February 18, 2023

A Grateful Sixteenth Anniversary Message

So here we are celebrating—albeit slightly belatedly—the 16th anniversary of Broadway & Me. My first post went up on Feb. 14, 2007 and in the intervening years, 
I've seen so many wonderful shows (and yes, some not-so-great ones too) and I've had so many other wonderful theater-related experiences and I've loved sharing so much of all that with you. 

The most recent of those experiences was the opportunity to appear on my friend Patrick Pacheco’s TV show “THEATER: All the Moving Parts,” where I joined the theater critics Adam Feldman of Time Out New York and Helen Shaw of The New Yorker to talk about the upcoming spring theater season here in the city. You can watch our discussion by clicking here.

I’m hoping that I’ll also be able to talk to the creators of some of those new shows for my playwrights podcast “Stagecraft.” In the meantime, I’m continuing to produce my podcast "All the Drama" about the plays and musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The latest episode, which hit the feeds just last weekend, is on the 1953 winner Picnic by William Inge, who, along with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, was a titan of Broadway in the fifties but whose name isn’t as well remembered today as Williams and Millers still are (you can listen to that by clicking here).  

And finally, I want to give my continuing thanks to those of you who over the years have subscribed to and read these postings, listened to my podcasts or checked out my Flipboard magazine. I also want to extend a welcome to those of you who may have just stumbled onto this post for the first time. I'm so very grateful for all of you and I hope you will continue keeping me company as I share my joy for the theater we all love.  

February 11, 2023

"Pictures From Home" Lacks A Clear Focus


Around 1982 the photographer Larry Sultan began taking photos of his parents at their home in California’s affluent San Fernando Valley. And he kept at it over the next 10 years, finally publishing a curated selection of the images along with film stills from the family’s home movies in a book called “Pictures From Home.” 

The visual memoir was a meditation on aging, an investigation into the ways we create images of ourselves and a commentary on the American Dream. And now, the playwright Sharr White has turned all of that into a play also called Pictures From Home that opened this week at Studio 54.

A photo album, even one as artful and acclaimed as Sultan’s (click here to see more about it), is unusual source material for a play and I want to applaud such originality. So that makes it even more disappointing for me to have to tell you that White and his director Bartlett Sher haven't been as creative in transferring the book's complexities to the stage. 

Sultan died in 2009 at the age of 63 but, using texts from the book and taped interviews he conducted with his folks as he worked on the project (many of the quotes are used verbatim in the play), White has tried to imagine what the dynamics were between the Sultans during that decade-long process of working on the book and what motivated each of them to stick with it through to its conclusion (click here to read more about the transfer process).

Irving Sultan moved his family from Brooklyn to California in the early ‘50s to make a better life for his wife and kids (there were actually two other sons who are mentioned but don’t appear in the play). He succeeded, working his way up from a traveling salesman in hard-to-sell markets and into the executive suite at the Schick razor blade company before being pushed into early retirement. 

White and Sher are helped immeasurably in bringing that journey to life by an all-star cast consisting of Danny Burstein as Sultan, Zoë Wanamaker making the most of a smaller role as his mother Jean and most especially by Nathan Lane as his dad. 

Lane perfectly captures the alpha-male pride of the self-made man, the mid-century allegiance to American exceptionalism and the underlying uneasiness that things won’t be the same for his son who, despite all the differences between them, he deeply loves. And of course being Nathan Lane, he also wrings every bit of humor out of White’s text and then adds some more equally entertaining bits of his own for good measure.  

And yet the play’s center doesn’t quite hold. In fact, I had a hard time finding a center. Arguments about why Sultan is photographing his parents, how long the project is taking and whether art is more important than real life are repeated and then repeated again. Attempts at insights into the bonds that hold this family together are proclaimed in big speeches toward the end of the play but little groundwork is laid for them earlier and the revelations seem to come out of nowhere.  

