Saturday, February 26, 2011

That Championship Season

If Broadway is a museum, the mediocrities depicted in Jason Miller’s 1972 play That Championship Season (in previews at the Bernie Jacobs Theater) are dinosaurs. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, five men “somewhere in the Lackawanna Valley” gather to reminisce about the 1952 state high school basketball title they won by a single point at the buzzer. Championship contemplates aging, mythmaking and the ways middle-aged, middle-class men view masculinity and success.
These days, a Broadway production of a middle-aged retread with household names in the cast comes as no surprise. The structure of the show is not much of a surprise, either: Give a bunch of middle-aged, not-especially-happy guys a bucket of chicken and unlimited booze, and it’s only a matter of time before tensions rise, secrets spill and long-harbored disappointments and resentments boil over. Then, bust out some old fight songs to make everything all better again by the end of the night.
Nevertheless, the characters–rather than director Gregory Mosher’s somewhat pedestrian staging or the predictable, confessional trajectory of the plot–carry the show. Each man is bitter in his own particular way. These are not especially likeable men–they don’t hesitate to voice their hatreds of Jews and Blacks, and all seem to have a pathological disrespect of women—but they are always honestly rendered by the playwright, who could have been a lot nastier and more condescending to them had he wanted to be.
Although the actors mostly disappear into their roles, here, their real lives add unexpected dimension to the events. Jason Patric (who plays the nihilistic alcoholic Tom Daley) is the son of the playwright, who died in 2001; his role as court jester for the evening evokes his late father’s function as the scene-setter. Kiefer Sutherland, another son of a famous father, has struggled publicly and often humiliatingly with his own alcoholism and is practically unrecognizable here as Tom’s slouched, buttoned-down brother James, whose conservative demeanor disguises profound anxiety, resentment, and disillusionment. Chris Noth brings a touch of the ingratiating Mr. Big of “Sex and the City” to his portrayal of the coldly amoral, unapologetically materialistic Phil Romano. Jim Gaffigan—better known as a stand-up comedian—plays the inept town mayor, George Sikowski, with equal amounts of obtuse, stuffed-shirt swagger and crippling doubt.
As the coach that refuses to see them as anything but glorious heroes, Brian Cox occasionally tends toward the histrionic, and sometimes forgets to suppress his British accent. But usually, he shrinks beautifully into himself. It’s clear here that for all the swaggering bravado and insistence that he’s on the mend from a ridiculously downplayed illness, Coach is dying. Offstage, Cox may be a Commander of the British Empire, but for the duration of this revival, he, like the rest of the characters, is a sad man clinging desperately to a fading, mythical past. When Coach gamely pulls his shirt up to show off the enormous scar that runs down his belly, he inadvertently reveals himself to his “boys” to be small, disoriented, and old.
The show, advertised as a “strictly limited run,” may have legs, opening as it does in the shadow of the surprise hit Lombardi. Audiences looking for the darker side of sports and a more jaundiced view of what manhood meant in the second half of the last century might want to take a look at Championship before the season ends.
TDF purchase; 2pm on 2/23/11; row G24, mezzanine.


Hi. My name is Liz, and I'm an assistant professor of music at Baruch College, CUNY. I specialize in the American musical, and focus for the most part on late-20th and early 21st century productions. I am the author of The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, From Hair to Hedwig (2006). The Show Showdown has long been one of my favorite blogs, and I thank its creators for having me as an occasional contributor.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller

Anthropologist Krystal D'Costa was my companion for The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller. For her insightful take on the show, click here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Wooster Group's Version of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré

While watching the Wooster Group's pretentious, pointless, and ham-handed production of Vieux Carré, a question occurred to me: What if it's not that the emperor has no clothes but rather that the emperor has only one outfit? One tattered outfit that the emperor trots out again and again?

The first Wooster Group production I saw was House/Lights. It was mesmerizing--I had never seen anything like it. I had no idea what it was supposed to be, but it didn't matter. It was fascinating and stimulating with its video and stylized acting, and Kate Valk was amazing. My second Wooster Group production was the Emperor Jones, which I found bizarre and arguably racist and which relied on many of the same tricks used in House/Lights. However, Kate Valk's brilliance saved the evening. Next came the recreation of the Richard Burton Hamlet, which brought nothing to the table but the same old bag of tricks but took a great deal away. It reminded me of those abstract paintings that are one line or one big splash of one color--a somewhat interesting exercise presented as a finished work of art.

