Tuesday, April 29, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Thirteen, "Sutton Foster"

Just a brief entry, as a formal review (or as formal as my "reviews" get) is not required for such an informal evening.

Sutton Foster, Broadway star of "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Little Women," "Young Frankenstein" and the upcoming "Shrek: The Musical" is recording her first album in a couple of weeks. So, in order to gauge which songs are working best with audiences, she booked herself for a late night Monday gig at Joe's Pub. There, in front of a crowd of 150 or so (including her brother, fellow Broadway star Hunter Foster and fellow "YF" cast member Andrea Martin), Sutton stepped up to the mic for an hour or so of songmaking with a three-piece band behind her.

In addition to some lovely ballads (most of which I had never heard), Sutton did a great version of "Oklahoma!" (presumably for Martin, who played Ado Annie in the most recent Broadway revival) and a very funny song about being out on a hot summer night and willing to go home with any man as long as he has air conditioning.

Though her voice was tentative on a couple of occasions, Sutton has an easy stage presence and a very relaxed manner with an audience that makes for a wonderful evening.

One other thing: if you plan on seeing anything at Joe's Pub, plan to have a snack there. Making a table reservation makes it much easier to get a seat close to the action.

NOTE: for some reason, this never posted the day I had intended it to.

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Twelve, "Passing Strange" and "Good Boys and True"

"Slaves have options. Escape. Revolt. Death. Cowards have only consequences."

Hearing those words, Youth, the character at the center of "Passing Strange" makes the decision to leave his relatively comfortable middle-class African-American lifestyle and head to Europe to seek a different culture, a place where the boundaries American culture places on black people will have less effect on him. Youth is the younger alter ego of Stew, the musician who created "Passing Strange" to tell his unique (and compelling) story.

Throughout his adolescence, Stew/Youth was an outsider in virtually every aspect of his life, possessing not merely the ordinary teenage outsider angst, but also being black but not "ghetto," smart but living in a milieu that doesn't appreciate his sort of intellect, and musically-gifted but unappreciated. So, in search of a community where he can invent a new life for himself, Stew heads to Amsterdam and Berlin, where he falls in with various groups seeking enlightenment through drugs, sex, rock and roll and art. Especially art. As one character says to him, "when we are in the presence of art, we are taking the cure."

As many of the ads for today's pharmaceutical cures say, "Passing Strange" is "not for everyone." But you don't need to ask your doctor if "Passing Strange" is right for you -- just send me a message and I'll let you know if the show will cure any of your specific ills.

Personally, I loved it. There are many very funny scenes, especially the dialogues between Youth and his Mother (she speaks in a standard, Midwestern sort of way most of the time, but dips into a black dialect when she wants to reprimand or cajole him), and the art performances Stew sees/participates in in Berlin. The wall of colored light that appears when the scene shifts to Amsterdam is bold and adds a needed boost of visual energy.

More of a rock opera than a musical, "Passing Strange" actually tells its story through songs, rather than using songs to embellish moments within a story. It's loud and colorful and smart and entertaining and performed with passion and vigor by Stew and his excellent cast. Most important, it has a real soul at its core, a singular vision being expressed -- something Broadway too often lacks.

"Good Boys and True," by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is currently in early previews at the Second Stage Theatre. Perhaps once the cast has had a chance to become more familiar with their roles and to become more comfortable with their fellow performers and coalesce into an ensemble, the power that I think is there in the text will come through. The story, which takes place at an exclusive, Catholic, boys-only school, is simple: a video tape has been discovered, showing what looks like the captain of the football team having violent sex with an unknown teenage girl. (The story takes place in 1989, pre-YouTube.) Is it, in fact, the handsome, charismatic team captain, son of two doctors, one of whom was a legendary leader and athletic star when he attended the same school? Will the football coach find some way to keep the story under wraps, to deal with it quietly?

There is a lot to like about "Good Boys and True." The set is beautiful -- row upon row of glittering sports trophies, calling to mind the tradition (and priorities) of the school, and allows for almost seamless changes between scenes. The story is interesting and has plenty to draw us in.

