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May 28, 2011

"The Shaggs" is Quirky But is That Enough?


Over the years, Playwrights Horizons has developed a reputation for being an incubator of ambitious musicals that dare to be different. William Finn’s In Trousers and March of the Falsettos got their starts there.  As did Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins.  When Stephen Sondheim temporarily soured on Broadway, he found refuge at Playwrights Horizons where he developed Assassins.  Later, Scott Frankel, Michael Korie and Doug Wright nurtured Grey Gardens there.

And now, the company, in partnership with New York Theatre Workshop, is presenting The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, a quirky show based on the real-life story of a blue-collar dad who sought fame by forcing his daughters to form a rock band and record an album that is considered by many to be the worst ever produced—but by a few like Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain to be a unique work of genius.

You can see why the folks at Playwrights Horizons would be drawn to The Shaggs.  Like Grey Gardens, the Tony-winning musical version of the riches-to-rags tale of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ eccentric relatives, it’s about outsiders whose story reveals the underbelly of the American dream and yet who are loopy enough in their own right to be entertaining.

Creators Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen are musical first-timers but they've spent the last 10 years developing The Shaggs, which has had previous productions in Los Angeles and Chicago. Their challenge has been to turn a quirky pop cultural footnote into a compelling show and to convey the band’s music without simply reproducing the group’s odd sound (click here to read a piece about the making of the show)

Upping the degree of difficulty for the collaborators is the fact that they've had to put the show together without totally ridiculing the real-life Wiggin sisters, two of whom are still alive (click here to listen to a BBC interview with them). Alas, the show my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw in an early preview is only partly successful. 

A full half hour in, I still didn’t know exactly what story Gregory and Madsen wanted to tell. The plot covers all the high points in the Wiggin’s life—the palm reading that prompted the forming of the band, the dad’s decision to home school the girls, a secret romance with a neighborhood boy, the session in which the band recorded the infamous album (click here to see the New Yorker's terrific 1999 profile about the family)—but just recounting these events isn’t enough.

The dad Austin, a mill worker in New Hampshire, is clearly the driving force but, despite an intense performance by Peter Friedman, we never get under Austin’s skin. Gregory and Madsen may have envisioned him as a male version of Gypsy’s Mama Rose but, despite a song called “Austin’s Howl,” they fail to give him the clarifying catharsis of a “Rose’s Turn.”

Shaky New England accents aside, the portrayal of the sisters is nicely handled by a trio of talented young actresses, one of whom is graduating from the Yale School of Drama this month. But they, too, are hobbled by the one-note characters they’ve been given to play: one sister is meek, another rebellious, the third has mental problems. 

One indication of the book’s own problems is that in this fictionalized version of the story, the mentally ill sister has affected muteness but is allowed to break her silence without explanation whenever a speech from her is needed to help move the plot along.

The score is a blend of power ballads and sunshine-pop tunes (think The Association’s “Cherish”) that flourished in the brief interregnum between the Beatles’ U.S. arrival in 1964 and the harder-edged psychedelic rock of 1967’s Summer of Love. There are also a few side trips into The Shaggs own limited repertoire (the group’s sole album, also named "Philosophy of the World," has been reissued and is available on sale in the lobby or you can click here to listen to its most famous song).  But none of the music stood out—well, the Shaggs song kind of did but you know what I mean.

Still, I can’t say that I had a bad time either. And I confess that I’ve now become obsessed with the story of the real-life Wiggins and have read and listened to everything I can find on them (click here to see a piece the New York Times did). So I salute Playwrights Horizons for, once again, refusing to play it safe but I’m not sure that it’s a good sign for a musical, when you’d rather read about it than listen to it.

May 25, 2011

Tracking Broadway's Great Migration to TV

It's looking more and more like a good thing that Hollywood actors are coming to Broadway because someone has to fill the stages here. And as the American Theatre Wing’s Howard Sherman recently blogged, more and more Broadway stars are heading to TV. In fact, the big-four television networks released their new fall schedules last week and they read like the call sheet for a Tony's reunion.  


Laura Benanti will be playing the head Bunny on “The Playboy Club,” a new drama about the ‘60s-era nightclubs that NBC clearly hopes will cash in on the cachet of “Mad Men.”

Kristin Chenoweth will co-star as one of the frenemies in “Good Christian Belles,” ABC’s new “Desperate Housewives"-style soap about women in an affluent Dallas suburb. While Katie Finneran has signed on to be a single mom on the Fox sitcom “I Hate My Teenage Daughter.”

