October 7, 2023

Reflections on "Melissa Etheridge: My Window"

To truly appreciate Melissa Etheridge: My Window, you may need to be a hardcore fan of the singer-songwriter or a member of Generation X, who was born between 1965 and 1980, grew up with Etheridge’s music on the radio and are now nostalgic for the vanishing youth her playlist evokes. I, alas, am neither.

Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t like some of Etheridge’s songs or don’t find her to be an engaging performer but while I read at least two reviews that compare her musical memoir to listening to a quirky but beloved aunt at a Thanksgiving dinner, I felt like the outsider at the table who doesn’t know enough of—or care enough about—family lore to get all the inside jokes and rebukes. 

However there were plenty of people who clearly loved every minute of the performance I attended at Circle in the Square, where the show is currently scheduled to run through Nov. 19, 

The show starts with Etheridge’s birth 62 years ago in Leavenworth, Kansas and tracks her career from her childhood fascination with music through playing gigs in local bars during her teens, her aborted time at the Berklee College of Music and the years she spent playing in lesbian bars before getting a record deal and becoming a rock star who now has two Grammys and an Oscar. 

She gets into her personal life too, including the discovery of her interest in girls, the ups and downs of her various love relationships, her bout with cancer and the opioid overdose of her 21-year-old son in 2020.  

Etheridge has always traded on her regular-gal vibe but she’s been a star for three decades now and so bits of her privilege peek through as she recalls her tours and name drops celebrity friends, from Rosie O’Donnell to Al Gore.

Her storytelling is very subjective (as the title of the show says it is her window) but this creates a fuzziness that can make it difficult to follow the narrative if you don’t already know the details. For example, in one sentence she’s agreeing to have children because it’s something her then partner wants and in the next, she’s a single mother raising two kids without an explanation of how she ended up with custody instead of the other mom.

But basically, this is a concert filled with greatest hits and extended patter written by Etheridge and her now wife, the TV producer and writer Linda Wallem Etheridge. Changing jackets (leather, denim, sequins) and instruments (piano, drums, the clarinet and various acoustic and electric guitars) Etheridge runs through 19 songs, most of them hers, although she includes the tune “On Broadway” to express her delight in having moved the show there after a two-week off-Broadway tryout at New World Stages last fall.

An experienced and energetic performer, she frequently leaves the stage and makes her way through the audience, stopping to flirt with both women and men. Although I did feel sorry for the folks who paid $200 for upfront floor seats, only to have to spend a good part of the time craning their necks as she moved past them to a smaller stage set up at the back of that section.

Her only backup are the comedian Kate Owens, who, under the direction of Amy Tinkham, silently, but still amusingly, plays an onstage roadie, and video projections by Olivia Sebesky that run the gamut from homey family photos to psychedelic cat videos.

I’ve read that Etheridge was inspired to do this show after Bruce Springsteen did his. That makes me wonder if these concert confessionals are going to replace bio-musicals. They’re certainly cheaper to put on than full-fledged musical productions and fans get the added thrill of seeing their real idols up close and kind of personal. Who knows maybe come 2024, Beyoncé will be looking back at her life in a show on Broadway.




September 23, 2023

Thoughts on a New Era in New York Theater

The news came this week that two titans of New York theater will be stepping down from the powerful perches on which they’ve long roosted. André Bishop who has lead Lincoln Center Theater since 1992 said he would end his reign there when his current contract runs out after the 2024-2025 season. And Carole Rothman, who co-founded Second Stage Theater in 1979, said she will wrap up her 45-year tenure with that company this coming spring.  

Both Lincoln Center and Second Stage produce both on Broadway and off-Broadway and have small black box theaters that serve as incubators for up-and-coming playwrights. And each has won a slew of awards for the shows they’ve put on over the decades. Their influence has been great, and cherished by us theater lovers.

So these announced moves would be momentous enough on their own. But they follow the deaths within the past year of Todd Haimes, who ran the Roundabout Theatre Company for 40 years; Robert LuPone, the co-founder of MCC Theater who served as its co-artistic director for 36 years, and Andrew Leynse who lead Primary Stages for 21 years. 