Unfortunately, there are still too many wrinkles still to be ironed out of this preview production. The actors, I think, can grow into their roles. The author may find ways of reforming his text to build in a bit more drama. The question is, will they? I'm guessing no.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Eleven, "South Pacific"

As one enters the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center for the sparkling new production of "South Pacific" (the first-ever Broadway revival of the show), there is a scrim spread across the stage, upon which are projected the first few sentences of James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific," the book upon which the show was based:

"I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting."

Likewise, I wish I could tell you about this production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's amazing show. The way it actually was. The stunning sets. The amazing voice of Paolo Szot. The 30-piece orchestra filling every corner of the space with tone and tune. I wish I could tell you about the sweetness of both Kelli O'Hara's voice and her interpretation of cockeyed optimist Ens. Nellie Forbush, and the power of the male chorus as they belt "There is Nothing Like a Dame," unamplified but still potent enough to press you back in your seat.

But I can't, really. You're going to have to go to New York and experience it for yourself. If you are coming to New York and have even one night free, this is the show to fill those evening hours. Sure, "Spring Awakening" breaks new ground for the Broadway musical, and "Jersey Boys" takes the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons and puts it on stage like a living, breathing, singing graphic novel, but no show is as worthy of your attention as this "South Pacific."

First, this is one of the best -- if not THE best -- Broadway musical ever written. Every song is great. Every one. Of course, some are greater than others, but there are no off numbers, none that just don't fit. On top of that, the book has true drama. Something important takes place on stage. In fact, several important things: two love stories and an adventure story that also throws obstacles in the path of love. Add to all that the political undertones of "South Pacific," the way it lays bare the foolishness of prejudice at the same time it reveals the importance of duty and the glory of sacrifice for a worthy cause.

Part of me wants to go on and talk about how this nearly 60-year old show has such resonance with our current situation, how it touches on deeper aspects of humanity (Bali Ha'i as a metaphor for the mystery of existence that compels us all to seek meaning in the midst of mystery), how it touches on aspects of humanity that are universal -- both light and dark. But I would run the risk of boring you, something "South Pacific" never does. Even as it ran past the three-hour mark, I wanted it to go on and on and on, like that timeless, repetitive waiting to which Michener refers.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Ten, "Betrayed"

On walking out of "Betrayed," the new play being presented by the Culture Project, a theater group headquartered in SoHo, my companions for the evening asked what I thought. I said it was "interesting, but in the way a New Yorker article is interesting." This makes sense, because -- as I found out when I looked at the program for the first time this morning -- the playwright, George Packer, is a New Yorker writer.

The story is a very simple one: three Iraqis go to work as translators for the US during the early stages of the war, then find themselves cut adrift when the insurgency begins and they are labeled as traitors to their country -- or various factions within it. Packer's script gives an insider's view of what takes place inside the homes (and minds) of some Iraqis, as Packer has visited the country six times since the start of the war.

Intisar, Laith and Adnan have dreams like everyone else -- they want a peaceful place to live, they want to spend time with their families, they want to chance to use their talents to make a better world. As you can probably imagine (and you don't have to see "Betrayed" to find this out, simply watch CNN), none of these dreams come to fruition.

The problem with "Betrayed" is that it lacks a sense of real drama. The verisimilitude is there -- Packer's on-ground experience guarantees that. The facts are in place, but the fire is missing. Part of this is likely due to Pippin Parker's flaccid direction and staging. There's not a lot of imagination at work here, so what we get is a set and staging that feels like something you'd see from the local community college theater department: workmanlike, but not transforming. The actors do their best (except for the gentleman playing the US ambassador, who was embarrassingly bad), and the peek into the everyday lives of Iraqis is enlightening, but overall, "Betrayed" left me "unsatisfied."

Friday, April 25, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Nine, "The New Century"

I'm under attack. I'm not sure of my adversary's name or nature, all I know is he has gained a strategic foothold in my sinuses. It's a lovely spring in New York, flowers and trees everywhere are in bloom, and one or more of them has my number. My eyes are red and swollen and my nose is packed tighter than Times Square on New Year's Eve.

That said, I'm still not missing anything. I just have a little less energy to devote to reporting on what I see.

