Friday, June 29, 2012


What were they thinking?

There are two ways to interpret this question. In the first, it's preceded by a silent "Are they nuts?" And that interpretation is certainly apt in relation to David Adjmi's relentless and unpleasant play 3C.

But in the second interpretation, it's a straightforward question. What were they thinking? For example, what did Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, the usually wonderful Bill Buell, and the impressive-even-in-this-mess Hannah Cabell see in this show that made them want to do it?

Maybe they fell for this description (from the press release):
The war in Vietnam is over and Brad, an ex-serviceman, lands in L.A. to start a new life. When he winds up trashed in Connie and Linda’s kitchen after a wild night of partying, the three strike a deal for an arrangement that has hilarious and devastating consequences for everyone. Or are they non-consequences?  Inspired by 1970s sitcoms, 1950s existentialist comedy, Chekhov, and Disco anthems, 3C is a terrifying yet amusing look at a culture that likes to amuse itself, even as it teeters on the brink of ruin.
However, that paragraph in no way describes the painfully overdone, cutesy, pointless, ten-minute-skit-stretched-to-ninety-minutes show performed tonight. The supposed Chekhov moments and existentialist comedy aren't there, and 3C is certainly not hilarious, amusing, or terrifying. Instead, the show's tiresome, heavy-handed takeoff of Three's Company tries to buy some significance through long moments of cast members sitting and staring grimly (long moments) and bits of confused sexuality. It's not enough. Director Jackson Gay might have helped by varying the pacing and lowering the hysteria a bit, but she went for a balls-to-the-wall approach that is, to coin a phrase, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The set is nice. In a game called "Faces," where characters challenge each other to express various emotions, Hannah Cabell offers a lovely display of acting technique. Kate Buddeke manages some moments of real emotion as the miserably unhappy wife of the landlord. That's it.

(Oh, and if you want people to read up on your show, don't choose an Google-challenged name like 3C.)

(Fifth row, press ticket.)

The Etiquette of Death

Photo by: Ves Pitts
Caption: Chris Tanner as Joan Girdler (standing) and Everett Quinton as Death.

The premiere of Chris Tanner’s heavy-handed farce, The Etiquette of Death at the Ellen Stewart Theatre, explores the darkness and despair—and the occasional humorous moments—the loss of life brings: a fitting topic to close La MaMa’s 50th Anniversary season since Ellen Stewart, the “mama” of La MaMa passed away last year.

Tanner, part of La Mama since 1979, creates a collaborative on death with 20 other writers and composers, including Penny Arcade, Angela DiCarlo, Jeremy X. Halpern (also the keyboardist), John Jesurun, Penny Rockwell and Tony Stavick. In Etiquette, death becomes an extravaganza: a variety show of sorts, chock full of glittery costumes, cross-dressing, and, song and dance. Amid all this absurdity, the authors attempt to imbue meaning by offering insinuations, conversations, and soliloquies on the importance of appearances, class, the horror of AIDS, and the sadness of loss, among other topics. The ambitiousness of the project, ultimately, generates an overall messiness where narratives and characters stay unconnected and, often, seem erratic.

The loose storyline introduces Joan Girdler (Tanner), a blonde bee-hived Mary Kay incarnate with sometimes questionable ethics, who is caring for her dying son (Brandon Olson) as she struggles with her own Stage 4 brain cancer diagnosis. Girdler, a regional sales manager of Etiquette Cosmetics, also hosts a TV show that offers etiquette and makeup tips. Death (a leather clad, Cher-haired Everett Quinton, who also directs the musical) is a big fan of hers. Scattered throughout the main action, “death” vignettes showcase ancillary characters discussing gangrene and the importance of bringing the right food to a Southern funeral, a chorus of dancing pigeons, and, a funny bit where two characters eat in a restaurant run by Death’s hench-bitches (Machine Dazzle and Matthew Crosland in brief costumes that showcase their to-die-for legs). What the sideshow of anguish and provocation means isn’t always apparent: Why are the pigeons eating Kentucky Fried Chicken? Why use a Grecian-looking set with columns and a bridge that entering actors must duck under? Why portray Isis, an Egyptian goddess who protects the dead, as Death’s cohort? Often, Etiquette offers more shoulder shrugging “huh” than “a-ha.” moments.

The performances span from the good, the bad, and the ugly. Quinton, best known for his work during his two-plus decades with The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, plays death with a campy fierceness, yet still manages to instill a human fragility in (her? him?) during a hopeful but disastrous makeover. Greta Jane Pedersen embodies Isis as a modern-day cabaret chanteuse with a pixie cut and bright red lipstick, who simultaneously channels Norah Jones, Edith Piaf, and Natalie Merchant. Pedersen’s singing mesmerizes and makes Etiquette’s two-hour-and-a-half run time bearable.

Choreography, though, by Julie Atlas Muz offers uninspiring efforts that invoke a high-school dance recital and, often, the singing is off-key. Sound problems in the performance I attended periodically made dialogue and lyrics indiscernible. With clichéd lines such as, “Without death, life would lose its poetry” and the tongue-in-cheek finale chorus, “We’re all gonna die,” this might not be a loss

(General seating, press ticket).

The Etiquette of Death plays from June 14-July 1 at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La Mama.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Bad and the Better

Jordan Tisdale, William Apps
Photo: Monica Simoes
The Amoralists love to yell, and they do it well. In their shows, usually written by the smart and wry Derek Ahonen, people live operatically, full of big emotions, deep cravings, and endless questions about their place in the universe. In his sprawling noir, The Bad and the Better, Ahonen gives us a world  in which desire is sudden and intense, you can't tell the bad guys from the better, and no one lives at less than 100 miles an hour.

Lang (the always-wonderful William Apps) is a cop stuck at a desk job, maybe a hero, maybe not. Venus (David Nash) is a playwright doing research on revolutionaries. Sweet anarchist Faye (the extraordinary Anna Stromberg) falls in love with Venus, but the other anarchists aren't sure they trust him. Real estate developer Zorn (Clyde Baldo) basically owns politician Eugene Moretti (the perfectly silly David Lanson). Julio (Jordan Tisdale) is a young police officer. Lenny (Penny Bittone) is an older cop trying to balance love and integrity. Matilda (the delightful Cassandra Paras) is a bartender at a cop bar. Miss Hollis (Sarah Lemp) is a secretary in love with her boss.

What do these characters all have to do with one another? Finding out is a great deal of the fun in The Bad and the Better. 

Director Daniel Aukin keeps The Bad and the Better moving like the proverbial well-oiled machine. New scenes begin almost before the previous scenes end. People flow on and off stage quickly and often. The production is big and energetic and very funny. 

The design aspects of the show are all top-notch. Kudos to set designer Alfred Schatz, costume designer Moria Clinton, lighting designer Natalie Robin, sound designer Phil Carluzzo, and fight choreographer Lisa Kopitsky.

The show's faults are few. A couple of actors are hard to understand. Some lose their characters under their bluster (but most don't, which is impressive in light of the operatic theatricality of the piece). Sometimes it's hard to follow the plot (though that seems to be a tradition in noirs going back to The Big Sleep). The play's ending pushes the moral a bit much. But overall, this show is a highly successful treat.

