Monday, December 17, 2007

Fact & Fiction

Jimmi Simpson and Hank Azaria in The Farnsworth Invention.

At the risk of sounding like a puritanical theatrical evangelist, I must confess to feeling a bit manipulated by two plays from a couple of top-notch dramatists. I understand there's a difference between fact and fiction, but what are the rules when you intertwine the two?

Although I mostly enjoyed Aaron Sorkin's sweeping saga The Farnsworth Invention, I felt cheated by the denouement, in which small-time inventor Philo Farnsworth squares off against RCA honcho David Sarnoff in a patent lawsuit that would lead to the creation of television. It's a pivotal plot point, and in the play Goliath defeats David. But in real life, just the opposite happened. Farnsworth won and was paid royalties for his invention, though he didn't make big bucks.

In the play, when Farnsworth loses the case, he and Sarnoff share their only scene together, and afterward Sarnoff makes a point of telling the audience that their conversation never really happened. Why, I wonder, are we told that moment was fictionalized but not that the outcome of the lawsuit was completely changed?

David Henry Hwang mixes real people and actual events with fictional ones in the hilarious Yellow Face — I laughed more in the first act alone than I did during all of Is He Dead? — and I give him much credit for not being afraid to make a character based on himself look like an idiot a great deal of the time. For the most part I'm with him when he sticks to the facts, and that's why the plotline involving a fictional white actor named Marcus whom his playwright character mistakenly casts as an Asian in Face Value, an ill-reviewed farce he wrote in response to the casting of Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian in Miss Saigon, doesn't quite work.

It's never adequately explained how the casting director could have thought that Marcus was Asian. (And Don Shirley of Los Angeles City Beat agrees with me on this point.) Had that actually happened, I don't think it would have bothered me as much. But I think in fiction or drama writers have a greater responsibility to connect the dots.

I remember talking to a novelist who was complaining that a mediocre review she received criticized her for not creating a believable child character. "That's exactly how my niece behaves," she said. I didn't know her well enough to point out that just because someone behaves a certain way in real life doesn't mean you can put those qualities on the page and instantly have a convincing fictional character.

That said, I liked both Yellow Face and Farnsworth — the former a little more — and hope the audiences will come. And I hope they'll bring the same critical eye to them that they would to a presidential candidates promises.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Gun and a Prayer

An SUV parked on my block had this saying on its front license plate: "Life is fragile, handle with prayer."

Syrupy, I know, but still a nice sentiment, especially during the holiday season, I thought. Then I noticed the NRA sticker on the passenger-side window! And as I continued down the block, I checked out the rear license plate and saw that it was from North Carolina!

It's so nice when people live up to their stereotypes so that I can keep my prejeudices intact.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Busking + Musical Comedy = Disater

My anglophile pal Amy loves to scour British newspapers for for interesting and offbeat stories that she then shares with friends.

One of her recent e-mails included this review of The Sundowe, a musical about Edinburgh buskers that the critic compares to Springtime for Hitler.

With the ill-fated Busker Alley threatening to finally come to Broadway next year, perhaps buskers will become the new vampires of musical theater.

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Swell Sweeney

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in Sweeney Todd.

The hottest ticket in Times Square yesterday wasn't for any Broadway show — it was for a special Sweeney Todd screening for the theater community. In addition to the scores of press people, I spied former Jersey Boys star John Lloyd Young, Richard Kind, Roger Rees and his partner, Rick Elice (one of the authors of Jersey Boys), who told me that as a graduate student in 1979 he invested in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd. He scraped together the minimum you could contribte ($5,600) and to this day has only made back $5,200.

Oh yeah, Stephen Sondheim was there to introduce the film, and he made a point of saying that it's a film based on a musical, not a movie version of the show, no doubt concerned that Monday morning's All That Chat message board would be filled with posts bitching about cut songs and changed lyrics. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp also put in appearances and gave the crowd a quick wave. "If you don't like the movie, blame us," Burton quipped.

I don't think he'll have to worry. It's a stunning film. I've had most of the libretto memorized since I was 11, and goodness knows I'm not one of those people who adapts to change very well, but even I thought the minor cuts and adjustments were gently and carefully done and enhanced the story for this more visual medium. I did miss the patrons of Mrs. Lovett's meat pie shop punctuating their meals with a resounding shout of "God, That's Good," and I was hoping Alan Rickman would get to perform the judge's version of "Johanna," which reveals his inner conflict.

But his Judge Turpin doesn't have any redeeming qualities, which is great, in part because they've added a couple of short but memorable scenes with Anthony and Johanna. And how interesting to see Tobias played by an actual boy instead of a young man with a boyish face. It makes Pirelli's brutality toward him and the final scene especially disturbing.

Sondheim's and Burton's sensibilities mesh wonderfully. The rats scurrying through the streets of London and the roaches crawling in and out of Mrs. Lovett's meat pies are a nice touch. And the way Sweeney disposes of his victims is wonderfully depicted. When he sends them down the chute from his barber chair to the bakehouse, they smack down headfirst on the hard floor. Not something you can have actors do eight times a week onstage unless you have a very good insurance policy.

Burton has great fun with charming numbers like "By the Sea," creating the whole fantasy sequence that Mrs. Lovett describes, and "A Little Priest." Despite looking considerably younger than every other Sweeney Todd's/Mrs. Lovett's I've seen, Depp and Helena Bonham Carter do a bang-up job with their roles. I'm listening to the soundtrack now, and while I doubt it will get as much playtime as the original cast recording or recent John Doyle revival (which I'm writing about for the Ahmanson Theater's program as the tour heads to L.A.), I hope it will introduce scores to newbies to this wonderful score. And I would love to go back and see the movie in a theater filled with patrons who don't know what to expect to gauge their reaction.

As if all this weren't enough, walking out of the theater I spied a poster for Harold and Kumar 2 that shows Neil Patrick Harris riding a unicorn. So nice to have something to look forward to in the new year!