September 5, 2020

A Special Labor Day Salute to All of Broadway's Truly Essential Performers

Traditions are important even—maybe especially—in troubled times. And so although theaters remain dark and I’ve been posting here infrequently, I’ve decided to go ahead with my annual Labor Day salute to some of the people who make the theater we all love. In the past, I’ve celebrated actors, playwrights, drama teachers, casting directors and theatrical unions.  But the choice was a no-brainer this year because I’m in awe of all the performers who despite having had the thrill of opening nights and the security of long runs pulled out from under them by the coronavirus, continue to entertain us with online concerts, readings, Zoom productions, panel discussions, podcasts and other interviews (an extra grateful kowtow to Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley for their tireless work on “Stars in the House”; click here to see what they've been doing).

Even more impressively, most of these appearances and performances have been done pro bono to help out one charity or another, which means the performers were paid little or nothing. But just like the rest of us, they need to pay rent and mortgages, to put food on the table and clothes on their kids. So instead of stringing together a whole lot of words about how much I appreciate them, I’m going to show my gratitude by writing a bigger-than-I-can-afford check to The Actors Fund, which provides assistance to all of the essential theater workers who make shows, from headliners to stagehands, and has already given out some $15 million to over 13,000 of them so far this year.  And I’m also going to ask you to send the Fund as much as you can too, which you can do my clicking here.


In the meantime, my pals at BroadwayRadio have invited me to join them this coming Sunday in a discussion about our favorite shows about working stiffs of all kinds, which you can listen to by clicking here.


Update:  At the end of the “This Week on Broadway” episode on plays about working James Marino promised that he would link to the list I’d assembled (with the always invaluable help of my theatergoing buddy Bill, whose contributions I've highlighted in red) and so I’m posting it below. As you’ll see, the list is play-focused, although I’ve added a few musicals at the end:

 

CONTEMPORARY PLAYS

Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz

Cuban immigrants working in a Florida cigar-factory hire a “lector” to read to them and relieve the boredom while they work but his narration of “Anna Karenina” leads to turmoil and tragedy in this 2003 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

 

Assistance by Leslye Headland

Headland, who once worked for Harvey Weinstein, chronicles the emotionally abusive relationship between a tyrannical boss and the underlings who struggle to cater to his every whim.

 

Clarkston by Samuel D. Hunter

The warehouse of a big-box store provides the backdrop for the stories of two young workers, one a rich kid trying to find purpose in life, the other a local guy trying to keep from being overwhelmed by an alcoholic mother and a dying town.

 

Continuity by Bess Wohl

An indie film crew works hard to get in a final shot of the day while dealing with a first-time director, a peevish screenwriter and a temperamental star.

 

The Desk Set by William Marchant

A 1950s comedy about a group of female research librarians who fear they may be replaced by newly-developed computers.

 

Endlings by Celine Song

Three aged haenyeo, female Korean deep-sea divers, engage in the traditional but grueling work of harvesting seafood without the aid of air tanks or any other scuba equipment, while a New York playwright struggles to tell their story in this meta-drama.

 

The Flick by Annie Baker

Three lost souls in a rundown movie theater try to figure out their lives as they clean up the soda cans, popcorn boxes, condoms and other filth customers leave behind in this 2014 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

 

Fulfillment Center by Abe Koogler

A thirtysomething middle-manager and a sixtysomething worker attempt to navigate the soul-crushing work of the shipping center of an online retailer.

 

Fully Committed by Becky Mode

A young actor tries to manage his day job as the reservations clerk and jack-of-all-trades-nobody-else-wants to-do at a hot restaurant in this one-person comedy.

 

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus by Taylor Mac

Two servants are tasked with cleaning up after the bloody massacre at the end of the eponymous Shakespearean tragedy in Mac’s comic meditation on how to save a world that's collapsed into chaos.

 

Glengarry Glenn Ross by David Mamet

Real estate agents push way past the limits of propriety as they try to make their monthly quotas in this Pulitzer-Prize winning vivisection of the American Dream.

