Thursday, December 26, 2013

Top 10 Theatrical Experiences of 2013

I skipped last year, but there'll be none of that in 2013.  After all, it's simply vital you know which of the several dozen plays, shows, concerts and cabaret performances I saw this year rose to the highest heights.

In no particular order they are:

"Stuck Elevator" at A.C.T., San Francisco
This modern opera about a delivery person for a Chinese restaurant in New York was both claustrophobic and expansive at the same time.  Weird and magical and moving.

"The Whipping Man" at Marin Theater Company, Mill Valley
I'm a sucker for a story, and so few modern works seem to have a good one.  "The Whipping Man" did - a story of life in a destroyed plantation house near the end of the Civil War.

"Vanya, Sonya, Masha & Spike" at the Golden Theater, New York
Playwright Christopher Durang managed to strike a perfect balance of the classic elements of theatre - from the Greeks to Chekov - with a very contemporary tone, full of irony and sardonic wit.  Plus it starred Sigourney Weaver and Kristine Nielsen.  Bonus.

"Here Lies Love" at The Public Theater, New York
A disco "Evita" - a story of Imelda Marcos (though not a terribly historically accurate one) that was told inside a night club.  Wonderful use of mobile stage elements and projections that make the audience part of the show.

"The Nance" at The Lyceum, New York
First, Nathan Lane.  Second, a great script by Douglas Carter Beane that seamlessly married a backstage story of forbidden love with some terrific vaudeville clowning.  See the show when it comes to San Francisco, as I'm sure it will at some point.

"This Is How It Goes" at the Aurora, Berkeley
Neil Bute's play about race and class hit all the right uncomfortable notes in this excellent production (great staging, terrific acting) from one of the best regional companies.

"West Side Story" in concert at SF Symphony
It's some of the best music ever written for the stage, and SF Symphony booked some fantastic performers to bring it to life.  Hard to beat that.

"Carrie: The Musical" at Victoria Theatre
Ray of Light has done a consistently good job of staging musical productions with small budgets and mostly local talent.  This may have been the best thing they've done - their staging (given what they have to work with) was brilliant.

"Dan Savage in Conversation with Daniel Handler" at the Castro Theater, San Francisco
Thought-provoking, hysterical, filled with dangerous ideas.  I wouldn't have missed it for the world.  (Well, maybe for the world.)

"Vince Gilligan in Conversation" at the SF JCC, San Francisco
Actually, this happened in November of 2012, but since I didn't publish a list last year, and Vince was so charming and humble and insightful that I'm including it here.  My blog, my rules.

Friday, June 28, 2013

OK, science deniers - put up or shut up

A note to the right-wingers who deny the truth of evolution and climate change:  if you're going to question the validity of basic science, you can't limit yourself to only those two things.

After all, if all of that is “lies from the pits of hell,” as Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia said, then so is the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  And Newton’s Laws of Motion.  Because they all come from the same source:  the scientific method.  The willingness to observe the world around you with humility and attempt to understand or explain it using methods that are both empirical and repeatable.

Over the centuries, that approach to…well, existence has brought us some pretty great things.  Navigation.  Electricity.  Vaccines.  And things you guys like, too.  Internal combustion engines.  Air conditioning.  Nukes.  Internet porn.   Oxy-Contin.   All courtesy of science. 

Polio killed or crippled millions – before scientists did something called “experimentation” and eventually found a vaccine that has virtually wiped the virus from the planet. 

As many as 8,000 lives were lost in the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.  Because until scientists figured out how to put cameras into orbit, pretty much every hurricane was as big a surprise as Katrina was to George W. Bush.  Or as Bill Clinton was to discover Monica Lewinsky wasn’t keeping up on the dry cleaning.

While we’re at it, denying mathematics isn’t helping you guys much, either.  Nate Silver – whose goal was to take bias out of polling, to be as scientific and rational as possible in his predictions – called the Presidency and all 33 Senate races in 2012 with 100% accuracy.  This is before the election.  Meanwhile, Karl Rove was so out of touch with reality that he made Fox’s Megyn Kelly get up and go down the hall and mega-super-extra-doublecheck the numbers - because after all, everyone had prayed. so. hard!  And this is after the polls had closed.

So here’s the deal.  If you can’t accept the fact that higher concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere is changing our climate, then you also don’t get to use any of the boner pills brought to us by chemistry.

If you want to believe the world was created in six 24-hour days and humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together, then you have to start walking.  Everywhere.  After all, today’s cars have more computing power than all of NASA used to get us to the moon and safely home again.  Which reminds me, no Teflon-coated pans, either.  Those tools of Satan in NASA’s materials engineering group came up with that one.  

And don’t think you can weasel out of this by buying a bicycle, since without vulcanization, it wouldn’t have tires.  For that matter, without metallurgy, it wouldn’t have a frame.