And now there is The Wooster Group's Version of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré (yes, that's the title). The Wooster Group drowns Williams' odd and gentle work in a murky sea of electronics, peculiar sounds, repetitive videos, and marked disrespect for the text. In Williams' version there is a lonely, dying, elderly homosexual who seduces the main character (called "The Writer") in an act that is simultaneously predatory and generous, meaningless and meaningful. In the Wooster Group version, that same character is reduced to a flaming queen in an Asian robe with a constantly visible, constantly erect phallus; for a cheap visual gag, the Wooster Group gives up all that is complex and humane in the character. Two elderly women who are slowly starving to death become an ugly vision of a man with a bad wig on a flat screen. The Writer hammers away at his anachronistic keyboard as though he is creating rather than recording the events of the play, a conceit that works no better here than it did in the Roundabout's recent version of The Glass Menagerie. And the production isn't even semi-rescued by Kate Valk, who is one-dimensional as the society woman desperately in love with a bouncer at a strip club and annoying and unintelligible as the nasty, needy landlady.

(It didn't help that the Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center is possibly the single most uncomfortable theatre that has ever had the nerve to charge up to $65. Chiropractors should be provided when the two-hour, intermission-less show finally ends each night.)

Considering the four productions I've seen, I would have to say that the Wooster Group is like a bad jazz band who thinks everything is about them--and who makes every song sound the same.

(Paid $34, sat first-row balcony.)

Apple Cove

Apple Cove is a satire of people who choose conformity and control to feel less frightened by the rest of the world. The show starts when newlyweds Alan and Edie move to the rule-bound Apple Cove, next door to Edie's father Gary, who considers regular gated communities insufficiently rigid and guarded. Alan and Edie's feeble attempts at independence and originality are nipped in the bud by Gary's overbearing interference until the swamp on which Apple Cove was built starts to reassert itself.

Apple Cove, written by Lynn Rosen and directed by Giovanna Sardelli, is too heavy-handed--and starts too slowly--to succeed as satire and/or farce. The main characters are too cartoony to elicit much audience sympathy or identification, and the show is too long for the story it has to tell. However, parts of Apple Cove do work, in particular the attraction between Edie (Allison Mack) and the hunky security guard (Dion Mucciacito) whose multi-ethnicity and love of the natural make him her antidote to enforced conformity. It helps that Mack and Mucciacito have genuine chemistry and are excellent performers. Kathy Searle is impressively effective as Edie's former classmate and current stepmother, despite having to play an ill-defined character.

(Reviewer comp; eighth row on the aisle.)

The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller

Photo: Lia Chang

In 1961, the anthropologist Michael Rockefeller, of the business-political-philanthropic Rockefellers, visited the Asmat people deep in the jungles of New Guinea. He fell in love with their art and made a second visit for further study, during which he disappeared. There are two versions of how he died (if indeed he did die): (1) A crocodile ate him after his canoe overturned (a theory supported by another anthropologist who saw the canoe overturn but didn't see what happened to Rockefeller) or (2) The head-hunting, cannibalistic Asmat killed and ate him in revenge for an earlier murder of some of their people by white men (this theory is based on extremely circumstantial evidence).

Jeff Cohen's smart, funny, and moving play The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller (based on a short story of the same name by Christopher Stokes) tells the story of Rockefeller's visit from the point of view of the Asmat, who are initially amused by Rockefeller's enthusiasm and his mangling of their language (he cheerfully announces at one point, "I am a monkey fucker"). However, as he focuses his attention on the carvings of Designing Man, he throws off the balance of the tribe, and his visit sets off a chain of events that epitomizes the concept of unintended consequences.

The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller is, on one hand, a romp of a show, including an hysterical sex-as-manipulation scene, and on the other a serious examination of how humans (both strangers and friends) interact, how our assumptions color our view of the world, and how the road to hell can indeed be paved with good intentions.

The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller is beautifully directed by Alfred Preisser, and superbly acted by, in particular, Daniel Morgan Shelley as Designing Man; David King as his friend Half-Moon, who feels threatened by the attention Designing Man is receiving, and Tracy Jack as Half-Moon's sexually enthusiastic wife.

