The Playgoer: April 2006

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Friday, April 28, 2006

Time for a break?

Need to catch up on much other business over the weekend, so will try, try not to blog.

Barring any sudden interesting announcements, of course.

Meanwhile, if you catch any interesting shows or want to share some cool theatre-related links, please drop them right here in Comments.

I'll start things off with this, another British appreciation of Harley Granville-Barker, from Lyric Hammersmith director David Farr. In passing he paints us an optimistic picture of a contemporary London theatre scene we can only dream about here:

In the past five years, London theatres such as the Lyric Hammersmith, the Young Vic and the National, and regional theatres such as the Bristol Old Vic, the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Theatre Royal Plymouth have caused a massive revival in theatre's popularity by refocusing on what it does naturally: the live, immediate, dangerous, collective and ephemeral experience. Our aim is to produce new, urban, diverse work that speaks to a modern audience. I emphasise modern, not young, because what is clear from the response to shows such as Nights at the Circus and Jerry Springer-The Opera is that when one gets this right, older audiences flock to the shows, and the holy grail of a crowd from varied backgrounds is gloriously achieved....

I think that far from being threatened by this collaborative way of working, the writer will emerge stronger. We are already seeing this in the relationship between the writer David Eldridge and the director Rufus Norris: their collaboration on Festen was the great hit of 2004 and has directly led to a hugely ambitious new piece for the National, Market Boy. In the autumn the Lyric will present Pool (No Water), a new collaboration between physical movement company Frantic Assembly and the writer Mark Ravenhill. There is an explosion of possibility in our form right now, and what we don't need is anyone pulling us back by the reins.


See you on May Day.

May 1 Israeli Theatre event

This Monday (May 1) Alisa Solomon will be interviewing Israeli director Igal Ezraty, who co-founded a really intriguing collaborative Arab-Hebrew theatre in Jaffa. The event will also include a reading of excerpts from his documentary play Refusniks about Israeli soldiers resisting military service as a protest against the occupation.

It will be at the fine Martin E. Segal Center at the CUNY Graduate Center (5th Avenue & 34th St) as part of a series on international Documentary Theatre.

A PDF of Solomon's pre-9/11 interview with Ezraty for Yale Theater (entitled "Staging Reconciliation") can be downloaded here.

Yet another fascinating example of Israeli theatre outflanking our own to the left.

Lortel Awards

And just for completeness, let me not forget the Off-Broadway-exclusive Lortel Awards, being presented this Monday, May 1.

If nothing else all these lists at least help remind us of some smaller shows that received serious attention and some praise months ago that won't be remembered at Tony time: Atlantic's Pinter one-acts, Rinne Groff's Ruby Sunrise, Lois Smith's now-legendary performance in Trip to Bountiful, Harlem Classical Theatre's revival of Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro...

Reminds us all that maybe New York theatre isn't necessarily in that bad shape after all.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Awards Season

If you're curious, the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations are out.

If for nothing else, they're interesting for showing what a Tonys including Off-Broadway might look like. In other words, still commercial, but at least slightly more interesting choices.

For example, from Drama Desk:

Outstanding Play
Alan Bennett, The History Boys
David Hare, Stuff Happens
Warren Leight, No Foreigners Beyond this Point
Martin McDonagh, The Lieutenant of Inishmore
Terrence McNally, Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams
Craig Wright, The Pavilion

Outstanding Musical
The Drowsy Chaperone
Grey Gardens
Jersey Boys
See What I Wanna See
Thrill Me [yes that show I mocked so long ago...]
The Wedding Singer
Outer Critics actually has separate B'way and Off categories. More shows, but how segregated!

I still prefer the OBIES. (Coming May 15.)

Yesterday's Statement is Inoperative?

For what it's worth, this week's statement from New York Theatre Workshop, fighting back against their critics, is no longer announced or linked to on their homepage. The URL is still viewable, though. It was issued Monday or Tuesday.

REVIEW: Red Light Winter

Photo © Paul Kolnik
Red Light Winter
by Adam Rapp
Over ther last five years Adam Rapp has gained a reputation for dark, offbeat, difficult little plays. I had never seen any so I was definitely intrigued to catch his latest. But Red Light Winter is a play about a playwright who falls in love with a hooker. It is not a comedy.

I really don't think I'm missing some layer of irony here. Rapp has written a basically sentimental romance, even if it may be peopled by bad people and ended with an unhappy ending. No matter how clever and snappy the dialogue (the root of Rapp's appeal) it was hard for me to give over to its relentless cliches. (Yes, I know the French cliches are eventually subverted, but let's not spoil the pointless plot twists, shall we?)

In excellent performances (under Rapp's own direction, I should add), Christopher Denham and Gary Wilmes play two former college buds who go to Amsterdam in Act I. It's the alpha-friend's idea to cheer up the over-sensitive playwright, who got depressed when alpha-friend stole and married his longtime girlfriend. So what better than treat him to the fantasy of an ultra-literate, sensitive, and blonde Parisian hooker? Oh, and to add to the fantasies on stage, the hooker shows she can fall in love, too.

Again, I never sensed any self-awareness (let alone subversion) of the hackneyed tropes Rapp is trading in here.Despitee the many incidental laughs, I'm convinced he takes this story utterly seriously. It didn't help my reception to learn in a talkback afterwards that the play is autobiographical. Don't worry, Rapp isn't wallowing in his own sorrows, though. He fessed up to being not the nerdy playwright but the he-man jerk who charitably procured the whore but couldn't help balling her himself. After such trauma and guilt I guess he just had to get this all off his chest.

And this was the lead contender for the Pulitzer??? I won't deny Rapp's flair for dialogue and character. At least the male characters here. The hooker (I'd name her but her name actually becomes a question--so she might as well be called "Hooker") is practically mute most of the script and is unabashedly presented and humiliated as an object. Which is why the first twenty minutes of the play are by far the best. Rapp has built a terrificallyy entertaining--and recognizable--abusive friendship between Wilmes and Denham's characters; and the two actors play the big & little brother dynamic to the hilt. Wilmes presents such a loony, charming, and joyously self-centered variation on the "bad boy" that you can't take your eyes off him. Rapp's biggest mistake, I feel, is in not realizing the best part of his play is about that friendship. After midway through Act One, we never see them together on stage again. (And that means another two hours. This ain't another 90-minute-and-out deal.)

I left mischievously thinking the Pulitzer should have gone to Wilmes. His performance elevates this pedestrian material to the heights of supreme character insight. There's more drama in his crazy eyes and big elastic limbs than in any of the strained emotional searching attempted in Rapp's text.
Addendum, 5/21: Adam Rapp has written me to protest that the play is not "autobiographical." I was sure I remembered right what he said about just the trip to Amsterdam. So I meant the word only in reference to that aspect of the plot, which, admittedly is only the springboard to the play. So if I implied Mr. Rapp has actually done all the awful things his characters do here, I'm sorry.

Rickman speaks!

A little, at least. To the London Independent's gossip column, Pandora:

"Rickman fights back against Broadway ban"

Alan Rickman's prospects on Broadway might not be quite as bleak as first
thought.

Last month, Pandora reported that the New York Theatre Workshop had cancelled plans to show My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play co-written and directed by Rickman.

In a wordy statement, the Workshop tried to claim that the production, which tells the story of a young American peace activist killed by Israeli tanks in 2003, was cancelled because of "time pressures", blaming Rickman's "filming commitments."
Rickman immediately hit back, claiming that the organisers had got cold feet after being lobbied by local Jewish leaders, and subsequently took the play to the West End.

But at last night's performance of Judi Dench's new play Hay Fever at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Rickman told Pandora he wasn't finished yet.

He's due to fly back to the States and begin a new set of talks about putting the play on.

"I'm going to New York next week to talk about the play being put on again," he said. "I'm in negotiations as we speak. It's a very complex issue and I don't want to go into it too much, but I'm hoping we can sort something out and put the play on, whether it be at the New York Theatre Workshop or another theatre.

"The play has to be shown in America and that's why I'm flying out to New York to change things."

Note the Brits, too, think all NY theatre is "Broadway."

I imagine Rickman has kept out of the spotlight on this so as not to risk messing with his Hollywood career. (Any smart agent would certainly so advise him.) But dare I ask whether such silence also constitutes a kind of cowardice? Afraid to stand up for what he believes? (Not necessarily on Israel, even, just free speech.)

It's a pertinent point, I think, just because Rickman's presence in this could have made a huge difference in media attention. I believe major press outlets like the New York Times have let go of this story partially because there was no celebrity "hook." (Not even an measly theatre celeb like Terrence McNally.) Had Rickman been giving regular press conferences and interviews giving his side of the story, countering NYTW's version of events, his play might have gotten on much sooner.

NYTW's supporters might want to argue Rickman must have something to hide. Personally, I say it at least inoculates him from charges of self-promotion.... Will he do a press junket if and when "Corrie" does come to NYC?

ADDENDUM: I actually only just noticed that phrase, "whether it be at the New York Theatre Workshop or another theatre." Surely this is some rhetorical ploy? Or will Jim and Alan surprise us all by burying the hatchet?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

For laughs...

A mischievous Beckett centennial tribute. From The Onion, of course.

