June 30, 2012

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2012

Despite what the calendar says, the beginning of summer is a personal choice. Traditionalists probably opted for June 20th, the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. But some folks no doubt jumpstarted things with Memorial Day. Others will pledge their allegiance to the long 4th of July weekend, although that’s more difficult to do this year since the holiday falls right smack in the middle of next week.

But for me, the summer begins on the first sustained sequence of days on which I can sit out on our terrace with a good drink in one hand and a good book (or one loaded on my iPad) in the other. Nine times out of ten, that book will be about theater. And I suspect that kind of reading is a summer ritual for many of you too. So, herewith my annual list of books (novels, bios, memoirs and histories) for theater lovers to enjoy over the next couple of months. As always, happy reading and happy summer:

Dropped Names by Frank Langella.  I can’t think of a better summer—or any time—read than this dazzlingly good memoir in which the great actor Frank Langella looks back at his life in short chapters devoted to his encounters with acquaintances, friends and lovers who include Stella Adler, Anne Bancroft, Noel Coward, Colleen Dewhurst, Raul Julia, Arthur Miller, Laurence Olivier, and Elizabeth Taylor, just to name a few. Langella is as elegant a writer as he is an actor.  He is also brutally honest about the failings and shortcomings of his subjects and himself.  If you've only time for one summer read, make it this one.
Lucky Break by Esther Freud.  Good contemporary novels about actors are hard to come by.  So it’s great to have this collection of interlocking stories that follow a group of British actors from their first day in drama school into the mid-career choices of their 30s. The author, who is the daughter of the painter Lucien Freud and the great granddaughter of Sigmund, eschews the psychological explorations that are her patrimony, but having been an actress, and now married to one, she still knows how to plumb the theater world and the result is  a fun beach read.

Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salamon.  Wasserstein, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Heidi Chronicles, was not only the leading female playwright of her generation, but the BFF of practically everyone in the theater community, including, for starters, her Yale School of Drama classmate Christopher Durang and the former Times theater critic Frank Rich.  But despite her popularity and her success, Wasserstein, who died from complications associated with lymphoma in 2006  at just 55,  was a conflicted person and Salamon is great at tracking the ups and downs of her life. Plus, the book offers an intimate look at the off-Broadway theater world when it was just coming into its own in the ‘70s.
Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim.  This first volume of Sondheim’s collected lyrics is filled with details on how the master put together songs for such classic shows as West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, Follies and Sweeney Todd. It’s fascinating to learn about his fondness for writing choral numbers, the private jokes he tucks into his lyrics and why he chooses some rhymes over others. Also included are a few anecdotes about his collaborators and comments on some of the songwriters who came before him; those stories and insights are so terrific that I wish there had been even more of this semi-gossipy stuff.
Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies.  The acclaimed Canadian writer's first novel, written back in 1951, is the droll tale of an amateur theater group’s production of The Tempest.  It’s filled with familiar types from the bossy ex-actress who leads the group to the Walter Mittyish accountant who dreams of a starring role to the dotty old makeup woman who can no longer see. People who love “Slings and Arrows,” the terrific Canadian TV show about a theater festival, should really get a kick out of this book.
Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater by Iris Dorbian.  Truth be told, this isn’t a truly great read (it’s riddled with typos and grammatical faux pas too) but it is a good introduction to some of the major Broadway showmakers of the last 100 years.  And it’s filled with chatty anecdotes about a dozen or so top producers from David Belasco, the most powerful man on Broadway at the turn of the 20th century, straight through to Barry and Fran Weissler, who’ve not only managed to keep the current revival of Chicago going for 16 years but used some of the profits to finance boundary-busting shows like Enron and The Scottsboro Boys.  It's an easy way to brush up on your theater history.

David Merrick: The Abominable Showman by Howard Kissel.  Probably the last Broadway impresario to be a household name across the country, Merrick also had a reputation among Broadway insiders for being something up a prick.  And, as the subtitle suggests, that’s the part that theater writer Howard Kissel emphasizes in his look at Merrick’s remarkable career, in which he sometimes opened up to nine shows a year, including the original Broadway productions of Look Back in Anger, Gypsy, and Hello Dolly. Kissel, who died earlier this year, packed this bio with Merrick’s feuds, publicity coups (most famously running an ad with raves from regular people who had the same names as New York's top theater critics) and other shenanigans. It’s catnip for theater lovers.

The Season by William Goldman.  As regular B&Me readers know, Goldman’s behind-the-scenes account of the 1967-68 Broadway season has appeared on this list each time I've done it. And I have to confess that I considered leaving if off this year but then I just couldn't make myself do it.  After all, if you haven’t read it, you should.

