The “Most Promising Season Award” goes to…

Playwrights Horizons! Woohoo! Oh, the honor, oh the glory!

But really, was there every a question? Playwrights is always pretty great, but 2012/13 looks like it’s going to be SENSATIONAL. Any lineup that includes Annie Baker AND Amy Herzog AND Greenberg/Frankel/Korie, plus many others, is pretty much the bee’s knees by me. Here are the tantalizing titles and their respective slots:

1. DETROIT, the “better than Broadway” slot.
Initially scheduled for the Rialto this past spring, Broadway’s loss is Playwrights’ gain: Anne Kauffman is sure to steer this tale of economic woe into the tragic stratosphere. Oh, and it’s already got a Pulitzer nom. Whatever.

2. THE FLICK, the “our young writers are better than yours” slot, Part I.
If you don’t already love Annie Baker, you should. She writes plays, not plays that want to be movies, and her latest—something about the last 35 millimeter film projector in New England—practically screams “beautiful! melancholic! theatrical!” Resident genius Sam Gold helms.

3. THE GREAT GOD PAN, the “our young writers are better than yours” slot, Part II.
First of all, there’s the brilliant title. Secondly, there’s the super hotshot team of rising stars Amy Herzog and Carolyn Cantor. Thirdly… I don’t even know. I just want to see this.

4. FAR FROM HEAVEN, the “2013 Tony Awards” slot.
Let’s be real: this one is gonna charm the hell out of Mr. New York Times, skip east to Times Square, reopen “with sharper focus and impossibly fuller performances,” and clean up at the Tonys. Because with Richard Greenberg, Scott Frankel, Michael Korie, Michael Greif, and Kelli O’Hara on board, IT SHOULD.

5. THE WHALE, the “The Book of Mormon for off-Broadway” slot.
Aside from telling the story of a 600-pound man (!!!), this one’s about Mormon country, and Mormons are where it’s at right now. So, Sam Hunter’s play is bound to be all zeigeisty and amazing. Davis “I directed February House, what what” McCallum leads the way.

6. THE CALL, the “you’re going out there a youngster but coming back a star” slot.
Not gonna lie: Never heard of Tanya Barfield, the brains behind this one. But Leigh Silverman is directing, and, as In the Wake and Go Back to Where You Are as my witnesses, she and Barfield are sure to deliver.

__________________________________
So congratulations, Playwrights. May your season charm, upset, anger, entertain, enliven, scramble, and uplift us into theatrical ecsatsy. Cuz that’s what good plays do, y’all.

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Cancer Drama

Rita Lyons and Vivian Bearing: Not so different after all!

The Lyons and Wit, recently acclaimed “plays of sickness,” might appear to have no more than a cancer ward in common—the former, after all, is mostly giggles, while the latter is mostly tears. But look closer at each play’s grand dame, as played, respectively, by Linda Lavin and Cynthia Nixon—both Tony-nominated—and some striking similarities emerge:

- Both women love literature. For Vivian Bearing (Wit), poet John Donne is the font of wisdom. Rita Lyons (The Lyons) is equally enamored of what appears to be “Architectural Digest,” gleefully gleaming renovation ideas from its esteemed pages.

- Both women know how to face adversity with strength. Vivian accepts an aggressive chemo regime with steely resolve; Rita, cheering up her terminally-ill husband, gives him the perspective he needs: “Death’s not so bad, not when you consider the opposite.”

- Both women finally learn what love is, Vivian from a caring nurse, Rita from the guy her daughter was sleeping with, a guy with whom she jet-sets to Aruba the day after her husband’s death.

Vivian and Rita—woulda, coulda, shoulda been friends…

Photo of Linda Lavin by Carol Rosegg. Photo of Cynthia Nixon by Joan Marcus.

“February House,” All Amped Up

A.J. Shively and Erik Lochtenfeld. Photo by Joan Marcus

Conventional wisdom says that music-theater amplification is all bad, a lousy concession to contemporary audiences weaned on high-decibel concerts and blaring iPods. And conventional wisdom is mainly right: most any new Broadway musical is “sweetened” to a bafflingly dehumanizing degree.

