Apr 24, 2014

Once More Unto the Breach

Mark Ruffalo and Laurel Green in Justin Tanner's Still Life With Vacuum Salesman at the Cast Theatre, 1994 (photo by Ed Krieger)

I haven't lived in Los Angeles since the summer of 2005 but I've been back many times, I try to keep tabs on what's going on there culturally, and, as I told an editor at Vanity Fair when they asked me recently to write a rebuttal to this much-maligned piece by Jimmy Im, I still consider it in many ways my theatrical hometown. I've touched on my paradoxical formative years as a theatergoer in a movie town at some length before, so this may not be new to many of my readers. But it is likely to be news to many of Vanity Fair's readers, and I'm happy it will get a platform. My nut graf:
The paradox of L.A. theater [is that] nobody seems to know how good it can be and has been, and what great talents are slogging away at it, because of the persistent perception that L.A. is not a theater town. That perception is just plain wrong, though there’s a handy explanation for it. If, by some counts, more stage productions open in L.A. annually than anywhere else in the world, that’s one of the root problems: Too many of those 1,000-plus productions are, admittedly, staged merely as showcases for actors or writers eager for the film industry’s attention (though, as Ruffalo’s story indicates, good luck with that). That actor’s-showcase tendency may not be as prevalent as some people seem to think, but it’s common enough that it’s practically a rite of passage of living in L.A. to be invited by an actor friend to see them do third-rate Sam Shepard in some rat-trap theater with sketchy parking. It's hard to blame Jimmy Im, who recently wrote about the For The Record movie-scene cabaret series did, for assuming that L.A. theater is otherwise “dead.”
You can read the whole VF piece here.

Stuck on Hitch

A favorite scene from Foreign Correspondent, referenced in David Rudkin's new play The Lovesong of Alfred J. Hitchcock. 

"Alfred Hitchcock was a very close friend of mine from early boyhood. I mean that metaphorically.” -Playwight David Rudkin, in a recent interview about his new Hitchcock bio-play
Some time in the early 1980s, my dad flagged a listing in our local paper for a Chaplin feature, The Circus, that was screening at the nearby Scottsdale Center for the Arts. He knew I was into movies and thought I wanted to do that for a living one day (I was just into my teens by this point), so he suggested we go. What followed over nearly the next decade or so was a film education, and not just in Chaplin but in Welles and Hawks and Ford and Huston, Astaire and Minnelli and Donen...and, possibly above all, Alfred Hitchcock. I had the great good fortune to see just about every canonical work by the Master of Suspense on the big screen, with almost no prior knowledge (so I didn't know what was coming in, say, Psycho or Strangers on a Train). What's even better is that that little revival house would often bring back some audience favorites, so I must have seen North by Northwest on that big(gish) screen three summers in a row.

Later, in film school at USC, I binged on films, as many as five a week, not only in plush cinemas on campus but at such priceless big-screen revival houses as the New Beverly, film series at LACMA and UCLA, the Silent Movie, the State Theater in Pasadena, and among the world cinema, new and old, that I was exposed to, I would never pass up the chance to see or revisit a Hitchcock film. Even better, I had the great pleasure of taking an entire critical-studies class on Hitch, taught by an ex-Jesuit, Drew Casper, who illuminated many of the subtexts and influences, religious and otherwise, in the master's films.

So I was chuffed at the chance to chat recently with David Rudkin, whose new play The Lovesong of Alfred J. Hitchcock opens at 59E59's Brits Off Broadway festival on May 4. Rudkin, though from quite another generation and continent, and exposed at a much younger age to Hitchcock's film, followed a similar journey to mine from enthrallment to enlightenment; as we learned more about what Hitch was really up to and "working out" in his films, our admiration for his genius has been complicated, surely, but only deepened. As Rudkin put it: “He was able to develop an intensely private personal form of art, and yet do so in a way that spoke universally." Exactly. My piece, for the paper of record, is here.

Apr 17, 2014

Hall Monitor

I happened to catch Michael C. Hall in two early-ish stage roles: as the young kid in the Taper's exquisite production of Skylight (with Laila Robins and Brian Cox) and as the emcee in Cabaret, opposite fellow replacement Susan Egan (a great Sally in the Julie Harris mold). His sinuous performance in that last role helped land him the first of his two iconic cable series, and he's seldom been back to the stage since. So it was a pleasure to sit down with him recently to talk about Will Eno's strange new play on Broadway, The Realistic Joneses, in which Hall is excellent, for the paper of record.

