Jan 30, 2009

Taking Off

Great fun was had writing this preview piece on Minksy's, a new musical about the vintage burlesque house from Bob Martin and Casey Nicholaw (Drowsy Chaperone), with a score by Charles Strouse and Susan Birkenhead. The show is in an out-of-town tryout at the Ahmanson in L.A., at the same theater and the same season slot as Drowsy was a few years back, though I never got anyone to confirm or deny Minsky's' Broadway future. It's rumored for the St. James, where The Producers bowed--a fitting spot for a show that might be described as Mel Brooks' 42 Street.

Speaking of that famous boulevard: The rehearsals and run-throughs I sat in on were held at the New 42nd Street Studios, just a few floors above the New Victory Theatre--the very site where Billy Minsky ran a burlesque theater (not his original LES base, the National Winter Garden) to compete with Ziegfield's Follies across the street. The ghosts must have been smiling, or leering, or both.

Low-Cost Classics

My favorite critic, Alex Ross, continues the noble project of demystifying "classical" music by simply reporting on it. His most recent column documents a ticket-price experiment--how much good music could he see in a week with a budget of $100?--that resonates with recent discussions of pricing for theater. How much great theater could you see in New York at that budget?

My favorite sentence from Ross's piece:
When there’s booing at the Met, it usually emanates from the Family Circle.

The rest of 'em rattle their jewelry.

Jan 29, 2009

We Must Work

The Time Out crew gets a little silly with Chekhov. I smiled, though the result looks roughly as Bergmanesque as Chekhovian.

Sign of the Times

Robin Rauzi, a former colleague at USC's Daily Trojan and until earlier this month a longtime reporter and editor for The Los Angeles Times, has made the big media jump from journo to flack: She's now the senior publicist for UCLA Live, a world-class performance series in the vein of BAM. It's nice to see she's landed on her feet, and hey, if a reporter's got to make that leap, she could scarcely do better than to land in Westwood. But it does give a media worker pause.

Jan 27, 2009


Leave it to former New Yorker Charles McNulty of the LA Times to inject a telling personal note into his review of Danny Hoch's anti-gentrification screed Taking Over, now onstage in L.A.:
My grandmother grew up in Williamsburg, and shortly before her death two years ago at age 98, I described the bohemian renaissance that had transfigured her childhood streets. She was mostly unimpressed but let out a derisive laugh when I told her about the multimillion-dollar condos for sale in the area. She had seen too many parts of town change over the years to lay claim to any one ZIP Code, but this lifelong New Yorker also recognized the impoverishment of a city in which only the rich are welcome.

Methinks that dose of local cred gives McNulty the right to challenge Hoch on his own turf in a way none of the New York critics did:
Of course, Hoch himself could be accused of a similar form of artistic colonization. After all, who gets to decide who’s a real resident and who’s a fake? Marion, the 60-something African American stoop dweller who can't help wryly noticing how today's rich kids like to "dress poor," might very well see Hoch in the same way he looks upon "the WASPy kid with a Midwestern accent and a faux vintage T-shirt"...Would the real-life inspiration for Marion — and even if she’s a fictional composite, she’s a stand-in for a black woman from a specific milieu — enjoy being made an anecdote in a white artist’s show?

Tell it.

Allen Zwerdling, 1922-2009

One of two founders of Back Stage and a newsprint entrepreneur of the old school, Allen Zwerdling was no longer affiliated with the brand when I had occasion to meet him at a Back Stage West Garland Awards ceremony. If I recall correctly, it was on the steps of the Pasadena Playhouse in early 2001. He looked in fine health, and he had kind and encouraging words about the paper. Somewhere in my files I've got a handwritten letter from around the same time, with his unsolicited but entirely welcome wisdom on the business of acting-trade publishing.

He should know. From the Hollywood Reporter obit:
The publication suffered growing pains in its early years, when Zwerdling and [co-founder Ira] Eaker were responsible for writing, editing, ad sales, and production. The pair even carried stacks of issues in their cars, ready to hurry them to any newsstand that might require more copies.