NYTW Panel #4 tonight

The fourth and final New York Theatre Workshop panel is tonight. I myself won't be going. (I'll be a few blocks away at Stuff Happens, as it happens.) But if you go, please do share your opinions and observations in Comments here.

Here's tonight's details:

The "C Word": Is Contextualizing A Work of Art Essential to its Reception?
Can a work of art stand on its own? Is knowing the historical, cultural, political, and social background of the artwork important to deepening understanding? Dramaturgs and educational leaders present highly different views on the subject.
Participants: Mark Bly (Senior Dramaturg, Arena Stage, Washington, D.C.), Jayme Koszyn (President/Founder, Jayme Koszyn Consulting), Michael Lupu (Senior Dramaturg, Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis)

Moderator: Karen Newman, Professor of English Literature, New York University


Hm, "C-Word." Where have I heard that phrase recently...

Seriously, the chance to see Mark Bly alone is worth any dramaturg's time. I'll be especially curious what he has to say. Then again, as dramaturgs I expect all these folks to defend all kinds of "context" since that's what dramaturg's do! But dramaturgs should also know better than anyone that all their painstaking contextual work is routinely tossed aside by an indifferent director or playwright. And you learn to live with that. Your research is always in service of the play and the production.

Here's a good index card question for anyone who wants it: In your experiences, would you say "My Name is Rachel Corrie" is the first play ever put off for more dramaturgy?


In my account of last night, I naturally realize I left out a lot. (And see the previous comments here for some perspectives taking issue with my own.) Let me add some quick addendums while they're still fresh.

I'm sorry for neglecting Irondale's Terry Greiss entirely. He was certainly an engaging speaker. Just not there really to address "Rachel Corrie." But he did offer a nice little soundbite: that a political play is "not a play about Nazis anymore, but a play about the Nazi in us."

It has been telling that in both sessions I attended, the analogies Nicola kept reaching for of "controversial" work he had done in the past were really cases of aesthetics more than politics: producing "More Stately Mansions" against the O'Neill estate's wishes, for instance. He even brought up Bach at Leipzig in an example of an author unfairly criticized since Itamar Moses was given lots of PR as the next Tom Stoppard only to see the comparison held against him. I found these totally unrelated to the issue at hand. Alisa Solomon proposed a better counterpart from NYTW's production history: Paul Rudnick's Most Fabulous Story Ever Told which mischievously retold Genesis with "Adam and Steve." Of course no one like the Family Research Council was invited to give a talkback, she rightly pointed out.

I also didn't mean to imply the only audience shout-outs were for those calling for the heads of The Jews. Yet again, someone asked Jim Nicola why his proposed contextualization process would have taken so long. An older man concurred "It doesn't make sense!" He could barely be restrained by his wife in entreating NYTW to take on the responsibility of presenting difficult material, proudly without apology. The most sentient comment, for my money, came at the end by a young actress in the back, who, without grudge or malice, tried to explain how important she felt it would be for NYTW to simply acknowledge that people were upset for what is, in principle, a very good reason--even if they deny the particular charges against them. She was absolutely right that the anger being expressed stemmed from this frustration of not being fully acknowledged and respected in all the company's communiques and the setup of the panels themselves.

I actually would have been very curious to see where tonight's discussion goes. The context discussion is one I'm eager to have. Last night Nicola again offered in his defense his premiere of Kushner's Homebody/Kabul back in Fall, 2001. As an example, he told us how important it was someone researched the importance of different turban styles in Afghanistan. This is the kind of out-of-the-box dramaturgy/outreach they're calling "idiosyncratic" in their latest statement? Hey, I'm glad they did it. But I would expect no less of a serious professional production and costume designer.....And about Homebody: I've been holding this in, but I saw that production and I must say that as a routine ticketbuyer I experienced no extra "context" whatsoever. No talkback, no special displays or opening remarks. I still have the program and it is NYTW's usual little booklet. I do remember, yes, some xerox insert, with, I think, a chronology of Afghanistan history, and some routine articles. In short, the kind of program notes I would expect from any decent regional theatre or even ambitious undergraduate production. (Still all too scarce in NYC theatres, to be sure.)

My point is that whatever extreme consultations they may have done before or outside of the production process, I was not at all aware of it in the audience. I simply watched the play, which was apparently left to "stand on its own." And for that I was grateful.

NYT downplays "Lestat" disaster?

Ben Brantley's mega-pan of Lestat today is surely newsworthy, especially for those who follow the biz. And yet why does NYTimes.com not feature it at all on its Arts page, leaving it only to the surely less pageloaded "Theatre" page? ( at least at 11:30am EST)

I'm used to seeing daily theatre reviews not double-posted, especially in the wake of other, bigger arts stories. But today's headlines?

"Stars' Lawyer Linked to Wiretapping Case"
"Mick Jagger Joins a New ABC Sitcom"
And the lead theatre story? Monday night's Rent benefit.

Coming to B'way's defense yet again? (not to mention Warner Bros...)

UPDATE: The next day (4/27) NYT did make up for this by featuring and linking the review on their home page.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

NYTW Panel #3 notes

First, let me bring to your attention a brand new statement from Jim Nicola and NYTW's Managing Director Lynn Moffat on NYTW.org, posted, I presume, earlier today. (It is undated.) It seems intended to clarify statements made during last week's panels and to prepare for this week's. Basically, their defense at this point is still to fight. To point the finger at the Royal Court, at Rickman and Viner, at their opponents, the "press" (presumably not the Times), and, yes, even "the blogs."


Given the nature of this theater, its long commitment to putting ideas and visions forward for its community to engage with, and the public discussion that effort has engendered, we are disheartened that NYTW has been so badly misrepresented in the press, and criticized by others looking to further their own political or personal agendas.
So if its repentance and mea culpa you're hoping to see at tomorrow's next and last panel, don't count on it. They're still swinging. While their opponents are criticized for "rush[ing] to judgment and criticiz[ing] the workshop without knowing what had actually transpired," this statement actually adds little to the facts as we already knew them. The defense is still that they wanted more time to fulfill the artists' vision (which apparently entailed months of research on a play already successfully produced) and that everything would have been fine if only these ungrateful Brits hadn't hung up the phone on them and not gone tattling to the press.

Nicola was on tonight's panel, but his remarks don't add much to the statement, so I will simply refer you to that for his current views. Plus, I heard a lot tonight about how nitpickers like myself shouldn't spend so much time "flogging" the poor man, so, very well, enough.

Tonight didn't end up enlightening us much on the quandry of political theatre in America either. Most refreshing and valuable was the presence of a true Palestinian perspective--actually two perspectives: young theatre artists Betty Shamieh and Najla Said. Between them and Alisa Solomon it was refreshing (and overdue) for these panels to actually address the specific political issue of this play (Israel), rather than avoid it. Shamieh came the closest to being confrontational in her prepared statement accusing some of hiding behind the "euphemism" of "political theatre" as a "white lie,"the tactic of a "bullshitter." She expressed embarrassment for a New York theatre which so lags beyond literature and even movies in taking on the problems of the Middle East . But she also was outraged that the two hottest political properties in the NYC theatre--Corrie and Stuff Happens--are not only by white people but are British imports!

Both Shamieh and Said reminded us and testified to, repeatedly, the obstacles to representing authentically Palestinian voices on stage. ("If we did a play about humus, there would be cries of, Where is the Israeli perspective," Said said.) Someone in the audience later accused them of "whining" about "identity politics" as opposed to real politics and real political theatre. Like Hair. But that was something of a whine itself. The fact is, when your identity labels you (and your play) "terrorist," then that's as political as it gets.

In a moment symptomatic of how the panel was not really designed to tackle the issues at hand, this comment led to a ten-minute discussion of what was good or bad about Hair.

Meanwhile, Alisa Solomon gave a presentation similar to what she said at the Barnard panel a few weeks back, documenting the efforts of the right-wing Israel "attack machine" in shouting down (if not shutting down) all art and discourse not blindly loyal to Likud. LABrynth Theatre literary manager Andrea Ciannavei wasn't afraid to talk about how pissed off she was about the whole affair and about political cowardice in our theatres. (She was one of the organizers of the March 22 downtown reading of Corrie's writings.) When the corporate media cannot be trusted to give us the truth, to give us all sides, our theatres must be independent and do so, she argued. Especially the smaller theatres, if not larger institutions like Manhattan Theatre Club.

Downtown playwright/director Josh Fox, on the other hand, called on everyone to especially demand the same political commitment from our bigger theatres. "Tell Lincoln Center that it is your theatre, too." But was he saying we should go about changing every theatre's mission statement? Fox praised Nicola's history of challenging work, but is it not fair--and more constructive--to hold a theatre like NYTW to their own profile of an edgy institution, rather than yelling at the Roundabout for just being the Roundabout?

I referred already to audience members speaking. Yes, gone were the cards. Here here. And not surprisingly, NYTW's worst nightmare started to come true. That some people in the audience were angry and wanted to say so. One man stood up and invoked that "elephant in the room" again. "Why can't you talk about what we're all thinking. That certain patrons of yours, who are wealthy, who are Jewish, didn't want this play to go on. And the press is beholden to the same issue. We have to call out those patrons." It was a tense moment. Alisa Solomon fairly cautioned against invoking the spectre of The Jews. (She also later reminded Nicola that he himself fed such feelings, albeit unintentionally, in his initial press statements on the affair.) But with such blunt--albeit potentially offensive--things being said, it finally started to feel like and open and honest discussion. Which was surprisingly less tense than the weird spectacle you get in an auditorium when the audience is thinking about one thing and the people on stage are talking about something totally different. (Like Hair.)

