Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten Theatrical Events of 2009

Although this was a tough year economically, it was a wonderful year in so many other ways. We ended the Bush era, my daughter embarked on the first part of her journey to adulthood by going off to college in Maryland, and I got to attend another 70 or so theatrical events of one sort or another: plays, musicals, comedy, cabaret performances, concerts. Some were simply dreadful (I support community theater, but I don't often like it), most of them were enjoyable on one level or another, but a few were truly magical. At least to me. At least on those nights.

In alphabetical order, here are the ten best things I saw this year:

"American Idiot" at Berkeley Rep, Berkeley
This punk rock tone poem -- now on its way to Broadway -- is an evocation of teen disaffection and confusion in the context of a world saturated with millions of conflicting political and media messages.

It's a bit dark and depressing, but that's rather hard to avoid when one of the key themes is “Nobody likes you. Everyone left you. They’re all out without you, having fun.” But “American Idiot” is also a brilliant, explosive, heartfelt work of art. The music is amazing and the onstage band rocks every corner of the house. The story’s a bit thin, but the show’s not about story – it’s about emotion.

"The Floating Lightbulb" at A Traveling Jewish Theater, San Francisco
The Traveling Jewish Theater has changed its name. Since they found a permanent home, it's now just The Jewish Theater. But that doesn't change the fact that they wandered into a terrific production of Woody Allen's play about a young Jewish boy who wants to be a magician. Most really talented actors don't hang around San Francisco too much, they head off to LA or New York because that's where the work is. But a few can't leave the Bay Area, and several of them were in this production.

"God of Carnage" at the Jacobs Theater, New York
"God of Carnage" is one of those shows where you rather despise the characters as people, but love them as characters because they entertain. What's great about the play by Yasmina Reza is how the constrictions of the theater help lay bare the insecurities of the characters. How it puts their bravado on display, revealing a terrible lack of courage.

Although it sounds grim, it's actually quite funny. Hard to imagine how you can milk laughs out of lines like "Every word that comes out of your mouth is destroying me!", but "God of Carnage" manages it.

Jake Johannsen at Cobb's Comedy Club, San Francisco
A lifetime ago, I tried my hand at stand-up comedy. So did Jake Johannsen. In fact, we did our first open mic night sets on the same night. I lasted about a year in comedy, while Jake has gone on to have a solid career. (In fact, his new Showtime special, "I Love You," premieres tonight.) Way back then I saw that Jake had a special talent that I lacked. And every time I've seen him on stage, he's proved me right. I don't know why he hasn't broken into the big big time. Maybe his work is just too smart and too sharp for a mass audience to really "get."

I'm not saying this because Jake and I are still friends of a sort, but because I think it's true: Jake Johannsen is the best, most inventive stand-up comedian working today.

Marilyn Maye at The Rrazz Room, San Francisco
She's a bit old-fashioned, but Marilyn Maye's show at The Rrazz Room was so warm-hearted, so honest and genuine that it swept away all my desire for novelty and hipness. From the moment she walked on stage in her Bob Mackie outfit, she did what an entertainer is supposed to do: entertain. Great songs, great stories and a love for her audience that is palpable combined to make this a very special evening.

"Next to Normal" at the Booth Theater, New York
Although "Next to Normal" is ostensibly about how a family copes with a mother who suffers from bipolar disorder with delusions, it's also about the condition of being human. It's about how we connect -- or not -- with our fellow beings. It's about what we give up in order to grow, and how we grow up by giving. It's about the fragility of love, the tenacity of biology, the frustration of not getting what you want -- and the perils inherent in getting it.

But what may be most brilliant about this show may be that it's about whatever is most important to you right now. And isn't that what makes art, art?

"Our Town" at the Barrow Street Theater, New York
In making art we attempt to expand or compress time or reality -- or both -- in order to make clearer to ourselves and others some aspect of existence. To make some part of the human condition more accessible.

The production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" at the Barrow Street Theater is one of those rare works of art that is scaled just right. Time and reality are expanded and compressed just the right amount in just the right ways to create an experience that is both the epitome of the theatrical experience and something I've never really felt before in a theater. The boundary between audience and players are blurred throughout - and occasionally erased almost completely.