That's almost what it was like starting up Back Stage West back in the early '90s, in the final days of cut-and-paste publication (give me a straight-edge and 1-point tape and I swear I could still apply the rule around a wax-affixed photo).

In short: glad to have met him, proud to have carried his legacy forward my own small bit, and sorry he's gone.

Jan 26, 2009

Nothing to Hit But the Heights

This New York magazine slideshow of the last matinee of Gypsy two weekends ago is well worth a look. (And it may be the quiet answer to rumors that LuPone's infamous show-stopping outburst at someone taking photographs the night before, during "Rose's Turn," was mistakenly directed at a magazine shooter.)

(Photo by Boris Kachka.)

Jan 23, 2009

NY Times Copy Editors' Worst Nightmare

Years ago, when I reviewed Rob Nash's one-man show Holy Cross Sucks! for the Times, the very title of the show could not be printed, I was told, because the Times' powerful copy editing "priesthood"--that is the actual word my editor used--had strict rules about such usage.

Imagine what fun the priesthood must have had with Sarah Lyall's tittering piece about unintentionally rude English place names.

Speaking of British crudery, on Bob Martin's recommendation I'm checking out Steve Coogan's brilliant, cringe-inducing comedy series I'm Alan Partridge. Imagine a spinoff of the British Office in which David Brent worked on the tatty fringes of the media. Ouch!

Jan 22, 2009

L.A. List

I don't know when he posted this, but I enjoyed this marvelously eclectic list of LA Times critic Charles McNulty's favorite "theater addresses." Nice to know he's getting around town (particularly, it seems, to the Westside).

Jan 21, 2009

Love and Death

In today's papers: I talk to Oliver Mayer about Dias y Florest, the play he wrote to woo his wife, actress Marlene Forte, who stars in its L.A. premiere. And I review Stolen Chair's Theatre Is Dead and So Are You, which regrettably falls in the shows-I-wanted-to-like-more-than-I-did file.

Jan 20, 2009

History Then and Now

A reminder why Matt Yglesias is an indispensable blogger: Apropos today's historic inauguration, he digs up a speech from 1901 by George Henry White, the last of a number of black congressman elected during Reconstruction, who promised a "Phoenix-like" return of black elected officials. Yglesias' closing sentiment--that such faith in American ideals has been vindicated--is the kind of patriotic feeling I'm happy to embrace, particularly but not only today.

Kibitzing Kane

George Hunka points to this fascinating Brooklyn Rail reminiscence by Elana Greenfield about the late Sarah Kane's only trip to NY back in 1995. Hunka focuses on the way Kane's boundary-breaking work apparently unsettled everyone so much that they didn't know how to behave around her (a premise that makes me want to roll my eyes a bit), but he totally buries the lede: Kane's obsession with Jewish humor, and with Jackie Mason in particular.

From Elana's piece:
[Kane] had promised herself that if she ever ran into Jackie Mason she would walk right up to him and present him with her Jewish jokes and do The Shrug for him and see if he approved. And like in a movie—it happened...Not having been there I have no idea how this all took place. But I do remember that she looked just about as happy as I’ve ever seen anyone look when she returned, and a few days later she submitted this “report” to me telling me to feel free to pass it on to funders as I saw fit.

That report, which I'm dying to read, is apparently only available in the print edition of the Rail. I'm on the record as a Kane skeptic—I wouldn't bring myself to see the recent production of Blasted, for instance—but this makes me think twice. It's a bit like learning that, I don't know, Harold Pinter enjoyed listening to Howard Stern.

Jan 16, 2009

Inaugurating a New "Q" Lyric

Maybe you missed news of a nationwide contest to find a suitable replacement for Avenue Q's "George Bush" name-check (in the song "Only For Now"). As the press release put it with mock-solemnity, when Bush leaves behind his disastrous presidency next Tuesday, he will "forfeit his spot as a lyric in a hit Broadway show, as well."

Well, I'm not sure what kind of laugh that lyric has been getting lately, but I have to wonder about the four finalists for the replacement lyric, which will begin vying for laughs next week. In place of the litany that used to go...
Only for now (sex!)
Only for now (your hair!)
Only for now (George Bush!)
Is only for now!