So all the wonderful stuff we get from chemistry and physics and biology – all that’s off-limits.  No cell phones, no iPads, no TV, no photography.  No GPS.  No anitbiotics, no alternating current, no Gulfstream IVs.  No IVs, period.  No Advil.  No Aleve.  No Lipitor, Nexium or Flomax. 

One exception – vaccines.  Those we’ll let you have.  After all, we have to think of the children.  Our children.

So feel free, deny science all you want.  But when you want something to cure your cancer, fly you to Branson or watch Fox News on – try praying for it.  

Sunday, June 02, 2013

New York Theater Report - Spring 2013

There are many things a distractable person might think about while experiencing temporary writer’s block.*

But such things do absolutely nothing to further your understanding of what’s happening on and off-Broadway in New York – as seen through my personal filter and for your future enjoyment.  After all, that’s why I overcome those blocks in order to write these annual reports – to guide you to the cream, and steer you from the crap.   (Even if the crap is well-intentioned and sincerely presented.) 

This does not imply a guarantee (either express or implicit) that you might not love what I deem dreck. I’m also certain some of what I praise most highly just isn’t right for some of you.  I know that for at least one of you, the show I loved most on this trip was one you loathed. 

But I don’t let that stop me.  Certainly not on this most recent trip, where I attended 16 different theatrical or musical presentations, not to mention several museums and galleries.  (I’d tell you how few days it took me to accomplish this, but I’m afraid it would freak you out.) 

Clearly I can’t see everything, but I have a pretty experienced booker (aka Broadway Bob) who sifts through the online resources to determine which new shows might be most worth the time, so there’s already been one level of filtration – which is how several dozen possibilities are whittled down to a mere baker’s dozen plus three.

Worry not – you don’t have to read about all 16.  I’ll cover only those you can see as of this writing, and focus on what I think you’d most enjoy.  For the less appealing offerings, I will attempt to use only enough words to convince you the show is one you’re likely to thank me for not having to see.  Or at least sufficient to reset your expectations.

Let’s begin at the top.  My number one recommendation is the new play from Christopher Durang (“Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” “Beyond Therapy,” “Miss Witherspoon” and “Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them” among others), “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” running through July 28 at the Golden Theatre.

Durang has managed to strike a perfect balance of classic elements of theatre – from the Greeks to Chekov – with a very contemporary tone, full of irony and sardonic wit.  There’s a fair bit of silliness here, so if that throws you off (as I imagine it did the aforementioned loathers of this show), you might want to pass.  But if you can handle even a little absurdity, I think you’ll have a fantastic time.

The cast is nothing short of perfect.  Sigourney Weaver (among my all-time favorite actors) is one of the few women who could don a Snow White costume and turn that gentle princess into a perfect Evil Queen.  David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen are delightful as siblings living in the family home, which their sister (Sigourney’s character, Masha) has decided to sell, since her career as a Hollywood megastar has taken just the tiniest downward turn.

Despite this star power, the cast is incredibly well-balanced.  Billy Magnussen deserves his Tony nomination for his role as Spike, Masha’s much younger boyfriend.  He bounces across the stage with as much energy as a terrier.  (Perhaps Durang envisioned the character as a dog, given the canine nature of his name and his puppy-like persona.)  Shalita Grant is likewise nominated for a Tony, and she is hysterical as Cassandra, the part-time housekeeper.  Like her namesake, Cassandra can see the future, but no one believes her prophecies.

David Korin’s set is a perfect evocation of a well-worn but well-loved country home, and the action that takes place there zips along at a brisk comedic pace, thanks to director Nicholas Martin’s sure hand.

Too many hysterical moments to catalog, but I’ll mention three.  First, when David Hyde Pierce’s character is told someone “doesn’t believe in global warming” and replies, “Well, I hope he lives a long, long time – and suffers through it,” and his second-act rant, railing against the changes technologies such as Twitter and 500+ channel cable TV have wrought on the culture.  Finally, there is Kristine Nielsen’s impression of Maggie Smith, which alone is worth the price of admission. 

I could talk about the bigger themes here (loss of innocence, self-absorption), but I’m not sure that would persuade you to see the show.  And you should.

Next up, another star turn – “The Nance,” playing through August 11 at The Lyceum. 

Let me correct that – three­ star turns. 

The first is by Nathan Lane, who applies his considerable comedic (and dramatic) talents to the role of Chauncey Miles, a gay man employed in a burlesque theater as a “nance,” a stereotypically mincing gay character, played entirely for laughs.  This role was usually played by straight men, so Chauncey’s job, in his words, is akin to “a negro in black face.” 

Lane amazes.  His double takes, slow burns, and ability to reveal the wounded child behind his showman’s veneer of confidence bring Chauncey delightfully to life.  The charm and wit that often protected gay men of that era (New York in the 30s) are fully on display.

Those qualities were created by the owner of the second star turn, writer Douglas Carter Beane, whose script is a brilliant pastiche of dramatic elements and adorable (though quite bawdy) vaudeville skits featuring Chauncey in his onstage role.  Beane does a terrific job of balancing the two, and using the shows-within-the-show to help drive the broader story forward.

