June 28, 2008

City Life for Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy

My very first exposure to Broadway came from watching “The Ed Sullivan Show” every Sunday night when I was a kid. Scenes from musicals like Oklahoma and My Fair Lady often followed jugglers twirling plates on poles or ran right before comics wearing baggy pants or funny little hats. There was no highbrow or lowbrow culture for Ed. To him, it was all entertainment and he just went ahead and made the best of it available to those of us tuning in from home. So while the elitist in me wondered how Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy had become the first show of the new Broadway season, the kid in me didn’t find it all that strange.

Cirque, of course, is the French word for circus and if you’ve heard anything about this extravaganza, you’ve heard that it’s not to be confused with those produced by the similarly named Cirque du Soleil. In fact, the Florida-based Dreams and the Montreal-based Soleil waged a five-year legal battle over who should have the right to use the name “Cirque”; a U.S. federal court ruled that the term was generic and so shows combining circus acts, lots of recorded Euro-pop music and colorfully outrageous costumes are destined to become even more ubiquitous than they already are.

I may be the last theater lover in America who hasn’t seen any of the Cirque du Soleil spectaculars that first sprang up in Canada during the 1980s and have since become nearly ubiquitous here— Love, an homage to The Beatles is currently in permanent residence at The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. I kept meaning to go whenever a production came to New York but I somehow couldn’t work it up to get over to Roosevelt Island or down to Battery Park where the troupe set up camp during earlier visits and I got sick the night I had tickets for last winter’s Wintuk at Madison Square Garden. Cirque Dreams made it easy for me by coming to Broadway.

Everything about Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy is summed up in its title. There is no story as such. A singing Mother Nature and a violin playing tree man simply guide a young man listed in the Playbill as Adventurer through an enchanted forest, where acrobats, aerialists and contortionists perform fantastic feats that seem to defy the laws of gravity, physics and human anatomy. There is something almost primal about our enjoyment of circuses. Watching acrobats fly through the air or human pyramids climb three or four person tall tricks us into believing, at least in that moment, that humans really can do the impossible, could even be immortal.

Lots of kids were in the audience the night my sister, niece and I saw Jungle Fantasy and the little girl sitting across the aisle from us literally squealed with instinctive delight as the members of one act hurled themselves through the air. A chronic nervous Nelly who always fretted that the twirling plates would slip off the tips of the poles on the Sullivan show, I was somewhat more reserved and kept worrying that someone or something would fall but no less impressed when no one and nothing did
(click here to see an official trailer for the show, although it may take some of the surprise and fun out of seeing the real thing).

A few members of the audience were pulled on stage at the very beginning of the show (“Oh no, not me,” I heard the man sitting nearby implore but he got up and was a really good sport—he wasn’t a plant either because we saw him walking to the subway with his wife after the show let out.) But the majority of Jungle Fantasy’s 28 performers, who portray all manner of exotic flora and fauna, are drawn from beguiling-sounding places like the Moscow Circus School, the Kiev State School of Circus Arts and the Mongolian State School of Contortion. Judging from the looks of things, they were all on the dean’s list. Their show will only play at The Broadway Theatre through the end of August but if he were around, I’m sure Ed Sullivan would be scheming how to get them on his show.

June 25, 2008

A Little Reality Check for "Legally Blonde"

The first time I saw an audition for a New York show was right after college when I went to lend support to my actor friend Ellie as she tried out for a part in a showcase production at Equity Library Theater when it was in the basement of an apartment building on Riverside Drive. Now, it seems that anytime I want to see an audition, all I have to do is turn on my TV.

Last year, the producers of Grease used the reality TV show “Grease: You’re the One That I Want” to find the leads for the revival of the musical currently playing on Broadway. Now the Legally Blonde producers are trying to find a replacement for their star Laura Belle Bundy with “Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods” currently running on MTV. And starting on July 20, the Disney folks will air “High School Musical: Get in the Picture” on ABC; its winner will get a spot in a music video that will be shown in the end credits for “High School Musical 3” and a recording contract for two singles with Walt Disney Records.