...audiences will be reassured starting on Tuesday with the following:
Only for now (sex!)
Only for now (your hair!)
Only for now (recession!)
Is only for now!

Of the other lyrical finalists, I would imagine that "Prop. 8" will garner a few cheers (and some blank stares from tourists), "this show" will go by unnoticed, and the hoary "your mother-in-law" (seriously, guys?) can only hope for ironic laughter.

The producers say they hope "to gauge the response and audience reaction, and determine which lyric emerges as the most satisfying." Or the least unsatisfying, let's say. The bungler from Texas will be dearly missed as a punchline, indeed, but it's a sacrifice I'm happy our nation's entertainers will be forced to make.

Not All That

I recently received a plea from a critical colleague that seems worth airing here:
Do you guys know of a discussion board/Web site that gravitates more toward the meatier off- and even off-off-Broadway fare? I enjoy poking around All That Chat, but when I'm looking to find out whether to see, say, either "Wickets" or "The Connection" or "Sixty Miles to Silver Lake," I'm not in the mood for the 300th post about Patti LuPone's diction. Is there a less mainstream version floating around that you guys know of?

I know exactly what he means. Any thoughts, dear readers?

Jan 14, 2009

Cool Deals

The temperature in NYC as I write this is 21 degrees. The line at the TKTS booth, I have heard on good authority, is correspondingly slim. Not that I'm trying to hawk my employer's main business...

Zipped Up?

This would be a real loss.

Enter "Exit"

Times are tough, so why not bring Ionesco to Broadway? Specifically, a new production of his enigmatic Exit the King, starring Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon, to open in March. Well, why not? I still recall with a mix of fondness and bewilderment a 1999 production at the Actors Gang starring John Reilly and Molly Bryant, the latter bundling away her dotty monarch, and knitting up the evening, with a few beautiful, wordless moments. I spoke with Reilly about it then.

Jan 13, 2009

Still Relevant

Just caught this SNL sketch about Broadway's hard times; I smiled a few times, though what's fascinating to me is that this was written by writer/performers who work in New York City. It plays like a tourist's idea of Broadway (Harold Hill? "Guy from Stomp"?)

Jan 12, 2009

"Shaw" Thing

I don't have a lot of time at the moment for a lengthy or considered post on Gina Gionfriddo's excellent new play Becky Shaw except to say that, well, I think it's excellent, one of the best I've seen in a good while.

It's firmly in the American theatrical mainstream of what might be called contemporary relationship plays, a genre in which Second Stage specializes, with an inevitably spotty batting average. There's a danger of overpraising here, but Becky Shaw feels like a home run.

Its plotting and psychology have some odd lacunae, the kind that have you thinking out loud to your theatergoing companion afterwards, "Did you buy that scene/that turn/that moment?" But what I found smart about the writing is that the play's weird gaps and mysteries don't seem random or literary at all but actually spur reflection on the characters' behavior in closer-to-home moral sense, not just in terms of plausibility. The post-show questioning, in other words, ranged freely along the continuum between "Would someone do that?" at one end, the kind of thing one argues about after a horror movie or a thriller, and "What would make someone, even me, do that?" That's a rich place for a play to burrow in. It doesn't hurt that Gionfriddo's play, under Peter DuBois' direction, is also entertaining as hell.

While the widely diverging reviews have made a lot of the Thackeray connection, last night I happened to rewatch a film that resonates quite satisfyingly with Becky Shaw's themes of class skirmishes, role playing, and marital fragility: All About Eve.

