December 31, 2008

The Best Theater in 2008

Good art provokes a conversation between the person who makes it and the person who sees or hears it. Each dialog is unique and so I can’t really tell you what were the best shows of this past year but I can say that the following 10, listed in alphabetical order, really spoke to me.

Adding Machine
Because this adaptation of Elmer Rice’s 1923 play about an everyman accountant who snaps after being replaced by an adding machine not only taps into the zeitgeist of our own scary economic times but shows that chamber musicals can produce real show tunes and not just the ersatz arias that make so many of them a chore to sit through.

The Bacchae
Because the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Euripides’s tragedy provided flamboyant proof that a production of classic Greek drama can be simultaneously true to the play’s ancient text and thoroughly entertaining for modern audiences.

Billy Elliot
Because this adaptation of the movie about a British miner’s son who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer is one of the most out-and-out entertaining musicals to open on Broadway in years and because, in the tradition of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals like the year's equally splendid revival of South Pacific, it also has something to say.

Black Watch
Because the National Theatre of Scotland’s meditation on the war in Iraq was a truly innovative production, superbly acted, marvelously staged and fully reproducible in no medium other than the theater.

A Body of Water
Because this mysterious little play about a couple who seem to suffer from joint amnesia ruminates on questions about life and death and love and redemption in such a compelling way that I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.

Because newcomer Sahr Ngaujah is phenomenal as Fela Kuti, the Nigerian pop musician and political activist who challenged his country’s corrupt and repressive leaders, and because Afrobeat, the exuberant mix of jazz, funk and traditional African rhythms that Fela helped to create, is irresistible.

Because Patti LuPone’s performance as Mama Rose in this classic backstage musical is one of those once-in-a- lifetime performances that people will talk about for years to come and because not only LuPone but her terrific co-stars Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines stayed with the show right through to the end.

In the Heights
Because although it’s not a great show, it’s a really great feel-good show that brings new energy and contemporary sounds to the musical and new audiences to Broadway.

The Seagull
Because this production of the Chekhov classic got the mix between the comic and the tragic just right and because the 22-year-old British actress Carey Mulligan gave the most heartbreaking performance of the season.

Top Girls
Because Caryl Churchill’s play about what it costs women to succeed was the most soul-nourishing night I had at the theater all year.

December 27, 2008

Reveling in Alvin Ailey's "Revelations"

Traditions are a big thing in my family. And, of course, this is the big season for them. So on Monday afternoon, my sister Joanne, my niece Jennifer and I went to the newly reopened The Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel to have our annual Christmas tea. On Christmas morning, the three of us temporarily abandoned our men folk and had our customary breakfast of lox and bagels, which none of our guys likes to eat. And last night, Joanne and I went to City Center to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

The Ailey Company takes up residence in City Center each December but this year’s stay is special because it celebrates the troupe’s 50th anniversary. Ailey was a Broadway gypsy, dancing a featured part in the musical Jamaica when he started his company in 1958. He was only 27 but it was a time of social ferment in the black community and African-American artists were finding exciting new ways to express and celebrate their culture. Lorraine Hansberry was writing A Raisin in the Sun, which would become the first drama by a black playwright to open on Broadway. The legendary off-Broadway production of French playwright Jean Genet’s The Blacks took on the issue of race and provided a showcase for such talented actors as Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou.

Encouraged by Jamaica’s star, Lena Horne, Ailey recruited other dancers from that show’s chorus and began to make dances shaped by the memories of his Texas childhood. The first, Blues Suite, evoked the barrelhouses, or road side bars, where people who spent long weekdays toiling in fields let off steam on weekend nights. Set to traditional blues songs, it was funny, sexy and a little angry too.

But it was the piece Ailey created the next year that made his name and that has become arguably the best-known and most-loved of all American dances. He set it to the Negro spirituals he'd heard in church. He called it Revelations.

Ailey would go on to create over 70 other pieces but he always included the works of other choreographers in his company’s repertory, providing a place for black choreographers like Donald McKayle, George Faison, and Ulysses Dove to develop their talent. When Ailey died from AIDS in 1989, at just 58, Judith Jamison, the majestic dancer who was his close friend and sometime muse, took over the company and it has thrived under her leadership.

My family went to see the Ailey Company almost every year. And about 20 years ago, I got to spend a week hanging around with the Ailey dancers. But eventually it got to the point where I had seen Revelations so many times, that I stopped going to Ailey performances. But as I said, this year is different. So we got tickets for an all-Ailey program of three dances that began with Blues Suite, accompanied by a live five-piece blues band, and ended with Revelations.

Most of the dancers I knew and loved are gone but Renee Robinson, who joined the company in 1981, is still dancing. She is now the only person in the company who knew Ailey and that connection may be at least part of the reason that her elegantly articulated solo in Masekela Langage, a 1969 piece built around the music of the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and reflecting the simmering rage created by the repressions of apartheid, was the most affective performance of the evening.

The audience, as is usual at Ailey performances, was wildly enthusiastic, applauding after each section and shouting its approval at the curtain calls. But it went crazy at the sound of the first notes of the spirituals that provide the music for Revelations. “This why I came,” a middle-aged blonde woman sitting in front of us told her companion as she leaned forward so that she wouldn’t miss a step.

I watched closely too and I was swept along with everyone else as the dancers took the journey from despair (“I Been 'Buked”) to salvation (“Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham”). My mother loved the Ailey concerts and Revelations was always her favorite. I thought of her throughout the performance. Dance isn't as popular an art form as it was in the '60s and '70s when Ailey was at his most creative but I think people continue to go to Ailey concerts because while his work is rooted in the black experience, it speaks to the heart of all humanity.

It is indeed a tradition to be celebrated. And luckily it will be for a longtime to come.
A decade or so ago, one benefactor, Donald L. Jonas, endowed Revelations as a birthday gift for his wife Barbara, ensuring Ailey's masterpiece as permanent a life as any stagework can have.

December 24, 2008

Turning on the (Christmas) Ghost Light

Theaters always leave on a light—or as it’s called in the business, a ghost light—when they’re empty. I’m doing my last-minute Christmas tasks and there will be no B&Me posting today so I’m turning on a Christmas-inspired ghost light. I’ll be back, as usual, on Saturday but in the meantime, I wish each of you a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Happy Kwanzaa, a Good Winter Solstice and, while I’m at it, a very Happy New Year— filled with peace, prosperity, the fellowship of good friends and, of course, lots of great theater.

December 20, 2008

The Cardinal Sins of "The Black Monk"

Has there been a sale on snowmakers this season? It seems as though every other show I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks has featured a blizzard of some sort. That made sense for White Christmas and Slava’s Snowshow but less so when the downfall comes in the middle of The Black Monk, the small musical that South Ark Stage opened earlier this month at Theatre Row’s The Beckett Theatre. Alas, there isn’t much about The Black Monk that makes sense.

Yeah, I know what you regular readers are thinking. In my previous post I kicked the megamusical Shrek and now I’m picking on this little one. But no, nobody slipped me a Mickey of grumpy juice. And I had high hopes for The Black Monk when I first head about it. The piece is, as the Playbill notes, “inspired by the Anton Chekhov story” of the same name. I’ve seen a number of Chekhov’s classic plays this year and the idea of seeing a new Chekhov intrigued me. I also admire the show’s star Austin Pendleton. So I emailed my friend Ellie, the one-time actress, current poet and professor and longstanding lover of Chekhov, and off we went to see it.

