Jan 31, 2012

Loos and Liveness

Fred Armisen's recent dump on the one-man show is easy pickin's, no doubt, but it's smile-worthy nonetheless (h/t Playgoer). (For a look at a long sketch toward the above, see Armisen and Brownstein's pre-Portlandia bit here; the choice moment is the "last hat" breakthrough at ≈ 5:19).

Easily the truest-to-life bit in the SNL sketch, among many contenders, is the onstage/backstage bathroom—an amenity which, despite its obvious awkwardness, happens to be a feature at two of the best theaters around: the Atlantic Theater Company here in New York and L.A.'s Theater of NOTE. I happened to be reminded of the latter recently by this photo trove, which catalogues some of the best work I saw in L.A. in grainy black-and-white photos (pre-2006).

Pamela Gordon and Alina Phelan in Eden at NOTE

As great as it is to have these photographic reminders, the work I witnessed in that amazingly intimate space remains still more vivid in my memory, in color and in three dimensions. It's the immanent liveness of theater, of course, that keeps it so alive in our memory—or can make a masturbatory solo show so skin-crawlingly awful.

Missing the Boat

When faced with the choice to save her lover by submitting sexually to his torturer, Tosca sings "Vissi d'arte." When Billy Bigelow is faced with the daunting prospect of being a father, he gets an eight-minute "Soliloquy."

But when Bess is faced, in the first act of Porgy and Bess, with the choice of shacking up with Porgy while her lover Crown evades a murder rap, she doesn't get an aria. The same thing happens, or fails to happen, in the second act, after Sportin' Life dangles a trip to New York, along with some "happy dust," in front of her; there's no song to dramatize our heroine's decision point here, either. At this point in the new Broadway-ized version of the show, arranger Diedre L. Murray gives Audra McDonald, as Bess, a few eerily reharmonized lines of Sportin' Life's pitch, "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York," as she equivocates over a drug relapse. A quick sniff later, and she's off to the big city.

I'm not sure why the Gershwins and their librettist, DuBose Heyward, didn't give Bess arias at these obvious story points, but it's hard to escape the suspicion that they just didn't think of their two leads as equals, in the way McDonald and this new revisal's director, Diane Paulus, do. As Paulus told the Times, her "only agenda with the Gershwin opera was 'to make sure that we had a story that lived up to its title.' With emphasis on the conjunction, she continued, 'Porgy and Bess. Porgy and Bess.' "

Alas, it seems, the story doesn't live up to that title, and no amount of tinkering can change that. But if Bess' role is under-dramatized, the picture isn't much fuller for Porgy, who gets essentially one solo burst of joy, "I Got Plenty of Nothin'," and then two back-to-back cries of the heart at the very end, when he resolves to leave in search of Bess ("Where's My Bess" and "I'm on My Way").

While I have little interest in wading into the persistent controversy over the opera's alleged racial insensitivity, I think one reason the piece continues to seem suspect to some folks is this under-dramatization of the titular leads, as if they weren't quite worthy of rich, conflicted interior lives. Indeed, the defining moments in the opera (with two big exceptions, which I'll get to) are community numbers: "My Man's Gone Now," "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing," "Summertime," the Catfish Row seller's sequence, the fishermen's song, "I Can't Sit Down," etc. And as accomplished as these are ("My Man's Gone Now" in particular is masterful, though not so much in the current Broadway production), they make the work feel more like a pageant of black life than a fully characterized drama about specific individuals. That kind of sympathetic but arm's-length view, while arguably a valid approach for writers depicting a community that's not their own, can hover dangerously close to condescension. And in the wrong directorial hands, the result can indeed look like minstrelsy. (But in the right hands, as Joe Nocera reminds us, the community chorales can be the glue that holds the piece together.)

Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks' approach to this challenge—essentially, to strip back the pageantry and ground the acting in a kind of stark naturalism—is fine as far as it goes, but of course it can't go very far with a piece that was conceived more in medium shot than in close-up. The result is a watchable Porgy and Bess, in large part because of the lead actors, but fundamentally a dull one. For all all the alleged violence its vaunted revisionism does to the original opera, the show actually feels overly reverent.

Ah, but the reason to do P&B is the music, right? Well, that's another problem. Some scores can survive downsizing, but perhaps it's a tribute to the George Gershwin's operatic ambition that his score seems to limp along in this chamber-ized version. The show's crowning achievement, the love duet "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," is a rich, soaring harmonic feast (I would entertain seriously the idea that it's the best thing he ever did), but its extraordinary lift and reach can't be realized, it seems, with anything less than the full orchestration.