Jan 11, 2009

Worst News of the Year

2009 is young but already it's delivering us more shit sandwiches we didn't order. Like this: The LA Weekly has eliminated the Theater Editor position, putting my friend, colleague, and inarguable better Steven Leigh Morris out of a job after 20 years. (Here's his gracious farewell post--they're making him "Critic At Large," and he will produce this year's theater awards, but still.) This is bad news for Steven, who has been an unfailingly kind and collegial comrade (even in disagreement), but even worse news for Los Angeles theater. When I started covering the scene in earnest in the early 1990s, the folks who really knew the L.A. theater scene with any authority were pretty much Don Shirley at the Times and the two Stevens at the Weekly (Morris and his acerbic, astute colleague Mikulan). LA Times stalwarts Sylvie Drake and Dan Sullivan were on their way out, as was Drama-Logue's Lee Melville. In my time heading up Back Stage West and for some time thereafter, that was the bar I aspired to meet, and the company I was proud to keep--people who lived and breathed L.A. theater, knew the scene, had their own takes on it.

Well, I left for the East Coast in 2005; Shirley was bought out of his LA Times post in 2006 (and he hasn't gone away, of course). I guess I'm impressed in this climate that Steven held on as long as he has, and I attribute his keeping the job so long not only to the support of his editors against the cost-cutting imperative of the New Times overlords but to his native strengths as a critic, a thinker, and an advocate for the best in the art in he covered. I've met few writers as thoughtful, in every sense of the word. I hope the Weekly gives him a column and that the L.A. scene thus won't lose yet another (and possibly its best) carrier of institutional memory.

(photo of SLM hosting LA Weekly awards in Ann Closs-Farley's paper suit)

Jan 5, 2009

Fog of "War"

Can I be the only person who found John Walter's Theater of War, a portentous new documentary about Brecht, Marxism, and the Public Theatre's 2006 production of Mother Courage, to be a snoozily earnest study guide? I'd love to see the film Manohla Dargis saw; it sounds great. But Walter's film is a tenuous collage of tantalizing footage, Theater 101 Brecht hagiography, and tendentious analogizing (watch for the absurdly didactic, startlingly inapt propman/labor theory section).

And while James C. Taylor's review also overpraises the film, he does note a relevant influence I'd missed: the way Walter's approach, and somber music, apes Errol Morris' extraordinary Fog of War.

For the record, I loved the Public's staging of Mother Courage, and though my Broadway.com review is no longer floating around the Interweb, I obsessively followed all the other reviews at the time (my own personal precursor, I guess, to Critic-O-Meter). For me, George C. Wolfe's production, with Tony Kushner's new text and Jeanine Tesori's music, hit a thrillingly happy, necessarily unstable medium between "entertainment" and "alienation" (a false dichotomy, arguably). Its relevance to the Iraq War per se was maybe the least interesting thing about it, except insofar as a classic like Mother Courage raises fresh, prickly challenges to us wherever and whenever we meet it.

It's hard to imagine the audience that would be challenged, let alone roused, by Theater of War. I mean, would it have killed Walter to include a single bad word about Brecht or Marx? More significantly, for all its incantatory references to Vietnam, Iraq, the Holocaust, and the A-bomb, the film fails to burrow in on one of the play's most thorny quandaries: It was written during World War II by a man fiercely committed to revolutionary Marxism, but its power as an "antiwar" text has a lot to do with its portrayal of all sides as venal and cynical, of all war as inherently corrupting and devouring. Did Brecht notice the contradiction? Did he harbor illusions about the purity of the Soviet military effort, or about the Stasi? I doubt it.

Or could it be, as it sometimes seems to me, that the play is not so resolutely, comprehensively antiwar after all--that it can't finally be construed as saying there's nothing ever worth fighting for? In particular, Mother Courage's own cynicism about war profiteering, and in a larger sense her capitulating to the forces of oppression, seems to me ultimately as blinkered and naive, as socially constrained and therefore incomplete, a view as the thinking of those who swallow ideological justifications for war and sign up to be cannon fodder. Neither the cynic nor the dupe possesses real wisdom, let alone moral clarity or the courage to act on it. I think Brecht realized that, and that's one reason his play is so haunting, and why it will keep returning, whether there's a war on or not, to prod us awake from both naivete and jadedness.

So, while I did enjoy revisiting bits and pieces of the Public production through Walter's film, and I find no time spent contemplating Brecht to be wasted, I can't recommend this scattershot Theater of War except to the theater students who will inevitably be subjected to it until there's another actual production of the play to take them to.