(second row; press ticket)


Stephen Heskett, Hanna Cheek
Photo: Deborah Alexander
With Sovereign, playwright Mac Rogers and director Jordana Williams bring home the wonderful Honeycomb Trilogy with verve, humor, and a bit of campiness. Amidst the entertainment, you find yourself pondering politics, loss, tribal allegiances, and leadership. (In case this sounds dry, let me point out that one test of leadership here is whether to kill the giant bug queen before she gives birth to thousands of bug children.) With propulsive, enthralling story-telling, Rogers shows how good people can do bad things, how one person's self-defense is another person's (or bug's) genocide, and how hard it is to maintain a soft spot when life forces you to be hard.

Plot-wise, the play focuses mostly on a showdown between siblings Ronnie, a resistance leader, and Abbie, who persists in seeing the invaders as liberators.

The mostly strong cast includes Hanna Cheek as Ronnie and Stephen Heskett as Abbie. Cheek has a slight tendency toward mugging, but can be heart-breaking. Heskett yells a bit too loud for the small theatre, and he seems too robust to have ever needed Ronnie's protection, but he catches all the complexities of his character. Matt Golden is excellent as the official who wants to prove his toughness; Neimah Djourabchi is charming as Ronnie's comic relief lover; the beautiful Medina Senghore needs a bit more gravitas as the defense attorney who goes against Ronnie, but has good moments; Daryl Lathon is effective but often too soft-spoken to be heard; and Sara Thigpen projects amazing amounts of strength and intelligence in a small role.

Sandy Yaklin's effective set does its part depicting the changing fortunes of Ronnie and Abbie and the passing of time. Fight choreographer Joe Mathers has staged some impressively convincing fighting.  

Sovereign is not as polished as its predecessors, and the speed of the dialogue, while theatrically effective, sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of what is going on (particularly for people who didn't see the first two parts). But its faults disappear in comparison with its excellence.

For years, critics have debated about whether science fiction can be literature. There is among many a conviction that once you add alien invaders, human subtleties go out the window. Once again, Mac Rogers has proved them wrong.

(first row; press ticket)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Les Miserables

Les Miserables - favorite of professional traveling companies and high schools - has been the holy grail of community theatre shows. Those waiting for the full version to be released outside of the professional realm knew it would happen eventually, but consistently feared they would be too old to be Javert or Fantine by the time it happened. 

It was with this reverence that Eastlight Theatre in East Peoria, IL became the first community theatre in central Illinois to receive the rights to the full version of Les Miserables. The cream of the crop auditioned for this momentous occasion, and 52 were chosen for the regional premier. I heard about it during callbacks from a good friend who was being considered for the part of Thedinaire. By the time he had been cast as Bamatabois (the creepy and violent gentleman who assaults Fantine), I was already on Eastlight’s website tracking down tickets. 

Of course, when a school attacks the high school edition, the audience enters the theatre with the assumption that what they’re about to see will be a smaller scale and possibly a B-version of the show due to the editing and inexperienced talent. 

But what about a community theatre? Can actors who hale from everywhere between Lincoln, IL to the tiny farm town of Henry, IL, and spend their days in non-acting pursuits, really do justice to this seminal classic?

The answer, it turns out, is a resounding yes. 

Regular attenders of Peoria-area theatre know there is some great talent in the area, but even the veterans won’t be prepared for the professional quality set, the astounding lighting system and design, and the anomaly of 52 solid voices without the typical community theatre problem player (you know....‘that person’....the one you dig through the program to figure out how they’re related to the director or the board to explain how they made it into the cast). 

Stand out performances are difficult to pick in such a cast, but definitely include Jason Morris as Javert. His rendition of ‘Stars’ is breathtaking, and when he and Roger Roemer combine on ‘The Confrontation’ with perfect rhythm and timing, it is a thing of beauty. Don’t get me wrong, Roemer’s Jean Valjean is good, but he takes time to get into the character whereas Morris comes out swinging. Mary Kate Smith’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ as Fantine is similarly awe-inspiring, which makes her attack by the most terrifying Bamatabois imaginable (played by George Maxedon) even more tragic. 

Stephanie Myre and Adam Sitton also give performances worth paying attention to as Eponine and Enjolras respectively. Myre’s voice during ‘On My Own’ and ‘A Little Fall of Rain’ is phenomenal, and her spunkiness makes Eponine come alive. Sitton’s Enjolras is hypnotic and his voice has all the strength, beauty, and vigor that the leader of a revolution should. There’s something about the first few words of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ that always brings tears to my eyes when sung well, and Sitton’s performance is no exception.

A surprisingly standout performance comes from Stephen Peterson as Grantaire. Grantaire isn’t a character that’s talked about a lot, but Peterson’s anger and power makes him an actor hard to look away from. He is the dark part of the revolution - the serious (yet often drunk), realistic balance to Enjolras’s optimism, and Peterson plays this depth perfectly.

Back to Roemer as Valjean - he definitely holds his own and serves well as the story’s foundation. His voice is both solid and beautiful, but his emotions and actions don’t always match up in the first act, and there are points where it feels like he’s moving from one side of the stage to the other solely because he’s been directed to do so. But, that is all but forgotten as he starts singing ‘Bring Him Home’ in the second act. This is where Roemer really comes into his own with the combination of perfect tone and emotion. The night I attended, the audience began their loud and long applause before the final note was complete, and continued long after the orchestra started the next bit of transition music.

At heart, the power of Les Miserables comes from the strength of its ensemble. Although every voice onstage is impressive, there are times during some of the ensemble pieces in the first act that seem like the arrangements could be preparing to fall apart. Yet, the last note of ‘One Day More’ as the first act ends is so incredible, so perfect, so powerful and potent that there is no doubt these musicians have everything under control. 

It might be obvious that I’m avoiding talking about two of the main characters. Honestly, it’s no fault of the actors that I don’t jump to talk about Jarod Hazzard’s Marius and Rebecca Meyer as Cosette. Hazzard and Meyer are solid in their roles and have lovely voices. Personally, though, Marius and Cosette have always bothered me. Perhaps it’s because I adore Eponine so think Marius is a fool for ignoring her. Perhaps it’s because they fall in love so fast after seeing each other for two minutes. Perhaps it’s because Cosette’s part is really high and I’ve always enjoyed alto parts more. Regardless, the whole love story kind of annoys me, so I never get caught up in ‘A Heart Full of Love’ until Eponine starts singing, and I have little emotion during the wedding. 

That to say, Hazzard’s rendition of ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,’ complete with Robin Hunts’s blocking and Steve Cordle’s lighting, is astounding. So much so that my notes, which tend to be decently extensive and detailed, simply say ‘Empty Chairs!!!! Holy freaking crap.’ Eloquent, I know (then again, my note about ‘Bring Him Home’ simply said ‘Yes. That. Yes.’ So, maybe eloquence isn’t my strong suit). In a show with too many highlights to talk about, Hazzard’s haunting and emotion-filled vocals make ‘Empty Chairs’ a moment that’s hard to forget. 