When you factor in the recent departures of James Nicola from New York Theatre Workshop after heading it for 34 years; Sarah Benson who lead Soho Repertory Theatre for 16 years and John Doyle, who served a comparatively short six-year term as the head of Classic Stage Company, it’s clear that the times, as Bob Dylan used to say, are a-changin.

Such long tenures might suggest that the moves should have come sooner. There’s no question that these folks helped shape contemporary American theater with the playwrights and directors they’ve supported and the actors they’ve boosted over the years. But most of them are now Medicare-eligible and they’re no longer the Young Turks who helped the off-Broadway and regional theater movements to make a mark.

So it will be exciting to get some new butts in those chairs. But it’s going to be scary too. The people who take on those jobs are going to have to navigate a rockier theatrical landscape than we've seen in a long time. And those of us who love theater are going to have to be patient as they attempt to do it.

For starters, audiences are still skittish about returning to the theater after the pandemic and are rejecting the old subscription model that gave nonprofit theaters a financial cushion as they planned their seasons. They also seem to want what I call comfort-food shows: familiar titles, big name stars, happy endings. 

Meanwhile, theater makers are calling for more inclusive, more diverse and more challenging productions. And they want more comfortable working conditions and better pay too. 

The new leaders are going to have to balance those sometimes competing demands at the same time that costs are rising and financial support—be it government funds that helped them through the pandemic or the foundation dollars that got them started—is shrinking. And, of course, they’ll be endlessly compared to their predecessors whose own faults and failings will fade in the glare of nostalgia for the “good old days.”

And yet I’m not discouraged. Things weren’t all that great back in the ‘70s when most of the now old-timers were starting out. New York City was a mess. Rising crime had many people scared to go out at night. Several of the theaters almost went under. 

But the courageous and creative young visionaries who stepped up to run those places found the money and, more importantly, the talent and the voices to create the theater we have today. 

I suspect that a new generation will find its way to do the same for future theater lovers. And maybe they'll not only act differently but, if the people choosing them do their jobs well, some of them will look different too.


September 2, 2023

A Labor Day Salute to Working-Class Actors

Somehow the weeks in July and August always seem to fly by more quickly than those during the rest of the year. And so here we are again at the end of the summer and, as I do every Labor Day weekend, I’m taking time out to celebrate some of the people who work in the theater. 

Over the past 16 years, I’ve singled out playwrights, drama teachers, stage managers, composers, casting directors, labor union leaders and, of course, actors. But as the strikes by screen writers and actors move into their fourth month I couldn’t resist saluting actors again this year. 

Now I know that whenever someone says actors, most of us automatically think of the stars whose names appear on the marquee or in big print in the Playbill but most of the people who perform for us aren’t headliners. They’re working-class actors, who’ve trained just as hard and work just as hard but earn far less than the more celebrated names who get the limelight.  

The minimum salary for Broadway actors is currently about $2,500 a week. That sounds like a lot of money. At least it does until you consider that agents get part of that. So do the acting teachers, vocal coaches and physical therapists who help those performers stay in shape to deliver the kind of performances we audience members crave. And that’s all before you consider that the average rent for a studio apartment here in the city is now $3,200.

Off-Broadway actors earn even less, with minimums for those working for League of Resident Theaters (or LORT companies) ranging from $800 to $1,800 a week.  And since shows come and go, there’s no guarantee that actors on Broadway, off Broadway, in regional theaters or in touring companies will work the entire year. 

So I’m also cheering on the strikers. And it’s not just because so many playwrights and stage actors also find work on movies and TV shows. It’s because those of us who truly love theater want it to be as diverse as possible and if all kinds of people can’t make a living in theater (or in TV and movies) then we might find that we won't get the kind of theater so many of us truly want. 

August 12, 2023

"The Shark is Broken" Makes a Soft Splash

Listening to the waves of laughter that greeted the new comedy The Shark is Broken made me wonder if we might be entering the era of jukebox plays that pander to the folks who love particular movies in the way that so many jukebox musicals now do. 

For The Shark is Broken, which opened at the Golden Theatre this week, tells the behind-the-scenes story of the making of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster “Jaws.”

