Monday, May 27, 2013

Requiem for Smash: Did It Have to Be That Bad?

Smash has had its supporters and detractors, but even its supporters never defended its quality. "Guilty pleasure," they said. "The show you love to hate." And it's not like there hasn't been bad TV before. And it's not like there haven't been unconvincing theatre-behind-the-scenes depictions before. But after two seasons, I just keep thinking: did it have to be that bad?

Of course not! Smash was written and scored and directed and performed by some deeply talented people--and some not-so-talented people too, of course, but there were certainly enough of the former to create a good show. Even mediocre would have been welcome. So what went wrong?

Marc Shaiman wrote
A lot of smart, talented (and in some cases, smart AND talented!) people were brought together to create a television show. Probably too many people. Yes, "too many chefs" is the most succinct way to say what went wrong. But there was not a single soul working on the show who didn't want it to be great. Everyone just had a different idea of what that was.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


Joan Marcus

This past theater season has been a real roller coaster for me, reception-wise. I saw Kinky Boots begrudgingly, and in a monumentally horrible mood, and seriously out for blood, and I ended up having a terrific time and even getting weepy despite myself. I saw Annie right after the hurricane, hoping that the show would comfort me by bringing back pleasant childhood memories of the original production...and I left  feeling as emotionally numb as I was when I went in. I had pretty low expectations for Macbeth and got a lot more out of it than I thought I would. I had no idea what to expect with Pippin and was absolutely, totally, completely gobsmacked. Same goes for The Other Place: I went with no idea about it at all, and felt like I needed to be scraped up off the floor and sent home in an emotional doggie-bag at the curtain call.

Then there's Matilda, which I fell completely prey to the hype of, and have been eagerly awaiting since I snagged good, reasonably cheap (for Broadway, anyway) tickets last fall. I should've known better than to have gotten so excited, because there's no way my expectations could have possibly been met. Which is not to say I was bitterly disappointed--I wasn't, not consistently, and certainly not bitterly. Matilda is an exceptionally good adaptation of an exceptionally good children's book. I just wish it had been a little more emotionally loaded.

Then again, I don't think that's entirely fair of me, considering the source. As a book, Matilda is, like many Roald Dahl books, strange, dark, and weirdly creative, but about as warm and fuzzy as a frozen head of lettuce. Matilda Wormwood is an exceptionally bright little girl whose tacky, stupid, dishonest parents dislike and neglect her. When Matilda shows up at school--a brutal, scary, gray place called Crunchem Hall, the motto of which is "Children are Maggots"--her meek but dedicated teacher, Jenny Honey, quickly recognizes her brilliance. Miss Honey visits the vile headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, and also Matilda's smugly dimwitted parents, whom she tries to convince of Matilda's intellectual gifts, but they are all too stupid, dishonest, and self-involved to believe Miss Honey, or to care. As the book progresses, Matilda defies her parents whenever she can, bests the evil headmistress, bonds with Miss Honey, and eventually goes to live with her, as happily ever after as anyone can ever be in a Dahl book.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Experimental approaches to well-known plays can sometimes pay off in enormous ways. The National Theatre of Scotland's production of Macbeth, currently at the Barrymore, made me think of a whole bunch of productions that have, at some point or another, thrilled me with their wonderful weirdness. There was the production of Ibsen's Ghosts that I saw as a kid at Carnegie-Mellon University, which scared the shit out of me, and which featured life-sized voodoo dolls, a stage filled with dirt, and a huge, creepy, empty auditorium. There was the Mabou Mines production of Ibsen's A Doll's House, cast with men under four feet tall and statuesque blonde women (one of whom got totally naked at the end, and turned out to be bald). There was The Donkey Show, Diane Paulus's hilarious 1970s take on A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in an abandoned dance club in the very westernmost reaches of Chelsea. There was John Doyle's Company, which highlighted Bobby's isolation by having every character but him play their own musical instruments. I recognize that some of you might've hated some of these productions, and it's fine with me if you did, but they all totally bent my brain in really good ways.

Then again, new twists on old favorites can end up feeling gimmicky and pointless, and I've sat through plenty of those productions, too. I still can't figure out the production of Measure for Measure that I saw, also at CMU, which featured a cast of actors clothed in smeary, filthy tatters and wandering blankly through the audience as they delivered their lines in near monotones. A production of Tosca set during World War II was....Tosca with 1940s style suits and dresses. I understand what Baz Luhrmann has been trying to do since, like, he was born, but I've never really connected with his work nonetheless. Last year, I saw a college production of Pippin that re-imagined the title character as a soldier suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which was way, way more adorable than its overly committed cast of very young adults clearly intended it to be.