Cherry Jones, who won an Emmy for playing the President on the thriller “24,” and B.D. Wong, who had a longtime role on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” are already TV vets but will add to their screen credits by playing shrinks on “Awake,” a paranormal drama for NBC.

Jone's old Doubt co-star Brian O’Byrne will appear as a detective on “Prime Suspect,” NBC’s adaptation of the British cop show about a female detective that first made Helen Mirren a household name, at least in discerning households.

CBS has high hopes for the new paranormal medical drama “A Gifted Man,” in which Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Ehle play a doctor and the ghost of his dead wife. The network has also picked up “The 2-2,” a procedural about rookie cops, whose flatfoots will include Terry Kinney and Stark Sands. 

Meanwhile, Alison Pill and Jeff Daniels have signed up for the new pilot that Aaron Sorkin is writing for HBO. It sounds kind of like a fictionalized behind-the-scenes version of Keith Olbermann's old news show on MSNBC and is tentatively titled “More as This Story Develops.”

Then, there’s “Smash,” the show about the making of a Broadway musical that NBC plans to put on as a mid-season replacement—and that those of us who love Broadway can't wait to see. Christian Borle and “Will & Grace’s” Debra Messing play the songwriting team (Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman will supply the real music for the show). Brian D’Arcy James is Messing’s husband and Megan Hilty is one of the actresses trying out for the lead. 

And this roll call doesn't even include all the folks popping up on "Glee" and "The Good Wife." Of course no one should begrudge any of these actors.  TV pays a helluva lot more than Broadway and, hey, theater folks deserve to eat—and to do it as high off the hog as they like too.

The Wing's Sherman has tried to console us with the reminder that there’s plenty of talent left in New York to satisfy avid theater lovers.  Which is true. And who knows, maybe a few stars-in-the-making will get more cracks at the big roles and a better chance to break out.  

Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll move to the British model where there’s no separation between stage and screen (so that Judi Dench can play a housewife on the sitcom "As Time Goes By," M in the James Bond movies and The Seagull's Arkadina at the National Theater, all during the same time period) which should mean that actors can appear anywhere there’s a good role for them to play and us to enjoy.

May 21, 2011

We Theater Bloggers Honor the Season's Best

The Independent Theater Bloggers Association, the group of theater watchers who regularly express ourselves online, announced the winners of our third annual theater awards yesterday.  Last year, we formally named the awards The Patrick Lee Theater Blogger Awards in honor of our colleague Patrick Lee, one of the group’s founding members and its first awards director, who died suddenly last June. But that’s a mouthful and I think Patrick, a straight-talker and a concise writer, would get a kick out of its pithier nickname, “The Patricks.”

He also might have championed a few other choices for this year's honors (just as I did) but I think he—and youwill still find all the winners to be fully deserving.  

The cast and creators of the acclaimed [title of show] (Jeff Bowen, Heidi Blickenstaff, Susan Blackwell and Hunter Bell) took time out from working on their new show, Now. Here. This, which opens at the Vineyard Theatre next month, to announce the recipients of the 2011 Patricks:


Thanks to Jesse North of stagerush.com for the filming

You can also see the full list of winners here:
OUTSTANDING NEW BROADWAY MUSICAL
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

OUTSTANDING NEW BROADWAY PLAY
Jerusalem

OUTSTANDING BROADWAY MUSICAL REVIVAL
Anything Goes

OUTSTANDING BROADWAY PLAY REVIVAL
The Normal Heart

OUTSTANDING NEW OFF-BROADWAY PLAY
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

OUTSTANDING NEW OFF-BROADWAY MUSICAL
The Kid

OUTSTANDING OFF-BROADWAY REVIVAL (PLAY OR MUSICAL)
Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches

OUTSTANDING SOLO SHOW/PERFORMANCE (ALL VENUE CATEGORIES)
Michael Shannon, Mistakes Were Made

CITATIONS FOR OUTSTANDING OFF-OFF BROADWAY SHOW
Feeder: A Love Story
Invasion!
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Belarus Free Theater's Discover Love
Black Watch
ReWrite

UNIQUE OFF-OFF BROADWAY EXPERIENCE
Sleep No More

OUTSTANDING ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE
The Scottsboro Boys

