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November 29, 2008

Speaking Up for "The Language of Trees"

Go see The Language of Trees. I don’t usually give this kind of advice. And I’m not giving it now because this show is so terrific. It isn’t. But The Language of Trees is the second production in the Roundabout Underground, the new series that showcases the works of young playwrights in fully realized productions. And if those of us who love theater are serious about its future, then we ought to support these new voices.

Both my theatergoing buddy Bill and I had been impressed by Speech & Debate, the play about a trio of high school misfits that kicked off the series in January, and we were eager to see what else its 27 year-old playwright Stephen Karam would do and who else the series’ curator would discover.


The current answer to that second question is Steven Levenson, a recent graduate of Brown University who wrote The Language of Trees. At 24, Levenson is even younger than Karam and his work isn’t quite as polished. But it is more ambitious.

Levenson's play tells the dual stories of a translator who goes to work for a private contractor in Iraq and of the wife and seven-year old son he leaves behind. The action centers around what happens in both places when the father is kidnapped by terrorists.


The title comes from the promise the father makes that he will teach the boy how to talk to trees when he returns home from the war. It also refers to a Bertolt Brecht quote, “What times are these when a talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence on so many wrongs?” The play muses on the relationships between mothers and sons and those between countries. It combines naturalism and a touch of magical realism.


That’s a lot to pack into 90 minutes. And Levenson is only partly successful. His decision to have the precocious boy played by an adult actor (Gio Perez doing better than you might expect) comes off as silly at times. A buttinsky neighbor (Maggie Burke doing exactly what she should) grates even more than she is supposed to. The fact that the confused and grieving wife (Natalie Gold doing the most nuanced work) is left to fend for herself makes no sense in our media-circus society. And yet, the play asks smart questions about serious subjects and there are moments, like those with the imprisoned father (an affective Michael Hayden,) that click.


Director Alex Timbers, aided by set designer Cameron Anderson, lighting designer David Weiner and sound designer M.L. Dogg, creates a production that matches the play’s ambitions and that is far bigger than you’d expect to find in the Underground’s 60-seat Black Box Theatre. It’s the kind of production any young playwright would trade a couple of thousand Facebook friends to get. (Click here to see a spoiler-heavy Broadway.com infomercial about it.)

Levenson won the lottery this time out and his prize is running through Dec. 14. Go see it. At just $20 a ticket, you can’t really lose and theater lovers of the future may end up big winners.

November 25, 2008

A Good Old-Fashioned "White Christmas"

The holidays are upon us. And so are the holiday shows. The 76th version of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is already two weeks into its seven-week run. The Big Apple Circus pitched its tent in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park the day before Halloween. The Nutcracker is due to kick off at the New York City Ballet the day after Thanksgiving. And starting Dec. 1, Nutcracker: R Rated, a naughtier spin on the tale, opens at Theater for the New City down in the East Village.

Meanwhile, the Cirque du Soleil folks have brought Wintuk, their holiday-aimed extravaganza, back to the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden for the second year in a row. But this time, it may get some head-to-head competition when the clown-show Slava’s Snowshow opens in Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre on Dec. 7.

But the big news this season is the arrival of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, which opened at the Marquis Theatre on Sunday night. I can take or leave these holiday offerings but my sister Joanne is crazy about them. In fact, it would be hard to find someone with more holiday spirit than my sister. She’s already scouring the TV listings for the annual showings of holiday specials and Christmas movies. And the 1954 classic “White Christmas” has always been one of her favorites.

It starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as a famous song-and-dance team and Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen as an up-and-coming sister act. The plot, such as it is, centers around their romantic entanglements and combined efforts to put on a show to save a friend’s country inn but it’s really just an excuse for them all to perform lots and lots of great Berlin songs (click here to see a trailer for the movie).

The stage version, which debuted in San Francisco in 2004, has been joyfully making its away across the country over the past four holiday seasons. But, as one of its producers told a workshop I attended in May, he and his partners hadn't planned to bring it to Broadway because they thought we New Yorkers were too jaded for such an old-fashioned kind of show. I don’t know what made them change their mind. But I suspect that, just as they predicted, most New York theatergoers will find the show corny.

This White Christmas is such a faithful recreation of the movie that I wondered if Stephen Bogardus had been cast because he so much resembles Crosby. Or if they’d made him up to look that way. David Ives, who usually performs a similar task for the Encores! series, adapted the screenplay along with Paul Blake but they don’t do much to update it. Is there anyone under 50 who gets references to Topo Gigio, Senor Wences and other regulars on the old “Ed Sullivan Show”?