Last night's festivities included dinner at Cafe des Artistes (a lovely room, if you like that style, but such overrated food -- still, few options near Lincoln Center), followed by a performance of Paul Rudnick's evening of four short plays, "The New Century." All four deal with -- on one level or another -- the challenges of being gay (or related to someone who is) in a "post-gay" world where one's sexuality isn't supposed to matter (at least to civilized people) and yet somehow still does.

"Pride and Joy" is the first offering, and consists entirely of Linda Lavin speaking at a P.L.G.B.T.Q.C.C.C.&O. meeting. (That's Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals,Transgendered, Questioning, Curious, the Creatively Concerned and Others.) Lavin is a stereotypical Jewish mother (all the characters in this show are stereotypes), who has three children who cross pretty much every sexual boundary possible. Yet, she still loves them. Just like she LOVED "Will & Grace." "They're so cute -- like if Pottery Barn made people!"

"Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach" trots out the biggest stereotype of the evening, a WAY over the top nelly queen who claims to be the gayest man on Earth. So gay he can turn someone homosexual with just a glance. So gay, in fact, that he has been banished from New York for being too gay and embarrassing the straight-acting gays who are trying to assimilate back into the broader culture. Mr. Charles hosts a public access show in Palm Beach, Florida. His co-host is boy toy Shane, who wants a show of his very own. Mr. Charles zings one biting comment after the other, including one of the biggest laugh lines of the night when he explains how to tell if the man next to you at the theater is gay: "He's saving his Playbill. And he's awake." He also gives an amazing encapsulation of the history of gay theater in 60 seconds.

In the second half, things start to drift. The stupendous Jayne Houdyshell portrays Barbara Ellen Diggs in "Crafty." Diggs never met a pair of pinking shears or a bolt of rickrack or an embroidery frame she didn't like. She keeps busy with crafts partly to dull the pain of having lost her son to HIV 20 years earlier. Houdyshell is wonderful as usual, but this is the weakest of the four pieces.

The closing bit, "The New Century" finds all four characters back together -- this time in a Manhattan maternity ward. A few more funny lines hit their targets -- but the allergens are hitting their targets inside my sinuses, so it's off to bed for me.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Eight, "The Four of Us" and "Boeing Boeing"

Another day, another Van Morrison song. Yesterday, "Adding Machine" put me in mind of "Precious Time." Today's matinee, "The Four of Us" put Van's "Professional Jealousy" in my head. Despite its title, "The Four of Us" is a two-hander, concerning two twenty-something writers, Benjamin and David. On holiday in Prague, David writes a play and Benjamin works on a novel. They enter into an agreement -- when David has a play produced, or Ben's novel is published, the other will buy lunch. Both end up picking up a check, but the equality ends there, for David's play is produced by a small theater in the Midwest, while Ben's novel provides him with a $2 million advance (including movie rights).

While this is ripe territory for drama, most of the juicy bits get left on the table. The green monster never rises to his full height, never breathes the fire of envy. He merely sticks a nostril above the surface, flashes one shiny fang, then slips back into the deep. Ben and David argue, but never with any real teeth. The jealousy David might feel comes out in an angry outburst during a Q&A session following a reading of his play, but Ben's not really a part of it.

In all, a rather bland, unsatisfying afternoon.

"Boeing Boeing" on the other hand, has nothing but satisfaction on its mind. A classic French farce (which has been filmed twice, once in French in 1960 and once in English -- with Jerry Lewis -- in 1965), "Boeing Boeing" is filled with slamming doors, missed connections and broad physical comedy.

The story concerns Bernard (Bradley Whitford, of "West Wing" fame), a successful architect living in Paris who is managing to juggle three women who all think they are the only one. Each is a stewardess for a different international airline, each on a different schedule. Bernard's old school chum, Robert, shows up on the same day that a new jet goes into service, throwing off Bernard's timetable perfection in scheduling the exit of one fiancee with the entrance of the other.

Christine Baranski is miscast as Berthe, Bernard's long-suffering maid, but Whitford is terrific, and Mark Rylance is hysterical as Robert. Robert is from Wisconsin, and his slow-talking, simple ways stand in perfect contrast to Bernard's playboy smoothness. Rylance (in photo above) originated the role in the London production of the show, and I'm so glad he crossed the pond to reprise it at the Longacre.