CITATIONS FOR EXCELLENCE BY INDIVIDUAL PERFORMERS
Nina Arianda, Born Yesterday
Laura Benanti, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Reed Birney, A Small Fire
Christian Borle, Peter and the Starcatcher
Norbert Leo Butz, Catch Me If You Can
Bobby Cannavale, The Motherfucker with the Hat
Colman Domingo, The Scottsboro Boys
Sutton Foster, Anything Goes
Josh Gad, The Book of Mormon
Hamish Linklater, The School for Lies
Joe Mantello, The Normal Heart
Arian Moayed, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Lily Rabe, The Merchant of Venice
Mark Rylance, Jerusalem
Michael Shannon, Mistakes Were Made
Benjamin Walker, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

CITATION FOR EXCELLENCE IN OFF-OFF BROADWAY THEATRE
La Mama

May 18, 2011

"The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" Doesn't Have as Strong a Bite as It Should

My hats off to the Hollywood carpetbaggers who’ve come to Broadway this season. People like to complain about how movie stars are taking roles from established Broadway actors.  But without the presence of Chris Rock and Robin Williams, it’s unlikely that The Motherf**ker with the Hat and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo would even have come to Broadway.  Which means that talented young playwrights like Stephen Adly Guirgis and Rajiv Joseph wouldn’t have had the chance to see their work there.  Or that Motherf**ker’s Yul Vázquez and Elizabeth Rodriguez and Bengal Tiger’s Arian Moayed, all making impressive Broadway debuts, wouldn’t have been eligible for the Tony nominations they now deservedly have. 

On the other hand, the folks who come out solely to see the big-name stars in these shows may be disappointed. For both Rock and Williams have taken smaller parts that keep them off-stage for stretches of time. 

But even diehard Rock fans probably shouldn’t mind that too much because The Motherf**ker with the Hat is totally enjoyable in its own right (click here to see my review).  Alas, I can't say the same for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.  And I don’t know who to blame for that. 

Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which tells the story of Americans and Iraqis in the early days of the Iraq War, is one of the rare American plays to deal with current political events and was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize (click here to read a Q&A with the playwright)

This production is directed by Moisés Kaufman, one of the most inventive minds in show business. And yet, this Tiger wanders all over the place, only pausing occasionally to observe that war is hell or to pat itself on the back for being clever enough to recognize that truism.

The play, which was inspired by a true event at the beginning of the war, starts with the killing of a tiger by a jittery American soldier. In Joseph’s version, the soldier has just come from the firefight that killed Saddam Hussein’s eldest son Uday. 

The solider is distracted by thoughts of the gold-plated gun and toilet seat he pilfered from a Hussein palace and instead of protecting the zoo animals as he's been assigned to do, he panics when the starving tiger attacks a buddy who has moved too close to the cage. And that’s only the beginning of the horrors.

The soldiers belong to a platoon whose Iraqi interpreter was once Uday’s gardener and a victim of the younger Hussein’s sadism. Before the play ends, there will be rape, murder, and suicide. Throughout it all, the ghosts of the dead tiger, the assassinated Uday and others will haunt the living.

Comparisons to the fraught relationship between America and Iraq over the last eight years are clearly intended.  But, in this case, that also means the characters are portrayed more as symbols than real people and that makes it hard to really care about them.

Williams plays the tiger, who both before and after its death serves as a one-man Greek chorus that comments on the action. This sounds like a joke but isn’t. There’s no attempt to make Williams look like a tiger. He’s dressed in simple but shabby Afghan-style clothes. Only the bushy beard he's grown suggests the animal's muzzle.

And just as Rock has done in The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Williams has chosen a role that plays to his strength. The tiger is a wiseacre; many of his lines are as wickedly funny as Jon Stewart’s on a good night. Yet Williams, who is, after all, a Juilliard-trained actor and an Oscar winner, doesn’t go crazy with them but stays in character (click here to read an interview with him).

But despite Williams’ above-the-title billing and final bow at the curtain call, the tiger isn’t the main character in the play. That role actually belongs to the interpreter, who has been so callously used by both the Hussein family and the American occupiers that he eventually resorts to violence himself.  Moayed brings an elegant intensity to the role and I'm glad he's been recognized for it but it’s not enough.

Perhaps everyone involved was just too conscious of the gravity of the subject.  Whatever the reason, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo ends up as a tiger chasing its own tail.

May 14, 2011

Everybody's celebrating the season's best—now here's a chance to salute its worst

We are now deep into the theater awards season.  The Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park in April and, at the beginning of this month, The Lortel Awards, which celebrate off-Broadway, anointed Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity as best play and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson as best musical.