Needless to say, once real back-and-forth and airing of long repressed sentiments started bursting out... out came the cards!

Finally, I'll mention the question of "action" and "solutions." Alisa Solomon more than once seemed to express disappointment over a lack of activism or "creative solutions" to the problems presented by NYTW and "Rachel Corrie." Instead of making things better, she complained, we have just argued and, yes, blogged. As an example of such preferable "action" she suggested getting other New York theatres to collaborate on staging some other example of Palestinian theatre.

However one can critique ideas one by one (when was the last time our theatres collaborated on anything?), point taken. But I do think debate has been a necessary component here. It's hard to work toward solutions if we don't at least start by arguing. Some complain about the "shrillness" but I say there hasn't been enough genuine back-and-forth arguing. We got a glimpse tonight. Otherwise, all the other "public forums" have been rigidly controlled. If some have "retreated" to the blogosphere maybe it's been to find some place to freely convene and talk. And some place to share information when our usual source--the New York Times--has remained mostly silent.

And not to be defensive, but...

Forget about the pathetic bloggers. Obviously we all sit around in dirty pajamas all day and are too lazy or impotent to accomplish anything real. And it is charitable for responsible adults to even acknowledge us in civil discourse. But why have we seen no "action" from those most empowered and influential to do something? Why haven't Tony Kushner, NYTW board member Doug ("Quills") Wright, and Terence ("Corpus Christi") McNally combined forces to commission a new Betty Shamieh play? They can. Kushner indeed spoke to The Nation and The Observer, and it made some more people sit up and take notice. Has anyone else of that stature submitted an op-ed to the Times? Then again, if certain artists just don't feel that outraged, then I guess it's not fair to expect such things of them.

But why don't they care, then? Solomon dismissed comparisons between the "Corrie" and "Corpus Christi" controversies, citing the different levels of activism and reaction in the theatre community and--as documented on this blog--in the NY Times. To which I say, exactly! Why has the reaction been different, even though the fates suffered by both plays is so similar? Why did these same theatre people care more then than now to "do something"? Is it as simple as homophobia trumping Palestinian rights? Is Jim Nicola just more beloved than Lynn Meadow? Did Manhattan Theatre Club make an easier target than NYTW since no one expects to ever work there anyway but everyone wants too badly to be a "Usual Suspect"?

Some of us only have a blog. But others have a theatre. Or a newspaper. Call it passing the buck, but I see no problem in asking them what they can do to make everything better. As for ground-up solutions, I salute Theatres Against War (THAW) and other low-rent "guerilla" organizations who have been doing plenty. Have they made no dent at all?

Would NYTW even be having such "constructive" public forums were it not for the sustained outcry of those who have no other power than their voices? I guess it's led to something at least.

first "Corrie" now Kushner?

Some grumbling today over at Brandeis University over the decision to confer on honorary degree on Tony Kushner. The board is being lobbied against it by the "Zionist Organization of America." Who knows, maybe the board finally caught up with Munich on Netflix? Or, more likely, caught up with the anti-Munich propaganda...

The story has been apparently leaked to the Likud-friendly New York Sun. The article is behind subscription firewall, but available via Google news in full.

As a shortcut here are some highlights:

Mr. Kushner, who has called the founding of Israel a "mistake," and has accused the Jewish state of "behaving abominably towards the Palestinian people," is among seven people who are slated to receive honorary doctorates from the Waltham, Mass.- based university, which has Jewish roots but is nonsectarian...

The Zionist Organization of America is calling on Brandeis to reconsider its decision to honor Mr. Kushner. "A Jewish-oriented college should not be giving respectability and legitimacy to someone who has been such a hostile critic of Israel," the president of ZOA, Morton Klein, said...

Yesterday Mr. Kushner did not deny any of his earlier comments about Israel, including one in which he said Israel was founded amid "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinian Arabs. But, in a phone interview with The New York Sun, he said past statements have been taken out of context by groups using "McCarthyite" tactics to portray him as an extremist. Mr. Kushner said he is opposed to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and to the route of Israel's security barrier, which snakes through portions of the West Bank...

Robert Rifkind, a New York lawyer who serves on the Brandeis board of trustees, said he had not known of Mr. Kushner's stance on Israel. Mr. Rifkind did not know if members of the trustee committee selecting honorary degree recipients were aware of Mr. Kushner's views on Israel.

"It's not easy what the answer would have been had it come up," he said. "All I can tell you is that I and most of the members of the board whose views I'm aware of are lifelong committed Zionists"...


Hey, if your group is actually called the "Zionist Organization of America" then obviously its your mission to protest anyone like Kushner who is critical of Israel. But that doesn't mean Brandeis has to cave. The board's defense, as you can see, is that they named him before "Munich" came out and they only considered Kushner as an artist, not an activist.

But to not know Kushner as an activist is hardly to know him as an artist at all, is it?

While this blog was hard on Kushner for not speaking out for "Rachel Corrie" early, I can appreciate now that he did do so. And that he now finds himself in all too similar a position. I expect he will continue to speak in defense of himself as well as all other artists and plays facing similar political intimidation.

(And no, this is not about his right to get a stupid honorary degree...)

PS. Brandeis has a fine and prestigious drama department, by the way. I wonder if they'll rally behind Tony.

PPS. Here's Brandeis' official release on the honorary degrees, from April 20. Kushner's citation does indeed include "Munich."

"Well" update

Ads and mailings for "Well" are now announcing "Last Weeks." But, while the financial crisis there certainly is serious, I suspect this is a tactic to boost sales--and buzz--before the Tony nominations on May 16. (This discount offer tellingly expires 5/14. Notice this puzzling subject heading of spin: "LAST WEEKS! As low as $26.25 for B'way's hottest new hit, WELL." Now that sounds "hot"!)

Sheer mathematics, though, almost demand Well will get a Best Play nod. History Boys and Lieutennant of Inishmore seem to be locks. Probably Rabbit Hole, too. Its only competition, thanks to crazy Tony rules, is the 1997 Three Days of Rain is eligible as a "new play" because it didn't exist until Ms. Roberts graced it with her presence (or lack thereof.) How many other new plays on Broadway (of any nationality) can you name from May '05 to May '06? It only takes four to make a category.

Perhaps life might be easier for Well's backers if it didn't get nominated. It would just close immediately without further losses. Will they relish the massive effort and extra investment of a monthlong Tony campaign just to lose to foreigners?

By the way, the Well website features a blog(!) by the beloved Jayne Houdyshell, who plays the mother. If the show folds, it won't be for lack of edgy marketing.

NYTW Panel #3

I will be accepting Jim Nicola's invitation again to attend another panel discussion at New York Theatre Workshop. Tonight's announced topic: "What Is (or Isn't) a Political Theatre in America? Theatre artists and producers discuss the nature of political theatre and whether it can-and does-still exist in America."

This does indeed get to the larger "context" so many debating the "Rachel Corrie" issue wish to apply the case to. So might be the most lively and surprising of the panels yet.

Nicola will be on the panel, in addition to: Andrea Ciannavei (Dramaturg, LAByrinth Theater Company), Josh Fox (Playwright, Artistic Director of International WOW Company), Terry Greiss (Irondale Theatre Ensemble), Najla Said (Performer, Activist, and daughter of the late Edward Said), Betty Shamieh (Playwright), Alisa Solomon (theatre writer and Columbia Journalism professor). The moderator is Bill Goldstein.

7:00pm at NYTW, 79 E. 4th St. Still $10 admission or pay-what-you-can for "artists."

Monday, April 24, 2006

"Corrie" and Court close to NYC deal?

"Subject to finalizing a deal, the Gotham run will commence in mid-October with Megan Dodds repeating her radiant, unsentimental perf as the 23-year-old American idealist who died in a nonviolent protest for peace in Gaza."

-Variety giving the first confirmation that the Royal Court has gotten this far with at least one New York theatre to present "Rachel Corrie" as soon as the fall. Of course, it could be the Court just trying to get buzz going and theatres biting. But we shall see soon enough.

Yes, something about the Variety lingo alongside a description of someone's grusome death is a tad questionable. But that's what makes Variety Variety...

REVIEW: Screwmachine/Eyecandy

Screwmachine/Eyecandy
by C.J. Hopkins, directed by John Clancy
Present by Clancy Productions at 59E59 Theatres

I have never seen David Calvitto before, but based on his star turn in the gonzo satire Screwmachine/Eyecandy he is a force of nature. As nightmare game show host "Big Bob" this close-cropped wiry ball of energy gives us a compelling mix of Harold Hill and Hitler in his motor-mouthed portrait of a TV tyrant.

