Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Assistance: Rolling Calls Like a Pro

Leslye Headland's new play Assistance at Playwrights Horizons is set in the office of a powerful, abusive (unseen) boss who churns through assistants like clean shirts and asks the question what are these young, smart people doing here.  As a former Hollywood assistant myself, the material should be right up my alley.  Though Headland captures the setting and extremes of the job accurately, for me, it did not go far enough into the "why" which is the real meaty question. 

Lucas Near-Verbrugghe plays Vince the "first" assistant who has finally brought up a second to replace him so he can move across the hall and become a junior executive.  Full of bravado, snark and using an uninteresting office vernacular I struggled to get into the rhythm of the play with these opening scenes.  But as time goes on, the play focuses on Michael Esper as Nick, who is the newly crowned first assistant and Nora (Virginia Kull)  who is his new second.  Inevitably in close quarters, with the barrage of abuse by their boss Daniel Weisinger, Nick and Nora become a secret couple.

Filling out the cast of assistants are: Bobby Steggert, as Justin, the traveling assistant (a real thing) who hilariously tries to break-up with his shrink over this job, Sue Jean Kim, as Heather, the perfect kid trying to impress her mother but who was never gonna make it here to begin with, and Amy Rosoff, as Jenny, the British, above-it-all assistant who might just have the right attitude for this job infuriating though it is. 

Though some might think the extremes of this setting are fictional or overstated, I can tell you they are not at all.  When one of the assistants begs to go to her uncle's funeral I could relate.  Was I questioned once about how well I knew the person whose funeral I wanted to attend?  Yes. I was.  Did I have to go into detail about this friend's suicide?  Yes. I did.  I at least got to go to the funeral.

None of this is funny at all.  What is funny is the incremental slide into accepting this as your new "normal."  It is funny to the outside observer because it seems extreme and the stakes seem abnormally high.  But I found that quite accurate and true.  I also liked the development of a co-dependence between people with a frisson of competition, but there wasn't nearly enough swearing.

Two major issues plague this work.  First, the play fails to respect or invest in the characters  and second, it skirts substance for sub-par humor.

The play tip-toes around who this boss is.  Some people have alleged it is based on Harvey Weinstein or Scott Rudin.  In either case, it would have been stronger if we knew what business they were talking about, and, moreover, why these assistants wanted to be there in the first place. The writer says this choice was intentional.  But when Nora gives a speech about how it has been her dream to become Daniel Weisinger, without any specificity, it rang false to me.  Conceptually it doesn't matter what industry because it is all totally insane but I think by dodging the question it leaves an awkward absence where none need be.  Often it is hard for outsiders to understand why assistants take on these types of jobs--but I would think that would be the playwright's job here, to give us a window into that and help outsiders understand.

Being able to share in one of these assistant's dreams for a moment would have gone a long way to explore the motivations and arcs of the characters.  Their suffering would have been put in context and their sacrifices would have meant something--at least to them.  As written, it underplays all that potential substance and feels a bit flip and condescending.   It is as if Headland has no respect for her characters or their life choices which begs the question why write about them if you don't care about them.  Their jobs are humiliating enough without your disdain.

The real focus of the play is Nick and Nora (gag me with a Thin Man reference) and why they are driven together or apart by this workspace.  Although there are a few nice moments between them, I think the play sacrificed character development by going for laughs and displaying the extreme situations these assistants are put in.  The laughs were not nearly as funny as I was expecting and the more they tried for the "funny" the more I longed to know who these characters were.  Although there are changes in their attitudes about the job over time, the emotional arc is obscured and that was what I wanted to see.  If you are not going to care about your characters or bother with emotional development, it better be god damn funny on the surface and here it was mildly amusing at best.

The cast assembled is great and I just wish they were given more to do.  Michael Esper is the king of holding his emotions so close to the surface that they seem to just pour from his eyes.  He's better at crushed soul than bravado.  He gets some opportunity to put that skill on display.  Virginia Kull gets the big emotional outbursts but I felt we knew so little about her that I was not invested in her at any point.  Bobby Steggert has precious little on-stage time and what he does with it is delightful.  The oscillation between the obedient child and the defender of the abusive parent is a great way to shed light on the personality type attracted to this job.  Amy Rosoff gets a showy role and fully embraces it.  Sue Jean Kim does a fine job of being a bad assistant.  Lucas Near-Verbrugghe was a believable vile-some dick so that was nice.  But all these great performers were just left to skate on a thin ice.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Shakesbeer: Shakespeare & a Pub Crawl

Let's say right up front I bought a T-shirt at the New York Shakespeare Exchange show of Shakesbeer that says "I'd do Hamlet."  And now a couple of sober days later I don't regret it.

The New York Shakespeare Exchange offers a really fun Saturday pub crawl where their actors perform 4 scenes from Shakespeare while you travel from pub to pub.  It's a bit of a steep ticket but for your $40 you get 4 tickets for drinks (we wish they had a sliding scale for those among us who don't drink as much 3 tickets for $30 would be nice).  Each bar offered different beers, wines, some hard liquor or soda and always Shakespeare.  The final pub also had a discount dinner menu for Shakesbeer participants ($10 for a hamburger & fries, fish and chips, Caesar salad and other items) which was a good deal.