Still, it looks as though no expenses have been spared. There are 33 people in the cast and another 25 in the orchestra pit. Costume designer Carrie Robbins has whipped up scores of festive costumes. And set designer Anna Louizos, ably assisted by lighting designer Ken Billington, turns out a procession of picture-perfect sets, building up to the grand and appropriately snowy finale.

Director Walter Bobbie, another Encores! vet, keeps the whole thing moving. But the show’s MVP is choreographer Randy Skinner who concocts one crowd-pleasing dance number after another, most of them winningly performed by Jeffry Denman and Meredith Patterson (click here to see a trailer for the show).

The resulting confection may prove too sweet for folks who prefer their musicals spiked with irony. But there is an audience for this show: families who’ve already seen the other holiday offerings, tourists who still think of Broadway as a place where musicals are bright and happy things, and people who just love Christmas and all the sentiment that comes with it. People like my sister Joanne. She loved Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

November 22, 2008

The Premature Death of "American Buffalo"

TV ads are expensive and most Broadway producers put off buying commercials as long as they can. So it didn’t seem a good sign when one for American Buffalo came on the TV at the bar of Brooklyn Diner USA on 43rd Street while I was sitting there eating a burger right before seeing the new revival of the show and just two days after it had opened at the Belasco Theatre. Earlier that day, the producers had posted a notice saying the show would close on Sunday unless ticket sales picked up.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. David Mamet’s dark comedy about three desperate losers who plot to steal a coin collection is now a classic. But the new production, directed by Robert Falls, drew largely negative reviews. The harshest one came from New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who sniped, “Nobody appears desperate here. Well, not the characters, anyway; the actors are another matter.”


The actors in question are John Leguizamo, Cedric The Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment. And I thought they did fine. In fact, I had a good time at the show. And I’m really sorry that it looks as though more people won’t get a chance to see and enjoy it too (click here to see some excerpts).


American Buffalo
, first produced in Mamet’s native Chicago back in 1976, was the playwright’s breakout, introducing theater lovers to the distinctively profane poetry of his language and his trademark themes of male bonding, fast deals and power plays. The show’s 1977 Broadway run is now legendary for Robert Duvall’s portrayal of the central character Teach. In fact, the role of this most volatile member of the trio has evolved into a kind of Hamlet of the American canon—a role by which actors can really test their theatrical mettle.


In addition to Duvall, the part has been played by Al Pacino in a 1983 Broadway revival, Dustin Hoffman in the 1996 movie, and William H. Macy in an acclaimed 2000 production at the Atlantic Theater Company, which he and Mamet co-founded in 1985. Those names obviously suggest a certain intensity. But does that mean there’s only one way to play Teach?

You might think so from the reviews of Leguizamo’s performance. Even my friend Ellie the former actress thought he wasn’t menacing enough. But like any good actor, Leguizamo, always a genial presence, draws on his own personality to create the role. His Teach knows he’s a phony tough guy and so do his friends. His climactic act of violence surprises him as much as it does the audience. And although that may not be as scary as playing him as a raging tyrant, it seems a valid interpretation to me.

Going in I had worried more about Cedric The Entertainer, the comedian who is making his theatrical debut in the show. But he won me over in less than five minutes. His years as a stand-up comedian have clearly made him comfortable in front of a live audience. And he was totally believable as the mainstay of the group.


Osment, just 20 and still best known as the kid in the 1999 movie "The Sixth Sense", is also making his stage debut with the show. I didn’t totally buy him as a junkie but there was a yearning-to-please sweetness to his performance that worked for the character.


The multicultural nature of the cast didn’t seem to work for many of the critics. And that bothered me. There is no reason to think that a black man, an Hispanic guy and a white kid wouldn’t hang out together in what is clearly (and wonderfully rendered in Santo Loquasto’s detailed set) the junk shop part of their city.

Others object to the celebrity casting. I'm usually less bothered by that than the naysayers. I think it's a good thing that movie people see a validity in the theater. And it can be a very good thing when they draw more attention to theater. In this case, the casting also comes with the added bonus of attracting a more diverse audience.