The only moment that pierces the production's polite torpor comes with the lesser but still great follow-up duet, "I Loves You, Porgy," in which the production's intensely naturalistic approach pays off in spades; I've never heard this song sound quite so desperate and provisional ("If you can keep me/I wants to stay here"). Lacking a great aria of her own, this is McDonald's most thrilling connection with the material, and Norm Lewis—a mild, genial Porgy for most of the show—matches her fervor note for note.

I should add that the mostly older audience I saw the show with seemed to love it, and I can only hope they've heard the score before and were filling in the missing orchestral colors in their minds (as I was). While I don't quite believe that this new Porgy and Bess does any damage to the original—it hasn't been erased from the culture's hard drive, last time I checked—one sense in which I sadly agree with the show's detractors is that it's a really unfortunate way to be introduced to the manifold glories of Gershwin's score. I doubt that the opera's dramatic deficits can (or really need to be) solved, but in putting its focus there, this new P&B misses the main reason it's worth reviving.

Jan 30, 2012

Ken Davenport Bait

I know he's been busy putting together TEDxBroadway, but how did the industrious blogger at Producer's Pespective miss Jonah Lehrer's interesting piece about collaboration, in last week's New Yorker? It's right up Ken's alley, which is to say Shubert Alley.

Though billed as a debunking of the "brainstorming myth," Lehrer's piece is actually more about what kinds of collaborative environments actually do produce the best results. A key example at its heart is a study by Northwestern's Brian Uzzi, who analyzed decades of Broadway musicals in terms of what he calls the "Q factor," or degree of interconnectedness among the creative collaborators. Uzzi found that the most successful musicals, both critically and commercially, were created by teams with an "intermediate" Q factor, or a moderate level of social and professional familiarity—i.e., a mix of folks who'd worked together before and thus had a useful shorthand, plus fresh voices who added something new and/or challenging to the group. Uzzi noted that musicals in the 1920s, for instance, though they produced reams of great songs, were predominantly quickie flops, a deficit he blamed on a too-inbred Broadway scene, or, in his terms, “When the Q was too high, the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation.” But when the Q was too low—when a show was essentially a collective creative blind date—the show suffered at the box office (though how this explains Spider-man I don't know).

Uzzi's North Star of success is West Side Story, in which the titans Laurents, Bernstein, and Robbins welcomed the newbie Sondheim. My only quibble with that example is that, as has been amply pointed out since, West Side Story was only a modest success on Broadway, and it wasn't until the film version that the work was commercially and critically certified as a knockout (wrongly, in my minority opinion).

In any case, insert pithy lesson about how to make your show better here, and you've got a ready-made post for Ken Davenport's blog (which, in all seriousness, is a model of the form).

Jan 25, 2012

Clean "Talk," Dirty Reviews

The post-Tina Brown New Yorker has not been known for its squeamishness (am I the only one who vividly remembers the awkward shock of that hilariously severe Tilda Swinton nude photo spread of nearly 20 years ago?), so I was shocked in reverse to see the way a recent Talk of the Town handled Rick Santorum's infamous "Google problem":
“If Rick Santorum wants to invite himself into the bedrooms of gays and lesbians (and their dogs), I say we ‘include’ him in our sex lives—by naming a gay sex act after him.” [Dan] Savage, who has a long history as a bigot-baiter and civil libertarian (he started the “It Gets Better” project), pounced on the idea. He announced a contest, and readers wrote in with suggestions: “How about calling condoms ‘Ricks’?” In the end, Savage’s readers came up with an unprintable definition. If you have not yet Googled “Santorum,” take a deep breath first.
Readers at risk of hyperventilating over the finer points of sodomy got no such warning when they cast their eyes across Hilton Als' recent review of Thomas Bradshaw's Burning, which featured an extensive, hard-to-miss script excerpt about the distinctive pleasures of anal sex with black women, or when they surveyed John Lahr's exceptionally hostile review of The Book of Mormon, in which he seemed to take special delight in verbatim quotes of the show's most shocking language, including a script excerpt that begins with the immortal line of the Ugandan mission's show-within-the-show, "My name is Joseph Smit’. I’m going to fuck this baby."

I know every double standard cuts both ways; am I saying I'd rather have the New Yorker be more consistently filthy? Not necessarily. But this contrast between the demure smirk at the front of the book and the no-holds-barred frankness of the boys in the back pages is striking. Interesting, too, that this transgressive impulse seems to be the exclusive provenance of the magazine's theater critics; I don't recall Alex Ross or Anthony Lane or Peter Schjeldahl cutting loose like this, even in quotation. To each section its own rules, I guess—and it may be true, to mangle a conservative shibboleth, that when it comes to criticism an editorial policy governs best that governs the least.