The movie famously chronicles the efforts of a local police chief, a marine biologist and a professional shark hunter to track down a great white shark that has begun attacking beachgoers at a summer resort town on Cape Cod. The play was conceived and co-written by Ian Shaw, the actor son of Robert Shaw who played the Ahab-like shark hunter (click here to read more about that). 

The younger Shaw was only four years old when the movie came out and his dad would die of a heart attack four years later at the age of just 51. But Ian Shaw and his co-writer playwright Joseph Nixon have clearly poured over the many books, articles and recorded interviews (click here to see one) that over the years have recounted that famously troubled shoot. Plus as a family member, Ian also had access to a recently discovered drinking journal that Robert Shaw kept during his time filming the movie.

“Jaws” was originally budgeted at $3.5 million for a 55-day shooting schedule but ended up costing $7 million and shooting for 159 days. That was partly due to unpredictable weather but mainly because the mechanical sharks so central to the movie kept breaking down. 

Spielberg, then just 27 years old, feared the movie would sink his still fledgling career. Instead it became a sensation, grossing $475 million, kickstarting the trend of action-oriented blockbusters that still define success in the movie business and creating a fandom that renews itself with each new generation of movie lovers.  

During its 90-minute running time, The Shark is Broken imagines what happened as the movie’s three lead actors sat around waiting for the shark to be fixed and the filming to resume. Poetic license has clearly been taken. It’s unlikely that the three stars would have been marooned between takes in the claustrophobically small cabin of the boat that provides the play’s sole set. 

Still kudos must go to set designer Duncan Henderson for recreating the exact look and feel of the boat in the movie and to lighting designer Jon Clark and video designer Nina Dunn for the stunning background visuals.

However too much of the show’s humor derives from having the characters make references to future events. For example, the play’s Shaw scoffs when he hears that Spielberg’s next movie is going to be about aliens and asks ”Whatever next? Dinosaurs?” 

Of course most audience members know that the alien movie (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) and the dinosaur movie (“Jurassic Park”) are going to be equally huge hits for Spielberg, which allows them to get the same self-congratulatory dopamine rush that they get when they hear familiar pop tunes in Moulin Rouge or the Neil Diamond musical A Beautiful Noise. 

In fact, there’s a kind of “Behind The Music” vibe rippling through the entire play as it checks off the boxes of the best known stories about “Jaws.” Robert Shaw could be a blustery alcoholic. Check. Richard Dreyfuss, who played the self-assured scientist onscreen, was often annoyingly insecure off-screen. Check. Roy Scheider, who played the police chief, spent lots of time in the sun, burnishing his tan. Check. 

And talk about fan service, there's even a scene in which the very fit Colin Donnell strips down to his skivvies so that his Scheider can sunbathe onstage and show off six-pack abbs that draw ooohs.

If there’s anything more than backstage gossip to this episodic show, which director Guy Masterson prosaically stages with repeated blackouts, it’s probably the theme of the connection, or misconnection, between fathers and sons. 

Each of the three characters gets a scene in which he confides his regrets about his relationship with his father. Dreyfuss’ dad had too high expectations for his son. Scheider’s father was violent. Shaw’s drank heavily and committed suicide. The disclosures hint at depth but then skip right over it to the next joke.

With the help of some clever hair, makeup and costumes, the three stage actors look just like the film actors they’re playing. Donnell isn’t given much to do as Scheider but he still manages to convey the unforced confidence of the actor who died in 2008.  

Meanwhile, Alex Brightman brings the manic energy that has become his trademark to the role of the equally manic Dreyfuss; his antics actually had his co-stars struggling not to break character and laugh during the performance my husband K and I attended.  

Ironically, it is Ian Shaw’s portrayal of his father that is the show’s weakest link. He bears an almost uncanny resemblance to his dad and there are lovely moments when he recites the Shakespeare they both apparently loved. But Shaw too often veers into a caricature of the macho personae his father exhibited in the film and he leans so heavily into the elder Shaw’s native Lancastrian accent that it’s sometimes hard to understand what he’s saying.

Yet writing the previous paragraph made me feel like a grinch because this play is so clearly a love letter from a son to a father he primarily got to know through the movies. And you’d have to have a harder heart than mine not to applaud that. 

