July 29, 2009

More Podcasts for Theater Lovers

Almost two years have gone by since I last posted a list of my favorite theater podcasts but I’ve noticed that people are still reading that entry and so it struck me that it’s time for an update. Some of the ones I recommended back then (BroadwayLiving.com) are no longer adding new episodes. Which is understandable. Putting a podcast together is a lot of hard work (my buddy Bill and I have talked about doing one for years and look how far that’s gotten) and it’s not easy to keep them going. Even Playbill Radio News has suspended its daily updates. iTunes is littered with ghost shows—podcasts that produced a few episodes and then dwindled away—but it also has newcomers that are worth tuning in. Here are five to consider for your playlist:

Broadway Bullet. Beating the odds, Michael Gilboe, a writer, composer and sound engineer, has kept this interview show going for three years. His guests include Broadway names like composers Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and Spring Awakening director Michael Mayer and there are regular performances of “Broadway Abridged” but the show, which originated as the official podcast of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, may be most valuable for the attention it gives to off-Broadway and off-off Broadway (or, as they prefer to be called indie) productions. The podcast is on summer hiatus until Sept. 10 but you can subscribe to it on iTunes now.

Broadway Radio. If Bill and I had ever gotten our act together, this is the kind of show that we might have done. Every week, James Marino, a columnist for Broadwaystars.com; Matthew Murray, the chief critic for TalkinBroadway.com, and Peter Filichia, the longtime theater critic for the Newark Star Ledger and columnist for Theatermania, gab about the week’s theater news. They’re highly opinionated and, for the most part, knowledgeable (especially Filichia who seems to have seen—and remembered in full detail—every show since Rodgers met Hammerstein). It’s like eavesdropping on a bar conversation at the Broadway watering hole Angus McIndoe.

Everything Acting: So many Broadway critics, reporters and even bloggers are white guys that it’s really refreshing to find gal actor pals Roz Coleman and Darbi Worley giving the lowdown on what it’s really like to be a working actor in New York. Coleman and Worley tap their friends to share advice on everything from what kind of monologues make good audition pieces to how to find an affordable place to live in the city. Worley has a recurring role as a reporter on the CBS soap “As the World Turns” and seems to have taken a method acting approach to the role because she has a knack for asking questions that elicit good answers. Coleman, who starred in the recent Signature Theatre Company production of Zooman and the Sign, is African-American and adds friends and guests who are ethnically diverse. Their weekly podcast is aimed at young people who are considering getting into the business but anyone who loves theater can learn from it.

New Yorker Conversations with John Lahr: For folks, who like to watch their iPods as well as listen to them, the New Yorker magazine offers a series of video interviews hosted by its erudite theater critic. Because Lahr obviously loves theater so much, knows his material so well and, as the son of the legendary comic actor Bert Lahr, has a real empathy for artists, his conversations are definitely worth listening to. I’ve only been able to find four of them—with the Tony-winning actors Angela Lansbury and Geoffrey Rush, Lincoln Center’s artistic director Andre Bishop and the director Michael Blakemore—but maybe if more people download them, then the magazine will do more of them.

Playwrights Horizons: As papers and magazines cut back on their cultural coverage, theaters have been looking for other ways to publicize their work. Playwrights Horizons has come up with a strong contender: interviews with people involved with the company’s current productions. These podcast are unabashedly designed to hype the shows but the interviewers are smart, encouraging the actors and other members of the creative teams to share their feelings and insights about the theater world. Their passion for what they do is obvious and infectious.

Studio 360: Kurt Andersen, who I know slightly, has one of the best jobs in the world. Every week, he hosts a one-hour show on the arts for public radio. The topics range from major pop cultural events like the new “Star Trek” movie to also attention-worthy endeavors like the collection of short stories "The Thing Around Your Neck" by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But what matters here is that Kurt regularly does segments about theater. Over the past few months, Alice Ripley has sung numbers from Next to Normal and Lynn Nottage has talked about the genesis of her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined. And the show’s report on Lincoln Center Theater’s decision to have the white director Bart Sher head up the recent Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was hands down the best examination of that controversy.