Unfortunately Calvitto is pretty much all Screwmachine has going for it. As Big Bob preys on his victims--a couple of married saps dumb enough to go on his how--the play makes its point early and then repeatedly. Television and popular culture, you see, feed the sheep of our middle classes out there in the heartland lies about material wealth and success without effort. That Big Bob's harangues (one big monologue, essentially) are peppered with talking points from the GOP playbook, don't make the satire any more astute. (And the subtitle "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Bob" dares to evoke Strangelove. Despite the fact that the victims in the play decidedly don't love Bob in the end!) And please, playwrights: don't set up a ridiculous premise and then have one of your characters keep whining, Wait, what's going on here? This is ridiculous? It's not a real game show, we get it. Now onto Act II, please.

Dramatically, C.J. Hopkins' script plays like a slim Twilight Zone premise stretched out to 90 minutes. The shallow concept would need much more filling in to sustain itself. Director John Clancy's expert cast and design team have tried giving the proceedings a touch of the absurdist. (Clancy's recently praised Fatboy was a reworking of Jarry's Ubu Roi.) But all the promising hints of Ionesco & co. only remind us that the master would have constantly confounded our expectations with nonsequiturs and table-turning shifts in power dynamics. Instead, Bob tortures his victims right from the moment of his applause-machine entrance. When his lovely assistant Vera (think Hulk Hogan in Vanna White's dress) comes out to club a contestant to a bloody pulp, the playwright's own overkill is dramatized on stage. Talk about beating your concept to death.

When even the highly watchable traveling salesman showboating of Calvitto cannot save Screwmachine/Eyecandy (and don't ask me to explain the title) from boredom, then it's a sign that the script should have been subjected to an elimination round before the game even began.

NYT feeds off Little Willy?

Mark Kassen must be pleased his play Little Willy (about a nephew of Hitler's) is getting some more NYT publicity today. But I wonder how he feels that the Times obviously took all their cues from all the research he did himself, as recounted in their previous promo for the play. (Down to even the gravestone.)

In the end one has to wonder about all this ink devoted to a very mediocre hour of theatre. But the lesson remains: a good hook of a topic can take your play a long way.

Genet's he said/she said?

The Genet estate now doesn't want men playing "The Maids," even though there definitely has been plenty of precedent. And even an assumption Genet wanted it that way!

Or maybe they just don't want the Cocteau Rep doing it that way. This production--which originated with their new co-producers, New Orleans' Ego-Po--has been playing in rep with the Cocteau's more "traditional" female version. I'm relieved to discover this latter one is not the unfortunate production I sat through at the Cocteau just last summer. If only the Genet estate had that, they would know which one to ban.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Arts & Leisure Watch 4/23

Appropros of our discussion below on the collusions involved in privileging Broadway over all other New York theatre...

Check out this item on the user-friendly "Directions" page of the Arts & Leisure section today.

"Small Things Come in Good Packages." Okay. Sounds nice, I guess, at first? Some nice free press for some mini-"festivals"at EST, Theatre for the New City, and Williamsburg's Brick Theater.

But between the lines is clearly the sense of alternative theatre as quaint freakshow. Where the value is still only as great as its entertainment potential.

A word of caution, though: For every "Urinetown" that shot from a festival in a dark black box downtown to the bright lights of Midtown, there were far more clunkers that might have been better off left alone. Assume a similar ratio here, and proceed with fun-loving caution.

Note two uses of "caution." How did that get by the copy editor? Unless NYT Arts is that extremely "on message" these days.

Ticketbuyer: Proceed at your own risk. Most downtown theatre is kinda like Urinetown--remember that wacky show?--but if you're looking to get $100 worth of quality, say a Julia Roberts vehicle or a revival of "Barefoot in the Park," stick to B'way.

As you'll see the promos for the shows come complete in consumer guide form, covering just three points for each: "What"; "Sounds Promising Because"; and the all-too-cautionary "But..."

Must the Times be a cheerleader for downtown? Of course not. But would they ever run a piece in advance of a Broadway show implying reasons why not to buy a ticket?

If I were one of these theatres I'd say, Thanks for nothing.

CiNE's "Re-Public"

Some good Sunday reading:

My friends at the group "CiNE" published a good old fashioned manifesto in the guise of an application for the Artistic Directorship of the Public, during their search last year. (Needless to say, they didn't get the job.) Late last year Yale Theater published it as an article, and the PDF is also directly available here via CiNE's website.

The argument in sum: Joe Papp began a bold experiment back in the 50s, but his institution only became more staid the more it came to rely on traditional means of support and cut its work off more and more from society at large. In this way it is the template for most of the nonprofit theatre that followed.

Thus it is that the Public transformed the nonprofit theatrical landscape, and thus it is that there is currently nothing “public” about American nonprofit theater. Ticket prices are prohibitive; public funding has evaporated; all programming is strictly local-ized; and the nonprofit theaters themselves have come to confuse representing topics of public interest with actually playing a vital role in the civic discourse. All of which has resulted in the general public no longer giving a damn.

CiNE is not bemoaning this state of events. Far from it. We believe that if the general public has been willing to tolerate a decline in public funding for theater, it is because theater has failed to make itself essential to the public. To name a venue the “Public Theater” is to pose a perpetual challenge both to the public and to the theater. And if American theater is to thrive in this century, the challenge must be answered in the place where it was first issued.

So let’s ask ourselves: what does it mean to be a public theater, in New York, in the twenty-first century?
Whether you take CiNE's proposals as idealistically unworkable or rhetorically mischievous (my favorite is the call for corporate-commissioned playwrights to deliver overt propaganda), all of them succeed in provoking fresh thought. And in reminding us that something really is broke in our theatres and that letting go of old assumptions will be necessary to revitalize them.

I'm a big fan of theatre manifestos, by the way. Many of the great movements in theatre have been sparked by them. And they have helped connect theatre to larger artistic/cultural movements (From Zola's Darwinian Naturalism, to the violent modernism of the Futurists.) We need more. And with the web, the opportunities to publish and disseminate them are more promising than ever.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

"Corrie" Reading in Toronto

Here's the story of one director's efforts to put on a reading of "My Name is Rachel Corrie" in Toronto. I'm fascinated by how this playtext has become such a rallying point, not for Israel haters and anti-semites, but for the younger and more activist theatrelovers around the country--nay, the continent.

Jim Nicola was right in his initial response that the voice of the contemporary socially conscious American youth is not heard enough on our stages. Too bad he couldn't follow through, but others seem to be doing so.

Friday, April 21, 2006

another B'way closing

As if losing McHale's was not bad enough...

If you're going to a Broadway show this weekend, don't count on before or after eats at Sam's on what is now an intersection of broken dreams, 8th & 46th.

According to Playbill:

Sam's is the fourth low-slung, old-time theatre mecca to shutter in the West 40s in the past year. JR's, on the south side of W. 46th Street near Eighth Avenue, ceased operations in July 2005. Its neighbor across the street, McHale's, ended a 50-year run in the same location in January of this year. And Barrymore's, Sam's next-door neighbor, served its last drink soon after.
I'm even more shocked about Barrymore's--my own personal standby for over a decade. Always seemed to be doing well. I always liked you could always get a table there. I guess that was the problem.
A sign on what was once Barrymore's bears the forlorn message: "Closed forever. Thanks to all."
So, if you want to grab a good cheap burger in an unpretentious, untouristy atmosphere, and an adventurous new American play without Julia Roberts... Broadway is just not for you anymore.

"Well" not well?

Speaking of new American plays:

Lisa Kron's Well is probably one of the most praised and successful of the species since its premiere at the Public two years ago. (Hence its ineligibility for the Pulitzer this year.) Three weeks ago it opened on Broadway to enormous acclaim and good will and instant predictions of Tony triumph.

It is now struggling for its very survival. According to the box office data from Playbill it was playing to just under 30% capacity in its opening week. The rave reviews and publicity did nothing for sales the following week--which even dipped to 27.4%. Last week, it got a small boost up 32.3%.

Keep in mind with these "capacity" figures, we're talking about a 1,095-seat house. A third of that number, of course, would be SRO in an Off-Broadway 299-er. (And remember: the difference between On Broadway and Off is the difference between 499 and 500 seats.)

An SOS email started circulating last week among theatre folk from Kron herself, confessing the show was at one point on the brink of a sudden closing. I don't mind quoting one particularly moving, yet revealing passage:

But on Tuesday, our lead producer, Liz McCann came to the theater just before half hour and gave the cast a gorgeous and stirring speech that moved us all to tears. She told us that in the past few days she had rallied the Broadway producing community to give us enough support to enable us to hang on for a bit longer because, as she told them and us: If WELL closes there will never be another show on Broadway without a star in it. There will be only star vehicles or British imports. She said, if this show closes what it will mean is that Broadway is not a home for new American plays. And then where will the next Albee come from, the next O'Neill, or the next Williams?
So what do we make of this? We know this argument all too painfully...well. And McCann is certainly walking the walk by risking a lot of investor capital on the show's ability to build word of mouth and Tony buzz (let alone prizes).

But isn't something else becoming equally painfully obvious? Broadway--and Broadway audiences-- don't want serious nonmusical, unknown plays like Well that try to deal with troubling subject matter in an unconventional way. Sure, Kron's writing and performance are very witty and go down easy. But that just makes this scarier. Well is so easy to like, and yet still it's not attracting more than the "dedicated third" of the audience who seek the different and the new.