(Reviewer comp; third row on the aisle.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Perfect Future

Photo: Richard Termine

There are certain things that are devilishly difficult to pull off in a play. One is having middle-aged people reminisce about a shared wild youth without sounding artificial. Another is assigning characters different political points of view without making them two-dimensional "theme-bearers" rather three-dimensional humans. A third is having characters drink themselves into brutal honesty without writing a pale copy of the works of Albee or O'Neill.

I am sad to say that David Hay's new play, A Perfect Future, directed by Wilson Milam, does not succeed at overcoming these difficulties.

Natalie and John are visited by their old friend Elliot. Decades ago, the three shared sex, drugs, and radical politics. Natalie is now a film maker; John is on Wall Street; Elliot is raising money for the defense of a former Black Panther they all knew, now a Muslim in jail for terrorist activity. John has invited along one of his staff members, Mark, supposedly to provide a potential match for Elliot, but really to set the plot in motion. Much wine is drunk. Much, much, much wine is drunk. Oh, boy, is a lot of wine drunk.

John is supposedly an oenophile, but his behavior does not match the description. It is hard to tell whether this is a character point or careless writing, particularly since the production is sloppy about which bottles supposedly contain red wine and which supposedly white.

So, anyway, they drink and drink and drink. They drink so much that one has to wonder if the unnecessary intermission was added to give the actors a pee break.

At some point in the evening's festivities, Mark makes a comment so egregiously wrong that the others turn on him. The problem is that it is so egregiously wrong that he would never, ever, in a million years have said it in that room at that time. Then the other characters go on to say a lot of things they would never say. Oh, and they drink a lot. Did I mention that? That they drink?

When finally the social masks have been stripped away, some of the characters turn out to be not what we expected. But they turn out to be unbelievable as well.

At its best, A Perfect Future is a third-rate copy of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. At its worst, it is watching a bunch of people drink dyed water.

(reviewer comp; eighth row on the aisle)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

StageGrade (Website Review)

StageGrade provides an important public service for New York theatre-goers: it assembles reviews of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway shows, providing a synopsis, an average grade, and links to the reviews themselves. The site is attractive and easy to navigate.

One of StageGrade's most interesting features is the way it pairs reviewer and community ratings. Some are identical--for example, Mary Poppins received C+'s from both groups. Some differ in predictable ways--for example, Wicked received a C+ from critics but a B+ from audience members. Some differ in surprising ways--for example, Through the Night received a B+ from reviewers but only a C from the community. And some I think could be (should be?) of particular use to producers--for example, while the critics gave Phantom of the Opera a B, community response is down to C+. Perhaps it's time for some extra rehearsals or a visit from director Harold Prince.

StageGrade carries advertising and links to Telecharge. I have no idea if the site makes enough money to pay its staff of four (Rob Weinert-Kendt, Isaac Butler, Karl Miller, and Linda Buchwald) even minimum wage. However, I hope StageGrade does very well--the staff members obviously work hard keeping up this comprehensive site.

StageGrade's most important contribution to the theatre world? It provides a wonderful and vivid reminder that reviews are ultimately just opinions--ideally, knowledgeable and educated opinions, but opinions nevertheless.

(Disclosure: my reviews are often included on StageGrade.)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Dog Act

Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

In Liz Duffy Adams' amazing new play Dog Act, presented by the Flux Ensemble Theatre, the apocalypse has come and gone, and various tribes scramble to survive in a barren, unfriendly landscape. Zetta Stone, of the Vaudevillian Tribe, and her companion Dog (a young man undergoing a voluntary species demotion) are on their way to China for an important gig. This description, part of which is directly from the Flux Theatre's website, does as good a job describing Dog Act as "it's about Russia" does describing War and Peace. Dog Act is a meditation on religion, civilization, responsibility, morals, the implacability of the life force, and how the arts/media bring meaning to people's lives. It's also extremely entertaining, breathtakingly imaginative, and quite funny (especially in the second act).

Adams and director Kelly O'Donnell, with the help of a wonderful cast and a superb creative team, bring to life an entire world, fascinating and frightening, on a small stage with limited scenery. The different patois Adams has created for the different tribes are totally convincing as future forms of English (and not difficult to understand). Members of the Scavenger Tribe talk in a combination of Shakespearean English and obscenities, including the perfectly delightful phrase "for-fuckin-sooth." The Vaudevillians use mangled versions of sayings from TV shows that went off the air before their grandparents were born.