I tuned out “You’re the One That I Want” after the first episode but when I saw Grease last fall, it was obvious that whatever one may feel about its leads, the TV show had done its job of drawing a fresh audience to Broadway. The cheers that greeted just the entrance of the contest's winners and Broadway rookies Max Crumm as Danny Zuko and Laura Osnes as Sandy Dumbrowski were almost as loud as those that Patti LuPone received for her showstopping turn as Gypsy’s Mama Rose on the Tonys a couple of weeks ago. So, I set my Tivo to record all eight scheduled episodes of Legally Blonde and now that the show is halfway through its run, I thought I’d catch you up on it in case you haven’t been watching.

While ‘You’re the One That I Want” followed the “American Idol” and “Dancing With The Stars” model, allowing viewers to phone in and vote for their favorites, “The Search for Elle Woods” is taking the “Project Runway” approach with a panel of experts who have total say over which contestants get to stay and which one gets sent home each week. The judges are veteran casting director Bernard Telsey, Legally Blonde’s book writer Heather Hach and cast member Paul Canaan. Legally Blonde director Jerry Mitchell made an appearance on the first episode and is supposed to show up again at the end of the run. That first episode started with a casting call of 50 girls but quickly whittled them down to 10 in less than two hours.

The finalists are a high-energy and appropriately bubbly bunch, ranging in age from 18 to 28 and primarily blonde, be it natural or from a bottle. Following the conventions of reality TV, they live together--here they share a big suite in the Empire Hotel--and the camera follows them as the judges put them through their paces during the day and the girls alternately support and bitch about one another at night.

Unlike “Project Runway” where you can watch the fashion designers create different outfits on the same theme, or “Top Chef” where they whip up different meals using similar ingredients, “The Search for Elle Woods” contestants all perform the exact same scene or musical number and the repetition can get a little monotonous even though the girls are all fairly talented. The producers are smart enough to know this and so they whirl through a montage of the actual auditions and slow down for quarrels between the girls, interviews with cast members from the Broadway show who are called in to help coach the contestants, and filmed excerpts from the musical itself, which is, in effect, a commercial within a commercial.

There are moments when the judges look as though they can’t believe they’ve gotten themselves into this situation and there’s no one they want. But then they rally, find encouraging things to say about the most-likely-to-succeed and cut one contender--or in this week’s case, two. Their choices seem honest; this week, the two who were axed were also the ones providing the most dramatic tension.

Is this any way to cast a Broadway show? Well, maybe. Andrew Lloyd Webber clearly thinks so. He’s already chosen a Maria for The Sound of Music, through the reality television show “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” which ran on the BBC in 2006, a lead for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on “One's Any Dream Will Do!” in 2007 and recently found a Nancy for an upcoming West End production of Oliver! on “I'd Do Anything.”

Lloyd Webber has appeared as a judge on these shows and everyone involved seems to win. The performers--even those who don’t get the part--get a chance to show what they can do in front of the man himself, and in front of any other producer who just tunes in to watch. (“I wasn't interested at all in a reality TV show, but I gave it a second thought," Celina Carvajal, one of “The Search for Elle Woods” contestants told the Daily News. "In terms of my career, reality TV is basically going to take over musical theater at some point anyhow, so I might as well jump on now while it's still new.”) The networks get relatively low-cost shows to fill their airtime. People who don’t usually think about live theater get exposed to, and are given a rooting interest in, it. And, shows get a chance to run longer than they might have, keeping lots of show folks employed. Last week, Grease played to a healthy 87% capacity.

Still, this approach only works for a certain kind of show. And so one--or at least this one theater lover--hopes that the on-air audition shows won’t keep producers from trying out other kinds of shows as well. In the meantime, although my cheering her on didn't do Ellie any good back at the Equity Library, I'm rooting for Lauren.