Finally, as I was writing this post, news came that after a seven-month hiatus, the American Theatre Wing’s terrific Downstage Center interviews with Broadway theater makers will resume on Aug. 6. As I said last year, these in-depth conversations are totally addictive and I'm totally psyched about the show's return.

Happy listening.

July 25, 2009

All is Vanity with the New "Vanities"

Both “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan’s manifesto about the unfulfilled lives of suburban housewives; and “The Group,” Mary McCarthy’s novel about the unhappy lives of eight Vassar College grads, were published in 1963. Over the next decade and a half, everyone who could get near a typewriter seemed to write about women discovering that their lives were fairytales without the happy endings.

I read a bunch of those books and wept my way through similarly-themed movies like “An Unmarried Woman” and “Diary of A Mad Housewife.” But somehow I missed Vanities, Jack Heifner’s play about the consciousness-raising journey from high school to young adulthood taken by three Texas best friends forever. The show, which begins in 1963, opened in 1976, ran off-Broadway for 1,785 performances and gave a young Kathy Bates her first big break.

Thirty years have gone by and women’s lib has moved on to the “Lipstick Jungle” phase but I was still curious about Vanities, particularly when I heard that it had been turned into a musical. Now, having seen it, all I can say is that I waited too long. For the show, currently running at Second Stage Theatre through Aug. 9, is painfully outdated.

Maybe the producers, who originally planned to bring this new version of Vanities to Broadway last fall but changed course when the economy tanked, thought that baby boom women would get a nostalgic kick out of looking back at how naive they once were. (Click here to listen to an interview they did with Broadway Bullet’s Michael Gilboe.) But what may have seemed mildly insightful when the play first debuted in the ‘70s now
come off as fairly insipid. Heifner, who also wrote the book for the musical, and his collaborators seem to have anticipated that because they tack on a fourth act that attempts to add some relevance by bringing the trio into middle-age. Instead, it ends up spinning an equally false kind of fairytale.

The music doesn’t help. The songs aren’t listed in the Playbill, a growing trend that needs to be stopped before it spreads. And this show really could have used a song list because David Kirshenbaum’s songs—generic pop with uninspired lyrics
are hard to tell apart. I’d like to offer more constructive criticism but I almost forgot the individual numbers before they were over.

That’s not the fault of the actresses, who work had. Sarah Stiles comes off best in Bates’ old role as the most traditional of the trio who gets to marry her high school sweetheart and to say the show’s funniest lines. Stiles has a brassy voice and an appealing stage presence. I’d love to see her in something else. Lauren Kennedy as the free spirit of the group and Anneliese Van Der Pol as the most conflicted are fine too. But the show's one-dimensional roles require something more than “fine” to make you care about the characters.

Still Judith Ivey, the award-winning and Texas-born actor who directs the musical, gamely keeps things moving along. And set designer Anna Louizos and costume designer Joseph G. Aulisi deserve special kudos for their smart and witty work. If only the entire show had been as entertaining as the scene and costume changes.

July 22, 2009

Good Feelings About "The Temperamentals"

Six years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in Texas and ruled that consensual sex should be considered one of the liberties protected by the Constitution, a young gay colleague at work said it was no big deal. My colleague and his boyfriend live a totally open life, attending functions for spouses at one another’s jobs, alternating holidays and vacations with their extended families. “The ruling doesn’t change a thing,” he said.

My friend Phil was outraged. Phil, who is also gay, grew up during a time when men could be arrested for just holding hands in public, when even liberal parents routinely sent their gay sons to shrinks to be cured and when many gay people tried to hide their true natures, sometimes even entering into sham marriages to do so. The decision in the case known as Lawrence v. Texas meant a lot to Phil.

It would have meant a lot to Harry Hay too, had he not died a year before the decision came down. Hay was a co-founder of the Mattachine Society, the first gay rights organization in the U.S. and the subject of Jon Marans’s touching new play The Temperamentals, which is currently running at the Barrow Group through Aug. 23. The day after I saw it, I called Phil, who now lives in California, and told him he should fly in to see it.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which are usually credited with starting the gay rights era, but Hay and the four other brave men who started Mattachine in 1950 were the true founding fathers of the movement. They named their group after medieval secret societies who wore masks when performing in public ceremonies but they tried to move gay life out into the open.