There were more black faces at the performance of American Buffalo Ellie and I attended than you usually see at Broadway plays.
An African-American couple sitting near us may have come because they were fans of “The Original Kings of Comedy”, the comedy tour and later movie that made Cedric famous, but they were totally rapt as they watched him perform in American Buffalo. It’ll be a shame if more of his fans, and more theater lovers in general, don’t get the same chance.

November 19, 2008

Going the Distance with "Road Show"

I’ve traveled a long way with Road Show, the new Stephen Sondheim musical that opened at The Public Theater last night. As every self-respecting theater lover knows, Road Show is the pet project that Sondheim has been nurturing for over 50 years. It has undergone at least four major revisions in just the last 10. But the show has always revolved around Wilson and Addison Mizner, peripatetic brothers who became infamous for their Florida land scams during the 1920s.

The real-life Addison and Wilson were just two of eight siblings but Sondheim and his frequent book writer John Weidman get rid of the other six and focus on Addison, a sometime businessman and s
elf-taught architect, and Wilson, who, among other things, was a professional gambler and prize fight manager, a writer for Broadway and Hollywood, and an opium addict and con man. For Sondheim, it seems, they symbolize the flip sides of the entrepreneurial spirit that defined America in the 20th century.

I’d never head of the Mizners but on the surface they seemed no less worthy of a musical than the presidential assassins who tell another part of the American story in Sondheim’s Assassins. And that show's perverseness had appealed to me. So I to
ok my first trip with the Mizner brothers in 1999 by going down to the East Village to see a New York Theatre Workshop production of their story directed by Sam Mendes and starring Nathan Lane as Addison and Victor Garber as Wilson.

Back then the show was called Wise Guys. And even its supporting cast—which included Brooks Ashmanskas, Kevin Chamberlin, and Christopher Fitzgerald—betrayed its Broadway ambitions. But those were quickly thwarted by an appropriately tepid response from just about everyone who saw it. I recall running into a friend in the theater party business who gave me the thumbs down as we all filed dejectedly out of the theater. But something good did come out of that production: Lane and Garber later became
a romantic couple.

And Sondheim held on to his love for the show. A new version, helmed by his frequent collaborator Hal Prince and with Richard Kind as Addison and Howard McGillin as Wilson, surfaced at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2003 and then made its way to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where I and my always-indulgent husband K went to see it.

For a time, the show had been renamed Gold!. But by the time K and I saw it, the title was Bounce, after a new song that Sondheim had written and that opened the show. And that wasn’t the only change. Michelle Pawk had joined the cast in the newly conceived role of Nellie, a love interest for Wilson. Bounce was better than Wise Guys but the word-of-mouth still wasn’t buoyant enough. [Click here to
read an exhaustively chronicled history of the show assembled by a devoted fan.]

Now, director John Doyle, whose revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company were so praised, has taken control. The show is called Road Show. Pawk is gone and so is her character. “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” the gorgeous ballad that Nellie and Wilson sang to one another is now a duet for Addison and his male lover.


The production is darker and more stylized than the earlier versions. Instead of Prince’s fully staged interpretation, which included big song-and-dance numbers, we get one of those chamber musicals in which Doyle specializes. The brightly colored costumes and multiple sets of the Prince version have been
replaced by an antique brown palate used for both the costumes, designed by Ann Hould-Ward, and the set, a heap of discarded furniture that Doyle designed himself.

The cast members, most of whom play multiple roles, are all visible in the wings before the show starts. And once on stage, they’re directed to perform all kinds of superfluous stage business. In case you don’t get that the Mizners are obsessed with money, everyone throws around what amounts to a virtual blizzard of dollar bills. Much of it lands in the front rows of the audience and my theatergoing buddy Bill got whacked on the leg by a bundle during the early preview performance we attended. He took it home as a souvenir but it seems as though so many folks were pocketing the fake bills that Esther of Gratuitous Violins told us the ushers at the performance she saw last week asked people to give them back at the end of the show.


Because so few people know who the Mizners were a lot of Road
Show’s dialog and lyrics are devoted to expository stuff (we may not have known all of the main characters in Assassins but at least we knew the guys they were trying to kill). And since the show has been paired down from over two hours to 100 intermissionless minutes there isn’t much time for character development. So we don't really get to know the brothers as much as we’d like and we don't really care for them as much as we should. That we do at all is a tribute to the remarkable performances that Alexander Gemingnani and Michael Cerveris give as Addison and Wilson. They are hands down the best of the three pairs I’ve seen.