I found the performers used the space well.  They emerge from the crowd in street clothes leaping on bars, tables, and sometimes interacting with the crowd.  The scenes we saw this past weekend included ones from Love's Labors Lost, Taming of the Shrew and Midsummer Night's Day.  I enjoyed a little Shakespeare mash-up that was offered as well. The performances were quite good with the actors having a keen understanding of the texts, the meter and an eye towards entertaining the crowd. 

The next offering is next weekend (March 3rd).  I highly recommend checking it out.  Bring friends.  It is best enjoyed with a group because you will be drinking and chatting as much as watching the performances. And you might see some underpants.  Just saying...Shakespeare gets a little lusty.

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs


Sometimes someone comes along and puts together a piece of theater that plays to all of my odd-ball interests: my irrational white-hot hatred of Steve Jobs, my organized labor youth, and my love of a good storyteller.*   Mike Daisey's The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs managed to hit all my marks.  It is a monologue about Daisey's investigation into how Apple products are made and the discovery of the horrific labor practices employed by Apple's supply chain in China.

With precise detail, Daisey introduces us to the world of the black market in Asia (with a nice reference to Mos Eisley in Star Wars), to massive factory complexes larger than the mind can comprehend, to underage, smart workers who represent the future of a nation, to a creative and resourceful translator and to our own complicity in this system and process.  Without lecturing, he paints a picture of how our technology hungry behavior and corporations and governments with no care toward working conditions conspire together to form the perfect storm for labor abuses. 

I mean the galling fact of the situation with Apple is that they sit on a massive pile of cash--they don't even need to cut these corners.  But they do.  Daisey in fact tells one particular tale of how Jobs got Steve Wozniak to do a nearly impossible programming job in 3 days even though the client had not asked for those outrageous demands (and then of course lied about how much he got paid for it). Jobs did it because he wanted things to be more efficient, regardless of the cost to Wozniak.

I cannot even discuss Steve Jobs without my blood pressure rising.  I'm not sure if it's his overt narcissism, the cult of personality he fostered, or the undying devotion to everything he said and did that made me naturally suspicious.  Or simply the corporate governance issues that I think plagued the company.   And I don't care if Jobs had visions of a future I could not even imagine.  I still don't think he should be celebrated if the one thing he sacrificed for this X-ray vision of the future was his humanity--moreover the humanity of those around him.

The reality of this show was that even though Daisey was specifically calling out Apple it is really the question of how all electronics companies do business in China.  He does not over-simplify the discussion but he asks the audience as consumers to take action.

We know there is a cost/benefit analysis of everything corporations do.   But it does pose the question that if you spend a single dollar of your corporation's funds on a Foosball table maybe you ALSO need to act if you are knowingly poisoning workers who work for you somewhere else in the world.  You can argue that foreign governments are the problem.  Lack of regulation.  Failures of those countries to police their own.  But no one told you you had to do business there.  You made the choice based on the cost of labor.  We all know it.  But labor = people.  And this show is here to remind us of that simple fact. 

Daisey wryly points out that in a world where everyone is desperate to hearken back to yesteryear for a world of handmade goods, these electronics are in fact handmade but we don't want to look at those hands gnarled from injury, overuse and abuse.  We tend to focus on labels (organic, free-trade, locally-sourced, Made in China) without actually looking at anything holistically.  Again, it is nice to see a show that asks you as the audience to think, to act, to consider your own role in this world.  It was refreshing to see a piece of overt political theater that also offered a strong story.  But it feels rare indeed.  I worked on an anti-sweatshop labor play back when I was in college, I saw The Normal Heart on Broadway last year and I saw Blood and Gifts this year.  But in the many years in between I can't think of a single piece of political theater that asked me to explore a contemporary and ongoing issue (and don't say Hair--ok you can say Hair but I might disagree with you on it being relevant to contemporary anti-war discussions but I do think the revival was relevant to discussion of equality even if I think a black woman should be able to play Sheila).

As I sat in the darkened theater I kept thinking about 80's movies that took on the question of organized labor and workplace dangers (Matewan, Norma Rae, Silkwood) and started thinking how little we talk about organized labor any more.  Or if we do it is more likely a discussion of rich pension plans, bloated benefits to workers, the high costs of unions, and lazy workers.  The conversation has shifted.  How have we gotten here?  The monologue reminded me exactly what labor unions were put in place for--to protect workers from unfair and unsafe working conditions.  Of course, he raises the issue of unions in the monologue but in China there are the public unions which are corrupt and the secret unions which are trying to change things.

When I went away to college, my college roommate and I discovered our fathers worked in the two most dangerous jobs in America.  Her father was a coal miner.  My father was a firefighter.   Both our fathers were very active in their unions.  We'd both grown up in worlds where there was no question about how important unions were to fighting for workplace protections.  I imagine we were probably one of the last generations to probably experience this.  I'm glad my roommate's father survived a lifetime in the mines and made it to retirement.  My Dad was not so lucky.** 

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is running through March 18.  It is a great opportunity to see a show that is changing the dialogue of business and corporate responsibility as it is being performed.   Daisey has made the transcript available under an open-license for performance or use.  A worthwhile story that could change people's lives merely through dissemination. 

*I felt like I was cheating on Daniel Kitson by going to see another storyteller but Daisey in appreciation of this made a nice Kitson joke for me during the show and is apparently a fan of Daniel's.