Director Robin Hunt definitely had her work cut out for her and she delivered. The talent on stage, high quality technical aspects, and a functional and beautiful set show she is definitely worthy of the challenge. The talent of musical director Mitch Colgan also shines from the breathtaking orchestrations of the keyboardists and percussionists, to the outstanding vocals.

The technical aspects of this show are stars in their own right. The lighting design and set, specifically, are hard to look away from. The set includes the classic Les Miserables elements - giant turn table, constant haze, the flying bridge and backdrop, etc. Yet, the most incredible part of the set, by far, is the barricade. It’s made of 3 different parts, turns 360 degrees, and both sides are climbable. It’s the kind of barricade that’s an impressive feat for any theatre, but put it in the scope of a community theatre and it is particularly outstanding.

The lighting system and design is another feature that is incredibly extensive for a community theatre. Without going into all the nerdy details, the lights are very cool, emphasize dramatic and emotional moments very well, and add a backdrop of professionalism to the experience. Amazingly, Eastlight’s production has one man who is responsible for both of these areas and more. Steve Cordle claims the titles of executive director, technical director, set design, lighting design, sound design, and sound operator. One of these positions is a big deal. To tackle all of them in a production this large and momentous is unheard of. 

However, there were some technical problems the night I attended - some that were probably one-time things (like a stage hand getting caught in the light a couple times while putting  the barricade in place), and others that were choices (such as some lighting cues that were programmed to come on or off suddenly when a fade would have suited the mood of the scene better). The sound was the biggest program of the night, though, with a couple bouts of feedback from the mics, some levels that made it hard to hear over the amazing orchestra, and an instance where an actor’s mic didn’t get shut off once he was backstage. 

Yet, part of the charm of this particular rendition is that it is still community theatre. There are times where transitions are awkward, lapel microphones are grabbed when a fight breaks out, and actors look slightly startled when the turn table stops moving at least once. Instead of this ruining the ambience of the story, however, it adds to the awe of what these incredibly talented locals are pulling off. If I can sit in a high school auditorium and be astounded by the likes of Jason Morris and Mary Kate Smith to the same degree I’ve been astounded by the voices of professionals singing the same complicated music, there’s something very special happening. The audience seemed to agree as they were already on their feet before the cast even began their bows.

All that to say, it’s more than worth your time and $19. There’s an old adage that if something can play in Peoria, it can survive elsewhere. Les Miserables at Eastlight Theatre definitely plays in Peoria.

The show runs nightly Wednesday, June 27-Saturday, June 30 at 7:30 p.m. at 1401 E. Washington St., East Peoria, IL.

And if you’re no where near Illinois, here’s a funny video made by the cast to ‘One Day More.’

(4th row, center - $19 ticket)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

This Is Fiction

The InViolet Rep is presenting a little gem of a play down at the Cherry Lane. It's called This Is Fiction, and it's written by Megan Hart and directed by Shelley Butler. It's not a perfect gem; it could use a little polishing. But it's a damn good play in a damn good production.

Aubyn Philabaum, Michelle David
Photo: Jason White
The plot echos two recent shows. A grown daughter comes home with the announcement that she has written/is writing a piece about the family. In the still-running Miracle on South Division Street, it's a one-woman show. In the recently shuttered Other Desert Cities, it's a memoir. In This If Fiction, it's a novel, an important difference. As Amy (the excellent, quietly intense Aubyn Philabaum) points out, and as the title of the play reiterates, her version is fiction. (The choice to name the play itself This Is Fiction is intriguing. Is that a message to some of Hart's own family members?)

Another difference is that the story she's writing is nothing out of the ordinary--no big reveals, no shocking secrets, just her version of growing up in a flawed family with moments of love, neglect, and high drama. But her father (the touching Richard Masur), who is ill, and her sister Celia, who takes care of him, don't want their story shared with the entire world--even a fictionalized version.

Hart offers us a quietly realistic depiction of real people struggling with real people's problems. Her play is full of recognizable moments, as when the family's response to the lack of "dumpling sauce" with take-out dumplings offers a glance at simmering resentments and long-established allegiances. And she chooses no favorites; each daughter has a legitimate ax to grind, and the father's refusal to grind axes is also legitimate.

Hart's dialogue is a nice mix of lyrical and natural, with the lyrical moments never going beyond the language each character would know and use. (Example: "But did you really have to use me as your buffer? Or--not even a buffer--more like one of those blow-up bumpers that line the gutters at a bowling alley--yeah. You know--just the thing you bounce off of on your way to wherever you're trying to get.) Much of her writing is funny, though always with an underlying poignancy. In one exchange that stands out for me, Amy says to Celia, "I hate you." And Celia responds, "That’s not true. And the feeling's mutual."

The show loses its way a bit in some of the sisters' discussions, which occasionally get a little repetitive. And the breaks between scenes take too long. (This seems to be a new theatrical style, and it's consistently annoying. One director explained to me that she wanted to give the audience time to think, but all we're thinking is, get back to the play!) The bookstore could be suggested with far less scenery, and the passage of time could be shown much more efficiently. Also, it's not always clear which parts of the scene changes are and aren't meant to reflect the reality of the play. (If Amy and the father really left the cleaning up of dinner for Celia, Celia would have every right to murder them both--and would be let off by a jury of her peers.)

Michele David does full justice to Celia's anger and complexity. Bernardo Cubría is charming as Amy's potential boyfriend. Leon Rothenberg's original music is nice, but scene changes shouldn't be extended to match its length. Ashley Gardner's costumes add much to our understanding of the characters.

This Is Fiction is small and sensitive and true and ultimately more affecting than most of the plays that have made it to Broadway in the past few years.

(press ticket; second row on the aisle)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

4000 Miles

Photo: Erin Baiano
Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles is a quiet, warm, delicate little play, inhabited by very real characters. It is also seamless, in the way that not very many plays are: there is no big, stagy moment near the end when a character turns to the light and reveals a big secret. Emotional healing does not clearly begin as the final curtain comes down. There is no carefully-paced lead-up to a stunning, shocking conclusion. No one learns about themselves or others in a way that is particularly big, or profound. Vera is old, but she does not die at the end; Leo is young, but he does not die--in an ironic twist!--either. There is, in short, no big catharsis; despite the largeness that the play's title implies, not a whole lot of big happens as 4000 Miles runs its course. What makes up the most of 4000 Miles is, instead, a whole mess of subtle, graceful, carefully understated realizations and confusions, emotional gains and setbacks, triumphs and disappointments. They make for a particularly satisfying visit to the Mitzi Newhouse Theater.

Amy Herzog is too interested in keeping it real to force anything on her characters except the general ebbs and flows of daily life, even during slightly trying or confusing times. Thus, her characters interact, bicker, make up, connect, disconnect, reconnect, and help or hurt each other in tiny, lingering ways as a few days--maybe a few weeks--go by. The fact that spending time with them is moving and interesting, that they are so complicated and flawed and likeable, and that the intermissionless show moves along so quickly despite the many silences, mundane conversations, and unanswered questions is a testament to Herzog and the fine, fine cast.