Just this week, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle singled out David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People as best play, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem as best foreign play and The Book of Mormon as best musical. And on the same day, the Theatre World Awards, which recognizes outstanding debuts, celebrated a dozen newcomers to the New York stage including Ellen Barkin, Patina Miller, Arian Moayed and Tony Sheldon, all of whom are also up for Tonys, which will be awarded on June 12. 


In the meantime, the Obies will be announced on Monday, while the award winners for the Drama League and Independent Theater Bloggers Association awards will be revealed on May 20 and those for the Drama Desk on May 23. The Outer Critics Circle members are voting this weekend and will give their honors out at a festive ceremony on May 26.


Even regular theater lovers are being given the chance to vote for their faves in the 12th annual Audience Choice Awards sponsored by Broadway.com and the brand new Tina Awards for off-Broadway shows that the Best of off-Broadway website has just introduced. 

But, as my fellow blogger Jonathan Mandell at The Faster Times notes, while everyone is busy celebrating the best of the season, no one seems to be paying attention to the worst.  So Jonathan has decided to remedy that. He's set up an online poll to pick the biggest bomb of the season.

He's calling this dishonor the Carrie Award in honor of one of Broadway's most infamous flops. I like the name the Tinnies, because the shows on his list had such tin ears when it came to figuring out what theater lovers would enjoy. But you might also think of the prize as the Joeys since every show on Jonathan's list is bound to end up on the flop wall at Joe Allen's restaurant (click here to see a gallery of those already there.)

I turned in my Outer Critics ballot yesterday and I'm happy to report that it was hard as hell to do.  A great season like the one we've just had means really hard choices.  But I voted in Jonathan's poll too and I have to say that while the field of competition for the worst may have been smaller, it was pretty fierce too. Give Jonathan's poll a try yourself by clicking here.

May 11, 2011

"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" is Only a Partially Satisfying Encounter with the Past

My husband K and I recently saw a movie called “Baby Face.” The New York Times had said it was a great example of how progressive some movies had been before the Hayes Code clamped down in 1934 (click here toread more about the film). The movie starred Barbara Stanwyck but we thought the standout performance came from a black actress named Theresa Harris who played her maid.  But this maid wasn’t the traditional, sassy mammy that so many black actresses were forced to play in those days. She was good-looking, soft-spoken and dressed almost as chicly as Stanwyck. K and I wondered who this woman was, how she got the part and what had happened to her. 

Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ruined, discovered the movie earlier than we did but she apparently asked herself the same questions.  The answers she came up with fuel her new play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which opened at Second Stage Theatre on Sunday.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark isn’t a staged bio.  Harris’ real life (she went on to marry a doctor and raise a family) turned out differently from the fictional Stark’s.  And the play isn’t a hand-wringing melodrama either. Instead, Nottage has whipped up a smart social satire that, at least under Jo Bonney’s clever direction, is often laugh-out-loud funny.

When people used to ask black actresses why they took the demeaning job of playing a maid in the movies, the actresses often answered that it was better to play one than be one.  Vera, however, does both.

As the play opens, she’s scheming to get a role as a slave in an upcoming antebellum epic, which, as she and her friends know, means lots of parts for black actors and maybe even a few with lines. But Vera also works a day job as the maid to a movie star who’s angling for the lead role in that same film. 

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that both women get what they want because the fun lies in how they do it. And the larger surprises lie in the second act, which deals with what happens after their dubious success.

Bonney has staged the show as though all the action were happening on a movie set.  Neil Patel’s stage design is intentionally over-the-top tacky and flimsy-looking in the way that the old movie backdrops so often were. In between scenes, stage hands literally roll rooms into place, just the way they do on film sets. There’s even a clip from the movie the play’s characters make.  It all adds up to an amusing conceit and it works. (Click here to see a delightful faux-website on Vera’s life.)

The actors look as though they’re having a ball.  Sanaa Lathan, terrific as the sister Beneatha in the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun, is just as winning as Vera.  But she has strong competition from Stephanie J. Block as the spoiled movie star, Karen Olivo as a light-skinned black actress who tries to expand her opportunities by passing as a Brazilian and, most especially, from the scene-stealing Kimberly Herbert Gregory as a classically-trained black actress who has reluctantly made peace with the eye-rolling and shoulder wagging required for mammy roles.