**Not to be Debbie Downer.  For those who do not know, my father died from health complications from an on the job injury.  His death is considered, by his union, an in-the-line-of-duty death. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Cindy Sherman Retrospective

Sherman Murals

Although I largely talk about theater, I enjoy discussing artistic culture in all forms (except ballet--ballet can just die for all I care) and had the great pleasure of attending the opening of the Cindy Sherman show at MOMA.  Also in attendance was Eric Bogosian, a guy in a coonskin hat and kid rocking the Robert Pattinson look so hard (and frankly succeeding more than most).

Coonskin Hat. Manhattan 2012. Clearly a sign of Armageddon
It was a scene.  And not my natural habitat.  Serious fashionistas, the skinnys, the Europeans, the tragically hip, the people trying too hard, and people who of course brought their children.  It was worth it for the people-watching alone but I was really there for the art.  I had not seen much of Sherman's work since the Film Stills so seeing a retrospective that included more recent pieces was great.  For someone who has spent a lifetime focused on depictions of women in American society using herself as the model, she continues to reinvent her approach and style.  As she has aged, she has also found different characters to inhabit.  Aging at times seemed to be part of the subject matter--women trying to avoid aging with make-up and surgery and turning into grotesques.

From Centerfolds. My family TOTALLY had that linoeleum
There was one abstract series from the 80's and 90's in reaction to the AIDS epidemic depicting vomit, decay, rotting flesh.  It was mesmerizing and nauseating.  There was one where it seemed it be pile of melted flesh with eyeballs and teeth poking out--possibly made of chocolate and caramel. Hope the under 8 year old set enjoyed that.

I think my favorite was the Centerfolds series.  From disturbing to ethereal, they each had such a rich narrative back story to them.  Bringing your own assumptions to the work they spoke volumes about how we look at women and their emotions.

I think I favor her narrative works more than those that are focused on turning obvious portraiture traditions upside-down.  But her Old Masters series was impressive.  Manipulating color photography to try and recreate certain eras of painting portraiture and then adding plastic breasts and other pieces of obvious artifice to upend expectations.

A great show to check out.

From a series on Fashion

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Daniel Kitson: King of Contraryland

Sorry for all the Kitson posting this month...actually, fuck it, I am not sorry at all.

It has been a stellar month for Kitson news with the release of an audio recording, the debut of his new shaved head look, and the promise of maybe more material on the horizon.

Still waiting on some photo evidence of this new look. 

Daniel Kitson is off to Australia in March and April to tour around his new stand-up show Where Once Was Wonder.

He has advertised it as a  "new stand-up comedy show about impossibility, change, not joining in, love, haircuts, loneliness, courage, defiance, knowledge, despondency, cutting the head off a pig, meaning, tattoos, obscenity, opinions, truth and something a Spanish footballer once said."

Not quite a decapitated pig either.
 I liked the caveat to this description as well "Please Note: Other topics may be addressed in addition to or in place of the topics listed here."

I picture some irate customer demanding his money be returned because he was promised a story about a pig decapitation and instead he got some ramblings about defenestration and defenestration is CLEARLY not decapitation.  Or some hipster-ass whining that it didn't have enough meaning or truth. Lucky they included an advertising caveat. Good lawyering.

 But the best part of all of this is a very sly reference in the email mailing about the new show.  Kitson includes a reviewer quote to "promote" the show.

"The man is a charisma vaccum*" - The Village Voice

So why would he include this negative quote and why do I care? 

The full quote is " If Daniel Kitson approached you on the street or at a bar, you might be forgiven for edging away. Pudgy, slovenly, with a heavy beard and a slight mumble, the man is a charisma vacuum."  This is a quote by Alexis Soloski.  The same Alexis Soloski who pig-piling upon the John Lahr nonsense wrote a very silly blog post in the Guardian about Kitson's joke about punching critics at the show in Brooklyn.

Is there any wonder why I adore this man and his contrary nature?  This is a man who does not give a single fuck and how refreshing and delightful is that.

So tell all your friends in Australia to check out this show that will be full of something, possibly pig decapitation.**  If you're not willing to fly half-way around the world to see it, he will also be taking the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.  I will actually be in the UK in August where I will be catsitting for the Olympics. Yes, I will be the sitting on all the Olympic cats.  So keep your fingers crossed that I can get tickets to it in Edinburgh. 

*This was misspelled in the email but I am not sure if that was intentional. 

**I heard bits of the decapitation story and it was pretty great so I hope it does get included.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How I Learned To Drive: Putting the Vile in Pedophile

Despite other critics raving that the revival of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive was equal to the original production, I found the Second Stage's revival to be weaker on all fronts.  I was reticent to even buy tickets because I remembered being riveted by David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker in the original Off-Broadway production (directed by Mark Brokaw).  They both seemed so suited to their roles and their "voices" really fit each character. 

The success of this play is entirely dependent on the two leads.  Elizabeth Reaser plays Lil Bit, from age 11 to 40 reflecting upon the sexual relationship she had with her pedophile Uncle Peck, played by Norbert Leo Butz.  Structured around a Greek Chorus reciting the aspects of her driving lessons with Peck, the rest of Lil Bit's family is played by the same actors as in the Chorus.