I have a feeling "Boeing Boeing" may not strike a chord with New York's critics, but audiences are going to devour this tasty concoction of retro-humor from the dawn of the sexual revolution.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Seven, "Adding Machine"

Although the music in the new operetta at the Minetta Lane, "Adding Machine" sounds nothing like what Van Morrison would write, a line from one of his songs comes to mind: "Precious time is slipping away -- you know you're only king for a day. Doesn't matter to which god you pray -- precious time is slipping away."

For Mr. Zero, the beaten-down anti-hero of this brilliant new work from composer Joshua Schmidt (with lyrical assistance from Jason Loewith), his precious time has already run out. He just doesn't know it yet.

Zero hates women. At least his shrill wife, Mrs. Zero. He does seem to have a soft spot for Daisy, the younger woman who assists him at work. Daisy and Zero are a team of calculators: she reads the figures from sales slips, he writes them down and adds them up in his ledger book with a fountain pen. But who needs human calculators when the brand new adding machine (the work is based on a 1923 play by Elmer Rice) is there to do the work faster, more accurately and at a far lower cost?

The story is highly melodramatic, but told in a highly expressionistic style. I don't want to give away much about the story itself, because I hope you'll have the chance to see it yourself. Though I'm not generally a giant fan of recitative, or the talk-singing that often links songs within an opera or operetta, this production seems to have found a way to make the recitative both more musical and more dramatic. Then, when a more conventional tune pops up, like the delightful, romantic "I'd Rather Watch You," it seems to glisten even brighter.

I loved almost everything about "Adding Machine." Every scene, every sequence seems to have its own visual signature, its own way of building the story from the inside out. The lighting (kudos to lighting designer Keith Parham) is bold, elegant and edgy, the sets (Takeshi Kata) are simple but effective, and the video projections (Peter Flaherty) add dimension to scenes without calling attention to themselves.

The performers are top-rank, with big voices and a sure presence on stage. All are terrific, but Amy Warren (as Daisy) deserves special mention for treating us to her big, sweet voice. When she opens her mouth, you know she truly feels what she's singing.

Director David Cromer also deserves praise for his powerful and efficient storytelling. The opening scene, with Mr. and Mrs. Zero in bed -- with the set designed in such a way that we in the audience feel we are looking down at them from above -- quickly establishes the claustrophobia and limited options in Mr. Zero's life. Then we are immediately thrown into Zero's work life, with a brilliant, rhythmic fugue of boredom as three calculating teams call out the numbers that fill their days, AND the dreams that fill their minds.

"Adding Machine" never lets you really get comfortable. There is always some new way of expressing an emotion or calling attention to lost opportunities. Yet it's an entirely pleasurable evening. I found myself smiling over and over at the cleverness of a lyric, or the way attention was called to a character's emotional state, or how a tune will swell on a completely unexpected, as it did on "and then came the leg of lamb!" The story -- like most operatic works -- is a tragic one. I don't think I'll spoil the show for you by saying that Mr. Zero does not end up in a happier place. But you will, if you make your way to the Minetta Lane Theatre for "Adding Machine." Best show of the trip so far.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Six, "Time is the Mercy of Eternity: A Meditation in Four Acts"

OK, so you're smarter than I am. You have the power of discernment, and could see well ahead of time that a play with the magniloquent title "Time is the Mercy of Eternity: A Meditation in Four Acts" would be pretentious and overblown.

I, however, optimist that I am, decided to take a chance on this off-off-Broadway concoction (playing the Upper West Side at the West End Theater on 86th), in the hope of finding something magical. Ha!, you say. Ha! - you deserve what you get, like a pioneer who decides to settle in Death Valley, hoping the name is just another example of the exception proving the rule, like Iceland being green and Greenland being icy.