And for those wanting still more, here are the links to my previous summer reading suggestions:


June 27, 2012

Why "3C" Barely Rates a Grade of D from Me

Judging by all the honors he’s already racked up, the playwright David Adjmi has plenty of fans and doesn’t need me.  His bio boasts that he’s won a Guggenheim Fellowship, The Whiting Writers’ Award and the Steinberg Playwright Award, among other prizes, and he even made New York Magazine’s "Top Ten in Culture" list for 2011. 

On top of all that, Adjmi is also an alum of my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College (although we graduated years apart and have never met) and he’s the friend of a good friend of mine, who chided me for not having seen Stunning, Adjmi’s play about Brooklyn’s Syrian-Jewish community, which had a sold-out run back in 2009.  So I was obviously eager to see 3C, Adjmi’s dark comedy which opened last week at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.  

But now, having seen it, I’m at a loss for what to say, except to repeat that it’s a good thing that Adjmi doesn’t need my approbation.  Because 3C doesn’t work for me in any way. 

The play is a riff on the old ‘70s sitcom, “Three’s Company,” in which a guy pretended to be gay so that he could split the rent on an apartment with two female roommates (an airhead blonde and a sensible brunette). The supporting characters here includes their lecherous landlord, his batty wife and a macho-man neighbor. 

What seems to tie them all together are their dysfunctional attitudes toward sex.  The blonde is a nympho who will screw anything in sight. The brunette is a prude who worries that people will think she is a lesbian. The guys seem to be in various stages of the closet.  And the landlord is a dirty-old man whose actions and comments are meant to be unsettling— and really are.

The play made me squirm. Watching a man stick his hand down the pants of an unwilling woman or listening to vile homophobic jokes will do that. But 3C never makes it clear why it's showing these things. It’s certainly no longer a revelation that sitcoms are shallow or that people can have delusional sex lives.

The jokes in 3C (some groaners, some grotesque) aren't funny enough to sustain it as a comedy.  Meanwhile, the perversities in which it traffics suggest that it wants to be taken seriously. What results is a muddle.

Call me old-fashioned but I think a play, even one with absurdist pretensions, should convey some idea of why the themes it deals with matter.  When it doesn’t, it runs the risk of coming off, as this one does, as being merely gratuitous. 

It also leaves very little for the actors, or for director Jackson Gay, to work with, even though everyone works hard. Too hard. Poor Jake Silbermann, who plays the male roommate, makes his entrance in the nude and spends much of the rest of the play being hit in the face.

The design team comes off better.  Scenic designer John McDermott has created an archetypal bland livingroom that would fit on almost any ‘70s sitcom set. Costume designer Oana Botez has lots of fun with the polyester shirts and bell-bottom pants from that period. And sound designer Matt Tierney has put together an amusing mixed tape of disco music from the era.

But the production missteps here too. It brings in Deney Terrio, the guy who taught John Travolta how to dance for “Saturday Night Fever,” to choreograph a series of numbers.  But those dances stop the action cold as the characters flail about the stage for far longer than seems warranted. Afterward, over a far more agreeable dinner at the nearby Waverly Inn, my husband K and I debated whether the actors had been directed to dance badly or were simply bad dancers.

Some audience members at the performance we attended applauded the dancing and laughed uproariously at the other antics as well but the fact that the claqueurs (friends of the actors? family of the playwright? suborned interns?) were seated together in just one part of the small theater only underscored how lame the whole thing was.

June 23, 2012

"Love Goes to Press" isn't Front-Page Material

At some point, almost every frequent theatergoer has probably thought “I should write a play.”  Unlike most of us, journalists Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles went ahead and wrote one.  The result is the romantic comedy Love Goes to Press that is playing at the Mint Theater Company through July 22.

The Mint, as theater fanatics know, specializes in works by playwrights who have been forgotten and those of well-known writers that have been overlooked. Gellhorn, the best known of the play’s two writers, falls into the latter category. 

Although a legendary war correspondent who covered conflicts ranging from the Spanish Civil War in 1936 to the U.S. Invasion of Panama in 1989, she is probably still best known as Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. And while she published 17 books and scores of articles,  Love Goes to Press is her only play and hasn't been done in 65 years. 

It was a hit when it opened in London in 1946 but a Broadway production the following January lasted just five performances. The New York Times' Brooks Atkinson dismissed it as "a fairly routine story about affairs of the heart that need not detain you this morning." 