Most of the conversations--as well as the halting, heavy silences--take place between Leo (a wiry, tightly-wound, excellent Gabriel Ebert) and his grandmother, Vera Joseph (Mary Louise Wilson, as close to perfect as is possible). Leo, a particularly lost 20-something, has just completed a cross-country bike-ride that he began with a close friend and completed alone. He shows up unannounced at Vera's Manhattan apartment at 3:00 AM, filthy, exhausted, and just a little too upbeat and enthusiastic, given the circumstances. Vera, whose occasional memory lapses and inability to remember certain words has in no way deprived her of whip-smart insight, takes pains not to push Leo to talk, but merely sends him to take a shower and then to get some sleep.

As the two settle in, we learn about them both through conversation and silence. They have plenty in common, despite the obvious generational differences: both are politically leftist and socially very liberal; both struggle with Jane, who is Leo's mom and Vera's stepdaughter. Both are enormously self-centered and small-minded in some ways, and just as enormously sympathetic, kindhearted, and open to the world in others. And, most importantly, both are in mourning: Vera for most of the people she knows, who seem to die on her daily, and Leo for the friend he began his cross-country bike-ride with.

They're both in mourning for the past, too. Vera has long ago realized that life doesn't quite work out the way one is convinced it will when one is idealistic and young; Leo is only just beginning to struggle with the ways that his ideologies--and the friendships he's formed around them--have begun to crumble, to betray him, to die. Leo's girlfriend, Bec (Zoe Winters, rock-solid), who lives in Brooklyn, has begun to think more seriously about college, and to ponder a future that doesn't necessarily include him. Leo, stung by the rejection, is nevertheless far more perturbed by the realization that he, too, is eventually going to need to put away childish things and begin the painful, hugely daunting process of becoming a grownup. Scenes near the end of the play involving a particularly ditzy, drunk artist (Greta Lee, dead-on) and Vera's unseen, elderly neighbor strongly imply that Leo is already on his way to becoming a perfectly fine grownup; while this might reassure the audience--I was certainly happy to know it--it does nothing for Leo, who hasn't arrived at adulthood yet, and whose growing pains haven't abated by the final curtain.

Herzog refuses to tidy everything up for us by the end of her play, which leaves her characters more or less the same as they were when we found them: a little damaged, a little sad, but no more or less so than anyone else. It's no spoiler to note that Vera and Leo are ultimately going to move on, too: Leo will not be crashing at his grandmother's place forever, and while this makes Vera very sad, it also pleases her. Neither she nor Leo is happy about the act of letting go, even though they both know and accept that ultimately, life is just as much about embracing as it is about releasing the embrace.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kaye Ballard at Feinstein's

If you are a Kaye Ballard fan and didn't get to see her Sunday, now is the time to bug her and Feinstein's about her coming back for a week or two. Because, really, you have to see her.

From the second she enters the room--to tumultuous applause--to the second she leaves, Ballard is entertainment personified, old school. First, she is funny. Very very very funny. Her material isn't exactly new, but it doesn't matter. Even the oldest, hoariest bits sparkle again when presented with her wry smile, twinkling eye, and master timing.

Her singing voice is pretty much shot, but she manages to do well by a number of songs anyway. (I could have done with less singing.) Her Mabel Mercer impression is spot on according to my friend who saw Mercer many times--and completely delightful even to those of us who never did.

Ballard has an array of beguiling show biz anecdotes. I had no idea that "Maybe This Time" was written for her (although as "Maybe Next Time"). I had no idea that Ballard was one of the originators of "Lazy Afternoon" from The Golden Apple. And her story about Sophie Tucker's response to Ballard's imitation of her is everything you'd want it to be.

The pertinent point is this: overall, Kaye Ballard remains the energetic, entertaining, delightful performer she has always been.

(press ticket; by the door)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Love Goes to Press

Imagine that someone told you that you were about to see a play about female war correspondents in World War II, written by Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles, who had actually been female war correspondents in WWII. What would you expect?

Chances are that you wouldn't expect Love Goes to Press (a title not chosen by the authors and described by Gellhorn as "odious"), a three-act play that combines, not always successfully, war, romance, comedy, and farce.

Heidi Armbruster (top), Angela Pierce
Photo: Richard Termine
The play, which was a hit in London just after the war, was a flop in New York soon after. When Gellhorn read the reviews, she wrote, "I must say I agree with them that it was a very minor piece of work, but what I can't quite understand is why they seemed so angry about it." Years later, she wrote "Everyone in those London audiences knew about real war; they had lived through it, either in uniform or as embattled civilians. Knowing the real thing, they were free to laugh at this comic, unreal version of war. . . . Laughter was lifesaving escape. Theater tickets were inexpensive, and a theater was warm because of all the bodies in it. New York was something else."

Some 65 years after its premiere, how does the play hold up? In The Mint's strong but uneven production, Love Goes to Press is a pleasant evening in the theatre,  perhaps more rewarding historically than theatrically. And although I know it is my role to evaluate what Gellhorn and Cowles actually wrote, instead of what I wish they had written, I still wish they had given us a less "minor piece of work." It turns out that they didn't pen this play to express themselves in any real way--they wrote it to make money. Which they didn't. Oh well.

The plot, such as it is, is simple: Annabelle Jones and Jane Mason are war correspondents who have been friends for years. Currently they are in Italy, trying to cover the Allies' attempt to break through the German line at "Mount Sorrello," a fictional version of Monte Cassino. In contrast to many of the male correspondents, who seem happy to stay at the press camp, the women want to go where the action is and provide actual first-hand reporting. They utilize a combination of smarts, wiliness, and manipulation to try to achieve their aims. However, each is bothered by a man who gets in her way (Mason's is head of the press camp; Jones's is her ex-husband) . . .

. . . and, despite the men's intrusiveness, disrespect, and general annoyingness, the women love them.

This is played for laughs, and it is often funny--but it's also kind of bizarre. Even by the mores of the day and the setup of the play, these women are much too smart to be that stupid--particularly the one whose love interest has the bad habit of stealing her stories.

It doesn't help that director Jerry Ruiz's direction fails to set a consistent tone. The storyline is challenging, granted, with its combination of "those boys are so brave," and "I'm a giggling actress visiting the front lines," and "I want to make a difference in the world but I love you," and "I love you but I want you to be a completely different person," and so on. But, for example, the addition of sudden sappy music every time two particular characters meet is distracting, and I wish Ruiz had not allowed (or asked) Rob Breckenridge to play his role as a cartoon (it's a legit interpretation but doesn't mesh with the other performances). On the other hand, the love scene while bombs are exploding nearby is nicely done, and Ruiz's pacing keeps the show energetic and interesting.

The cast has a lot to offer--in particular, Angela Pierce and Heidi Armbruster as the two leads. Steven C. Kemp's set manages to be quite attractive while also being realistically raw and rundown. Andrea Varga's costumes are just right for the people and time period--and becoming as well--and Christian DeAngelis's lighting is appropriately evocative.