So, here I am, reporting that while Greenland is indeed a barren waste, "Time is the Mercy of Eternity: A Meditation in Four Acts" is a pretentious piece of...well, not crap exactly, but a waste of 90 intermission-less minutes. I will say this is through no fault of the actors. At least, through no fault of their acting talent. They can, however, be blamed for THEIR powers of discernment. They consented to be part of this agglomeration of pseudo-intellectual piffle disguised as theater. Tony-nominated Lisa Kron (a very talented writer-performer whose "Well" made it to Broadway and whose "2.5 Minute Ride" has played around the world) really ought to know better. Still, she gave it her best and helped make the evening somewhat bearable. Curzon Dobell was also excellent, a real presence on stage.

Call me old-fashioned, call me square, but I want theater to tell me a story. It doesn't always have to be linear. It doesn't always even have to be happy. But I would like it to take me someplace new, not just someplace strange.

Monday, April 21, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Five, "The Little Flower of East Orange" and "Top Girls"

A theme seems to be developing for this trip: Another Wounded Family. After "The American Dream" and "The Sandbox" took the very real problem of dealing with aging parents to absurd dimensions, there was a brief sojourn into HappyEndingLand with "Cry-Baby," before another descent into dysfunction with "From Up Here," the story of a family dealing with a profoundly disturbed adolescent and his profoundly disconnected mother. Sunday the theme continued with two more plunges through the guardrail into the abyss of family insanity.

"The Little Flower of East Orange" might have been the most challenging play of the trip for me, simply because it takes place in the same Catholic milieu of my childhood. However, even though my mother has a few phrases in common with Therese, the mother at the center of this drama, I could NEVER imagine speaking to her in the way her son Danny does. Danny claims this story is his, but he is clearly deluded -- this one is all about Mom. Therese is both mother and martyr, Mary and Christ in the same body.

At the top of the show, Therese has gone missing. We know she is a Jane Doe, lying in a hospital unconscious while her two children (the aforementioned Danny -- who had just abandoned rehab in Arizona -- and somewhat more dutiful daughter Justina) search the city for her. When she finally regains consciousness, however, she refuses to give her name. (On reflection, if my mother did something like that, I think I might be motivated to speak a bit sharply to her.)

However, it's hard to blame Therese entirely for her inaction; she does, after all come from Another Wounded Family. She lives in the shadow of a towering patriarch, a violent mute alcoholic who vented his rage at the injustice of his life on the weakest of those around him. But like the martyr Therese is, no blame is delivered to the long-gone father, and she sublimates all her rage into herself in order (she believes) to protect her children. Unfortunately, children are more intuitive than that, and since Mom won't take on the pain and face the real work of healing this wounded family, they must attempt to carry a load beyond their capacity.

This sense of burden, of carrying a weight exceeding one's capacity is felt throughout the play. Every member of the family has his or her own passion to suffer through. Each carries a cross to Golgotha -- but none do it with the grace of the non-family members in the cast, specifically the two nurses who care for Therese in the hospital. Espinoza, a male nurse from Mexico and Magnolia, a black woman have very different approaches to caregiving, but both are passionate and committed to the work they do. They carry their own crosses as well as those of their patients. Espinoza provides much of the comic relief with his no-nonsense patter, and his presence on stage is always welcome.

Michael Shannon broods and rages brilliantly once again, here playing Danny, the dissolute son with a wasted talent. He was Tony-worthy in "Bug," but I'm wondering if he ever plays a hinged character. Ellen Burstyn is quiet and focused as Therese, but she didn't overly impress. Acting is hard, but I think it's even harder when you have to play the role entirely on your back in a hospital bed.

"The Little Flower of East Orange" is directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and he does an excellent job of keeping all the levels of the rich characters created by Stephen Adly Guirgis in play. Nothing lags, and nothing is lost, but he allows enough inconsistency of tone to come through and weaken the overall effort.

