March 31, 2010

More Black Faces on the Great White Way

Two new plays with black characters as central figures opened on Sunday.  Which will probably add more fuel to the ongoing debate about whether having a black family in the White House has prompted artistic directors and commercial producers to invite more African-American actors, writers and directors into theirs (click here to read a Variety article about the trend and here to read a response from the blogger Playgoer).

At least 20 shows in which race plays a role have opened in New York since September.  And that can't help but be noteworthy because there's more than one reason that Broadway is also known as the Great White Way.  The two new shows are smaller, off-Broadway efforts but the lack of diversity has been pretty much the same there too.  I haven’t had a chance to see A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick, Kia Corthron's play at Playwrights Horizons that, according to what I’ve read, mixes theology and ecology in a story about an African student who moves in with a troubled African-American family in a drought-stricken rural community.

But I did catch the Godlight Theatre Company’s production of In the Heat of the Night, a stage version of the iconic 1967 movie that starred Sidney Poitier as black police detective Virgil Tibbs who is drawn into solving a murder case in the still-segregated south.  It’s playing in the tiny black box theater at the 59E59 Theaters and its young 10-member cast, several of them doubling and tripling up on roles, is so hardworking and sincere that I wish I could say that I liked the show.  But, despite Joe Tantalo's arty staging and a strong performance by Sean Phillips as Tibbs, I couldn’t figure out why they’d decided to make a play out of this story—which, as my husband K noted when he refused to see it with me, has already enjoyed success as a novel, a movie and a TV series—if they didn’t have anything new to say.

Still, watching it and most of the other race-related shows of the season got me thinking about a whole bunch of other questions that seem ripe for debate, like:

Can a black character act foolish on stage without being compared to Stepin Fetchit as I did in talking about the character Anthony Mackie plays in the new Martin McDonagh comedy A Behanding in Spokane?

⁍Is it O.K. for characters to say the word “nigger” in a play?  And does it make a difference if the playwright putting the words in their mouths is black (as Suzan-Lori Parks does in her latest work The Book of Grace) or white (as McDonagh repeatedly does in A Behanding in Spokane)?

Should the color of an actor’s skin pass by with no more mention than a character’s hair color (which is how it’s treated in This, which played at Playwrights Horizons last fall) or does it have to be dealt with head-on (as in the musical Memphis)?

I’m not even going to pretend to have answers to these questions.  But I am glad that I got to see these shows and I’m hoping that I’ll have lots of others to see and similar questions to ponder in seasons to come. 

In the meantime, below is a look at the shows that dealt with racial characters and themes over the past six months. Click on the photos on the left or right side of the screen to "flip" through the stack; clicking on the center photo will take you to my review of that show.  You can also view the entire survey in a timeline, as a list or even in a map view of the theaters in which they played by clicking the tabs at the top of the viewing screen below.

March 27, 2010

“A Behanding in Spokane” Belittles An Actor

It’s a weird experience to watch a show that you don’t find funny when everyone else around you is laughing their heads off.  But that’s what happened to me when my friend Priscilla and I saw A Behanding in Spokane, the new Martin McDonagh play that’s currently got them rolling in the aisles at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

It may be theatrical blasphemy to say this but I’ve never been a big McDonagh fan. It’s hip to be into him, for liking McDonagh is like championing the band Radiohead or the TV show “Dexter”—it allows devotees to boast, Yeah, I’m into pop culture but only the smart kind. And even I’ve been amused by McDonagh’s shrewd earlier works The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan. But they also struck me as too smug about their own cleverness. I really regret missing his play The Pillowman, which from everything I’ve read and heard is the most mature and meaningful of his works.