(I might as well add that I personally am not even Well's biggest fan. I saw it in what now seems a de-facto pre-B'way tryout at ACT in San Francisco last year and thought it was a small play dwarfed in a big house. But I still can recognize it as a work worthy of the serious consideration it's been getting.)

So while McCann is fighting the good fight, dare I ask: What good has it done Well to expose it to the ruthless economic elements of contemporary Broadway? It may turn out to be financially remunerative to its author (better royalties, residuals, and future production prospects). It may net the author the coveted Tony. But does serving Well up for Broadway "failure" serve the cause of the American playwright in general?

I wish those producers who still cared about new American writing "seceded" from the whole game, and carved out a new business model, and a new venue, for the presentation of the work they want to champion. Well didn't need Broadway. It had fine productions in two major nonprofits. If the motivation was to "reach a wider audience" and give the play a longer run--well, that's not really happening, is it?

At question here is what is the proper role for producers to play who want to "move" such a play beyond theatreland and into the "mainstream." Some may say, exploiting the nonprofit development process for their own business profits. But since they're not profiting in this case, I won't harp on that.

All in all, I hope the lesson some draw from this is not that something is wrong with Well. Nor does it have to mean something is wrong with stupid audiences who don't "get" Well. (Or, more to the point, don't shell out lots of money to see this play they never heard of that doesn't star Julia Roberts.) To me the point is that yet again, Broadway has proven inhospitable to and incompatible with serious drama. The rare cases of success indeed are due to Brits, movie stars, and familiar classic titles. (Or simply low overhead--as in the four-hander Doubt.) But those are cases where the exception really does prove the rule.

Addendum: Needless to say, if you were ever curious about Well or just want to come out to support it, these are the crucial weeks. (At this point they're hanging on for those May 16 Tony noms.) Discounts are available on Playbill and BroadwayOffers.com.

Open Thread continued

Okay, so that didn't quite take off last night. But I'll try again.

To spark things, I definitely recommend the link that was posted last night there over to the intrepid Mr Excitement (a.k.a. Mark), who once again gives the blow-by-blow.

Sounds like a pretty lively night, actually. Again, the same debate keeps breaking out, no matter how NYTW tries to frame the panels.

Some significant news made, I believe, with Emily Mann's comments. For the first time she was asked (by Mark, no less) about what it was like to be asked by NYTW to develop an Israeli-themed documentary "companion piece" to "Corrie." Her answer: I was not told it had anything to do with "Corrie." Okay.... I imagine Jim Nicola might like to clarify things there? Otherwise it sure sounds like some misleading was going on.

Sounds like Mann--and, impressively the Columbinus team, who are currently being produced by NYTW!--felt free to speak their minds critically. (Even though Mann has little good to say about "Corrie" as a play. And as the mother of modern American documentary theatre, that's worth something, for sure.)

Mark doesn't mention how well attended it was and what the audience demographic was like. (Except for noting a strong "batshit insane" quotient.) I do think it's a shame if NYTW can't do this kind of presentation for a full house full of young theatre makers. Wouldn't Jim Nicola and Jayme Koszyn agree that's who needs to hear/have this discussion the most?

PS. For more discussion (and some corrections/clarifications) definitely check out the "Mr. Excitement" comments.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Open Thread: Reponses to NYTW Panel #2

Since the previous post's Comments section has already developed a separate conversation, I'd like to offer a fresh thread solely for thoughts on tonight's NYTW panel for anyone who went and would like to share. Also for others to ask questions of those who were there.

I wonder if NYTW is keeping as good a record?

NYTW Panel #2 tonight

I won't be attending Panel #2 tonight. (I'll going to see Bart Sher do an Awake and Sing talkback at Lincoln Center, then checking out John Clancy's new production "Screwmachine/Eyecandy.")

But here is the info for those curious ones among you:

Thursday, April 20 Controversy in the Eye of the Beholder, Part II-Writing Challenging Work

Writers who have created plays based on documentary and primary source material will speak about their specific experiences developing and producing such work. Participants: Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (Playwrights of The Exonerated), Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli (Creators of the upcoming NYTW production, columbinus), Emily Mann (Playwright, Artistic Director, McCarter Theatre, Princeton), Anna Deavere Smith (Performer, Playwright, Director)
Moderator: to be announced

If you go, please do drop a line in Comments here to fill us (including me) in.

Did I mention there were only 50-60 people there last night? (NYTW is a 199-seater, I think.) It was notable to me that the crowd was decidedly not young. (Most of the younger folk there I recognized as "artists"--either invited guests or paying "what they could.") A few academics. But mostly what seemed the usual NYTW older subscriber/donor crowd, who seemed pleased and entertained for the most part.

Here's a revealing anecdote from Mark, a.k.a. "Mr. Excitement": this young theatre lover, eager to actually partake in this community building event turned away at the door for being late and not in possession of that $10 ticket. What message does that send?..... Perhaps the box office staff were just doing their job. But there again, you see the result of treating this has a closed ticketed event, rather than a truly open public gathering.... So if you're going tonight, 7:00 sharp!

Mark also reports, by the way, from another related public event held by THAW (Theatres Against War). Apparently Kia Cothron became another playwright to go on the record--but defending Nicola, who she says has stood by her better than the Royal Court has! I admire Cothron's work and understand her loyalty. But I would love to ask her what she thought of NYTW closing her last play there considerably early due to low sales. (I was upset because I had booked a student group for one of the cancelled performances. We never got to see it.)

I got a kick out of all the "Peace Cafe" jokes in response to last night's notes. Indeed, must be some grande mocha context going on there. (Or, to fully exploit the Starbucks lexicon, tall.) But I'll cut Ari Roth and his Theatre J some slack. (Yes, there is a Peace Cafe link. But no menu! What kind of service you call this?) Roth's theatre is housed inside a Jewish Community Center, he clearly defines his mission along those lines, so if that's what he wants his theatre to be fine. At least he does it aggressively and consistently. I think NYTW invokes the rhetoric of "community building" but is still basically just a place to put on plays.

My final impression from last night is this. There was something ultimately very disconcerting about the underlying assumption that one can't or shouldn't put on politically provocative plays without some kind of outreach/healing/"dialogue." That this kind of activity just naturally goes hand in hand with such plays. Admittedly the panel consisted (deliberately) of all Artistic Directors. Our nonprofit institutional leaders are probably under greater and greater pressures to fill some sort of parental and "responsible" role. So I guess this is just how an Artistic Director thinks nowadays.

But you had to ask at some point--wait a minute: what would Brecht say? what would Shaw say? Would they ever stand for some producer insisting on "contextualizing" Mother Courage or Major Barbara lest any audiences get their feelings hurt? When Edward Bond faced censorhip and public excoriation when he depicted the stoning of a baby carriage in Saved, did the Royal Court have to assemble panels on child abuse? Totally lost in this discussion was the fact that no theatre for thousands of years (yes, think of Medea) has seen the necessity to go to these strained measures to purge conflict in the audience. (And wasn't the play supposed to do the purging, anyway?) Let's face it: these efforts are all of a piece of the culture of therapy we now live in, where argument is a bad thing. Unless it leads to "healing." Yet we theatre folk are happy to argue against evil George Bush and not expect any healing with the Red States, right? Since when has theatre been removed from the normal assumptions of political discourse? (i.e. where things do get messy, sometimes, and stay that way.)

Of course people have always talked with each other about plays afterwards. That's why we go to the bar afterwards. No one is against talking about the play. But since when did theatres have to take on the responsibility of supervising that? Since when did they have to create artificial communities of their own rather than simply exist in a community where people can have spontaneous discussions on their own, thank you very much.

NYT spins Julia review?

Look at this blurb now showing on NYTimes.com homepage and tell me if it accurately reflects the Ben Brantley review of Three Days of Rain:
Theater »
Review: 'Three Days of Rain'

Julia Roberts is "stiff" but "disturbingly beautiful"
in her Broadway debut, says Ben Brantley
Uh, I don't think it was the acting that was called "beautiful"...
The Julia story is interesting today as one of those rare theatre stories that "cross over" into the greater media. Ben Brantley may be powerful, but more people will read this review today probably than all his other reviews all year. NYT.com knows people will be coming to the site for this. Why the false--ok, miselading--advertising?

more (non-)Pulitzer reactions

LA Times follows up.

By the way, I now have a complete list of the jury (the vetting committee, if you will):
Chair: Linda Winer (NY Newsday); Kimberly W. Benston, (HaverfordCollege); Chris Jones,(Chicago Tribune); Anna Deavere Smith; Anne Marie Welsh (San Diego Union-Tribune).

The article reminds us that "Light in the Piazza" could have been a contender, supposedly. (Although I remember seeing it in Chicago in February, 2004!)

The wisest words come at the end, from Richard Nelson:

"It's not about support for new play development but new play production, which is somewhat different," Nelson said. "You're never going to get a Pulitzer for a play that is sitting in development."
However, Nelson also believes that not winning a Pulitzer can also have a beneficial effect — not for the disappointed finalists, but for the theater community at large.
"It sort of gets people thinking that maybe we're not quite giving the focus to new writing that we should in our theaters," he said. "Sometimes I think it galvanizes things in a healthy way."

Whether it's "healthy" or not will depend on who takes up the call.