And then there's this production of Macbeth, which I'd place somewhere squarely in the middle. The gimmick: it is set in a mental institution, where Alan Cumming--a severely disturbed patient who has experienced (maybe caused?) something horribly traumatic that has resulted in a psychotic break--has been committed. A man and a woman in white coats observe him, and occasionally take part in his delusions, as he portrays every major character in the Shakespeare tragedy.

Monday, May 20, 2013


In his one-man Macbeth, the protean Alan Cumming orates, cries, hits his chest, yells, whispers, throws things, and tries to drown himself. What he doesn't do is define characters or tell a coherent story. Now and then you can catch chunks of Macbeth flying by, and Cumming does well by the famous bits: out, out damn spot; a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage; Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped; and so on. But when he's acting out a conversation among a variety of characters, good luck figuring out who's saying what to whom.The framing story is sort of interesting, but obscure; for no apparent reason, Macbeth has become the rantings of a man with blood on his hands (neck, torso, arms, etc). Overall, Cumming's performance is impressive, but in the way that running a marathon is impressive.

I'll grant you that it's a cheap shot, but this Macbeth is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Full disclosure: most of the people in the audience jumped to their feet cheering when the show was over. 

(eighth row center, press ticket)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Nice Work If You Can Get It

I had no intention of seeing Nice Work If You Can Get It. I'm not a Matthew Broderick fan, and word-of-mouth made the show sound lame. Then nicely discounted tickets became available, and Jessie Mueller was cast, and I've always adored George Gershwin, and I figured, "What the hell. Even if the show stinks, I'll get to hear the music."

And damned if I didn't have a wonderful time. And damned if I didn't love Broderick's performance, weird voice and all!

Judy Kaye
Photo: Joan Marcus
The storyline is hardly worth summarizing--playboy meets girl bootlegger, playboy loses girl bootlegger, playboy gets girl bootlegger--but Joe DiPietro (the playbill says "Inspired by material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse) has filled the script with delightfully silly jokes that are nailed by the fabulous cast. When an exchange about someone not being able to count to two is actually funny, you know you're in good hands.

And oh, what hands: Judy Kaye as an anti-alcohol crusader, Michael McGrath as a crook proud to be a good butler, and Chris Sullivan as a lunkhead with a sweet heart bring a divine sublimity to the proceedings. Kaye in particular gives a master class in perfectly calibrated insanity. Is there anyone like her? Fabulous voice, excellent acting, supreme likeability--I luv her.

The scenery by Derek McLane and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are exactly what they should be, with style. In particular, the striped vice squad suits are a delight. And the orchestrations by Bill Elliot are wonderful--in his capable hands, even the scenes changes are a treat. The choreography by Kathleen Marshall isn't unique or outstanding--and I really wanted a tap number!--but it does what it needs to do, and her direction moves the show along at the perfect snappy pace.

If you too were dissuaded from giving Nice Work If You Can Get It a chance by the lackluster word-of-mouth and highly mixed reviews, and if you like shows that are sheer fun, get thee to the Imperial before the show closes on June 15th.

(4th row mezz; discount ticket)

The Girl I Left Behind Me

Jessica Walker has a pretty mezzo-soprano voice and a fascination with the male impersonators of the late 19th and early 20th century. With co-writer Neil Bartlett, she has turned these into a one-woman show in which she talks about these women and sings their songs. She looks good in tails and is earnest in her presentation. But she lacks the swagger and polish needed to do full justice to male impersonation, and while her singing is lovely, the patter is often awkward, and she isn't quite an actress. The person I saw the show with called it a "sung essay," and I can't do better than that.

Songs included Don't Put Your Foot on a Man When He's Down (great title!), Down by the Old Mill Stream, Why Did I Kiss That Girl?, Following in Father's Footsteps, Burlington Bertie From Bow, and After the Ball.