The plot, which borrows liberally from its authors’ lives, centers on two intrepid female reporters covering World War II. Annabelle (Gellhorn’s surrogate) and Jane (the substitute for Cowles who was also an accomplished war correspondent) are old buddies who turn up at a press encampment near the Italian front. 

With sisterly support from one another, they scheme how to get closer to the action so that each can report the big story she's pursuing. At the same time, Jane finds herself dealing with romantic overtures from the British pr officer who runs the camp but believes a woman’s place should be in the home. And Annabelle has to contend with the Hemingway stand-in who is her ex-husband, double-dealing rival who uses dirty tricks to beat her on stories and the guy she still loves. 

Gellhorn and Cowles wrote their play as a lark, telling themselves that they could sell it to the movies and set up an annuity for their old age. They threw it together in a few days and there is a kind of slapdash quality to Love Goes to Press. Still, it’s great to see a war story where the gals get to be the swashbucklers who outwit their male competitors and break hearts in the process. 

The design team has paid excellent attention to period detail and special kudos must go to Jane Shaw’s sound design. But, alas, the rest of the production isn't as tip-top. The direction is indecisive and the acting is uneven. Still, everyone appears to be having fun.  And you may too, particularly if you read up on Gellhorn’s backstory before you go. 

It may also amuse Mint regulars to see that Annabelle is played by Heidi Armbruster, who played another Gellhorn-inspired character in The Fifth Column, Hemingway's only play, which the Mint produced back in 2008 (click here to read my review of that one). It undoubtedly would amuse Gellhorn to know that, even with its faults, her play is better than his.

June 20, 2012

"Slowgirl" is a Smart Choice for Theater Lovers

For people obsessed with theater, talking about how the theater is dying is like talking about the weather for regular people: you know you can always get a conversation going.  And yet, the theater, like the weather, continues to roll on regardless of what’s said about it. And sometimes, all the elements come together and create one of those near-glorious days that make you glad to be alive—or to be in love with the theater.

I had one of those days last week when I saw Slowgirl, the new show that opened on Monday night as the inaugural production at Lincoln Center Theater’s new Claire Tow Theater.

In keeping with a tradition at Lincoln Center, the Claire Tow is named after a female patron. The new space, which has just 112 seats, sits atop the Vivian Beaumont Theater and includes a small bar and a broad terrace with benches and grand views of the Upper West Side. 

It reminded me of the new Pershing Square Signature Center, not in style, because architect Hugh Hardy’s design is less expansive than the one Frank Gehry did for Signature, but in the optimism that the arrival of both convey that there continues to be a place for theater in the 21st century.

The Claire Tow was built to provide a home for Lincoln Center’s LCT3 program which supports the work of emerging playwrights.  And it could hardly have found a better inaugural production than Slowgirl, which was written by Greg Pierce, the 34 year-old playwright who recently achieved another first when he became the first lyricist to collaborate with John Kander after the death eight years ago of Kander's longtime partner Fred Ebb (click here to read more about how that production came together). 

That project, The Landing, had a two-week run down at the Vineyard Theater that my theatergoing buddy Bill and I managed to see but that I didn’t write about because it was part of the Vineyard’s lab series, which allows theatermakers to experiment without having to worry about the judgment of critics. But I will say that The Landing didn’t prepare me for the multi-layered pleasures of Slowgirl.

A two-hander, Slowgirl is set in the Costa Rican rainforest, where Sterling, an American who lives in lonely, self-imposed exile, is playing host to a hastily-arranged visit from his 17-year-old niece Becky, whom he hasn’t seen since she was in grade school. It’s no spoiler to say that both are hiding painful secrets which, over the course of the 80-minute play, are eventually revealed and, at least partially, healed.

The plot resembles that of 4000 Miles, Amy Herzog’s equally terrific play about the reunion between a grandmother and grandson that began as an LCT3 production but is now playing a longer run at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater through July 1.  But each show creates characters who ground the universality of their experiences in distinctive and believable people.

Slowgirl’s titular character isn’t Becky but a classmate with a learning disability who was the victim of an incident in which Becky may be implicated. Becky is a teenage motor mouth, whose syntax is ruled by the I-like-said-and-he-like-said formations that punctuate the utterances of so many young people today and her vocabulary is littered with casual profanities.  Her Uncle Sterling is her polar opposite, a man comfortable with silences and almost awkward with words. 

They are terrific roles, filled with heart and humor, and the actors playing them are superb. Sarah Steele, a bright young actress who always manages to be both intriguingly quirky and utterly natural, is a crowd pleaser as Becky. Just 23, Steele knowingly captures the  jittery bravado that so many teens use to shield the insecurities roiling inside.