The Black Monk tells the story of a young Russian (a philosopher in the story, an artist in the show) who, torn between the demands of the people he loves and the work he loves, makes a Faustian pack with a mysterious monk. And since the monk may be imaginary, the story also explores the relationship between genius and madness.

Wendy Kesselman, who did the adaptation for the 1998 revival of The Diary of Anne Frank, wrote both the book and music for The Black Monk and she's turned a delicate metaphysical tale into a mundane musical. Just as with Jill Santoriello, who took the same one-woman-band approach to the recently-departed A Tale of Two Cities, the results make you want to lobby for a law requiring all musicals to be written by at least two collaborators so that one person will be around to tell the other “This isn’t working.”

Its producers call The Black Monk a chamber musical. And the production could fit into most one-bedroom Manhattan apartments. There are just four actors and two—yes, count ‘em, 2—musicians: a hardworking pianist and cellist who have to churn through 23 unremarkable songs in just 90 minutes.

Of course, size shouldn’t matter but it seems to me that when you’re this small you should pay extra attention to the little details, which director Kevin Newbury definitely doesn't do. If a character is going to make a big fuss about sunflowers shouldn’t she be holding sunflowers instead of lilacs and roses? If the title character has to sing, shouldn’t he be able to carry a tune or at least be persuaded to talk his way through the number? As Pendleton warbled his way through one song after another, I squeezed my eyes shut like a toddler who believes that doing so means people will go away because it can’t see them. It didn’t work.

The miscast Pendleton aside, the actors—Elon Rutberg as the artist Andrei, Julie Craig as the woman he loves Tanya and Scott Robertson as her father Igor—do the best they can with what they’ve been given. But the real stars of the show are the technical folks—operating on limited budgets, they still manage to work a bit of stage magic. About half an hour in, a lovely old bed was wheeled on stage and Ellie leaned over and whispered “The bed is the best thing so far.” She still felt that way an hour later. I was enchanted by D.M. Wood’s lighting which painted luminous pictures on Charlie Corcoran’s simple but elegant set, helping it to morph gracefully from outdoor gardens to indoor chambers.

The actor David Rasche was in the audience at the performance Ellie and I attended. I assumed he’d come out of friendship for someone in the cast and wondered
if his recent experience with the equally-disappointing To Be or Not to Be would help him know what to say when he made the obligatory backstage visit after the show. Whatever he said, he must have said it quickly because just minutes after Ellie and I settled in at the bar of the always reliable West Bank Cafe across the street, Rasche and his companion came in. A stiff drink is always welcomed after you’ve had to trudge through slush.

December 17, 2008

Why I'm So Disenchanted with "Shrek"

Children still believed in fairy tales when I was a little girl. Maybe not literally, but certainly wistfully (I mean who doesn’t want a happy ending?). By the time I hit my tweens, though, the coolest kids were into the “Fractured Fairytales” that were a regular part of the “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” Those tales were mischievously subversive parodies, underscored by the tongue-in-cheek narration of the great character actor Edward Everett Horton. Today, of course, even the tiniest tykes view fairy tales primarily as source material for satire. Which brings us to Shrek, The Musical, which opened at the Broadway Theatre on Sunday.

Cartoonist William Steig’s original 1990 children’s book, “Shrek!” was a funny but simple story about an ugly and smelly green ogre, who not only got to be the hero of his tale but to get the girl too. The folks at Hollywood’s DreamWorks film studio added a more complicated storyline that brought in other fairy tale characters, lots of other pop cultural references, a few digs at their arch nemesis Disney and some inspired casting choices (Mike Myers voicing Shrek with a Scottish burr, Eddie Murphy as his smart-mouthed pal Donkey, and Cameron Diaz as Fiona, the spunky princess Shrek loves).

The result was a critically acclaimed and commercially successful series of animated movies (“Shrek 4” is now in the works). The first was one of my favorite movies of 2001 (I still like happy endings). Having triumphed on Disney’s movie turf, DreamWorks was eager to send its ogre on to challenge the Mouse Factory on Broadway and reportedly has spent $24 million to do it (Click here to read a New York Times story about Shrek’s transformation from page-to-screen-to-stage).

Most of the professional theater critics, seemingly always looking for some reason to knock Disney, have gone out of their way to welcome this latest incarnation of Shrek. “If the storytelling is bumpy in patches and the songs don't quite soar, the show never stints on spectacle or laughs, making it a viable contender for a slice of the Disney market on Broadway,” writes Variety’s David Rooney. Well, maybe. But it seems to me that a big, expensive musical like this one ought to be able to offer more than a herky-jerky story and mundane songs. And that, despite Brian D'Arcy James' game performance under pounds of green latex, is what you get with this Shrek.

The book and lyrics are by David Lindsay-Abaire, who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for his moving drama Rabbit Hole (and also gets extra points from me because he’s a fellow alum of Sarah Lawrence College), but it seems as though his DreamWorks handlers didn’t allow him to veer too far from the script of the first “Shrek” movie. Except to add a few jokey references to other Broadway shows (but that, of course, has become de rigueur in contemporary musical comedies) and some belching and farting jokes.

Lindsay-Abaire also seems to have been forcibly enrolled in the Mel Brooks school of lyric writing—you string a bunch of words together, rhyme a few of them and voilà, a song. The music is by three-time Tony nominee Jeanine Tesori but there’s nothing really memorable about it either. In fact, on the night my sister Joanne and I saw the show, the exit music the orchestra played was “I’m A Believer”, the old Monkees song that was featured in the movie, and I enjoyed it better than anything that had been played during the stage show.

That’s not the only thing I enjoyed. Here are three others: 1. The always-perky Sutton Foster was, to borrow a fairy tale term, “just right” as Fiona, 2. Christopher Sieber was a riot as the villainous, vainglorious and vertically-challenged Lord Farquaad; not since José Ferrer taped his legs to his thighs to play Toulouse-Latrec (corrected from the Cyrano de Bergerac that I originally wrote, thanks to the eagle-eyes of my fellow blogger Mondschein at Third Row, Mezzanine) has an actor accomplished so much on his knees and never so hilariously, 3. the ogre ears they’re selling at the souvenir stand are adorable and they only cost $15.

Am I being too witchy? Well, maybe. But as Bruno Bettleheim said in his classic work, “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales”: “to hold the child’s attention, a story must entertain him and arouse his curiosity. But to enrich his life, it must simulate his imagination.” In this case, there is, alas, no truly happy ending.

December 13, 2008

The Wonders of "Slava's Snowshow"

I hadn’t planned to write about Slava’s Snowshow. But I hadn’t planned to like it either.

Slava Polunin is a Russian-born clown who has created a show composed of a series of near-totally silent sketches that exist in a primary-colored wonderland. There are funny costumes and pratfalls that play out against recorded versions of songs like the theme from "Chariots of Fire". But like the very best clowns—Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in the movies, Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie for the Ringling Brothers’ circus, Bert Lahr’s Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—Slava concocts his comedy with a touch of tragedy.