A Behanding in Spokane may be the most juvenile. There’s a slight plot that pivots around a guy who claims some hillbillies (this is the first McDonagh play to be set in the U.S. instead of Ireland) cut off his hand when he was a boy and his lifelong quest to reunite with it. Two ludicrously incompetent con artists try to swindle the one-handed man by selling him a phony limb. He uncovers their ruse. Violent mayhem ensues. But mainly the 90-minute play is just lots of put-down jokes and even more profanity, including line after line of hey-I’m-so-cool-I-can-use-it citations of the N-word.

I did chuckle a few times (although not at the far-too-many uses of the N-epithet). Nearly all my laughs were caused by Christopher Walken, who over the years has become our most idiosyncratic actor on stage or screen. You never know what inflection Walken is going to give a line reading or what a difference his edgy phrasing can bring to the meaning of what’s been said.  And that is fun.

What isn’t is the rest of the play.  Director John Crowley has assembled a talented supporting cast: Zoe Kazan, Anthony Mackie and Sam Rockwell.  But McDonagh hasn’t created real characters for them to play.  What he offers instead are colorless cartoons.  But even the looniest Looney Toons characters follow the logic of the world they inhabit. The ones in A Behanding in Spokane fail that test too.

The actors try to camouflage the discrepancies with quirky behavior. But in an apparent effort to be as off-beat as Walken, the younger three veer into histronics-land. Kazan's natural gift for physical comedy allows her to come off best (click here to read a Playbill interview with her). Rockwell, an indie film favorite who plays the eccentric receptionist in the hotel where the action unfolds, has always seemed to be a Walken-in-waiting. He’s got the deadpan delivery down but unlike the older actor whose off-kilter charm seems effortless, the wheels grind too visibly when Rockwell turns them.

Most troublesome, at least for me, is Mackie’s performance. Mackie, who has stage chops and a flourishing film career, is a smart and talented actor but he appears to have been directed by Crowley—and by McDonagh’s text—to play the part (which, it’s rumored, was originally offered to Chris Rock) as a Stepin Fetchit stereotype, complete with the requisite cowering, eye rolling and squeals. I ached for him, as did The New Yorker critic Hilton Als, the only African-American voice among the major New York theater critics (click here to read his review.)

There’s often a streak of cruelty in comedy;  that’s why we laugh at pratfalls. But it really isn’t funny when a playwright humiliates his actors.

March 24, 2010

The Misfortune of "The Miracle Worker"

Girl role models were few and far between when I was growing up. Basically, the real-life candidates boiled down to Anne Frank and Helen Keller.  Both wrote and so were easy for the fledgling writer in me to identify with. But while Frank's story ended tragically with her death in a concentration camp, Keller survived and triumphed over her adversities. I read over and over again the story of how young Helen, who lost both her sight and her hearing when she was 19 months old, was brought out of her silent darkness by Annie Sullivan, a determined young teacher who taught her how to communicate with the world.

I didn’t get to see the original 1959 production of The Miracle Worker, the William Gibson play that dramatized the tumultuous early days of the relationship between Keller and Sullivan and the breakthrough they achieved in the spring of 1887. But I adored the 1962 movie that maintained the Broadway cast of Patty Duke as Helen and Anne Bancroft as Annie. And I welcomed the chance to see the new revival with Abigail Breslin, the Oscar-nominated young actress from the terrific movie “Little Miss Sunshine,” and Alison Pill, one of the best young actresses working in the theater, in those roles.

The actresses don’t disappoint.  Breslin, who is making her Broadway debut, has marvelous stage presence, even though her character, of course, has virtually no lines (click here for a Playbill feature on how she prepares for her performance).  Pill, who at 25 is three years younger than Bancroft was when she first played Annie, brings a different, more girlish, quality to the role but it works wonderfully well. And they get solid support from the rest of the cast, lead by Matthew Modine as Helen’s father Captain Keller and Jennifer Morrison, a co-star on the TV medical series “House” who’s also making her Broadway debut, as her mother Kate Keller.