To learn about the realities of being a female war correspondent from the 1930s on, your best bet would be to read Cowles's and Gellhorn's reporting and books. For a fun and silly riff on the same topic, you could do worse than Love Goes to Press.

(fifth row center; press ticket)

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Howdy! I'm Jamie Fuller and I'm thrilled to be writing for Show Showdown!

A little about me - I'm getting ready to start my MFA in Stage Management at the University of Illinois's Krannert Center. So far, my theatre experience has been community and college theatres, as well as writing reviews on my own theatre blog, so moving toward both Krannert and writing for Show Showdown is a lot of exciting changes at once! I've stage managed (obviously), crewed everything, acted a bit, and, just this February, directed my first show and loved every minute. I adore anything to do with theatre and if it's on stage, I probably have something to say about it.

My reviews will be a bit different from the typical Show Showdown fare because 1. I've only been to New York once and 2. I live in Illinois. I'll be covering traveling companies, some Chicago theatre, local Illinois theatres, and wherever my summer internships take me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Rock of Ages

Hey, kids, remember the '80s? Hair metal ruled MTV! The Sunset Strip was one big wild party! Banging your head was cool, and so were long, teased, wild hair and blue eyeshadow and thigh-high boots! Also, Reagan was president, greed was good, there was that Where's the Beef commercial, and that movie Ghostbusters was, like, totally hilarious! Remember?

I have long avoided seeing Rock of Ages for a couple of reasons, the largest being that when it started its run Off Broadway in 2008, I was at the tail end of a self-imposed break from rock musicals. This break started in 2006 when I finished my first book, which is all about rock musicals. By the time the book went to press, I was so tired of seeing, thinking about, and researching rock musicals that the very thought of visiting one made me agitated. And rock musicals are supposed to be fun and rockin', and I knew that if I went to any, I'd be sour and overly critical. So I stayed away. The break worked--I'm back to thinking about rock musicals, wondering how they've been doing, even considering writing about them again. In short, I've missed them, much the way one starts to miss a dear friend they had a falling-out with so long ago that they can no longer remember why they fought in the first place. I picked a good time to return to my old scopic stomping grounds, I guess: the movie version of Rock of Ages is about to open, and the hype has resulted in sold-out houses--and highly enthusiastic crowds--at the teeny, beautiful little Helen Hayes Theater on 44th street, where the Broadway version has been running since it moved from the larger Atkinson in March 2011. I'm not gonna lie: I had fun and was glad I finally saw it. [Editor's note: Liz's book is The Theatre Will Rock.]

But I'm also not gonna lie about how unbelievably stupid and sloppy and occasionally, if inadvertently, offensive it is. Especially since what I say won't matter: no one would ever go to this show for a deep, inspired night at the theater. Nope: this show promises that you'll get "nothin' but a good time," and there's ample energy expended toward that end. The Hayes is plastered with posters of hair bands, booze, and scantily clad women with big hair draped over various shiny cars. Bars on both the orchestra and mezzanine levels remain open during the show, and at least last night, many members of the audience took appropriate advantage of that fact. The cast works hard at having fun and entertaining, and while many chorus members seem to have been cast for their dancing ability and not for their voices, there's a lot of talent up on the stage.

Also, there are a lot of laugh-out-loud funny jokes and self-referential humor about how ridiculous and excessive the '80s hair metal scene was, and also about how ridiculous a Broadway musical about hair metal is, if you bother to think about it. Which some of the characters do, at length, smack in the middle of the show, at about the time the plot falls to pieces. Not like there is much of a plot anyway. Actually, that's not true--there's a ton of plot. Too much, maybe, to be carried by the generous handful of earnest rockers and pop-metal ballads that cram the show. But for what it's worth, here's what happens. Spoiler alert! Nah, fuck it, just kidding.

Drew, a nice kid with big hair and a dream, works as a busboy at the Bourbon Room, a divy bar on the Sunset Strip owned by the slightly sleazy but ultimately goodhearted Dennis Dupree. Dennis's right-hand-man, the similarly icky-but-ultimately-cool sound- and light-man, Lonny Barnett, narrates the story. The Bourbon originally nurtured the now-famous metal band Arsenal, fronted by wildman Stacee Jaxx. When Sherrie Christian, an innocent young blonde from Kansas, arrives on the Strip to follow her dream of becoming an actress, she lands a waitressing job at the Bourbon, and she and Drew develop feelings for one another.

But wait! Many, many, many problems arise! The mayor of LA is visited by a German guy named Hertz and his son, Franz, who propose ridding the Sunset Strip of its evil rock and roll, and building strip malls there instead. The mayor goes for it, but the city planner, a career protester named Regina, gets upset and chains herself to the Bourbon. Dennis refuses to close the Bourbon despite the offer of a lot of money from the city, so the Germans take the deed to the place by force. Dennis invites Stacee Jaxx and Arsenal, which has just announced their breakup, back to give their last concert. This, he figures, might generate enough money and attention to save the Bourbon.

Stacee shows up to the strains of Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory." He is insufferably arrogant, rapacious, and utterly depraved--and he sweeps Sherrie off her feet. Just as Drew takes the stage to open for Arsenal, thereby getting his big break, Stacee leads Sherrie off to the men's room for some meaningful intimacy. After having sex with her and before taking the stage, he demands that Sherrie be fired, because he's decided that "her energy is totally toxic and she shits on my soul." Lonnie fires Sherrie who, with little convincing, accepts a job offer from Justice Charlier, the owner of the nearby strip club. Drew is signed by a record producer who changes his image and makes him part of a boy band. As Act I ends, Lonnie explains to the audience that everything is always pretty fucked up by intermission when it comes to musicals.

But in act II, as expected, everything ends up ok: Hertz and Franz begin to destroy the Strip, but when Franz falls in love with Regina, they decide to return to Germany and follow their dreams instead. Stacee Jaxx shows up for a lapdance from Sherrie, whom he harasses enough that she punches him and runs off, whereupon Justice encourages her to reunite with Drew. Drew disses his record producer and takes a job as a pizza delivery boy. He and Sherrie run into one another and, after a few more twists and turns, live happily ever after. Lonnie and Dennis realize their secret love for each other as they contemplate the loss of their club, but then Hertz and Franz give the deed to the Bourbon back, and the Bourbon, too, lives happily ever after. Stacee Jaxx hits on a middle-school girl and is then forced to flee the country. PAAAAAAAARTYYYYY! ROCK AND ROLLLLLLLLL!

Sounds fun, right? It is. It's cute, if a little plot-heavy for such a light, sweet confection. I found the whole Regina-Hertz-Franz plotline expendable, in particular, and suspect that the show could be cut down significantly without anyone missing much. Rock of Ages felt a little too long for what it was.