June 21, 2008

Paying Props to Jerome Robbins

This is going to be a shorter-than-usual post and it may look different too, due, as they say, to technical difficulties. The hard drive on my computer has crashed and burned out. The folks at the big Apple Store on Fifth Avenue say it will take up to five days to install a new one and much of what was on the old drive is lost forever. My always-there-for-me husband K has loaned me his old laptop but it doesn’t have any of the stuff I usually use to research and write my entries and it only has a slow dial-up modem instead of my computer's high-speed internet connection. But what really got me down is that I worried that I wouldn't be able to write about the legendary choreographer and director Jerome Robbins and the extraordinary exhibit on his life--”New York Story: Jerome Robbins and His World”--that is currently at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts but is closing next Saturday, June 28. So please bear with me while I do the best I can under stressful circumstances.

It’s hard to find a more controversial figure in Broadway history than Robbins. When I’m not seeing a show, or writing about one, I’m often reading about shows and the people who make them. Over the years, I’ve found that Robbins is usually described pretty much the same way: incredibly talented, incredibly difficult to work with, and, for many, incredibly unlikeable. I suspect the latter stems largely from his decision to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and name people who had been members of the Communist Party, an association that cost careers and even lives during the Red Scare hysteria of the 1950s. And yet, even people who were angriest with him--Arthur Laurents, Zero Mostel--continued to work with Robbins after he informed because he was a genius.

If he’d lived, Robbins, who died in 1998, would be turning 90 this year. The New York City Ballet, where he had as long and illustrious a career as he did on Broadway, has paid him tribute this spring with a two months-long retrospective of his works. And I’ve been holding my own Robbins celebration. I went to one of the City Ballet performances centered around his collaborations with Leonard Bernstein--”Fancy Free”, the dance that made Robbins’ name and that was later expanded into the musical On The Town; “Dybbuk”, an adaptation of a Jewish fable; and, of course, the “West Side Story Suite.” The ballet dancers didn’t quite capture the sassy spirit of the pieces but I loved seeing his showstoppers. I’m also reading Amanda Vaill’s massive biography of Robbins, “Somewhere.” I even went to see a film about his attorney Floria Lasky (a character in her own right, who was famous for her big hats and who represented a bunch of big theatrical names including Robbins, David Merrick, Tennessee Williams and Gypsy Rose Lee). But it was the Library’s exhibit that really made Robbins come alive for me.

Robbins was a pack rat. He saved everything and the exhibit has put as much of it on display as possible. There are family photos and rehearsal photographs, letters to and from friends, annotated sheet music and autographed show posters from the musicals he did, sketches he drew (he was a pretty good artist too) and portraits some of the world’s most famous photographers took of him, report cards from his grade school and profiles in magazines like “Esquire”, which, in 1948, called him “The Hottest Thing in Show Business.” All the awards he won--Emmy, Oscars, Tonys, National Medal of the Arts, Kennedy Center, the key to the city of Washington--are there, as are costumes from shows like Peter Pan, Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story. And in the back is a wall filled with TV screens showing interviews with Robbins and his collaborators, scenes from shows and ballets he did and excerpts from a few rehearsal sessions that, as short as they are, still convey a visceral sense of how exacting he could be. I spent over two hours and still couldn’t get through it all.

If you love theater and you live in New York, go see it before the end of next week. If you love theater and you live elsewhere, think seriously about making a quick trip here. It’s really that good.

June 18, 2008

Tweaking the Tonys 2008

The best part of the Tonys for many theater lovers is speculating about what will happen before hand and complaining about what did happen afterward. I skipped the run-up chatter and I’ll get to my complaints later. But, in general, I liked the show and while the winners weren’t really surprising (who was going to deny Patti LuPone's powerhouse performance in Gypsy?) they seemed, for the most part, deserving (even Boeing-Boeing's Mark Rylance is having second thoughts about the decision to recite a weird poem for his acceptance speech—click here to hear it).

The constant dilemma for the Tony show producers is whether to put on an artistic event the theaterati will love (full coverage of every award, long speeches, scenes from the nominated plays as well as the musicals, and as little from Disney as possible) or to do a more commercial show that will appeal to a broader audience that may just be tuning-in to Broadway for the first time all year, to the producers who want to sell those folks tickets, and to CBS which continues to air the show despite its continually low ratings. This year, the show tilted heavily towards the commercial. And with the economic recession and sluggish ticket sales, who could blame them for doing whatever they could to get more people to see more Broadway shows?