August 5, 2023

The Dog Emerges as Best in Show in "Toros"

Why is Frank Wood, not just a stalwart of New York theater but a Tony winner, lying on the floor and playing a dying dog? That’s the question I kept asking myself as I sat watching Toros, the new play that opened this week for a brief run through Aug. 13 in Second Stage’s uptown space at the McGinn/Cazale Theater. 

And unlike the pooch in A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, Wood’s dog isn’t even the title character. That honor goes to a twentysomething named Alex who has returned to his native Madrid after a failing attempt to make it in New York. His friends—frenemies really—ironically call him Toro, Spanish for bull, because he’s so meek.

Toro’s supposed bestie is Juan, an obnoxious rich kid who works for his realtor father, lives with his parents and spends most of his time in their cluttered basement. drinking, getting high and putting together lame rap beats that he believes will make him a star d.j.

The two other regulars who hang out in the basement are Andrea, who went to high school with Alex and Juan and isn’t sure which of them she’s now drawn too; and Tica, Juan’s family dog who is on her last legs and dragging herself around the room whenever she can muster up the strength to move at all. 

Playwright Danny Tejera clearly wants to say something about the ennui of millennials in his native Spain but he’s better at indicating the fecklessness of his characters (there are repeated episodes of Juan just standing around and bopping to his beats) than he is at digging into what’s caused their stagnation or explaining what brings about the eventual changes in their behavior.

But Tejera does have a flair for natural-sounding dialog, especially the put-downs, repeat phrases and awkward silences that can pass for conversation among people who spend too much time together.

He's also studied with Annie Baker and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and his play exhibits some of the mischievously surreal elements that mark their works. The prime example being Tica, who, at least in Wood’s totally committed performance, comes off as the show's most sympathetic character.  

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch seems on shakier ground. So some of what she and Tejera do together works (an imaginatively mimed sex scene) but some of it doesn’t (the reveal and laborious disassembly of the family car).

On the plus side, Abubakr Ali, Juan Castano and the actor who goes by the single lower-cased letter b are all convincing as Toros' anchorless trio. Their characters may remind some theatergoers of the similar threesome in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth.  Lonergan’s play may be better, but it doesn’t have Tica.  

July 29, 2023

"Flex" Is One of The Summer Season's MVPs

It’s 1998 and the five starting players for the Lady Train, the all-black girls basketball team in a small Arkansas town, aren’t dirt poor or bougie rich. The problems they’re dealing with aren’t extraordinary either but the kinds of things familiar to teen girls everywhere. And those facts alone make Flex, currently running at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse theater, a standout because its playwright Candrice Jones isn’t leaning into the predictable tropes of black trauma or white guilt that seem to have become almost mandatory these days when plays center around black characters. 

This doesn’t mean that Jones and her director Lileana Blain-Cruz are sidestepping the challenging realities of contemporary life. One of the players is pregnant and considering an abortion. Two are secretly in love and trying to navigate their relationship in a church-going community where homosexuality is considered a sin. And each sees her athletic prowess as a way to get a scholarship to a good college or to escape the provincialism of their hometown or to help define the woman she hopes to become.

The pleasure for theatergoers is that Jones, Blain-Cruz and the engaging cast and clever design team they’ve recruited have figured out how to turn all of this into a thought-provoking but often laugh-out-loud funny and thoroughly entertaining time.  

The title is based on a basketball strategy in which no player showboats but each one works to support the greater good of the team as a whole. And that same approach works beautifully in this production too. Although a special shout-out has to go to set designer Matt Saunders for not only designing authentic-looking basketball courts but creating a full-size car that, with the assistance of Adam Honoré’s spot-on lighting and a crackerjack stage crew, draws a mid-show ovation.

Like many sports narratives, Flex follows its team’s efforts to win a championship. There are, of course, bumps along that journey. For starters, the Lady Train’s coach (Christiana Clark) forbids anyone who gets pregnant from playing, which means that valuable team member April (Brittany Bellizeare) will be benched, which means that the team's prospects will be put at risk. 

There’s also the dangerously acrimonious rivalry between a swaggering newcomer named Sidney (Tamera Tomakili) who has just moved to town from Oakland where she was such a hot shot that college scouts have now followed her to the Lady Train’s games; and the team’s longtime star player, the perhaps too-aptly named Starra (Erica Matthews) who is desperate to catch the eyes of those scouts. 

