Thursday, May 10, 2012
To tell you the truth, I don't actually want "Cock" to be the story of a headstrong rooster - or anything else - because it's an absolutely riveting play.
The story is relatively simple and straightforward: a gay couple has relationship difficulties when one of the pair meets a woman, has a fling with her and can't decide which one he ought to be with. It's not the story that makes "Cock" such a wonderful play - it's the characters and the acting and the staging that lift "Cock" to greatness.
I won't go on about the characters, because that would be revealing too much. What I will say is that every actor (there are four) gives a powerful, nuanced performance. However, I must call out the work of Jason Butler Harner in the role of M. (No, this is not a Bond film.) M is half the gay couple - the cuckolded half, the one who learns that his partner has fallen/is falling (perhaps) for a woman. His performance is both subtle and and outsized - in exactly the right proportion. This allows him to be both forceful and vulnerable when he delivers lines like, "You said we would be together no matter what. And this is what."
The staging is so simple that it's almost not there. The theater has been set up as an amphitheater, with a 12-foot (or so) circle in the center. (NOTE: there are five rows in the amphitheater, but only the top row has a back you can lean against.) There are no props, no set and no costume changes - although some are referred to.
From a thematic standpoint, there is a strong undercurrent of sexuality as a choice. Is John (the character torn between two people) gay? Straight? Bi? How much choice does he really have in the matter? Does choice matter in terms of sexuality? In other words, even if it were a choice, why should that make any difference in the way we treat each other as individuals or as members of a community?
These are questions you will have to answer for yourself - and I strongly recommend you see "Cock" in order to get the conversation started.
Monday, May 07, 2012
Fortunately, this writing task is a little easier. I get to start with another writer's work - specifically, David Ives' staggeringly-brilliant play, based in part on the 19th century novel, "Venus in Fur" by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, one of the books that introduced the world to S&M. (The "M," of course, being inspired by Sacher-Masoch's name.)
But that sense of terror writers face is present at every moment of this 90-minute two-hander. It begins with playwright and director Thomas (Hugh Dancy), who has written an adaptation of "Venus in Fur" and is conducting auditions for an actress to play the part of Vanda, the lead character. Finding no one suitable, he's ready to give up until a young actress - conveniently also named Vanda - steps through the door and proceeds to turn his world upside down. Which makes sense, because that's what sadists do. Sadism isn't really about inflicting pain, it's about engendering terror. Creating chaos so the masochist can experience the terror of not knowing what's coming next.
Thomas is already living in terror, and Vanda only ups the ante. Here he is, the writer, the director, the man in control. The person who has created a whole world and thinks he's in charge of it. At least until Vanda arrives and throws all his expectations out the window.
Both Hugh Dancy and Nina Arianda are wonderful, and it will be a travesty of justice if Nina does not walk away with the Tony.
There is so much richness, so many layers of meaning and plot and character, that I can't really do this justice without giving too much away. "Venus in Fur" is like one of those Russian nesting dolls - you keep unpacking it and it keeps revealing something new. This isn't a show about sadism or masochism, necessarily. It's also about art and theater and the masks we wear - and ask others to wear.
Wear whatever you like - but go. As soon as you can.
Sunday, May 06, 2012
With all the drama surrounding Judy's last months - the pills, the booze ("Whenever I drink water, I always feel I'm missing something."), the gold-digging younger fiance, more pills - you'd think it would be hard to make a play as uni-dimensional as this. But they managed somehow.
Some of the fault lies with writer Peter Quilter, though I place far more of the blame at the feet of director Terry Johnson, who has created some abrupt transitions in the performances, so that his actors suddenly blow up in rage with no truly adequate motivation for doing so. Garland was an addict, but she wasn't stupid or crazy. Bennett has the Garland poses down, as well as the vocal tics, but ultimately she can't transcend the plodding clumsiness of the production.
The play takes place mostly in 2004, as the Iraq War was starting to ramp up, and the tension between Polly and Lyman Wyeth (the very Republican parents, played by Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach) and their two children, Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel) and Trip (Matthew Risch) is palpable from the first scene. The stakes (and the tension) only go up when it turns out that Brooke, whose first novel was a big success but who has suffered from writer's block in the years since, has written a memoir of the family, focusing on her long-dead brother, about whom no one has been allowed to speak.