UPDATE: Thanks to George Hunka for tracking down this Bloomberg article with a little more info. Good process details like:
"The finalists were selected from 27 plays, all of which were produced between March 2 and Dec. 31, 2005. None of the three received an endorsement from the majority of 17 voting members of the Pulitzer board. That group includes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald
Graham."

Gee, I'm surprised the Graham family couldn't cast a glance over at what New York Theatre Workshop was doing! Just kidding.

Julia panned

But let's get onto the important stuff.

Three Days of Rain has opened and the pile-on has begun. Brantley turns in one of his loopiest, most cringe-inducing reviews in years, but I can't say it's not an enjoyable read. To cut straight to the chase, though:

...stiff with self-consciousness (especially in the first act), only glancingly acquainted with the two characters she plays...

We all wanted our Julia to do well. That she does not do well — at least not by any conventional standards of theatrical art — is unlikely to lose Ms. Roberts any fans, though it definitely won't win her any new ones among drama snobs. Your heart goes out to her when she makes her entrance in the first act and freezes with the unyielding stiffness of an industrial lamppost, as if to move too much might invite falling.

Sometimes she plants one hand on a hip, then varies the pose by doing the same on the other side. Her voice is strangled, abrupt and often hard to hear. She has the tenseness of a woman who might break into pieces at any second.

Unfortunately it's in the second act that Ms. Roberts plays the character who is always on the verge of a breakdown, and in this part she's comparatively relaxed, perhaps because she has a slipping Southern accent to hide behind. In the first act she's supposed to be the normal one...

Ms. Roberts often gives the impression that she is parsing her lines, leaving lots of dead air between fragments.

As I first predicted back in July, this particular play was a really bad call for her to make a Broadway debut in. But when will movie stars (and, more importantly their producers!) learn that the transition just isn't that easy.

I say it all comes down to the voice vs the face. In film we take in the actor's face, on stage the voice. Which is why a stage actor doesn't have to be especially pretty or handsome to be sexy, if they've got the voice. And which is why the most beautiful or hunky celluloid stars can come off as total spazzes from the back row.

Maybe Julia's producers have no regrets, though. Who are we kidding, this show is already sold out from now to the next millenium. All she needs is a Tony...

UPDATE: Other reviews, same views--NY Sun, NY Post, LA Times. Her one defender so far? Linda Winer in Newsday.

NYTW Panel #1 Notes

The Headline: "Nicola Says, No Mistake"

As much as tonight’s panel discussion at NYTW tried to broaden the topic beyond “Rachel Corrie,” and despite some structural measures taken to fend it off or minimize it, there was no avoiding it in the end.

As for questions, they were allowed—but only as submitted on index cards. (92nd St Y style, for those of you who have been to one of those super-controlled evenings.) The moderator seemed to make the effort to read all of the cards, but I must say it was hard to formulate a good question that way—especially since they began collecting them just 30 minutes into the speakers, which was before Jim Nicola spoke, by the way. (I got one in after he began.)

The panel was arranged so that Nicola went last, after the rest—Joanne Akalaitis, Bill T. Jones, Irene Lewis, and Ari Roth—all told of their own experiences with controversy in the theatre, usually ones where hostile or fearful reactions to their work took them by surprise. By putting aside the NYTW case (i.e. the reason people were showing up to this thing) alongside and after others, perhaps the hope was to make Nicola’s actions less exceptional? (Even though no one else's situation was really analagous to him. No one had postponed or cancelled a controversial show. In fact, most were the ones being protested against!) One message that clearly came from all the opening statements was, in a phrase often used, “you never know what’s going to be controversial.” While it may not have been coordinated, it had the effect of excusing how Nicola did not foresee the risks of putting on “Rachel Corrie.”

It was odd we had to wait 45 minutes to hear what most of us had come to hear. Not that Akalaitis & co. were not engaging speakers. They were. But they had little if any connection to the case at hand, and their examples were tangential at best. When Nicola took the mic, though, he did, to his credit, address the issue head on, and once again recount the story. He reasserted his admiration for the play itself (“I completely fell in love with it”) and its “powerful image of an idealistic person committing to give their own life.” “It never occurred to me people wouldn’t see it as I saw it.” Acknowledging this sounds naive now, Nicolas cites in his defense statements by “Corrie” “co-editors” Rickman and Viner playing up the piece’s emotional appeal transcending political partisanship. Much was made of a piece of paper with a Viner quote to that effect—even though Nicola admitted never meeting with Viner in person during the process. Was the point here to imply the authors misled him? (As was the scuttlebutt coming out of a recent powwow Nicola held with NYTW’s “Usual Suspects.”) I would counter, of course you should expect a clever pitch from a movie star like Alan Rickman! Plus, Rickman probably does believe in the emotional appeal over the political—as the script itself shows. So, in short, big deal. It’s still clear that no matter what the playwright thinks, an Artistic Director is obliged to think independently as well, right?

Well maybe not, Nicola maintained. He claims his number one priority is always to serve the playwright’s vision. And if Alan Rickman wanted a non-political environment for the play (“a comfortable situation in which the audience could set aside preconceptions” and “allow them to be neutral”) that’s what he wanted to give him. Problem was—he found out a little later that was going to be hard. He found that out by speaking to “individuals in the Jewish community”—and he now stresses “private individuals,” “Conversations between board members and friends, between staff and friends.” (Funny, but it did sound like “Let’s find some Jews!” I had no idea it was so goy over there.) It’s clear Nicola still has no intention of revealing any names, under the protection of “private conversations.” Also: "No outside group pressured us. They gave us opinions, but no pressure." Maybe I didn't get that quote right, but there does still seem to be some muddiness over the distinction between "individuals" and "organizations."

So, “because I love this play,” he says, “I asked the Royal Court and the co-editors for more time.” He still sticks to the point that the original opening date of March 22 felt too “rushed” and was only “due to the availability of the director, Alan Rickman, and the star.” I had no idea Megan Dodds, who after relative obscurity has now found the role of her life, was equally busy! This call he made to the Royal Court (I assume on February 17) in his mind was “starting a conversation” about a new opening date. This is why he still claims he was shocked to read in the Guardian days later that the play was censored by his theatre. It seems he didn’t realize how badly that February 17 phone call went.

I’m actually inclined to believe he’s not lying about that. About his perception, at least. But he certainly seems to have made a bad call on what the Royal Court’s reaction would be to postponement without a date. He claims that he wanted to talk dates, but that Royal Court didn’t get back to him on that, and instead went to the media. In other words, the Court flipped out. They’re nuts!

Later I submitted a question asking “Why did you need a year of extra time?” and Nicola actually denied he needed that long. Only Rickman’s film commitments, he says, would have made them have to wait till next season. So presumably Rickman has movies shooting from April through the end of the year? Possible. (And verifiable...) But why not say! Nicola could help himself if he were able to say, “Hey, I wanted to do it just a month or two later, but Rickman had Harry Potter Part Ten to do.” Nicola’s inability, still, to spell out which future dates he was considering is a wall I keep coming up against. You can’t deny “indefinitely postponing” without offering a very specific counter-narrative of “definite” postponement.

At least he said nothing about lighting plot problems or travel visas. As for Rickman’s film schedule, though, I can’t help wondering how much time he even really needed to rehearse a one-woman show he had already directed with the same actress. Yes, there would have had to be some scenic adjustments and such. In an idea world, maybe a two-week rehearsal “pick-up” process. But I wonder if he would have been amenable to just putting in one week and sending an assistant? Whatever the particulars, doesn’t there seem to be a lot of room for negotiation here? That is, if Nicola was offering a production soon. But again, Nicola claims the Royal Court were the ones to abruptly cut off negotiations.

In other news, Nicola acknowledged for the first time publicly that NYTW did not have the rights to “Rachel Corrie” anymore--indeed that they never had! In saying he hopes it “will be seen” he also finally came close to admitting it will never be done at his theatre. Hopefully that can go some way toward closing this chapter.

When Nicola was asked if he thought his decision was a mistake he indeed said, “No, I don’t,” adding: “If the producer is not confident and committed that is a bad collaborator.” (He did admit at other times to misjudgments in handling the controversy afterwards, though.) This brought home his main appeal throughout the evening regarding “context.” From his point of view, once he became aware of how much some people were going to attack this play he wanted to be best prepared to defend it—and, presumably, defend his theatre company. While he proceeded to prepare this defense (aka “context”) in late January-early February, somewhere around mid-February he decided he needed more time, but not sure how much more time. (Notable that there was no mention at all tonight of Hamas or Sharon’s coma.)

That’s the essence of Nicola’s story tonight, as fairly as I can represent it. After he spoke, there could finally be more dialogue. Not, unfortunately, directly with the audience but amongst the panel! It was fascinating to watch who ventured to come to Nicola’s side, who stayed out of it, and who took him on directly. The last of these was roles was played by Irene Lewis who squarely admonished him for not sticking to his passion for the play and trusting his audience. (Or trusting the new audience that would come out for this.) That she said this after recounting her own efforts to bring a controversial Israeli play about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin ("The Murder of Isaac") to her Center Stage in Baltimore, gave her some credibility. (She endorsed all kinds of outreach and context—but only after the play is committed to, not as part of a vetting process.) Bill T. Jones was less confrontational, but asked Nicola probing questions about his decision making process, general info that didn’t reveal much to the informed, but at least someone was there to get answers!