At the beginning of the show, the main character, who is called Yellow in the Playbill, ostensibly because of the baggy banana-colored jumpsuit he wears, comes on with a rope, apparently intending to hang himself. But, of course, he doesn’t get the hang of how to do it. Instead, he falls in with a group of playmates decked out in long green coats, large thin feet and floppy-eared hats. There is no plot, they simply move from one funny bit to the next, at times pulling the audience into their shenanigans. (Click here to see excerpts from the show.)

I usually shudder when I hear the words “audience participation.” Which explains why I didn’t go down to the Union Square Theatre to see Slava’s Snowshow during its two-year run there. But the show, which has now played around the world and even won an Olivier Award in London, opened on Sunday for a four-week, holiday-season run at the Helen Hayes Theatre. So, off I went with my theatergoing buddy Bill and his good friend Rosemary. To my surprise and delight, the irresistible good cheer of Slava’s clown show melted even my priggish reserve.

Kids, of course, aren’t burdened with those kinds of inhibitions and they take to Slava’s Snowshow right away. Even before the performance starts, the aisles of the Helen Hayes are filled with bits of thin white paper that are there to simulate snowflakes. A serious-eyed little boy sitting across the aisle from us could hardly contain himself and kept jumping out of his seat to scoop up armfuls of the stuff and throw them into the air and sometimes at us.

Watching his sheer joy made me smile even more. For this is the kind of experience that can make a child believe that the theater is a magical place. What makes me frown, though, is that the experience is best appreciated if you sit in the orchestra and tickets for those seats, even for the tiniest tyke, cost a cool $111.50. Luckily, discounters like TheaterMania are offering cheaper tickets (click here to see TheaterMania's deal). Still, pricey but worth it if you want to turn a child into a theater lover in the future or to see the sense of wonder in his or her eye right now.

December 10, 2008

"Home", Sweet Home

Of all the plays produced by the Negro Ensemble Company, the one that always makes me smile whenever I think of it is Home. That’s partly because it’s hard to find a more endearing piece than playwright Samm-Art William’s paean to the rural black South of his childhood. But it’s also because my friend Sidney worked for the company back in 1980 and I remember how thrilled everyone there was when the show moved from a run at the St. Marks Playhouse down in the East Village to the Cort Theatre on Broadway, where it played for over 250 performances and was nominated for a Tony.

It wasn’t the first NEC play to make that move but Home’s relocation may have been the most joyous. Williams had started off as an actor with the company but also attended its Playwrights’ Workshop. He has said he wrote Home when he was stranded in New York one holiday season, too broke to afford the ticket home to North Carolina to see his parents for Christmas. Now, the Signature Theatre Company has brought the play back in a sweet revival that is the second production in its season-long tribute to the NEC.

Home tells the story of Cephus Miles, a man who loves the land, his neighbors and his sweetheart Pattie Mae Wells. The stage directions are intentionally plain (“it is of the utmost importance that this play be directed very simply and free of excessive choreography,” Williams writes in his author’s notes); the language poetic, sometimes breaking into song; and the humor good-natured as Cephus speaks directly to the audience about his fondness for farming, fishing, friends and his sometimes cynical faith in God.

His idyll is upset when Pattie Mae goes off to college and jilts him and his way of life. And gets even worse when he is jailed for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War and later migrates to a northern city. Without being too heavy-handed, Williams created an allegory of the African-American experience that reflected the romantic view at the time that urban life had become destructive for many black people and that the best alternative was to return to the south where new opportunities were opening up but old values like hard work and friendship were still valued.

The passing years have made his message somewhat less potent in the current Obama era. My 29-year-old niece Jennifer was restless and left before the talkback session began after the performance she, her mom and I attended. But you can’t fault the three talented actors in this production.

Kevin T. Carroll plays Cephus with just the right mix of naïveté and moxie. He is well supported by January LaVoy, who plays Pattie Mae and several other characters, both male and female; and Tracey Bonner, who is listed in the Playbill as Woman Two but also plays an array of roles. And director Ron OJ Parson wraps them in a production that conveys the comforting feel of a well-told fable.

I confess that the show didn’t quite live up to my memories of the original (whose cast included L. Scott Caldwell, now playing Rose on the TV show “Lost”). Still, it did hit enough of the right notes to bring a smile back to my face and to make me feel comfortable about going Home again. Yesterday, the run was extended through Jan. 11 so there’s time for you to make the trip too.

December 6, 2008

Surviving with "Liza's at the Palace"

As much as I’d like to, I can’t tell you a damn thing about the first half of Liza’s at the Palace…! because I didn’t see it. I had tickets for the first night of Liza Minnelli’s new comeback concert but somehow forgot that opening night curtains rise earlier than those for regular performances. And so my sister Joanne and I arrived at the Palace Theatre right as the audience was streaming into the lobby for the intermission break.

People seemed to be in a good mood about what they’d just seen. And a few celebrities peppered the crowd. Alan Cumming darted out of the theater as though he were desperate for a smoke. Vincent D’Onofrio sauntered by. Tommy Tune held gracious court in one corner of the lobby. And I later read that Shirley MacLaine and Elaine Stritch had turned out too.

But instead of gawking, I spent most of that time feeling bad that I’d deprived my siste
r of seeing the part of the show in which, according to the Playbill, Liza sang many of her signature tunes, including “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” The second half of the show, which we did see, is dedicated to her godmother Kay Thompson, a legendary Hollywood vocal coach, arranger and performer (as well as the author of the "Eloise" children's books) and it largely recreates the nightclub act that Thompson developed in the late ‘40s. It includes a couple of songs written by Liza’s godfather, Ira Gershwin. “Wow,” my sister leaned over and whispered. “She had great godparents.”

And that, of course, is a large part of our endless fascination with Liza. As the daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, she is true s
how business royalty. She’s also probably our last link to the era of vaudeville and big movie musicals and razzle-dazzle Broadway shows. We’ve followed the family’s ups (Oscars for mom, dad and Liza, Tonys for mom and Liza, Emmys for Liza) and downs (substance abuse, bad marriages and divorces, weight issues and health problems for all three) for over 70 years now and in the process, we’ve developed a fondness for Liza that has developed into a protectiveness. We root for her to succeed.

Which is probably a large part of the reason that the reviews for Liza’s at the Palace! are mainly raves. The New York Times even assigned Stephen Holden, the most easy-going of its critics, to review her show. The critic for Time Out New York s
tarted off tough but couldn’t resist blowing a few compensatory kisses at the end of his short review. And if you’re hoping for some snarky comments from me, then you might as well stop reading.

Liza is now 62 and in just this decade alone, she’s been through a much-publicized divorce, had hip replacement surgery, survived a bout of viral encephalitis that nearly killed her, ballooned in weight and then slimmed down again (click here to read a New York Magazine profile). And yet, there she is up on the stage of the legendary theater where her mother made her own comeback in 1951, dressed in her trademark shimmery Halston-designed outfits and giving all she’s got.

It’s not as much as she once had. Even though the choreography was gentle
(more shoulder rolls and head tilts than high kicks) she seemed out of breath during most of the songs and actually stopped in the middle of one, gasping “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” But then, she went on. My buddy Bill, who did get to the theater on time, later told me that it wasn’t much different during the first act. But none of that mattered. Technical abilities are one thing. Artistry is another. Liza's artistry has always been that she works directly from the heart. And the audience on opening night wrapped her up in its own.