It’s difficult for the play to have the impact it did 50 years ago.  The dramaturgical preference these days tends toward irony-spiked drama.  But The Miracle Worker is still funny and moving. Even though the emotional final scene is among the best known in contemporary theater, it still touches the heart and wets the eye. Director Kate Whoriskey, who did such a bang-up job with Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Ruined, has crafted a no-nonsense production that cuts straight to the core of the play.  While Paul Tazewell’s period costumes, particularly those for Kate, are both elegant and eloquent (click here to see an article and slideshow about them on the TDF website ).

Where this production falls down—and badly—is in its choice of venue.  The theater-in-the-round configuration at Circle in the Square can be a challenge for most shows. It’s disastrous for this one. Because Helen doesn’t speak, it’s essential to see the expressions on her face.  Because Annie communicates with her pupil by tracing letters in her hand, there’s an inherent intimacy that makes the audience want to lean in close.  Neither is easy to do in this theater’s stadium-like environment.

Reviews for The Miracle Worker have been mixed (mainly praising the actors and panning the production) and the show has been playing to houses that are only two-thirds full. Its producers considered closing but scraped up enough money to keep running through the spring break, with the hope that the show’s old-fashioned wholesomeness will attract the tourist trade.  According to the New York Times, they’ve also begun to market it as an event for fathers and daughters to share.

However, from what I could see at the performance my niece Jennifer and I attended, it seems to be moms who are bringing their daughters to the show. I spotted one mother-daughter pair in the front row across from me and the little girl, about nine, looked enthralled the whole way through.  If you know a little girl, take her whatever your gender. It’s a chance to show her that a girl doesn’t need to kick butt, perform martial arts or even to score a soccer goal to be a hero, that there are other ways to overcome adversity. Sometimes with the utterance of just a single word.

March 20, 2010

The Clumsiness of "The Book of Grace"

You’ve got to give Suzan-Lori Parks credit for following her creative muse wherever it takes her.  Sometimes it leads her to fresh and satisfyingly fertile places, as happened with Topdog/Underdog, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. Other times it lands her in the weeds, as, alas, it’s done with The Book of Grace, her newest play, which opened at The Public Theater this week. 

The audience sat in uncomfortable silence for almost 10 seconds at the end of the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended. Then someone started clapping and the rest of us sheepishly joined in. You can trace our uncertainty to the fact that none of us were quite sure what we’d just seen. 

A few minutes later, as Bill and I sat over glasses of wine and waited for our meals at my favorite downtown theater spot Five Points, he suggested that maybe the show had been a modern-day riff on Desire Under the Elms, the Eugene O’Neill play about the relationships between an older man, his restless young wife and his grown son from an earlier marriage who lives with them.

That basically sums up the storyline for The Book of Grace too. Here the older man is Vet, played by the white actor John Doman, whom fans of the great HBO series "The Wire" will recognize as the overly ambitious Col. William A. Rawls.
Vet works as a border patrol guard.  His waitress wife Grace, played by Elizabeth Marvel who’s also white, is one of those cockeyed optimists who seem to exist almost exclusively in plays and movies.  And his son Buddy, who is portrayed by the black actor Amari Cheatom, may be a terrorist.

I suppose the casting could have been colorblind since no mention is made of the racial difference between father and son but Parks tends to imbue very specific meaning into every aspect of  her work and so I’m pretty sure there’s some heavy symbolism involved here too. Like maybe a riff on how the white patriarchy of the U.S. has oppressed black folks and women. 

Indeed, the interchanges between the characters in The Book of Grace are all charged; even the tender moments range from unsettling to downright abusive. The apparent irony is that while the father is focused on foreign threats, the greater danger is already inside.

There's potential there for one of those edge-of-your-seat or mind-blowing experiences. But it doesn’t turn out that way.  I don’t know if it’s the fault of Park’s script or James Macdonald’s direction but I didn’t believe the world they attempted to create on stage. Or that the characters would behave as they do. I mean how many women would stay with a guy she fears may have murdered and buried his first wife in the backyard?

