Dec 31, 2008

Leapy New Year

To close out this extraordinary year of upheaval, setback, and possibility, I can think of (or rather, find) nothing better than this lo-fi video of one of Matt Walker's clowning classes at USC. (Yes, this Matt Walker.)

Here's to a fearless (yet similarly cushioned) jump into 2009.

Dec 19, 2008

Merry Merry Etc.

Today is basically the end of my workday year, not counting a few straggling days in late December. That doesn't mean I won't be posting here again in '08, and I certainly won't be able to stay away from updating and tweaking Isaac's and my new baby, but I will be in Indiana and California for Christmas next week, ostensibly relaxing with family.

And though I've already watched my favorite holiday special twice this season--and I half-wish I could schlep out to Connectictut to check out the stage version--I'm likely to pop old Emmet in the DVD player at least once again before the turkey is carved.

So, at the end of tumultuous yet oft-blessed year, I leave you with my best wishes, and one of Paul Williams' lyrics, steeped in his signature blend of syrup and spirit:
Like a flower that has blossomed
In the dry and barren sand
We are born and born again most gracefully
Thus the winds of time shall take us
With a sure and steady hand
When the river meets the sea

Pal Joey: Not Everyone Hates It!

Performing its important corrective function, Critic-O-Meter today reports that Broadway's new Pal Joey, despite the negative advance buzz and a slam from the NY Times' Ben Brantley, actually has a number of full-hearted (and some half-hearted) admirers, and that even most of the show's detractors are not as down on it as Ben. In other recent news, just about everyone loves Red Bull's Women Beware Women and were lukewarmly welcoming to Shrek.

Oh, and I'm happy to note that the site's birth has reached the Guardian and Utne Reader.

Dec 18, 2008

Piven, Struck Through

I have nothing to add to the reports of Jeremy Piven's sudden withdrawal from Speed-the-Plow, which, for the record, I enjoyed, if with a tad less relish than many of my peers. But I couldn't help noticing that this Times item on his withdrawal contains what seems like a first: an entire paragraph with a line through it (NOTE from Friday, 12/19/08: the strike-through graph has been removed so that the piece makes little sense; I saved the original page here). It's still entirely readable under the cross-out line, of course, and I'm wondering why this tidbit merited the chopping block:
At a recent matinee of the play, Mr. Piven was visibly perturbed with two theatergoers who arrived late for the performance, staring at his watch and tapping his foot while the latecomers took their seats.

Still more confusingly, this struck-through paragraph contains a hyperlink to a previous Times piece about Piven's co-star Raul Esparza singing on demand for theatergoers. Distinctly odd. Is this perhaps a case of the Times becoming ever more blog-like, or a mere error that gives us a backstage peek into the Gray Lady's editing process?

UPDATE: The Mamet mafia calls in not one but two new Bobby Goulds: William H. Macy and Norbert Leo Butz.

Zadie Didion?

I've got a confession, dear readers: Though I'm an avid reader of various things (increasingly online), I don't get through all that many proper books (certainly not as many as my Critic-O-Meter colleague), which means I'm hopeless when someone starts talking about new fiction, which writers are good, etc. Hopeless.

So I hadn't read a word of Zadie Smith until this recent New Yorker piece about her family of British "comedy nerds." The rap on Smith, according to people I trust, is that her first novel, White Teeth, was incredibly overhyped, her second, On Beauty, is "supposed to be" better. After reading her extraordinarly apt and moving personal history, "Dead Man Laughing," I'm inspired to decide for myself about her fiction. Ostensibly a tribute to her frustrated late father, Harvey, the essay ranges over themes of family, time, mortality, class, and race with the surprise and suspense and thrill of the best fiction.