The Temperamentals, the title is a reference to a code word of the time for homosexuals, is both a docu-drama that chronicles pre-Stonewall gay life and a love story about the relationship between Hay, a card-carrying Communist who is married to a woman, and the fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, who would later gain fame, and the cover of Time Magazine, as a leading advocate of unisex clothing and the designer of the topless bathing suit.

History plays can often be bloodless pageants but this one is full-bodied and passionate. There are lots of laughs to be had and some legitimately earned tears to be shed. It’s simply but smartly staged by director Jonathan Silverstein in Barrow’s small black box theater, which is flanked on both sides by the audience (seating is open so get there early and grab a seat nearest the door since most of the action is played in that direction).

The set is a bare stage with a few chairs the actors rearrange to suit scenes that range from the beach front home of the closeted director Vincente Minnelli (Liza’s dad) whom they vainly try to recruit for the group to a courtroom where one member is tried for indecency after an attempted entrapment by an undercover cop in a public bathroom.

The acting is uniformly superb. Thomas Jay Ryan is a marvel as Hay and Michael Urie, who has a role on the ABC sitcom “Ugly Betty”, is equally wonderful as Gernreich. Urie gets extra props for spending his summer break in a low-profile, off-off Broadway production that his agents probably told him not to take. But Tom Beckett, Matthew Schneck and Sam Breslin Wright are just as terrific, playing the other three Mattachine members (who range from nelly to butch) as well as a host of supplementary characters, both gay and straight.

But for me the most amazing thing about The Temperamentals is that it’s a reminder of how far society has come in treating homosexuals as full citizens and, of course in this age of Prop 8, how far it still has to go. It’s also a reminder that while American Communists may have been blind about Stalin, party members like Hays and Bayard Rustin were totally clear-sighted about the social injustices in this country and the ways to overcome them.

The play’s run has already been extended twice and I was delighted to find it attracting one of the most diverse audiences I’ve seen in a while. In addition to the usual middle-aged whites you see at the theater, there were blacks, a couple of Asians and a few Hispanics; straight couples and same-sex couples, a kid who looked like he might be a member of his high school’s gay-straight alliance and a few guys who looked as though they might have been eligible for charter membership in Mattachine.

About 40% of the audience was female, including a high-heeled and mini-skirted contingent who looked as though they might have been refugees from an old “Sex and the City” episode. “What are all these women doing here?” a grey-haired gay guy sitting behind me asked his companion. “They’ve got to be friends of the cast.”

Well, I didn’t know a soul in the show. I came because I’d heard it was good theater. I left thinking it was one of the most affective theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. I hope my former colleague sees it.

July 11, 2009

Turning on the Summertime Ghost Light

The rain has finally stopped and although I wish the sun had brought truly hot summer weather with it, my husband K and I are taking off some time to play. So, just as theaters do when they’re temporarily empty, I’m turning on the ghost light here. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks and I hope you’ll come back then too.

July 8, 2009

"Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe" is Low Stuff

Over the past 10 years, the Classical Theatre of Harlem has drawn raves for its productions of traditional classics like Medea, Macbeth and The Cherry Orchard, as well as for those from the African-American classical canon like Dream on Monkey Mountain and Ain't Supposed To Die A Natural Death. I didn’t see any of those shows. But, alas, I have now seen the company’s latest, Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe, a musical adaptation of the Moliere classic written by Alfred Preisser, the company’s co-founder, and Randy Weiner.

The company often transposes the old classics to contemporary black settings. The only other CTH production I saw was The Trojan Women set in a war-ravaged African nation. But this time—in the company’s debut outside Harlem—things have been taken too far. All that’s left from Moliere are the names of his characters and the rough outline of the plot about a well-off man who is bamboozled out of his money by a sanctimonious hypocrite.

In this telling of the tale, Tartuffe is a Daddy Grace or Reverend Ike-style evangelist, who sings and dances with the fervor of James Brown and surrounds himself with nubile and scantily dressed young women ala Hugh Heffner. He is played by André De Shields, who since his Tony-nominated turn for singing “Big Black Man” in The Full Monty, seems to have demanded that near-nude scenes be written into all the parts he plays.

