Thursday, December 28, 2006

New York December 2006, Day Ten: "The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck"

It seems unnecessarily cruel to end this excursion with a play that is the second of an epic trilogy. After starting well ("Company" "The Magic Flute"), the quality of theater then dropped off a cliff ("The Big Voice: God or Merman?" "The Vertical Hour"). Then it turned right back around with "Spring Awakening," "The American Pilot," "Regrets Only" and "The Coast of Utopia." I was just getting into the swing of enjoying great theater -- and now it comes to an end. Perhaps "cruel" is overstating it a tad, but nonetheless, another thing that had a beginning has had its end.

Perhaps I should look at this from another angle. Perhaps waiting months to find out how the lives of Bakunin, Belinsky and Herzen turn, and how their thinking affected their future, our present is a good thing. Perhaps it's the best thing of all to end with a "to be continued" in my head.

The second play in Stoppard's trilogy is not necessarily better than the first, but I'm beginning to be drawn in more deeply, and to develop a greater sense of the scope and reach of this work. I'm quite keen to see the final installment, for many reasons:
• The themes are beginning to develop, and I'm enjoying Stoppard's philosophical musings.
• Billy Crudup continues to be amazing. I didn't even recognize him for the first half hour or so, so completely did he inhabit his role. And from the front row seats, it was fascinating to see how nuanced were his expressions, even in the ample confines of the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
• While I'm on the subject of the ample confines, the scale at which the producers are allowed to work in the Beaumont is wonderfully grand. Giant chandeliers, full-size statuary, a representation of the Place de La Concorde, a forest -- in the Beaumont, it comes and goes in a moment.

I think I'll withhold full judgment on the trilogy until I've seen it all. But for now, go if you can.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

New York December 2006, Day Nine: "The Coast of Utopia: Voyage" and "Regrets Only"

A busy day of playgoing, so I'll keep this short.

The first of Tom Stoppard's new trilogy, "The Coast of Utopia," is a dense, multi-layered, demanding, intense, funny, complex work of art. The story is fairly sparse: young idealistic Russians come together at the country estate and debate philosophy and politics. Ideas fly fast and furious, and it can be hard at times to keep track of who is with whom, but the language is so rich and the interplay of characters and concepts so detailed that I think I'll have to read the text before I can come close to understanding where Stoppard is trying to take us. But when it comes down to it, this is a show you ought to see if you get a chance.

This evening, I went from very heavy to mostly light and funny, with Paul Rudnick's new comedy of manners and friendship and loyalty, "Regrets Only." Rudnick has always had a deft hand with a one-liner or a snappy comeback, and "Regrets Only" is positively chock-a-block with them. What's more, the cast (all six of them) have the comic timing and acting chops to deliver them perfectly.

The story concerns a very rich woman (played by Christine Baranski) and her best friend, one of America's top clothing designers (played by George Grizzard). When the rich woman's husband is asked by the President to help draft a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and their daughter (also a lawyer) steps in to help, the designer (gay, of course) is rather put off by this, as one might imagine. I can't tell you what his reaction is without spoiling the second act, but think "Atlas Shrugged."

Although the plot is political, the play is primarily about all those funny lines -- the story just gives us a reason to move from one funny line to another. That won't win you the Pulitzer, but it sure will make you popular with audiences.

Tomorrow: "The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck"

One more thing: on these NY trips, I almost always have several celebrity sightings, but until today, I'd come up dry. Not a celebrity in sight. Then, tonight at dinner, Martin Short was seated at the table next to us. I feel so much better with that out of the way.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

New York December 2006, Day Eight: "The American Pilot"

As I have said in the past, art is life to scale. Effective art gives you perspective that is otherwise unavailable. It can illuminate issues that are too large to be contained inside the walls of a theater. It helps you to see what's right in front of you, but normally invisible.

"The American Pilot," by David Greig, playing through the end of the month at the Manhattan Theater Club, is the sort of play that gives just this sort of perspective. Another play about war, "The Vertical Hour," attempts to deal with issues surrounding the Iraq War by addressing the conflict specifically. That work fails rather miserably. In contrast, "The American Pilot" avoids specificity, yet hits its target (the effects of American power on the global political/economic stage) with tremendous force and accuracy -- partly because it's not set in any named country. The people there are not necessarily Muslim. The war going on in this unnamed land doesn't even directly involve the United States. They are just foreign, and that helps Greig to make his point.

