May 31, 2012

From Buggin' to Fring to Calderon

1989, the number, another summer: I fell hard for Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing; I saw it maybe half a dozen times in the theater. For all its tendentious politics, I think what I most responded to was its exuberant, oversaturated sound and color (I use the term advisedly, but how else do you describe the vibrant production design of Wynn Thomas?), and its extraordinary actors, all of them (apart from John Turturro, Richard Edson, and the venerable Ossie and Ruby) quite unfamiliar to me: Robin Harris, Sam Jackson, Danny Aiello, Richard Edson, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, Roger Guenveur Smith, and above all, fiery Giancarlo Esposito as that tireless pain-in-the-ass Buggin' Out. Esposito somehow managed to be both hilarious, pointed, and faintly pathetic all at once (see the Air Jordan scene above), a substantive fool worthy of Shakespeare.

What I didn't think about much then was Giancarlo's name, and how it sat squarely at odds with Buggin' Out's particular beef in the film—if you recall, he initiates a boycott of Sal's Pizzeria in Bed-Stuy because there are only "American Eye-talians" on the owner's "Wall of Fame," and he'd like to see "some brothers up on the wall." In researching the extraordinary life and career of the Copenhagen-born Esposito for this profile in the paper of record, I was struck not only by that uncommon biracial background (African-American mother, Italian father) but by the ways Esposito has leveraged that dual Otherness in a variety of roles. In Spike's films and several stage roles he played various registers of African-American, some of which he had to diligently study to master, but he's also played Puerto Rican (Fresh), Chilean (Breaking Bad), even occasionally black/Italian (Homicide: Life on the Streets). And in JP Shanley's new play Storefront Church, he plays Donaldo Calderon, a half-PR/half-Italian Bronx pol. (Fun trivia: The play reunites with him Tonya Pinkins, with whom he appeared in 1981's Merrily We Roll Along; it was her Broadway debut, but he'd made his at age 8 opposite Shirley Jones in 1966's Maggie Flynn).

I sat down with him, appropriately enough, in a small diner in the Bronx, the borough in which he was partly raised. For the record, there were no brothers on the wall.

May 24, 2012

When Hank Met Stevie

Well, this got my attention this morning:
LADCC Award-winning California Repertory Company is thrilled to announce the world premiere of B.S.: Bukowski.Sondheim., featuring the words of Charles Bukowski and the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, to inaugurate their 24th season on November 2nd. Conceived and directed by Joanne Gordon, in her final season as Cal Rep’s Artistic Director, B.S. will run in the Queen Mary’s Royal Theater through December 8th.
In case you missed it, that theater is on a boat. Anchored in Long Beach. Lest you scoff, know that Cal Rep is indeed a company with a pedigree, and that they inaugurated said waterborne theater with, as I recall, the first post-Broadway-fiasco production of Festen. This Bukowski.Sondheim. thing is apparently very personal for the director/conceiver:
Gordon’s artistic life has been guided by an unlikely pair of beacons: Bukowski, the revered chronicler of the downtrodden and lonely in the alley ways of LA, and Sondheim, the brilliant, sophisticated iconoclast of Broadway. Superficially, these two artists have little in common. However, B.S. creator Gordon points to a synergy that unites the essence of the two men. “I have always been moved by a central passion that is so similar in the works of these creative giants, one that has always engendered a fission in my soul,” Gordon relates. “As a young person growing up in South Africa obsessed with Sondheim’s music and Bukowski’s words, I never dreamed that one day I would be given this opportunity to explore their work in a unique theatrical way.” Now both Linda Bukowski, Hank’s widow, and Stephen Sondheim have granted Gordon permission to fuse the two aspects of her passion and bring their voices together.
The mind reels. It's true that Cal Rep does have a track record with both artists; it produced Gordon’s adaptation of Love, Bukowski in her inaugural season there, as well as Sondheim and Weidman's Assassins. That last show, come to think of it, is the sole Sondheim musical with a truly Bukowskian character, the unshaven-loser Santa Sam Byck, though of course that's all Weidman. (You might argue that Elaine Stritch's Joanne—particularly as seen in D.A. Pennebaker's cast-album backstager about the Company cast album—is Bukowskian, too.) Free-associating further, I'll talk out of school and mention that a friend of mine recently related that some decades ago, she spent a dinner in the company of a friend of a friend, to whom she wasn't introduced except by his first name, and whom she described as a smelly, unshaven slob; I think she even joked that he seemed to her like a homeless person. She later learned that smelly "Stevie" was, well, you can guess. I'd imagine that Joanne Gordon's exploration of these two American originals will delve deeper than matters of hygeine and the intake of harmful substances (another convergence between the two, to an extent), but I'll tally this convergence as another plus. Indeed, color me intrigued enough to read this Bukowski quote in a new light: "An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way." Sondheim has come down on both sides of that divide, actually, but not for lack of trying. UPDATE: Writes David Barbour, in a comment on Facebook: "BS sounds just about right. I see it now -- a drunk in a bar with a beer gut and three days worth of bearding, singing, 'Liaisons, what's happened to them?' " I'm starting to warm to this idea, too. I suddenly thought of this great lyric from Sunday in the Park With George:
More red... And a little more red... Blue blue blue blue Blue blue blue blue Even even... Good... Bumbum bum bumbumbum Bumbum bum... More red... More blue... More beer...