Folks in the front row stood after almost every number. I’m told that it was filled with friends who get those seats because they promise to give her t
hat visible show of support. But I don’t think there was any similar deal with the four guys sitting in the mezzanine right behind Joanne and me and they jumped up, stomped their feet, and shouted “Diva” just as often. As anyone who has ever attended a Broadway show knows, “the taking of photos is strictly prohibited” but phone cameras snapped constantly throughout the Palace, creating a kind of light show in the audience as people attempted to preserve some tangible memory of the performance.

Both exhausted by the performance and exhilarated by the response to it, Liza took bows that lasted for about five minutes. She giggled with glee. She hugged her four male back-up dancers. She insisted that the 12 members of the onstage band take a bow with her. And then, accompanied solely by her friend and music supervisor Billy Stritch on piano, she sang a moving and totally appropriate encore number that sent the audience out purring with delight.

“None of us are what we used to be,” a woman told her companion as we all filed out after Liza struck her iconic arm-thrust-upward pose and the final curtain came down. “But she’s still good.” A man standing nearby agreed. “She’s a superstar,” he said. “There’s very few of them left.” You’ll get no argument about any of that from me. I stood and clapped too. I wish I had seen the whole thing but I’m very glad that I got a chance to be there for even a part of this show business history. The run, originally scheduled for 10 days, has just been extended through Dec. 28. I started to worry about whether Liza has the stamina to make it through but then I remembered that she's a survivor.

December 3, 2008

A Holiday Gift List for Theater Lovers

The power shopping days of Black Friday and Cyber Monday are behind us but if you’re still looking for gifts to buy the theater lovers in your life (or to put on a wish list for someone to get you) here are 12 treats, one for each day of Christmas, that I’d love to find under the tree if I hadn’t already caved in and bought most of them for myself:

Tickets. D’uh. The one thing every theater lover wants is to see more shows and this year, the Theatre Development Fund is making it easier to satisfy that longing by offering TKTS Gift Certificates that can be use to buy reduced-price tickets on the day of the show at any one of the three TKTS booths in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They come in $25, $50 and $100 denominations.

Theater Ticket Album. It can be hard to keep track of all your tickets if you see lots of shows but this handy holder from the That’s My Ticket website keeps them all in one place. Or it could double as a keepsake filled with the stubs of all the shows seen in one season. $11.90 at that’

Kristin Chenoweth’s “A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas” CD. I have a weakness for Christmas music (and an embarrassingly large collection of Christmas CDs to prove it) but even if you tend to jingle to fewer of those bells, it’s hard to resist a collection of carols and holiday songs by Broadway’s inimitable cheer-bringer Chenoweth. $10.99 at

The Anton Chekhov Collection. This DVD collection brings together some of the world’s best classical actors (like Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Patrick Stewart) in fully-filmed and beautifully-performed BBC productions of some of the theater’s most beloved plays (such as The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya). What theater junkie could ask for anything more? $53.99 at

The August Wilson Century Cycle.
The scripts of all 10 of Wilson’s landmark plays chronicling the experience of African-Americans in each decade of the 20th century are collected together in a gorgeous boxed set, complete with insightful introductions to each work by such commentators as Laurence Fishburne, Tony Kushner, Toni Morrison, and Frank Rich. It’s pricey but priceless. $129.36 at

On Broadway 2009 Wall Calendar.
Palm Pilots and BlackBerries can’t replace the charm of an old-fashioned wall calendar, especially if it’s one that features reproductions of the original posters for classic Broadway shows like The Glass Menagerie and Show Boat. Published by the Library of Congress, this calendar also contains fun facts about each month’s featured show. $13.99 at

How Does the Show Go On: An Introduction to the Theater.
What’s Christmas without a pop-up book or an advent calendar? This combo, written by Disney honcho Thomas Schumacher and Jeff Kurtti, is a doozie, even if it only cites Disney musicals. It was created to introduce kids to the theater but is filled with enough great stuff (like swatches for costumes from The Lion King and the stage manager’s cue notes for the now-departed Tarzan) to appeal to the inner child in every theater geek. $17.21 at

Historic Photos of Broadway: New York Theater: 1850-1970
Beginning with a portrait of Junius Brutus Booth and his young son Edwin and ending with a shot of the naked cast from the original production of Hair, this book is filled with rarely seen photos, all drawn from the Billy Rose collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The one of a young and very sexy Arthur Miller suggests that Marilyn Monroe was turned on by more than just his mind and is, all by itself, worth the price of the volume. $31.96 at

The Wicked Music Box.
Over 3 million people have seen this mega-musical twist on "The Wizard of Oz" so chances are you know someone who loves it. Or love it yourself. If so, then this official keepsake, which plays the show’s “Defying Gravity” anthem and comes with a seasonally-appropriate snow globe, is for you. $75 at

Stephen Sondheim The Story So Far. Anyone who loves Sondheim already has the songs on this box set in their collection but there are just enough extra goodies to add some holiday cheer, including a 76-page booklet filled with nifty photos drawn from Sondheim’s own personal photo albums and a few rehearsal songs sung by the master accompanying himself on piano. $35.99 at

Essential Shakespeare Handbook. The folks at DK Publishing, who made their name with lavishly-illustrated travel guides, have brought their distinctive touch to this visually-rich guide to the Bard’s plays. There’s a scene-by-scene summary of each one, a who’s who of the characters, famous quotes, historical and literary analysis and marvelous images ranging from illustrations for 19th century productions to photos for 21st century ones. $24.50 at

The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II. Truth be told, I don’t have this one. But a previous book in the series, "The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter," has been on my bookshelf for years and is one of my great joys. The new book, which just came out, has collected the lyrics of more than 850 songs of arguably the most influential Broadway lyricist ever (and the mentor to Stephen Sondheim). It’s an enchanting gift for anyone who’s obsessive about musicals. $40.95 at

November 29, 2008

Speaking Up for "The Language of Trees"

Go see The Language of Trees. I don’t usually give this kind of advice. And I’m not giving it now because this show is so terrific. It isn’t. But The Language of Trees is the second production in the Roundabout Underground, the new series that showcases the works of young playwrights in fully realized productions. And if those of us who love theater are serious about its future, then we ought to support these new voices.

Both my theatergoing buddy Bill and I had been impressed by Speech & Debate, the play about a trio of high school misfits that kicked off the series in January, and we were eager to see what else its 27 year-old playwright Stephen Karam would do and who else the series’ curator would discover.

The current answer to that second question is Steven Levenson, a recent graduate of Brown University who wrote The Language of Trees. At 24, Levenson is even younger than Karam and his work isn’t quite as polished. But it is more ambitious.

Levenson's play tells the dual stories of a translator who goes to work for a private contractor in Iraq and of the wife and seven-year old son he leaves behind. The action centers around what happens in both places when the father is kidnapped by terrorists.

The title comes from the promise the father makes that he will teach the boy how to talk to trees when he returns home from the war. It also refers to a Bertolt Brecht quote, “What times are these when a talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence on so many wrongs?” The play muses on the relationships between mothers and sons and those between countries. It combines naturalism and a touch of magical realism.