Butz plays Uncle Peck as childlike, desperate, weak, and frenetic. There was something particularly creepy about his nervous energy.  He feels desperate and menacing from beginning to end.  In contrast, Morse's Uncle Peck was none of those things.  He was oddly gentle, trustworthy, heartbreaking and broken.  You felt bad for him at times--being able to feel sympathetic toward a pedophile was so unnerving and yet one of the intense powers of the piece.  It was much closer to the end of the play that you saw Morse as Peck unhinged and it was that dramatic tension that builds in the play and builds in their relationship.  Against Parker's Lil Bit, the dynamic between child and adult was more balanced between the two.  Who was in control, who was seducing who, who wanted more from the other--it was what made the narrative so engaging.  Blame could not be easily placed with one person or the other throughout most of the play.

As it played out in the revival, Reaser makes Lil Bit significantly more of a temptress than I remember Parker ever being.  Reaser seemed to think she had to act from her breasts and as much as Lil Bit's rapid physical development was an aspect of the story I found that ploy to be distracting and ineffective (and the costuming did no one any favors in this regard).  The challenge of Lil Bit is being able to convincingly play her at a broad range of ages and with shifting goals (desperate for attention, desperate for love, coquette, curious, wholly innocent, broken herself).  Reaser occasionally had fleeting moments where the renditions of her character at 11, 13, and 18 were appropriately nuanced and different but these moments did not last for whole scenes.  Most of the time she was an abstract character of an abstract age, hyper-sexualized.

There was something to Parker being able to be both the child and the adult remembering the child in her scenes.  She was able to convey her desperate want to please this father figure and sometimes being accidentally sexual in the process, and sometimes intentionally sexual.  Her confusion about love, sex, affection and attention was delicately blended.  Whereas Reaser chose to play the role as intentionally and knowingly sexual it seems from almost beginning to end (even if the story is not told in chronological order).  Since her interpretation of the character was consistently sexual and vague as to age, much of the subtlety of the character's arc was lost.  Butz also seemed to make Peck ingratiating and creepy from beginning to end, thus deflating a great deal of the dramatic tension.

The direction  by Kate Whoriskey did no one any favors.  The delicate subtleties of memories and painful reenactments were all painted with the same brush.  Rather than a narrative flow, it felt like independent vignettes with nary a through-line keeping it all together.  By making consistent acting choices throughout, the growth of the characters, the shifts in the power struggle and the time and place were hard to follow.  With a cartoon-colored set straight out of Edward Scissorhands, the tone seemed to often be looking for laughs where few were warranted.

One could argue that the actors and director chose to interpret the play differently than the original.  Fine.  On their own merit with no consideration to the original, I found this production of this play trite.  After years and years of sexual abuse material on stage and screen, this revival offered me no new angle or interpretation.  It should not be so easy for me to label the characters or assign blame--yet temptress and creep seem to suit these choices fine.  The narrative ebbs and flows of time, the color of the character's memories, and the gloss we are supposed to see the character putting on the storytelling were all blurred and muddied here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Merrily We Roll Along: Heartbreaking Old Friends

The much anticipated revival of Merrily We Roll Along is currently playing at City Center in the Encores! series.  In a more-than-a-concert format, the famous Sondheim flop delivers a bittersweet story of friends and creative partners who compromise and lose their way and their friendship as they age.  Told in reverse chronological order, we see the fractured relationships first and then peel back the years to see what they were like in their younger, more idealistic years.

Video montage at City Center. Original Photographer unknown.
Colin Donnell stars as Franklin Shepard the composer turned movie producer who screws up his life with women and compromise ending up focused on the money and the fame.  His collaborator, Charley Kringas (Lin-Manual Miranda) is more artistically pure and cannot take Frank's compromises any longer ending their long friendship and collaboration.  Always trying to keep the trio together is Mary Flynn (Celia Keenan-Bolger) a writer who has long been in love with Frank but never reveals her feelings. 

My impression of this work is that it has  wonderful lyrics and a beautiful score but the book remains problematic.  I was left wondering about Charley and Mary.  Wanting to know more about them.  As written, and perhaps as played here as well, they are only symbols and foils for Frank.  It is Frank's story.

One of the long-standing complaints about this work (which has been re-worked significantly since it's Broadway debut in 1981) is that Frank is an unsympathetic character at the beginning and it is challenging for the audience to go on the journey when everyone starts out so unlikeable.  Casting Donnell goes a long way to fixing this problem.

I was a fan of Donnell's from his work in Anything Goes.  But I was unprepared for the really remarkable performance here in Merrily.  There is no question his voice is beautiful and he gets to sing some incredible songs in this show.  It is a testament to his musical theater skills that he makes it all look so effortless.  But it's Sondheim so you know none of it is.  It is really his acting choices in this show that were the revelation.  I am indebted to @Scamandalous who told me to watch Colin Donnell during "Franklin Shepard Inc." and not Lin-Manual Miranda who is singing because of Donnell's great reaction (I was transfixed by Miranda the first time I saw the show so I took Amanda's advice on my second viewing).  Donnell has the most heart-breaking, subtle reaction shot to Lin's song. One tear falls from his eye as the song comes to a close.  There were several moments in the show where he gives so much to his character through his reactions to others.  Yes, he can sing certain notes and just hearing them makes me cry but his acting is top-notch.  It is a subtle performance and may be easily missed in a production where people are often trying to keep up with the story but people need to stand up and take notice.  Cast this man in your straight plays and musicals or else we'll lose him to TV forever.

