August 31, 2013

A Labor Day Salute to the Talent-Spotters

Labor Day has snuck up on me this year because it’s been a busier summer than usual. Some publications have asked me to write about theater-related subjects and instead of kicking back on the terrace as I usually do, I’ve been pecking away like mad on the computer. I’ll let you know when those stories are out. 

In the meantime, it’s become a tradition for B&Me to use the post closest to Labor Day to celebrate some of the folks who work hard to make the theater we all love. And this year I’m singling out casting directors, the people who search out fresh acting talent for movies, TV and, of course, the stage.   

Casting agents have been largely unsung—although that’s been slowly changing. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently extended membership to the people who find actors for movies (I'm happy to say that the Tonys enfranchised stage casting directors 20 years ago). 

And earlier this month, HBO aired the documentary, “Casting By” which focused on the legendary casting director Marion Dougherty, who over the course of her 50-year career gave their first big break to Warren Beatty, Glenn Close, James Dean, Danny Glover, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Christopher Walken (click here to see a trailer). 

Dougherty's modern-day descendants like Tara Rubin and Bernie Telsey who run their own agencies, and Daniel Swee, who does casting for the Lincoln Center Theater productions, are now doing the same good work of scouting talent in off-off Broadway productions, theater workshops, festival performances and conservatory shows (click here to read a group interview with them and some of their peers). 
For the past 30 years, the Casting Society of America (you sometimes see its acronym behind the names of casting directors in your Playbill) has been celebrating the best casting efforts with its Artios Awards.  The awards will be given out In November and there are 10 categories for theater (click here to see the nominees).  

But I’m wondering if that’s enough. Directors, whether for stage or screen, often say that casting is more than half the job of getting a show right.  So it would seem that the people who find the actors should get at least some of the credit when we’re handing out the main awards.  
There’s often been talk that the Tonys should establish a category for the Best Ensemble the way the Obies have done but that would just create one more award for actors. I’m thinking that it might be more fitting to recognize the people who find those actors, lobby showmakers to see them, buck them up when they don’t make it to callbacks and keep them in mind for future jobs. 
But until casting directors get that kind of moment in the spotlight, I hope you’ll join me in this Labor Day salute to them.  And, of course, Happy Labor Day to you too.

August 24, 2013

This "Harbor" Offers No Sanctuary for the Poor

We need more poor playwrights.  I don't mean bad writers or even those who are living hand-to mouth for the sake of their art but people who have grown up in families that had to struggle to make ends meet. If we did, then we might ger fewer plays like Harbor, the dramedy now playing at Primary Stages that offers a really condescending look at what it's like to be a single mom so poor that you have to raise your kid in a van.

I’ve no idea what playwright Chad Beguelin’s socio-economic upbringing was but here’s the set-up he’s created: Ted and Kevin are a newly married couple who live comfortably in Sag Harbor, where Ted works as an architect and Kevin dabbles at writing. Their cozy upscale life is upended by a surprise visit from Kevin’s sister Donna, who is brash and crass, and her 15-year-old daughter Lottie, who is witty and precocious in the way that writers like their teens to be.   

Beguelin, who is best known for writing lyrics for Elf and The Wedding Singer, gives each character a wear-it-on-the-lapel motivation: Donna wants the men to adopt the new baby that she is carrying, Lottie longs to find her dad and to have a real home, Kevin needs to have a real purpose in life beyond being a legalized boy toy and Ted just wants to live the new gay American dream of a great job, a beautiful home (although the musty set doesn't quite live up to that) and a fully legitimate spouse.

All of their lives change over Harbor’s two-hours running time but I’m afraid I didn’t buy it. I particularly didn’t buy Donna, who is portrayed as such a screw-up that she isn’t sure who fathered either of her children, openly refers to her brother and his husband as homos and drinks and does drugs while pregnant even though she’s constantly talking about what a good mother she is.

I’m not saying that women who do those things don’t exist but their behavior is rooted in specific circumstances that this play just glosses over or, worse, plays for cheap laughs.  

The gay couple comes off better. Beguelin says that the tension between Kevin and Ted over whether to take Donna’s child was inspired by discussions that he and his partner have had (click here to read an interview the playwright did with Out Magazine) and the men in Harbor seemed more grounded in the reality of what happens when even people who truly love one another find themselves at an impasse.  

The chemistry between Randy Harrison, forever known as the hunky young kid on TV’s "Queer as Folk,” as Kevin and Paul Anthony Stewart as the stalwart but sympathetic Ted works too. Maybe Beguelin should have just focused solely on their emotional and sexual dynamics and left the stuff about class differences and poor women to someone else.