It’s recently been announced that De Shields will play the blind Teiresias in the Shakespeare in the Park production of The Bacchae after this show closes on July 19 and I don't even want to think about what he'll wear and bear then. De Shields is in great shape for a guy who admits to being 63 and he throws himself—body, soul, and over-working sweat glands—into the role of the deceitful Tartuffe, but I think we would have gotten the point of the character's unbridled licentiousness without his stripping down to bikini briefs.

The music is played by an energetic three-man band. But the songs are a poor pastiche of gospel, R&B and American songbook, plus a little Edith Piaf thrown in for God knows what reason. The dialog is slapdash and often vulgar. “It smells like a flower farted in here,” goes one line. And just when I thought that things couldn’t get any worse, they did.

The production overindulges in what may be the only thing I hate about the theater: coerced audience participation. Everyone is commanded to clap and to join in call-and-response chants. Some people are dragged onstage. Other audience members are subjected to lap dances. (I’m not kidding.) And there are several church collection sequences, where they literally pass the basket for money from people who, of course, have already paid for their tickets.

Reactions have varied. The professional critics seem to have enjoyed the show (click here to see Variety's rave). Some audience members, like the woman sitting in front of me, got into the spirit of the thing and started talking back to the actors, unbidden. But others sat with stricken looks on their faces, their mouths literally hanging open in shocked dismay.

I should have known we were in for trouble when my sister Joanne and I walked into the Clurman Theater on 42nd Street’s Theatre Row and were greeted by young women in neon-colored church choir robes, saying “Welcome to the Church of the Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe.” Joanne turned to me with a puzzled look on her face. “Isn’t that the guy from ‘Love Boat’ with them?” she asked, gesturing towards the man who accompanied them and who indeed was Ted Lange, who once played the amiable bartender on the ‘70s TV series and is now cast as Tartuffe's dupe, Orgon. “How did his career come to this?’ Joanne said, shaking her head. That’s what I want to know about the career of the Classical Theatre of Harlem.

July 4, 2009

Summer Reading

Happy Fourth of July. Which means that, regardless of how unseasonable the weather has been, summer is really here. And for me that means time to kick back on the terrace with a good glass of wine (I’m still partial to dry rosés) in one hand and a good book (I’ll always be partial to reading about theater) in the other. I’m guessing your summer plans include something similar and so here is my annual list of suggestions to read in the weeks between now and Labor Day. We’ve been through such a tough time (failing banks, falling incomes, the premature closings of 33 Variations and Reasons to Be Pretty) that I thought we all needed a break, some flights of fantasy. So this year’s list is nearly all fiction. They’re not perfect novels but they are the kind of light entertainments that are just right for summer. And they will take you into worlds where everyone loves theater and where most of the endings are happy ones:

1. The Understudy: A Novel by David Nicholls. Don’t confuse this novel with "The Understudy," the 1975 book by Elia Kazan, who not only directed the original productions of Death of A Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire but also wrote bestselling books. Kazan’s "Understudy" is a serious, Bellowesque story about the conflicted relationship between an aging actor and his protégé. Nicholls’ book is an amusing Nick Hornby-style romp about an underachieving British actor whose career highlights are playing a squirrel in a series of educational films for kids and serving as stand-by for a Jude Law-like superstar who’s playing the lead in a West End production. The story is part showbiz fairytale (will the understudy get a show-must-go-on break?) part romantic comedy (will the beautiful wife of the philandering star fall in love with our hero?) part slacker-comes-of-age story (can he finally make his young daughter proud of him?) and a total delight.

2. Violencia!: A Musical Novel by Bruce Jay Friedman. Friedman usually writes satirical stories about Hollywood but this time he’s turned the spotlight on Broadway and he’s produced a doozy. The plot centers around an ordinary guy who earns his living writing a newsletter about the homicide unit in a police precinct. He is swept into the glamorous world of show business when a no-talent composer decides the newsletter will make a great musical and drafts him to write the book for it. Their collaborators include a high-strung director, an aging and totally miscast star and a suspiciously funded producer. “Violenica,” the musical they cobble together (“Bi Guys Can Be Nice Guys” is one of its big numbers), is a show that only Max Bialystock could love and Friedman has a ball following its development from meet-and-greet dinners in Broadway hangouts to a disastrous out-of-town tryout. The mounting inanities
did wear thin for me after a while but the book’s affection for show people kept me reading.