The production, which runs just over an hour and a half, seemed to drag on interminably.  The one thing that almost—but not quite—saves The Book of Grace is the acting, particularly on the part of Marvel, who, as always, gives it her all and then some.  (Click here to read a New York Times profile about her career.) 

Of course being an experimental artist means that sometimes the experiments don’t work.  Despite my disappointment with The Book of Grace, I’m looking forward to seeing what Parks does next.  And I won’t have to wait long. For in addition to being intrepid, Parks is prolific. 

Four years ago, her series 365 Days/365 Plays, a collection of mini plays, one for each day of the year, traveled around the country.  Last June, three parts of Father Comes Home From the Wars, a projected nine-play cycle inspired by Homer’s “The Odyssey,” played in the Public’s Lab series for developing works (click here for my review of that one). And just last week, came word that her latest show Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Musical will open on Broadway in November. It’s a jukebox musical but with a book by Parks it’s bound to march to a different drummer.

March 17, 2010

A Mixed Forecast for "When the Rain Stops Falling"

Science fiction is far from the first thing I think of when someone says theater. But there’s been so much time travel and other paranormal activity going on in some recent plays I’ve seen that I’ve started wondering if Rod Serling, the “Twilight Zone’s” master of the fifth dimension, had begun literally ghost-writing scripts from the grave.

Identically-named doppelgangers drift in and out as the scenes jump back and forth between 1958 and 2008 in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, which is playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through the end of the month. Past and present collide over the same time span in the similarly bifurcated Clybourne Park, which ends its run at Playwrights Horizons this weekend. But the most Serlingesque of the group has got to be When the Rain Stops Falling, the new drama by Andrew Bovell that opened at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse last week. 

When the Rain Stops Falling
is set in England and Australia during multiple time periods between 1959 and 2039 that, at least in this staging, flow into one another like puddles of water. There are nine actors but only seven characters since two sets of actors play older and younger versions of the same people.  Three of the characters have the same name. Several of them repeat—almost word for word
brainy references to the French philosopher Denis Diderot and the Spanish painter Francisco Goya's “Saturn Devouring His Children.”  And at the beginning of the play, in a dystopian future where the weather is always bad, a fish falls from the sky.  (Click here to read a fascinating blog about this production from the first read to the opening night)

The ringmaster of all this is David Cromer.  That name meant little to most theater mavens (with the exception of Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout, an early and ardent booster) until Cromer’s smart production of the musical Adding Machine won the Obie and Lortel awards in 2008 and his brilliant reimagining of Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town, still playing at the Barrow Street Theatre, gave him the kind of superstar status that few theater directors even dream about.  The early closing—and never opening—of his two-part revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound last fall hasn’t dimmed his wattage one bit. (Click here to read a profile that ran last month in the New York Times Magazine.) 

I confess it was Cromer’s name that had me begging for a ticket to When The Rain Stops Falling’s nearly sold-out run.  I confess, too, that I was baffled by much of what I saw, like many others in the audience (“Wait a minute now, let’s see whose son was he,” a man in the lobby wondered aloud after the performance I attended as he studied the family tree that’s included in the Playbill). The minimal sets and
interchangeable costumes don’t help. Nor does the lighting—gloomy is pretty much gloomy.  Of course, bafflement isn’t always a bad thing. But I still don’t know if the confusion here enhances the experience of watching this play or is just a gimmick to make us think that it’s more intelligent than it really is. 

There’s no real question about Cromer’s smarts however.  His ability to create memorable stage pictures is as sharp as ever. But Cromer’s real gift is his ability to get performances from his actors that are so natural that audiences sometimes feel as though they’re eavesdropping.  He’s put together a crackerjack cast. Victoria Clark and Mary Beth Hurt are among its better known names but it’s unfair to single anyone out because they’re all excellent. And they all eat up the arias that Bovell gives each character. (Click here to read a short piece he wrote about the play on  These are the kind of speeches that seemed destined to end up in many an audition portfolio.