The family (including alcoholic Aunt Silda, played by Judith Light) has gathered in their Palm Springs home (a brilliant set by the virtually-always brilliant John Lee Beatty) for Christmas. Even though they're Jewish. Brooke has flown in from Sag Harbor ("Living on the East Coast has led you to believe sarcasm is both charming and alluring," her mother says), bringing with her the manuscript for her unpublished (but already sold) book. The family assumes it's another novel, but like so many assumptions people make, this is wrong. When the family learns her real plan, everything starts falling apart. But in a good way. At least for the audience.
Telling the truth can be an expensive proposition, and it certainly is for the Wyeth family, at least in terms of their emotions. Stockard Channing is stunning as the matriarch who watches what she feels she's built over decades fall apart in the course of a day or so. Stacy Keach gives a performance that is a great match for Channing. (I loved the bit when his character - a movie star turned politician - shows just how easy it is for him to die convincingly.) Marvel, Light and Risch all do great jobs, as well. In fact, I can't find much to criticize about "Other Desert Cities," other than wishing it had gone on a bit longer. I'd love to see how this family is changed by the revelations made in the shadow of their gold-flocked Christmas tree.
Thursday, May 03, 2012
It's true, as many reviewers have pointed out, that much of the play still resonates in today's political climate -- the venality, the sucking up to power (with the non-stop nature of a Dyson vacuum), the sham marriages, the chattering class always at the door... Plus, the cast is as star-packed as anything I've seen on Broadway: James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen, John Laroquette, Eric McCormack and Michael McKean. The problem is, only Laroquette really found a true character. Which is fitting, since he plays William Russell, the only truly principled character in the drama. Laroquette stands as a solid pole supporting a very big tent.
Unfortunately, the other major players don't seem to really be engaged with their roles. Candice Bergen is too casually chilly in her role as the good candidate's wife, and Eric McCormack's southern accent wanders in and out to the point that you can't tell whether he's supposed to be from Mississippi or South Carolina or just auditioning for every role in "Steel Magnolias." Angela Lansbury, lovable and adored as she is, simply doesn't have the power to seize the stage the way she once did. (The fact that she is the only cast member who had to be mic'd is one good sign of that.)
"The West Wing" this is not. Today's politics is about speed and volume and continuous news cycles. "The Best Man" is much more linear and old-fashioned. It's of the day when there were three networks and a handful of major papers. Which is delightful if you're in a nostalgic mood. But given the stakes in our current political battles, we don't need a creaky, stuffy period piece. Battling intolerance and ignorance requires a much sharper saber than Vidal's 1960 play. As one character says "I'd like to think intelligence is contagious -- but I'm afraid it isn't." As the kids say, true that.
This line is spoken by Curtis Lyons, the youngest child of Rita and Ben Lyons. Ben doesn't much care for his son. Or his daughter, Lisa. They're both huge disappointments, and now that dad is dying (the first act takes place in a hospital room), he feels liberated to say exactly what he thinks. For instance, he thinks his son is "a creep." His wife, Rita, is "a bitch." To be honest with you, I'm inclined to agree. Apart from the nurse (played with a gentle strength by Brenda Pressley), no one is likeable. They're all family, but they certainly don't seem to love each other -- or themselves, for that matter.
They do have one thing going for them -- they're fictional. They're often funny, but they're also often pitiful and cruel and self-absorbed and standoffish and, yes, creepy. But they're on the other side of the proscenium where they belong. And where we can enjoy how marvelously they are played by a terrific cast led by Linda Lavin, who is on pretty much everyone's short list to win the Tony for this role.
The acidic nature of their characters seem to have eaten through any familial connections that might once have existed. The "icy, glacial blue" Rita imagines for the living room she wants to redecorate as soon as her husband hurries up and dies already loses its luster from the moment the curtain rises and ends up -- in Rita's words -- the "washed-out shade of dashed hopes." This family doesn't talk with each other, or even to each other, if they ever did. They only ever seem to talk at and through each other. But that's the way they like it. As Rita says, "no one feels comfortable with they're intimate."