 

Gloria by Brandon Jacobs Jenkins

An ordinary day in an ordinary office turns into a cautionary tale when a too-often-overlooked worker takes revenge.

 

Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire

After a cashier at a dollar store is fired for being late, she tries to reconnect with old boyfriend who has done better in life.

 

Jitney by August Wilson

A gypsy cab office provides the setting for this drama about the romantic and filial relationships of a group of drivers working for a car service trying to stay afloat in a gentrifying neighborhood.

 

Kill Floor by Abe Koogler

A female ex-con experiences shunning by her son, sexual harassment and despair when the only job she can find is on the killing floor of a cattle slaughterhouse.

 

The Kitchen by Arnold Wesker

 A day in the life of the stressed kitchen crew of a café that plays out in real time.

 

The Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini

The rise and fall of the Lehman Brothers investment firm.

 

The Lifespan of a Fact by Jim Fingle and John D’Agata

A fact-checker takes on his magazine’s star writer in this comedy based on the authors’ own experience.

 

Lobby Hero by Kenneth Lonergan

Security guards and shady cops clash in this workplace dramady about criminal justice, racism and sexism.


Lucky Guy by Nora Ephron

A bio-play about the tabloid journalist Mike McAlary.

 

Paris by Eboni Booth

The desperate lives of non-unionized workers trying to make it through the holiday season at a big-box store for just $5 an hour in the mid-‘90s.

 

The Pitman Painters by Lee Hall 

The author of Billy Elliot recounts the story of the real-life coal miners who became minor celebrities before WWII after taking an art history class and becoming painters themselves—and, in the process, realizing the different opportunities given those in the upper and lower classes.

 

Rasheeda Speaking by Joel Drake Nelson

Tensions rise in a medical office when the doctor promotes a white worker over her Black colleague and the two women fall into a war of passive aggression.

 

The Receptionist by Adam Boch

The titular character is having a typically mundane day until someone from the home office shows up and the ominous doings of her firm are slowly revealed.

 

Seared by Theresa Rebeck

It’s art versus commerce when a talented but temperamental chef clashes with his business partner over the direction of their restaurant.

 

Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morriseau

Four workers in one of the last automotive stamping factories in Detroit face the possibility of layoffs in the midst of the 2008 recession.

 

Sweat by Lynn Nottage

Based on interviews with real-life workers in one of the poorest counties in the U.S., this drama focuses on an interracial group of friends whose relationships are strained when their factory threatens layoffs. It marked Nottage’s Broadway debut and won her second Pulitzer Prize.

 

To the Bone by Lisa Ramirez

A drama about Latina immigrants, some undocumented, working in an upstate New York poultry factory and trying to figure out how much they should—and canstand up to their bosses.

 


CLASSICS:

The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill; 1922

A ship worker’s sense of self is disastrously shattered when the daughter of an industrialist casually dismisses him as “a filthy beast” in this allegory about the dark side of capitalism.


The Adding Machine by Elmer Rice; 1923

A meek accountant murders his boss when he learns that he’s going to be replaced by an adding machine and ends up in purgatory in this Expressionistic drama that was adapted into a musical in 2007.

 

The Front Page by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht; 1928

A group of reporters go all out in pursuit of a story in this comic send-up of tabloid journalism and crooked politicians.

  

Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets; 1935

Cab drivers try to decide whether to strike for higher wages in this landmark drama inspired by a 1934 New York City taxi strike.


Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller; 1949

An aging traveling salesman with delusions of grandeur is brought low when he is let go by the firm where he’s worked for decades in this Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece.


 

A FEW MUSICALS:

Billy Elliot 

Caroline or Change

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

The Pajama Game 

Sunday in the Park With George

Waitress

Working


 

 

 

August 1, 2020

A Hopefully Helpful List of Two-Handers

My pals at BroadwayRadio invited me to join them for this past Sunday’s “This Week on Broadway“ podcast. We talked about some of our all-time favorite plays (you can hear us by clicking here). Regular panelist Michael Portantiere brought up Martin Sherman’s Bent, a play about the Nazi’s persecution of gay people that also moved me when I saw it back in 1980 with David Dukes and Richard Gere.