What bothered me the most about Rock of Ages, though, was not its messy, multi-tentacled plot, but its almost aggressive social conservatism. The show makes fun of the time period: the overly wrought anthems, the big hair, the spandex and gaudy makeup. This is stuff that's totally ripe for the mockery, and Rock of Ages mocks it with appropriate, gentle good humor. What it never does, however, is question the fairly rigid gender constructs of the time, which are, I think, also well overdue for some mockery. But Rock of Ages inadvertently swallows, part and parcel, the notion that the tight clothes, big hair, and even the androgyny was a means toward a particularly hypermasculine, hypersexual end. Some of the aging characters--particularly Lonnie and Dennis--are teased, affectionately, for being aging horndogs who seem increasingly pathetic surrounded by a sea of youthful testosterone, but this same sort of commentary is never really extended to the female characters, who usually seem to drive the action forward merely by writhing, gyrating, and undulating for the men on the stage (and, of course, for the audience) like so many Tawny Kitaens. Even Sherrie, the romantic female lead, spends most of her time mooning over Drew or Stacee, or, when she joins Justice's strip club, humping a pole.

The two women who don't engage in such antics depart from the groupie stereotype only to embrace other stereotypes: Regina is the Shrill, Angry, Misguided Leftist, who impedes progress with her tree (or in this case, Bourbon Room) hugging. (And, yeah, I know it's all in fun, but the wacky joke about her self-immolation at the end of the show is beyond not funny.) Justice, too, embraces a stereotype that I'm sick to hell of seeing, and wish would stop on the Great White Way: The  earthy, soulful, big black mamma, who seems to exist solely to sing a bluesy shouter late in act II that helps young white people fix their lives.

The show also included a serious throwback in the character of Franz, who is a particularly hateful prototype: the flailing, lisping, limp-wristed fairy. The big joke with Franz is that he turns out to not be gay...just German! Hi-fucking-LARIOUS: One small-minded empty threat, neatly replaced for another! He ain't no faggot--he's a furrner, ain't that cute? I'm all for having fun--and as I've said, I did--but the reaction to Franz by the audience, which just screamed with laughter at his every hissy, prissy flail, genuinely made me uncomfortable. The implication that Lonnie and Dennis secretly love one another was slightly subtler, but only in the way that those particularly horrible seasons on SNL that featured some sort of juvenile gay joke or agonizingly extended gay punchline in every single sketch were subtle.

I get the sense from the previews of the film that Hollywood has addressed the overt sexism in the show by making Sherrie the aspiring rocker, and not Drew. I don't expect Hollywood to do anything to improve the depictions of gay characters, and while it's promising that Justice is played by the ass-kicking Mary J. Blige, I'll withhold judgment on that front, too. I really hope for some softening of this stuff, and I intend to see the film to find out. Because at the end of the day, and after all of my obligatory gripes about the social implications of Rock of Ages, I think it's only fair to acknowledge that as I've been writing, I've been listening without a break to music by Bon Jovi, Journey, and Poison. So what the hell do I know? I guess every rose DOES have its thorn.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Musings on the Tony Awards

As awards shows go, the Tonys have always been especially dear to me, not only because I am an avid theatergoer who researches and writes about the stage musical, but because the members of the industry who gather to recognize one another always seem, at least to me, like some of the realest celebrities you ever get to see on television. The Emmys, Grammys and Oscars focus on the famous, the mega-famous, and the mega-mega-famous; people who are expected to spend weeks in advance preparing for the events, who get picked to shreds if they end up in the wrong outfit or if they say the wrong thing or if they seem somehow off-kilter during the course of the evening. I read once that many film industry people believe Cuba Gooding Jr's career ended when he gave that over-enthusiastic reception speech for Jerry Maguire. I don't know if that's true, but I wouldn't be surprised in the least if it were.

When it comes to the Tonys, though, the stakes are traditionally just not that high. Not nearly as many people are watching, because not nearly as many people care. This is what has always made the Tonys special: It's cool to come off a little shabby, or a little crazy, or a little distracted at the Tonys. It's cool to swear, or to make tons of inside jokes, or to ramble on a titch too long during reception speeches. Long before the rest of television caught up--and it's only just beginning to--it was also cool for Tony winners to kiss their same-sex partners, on the mouths, on national television. For a long while, the Tonys struck me as the most subversive television viewing you could find.

I'm not sure that last night's ceremony held up on this front. Don't get me wrong: the 2012 Tonys were just great, as award-giving goes. There was some genuine competition, for once, and while I didn't always agree with who got what, I was consistently impressed with the lineup. Best actress in a play? Good Lord, what a category! Best actor? Ditto. So many good, new plays! So many small, innovative shows getting recognition! Granted, I remain a little concerned by the musicals: Ghost? Kill me now. Newsies and Once? Wonderful, wonderful...but also, like the failed Leap of Faith, once movies. I'm hardly thrilled by the fact that of the four Best Musical nominees, only one, Nice Work If You Can Get It, was truly--um, ok, only sort of--original. That said, the inherent musicality of both Peter and the Starcatcher and One Man, Two Guv'nors strikes me as promising and interesting, and there is certainly no lack of talent behind even the most derivative of productions. There were also a few moments of genuine surprise, last night: Porgy and Bess? Right ON! Take THAT, Stephen Sondheim!

As always, Neil Patrick Harris was great as an emcee. The show he hosted moved swiftly, was engaging and entertaining, and, all bitchiness about movie musicals aside, did not make me feel like Broadway was on its last legs, struggling desperately and pathetically to establish itself in a world of mass-mediated entertainment forms. Rather, I got the feeling last night that Broadway is doing pretty damned well for itself; is drawing locals and tourists alike in record numbers; is extending its brand to new audiences and in new ways (cruise ships? really?); and is even still making creative, innovative--dare I say risky--artistic choices, which is a lot more than I can say for a number of seasons past.

But last night's Tonys also felt, to me, closer to the Emmys, the Oscars, and the Grammys than I've ever noticed before: glitzier, more serious, more moneyed, more conservative, a bit straighter in every sense. I'm not sure how to put my thumb on this; I just felt something changing or shifting, ever so slightly, while I watched last night.

Maybe it was just me. And maybe the subtle shift I detected, if there even was one, is not such a bad thing. Maybe, after decades of trying desperately to regain the entertainment street-cred it lost when Tin Pan Alley died and Elvis Presley burst on to the scene, Broadway has finally started to figure out how to piss with the big boys. And maybe that new awareness results in an awards show that's more professional, bigger in size and in reach, and thus just a titch less real and local and raw than it once was. Maybe this is the price we have to pay for a healthy, widely appealing, endlessly varied theater culture. I suppose if that's the price, I'll miss my ragged old Tonys, but I'll ultimately be comfortable paying it.

NYTW Rocks the Tony Awards

If anyone had any lingering doubts that the real theatrical action is Off-Broadway, the New York Theatre Workshop's well-deserved 13 wins last night (eight for Once and five for Peter and the Starcatcher) should put them to rest.

