May 29, 2007


I probably won't see the movie adaptation of Tracy Letts' Bug--nor will I get to see the reportedly great L.A. production, which is likely to outlast the movie in most theaters (it runs through July 8). But I was impressed to see that the LA Times' Carina Chocano, who admits she hasn't seen the play (how hard would it be to get a ticket?), manages to infer why it doesn't work as well on film as it does onstage:
The problem is not the single-room set or the nonspecific depressive naturalist look of the production, or even the occasionally abstracted, cadenced language...The main problem for me was the fallback naturalism of the style, which made what must read on stage as ambiguity read on film as inconsistency. Aggie's point of view--which, after all, as she hungrily adopts her new boyfriend's madness in order to stave off any more loneliness, is our entry into a purely imagined world--is kept at a distance. Close-ups of Peter's mysterious bloodsucking aphids--whether they exist or no--are notably missing. It's one thing to take Aggie's word for it that she does, in fact, see the bugs Peter so fervently believes in while she's yards away on a stage; it's another to do so when the camera could so easily give her eyeball-an-inch-away-from-his-finger-eye-view but chooses not to.

It's heartening to know that director William Friedkin, working with Letts' own script based on his play, understood the essential ambiguity of the concept: Are the bugs real or not? Is Peter the victim of a government conspiracy or a paranoid schizophrenic? Or maybe both? I feared that the film would decide and show us one way or the other. But clearly the decision not to show feels perverse; film has an omnivorous gaze, and we can feel it when it's withholding what we need to see.

And that's precisely what thrilled me about Bug onstage--that the ambiguity of the concept was irreducibly built into the theatrical experience. As intimate as the Barrow Street Theatre was, as claustrophobic as the play felt, we weren't close enough to see the bugs. It's an ancient stage trick--the flea circus--applied breathtakingly, even profoundly, to a drama of indeterminacy and perspective. And there's a reason why flea circuses don't work on film, as Chaplin inadvertently proved with his lachrymose efforts in Limelight

We hear a lot about the value of things that can "only be done" in the theater, but Bug was a case where a negative virtue--something a play can never do, unless it employs video cameras, which is to give us a close-up view--made it infinitely more powerful than anything a film could show us.

May 25, 2007

Knowing Their Stuff

Stumbled onto the great blog of the Toronto-based Praxis Theatre. This interview with theatre prof/blogger Scott Walters is remarkably good, sharp, opinionated, and informative. I liked this especially:
I think class is, to appropriate Pinter, the weasel under the cocktail cabinet. Nobody wants to talk about the fact that 80% of the theatre audience is drawn from the top 15% of America’s economic class. Thus, government support of the arts looks like another handout for the rich...As Dudley Cocke, artistic director of Roadside Theatre in Whitesburg KY says, “the assembled spectators for the typical not-for-profit professional theater production don’t look like any community in the U.S., except, perhaps, a gated one. From such a narrow social base, great democratic art will never rise.” I agree.

Walters' villain? I'd never heard this before:
Who’s responsible? Tyrone Guthrie. He hijacked the regional theatre movement and made it a haven for the wealthy, educated class who would put up with museum pieces in order to appear “cultured.”

Read the whole thing--it's not all negative. (This book, for instance, does look pretty awesome. But when Walters refers to the Crossroads Theatre in L.A., I'm a little mystified; does he mean Marla Gibbs' Leimert Park-based company? I never saw anything there in my many years in L.A., though I did once review a play at the 4305 Village Theatre.)

And while you're at it, why not check out Praxis' interview with Time Out's hard-nosed theater editor David Cote, in which the money quote would have to be this splash of venom:
My younger colleagues are smart and talented, but the most influential critical posts in this city are jealousy guarded by a wizened knot of nostalgia-drenched mediocrities who have no idea what the next generation is doing and can barely stay on top of what’s happening on Broadway. They are advocates of nothing but their own pathetic memories of musicals or plays in the 60s and 70s; they have about as much vision as the bureaucratic philistines we call artistic directors.

His elders aren't Cote's only bete noire. Asked if he has "any unifying theories about the artist-critic relationship," Cote replies: "They are both in league against the idiot public and every form of authority--pope, president, CEO. They just don’t know it."

Well, now we do.

Closer Than They Thought

From Ljova, an entertaining tourist story:
Three confused tourists, standing with a fold-out map of NYC, on the corner of Joralemon + Clinton, in Brooklyn Heights. I offer help.

"Are you guys lost?"
"Do you know where Montauk is?"
"Montauk? hmm... you're kinda far from there..." (Montauk is a town in far-away Long Island)
"oh" -- they keep pointing at their map.
"let's see the map".

and lo and behold, or "ahem, duuuh!", they're pointing at MONTAGUE street, two blocks away.