But Sterling is the soul of the play.  Pierce is the nephew of David Hyde Pierce (click here to watch a short video clip in which the playwright talks about his family and this play) and Sterling would have been a wonderful role for his uncle but I don’t think even that fine actor would have played it with any more sensitivity than does Željko Ivanek. 

A two-time Tony nominee whom we now see far too little of on the stage, Ivanek turns in a nuanced performance that is all the more remarkable because so much of it has to be conveyed with expressions that flitter across his face or the way he holds a cup of tea. 

He and Steele are supported by an equally first-class production.  Rachel Hauck’s simple but lovely set manages to get both the humble hut where Sterling lives and the surrounding forest onto the Claire Tow’s cozy stage. Japhy Weideman’s lighting is at times poetic. Meanwhile, Leah Gelpe’s sound design conjures up the mysteries and the comforts of the forest.  And, of course, kudos must go to director Anne Kauffman who orchestrates it all brilliantly.

But the main thing here is the play. Slowgirl may not be a great work but it is a deeply satisfying one and as welcomed as the first breeze of summer.

June 16, 2012

"Medieval Play" Isn't One for the History Books

It’s usually not a good thing when your favorite part of a show is its scenery. That’s the way I felt after I saw Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and that’s the way I felt when I walked out of Medieval Play, the new Kenneth Lonergan comedy that is running at The Pershing Square Signature Center through June 24.

And there’s another similarity between those shows: both are built around smart and intriguing ideas that got overwhelmed by the self-indulgence of their creators. 

Lonergan made his name with such plays as This is Our Youth and Lobby Hero about modern-day slackers, well-meaning but aimless and apathetic young men usually working in dead-end jobs. He’s kept the character type in this new work but he’s radically changed the setting. Medieval Play takes place in 14th century Europe during the wars between rival popes.

The play's protagonists are Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) and Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan) two knights-for-hire caught up in the decades-long conflict. At times, they are like Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, side players to the main action who provide comic commentary on the goings on.  And at others, they are versions of Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon, everymen wrestling with the big existential stuff like faith in God and loyalty to one’s friends.  Sounds promising either way, right?

Alas, neither promise gets fulfilled. The problem is that Lonergan is so busy showing off how much he knows about the period and making himself laugh that he loses all perspective.  The moral questions get trampled and the same jokes get hit over and over and over again.  An adept director might have helped but Lonergan serves as his own director and allows his playwright to frolic unbridled.

The show’s main conceit is that the medieval characters talk like today's hipsters. Anachronisms, profanity and scatological behavior abound. Saints drop F-bombs. A couple engages in a long, bare-butts sex scene.  One of the knights decides to take a dump on stage. And everyone makes meta references about their times and ours.

It’s the kind of stuff that might be funny for about five minutes in a “Saturday Night Live” skit but Lonergan stretches it out for nearly three hours.  Whole rows of people fled during intermission at the performance I attended. Those of us who soldiered on fell into conversations during the break and afterward on the way out of the theater in which the word “sophomoric” could be heard echoing from one group to the next.

As usual, the cast is game, particularly the six who play a dizzying variety of roles from noblemen and saints to peasants and whores. Heather Burns stands out as an officious saint Catherine of Siena, who often serves as the show's narrator, providing the historic context and filling the audience in on all the research that Lonergan did. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle Ages and so those were almost my favorite parts. The only thing I liked better was set designer Walt Spangler’s simple but witty Candlyand version of the medieval European landscape and its castles. Some of the stuff he came up with really made me laugh and did it without trying too hard.

June 13, 2012

Did the Tony Broadcast Do Its Job?

Lots of people are upset because Sunday night’s Tony Awards drew only 6 million viewers, a big drop from the 6.9 million who tuned in last year. I could try to put a positive on that by pointing out that only half as many people (2.7 million) watched the season finale of “Mad Men” but that show’s ratings are rising, particularly among the chattering classes who determine what’s cool, so the comparison probably won’t make anyone feel better. 

Still, all in all, it was a good Tony show. Host Neil Patrick Harris was his usual charming self. There were some surprises (James Corden pulling out an upset win over Philip Seymour Hoffman for Best Actor in a Play and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess trumping Stephen Sondheim’s Follies for Best Revival of a Musical).   

And there were some nice speeches (particularly Steve Kazee and Judy Kaye’s tributes to parents who have recently died. Click here to listen to them and to other speeches,  here to see the entire broadcast and here for the official list of all the winners.