3. Jewish Thighs on Broadway: Misadventures of a Little Trouper by Penny Orloff. It’s apparently so hard to make it in showbiz that lots of theater folks get a kick out of making fun of themselves for trying. Orloff goes for the big yucks with this adaptation of her one-woman show about a zaftig actress who dreams of getting a part that gets her off the dinner-theater circuit, of finding a rich dessert that doesn’t increase the width of her already-ample thighs and of meeting a Mr. Right who will love her enough to make her first two wishes irrelevant. She’s got a meddling Jewish mother, a near-perfect sister and a haimish sensibility. It’s chick lit for theater lovers.

4. Serendipity: A Novel by Louise Shaffer
. An Emmy winner for her work in the daytime drama “Ryan’s Hope,” Shaffer has spent much of the last 30 years working on TV soap operas but she got her start as an understudy and bit part player on Broadway and her heart is obviously still there. This family saga’s main protagonist, Carrie Manning, isn’t in the business but her grandmother is a legendary Broadway star (kind of like Mary Martin) and her father was a genius writer and director of shows (kind of like Moss Hart). Their stories—and a lot of family secrets—unfold in a series of flashbacks. The revelations wouldn’t be out of place on one of Shaffer’s old daytime soaps but it’s still fun to read the parts set in the late ‘60s when Broadway stars and their spouses were objects of universal fascination.

5. Seen It All and Done the Rest: A Novel by Pearl Cleage
. The drama in this novel centers around the issue of gentrification in Atlanta’s black neighborhoods but it’s on this list (and in the window of the Drama Bookshop) because its lead character, Josephine Evans, is an African-American actress who has built a 30-year career performing in Europe. The story kicks off when mounting European resentment against the Iraq War and everything American causes Josephine to be fired from her job as the resident star of a classical repertory company in Amsterdam. She returns home to Atlanta until she can force them to take her back or figure out what to do next and she spends most of her time there fighting developers and trying to help her granddaughter who’s become embroiled in a sex scandal. I could have done with less real estate and even less sex in favor of more theater stuff. Even so, it’s hard not to appreciate the fact that there aren’t a lot of other novels where Euripides and Ntozake Shange get equal billing.

6. Attack of the Theater People by Marc Acito
. The fact that Marian Seldes has a cameo role is just one of the charms of this frothy comic novel about an aspiring young actor who gets mixed up in an insider trading scandal. Having been kicked out of Julliard for not being serious enough, Edward Zanni gets a job working children’s parties for rich families, which still gives him time to practice his craft with a Brecht-inspired company based in Hoboken and to stir up all kinds of mayhem. Fans of Acito’s earlier novel, “How I Paid For College,” will find all the same elements they loved in the first book—Eddie’s wacky family, his multi-culti posse of supportive friends, show biz references galore, great one-liners and a narrative that moves faster than an Andy Blankenbuehler dance number. Plus there’s a gay love story.

7. The Best Revenge: A Novel of Broadway by Sol Stein
. What if Don Corleone had been a show queen? If he had been, he might have ended up in this backstage story about a Broadway producer who is unable to raise money for a show he is certain will be a hit and so turns to some mafia connections for a favor he knows they won't refuse. It’s written in the hardboiled style of classic crime fiction and it’s nice to find a macho novel about Broadway

8. The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway by William Goldman.
No, this isn’t a novel. And yes, this was on last year’s list. But I simply can’t imagine a theater reading list without Goldman’s account of the 1967-68 Broadway season. It is the über theater book and every theater lover should read it. If you already have, read it again.

Happy reading. And feel free to suggest some of your favorite theater books since having read these, I’ll be on the lookout for some new ones to try. Great rosé recommendations will also be welcomed.