That’s a lot to pack into 90 minutes. And Levenson is only partly successful. His decision to have the precocious boy played by an adult actor (Gio Perez doing better than you might expect) comes off as silly at times. A buttinsky neighbor (Maggie Burke doing exactly what she should) grates even more than she is supposed to. The fact that the confused and grieving wife (Natalie Gold doing the most nuanced work) is left to fend for herself makes no sense in our media-circus society. And yet, the play asks smart questions about serious subjects and there are moments, like those with the imprisoned father (an affective Michael Hayden,) that click.

Director Alex Timbers, aided by set designer Cameron Anderson, lighting designer David Weiner and sound designer M.L. Dogg, creates a production that matches the play’s ambitions and that is far bigger than you’d expect to find in the Underground’s 60-seat Black Box Theatre. It’s the kind of production any young playwright would trade a couple of thousand Facebook friends to get. (Click here to see a spoiler-heavy infomercial about it.)

Levenson won the lottery this time out and his prize is running through Dec. 14. Go see it. At just $20 a ticket, you can’t really lose and theater lovers of the future may end up big winners.

November 25, 2008

A Good Old-Fashioned "White Christmas"

The holidays are upon us. And so are the holiday shows. The 76th version of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is already two weeks into its seven-week run. The Big Apple Circus pitched its tent in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park the day before Halloween. The Nutcracker is due to kick off at the New York City Ballet the day after Thanksgiving. And starting Dec. 1, Nutcracker: R Rated, a naughtier spin on the tale, opens at Theater for the New City down in the East Village.

Meanwhile, the Cirque du Soleil folks have brought Wintuk, their holiday-aimed extravaganza, back to the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden for the second year in a row. But this time, it may get some head-to-head competition when the clown-show Slava’s Snowshow opens in Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre on Dec. 7.

But the big news this season is the arrival of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, which opened at the Marquis Theatre on Sunday night. I can take or leave these holiday offerings but my sister Joanne is crazy about them. In fact, it would be hard to find someone with more holiday spirit than my sister. She’s already scouring the TV listings for the annual showings of holiday specials and Christmas movies. And the 1954 classic “White Christmas” has always been one of her favorites.

It starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as a famous song-and-dance team and Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen as an up-and-coming sister act. The plot, such as it is, centers around their romantic entanglements and combined efforts to put on a show to save a friend’s country inn but it’s really just an excuse for them all to perform lots and lots of great Berlin songs (click here to see a trailer for the movie).

The stage version, which debuted in San Francisco in 2004, has been joyfully making its away across the country over the past four holiday seasons. But, as one of its producers told a workshop I attended in May, he and his partners hadn't planned to bring it to Broadway because they thought we New Yorkers were too jaded for such an old-fashioned kind of show. I don’t know what made them change their mind. But I suspect that, just as they predicted, most New York theatergoers will find the show corny.

This White Christmas is such a faithful recreation of the movie that I wondered if Stephen Bogardus had been cast because he so much resembles Crosby. Or if they’d made him up to look that way. David Ives, who usually performs a similar task for the Encores! series, adapted the screenplay along with Paul Blake but they don’t do much to update it. Is there anyone under 50 who gets references to Topo Gigio, Senor Wences and other regulars on the old “Ed Sullivan Show”?

Still, it looks as though no expenses have been spared. There are 33 people in the cast and another 25 in the orchestra pit. Costume designer Carrie Robbins has whipped up scores of festive costumes. And set designer Anna Louizos, ably assisted by lighting designer Ken Billington, turns out a procession of picture-perfect sets, building up to the grand and appropriately snowy finale.

Director Walter Bobbie, another Encores! vet, keeps the whole thing moving. But the show’s MVP is choreographer Randy Skinner who concocts one crowd-pleasing dance number after another, most of them winningly performed by Jeffry Denman and Meredith Patterson (click here to see a trailer for the show).

The resulting confection may prove too sweet for folks who prefer their musicals spiked with irony. But there is an audience for this show: families who’ve already seen the other holiday offerings, tourists who still think of Broadway as a place where musicals are bright and happy things, and people who just love Christmas and all the sentiment that comes with it. People like my sister Joanne. She loved Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

November 22, 2008

The Premature Death of "American Buffalo"

TV ads are expensive and most Broadway producers put off buying commercials as long as they can. So it didn’t seem a good sign when one for American Buffalo came on the TV at the bar of Brooklyn Diner USA on 43rd Street while I was sitting there eating a burger right before seeing the new revival of the show and just two days after it had opened at the Belasco Theatre. Earlier that day, the producers had posted a notice saying the show would close on Sunday unless ticket sales picked up.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. David Mamet’s dark comedy about three desperate losers who plot to steal a coin collection is now a classic. But the new production, directed by Robert Falls, drew largely negative reviews. The harshest one came from New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who sniped, “Nobody appears desperate here. Well, not the characters, anyway; the actors are another matter.”

The actors in question are John Leguizamo, Cedric The Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment. And I thought they did fine. In fact, I had a good time at the show. And I’m really sorry that it looks as though more people won’t get a chance to see and enjoy it too (click here to see some excerpts).

American Buffalo
, first produced in Mamet’s native Chicago back in 1976, was the playwright’s breakout, introducing theater lovers to the distinctively profane poetry of his language and his trademark themes of male bonding, fast deals and power plays. The show’s 1977 Broadway run is now legendary for Robert Duvall’s portrayal of the central character Teach. In fact, the role of this most volatile member of the trio has evolved into a kind of Hamlet of the American canon—a role by which actors can really test their theatrical mettle.

In addition to Duvall, the part has been played by Al Pacino in a 1983 Broadway revival, Dustin Hoffman in the 1996 movie, and William H. Macy in an acclaimed 2000 production at the Atlantic Theater Company, which he and Mamet co-founded in 1985. Those names obviously suggest a certain intensity. But does that mean there’s only one way to play Teach?

You might think so from the reviews of Leguizamo’s performance. Even my friend Ellie the former actress thought he wasn’t menacing enough. But like any good actor, Leguizamo, always a genial presence, draws on his own personality to create the role. His Teach knows he’s a phony tough guy and so do his friends. His climactic act of violence surprises him as much as it does the audience. And although that may not be as scary as playing him as a raging tyrant, it seems a valid interpretation to me.

Going in I had worried more about Cedric The Entertainer, the comedian who is making his theatrical debut in the show. But he won me over in less than five minutes. His years as a stand-up comedian have clearly made him comfortable in front of a live audience. And he was totally believable as the mainstay of the group.

Osment, just 20 and still best known as the kid in the 1999 movie "The Sixth Sense", is also making his stage debut with the show. I didn’t totally buy him as a junkie but there was a yearning-to-please sweetness to his performance that worked for the character.

The multicultural nature of the cast didn’t seem to work for many of the critics. And that bothered me. There is no reason to think that a black man, an Hispanic guy and a white kid wouldn’t hang out together in what is clearly (and wonderfully rendered in Santo Loquasto’s detailed set) the junk shop part of their city.