And yet… every so often there’s a show that uses amplification perfectly, not for grotesque overemphasis, but as an unobtrusive magnifying glass, a useful, delicate projector.

February House, Gabriel Kahane and Seth Bockley’s wonderful new musical at the Public Theater, is one such show. Directed by Davis McCallum, it’s a quiet, gently ornate piece that wafts from performer to audience, all on a beautifully melancholic melody of banjo, violin, clarinet, etc. Yes, there are a few “belty” numbers (see “A Little Brain,” sung by Kacie Sheik) but the folk-styled score is mostly understated and quiet. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design ensures that Kahane’s music retains that quality, even when surreptitiously boosted by the sound system.

The plot: February House chronicles the true story of a group of creatives, among them W.H. Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Carson McCullers, brought together by editor George Davis for an experiment in artistic, communal living. These and other boarders shared a house in Brooklyn where they could both work privately and live in community. (The preponderance of February birthdays among the tenants lent the enclave its moniker.) Unfortunately, World War II and personal dynamics broke up the utopia.

The perfectly calibrated performances of these celebrity characters mesh seamlessly with the material, with Erik Lochtenfeld (Auden), Kristen Sieh (McCullers) and Julian Fleisher (Davis) as particularly adept modulators of soul and song. Indeed—back to amplification!—the actors seem acutely aware of the ways to take advantage of their microphones–see Fleisher’s soft falsetto, on frequent display, for example.

The last song of February House is a beautiful lullaby called “Goodnight to the Boardinghouse.” The tenants have left, the dream of a “house of art” is over, and Davis soothes himself—and us—to conclusion. As performed by Fleisher (and amplified by Rothenberg) that lullaby is every bit as light, caring, and fragile as a mother’s intimate bedtime song. Properly done, theater can preserve those whispering, quiet places, and still be seen, still be heard.

February House
Music and Lyrics by Gabriel Kahane
Book by Seth Bockley
Directed by Davis McCallum
at the Public Theater

Wacky Times in Search of McPhee

Hope Springer, Paul Gross, and Matthew Kuenne. Photo by Michal Daniel

1.

Let’s say you wrote a play, it was semi-successful, you sold the movie rights, and sight unseen bought a Nantucket trophy home with the winnings. Your lawyer told you to, so really—why not? Land of Herman Melville. Real estate investment. Good stuff. You’ll visit… eventually.

And let’s say that one day you get an alarming phone call from a peeved policeman—your trophy home, as yet untouched by you—is implicated in a child pornography scandal and yup, if you want to get out of this thing intact, you’d better catch the next puddle-jumper out of New York.

And let’s also say that when you arrive, and you start to unravel the dirty business with the policeman, more dirty business comes to head, and all of a sudden the officer is shouting strange words, strange words that you strangely recognize: “I’m not losing you to Uncle Joe Stalin!” he screams, “Stalin in Russian means man of steel. I’m an American; I’m stronger than any man of steel.”

Huh?

He drops the intensity. “Then I coughed up blood on the white tablecloth,” he says. “I got applause on opening night.”

Opening night?

Oh.

He’s not just a cop, he’s an amateur actor who’s recently performed in a Nantucket production of The Internal Structure of Stars… that semi-successful play you wrote. The play that paid for the now-irritating trophy home.

And then you remember: You had been invited—nay, begged—to attend his production, but you don’t attend amateur presentations of your work, so you had turned down the invitation.

And that’s why this guy’s upset. More than upset. Enraged. Along with what feels like the rest of this odd little island.

2.

“You,” it turns out, are Edmund Gowery, narrator and core of John Guare’s newest flight-of-fancy play, Are You There, McPhee?, at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. And “you” are in for a wild, whirligig of a ride, an outing stuffed with Ritalin and puppets. Borges and Jaws. Lobsters and Disney.

