Feb 29, 2008

Beware of Doug

One of my best friends, illustrator Doug Davis, celebrates his 12th birthday today, and it couldn't happen to a nicer or more talented guy. If you're in L.A., check out his show. Nice Q&A here.

Tooth of "Crimes"

Maybe my mind was wandering during the Roundabout's fine-but-not-great revival of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, but at some point in the second act, I perked up when Babe, wanting to cut an article out of the newspaper, says:
Where are the scissors, Lenny?

With the current production of The Homecoming still fresh in my mind, the line made me wonder if Henley had read her Pinter, or if it's just a coincidence. Then, more recently, watching MTC's intent revival of Come Back, Little Sheba, I noticed that one of the leads is a man who picked up the nickname "Doc" because he'd once pursued a medical career, and who retained the nickname even after his plans to become a "real doctor" (he's a chiropracter) hit the skids due to personal excess. With a few key differences of geography and bad fortune, this also roughly describes one of the male characters in Crimes.

Certainly there are accidental--or, if you wish, synchronicitous--resonances throughout the dramatic literature, and I really have no larger point to make here, except to note the way that theatregoing can start to feel like a dialogue between plays as much as between characters.

Feb 28, 2008

A Very Grumpy Day

A commercial shoot goes South (warning: Mamet-level obscenity here). My favorite quote:
"I don't want any more bullshit any time during the day from anyone, and that includes me."

Words to live by.

Buckley "Revisited"

I never had much use for his politics, but I do cherish my first introduction to late conservative icon William F. Buckley--as the host of the PBS airing of Brideshead Revisited back in the early 1980s. I confess I was too young at the time to fully appreciate the rich, complicated forces behind the Buckley-Waugh alliance, but even then, that book's odd mingling of homoeroticism, classism and tragic Anglo-Catholicism seemed to me to make it an unlikely pet novel for a Reagan-era rightist (or, come to think of it, for a conservative Jesuit). I grew to love the book rather in spite of those things--or perhaps it's better to say, by embracing those elements as part of what seemed to me even then a moving, magisterial vision of human impermanence, and of seeming divine indifference as a kind of sneaky grace.

But I won't soon shake the memory of this erudite, toad-like man with a comb-over and a clipboard, scrunched back uncomfortably on his chair, elongating his multisyllabic words through an impenetrable lockjaw, just before the opening credits rolled to the tune of that keening English-horn Brideshead theme. To me Buckley was as much a part of the miniseries' Anglophilic hothouse world as google-eyed Anthony Blanche.

Feb 26, 2008


Saw George Packer's Betrayed last week, and though I think it has flaws and oversights, it remains a stirringly theatrical--which is to say, emotional as well as intellectual--consideration of some of the thornier dilemmas of the Iraq debacle. Though I'd read the play and the original article that inspired it, and have been an admiring reader of Packer's work in the New Yorker, I was struck anew by how much the theatrical presence of actors in conflict and/or confluence can disarm one's prejudices and generate ambivalences within ambiguities.

In following the declining fortunes of a trio of Iraqi translators who work in the Green Zone, Betrayed finds a spectrum of meanings within its title alone. It refers not only to the obvious betrayal of those Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. occupation and who have been scandalously denied basic help and protection for their efforts, to the perception that these Iraqi translators and diplomats have betrayed their own people, that those Americans who stick their necks out on these Iraqis' behalf are traitors to the U.S. mission, and that Iraqis left out to dry might reasonably feel ready to turn on the U.S. occupation.

But one thing struck me even more immediately: Waleed F. Zuaiter, who plays Adnan, a sensitive America-phile whose monologues open and close the show. Not only is his an extraordinarily nuanced performance, but his final monologue is surprising and heartbreaking--and oddly reminiscent of something I'd heard before.
We know each other a little now, Americans and Iraqis, even if it is a terrible situation. Sometimes we are talking, sometimes we are fighting, but at least this is a relationship. It is not something to throw away or burn.

An argument for staying the course? But here's what stuck out. It's almost the last line of the show:
I can never blame the Americans alone. It's the Iraqis who destroyed their country, with the help of the Americans, under the American eye.