Meanwhile Times Square, where I work, is becoming a human SEA--and appropriately enough there are plenty of white-clad sailors around at the moment, as it's Fleet Week (saw a bunch of them at Coram Boy last night). Let the summer begin.

May 24, 2007

The Rhymes of "Spring"

Peter Filichia is pretty much right about the lyrics for Spring Awakening, but he's not the only critic who had a problem with them.
UPDATE: I should clarify that I don't think false rhymes are the problem, or are in any the reason show allegedly hasn't "connected" with audiences, as Filichia speculates. Steeped in pop music as I am, I'm agnostic on the question of perfect rhymes; I honestly don't think "fine" and "time," "home" and "alone," to give two innocuous examples, really trip up anyone's ears. (OK, personally, I think if you're going to rhyme at all, why not make the extra effort? But I'm not a stickler about it--even the masterful Elvis C. doesn't always pass muster on this point, rhyming "Chopin" and "open," etc.) The only measure that matters in musical theater is how the lyrics work theatrically, whether they land in the playing, and on first hearing--and by those lights, I found Steven Sater's a little watery and awkwardly slangy, in a faux-youthful way. On repeated hearings, I imagine they reveal many more layers, but that's true of a lot of pop music we like at first listen mainly for the music, only to absorb the full import of the lyrics later. To their credit, the makers of Spring Awakening clearly set out to experiment with the way music works and doesn't work in conjunction with dramatic material, and for my money it's a great try, and pretty exciting on many levels. But lyrically, not so much. Frankly, the original Wedekind play is what impressed me the most--and anyone in the vicinity of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in late June will have a chance to reevaluate the original.

May 23, 2007

Straight Guy's Guide to Musicals

Not as brilliant or as up-to-date as it could be, but amusing nonetheless. Favorite bit: "Do you pray to the sweet Lord above to create a patch of common ground between the geeks from the high school chess club and the geeks from the high school theater club so that these two warring factions can finally be united and a new era of peace may begin? The Lord has heard your prayers and behold! He gives you Chess, the Musical."

May 19, 2007

"Bee" Line

The Putnam County pranksters head West. Here's my article on 'em for the LA Times.

May 17, 2007

Still Rocking

Last night at the Nokia Theatre, Elvis Costello blazed through a two-hour set with nary a break and zero between-song patter. He opened with "Welcome to the Working Week" and closed with "Peace, Love and Understanding." Cynically, you could say he's pushing his latest reissue set, or trying to make up for the impression that he's another middle-aged rock sellout with sheer brute force.

Less cynically, there's no denying he's got a peerless song catalogue into which he can dip at will and find fresh inflections and resonance, and that he can still convincingly summon the venom and fury of his less-genteel material. I was particularly struck by his renditions of "Riot Act" and "Let Him Dangle," two songs I'd never cared much for, as well as his passionate reading of "Kid About It" and his churning take on "Strict Time," two songs I've always admired.

Bottom line, if he wanted to prove that he can still rock like he did 30 years ago, mission accomplished. I've loved some of his guitar-only sets and his more classical-ish outings (including an odd gig at UCLA with the Mingus Orchestra), but this was more relentlessly ass-kicking, less gladhanding and singer/songwritely-sensitive, than anything I've ever seen him do.

Apropos the recent critical kerfluffle regarding religion and stuff, I thought of two EC songs. From 1982's Imperial Bedroom, the searing opener, which he rendered a little stiffly last night:
I've got a feeling
I'm gonna get a lot of grief
Once this seemed so appealing
Now I am beyond belief

The lament of a former believer? I'm not sure the song is about religious faith per se, but then it's about a lot of things, as are most of his best songs, and in any case it's a succinct summary of disillusionment. Then, from 1991's Mighty Like a Rose, the Weill-ish waltz "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," which I saw him sings sans microphone with the Brooklyn Phil last year, does seem to be about religious faith, and it's worth quoting in full:
I saw a girl who'd found her consolation
She said "One day my Prince of Peace will come"
Above her head a portrait of her father
The wilted favour that he gave her still fastened to the frame
"They've got his bones and everything he owns
I've got his name"

Well you can laugh at this sentimental story
But in time you'll have to make amends
The sudden chill where lovers doubt their immortality
As the clouds cover the sky the evening ends
Describing a picture of eyes finally closing
As you sometimes glimpse terrible faces in the fire
We'll I'm the lucky goon
Who composed this tune
from birds arranged on the high wire

Who on earth is tapping at the window?
Does that face still linger at the pane?
I saw you shiver though the room was like a furnace
A shadow of regret across a young mother's face
So toll the bell or rock the cradle
Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain
I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again

As a struggling believer who has often felt "between gigs," spiritually speaking, that last line moves me like nobody's business.