Video montage at City Center. Original Photographer unknown.
Lin-Manual Miranda (who I had not seen perform before except his guest appearance in Gavin Creel's American Songbook concert) brought a lot of pain and pathos to Charley.  On my first viewing of the show, I quickly teared up during his rendition of "Franklin Shepard Inc."  His voice is not as strong as the rest of the cast but his performance was surprisingly powerful to me.  I did not find his character as strident as others thought him.  "Franklin Shepard Inc." was full of love.  Miranda's interpretation might be big (and I never saw Raul Esparza's Charley so I cannot compare them) but there were moments where you could see his heart break for the loss of his friend.

Keenan-Bolger was a mixed bag for me.  I know a lot of people love her performance.  I thought she was not acerbic enough to be drunk older, Mary, but was more convincing as the youngest, darling Mary.  I struggled with her pixie voice and demeanor.  Not sure if it was the staging, the wigs, or the warble in her throat during some of the performance, but I was not emotionally engaged by her rendition of Mary.  Mary's got some great lines but sass and bitterness don't seem to be Keenan-Bolger's strong suit. 

I saw Elizabeth Stanley in Company but frankly I do not remember her (hating the John Doyle production so much).  But here she tears up the stage and you cannot forget her.  Elizabeth Stanley did a great job as Gussie Carnegie the ambitious stage actress climbing the showbiz ladder and gaining and shedding husbands as she goes.  She manages to play Gussie in her wide range of incarnations from an aging starlet, to a big brassy Broadway star, to a loud and bossy New York hostess on her way up, and a secretary with dreams.  Each scene and each iteration of the character was real and vivid.  Eventually Gussie causes the first major fracture in the friendship between Mary, Frank and Charley.  Stanley plays her selfishness, self-absorption and seduction well.

I also think Betsy Wolfe deserves some praise.  She has the thankless task of playing Frank's first wife Beth.  She did a great job with "Not a Day Goes By" and she's delightfully playful in "Bobby and Jackie and Jack."

Video montage at City Center. Original Photographer unknown.
With wigs, costume changes, and many projections to show the passage of time, the change in the characters and their meteoric rise in reverse, this "concert" staging was much more than actors standing around on book reading and singing.  It helps tell this particularly confusing story and I was grateful for the structure.  Having listened to the original 1981 cast album and read a bit of Finishing the Hat, I still felt I needed to see the show to understand everything and that was certainly true. 

There were a few aspects of the staging that I found awkward.  From the orchestra, it was hard to see the projections behind the cast when they were on stage.  The "Musical Husbands" dance number felt out of place.  I was disappointed in the reprise of "Not a Day Goes By."  Mary is oddly lit, awkwardly seated and I felt like the emotional beat to that scene was off.

But it is a pleasure to hear these songs and be given the opportunity to see this show.  I doubt a Broadway transfer will emerge but I am grateful to have the chance to see a largely fantastic cast breathe life into this troubled show. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

CQ/CX: Not Quite There

CQ/CX presents a great story to be brought to the New York stage but director David Leveaux and playwright, Gabe McKinley, did not quite get a handle on the material.  A thinly veiled fictional adaptation of the events of the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, CQ/CX involves the rise of a young journalist Jay Bennett (Kobi Libii) and how he succeeded at the New York Times until eventually being caught plagiarizing other reporters.  Jay, an African-American college student from Maryland, starts off as a promising young reporter with two other young fellows, Monica (Sheila Tapia) and Jacob (Steve Rosen), in an internship program.  Jay is sometimes mentored by a senior African-American editor, Gerald (Peter Jay Fernandez).  He impresses his superiors including fastidious Metro desk editor Ben (Tim Hopper).  The paper is going through a transition as Junior (David Pittu) takes the reins of the paper from his father.  He installs a new editor, Hal (Arliss Howard) who hopes to shake things up.  The shifts in senior management allow for Jay to exploit his opportunity and eventually bring the paper to its embarrassing mea culpa.

The story is full of great opportunities to delve into the interactions between these two generations of reporters, the changes afoot in the newspaper business, and the racial issues long-plaguing the New York Times.  And the play does that, but by focusing on recreating the verisimilitude of the New York Times newsroom and it's culture, somehow real drama and character development got lost in the shuffle.  An uneven cast did not help matters.  The characters spent so much time explaining that they never got to be real fully-developed people.  There was so much about what it means to be a reporter, and a reporter for the Times, and what the Times means to people.  But I just wanted to know who these people were because it is Bennett's personal betrayal of these people that is the core of the drama.

Midway through I thought what if someone more experienced like David Lindsay-Abaire had taken a stab at this play.  One of the impressive feats of his recent play Good People, was that he found a delicate way to convey class issues in America and did so with humor and real pathos.  Here, Gabe McKinley did not have such a delicate hand.  The play was practically without humor.  Not that it should be a funny play, but it seemed as if every line was drenched in the weight of outrageous self-importance and Biblical-level seriousness of purpose such that the humanity of the characters was utterly lost.  It's hard to do a play about the Times without that sense of self-importance to be present--and the play does poke fun at it a bit.  But they stopped being dramatic characters under the weight of this dialogue.