The pilot himself (who is on stage, in pretty much the same position, for the entire play) has crashed into a mountain in this country, on his way somewhere else. He was not on a mission in the country, he was just unfortunate enough to crash there. "There" is rebel-held territory. When the leader of the rebels (The "Captain") finds his way to the village, posturing and positioning has already begun. The pilot is more than a hostage, he is a bit of chaos come to life. His presence stirs things up and creates opportunities and dangers the villagers must navigate.

From the pilot's point of view, the path is clear: the villagers must release him and get him to a telephone. "If you hurt me, bombs will come. If you don't hurt me, money will come." He knows what most of the villagers don't -- that America will extend its power and crush their little village if it must. The rebel leader, however, understands the situation perfectly. Even though his second-in-command thinks his strategy is nihilistic and irrational, the Captain says: "In the face of absolute power, nihilism IS rational."

The first act of "The American Pliot" is a tad slow-moving, but don't worry -- it's only setting you up for a second half where everything changes, motives are revealed and strategies alter. Showing us how American hegemony can present itself on the ground of any of the third world countries where we project our power is the bit of magic worked by the art of "The American Pilot."

Tomorrow: "The Coast of Utopia: Voyage" and "Regrets Only"

Monday, December 25, 2006

New York December 2006, Day Seven: "25 Questions for a Jewish Mother"

Christmas Day in New York. A little quieter, but lots of life going on in the city. Earlier this evening, I took in a performance piece by comedian Judy Gold: "25 Questions for a Jewish Mother." Like "The Vagina Monologues" (which Judy Gold performed for six weeks) or "Bridge and Tunnel," "25 Questions" is built upon a series of interviews done with real people and then recreated on stage. Unlike those shows, these segments are only one aspect of "25 Questions." The rest of the show is Judy Gold doing stand-up material, as well as some commentary on the process of interviewing Jewish Mothers of all varieties, if indeed there are varieties of Jewish Mothers, which was the question Gold set out to answer.

Overall, I'd call "25 Questions for a Jewish Mother" a success. I have some issues with the way Gold's stand-up persona interferes with the transitions between the comic and dramatic material, but Gold gives you an entertaining evening, especially if you had a Jewish Mother -- even a Gentile one.

Tomorrow: "The American Pilot"

Sunday, December 24, 2006

New York December 2006, Day Six: "Spring Awakening"

If yesterday's "Gutenberg: The Musical" was a mocking wink at the musical form, today's show, "Spring Awakening" was an attempt to reinvent and reinvigorate the form without resorting to ironic posturing. More than an attempt, it succeeded in this goal on many levels.

The show is based on an 1891 play of the same name by German playwright Frank Wedekind, about the sexual awakening of a group of teenagers in a repressive German town of the 19th century. Songs were added by composers Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik (who had a good-sized pop hit with the song "Barely Breathing" in the 90s), but not in that musical way of characters suddenly breaking into song. The songs are there, but they are more like internal monologues that have managed to seep out. Though the play maintains the sense of the period, the songs have a much more modern sensibility. This works because the core issues the kids deal with are universal, allowing the pull of old and new to create tension that helps to energize the drama.

"Spring Awakening" is easily the best show I've seen on this trip. The lighting is beautifully done, the staging and sets are simple, but imaginative and effective, while the choreography by Bill T. Jones takes Broadway dancing to a whole new place. A warning: the show has some pretty explicit sexual simulations, but nothing you can't handle (as long as "explicit sexual simulations" hasn't already scared you off).

Also saw "Volver" today. Also highly recommended.

Tomorrow: "25 Questions for Jewish Mother" (one of the few things playing Christmas Day)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

New York December 2006, Day Five: "Gutenberg: The Musical" and "The Vertical Hour"

I love the days when I step into a theater to see something new and unproven, and find there a beautiful gem of a show that few people have yet to see, so I can give you, my dear readers (all seven of you), advance word on a great show. I didn't love today.