That's a stunning and arguable sentiment, laid like a landmine at the end of a play that has essentially been building a devastating case against the hamhanded execution of the U.S. invasion and occupation, and by extension (a tenuous extension, it can be argued, but not insubstantial) against the entire Iraq war project, execution aside. Leaving this argument for a moment, what struck me is that nearly two years ago, the same actor closed another Iraq-themed docu-play, David Hare's Stuff Happens, with this speech from a fictional Iraqi exile:
Basically it's a story of a nation that failed in only one thing. But it's a big sin. It failed to take charge of itself. And that meant the worst person in the country took charge. Until this nation takes charge of itself, it will continue to suffer.

I mean, Iraqis say to me, "Look, tell America." I tell them: "You are putting your faith in the wrong person. Don't expect America or anybody will do it for you.

"If you don't do it yourself, this is what you get."

That's an even more tendentious, stick-in-your-craw closer for a play's that is arguably even more stridently critical of the entire Iraq venture. What's going on here, I wonder? And what is it about Zuiater, a Palestinian raised partly in Kuwait who fled the region during the first Gulf War, that makes him the go-to guy for self-flagellating speeches about Iraq's responsibility for its own predicament? I ask sincerely because I find this oddly significant and compelling, and because I haven't seen it talked about elsewhere. Have you?

(Photo by James Nachtwey.)

Feb 22, 2008

A Church Grows in Brooklyn

Another reason to be proud of my little congregation that could, and can, and is.

Price Points

He's a producer, so of course he's going to defend the high price of tickets. On Ken Davenport's blog yesterday:
One of the most common complaints I still hear at meetings regarding the problems of Broadway and the theater in general is that tickets are too expensive and if we could only fix that, the theater would be restored to its past glory!

Sorry, not gonna happen.

He goes on to compare Broadway prices to the price of tickets to Bon Jovi, Yankee games, Cirque in Vegas, and Disney World, and concludes that the price of New York theater Broadway tickets is not too high--according to Davenport, "They are even cheap by some comparisons." There's cold economic truth in what he says, of course, but those comparisons speak for themselves. I have to wonder what Davenport thinks about initiatives like this. Take it away, Garrett.

(h/t Thomas Cott.)

Feb 20, 2008

Sign of the Times

If memory serves, when I first glimpsed this prime bit of Times Square ad real estate--directly across the street from Back Stage's old office, now across from my current office--back in the early '90s, it was the site of a giant smoking Joe Camel. I don't know much about this sort of thing, but for this space to sit fallow, as it has for weeks now, makes me kind of wonder and worry about our economy. Or perhaps this faded, uncovered Limbaugh billboard is an appropriately forlorn elegy for Republican ascendancy. A girl can dream, can't she?

Feb 15, 2008

The Voice Shall Lead Us

The first time I saw Rufus Wainwright live was in his appearance at the Henry Fonda Theatre way back around the turn of the millennium. He was quite offhandedly good, though rather diffident and giggly. At the time I was both smitten with and jealous of his amazing first record, as much of an annunciation of a blistering new talent as the definitive first albums of Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, or Liz Phair, although even closer to home for me--something about Rufus's musical imagination, the aesthetic landscape of his brain, seemed immediately familiar to this child of Beatles, folk, showtunes, and classical piano. I felt pretty much the same about his second album, Poses, and though I've kept up with his albums since, and I'm pretty fond of a lot of his newest, Release the Stars, nothing he's done has equaled the impact of those first two albums for me.

Until, that is, last night at Radio City Music Hall. I know I'm late to the new-model Rufus, with his Judy Garland and drag dispensations, but it all somehow makes sense to my ear and gut. It all fits together--not neatly, by any means, but with the logic of a collage. At bottom, Rufus is just an incredibly smart and informed and passionate pop craftsman; his wide taste in pop just happens to extend back to John McCormack's Irish weeper "Macushla," which he performed last night without the benefit of a microphone, to John Lennon's "Across the Universe," which he performed in a white rathrobe with opening act Sean Lennon. To me, last night his sound evoked everyone from Noel Coward to Thom Yorke, from Puccini to Neil Diamond--sometimes in one song. After all, the road from La Scala to Tin Pan Alley to Abbey Road is really not all that long, if you know the way.