Nicola’s main defender turned out to be Ari Roth, head of DC’s “Theatre J” (that’s J for Jewish). Roth—in recounting his own theatre’s work—seemed to present the case Nicola wishes he could present. Roth displayed great fluency in middle east issues and took pride in the very aggressive outreach efforts he makes amongst his relatively small audience. (He opened a “Peace Cafe” for post-show discussion between Jews and Muslims.) Roth insisted “Rachel Corrie”--while an “effective” play—presented a special challenge to a theatre because it’s one-sided and therefore demanded “filling in the blanks.” It became clear, though, that Roth would have spotted that in the play from the moment he picked it up.

I’ll try to follow up with some more notes tomorrow, but that seems plenty to digest for now. For those of you who were there, please fill out the picture. For those who were not, and you want to know more, ask away!

In short—nothing really changed in our knowledge of this story. As a discussion on controversy and theatre, it was fine in that we heard some good anecdotes from a very cool panel. But not everyone seemed to be there for the same purpose. It was kind of like a limited Jim Nicola press conference, with four other dignitaries along for the ride.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

1st NYTW Panel Tonight

Playgoer has actually been invited, personally, by Jim Nicola to attend tonight's panel. So I will be going.

I do appreciate the invitation and the gesture of reaching out. And I won't make any more judgements on the panel until I hear what is said.

If any out there in NYC are still interested in going, it's at 7:00pm at 79 East 4th Street.

Wednesday, April 19
Controversy in the Eye of the Beholder, Part I-Presenting Challenging Work Artists and leaders of cultural institutions discuss the tribulations and triumphs of presenting and producing work that provokes debate and/or controversy.
Participants: JoAnne Akalaitis (Director, Professor, Bard College), Bill T. Jones (Artistic Director, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Choreographer, Dancer), Irene Lewis (Artistic Director, Center Stage, Baltimore), James Nicola (Artistic Director, NYTW), Ari Roth (Artistic Director, Theatre J, Washington, D.C.) Moderator: Jayme Koszyn (President/Founder, Jayme Koszyn Consulting)

Remember: "Tickets are $10, cash only. Artists, pay what you can."

I hope to be able to post at least some quick notes and summary when I get home tonight. So check in before bedtime!

REVIEW: Awake and Sing!

Zoe Wannamaker as Bessie and Mark Ruffalo as Moe in Awake and Sing! (Photo © Paul Kolnik)

Awake and Sing!
by Clifford Odets, directed by Bartlett Sher
presented on Broadway by Lincoln Center Theatre


“All of the characters in Awake and Sing! share a fundamental activity: a struggle for life amidst petty conditions.” Clifford Odets, in his introduction to Awake and Sing! (1935).

This is what stage naturalism (in the sense first advocated by Zola) does best, the depiction of human beings in the context of their larger environment, their behavior and motivations shown as the products of social forces.

I was distressed to hear Michael Riedel on his PBS TV show “Theatre Talk” dismiss, in passing, Lincoln Center’s mounting of Awake and Sing! as catering to “spinster theatre.” (An odd epithet for this very emotive Jewish family drama.) The remark was made while interviewing David Hare, and the larger point was theatres would rather do such “chestnuts” than more “relevant” political dramas like Stuff Happens. Oh how soon you are forgotten, Odets, once dubbed in the NY press as “revolution’s number one boy”! For it was his conceit (and that of the adventurous Group Theatre who produced him) that representing on the Depression-era stage the plight of the Berger family from the Bronx was just as political an act as showing us the backroom dealings of Bush and Blair. The surprise in store to the Riedels out there is that Awake and Sing!—when enacted truthfully and at full-force—still grabs you by the collar more than occasionally, reminding you of the price of materialism, of an inhuman society, and, yes, even of war.

Granted, the play hasn’t been helped over the years by timid regional revivals, clueless college productions, and, frankly, the over-romanticizing by some of our elder theatre colleagues of the Group aura in general. To those jaded by such experiences, I especially commend Bartlett Sher’s freshly considered and rigorous revival, where nostalgia is replaced by a genuinely affecting melancholy of “life amidst petty conditions.” Even in its oddest and least successful choices—especially in the scenic conception—there’s not a lazy or clich├ęd note to the whole evening. If all our classics were produced with this much care, we would be a healthier theatre indeed.

The production also reminds us that Odets wrote for some of the greatest stage actors this country has ever known (i.e. the Group company) and that nothing wipes away the taint of “datedness” from his scripts like good acting. His powerfully loony locutions (part Yiddish, part gangster) sound dated only in the mouths of lackluster actors. Sher’s casting makes all the “dif” here, as Odets says. Especially in the two runaway roles, the sensitive tough guy—and WWI amputee WWI—Moe Axelrod (Mark Ruffalo) and the domineering warden of a mama, Bessie (Zoe Wanamaker). Lest any doubt Ruffalo has been spoiled by Hollywood, here is a reminder of what first captivated audiences and critics about him in Kenneth Lonnergan’s early stage work. (Lonnergan, of course, being one of many American dramatists bearing the Odetsian influence in his love of the poetry of the New York streets.) Ruffalo handles Odets’ language effortlessly (dare I say “naturalistically”) fully internalizing its big emotions. I say “internalizing” because this is a surprisingly quiet performance, not scene-stealing bravura. But his intensity and truthfulness is always highly tangible. The result is a very warm Moe, a romantic, not just a “heel.”

Wanamaker likewise modulates the given extremes of her dynamic character. Even though Odets may at times seem to write Bessie as the Jewish Mother From Hell, Wanamaker doesn’t show us a witch, but neither does she sentimentalize her as some generic suffering immigrant matriarch. This is just plainly a very sad, disappointed adult, clinging to the ideals society has taught her. (“Here without a dollar you don’t look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year—this is life in America.”) The tinges of regret and resignation we occasionally see in her are of a woman half conscious of losing her soul. A small-framed physical presence, Wanamaker does not bully her family, but that permanently sour visage and steady low voice intimidates them—and us—very convincingly. Her Bessie, the antagonist, emerges suprisingly as the anchor of the play.

Such unforced and subtle naturalism distinguishes all the actors in this tight knit ensemble. If the opening moments seem slow, just sit back and adjust to its rhythms. No affected immigrant- family histrionics here. Just a quiet, seemingly uneventful night at the Bergers. The "slice of life" done tastefully and expertly. It is in this context that Ben Gazzara’s somewhat daring “method” performance as the prophetic grandfather Jacob, can be best appreciated. No doubt there’ll be some grumbling over his grainy monotone, heavily Yiddish-accented droning. But it forces you to listen. And it's far from the stereotype of the schmaltzy old wise man this role can fall victim to.

My only disappointment in the casting—and it’s admittedly not insignificant—is in the two young protagonists, Hennie and Ralph. The former is woefully underwritten as a character and the latter is given to Waiting For Lefty-style speechifying more than heartfelt confession. But whatever small plot there is to Awake and Sing hinges on their efforts to break free from the prison of their family. The “struggle for life” is theirs most of all. It is therefore helpful to like them, and likeability and charm are not the strong suits of either Lauren Ambrose or Pablo Schreiber. Yes, both characters “got the blues,” but Ambrose is too deflated and Schreiber too cold and strident to make me want to root for them. (While an asset in other roles, Schreiber’s 6’3” rail-thin frame and steely-eyed demeanor don’t help here. Odd casting for an underdog.)

Where Sher will invite the most criticism is in his approach to the scenic conception of the play. At first what struck me about Michael Yeargain’s set is how closely it resembled pictures of the original Group production. (Day bed and window stage right, dinner table stage right with a makeshift curtain dividing the two areas.) While this apartment seems way too spacious for a 1935 Bronx tenement (and even regardless of historical realism, the play does demand claustrophobia), at least Yeargain has purged all sepia tones from his tattered plain walls, daring the fill the stage with grey. Such modesty doesn’t last long however, when (spoiler alert!) in the middle of the second act—mid-dialogue, no less—the walls begin to levitate. Sher and Yeargain then steadily remove more of the “confines” so that by play’s end the space has been completely opened up and Ralph stands transcendent and “free at last.” It’s definitely a jarring concept. Some benefits include letting us see into the other rooms of the apartment and even the crucial stairwell beyond. (I liked the glimpse we get of Moe exposing his prosthetic leg, for instance.) But is this sudden explosion of magical realism without any preparation in Act One a wrong turn? (Especially when accompanied by anachronistic ethereal Arvo Part music?) Personally, I took more issue with the timing of these moments, especially when they drowned out valuable text. (Poor Sam Feinschriber never gets to tell his story!) The "peeling away" that happens between acts was less disruptive.

Disrupting, though, seems precisely what Sher and Yeargain wanted to do, though. And that’s where I find fault. The text can stand up to such interventions, but a more pervasive strategy would have to be employed to disrupt it throughout. I also am dismayed by what probably is too insecure a distrust of naturalism in any form. Did Sher think we would just get bored by three hours of “kitchen sink realism”? More likely, he was bored of it. Whatever the production gains poetically is lost in social commentary. Gone is the environment, the “petty conditions.” The stage suddenly becomes just a little too pretty, in effect. Much as we mock it now, there once was a social point to the “kitchen sink.” (Ironically, the disappearing of the walls, show us the sink here, but no matter.)