I wanted to like "Gutenberg: The Musical." I truly did. I knew it was low-budget, I knew it tried to take an ironic look at the world of Broadway musicals, especially the big, overblown variety. The concept is pretty simple: two guys named Doug and Bud have written a musical based on the life of Johannes Gutenberg. However, since these two guys are both lazy and stupid, they neglect to do any research on Gutenberg and work solely from the piece of information everyone knows about Gutenberg: he invented the printing press and first put it to use mass-producing copies of the Bible. The musical that results features idiotic lyrics and insipid premises (though some catchy tunes -- much better original music than in, say, "The Big Voice") -- but that's the point. It's SUPPOSED to be a bad musical. We're meant to laugh at these two guys for even dreaming they have a shot at Broadway. (Sort of like "Waiting for Guffman" in that aspect.) Bud and Doug are performing the musical under the pretense that we in the audience are there for a backer's audition. Bud and Doug are hoping a producer in the audience will take their show to the big time.

Unfortunately, watching a bad musical - even when it's bad in a winking, hip, ironic way - doesn't change the fact that it's bad. I got some good laughs out of the show, and the actors playing Doug and Bud (Christopher Fitzgerald and Jeremy Shamos) bring a huge amount of energy to the project, but it's just not worth recommending. This territory has been handled far better by "Urinetown" and "The Musical of Musicals: The Musical."

"The Vertical Hour" was another production from which I expected great things. Not because Julianne Moore is in the cast, or because David Hare wrote the play, but because Sam Mendes was directing, and I thought his production of "Gypsy" is perhaps the best-staged, best-directed musical I've every seen. Unfortunately, "The Vertical Hour" did its best to put me in a horizontal position. Julianne Moore was almost completely lost on stage. In fact, none of the actors (including Bill Nighy, who is getting raves for his performance) ever really connected with each other. I was sitting in the second row, and from that proximate vantage point, I was left with the strong feeling that the three leads could just as easily been alone on a blue screen set for all the attention they paid to their fellow performers. The phrase "phoning it in" comes to mind.

Fortunately, the advance word for tomorrow's show is good, so I'm hopeful.

Tomorrow: "Spring Awakening"

New York December 2006, Day Four: "An Oak Tree"

Sometimes you take a chance on a show, simply for the fact that it's trying something new. "An Oak Tree" was such a show. Looking to fill in a few open spots made available due to the premature closings of "High Fidelity," "Mimi LeDuck" and "The Times They Are A'Changin," I read the premise of "An Oak Tree": one actor in the show plays a hypnotist who has accidentally killed a little girl with his car. (His Subaru Legacy, to be precise.) The other actor in the show plays the father of the little girl, who has come to the pub in England where the hypnotist is performing, to confront the man who took his daughter from him.

The gimmick is this: the second actor changes every night. Each night, someone new plays the role of the father. Someone who has never seen the play, never read the play, someone who knows nothing more than what I've just told you in the first paragraph. (Although the actors don't touch upon what show closings led me to the Barrow Theater.) He (or she, as several women have played the role of the father) appear at the theater near show time and are invited onto the stage just as the show is to begin.

During the show, the actor (tonight it was Stephen Lang, whom I enjoyed last year in John Patrick Shanley's "Defiance" -- recent shows have featured David Hyde Pierce, Mike Myers, Frances McDormand, Peter Dinklage and Joan Allen, among others) wears earbuds, through which he is regularly given direction by Tim Crouch, the writer, director and consistent co-star of this experimental work of theatre. Often he is told what to say. Other times he reads from clipboards with a few pages of dialogue. Everything the actor does, he is told to do, either directly or indirectly, usually the former.

Many times during the evening, this thought came to my head: there is a reason plays are rehearsed. Though I was the only person in our theater-going foursome who truly enjoyed the evening, there were times that the conceit became clumsy and I longed to be in a more traditional show. But as "An Oak Tree" continued (it's just over an hour in length), I started to see it as brilliant, if still contrived and chilly. On an intellectual level, I appreciated it. But on a deeper level, I felt just the tiniest bit toyed with.