What both director David Cromer and Thorton Wilder have succeeded in doing in this specific instance of art is to remind us of our common humanity. Grover's Corners is, in fact, our town. It is our earth, our existence. It is what we all share -- and it is both mundane and magical, ordinary and awe-inspiring. Often at the same time.

Steely Dan at The Masonic Auditorium, San Francisco
One of my favorite bands of all time, and one of the few I'd never seen perform live -- mostly because for most of their career they never performed live, preferring to concentrate their efforts in the studio. Now, more than 30 years after their initial success, they occasionally go on the road. On the night I saw them, they performed -- in order -- the entire "Royal Scam" album, which is probably my favorite Steely Dan record, then went on to play a whole other set of songs from the rest of their oeuvre. I knew all the words, danced in the aisles like a teenager and generally had a terrific time.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Intiman Theater, Seattle
A beautifully staged, beautifully acted production gave me an appreciation for this masterpiece that I'd never gotten from the movie version.

"Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them" at The Public Theatre, New York
It's not really about torture. It's about reconciliation. It's about the desire to take back your bad decisions and make things right again. But since it's written by Christopher Durang, it goes at these serious issues in a relatively absurd, outlandish, biting, and frequently brilliant fashion.

One of the main characters, Leonard, is an arch-conservative who obsessively toes all the standard lines. He's like one of the suits in a Tom Tomorrow cartoon: spouting the justifications of the Limbaugh dittoheads with such unashamed fervor that it lays bare the ridiculousness of their positions.

This is satire that cuts so cleanly that it takes a while to realize you're up to your ankles in blood.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

SUV Maestros

"We've got Tommy on jumper cables, Jules playing steering wheel, and the Amazing Latchtones on doors and windows!"

Monday, December 28, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Ten, "The Understudy"

I suppose one could do a festival of plays that take place entirely in theaters – “Noises Off, “Follies,” “Curtains,” “A Chorus Line,” “Phantom of the Opera” – I could continue. In fact, of the ten shows I saw on this trip, two (“Our Town” and “So Help Me God”) took place in theaters, and a third, “Circle Mirror Transformation” placed its action in a rehearsal studio which basically functioned as a theater.) Perhaps this plethora of titles is indicative of the navel-gazing often associated with theater types. Could it be that we are so self-absorbed and juvenile that we return again and again to the womb of the stage? Or is it just that we follow the adage to “write what you know?”

Whatever the reason, Theresa Rebeck has added another play to this canon of works -- "The Understudy," currently playing at the Laura Pels Theater as part of Roundabout Theatre Company's season.

The setup is pretty simple: Harry (a hilarious Justin Kirk) is a theater veteran, newly-hired to understudy a big movie star (Jake, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar) in a surprise Broadway hit: a lost masterpiece of Franz Kafka's. Coming from two different worlds, there's bound to be some envy, especially when Jake claims that his $2.4 million fee for acting in a recent action blockbuster isn't really all that much after you pay your agent and manager. Harry's also a little judgmental about the quality of Jake's performance. So there's bound to be some tension on the set.

This tension should ordinarily be quelled by the sure and steady hand of a stage manager, the one person on a show whose job description (in part) is to never get flustered. But Roxanne (played delectably by Julie White, whose presence in the cast was probably the main reason I selected the show) is perpetually flustered -- by her late arriving movie star, by a prop gun that goes missing, by an unseen stoner tech who keeps hitting the wrong cues, but mostly by the fact that Harry was Roxanne's fiance until he skipped town two weeks before the wedding. (Roxanne doesn't know it's Harry who has been cast because he changed his name for professional reasons, so his presence on set is a big surprise for her.) Roxanne refers to her wedding dress, still in her closet six years later, as "a wound on a hanger."

"The Understudy" has its problems, but since we're in the theater, I'm willing to suspend a bit of disbelief and just go ahead and enjoy the snarky comments and all the funny insider bits that would fly right past most people but that a savvy New York audience just eats up.