Bent’s most affecting scenes are between two men who fall in love while forced to do hard labor in a prison work camp but who, under the constantly forbidding eyes of the guards, are never able to touch. Michael suggested that the play’s intrinsic social-distancing might make it a good choice to schedule when theaters start up again after the coronavirus quarantines end but we’re all still a bit wary about actors being in close physical contact with one another.

Bent has at least 10 characters but thinking about its pivotal scenes got me thinking about all the the plays for just two actors that artistic directors might consider doing once they’re allowed to ease their theaters back into live performances. I fell down a rabbit hole as I tried to remember all the two-handers that would fit that bill.

It was great fun to recall both classics dating from the ‘50s by much-venerated playwrights (Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story) and new works by rookie writers that debuted just last year (Loy A. Webb’s The Light). I thought of shows for two men, for two women as well as for cross-sex couples, and roles for young actors, old ones and actors of varied ethnicities.

All in all, I came up with almost 50 titles, including a handful of musicals, even though it’s probably going to be awhile before anyone is going to feel comfortable with having two people spraying all the droplets that singing produces.

Still, I’m sure I’ve forgotten some great candidates and I hope you’ll let me know what they are (I'll make sure they appear in the comments section below). In the meantime, here’s my list of dramatic (and in some cases comedic) theatrical duets, almost all of which I've been fortunate enough to have actually seen:

[update: a month has now gone by and new titles keep popping into my head and into those of my theatergoing buddy Bill, my blogger pal Jonathan (check out his blog here) and even an anonymous reader. So I've revised the list, with the additions noted in red and the name of the person who proposed it put in parentheses; the uncredited ones are those I thought of after the initial post]

1. Boesman & Lena by Athol Fugard {this is cheating a bit because there is a third character but he is silent}, 1969

 

2. The Blood Knot by Athold Fugard, 1961

 

3. Collected Stories by David Margulies, 1996

 

4. A Couple of White Chicks Sitting Around Talking by John Ford Noonan, 1980

 

5. Constellations by Nick Payne, 2012

 

6. The Dance and the Railroad by David Henry Hwang, 1981

 

7. Dear Liar by Jerome Kilty, 1957 (Bill)

 

8. Dying City by Christopher Shinn, 2007

 

9. Educating Rita by Willy Russell, 1980 (Bill)

 

10. The End of Eddy by Pamela Carter, 2018 (Jonathan)

 

11. Fireflies by Donja R Love, 2018

 

12. Fifty Words by Michael Weller,  2008

 

13. The Fourposter by Jan de Hartog, 1951 (Bill)

 

14. Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune by Terrence McNally, 1987

 

15. Frankie and Will by Talene Monahon, 2020 (Jonathan)

 

16. The Gin Game by Donald L. Coburn, 1976

 

17. Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph, 2015

 

18. The Guys by Anne Nelson, 2001

 

19. The Half-Life of Marie Curie by Lauren Gunderson, 2019


20. Hamlet in Bed by Michael Laurence, 2015

 

21. Happy Days by Samuel Beckett, 1960

 

22. Harry Townsend’s Last Stand by George Eastman, 2019

 

23. Having Our Say by Emily Mann, 1995 (Bill)

 

24. Heisenberg by Simon Stephens, 2015 (Bill)

 

25. Hughie by Eugene O’Neill, 1958

 

26. I and You by Laureen Gunderson, 2016

 

27. In Old Age by Mfoniso Udofia, 2019

 

28. Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, 1958

 

29. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill by Lanie Robertson, 1986 (Jonathan)

 

30. A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet, 1977

 

31. The Light by Loy A. Webb, 2019

 

32. The Lonely Planet by Steven Dietz, 1994

 

33. Love Letters by A.R.Gurney, 1988

 

34. Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis 1980

 

35. Matt & Ben by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, 2003

 

36. The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, 2012

 

37. The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess, 2018

 

38. ‘night, Mother by Marsha Norman, 1982

 