The third star turn belongs to set designer John Lee Beatty.  Every single environment – the automat where closeted men cruised, Chauncey’s apartment, the burlesque theater (especially its backstage) – are absolutely perfect.

This, however, is where the perfection ends.  Not in “The Nance,” but for the trip as a whole.  Apart from these two winners, nothing else rose to the level of “you have to go see this!”  There is no “Doubt,” no “The Book of Mormon,” no “I Am My Own Wife” or “Adding Machine” or “Venus in Fur” or “School for Lies” here. 

That’s not to say the rest of what I saw was bad, it’s just that none of it got my heart racing in the way every one of those shows I just named did.

“Here Lies Love” is the best of this second tier.  I’d wanted to see it from the moment I heard who the composers were: David Byrne and Fatboy Slim.  Not Rodgers and Hammerstein, by any means, but I thought the former Talking Heads frontman and one of the kings of dance/acid house would create a fascinating score – especially considering the show is staged (by Alex Timbers of Les Freres Corbusier, whose participation further motivated me to buy a ticket) in a nightclub setting at The Public Theater. 

The story is that of Imelda Marcos – from her childhood in Manila to her rise to power as the first lady of the Philippines to her ultimate exile.  Think of it as a disco “Evita.”  (The story, however, is not historically accurate.  Imelda is portrayed as a poor girl with no shoes, growing up in poverty in a jungle shack, when the truth is she was born in Manila to a prominent and wealthy family.)  While the music is much more traditional than I expected from this songwriting duo, what sets “Here Lies Love” apart from anything currently on the boards in New York is its staging.

Except for a couple of dozen seats in the gallery one floor above, the audience stands in the performance space, with a stage at each end, and raised platforms that move and transform throughout the course of the 90-minute performance.  (Ushers in pink jumpsuits make sure no one is injured by the rolling stages.)  Just when you think they’ve shown you all possible configurations, the finale comes rolling in and changes up everything one last time. 

Graphics and historical footage are projected throughout the space to help tell the story and provide additional context.  Actors playing TV reporters sometimes move among the crowd, using audience members as props, with video cameras capturing their images to be projected on the walls.  Unlike most shows that seek audience participation, this is the first I’ve ever seen where everyone danced and shouted the lines they were fed and generally got into the spirit of things.

Wear comfortable shoes, lose yourself to the nightclub atmosphere and enjoy this sad story with a happy ending.  Because – as one of the final songs says – “God draws straight - but with crooked lines.”  

Through July 28, though the run is mostly sold out.

If you’re looking for a big Broadway musical (and you’ve already seen “The Book of Mormon” and “Jersey Boys”), you could do a lot worse than the new production of “Pippin,” playing an open-ended run at The Music Box.

“Pippin” is the story of the son of Charlemagne, who is – as virtually all of us are –seeking meaning and a mission in life.  Helping him discover his purpose is a troupe of players, led by the Leading Player (the terrific Patina Miller). 

For this production, the troupe is a circus, and their performances are often acrobatic and aerial.  And thrilling.  Matthew James Thomas is perfect as the young prince.  Innocent, passionate, confused, committed – everything an adolescent seeking his life’s work ought to be.  The circus tent set by Scott Pask contains not just this performance, but the universe itself.  Andrea Martin brings a gentle, comedic touch to the proceedings – and doesn’t do a bad job on the trapeze, either.

“Kinky Boots” and “Matilda” are the top two contenders for Best Musical at this year’s Tony Awards.  (Tune in Sunday, June 7 on CBS.)  Though both have a lot going for them, neither is really worth any serious attention, because both fall prey to a trend that seems to be affecting more and more shows – a near-total lack of true heart.  In neither case is this the fault of the cast.  Both shows have a wealth of tremendous talent.  But both also feel manufactured.  Designed to appeal to a demographic – not an audience.

“Kinky Boots” was the better of the two.  If you remember the movie of the same name, you know the story: old-world English shoe manufacturer can’t compete against low-cost offshore competitors – until fate throws a drag queen into their path.  Miss Thing can’t find a thigh-high to support her weight, and suddenly the cobbler has found the niche market needed to save the company.

What follows is the usual fish out of water story – the employees are skeptical of the new plan, and especially skeptical of the flamboyant drag queen with the new corporate strategy.  But with time they realize a little change might do them good.

Billy Porter as Lola deserves the Tony he is likely to win on Sunday, but the nod for Best Musical will likely go to “Matilda,” because I think Broadway wants to reward the show with broader appeal.

Regardless, I wanted to like “Matilda” so much more than I ultimately did.  I adore Roald Dahl (especially the works he didn’t create for children – which some people might say is everything he wrote!), and have recently become a fan of Tim Minchin, the Australian comedy musician/comedian who wrote the score.