As insider-y as "The Understudy" gets -- and it's pretty darn insider-y when you're cracking wise about the perceived value of Equity cards vs. SAG cards and the mercury poisoning a real Hollywood actor used as an excuse to get out of an off-Broadway production he wasn't enjoying -- it still meets the criteria of being universal enough. "The Understudy" is about power and clout and insecurity and confidence and professionalism. You just have to look past the jargon and the private jokes and enjoy the foolishness of people pretending to be other people (pretending to be still other people) and laugh because it makes you feel good.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Nine, "This"

Do we take things too seriously? Is life all just a game with a set of rules that feel somewhat ad hoc, not to mention highly-fluid, but infractions of which are nonetheless strictly punished? Should we, as I believe I heard Bugs Bunny say once, not take life too seriously because we'll "never get out of it alive?"

This seems to me to be one of the core conundrums at the heart of Melissa James Gibson's new play, "This," now playing at Playwrights Horizon. The five characters who populate the stage are all bright, successful (at varying levels), skilled (at varying levels) and wounded. At varying levels.

Merrell and Tom and Jane and Alan all knew each other in college. Tom and Merrell got married, Jane married Roy (who appears in this show only as cremains) and Alan is presumably the same verbally-gifted, bitchy, complainy gay man he always was. Jean-Pierre is a French "Doctor without borders" that Merrell wants to set Jane up with, it being nearly a year since her husband (the aforementioned cremains) has died of an unnamed disease.

This is the sort of show that's right up my alley. It's filled with wisecracking urbane sophisticates who wax philosophic on various topics with greater or lesser degrees of irony. They indulge a little too much (which leads to an hysterical moment where the character holding the two bottles which contain all the remaining liquor asks someone to "pass the Triple Sec" and another character reaches out and lifts her elbow so the bottle in her hand comes into her view), and they talk constantly. Like I said, perfect for me.

And though I loved the show, laughed a lot and appreciated the amazing set by Louisa Thompson, and the theatricality of it all, and though I loved all the intellectual banter, I felt something was missing. Some sort of soul to the play. Maybe I just didn't like the perfectness of all the character's jobs: Merrell is a jazz singer/pianist in nightclubs, Tom an artistic cabinetmaker, Jane a published poet now teacher, Jean-Pierre is the aforementioned philanthropic man of medicine and Alan makes his living as a professional mnemonist, a man with a prodigious recall -- a skill which comes to hilarious use late in the show. Maybe it's because some of the topics discussed feel too much like the cute things a writer jots down in a notebook but didn't always seem connected to the characters.

Overall, though, I'd say "This" is worth a look.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Eight, "Hair"

I remember the cast album for "Hair" quite clearly. My oldest brother (20 years older) owned it, and when it was first out it was played with some regularity in his house, usually after a Saturday night dinner where some not insignificant amount of wine was consumed. I was 11 or so when the cast album was released, so some of it went over my head. I remember someone asking me if I liked the record, and when I said "yes" my other brother said "you like the one about fellatio?" my mother chided him. I knew some of the words in the number to which he was referring ("Sodomy"), but that wasn't among them at the time.

But this is all really beside the point, isn't it? I guess the point was that I went into this new production of "Hair" with a relative familiarity with the music. I'd also seen the cast perform during the 2009 Tony Awards, and loved it. Their performance was wild and energetic and unleashed -- and it's even more so live.

Be warned, this is not a production for children. This warning is too late for a seemingly single dad, who brought three 5-6 year olds to see the rather overt sexuality, hear the F-bomb dropped with some regularity, and hum along with the aforementioned "Sodomy": "Sodomy...fellatio...cunnilingus...pederasty." So keep anyone under 16 or so at home, but come and enjoy yourself.

Unlike last night's dreadful "Finnian's Rainbow," this revival has almost as much relevance as it ever did. When one character says "war is about the white people sending the black people to kill the yellow people to protect the land we stole from the red people," the only alteration that would be needed to make that more contemporary would be to change "yellow people" to "brown people." We're fighting an unpopular war abroad and are torn apart by political and generational divisions at home. Yet the message of "Hair" remains the same: love each other. And let the sun shine in.