August 17, 2013

A Tale of Two Summer Evenings in the Park

There’s a certain magic about seeing a show in Central Park, no matter what the show is.  I’ve seen two there over the last couple of weeks and although not crazy about either, I’m sure I would have been even less so if I hadn’t been sitting outside on a balmy summer evening, surrounded by a diverse crowd of folks, some of whom were theater lovers who’d go anywhere to see a show and others who were just eager for something free or fun to do.  I just wish the shows they’d seen had been better.

The first was a musical called King Kong that is part of the SummerStage series that travels to parks all over the city. The 90-minute show, which has been making the rounds since July 30 and finishes up with three performances at East River Park next week, seemed a natural for Summerstage’s “This is_Hip-Hop” series.  For King Kong is set in 1978 and purports to be about the early days of rap music. 
But I’m guessing that most of the people who’ve seen the show were as confused as I was about why a celebration of hip-hop would begin with a big splashy song-and-dance number that looked more like at tribute to David Merrick than to DJ Cool Herc.

And that’s not the show’s only misstep.  Its primary creators Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner have been working on it for 15 years and seem to have lost their way during the journey (click here to read about the show's history).  
Their musical's connection to the traditional King Kong's beauty-and-the-beast tale is tenuous at best, although there is a blonde named Faye who gets tangled up with a black rapper whose moniker is the same as the famous gorilla’s.  And that brings up a whole other problem: do two white guys really want to associate black people with apes?
That would be unbelievably offensive if they weren’t also offending Jews (portrayed as money-grubbers) and gay people (all swishy and, inexplicably, badly dressed).  
All of it is played for laughs and many people around me were laughing hard. They also seemed to enjoy hearing songs from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that were sampled in the show (I’ve no idea how this modest production paid for all the rights). But my niece Jennifer was so appalled that she literally bent over and put her head in her hands. 
I knew exactly how she felt and I wonder what the folks at St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx thought of this messy mash-up about the innovative musical genre that started in their neighborhood 40 summers ago. 
Things are, as you might expect, slicker over on the other side of the park at Shakespeare in the Park’s Delacorte Theater, which is now hosting a musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of the least known and oddest of Shakespeare’s plays.

The plot centers around four young aristocrats who swear off women so that they can focus on their studies. Their abstinence is put to the test by the arrival of a visiting princess and her comely ladies. 
The Public has been open about its hopes that this musical version of the play might enjoy the success of Two Gentlemen of Verona, the rock musical based on another of Shakespeare’s comedies that originated in the park in 1971 and then moved to Broadway, where it won the Tony for Best Musical the following year.  
This new production features a charming set by John Lee Beatty, supple lighting by Jeff Croiter, witty costumes by Jennifer Moeller and a cast of up-and-coming talents lead by Daniel Breaker, Colin Donnell, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Patti Murin. But Love’s Labour’s Lost seems unlikely to follow in Two Gent’s footsteps.

Alex Timbers, who has adapted the book and directed the new production, has said in numerous interviews (click here to listen to one) that he likes to make musicals that appeal to people who don’t usually like musicals.

That approach seems to work with downtown hipsters as happened with the recent production of Here Lies Love, the Imelda Marcos musical he did with David Byrne (click here to read my review of that). But it’s had a tougher time with more traditional theatergoers, as happened with his Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which was a big hit at the Public but played for just 94 performances when it moved to Broadway.  
Timbers doesn’t even try to woo traditional showgoers this time out. A banner strung across the Delacorte stage reads “Welcome Class of 2008” and it’s a not-so-subtle signal that this show is aimed squarely at the Lena Dunham generation who grew up on a steady diet of pop culture that included boy bands, loopy TV shows like “Jackass” and an irony-laced fondness for all things cheesy. 
And there’s a lot of cheesy stuff in this production. The setting has been moved to a contemporary college campus and Timbers throws in self-conscious references to everything from Philip Glass to Cats, TED talks to Segway scooters. There’s even a full high school marching band. The latter is supposed to be a surprise but I’m going ahead with the spoiler since the run ends tomorrow, even though the official opening was just last Sunday.

The music runs the gamut from show tunes to boy band pop and Michael Friedman’s busy score crams 21 pleasant but not particularly memorable songs into just 100 intermissionless minutes (click here to hear some of them).  
That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the Bard’s words.  A few speeches do sneak in but several of them are punctuated by profanity, which too often substitutes for wit in much of today's comedy. In fact, as my theatergoing buddy Bill observed, the whole thing comes off as one of those spoofy shows that smart college kids like to put on for themselves.

But Bill and I may be in the minority on this one.  Most of the critics were charmed by the show and even those with reservations are willing to give it a pass as a nice summertime romp (click here to read their reviews).  
Meanwhile, the show also seems to have hit the sweet spot with its target audience.  The twentysomethings sitting around me fell all over themselves laughing. And as I walked home, I overheard one hipster gal say to her date, “That was a really good show.”