There have been some nice wrap-ups about the broadcast too.  And you can click here and here to read a couple of my favorites). 

But I’ve got other fish to fry in this post.  Because let’s face it, while the job of the Tony voters is to celebrate the artistry of Broadway, the job of the Tony broadcast is to sell the shows, particularly the musicals, to as wide an audience as possible. Broadway producers—and those of the broadcast itself—are getting bolder about fessing up to that.  Although I’m not sure they’re getting better at doing it.

In the past, a show had to earn a Tony nomination in order to qualify for a spot on the telecast but the producers have been widening the club in past years and they threw the doors open almost completely on Sunday:  every musical this season, except for poor Spider-Man—the Rodney Dangerfield of Broadway shows—got  a chance to strut its stuff.  There was even a controversial presentation from a cruise ship production of Hairspray, courtesy of Royal Caribbean, one of the broadcast sponsors.

But the coveted opening spot went to The Book of Mormon, which is not only a show from last season but certainly doesn’t need any help selling tickets (it sold out 102% of its capacity last week).  Still, putting it at the top of the broadcast may have been a smart decision, judging by the performances that the other shows offered.

Exposure on the Tonys is cheaper than buying an ad to reach a similar number of people would be and surveys have shown that viewers like to see numbers from the shows and really do use them to determine which ones to see. So a lot of thought goes into what will convey the essence of each show and make people willing to pay money to see more of it.

Broadway insiders like to tell stories about low-grossing shows that had their fortunes turned around by a great performance on the Tonys. Last week, Ken Davenport, the producer of Godspell, which has been playing to only half-full houses of heavily discounted seats, admitted that the show’s future was riding on the response to its appearance on the broadcast.  That response turned out to be not so good.  Yesterday, Davenport announced the show would close on June 24.  

But very few of the performances came off well. What explodes on the stage can sometimes come across as a whimper on the TV screen. The dynamic dancing in Newsies has people cheering in the theater but you wouldn't have known that from what came across on TV.   

Maybe it’s the fault of Glenn Weiss, who directed the telecast, but the dancers looked as nimble as Newsies' crippled character Crutchie as the camera zoomed in and panned out on them in a herky-jerky fashion.

Ghost did itself no favors either.  In fact, I imagined viewers at home turning to one another and asking, “What the hell is going on?”  They probably felt almost as confused by the Follies number in which Danny Burstein performed a somewhat frantic version of "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues."   

Evita's producers put their money, yet again, on the allure of Ricky Martin and pointedly did Che's "And the Money Kept Rolling In" number so Evita didn't get to sing at all in the Evita sequence.

The folks at Porgy and Bess decided not to recreate just one number but to do a quick succession of excerpts from several songs that viewers would recognize— “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now." 

Some critics didn't like that approach but I thought the  segment played like a smart movie trailer and I bet it would have paid off at the box office even if P&B hadn’t won the Best Revival prize. As is, the show, which had been chugging along at three quarters full, reportedly saw its ticket sales jump 50% on Monday.

Meanwhile, Once, the winner of the Best Musical honors, saw its ticket sales multiply five-fold even though it had already been playing to full houses.  As it ever was and ever will be, success sells.

June 9, 2012

Putting a Wrap-Up Spotlight on Awards Season

Tomorrow is Tony Day, which will mark the end of the 2011-2012 awards season. And it’s been a good one because there’s been no monster hit to suck all the oxygen— 
and the suspense—out of the race the way The Book of Mormon did last year.  Plus the nominees are all so worthy in some categories that I’d be happy with a five-way tie. 

The awards leading up to the Tonys often shed some light on who the frontrunners might be.  But since many of the other groups that give out prizes consider shows both on and off Broadway, there’s still room for those back in the pack to hold on to their hopes for a last-minute surge. 

The New York Drama Critics’ Circle, which announced its picks back at the beginning of May, only gives out four awards and gave its top prize for Best Play to Sons of the Prophet, the terrific play by Stephen Karam that ran off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre. But that group’s choice for Best Musical is Once, which, although it began as an off-Broadway production, is now playing on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.  The critics are totally transparent about their voting process and you can check it out here.

The Drama Desk, a group of New York-based theatre writers, editors, critics and columnists, is more generous with its number of awards and honored more than a dozen shows this year. But it, too, chose an off-Broadway show, Tribes, for Outstanding Play.  Its Outstanding Musical award also went to Once, which got three other awards (Outstanding Director, Lyrics and Orchestration) as well. 