Jan 23, 2012

Link Sees

A start to a busy week, post-Queens move, means more quick hits out the gate:

Jan 21, 2012

On the Rebound

My friend and colleague Molly Smith Metzler had a really shitty Christmas: She got a bad case of mono just as her long-anticipated and star-studded New York debut, Close Up Space, got a bad case of bad reviews.

Just a few weeks later, her health on the mend, she was in Costa Mesa, California, to rehearse her other big play, Elemeno Pea, a caustic comedy of class envy which I saw and loved last June at Humana. That production proved she's better, and deserves better, than the Close Up Space reviews would indicate; with any luck, and the right cast under South Coast a.d. Marc Masterson, Elemeno Pea will again show the world what she can do, and the American theater will hold onto her sharp, funny voice.

At least, that's the hope behind my Los Angeles Times feature on the play.

Jan 19, 2012

Heading for the Hills

After from a six-month sublet in Cobble Hill, Greenpoint, Brooklyn has been my New York home since early 2006. I moved here with my then-girlfriend when our relationship was shaky, and we were the only non-Polish residents in our six-unit building.

How much has changed: She and I are the married parents of an irrepressibly bright, sweet son, and the 'hood has become overrun with young non-Poles like ourselves (and much younger); the ratio in our building is now just 1/3 Polish. The area has become so gentrified, alas, that we can't afford the extra space for our growing family. So tomorrow we move to Forest Hills, a lovely Queens neighborhood where we'll have a slightly bigger shoebox to call home (and Oliver will at last have his own room).

That happens tomorrow, which means today is our last day in Greenpoint. There's a lot to say goodbye to, from Paulie Gee's to Cafe Royal, McGolrick Park (above) to McCarren Park (this neighborhood used to be Irish), Grumpy to Karczma. Nearby Williamsburg was the site of my first New York Times review assignment (at the Brick) and my first New York solo gig (at Pete's Candy Store). Above all, and honestly the hardest thing about leaving the hood, is our scrappy, warm little Greenpoint Church, which has been an extended family to all of us. That last affiliation provides us with at least the excuse to return once a week to the neighborhood that's been the only home our family has known in this world.

The rest of the week, we'll be busy making ourselves a new home. Regular blogging will resume shortly.

Jan 13, 2012

Quote for the Week

"The experience of watching Jerusalem confirmed something in me I’ve suspected for some time. In life, I may be a progressive Christian, but when it comes to the theater, I’m a complete pagan. In life, I want to align myself with the peacemakers. I want to educate myself about the injustices in the world and address them in whatever ways I can. But when I go to the theater, I want something more than an ennobling education. I want to be knocked on the side of my head with the mysteries of the universe; I want to explore the wild and the wooly terrains of myself that I keep a lid on in polite society; I want to fuck strangers and fear God and poke my eyes out with a needle."
-Catherine Treischmann, answering the accusation that the Christian characters in her own plays are "yokels," on HowlRound

Jan 11, 2012

Beth Mettle

photo by Walter McBride

One of the first reviews I wrote for Back Stage West back in 1993 was a slam of Control Freaks, a lurid and seriously flawed attempt by the playwright Beth Henley to reach way outside her usual metier and do something attention-gettingly radical (my colleague Tom Jacobs liked it better than I did). In fact, Henley had for some time been trying to punch her way outside the box to which she'd been consigned by her early successes, Crimes of the Heart (essentially her first full-length play, which nabbed her a Pulitzer before the age of 30), and The Miss Firecracker Contest—to be specific, the quaint-and-dainty-Southern-lady box, a profoundly condescending stereotype that sells her best work short, but one she's been unable to shake, not least because neither her attempts to run from it nor her post-Crimes Southern plays have been up to her best work (though I think Abundance and The Lucky Spot deserve another shot, and I would pay serious money to see David Cromer direct any of her work, particularly Crimes).

All of which made me very interested in The Jacksonian, her newest play, which bows at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. next month. Remarkably, it marks her first premiere at a major resident theater in the town she's lived in for 30 years now; it's also the first play set in her own hometown of Jackson, Miss., and set during a particularly ugly and volatile time there (1964). I'm a terrible judge of plays on the page, so I can't say whether this extremely disturbing, intermittently funny new work is her best since Crimes of the Heart or not. But with its verbal and physical violence, and its undercurrent of fatalism, it's certainly a departure from the mostly-unfair stereotype of the quirky-sweet Beth Henley. As director Robert Falls puts it in my new New York Times feature on the play, if nothing else The Jacksonian returns to Henley's Southern territory, but with a new fearlessness he credits to her howling-in-the-wilderness period.

