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.

March 7, 2020

Dragging Out the Ghost Light

Spring doesn’t officially arrive this year until week after next but the spring theater season is already here, with new shows opening almost every day. And I’m already running behind as I try to see as many of them as I can in addition to tending to the other obligations in my life. That's left me too little time to write my regular weekly post. So I am—reluctantly—turning on the ghost light that theaters set up when they’re temporarily empty. But I’m hoping that it won’t be here for too long. 

February 29, 2020

The Clever Mysteries of “The Headlands”

Christopher Chen’s intriguing memory play The Headlands works on so many levels that it’s hard for me to keep track of all of them.

It starts out as a crime procedural centered around an investigation into a long ago murder in San Francisco’s Chinese community. Then it cloaks itself in the film-noirish moodiness of illicit love and shady financial dealings. And ultimately it becomes a meditation on assimilation, identity and the narratives that we and others weave around ourselves.

The play bounces back and forth between the present as a young armchair sleuth named Henry tries to figure out what caused the mysterious shooting death of his father, an earlier period of the 1970s when Henry’s parents—his father a poor immigrant to this country and his mother the daughter of one of the city’s wealthy families—met and fell in love and a bit later when the child Henry fears they may be falling apart.

The result is a kaleidoscope of a play that shifts constantly as new information is added, reinterpreted, viewed from different angles. The tone is jokey at first but gradually becomes more pensive as Chen and director Knud Adams peel away the layers of the stories that Henry's investigation reveals.

They’re ably assisted by a top-notch cast, whose first among equals is Johnny Wu who, with just a subtle alteration of voice and posture, convincingly plays the father at several periods in the character’s life, from an almost nebbishy immigrant dishwasher to a seemingly confident businessman.

But everyone is terrific and it’s particularly wonderful to see Asian actors getting to explore a full spectrum of emotions that range from the romantic to the malevolent. And what a pleasure it must be for them to be in a play that doesn't shy away from the issues of race and otherness but that doesn't wallow in them either. 

Still, the production’s true MVP is its video projections, which may be the best I’ve ever seen. The stage of LCT3’s Clair Tow Theater, where the show is running through March 22, is almost bare except for white scrims on which projection designer Ruey Horng Sun displays images of mid-century San Francisco that provide a perfect backdrop for the slight but still glamorous seediness of the story (click here to read more about how they were assembled).

The title borrows its name from the often foggy promontory across the bay from the city and it made me nostalgic for the time I spent in San Francisco before the tech bros took it over. The Headlands only runs 90 minutes but I would have happily stayed longer.