But Lathan outshines them all in the second act as an older and savvier Vera.   Lathan says she based her character, in part, on Eartha Kitt (click here to read aBroadway.com Q&A with Lathan) and she’s totally mastered the later-in-life mannerisms of Kitt and other talented black actresses from that era who attained some measure of celebrity but never ceased to struggle with the promise of equality and the reality of dashed dreams.

Nottage has once again found a fertile subject in the ways in which black women have had to negotiate with the images that others impose on them. But, just as in Ruined, she’s reluctant to end on a truly sad note.  Even when, as in the case of women like Vera who make their living based on how people see them, the options are so limited. 

A friend once introduced me to an actress who traveled around the country playing the maid in drawing room comedies written in the ‘20s, ‘30s and early ‘40s.  She worked steadily but, frustrated by the lack of ability to show the full range of what she could do, she eventually became an alcoholic.

The audience seemed full of young, good-looking black actors, including a row right behind us, the night K and I saw By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. And judging by their loud and frequent laughter—sometimes ironic, sometimes rueful—things haven’t changed as much as the rest of us might like to think. 

I laughed too but I felt that the Vera Starks, the Theresa Harrises, that alcoholic black actress putting on one maid’s costume after another for years on end, deserve more than that.  I know it’s a lot to ask of a play but if we can’t get it in the theater, then where?


May 7, 2011

Why "Jerusalem" is Worth a Pilgrimage

Even before he made his American debut in Boeing-Boeing two seasons ago, Mark Rylance was celebrated in a long New Yorker profile (click here to read it).  He went on to win a Tony for that performance and the critics also went gaga last fall over his portrayal of the buffoonish Valere in La Bête.  But I didn’t get what the fuss was all about (click here to see my review).  That, however, was before I saw Rylance in Jerusalem, the brilliant new play that is currently scheduled to run at The Music Box through July 24. 

Jerusalem got six Tony nominations this week, tying with The Motherf**ker with the Hat for the most awarded to a straight play. Both Rylance and Jerusalem are frontrunners in their categories. But however the awards play out Rylance’s bravura performance is one that theater lovers will be talking about for years to come. I don’t say this often: you gotta see it.

Rylance plays Rooster, a banged up and washed out former daredevil who lives in a dilapidated old camper van that he’s parked in the woods, sells drugs to the local teens and throws wild parties that annoy the folks who live in a nearby subdivision.  Understandably, they want him evicted. 

Rooster is flagrantly uncouth.  Ten minutes into the play he’s uttered the c-word (which now that the f-word is considered title fodder has become Broadway’s favorite new way to transgress; the c-epithet makes an appearance in at least two other shows this season). But Rooster is also 
a charmer and a weaver of improbable tales so tall they soar to the level 
of the mythic. 

Many critics have described the character as Falstaffian.  And Rylance, who spent a decade as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, knows the territory and throws himself into the role with such abandon that (1) you cannot imagine anyone else playing Rooster (in fact, I suspect that actors who take on the role in the future will be haunted by him the way that generations of Stanley Kowalskis have been haunted by Marlon Brando) and (2) you cannot imagine how he has the physical and emotional stamina to play the part eight times a week (click here to read his take on the role).    

There’s no slack in the supporting cast either. Mackenzie Crook, familiar to fans of the British version of “The Office,” deservedly got one of the show’s Tony nods for his performance as Rooster’s main sidekick Ginger.  But everyone—and I do mean everyone, including John Gallagher, Jr., despite an on-and-off again British accent—is doing award-worthy work. Still, I really do have to single out Alan David as a drug-addled old professor.

In the end, though, at least for me, it’s the play that’s the truly great thing here. Playwright Jez Butterworth reportedly had doubts about this one.  But he has crafted a masterwork that satisfies on multiple levels. 

Jerusalem is a terrific comedy and watching Rooster and the gang is a hoot. It’s also a searing domestic drama about lost souls pushed to the margins of society. And, without being overly pedantic, it is a smart allegory about the struggle—royal wedding aside—to define the contemporary British character.

Butterworth has purposefully set the action on St. George’s Day, the celebration of a time when the English slayed dragons, or believe they did. He’s given Rooster the full name Johnny Byron, summoning up images of one of the most romantic periods of the old Empire. And he’s called his play Jerusalem, a direct reference to the beloved hymn that idealizes Britain as a heaven on earth and that opens the play. (Click here to read an editorial about the play in London’s The Observer).