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Seven, "Superior Donuts" & "Finnian's Rainbow"

"Superior Donuts"
Poor Arthur Przybyzewski. Past his mid-life crisis, he's spent his years mostly running away from things -- the draft, his wife, their child. Now, living an isolated, lonely life running the donut shop his family opened more than 60 years ago, Arthur seems to have finally stopped running. The question is, has he stopped growing?

But perhaps the biggest question people were asking with this play was whether Tracy Letts, fresh from his Tony/Pulitzer/Drama Desk award winning triumph, "August: Osage County" would be able to top that triumph. The short answer is "no," but my guess is that he wasn't even trying to. My guess is this much smaller story came to him and he decided it was what ought to be next. Unfortunately, critics and audiences can be a lot less open-minded than a playwright might hope for, and Letts has endured a lot of criticism (and half-empty houses and an early closing date) for this follow-up effort.

Much of that criticism, however, is well-founded -- though it deserves mostly to be aimed at the production and not the playwright, for Letts has created an engaging, funny play that deserves our admiration. Unfortunately, he's been let down by his director, Tina Landau, who lets the play open with a sluggish, aimless pace. The supporting cast didn't seem to be giving it their all, either, though that may be due to the fact that it was two days before Christmas, the house was half-full and the play is closing on January 3. Easy to imagine their hearts might not have been entirely into it.

"Superior Donuts" doesn't really find its balance until the appearance of Franco Wicks (the energetic and sharp Jon Michael Hill), a self-described "self-starter" who talks his way into a job and starts working on improving the surroundings, starting first with his new employer. Arthur, an aging hippie, wears his hair in a pony tail. "You know who looks good in a pony tail?" he ask Arthur. "Girls...and ponies."

"Superior Donuts" is generally described as a comedy, and it has lots of funny lines. (One of my favorites being when Arthur defends himself against a charge or racism by saying to Franco "I hired you, didn't I?" To which Franco responds, "Scoot over, Lincoln, make room on the penny!"

The drama comes primarily from the fact that Franco has a secret or two that will be revealed over the course of the play, and Arthur will have the opportunity to finally complete something difficult in his life without running away from it. That moment, which happens in the very last line of the play, brings "Superior Donuts" to a tender, touching close. I'm sorry the play's run is closing, because Letts' follow-up to "August: Osage County" deserves better.

"Finnian's Rainbow"
My main question is "why?" Why recycle this chestnut? The songs aren't that great and the story is hackneyed and outdated. Why did the marvelous Cheyenne Jackson decide this was the best move at this point in his career? But the biggest why is why, after the original ran for 723 performances, wasn't that enough?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Six, "Let Me Down Easy"

Anna Deavere Smith is a woman of many talents, chief among them listening. She's made a bit of a career finding people with interesting stories, getting them to tell her those stories, then recreating them verbatim (or nearly so) in solo performances where she will play a range of people who are linked in some way. Sometimes the linkage is their joint association with a specific event -- the Crown Heights Riot for one. In her new show, "Let Me Down Easy," now playing at the 2econd Stage Theatre, the common thread is a single word: grace. What is it? What are our lives without it? Can we earn it? Can we give it to others? Most important to it, does it increase or decrease under pressure, especially the pressure of ill health?

Smith never addresses these questions in even an oblique way. Rather she presents a series of 20 brief portraits of a wide range of individuals, from celebrities such as Lance Armstrong, Ann Richards, Lauren Hutton and Joel Siegel to an array of unknown people: doctors, patients, a musicologist, the director of a South African orphanage. Each gets skewered a bit, but not without softening the blow with her deep respect and love for each of the subjects. You get the sense she thinks virtually of them are a little bit crazy for one reason or another -- but always gives them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps in hope that people will do the same for her minor insanities.

Though things do tend to get a bit overblown from time to time (the orphanage director who tells of how she sits up with each dying child was a bit too playing the heartstrings with a 2x4 for me), this was almost entirely a wonderful, brief series of visits from a collection of characters who take the stage one at a time. The space begins in a very neutral state: just spare white-on-white furnishings. As Smith takes on -- and then sheds -- the props and items of clothing associated with each character, the stage ends up littered with the detritus of their stories.