Loved the David Rockwell set even if you can't really see it here
Even if the play itself did not always find the humanity in the characters, some of the actors did.  Larry Bryggman, as a disheveled lifer at the paper, took a small role and breathed specificity and truth into it.  David Pittu, as the crown prince to the family business, did a great job of finding the desperate child in his character longing for approval and lacking backbone.  For the young reporters, Steve Rosen was faneffingtastic as Jacob.  It's a small role but he made it specific, funny and believable.  He gave the lines color and gave you the sense that this character was flesh and soul.  I'm keeping my eye out for him in future things.  He was one of the best things about the whole show.  I'm now a big fan.

Sadly, I wish I could say the same about Kobi Libii's turn as Jay.  Since so much of the play depends on him, it's hard to recommend the play with him in this role.  Every time he was on stage I felt the energy of the show drop.  He's playing the character to be irritating, charmless,and weaselly.  Even before his downfall, you need to believe people would be his friend, would be impressed by his work, and believe he had a future.  With this performance, I struggled with all those things.  Obviously the parallels between Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass have been made, and are even are made in this play.  But I thought the film Shattered Glass did a great job with at least this part of the character journey--Stephen Glass is likable (adorkable really) and his downfall feels hard on both him and those who believed in him.  Bennett is a challenging role to write and play because he becomes a betrayer and destroyer.  But I really believe you have to start out liking him so that you feel that betrayal and destruction as his friends and colleagues did.

The set design by David Rockwell was fantastic.  I loved the use of text, projections, and moving walls to define the space.  Leveaux tried to keep the energy moving from scene to scene but it somehow felt more stilted than it should have. A great subject but something was lost in the execution.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Daniel Kitson Shares Something with YOU

In an unexpected turn of events, Daniel Kitson has released his first collaboration with Gavin Osborn on the internet.  For people to buy.  Like right now.  Deep breaths.  I know.  Pretty unbelievable right.  Giddy with excitement I am (also I just turned into Yoda).  

There's MORE.  It has also been reported that he has has shaved his beard and hair off.  No word on his eyebrows.

Curiouser and curiouser.
I'm legitimately concerned.  Is this a cry for help?  Or just spring-cleaning come early?  The beginning of his transformation into Buddhist monk?  A cunning disguise?  Has he joined a swim team?  A barbershop appointment gone wildly awry?  Who is to say.

He also lost his notebook last week with his material for his show in it.  I really hope he has since found it.  There was a very good joke in there about breaking down fourth walls because they are expensive.

I would lose my mind if I lost any of my writing or journals.  I know I should just learn to live with loss but that frankly is bullshit.  I'm still sad my roommate in college lost my beautiful umbrella I bought on my first trip to London with my grandmother when I was a teenager.  It was my big splurge purchase on the trip (yes discuss amongst yourselves what teenage girl saves up all her money just to buy an umbrella).  To this day I mourn the loss of it (and hate that roommate).  I was taught a valuable lesson--I had to let go a bit and not hold on so tightly to things.  It also taught me to buy cheap umbrellas from that point onward.

In any event, I have not had a chance to listen to the Kitson-Osborn material.  Will report back when I do.  Until then, enjoy the day Daniel Kitson gave you something of his you could buy and keep.  Rare day indeed.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Daniel Kitson Valentine

Daniel Kitson wrote a lovely liner note on the 2006 limited edition EP of A Hiccup In Your Happiness by The Lucksmiths.  

A Kitson-esque musing on love. Or evidence of a really bad year.  Or both.  Might make you feel better on this "holiday."  Or worse.  No guarantees here at MBM. 

The world is too big for love to be real. There are too many people in the world to ever know, beyond everything, that you are with the right person. That your heart is as swollen as it can be. Think of all the people in China. It is unlikely anyone will ever meet all of them. How can we know for certain, for absolute certain, that trapped inside a foreign language and thumping in a foreign heart there isn’t a love that is meant for us. The infinite possibility of existence, its limitless potential, is the proof we need that love is nothing more than an imagination, a human folly, friendship swollen with self-importance, a final retreat from the storm of possibility. The love of our life could so easily have been someone else. It is random and accidental, haphazard and unsystematic. That which we feel for one person, clinging on to the delusion of destiny, could so easily be felt for a million people should the timing and the meetings and the mutual readiness have coalesced at some other time in some other place. Should someone else have accepted us or rejected us then everything would have been different. And once we know this, we know that all love is a lie. Not honesty but deception. Not heroism but cowardice.  An unspoken agreement of mutual consolidation and compromise, a shield from possibility and a bed in which to sleep, nothing more than that.

But I do still miss her.  --Daniel Kitson

Sometimes your heart is trapped in Lucite. With birds.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Laura Benanti: It's Just Not Fair

Laura Benanti performed at the Allen Room this past weekend in her offering in the American Songbook series.  Unquestionably, she has an incredible voice.  What I did not realize was that she is really funny, goofy and lovable.  She is also absolutely beautiful and has a drop-dead-gorgeous husband (Steven Pasquale) who can sing (he was there but sadly did not sing no matter how much we all silently wished it to happen).  Really when the Gods were handing out things she went back for seconds and maybe even thirds.  Yet somehow I can put my personal jealousy aside because she made her concert so damn enjoyable. 
View from the Allen Room

In a cute short electric blue dress and sensible sparkly flats ("because they are more comfortable") she sang her heart out, engaged in cabaret banter and achieved the impossible--including Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer in the American Songbook.   Her set list started out as more traditional than Gavin Creel's when he performed at the Allen Room last weekend.  Her musical accompaniment was also more stripped down than Gavin's--it was just her collaborator and BFF Mary-Mitchell Campbell on piano.