While nearly all the presenters had theater experience on their CVs, the producers clearly hoped that those who could claim movie, TV and even rock stardom would help draw a bigger and younger audience. So while folks like the “Harry Potter” movies' Daniel Radcliffe (whose Broadway debut in Equus isn't until September); Adam Duritz, lead singer of the band Counting Crows; and TV news anchor Julie Chen (who also happens to be married to CBS chief Les Moonves) appeared in primetime, recent winners and theater stalwarts Julie White and Michael Cerveris got relegated to the off-air portion of the show. But the ever-popular Whoopi Goldberg, who has credibility on both sides of the street—Oscar winning actress and Tony winning producer, not to mention co-host of the TV show “The View,” which managed to get nearly all of this year’s nominated musicals on in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s awards show—was a suitable and entertaining host.

The biggest break with tradition may have been that in the past, only nominated musicals got to appear on the Tonys. This year, although the nominees for Best Musical and Best Revival of a Musical still got the biggest production numbers, just about every song and dance show still running got some kind of airtime. The show opened with the crowd-pleasing The Lion King, celebrating its 10th anniversary, and closed with the equally beloved Rent, closing in September after 12 years.

Later, Faith Prince did a number from A Catered Affair, Megan Mullally and Shuler Hensley did one from Young Frankenstein, and Sierra Boggess got to show off her wheelies in a little excerpt from The Little Mermaid, even though none of the three shows were nominated for Best Musical. Meanwhile the casts of long-running shows like Avenue Q, Chicago and Jersey Boys appeared in filmed segments paying tribute to behind the scenes folks like musicians and stagehands (apparently last fall's 19-day strike is forgiven). And Whoopi donned costumes for several shows including A Chorus Line, Spring Awakening and Mary Poppins (apparently Disney was even forgiven).

I thought it was all pretty entertaining (click here to find a minute-by-minute account on the blog The Playgoer) and it was probably really great if you were planning to make a trip to New York and trying to decide which shows you might want to see (although Cry-Baby and Passing Strange didn’t come across all that well on the small screen, while South Pacific, a hard ticket to get even before the broadcast, put together the most TV-friendly performance). On the other hand, it wasn’t so great if you were the winner of one of the “lesser awards” (a category that included Best Revival of a Play and Best Book of a Musical) since those awards were given before the live show started. Their winners were shown during the broadcast in quick 5 to 10 second film clips but I bet it wasn’t the same. And to add insult to their injury, the live show included a Lifetime Achievement Award for Stephen Sondheim who didn’t even show up to pick it up.

The folks from In the Heights showed up in full force and took home the awards for Best Musical, Best Choreography, and Best Score (composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rapped acceptance speech, with a deft allusion to a Sondheim lyric, was the highlight of the night and earned him even more good will than his feel-good musical has already done—click here to hear it). As expected, August: Osage County also took home a bunch of awards, including Best Play and acting honors for Deanna Dunagan and Rondi Reed. Both actresses and three others of the 13-member cast played their final performance on Sunday so newcomers who liked what they saw of them on the broadcast won’t see them in action.

But that’s not my complaint. It was the award in a much smaller category that disappointed me: Best Scenic Design of a Musical. Michael Yeargan’s winning set for South Pacific is undeniably beautiful but the video projections used in Sunday in the Park with George are truly innovative. I'm not making a case for a separate award, as I did last year for Sound Design, which, by the way, was recognized for the first time this year with Mic Pool taking the prize for The 39 Steps.

But video projections
will change the way set design will be done in the future and are already enlarging the tool kits of the most imaginative designers. They level the playing field so that little shows can be as inventive as large ones. And they also create an artful compromise between the unique wonders of live theater and the more cinematic experience that younger people demand from their entertainment.

This year the more forward-thinking Drama Desk Awards created a new category for Outstanding Projection and Video Design. The nominees included small productions like Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which played at PS 122 in January; and The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, which opened at the Vineyard Theater in February, alongside big shows like Broadway’s A Catered Affair and
Macbeth. The winner was Sunday in the Park with George.