I guess I don't always hear or feel all these buttons pushed when I listen to his records. But live, the guy has the dramatic vocal presence of the greatest singers I've had the privilege of hearing live--Dawn Upshaw, Maria Ewing, k.d. lang, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Joan Baez. Who can ask for anything more?

Feb 14, 2008

"Sunday" Reading

Had a good time writing up the new Broadway Sunday in the Park With George. Not quite as much fun going to War, which is as it should be, of course.

Feb 13, 2008

Musings on Musicals, Pop/Rock Division

I recently spoke to Mark Mulcahy, the former Miracle Legion frontman who wrote the much-buzzed-about new rock musical The Slug-Bearers of Kayrol Island with oddball cartoonist Ben Katchor, which opens at the Vineyard Theatre this week (and just got raved about in the Times today), and an offhand comment he made struck me. I was asking him if he'd seen or knew about Passing Strange, Stew and Heidi Rodewald's new rock musical, which opens on Broadway this week after a hit run last year at the Public Theatre. Mulcahy wasn't aware of Stew's show--but he did say, "Yeah, I opened for that guy at Largo," a club in L.A. that's as close as that town has to a Joe's Pub.

That, coupled with the news of Paul Simon doing a staged reading of his 1998 Broadway flop The Capeman at BAM in April, got me thinking: Do obscure indie pop/rock songwriters just make better musicals? In the past decade-plus, original musicals by the likes of Simon, Michael Jackson (Sisterella), Barry Manilow (Harmony), and Randy Newman (Faust) have either floundered en route to Broadway or flopped there. Meanwhile, such non-household-name music acts as Duncan Sheik, David Yazbek, Stew, GrooveLily, and now Mulcahy, have garnered great reviews, and in most cases a wide and enthusiastic audience, for their musical theater efforts.

I'm wondering if this has to do with the relatively smaller egos of "indie" musicians; with their band-bred familiarity with collaboration on the one hand, and their offbeat or outsider sensibilities, honed by their non-mainstream career path, on the other hand; the seat-of-the-pants ethos such artists find, and recognize very well, in the Off-Broadway and regional theaters where they develop a lot of their work. On the audience side, I wonder if being a huge pop star with a hummable hit catalogue is a disadvantage when you try to write a brand-new original musical; in a version of the old struggle between the artist who wants to play all the songs from his new record and the audience who wants to hear all the hits, I think that most fans of a major pop artist don't necessarily flock to a new show that happens to have music by that artist--unless it's a jukebox musical, and even then, it's a gamble. Theater fans, on the other hand, do tend to flock to shows that are supposed to be really, really good and fresh and interesting, and the name of the composer isn't what is going to get them in the door unless it's Sondheim.

The exception that doesn't quite prove the rule, of course, is the sui generis Sir Elton.

Mary Quite Contrary

My review of The Lifeblood, a new play about Mary, Queen of Scots' final days, is here.

Feb 7, 2008

Broadway for Barack

Hey, two things I love come together: Sen. Obama, and being able to take a drink to your theater seat. Seriously, Ryan J. Davis and Adam Wagner are producing an Obama benefit at the Zipper Theatre showcasing "rising songwriters," including Joe Drymala (White Noise), Nick Blaemire (Glory Days), Mano Felciano, Kait Kerrigan & Brian Lowdermilk (Henry and Mudge), Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (Edges), Eric Svejcar (Caligula), Larson Award winners Jeff Thomson & Jordan Mann, and Zachary Dietz & Adam Wagner (Don't Look Down, Teeth). It goes down Monday, Feb. 11, 9:30-10:45.

Criminal Mind

Let's see: Authorities in an Eastern European country interrogate, and ultimately convict, an author of a grisly murder, using as primary evidence the author's violent, disturbing last novel. It's Martin McDonagh's play The Pillowman, right? No, it's a slightly mind-boggling true story. As sprawling, circumspect New Yorker true-crime pieces go, it's at least as good as this but nowhere near as weirdly compelling as this.

(Photo of Krystian Bala in a cage at his trial; Witczak / East News / SIPA.)