And then there’s the fish.  Its symbolism almost knocks you upside the head but, like Serling’s old TV dramas, this is an unabashed morality tale.  When the Rain Stops Falling is about the baggage (literal as well as figurative here) that we carry around filled not only with the things we’ve done in the past but those our parents did as well, not to mention the burdens we’re bequeathing to the next generation. And I suppose learning how to bear that weight is a message that’s relevant for every time period.

March 13, 2010

Facing Up to the Return of Black Face in "The Scottsboro Boys" and "Neighbors"

Who would have thought that in the age of Obama, black face and minstrel shows would be making a comeback?  But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen two very different shows that use these dubious old theatrical devices. And so this is a longer-than-usual post because I want to tell you about both of them. One is a new play by a young African-American playwright that is part of the Emerging Writers series at the Public Theater. The other is the much anticipated musical that the venerable John Kander and Fred Ebb were working on at the time of Ebb’s death in 2004. Both works are problematic.

And that’s not just because the sight of an actor done up to resemble a black caricature makes me uncomfortable.  In fact, one of the things that first intrigued me about The Scottsboro Boys, the Kander & Ebb musical that opened at the Vineyard Theatre this week, was the idea of its using the prism of a minstrel show to look at a shameful but true story in this nation’s past. In 1931, nine black boys, aged 13 to 19, were falsely accused of raping two white women in a train boxcar traveling through Alabama. 

The case became a cause célèbre, going all the way up to the Supreme Court twice, and the youths were tried repeatedly—and repeatedly found guilty by all-white juries—throughout the rest of the decade.  After a while, their northern supporters, including the NAACP and the Communist Party, turned their attentions elsewhere.  Eight of the Boys were eventually released after long years in prison, some of that time on death row.  One would die in jail two decades later. (Click here for a full account of their story.)

Kander & Ebb have excelled at this kind of storytelling before: using a vaudeville framework to showcase the corrupting influence of celebrity culture in Chicago and a nightclub setting as the backdrop for the Nazi’s rise in Cabaret. But their creative collaborators on those productions were, respectively, Bob Fosse and Hal Prince, two of the great geniuses in modern theater. Susan Stroman is at the helm of The Scottsboro Boys, and although she’s a talented woman and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met (I interviewed her once) she just doesn’t have the conceptual chops of a Fosse or a Prince.

And so this show’s minstrel conceit is halfhearted and half-realized. The show titillates but it doesn’t really illuminate, except to say that racism is bad. Which I hope all of us already knew. There’s a number set around the Boys’ fear of being railroaded into the electric chair but none that really gets at how their plight was exploited by all sides and turned into a kind of, well, political minstrel show. 

Odd choices are made throughout. The interlocutor, or the emcee, of a minstrel show was always the same race as his fellow players but here this central role goes to John Cullum, the only white actor in the cast.  There are other white characters but they’re portrayed by black actors who are done up as the minstrel stock characters Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo.  And the over-the-top way they're played undermines the sting of the real damage that was done.

The accusing women are played by two of the Boys, who drape scarves over their heads and perform in a high-camp style that might actually be appropriate for a minstrel show.  But other scenes are played with the this-is-an-important-musical sincerity that reminded me of Parade, Jason Robert Brown’s sober musical about the Leo Frank case in which a Jewish factory manager was lynched for allegedly raping and killing a young Christian girl in Atlanta in 1913.  That also-well-meaning show played for just 85 performances back in 1998.
A large part of The Scottsboro Boys' shortcomings rest with David Thompson's book. It doesn’t seem sure of what it wants to be.  At the beginning of the show it makes a point of saying that the Boys will finally be able to tell the whole story, one that will allow them to be the individuals they were instead of the collective symbol they came to be. But Thompson only gives us fragments and the boys are as blurred in his account of their story as they have been by history. 