June 14, 2008

The Fanciful Flight of "The Raven"

When I was a kid in college, the Lower East Side was the epicenter of the theater world for the serious young theater lovers my friends and I thought we were. The Negro Ensemble Company was breaking new ground for black artists on Second Avenue, just off St. Mark’s Place. Joe Papp’s Public Theater was settling into its home at the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street. And then there was La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club.

La MaMa's founder Ellen Stewart put on an eclectic mix of reinterpreted clas
sics, multi-media extravaganzas influenced by world theater techniques and innovative pieces by folks like Lee Breuer, Wilford Leach, Andrei Serban, Elizabeth Swados and Harold Pinter, who had his first American production done at La MaMa. Stewart’s exuberantly avant-garde playground was our mecca.

But time passes, passions ebb and I realized a little while ago that it had been nearly 40 years since I’d seen anything at La MaMa. So last night, I went to the first performance of a piece called The Raven. I went partly for old times’ sake and partly because Stewart herself adapted and directed the piece.

Stewart is a true original, a Louisiana-bred black woman who has created theater pieces all over the world (click here to read a 2006 profile that totally captures her style) and since she’s about to turn 90 (or at least to admit to being that old) and is largely wheel-chair bound, who knows how many more works she'll be able to helm (click here to view a video blog she started earlier this year).

The La MaMa audience, at least the one at the performance I attended, seems to be as distinctive as La Stewart herself. It was an interracial crowd with lots of aging hippies but some younger hipsters too and a healthy sampling of just regular folks. It’s the kind of group where a man wearing a kufi sat reading "The New Yorker" next to a couple perusing a Chinese language newspaper.

The theater is on the second floor of an old building on East Fourth Street and everyone gathered patiently in the lobby outside the auditorium until one of the staffers sounded the cowbell that traditionally marks the beginning of a La MaMa production. “Welcome to La MaMa,” he said. “Tonight’s performance is The Raven. The running time is…I don’t know really but we’ll find that out tonight.” It actually runs around 90 minutes without intermission. Seating is unassigned but even though I waited until most everyone had gone inside, I still managed to grab an aisle seat in a back row.

The Raven, an adaptation of a play by the 18th century Italian writer Carlo Gozzi that the company describes as an epic opera, is a mythical story filled with proud kings, a strong-willed princess, magical birds, whimsical dragons and evil curses. Stewart’s version of the tale is vaguely Chinese in style, almost entirely sung through in English, with a little Mandarin thrown in for flavor.

There are great stage images, including the opening that beautifully combines video projections and stage props to create a storm at sea and the arrival of its occupants at a safe but unknown harbor. Both the costumes and puppets are fun. I even liked the music, composed by Stewart with help from Michael Sirotta, Heather Paauwe, Yukio Tsuji, and Cao Bao An and played by a six-piece orchestra, complete with huqin and gongs. But, alas, the performances were uneven—some of the singers actually couldn’t sing.

Still, the time went by easily enough. And at the end of the curtain call, Stewart, waving with regal élan, was rolled out onto the stage. It was great to see her and I was glad I’d seen her show too. It’s scheduled to play through June 29 and tickets are just $25. If you’ve never seen a La MaMa production or if, like me, it’s been years since you’ve seen one, then you should go. La MaMa, and the chance to be in the presence of its founder, is something that everything theater lover should experience.

June 11, 2008

A High Old Time with “The Cocktail Hour”

Perhaps the best compliment I can pay the new TBTB revival of A.R. Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour is that I didn’t realize the company, whose full name is Theater Breaking Through Barriers, had previously been known as Theater By The Blind until someone told me so during the intermission.

The company was formed in 1979 with sighted actors recording plays for the blind but it eventually began to work with blind and low vision actors. Its early plays dealt with issues involving visually impaired people but over the years the company has widened its repertoire to include everything from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller. It has also expanded its mission to embrace actors with other disabilities (in last year’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the actress playing Hermia was wheelchair-bound) hence the more encompassing name change (click here to read more about the company’s history).