The staging is absolutely top-drawer, with brilliant sets, beautifully lit and imaginatively used.  The young performers are wonderful, especially Bailey Ryon, one of the four girls who plays Matilda.  She’s focused, with a voice that is strong yet still clearly a child’s.

The story – if you don’t know it from the book and subsequent movie – is that Matilda is the second child of Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, who don’t merely ignore her – they verbally abuse her and undercut her worth in every way their tiny brains can imagine.  Mr. Wormwood is a vile, dishonest used car salesman and his wife is obsessed with beauty, of which she has none.  (Of either the inner or outer sort.) 

Matilda, however, is a five-year old genius who reads Dickens and Tolstoy and is looking forward to her first day of school.  Given the headmistress is universally-feared all-England hammer throw champion Miss Trunchbull, she shouldn’t be.

I will admit that I love the underlying theme of the show:  that some people are special.  And some people are shits.  That not everyone deserves a trophy.  And that genius – as we have seen throughout history – often goes unrecognized.

Fortunately in “Matilda,” genius finds a way to express itself and achieve its ends.  Genius also, however, shows its vulnerability, especially in a moment early in the show when Matilda hugs the only truly kind and gentle character, her teacher, Miss Honey.  In that single moment we see the eternal (yet often denied) yearning of the artist/genius: to be loved.

So why didn’t I love it as much as I’d hoped?  In addition to the lack of real heart mentioned previously, my guess is it’s partly high expectations (the show received mostly terrific reviews) and partly muddy sound in the theater that makes understanding some of the songs and dialogue rather challenging.  And despite many terrific moments – nine-year-olds pulling off perfect rock star moves, lots of inspired silliness – the whole thing lacks the elegance and bite of Dahl’s original work.  But the audience leapt to its feet at curtain, so I guess I’m in the minority on this. 

“Nikolai & the Others,” Richard Nelson’s new play, playing through June 16 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, treads somewhat similar ground.  It asks, what is it about artists that makes them special?  Is it simply their ability to create beauty?  Or is it their knack for tapping into a yearning for the transcendent that exists deep within us all?  Almost every one of the 17 characters presented here is either an artist, is (or was) married to an artist, or wants to be an artist.  

The titular Nikolai is Nikolai Nabokov, a Russian √©migr√© composer who has invited a group of friends – including choreographer George Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinksy – for a weekend in Connecticut to celebrate the name day of set designer Sergey Sudeikin.  While there, Stravinsky and Balanchine will work on and preview their new production of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which will become the first-ever performance for the New York City Ballet, which Balanchine co-founded.  

The weekend (which never actually happened, though the characters are all based on real people) serves as a fulcrum upon which lives in transition are balanced – some will continue to rise into fame and glory or power, while others will discover that this shabby country house is where there dreams end.  The “true” artists – primarily Stravinsky and Balanchine – demonstrate their creative powers, essentially establishing a class structure within the group: those who can create beauty, those who could once and can no longer, and those who never could and never will.  And because, as one character says “The only thing any of us ever want is to see beauty,” all end up in thrall to the artistic titans, giving them a power they are more than willing to use to achieve their ends. 

Because if the artist can show us the transcendent, we will, it seems, do or pay almost anything for the privilege of that view.

The main thing that came to my mind when watching “Reasons To Be Happy,” Neil LaBute’s follow-up to his Tony-nominated “Reasons To Be Pretty,” was that the four characters needed a long sit-down with sex/relationship columnist Dan Savage.  Because none of them has any idea of how to behave in a partnership.

Steph and Greg broke up.  But that was three years ago.  And even though Steph is now married to someone else, and Greg has started a new relationship with Carly, Steph’s best friend – both seem open to this new possibility, despite the fact that Carly has a very jealous ex-husband. 

The action takes place mostly in the break room of some undefined industrial enterprise, and from time to time, a klaxon (presumably from the factory floor) sounds, and it’s hard not to interpret it as a metaphor, a symbolic warning bell, cautioning these young, stupid lovers to take note of the dangers they all face.  Do they listen? 

It’s a Neil LaBute play – what do you think?

“Reasons To Be Happy” is playing through June 23 at the Lucille Lortel.

Richard Greenberg’s latest, “The Assembled Parties,” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through July 7, is probably the most conventional of the shows I saw on this trip – despite the fact that it takes place during two different parties, 20 years apart, with a family of Upper West Side Jews celebrating Christmas.

It’s interesting enough, pleasant enough, and the story kept me engaged throughout, but as a work of art it felt somewhat incomplete and flat.

I was more excited about “Far From Heaven,” a new musical playing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons through July 7, from the composer and lyricist who created “Grey Gardens.”  I loved Kelli O’Hara in “South Pacific” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and she’s terrific here, as well.

The show is based on the movie of the same name, written and directed by Todd Haynes and adapted by Richard Greenberg.  Haynes himself was paying homage to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, which dealt with the sort of social issues Hollywood generally avoided.