Alas, I won't be able to see the play, but with any luck—and the insurance not only of Falls' participation but a cast that includes Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Bill Pullman, and Glenne Headly—this won't be the end of the road for The Jacksonian, or for Henley's lopsided career.

RWK in Print, Sondheim Edition

It just so happens that this month I've got two reviews of Sondheim that are only accessible in print form. First, a belated consideration of the current Follies in the latest Sondheim Review. Nut graf:
Director Eric Schaeffer's production seems to satisfy most of those who've wished for a Follies worthy of their lavish imaginings, as little expense has been spared, from the full 28-piece orchestra to the garish costumes for the Loveland sequence (courtesy of Gregg Barnes). For myself, though I find its musical virtues nearly definitive, this Follies is on the whole a bittersweet homecoming. What I glimpse through its whorl of disparate elements—many if not all of them exquisitely conceived and rendered—is not quite a great show but a great idea for a show, or perhaps more accurately, a number of great ideas for shows.
And in this month's American Theatre, I've got a review of the master's second volume of lyrics, Finishing the Hat:
The saving grace of this gargantuan literary effort—less a compendium of lyrics than a hybrid artistic memoir/deluxe liner notes collection—is its infectious enthusiasm; even when he has spent them on mistaken projects and blind alleys, Sondheim shows a questing vigor and restless creative spirit that offset his equally strong tendencies toward ruefulness, doubt and acerbic criticism of others as well as himself. Perhaps because the second volume contains two shows either savaged or dismissed by critics and audiences (Passion and the Mizner bros. debacle), as well as a number of never-finished pet projects, it has more than the usual tone of defensive special pleading. This would be unpleasant were Sondheim not also so fair-minded and, yes, openhearted about his process and his foibles. At one point, he confesses that he cries easily; more startling, he later confesses that he only noticed the precious, irreducible ephemerality of theatre—the chosen medium of his entire adult life!—after a 1979 cocktail conversation with British directors, who seemed aghast at the notion of videotaping performances for archival purposes. “The very thing that makes theatre impermanent is what makes it immortal,” he belatedly realizes. “In a sense, every night of a show is a revival.”

Jan 10, 2012

Talkbacks, for Real

Forget tweeting in the theater; that's positively genteel next to the stories I got in response to this morning's question on American Theatre's Facebook page. I asked, "Have you ever talked back to the actors onstage during a performance?" My favorite response so far, from Florence Brammer, re: a production of Measure for Measure by Minneapolis' Ten Thousand Things:
As the chaste Isabella departed following her first scene with the lecherous Angelo, actor Steve Hendrickson turned toward a nearby woman in the audience to begin his soliloquy: "What's this, what's this? Is this her fault or mine? The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?"

Without missing a beat, the woman replied loudly, "I think it's you, shithead."
A quick Google search reveals that Brammer is actually quoting a story from a 2007 issue of American Theatre, which I hadn't read before—a great introduction, by the way, to the company that once employed the talented Brian Baumgartner, pictured above in a production of The Three Lives of Lucy Cabrol.

Tuesday on the Links

Jan 9, 2012

Quote for the Day

"Video projection is to the experimental auteur as the second-act opening monologue, 'I had this dream last night' and late-night drunken truth-telling are to American playwrights."
-David Cote on his Facebook page, as he surveys this month's festival offerings

Jan 6, 2012

The Backwater

Los Angeles skyscrapers & Echo Park lake from Bigstock

It took me a while—about five or six years, I'd say—of trial and error to figure out where the best theater in Los Angeles was (it was my beat from the early '90s until 2005, when I moved to NYC). It took me less time to figure out that there was good theater in Los Angeles—theater that was worth considering on its own merits, irrespective of New York or national standards, worthy of awarding and comparatively weighing and discussing as if it were a real, thriving scene of its own. I saw a lot of really, really bad theater in L.A., and I soon grew to understand the unique reasons why L.A. has so much of it. But I also saw enough great stuff onstage there to convince me it was worth covering critically and intently (names dropped here).