Along the way, Smith proves that novelists can be devastating and illuminating critics of the lively arts. While I was struck by her envious comparison of standup comics and novelists, by the way she traces the sense of dashed class aspirations that links generations of despairing British comedy right up to David Brent, by her term "comedy nausea," I think my favorite excerpt is her offhanded precis of a sketch act she sees as an opening act for her brother, a budding standup comic, in a pub theater. Brace yourself:
Two men and two women performed a mildewed sketch show of unmistakable Oxbridge vintage, circa 1994. A certain brittle poshness informed their exaggerated portraits of high-strung secretaries, neurotic piano teachers, absent-minded professors. They put on mustaches and wigs and walked in and out of imaginary scenarios where fewer and fewer funny things occurred. It was the comedy of things past. The girls, though dressed as girls, were no longer girls, and the boys had paunches and bald spots; the faintest trace of ancient intracomedy-troupe love affairs clung to them sadly; all the promising meetings with the BBC had come and gone. This was being done out of pure friendship now, or the memory of friendship.

Every bit of the essay is that good, and better. It put me in mind of Steve Martin's "In the Birdcage," a beautiful culling from his excellent memoir, Born Standing Up, that's actually better than the book. And its incision, clarity, and transparency put me in mind of Joan Didion's best work. Yes, I think I will be checking out White Teeth and On Beauty.

Dec 17, 2008

The Secret Isn't Secret Anymore

From a recent benefit for Chris Wells' brilliant Secret City, which I wrote about for this month's American Theatre.

Camus' Caius

I'm really glad I saw Horizon Theatre Rep's production of Camus' brilliant Caligula, in a crackling translation by David Greig, even if director Rafael De Mussa (pictured above) made one hugely significant misstep.

Dec 16, 2008

Meter Reader

New on Critic-O-Meter: Red Bull Theatre's Jacobean Women Beware Women gets a warm embrace, Edward Bond's chilly Chair garners mostly cool admiration, and Shrek gets reviewed more or less for what it is: a franchise.

Good News, Bad News

Offsetting the news that Gypsy will move up its closing date from next Mar. 1 to Jan. 11, just one week after Black Sunday (Jan. 4, when it seems that half of Broadway will shutter), is an encouraging tidbit I, for one, had overlooked: Forbidden Broadway Goes To Rehab, initially announced to close out the franchise on Jan. 15, is now selling through Mar. 1.

But what will be left to parody?

Deathbed Star

James Surowiecki, in the current New Yorker, puts the plight of newspapers into perspective better than I have in any of my musings on the subject, explaining how the end is starting to look a lot more like a spectacular flameout than whimpering fadeout:

The peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular. The blogosphere, much of which piggybacks on traditional journalism’s content, has magnified the reach of newspapers, and although papers now face far more scrutiny, this is a kind of backhanded compliment to their continued relevance. Usually, when an industry runs into the kind of trouble that Levitt was talking about, it’s because people are abandoning its products. But people don’t use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.

What does it say, after all, that I read Surowiecki's piece on the subway this morning—The New Yorker being the only dead-tree publication to which I still subscribe—and then found it immediately for free online, all the better to link to it here? His sobering conclusion:
For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.

Maybe guilt is one answer: After reading the various Atlantic blogs for years now without paying a dime, I've put an Atlantic subscription on my Christmas list.

UPDATE: A former Atlantic blogger dissents on Surowiecki's economic emphasis, pointing out that the "problem newspapers are having with online isn’t that the readers won’t pay, it’s that the advertisers won’t pay."

Dec 15, 2008

"Ages" to Rock Broadway?

According to a post on All That Chat, the hair-metal extravaganza Rock of Ages is moving to the Atkinson. Start stocking up on lighter fluid.

Animal Animus

Way off-topic, but as it comes via Trey Graham, it passes my stringent arts-related test: "Fuck You, Penguin," a hilariously profane blog that, in lashing out at toxic levels of cuteness in animal photos, somehow only fortifies it (to my softie's eyes, at least).

Road's End

Lowered expectations can be a boon, clearly. Partly thanks to this new site, and also because I'm a fan, I've read every review that's been written of Road Show, Sondheim's new chamber musical at the Public, and I was prepared for the worst. What I saw instead was an arty, rueful, resourceful little musical of hearteningly sturdy craftmanship and, I almost hesitate to add, an unmistakeably valedictory tone that was moving in itself.