Others object to the celebrity casting. I'm usually less bothered by that than the naysayers. I think it's a good thing that movie people see a validity in the theater. And it can be a very good thing when they draw more attention to theater. In this case, the casting also comes with the added bonus of attracting a more diverse audience.

There were more black faces at the performance of American Buffalo Ellie and I attended than you usually see at Broadway plays.
An African-American couple sitting near us may have come because they were fans of “The Original Kings of Comedy”, the comedy tour and later movie that made Cedric famous, but they were totally rapt as they watched him perform in American Buffalo. It’ll be a shame if more of his fans, and more theater lovers in general, don’t get the same chance.

November 19, 2008

Going the Distance with "Road Show"

I’ve traveled a long way with Road Show, the new Stephen Sondheim musical that opened at The Public Theater last night. As every self-respecting theater lover knows, Road Show is the pet project that Sondheim has been nurturing for over 50 years. It has undergone at least four major revisions in just the last 10. But the show has always revolved around Wilson and Addison Mizner, peripatetic brothers who became infamous for their Florida land scams during the 1920s.

The real-life Addison and Wilson were just two of eight siblings but Sondheim and his frequent book writer John Weidman get rid of the other six and focus on Addison, a sometime businessman and s
elf-taught architect, and Wilson, who, among other things, was a professional gambler and prize fight manager, a writer for Broadway and Hollywood, and an opium addict and con man. For Sondheim, it seems, they symbolize the flip sides of the entrepreneurial spirit that defined America in the 20th century.

I’d never head of the Mizners but on the surface they seemed no less worthy of a musical than the presidential assassins who tell another part of the American story in Sondheim’s Assassins. And that show's perverseness had appealed to me. So I to
ok my first trip with the Mizner brothers in 1999 by going down to the East Village to see a New York Theatre Workshop production of their story directed by Sam Mendes and starring Nathan Lane as Addison and Victor Garber as Wilson.

Back then the show was called Wise Guys. And even its supporting cast—which included Brooks Ashmanskas, Kevin Chamberlin, and Christopher Fitzgerald—betrayed its Broadway ambitions. But those were quickly thwarted by an appropriately tepid response from just about everyone who saw it. I recall running into a friend in the theater party business who gave me the thumbs down as we all filed dejectedly out of the theater. But something good did come out of that production: Lane and Garber later became
a romantic couple.

And Sondheim held on to his love for the show. A new version, helmed by his frequent collaborator Hal Prince and with Richard Kind as Addison and Howard McGillin as Wilson, surfaced at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2003 and then made its way to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where I and my always-indulgent husband K went to see it.

For a time, the show had been renamed Gold!. But by the time K and I saw it, the title was Bounce, after a new song that Sondheim had written and that opened the show. And that wasn’t the only change. Michelle Pawk had joined the cast in the newly conceived role of Nellie, a love interest for Wilson. Bounce was better than Wise Guys but the word-of-mouth still wasn’t buoyant enough. [Click here to
read an exhaustively chronicled history of the show assembled by a devoted fan.]

Now, director John Doyle, whose revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company were so praised, has taken control. The show is called Road Show. Pawk is gone and so is her character. “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” the gorgeous ballad that Nellie and Wilson sang to one another is now a duet for Addison and his male lover.

The production is darker and more stylized than the earlier versions. Instead of Prince’s fully staged interpretation, which included big song-and-dance numbers, we get one of those chamber musicals in which Doyle specializes. The brightly colored costumes and multiple sets of the Prince version have been
replaced by an antique brown palate used for both the costumes, designed by Ann Hould-Ward, and the set, a heap of discarded furniture that Doyle designed himself.

The cast members, most of whom play multiple roles, are all visible in the wings before the show starts. And once on stage, they’re directed to perform all kinds of superfluous stage business. In case you don’t get that the Mizners are obsessed with money, everyone throws around what amounts to a virtual blizzard of dollar bills. Much of it lands in the front rows of the audience and my theatergoing buddy Bill got whacked on the leg by a bundle during the early preview performance we attended. He took it home as a souvenir but it seems as though so many folks were pocketing the fake bills that Esther of Gratuitous Violins told us the ushers at the performance she saw last week asked people to give them back at the end of the show.

Because so few people know who the Mizners were a lot of Road
Show’s dialog and lyrics are devoted to expository stuff (we may not have known all of the main characters in Assassins but at least we knew the guys they were trying to kill). And since the show has been paired down from over two hours to 100 intermissionless minutes there isn’t much time for character development. So we don't really get to know the brothers as much as we’d like and we don't really care for them as much as we should. That we do at all is a tribute to the remarkable performances that Alexander Gemingnani and Michael Cerveris give as Addison and Wilson. They are hands down the best of the three pairs I’ve seen.

But not even their bravura work has won over the critics, most of whom have spent their reviews lamenting that the first new Sondheim work in 14 years and possibly the last (the maestro is 78) is so unsatisfying. Of course, this isn't the first Sondheim show to disappoint the critics when it first opened. Genius that he is, he tends to be so far ahead of the rest of us that it takes time for us to catch up and appreciate what he’s created. What may be different this time, though, is that we’ve already had 10 years to get in step with Road Show.

November 16, 2008

In Total Solidarity with "Billy Elliot"

Standing ovations at the end of a show have become such a given that I usually ignore them. But even I paid attention when people sitting near me and my friend Joy stood up and applauded in the middle of Billy Elliot, the sensational new musical that opened on Thursday at the Imperial Theatre. And they stood up more than once. I didn’t join in until the end but I was just as thrilled as they were. Finally, a show that has good songs, great dancing, an accessible plot, a heartfelt message and a little uplift thrown in.

And it couldn’t have come at a better moment. Billy Elliot is adapted from the 2000 movie of the same title that told t
he story of an 11 year-old miner’s son who discovers that he has an amazing gift for ballet. But what lends the tale extra resonance is that it is set in northern England in 1984, during the year-long strike that coal miners waged to protest then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies which included efforts to bust the unions.

The show’s message (most directly expressed in the musical by a jolly Christmas song that talks about longing for the prime minister’s death) is unabashedly liberal and celebrates working people who stick together and the principle that it really does take a village to support a child. Who wouldn’t love
a show like that at a time when our own economic policies suck, the guys running our financial institutions and corporations don’t seem to know what the hell they’re doing and it’s beginning to dawn on all of us that we are part of a global village that really has to pull together if we want to make it through these hard times.

But it’s not just the political message that clicks. This is one of the most out-and-out entertaining musicals to open on Broadway in years.
The music by Elton John is all character-driven and includes stirring anthems, moving ballads, and bouncy music hall romps. Lee Hall smartly adapted his own screenplay for the movie and wrote the lyrics, maintaining the show’s spirit in the transfer. Unlike so many contemporary musicals, Billy Eliot doesn’t strain to be ironic or hip. It’s the kind of musical that Rodgers and Hammerstein might have written if they were still around. And I mean that as a compliment.

The movie’s director Stephen Daldry made the transfer too. Daldry is an old-hand at stage work in Britain and on Broadway (he did the Tony-winning 1994 revival of An Inspector Calls, whic
h holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first Broadway show my husband K and I saw when we were courting) and he creates a thoroughly theatrical experience. In fact, have you noticed that much of the most imaginative and innovative stage work these days (The History Boys, Coram Boy, Black Watch, even the current love-it-or-hate-it revival of All My Sons) is coming from Britain?