FYI - there was no theater on day five of this trip. Hence the break in order.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Four, "Circle, Mirror, Transformation" and "Fuerzabruta"

"Circle, Mirror, Transformation"
It's either real but not true, or true but not real -- but it's not both. Although it's getting mostly great reviews and has been extended, there's a certain lack of genuineness that keeps me from getting more excited about a show that made me laugh hard many times.

The cast (especially the absolutely delightful Tracee Chimo, who gives a brilliant physical performance) is excellent, but the setup never quite gelled for me. The play takes place inside a community dance/aerobics/yoga studio in Vermont, where an acting teacher has finally begun a "creative drama" workshop for adults. Though the improv games they play during these classes are well-realized and often hysterical, I couldn't get over the fact that these four students become such excellent actors and reveal so many personal details in just six weeks of class. It began to feel like both a writerly and actorly showcase, and not a real play.

So ultimately disappointing.

Like their previous show, "De La Guarda", the creators of "Fuerzabruta" are working in a theatrical language that seems to me how an alien culture might attempt to communicate with us when there is no common language or culture or history. There's no story here, only the barest of thematic threads -- human struggle against (or perhaps dances with) forces that are far more powerful than they.

I love an intricate story more than most, but I still enjoyed every one of the 70 or so minutes of this show, because I love the kind of interactive, somewhat obtuse (but sensorily-rich) theatrical techniques director Diqui James has developed -- from the giant treadmill to the enormous acrylic pool suspended above the audience where the cast frolic as though on an outsized slip 'n slide made of really durable Saran Wrap.

As I write, I see that this is where that lack of a common language presents a hurdle. I can't adequately explain what's going on -- nor could I. Because the show isn't about explanations, it's about experiences. And you just have to experience "Fuerzabruta." Because it is undeniably magical.

Just remember that you'll be experiencing that magic on your feet: there are no seats in the performance space.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Three, "So Help Me God"

I'll confess there were times in "So Help Me God," especially near the end, that I thought Kristen Johnson might be pushing a bit too hard in her performance as a tyrannical Broadway diva, prepping a new show. That she was giving it just a bit too much throttle coming out of the corners. But when you're playing a stratospherically psychopathic narcissist, it's hard to go over the top when you keep finding a new top.

There is nothing Lily Darnley won't do to further her own interests, no matter how callously wicked or wantonly cruel that might be. But her cruelest cut of all is being in such a limited run hit. The show closes tonight. Which is apparently one of little tragedies Christmas can bring along with its joys, because Johnson was hysterical.

Friday, December 18, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day One Two, "Our Town"

I've long believed that a good definition for "art" is " scale." In making art we attempt to expand or compress time or reality -- or both -- in order to make clearer to ourselves and others some aspect of existence. To make some part of the human condition more accessible.

The production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" at the Barrow Street Theater is one of those rare works of art that is scaled just right. Time and reality are expanded and compressed just the right amount in just the right ways to create an experience that is both the epitome of the theatrical experience and something I've never really felt before in a theater. The boundary between audience and players are blurred throughout - and occasionally erased almost completely.

The Stage Manager, played by Jason Butler Harner, speaks directly with the audience in a natural, comfortable way. He looks to us for our opinions, even manages to cast several of the audience in the performance by handing them cards with questions to read. A cast member exiting said "Good evening, Miss Holcombe" to one audience member and "How ya doin' Stew" to another. (Or something along to those lines.) One row of seats can be said to be on stage, even though it's on the exact same level as the next row of seats behind it.

What both director David Cromer (who originated the role of the Stage Manager in this production) and Thorton Wilder have succeeded in doing in this specific instance of art is to remind us of our common humanity. Grover's Corners is, in fact, our town. It is our earth, our existence. It is what we all share -- and it is both mundane and magical, ordinary and awe-inspiring. Often at the same time.