(press ticket; table seating)

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Honey Fist

It's amazing what really excellent playwrights can pull off. Take the Flux Theatre Ensemble's Honey Fist, by the wonderful August Schulenburg. In a dry description, it sounds like a stew of worn-out tropes and creaky devices: a reunion of old buddies, mourning the friend who died; sparring between the one who moved away and the ones who stayed; the newcomer who doesn't fit in; significant alcohol and drug use; revealed secrets and heartbreaks; and so on. Yet in Schulenburg's deft hands, these rusty old parts become something new and shiny, funny and engaging, sad and meaningful, silly and occasionally wise. He does such a smooth and entertaining job, in fact, that by the time the storyline becomes completely unbelievable, you choose to believe it anyway.
Parquet, Rahn
Photo: Ken Glickfeld

How does Schulenburg pull this off? I believe Honey Fist succeeds because he makes this group of old friends unique, detailed, and vivid; this reunion specific and suspenseful; this sparring real, with high stakes and human failings; these secrets particular to these people and this time and place. In other words, he de-clichés
the clichés and un-tropes the tropes, with deep compassion and gentle humor.

And then there is the language:
Round this time I had this thing for this girl from summer camp, in Falmouth, for my Dad still had his mind and his job in those days; but this was a sweet-ass sleep-over camp and even though half the boys are still thinking girls got cooties, there was this one girl, Margaret Mayer, who even the hard-core cootie-phobes harbored a crush for. You know how it is, girls in the summer, in their soccer shorts, their pig-tails, they make your skin grow up before your mind knows a thing about it.
Sometimes I think, if Justin hadn’t died, I might’ve been an actual artsy-fartsy artist instead of one hell of a drunk carpenter. Crazy how something like that alters your course forever. Sometimes I feel that other life rubbing up against this one, you know? Like I could just breach that invisible wall and reach into that other life, where he’s still alive, and I’m, you know, finding the shapes in shapes for real. This is reflective pot, are you feeling reflective?
What's even better is the give-and-take of his dialogue, people chatting, bantering, wheedling, fighting, with distinctive voices, in language both lyrical and real.

Director Kelly O’Donnell smoothly leads a strong cast of Flux regulars and one newcomer. They are Matt Archambault, providing a calm center amid a fair amount of insanity; Nat Cassidy, full of nervous energy and desperation; Lori E. Parquet, beautiful, sad, and wry; Anna Rahn, somehow retaining her dignity even while behaving in a deeply undignified manner; Isaiah Tanenbaum, likeable in the least interesting role; and Chinaza Uche, doing his best work yet as man deeply in love and not sure what to do about it.

As I reread this rave review, part of me feels like I'm overselling the show. I don't think Honey Fist will live forever as a classic. I don't think it is Schulenburg's best work. But his brilliance is all over it, and as I see more and more mediocre plays (and I unfortunately see a lot of mediocre plays), I more deeply respect the skill it takes to write a good one.

(press ticket; 4th row)

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Call

When reading reviews, you sometimes just have to wonder, "Did we see the same play?" The Call, written by Tanya Barfield, directed by Leigh Silverman, and currently playing at Playwrights Horizon, was largely well received, garnering an overall B from StageGrade. The reviews called it thoughtful, though-provoking, and sensitive in its depiction of a white couple who decide to adopt a child from Africa and the way it affects their best friends, an African-American lesbian couple. To me, however, The Call is a potentially fascinating essay awkwardly jammed into the lives of cardboard characters who exist only to represent political points of view. And the final crisis, [spoiler] whether the couple should adopt a 4-year-old from Africa, is used to indict the wife as selfish and perhaps mildly racist, when in reality the problems associated with adopting a child of that age are well-documented and serious, whether the child is from West Africa or Westchester. But that's not the only artificial situation in The Call: the lesbian couple have no chemistry, nor do the married couple; the friendship between the white wife and one of the African-American lesbians rings false; and the African next-door-neighbor is an embarrassing and preachy plot device. The scenery was nice.

Song of Norway

Okay, Collegiate Chorale, you spoiled us with The Mikado, and raised the bar far too high. Then along comes Song of Norway, an okay presentation of an unimpressive show. It doesn't help that the sound was spotty, and that Jim Dale, as the narrator, and David Garrison, as a French impressario, were about 97% unintelligible.

Danieley, Silber, Fontana
Photo: Erin Baiano
The story of Song of Norway is silly and predictable. Composer Edvard Grieg is part of a trio of friends, one of whom he partners with to write, the other of whom he marries. But fame goes to his head, blah, blah, blah.

But there were highlights: Judy Kaye, wonderful as always and clear as a bell (though often blocked from view by her own music stand); Jason Danieley, adorable as always and giving it his all; Santino Fontana, singing beautifully (but not quite bothering to give a peformance); Alexandra Silber, singing and acting the heck out of her role; and Anita Gillette, extraordinarily likeable. And while the Collegiate Chorale itself was splendid, I wish it had had more to do.

