at me more:
Is there anything you've brought back to theater from your time in the movies?
The great thing about film is that it has a disposable element. You do it and it's done. That's a great thing to bring back to the theater, because sometimes it can get a bit precious. Just play it through, get rid of it. Don't play the grace notes, don't worry about them.

I think I know what he's talking about; from an actor's point of view, acting in film and TV is quicker and dirtier, less precious. (Most folks in postproduction, on the other hand, would probably not share this attitude; "grace notes" is what they're paid to worry about). But of course, from posterity's point of view, it's theater that is, if not "disposable," then certainly ephemeral, while it is film and television that, for better or worse, will always be with us, as much as we may wish the reverse were the case.

Oct 31, 2007

David Coteine?

A fabulous new painkiller that works by telling you which plays suck and which plays rule, or an innocent typo?
Update: Darn, the byline's been fixed. Reminds me a bit of this tiny kerfluffle.

The Memphis Blues Again

I found Katori Hall's Hoodoo Love surprisingly tasty.

(Photo by Jason Crockett.)

Double Dane

Wooster Group. Hamlet. Need I say more?

Oct 30, 2007


My review of Jim Knable's new play is here.

(Photo by Ari Mintz.)

Oct 29, 2007

Karam Session

I was a speech and debate nerd--actually, only the "speech" part, in such revered events as "poetry interpretation" and "duo acting"--but that's not the only reason I liked Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate. Incidentally, Karam cut his teeth as a playwright in the Blank Theatre Company's Young Playwrights' Festival, an L.A.-based competition that also helped launch the career of White Noise's Joseph Drymala.

(Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Kael Salad

They're no replacement for the full-length reviews, but this compendium of Pauline Kael capsules seems like a pretty indispensible Web resource to me.

Overhead, Underfoot

Though I enjoyed reading both Isherwood and Butler on it, I also enjoyed Fuerzabruta a bit more than they did.

(Photo by Ari Mintz.)

Oct 24, 2007

Not So Much

My review of Sam Marks' The Joke is here.

Oct 19, 2007

Sein oder nicht sein

That's Hamlet's soliloquy in German, I guess. Just one of the delightful details from Back Stage's dialogue with Michale Caine and Kenneth Branagh, which ranges engagingly from Laugh-In to Jean-Louis Barrault, dirty laundry to the "wrong-footedness" of Pinter's humor.

(Photo by Jamie Painter Young.)

Bifocal "View"

My review of Bob Glaudini's A View From 151st Street is here.

(Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

Oct 18, 2007

Xmas Comes Early

I ordered it as soon as it was up on Amazon, and now that it's finally arrived, I've set aside all my nightstand and subway reading to dive headlong into Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise. I'd already read the first chapter in a journal somewhere, and I haven't got much further than that, but so far it's as good as anything I've ever read about music (or about any art, frankly). I've said before that Ross is my favorite critic currently writing on any subject; to get a whole book of him, and on the particular subject of 20th-century music, is an embarrassment of riches. An advance blurb from an old L.A. colleague, Alan Rich, is almost unbelievably overstated but it captures more or less how I feel (or at least want to feel) about Ross's book: "This will be the best book on what music is about--really about--that you or I will ever own."

Oct 17, 2007


If you haven't already read this Craig Carnelia interview with Stephen Sondheim, which first appeared in the Dramatist's Guild journal and more recently appeared in ASCAP's journal, it's well worth your time. Talking about subtext, Sondheim says, "Self-delusion is the basis of nearly all the great scenes in all the great plays, from Oedipus to Hamlet." I think he coins a verb here: "It's very hard to make things rhyme properly and rhythm properly, and most lyric writers today don't want to work that hard." You'll have to read the whole thing to find out why "Vvrrruup!" is his "major early memory of musical theater," and for the interview's oddly revealing closing anecdote.

Oct 15, 2007

Suite for Strings

Erik Sanko and his delightfully creepy puppets go west, and I'm on the case.

(Photo by Stefano Paltera/Los Angeles Times.)

Upper East Side Story

Who knew? My review of the disarmingly appealing None of the Above is here.

(Photo by Carol Rosegg.)

Oct 12, 2007

Oct 11, 2007

Greece Lightning

Duly noted at the National Theatre of Greece's Electra the other night: two inopportune cellphone bursts, Sigourney Weaver, director Lisa Peterson, and colleagues John Simon, David Cote, and Charles Isherwood. Details, in other words, that didn't make it into my review.