39. No One is Forgotten by Winter Miller, 2019

 

40. Oleana by David Mamet, 1992.

 

41. Red by John Logan, 2009

 

42. Same Time, Next Year by Bernard Slade, 1975

 

43. Sea Wall/A Life by Nicholas Payne and Simon Stephens, 2019

 

44. Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason, 2014

 

45. Slowgirl by Greg Pierce, 2012

 

46. A Steady Rain by Keith Huff, 2007

 

47. The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp 2019

 

48. Switzerland by Joanna Murray-Smith, 2019

 

49. Talley’s Folly by Lanford Wilson, 1980

 

50. Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, 2001

 

51. Two for the Seesaw by William Gibson, 1958

 

52. Underground Railroad Game by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, 2016

 

53. Venus In Fur by David Ives 2010

 

54. Vita & Virginia by Eileen Atkins, 1992 (Bill)

 

55. A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing (an anonymous reader)

 

56. The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, 1958

 


And here are a few musicals for two:

1. Broadbend, Arkansas by Ted Shen, Ellen Fitzhugh and Harrison David Rivers, 2019

 

2. Daddy Long Legs by John Caird and Paul Gordon, 2015

 

3. I Do! I Do! by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, 1968

 

4. John and Jen by Andrew Lippa, 1995

 

5. The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown, 2002

 

6.  Murder for Two by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, 2013

 

7.  The Story of My Life by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill 2009

July 4, 2020

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2020

Happy Fourth of July! This is obviously a more unusual summer than most. COVID-19 continues its rampage across the country and most theaters remain closed. People are marching in the streets here and abroad in support of Black Lives Matter and black theater artists are speaking up about structural racism in this industry too. 

Still some things remain the same: I’m back on my terrace, accompanied by a cocktail shaker filled this year with drinks spiked with pomegranate juice and an iPad stocked with books, most of them about theater. And once again I’ve put together my annual list of theater-related books for you to read over the summer weeks. 

Both the list (a baker's dozen of 13) and some of the books themselves are longer than they’ve been in past years but I figure we’ve all got a little more time on our hands right now and I hope these novels, memoirs and oral histories will help make some of those hours pass more easily and pleasurably for you:

Actress: A Novel by Anne Enright: In this elegant novel a grown daughter looks back at the life of her actress mother Norah O’Dell, a great star of the Irish stage, from the 1940s when Norah breaks into Hollywood movies through the ‘70s as she declines into bit roles back in Ireland and a kind of madness that will leave a stain on both their lives.

The Chelsea Girls: A Novel by Fiona Davis: Set against the backdrop of the Red Scare, this story centers around the friendship between two ambitious young women, one an actress and the other a playwright. But its true main character is New York's famed Chelsea Hotel during its heyday as a home for artists and other bohemians who became some of the prime targets for Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts.

Downtown Pop Underground by Kembrew McLeod: Rents were relatively cheap in New York during the 1960s and early '70s and artists of all kinds flocked to the city, gathered in the Village and the East Village and created the bedrock of our culture today. Among the downtown theater pioneers McLeod profiles are Caffe Cino's Joe Cino, Judson Memorial Church's Al Carmines, Ridiculous Theatrical's Charles Ludlam and La MaMa's Ellen Stewart. 

Ensemble: an Oral History of Chicago Theater by Mark Larson. A longtime Chicago theater writer, Larson talks to seemingly everyone who ever worked on a Chicago stage or in one of that city’s famous storefront theaters. In the process he creates not only a vibrant chronicle of such Chicago institutions as the Compass Players, The Second City, Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Goodman Theatre but of contemporary American theater itself.

In Pieces by Sally Field.  Although probably still best known as a screen actor (two Oscars and three Emmys) Field is also a fine stage actor and judging by this poignant memoir, done without a ghostwriter, she's a terrific prose stylist too. The book mentions only a few of Field's early stage performances but it digs into her training at the Actors Studio and the cost of what it can take to become one of the best in the business.