That’s a lot of baggage for one play to carry but director Ian Rickson balances it all beautifully.  And he’s assembled a crack design team, most notably the uni-monikered Ultz, who earned a Tony nomination for a set that deftly walks the line between the realistic and the expressionistic; and lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin, who has lit it to perfection and also picked up a Tony nod in the process.

They’ve all combined their talents to create what is the best play of the season, lead by Rylance who has now become the actor I'll be happy to see in any season.

May 6, 2011

Arthur Laurents, The Way He Was….

The legendary Arthur Laurents, who wrote the books for Gypsy and West Side Story and directed the original productions of La Cage Aux Folles, Hallelujah, Baby! and the infamous Nick & Nora, died yesterday at the age of 93. 

Laurents was the collaborator, friend and frenemy of, among others, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, David Merrick, Barbra Streisand, and Patti LuPone, He was also the author of one of my all-time favorite movies “The Way We Were.” 

Proud and prickly, Laurents may not have been as loved as some other Broadway greats but he was totally respected for his prodigious talent and the eulogies have begun pouring in.  He lived in an incredible life and you can sample a bit of it in the following:

The official New York Times obit:

A snippet from an interview on the public TV show, TheaterTalk in which he talks about the making of Gypsy:

A longer interview on his entire career that he did last year with Donna Karger, the host of the weekly theater show, On Stage:

The revealing but controversial profile that Jesse Green wrote in New York Magazine at the time :

A less snarky portrait in The Advocate:

But the best view of Laurents may be the one he wrote in his take-no-prisoners autobiography, “Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood”.  Laurents, died just five weeks after Farley Granger, one of the great loves of his life, dishes lots of dirt, settles lots of scores and offers an insider’s look at a golden time in the theater that, with his passing, recedes even further into the mist of nostalgia.  It’s a one-of-a-kind book for, love him or not, a one-of-a-kind guy:

May 4, 2011

Time Out for Tony Talk

The poor Tony nominators are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  As even the most casual theater fan knows, the Tony nominations were announced yesterday morning (click here to see the complete list with interesting annotations by my sister blogger Pataphysical Science) and, faster than you can say “and the nominees are..,” folks were online, cheering or complaining about who got recognized and who didn’t. 

There was a LOT of griping about the fact that Daniel Radcliffe hadn’t been nominated for his turn as J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The feeling seemed to be that he’s a big name who didn’t have to do a Broadway show, had worked hard to do it well and is a charming guy so he should have been rewarded. 

I suspect that many of those gripers were the same people who complained last year that too many Hollywood names had been nominated. Some of the grumps may even have signed up for last year’s GIVE THE TONYS BACK TO BROADWAY!! campaign (click here in case you forgot about it). Who knows, that effort may even have had an effect.  Neither Robin Williams,  Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, nor the all-stars team from That Championship Season were nominated either.

Ellen Barkin (supporting actress for The Normal Heart) Edie Falco (supporting for The House of Blue Leaves) Frances McDormand (lead actress for Good People) and Vanessa Redgrave (lead for Driving Miss Daisy) all did get nods. But, as Martin Denton at nytheatre.com recently pointed out, there was less competition for them because, once again, there are far fewer women’s roles eligible for nominations and men played some of those—hello, Brian Bedford (lead actor for Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest).  (Click here to see Denton’s post, especially if you’re a playwright and can help close the gender gap.)

There also was some loud consternation over how The Scottsboro Boys got 12 nominations, just two less than the leader-board champion The Book of Mormon, which took 14.  I confess I was surprised by how well The Scottsboro Boys did too.  But I probably shouldn’t have been. 

Sure, the show closed after just 49 performances and I’m on record that I had problems with it (click here to read my review).  But many of the critics and most Broadway insiders loved the show (click here to read some of those reviews)

And there was probably some sentimentality attached to the fact that this may be the last show (there are at least two more in the drawer) that we’ll see from the legendary team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, who died seven years ago. 

Kander recently signed on to write a new show with the playwright Gregory Pierce and I wish him well with it and with The Scottsboro Boys, which has just been scheduled to open at San Diego’s The Old Globe and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater next spring (click here to read more about that).

People like to think of the Tony nominators as some kind of group-think entity like The Borg in “Star Trek”.  Which it isn’t.  And I don’t say that just because I know a couple of people on the committee.  The roster changes regularly but the nominating committee is always made up of people who have spent a lifetime making or appreciating theater (click here to see this year’s members).