But Benanti filled the hall with her voice and you did not need more than that.  She opened with Broadway Baby.  She shared her NYU audition medley ("Naughty Baby" and "One More Kiss") and performed it as if she was an awkward 17 year old. She told stories about growing up, her family and got teary a few times.  She sang a couple of songs from Sound of Music, a song from Nine ("Unusual Way") and "Lovesick" from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

The biggest surprise was the large medley she put together where she included such disparate songs as "Bad Romance," "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats," "Ebony & Ivory," "Wannabe," "U Can't Touch This," "Ice Ice Baby" and "Private Dancer."  She had some funny props for the medley.  She goofed around with a Dylan impersonation ("The Times They Are a-Changin'") and some classic 80's dance-moves. 

Laura Benanti is absolutely a delight to see in concert and if she's ever performing nearby I recommend checking her out.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Richard III: Kevin Spacey is the big Dick

The final production of The Bridge Project is a relatively straight-forward interpretation of Richard III with an egomanical, drama-terrorist leading the charge.  Alternating between pure sarcasm and blustering anger, Kevin Spacey's Richard III is a comical grotesque in a production that otherwise tries to take Shakespeare seriously.  An impressive physical performance, I was otherwise disappointed that he made choices that seemed to undermine the text and were difficult to reconcile with the rest of the production.

The production was highly inconsistent. There were some stand-out aspects of the direction.  Great use of projections to keep the complicated narrative of the history play straight.  Loved Queen Margaret chalking off after each execution and the infinite space when the stage opened up.  Gorgeous percussion work that ultimately was a full-fledged character in the play.  The percussion created tension, rhythm and colored the tone of the scenes magnificently.  I'd just give a Tony to the guy beating the shit out of the drums.  Hugh Wilkinson, Mildly Bitter has a special Tony for you.

Some performers seemed to understand what they were doing and why they were there.  Gemma Jones was wonderfully creepy and menacing as Queen Margaret.  Haydn Gwynne managed to walk the line between anger and grief delicately.  I liked Gary Powell in his role as the first murderer with a sort of Vinnie Jones-type swagger.  Chandler Williams had some nice moments as the Duke of Clarence trying to argue his way out of an execution.  And on the one to watch tally, Nathan Darrow was a handsome and compelling Earl of Richmond.   But the larger roles were significantly more problematic. I struggled to understand the relationship between Richard and the Duke of Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji).  Maureen Anderman as the Duchess of York paled in comparison to Gwynne and Jones.  Annabel Scholey, as Lady Anne, had a difficult job of turning anger into attraction with Richard and Spacey was not a helpful partner to make that scene work. 

Spacey, as expected, just chews up the scenery but I felt like he also was chewing up the text.  There was a lot of literal chest beating happening and I kept thinking, just speak the lines.  The lines are going to do a lot of the work.  You could "try" less and give over more to your writer and director.  And it would be one thing if the entire production was in on the winking and aping but it was just Richard.  Yes, he's on his own plane and marches to the beat of his own drummer, but it was like he was in a different play than everyone else.  I just feel like he hijacked the entire production and everyone else was doing their best to just go along for the ride.

I am looking forward to see Mark Rylance do Richard III in August at the Globe in London.  I know the role is big and showy but there are other emotions to the character beyond sarcasm and rage.  In fact, when Richard starts to have his breakdown at the end, there was a glimmer of Spacey making interesting emotional connections.  But it was too little too late for me.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Gavin Creel & Stephen Oremus at The Allen Room

What can I say.  The Allen Room is a beautiful space to see anyone perform and it is always a treat to see Gavin Creel sing--anything.  I enjoyed the 8:30pm show so much I was convinced to buy a ticket to the 10:30pm and see it again.  No regrets.

A lousy photo that doesn't begin to capture the view & scene.

The set list included Ben Folds, Death Cab for Cutie, Jellyfish, BeyoncĂ©, and a few showtunes (Almost Like Being in Love, This Can't Be Love, As Long As You're Mine, Morning Glow, The Flesh Failures).

Hearing Gavin Creel sing I Will Follow You into the Dark while looking out on Central Park.  Utter bliss.  Stephen Oremus was sweet and funny and told a lovely story about marrying his partner.  Gavin was a bit goofy and giddy at times (The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, New Mistake).  But he was also breathtaking when he sang some of the more sad ballads (Still Fighting It, Vicious World, and the Marriage Medley). 

We squee-ed a bit over the adorable drummer in the band, Sean McDaniel, who I think looks like the love child of Chris Colfer & Bobby Steggert. 

The Broadway celebs were out in force to check out the concert: Caissie Levy (Hair, Ghost the Musical), Nikki James (Book of Mormon), Norm Lewis (Porgy & Bess), and Cyndi Lauper (who will be bringing Kinky Boots to Broadway with Stephen Oremus).  Lin-Manual Miranda was a surprise guest who popped out to rap a bit during the BeyoncĂ© medley.  Former stars of Hair, Paris Remillard and Steel Burkhardt were both there.  And they were showing off their new hair-styles.  I feel like inquiring minds would want to know--Paris's hair is longer and curly and Steel's much shorter (maybe a bit above shoulder-length). 