May 16, 2012

Welcome to the Occupation

Food and Fadwa playwrights Jacob Kader and Lameece Issaq

I didn't follow the New York Theatre Workshop/My Name Is Rachel Corrie controversy back in 2006 all that closely—I didn't have to, because my colleague at Playgoer, Garrett Eisler, owned the story (here's an early sample, and here's his verdict on the show once it arrived at the Minetta Lane). But when, in the years since, I heard about NYTW's production of Betty Shamieh's The Black Eyed, for instance, or its welcoming of the Arab-American Noor Theatre as a resident company, I couldn't help but think: Are Jim Nicola and co. doing their best to make good after all that bad blood?

Well, in reporting on Noor's debut production, Food and Fadwa, for the paper of record, I wasn't able to get Nicola to quite admit what I'd suspected—that Noor essentially represents the culmination of a years-long effort to turn a public relations fiasco into an opportunity for dialogue, and for an invitation to one group of artists who weren't actually a party to the Israel/Palestine-based fight over Rachel Corrie, the subject of which, despite her unequivocal identification with the Palestinian cause, was an American whose story was turned into a play by a pair of Brits.

It at least seems clear, though, that Noor might never have been born without that painful chapter to precede it, and I think for this happy result we can all be grateful.

May 15, 2012

The House That George Built

photo by T. Charles Erickson

Not long after I moved to New York, I was on a bill with other singer/songwriters at a now-defunct Park Slope eatery called Night & Day, and among the standouts was a ginger-haired imp named Gabriel Kahane who played excerpts from something he called "Craigslistlieder"—verbatim personal and roommate-seeking ads from the site, turned into nervy and often touching art songs (here's a signature example).

In the years since, I haven't seen Gabriel perform again but I've followed his precipitous ascent—and not just in the concert hall, where he's become a kind of singer/songwriter/composer, a sort of Brooklyn-hipster Aaron Copland—with a mix of acute interest and slightly presumptuous envy. For, while my planned musical about Ed Wood winds it way through the BMI Lehman Musical Theatre Workshop, Kahane's musical with librettist Seth Bockley has made its way from Long Wharf to the Public Theater: It's called February House, after the Brooklyn Heights boho pad where the likes of W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee were invited to live and write by the consummate host/advocate George Davis, one of the 20th century's greatest unsung heroes (he later married Lotte Lenya after Kurt Weill died, and was almost single-handedly responsible for turning her into the famous champion of her first husband's music).

All of which is preamble to say: I was pleased as punch to sit down with Kahane and Bockley recently to chat about their new tuner for Time Out:
The story of these unlikely housemates seemed to cry out for music, says Bockley, a Chicago playwright who has worked primarily in spectacle theater with troupes like Redmoon. Drawing largely from Sherill Tippins’s 2005 nonfiction book, also called February House, Bockley found a story in “the emotional life of the house’s rise and fall, and to me that is best illustrated in music. And the very internal journeys that the characters make are really suited to music theater, as opposed to drama.”

On the Nichols Over There

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Though my good friend Jim Martin is no longer the culture editor there, I'm still contributing the occasional theater review to the Jesuit weekly America (and since you're asking, no, I'm not Catholic, but I owe a lot to the S.J.).