Tomorrow: "Gutenberg: The Musical" and "The Vertical Hour."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

New York December 2006, Day Three: "The Big Voice: God or Merman?" and "Don't Quit Your Night Job"

Sometimes people get together out of the love of doing something, and decide that on their own they will create something, put something on stage to share with others. They don't expect the kind of box office that big time producers do. They hope people will come and enjoy, but unless they are certifiably insane, they keep their expectations low.

I saw two such shows today. Labors of love. One successful, one not so much. Let's start with the less successful attempt.

"The Big Voice: God or Merman?" is the story of two men who devoted their lives to the theater -- and each other. One is a Catholic boy from Brooklyn who wanted to be pope, the other grew up Baptist and went to bible college with the goal of being a preacher. Being gay stood in the way of all that, but somehow they found each other and had successes (a show that made it to Broadway) and setbacks (AIDS) in their life together. On the positive side, these two men telling their own story do so with great honesty and very little self-consciousness. Unfortunately, the songs they wrote for this show are mostly unimaginative and tuneless. (Or rather, minor variations of the same tune and rhythm.)

"Don't Quit Your NIght Job" is a semi-regular improv cabaret held at Joe's Pub for the purpose of raising money for charity. The cast is made up of young performers from Broadway musicals, including "Spamalot," "The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee," "The Producers" and "Wicked," among others. They do spoof songs and other comic bits (tonight included an hilarious bit with the 9-year old who plays "Chip" in "Beauty and the Beast" doing a selection from the new Stoppard trilogy "The Coast of Utopia" and a musical takeoff in which Mel Gibson's new movie is done with an island beat: "Apocalypso."), but the mainstay is improv. Improv can be great, but it can also be deadly. In fact, if it's not great, it usually IS deadly. Tonight's offering was anything but. My cheeks hurt several times because I couldn't stop laughing. More information (if you're interested) here.

New York Craft Shopping

Like almost everything else here, New York finds a way to make even the holiday craft fair better. The 70-80 booths set up at the southwest corner of Central Park offer some of the most interesting, high-quality crafts you'll find anywhere. Here are some of my favorites:

This purse is made of recycled candy wrappers -- as was everything in the booth.

This cowhide purse is much lovelier than the picture makes it look. The goods in this booth are all handmade in Argentina... are these funky hand-painted leather belts:

Not much better than New York at Christmastime.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

New York December 2006, Day Two: "Company" and "Die Zauberflote"

A brief entry this evening. Today's matinee was the revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Company." Sometimes the level of talent in New York just blows me away. Not only do the actors in this company sing and act, they are also the orchestra. Each of them play at least one instrument -- and often two or three. What amazes is that they do all three at the highest levels.

"Company" was my first live Sondheim show. I've never been an enormous Sondheim fan, but my two favorite songs of his ("Ladies Who Lunch" and "Not Getting Married Today") are both in this show. What I noticed most about this production was how economically it was directed. Though the story often flies rapidly between one set of characters and locations and another, we never feel lost or thrown off-course. It all flows smoothly. The show itself, especially the book, seems a bit dated, both in the language it uses and the issues it addresses -- but global themes of love and the search for someone with whom to share your life still come shining through.

The search for love is also at the heart of "Die Zauberflote." I won't comment too deeply on the voices in the show, as I don't have near enough opera-going experience to have a reliable reference point. But the production itself -- my first at the Met -- is breathtaking. First, some dear friends arranged for us to have fifth row seats. Second, the production was overseen by Julie Taymor, and the use of masks and puppets just blends beautifully with the story and Mozart's amazing music. Third, the chorus and the orchestra are among the best in the world. It would be hard not to love. It didn't transform me into an opera fan, but I certainly understand its power a bit better, and will defnitely return to the Met.

To top it all off, our friends know the principal timpanist in the orchestra, who escorted us backstage between act one and act two, and I got to learn a bit about the thrill of playing behind Lily Pons and the challenges facing timpanists who play in humid climates.

Both shows are recommended.

Tomorrow: "The Big Voice: God or Merman" and "Don't Quit Your Night Job."