O’Hara does her usual good work, and with some changes, I think the show could transfer.  In fact, I think it might even do better in a larger theater, as the themes of isolation, of living inside a bubble of social norms could be heightened in a more expansive space.

If you’re a big fan of former Texas Governor Ann Richards, you might enjoy Holland Taylor’s solo take on the democratic firebrand, “Ann,” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, closing September 1.  It’s a bit like a one-person “West Wing,” though the script (penned by Taylor herself) could use a bit of Aaron Sorkin’s sharp wit and storytelling prowess.

Two final notes.  First, if you have the chance to see the annual “Broadway Beauty Pageant,” go.  It’s both a hoot and benefits a good cause.  Second, the remodel of the Public Theater has made Joe’s Pub an even better venue in which to see a variety of up-and-coming (and a few more established) performers.

That’s all for this year.  Tune in next spring for the 2014 edition!

*For example:  why is the dollar sign the shifted character above the numeral four on a keyboard, and the pound sign the character above the three?  The exclamation point is above the numeral one, creating a lean, tall alignment.  There’s a balance there.  Likewise, the @ sign echoes the round shape of the numeral two, which it sits above.  Again, balance. 

But the pound sign is composed of four lines, while the dollar sign is two curves plus one straight line.  Clearly, they need to be switched. 

While we’re at it, let’s put the ampersand with the eight (one circle on top of another? - duh), and the asterisk with the six, since the asterisk has six points.  The carat moves to the seven, which is much more logical, as it can easily be read as a seven if you tilt it a bit to the right.  The percent sign works above the five, as both have a similar balance of heft between their upper and lower halves.  The parentheses can stay where they are. 

I don’t know why they don’t talk to me about these things.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Playing to his strengths

At the end of most of his shows, Daily Show host Jon Stewart plays a brief video clip he calls "your moment of zen."  No commentary, just the clip.

I just got to Thursday's show this evening, and the moment of zen was a clip of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dancing.  My first thought was, it's such an easy target.  Very few people dance well enough to make them worth watching.  Of course, Hillary has to be diplomatic and sometimes participate in things that might make her uncomfortable.  Bush certainly had to.

But Mitt Romney didn't need to sing "America the Beautiful."  He could have just quoted from it.  And Barack Obama had no need to let loose his inner Al Green.  But here's the thing: Barack pulled it off.  Mitt sucked.  Tremendously.  He had to know it would be replayed many times and that he would be savagely mocked for it.  I suppose it's possible he did it on purpose, out of some misguided attempt to appear less robotic, but I think it's more likely a symbol of the bubble in which he lives.  Either no one had told him he is tone-deaf, or they have and he thinks they're wrong.  Or he doesn't think anyone's really paying attention.

Here's what's important in this seemingly trivial point about which candidate is the better vocalist.  It's not about being tone-deaf in a clinical sense, it's about being tone-deaf in terms of how you are perceived.  I want a president who knows what he does well, and what he doesn't and needs to look to others for assistance with.  A person's greatest strength can be knowing their greatest weakness.  It's clear Mitt is clueless about at least one of his.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

"Nice Work If You Can Get It"

Though street smarts help in this world, being rich and good-looking is usually more than enough to get by.  So says (in so many words) Matthew Broderick's character, Jimmy Winter, in the new musical at the Imperial, "Nice Work If You Can Get It."

That wisdom could also apply to Broadway musicals.   "Nice Work..," was, in a way, born with a silver spoon in its mouth:  when you start with the songs of Ira and George Gershwin as the foundation of a new production, it's hard to go too far wrong.  Add a clever book by Joe diPietro (based on some earlier work by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton) and creative contributions from the team that gave us the wonderful revival of "Anything Goes" and you've got a good chance at a pretty good-looking (and plain old good) show.

In fact, if you loved "Anything Goes" (and I did), you're probably going to at least like "Nice Work..."  Both are old-fashioned Broadway musicals: great songs, broad, silly plots, witty dialogue, handsome boys, beautiful girls, a couple of tap numbers...  It's escapist theater at its zenith.

The story of "Nice Work..." is a pretty simple one:  Jimmy Winter is an heir to some very old money, and about to be married for the fourth time.  Until, that is, the sparkling bootlegger Billy Bendix (the radiant Kelli O'Hara) enters his life.  But before they can be united, there will be misunderstandings, mischief, mistaken identities and shocking (sort of) revelations.

I won't say "Nice Work..." is a perfect show, but it's sort of like one of those memory foam mattresses - it cradles you in comfort until you're ready to start a new day.  And maybe even leave you filling a little richer and a little better-looking.

Friday, June 08, 2012

"The Columnist"

If you're a fan of "Mad Men" there's a better than even chance that you will also enjoy "The Columnist," a new play by David Auburn ("Proof"), currently playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in a Manhattan Theatre Club production helmed by Daniel Sullivan.  Like the adventures of Don Draper airing Sunday nights on AMC, "The Columnist" takes place (primarily) in the early 60s and chronicles a world in the midst of a rather epic transition.  (Not unlike another recent favorite of mine, "War Horse.")