They don’t consult with one another once they’re in the voting room.  Each person votes separately.  The fact that they chose the little-known (at least on these shores) Hannah Yeland from last fall’s short-running Brief Encounter for a leading actress slot should be proof that each one really tries to do the best that he or she can.

And the fact of the matter is that they simply had a lot of good work to choose from this year. Thirty-nine shows opened on Broadway this season; 22 of them since January.  Eleven were musicals and, amazingly, only two of them were revivals (so the Best Revival of a Musical category was the only one that offered a sure crack at a nomination this year). There were a bevy of terrific straight plays too.

Hell, a lot of worthy people got left out. But not the people who go to see shows.  There’s a lot of great stuff to see and that means that regardless of who gets to take home an award when the names are called on June 12, theater lovers are already winners.

May 2, 2011

"The School for Lies" Is a Lesson in Erudite Fun

It’s been a hectic few weeks as the spring theater season drew to its official close on April 28.  And that’s a large part of the reason that I missed my usual posting day on Saturday. I’ve seen so busy seeing 10 plays and musicals over the last two weeks that I haven't had the time to write about them. There have been hits and misses among the things I’ve seen but it’s hard to think of one that’s been more fun than The School for Lies, which opened last night at Classic Stage Company.

For the playwright David Ives has whipped up a brilliant riff on Molière’s classic play The Misanthrope. That play, widely considered Molière’s best, offered trenchant commentary on the follies of court life.  

The situation in The School for Lies (the intellectual and romantic interplay among a set of 17th century French aristocrats) and the characters (the haughty Alceste who is disdainful of everyone he meets, the flirtatious widow Celimene who is desired by every man she meets, the bitchy scandalmonger Arsinoe, who can’t wait to gossip about everything she hears) remain the same as in the original.

But Ives, who is probably best known for being the in-house book adapter for the Encores! productions, has shuffled the plot around and added relationships and other bits of business (some brazenly borrowed from Shakespeare) that put even more air in Molière's satirical soufflé, while still managing to make some pointed observations about 21st century life.

The rhyming couplets distinctive to the French plays of Molière’s day are there too but Ives has given them a contemporary flavor with hilarious references to things like cell phones, Pilates and hip-hop. (Click here to read a terrific piece on how Ives put the whole thing together.) 

Anachronisms can often clang the ear but these are so laugh-out-loud witty that I wish someone would do an original cast recording so that I could just hear the lines over and over again. The Backstage critic David Sheward was so inspired that he wrote his entire review in couplets (click here to read it).

The nine-member cast that the CSC assembled is sheer perfection. Everyone deserves to be singled out.  But I’ll unfairly focus on just three. The first has to be Hamish Linklater, a regular on the TV series “Ugly Betty” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” who plays Alceste, whom Ives has slyly renamed Frank to underscore the character’s obsession with truth-telling. 

I last saw Linklater as Bassanio in the Public Theater production of The Merchant of Venice that played in the park last summer and thought he was wrong for that part but his puppy-dog quality works here and he’s thoroughly charming as Frank.

Meanwhile, Mamie Gummer has never looked lovelier and seems to be having a ball as Celimene (click here to read a Q&A she did with Theatermania that includes answers to a couple of questions about her mom Meryl Streep.)  But my personal favorite is the actor Hoon Lee, who plays the pragmatic-minded Philante who greets the audience at the start of the play.  Hoon may be the most lucid speaker of classical-style language this side of the Atlantic.

The all-star creative team, expertly lead by director Walter Bobbie, has brought it’s ‘A’ game too. John Lee Beatty’s all-white set is simple but elegant and with just a few pieces of furniture and a quilted backdrop manages to capture the opulence of a 17th century salon. 

William Ivey Long’s costumes, particularly the women’s puff-pastry gowns, are magnificent (click here to see a video in which he discusses how he came up with the designs). And Peter Kaczowrowksi’s lighting makes all of it sparkle like a glass of good champagne.

As always, CSC’s artistic director Brian Kulick and his staff have put together an informative insert that puts the production in perspective. The opening article offers a fascinating explanation of how Ives’ innovations fit into the tradition of “lively turning,” in which playwrights like Molière and Shakespeare combined familiar material with their own aesthetic sensibilities to create the masterpieces we still treasure.   

The School for Lies isn’t in that league but it’s a delightful mash-up that any true theater lover should make time to see.