Charles McNulty has been the chief critic at the Los Angeles Times for six years now, but if former-Times-reporter-turned-Times-gadfly Don Shirley is to be believed, McNulty still doesn't "get" that L.A. theater is worthy of his more-or-less undivided critical attention:
A lot of readers probably assume that the chief LA Times critic reviews or at least sees most of the better LA shows. But it ain’t necessarily so. I looked up the record of what McNulty wrote about in 2011, courtesy of one of the databases at the LA Public Library. I found 52 reviews of individual theater productions within LA and Orange counties (plus one review at Long Beach Opera and a RADAR L.A. commentary that included brief comments on several shows)...

McNulty also spent time in the major San Diego theaters, reviewing five shows at La Jolla Playhouse and four at the Old Globe (plus one at San Diego Rep, which he later re-reviewed when it came to LA)...

He didn’t write about any of the four 2011 shows that won the top production honors at last year’s Ovation Awards ceremony (A Raisin in the Sun, Kiss Me Kate, Small Engine Repair, Jerry Springer: the Opera), nor has he ever written (in his six years at the Times) about Troubadour Theater Company, which won the “best season” Ovation for the second time in three years.

He reviewed no 2011 shows at most of the companies that make up the middle tier of Equity-contracted LA theaters – the Colony, International City Theatre, East West Players, Theatricum Botanicum, Independent Shakespeare, the Falcon, Ebony Rep, Theatre West, Native Voices – nor did he write about anything at the larger musicals-only companies such as Musical Theatre West.
And so on. It's no secret that McNulty and his editors consider his beat to be major theaters in Southern California and in New York, with the latter city still providing the center of critical gravity in much of his writing (and, it must be said, in much of the Times' coverage). As I've mentioned before, McNulty's not the only critic racking up frequent-flier miles for Gotham check-ins: Chris Jones at the Chicago Trib and Peter Marks at WaPo each review a goodly number of major New York premieres (just as the NY Times' Ben Brantley makes regular trips to London and his colleague Charles Isherwood similarly treks with some frequency to Chicago). And it would obviously be insane for me, who works at a national theater magazine whose whole raison d'etre is to cover theater all across the country, to believe that readers only want to read about plays they can buy a ticket to see tonight.

That said, theater is inherently a local medium, and it seems reasonable to expect the theater critic at your local paper to cover your area's theater as his primary beat, and to expect that when he compiles a year-end "best of" list (a flawed exercise for slow news weeks, admittedly) or writes a think piece about the state of theater, he'll be considering primarily the theater in his coverage area. And what do you know: Here's Chris Jones' Chicago-only list for 2011, here's Peter Marks' all-D.C. list...and here is McNulty's: six Southland productions (Shirley, using a much more stringent standard, counts just two "L.A.-originated" works), plus two in London and three in New York. McNulty also offers this thoughtful essay pointing out other, smaller-theater favorites, though not quite in a list form. And the Times did offer this L.A.-only best-of list from its stringers.

The message sent by McNulty's uniquely divided focus seems clear: that theater in Southern California just isn't good enough to fill the local critic's top-11 list. Corollary: Sure, there are signs of promise (there are always those to be found), but stage work in a film town can't possibly provide a yardstick to be judged on its own terms. In my experience, artists in Los Angeles create bodies of work no less than artists in Chicago or New York or Louisville, and together and separately those artists create a larger corpus of work that's worth considering as a whole, even if the honest verdict after consideration is: It's all over the map. That's better than nowhere.

As someone who spent formative theatergoing years in L.A. (supplemented, I hasten to add, by theater tourism in New York, London, and Ashland) and then moved East, I can't expect someone who made the reverse journey, and who has infinitely more scholarship and experience than I (as David Cote points out here, McNulty has that edge on most of us), to see things exactly the way I did back when I loved (and hated, but with the passion of one who cared) L.A. theater. A critic's own often-lonely pursuit of his own honest opinions is as crucial and subjective as an artist's muse, so I can't question what seems to be McNulty's honest impression, after logging time (mostly) in L.A., that L.A.'s theater culture, though perhaps more substantial than Seattle's, is not ready for prime time. I don't even disagree with him that the region's larger theaters are mostly adrift, though I have to say that New York's large nonprofits hardly fare much better on the vision front.

The best backhanded compliment I can offer is this: McNulty has shown himself such an astute, thoughtful, and sensitive critic, with interesting, deeply informed, and often provocative things to say about the art form he covers, that it strikes me as a lost opportunity every time he applies those critical faculties to productions and trends miles away from his adopted hometown. If he wanted to correct course, he could do worse than to start with the Troubies.

Jan 3, 2012

Quick Hits Out of the Gate

The year is but three days old, and I'm already slammed with deadlines, so a link list is the best I can do at the moment...