Feb 6, 2008

And Now Back to Regular Programming

Yes, I know this blog has been light on writing about theater lately. The year has started up again a bit slow in that department, but I can offer a few highlights...

I was underwhelmed by the new production of The Homecoming, though I found Eve Best and Michael McKean extremely good, and I also had the sneaking sense that this show, even more than most, is a night-to-night thing, quality-wise.

I pretty much loved November, which is indeed Mamet Lite but so well constructed and paced and played it's a thing of beauty to behold. I felt similarly about David Ives' artful Twain tweak, Is He Dead? I saw Color Purple again, with almost an entirely new cast, and I have to admit--I still like it. So sue me.

I'm off to see the much-buzzed-about Next To Normal, and my reviewing schedule is slowly starting up again. (Here's a review of Conjur Woman at LaMaMa etc.)

Oh, and though there are no bylines on 'em, my day job involves putting together pieces like these, on the likes of Laurie Metcalf, Leigh Silverman, A.C. Grayling, Neil Pepe, Stew associate Heidi Rodewald, Paul Taylor, Jimmi Simpson, and...heck, if you're interested, bunches.

Feb 4, 2008

Why My Tuesday Will Be Super

Tomorrow isn't just Super Tuesday for presidential hopefuls. It's also my birthday (and a big one, but enough about that). I wouldn't bring that up, usually, except that it feels very personally meaningful for me. If you'll indulge me, I'll explain why.

My family is from Gary, Indiana, a steel town outside of Chicago that has weathered the post-industrial age particularly badly, in part because, unlike, say, Detroit or Cleveland, it's a relatively young city that was built almost entirely on one business (steel), with few other historical roots to draw on. (In fact, to digress for a moment: The famous song from Music Man is meant to be a joke--i.e., Harold Hill is such a scam artist that even the beloved hometown he idealizes is a lie, since it was founded in 1906, and he claims to have learned his trade at "Gary Music Conservatory, Class of '05!"). As the steel industry began to falter, and African-Americans migrated to the area in the 1950s and 1960s, white flight converged with industrial collapse to create a notoriously dystopian urban wasteland.

My family was hardly unique in being among those who fled to the white suburbs of Merrillville, Hobart, Valparaiso, etc. What was unique was the response of my grandparents, Harold and Theresa Kendt, who though they did move to Merrillville remained members of St. John's Lutheran Church in Gary until such time as they had to move to a nursing home in Crown Point. I wouldn't say that the Kendt family was scandalized by Harold and Theresa's insistence on enthusiastically remaining active members of a church which, by the 1980s, served almost exclusively black parishioners; I'll just say that it was noticed and remarked upon.

And though I grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., I was raised in a very white milieu, the Midwestern branch of which had scant affection for Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington. That historic Harold was a notable inspiration to one Chicago politician.

Whether he intended to or not, my grandfather Harold's example inspired and moved me no end. Now, race is certainly not reason enough, or reason at all, to vote for Sen. Barack Obama, as I intend to on Super Tuesday. But, speaking for myself, I will pull the lever for Obama on my own birthday in loving memory of my grandfather--a lifelong Republican who may not have seconded the letter of my choice but, I like to think, would approve of the spirit of it.

For those unmoved by such personal special pleading, I found this endorsement to be particularly on point.

Besides, I'm pleased enough with both Democratic choices that it will be a pretty Super Tuesday no matter the outcome.

Feb 1, 2008

Dutch Treat

And now for something completely different.

Blurbed in an Elevator

The building where I work has those annoying but unavoidable TV screens in every elevator car, and I guess Captivate Networks picks up Newsday tidbits now and then. Today I did a double-take when I saw that August: Osage County is Tracy Letts' "ripping, riveting" new play. Sounded familiar. This isn't quite on a par with the story of how elated Paul Simon was when he first heard "Bridge Over Troubled Water" play in an elevator, but it's close as I'll get, I think.

Friday Mental-Health Break

A friend sent along this workplace chain email:
For the last departmental picnic, management decided that, due to liability issues, we could have alcohol, but only one (1) drink per person. I was fired for ordering the cups.

Quote for the Day

"Remember, even Diaghilev got into producing because he wanted to fuck Nijinsky."
--Framed quote next to desk of a prominent Broadway producer