Most of the early publicity about the show has centered around the three young boys—David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, Kiril Kulish—who rotate the part of Billy (click here to read the New York Magazine version of the story). And deservedly so. There isn’t a more demanding role on Broadway right now. K and I saw the London production soon after it opened in 2005 (it's still going strong) and although I liked the show, I felt the British performers weren’t up to the skill level I was used to on Broadway. I wondered what
an American cast would do with the show. Now, I know.

Peter Darling’s bravura choreography requires a young dancer who is as precociously gifted as Billy is supposed to be. But the youngster playing the role must also be able to sing, act, imitate a Northen English accent (don’t worry; you’ll understand what the actors are saying) and hold the stage amidst a cast of 45 including veteran scene stealers like Gregory Jbara and Carole Shelley, who play Billy’s father and grandmother, the British actress Haydn Gwynne, who recreates the role she originated as his dance teacher, and a bevy of adorable little-girl ballerinas.

Kulish performed the night I attended and he handled all the tasks with aplomb (click here to see him
perform a number from the show on TV’s “The View”). I couldn’t imagine the other boys being any better. Later in the week my pal Bill, who had also seen Kulish, and I had dinner with Esther of Gratuitous Violins and found she felt much the same way about Kowalik. All of three of us admitted to wanting to see Alvarez, who performed on opening night and drew most of the reviews, but the show doesn’t publish a schedule of which boy will perform on which night and so there’s no surefire way to guarantee who’ll you’ll see when you go.

But you definitely should go. The critics have been nearly as enraptured as the folks in the audience were and the show is a certified hit. With the economy being what it is, tickets are available for most performances and as Billy and his neighbors would tell you, sometimes you have to make a sacrifice for art.

November 12, 2008

Winning and Losing at "Mindgame"

A look at the movie box office ratings on any given weekend will tell you that people like to have the bejesus scared out of them. Not me. Real life supplies all the pulse-quickening I need. I avoid horror movies. I had to brace myself to get through the third and sixth scariest volumes of the “Harry Potter” series. So I didn’t know if I should see Mindgame, the new “thriller” that opened at the Soho Playhouse on Sunday night. But curiosity got the best of me. I wanted to see what about it had convinced the eccentric filmmaker Ken Russell to make his debut, at 81 no less, as a theater director.

The answer is a show that is just as quirky as Russell, whose movies include “Women in Love” and “The Who’s Tommy”, has always been. Mindgame is one of those whodunit puzzles in the tradition of Sleuth, Deathtrap and Mousetrap, the Agatha Christie play that has been running in London since 1952. This one is set in a British mental hospital and the action centers around the visit of a crime writer who wants to do a book on the cannibalistic serial killer who is the asylum’s most infamous patient. Needless to say, nothing is as it seems. And yet, I was hardly scared at all.

That was fine for me. But less so for the play. Or for people who are serious about their thrillers. Or for critics who are very serious about their theater. And it’s hard to argue with them. Mindgame is a doofus of a thriller. It’s the kind of play your meathead brother-in-law who doesn’t like going to plays might enjoy. Still, I have to confess I kind of enjoyed it too. Not because it’s good but because it’s so goofy and the actors are such good sports about the whole thing that I couldn’t help myself (click here to see some excerpts from the show).

Keith Carradine plays the mysteriously menacing doctor running the place, Kathleen McNenny is his bizarre nurse and
Lee Godart, the visiting writer, (click here to listen to a Playbill interview with the cast members and their director). They all affect British accents and act in that self-consciously sinister and archly campy way that has entertained generations of B-movies fans. The overly intricate script by Anthony Horowitz, an old hand at TV and movie thrillers, doesn’t simply telegraph the plot twists, it virtually IMs them. And yet the show does offer some surprises. Beowulf Boritt’s set may look cheesy but you should watch it very closely.

The producers are hoping that once the main trick is revealed at the play’s end, it will make people want to come back so that they can see exactly how all the pieces fit together. In all honesty, it seems unlikely that many people will opt to see the show twice.
The couple sitting next to my buddy Bill and me left at intermission. As did my fellow blogger Mondschein. But you shouldn’t be ashamed, or afraid, to see it once.

November 8, 2008

Proselytizing for “The Atheist”

If they gave out Obies for bravery, Campbell Scott would be a shoo-in to take the prize home. Scott is starring in The Atheist, a one-man show co-produced by the Culture Project and Circle in the Square and playing at the Barrow Street Theatre through Jan. 4. He doesn’t deserve an award just for being on stage alone. Scores of actors do that. But he should get full recognition for playing one of the most despicable characters ever to appear on a stage.

Most actors want to be liked, even when they’re playing villains. But Scott plays this one without asking the audience for one iota of pity. And there’s no other actor there to deflect the disgust. Or even much of a set in which to hide. It’s a totally fearless performance.

The Atheist tells the story of Augustine Early, an unabashedly opportunistic journalist who will do anything—and does—to get ahead. It was written by Ronan Noone, whose name I thought might have been a punnish pseudonym but who turns out to be a 38 year-old Irish-born playwright who emigrated to the U.S. in his 20s and has been making a name for himself (his surname really is Noone) with productions at theater companies in his adoptive home of Massachusetts.

Noone did a stint as a journalist back in Ireland and he apparently wasn’t crazy about his co-workers. The Atheist is a jeremiad against America’s tabloid culture. Augustine Early makes J.J. Hunsecker, the cynical columnist in Sweet Smell of Success, look like Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen.

And that makes the show a tough sell. Who wants to spend so much time with an unrelenting asshole? Several people left during intermission the night I saw it. And the show has received less publicity than most Culture Project productions. My friend Jesse wasn’t impressed either. “Well, that was pretty bad, wasn’t it?” she said, as we walked to the subway after it was over.

The folks at the Barrow Street Theatre seemed to expect that such a feel-bad show might have limited appeal. The night Jesse and I went, they ran out of programs before most of the audience—a fair-sized group—was seated. Some staffer must have run off to Xerox additional copies because right before the show started, an usher rushed in and stood in front of the stage handing them out to audience members (including me) who walked down to get one.

But Scott made a proselytizer out of me. The conceit of the show is that Early is narrating the story of his life—his trailer park childhood, his dead-end assignments as a cub reporter at a Midwestern paper, the chance meeting that changes all that—to a video camera. At times during the show, real-time projections appear on a screen, providing movie-like close-ups that further underscore Scott’s commitment to the role.

Like his namesake, Early wrestles with the meaning of sin. He says that having lost his belief in God at an early age, he can be ruthless because he no longer has to worry about his soul. Noone’s play is clearly ambitious and at times darkly funny but it doesn’t say much we don’t already know about our obsession with celebrity. It’s the expressions on Scott’s face that show us the devastating costs blind ambition can exact, even from those who profess an indifference to right and wrong.

I suppose that Scott inherited the fearlessness (and his acting chops) from his parents, Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott, two of the most lionhearted actors ever to walk across a stage (click here to read a Backstage story in which the son talks about his mother, father and the play). He apparently learned something else from them too. The younger Scott is a divorced dad who has custody of his son every other week and so in order to spend time with his boy, and perhaps to keep the play's bile away from him, The Atheist plays only on alternate weeks.