Other Thoughts on the Tony Awards [updated in red]
  • I wish Neil Patrick Harris hadn't started with a gay joke. Enough already.
  • In general, though, Harris was a charming host.
  • The opening number about "what if life was like theatre" was almost good--there was just a spark of some sort missing.
  • For me the most surpising award of the evening was Judith Light over Linda Emond. I would have bet money on Emond. Glad I didn't.
  • The camera work on the Newsies number managed to suck much of the energy away by interrupting any chance for the dance to build.
  • I found many of the jokes throughout the evening lame, although I did like the idea of a musical called My Left Footloose.
  • It was nice to see the old pros Michael McGrath and Judy Kaye win. They are two of the most reliably excellent people in theatre.
  • Of all of the songs in Follies, "Buddy's Blues" was the one I'd least like to see. Burstein was fine, but the two women managed to overdo two roles that require overdoing.
  • The song from Ghost  was boring.
  • The song from Jesus Christ Superstar was unimpressive.
  • I was thrilled that Christian Borle won.
  • I guess Matthew Broderick is a star, and I guess he brings in audiences, but I have no idea what anyone sees in him.
  • The End of the Rainbow number was horrible. Ick. Double ick.
  • The Porgy & Bess excerpt tried to accomplish too much, I think.
  • I loved "Walking on Moonbeams" from Once. I wonder, tho, how many tickets it sold, if any. I wish there were a way to judge. Here it is: according to this article, Once's ticket sales went up 500% today!
  • The scene from Evita reminded me yet again that Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin are stars. Ricky Martin was okay. I guess.
  • Godspell number: eh.
  • The Leap of Faith number was pretty entertaining, I thought.
  • All Audra McDonald needs is a Best-Actress-in-a-Play Tony and she will have won in all four acting categories. I find her ability to win in both plays and musicals to be even more impressive than the fact that she already has five Tony awards (which is in itself pretty damn impressive).
  • The closing song was funny, and I am glad CBS let it run.
  • It would be fine with me if Harris continues to host the show indefinitely.
  • All in all, not a bad show. It moved along pretty quickly, and there were some lovely moments.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Show Showdown Reviewer Sandra Mardenfeld Wins PCLI Award

We're proud and excited to announce that our own Sandra Mardenfeld won first place in the "Online, Arts" category of the Press Club of Long Island Media Awards for her wonderful review of Snow White. Sandra recently completed her PhD, and she is Assistant Professor and Director of the Journalism Program at Long Island University C.W. Post Campus.

The rest of us here at Show Showdown happily congratulate Sandra on this well-deserved honor. 

Sandra Mardenfeld With Her
Husband Ruben Quintero

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Next to Normal (Stages Rep, Houston)

Sometimes it's possible to confuse an event and a show, and it is only when the event disappears that the show's full merits can be judged. Take The Lion King. Would it have run for more than 15 minutes without Julie Taymor's brilliance? It is the event rather than the show that is spectacular.

Seeing Next to Normal starring Alice Ripley was an event, every time. Her acolytes filled the front row and mobbed the stage door, and her performance was a force of nature, the perfect match of performer and character. Plus, any Broadway production is to some extent an event due to the gorgeous theatres, top-notch technical aspects, and shocking prices. For these reasons, and the fact that I love Next to Normal, I was excited to get to see a regional production at the Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston, Texas. I wondered: What would Next to Normal the show be without Next to Normal the event?


Well-directed and amusingly choreographed by Melissa Rain Anderson, this Next to Normal is more of an ensemble piece than it was on Broadway. Which is not to say that it doesn't have a strong actor playing Diana, the mother with bipolar disorder who "just couldn't cope." In fact, Happy McPartlin gives a touching, complex, smart performance in a challenging role, and she sings it well. It's not a star turn, and that's okay. Her regular-person-ness brings a deep sense of the quotidian wear-and-tear of bipolar disorder to the show. The rest of the cast is also strong, including Brad Goertz as Diana's long-suffering husband, Tyler Berry Lewis as her much-loved son; Rebekah Stevens as her neglected daughter Natalie; Mark Ivy as Natalie's boyfriend; and Kregg Daily as different doctors who try to help Diana. They too are more "regular people" than the Broadway cast was, and again that is a strength.

Interestingly enough, few of the jokes in Next to Normal received laughs in this production; while the show is far from a comedy, it has many (potentially?) funny moments. Also, few of the songs received applause, although the curtain calls revealed that the audience was quite enthusiastic. (McPartlin does not receive a solo bow, unfortunately. She deserves one.)

The technical aspects of this production reveal some of the limits of smaller theatres. The space has no room for the second floor of the family's house, let alone the third. The sound is a little muddy. The lighting is less than ideal. But none of this matters.

What does matter is that this production brings to vivid life a difficult, sad, and amazing piece of theatre.

(full price tickets [$38ish] seventh row [the last row] center)

2011-2012 Patrick Lee Theater Blogger Award Winners

The Independent Theater Bloggers Association (the “ITBA”) is proud to announce the 2012 recipients of the Fourth Annual Patrick Lee Theater Blogger Awards (the “the Patricks”). Patrick Lee was one of the ITBA's founding members--and one of the founders of this blog. Patrick, who passed away suddenly in June 2010, was an erudite, passionate, and tireless advocate for theater in all its forms. Patrick was also the ITBA's first awards director and a regular contributor to Theatermania and TDF Stages.

And the winners are . . .

  • Peter and the Starcatcher
  • Nina Arianda in "Venus in Fur"
  • Christian Borle in "Peter and the Starcatcher"
  • Philip Boynkin in "The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess"
  • Danny Burstein, "Follies"
  • James Corden in "One Man Two Guvnors"
  • Santino Fontana, "Sons of a Prophet"
  • Judy Kaye, "Nice Work If You Can Get It"
  • Judith Light in "Other Desert Cities"
  • Jan Maxwell, "Follies"
  • Lindsay Mendez "Godspell"
  • Terri White in "Follies"
  • Once
  • Peter and the Starcatcher
  • Follies
  • Death of a Salesman
  • Sons of the Prophet
  • "Samuel&Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War," by The Mad Ones, at The New Ohio Theatre AND "She Kills Monsters" at the Flea Theatre
  • "The Tenant" by Woodshed Collective
  • The Flea Theatre
  • Hugh Jackman, "Back on Broadway"
  • Denis O'Hare, "An Iliad," New York Theatre Workshop
  • Zoe Caldwell, "Elective Affinities," Soho Rep
  • Juan Francisco Villa, "Empanada for a Dream," Ballybeg at Barrow Group
  • Stephen Spinella, "An Illiad"
  • Daniel Kitson, "It's Always Right Now Until It's Later"
  • Lorinda Lositza, in "Triumphant Baby"
  • Now. Here. This.
The ITBA is composed of bloggers who regularly see live performance in all its forms in New York City and beyond, including Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, and London. For further information and a list of our members, go to If you are interested in learning more about the ITBA, email  To invite the members of the ITBA to your show or event, please send an email to

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Medieval Play

Kenneth Lonergan's Medieval Play, had to have been produced under threat of thumbscrews. Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) and Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan) are pillagers of the lowest order -- though they're wise enough to think through the sociopolitical changes the current Hundred Years' War (it's 1376) will bring about: anything to get a laugh, right? Things change, however, when Sir Ralph, motivated by a sudden sense of morality, refuses to rape an abbey full of nuns, and instead contracts his company to Cardinal Robert of Geneva. Unfortunately for him, the church is just as bloody, and his attempts to leave it behind to do real good -- let alone to define it -- are constantly undone by his baser instincts and his poorer timing. This is pretty much what undoes the show, too: Lonergan's self-indulgent direction has created an atmosphere in which there isn't a single joke that doesn't go on at least fifty percent too long (the bland fight sequences, especially between Niccolo and Ralph; a sequence detailing the importance of "modern etiquette"), to say nothing of all the material that's been left in far beyond its expiration date (the whoring and bullying done by some French cardinals, the idol-worship directed at Catherine of Sienna).