"Top Girls" is a revival of a Caryl Churchill play from 1982, focusing on feminist issues. The play itself raises interesting issues and offers several insights (at least from a male perspective) on the challenges facing women in a patriarchy. The cast is excellent, including one of my favorites, Martha Plimpton, but the theater is unfortunately much too large for such an intimate play. On top of this, the sound is awful. Combine this with the fact that many of the characters (at least in act one) speak in accents, and "Top Girls" is almost incomprehensible -- but not for the usual reasons.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Four, "From Up Here"

I have a hard time imagining myself ever getting enough of Julie White. After her Tony-winning turn in "The Little Dog Laughed" and her guest spot as a highly-neurotic Hollywood producer in Alan Ball's HBO series "Six Feet Under," I'm ready to RSVP to any party she wants to invite me to. Even "From Up Here," the new, rather strident play at Manhattan Theater Club.

Briefly, "From Up Here" is the story of several very wounded people trying to figure out how to heal each other. It's just that some of the character's approach to healing (especially the aforementioned Miss White's character, Grace) has all the delicacy of a medieval barber bleeding his patients to let the ill humours escape.

Grace is the mother of Kenny, the most wounded (though in some ways the most sane) of this bunch. Through a series of clues dropped during the first 20 minutes or so, we learn that Kenny had threatened Columbine-like violence at his high school, and is now being mainstreamed back into the school. (A plot point that stretches credibility nearly to the breaking point for me.) We first meet Kenny on his first morning heading back to school.

Along the way, Kenny's little sister Lauren learns she has a suitor, a senior with a deep crush on her, which he expresses through a non-stop verbosity that he interrupts only to sing the twisted but sincere songs he has written for her. Grace's sister, Caroline turns up at the family home unannounced, returning from trekking in Nepal.

The show has some serious problems, but I found it oddly compelling, not least because of Julie White. No one's really happy, but no one wants to give up on the hope of one day being happy, either. So they all struggle and stumble their way toward some stable place from which to build a life. As the play opens, Aunt Caroline is at the end of her rope -- literally, hanging from a harness while on a Himalayan climb. By the time curtain falls, she's traveling once again, but at least this time we see her with her feet planted firmly on the ground. I'm not sure Grace or Kenny can say the same.

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Three, "Cry-Baby"

Here's what's right about "Cry-Baby," the new musical opening at the Marquis next week:

- The orchestra. This band swings. Incredibly tight, big, boisterous -- everything you want a party band to be. The rhythm section keeps things rolling, and the horns are always ready to stand up and be counted. Plus they start the evening off right with a fun, creative way of doing the "silence your cell phone, unwrap your candies" announcement.

- The dancing. I guess when a band swings like the "Cry-Baby" orchestra does, it's hard not to move in time. But these kids are some of the most talented, energetic, precise dancers I've seen anywhere. It's just fun watching them strut and shimmy.

- The staging. It's big, it puts you right where you need to be, it supports the story and it moves swiftly and seamlessly from one scene to another. Truly top-notch.

- The performers. Start with Harriet Harris, who absolutely seizes the stage as Mrs. Vernon-Williams, the squarest of the square, queen of the uptight. Finish with the rest of the cast, who are uniformly strong. Add special kudos to Chester Gregory II, for his preening (at least vocally) portrayal of Dupree.

- Many of the songs. "Misery, Agony, Helplessness, Hopelessness, Heartache and Woe," "Girl, Can I Kiss You...? (the sentence is completed "with tongue"), "Screw Loose," "I'm Infected" and "I Did Something Wrong Once" are all fun, if slightly forgettable. And the wonderfully, hopelessly optimistic closer "Nothing Bad's Ever Gonna Happen Again," brings the proceedings to a wonderfully ironic close.

Now, what's wrong with "Cry-Baby"? From a critical standpoint, I'm not sure anything's really wrong, per se -- the show seems to rocket along, telling a simple story that's about as old as stories get: it's "Romeo & Juliet" without the tragic elements: rich girl falls for boy from the wrong side of...well, the wrong side of just about everything: the tracks, the law, fashion... There are plenty of laughs, and as I previously said, the performers are terrific and the music and dancing stellar.

So what's my qualm? Well, since "Cry-Baby" is designed as a mainstream entertainment in the vein of John Waters's previous Broadway hit re-make of a quirky movie of his, "Hairspray," I think it needs (and I so very rarely say this sort of thing) to be a little more mainstream. As in "Hairspray," the basic story follows a clash of cultures. As in "Hairspray," there is an uptight mama who wants to protect her daughter from a boy whom Mama sees as wrong. And there are a group of kids from the wrong side of the tracks who teach the elite (or at least some of them) how to loosen up and go with the flow. But in "Hairspray," the bad kids are "bad" merely because of surface differences. Inside, they're good kids.