August 10, 2013

The Pains of Summer Festival Fatigue

We theater lovers used to beg for things to see in the summer.  And so we got festivals. Lots and lots of festivals. Maybe too many festivals.  

There’s the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the Midtown International Theater Festival, the Lincoln Center Festival, the New York International Fringe Festival and a bunch of mini-festivals at the 59E59 Theaters, including the East to Edinburgh Festival, which showcased 16 of the American productions that are among the nearly 3,000(!) shows playing this month at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and Summer Shorts, a grab bag of six one-acts by well-known and upcoming playwrights.  
From all accounts, very little of what any of them have offered this summer has been worth seeing.  I skipped NYMF this year because my husband K and I were out of the country. But my blogger pal Chris Caggiano at Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals saw 18 of the 250 productions; he really liked three of them but just the thought of having to sit through the other 15 depresses me. (Click here to read Chris' final report on the festival.)
I also couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for the salmagundi of international productions that Lincoln Center served up this year and so I passed on them too. The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood's recap of the shows, including Monkey: Journey to the West, the circus-like extravaganza performed entirely in Chinese, confirmed that decision (click here to read what he wrote.)

And now, alas, I can tell you from personal experience that this year’s Summer Shorts offerings aren’t faring much better.  Or at least that was the case with the three one acts my husband K and I saw in Series A, the first of the two bills that are being presented this year.

The lineup had seemed promising: playlets by the old masters Neil LaBute and Tina Howe, both of whom are Summer Shorts regulars, plus one by the young playwright Lucas Hnath, whose A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney stirred up a lot of buzz when it was performed at Soho Rep in the spring. 

The evening started off with LaBute’s Good Luck (in Farsi), a piece that he also directed about two actresses trying to psyche one another out as they wait outside an audition room. It includes so many of LaBute’s tics—the jousting for power, the obsession with looks, lots of profanity—that it almost seems a parody of a LaBute play.  Still, the put downs are mildly amusing and the young actresses game.  So no harm, no foul. 

But Hnath’s About a Woman Named Sarah completely baffled me. It’s an imagined recreation of the conversations between John and Cindy McCain and Sarah and Todd Palin during their first meeting. The four actors playing the characters sit on benches and get up when it’s their turn to perform a series of two-person dialogs that are punctuated with a clicking sound, whose purpose I’m still trying to figure out. 

The deadpan actors make no attempt to mimic the well-known people they play and director Eric Hoff gives them little else to do.  So there are no new insights into any of the characters—and no enjoyment on my end.
Howe’s Breaking the Spell was, at about 25 minutes, the longest and most ambitious of the three. I had been expecting another of her meditations on WASP culture but Howe seems to have taken to heart the notion that playwrights can play around with one acts. Her story is set in a fairytale kingdom where a princess has fallen under a sleeping spell. The King, her devoted father, has watched over her for 100 years, trying everything he can think of to break the curse.

The play seems to nod to Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist drama Exit the King, which I loved when Geoffrey Rush brought it to Broadway back in 2009 (click here to read my review of that) and the theater vet Michael Countryman does a nice job with this king. But Breaking the Spell also seems custom-tailored for the talents of the young pianist and saxophonist who play the many suitors who try to awaken the princess.  

They may be talented musicians—the program proudly notes that one of them, Evan Shinners, will play a different prelude from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” at each performance—but they are both amateur actors and that undercuts the impact. At least for me.  The actress Jane Alexander, a friend of Howe’s since their student days at Sarah Lawrence College, was in the audience at our performance and howled at almost every line.  
It isn’t popular to say that there is too much theater (Rocco Landesman, one of Alexander’s successors as head of the National Endowment for the Arts, got blasted when he said as much a couple of years ago (click here to read about that dust-up). But I’m going to stick my neck out and say it anyway:  there are too many people doing theater in New York and  many of them should be doing something else.
The Fringe Festival begins today.  I’ve enjoyed some of its productions in past years (click here to read about the day I spent theater-hopping last year) and I’ve really tried to gin up some interest in this year’s slate but, on the basis of how the festival season has feared so far, I'm probably going to sit this one out.

August 3, 2013

Shifting into Summer Vacation Mode

Theater slows down in August. Or at least I do.  So while I’ll continue seeing a few shows, I’ll only be writing about them here once a week, instead of the usual twice, until sometime after Labor Day. I may also occasionally post something on Facebook or Twitter and I’ll be adding to the new Flipboard magazine I’ve set up.  It’s an ongoing collection of articles about the theater that I’ve read and enjoyed and that I think you might like too. You can check it out here. In the meantime, get yourself a cool drink, kick back and enjoy these lazy summer days.