May 16, 2007


Genius. My favorite moment is the spirited conference about sports. (h/t Jane Galt)

May 15, 2007

Als Again

Radio Golf just got four Tony noms, but The New Yorker's Hilton Als is having none of it:
“Radio Golf” is a formulaic work that illustrates why Wilson was not, in the end, a great artist: his approach to examining the lives of black Americans was traditional, often cliché-ridden, and comfortably middlebrow...Barely thirty minutes into the action, we’re already on familiar ground: it’s Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” meets Lifetime TV...Wilson is the worst kind of moralist. He uses black people—which is to say, “real” or poor black people—as the barometer by which all others must be judged; anyone who doesn’t fit the bill is just plain evil...This essentially Puritan strain in Wilson’s thinking makes his characters reductive, simple silhouettes projected onto an even simpler backdrop....For Wilson, all blacks are brothers, whether clad in rags or Armani suits. But life doesn’t work this way—at least no lives spent under the yoke of this country’s astonishing and still prevalent racism. In the nineteen-sixties, academic philosophers and sociologists alike tried to address “the Negro problem”—the economic and racial disadvantages inherent in black life. Wilson came of age in that era, and was clearly influenced by the sanctimonious air of their reasoning. With his own lyrical-sounding agitprop, he, unfortunately, adopted the belief structure of the “concerned” oppressor, while claiming to speak for the oppressed.

Whatever its merits as a criticism of Radio Golf, does this seem a fair assessment of Wilson's ouevre? Als can't be bothered to mention or cite any of the playwright's other nine plays in this sweeping diss.

But then, Als has a record of saying odd, dubious, ostensibly provocative things. Last week, at the end of an otherwise straightforward takedown of LoveMusik, he incomprehensibly compared its aesthetic inspiration to Springtime for Hitler. Last year, he had some very odd things to say about Meryl Streep and Mother Courage.

May 14, 2007

Holiday for Shaiman

Be careful what you wish for. From a site promoting the doc Finding Kraftland, h/t Ljova.

Up With Upshaw

Great profile of one of America's great interpretive artists, which I caught in the LA Times during an ultra-brief sojourn in SoCal. I witnessed a memorable master class with her many years ago, and more recently wrote a short profile.

Those That Do

Funny what you can find in a student publication, particularly if the students are Columbia journalism grads. I recently stumbled upon the hard copy of their New York Review of Magazines, and found Jake Tracer's profile of New Yorker critic John Lahr. Among the many fascinating things about Lahr and his superlative work as a critic and feature writer is his status as a sometime playwright as well as a critic. (Another esteemed colleague has just taken a similar plunge). Does this create any conflicts of interest? Lahr addresses the issue here:
Lahr sees nothing wrong with his being part of the theater world he covers. In fact, he thinks he’s a better critic and profiler because of it. The journalistic code of avoiding conflicts of interest “absolutely damns critics to ignorance because they have no way of understanding the thing they’re reporting, really being in it,” he told me. “It leads to the deadly kind of ignorance that you have in Ben Brantley [of The New York Times] and all of them. The really important critics in our culture and England have all worked in the theater and been allowed to cross over.”

He might be overstating the case a bit, but as someone who crossed those lines more or less freely in my previous L.A. life as theater critic and occasional musician/composer for theater, I have to say that I agree with thrust of this, particularly with the idea that practice alongside artists can make one a better, more informed critic. On the other hand, I find that most editors and publishers don't agree, which makes it hard to figure out where to draw the line if you actually want paying work, let alone a career, as a critic.

May 10, 2007

"Bad Theatre for Stupid People"

As a longtime theatergoer and critic, I can think of a few instances in which such a redundantly rude phrase would apply. But I was shocked to discover the object to which the estimable David Cote, theater editor of Time Out, applied this breathtaking put-down, without qualifiers, in his review of Young Jean Lee's Church, which he seemed to admire even though it wasn't the God-bashing fiesta he apparently wanted:
[Lee] seems more intent on roasting her audience’s secular complacency than blaspheming or exposing the machinery of belief. Of course, if artists (or scientists) could find out why some people can’t do without supernatural bigotry, the world would be a better place. Since religion is bad theater for stupid people, I will happily worship in the house of Young Jean Lee.

Cote has some interesting further thoughts on the play at his blog, which help explain his response further. I'm no fan of blogging about opinions of shows I haven't had a chance to see myself, and I haven't quite kept up with the back-and-forth over religion, class, and the arts that has been raging since the infamous Mike Daisey water-spill/walkout incident. For the record, I found that incident horrifying, and more than a little chilling (though I don't think it portends incipient fascism). But as a Christian believer and intermittent churchgoer myself, albeit of the much-maligned liberal mainline variety--not to mention as someone who's seen more than my share of truly bad theatre--I find Cote's choice of words a little chilling, as well.

UPDATE: Some thoughtful comments on David's blog.