This week they've got my review of Broadway's best revival, whose greatness didn't strike immediately but crept up on me:
It is not his age that makes the new Hoffman a bold choice for the role but his introverted, almost pigeon-toed awkwardness, his crabbed averageness. This is Willy Loman not as a fallen, tragic hero but as a sad schlub aching from worn out arch supports—the kind of human wreck people avoid because he makes them feel a sickly pity, something close to disgust, as he natters compulsively about his imaginary influence and unseen triumphs. It may be that we flee desperate people because we fear their desperation might rub off on us somehow. Hoffman’s Willy is a man who cannot shake desperation’s taint.

The actors playing his immediate family also skew young: raw, wiry Andrew Garfield as the beloved but wayward first-born, Biff; the scrubbed-cheek Finn Wittrock as the womanizing Happy; Linda Emond as the resilient, no-fuss matron, Linda. If these younger-than-usual Lomans are at first hard to believe as a family grinding down into its desolate twilight years, the actors’ youth is a huge boon in the play’s frequent flashbacks to a more idyllic time; these reveries have a palpable, “what might have been” glow. This in turn makes the lurch back to the play’s grim present that much more wrenching, and Willy’s capitulation to what feels like a premature obsolescence that much more awful.
RTWT here.

May 11, 2012

A Three-Dimensional Craft

In the current May/June issue of American Theatre, I sit down with Sarah Ruhl and Tracy Letts to talk about playwriting, with the pretext being that they've both recently done "versions" of Chekhov's Three Sisters (Tracy's goes up at Steppenwolf soon). They both had lots of pithy and quotable things to say, but one of my favorite exchanges was left on the cutting room floor.

Tracy referred at one point to sitting at a typewriter, and I later asked if he meant that literally:
Q: You said “typewriter.” You don’t actually write on a typewriter, do you?

Tracy: I do.

Q: An electric?

Tracy: No, a manual. That’s a change, just in the last couple of years. I started to become aware of what the screens are doing to me—just me, I’m not talking about other people. They were affecting my attention span. There was one year, I got to the end of the year, and I thought, What books did I read this year? I thought back over it, and I was like, Holy cow! My reading is down, I can’t have that. So I started making a conscious decision to get more and more of that stuff out of my life. I put my Kindle in a drawer and started reading hard copy books. I started getting the newspaper in solid newspaper form, and I’ve switched to the typewriter. I do have an iPhone, and I’m addicted to it, but I’m trying to get more and more of that stuff out of my life. Get more analog or something. Because what was happening to me, I would start to work on the computer—check my email and do all that crap. Before I knew it, an hour and a half had gone by before I’d even started to work. So I started not turning on the computer in the morning but sitting down at the typewriter and just trying to write straightaway. I’m liking it.

Q: Have you had a similar experience, Sarah?

Sarah: Yes. I remember the moment when the Internet started, and I found it disgusting, the idea that the Net would be mixed in with my text, my manuscripts—I found it horrible. And then you get used to it, and you’re like, "Of course there are images of, whatever, J. Lo, on my computer, and that’s mixed with my poetry and checking my email and looking somebody up on Wikipedia." I don’t think it’s good but it is the situation.

Tracy: I don’t even like—it’s become so easy to email a script in PDF form, but I don’t like it. The act of reading it on hard copy…most people read it on the screen, and it’s much different. You know, playwright is spelled w-r-i-g-h-t, and there’s that idea of seeing that page come out the typewriter, the act of creating that three-dimensional page.

Sarah: Do you then have an assistant who retypes it for you?

Tracy: No, because what I had been doing with the computer was writing the thing on the computer, printing it out, then deleting it completely off the computer. Because the actual physical act—I would rewrite stuff that I would not have rewritten if it were just on the screen. So I was doing that already; now I’m retyping them from scratch.

Sarah: That’s terrifying to me, like what if you lost it?

Tracy: I suppose that’s always possible. It hasn’t happened yet.

Q: Are you the kind of writer who conceives everything you're going to say, then just spills it on the page?

