July 21, 2018

What's Missing in the Theater District?

It's summer vacation time and tourists, who account for over 60 percent of Broadway's ticket buyers, have been streaming into the city, eager to see shows ranging from tried-and-true war horses like Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera to newly Tony-minted hits Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Band's Visit. I'm happy for those theatergoers but I wish there was something else for them to see, something like a museum dedicated to Broadway.

My wistfulness isn't new. I've been yearning for such a place for years. But that longing intensified with a recent visit to Cooperstown, New York, where my husband K and I spent a full day at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. I'm not much of a sports fan but by the time I made my way through all three floors of memorabilia and over 100 years of the sport's history, I found myself really wanting to see a ballgame and totally envious that a similar place doesn't exist for theater.

Now there are places in New York where you can find exhibits about Broadway history. Both the Museum of the City of New York and the New-York Historical Society have theatrical treasures in their collections and they occasionally display some of them, such as the museum did with its terrific survey of Yiddish theater in 2016 and the Historical Society with its tribute to the legendary theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfeld in 2015.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts offers an even more steady diet of theater-related exhibits. The one it did on Noel Coward in 2012 was one of the most informative and entertaining museum shows of any kind I've ever seen. The Library's currently hosting a small tribute to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein that will be on view through Sept. 25.

But none of these venues are in the Theater District so only the most determined tourists are likely to seek out their shows. The one geographical exception is the American Theatre Hall of Fame, which makes its home at the Gershwin Theatre, where Wicked has been playing for the past 15 years.

Founded in 1972 to honor the careers of significant theater professionals, the hall's members include actors like Audra McDonald and playwrights like Tina Howe, as well as producers like Daryl Roth and even theater critics like Ernie Schier, a  co-founder and the first chairman of the American Theater Critics Association (of which I'm a proud new member).

All of those folks in the previous paragraph were inducted into the Hall of Fame last fall and their names are now inscribed alongside past honorees on the walls of the Gershwin. I’m told that a collection of memorabilia from past winners is assembled there too. But my guess is that only the most die-hard theater fans even know that any of it is there. And most of them can't see those displays even if they know of their existence because the space is only accessible to people paying to see Wicked.

What the names on the wall and the artifacts on display need is a place of their own where Broadway and its history can be widely appreciated. The space doesn't have to be as big as the one baseball has in Cooperstown but it shouldn't be a cheesy throwaway either. The best museums today are interactive affairs that offer visitors a variety of ways to interact with the subject they're celebrating.

Wouldn't it be great if some of the crowds roaming through Times Square had a nearby place to go where they could see the costumes Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti wore in Gypsy, hear songs that were cut from the original production of In the Heights, see drafts of the script for A Raisin in the Sun or learn about the achievements of the names on that Hall of Fame wall?

A reasonable admission fee could make it enticing for even a casual theatergoer. Docents from all parts of the theater community could share their enthusiasm for live theater. And Broadway performers might even pop in every now and then to add extra excitement. Heads snapped around when the recently-retired outfielder Carlos Beltrán walked through one of the galleries the day K and I were at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I'm willing to bet that a conveniently located museum that offered a truly visceral sense of Broadway (after all, who can put on a better show than Broadway folks) would have a lot of its attendees leaving the same way I left the baseball museum: dying to see the real thing.

July 14, 2018

"Cyprus Avenue" is a Dead-End Street

Edward Bond's drama Saved shocked London audiences in 1965 with its depiction of a group of disaffected young people stoning a baby to death. That harrowing scene set the bar for generations of British playwrights determined to show that they too were mad as hell at the world— and daring enough to say so. 

Thus, we've had racism, rape and torture in Sarah Kane's Blasted, maiming and matricide in Martin McDonagh's A Behanding in Spokane and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, nihilism and murder in Simon Stephen's Punk Rock, and now the multiple atrocities committed in David Ireland's Cyprus Avenue, a co-production of Dublin's Abbey Theatre and London’s Royal Court Theatre that is scheduled to finish up its run at The Public Theater on July 29.

Directed by the Royal Court's artistic director Vicky Featherstone, Cyprus Avenue chronicles the disintegration of a middle-aged guy named Eric, who was born and bred in Northern Ireland but defiantly identifies as British and harbors a hatred of the IRA so deep that it distorts every interaction he has, including those with the members of his immediate family.

I gasped right along with everyone else in the audience as Eric committed one horrific act after another. And the great actor Stephen Rea's characteristically committed portrayal of Eric had me straining to understand how such a seeming everyman could end up so tragically wrong.

But I also left the theater feeling a bit queasy, partially because of the production's somewhat graphic violence but even more so because of my tacit complicity in accepting it as entertainment. 

Let's face it, after 60 years of this kind of shock and awe, few new insights are being offered up. Instead, what we get is just the stage version of a slasher film masquerading as black comedy (and why do we continue to regard killing people as a laughing matter?) or absurdist commentary.

We're supposed to see this play as a cautionary tale about what happens when fundamentalist beliefs go too far. But Eric is presented as so deeply delusional (he actually uses a magic marker to draw a beard on the face of his infant granddaughter) that there's no real connection between his story and those of the real-life people who commit terrifying acts.