The columnist of the title is Joseph Alsop, the mega-powerful Washington insider whose clout is suddenly diminishing as his syndicated column is finding fewer and fewer readers.  The world is changing and Alsop is having trouble keeping up.  A staunch defender of the war in Vietnam, Alsop finds himself on the wrong side of history and his desperate attempts to claw his way back to the top are the fodder for Auburn's slick drama.

In John Lee Beatty's brilliant sets, we see Alsop at his most vulnerable - pleading on the phone for favors with other Washington power brokers, trying to convince his brother Stewart (also a writer, delicately played by Boyd Gaines) to partner with him and, most important, trying to keep his closet door firmly shut.  For, as we learn in the very first scene, in a Moscow hotel room in 1954, Alsop is gay, and the impossibility of his ever coming out - balanced against the very real threat of his being outed, thanks to the existence of some surreptitiously-acquired explicit photos - keeps the tension up throughout the evening.

In addition to Auburn's excellent play and Sullivan's confident direction, "The Columnist" benefits greatly from another bravura performance by John Lithgow, who once again proves why he's one of Broadway's best.  If you're used to Lithgow's comedic roles (primarily TV's "Third Rock from the Sun"), you owe it to yourself to see him dig into a great dramatic turn such as this.  It would be hard to play Alsop without the level of bristling intelligence Lithgow brings to the role.  But it's more than his bravura and brilliance that make Lithgow great, it's also his ability to show vulnerability and doubt - not always easy for a 6'4" man to do.  It's the soft center that makes the bristly exterior interesting.

"The Columnist" occasionally feels "out of tune" - but thanks to the great team MTC put together for this production, not to mention the fascinating historical tale it weaves, "The Columnist" is a winner.

"One Man, Two Guvnors"

There are times you go to the theater to be inspired or moved, or to see a bit of the human condition revealed and made clear.

Then there is "One Man, Two Guvnors."  While I'm sure there is some satire about class and oppression buried beneath the clowning and the puns and the pratfalls, that's not the point of this adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's commedia dell'arte farce "The Servant of Two Masters," reset in 60s-era Brighton.  The point is to make you laugh.  And it does.  As long as you can laugh at silliness and exaggeration and the misfortune of others.

Primarily you will be laughing at the misfortune and antics of Francis Henshall, the harlequin played (nearly to perfection) by James Corden.  Though he looks quite well-fed, Henshall is ravenous when the play begins, seeking something - anything - to eat.  His guvnor (cockney slang for employer) hasn't paid him, so when a second job falls in his lap, he snatches it.  Now he has two bosses to please, neither of which knows about the other.

That's about it for plot.  But plot's not the point.  The plot's just there to provide excuses for Corden to perform a series of hysterical physical bits, some as old as the commedia form itself.  You might find it hard to believe that someone can make the moving of a trunk funny for 10 minutes, but Corden pulls it off - with a little help from a couple of audience members.

To be honest, of shows that pay tribute to the British pantos, I prefer "The 39 Steps," a show that played Broadway and toured the nation over the past couple of years.  It featured more theatrical invention,  a real plot and just as much inspired silliness.  Unfortunately, it's closed.  But if you're in the mood for top-notch physical comedy, "One Man, Two Guvnors" fits the bill to a T.  Or should that be "tea"?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

"War Horse"

Some things never change: the value of loyalty, the power of love, the horrors of war.  But some things change dramatically.  The conflict between these eternal concepts set against the backdrop of a world that is being transformed by technology is at the heart of what makes "War Horse" such a powerful theatrical experience.

World War I was called "the war to end all wars."  It could be more accurately described as the "war that changed all wars."  Prior to the invention of the machine gun, the airplane, the telephone - and other innovations that were first put to use in the interest of martial ends in WWI - a cavalry rider was among the most feared weapons of war.  But once a single soldier could fire hundreds of rounds a minute, and Sopwith Camels could rain death from above, the horse and rider on the field of battle were suddenly vulnerable.

"War Horse" tells the story of Joey, plucked from his home in England, where he is much loved by young Albert, and taken to France as a cavalry horse.

I won't go deeper into the story than that, because I'd rather not spoil the many twists and turns along the way.  "War Horse" is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, and one of the most satisfying aspects of this production is how well the richness of the novel comes through on stage.  I love a good story, and this is a terrific one, filled with obstacles, triumph, humor and pathos.

The most commented-upon aspect of "War Horse" (the play) is that the production uses complex puppets to portray the horses (and other animals) - and with good reason, the puppets are incredible.  Every aspect of the horses are articulated. Even the ears, so important to reading a horse's mood, turn and twitch and lie flat.  The horse puppets are controlled by multiple performers, but after the first 20 minutes or so, you stop  noticing the puppeteers and see only the horses.  They even have actual breath - which I assume comes from pressurized air canisters hidden in the heads.  The overall effect is stunning.