As you make your way from one odd character to another, unraveling the rat’s nest of your life, you realize that yours is the journey of the writer’s comeuppance. The journey of facing your work, and all that it means to people, for good and bad. The Internal Structure of Stars left your pen, found its way to a printer, flew to Nantucket, and spawned itself into a whole new creation—founded in you, yet independent, an object wholly separate from its creator. And now the fans of that new creature expect something of you. But you missed their play. So what’s left to get? Revenge? Gulp.

Guare’s ambitions are large, his emphases manifold—any number of interpretations are viable. But Guare repeatedly seems interested in the bizarre contract between artist and consumer; the curious way one’s work or art or words separate from their creator, become their own breathing organisms, and stand there, complete, ready to be devoured, adored, or manipulated by a fickle and diverse public. On their own.

Gowery, unlike most writers, must confront his public, the independence of his work, and the way that work has woven itself into the lives of his fans, in a direct, cop-story sort of way. Gowery’s fan’s seethe at him, blame him, abuse him. Want him in jail.

But in some funny way, this behavior is the fiercest pledge of fandom, the strongest proof of impactful work.

Guare himself probably has something to say to this. Parts of McPhee are surely based in his experience.

But what responsibility does he bear to reveal those experiences? And what rights do we audience members have to Guare’s attention?

Depends with which characters you side.

Eh, McPhee?

… McPhee…?

#broadwayproblems

All ye who never have and never will see Mamma Mia!Will we ever glimpse the interior of the legendary Winter Garden Theatre? Sigh. It sounds so pretty…

photo by philitalia, Flickr

John Guare, Wisdom-Monger


An interview featured in the program for John Guare‘s Are You There, McPhee?, at the McCarter in Princeton, includes a particularly striking response from that esteemed playwright. When asked, “What would you like an audience coming to see the play to know?” Guare responds,

“I would like the audiences to be aware of the story that they live in. Are they comfortable in the story of their lives? And another level, what is a love story? It’s two people sharing the same narrative. And what is a divorce? When you realize that your partner is in a completely different story than you are, and you don’t choose to be in that person’s story anymore. You want to more on to a new chapter. We talk about lives in literary terms, “I want to move in to a new chapter.” I would like audiences to look at the story that they’re in. Sometimes it’s so much easier to look to other people’s stories and completely ignore our own story, [and not ask] if our story is giving us nourishment, if we’re interested in our own story. Horror of horrors, when we live in a story that we [realize] is not the story we intended to be in. I think it’s just to be aware of what narrative we have chosen for our lives, what narrative we have made for our lives, and what narrative we can change in our lives.”

Much food for thought.

More soon to come on the play itself.

photo by Paul Chinn/ San Francisco Chronicle

The Peripheral Cock

At one point in The Talking Heads’ concert-as-play The Peripherals, at Dixon Place, whimsically titled songs like “Bird Love Ballad” and “Song of Aunt Suzanne” give way to a moment of unexpected existential profundity. With an, “Omigod! OK. Omigod!” one bandmember stops the oddball meta-musical proceedings. “Suddenly I’m wondering,” she asks, “you think you know a person, and then you find out something surprising about that person, something you never expected to be true about that person—are they still them, or have they become someone else?” Thus begins a game of truth-telling to test this query… will the bandmembers still be the same after revealing their secrets?

Kookily costumed, diverse of age, uniformly peculiar, The Peripherals’ classifieds are unsurprisingly surprising: “I spent the first four years of my life in a home for the profoundly retarded,” answers one. “My kids call me Crudbunny,” says another.

What about “I’m a gay man but in love with a woman”? That would be the response of “John,” the oh-so-tormented axis of Cock, a new British import at the Duke. As the Peripherals would ask, upon revealing this choice news to his boyfriend, is John still John, or has he become someone else?