The group also liked Death of a Salesman and Follies for Outstanding Revivals of a play and a musical.  But it managed to spread the love around choosing James Corden from One Man, Two Guvnors for Outstanding Actor in a Play, Tracie Bennett of End of the Rainbow for Outstanding Actress in a Play and Audra McDonald for her performance in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess for Outstanding Actress in a Musical. 

Danny Burstein scored a second Drama Desk win for Follies by taking the prize for Outstanding Actor in a Musical. But Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Other Desert Cities, Newsies The Musical, and even the poorly-reviewed Ghost The Musical all walked away with at least one prize during last Sunday’s black-tie ceremony at Town Hall. Click here for the entire list.

The Outer Critics Circle, a group of critics who work for publications outside New York or primarily online (I’m a proud member) gave out awards at a less formal, pre-show supper at Sardi’s a couple of weeks ago. We solve the Broadway versus off-Broadway dilemma by simply giving out separate awards for each. 

So while we, like the New York Drama Critics, were so taken with Sons of the Prophet that we named it Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, we also celebrated One Man, Two Guvnors as Outstanding New Broadway Play. And although we awarded Once the title of Outstanding New Broadway Musical, we were also able to recgnize Michael John LaChiusa’s Queen of the Mist as Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical.

Like the Drama Desk, we rewarded Audra McDonald, James Corden and Tracie Bennett for their work, which I suppose means they now hold a slight edge over their nearest Tony rivals (respectively Once’s Cristin Milioti, Death of A Salesman’s Philip Seymour Hoffman and the it-could-be-anyone line-up of Nina Arianda for Venus in Fur, Stockard Channing for Other Desert Cities, Linda Lavin for The Lyons  and Cynthia Nixon for Wit).

But we spread around our approbation too.  Over a dozen shows won at least one award, including Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, which got recognized for its sets and costumes. Click here to see all our winners.

The OCC awards ceremony is a fun event because we voters sit at tables with the winners.  Last year, my husband K and I got to sit with Frances McDormand who won the Best Actress prize for her performance in Good People; she was a hoot. 

K, who is still mending slowly from a back injury, couldn’t make it this year so my theatergoing buddy Bill took his place. Our tablemates included the very amusing Enda Walsh, who wrote the book for Once, and a very sweet Christopher Gattelli, who choreographed Newsies, the other main contender in the Best Musical category. Bill and I had a great time.

But I had just as good a time at the Theatre World Awards that were held at the Belasco Theatre this past Tuesday afternoon. These awards date back to 1944 but the thing that makes them really special is that each year they go to 12 actors (six men and six women) who’ve made outstanding debuts off-Broadway or on Broadway. 

Winning that award is, in effect, an official welcome to the New York theater community and past winners include everyone from the legendary Betty Comden, who was in the first group, to the up-and-coming Bobby Steggert, who won just two years ago.

A seven-member committee of theater critics and writers now decides who should get the awards and past winners come back to present them. Both winners and presenters are encouraged to tell entertaining anecdotes and you can get high on all the comity in the air.  Or at least I did. 

This year’s winners included five actors who are also Tony nominees.  They include the now ubiquitous Tracie Bennett; Phillip Boykin who plays the villainous Crown in Porgy and Bess; Jessie Mueller, the standout in the short-lived On A Clear Day You Can See Forever; Josh Young, who plays Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and Jeremy Jordan, nominated not for his starring role in Newsies but for his starring role in the earlier but short-lived Bonnie & Clyde.  You can see the entire list by clicking here.

I’m not going to burden you with my thoughts on who will win or should win on Sunday night because there are already plenty of those predictions out there, including this one from yesterday’s New York Times. You can also click here for a downloadable ballot with the names of all the Tony nominees, courtesy of Playbill.

However I do want to point you to two pre-Tony pieces that you may have missed but that are definitely worth your while.  In the first, longtime theater writer David Rooney offers “Ten Good Reasons to Watch the Tonys.”  If you’re reading this—and have read this faryou don’t need any convincing but the piece is still a great all-you-need-to-know guide to tomorrow night’s show (click here to find it). 

In the second, the always entertaining Lucky and the Mick at The Craptacular blog channel their inner Joan Rivers and provide a visual guide to some of the best and worst in Tony runway fashion from the past few years (click here to see them).

And, finally, below are the winners of one more award, the Patrick Lee Theater Blogger Awards.  It’s given out by The Independent Theater Bloggers Association, or ITBA, the group of theater watchers who express their opinions online and of whom I’m also a proud member. 

The awards (the Patricks for short) are named in honor of our late colleague Patrick Lee, a founding member of the group and our first awards director. You’ll see some now-familiar names on our list but some surprises too:


Peter and the Starcatcher


Death of a Salesman

Now. Here. This.