Cyprus Avenue unfolds in a series of Eric's conversations with his therapist, a Nigerian-British woman whom he calls a nigger. I know; I flinched at the word just as you probably did when you read it. And the comment is totally gratuitous, adding nothing to our understanding of what drives some people to hate. It's just there, like this play is, to say "look how daring I am."

July 7, 2018

"Skintight" is Just Barely Skin Deep

"I really identified with El," I overhead a seventysomething-year-old man telling his similarly-aged wife as we all walked out of Skintight, the new comedy by Joshua Harmon about older men wanting younger lovers that is playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre. The wife took it better than I would have. "I can understand that," she said patting his arm empathetically. I understand it too but I can't say I like the sentiment or the play that motivated it.

El, as his 20-year-old lover Trey calls him, is Elliot Isaac, a world-famous fashion designer almost libelously modeled on the world-famous fashion designer Calvin Klein, who was widely reported a few years ago to have hooked up with a young hunk 47 years his junior (click here to read about that).

The play opens on the eve of  the Jewish Elliot's 70th birthday when his grown daughter Jodi, the child of his closeted-era marriage with a woman, arrives unexpectedly at his chic Greenwich Village townhouse. She says she's come to celebrate her dad's milestone but it's quickly obvious that she's there to seek solace about the fact that her ex-husband has gotten engaged to a Spin Cycle instructor half his age.

As you might guess, Jodi becomes even more unhappy when she discovers that Trey has moved in with Elliott. Also on hand are Jodi's nebbishy gay son Benjamin, who has an eye for Trey; and two servants, an older Hungarian housemaid and a younger butler, who once had a thing of his own with Elliot.

Harmon has drawn praise (including some from me) for his previous plays Bad Jews, Significant Other and Admissions, which played at Lincoln Center earlier this year. But the main draw for this production is the presence of Idina Menzel, who, in a rare non-singing role, has a great time playing Jodi (click here to read an interview with her).

Menzel's face on the poster and the Playbill has drawn criticism from folks who expected her character to have a larger role and narrative arc. But that bothered me less than the play's declared message, delivered in a long monologue by Elliot, that youth and beauty matter more than love or fealty when it comes to choosing a mate. "Hot is everything," Elliot tells Jodi.

The hell it is. I heat up at the sight of taut abs and tight butts as much as everyone else but they seem a damn shallow foundation on which to build a meaningful relationship, regardless of your gender identity or sexual orientation. There may be a defense for Elliot's philosophy but Skintight, filled with one-dimensional characters and specious arguments, makes a damn shallow case for it.

Fans of the play (and I can’t help noticing that most of the good reviews have come from men) will say that Harmon is just exploring society’s obsession with youth and beauty. But if that's the case why isn't some attempt made at a brief for those of us who think there are other reasons to love people too.

Still, Harmon has a way with snappy lines and he and his frequent collaborator director Daniel Aukin treat Skintight as something of a sex farce without doors, although a long staircase and a sleek couch are used to good comic effect. So is the character of Trey, played by newcomer Will Brittain, whose physical attributes are put on abundant display (click here to read an interview with him).

 Maybe it’s best, particularly for those of us over 40 (Harmon is 35) to think of Skintight as just mindless summer entertainment. Although if I were Harmon’s significant other, I’d be keeping a wary eye on the calendar. 

June 30, 2018

Summer Reading for Theater Lovers 2018

Memorial Day came and went a month ago. The Summer Solstice breezed in last week. The Fourth of July is just a few days away. And temperatures here in New York are heading into the high 90s. So no matter what yardstick you use, summer is here. And that means it's time for my annual summer reading list of books theater lovers can savor while at the beach, lazing in the park or, in my case, chilling on the terrace. To be honest, I'm more ambivalent about some of the books below than I have been about those in previous years but each still has its own charms and as my mother used to say, different strokes for different folks so I'm hoping you find at least a few that suit you.

100 Greatest American Plays by Thomas S. Hischak  As the continuing debate over The New York Times list of the most significant plays of the last 25 years shows, people love lists. And we theater lovers are particularly crazy about them. This one by a theater historian who teaches at the State University of New York spans three centuries, starting with The Contrast, a social satire written in 1787 by a former Revolutionary War officer named Royall Tyler, and ending with Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris' 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning sequel to A Raisin in the Sun. The entries are arranged, like this list, alphabetically but each one includes a synopsis, a few lines of dialogue from the play, an analysis of its significance, cast lists from major productions, the author's bio and contemporaneous reviews. Reading one or two at a time is a perfect way to idle away a summer day.

Drama: An Actor's Education by John Lithgow This memoir of Lithgow's coming of age as an actor is the basis for Stories by Heart, the one-man show he's toured around the country, including a stop at the Roundabout Theatre Company earlier this year. But the book is better. While the show focused on Lithgow's recitation of short stories by Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse that his father Arthur Lithgow read to him as a child, the book is a delightful look back at how Lithgow mastered his craft from his days as a teenage spear-carrier in summer Shakespeare festivals to his later successes on both the big and little screen and, of course, onstage. But it is most of all a loving tribute to Arthur, who created those summer festivals but who never achieved the theatrical stature his son has attained.