May 9, 2007

If I Still Lived Here...

I'd be toast. (I lived pretty much across the street from the evacuated blue area until Aug. '05.)

Survey Says...

A priceless voicemail to a friend of mine who's a bandleader/performer for weddings.

May 7, 2007

Weill Bodies

The relationship that doesn't quite jell in the captivating, occasionally muddled Lovemusik isn't the on-again-off-again marriage of its principals, Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. It's the Atlantic-sized gulf between Weill's European and American careers, which gives the show an occasional whiplash; I'm still getting over the jarring transition from the severe Threepenny Opera overture to the fluffy "Girl of the Moment" (from Lady in the Dark).

But this isn't just a transition issue. While the scores to Johnny Johnson, One Touch of Venus, and Lost in the Stars are equal to anything he wrote in Germany or France, I find that most of Weill's American output leaves me ice-cold, and there's a goodly amount of it here: Love Life's "Illusion Wedding Show," Lady's "Never Too Late to Mendelssohn." Good thing, then, that show is framed by two of his most "European"-sounding American songs, "Speak Low" and "September Song." And I could write a whole review of Jonathan Tunick's piquant chamber-sized orchestrations--so, so right, even in the shiny-happy Broadway segments.

Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy are, and make, remarkably inspired choices: Suitably iconic yet not crudely imitative, they illuminate Weill and Lenya with definitive, individual artistry of their own. And yes, among the brilliant touches in Murphy's detailed performance is an imperceptibly descending vocal range, so that the woman who sings "September Song" at show's end is not the same brittle smartie who warbled "Alabama Song" in the first act. Cerveris does a similar sleight of hand with his voice by show's end, a task all the more remarkable in that he's (believably) playing a non-singer.

Alfred Uhry's book is artful up to a point, especially given the built-in limitations of the composer-bio genre, and Harold Prince's direction is very smart, even sly, when it's not obvious or just plain odd. And about the politics--in other words, how the show treats Brecht--admittedly the news is not good. Uhry has clearly read his John Fuegi. The best defense I can make is that Lovemusik is not Brecht's story, and that the politics of Brecht's and Weill's collaborations is hardly the most interesting thing about them. (There's a reason real Brechtophiles prefer Mother Courage or The Good Person of Setzuan or The Caucasian Chalk Circle to Threepenny or Mahagonny.)

A part of me finds it bittersweet that a cobbled-together anthology show is the only way much of this material will ever be heard or seen on Broadway again, but that's not a problem unique to Weill--few of the shows for which Porter or Gershwin or Berlin or Kern wrote their best songs will (or should) ever see a revival, either. What is gratifying is to witness again how irreducibly theatrical this music can be, and to report that if you're going to see a cobbled-together anthology show of Weill's music, with a lot of Lenya necessarily in the mix, you could do a lot, lot worse than this largely enthralling effort.

May 4, 2007

Hunka on Brecht

Though he needlessly tweaks the Public's Mother Courage, I find George's appreciation of the German playwright eminently worth a read. I'm off to see LoveMusik, which despite some ultra-negative snarking, I'm looking forward to.

Crashing "Cymbeline"

The short review: Declan Donnellan and Cheek by Jowl make this late Shakespearean mess watchable. The full review here.

May 1, 2007

In the Critics' Den

Didn't see much coverage of this recent Project Shaw stunt: a reading of Androcles and the Lion with critics cast as the Christians being fed to the titular beast, played by the aptly hirsute Bruce Vilanch. Howard Kissel, who played Ferrovius, wrote it up. He doesn't mention that the apostate Spintho, who becomes sniveling cat food in the play, was played by Michael Riedel.

Troubies in Paradise

While I'm on the subject of L.A. troupes, the irrepressible Shakespearean/pop-music clowns at the Troubadour Theatre Company are busy prepping their next two projects: Alice in One-Hit Wonderland and OthE.L.O.. They're going to run out of these brilliant mash-ups one day, surely, but until they do, mad props to them. (And there are always my helpful suggestions, free of charge, if they ever run low on inspiration.)

The Wish I Were in L.A. File

Tracy Letts' Bug, which I caught a few years ago in N.Y., remains one of the high points of my theatergoing, so it's heartening to see that its L.A. premiere is in such good hands. I've admired director Scott Cummins' work as an actor a few times before (and never in print is my deep admiration for the Lost Angels' pitch-black L.A. rendition of Letts' Killer Joe). As for the leads, Amy Landecker appeared in another role in Bug's New York cast, and I admired her work in last year's so-so Apartment 3A, and Andrew Elvis Miller was a peerless Aguecheek in the Appalachian Twelfth Night I had the privilege to work on some years ago. I almost can't imagine a play so intense in the cozy confines of the Coast Playhouse, but I'm having a good time trying.