I can't argue with my fellow critics on substance; Road Show is inarguably a bit hollow and lachrymose, but it's never less than smart and involving, and I was surprised how often I smiled or laughed more or less exactly as I think Weidman and Sondheim intended—with a world-weary, slightly self-aware catch in the throat. Over the years I've gone from Sondheim skeptic to smitten fan, and today I hover uneasily somewhere between the two; I'm no longer convinced, as I once was, that time alone will be enough to turn his thornier shows into Rodgers & Hammerstein-style standards, though I cherish nearly every one of his scores the way I cherish the theater scores of Janacek, Ravel, Weill (I exclude Passion, the only show of his that put me to sleep). I was left cold, for instance, by the recent Sunday revival, and not because of the production; I think that show has proven to be what its critics said it was all along: a brilliant but lopsided conceit with a constrained, self-involved view of art and human connection.

On the other hand, one thing that moved me most about Road Show was seeing Orville Mendoza among the ensemble; years ago, he was among one of L.A.'s most essential Sondheim interpreters, etching an indelible Sweeney Todd in East West Players' 99-seat production, and later a definitive Kayama in EWP's Pacific Overtures. East West was among a cadre of scrappy L.A. theaters who kept my Sondheim faith alive in the 1990s and beyond by presenting his shows in intimate settings where every crammmed-in word counted (a revelation later echoed here).

And this may be the thing I think I like most about Road Show: its gritty modesty, its clear embrace of the smaller canvas and whites-of-their-eyes intimacy. I wish I could say there's a commensurate increase in intensity and impact to compensate for Road Show's smaller scope, but that's not quite the case; I'm not sure there's that much there there. Still, director John Doyle's dry-eyed, free-ranging presentational boldness seems exactly right in this pointedly Off-Broadway context, and it manages to show this brittle material in its best possible light. Perhaps paradoxically, something about Doyle's production—the travelling trunks, the echoes of vaudeville, the hard-sell, win-or-lose themes—put me in mind of possibly the greatest musical ever, which not coincidentally has lyrics by Sondheim and recently announced a new Broadway closing date, the towering Gypsy. As rough bookends to a career, an artist could do a lot worse. I will only add, as someone who has seen a lot more than his share of bad theater, that if all the so-called failures I sat through were as good as Road Show, I'd be a much happier man. Faint praise, perhaps, but not meant to damn.

Below, Orville sits at Sondheim's piano (isn't Facebook great?).

Dec 10, 2008

Today on (and About) Critic-O-Meter

Two plays with war and family on the brain: Craig Lucas' Prayer for My Enemy and Keith Reddin & Meg Gibson's Antigone remix Too Much Memory. Read all about 'em.

In other Critic-O-Meter news, LA Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris offers a longer and more thorough version of his blog entry deploring Isaac's and my new review-reviewing site. I'm honored that Steven takes our site seriously enough to take it apart so vigorously (and I'm kind of tickled by the piece's illustration, by Justin Renteria), but of course I'm disappointed that he relates our venture to the culture of standardized testing and a reductive "one-click-fits-all" model.

While I admit feeling a sting of truth when Steven writes, "To assess a play with a grade is mildly insulting to the critic but deeply insulting to the creators," I also have a response, having been on both sides of that coin--I've been reviewed as well as reviewed others, and both I and my targets, last I checked, are still standing. And the response is this: that at least part of what Critic-O-Meter is intended to do is to serve as a corrective to the undue power of a few daily critics, both in the area of consumer advice and in the realm of setting the terms and boundaries of the critical conversation. I have felt firsthand, and heard secondhand over the years, the deep frustration with the way one or two critic's tastes and distastes too often become the final verdict/conventional wisdom on a play for all time--in the markets I've worked in, it's been whoever has "Times" on his side--when I and others who care about this kind of thing know that the critical conversation about a given play is/was much, much wider and more diverse than any one critic's writing could possibly reflect. So what could I do with this knowledge? Ramble on about a particular undersung show when asked, or even when unasked; advocate favorites with theatre awards or year-end lists.