I'm Glad About You by Theresa Rebeck  There isn't as much theater as I hoped there would be in this romcom about Alison, a New York-based actress from Ohio trying to get back with her high-school sweetheart. But the book is by the frequently produced playwright Theresa Rebeck and she knows the theater world. The demands put on young actresses in the book ring true, as do the audition scenes in which scores of contenders struggle to stand out from the crowd. As fans will know, Rebeck created the behind-the-scenes TV show "Smash" and was then fired from it and she's even tougher on the TV industry.

Macbeth by Jo Nesbø  Filling the slot for this year's entry in the Hogarth Press series of reimaginings of Shakespeare's plays by major contemporary writers is a brooding version of the Bard's tragedy about unbridled ambition. In this update, set in a drug-plagued Scottish town during the 1970s, Macbeth starts his climb when he's the valorous head of the local police department's SWAT team, his wife owns the local casino and the three sisters are drug dealers. All the familiar double crosses are there and most of the famous lines are interpolated into the text but while Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays, this version comes in at over 500 pages and some of the additional plot twists struck me as silly. Still, the book is written by the Norwegian crime novelist who has huge followings among both literary readers and thriller lovers and if you count yourself among either of those groups it might be just the thing for you.

Payment in Blood by Elizabeth George   What could be more enjoyable than a British country house mystery on a summer afternoon? This one, originally published in 1989, deals with the murder of a playwright who has gone to a remote town in Scotland with a group of top London actors to rehearse a play backed by a leading West End producer. George's intrepid detective is Inspector Thomas Lynley, who also just happens to be an earl. His loyal No. 2 is Barbara Havers, a female sergeant from a working-class background, which makes for all kinds of gender and class conflicts. A modern master of the genre, the American-born George is a first-class writer and she's deft with all the tricks of her trade. The result, if you know how these books work, is totally predictable but it's also totally delectable.

Playing to the Gods by Peter Rader  Nearly everyone knows the name Sarah Bernhardt (Janet McTeer is set to portray the legendary actress in a new bio-play this fall) and every self-respecting theater aficionado knows who Eleonora Duse is as well. Multiple books have been written about both of these 19th century divas who defined acting in their time and helped create the kind of fanship that still echoes in ours.  But this is their first dual biography and in alternating chapters the book tracks the lives of the French Bernhardt and the Italian Duse, providing a fascinating account of their rivalry, their struggles to balance their personal and professional lives, and theater's transformation from an art form that emphasized the presentational into one that championed the truly emotional. I'm cheating a bit with this book because it won't be available until August but you can already pre-order it on Amazon.

Take You Wherever You Go by Kenny Leon  This autobiography tracks the life of the African-American director whose Broadway revivals of Fences and A Raisin in the Sun won multiple Tonys. Leon's other accomplishments include serving as artistic director of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Company for 12 years, which made him one of the few black people ever to lead a major regional theater, and directing the TV musicals "Hairspray Live!" and "The Wiz Live!." Along the way, he's worked with an eclectic roster of talent ranging from Sean Puffy Combs to Kristin Chenoweth, Denzel Washington to Arianda Grande. But the memoir, which takes its title from advice Leon's beloved maternal grandmother gave him, is more of an inspirational Ted Talk than a deep look at his life. Leon has loads of good things to say about the people he likes, keeps mum about those he doesn't and is thoroughly self-effacing all the way through. It's easy to see why people like having him around.

Unmasked: A Memoir by Andrew LloydWebber  The New York Times trashed Lloyd Webber's look back at his early years, from his grammar school days to the opening of The Phantom of the Opera. But I was charmed by it. I don't know if Lloyd Webber had help writing the book but its cheeky voice suggests he did it by himself and he turns out to be a totally entertaining writer: witty, gossipy and not above calling out folks who have gotten on his nerves. His accounts of the makings of his signature shows are engaging and instructive. He's especially good at explaining the technical aspects of composing a score and he does it without being boring. If you love musicals, and particularly if you love his, this book is an ideal companion on a lazy afternoon.

Year of the Mad King by Antony Sher  An artistic polymath who is as excellent a writer as he is an actor, Sher (he's also a fine painter) has published a series of books about how he crafts his performances of some of Shakespeare's greatest characters. I loved his earlier "Year of the King" about how he put together his portrayal of Richard III and so I dived into this new one about his Lear as soon as it came out. But, alas, Sher's work on the play got interrupted by the illnesses and deaths of his sister and sister-in-law and so the book spends more time grappling with his familial affairs than it does delving into Lear's. It's understandable but lamentable, particularly because the sections in which he explains his wrestling with Lear are so good.

And finally, there's The World Only Spins Forward by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois.  I can't say enough about this oral history of Angels in America.  In fact, you can read a full review of it I wrote for the National Book Review by clicking here.

Happy reading and happy summer!