Apr 14, 2014

Shaking in the Grass

The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama has just been announced, and I'm so happy to hear it went to Annie Baker's The Flick, I played I thoroughly enjoyed and admired. I don't know how Annie got the news or what she's up to today, but I happened to be interviewing Quiara Alegria Hudes recently for another publication; she was the only playwright on this year's Pulitzer committee, and she won the award, quite unexpectedly, in 2012 for Water by the Spoonful. Here's how she found out, and how she reacted:
The play had only been done at Hartford Stage Company. I guess maybe I asked, "Did you guys submit it?" But it was far from my radar. I didn't even know it was the day the Pulitzer was announced. I was at Wesleyan teaching, and my phone was off, which is when it got announced. My class was three hours long there. So everyone knew before me. I had so many voice mails from my husband and my agent. There are all these weird, hysterical messages--it's funny, I've saved them, and my husband gets so mad about that, he sounds like he's hyperventilating. The way he found out is he was looking at the New York Times site, and he was like, "Whaaat???" And his friend came in from the office next door and said, "I think I just saw your wife's name." He was like, "Oh my God!"

No one from the committee calls to tell you the news?

No, they just release it to the press. You find out when the world finds out, and in my case I found out after the world found out. Then everyone's calling me, and I'm in Connecticut and I have to drive home. And usually for me the drive is really relaxing; I put on music and I take the country roads. My husband was like, "You gotta come home, we gotta celebrate!" And I was like, "I can't come home right now, I will crash the car." So I just sat in the grass at Wesleyan for a few hours until I was kind of calmer, and then I got in the car and drove home. It was amazing. By the time I got home, a few friends were already here. We celebrated that night.

Apr 11, 2014


I came across this lede in an old review of mine while working on my recent feature on Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally, and it struck as worth highlighting. The review is of the Mike Leigh play Ecstasy, and though it may not sound like it, I intended this as a compliment to Leigh:
Like documentary filmmaking, theatrical naturalism implicitly lays claim to direct, unmediated truth: This is how things really are, how people really behave, how time really passes. That's rot, of course. From the time we're children, it is storytelling and play-acting, and the distorting stylizations that accrue to them naturally, which come to us easily, almost unconsciously, and which thus express much about who we are and imagine ourselves to be. Authentic observation and reportage, on the other hand, take herculean effort and soul-searching--and inevitably involve more conscious interpretation, circumspection, and, yes, stylization.
Given more time and space to develop this line of thinking, I'm not quite sure I'd come up with. But I'm glad I put this down as a kind of marker for further exploration.

Apr 3, 2014

Full Circle

One reason I was so disappointed by Classic Stage Company's muddled, soporific staging of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle last year was that two of the most formative theatergoing experiences of my life have been adaptations of that difficult, sprawling political fable: Cornerstone's Central Avenue Chalk Circle in 1995, in which playwright Lynn Manning reset the action in a near-future dystopian California, and Bill Rauch staged it all around a former union hall in Watts, with a deftly interwoven cast of pros and non-pros, a live band, several memorable coups de theatres, and a palpable sense of immediacy and locality that, of course, put audiences directly in touch with Brecht's original themes of justice, avarice, and compassion.

The other, in 2000, was Chuck Mee's ambitious, seriously playful The Berlin Circle, which confronted head-on the bitter, double-edged irony that the communist "republic" Brecht had made his home had crumbled along with the joyously dismantled Berlin Wall, and Western liberalism, both economic and political, had accordingly scrambled old alliances and left/right verities. Mee's version kept the skeleton of the original plot but made several witty gambles and feints; his Azdak, for instance, was Heiner Muller, the inheritor of Brecht's Berliner Ensemble. John Fleck played the part with nervy authority, in a production that kicked off a run of great theater at one of L.A.'s best companies ever, Evidence Room, in its former bra factory space in the Rampart area near downtown, just down the street from the first paper that employed me, the Downtown News(That original troupe later fractured; the space remains but the company is itinerant.)

That Circle also kicked off another great run: In the cast were Megan Mullally, just then at the lift-off of her TV fame on Will & Grace, and a young Chicago actor named Nick Offerman (in only his second L.A. stage appearance; I'd caught his memorable first appearance, in the altogether, in Mike Leigh's Ecstasy). And thus began one of Hollywood's stranger, funnier power couples (see video above). It was gratifying, then, to sit down with Megan and Nick recently after all these years on the occasion of their return to the boards: Sharr White's Annapurna, which Evidence Room's Bart DeLorenzo staged last year at L.A.'s Odyssey Theater, and which begins performances April 13 at the New Group's Acorn Theater right here in NYC, and for the paper of record.

(Annapurna, by the way, marks Megan's return to the New York stage, where she's appeared fitfully over the years, but it's not technically Nick's Gotham stage debut: He subbed in for a few nights in the non-singing role of the boss in The Adding Machine at the Minetta Lane, while his wife was uptown warbling in Young Frankenstein. The last time I saw him in person, actually, was after catching him in Adding Machine; then he hopped on his bike and rode back down to his boat-building studio in Red Hook.)