The music is fine.  The opening number in which the actors perform a classic minstrel routine—complete with tambourines—made me sit up in my seat and the later ballad “Go Back Home” is lovely.  It’s already been popping up everywhere but if you haven’t heard it yet, you can by clicking here.  Yet, the score as a whole struck me as generic Kander & Ebb, except that the lyrics seemed less witty, a factor perhaps of Ebb’s absence. 

I’ve no complaints about the performances. Brandon Victor Dixon gets the most to do as the most outspoken of the Boys. He also gets to sing that ballad and he makes the most of both opportunities. The creative team delivers too, particularly the lighting design by Kevin Adams which has to work extra hard since Beowulf Boritt’s set is little more than a group of silver chairs that the actors rearrange to create the train, their cell and the courtroom.

Most critics, with the notable exception of the New York Times’ Ben Brantley, have raved about the show (click here for a sampling of those reviews), the run has been extended through April 18 and there was talk even before the opening of a possible move to Broadway. But I was more impressed by Neighbors, the play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that ends its three week run at the Public tomorrow. 

As I said, it doesn’t totally work either.  The playwright is young and that shows. But there’s nothing halfhearted about Neighbors. It centers around two families—the Pattersons, a black classics professor, his white wife and their teen-age daughter; and the Crows, a family of black actors whose members include Mammy, Zip, Sambo, Topsy and Jim.  As you can tell from the names, the Crows—they’re all in black face—are the racist stereotypes who populated minstrel shows and other forms of American entertainment through most of the first half of the 20th century.  

Jacobs-Jenkins and his director Niegel Smith have the Crows doing all kinds outlandish things, particularly in the play’s show-within-a show segments; in one, Sambo has sex with a watermelon.  It’s never really clear if the Crows are figments of Richard Patterson’s imagination but there’s no question that the playwright is serious about probing the ways in which all of us—black and white—are still struggling with the legacy of racism (click here to hear Jacobs-Jenkins and Smith discuss the play)

The argument that the interracial couple (expertly played by Chris McKinney and Birgit Huppuch) has in the second act is as brutally frank an expression of  how racism can creep into even the most intimate relationships as I’ve ever experienced.  It made me uncomfortable but it also made me nod my head in reluctant recognition.  If blackface is going to continue to rear it’s still ugly head, then it should be in the cause of a thought-provoking and soul-searching play like this one.

March 10, 2010

Why "Equivocation" Rings True for Me

Shakespeare wrote comedies, tragedies and histories.  In the new play Equivocation, Bill Cain attempts the hat trick of doing all three at the same time.  And he almost pulls it off.

Equivocation, which debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year and is currently playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club through March 28, is billed as an imaginary account of how Shakespeare produced Macbeth. But it’s also a backstage comedy about The King’s Men, the troupe of actors who first performed the Bard’s plays.  And it’s a historical drama about Shakespeare’s alleged connection to the Gunpowder Plot in which a group of pro-Catholic conspirators tried to blow-up the Protestant King James I.  Plus it’s a family drama about Shakespeare’s relationship with his children. But ultimately, as its name suggests, it’s a philosophical rumination on the meaning of truth.  

That’s a lot to pack into a two-hour play. And it can be difficult to keep track of everything that’s going on. It helps if you’re knowledgeable about British history and well-versed in Shakespeare.  My friend Ellie, the former actress who now writes poetry and teaches literature, is familiar with both.  She—and another woman who I took to be equally erudite—kept laughing out loud at references that brought only bemused smiles from other audience members like me.  And yet, I like this play and not just because I’m an acknowledged whore for stuff about the Tudor-era. 

