Apr 30, 2012

Hustle Bustle

Is "Another Hundred People" the true New York anthem? Seth Rudetsky makes an excellent case.

Apr 25, 2012

Quote for the Ages

"Art is rarely ever the ideal forum for getting one's point across. People who chose the so-called 'shock' route do it because it's the one with greatest likelihood of taking you where you intend to go at the outset. Artists who are frustrated by the potential of being misunderstood have chosen the wrong field."
-commenter Breakerbaker, on TNC's blog, cited here

Apr 21, 2012

A Show of Farce

James Corden, in a war of choice with himself.
There's something about being in the presence of performers who will do anything to make us laugh—whose sole aim is to tickle us—that is at once utterly reassuring and a tad boring. I think it was Kelly Coffield, best known for being the token white chick on In Living Color, who once told me that working in sketch comedy amounted to competing with people who would light themselves on fire for a laugh. The actors in the elaborate new Broadway entertainment One Man, Two Guvnors don't quite light themselves on fire, but they do come close. I realized this roughly 15 minutes into this British-ized commedia confection, when the utterly charming lead, Francis Henshall (James Corden, a mischievous emcee here more than an actor), has an argument with himself that culminates in knockdown fisticuffs. Is he possessed? Does he have split-personality disorder? No; Corden and director Nicholas Hytner just want to make us laugh, and they'll use whatever garbage can lid is at hand (the fire comes later).

While the result of all this pulling-faces malarkey is entirely agreeable, it doesn't have the tautness or slam-bang danger of true farce, or the dead-serious stakes of the best comedy. Its farcical machinations all come with a meta wink, and while it's a very engaging wink indeed, it doesn't hide the slackness in writer Richard Bean and director Nicholas Hytner's conception. It seems to me that a good Arlecchino, like a good Pseudolus or a good Scapin, should scheme and scamper like his ass could be beaten at any minute, and he ideally shouldn't relax (as neither should we) until all the plot's loose ends are improbably tied up. But the supremely confident lead actor Corden doesn't convey that alert desperation; instead, he's a nearly Apatovian figure of affable torpor, and if he breaks a sweat in that wonderfully mismatched three-piece suit, I didn't see it.

One might object that meta-farce is precisely what Hytner and co. are up to here—that the hair-raising jeopardy and confusion and humiliation typically visited on the characters in a bona fide farce are instead cleverly diverted to another target (and in a way that can't be revealed by any self-respecting member of the press). Fair enough, but this seems a poor substitute for truly setting the plates spinning out of control within the world of the play, which would be one way to sustain the momentum of a show that loses steam pretty quickly, and whose energy throughout noticeably flags nearly every time the action isn't being enlivened and annotated by Corden. Indeed, once the synthetic chaos of One Man's first act comes to a riotous close, the evening's quota of risk vanishes along with the air quotes. We're left with slick, hyper-competent, no-stakes, smile-worthy antics rather than comedy with flesh and blood in it—a sketch comedy simulacrum of farce, really.

Obviously, though, I'm in the minority.

Apr 16, 2012

L.A. Hires Its Own

Something strange is happening in Los Angeles: Its two biggest nonprofit theaters, on either side of town, currently feature plays not only cast largely with L.A.-based actors but directed by L.A.-based directors: At the Taper, a new production of Waiting for Godot, starring Barry McGovern, Alan Mandell, James Cromwell, and Hugo Armstrong, is directed by Michael Arabian, who I know mainly for a pair of site-specific classics he staged on movie lots back in the 1990s (a motorcycle-borne Romeo and Juliet on the CBS backlot, a Trojan Women in the "Gilligan's Island" lagoon), and whose directing credits, as far as I can tell, are of the non-LORT regional theater, let alone New York hot-shit director, variety. In fact, I confess that when he and I chatted at last year's TCG Conference in L.A. and he mentioned he'd be doing Godot at the Taper, I was a little skeptical. Well, it not only went up at the Taper; by all accounts it's a great production.

Meanwhile, across town at the Geffen Playhouse, David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, the Pulitzer-winning, class-conscious comedy/drama that starred Frances McDormand on Broadway, is seen in a brand new production, not an import, with Jane Kaczmarek in the lead. That's good enough news (as is the presence of Lindsay-Abaire regular Marylouise Burke in the cast), but even better is that Matt Shakman is the director. Matt who? The artistic director of the justly acclaimed, tiny Black Dahlia Theatre, who did great work there when I was on the scene, and who subsequently got into TV directing (last I heard). Like Arabian's Godot at the Taper, Good People also represents Shakman's large-theater directing debut. And, like its crosstown counterpart, this Good People is apparently very good, indeed.

This is a lot rarer than you might think in Los Angeles, where the larger theaters, not to mention the local daily paper, remain overly reliant on New York talent and tastemakers. If you look at the Geffen's upcoming season, for instance, there's only one L.A. theater director, Bart DeLorenzo, on tap (outside of Geffen a.d. Randall Arney). To bring Jo Bonney to L.A. to reprise directorial duties on Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is much more the rule with L.A. theater (I expect that play, by the way, to resonate even more loudly out West). Center Theater Group likewise tends to import New York shows with their original directors and, if possible, actors intact (last season's God of Carnage, this season's Red, next season's Other Desert Cities), and even originates many of its shows with NY-based talent (Michael John LaChiusa and Graciela Daniele's upcoming Los Otros, for instance).

I don't know the story behind how these two exceptions at the Taper and the Geffen came about, but it's heartening to see artists who've proven their chops in the trenches of L.A.'s smaller theaters get a chance on the larger stages. I can only hope it's a trend.

Apr 13, 2012

Apr 12, 2012

Quote for the Day

"No one who believes in the greatness of certain plays would go to any one of our houses to enjoy them. They exist as thundering productions in the mind only. We know they might be done (King Lear, for example, should be played by Ernest Hemingway), but one also knows that way lies nightmare, madness, and no hurricane's spout. Our theatre is cancer gulch. Anyone who has worked in it, felt the livid hate-twisted nerves of the actresses, the fag-ridden spirit of the actors, the gulping mannerless yaws of our directors, hysterical at resistance, ponderous at exposition, and always psychoanalytical, must admit that yes, at its best, our theatre is a rich ass and/or hole, at its worst, the heavens recoil."
-Norman Mailer, reviewing Genet's The Blacks in the Voice in 1961 (h/t Adam Feldman)

Apr 3, 2012

To Moscow

It's my first trip to Mother Russia, and my first Golden Mask Festival, so most likely no posting for the next week.

More anon. Till then, do svidaniya!

Apr 2, 2012

Quote for the Day

"There’s a guy who wrote a book about SITI Company, and he saw [Room] a number of times, and in rehearsal once, he asked Ellen Lauren (the performer of Room) what she was thinking or doing in that section that he found so moving, and she said, “I’m counting.”

And he got so upset, he said, “That can’t be, I went through so much emotion during that,” he would not accept that what she was doing and feeling in that section was counting. But that’s the odd paradox of the theatre, that often the most emotional moments for the audience are the least so for the actor.

-Anne Bogart, in an interview with Gus Schulenburg