Tracy: No, because there’s too much original writing that’s happening right there in the moment. But I think about [my plays] for years before I put anything down on paper. I should be better about taking notes. I have a lot of great ideas that never see the light of day because I don’t. I always sort of tell myself, "Well, if it’s a good enough idea, it’ll be there whenever, anyway." I don’t know that that’s true.

Sarah: I think it is. If it doesn’t hang around for two years, it doesn’t have staying power.

May 10, 2012

Out of the Cul-de-Sac

photo by Ozier Muhammad for the Times

Don't have time to really tee this up, but it was my great pleasure to sit down with Clybourne Park director Pam MacKinnon this week for the paper of record.

May 8, 2012

Angel of Brooklyn

One of the pleasures of having a child is introducing him to my own childhood favorites; just a few days ago, Oliver discovered Spike Jones, and is now requesting songs by name. To hear him laugh out loud at every carhorn, gunshot, or sneeze is a true delight.

This pleasure extends, of course, to the work of the late, great Maurice Sendak, as odd and inimitable a mixture of open-hearted and cantankerous as I can think of. I still read to him from my childhood copy of Where the Wild Things Are, but I also enjoy taking him through the bleakly beautiful, shape-shifting We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy.

I once had the pleasure of interviewing Sendak when he brought the Oliver Knussen operas of Wild Things and Higglety Pigglety Pop! to L.A. Opera, and I remember two things about that interview: I told him I'd grown up with his books, and he quipped, without skipping a beat, "Are you all right?" He also told me that Signourney Weaver once took him aside at a party, and pointed out to her husband to Sendak (I've since learned that her husband is Flea Theatre impresario Jim Simpson). She apparently said to Sendak, "Does he look familiar?" Sendak drew a blank, and she finally explained, "I married him because he looks like Max," the protagonist of the Wild Things.

He was always full of great and often startling anecdotes. Some of my favorites were in the Terry Gross below—not just the ones about his colorful and harrowing family history, his bewildering and wonderful Brooklyn childhood (his early notion that Italians were just a sect of "happy Jews" is priceless), but the one about a morbid game his father taught him. It starts around the 27-minute mark below:
SENDAK: I do remember I was a very close companion to death. And I remember a game my father played with me, which you would not exactly call a death game, but did move in that direction, which was that if I lay in bed, which I spent a lot of time doing, and I remember in one particular place we lived in Brooklyn—we moved quite frequently because of financial problems—just opposite the foot of my bed was a window looking out on the backyard, facing just a very boring brick wall. And he said, if you looked and didn't blink and you saw an angel, you'd be a very, very lucky child. And so I did that frequently, and of course, I would always blink, because it hurt not to blink, and then I didn't see it and he'd say, "Well, you blinked, didn't you?" And I'd say, "Yes."

But I remember once I didn't blink, and I saw it—or I imagined I saw it, but the memory of it is so vivid, I can even describe it to you.

GROSS: Would you?

SENDAK: Well, I was lying in the bed, obviously, staring out the window, my eyelids aching, my eyes aching, staring, staring, staring, and something very large, almost like a dirigible, but it wasn't a dirigible, because it was right past my window—a slow-moving angel—she, he, whatever, moved very gracefully and slowly, coming from left going across to right. Not turning to observe me at all. I don't have a memory of the face, but I have a memory of the hair, the body, and the wings. It took my breath away. It just moved so slowly that I could examine it quite minutely. And then I shrieked and hollered, and my father came in and I said, "I saw it!" And he said I was a very lucky kid.

You will have noticed angels in We Are All in the Dumps. I love angels—"obsessed," that's hyperbole, I'm not obsessed with angels, but I do adore angels. I've never drawn them in a book, and they do appear in the new book primarily because so many people have died recently that I have populated my book with their spirits floating around. And they're all reading The New York Times.
Reading that book to Oliver tonight, and relishing anew those Times-reading angels, seems a fitting way as any to honor the man's memory.

May 7, 2012

It's a Thin Line

Forgive me if Emily Nussbaum's walkback on Smash feels like vindication:
Since its delightful pilot, the show has taken a nosedive so deep I’m surprised my ears haven’t popped. All the caveats I noted but dismissed in my earlier review have become the definingly awful features of “Smash.”
And the rap I'd heard from its early boosters was that it got better after a pilot I found anything but delightful. Seems to me instead, as a friend put it, that Smash was born jumping the shark.