Life Isn’t Everything by Ash Carter and Sam Cashner: The director Mike Nichols seems to have known everyone and this oral history which focuses on his greatest triumphs—from An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May in 1960 through the 2012 revival of Death of a Salesman with Philip Seymour Hoffman—is narrated by the scores of people who considered Nichols a friend, mentor and the person with whom they’d most like to be stranded on a desert island because he told great stories and always knew how to make sure there was great food.

Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk: A bestseller in the 1950s, this door-stop of a novel tells the story of a young Jewish girl who dreams of becoming a Broadway actress but some of its best scenes take place at a summer resort where hopefuls hone their skills by putting on weekly shows just as folks like Carol Burnett, Jerome Robbins and Neil Simon once did at the legendary Camp Tamiment.

The Summer Set: A Novel by Aimee Agresti. If social distancing has left you longing for romance, this romcom offers a barrel of it including the on-again-off again relationship of a wild-child actress and the director of a summer theater, the romantic entanglements of some college students apprenticing there, the love stories of two longstanding gay couples and a liaison between a glamorous trans woman and an unexpected suitor.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters: Class and gender issues come into play in this lesbian Bildungsroman about a working-class girl who falls for a closeted Victorian music hall star. Their love story manages to be simultaneously instructive about Victorian mores, inspiring about female empowerment and erotic as all get out.

Playwrights on Television by Hillary Miller. One of the reasons we’re experiencing a new golden age of television is that TV showrunners have recruited (or are themselves) some of today’s best playwrights. In separate interviews, 18 of them, including Jocelyn Bioh, Madeleine George, David Henry Hwang and Adam Rapp, talk about why they’ve taken their talents into TV writers’ rooms and what the theater needs to do to woo them back.

Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro. We Americans have loved Shakespeare since the beginning of the republic and Shapiro shows how the country’s responses to eight of the Bard’s best known plays from Othello to Julius Caesar have reflected debates at significant times in the nation’s history about such continually hot-button issues as race, immigration, feminism and our relationship to democracy itself.

Untimely Death: A Shakespeare in the Catskills Mystery, by Elizabeth J. Duncan. Who doesn't get a kick out of a cozy country-house murder mystery?  This one, the first in an ongoing series, is set during the rehearsal period at a summer Shakespeare festival and features a British costume mistress, a hunky local cop, some red herrings and a very obvious suspect. The backstage look at what goes into costuming a play is an extra bonus. 

The 24 Hour Plays Viral Monologues, edited by Howard Sherman: Full disclosure: Howard is a pal of mine. But he's also the inspiration behind the series of soliloquies that were written in response to the coronavirus pandemic (and performed on Instagram) by some of the major talents currently working in the American theater. And this collection is on this list because the first 54 of the speeches archived here not only provide terrific audition pieces but are also a testament to this unique moment in time. 

Finally, as always, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to my suggestions from previous years:



May 11, 2020

Finally, Some Good Theater News, Compliments of the Outer Critics Circle

Good news, particularly good news about theater, has been hard to find over the last two months since concerns about the coronavirus locked most of us indoors and closed theaters around the country. Prognosticators have been saying that theaters will be among the last things to reopen once it’s been deemed safe enough to resume some semblance of life as we once knew it. So that’s why I’m delighted to be able to share the very good news that the Outer Critics Circle has come up with a way to honor the truncated 2019-2020 season and to celebrate the better days that are sure to come.

The OCC board, of which I am proud to be a member, decided to suspend our traditional practice of issuing a slate of nominees for shows on and off-Broadway and then having our members select one to be the best in each category. Instead, we’ve decided to honor ALL our nominees this year.

And on top of that, we’re doing something a little extra special for the honorees cited for our John Gassner Award. Named for one of the group’s co-founders, it is usually given to an American play by a new writer at the beginning of his or her career. We’re proud of the fact that our past winners have included Aaron Sorkin, August Wilson, Lynn Nottage, John Leguizamo, David Henry Hwang, Suzan-Lori Parks, Ayad Akhtar and Bess Wohl.