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

New York December 2006, Day One: "The Scene"

I imagine most of my half-dozen or so readers know that twice a year I venture to New York for 10-12 days of "filling the well" -- reinvigorating my mind by filling it with as much of what the city offers as I can handle. That usually means museum visits, retail experiences, parks and public spaces -- but focusing on 12-15 Broadway and off-Broadway productions. (This year, the itinerary includes my first trip to the Metropolitan Opera.)

Usually I wait until I get home to compose a long e-mail providing a full report on the shows I've seen, as well as the occasional comment on a special museum or restaurant experience. (I do try make sure all six of you can make the most of any trip to New York you might ever plan.) But this trip I'm going to make an attempt to post a little something every day. Don't know if I can really keep up, since I'm also working on this trip, but I'm going to give it a shot. Starting with tonight's show: "The Scene."

This four-hander revolves around an actor named Charlie (played by Tony Shaloub), his wife Stella (Patricia Heaton), Charlie's friend Lewis (Christopher Evan Welch) and a girl they meet at the downtown loft party that opens the play, Clea (Anna Camp). Clea comes across initially as a very dumb blonde, but as the play progresses turns out to have, if not hidden depths, at least hidden width. She seems to be in it for herself in a vapid way -- but turns out to be in it for herself in a well-considered (if still shallow) way. Without giving too much away, Clea draws Charlie into her swirl of narcissism. Near the show's end, Clea tells Charlie, "life's a party." Both Clea and Charlie are pathologically narcissistic enough -- but in opposite ways. Clea feels she deserves everything, Charlie feels he deserves nothing.

The show is still in previews, so changes could be made, but my sense is the first act needs trimming, but act two generally moves well -- thanks in part to its in flagrante delicto opening scene that is quite a grabber.

Tomorrow: "Company" and "The Magic Flute" at the Met.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Furnace Man

For my readers in Marin County, I want to alert you to a fantastic resource for heating and air conditioning service.

Last year, I was having trouble with the furnace. It wouldn't always start, and when it did start, it would often stop before reaching the intended temperature. After several attempts to get it working, I decided to replace the furnace. In pursuit of that, I called several companies to give me an estimate. All came in, looked at the furnace, and gave me estimates in thousands of dollars. But Nate from The Furnace Man came in and said: "I think you've just got a loose connection. I've tightened it up, but if it gives you trouble, jiggle it here and see if you can reseat the connection." Problem solved, money saved.

This winter, the problem started all over again, and jiggling didn't help. So I called The Furnace Man and Nate came out again. Again, no suggestion of needing to replace the furnace. Instead, he installed a new ignition box and said: "I think this is the problem, but I won't send a bill for a week or so. If this doesn't do the trick, call me and I'll come back and put the old one back and we'll figure out what to do next." Of course, the ignition box was the problem.

So if you need heating or airconditioning work, call The Furnace Man at 415-883-7070 and ask for Nate Gadow.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Doesn't live up to the hype. Jennifer Hudson is a natural and Beyonce is fun and Eddie Murphy devours his role as an oversexed junkie blues man, and Condon does an economical job of storytelling, but it ultimately feels chilly and manufactured. There's soul somwhere in there, but too little of it leaks out.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

He just really likes Judy Garland, that's all. Is it really such a big deal?

According to the Rev. Mike Ware (as quoted in the LA Times), Ted Haggard "says he's not a homosexual." he hired the rent boy on a whim? "I keep hearing about this homosex and how great it is -- let me give it a shot. What could it hurt?" It just never ceases to amaze how deeply denial can go.


From a spokesperson for Mitt Romney's nascent presidential campaign: "Governor Romney opposes same-sex marriage, but he also opposes unjust discrimination against anyone." How exactly is it he can do both?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"It was not happened."

From an Iranian foreign minister at "Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision," Ahmedinejad's holocaust denier's conference. "Right now, I am not judging at all. Some people said that there are a lot of facts - a lot of evidence that confirm that was not happened like the way they are claiming." I love that last sentence.