But, as I said, I didn’t know any of this when I decided to see The Cocktail Hour. I simply like Gurney’s plays. Their upper-class WASP settings and rituals are now considered very non-PC but I get a kick out of them and they are as exotic and fascinating to me as those of the Masai are to other people. In the spirit of this obviously semi-autobiographical piece about a playwright who is seeking permission from his parents to put on a play about them and arrives at their home as they’re settling in for their customary pre-dinner drinks, I stopped for one of my own at the West Bank Cafe across the street from the Kirk Theatre at Theatre Row where the show is running through June 29.

While I was nursing my first glass of wine at the bar, a man came in and took the stool next to mine. I don’t usually like to bother people but, emboldened by a second glass, I turned and said, “Excuse me but aren’t you Bernie Gersten?” And it was indeed the executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater, who had come in for a quick drink before meeting his wife to see Saved, the new musical about kids at an evangelical high school that is playing at Playwrights Horizons. We chatted about the upcoming Tonys and the recently decided Democratic primary and how although he is 85, Gersten has no plans to retire. Which is very good news for theater lovers because he's always been—and continues to be—a class act.

I then ran across the street to The Cocktail Hour but the play started late because the traffic outside had been stopped to keep people away from the nearby New York Times tower, where, for the second time that day, someone was scaling the outside of the 52-story building. The delay wasn’t too long and the audience was in a good mood, clearly looking forward to what is essentially a drawing room comedy since the play takes place entirely in the family living room with the mother, father, son and a daughter who stops by occasionally disappearing offstage to check on how the new cook was dealing with dinner or to take a phone call.

Not a lot happens in The Cocktail Hour but there are some good lines, a lot of good spirit and good performances by
Pamela Sabaugh as the daughter, John Viselli as the son, TBTB co-artistic director (and the only sight-impaired member of the cast) George Ashiotis as the father and particularly by Melanie Boland who made a delightfully daffy mother. Everyone at the performance I attended—both onstage and off—seemed to be having a high old time.

June 7, 2008

The Preoccupations of Albee's "Occupant"

Edward Albee seems to be everywhere you turn these days. For Albee, America’s greatest living playwright, turned 80 in March and everyone has wanted to get in on the celebrating. Second Stage Theatre did so last November when it presented Peter & Jerry, a double bill consisting of The Zoo Story, the first play Albee wrote back in 1958, and Homelife, a prequel that he wrote just a few years ago. In February, the Vineyard Theatre threw a gala in his honor at the Rainbow Room. And a month later, Albee himself directed two of his early one-act plays, The American Dream and The Sandbox, at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

Somehow, I missed all of them. Which made me really determined to see the Signature Theatre
Company’s “world premiere” of Occupant, Albee’s tribute to his friend the sculptor Louise Nevelson. I use the quote marks because the play was supposed to premiere at the end of the season Signature devoted to Albee back in 2002. But when Anne Bancroft, who was playing Nevelson, became ill during the previews, the play never officially opened.

I took it as a good omen when Albee walked into the awkwardly-named 10th Avenue restaurant 44 & X Hell's Kitchen (famous for its killer mac and cheese) where my friend Bill and I were having a pre-show dinner before seeing Occupant last week. I had also seen Albee earlier that day when, at Bill’s suggestion, I caught up with an
interview that Charlie Rose had done with him the night before. As I said, he’s turning up everywhere.

Albee’s fellow playwright Terrence McNally and another friend joined him for dinner and although they left before Bill and I did, we later saw them in the lobby of the nearby Peter Norton Space theater talking to friends. As Albee moved away from the group to greet some other people he knew, McNally reassured his companions about the coming evening: “Edward says you don’t have to know anything about Louise Nevelson to enjoy this play. He says you’ll learn something.”

You actually can learn quite a bit since the play is presented as a Charlie Rose-style interview with Nevelson in the afterlife. (Click here to watch a similar interview the real Nevelson gave in 1986, two years before her death at 88.) Mercedes Ruhl has taken on the role and she gives a vivid portrayal of the artist, complete with her trademark colorful headscarves, sable eyelashes and regal feistiness. The always-reliable Larry Bryggman plays the probing interlocuto
r. And during the course of the nearly two hour evening, they talk about how Nevelson immigrated to the U.S. from Czarist Russia as a child, grew up as an outsider in Maine, suffered through an unhappy marriage to a wealthy American businessman and eventually found salvation in art.

