June 30, 2018

Summer Reading for Theater Lovers 2018

Memorial Day came and went a month ago. The Summer Solstice breezed in last week. The Fourth of July is just a few days away. And temperatures here in New York are heading into the high 90s. So no matter what yardstick you use, summer is here. And that means it's time for my annual summer reading list of books theater lovers can savor while at the beach, lazing in the park or, in my case, chilling on the terrace. To be honest, I'm more ambivalent about some of the books below than I have been about those in previous years but each still has its own charms and as my mother used to say, different strokes for different folks so I'm hoping you find at least a few that suit you.

100 Greatest American Plays by Thomas S. Hischak  As the continuing debate over The New York Times list of the most significant plays of the last 25 years shows, people love lists. And we theater lovers are particularly crazy about them. This one by a theater historian who teaches at the State University of New York spans three centuries, starting with The Contrast, a social satire written in 1787 by a former Revolutionary War officer named Royall Tyler, and ending with Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris' 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning sequel to A Raisin in the Sun. The entries are arranged, like this list, alphabetically but each one includes a synopsis, a few lines of dialogue from the play, an analysis of its significance, cast lists from major productions, the author's bio and contemporaneous reviews. Reading one or two at a time is a perfect way to idle away a summer day.

Drama: An Actor's Education by John Lithgow This memoir of Lithgow's coming of age as an actor is the basis for Stories by Heart, the one-man show he's toured around the country, including a stop at the Roundabout Theatre Company earlier this year. But the book is better. While the show focused on Lithgow's recitation of short stories by Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse that his father Arthur Lithgow read to him as a child, the book is a delightful look back at how Lithgow mastered his craft from his days as a teenage spear-carrier in summer Shakespeare festivals to his later successes on both the big and little screen and, of course, onstage. But it is most of all a loving tribute to Arthur, who created those summer festivals but who never achieved the theatrical stature his son has attained.

I'm Glad About You by Theresa Rebeck  There isn't as much theater as I hoped there would be in this romcom about Alison, a New York-based actress from Ohio trying to get back with her high-school sweetheart. But the book is by the frequently produced playwright Theresa Rebeck and she knows the theater world. The demands put on young actresses in the book ring true, as do the audition scenes in which scores of contenders struggle to stand out from the crowd. As fans will know, Rebeck created the behind-the-scenes TV show "Smash" and was then fired from it and she's even tougher on the TV industry.

Macbeth by Jo Nesbø  Filling the slot for this year's entry in the Hogarth Press series of reimaginings of Shakespeare's plays by major contemporary writers is a brooding version of the Bard's tragedy about unbridled ambition. In this update, set in a drug-plagued Scottish town during the 1970s, Macbeth starts his climb when he's the valorous head of the local police department's SWAT team, his wife owns the local casino and the three sisters are drug dealers. All the familiar double crosses are there and most of the famous lines are interpolated into the text but while Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays, this version comes in at over 500 pages and some of the additional plot twists struck me as silly. Still, the book is written by the Norwegian crime novelist who has huge followings among both literary readers and thriller lovers and if you count yourself among either of those groups it might be just the thing for you.

Payment in Blood by Elizabeth George   What could be more enjoyable than a British country house mystery on a summer afternoon? This one, originally published in 1989, deals with the murder of a playwright who has gone to a remote town in Scotland with a group of top London actors to rehearse a play backed by a leading West End producer. George's intrepid detective is Inspector Thomas Lynley, who also just happens to be an earl. His loyal No. 2 is Barbara Havers, a female sergeant from a working-class background, which makes for all kinds of gender and class conflicts. A modern master of the genre, the American-born George is a first-class writer and she's deft with all the tricks of her trade. The result, if you know how these books work, is totally predictable but it's also totally delectable.

Playing to the Gods by Peter Rader  Nearly everyone knows the name Sarah Bernhardt (Janet McTeer is set to portray the legendary actress in a new bio-play this fall) and every self-respecting theater aficionado knows who Eleonora Duse is as well. Multiple books have been written about both of these 19th century divas who defined acting in their time and helped create the kind of fanship that still echoes in ours.  But this is their first dual biography and in alternating chapters the book tracks the lives of the French Bernhardt and the Italian Duse, providing a fascinating account of their rivalry, their struggles to balance their personal and professional lives, and theater's transformation from an art form that emphasized the presentational into one that championed the truly emotional. I'm cheating a bit with this book because it won't be available until August but you can already pre-order it on Amazon.