For my readers in the Bay Area, "War Horse" is coming to the Curran Theater this August.  Though it will be impossible to recreate the experience of the enormous stage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, the magic of "War Horse" will still come through.  Like the cavalry horses of old, "War Horse" simply packs too much punch not to.


In my professional life, I spend a fair bit of time dealing with branding.  Not the scars burned into livestock to establish ownership - though that is the etymology of "branding" in the modern sense - but branding in the sense of establishing and maintaining an image for a product or service or organization.  Great brands reinforce themselves over time:  Coke is about refreshment, Apple about design and user experience, Honda is about reliability and efficiency.

Disney has long been one of the most respected brands in the world, building their reputation on their ability to deliver happiness.  Disney theme parks are branded as "The Happiest Places on Earth," and if you can find a Disney-produced movie with anything other than a happy ending, I'd like to hear about it.

In the 90s, Disney branched out into Broadway musicals, beginning with "Beauty and the Beast," then adding the wildly-successful 'The Lion King," "Mary Poppins," "Aida," "Tarzan" and others, winning multiple Tony awards along the way.

Disney's most recent Broadway effort is another Tony-nominated show, "Newsies," based on the 1992 film of the same name.  And it hews closely to the Disney brand, attempting to spread happiness at every possible turn.  The story is vintage Disney: scrappy kids fighting a great power, a love interest between a princess (in this case, the fetching daughter of famed publisher Joseph Pulitzer) and a commoner (the newsboy), evil henchmen, a wacky sidekick, life lessons and ultimately triumph by curtain time.

It's a proven formula - but as we all know, following formulas usually leads to results that are, well, formulaic. That's certainly the case here.  Though the production values are high (the set, in particular, was stunning), the sense of soul is non-existent.  The performers are talented and earnest, but there's no sense of sincerity behind what makes it to the stage.  There was never a moment where I heard a clever lyric, and really only one interesting turn in the story.  "Newsies" is loud (especially the dancing) and bright and cheerful, but ultimately empty.  Which, unfortunately, is right on brand for most of what Disney has produced in recent decades.  (Save for Pixar.  In fact, what "Newsies" needs is a heaping helping of Pixardust!)

The Night Ray Bradbury Kissed Me

Last night, Ray Bradbury died at his home in Los Angeles.  I remember as a boy reading "Farenheit 451," "Dandelion Wine," "R is for Rocket," "I Sing the Body Electric" and "The Illustrated Man," and adored getting lost inside his imagination.  But my most vivid memory of Bradbury is the evening I got to meet the man himself.

It was 1981 and I was living on Sutter Street in San Francisco, working at my first real job after college, the first where I was paid to be a writer.  Bradbury came to town to give a lecture as a fundraiser for the San Francisco Public Library.  A friend was a high-level volunteer at the library and invited me not only to the lecture, but to the reception afterward, which was to be held at Arion Press, a well-respected publisher of limited-edition books.  I can't say I remember much about the lecture itself, but what happened at the reception will stay with me forever.

Arion Press at that time occupied a smallish upstairs space on Commercial Street in San Francisco.  The room was filled with the tools of a fine press: the mechanical presses themselves, drying racks for the printed pages, plus bin after bin after bin of lead type.  The Arion Press was, and still is, one of the best publishers of limited editions.  At that time, they were celebrating the publication of their edition of "Flatland," a 19th century satirical novella by Edwin Abbott Abbott, about a two-dimensional world and what happens when a character from a land of three dimensions appears in Flatland.  The book was bound in an accordion fold so the entire book could be laid out flat.  Bradbury wrote the introduction, and signed each copy. (Only 275 were printed.)

While at the party, I was offered the opportunity to purchase a copy of "Flatland," as well as a copy of Arion Press's edition of "Moby Dick."  If I remember correctly, the price for "Flatland" was $400, and a copy of "Moby Dick" would have set me back $600.  Today, a copy of "Flatland" goes for more than $6000, and a copy of "Moby Dick" recently sold at auction for more than $25,000.  Missed opportunity; but at that point, $600 was probably close to my take-home pay for a month.

When Bradbury arrived at the party, two lines formed immediately.  The great man stood at the north end of the room, backed by a couple of presses.  The guests queued up to chat with him or shake his hand.  He would talk with one person in one line, then turn to the person at the head of the second line, chat with them, turn back to the first line...

I waited patiently until it was almost my turn.  I was first in my line, and Bradbury was talking to a woman at the front of the line to my left.  She gushed something like, "I've admired you for so long and always thought you were so attractive and that maybe one day you I and would..."  It was at this point that she extended the index finger of her right hand and formed a cylinder with her left hand, curling the fingers and resting them on the left thumb.  She then proceeded to insert the index finger into this cylinder, withdraw it, insert it, withdraw it, insert it...