[For some great visual images of the set—and explanatory commentary by Sher—see the fun “Audio Slide Show” on NYTimes.com. (Link trouble? It's Javascript. You can also find it here.) ]

The abstractness of the design leads to another deficiency: the downplaying of period. This is not a production outwardly concerned with the thirties. I’m sure leather jackets were around then, for instance, but isn’t Moe’s here a trite extravagant? (Or is it just a way to remind the younger audiences that Mark Ruffalo is cool!) The sparse set also seems deliberately “timeless” and uninformed by the world around it. (The walls are practically bare. Which may be why it doesn’t seem to evoke a specifically Jewish family home either.) Then again, such historical boxing in and adherence to pictorial realism has led to the kind of nostalgia that has long cursed this play. By foregrounding the acting and the emotional worlds going on within the characters, Sher wisely reminds us what is still fresh about it. Besides, the minutiae of the thirties are always present in Odets’ dialogue itself, impeccably spoken by this cast.

Small caveats? The play doesn’t need to be three acts anymore; there’s a perfectly fine break between the two scenes of Act Two, which I’m surprised Sher did not take. Our theatergoing culture just does not seem to have the patience to sustain energy through two intermissions—especially when the second curtain comes down on a crushing fatality, not a kickline of showgirls. Also—getting textual—the word “nigger” is used twice in the play, both times in the sense of being worked to death “like a nigger.” Sher ironically cuts it from a speech of Bessie’s (the bad guy of the play) and retains it when our heroine Hennie says it. If any amending is to be made, it would make sense to do the opposite, no? Unless Sher’s goal is to avoid harshening the villain and to complicate the hero. (The challenge of what to do with this word in revivals of 20s and 30s classics in general plagues directors constantly, of course.)

As for Odets the Political Playwright… Those new to him might be surprised by a seeming innocuousness. (Especially in this largely apolitical production.) But it’s there. Not just in the obvious, admittedly forced “happy ending” of Ralph’s salvation in the cause of union activism. (A trace of the play’s storied revisions.) But when Odets assembles the family before supper, and the capitalist uncle, the war vet, and the “old country” socialist all go at it, the turbulent outside world makes its unmistakable entrance. And listening to them fight over why we go to war, how we compensate workers for their labor, and what we call “success” in America, it’s clearly our own world today as well. Too bad it takes a 70-year-old play to bring back on stage those realities so often ignored in our insular theatre of today.

more from Walter Davis

Since many of you enjoyed reading (and/or kicking around) Walter A. Davis' March essay on "Rachel Corrie" and other matters, you may want to check out his new website, fittingly walteradavis.com. There you'll find, among other writings, his latest take, Beyond The Corrie Controversy: Manifesto for a Progressive Theatre.

Quote of the Day

"We all have a part of ourselves that cries out for certainty and meaning. If we encounter a contemporary artwork one of the first things we ask is: “What does it mean?” We can be uncomfortable with not knowing, not being sure, not having the safe ground of the authorised, correct interpretation. When encountering an artwork we seek the explanatory panel."

- British artist Grayson Perry, skeptical of all the "context" going on in arts institutions. He's addressing the visual arts, but you can make the connection. An interesting read especially for playwrights, I think.

I particularly like this reference to one esteemed playwright: "Alan Bennett thought there should be a big notice up at the entrance to the National Gallery that says 'You don’t have to like everything'." Sadly, our New York theatres would be even less amenable to that suggestion, I think.

NYTW Recap

Playgoer regular Dr. Cashmere explains it all to you...

Off-topic, but on the eve of NYTW's first panel discussion, I wanted to recap a couple of points:

1) With all the talk about visas, lighting designers, contextualization and so forth, it's important to revisit the initial explanation Nicola gave for the "Rachel Corrie" postponement, before NYTW's PR offensive began. Here's an excerpt from the first New York Times article, Feb. 28:

"Yesterday, James C. Nicola, the artistic director of the workshop, said he had decided to postpone the show after polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work."
"'The uniform answer we got was that the fantasy that we could present the work of this writer simply as a work of art without appearing to take a position was just that, a fantasy,' he said. 'In particular, the recent electoral upset by Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, and the sickness of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, had made "this community very defensive and very edgy," Mr. Nicola said, "and that seemed reasonable to me."

Nicola has shrugged off his explanation by saying that he was "naive" in dealing with the media. But that's a dodge. Either the play was pulled for the reasons stated or it wasn't. If it was, and NYTW allowed its artistic judgment to be trumped by the desire to avoid offense, it made a mistake. But if Nicola's explanation was in fact an invention (which I don't believe for a second) designed to cover for visa/lighting issues, it's almost worse. Because in that case, Nicola is shifting blame for logistical failures, unfairly, onto an unnamed group of powerful Jews--a move he should know conjures up all sorts of sordid stereotypes. So it's really one or the other: All the talk about contextualization, etc. shouldn't distract from that basic fact.

2) NYTW is still standing by the idea that their job in presenting a play is to allow the author's voice to "rise above" competing voices. Here's a passage from Nicola's March 14 statement, still up on the NYTW website:
"In researching My Name is Rachel Corrie, we found many distorted accounts of the actual circumstances of Rachel's death that had resulted in a highly charged, vituperative, and passionate controversy. While our commitment to the play did not waver, our responsibility was not just to produce it, but to produce it in such a way as to prevent false and tangential back-and-forth arguments from interfering with Rachel's voice."

The upshot of this view is that if they're loud enough and persistent enough, critics--even misinformed critics--can have veto power over programming decisions. Can a theatre whose mission is presenting "provocative" and "challenging" works fulfill that mission while allowing outsiders this kind of power?

Would Nicola perhaps like an opportunity to amend his remarks?

We shall see, Doctor. We shall see...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

"Desert Sunrise"

That cooky George Hunka is at it again, reviewing more shows for the MSM. Today he thankfully brings our attention to what sounds like another interesting play about Israel, Desert Sunrise, downtown at Theatre for the New City. Doesn't sound especially "challenging," but George finds much to recommend.

REVIEW: Little Willy

Right: Mark Kassen (sans moustache) as William Patrick Hitler. (Photo: Monique Carboni. )

Little Willy

by Mark Kassen

Presented by Rude Mechanicals at the Ohio Theatre


Have you heard the one about the Irish Hitler? The punchline to that odd setup is the existence of one William Patrick Hitler, the son of the Fuhrer’s half-brother, who indeed married an Irish woman. So if you walk into the Ohio Theatre and see a man calling himself Hitler, with a different kind of mustache, and speaking in a Lucky Charms brogue... that’s why.

Actually the real reason is that actor-playwright Mark Kassen has fashioned a play about this historical footnote of a man. Unfortunately, his Little Willy never gets more intriguing than those first delightfully estranging moments of being faced with this goofy, ineffectual, oddly-accented wimp of a Hitler. What follows are disparate fragments of a sorry life. Back in the Vaterland, we see him as literally a car salesman—Volkswagens, of course. (Apparently that’s the best Uncle Adolf could do for him.) When things get bad by WWII-time, Willy and mom escape to England (Kassen does not make the reasons clear, unfortunately) and then onto the land of opportunity, where he tries to cash in on his infamous name on the lecture circuit, to no avail.

The facts themselves are plenty intriguing. So why is Kassen’s play so boring? (Even at only one hour long.) Part of the problem is form. Conceived of as basically a one-man show for Kassen to perform, we mostly only get Willy’s own deluded (inflated) point of view, rather than the distance that would make him an enigma. What’s fascinating about his story (to me, at least) is how a man named Hitler interacted with the world at large—not just what he thought of himself. As for these thoughts, Kassen has written monologue after monologue (usually framed as Willy’s sales pitches or lectures) basically repeating the same themes of confidence and salesmanship. The point is, we soon gather, that Willy Hitler is ironically just trying to live the American Dream—not the dream of working hard for reward, but of profiting off your own nefarious and negligible celebrity. The lens of the play is not that of high-minded political satire, but of our own tabloid-obsessed times. A parable less pertinent to the rise of Hitler than the age of Hilton. (Paris, that is.)

Kassen’s only other interlocutor on stage is Roxanna Hope, playing a bevy of sex objects pursued by Willy, with as much letdown as the rest of his life. So when he’s not lecturing he’s awkwardly seducing (and even more awkwardly shtupping). Is this all Kassen could do with his source material? Was the imperative to cut down the cast size so great? The fine production (directed by John Gould Rubin) does splurge for extensive use of video projection, which makes a great contribution, but at the expense of the play. The frequently interjections, for example, of excerpts from a long letter the real Willy actually sent FDR offering his services to the US war effort, hold more fascination than Kassen the playwright can muster in his paraphrases of Willy’s psyche. Such material make me wonder if Kassen would have been better off taking a strictly documentary approach.

Some projected postscript titles on this back wall screen end up literally upstaging everything that has passed before. In telling us the usual cinematic “where did they end up” info, they mention that Willy’s three sons are still alive in Long Island, and have promised never to have children! (So as not to continue the Hitler name.) For everyone I know who has seen the show, this is the only thing they talk about. Kassen has picked a story where the bare facts alone are hard to compete with. It would take a more skillful playwright to construct an equally satisfying fiction.