Take You Wherever You Go by Kenny Leon  This autobiography tracks the life of the African-American director whose Broadway revivals of Fences and A Raisin in the Sun won multiple Tonys. Leon's other accomplishments include serving as artistic director of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Company for 12 years, which made him one of the few black people ever to lead a major regional theater, and directing the TV musicals "Hairspray Live!" and "The Wiz Live!." Along the way, he's worked with an eclectic roster of talent ranging from Sean Puffy Combs to Kristin Chenoweth, Denzel Washington to Arianda Grande. But the memoir, which takes its title from advice Leon's beloved maternal grandmother gave him, is more of an inspirational Ted Talk than a deep look at his life. Leon has loads of good things to say about the people he likes, keeps mum about those he doesn't and is thoroughly self-effacing all the way through. It's easy to see why people like having him around.

Unmasked: A Memoir by Andrew LloydWebber  The New York Times trashed Lloyd Webber's look back at his early years, from his grammar school days to the opening of The Phantom of the Opera. But I was charmed by it. I don't know if Lloyd Webber had help writing the book but its cheeky voice suggests he did it by himself and he turns out to be a totally entertaining writer: witty, gossipy and not above calling out folks who have gotten on his nerves. His accounts of the makings of his signature shows are engaging and instructive. He's especially good at explaining the technical aspects of composing a score and he does it without being boring. If you love musicals, and particularly if you love his, this book is an ideal companion on a lazy afternoon.

Year of the Mad King by Antony Sher  An artistic polymath who is as excellent a writer as he is an actor, Sher (he's also a fine painter) has published a series of books about how he crafts his performances of some of Shakespeare's greatest characters. I loved his earlier "Year of the King" about how he put together his portrayal of Richard III and so I dived into this new one about his Lear as soon as it came out. But, alas, Sher's work on the play got interrupted by the illnesses and deaths of his sister and sister-in-law and so the book spends more time grappling with his familial affairs than it does delving into Lear's. It's understandable but lamentable, particularly because the sections in which he explains his wrestling with Lear are so good.

And finally, there's The World Only Spins Forward by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois.  I can't say enough about this oral history of Angels in America.  In fact, you can read a full review of it I wrote for the National Book Review by clicking here.

Happy reading and happy summer!

June 9, 2018

Guest Blogger: My Buddy Bill Recalls His Days as One of "The Boys in the Band" and Assesses The Play's Starry Broadway Revival

A note from Jan: Two people can see the same show and walk away with different feelings about it. My theatergoing buddy Bill and I just saw the new production of The Boys in the Band that marks the show's much-delayed Broadway debut. I thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly Zachary Quinto's performance. Bill liked the show a little less and Quinto a lot less.  But I'm turning this week's post over to Bill because he has a personal history with the show that makes his thoughts about it far more interesting than mine:

Though I've never met Mart Crowley, whose 50-year-old hit The Boys in the Band is just now making its Broadway debut, I've always wanted to thank him. Thank him partly because in 1968 the then-new play was groundbreaking in its onstage depiction of gay men's lives. Thank him even more because when I acted in a production of it nearly 49 ago, the show's lead role was played by the man who would become my life partner, until his death. 

George and I met on Nov. 10, 1969, the first day of rehearsal for a production of Boys that was to play Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse. It would be one of the first productions of the play performed outside of New York City, where the original was still playing (that's a photo from our production above).

The now defunct Coconut Grove was one of three Florida playhouses that were part of a "winter stock" circuit. The other two were Ft. Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse and the Royal Poinciana, in Palm Beach. Every year, star-driven plays were performed at all three theaters. I mention this only because it was a sign of those times that the Parker and the Royal Poinciana declined to take our Boys. Their managements, we were told, were afraid of their patrons' reactions, given what was then considered too-controversial material—not only homosexuality but plentiful profanity. Audiences, the two theaters feared, would protest. Or worse, they wouldn't show up.