Or, more importantly, which John is the real John—straight John or gay John? That’s a question the man and woman sparring for John’s affections spill some heated emotional blood over. (And as inventively staged by James Macdonald on Miriam Buether’s intimate, plywood colosseum of a set, that battle is both delicately non-naturalistic and frighteningly real-life.)

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say the answer is complicated and uneasy. Come the finale, the question seems less about John’s sexuality than the high price of exposing one’s unassurednesses. (Pity, then, that so much of life is unassured!)

The Peripherals don’t let life’s identity crises bring them down quite like the characters in Cock, but they’re no less interested in those crises. Indeed, when a bandmember feels a revelation coming to mind, “It’s like God is moving all the furniture around in there.”

You can be a gay Brit or a Lower East Side rocker, but the game of life, it seems, is ever-changing, ever-perplexing.

_____________________________________

The Peripherals, at Dixon Place
By Ellen Maddow, directed by Ken RusSchmoll

Cock, at the Duke
By Mike Bartlett, directed by James Macdonald

The Peripherals photo by Darien Bates. Cock photo by Joan Marcus.

The Ghost of “Salesman”

This season, Mike Nichols has done a magical resuscitation of the 1949 Death of a Salesman, recreating the original pitch-perfect set and sound designs by Jo Mielziner and Alex North for his new revival. Nichols’ choice lends his production an intense melancholy—the play’s innate sense of loss is compounded by designs’ reminder that lost theater is lost theater: barring productions like this Salesman, most shows live on only in memory or photography.

Or, for that matter, drawing. In 1965 Salesman designer Mielziner published Designing for the Theatre: A Memoir and a Portfolio. This remarkable book—an absolute must-own for any theater-enthusiast—features an astonishing collection of Mielziner’s sketches and paintings for some of the 20th century’s most iconic shows, among them the original productions of The Glass Menagerie, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Gypsy.

Here’s Streetcar:

And Guys and Dolls:


But the crown jewel of the book is unquestionably Death of a Salesman. An extended essay details its entire design process, and several pages feature beautiful, full-color paintings (the image at the top of this post also serves as the book’s cover).

There’s plenty of great backstage dish, as well as some preliminary sketches Mielziner worked out with director Elia Kazan in Boston, September 1948.

Even if the waves of time do wash playgoing into a sea of forgetfulness, books like these stay that process, at least a little. So flip through the drawings, take a whiff, and ride back to the plays of old. It’s a melancholy ride, but a good one, too.

So Many Plays!

Alright everybody, it’s go time! Tony noms are out, Broadway and Off-Broadway are humming with activity, and the rush to see everything is overwhelming. I’m right there with you, cramming it in as best I can. Here are some cliffs-notes, hodgepodge observations from the front lines:

1. Leap of Faith recently opened to some not-so-nice reviews (here’s lookin’ at you, Ben) but few folks mentioned what I found to be the most unusual part of the production, namely, the cameraman who runs around the stage filming the big numbers. (I thought the guy was shooting B-roll, but an usher at intermission set me straight.) The device presumably helps the entire audience see all parts of the sprawling set (video is broadcast on big monitors around the proscenium), or is meant as a kind of postmodern comment on media manipulation. But really… it’s just a guy running around a stage with a camera.

2. In the category of “unprintable titles” comes Cock, a British import now in residence at the Duke. The Times has taken to calling it ______, the Cockfight Playthat big blank is reminiscent of previous seasons’ The _________ With the Hat and ________ A (that would be The Motherfucker With the Hat and Fucking A, thank you very much). Can you think of any other censored titles?

3.  You know that awesome moment when you realize your apartment features the same piece of furniture used in a play’s design? I had said experience twice recently: I totally own the striped “Turkish” rug from Tribes (the Barrow Street), as well as the mounted coatrack from An Early History of Fire (the New Group). Both items came from… wait for it… IKEA. Glad to know that stage designers are as budget-conscious and Sweden-enamored as I am.

4. Smash observation: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s songs are gorgeous and criminally hummable. For example…

And with that, I’m off to the theater. The April/May sprint continues…

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