November 5, 2008

An Ovation for President-elect Obama

Even the most ardent theater lovers need to take time out to applaud this remarkably historic moment on the national stage. And I am proud and delighted to do precisely that: Bravo. Bravo. Bravissimo!

November 1, 2008

The Martial Art of "Black Watch"

Second chances don’t come along that often. And so I wasted no time ordering tickets the minute I heard that Black Watch was returning to St. Ann’s Warehouse. Black Watch is the National Theatre of Scotland’s extraordinary production about soldiers from that country’s legendary military unit (the regiment dates back to 1725 and was named for the dark tartan kilts its soldiers wore) who were posted to Iraq. The show was such an instant sensation when it opened last year that the run sold out before I could see it.

People who did see it couldn’t stop talking about it. One of the guests at a brunch my husband K and I attended just this past weekend at my high school classmate Lesley’s house is friends with a St. Ann’s board member who, he says, was so blown away by the production that he offered to put up the money to bring it back after its North American tour so that more New Yorkers could see it.

I don’t know who that board member is but this New Yorker is grateful to him. Black Watch is a theater lover’s wet dream: a truly innovative production, superbly acted, marvelously staged and fully reproducible in no medium other than the theater. You don’t want to wait for the movie version of this one (click here to see a mini documentary about the making of it).

My theatergoing pal Bill had missed the original run too and so we met up in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn where St. Ann’s is located. After a thorough search of our Zagat’s guides, we decided to have dinner before the show at a restaurant called Five Front. It’s a cozy place, the food was surprisingly good and it’s conveniently located around the corner from the theater.

By the time we arrived at St. Ann’s, the large lobby space was packed and crackling with the anticipation of a crowd really excited about seeing a show. Just before 8 PM, the doors opened to the main theater, transformed into a kind of military parade ground with seats on both sides, and it took a while for everyone to get in so the show didn’t start until around 8:15. But bagpipes played all through the waiting time and is there anything more stirring than that soulful sound?

Now I don’t want to oversell the show. I had so looked forward to seeing Black Watch for so long that there was no way it could have lived up to my expectations. And I did feel a little let down. I also had some trouble deciphering the actors’ thick Scottish burrs (although their many variations of the word fuck—more than in any rap record yet made—came through loud and clear). But the more I think about it, the more impressed I am by the sheer theatrical spectacle of the show.

Playwright Gregory Burke has fused together news reports about Scotland's service in Iraq, interviews with returning soldiers, and letters from those who didn’t make it home into an explosive psychodrama about duty, honor and the deadly follies of war. And director John Tiffany enlists an arsenal of stage techniques—smart choreography and video projections, folk music and story theater, military rituals and performance art—to turn it into a dynamically visceral experience. Salutes are also due to every one of the 10 cast members who don’t just act but actually live the ordeal that runs for one-hour and 50 uninterrupted minutes.

Bill was even more knocked out by Black Watch than I was. If you still haven’t seen it, well here’s that rarest of rare things: a third chance. The run, which was supposed to end on Nov. 30 has just been extended to Dec. 21.

October 29, 2008

The Exhilarations of "Speed-the-Plow"

[Dec. 20 Update: Jeremy Piven pulled out of the production this week and people can’t stop buzzing about. My thoughts are below in the comments in response to a reader’s question.]

Serious theater seems to have become a contact sport this season. The opening of Fifty Words, Michael Weller’s new off-Broadway play about marital discord, had to be postponed because its stars Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel injured themselves during their onstage fights during previews. Uptown at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, John Lithgow and Patrick Wilson go at one another so vigorously in the climactic confrontation in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons that I began to wonder if the 63-year old Lithgow might have to put in for workers’ compensation by the end of the run. And Raúl Esparza and
Jeremy Piven battled so intensely at the performance of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow I attended, that it looked as though Piven’s nose actually began to bleed after their mano-a-mano clash.

Mamet, of course, is nearly always pugnacious. And his 90-minute morality play about two Hollywood studio execs on the make and the temporary secretary who comes between them sets up one of his typically rambunctious smackdowns. For years, however, Speed-the-Plow has been known as the Madonna play because the pop star made her stage debut in the original production that opened on Broadway in 1988.

I went to the opening night of that production because a friend worked at Lincoln Center, which was producing the show, and called at the last minute to say they needed people to fill the seats in the top balcony of the Royale Theatre, now called the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, but I don’t remember much about Madonna’s performance, except that she seemed mousy. But I suppose almost anyone would have seemed so when going up against such powerhouses as her co-stars Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver, who would win a Tony for his work in the show.

The producers of the revival that opened earlier this month have also tried to bring a little Hollywood glitz to their production. While Esparza, who burrows into Silver’s role as the most desperate of the two men, is a Broadway baby, Piven, who takes on Mantegna’s role of a newly-promoted studio chief, has gained his fame (and an Emmy) as the manic agent Ari Gold in the HBO series “Entourage.” And Elisabeth Moss, who plays the secretary, is one of the stars of the currently hot AMC series “Mad Men.” But Piven grew up in a family of stage people (click here to read an interview he gave the British weekly OK!) and Moss, the daughter of professional musicians, got her first professional acting job when she was eight and made her New York theater debut in 2002 in a production of Richard Nelson's Franny's Way (click here to read a Wall Street Journal interview with her). In short, all three know what they’re doing.

Although we didn’t go together, my pal Bill happened to see the same performance and he was knocked out by Piven. I thought Esparza walked away with the show. They both deliver Mamet’s trademark rat-ta-tat-tat dialog as though it were their native tongue. And while Moss has the less flashy and more difficult role (it’s now a cliché to say that Mamet doesn’t write good roles for women but there’s a reason clichés become clichés) she still squeezes a good deal of juice from it. Kudos too to director Neil Pepe, the artistic director of the Mamet-founded Atlantic Theater Company who sets a clear and exhilarating path for his actors to follow, and set designer Scott Pask who places the action in rooms that are as superficially sleek and thoroughly sterile as the people who inhabit them.

Speed-the-Plow may not be a heavyweight show like The Seagull or August: Osage County but it still packs a punch. Plus pound-for-pound, it delivers more laughs.

October 25, 2008

In Memorian: Clayton Riley

My friend Clayton Riley died yesterday. He was an ardent and constant advocate for African-American theater, an astute critic of theater of all kinds and a supportive reader of this blog. Clayton started off as an actor and his credits include the original productions of Martin Duberman’s In White America and LeRoi Jones’ The Dutchman. During that time, he also helped form the Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop, which developed the works of African-American playwrights. Over the years, his articles and critiques appeared in the New York Times and The Village Voice. He also taught at Cornell University, Fordham University, the New School and my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, where I first met him when I took his class. He later married one of my closest friends and occasional theater partners Joy and my husband K and I have spent many wonderful evenings with them. We'll miss him. Clayton was a great raconteur and a generous friend and he remained until the end, an enthusiastic believer in the power of good theater. That will live on. Joy is setting up a fund in his name at Sarah Lawrence that will buy tickets for students who otherwise couldn’t afford to see theater here in the city. It's a fitting tribute for a true theater lover.