But not even their bravura work has won over the critics, most of whom have spent their reviews lamenting that the first new Sondheim work in 14 years and possibly the last (the maestro is 78) is so unsatisfying. Of course, this isn't the first Sondheim show to disappoint the critics when it first opened. Genius that he is, he tends to be so far ahead of the rest of us that it takes time for us to catch up and appreciate what he’s created. What may be different this time, though, is that we’ve already had 10 years to get in step with Road Show.

November 16, 2008

In Total Solidarity with "Billy Elliot"

Standing ovations at the end of a show have become such a given that I usually ignore them. But even I paid attention when people sitting near me and my friend Joy stood up and applauded in the middle of Billy Elliot, the sensational new musical that opened on Thursday at the Imperial Theatre. And they stood up more than once. I didn’t join in until the end but I was just as thrilled as they were. Finally, a show that has good songs, great dancing, an accessible plot, a heartfelt message and a little uplift thrown in.

And it couldn’t have come at a better moment. Billy Elliot is adapted from the 2000 movie of the same title that told t
he story of an 11 year-old miner’s son who discovers that he has an amazing gift for ballet. But what lends the tale extra resonance is that it is set in northern England in 1984, during the year-long strike that coal miners waged to protest then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies which included efforts to bust the unions.

The show’s message (most directly expressed in the musical by a jolly Christmas song that talks about longing for the prime minister’s death) is unabashedly liberal and celebrates working people who stick together and the principle that it really does take a village to support a child. Who wouldn’t love
a show like that at a time when our own economic policies suck, the guys running our financial institutions and corporations don’t seem to know what the hell they’re doing and it’s beginning to dawn on all of us that we are part of a global village that really has to pull together if we want to make it through these hard times.

But it’s not just the political message that clicks. This is one of the most out-and-out entertaining musicals to open on Broadway in years.
The music by Elton John is all character-driven and includes stirring anthems, moving ballads, and bouncy music hall romps. Lee Hall smartly adapted his own screenplay for the movie and wrote the lyrics, maintaining the show’s spirit in the transfer. Unlike so many contemporary musicals, Billy Eliot doesn’t strain to be ironic or hip. It’s the kind of musical that Rodgers and Hammerstein might have written if they were still around. And I mean that as a compliment.

The movie’s director Stephen Daldry made the transfer too. Daldry is an old-hand at stage work in Britain and on Broadway (he did the Tony-winning 1994 revival of An Inspector Calls, whic
h holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first Broadway show my husband K and I saw when we were courting) and he creates a thoroughly theatrical experience. In fact, have you noticed that much of the most imaginative and innovative stage work these days (The History Boys, Coram Boy, Black Watch, even the current love-it-or-hate-it revival of All My Sons) is coming from Britain?

Most of the early publicity about the show has centered around the three young boys—David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, Kiril Kulish—who rotate the part of Billy (click here to read the New York Magazine version of the story). And deservedly so. There isn’t a more demanding role on Broadway right now. K and I saw the London production soon after it opened in 2005 (it's still going strong) and although I liked the show, I felt the British performers weren’t up to the skill level I was used to on Broadway. I wondered what
an American cast would do with the show. Now, I know.

Peter Darling’s bravura choreography requires a young dancer who is as precociously gifted as Billy is supposed to be. But the youngster playing the role must also be able to sing, act, imitate a Northen English accent (don’t worry; you’ll understand what the actors are saying) and hold the stage amidst a cast of 45 including veteran scene stealers like Gregory Jbara and Carole Shelley, who play Billy’s father and grandmother, the British actress Haydn Gwynne, who recreates the role she originated as his dance teacher, and a bevy of adorable little-girl ballerinas.


Kulish performed the night I attended and he handled all the tasks with aplomb (click here to see him
perform a number from the show on TV’s “The View”). I couldn’t imagine the other boys being any better. Later in the week my pal Bill, who had also seen Kulish, and I had dinner with Esther of Gratuitous Violins and found she felt much the same way about Kowalik. All of three of us admitted to wanting to see Alvarez, who performed on opening night and drew most of the reviews, but the show doesn’t publish a schedule of which boy will perform on which night and so there’s no surefire way to guarantee who’ll you’ll see when you go.

