Thursday, April 24, 2008

"Charles Isherwood Has Ruined Theater for Everyone"

Mike Daisey in How Theater Failed America.

No, I don't really believe that, but it's one of my favorite lines from Mike Daisey's latest cutting monologue, How Theater Failed America, a show that's chock full of memorable quips. I doubt Daisey actually believes it either; that line comes at the beginning of the show as he imagines what audience members are expecting him to say (i.e., "I hope he talks about Disney" "Maybe he'll mention the New York Times").

Two nights later I saw Isherwood at The New Century and wondered if he knew that he was a part of Daisey's show. Earning such ire from the New York theater community as the second-string Times critic is no easy feat, but someone has to be the whipping boy, so I hope he enjoys the notoriety. My review of Daisey's latest.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Politics and Plays, New and Old

So glad to see that my home state of Pennsylvania gave Hillary Clinton such a resounding victory in the primary yesterday. It was odd to see all the Clinton/Obama supporters out in force when I was in Pittsburgh over the weekend. Even if the primary process feels like one of those time loops that the Enterprise would often get caught up in various Star Trek episodes, I'm glad to see that Hillary's tenacity — perhaps stubbornness is a better word — is paying off. They're not only qualities I admire, they're qualities I embody far too often.

Although I didn't check out Rabbit Hole at the Pittsburgh Public Theater or Dakin Matthews as King Lear during my trip, I have been spending many an evening at theaters in New York. I was surprised at how dated much of Paul Rudnick's The New Century felt. "Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach," which nearly caused me to bust a gut laughing when I first saw it at the EST Marathon about 10 years ago, hasn't aged well in our post-Will & Grace world. I wish Rudnick had written a whole new piece for the fabulous Peter Bartlett instead of attempting to freshen up the old one with a John McCain. The only one of the four segments that I thought was genuinely funny and moving was the one featuring Jayne Houdyshell as a midwestern mother who'd turned to crafting after the death of her son from AIDS.

Manhattan Theater Club's small Stage II was packed for Tuesday night's performance of The Four of Us, a really smart, only occasionally self-indulgent play about how the friendship between two young writers falls apart in the wake of success and jealousy. Sure, ince the play's supposed to be based on author Itamar Moses' friendship with Jonathan Safran Foer, I was a little more interested than I might ordinarily be, but I was impressed and moved at how well and how subtly Moses depicted the power struggles and shifts that occur in friendships over time and the pain that occurs when one person needs more than the other is able to give.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Can We Talk?

David Mogentale in The Conversation.

More than a decade ago a boyfriend first introduced me to the work of 29th Street Rep, a company that had the perspicacity to produce Tracy Letts' first play in New York long before he became a Pultizer Prize-winning sensation. I'm happy to see the company back after a two-year layoff with some longtime members and new faces as they celebrate their 20th anniversary. Here's my review of The Conversation.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Enchanted Afternoon

Paulo Szot and Kelli O'Hara in South Pacific.

It's been more than a week since I caught Lincoln Center's South Pacific revival, but the wonderful songs from that nearly pitch-perfect production are still resounding in my head. When I started crying during the overture, as the stage rolled back to reveal the 30(!)-piece orchestra, I knew it was going to be an emotional afternoon.

I'd forgotten how wonderful it is to go a musical and be so thoroughly moved and enchanted by the music. Usually if there are a couple of songs worth remembering I consider it an evening well spent. To hear a score in which nearly every number is emotionally vigorous is almost too much to hope for these days.

Another reason I was so moved is that it's my mother's favorite musical, and I'd never before seen a full production of it, just bits and pieces on TV from various movies and broadcasts. My mother and I don't have as much in common as I would like, so I appreciate these little patches of common ground when I find them.

The first time I remember hearing one of the songs was a Sunday morning in the late '70s or early '80s. It was "Happy Talk," and it was because my mother was watching the film on TV. I, of course, could only think about my needs and wanted her to turn it off so that we could go to the mall or a movie or something. This was pre-VCR, so it's not as if she could just pop in a tape and watch the rest.

Needless to say, I regret not sitting down to watch the rest of the movie with her. Does an apology count if it's nearly 30 years too late. Just in case: I'm sorry, Mom!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Emotional Forgeries

Austin Pendleton, Thom Christopher and Justin Grace in Another Vermeer.

Last week was a bad one for plays about frustrated painters. Another Vermeer, about a notorious forger, felt as inauthentic as Dutch painter Han van Meegeren's fake Vermeers (though it was good to see former One Life to Live villain Thom Christopher again). My Time Out review.

I liked Marcy in the Galaxy a little more. The opening number was quite hopeful and charming. Then the music stopped, the characters started talking and I knew we were in trouble. I think the point was for Marcy to come across as amusingly neurotic, but, even when played by an actress as lovely as Donna Lynne Champlin, she was such an unappealing mess that it was hard to sympathize. Yet she was far from the most insufferable character on stage. That honor rests with the two bitter old women eating in the same diner who spew venom at each other and everyone around them. (Leonard Jacobs' Back Stage review nicely sums up the situation.)

Why three of the six characters in that show are only peripherally connected to the titular character, I cannot fathom. The other two, Marcy's mother and sister, exist either in flashbacks or in a space where they can't interact with her. Where are the friends and colleagues who actually mean something to her? At the very least, couldn't they have popped by the diner to say hello?

Not to pick on the Transport Group, a company that I greatly admire for its herculean quest to stage new Off-Broadway musicals, but I had a similar problem with the group's fall production, Crossing Brooklyn, which also involved a female protagonist in emotional turmoil, this time after 9/11. Like Marcy, she spent most of the show wallowing and reflecting instead of moving forward. Which led me to wonder: Besides her husband, where are the other people in her life? Even if her family's not in New York, surely she has friends, neighbors and colleagues who mean something to her that she could interact with, instead of merely fringe characters like the women in the park and the men at the cafe.

The day after I caught Marcy, I saw South Pacific at Lincoln Center (more on this later, when I have time to gush), and since then I've been wondering when and why musical got so small? I know, I know -- economics. But when I say small, I'm not simply talking about fewer cast members and little scenery. I mean small in scope. It seems as if that old saw about writing what you know steers a lot of aspiring musical theater writers in the wrong direction. There is so much at stake in South Pacific. Beyond the outcome of World War II, the personal stakes are so high for Nellie and Emile and Joe and Liat that they imbue the songs with great passion.

Although there's nothing like a big-scale Broadway musical with a 30-piece orchestra, what musical theater needs is big stories and big emotions, and those don't require big budgets.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Into the Words

Geez, not only is Stephen Sondheim a musical genius, he can also create cryptic crossword puzzles that I can't even begin to comprehend, as this week's 40th anniversary installment of New York magazine reminds us.

Give the complex wordplay of his lyrics, it shouldn't surprise me, but I was amused to find that the puzzles had been issued in book form by HarperCollins.

I recall that that documentary about crossword devotees from a couple of years ago, Wordplay, mentioned that musicians were often very good at crossword puzzles, but I don't remember the reason why. Anyone?