Critic-O-Meter, in that spirit, is our way of broadening the conversation to include everyone writing about every show we can find (and have time to include); if we want to drop our thoughtful two cents about our favorite shows and issues into the giant wishing well of the blogosphere, well, that's what a blog like this or this is for. The grading process at Critic-O-Meter, as Steven rightly notes, is entirely subjective, but that's the essence of our gamble: that the grades, and the paragraphs of summary we add about each show, are the value that Isaac and I add beyond a simple review aggregator.

As a critic, sporadic practitioner and occasional paying theatergoer myself, I know I can handle the insult of being reduced to a grade, particularly if the so-called "reduction" in fact holds out the chance of a more abundant, noisy, and spirited conversation.

Dec 8, 2008

Another Great Invalid

I once wondered, in a weak, self-doubting moment, how I had ended up invested in, or on the side of, what felt like so many lost or disrespected causes: mainline Christianity, mainstream liberalism, arts journalism, musical theater, theater in general. To those seemingly-always-losing-ground concerns, I might add music (as a business, at least) and journalism/criticism in the age of the Internets. As much as I feel invigorated by the trends I've highlighted here and here, I can't deny that to make ends meet, I've mostly had to think outside the box of the actual journalism industry (and the cratered music business, for that matter). Though he's mostly stating the obvious, coming from blog optimist Andrew Sullivan, this pre-mortem has an especial sting. His diagnosis:
The problem here, however, is that online advertising, while growing, is not growing fast enough to replace print advertising. It almost certainly will one day, but the distance between the print sinking ship and the online life raft was always perilously long. And now the recession has whipped the waters between into hurricane turbulence. I have a feeling that if and when the storm ends, there will be few ships left and only a few survivors clinging onto small but buoyant dinghies.

And he concedes the most damning retort to media optimists:
The terrifying problem is that a one-man blog cannot begin to do the necessary labour-intensive, skilled reporting that a good newspaper sponsors and pioneers. A world in which reporting becomes even more minimal and opinion gets even more vacuous and unending is not a healthy one for a democracy. Perhaps private philanthropists will step in and finance not-for-profit journalistic centres, where investigative and foreign reporting can be invested in and disseminated by blogs and online sites. Maybe reporter-bloggers will start rivalling opinion-mongers such as me and give the whole enterprise some substance. Maybe papers can slim down sufficiently to produce a luxury print issue and a viable online product. There’s always a hunger for news, after all.

My question, then, is what to do about this state of affairs, except wring our hands? Shrinking space, particularly for arts coverage, has been a recurring theme since I started in print journalism nearly 20 years ago. But as my own reading and consuming habits, and those of the generation coming up behind me, have migrated inexorably to the Web, I have found access to more, not less, arts coverage and criticism, and my writing has arguably reached as many if not more readers through the Web than it ever did in print (the line blurs a bit here, since though I've essentially left the journalism-industrial complex for my living, I still freelance for a number of print publications with a much bigger Web presence and legitimacy than I've got on my own; that Sullivan's blog beats major news organizations in Web traffic is a glaring neon sign of the times).

In one of the few ink publications I still tote around for subway reading, The New Yorker, I came across this speculative analogy, in Adam Gopnik's recent piece:
Samuel Johnson arrived in London in March of 1737, at the age of twenty-seven. He...had no luck in his dream, of becoming a London writer and wit, for a very long time. He had the misfortune to have arrived in London in a time not unlike this one, with the old-media dispensation in crisis and the new media barely paying. The practice of aristocratic patronage, in which big shots paid to be flattered by their favorite writers, was ebbing, and the new, middle-class arrangement, where plays and novels could command real money from publishers, was not yet in place. The only way to make a living was to publish, for starvation wages, in the few magazines that had come into existence. Johnson worked as a miscellaneous journalist, carrying his clips around and begging for assignments.

Sounds like fun. And here's a tart little cautionary aside that may also seem relevant to our time, particularly in the blogosphere:
The new order had also produced a permanently bitter and underemployed class of writers, who had meant to be Popes but were left to be merely beggars in the square outside, and they made their living working for penny-a-line pamphlets and cheap gossip tabloids, creating a constant mouse scream of malice that runs in counterpoint to Johnson’s grave sonorities.