This year, we’re cheering on four young writers: Will Arbery for Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Eboni Booth for Paris, Catya McMullen for Georgia Mertching Is Dead and Alexis Scheer for Our Dear Dead Drug Lord. And we’re giving each of them $500 as a token of our belief in their talent and their ability to help lead American theater into the future.  

This is the OCC’s 70th anniversary season and we’re so pleased to be able to celebrate in this way.  And we’re just as pleased that, as you’ll see below, some special friends have joined us to mark the occasion.



You can see the full print list of our honorees by clicking here.  And our president David Gordon will talk even more about it with my buddy, and boss, James Marino on the Tuesday edition of BroadwayRadio's "Today on Broadway," which you can listen to here.

April 23, 2020

Where There's A Will...

It's been a month since I last posted here. With theaters everywhere closed, there's been too little to say. But today is Shakespeare's birthday and I'm taking comfort from the fact that he made it through the plague of the Black Death in his day. So here's hoping we all make it through this one in ours. In the meantime, Happy Birthday Will!

March 21, 2020

Theater Life in these Uncertain Times


We’re all longing for moments of clarity, sanity and even a little levity during these days of social distancing and self-isolating.  But while there may be no live performances on Broadway, off-Broadway or in regional or community theaters right now, theater folks are finding other ways for the show to go on. They’re:

 ●livestreaming performances, like Andrew Barth Feldman’s “Living Room Concert” series that features Broadway stars performing favorite songs from their own homes (click here for it)

●creating theater GIFs; like the hard-to-beat one featuring a dog-ear-wearing Judi Dench (which you can find by clicking here)

●moving the annual 24-Hours Play Festival to Instagram, with monologues from such New York theater faves as Patrick Wilson, Richard Kind and Marin Ireland (for that click here)

●giving school kids who won’t get the chance to do their senior class shows an online audience with Laura Benanti’s "Sunshine Songs" project (found here)

●offering online instruction, such as Debbie Allen’s joy-filled dance classes (find out more about them by clicking here)  

●lobbying for government assistance to help everyone from ushers and dressers to actors and musicians who've been put out of work by the crisis (read more about that here)

●raising money to help people in the community who lost their jobs when shows closed, as Rosie O'Donnell is doing with her videothon that is scheduled to feature just about every Broadway star you've ever heard of this Sunday night starting at 7 p.m. (you can find out more about it here.) 

●celebrating Stephen Sondheim who turns 90 on March 22 with all kinds of tributes including this really superb one by Jesse Green that was part of a New York Times collection of them (which you can read by clicking here) 

My colleagues at BroadwayRadioMatt Tamanini, Ashley Steves and James Marinoare doing their part with daily podcasts that update the latest news from the theater world along with some feel-good recommendations to lift your spirits too (find that here).

I’m trying to do my little part by prospecting for interesting articles about how the theater community is dealing with this truly unprecedented global health crisis and posting them in a new Flipboard magazine I'm calling “Theater in the Season of the Coronavirus."  I'd advise reading just a few pieces at a time but you can find them all by clicking here

One big comfort in these uncertain times is knowing that we’re all in this together and that there’s no finer company with whom to see the tough times through than the people who make and love theater. May you and yours stay healthy.

March 14, 2020

The Coronavirus Forces All of New York Theater to Turn on the Ghost Light

I had planned to post a review this week but it was a pan of a play that I really didn’t like and that seems somehow wrong at this time when concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 virus have prompted the unprecedented closing of most Broadway and off-Broadway shows for at least a month.

That will be a hardship for the hundreds of people who make their living from the New York theater (some shows have prematurely ended their runs; others may now never open) and for those of us who love the work they do. But, as New York magazine critic Justin Davidson explained in his clarion call for the theaters to close, it is the right thing to do for the health of the people who put on shows and the health of those who go to see them (click here to read his full piece).

So the theaters are now scheduled to stay dark until April 12. Here’s hoping that by that time, the virus will have been brought under control, the fewest possible lives lost and the ghost lights in theaters here and around the country can be turned off and the shows allowed to go on again. In the meantime, I hope you and yours stay healthy.