How wrong they were. Our run at the Coconut Grove, a mere three weeks, was virtually SRO. 

When Jan asked me to a performance of this Broadway Boys, whose limited run ends Aug. 11, I was curious: Would the play—whose original production opened off-Broadway on April 14, 1968, to wild acclaim and celebrity-filled audiences (Rudolf Nureyev, Jackie Kennedy, Groucho Marx, etc.) and ran for more than 1,000 performances—still work after 50 years? Would it still be both funny and moving? Was it even relevant now, given the societal gains of the LGBT community since its debut? And how would today’s audiences receive it, considering that in recent years the play has often been the subject of complaints that Crowley's characters (based on people he knew) are depicted in ways that are either offensive or unrealistic—or both? 

The setup of Boys is simple enough. In his lavish New York City apartment, Michael, an angsty 30-year-old gay man who lives above his means, throws a small birthday party for his best friend, Harold. Though the four invited guests are Harold's friends, Michael knows them too. The play’s nine-member cast is filled out by three other men—Michael's close friend Donald, also gay, who comes into the city once a week to see his psychiatrist; a gay hustler, a gift for Harold from one of the guests; and Alan, Michael's former college roommate, who early in the play phones Michael, apparently in such distress that Michael reluctantly invites him to come over for what he hopes will be a quick therapeutic talk. Alan, a married man with children, is presumed by Michael to be straight.

Alan's arrival, though, and his eventual physical attack on the flamboyant Emory, turns the party into a debacle. What's more, the sexuality of Alan himself comes into question: Is he in distress because he has come to realize he's gay? Crowley's play leaves the question tantalizingly unanswered. 

This 50th anniversary production of Boys has been neatly cut down from two acts to one by Crowley and the show’s expert, openly gay director Joe Mantello, whose production of Wicked is still running on Broadway after nearly 15 years and whose revival of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, starring the veteran Glenda Jackson, is a current Broadway hit (click here to read more about him). 

Even more significantly, the play boasts that its cast are all "out" gay men, three of them nationally known: Jim Parsons (from TV's "The Big Bang Theory"), who plays Michael; Matt Bomer (TV's "White Collar," the "Magic Mike" movies"), as Donald; and Zachary Quinto (Spock in the revived "Star Trek"  movie franchise), as birthday-boy Harold (click here to read more about the casting). 

While these high-profile stars are no doubt the reason for all the attention the production has gotten, their casting is only partially successful. Bomer is solidly ear- and eye-pleasing, playing Donald simply and sincerely while getting all his laughs. Quinto is less successful: Though extraordinarily fine in previous New York stage appearances (revivals of Angels in America and The Glass Menagerie), he wears his showy character like a suit of clothes rather than inhabiting him. 

Most disappointing is Parsons’ Michael. Early in Boys we learn that he has been sober for five weeks. After Alan's attack on Emory, though, Michael loses it: He starts drinking again, giving in to his darker, uglier side. Up to this point, Parsons’ comic performance has been nearly impeccable. But now, in the play’s more somber second half, he fails to command the stage, as the character must. 

Nor does he fully summon up either the ferocious anger or inhumanity Michael should display towards his guests as they play a humiliating game he forces on them all. Finally, and perhaps fatally for the play, Parsons insufficiently embodies Michael’s regret and self-hatred, when at the play’s climax he breaks down in an aria of regret and anguish. What comes out of Parsons is not a torrent of emotion but a mere rivulet.

We are thus denied the catharsis that a first-rate production of Boys can provide. 

A few years ago, the acclaimed playwright and gay rights activist Larry Kramer, a longtime friend of both George’s and mine, belatedly asked how we two had met. When I told him that it was in a production of The Boys in the Band, his response was instant: “That was an important play." I have no doubt that it still is. It presents us with a vivid picture of what life was like for some (though by no means all) gay men some 50 years ago, even as we can now ponder how much life for such gay men has changed in the last half century. 

But though I believe that the play itself holds up, this production doesn’t quite make it for me. While the boys are funny as ever, the tragedy of this band is too much missing.