July 1, 2009

High Praise for the High Def "Phèdre"

There was a time—the summer between 7th and 8th grades—when I was as obsessed with Greek mythology as I now am with theater. So I don’t know how I overlooked the story of Phaedra, the Athenian queen so sexually obsessed with her stepson that she causes his death when he rejects her. When I heard that the great Helen Mirren was playing the role in a touring production of Phèdre, Jean Racine's classic adaptation of the story, I thought I could kill two birds with one stone: catch up with the old story and see a once-in-a-lifetime performance.

Except I waited too long. Single tickets for this fall’s Washington, D.C. performances (the tour's only stop in the U.S.) were sold out when I tried to buy one in May. I got another chance to see it when London’s National Theatre, which is producing the play, announced its new NT Live series. It uses satellite technology to broadcast live performances of selected shows from the company’s home theater on the south bank of The Thames to movie screens around the world. But wouldn’t you know it, I dithered again and tickets for last Thursday night’s premiere broadcast were gone by the time I tried to buy one of them. Thanks to the kindness of friends, I got to see it anyway. Was it worth all the angst? You bet it was.

One thing you can say about the old Greek myths is that they are full of roles for women—Antigone, Electra, Iphigenia, Medea—that are as great as those for men. Smart actresses seek these roles out. And, of course, there are few smarter than Mirren. The actress says she was attracted to the part after reading about Sarah Bernhardt’s legendary turn in the role. (Click here to read an interview with Mirren and her director Nicholas Hytner). It’s hard to imagine that the divine Sarah could have given a more fierce performance than Mirren does. Hell hath no fury—nor passion, nor anguish—like Mirren’s scorned queen.

And she’s not the only reason to see the show. The production uses the Ted Hughes translation of Racine’s 17th century work, and the dialog, though still lyrical, is almost colloquial and easy on the ear. Bob Crowley has created a magnificent set that locates all of the action on an imposing stone sea-side veranda that greatly pleases the eye.

Mirren is also ably supported by Margaret Tyzack, as the queen’s loyal but misguided old nurse Oenone, and Dominic Cooper (the sexy one in The History Boys, looking even more buff here) as Hippolytus, the object of Phèdre’s unrequited desire. Ruth Negga is lovely as Aricia, the woman Hippolytus really loves and John Shrapnel is immensely moving as a wise counselor who tries to prevent the tragedy. Only Stanley Townsend as Theseus, Phèdre’s husband and Hippolytus’ father, disappoints, acting in the style of a hammy old-fashioned opera star who delivers his arias in a booming baritone and then just simply stands around waiting until the next time he can open his mouth instead of being in the moment with his co-stars.

But what really makes this version of the production so unique is the fact that it is a near simulcast of a live presentation. I say “near” because Thursday night’s performance at the Director’s Guild Theater on West 57th Street, began at 8 PM, which would have made it 1 AM in the morning in London. Still, the show was taped live that evening and we got to see it just hours later.

The NT Live tickets are just $20 and seating is open. A pre-show reception for some broadcast supporters was held in the theater’s downstairs lounge but the house was opened before it finished and the plebians ended up with some of the best seats.

The broadcast began with a 15-minute welcome segment hosted by Jeremy Irons and Hytner talking from the roof deck of the National. Irons appeared nervous, even flubbing a few lines. But that just added to the verisimilitude of the whole thing. Hytner is always marvelously articulate and his comments helped prepare me for the show, as did the brief interviews with some of the actors, although not Mirren. I've read that some people didn't like this set-up but I'm the kind of gal who rents the audiotours for museum shows and watches all the DVD extras when I rent movies from Netflix, so I enjoyed it.

The broadcast did suffer from a few technical glitches that caused the sound to fade out for a few lines here or there. And although the high definition images are beautiful, it can seem a little odd to watch a play on a screen (people weren’t sure whether to applaud or not when the play ended). The broadcast director used multiple cameras to alternate between close-ups and full-range shots but I missed the ability to cast my eye where I wanted it to go. Still, I was grateful to see the show at all. And if you move fast, you may be able to see it too. There will be about a half dozen more broadcasts through July 24, including three in New York. But wherever you are, you can find one near you by clicking here.