A final meat for the stew: the Web's lack of space restrictions blessedly allows Playgoer to write 5,480 words about a recent disgrace at the Times (the public editor's kowtowing to the Catholic League over Jason Zinoman's review of Corpus Christi). Garrett has some ads on his site, but I doubt he's making serious bank for writing that long, and that passionately, about something he cares about—nor does he have an editor pressuring to him to temper or trim his views.

In short, our current cultural moment, in which unpaid or barely paid self-publishers and freelancers can have their say and reach an audience with a minimum of investment and no limits on expression but their own imagination and stamina, may soon enough be a moment we'll look back at with a wistfulness rivalling our current eulogies for the newspaper business—either that, or this new-media moment of simultaneous scarcity and opportunity is a small eddy that will swell into the wave of the future. We can't know, but as for me, I'll keep looking forward as much as I look back.

Dec 5, 2008

What Mark Blankenship Said

I don't share his love for Roger Ebert—I'm something of a Paulette myself, and Ebert's dismissal of Raising Arizona was what made me write him off years ago—but I do second Mark's wary optimism about the unfolding future of arts journalism (which very often looks more like an unraveling than an unfolding). Taking on a post by the senior critic conflating the death of print newspapers with the end of thoughtful criticism, Mark writes:
What surprises me is the sense of hopelessness in Ebert’s writing. Like many people who built careers in “old media,” he equates the death of newspapers with the death of thinking, as though people who don’t want to get their information in the traditional way are people who don’t want to think at all. For a man who pushed criticism into a new medium (television), I would expect him to see that American thoughtfulness isn’t dying but changing.

And the change is right there in Ebert’s hands. He wrote his essay on a blog, after all, and he even responds to some of the comments about it...So… what’s the problem, then? Ebert wrote a lovely, forceful essay. Even better, he’s discussing it with his readers. How exciting for them and for him! If you scroll through the comments, you find excellent arguments and counter-arguments, and you find Ebert clarifying his points. To my ears, the canary isn’t dying. It’s singing louder than before because it’s harmonizing with a flock of birds.

Yet Ebert makes a sour prognosis about the death of thought, and throughout the comments section he vehemently defines himself as a “newspaperman.” He’s one of many people who feel this way, but I’m singling him out because I’m surprised he doesn’t see how his own work is forging the path for the future.

Because really, newspapers may be familiar, but they aren’t necessary. There are many valid ways to think through problems and process information, and we’re simply in a transitional period toward a new model.

And again, this new model–the web–is helping criticism, not hurting it. It’s giving us more space to voice our thoughts and find our thinking challenged. On this very site, reader feedback has helped me evolve my outlook on several things, and the site’s limitless format has allowed me to dig deeper than any of the mainstream publications I write for.

So isn’t it time to stop bemoaning change? We’re building a new model at this very minute, so of course we haven’t perfected it yet, and of course it will be different than what has come before. But that’s okay. That’s vital.

I couldn't agree more.

Brother David

I'm pre-sold on anything Elvis Costello does—take it or leave it, the guy's work is like a family member in my life—so of course I tuned into Spectacle, his new Sundance talkfest. The premiere with Elton John was, for me, must-watch TV, even with Sir Elton's digressive ramblings and Elvis' professorial clucking, and musical performances that were decidedly ragged. If it doesn't quite promise to be the musical version of Inside the Actors Studio (and would we really want that?), with EC in charge it looks to be a warm and informed forum for musical advocacy, at least.

To wit, though I was happy to see the always-worth-plugging Leon Russell and Laura Nyro get due props, I was gobsmacked to witness the finale: A mini-tribute to the late, great David Ackles, a Leonard Cohen-ish singer/songwriter whom Costello has championed before and whose exposure on Spectacle this week, and endorsement by the likes of Sir Elton, may be the high watermark of his fame thus far.