Bradbury blinked, recoiled and instantly turned to me and said, "Well - how are you this evening?"  I gushed about how much I enjoyed his talk, how it had inspired me as a writer, blah blah blah.  The old man (though he was only 61 at the time, he seemed ancient to me) broke into a broad smile, reached out with both his hands, grabbed me by the back of the head, pulled me close and gave me a giant kiss right on the lips.

I think I said "thank you," and shortly thereafter stumbled out into the San Francisco night.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


I'd like to say that "Cock" is the story of a headstrong rooster who takes charge in the barnyard in order to thwart the efforts of the farmer to do away with the rooster's best friend, a lovable lamb named Blossom or some such.  But even though the cover of the Playbill for this play currently running at The Duke on 42nd Street is a drawing of a rooster, the cock in question is exactly the kind that probably sprang to mind when you first read the word.

To tell you the truth, I don't actually want "Cock" to be the story of a headstrong rooster - or anything else - because it's an absolutely riveting play.

The story is relatively simple and straightforward: a gay couple has relationship difficulties when one of the pair meets a woman, has a fling with her and can't decide which one he ought to be with.  It's not the story that makes "Cock" such a wonderful play - it's the characters and the acting and the staging that lift "Cock" to greatness.

I won't go on about the characters, because that would be revealing too much.  What I will say is that every actor (there are four) gives a powerful, nuanced performance.  However, I must call out the work of Jason Butler Harner in the role of M.  (No, this is not a Bond film.)  M is half the gay couple - the cuckolded half, the one who learns that his partner has fallen/is falling (perhaps) for a woman.  His performance is both subtle and and outsized - in exactly the right proportion.  This allows him to be both forceful and vulnerable when he delivers lines like, "You said we would be together no matter what.  And this is what."

The staging is so simple that it's almost not there.  The theater has been set up as an amphitheater, with a 12-foot (or so) circle in the center.  (NOTE:  there are five rows in the amphitheater, but only the top row has a back you can lean against.)  There are no props, no set and no costume changes - although some are referred to.

From a thematic standpoint, there is a strong undercurrent of sexuality as a choice.  Is John (the character torn between two people) gay?  Straight?  Bi?  How much choice does he really have in the matter?  Does choice matter in terms of sexuality?  In other words, even if it were a choice, why should that make any difference in the way we treat each other as individuals or as members of a community?

These are questions you will have to answer for yourself - and I strongly recommend you see "Cock" in order to get the conversation started.

Monday, May 07, 2012

"4000 Miles"

Sweet, lovely, touching, but mostly forgettable.  A simple story of a young man, a self-described hippie, who drops in on his aging grandmother, a card-carrying communist living in Greenwich Village, after he has ridden from Seattle to New York, with at least one major tragedy along the way.  The set is terrific -- perfect for Grandma's rent-controlled apartment, right down to the rotary phone and case of cassette tapes on the bookshelf, even though it's set in the present day.  All the actors do excellent work, though Greta Lee really steals all the attention when she's on stage.  Mary Louise Wilson does a terrific stooped older woman, and it all feels honest - but it just never engaged me quite as deeply as I'd like.

"The Common Pursuit"

A better soporific than Ambien.

"Venus in Fur"

Where to begin?  This is the question every writer faces.  Every other professional in the world of entertainment gets to start their task with something - a script, character sketch, director's instructions, whatever.  But it is we poor writers who must summon a something out of sheer nothingness.

Fortunately, this writing task is a little easier.  I get to start with another writer's work - specifically, David Ives' staggeringly-brilliant play, based in part on the 19th century novel, "Venus in Fur" by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, one of the books that introduced the world to S&M.  (The "M," of course, being inspired by Sacher-Masoch's name.)

But that sense of terror writers face is present at every moment of this 90-minute two-hander.  It begins with playwright and director Thomas (Hugh Dancy), who has written an adaptation of "Venus in Fur" and is conducting auditions for an actress to play the part of Vanda, the lead character.  Finding no one suitable, he's ready to give up until a young actress - conveniently also named Vanda - steps through the door and proceeds to turn his world upside down.  Which makes sense, because that's what sadists do.  Sadism isn't really about inflicting pain, it's about engendering terror.  Creating chaos so the masochist can experience the terror of not knowing what's coming next.

Thomas is already living in terror, and Vanda only ups the ante.  Here he is, the writer, the director, the man in control.  The person who has created a whole world and thinks he's in charge of it.  At least until Vanda arrives and throws all his expectations out the window.

Both Hugh Dancy and Nina Arianda are wonderful, and it will be a travesty of justice if Nina does not walk away with the Tony.

There is so much richness, so many layers of meaning and plot and character, that I can't really do this justice without giving too much away.  "Venus in Fur" is like one of those Russian nesting dolls - you keep unpacking it and it keeps revealing something new.  This isn't a show about sadism or masochism, necessarily.  It's also about art and theater and the masks we wear - and ask others to wear.

Wear whatever you like - but go.  As soon as you can.