I was apalled but not surprised to see that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran would sponsor a conference devoted to holocaust deniers. But I wasn't shocked until I saw that David Duke was there. And an ultra-conservative rabbi consented to appear: “I am not a denier of the Holocaust, but I think it is legitimate to cast doubt on some statistics.” Not that he's not free to say so, but to choose to say so in such a forum...a I'm frightened. There's just a whole lotta hatin' going on out there. Bad sign, this.

Another Tragedy of the Closet

I don't know what it is about Colorado -- perhaps with all that open space and thin air they have exceptionally large closets -- but another megachurch pastor has confessed to "homosexual sin" and stepped down from the pulpit. Unlike Ted Haggard, it looks like the Rev. Paul Barnes isn't planning reparative therapy or "reconstitution" or whatever it was Pastor Ted was planning on putting himself through (UPDATE: the term is "restoration," and Haggard himself began the process earlier this week.) over the next few years. But like Haggard, this guy still doesn't believe sexuality is fixed at birth. At least he's not clinging to the "it's a choice" nonsense.

If you have time, take a look at this story, that talks about Paul Barnes's sermon on the Sunday the Haggard story was breaking.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"Jersey Boys" -- A Graphic Novel on Stage

When "Jersey Boys" tickets first went on sale, back in 2005, I was in New York and passing by the box office window. I almost bought seats, but ultimately decided to wait until the show at least started previews. Of course, once it opened, it went huge fast and you couldn't get near a decent seat.

Tonight the show opened in San Francisco at the Curran, its first incarnation outside of New York. If you haven't got tickets yet, don't make the same mistake I did in New York. Click here and get some now. It's going to be a huge hit here, as well.

There are lots of reasons for this. The performers give heartfelt, energetic performances, and though their voices don't fully measure up to the original Four Seasons, they capture the spirit of the original. And though the show begins a bit clumsily and does a lot more telling than showing, that quickly falls away and the piece settles into a steady gallop and never slows down again.

"Jersey Boys" feels like a graphic novel brought to life on stage -- and not just because of the Roy Lichtenstein-like graphics displayed on three large LED screens above the stage. The story itself is outsized, and is structured with the brief, staccato pace, quick transitions and economical storytelling associated with the best comic books.

The music is great, the whole thing just works. Go.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Rapture Film Festival

The rapture, as you likely know, is a Christian theological concept, based on a scripture from Thessalonians, that suggests that just prior to the second coming of Christ, the faithful of the church will be taken up bodily into heaven. (Actually, into "the sky," according to the text of the epistle.) It's the basis of the wildly best-selling "Left Behind" series of books.

Here is a short film, created I assume by a church somewhere, to visualize what the rapture might feel like. It's acually pretty well done.
This, on the other hand, is a more sacreligeous take on the concept, taken from HBO's "Six Feet Under":

Saturday, December 09, 2006

"Madonna, Madonna, Madonna...but you keep it all inside."

If Madonna really wants to test some boundaries, I suggest on her next concert tour, instead of playing off Catholic imagery, that she come out in a burqa, backed by some dancing Mohammeds, with onstage flashpots shaped like suicide bombers.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The (Far) West Wing

Tomorrow night is the sixth (or maybe seventh) episode of Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme's follow-up to "The West Wing," the Emmy-winning hit that ran for seven seasons on NBC. "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is not being received as warmly by audiences (or by some critics) as "The West Wing" was, but I for one am a fan. Enough of one to encourage you to watch the show. I think what I like best about the show is what I liked best about "The West Wing": it's inspiring. It's about a group of people who care very deeply about what they do and want to do it as well as can possibly be done. It's a goal I, too, strive for --but achieve must less often than I'd like.

Unfortunately, not enough people agree with me and the show may not last into a second season. I'm not sure why it's not doing well in the ratings; it has a popular lead-in show "Heroes," which I have never watched) and it's smart and funny and talks about important things. Actually, I may have just explained why it is in danger of cancellation -- it's TOO smart. There's a lot going on in this show: social satire, occasionaly slapstick comedy, romance, rapid-fire banter. To get the most from this show, you need a broad cultural knowledge, a decent vocabulary and a fair amount of attention. Let's face it, it's a demanding 40 minutes (sans commercials, thanks to DVR) -- but a rewarding one. Tune in.