Sons of the Prophet

Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War, by The Mad Ones, at The New Ohio Theatre
She Kills Monsters at the Flea Theatre

Peter and the Starcatcher

CITATIONS FOR EXCELLENCE BY INDIVIDUAL PERFORMERS (Across Off-Off Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Broadway)
Nina Arianda, Venus in Fur
Christian Borle, Peter and the Starcatcher
Philip Boynkin, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
Danny Burstein, Follies
James Corden, One Man, Two Guvnors
Santino Fontana, Sons of the Prophet
Judy Kaye, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Judith Light, Other Desert Cities
Jan Maxwell, Follies
Lindsay Mendez, Godspell
Terri White, Follies

OUTSTANDING SOLO SHOW/PERFORMANCES (Across Broadway, off- Broadway and Off-Off Broadway
Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway
Denis O'Hare, An Iliad for New York Theatre Workshop
Zoe Caldwell, Elective Affinities for Soho Rep
Juan Francisco Villa, Empanada for a Dream for The Barrow Group
Stephen Spinella, An Iliad for New York Theatre Workshop
Daniel Kitson, It's Always Right Now Until It's Later
Lorinda Lositza, Triumphant Baby

The Tenant by Woodshed Collective

The Flea Theatre

June 6, 2012

Are the Brits Really All That Funny?

To be fair, I should admit that I’m not really into comedy. And I'm completely mystified by British humor. I like a witty joke as much as the next bloke but the low-brow, drop-the-drawers silliness that the Brits love leaves me stonefaced.

I’ve never seen a complete episode of Monty Python, which, needless to say, put me at a disadvantage when I saw Spamalot.  I was told that no one could resist Dame Edna but I had no trouble holding her at arms length either.  And so it was with no little trepidation that I set off to see three supposedly funny British imports over the last month or so.

All three—One Man, Two Guvnors; Don’t Dress for Dinner and Potted Potter—drew raves on the other side of the Atlantic.  Here, in brief, is what I thought of each: 

One Man, Two Guvnors:  Even a down-on-comedy sourpuss like me couldn’t resist the zany antics that director Nicholas Hytner has orchestrated for Richard Bean’s adaptation of the 18th century Carlo Goldoni farce The Servant of Two Masters, which itself is an homage to commedia dell arte. 

Bean and Hytner update the action to 1962, right on the eve of the swinging London era, and populate it with a gaggle of stock characters including the naïve ingénue, the preening blowhard, the lusty sexpot, the pompous man of letters, the plucky girl masquerading as a man, and of course, a bumbling clown.

In the commedia tradition, there is slapstick (brilliantly choreographed by physical comedy director Cal McCrystal and performed, by among others, the droopy-eyed Tom Edden, who deservedly has gotten a Tony nomination for his antics as an aged waiter) and musical interludes (performed by The Craze, an onstage band, whose music, played in a warm-up session before the show starts and during scene changes, is so toe-tappingly amusing that composer Grant Olding got a Tony nod for Best Score even though the show isn’t even a musical). 

But the biggest kudos (and belly laughs) have to go to the also-Tony nominated James Corden, the roly-poly guy from The History Boys, who here plays the titular servant with such go-for-broke comedic brio that even I succumbed. As did my friend June, who also tends to favor more serious fare. “I wouldn’t have seen this on my own,” she said with a big grin on her face as we made our way out of The Music Box theater.  “But I’m glad I did.”  Me too. There isn’t a more entertaining show now playing on Broadway.

Don’t Dress for Dinner:  This classic farce  ran for six years when it played in London back in the ‘90s.  It’s a companion piece to Boeing-Boing, which introduced Mark Rylance to Broadway, had theatergoers rolling in the aisles and won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play in 2008. But lightening hasn’t struck twice with this production, which is now playing at the Roundabout Theatre’s American Airlines Theatre. 

Playwright Marc Camoletti has kept the same main characters, Bernard, a Parisian bon vivant who thrives on simultaneous love affairs, and his meek best friend Robert and he's put them into another situation of mistaken identities and slamming doors.

Unfortunately director John Tillinger doesn’t have the light touch that Matthew Warchus used to make Boeing-Boeing such a fluffy soufflé and Ben Daniels, a terrific dramatic actor, lacks the comic finesse that Rylance brought to Robert. 

Farce is no fun when you can see the actors straining for the laughs. And it isn’t just me; the laughter at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended grew quieter and quieter as the evening went on.