Cain, who founded the Boston Shakespeare Company, knows a lot about Shakespeare but he’s also smart enough to know that a play needs to engage as well as inform
(click here to watch a YouTube video in which he talks about the genesis of the show). So he’s found ways to amuse and even flatter those of us less literary than Ellie.  He makes Equivocation accessible with colloquial dialog, spiced up with just enough 17th century phrases for period flavoring. He throws in some easy-to-get jokes about Shakespeare:  when a character complains about the soliloquies in the plays, it’s in a soliloquy.

The production team does it part too.  Francis O’Connor has come up with a sleek set that morphs easily from the throne room, to a dungeon in the Tower of London to the stage at the Globe.  And his contemporary costumes—black jeans and dark t shirts—accessorized by period pieces like doublets are chic enough that the actors could wear them home.  David Weiner’s lighting and the sound design by David Van Tieghem and Brandon Wolcott make significant contributions too.

But the most credit goes to the production’s game six-member cast, four of whom double and triple in roles.  In more flush times, additional actors might have played the smaller parts but that would have denied the audience a delightful scene in the second act in which the appealing David Furr plays two characters nearly simultaneously. But all the actors get—and take advantage of—their time to shine. Particularly David Pittu who bites into the role of Sir Robert Cecil, the wily, Richard III-like (limp and all) minister to the king, who sets the plot in motion when he commissions Shakespeare to write a play about the recently aborted assassination plot.

The one disappointment is John Pankow’s Shakespeare, who for some unexplained reason is called Shag in the show. Ellie thought his tepid approach may have been intentional, designed to show how little we truly know about Shakespeare but I found myself wondering if Pankow had gotten the part primarily because he has a large Shakespearean forehead. 

He’s not the only thing in the show that misses the mark.  There are so many storylines that despite the bravura work by director Garry Hynes, some of them get tangled and others simply dangle. But this play does find a way to refract our contemporary anomie through the lens of an equally unsettling period in the past. And that is true enough accomplishment for me.

March 6, 2010

The Right and Wrong of “Girls in Trouble”

According to conventional wisdom, theater people tend to be liberal in their politics.  And if you were to canvass the folks working on, off- and off-off-Broadway on issues like health care, same-sex marriage, or the war in Iraq, you’d probably find there’s more than a little truth to that. Which is fine with me because that’s the way I lean too.  But we all now live in such an echo-chamber of like-minded opinions that I was intrigued by the idea of seeing Girls in Trouble, the new play by Jonathan Reynolds that promised to take a look at the abortion debate from a conservative perspective.

Reynolds seems to get a kick out of outing himself as an openly conservative playwright (click here to read interviews he gave to Playbill and Time Out New York.)  He enjoys poking fun at the left too.  His play Stonewall Jackson's House about a small theater company’s debate over whether to put on a play in which a black woman asks a white couple if she can be their slave drew attention back in 1997 for its less than p.c. attitude towards such topics as affirmative action, multiculturalism and non-traditional casting.

Girls in Trouble takes jabs at liberal icons and affectations too. A line in the play identifies NPR as the news network that likes to “look at just how awful the world is [and] why America made it that way.”  One of its characters is the host of a Martha Stewart-style cooking show called “The Virtuous Vegan.”  But the focus of the play is on a more serious matter.  Each of its three scenes, set in the ‘60s, the ‘80s and the present, pivots around the decision—and the resulting consequences—of a woman contemplating an abortion. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the consequences aren’t great for the women who decide to go through with it.

Race plays a role too. The one character appearing in all three scenes is a black woman who starts out as the young daughter of an abortionist and ends up as a determined pro-life crusader. The show is playing at The Flea Theater down in Tribeca and, as with many productions there, the cast is drawn from The Bats, the theater’s resident company of young actors who are selected each year to perform in a range  of productions.  A few of the seven-member cast are still shaky in their craft but the solid standout at its center is Eboni Booth, who gives an intensely honest (and very brave) performance, particularly in the soliloquy that makes up the second scene and in an extended nude scene in the third.