But you definitely should go. The critics have been nearly as enraptured as the folks in the audience were and the show is a certified hit. With the economy being what it is, tickets are available for most performances and as Billy and his neighbors would tell you, sometimes you have to make a sacrifice for art.

November 12, 2008

Winning and Losing at "Mindgame"

A look at the movie box office ratings on any given weekend will tell you that people like to have the bejesus scared out of them. Not me. Real life supplies all the pulse-quickening I need. I avoid horror movies. I had to brace myself to get through the third and sixth scariest volumes of the “Harry Potter” series. So I didn’t know if I should see Mindgame, the new “thriller” that opened at the Soho Playhouse on Sunday night. But curiosity got the best of me. I wanted to see what about it had convinced the eccentric filmmaker Ken Russell to make his debut, at 81 no less, as a theater director.

The answer is a show that is just as quirky as Russell, whose movies include “Women in Love” and “The Who’s Tommy”, has always been. Mindgame is one of those whodunit puzzles in the tradition of Sleuth, Deathtrap and Mousetrap, the Agatha Christie play that has been running in London since 1952. This one is set in a British mental hospital and the action centers around the visit of a crime writer who wants to do a book on the cannibalistic serial killer who is the asylum’s most infamous patient. Needless to say, nothing is as it seems. And yet, I was hardly scared at all.


That was fine for me. But less so for the play. Or for people who are serious about their thrillers. Or for critics who are very serious about their theater. And it’s hard to argue with them. Mindgame is a doofus of a thriller. It’s the kind of play your meathead brother-in-law who doesn’t like going to plays might enjoy. Still, I have to confess I kind of enjoyed it too. Not because it’s good but because it’s so goofy and the actors are such good sports about the whole thing that I couldn’t help myself (click here to see some excerpts from the show).


Keith Carradine plays the mysteriously menacing doctor running the place, Kathleen McNenny is his bizarre nurse and
Lee Godart, the visiting writer, (click here to listen to a Playbill interview with the cast members and their director). They all affect British accents and act in that self-consciously sinister and archly campy way that has entertained generations of B-movies fans. The overly intricate script by Anthony Horowitz, an old hand at TV and movie thrillers, doesn’t simply telegraph the plot twists, it virtually IMs them. And yet the show does offer some surprises. Beowulf Boritt’s set may look cheesy but you should watch it very closely.

The producers are hoping that once the main trick is revealed at the play’s end, it will make people want to come back so that they can see exactly how all the pieces fit together. In all honesty, it seems unlikely that many people will opt to see the show twice.
The couple sitting next to my buddy Bill and me left at intermission. As did my fellow blogger Mondschein. But you shouldn’t be ashamed, or afraid, to see it once.

November 8, 2008

Proselytizing for “The Atheist”

If they gave out Obies for bravery, Campbell Scott would be a shoo-in to take the prize home. Scott is starring in The Atheist, a one-man show co-produced by the Culture Project and Circle in the Square and playing at the Barrow Street Theatre through Jan. 4. He doesn’t deserve an award just for being on stage alone. Scores of actors do that. But he should get full recognition for playing one of the most despicable characters ever to appear on a stage.

Most actors want to be liked, even when they’re playing villains. But Scott plays this one without asking the audience for one iota of pity. And there’s no other actor there to deflect the disgust. Or even much of a set in which to hide. It’s a totally fearless performance.


The Atheist tells the story of Augustine Early, an unabashedly opportunistic journalist who will do anything—and does—to get ahead. It was written by Ronan Noone, whose name I thought might have been a punnish pseudonym but who turns out to be a 38 year-old Irish-born playwright who emigrated to the U.S. in his 20s and has been making a name for himself (his surname really is Noone) with productions at theater companies in his adoptive home of Massachusetts.

Noone did a stint as a journalist back in Ireland and he apparently wasn’t crazy about his co-workers. The Atheist is a jeremiad against America’s tabloid culture. Augustine Early makes J.J. Hunsecker, the cynical columnist in Sweet Smell of Success, look like Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen.


And that makes the show a tough sell. Who wants to spend so much time with an unrelenting asshole? Several people left during intermission the night I saw it. And the show has received less publicity than most Culture Project productions. My friend Jesse wasn’t impressed either. “Well, that was pretty bad, wasn’t it?” she said, as we walked to the subway after it was over.