But there is one bright spot: Spencer Kayden, the comedic minx last seen on Broadway as Little Sally in Urinetown, is back in hilarious form as a cook who is pressed into other services.  Kayden gets the extravagance that farce requires and isn’t afraid to luxuriate in it. She’s up for a Tony but whether she wins or not, we can only pray that it won’t be another decade before she’s back on the boards.

Potted Potter: An unabashed Harry Potter fan, I had actually looked forward to this show, which promised a parody that would condense all seven books in J.K. Rowling’s series about the boy wizard who triumphs over evil into just 70 minutes, with two guys playing some 300 characters.  I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t the goofy kids’ show now playing at the Little Shubert Theatre.

Potted Potter's writers and stars are Jefferson Turner and Daniel Clarkson, an Abbott-and-Costello like pair, in which the tall gangly Clarkson plays the dumb one who supposedly hasn’t read the Potter books and so constantly mixes up their plots. 

There are loads of groaner puns and silly sight gags. There’s audience involvement—two kids are summoned onstage, the rest of the audience gets to participate in a call and response and to bat around a beach ball. There’s also some gross-out humor (to my dismay, I can’t get the picture out of my head of Clarkson drooling chocolate).

The show was nominated for an Olivier award when it played in London. The kids at the performance I attended ate it up. And my now- thirtysomething niece Jennifer, a big Harry fan when the books first came out, found the show to be “hilarious.”  I barely cracked a smile.  But, as I said, I’m not high on low comedy.

June 2, 2012

"Feburary House" is, Alas, a Real Flophouse

The true story that inspired February House, the new musical at the Public Theater, is so cool that I couldn’t wait to see the show. Here it is: in the early ‘40s, a group of artists that included the poet W.H. Auden, the fiction writer Carson McCullers, the composer Benjamin Britten, the tenor Peter Pears and the stripper extraordinaire Gypsy Rose Lee all lived together in a rundown Brooklyn Heights boarding house. 

Their communal living venture, nicknamed for the fact that several of the residents had birthdays in February, lasted for just a year and the house was eventually torn down. But it made me smile every time I thought about what it must have been like to live there (click here to read a fascinating history about the place).

I suppose Gabriel Kahane, who wrote the music and lyrics for February House, and Seth Bockley, who wrote its book, must have had similar thoughts.  The problem is that they seem not to have had any thoughts beyond that. 

The result is that their February House is nearly three long hours of missed opportunity.  Or, to put it as the woman sitting behind my theatergoing buddy Bill and me complained several times to her friend, “It’s not a good show.” 

The central character is the real-life editor and flamboyant man-about- town George Davis who seems to have known everybody who was anybody and so the dialog gives him lines like “This is my friend Carson McCullers, the novelist.”  It’s always a challenge for biopics and bioplays to come up with smart ways to let the audience know which famous person an actor is playing but that isn't even trying.

Kahane has said that he wanted to give each character a musical style that would evoke his or her background and personality (you know, Americana for McCullers, art song for Auden, show tune for Gypsy, operetta for the lovers Britten and Pears).  It’s a clever conceit (click here to read more about it) but Kahane, who did his own orchestrations, is never able to meld them into one harmonious whole. 

Perhaps he should have borrowed an idea from The Book of Mormon and started the show off with a “Hello!” style opening number in which each resident is introduced, moves into the house and expresses what he or she wants to get out of it.  Or maybe not because the show’s lyrics, with the exception of an Auden poem set to music, are so flatfooted that the actors almost tripped over them.

Bockley does the actors no favors either. In his hands, each of the celebrated residents comes across as no more than a personality tic: quirky Carson, ballsy Gypsy, lovelorn Auden.  And he doesn’t give them anything to do, except sit around and whine about the food, the lack of heat and, God help us, bed bugs. 

I haven’t read the book on which the show is based (click here to learn more about it) but there would seem to be all kinds of possible plot lines.  Bockley samples a few—the inevitable rivalries and jealousies that develop in such an artistic hothouse; the oasis that February House provided for its many gay inhabitants during those homophobic times; the guilt its residents, many of them European exiles, felt as their homelands descended into war—but he doesn’t fully develop any of them.

Actors in this city are used to loading deadweight material on their backs and hauling it up to an acceptable level of entertainment but the burden here is too great and even the strongest cast members—Kristen Sieh as McCullers, Erik Lochtefeld as Auden, Kacie Sheik as Gypsy—wobbled from time to time.  

I take no pleasure from knocking a show, particularly one by young people who are just getting started in the business.  But I took no pleasure from their show either.