(press ticket, orchestra, side, ~14 rows back)

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Sans Merci

In Sans Merci, written by Johnna Adams and directed by Heather Cohn, two young women, Kelly (the awkwardly, impressively real Rachael Hip-Flores) and Tracy (the lovely and intense Alisha Spielmann), fall in love and decide to try to save the world, starting with a small mountain in Colombia. Their plans go terribly, fatally, wrong. Some years later, Tracy's mother Elizabeth (the wry, subtle, and heartbreaking Susan Ferrara) shows up at Kelly's home, seeking information, Tracy's belongings, and ownership of Tracy's memory. She does not seek closure; in fact, she and Kelly both cherish their grief. 
Susan Ferrara, Rachael Hip-Flores
Photo: Titus Winters
Elizabeth and Kelly go on to spar a bit, but with a strong underlying connection. Elizabeth may be a Republican who wishes that her daughter had never met Kelly, and she may be there to take some of Kelly's treasured keepsakes of Tracy, but both recognize their unshakeable connection: they, and only they, understand the true, deep horror of losing Tracy.

Sans Merci is mesmerizing, heartbreaking, grueling, and, yes, merciless. It is also damn good. Johnna Adams gives us three-dimensional characters in all their messy glory, and Heather Cohn provides her usual clean and smartly paced direction. The scenery by Charles Murdock Lucas supplies a strong sense of who lives there, and the lighting by Kia Rogers and the sound by Janie Bullard contribute a vivid emotional landscape. It's another excellent production from the Flux Theatre Ensemble.

(The title, by the way, references Keats' poem, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," which was/is loved by both Tracy and Elizabeth and which was instrumental in Tracy and Kelly's becoming friends. The poem is about being left behind after a deep love, and it is echoed in the play in ways both metaphorical and concrete.)

There are points where the edginess of Sans Merci tips over into creepiness. While it is difficult to experience some of these moments, they are also some of the play's strengths.

For example: Kelly lays out the clothing that was torn from Tracy before she was murdered, and Elizabeth finds this a comforting sight, feeling that it partially makes up for having been unable to see her daughter's body. She explores the remnants of Tracy's suffering with something like a sense of wonder.

For example: When the show starts, Kelly is lying on the couch, listening to her iPod, her hand in her pants. She seems more to be comforting herself, holding on to herself, than touching herself. We later find out that she is listening to Tracy's accidentally-taped tirade against her murderers. This tirade is Tracy's declaration of independence: with her clothing, dignity, future, and (she thinks) her lover stripped away, she banishes her fears and panic attacks and spews out her emotions. Her outburst (which, injured and nude, she screams at the audience) ends with the bullet that ends her life. It is an excruciating moment and a very successful piece of theater, even though the tirade itself goes on too long (it becomes repetitive, and the murderers would have shot her much sooner; with her nudity, it almost tips over into suffering porn).

Elizabeth also listens to the tape, once. After Kelly tells her it exists, she can't resist hearing it. In a way it is a gift, providing her with a hysterical catharsis that she desperately needs. However, when Kelly then offers her a copy (a moment that was greeted with understandable nervous laughter the night I saw the show), Elizabeth says no (which seems a sane answer).

But we're left with the question: why does Kelly listen to Tracy's dying words over and over? I think listening to the tape is Kelly's penance and comfort both. She feels responsible for Tracy's death (with some justification), and listening to her murder over and over again is brutal. On the other hand, Tracy goes in a blaze of glory, during which she declares her love and respect for Kelly at the top of her lungs. It is a testimonial to their relationship; it is proof that Tracy did not blame her; it is a pure, uncensored version of the woman Kelly loved.

And why is Kelly's hand in her pants? I think she is holding herself together. Because she and Tracy were being physical when they were attacked--because Kelly had practically badgered Tracy into having sex at that moment--Kelly's sexual life may well be over, destroyed by guilt and memories. But listening to the tape is unquestionably, if weirdly, intimate. Does she feel any arousal? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not sure I'd want to know.

Grief is not pretty, or sane, and Adams is willing to wrestle with that.

[end of spoilers]
I'm find I'm still thinking about Sans Merci. I try to figure out the characters' motivations--and the playwright's. I become more aware of its flaws and more aware of its strengths. It is a brave play--braver sometimes in its quiet moments than in its showy ones--and, in its own way, beautiful.

(third row on the aisle, press ticket)