One comment by Costello struck home bittersweetly for me: that with Ackles' acting and theatrical background (he had been a child actor), he might have had the kind of success in the theater that Sir Elton has had. This struck me in particular because I had the good fortune to meet Ackles years ago, before I knew of his pedigree or his famous fans, when we were both members of the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in Los Angeles (not affiliated with New York's BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, and since renamed). That makes us sound more like colleagues than we really were; in fact, he served as a mentor on a troubled short musical of mine, and I'm sorry to say that the only real time I spent with him was a brief meeting at his ranch in Tujunga when, in his mentor role, he was on hand to mediate a dispute between my librettist and my lyricist, who weren't speaking to each other. As the composer caught between these two warring wrtiers, I was worried the project wouldn't happen at all. Ackles, with a singular empathy for all sides, defused the tension and graciously assured us all that the show would go on. And so it did.

I only recall hearing him present one song in the workshop—a wry, Randy Newman-ish tune from the point of view of William Randolph Hearst regarding the title subject of Ackles' musical, Sister Aimee, about the great L.A.-based preacher Aimee Semple McPherson.

I've learned some of this from a fan website for Ackles, who is much more known and loved in the U.K. than over here. Here's hoping that these two famous, bespectacled Brits will help put Ackles' distinctive work back on the map, and keep it from staying, as his moving, mysterious signature song has it, "Down river...locked away."

It's Critic-O-Meter Day!

A number of times over the past few years, I've been involved in some of the usual back-and-forth—in person and blogospherically—about the role of the critics, their relationship and responsibility (if any) to theatrical artists and consumers, the inordinate power of the Times, etc. I recalled that years ago on this blog I used to cull L.A. theater reviews into rough groupings and ranks, rating which shows had been reviewed best, worst, etc. I've enjoyed such features as Slate's Summary Judgment, which pithily sums up reviews of movies, and I often look at Metacritic to see a survey of critical opinions. (I also fondly remember Spy's "Review of Reviewers," but that's a horse of a slightly different color.)

You see where I'm going with this? When my esteemed colleague Isaac Butler of Parabasis linked approvingly to a proposal by (apparently now a private blog) which posited the "theater Metacritic" idea in so many words, I contacted Isaac right away, and we talked about launching just such a site.

Long story short, I got some advice from Marc Doyle of Metacritic, who told me there have been proposals over the years to rate theater reviews there but the economics haven't worked out; for a while Isaac and I received help from James Marino of Broadwaystars, where we thought we might launch our site. In the end, we decided to just get it up and running in Blogger.

And so, without further ado, I present to you the official launch of CRITIC-O-METER. It doesn't include every show up in New York, and it doesn't include every review of every show up in New York, but that's essentially our goal (Nate Silver of 538 is also a sort of inspiration). I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you'll feel free to offer your suggestions and feedback.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go check the latest reviews.

(Image: "The Art Critic" by Raoul Hausmann.)

Dec 4, 2008

The Crossover File

Toronto critic Kelly Nestruck recently found herself reviewing a director who's also a critical colleague of hers, and went on to muse on the ethics of such crossovers (h/t American Theatre Web, via Broadwaystars). As is often the case, the contrast is with the British model:
I used to think critics should keep their hands as clean as possible, but living in the UK for a couple of years really challenged my point of view on this issue. The critical culture over there is quite different, dating back to Bernard Shaw, who straddled the critic/artist divide, and newspapers seem less worried about pure objectivity - a fairly mythical concept anyway.

As one who's made the leap myself, both in NY and L.A., I do make a point of recusing myself from the work of close friends and/or people with whom I've worked in direct professional relationships (a play by Brian Parks, my assigning editor at the Village Voice, and a recent production at the Metropolitan Theatre, where I did the music for The Devil and Tom Walker last spring, are just two instances of shows I've chosen to opt out of reviewing). Most critics in the U.S. wouldn't go as far as I have, but check out the Brits' idea of fair game:

In recent years, Mail on Sunday critic Georgina Brown sat on the board of the Bristol Old Vic, but still reviewed shows there, and Evening Standard critic and alleged snoozer Nicholas de Jongh's play Plague Over England opened at the Finborough theatre. These are a couple of exceptional examples of potential conflicts of interest, but then there are the regular, everyday ones of critics hired to write program notes or paid by theatres to host post-show talkbacks.