In "Cry-Baby," the "Drapes", the outcasts who run with Cry-Baby Walker are actually delinquents. They are thieves who settle things with switchblades. Pepper is a pregnant 16-year old who's not sure who the father of her baby is, and proudly smokes and drinks, even while she is being rolled into the delivery room on a gurney. (The show is set in 1954, but the attitude Pepper takes is that she seems to know all this is bad for her baby but does it anyway because it's the rebel thing to do.) Mona, who has a deep scar running from above her left eye and across the nose and down her right cheek, is called "Hatchet-Face," but proudly claims "I'm ugly inside, too!" Even at the end of the show, after some court-ordered reconstructive surgery, she gleefully insists "But I'm still ugly inside!"

Maybe deep down inside I'm really a square, but I think a mainstream audience might have a hard time accepting this motley collection of refugees from juvie as heroes. Yes, they are wrongly jailed and Cry-Baby's birth stain (his parents were pacifists, framed for a fatal arson fire and executed on hearsay) is cleansed by the time the curtain falls, and the Squares learn the Drapes have something valuable to offer -- even if it's just a hot beat and Cry-Baby's undying love for Allison. But I just have this gut feeling that the characters are going to be a little too alternative to appeal to the bridge and tunnel crowd (and the muggles from middle America) that are required to keep a show this expensive on the boards long enough to make back its investment.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Two, "The American Dream" and "The Sandbox"

What is the point of theater that is significantly incomprehensible?

I don't mean that in a bad way. A little incomprehensibility can be a good thing, if it's done well. I'm actually honestly curious: what itchy part of our brain does it scratch when we are compelled by a performance -- as I was earlier this evening by two of Edward Albee's early one-acts, "The American Dream" and "The Sandbox" (and recently with "The Maids" in San Francisco)-- but still feel somewhat lost at the end of it?

Clearly, most theatergoers think there is little point to the abstruse. At least when it comes to parting with the better part (if not more) of a hundred-dollar bill. There's a reason "Phantom" is still running after all these years, and part of it is that almost no one leaves the theater saying "OK, explain that to me."

But as I have previously said, art is there to help us look at reality in such a way that we can better get our minds around it. A full-scale map is useless. It has value only when geography is scaled down to the point that our gaze can more effectively encompass it. Art is life to scale. Art enables us to see aspects of existence in ways we couldn't if artists weren't there to reveal them to us.

I'm not saying "The American Dream" and "The Sandbox" are great art. I'm still trying to figure them out. They concern "Mommy" and "Daddy," "Grandma" and "Mrs. Baxter" and "The Young Man." Their motives and actions are obscure or absurd or horrific in turns, though the basic plot of both concerns Mommy and Daddy deciding what to do with Grandma -- or perhaps Grandma deciding how to leave Mommy and Daddy. Each play comes to a different solution. I won't attempt to explain much more that that.

What I will say is I was bored only once, and then only briefly. Mostly I was in thrall to Albee's imagination and point-of-view -- and an especially delectable performance from Judith Ivey.

Early in the evening, Mommy complains that it's hard to get satisfaction. After these two scratchy works, I can say the itchy part of my brain is completely sated.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

New York, Spring 2008

Welcome to the first of multiple posts to come over the next two weeks, as I blog live from Manhattan on my semi-annual (for now) "fill the well" trips.

Arrived in New York after a fabulous flight on American. (Yes, they still fly, contrary to last week.) Used miles and ended up in first class with the fully-reclining seats and individual digital video recorders with multiple music, movie and game options. Makes the trip cross-country go SO much faster. Though as I looked down at the landscape slipping past beneath us, I thought about how we do in five hours what took my ancestors months.

Though I do have plans for plenty of shows (mostly off-Broadway), I'm hoping to hit a few more museums this trip.

Looking forward to having you along for the ride!

Monday, April 14, 2008

"Elite" is still a good thing, right?