(Regarding the odd title of this post, Day One was cancelled due to food poisoning."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Triple Zero House

An interesting story in Scientific American about how architects are designing homes that actually produce more energy than they use.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Birth of Ca Phe Sua Da

Click here to read a bit of background on one of my favorite coffee drinks -- which I virtually never get to drink because it's almost never offered in a decaf version and it's so wildly caffeinated that I jangle like a wind chime in a typhoon for about six hours after drinking one.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Cowards of Albany

Today, the state Senate of New York -- or at least quite a few of its senators -- showed just how cowardly and self-serving American politics has become. When, after a year of lobbying and many failed attempts (which were likened by Joe Jervis of Joe.My.God to Lucy never letting Charlie Brown kick the football) to bring the issue of marriage equality to a vote, legislation finally reached the Senate floor today.

Given the political climate (the defeats in Maine, California -- and just about every place else in the country), I didn't really expect the measure to pass. The political climate is also why I shouldn't be surprised that the vote was as lopsided as it was: 38-24. In the months and weeks leading up to this vote that was on-again-off-again several times, it was thought the measure's backers might have as many as 35 votes. Although that was optimistic at best, backers thought they had a real chance at getting 32 votes, the amount needed to pass, and certainly expected to receive 30 votes, or very close to it.

But two interesting things happened when the bill hit the floor. First, only one senator, Ruben Diaz, chose to speak against the measure. (And he a Democrat, no less. Has he read the Democratic party platform?) And his primary argument was the only one opponents of marriage equality can use, since there is no logical reason to deny it -- the Bible. Second, those nearly 30 votes quickly contracted to 24 when it became clear the measure would not pass.

After all, with such a hot-button issue, why be on the side of equality and justice when it's clear most voters aren't? Forget that you're supposed to be a leader, not just a mouthpiece for any bigotry a majority of people feel comfortable with. Just dodge the civil rights issue of your time and enjoy the benefits of re-election and the perks of power. But don't expect history to treat you as kindly.

That's why the Republicans (and Democrats) who lost their chance to be on the right side of the issue didn't speak up; they know, in their heart of hearts, that they couldn't argue against equality without appearing either foolish for taking a position that defies logic, or advocating theocracy. (Something Ruben Diaz was happy to do, saying legislators ought to consult their Bibles when making legislation.)

Once the vote was complete though, the Republicans started talking. “Certainly this is an emotional issue and an important issue for many New Yorkers,” said Senator Tom Libous, the deputy Republican leader. “I just don’t think the majority care too much about it at this time because they’re out of work, they want to see the state reduce spending, and they are having a hard time making ends meet. And I don’t mean to sound callous, but that’s true.”

What? True that you sound callous, or that you are callous?

But beyond that, what does extending the rights and responsibilities of marriage to LGBT people have to do with unemployment or state spending? Nothing, of course. But LGBT people are a convenient (and relatively powerless) minority, and this issue makes for a lovely distraction from the fact that the economy still sucks for working people. So the right latches on to this issue as a way to show they are still in touch with the feelings of the common man. And when it comes time to justify their votes, they don't talk about the issue itself, but use popular opinion as an excuse for why they can't do the right thing. Sickening.

But as posters plastered throughout London during the Blitz said, "Keep Calm and Carry On." LGBT Americans are in a somewhat similar position as Londoners in the early days of WWII. We face the attacks of a powerful, evil (though they think they are doing the right thing) enemy, but if we keep our heads down, go about our business and keep pointing out what the right thing really is, the enemy will one day be driven back.

We lost today. Equality will ultimately be victorious.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

He's as Mad as Hell...

...and he's not going to take it anymore.

Once again, Andrew Sullivan taps the anger and passion I feel about the direction of our country. In one his posts today, Andrew sets out a manifesto for what he cannot accept in a political movement; in this case, why he can't get behind today's "conservative" movement, even though he has always identified as a conservative.

Money quote:

"I cannot support a movement which has no real respect for the institutions of government and is prepared to use any tactic and any means to fight political warfare rather than conduct a political conversation.

I cannot support a movement that sees permanent war as compatible with liberal democratic norms and limited government.

I cannot support a movement that criminalizes private behavior in the war on drugs."

Read it all.