Personally, I judge these issues on a case-by-case basis—and I do try to keep the cases to a minimum. For instance, some critics and editors don't think a reporter who's written a feature on a show—i.e., met and spoken to artists involved in a given production—ought to then put on his critic's hat and review the same show; others, like The New Yorker's John Lahr, often do both in the same story. Speaking for myself, I wouldn't have a freelance career to speak of if I couldn't transgress that line on occasion. For me, the important line-crossing questions are: Have I sought work as a composer or dramaturg (the two things for which I've received credits in New York) from the same artists I've reviewed? Have I—a bit thornier, this—ever reviewed the work of artists from whom I've sought employment? The truth is, not that I recall—and I think I'd recall.

I often feel that this dance can't go on forever—that eventually push will come to shove, and my two worlds will start to overlap too incestuously—but so far this balancing act has proven sustainable, and perhaps more importantly, it's kept me alert and interested in this mutable art form. I can't say it's made me a better critic, but it's made me a more engaged critic and observer.

Wait For It...

When I reviewed Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed Off-Broadway a few years ago (alas, this is all that's left online of the review--they've erased years of reviews from the site), Julie White's agent character had one line that stuck in my craw, as a longtime L.A. theater champion (who had in fact seen Julie White onstage in L.A.). It was about how they'd solved the problem of cellphones in the theater: "We've simply stopped doing theater altogether."

OK, fine--you can read this at the character's expense, if you choose, but I don't think that's how the line got its laughs. Now, more than two years later, White has brought the same gag to a stage in L.A. How does the joke play in the belly of its beastly target?

Leave it to the LA Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris, who already noted the diss in a piece last spring, to single it out in his review:
The agent makes a quip about how L.A. has solved the problems of cell phones in the theater by not doing theater. “Choices were made.” Big laugh. At what? A myth about L.A. that’s so false they don’t even believe it in New York anymore.

I was happy to note the review just below that one--my old Appalachian Twelfth Night colleagues, the Dancing Barefoot peeps, are staging Deb Pryor's Southern twister The Love Talker at Son of Semele. Yes, Virginia, they still do theater in L.A.

Best-Kept Secret

Chris Wells, ex-Actors' Gangster and fellow former Angeleno, is one of my favorite stage and/or cabaret performers, but I haven't seen him perform in quite a while--unless I can count his monthly "gig" leading a secular artist's service called The Secret City, which he began hosting a little over a year ago, and which I've profiled in a brief piece in this month's American Theatre (the story's not online; get thee to a newsstand).

As someone who's been going to the theatre almost as long as I've been going to churches, I'm especially appreciative of the Sunday morning sanctuary that Chris has created, though he's taken pains not to call what he does a "church." As he puts it:
“It doesn’t have baggage for me, but I’m very mindful that the word ‘church’ is really loaded for people,” Wells concedes. For him, the reason worship makes such a natural fit with theatre has nothing to do with belief systems.

“One of the reasons that fundamentalism appeals so much to some people is the feeling of belonging,” says Wells. “And it occurred to me that artists have suffered what I’ve referred to as a diaspora—I really feel that for a number of reasons artists have been exploded out of any feeling of being central to the civilization. Not to sound too political or paranoid, but that is how you disempower people—separate them from other like people.

“So my desire was to re-gather those people and say, ‘Not only do we have a purpose, but we actually have maybe the greatest calling there is.’ ”

Can I get an amen? The Secret City will hold a cabaret benefit this weekend at the space, Theatrelab, 137 W. 14th St., Sat. Dec. 6 at 7 & 9:30 p.m., and Sun. Dec. 7 at 9 p.m. Info here.

Dec 3, 2008

Prop Culture

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Apologies for the light posting...been working a lot on this new venture (more on that anon). Meantime enjoy Shaiman's handiwork--a numbah even Scott Eckern could enjoy.