Jones is still a young playwright (the production of Flex that would have marked her professional debut was scheduled to be done in 2020 at the Humana Festival in Louisville but was canceled when the pandemic shut down theaters everywhere; click here to read more about that) and she does occasionally venture into melodrama or fall back on coincidence to move her plot along. 

But Blain-Cruz, who, like Jones, played basketball in high school, keeps the action moving so that the jokes land and the basketball choreography looks convincing (extra kudos to Matthews who manages to sink basket after basket) without sacrificing the show’s underlying message about the importance of team work on and off the court.

There have been some gripes from the critics but this show is a crowd-pleaser. And I saw far more young people than usual at the performance I attended, including groups of men who I suppose were drawn by the basketball theme. Flex clearly seemed to score for them. And it did for me too.

July 8, 2023

It's His Niece Sonya Who Stands Out in this Very Intimate Production of "Uncle Vanya"

Like most theater obsessives, I take pride in my collection of experiences that give me bragging rights—I saw Hamilton at the Public before it was a hit! I saw Glory Days, which opened and closed on Broadway the same night! I was at the Lincoln Center performance when Patti LuPone reached out and grabbed an audience member’s cell phone!—and I’m always on the lookout for more. Which
 is why my theatergoing buddy Bill and I ended up in a second-floor loft in the Flatiron District along with just 38 other audience members watching a very intimate production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

It was the cast that drew us there. Actors love Chekhov plays because they teeter on the line between comedy and tragedy and even those in the smaller roles get some moments to show off how they can navigate both. This time out, the director David Cromer steps into the title role of the poor relation who has devoted his life to maintaining the family property so that his brother-in-law, a vain professor, can afford to high-life it in Moscow. But also in the cast are the heavy hitters Marin Ireland as Vanya’s niece Sonya, Bill Irwin as the professor Serebryakov and Will Brill as Astrov, the despairing doctor who drinks too much and visits often.

This is the fifth major production of Uncle Vanya I’ve seen and each has used a different translation of the play, often adapted by a contemporary playwright (Annie Baker, Richard Nelson, Jean-Claude van Itallie) but this one uses the translation done back in the ‘90s by the playwright and Russian language scholar Paul Schmidt. I’m no Chekhov expert but it seemed to me to be different from the others I’ve seen in that the focus is less on Vanya and his disappointments and more on the romantic triangle involving Astrov, Sonya and the professor’s much younger second wife Yelena.

But that changing dynamic could also reflect the performances and the modern-clothes staging by director Jack Serio (click here to read more about him). Cromer has acted on both stage and screen and it seems that playing Vanya has been a longtime dream of his but he’s made his name—and won a slew of honors—as a director and it can’t have been easy for a 27-year-old newcomer like Serio to direct one of the best stage directors working today. The result is that, at least for me, Cromer’s portrayal of Vanya lacks the animating layers of resentment, ridiculousness and, finally, resignation that I've seen others bring to the role. 

Instead, Cromer’s Vanya comes across as just a supporting player in his own story. I suppose that's a valid choice since the others in his family see Vanya that way. But both the comedy and the tragedy here is that the character no longer wants to be a supporting player and is struggling to break out of that role by denouncing the professor as a selfish fraud and declaring his own futile love for Yelena. Cromer evokes that desperation but not vividly enough for me to ache for him as I’ve done for other Vanyas.  

Sonya’s story arc is similar to his. But in Ireland’s hands the emotional payoff is different. Sonya too has been left in the country to toil alongside her uncle while her widowed father is off in the city and finding a new wife. The only hope Sonya has for her own happiness is that Astrov might return a bit of the unabashed love she has for him. But Astrov also loves Yelena, who is beautifully played by Julia Chan, a newcomer to me who totally captures the elusive quality that makes everyone so enchanted with Yelena. 

Ireland digs deep into Sonya’s disappointment and her awareness that she will never be able to compete with someone like Yelena. And she makes that all so poignantly resonant that you’d be excused for thinking that the play should have been called “Sonya.” I’d urge you to see her marvelous work in this production, whose brief run ends July 16, but tickets sold out within 24-hours of going on sale. So yep, I’m bragging again.