Photos from the book of the real-life Sultans are projected on the back wall of the stage throughout the 105-minute performance and both my eye and mind kept drifting to them and away from the live action going on in front of them. Like the best art, those images not only invite you to look at them but prod you to look at yourself. Alas, that artfulness doesn't make the transfer from the page to the stage.

February 4, 2023

Cozy At-Home Theater for a Cold Weekend

A frigid cold front is sweeping across a large part of the country this weekend. And that can be a disincentive to go outside for even the most avid theatergoer. Luckily, there are—thanks to the internet—other options for us theater junkies. I’m going to suggest just a few of my current faves before snuggling up with my own remote control and a mug of tea.

My So-Called High School Rank: This awkwardly named but terrific documentary starts off as the story of how two high-school drama teachers wrote a musical in 2019 inspired by the pressure so many of their students felt to get into a top-rated college. Word of the show quickly traveled to other schools around the country who asked for permission to stage their own productions.  

The filmmakers focused in on the auditions and rehearsals at three of them: one in an affluent California community largely populated by highly-educated immigrants working in the upper levels of the tech industry and dreaming of even more successful careers for their kids; the second in a white working-class community in rural West Virginia where theater takes a backseat to sports; and the third at an arts high school in the Bronx where nearly all of the students are Black and Hispanic and hoping that their talent will push open doors to opportunities their parents never had. 

But the narrative really kicks into high drive when Covid arrives. The schools lockdown and all of the kids struggle to find ways to still put on their shows. The results in this 90-minute doc are both heartbreaking and heartwarming and a potent reminder of how theater really can change lives, particularly young ones. You can find it on HBOMax.

Kiss Me, Petruchio: The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions have been a beloved summer tradition in New York for over six decades but one of the most fondly remembered of its shows still remains the 1978 production of The Taming of The Shrew with Raúl Juliá as Petruchio and Meryl Streep as Kate. 

Beautiful and sexy, both actors were also full of the sass that comes from working with a scene partner who is as game and talented as the other. So it’s great fun to watch the back and forth between their characters in this classic battle of the sexes. But it’s even more of a treat to view the interviews the two gave backstage as dressers tighten Streep’s corset before one performance while she talks about bringing a feminist perspective to her role and as Juliá towels off sweat during an intermission while also explaining the importance of adding the rhythms of his native Puerto Rico to Shakespeare’s speeches. You can see it all for free on YouTube.

Streep, of course, is still with us, even if not onstage as much as we might want. But Juliá died in 1994 when he was just 54. His premature death was greatly mourned by the theater community, which you can also see in the documentary that the PBS “American Masters” series did on his life and which you can find here.

Between Riverside and Crazy: Second Stage’s current revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis' dramedy is still playing at the Helen Hayes Theater through Feb. 19 but the company is also simulcasting performances during the final two weeks of the show’s run. 

I finally caught up with the onstage version a couple of weeks ago and it’s as thoroughly entertaining as it was when I saw the off-Broadway production back in 2014 (click here to read my review). 

The plot centers around a Black ex- cop who is battling his landlord to stay in a large rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive (that provides part of the show’s title) and battling the police department over the compensation he feels he’s owed because a white cop shot and disabled him (which supplies the other part of the title).  

However the true joy of this Pulitzer Prize-winner rests in the colorful characters Guirgis has created and the even more colorful language—simultaneously scatological and lyrical—that he’s crafted for them to speak. 

Most of the original cast has returned, including the invaluable Stephen McKinley Henderson who has nestled himself even more snuggly into the role-of-a-lifetime that Guirgis reportedly wrote specifically for him. 

The ticket price for each of the dozen or so remaining simulcast performances is $77, including a $9 service fee, and you can find out more about those shows by clicking here. I haven’t seen any of them so far but my blogger pal Jonathan Mandell has and he compares the experiences of seeing the show live and online in a recent posting that you can check out here.

There are other screen options too, including the latest installment of Paula Vogel's Bard at the Gate series. You can find that and some others on the TDF site by clicking here. Whichever you choose, have a great time and stay warm.