[Read full review here]

My Children! My Africa!

If My Children! My Africa! occasionally falls prey to schooling us, it is at least at the hands of the very gifted James A. Williams, and it is at least motivated by the relateable frustrations of his character, Mr. M., who fears what will happen to his country when the youth finally rebel against the inequalities of Apartheid (the play takes place in the autumn of 1984). Clear passions and heartbreaks drive these lessons, as Mr. M. attempts to take two disparate debate students -- his would-be prodigy, the roiling Thami (Stephen Tyrone Williams), and the bright and affable (and white) Isabel (Allie Gallerani) -- and show them that there can be a non-violent path to unity. Fugard has the master playwright's ability to empathize with all of his characters, but given his subject matter, it's easy to assume that he writes to instruct because he truly believes that ignorance is the true root of evil: so it's important that we listen and learn, so that we might move forward together.

[Read full review here]

Title and Deed

Photo: Joan Marcus
Will Eno's Title and Deed seems to operate in a vacuum. Christine Jones's set hangs geometric shapes in mid-air, looking like shrapnel frozen in time, and Ben Stanton's lighting is plain and straightforward: no tricks up these sleeves, it announces. The same can be said for Andrea Lauer's unassuming costume: Conor Lovett's character, after all, can be from anywhere except here, and is meant to be as nondescript as possible. Personally, this sort of work makes me uncomfortable -- fidgety -- and structurally, the show has even less of a narrative than Eno's Thom Pain. Being a critic here is more like being a dream analyst . . . but then again, sometimes dead air is just dead air.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Other Desert Cities

Sometimes, when partisan politics piss me off, I try--with increasing difficulty as I age--to see the issue from the other side. "They infuriate us as much as we infuriate them," I reason, "and they probably think about it this way while we're coming at it from this other way." This exercise usually doesn't help much, but at the very least, it does remind me that I am not alone in my own rigidity, stubbornness, or convictions about what I am sure is right and what I know is dead wrong. Sue me; I'm human.

So are all the members of the Wyeth family, portrayed with impressive sympathy and depth by Jon Robin Baitz in his flawed but compelling Other Desert Cities. The whole family is pretty solidified in their opinions--about themselves, their relationships, their politics, their worlds. The family elders, Polly and Lyman (Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach), are old-guard Hollywood Republicans who were dear friends with the Reagans, and who remain staunchly dedicated to the party and its ideals, even as those ideals have shifted since their beloved Ron left office, and even more radically since the turn of the century. They love but don't always understand their grown children, Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel) and Trip (Thomas Sadoski), a novelist recovering from a breakdown and the producer of a lurid tv reality show, respectively. Polly's sister Silda, a profoundly dysfunctional, if currently recovering, alcoholic whom Polly has taken care of on and off for much of her life, is living with Polly and Lyman as she adjusts to life just out of rehab (again).

Brooke has traveled from New York and Trip from LA to spend Christmas with Silda and their parents in their comfortable, sterile home in the Palm Springs desert. It is winter 2004, and the entire family is on edge. Silda, shakily sober at best, sleeps for much of the day and spends most of her waking hours biting the hands that feed her. Brooke remembers well the yawning abyss of depression that she is only just learning to manage, and she, like the rest of her family, is terrified that she'll lose control again. Trip, the family's youngest and perhaps most even-keeled, is sick of falling prey to the same old family dynamics he encounters every time he comes to visit. And Polly and Lyman refuse, as usual, to acknowledge or discuss their eldest son, Henry, who committed suicide after his own descent into mental illness resulted in the accidental death of a stranger. Yet their refusal to do so is about to become a real problem: Brooke, after years of inactivity, has finished a memoir about Henry, her family, and his death, and she wants their blessings before she publishes it, first in excerpted form in The New Yorker, and later as a high-profile book.

This, the central plotline of Other Desert Cities, failed to work for me. The way the death of a child impacts a family is certainly fair game for theater (and film, for that matter): Rabbit Hole comes immediately to mind, as does Ordinary People. Other Desert Cities doesn't add much to the canon on this front. When it comes to matters regarding Henry (oops) and Brooke's fairly damning memoir about him and his family, the show feels stagy, formulaic, and heavy handed: Secrets Are Revealed. Characters Reel From Shocking Realizations. Every Character Gets A Big Moment; Screaming Is Optional. There Is Anger And Retribution, But Finally Forgiveness, Acceptance, and Healing. Fade Out. Curtain.

Yet another problem I initially had with the show ended up striking me as one of its playwright's more insightful strokes. The actors seem to have been directed (by the mighty Joe Mantello) to relate to one another in a more superficial, forcefully cheery manner when they're all together--and especially when they are around Polly, whose almost plastic smiley face and cheerfully teasing humor disguise a deep-seated defensiveness, iron will, and ability to switch from warm and motherly to icy and threatening in a heartbeat. As the action unfolds, however, and the scenes focus on relationships between various family members, the overarching family dynamic gives way to more complex, subtle interpersonal relationships.

And in the end, it was the subtleties of Other Desert Cities that won me over. Playwrights can so often, so easily, insinuate their own politics or worldviews into their works, by punishing or judging their characters' ideals, choices, behavior. Baitz, however, refuses to do any of that here, which strikes me as the biggest strength of his play. I didn't always agree with his characters--their opinions about their family, their pasts, their politics, their values, their (sometimes downright petty) grudges. But I rather liked them all, flaws and all, and that didn't change as the action continued and the melodrama built. I believed the Wyeths, all of them, as I believed in their increasingly nuanced, complicated interactions with one another. They end up making perfect sense if you've ever spent more than five minutes with a family--any family--in your life. After all, families can rip themselves apart over things way pettier than the death of a child. Some family members are closer than others, and all family members relate to one another in unique ways. When it comes to families, the whole is not typically the sum of its parts.

The nuances extend, in Baitz's play, well beyond his Wyeths, and out into the rapidly changing, increasingly partisan, increasingly frightening world. The show's not called Other Desert Cities, nor set in 2004, for nothing. Outside of Lyman and Polly's generically tasteful, stubbornly isolated home in Palm Springs are bigger wars being waged, other people's children dying, the American party system slowly imploding. These bigger parts of the picture are not discussed terribly deeply by the Wymans during their time together, but it's clear that they all feel the world around them, and each of them has their own solidified, unchanging opinions about it, as they do about one another. They might not ever change, really, any of them, but Baitz gracefully forgives them for being so endlessly, stubbornly, even smugly rigid in their own perspectives--and thus, for being people--nonetheless.