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).