In all the furor over Barack Obama's comments at a San Francisco fundraiser about disenfranchised Americans "clinging" to guns, God and xenophobia, the candidate was accused of being "elitist" by a wide swath of the media.

Jon Stewart's take on the kerfuffle was, as usual, pretty much perfect: "I know 'elite' is a bad word in politics and you want to go bowling and throw back a few beers. But the job you're applying for? If you get it, and it goes well -- they might carve your head into a mountain! If you don't actually think you're better than us, then what the fuck are you doing? In fact, not only do I want an elite president, I want someone who is embarrassingly superior to me."

"The Maids" at SF Playhouse

It's an interesting time to be talking about power. The political machines are currently in full force, and the chasm between the rich and the rest of us seems to grow wider every day.

That's why this is a perfect moment for Theatre Release to stage Jean Genet's "The Maids" at SF Playhouse. "The Maids" is, to be sure, a strange work. Absurd at times, almost relentlessly cruel, but also filled with fascinating language and characters. Claire and Solange are sisters in the service of Madame, whom they loathe. The two take turns playing Madame during their role play scenarios, in which they can actually speak the words they'd like to say to her.

I almost backed out of going when I heard the play was to be presented without an intermission. It's not that it's a long work, only 100 minutes, but without an interval, what was I going to do if it was as awful as I anticipated it might be?

My worries were abated when I saw the set. It's clear that Theatre Release (like virtually all small theatre companies) operates on a very tight budget. But they know how to make their staging investment go far. The single room depicted is enclosed by walls filled with graffiti and collages girdling the space. (Constriction and control are key themes of the play, and the set design reinforces this.) The floors are strewn with detritus, including several dozen latex gloves. From the moment you sit, you have the sense that something chaotic and uncontrollable is going on.

Yet the textual veneer is that of control, submission and servitude. Claire and Solange (both played by men, just as the role of Madame is) are almost always in physical contact with each other. Lewis Heathcote, Scott Nordquist and Daegan Palermo bring tremendous focus, intensity and physical power to the stage. I often feel that Bay Area actors bring a sense of "watch me" to their roles that creates emotional distance between the audience and the character. Their desire to be seen means the actor oftens gets in the way of the character, making it difficult for an audience to truly connect with the work. These three work with an amazing sense of commitment. I know they are acting -- I can hear it in their voices, in the phrasing of Genet's archly-romantic language. But the craft never gets in the way of the story the characters are sharing with us. I think that's a hard thing to do, and the cast is to be congratulated for it.

Also deserving of kudos is director Tom Bentley, who helms this piece with a sure hand. The pacing is lively, the movement is compelling, the staging and physical business all serves to illuminate the story and the characters who inhabit it.

"The Maids" isn't an easy show to watch. It's creepy and claustrophobic and it's not always easy to figure out who's being who at any given moment. But none of that is a reason not to go.

Here's the main reason to hit Goldstar Events and buy your tickets: you won't see a company more committed to their work than the artists behind the Theatre Release production of "The Maids." So support them. Buy a ticket.

I know I'm lining up to see the next thing Theatre Release puts on the boards, whatever it is.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Only Real Christians?

I started watching a documentary last night -- "Into Great Silence." It's the story of life in a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. Filmed with virtually no crew and only available light, the movie is the result of director Philip Groning's six-month stay with the brothers of Grand Chartreuse.

The order is one of the most ascetic to be found anywhere. The brothers spend almost every hour in silence (on certain feast days they go for a walk, during which they are allowed conversation). They pray almost continuously (silently), except when they are working or chanting. They wear simple habits (that are sewn in the monastery) and live in cells with no modern conveniences.

I say "started watching" because at two hours and 40 minutes, with no narration, no music and only a few hundred spoken words, it's an anti-ADD movie. It moves incredibly slowly.

But there was one bit of title graphics that got me. It was a quote from the New Testament, along the lines of "unless a person gives up all they have, they cannot be my disciple." Perhaps these men, therefore, are the only true Christians out there.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Wear this...

...to the next Promise Keepers convention. (Even if they thought it said "goddess," you'd be in trouble.) Available here from Etsy.