I imagine that they're all stories Nevelson told Albee many times over the course of their quarter-century long friendship. But they didn’t quite add up to a play for me. Albee's plays, of course, aren't like other people's plays and are notoriously difficult to parse. And the playwright takes pride in that, telling Charlie Rose that it’s his job to ask questions, not to offer answers. But this time out, he seems to have violated his own dictum, telling us not only what we should think about his friend, but spelling out the connection between artists and their work and their yearning for immortality. “I’m dead 20 years and no one knows who I am?” Nevelson laments at the beginning of Occupant. Nearly two hours later, she confesses that “you get into your 80s, you start thinking about” death.

Perhaps the newly-minted octogenarian is too close to his subject and his theme. He shouldn’t worry, though. Works like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance, Seascape, Three Tall Woman and my favorite, The Goat or Who is Sylvia? will ensure that long after he’s gone, people will know who he is and he will continue to occupy a place in the pantheon of the American theater.

June 4, 2008

The Inner Beauty of “Reasons to be Pretty”

Say what you will about Neil LaBute (and Lord knows people have said plenty) the man knows how to write dialog that sounds the way real people talk. And, of course, the people in LaBute plays talk a lot, often at loud decibels and frequently saying things that aren’t very nice. All of this is true in the new MCC Theater production of Reasons to be Pretty, a play about two working class couples and how the men in those relationships deal with the perceived attractiveness of their women.

Like most people I first became aware of LaBute when “In the Company of Men,” the film adaptation of his play about two male co-workers who trifle with the affections of a deaf female colleague, won the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997 and set off a firestorm of stories debating the film’s misogyny. LaBute’s background as a convert to Mormonism (his potty-mouthed and sexually charged works eventually got him excommunicated) further stoked the flames. And the playwright’s prolificity (11 of his plays have been produced in New York during the last nine years) and his ability to attract big name talent (Calista Flockhart, Liev Schreiber, Ben Stiller, Sigourney Weaver, and Jeffrey Wright have all appeared in his plays) have helped maintain the heat.

As a result, I may have seen more plays by LaBute than by any other playwright, with the possible exception of William Shakespeare. I haven’t liked them all. LaBute can be self-consciously provocative, mischievously manipulative and he isn’t nearly as hip as he thinks he is—a reference to Eddie Murphy in the current play would have been cooler and funnier if it had cited Chris Rock instead. Even so, I’ve been fascinated by each of his works. LaBute is smart and thoughtful (click here to listen to an interview he gave earlier this year) and he writes the kind of plays that get the people who see them talking after the show just as much as his voluble characters do on stage. And that’s a good thing, and an unfortunately rare thing in theater these days.

LaBute has said that Reasons to be Pretty is the final installment of a trilogy about physical appearance that began back in 2001 with The Shape of Things about a woman who overhauls a schlubby guy, and continued three years ago with my favorite Fat Pig, about a man who falls for an overweight woman but will do anything to keep his friends from knowing that he cares for her. The new show isn’t as malicious as the first or as moving as the second. And although it may be LaBute’s most mature work (some of the characters actually put aside their childish ways) it may also be his most preachy. “I’ve written about a lot of men who are really little boys at heart,” the playwright, now 45, says in a note in the Playbill before going on to add “but [this play] is really the first coming-of-age story I’ve written.”

That story is brought to vibrant life by a first-rate cast—Piper Perabo, Alison Pill, Pablo Schreiber and the very good Thomas Sadoski—and they’re superbly directed by Terry Kinney, co-founder of Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The performances alone are worth the price of the ticket. The show is only scheduled to run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through July 5 but it deserves a longer run.

My friend Bill and I saw it on a Saturday evening and as we came out of the theater, we had to thread our way through crowds of twentysomething couples and single-sex bands of friends who had come to act out their mating rituals in the Village. They looked like the kind of folks who take their relationship cues from chick flicks and Judd Apatow’s guy-centric comedies. If I were a more outgoing sort, I’d have pulled a few over and told them to see Reasons to be Pretty. It too speaks their language but it has more to say.