The folks at the Barrow Street Theatre seemed to expect that such a feel-bad show might have limited appeal. The night Jesse and I went, they ran out of programs before most of the audience—a fair-sized group—was seated. Some staffer must have run off to Xerox additional copies because right before the show started, an usher rushed in and stood in front of the stage handing them out to audience members (including me) who walked down to get one.


But Scott made a proselytizer out of me. The conceit of the show is that Early is narrating the story of his life—his trailer park childhood, his dead-end assignments as a cub reporter at a Midwestern paper, the chance meeting that changes all that—to a video camera. At times during the show, real-time projections appear on a screen, providing movie-like close-ups that further underscore Scott’s commitment to the role.


Like his namesake, Early wrestles with the meaning of sin. He says that having lost his belief in God at an early age, he can be ruthless because he no longer has to worry about his soul. Noone’s play is clearly ambitious and at times darkly funny but it doesn’t say much we don’t already know about our obsession with celebrity. It’s the expressions on Scott’s face that show us the devastating costs blind ambition can exact, even from those who profess an indifference to right and wrong.


I suppose that Scott inherited the fearlessness (and his acting chops) from his parents, Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott, two of the most lionhearted actors ever to walk across a stage (click here to read a Backstage story in which the son talks about his mother, father and the play). He apparently learned something else from them too. The younger Scott is a divorced dad who has custody of his son every other week and so in order to spend time with his boy, and perhaps to keep the play's bile away from him, The Atheist plays only on alternate weeks.

November 5, 2008

An Ovation for President-elect Obama

Even the most ardent theater lovers need to take time out to applaud this remarkably historic moment on the national stage. And I am proud and delighted to do precisely that: Bravo. Bravo. Bravissimo!


November 1, 2008

The Martial Art of "Black Watch"

Second chances don’t come along that often. And so I wasted no time ordering tickets the minute I heard that Black Watch was returning to St. Ann’s Warehouse. Black Watch is the National Theatre of Scotland’s extraordinary production about soldiers from that country’s legendary military unit (the regiment dates back to 1725 and was named for the dark tartan kilts its soldiers wore) who were posted to Iraq. The show was such an instant sensation when it opened last year that the run sold out before I could see it.

People who did see it couldn’t stop talking about it. One of the guests at a brunch my husband K and I attended just this past weekend at my high school classmate Lesley’s house is friends with a St. Ann’s board member who, he says, was so blown away by the production that he offered to put up the money to bring it back after its North American tour so that more New Yorkers could see it.


I don’t know who that board member is but this New Yorker is grateful to him. Black Watch is a theater lover’s wet dream: a truly innovative production, superbly acted, marvelously staged and fully reproducible in no medium other than the theater. You don’t want to wait for the movie version of this one (click here to see a mini documentary about the making of it).


My theatergoing pal Bill had missed the original run too and so we met up in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn where St. Ann’s is located. After a thorough search of our Zagat’s guides, we decided to have dinner before the show at a restaurant called Five Front. It’s a cozy place, the food was surprisingly good and it’s conveniently located around the corner from the theater.


By the time we arrived at St. Ann’s, the large lobby space was packed and crackling with the anticipation of a crowd really excited about seeing a show. Just before 8 PM, the doors opened to the main theater, transformed into a kind of military parade ground with seats on both sides, and it took a while for everyone to get in so the show didn’t start until around 8:15. But bagpipes played all through the waiting time and is there anything more stirring than that soulful sound?


Now I don’t want to oversell the show. I had so looked forward to seeing Black Watch for so long that there was no way it could have lived up to my expectations. And I did feel a little let down. I also had some trouble deciphering the actors’ thick Scottish burrs (although their many variations of the word fuck—more than in any rap record yet made—came through loud and clear). But the more I think about it, the more impressed I am by the sheer theatrical spectacle of the show.


Playwright Gregory Burke has fused together news reports about Scotland's service in Iraq, interviews with returning soldiers, and letters from those who didn’t make it home into an explosive psychodrama about duty, honor and the deadly follies of war. And director John Tiffany enlists an arsenal of stage techniques—smart choreography and video projections, folk music and story theater, military rituals and performance art—to turn it into a dynamically visceral experience. Salutes are also due to every one of the 10 cast members who don’t just act but actually live the ordeal that runs for one-hour and 50 uninterrupted minutes.


Bill was even more knocked out by Black Watch than I was. If you still haven’t seen it, well here’s that rarest of rare things: a third chance. The run, which was supposed to end on Nov. 30 has just been extended to Dec. 21.