Sometimes everything comes together and a magical New York evening unfolds.  This was definitely one of those nights.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Look Back in Anger: Osborne's Primal Scream

I heart their poster art.
Sam Gold's revival of Look Back In Anger feels relevant and modern, finding a contemporary angle on a difficult historic piece.  A fascinating revival that succeeds in parts and fails in others, it remains controversial but lacks a certain spark and passion.

John Osborne's famous "Angry Young Man" play from 1956 is about a an abusive marriage between Jimmy Porter, an educated, working class man, and Alison, his middle class wife who are now living in squalor in a tiny attic apartment along with, Cliff, an uneducated Welsh working-class bloke.  Alison's middle-class friend Helena comes to town and her presence upends the unsteady balance of the trio. 

The play shattered the traditions of English stage at the time by portraying the working class and young people and their problems (and an ironing board--the horror).  Apparently, Osborne wrote the semi-autobiographical play in three weeks out of anger that his wife might be having an affair with their dentist.  The material is incredibly challenging since the female characters are underwritten and in some ways just a foil for Jimmy to spout his speeches about what's wrong with England and society.  Jimmy is a difficult character.  He can be completely despicable so understanding why one would be attracted to him is another uphill battle.

This production succeeds on some fronts and fails on others.  Gold has staged the entire show outside the proscenium on a five foot wide sliver of the stage.  The actors have no where to go and in fact when they are "offstage" they are merely standing to the side still visible to the audience.  The claustrophobia of the relationships and characters is well communicated through this staging to the audience.  The filth and squalor are tangible. There is also food thrown around and you can see how disgusting the actors feet are as they walk around.  The actors are in vary stages of undress throughout the play and this also forces the audience into an intense level of intimacy.

Some audience members left at intermission.  I think the play produces a great deal of discomfort in the audience--which frankly I quite like.  I heard many grumblings at the performance I attended ("What a jerk."  "How could she be married to him?").  You cannot help but feel a party to these dysfunctional relationships with the proximity and intimacy of the staging.  Some people took this quite personally.

I expected the play to feel a bit dated but somehow through the edits Gold made he found a strong resonant core to the material that felt contemporary.  Like The Motherfucker with the Hat, it depicts a couple in a destructive relationship (though without the comic relief present in that play).  No matter how much time has passed since the play was written that remains a fascinating story--why these people came together, what keeps them together, what is tearing them apart.  The class issues are apparent, and maybe not as powerful today as they were then to that audience, but it is enough to give context to Jimmy's desire and yet loathing for Alison and Alison's fall from grace in succumbing to Jimmy. 

Despite helpful edits, smart direction and an unusual staging, ultimately, I think the casting is what keeps this from being a great revival and making it merely an interesting one.  The actresses working with underwritten roles do incredible work to find the narrative drive and emotional impulses that keep them in difficult, abusive relationships.  Sarah Goldberg is luminous to watch and manages to convey a great deal without dialogue.  Charlotte Parry does a great job creating a haughty Helena in the first phase of her character's development but it is hard to believe her character's turnaround--though I think that remains a product of the writing.

The biggest challenge was Matthew Rhys.  He did not manage to bring the sexual charisma that the role of Jimmy Porter requires.  He is England's version of an educated Stanley Kowalski.  To understand the attraction or allure or magnetic charge he has over his wife, I think Jimmy Porter must be riveting and magnetic on stage.  You have to believe someone would feel powerlessly compelled to sleep with this man despite all her misgivings and background because he is basically trying to fuck the middle-class by literally and actually fucking a member of the middle-class. 

Rhys is articulate and sharp.  His speeches and his rage are well-delivered and modulated but despite being very handsome did not tap into the rawness I thought the role calls for.  He had the anger but not the passion.  I think Jimmy Porter needs both to be successful.  Alison has to be powerless to resist him (I mean pipe down feminism it's 1956 and also let's be honest if Michael Fassbender came along and asked you to sleep with him would you really say no?  That's the kind of powerlessness I am talking about.  Pure lust and desire pushing aside what is right, what is proper, and what would be a healthy relationship.)  I had read that Cillian Murphy played Jimmy when they were doing reading of the play.  After seeing him in Misterman, I believe he could have pulled it off.  I just felt like Rhys kept Jimmy's emotional tsunami at arm's length and perhaps another actor could have let it loose.  Rhys felt too formal and buttoned-up.

Adam Driver gives a great physical performance as Cliff.  He's like an over-grown puppy playing off both Jimmy and Alison.   But I struggled with his accent.  It was supposed to be Welsh but it did not sound that Welsh to me (Granted, my basis for Welsh accents is Gavin & Stacey and the three You Tube videos I just watched where people demonstrate a variety of Welsh accents and still his accent does not seem to be on the right spectrum--though it would appear Mr. Isherwood thought it was fine.). 

It's an audacious interpretation of the play even if it doesn't hit all the marks.  I'm glad they revived it even if it is unpleasant and not always enjoyable to watch.  It's such a seminal piece of theater and this production tries very hard to live up to that history.