Each cast member makes a strong, important contribution. I was particularly impressed by Lori E. Parquet's subtlety, Liz Douglas's intensity, and Becky Byers perfectly calibrated insanity.

As a reviewer, I sometimes feel tired and jaded. It can seem as though everything has been said and all that's left for theatre is different combinations of tired tropes and creaky cliches. But then I see something like Dog Act (although there really isn't anything like Dog Act) and I am reminded of theatre's power and beauty. Dog Act only runs through February 20th. Here's the website. Go!

(Reviewer's comp; second row center.)

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Black Tie

Photo: James Leynse

In A.R. Gurney's stilted, unconvincing play Black Tie, middle-aged Curtis is thrilled at the prospect of wearing dinner clothes and giving a traditional speech at the rehearsal dinner for his son's wedding; however, his future daughter-in-law Maya has other ideas. Through this not-particularly-compelling conflict, Black Tie ostensibly explores changing contemporary mores, but Curtis's cluelessness and bellowing are straight out of a late-20th-century sitcom. Even worse, we never see Maya, so there is a gaping hole where the play might be. The characters we do see are thinly drawn--when a ghost is the most complex character, something is off-balance. The occasional political references seem random and make Black Tie neither more meaningful nor more interesting. Mark Lamos directs the show with big takes and overdone business. Of the performers, only Ari Brand as the son manages to sound like an actual human being. Gregg Edelman as Curtis gives a one-note performance and his inverted-S posture is annoying and wrong for the role.

(Reviewer's comp; eighth row on the aisle.)

Sunday, February 06, 2011


Theodora Skipitares has directed a new version of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, featuring performers wearing Skipitares' masks or life-sized puppets. (The other puppet designers are Jane Catherine Shaw and Cecilia Schiller.) Her adaptation is true to Aristophanes' version, with the storyline (women withholding sex to convince their menfolk to give up war) and bawdy humor intact. Skipitares also includes recent footage about real women using Lysistratan techniques, including a sex strike by girlfriends of gang lords in Colombia. There is much creativity in this production, but, sad to say, the show is on the dull side and runs too long, even at an hour. Part of the problem is that Lysistrata itself is a one-joke, one-theme show. While it is interesting historically, it is not that interesting theatrically. Penis jokes wear thin. Skipitares' puppets and masks bring a sense of ceremony and period, but they are distancing, and it is hard to care about anything happening on stage for more than a few minutes. The video footage, while compelling, is difficult to see and the narration is difficult to hear. Lysistrata is blessed, however, by a fascinating score, composed, played, and sung by Sxip Shirey on/with a wonderful array of digital, plastic, and wooden devices.

(Reviewers comps, 4th row.)

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Road to Qatar

Theatrical satires of theatrical performances have many things in common: enthusiastic but oblivious participants, extreme versions of theatrical clichés, and happy endings where the final product is kind of terrible yet kind of wonderful. The Road to Qatar (book and lyrics by Stephen Cole; music by David Krane) is the latest in this long and honored tradition, and it faces a difficult challenge: there have been so many satires of theatre clichés that the take-offs themselves are now clichés. While The Road to Qatar, a mix of [title of show] and the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope road movies, is amiable and pleasant, it is little more than a greatest hits collection of Jewish jokes, gay jokes, annoying mother jokes, foreigner jokes, and other extremely-well-worn categories of humor. The music is listener-friendly but undistinguished; the lyrics are occasionally clever but not often enough.

If The Road to Qatar focused on its unique (and true!) story of two strangers thrown together to write a musical in Dubai and less on the usual theatrical jokes, it might be stronger. Cole and Krane decided to go the broad-humor route, but more reality might have served them well--in particular more focus on how the men coped, became friends, dealt with the travel, and how they perhaps grew from the experience.

James Beaman and Keith Gerchak play the leads; the jokes about their being mirror images would work better if they actually looked alike (as the authors definitely do). Sarah Stiles and Bruce Warren bring much life to the show with their wide range of talents and deep senses of humor. Michael Bottari and Ronald Case's puppets are delightful, and Bob Richard's choreography is fun.

(Reviewer's comp; 4th row)