At first glance, the play seems an odd choice for The Flea, whose past productions have included A.R. Gurney’s anti-George W. Bush comedy Mrs. Farnsworth and shows by the performance artist Karen Finley, whose provocative pieces about gender issues put her near the top of the enemies list of the right during the culture wars of the ‘90s. But Jim Simpson,
the Flea’s founder and this production’s director, defended his choice during the brief talkback following the performance my friend Jessie and I attended.  Simpson admitted that his partner, the producer Carol Ostrow and his wife, the actress Sigourney Weaver, had reservations about Girls in Trouble but he said he decided to go ahead with the show because he thinks theater is “a good place to engage dangerous things.”

A woman sitting in the back row of the Flea’s tiny theater didn’t seem convinced.  She challenged Reynolds on a point in the play and then sat obviously fuming through the rest of the somewhat awkward Q&A. But I think Simpson is right. Reynolds’ dramaturgy goes off the rails at times and the last scene, which takes up the entire second act, is primarily a debating exercise but at least he’s dealing with the kind of important subject that I wish more American playwrights were taking on. And so regardless of how I feel about this particular show’s politics, I’m glad it got done.

March 3, 2010

Mixed Emotions About "A Lie of the Mind"

I should love Sam Shepard. His plays are filled with all kinds of highly theatrical things like eccentric misfits, smart-alecky allusions to pop culture, earthy dialog, and eruptions of violence so over-the-top that they careen into the comic. And he has written such modern classics as Buried Child, True West, Fool for Live and A Lie of the Mind, which currently can be seen in the New Group’s high-wattage revival at The Acorn Theater on Theatre Row.  And yet, I have to confess that I have a tough time getting into Shepard.

Maybe it’s that his work is too macho for me or that its nature is too bleak but the play of his that I’ve liked best is his most recent, Ages of the Moon, which is playing at the Atlantic Theatre through March 21 (click here to read my review) and most people consider that somewhat more gentle and slightly more optimistic work to be atypical Shepard. Still, I can’t help admiring the man. He helped pioneer the off-Broadway theater movement and set a dramaturgical template that scores of others have been inspired by ever since.  So when my theatergoing buddy Bill asked me if I wanted to see A Lie of the Mind, I said yes.

As so many Shepard plays do, this one tells the story of families in conflict.  This time, the fireworks are set off when a man named Jake tells his mother, brother and sister that he has beaten his wife Beth to death.  He hasn’t.  That’s not a spoiler because the audience sees her in the next scene, lying in a hospital bed and so severely wounded that she has become brain damaged. The narrative—although I’m not sure that’s the right word to associate with a Shepard play—follows how the couple and both their families deal with the consequences of this act and with others from the past that have engendered it. 

That past is visible in the centerpiece of Derek McLane’s metaphorical set: a wall of furniture and other objects jumbled against one another in the same way that the play’s people are. And its emotional devastation is underscored by the original music written and performed live by the brothers Shelby and Latham Gaines, who are placed stage left, just outside the area of the play’s action. 

But what kept my attention was the knock-out cast that includes Keith Carradine, Josh Hamilton, Laurie Metcalf and the astonishing Marin Ireland, who brings an inner steeliness to the role of the recovering Beth that undercuts the annoying cutesiness or sentimentality that so many actors use to play disabled people. Guiding all the performances with a sure hand and an obvious love for the work and the actors who bring it to life is the show’s director Ethan Hawke (click here to read New York Magazine’s terrific profile of him).

Unlike many Shepard interpreters, Hawke plays down the symbolism and his more naturalistic approach allows the characters to come across as people that audiences might relate too, although you still wouldn’t want them to be your relatives.  He also cut what I’ve read is the play’s usual four-hour running time to a less arduous-to-watch three.

I can’t say that I walked out of the theater with a newfound love for Shepard’s early work.  Even he told the New York Times that “I see my older plays as clunky relatives to the ones I’m doing now.” (Click here to read the rest of that interview.) But I can say that I’m glad I got to see it.