“Much Ado About Nothing” Isn’t Just a Comedy

Much Ado About Nothing

You can call it a comedy all you like, but MUCH ADO is nothing of the sort. Though often funny and sometimes hilarious, Shakespeare’s yarn of headstrong lovers is fascinatingly woven with threads of malice, cruelty and sadness.

Melancomedy” is more like it.

Onstage now in a wonderful Shakespeare in the Park production directed by Jack O’Brien, this MUCH ADO gets all the laughs you’d hope it would… but it also prompts rage at the injustices performed by fickle, proud men. Over and over, the play’s women play victim to male (or at least authority-based) idiocy; the results are sure to leave you fuming, but also newly appreciative of that Shakespeare fellow’s wisdom.

There’s a lot to this play, but the bit that concerns us here is this: When Claudio (Jack Cutmore-Scott) is tricked into believing that his fiancé Hero (Ismenia Mendes) has been unfaithful, he abruptly jilts her at the altar. It’s an absurdly extreme reversal: Soaring professions of love are replaced by fits of sharp-tongued barbs that traumatize Hero so seriously she almost dies.

You can feel the audience’s loathing toward Claudio in this charged moment. Why is he so quick to believe the worst about someone he claims to love? Why does he not ask for her side of the story? Why does he act so swiftly, without any room for question? (Hero’s father behaves similarly, slandering her without pause as she weeps.)

Then again, is such flip-flopping to be unexpected, considering the haste with which Claudio corralled Hero into engagement? After all, few were the words exchanged between them before Hero’s father presented her, trophy-like, to Claudio.

Thankfully, the truth does eventually out: Hero’s name is cleared and, true to form, Claudio and the father promply revert back to adoration. All’s well that ends well, right?

Of course not!

Shakespeare seems to be saying that love can only be partly successful in a world where half the population is refused agency. True, Claudio loves Hero by the end of the play, but what’s to happen the next time she’s accused wrongly? The next time he flies off the handle?

The play also suggests that men suffer from such an imbalance, too; that they are less than they could be, and behave worse in a world where women are either saints or whores, where the sexes sit on an unbalanced and unchanging seesaw of power.

All this from a play usually praised for its romance, wit and laughter.

Yes, the romance, wit and laughter are there, but the play is bigger and better than just that. By incorporating streaks of darkness, it becomes profound, moving and relevant.

It becomes, well, true.

Photo by Joan Marcus

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I Don’t Know About You, But I’m Feeling 42: The Times Square Theater

DSC03648I recently got a super cool peek inside the Times Square Theater, the last of eight houses on 42nd Street to see rehabilitation since city/state seizure (and Disney) happened in the 1990s. Theater architecture geeks will recall that the seven other spaces on the Deuce have met a variety of ends, some as Broadway theaters, some as converted commercial spaces, but that all of them remain preserved in some essential way – PRAISE BE!

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The Times Square is poised for something between legitimacy and conversion: Currently under construction, it’s set to house something called BROADWAY 4D. Described as “a 3D, film-enhanced show incorporating in-theater special effects,” it will showcase “songs from Broadway musicals by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Weber” to be performed by “stars of Hollywood and the Great White Way.” (All this from the Post –– read more HERE.) As for that fourth dimension, there will also be “scents, climatic changes and extravagant sound.” Oh my!

Before major construction got underway, I snapped some pictures of the wonderful space. Scaffolding mars the view in a major way, but use your imagination so see beyond the metal rods to a house that vibrates with history, spirit, and capital-B BROADWAY!

Here’s a view of the theater from the south side of 42nd Street:

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You’re probably under the mistaken impression that you saw Spider-Man at the Times Square –– the theater’s long, beautifully columned exterior sits adjacent to the small façade sported by the Foxwoods (recently home to Spidey and Co.). But the Foxwoods actually sits on 43rd Street; its 42nd Street entrance is really just a hallway that extends halfway up the block where theater proper lives. The Times Square fits cozily into the elbow created by this “neck” entrance. See my hideous, completely not-to-scale drawing if you’re confused.

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But why stare at maps when there are real-life gems to see? LET’S GO!

First, check out the wonderful old stage space and the maw of the proscenium, home to the original productions of Noel Coward’s Private Lives and the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band…

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… but be careful not to fall into the trap space!

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Back in the day, harried chorus girls scampered their way through this door up to their dressing rooms…

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… and beautiful sets hung in this gaping fly space.

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Here’s a view from the stage, out at the house. JAZZ HANDS!

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A wider view from house right of the orchestra…

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Anxious playwrights — now long gone — paced here, at the back of the house…

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More delights await upstairs…

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… in the mezz!

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Lift a small window on the theater’s second level, and you get a closer look at the columns on the facade.

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Back downstairs, through the rear-house exit…

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…is the facade. That floorspace in the right of the shot is actually 42nd Street sidewalk.

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And there you have it. She’s certainly in need of some serious work, but it’s exciting that the ongoing repairs are in service of making the space a theater and not, y’know, a Burger King. (No joke there: The chain was one of several… shall we say interesting tenants… that expressed interest in the Times Square –– read about that saga HERE.)

Fare you, well, Times Square Theater, and we’ll see you on the other side!

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Onstage at the Times Square Theater

READ MORE ABOUT OLD THEATERS ON 42ND STREET!
— Eat wings at the old LIBERTY THEATER — READ! READ! READ!
— The AMC is actually an OLD BROADWAY THEATER — READ! READ! READ!

Best of 2013!

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theater-words is a little late to the game here—hello, January 5—but no matter: Let’s do some “best of”-ing! In descending order, the shiniest theatrical jewels of the season were…

1. FUN HOME, Public Theater
Perfection. This Tesori/Kron/Gold masterpiece, an expert adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s glorious memoir, is the kind of musical I’d take to a desert island. Multiple viewings are a must to fully appreciate it. #broadwayismissingout #pulitzermaterial (MORE)

2. MATILDA, Broadway
It’s all been said. The best. (MORE)

3. THE APPLE PLAYS, Public Theater
Taking in these four plays over one cold weekend in December was one of the major highlights of my theatergoing life. Why can’t all shows be this sensitive, wrenching and incredibly acted? (MORE)

4. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, West End via Menier Chocolate Factory
Ok ok, I technically saw a video broadcast of this astonishing production, but who cares: The wonderful actors at the center of this Sondheim classic gave it the richest, most soulful core an audience could ask for. Many tears were shed. (MORE)

5. THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Broadway via American Repertory Theater
A classic play somehow became more itself thanks to an unconventional staging. Everyone involved needs to clear some room on their awards shelves… (MORE)

6. THE FLICK, Playwrights Horizons
The idiot audiences who stormed out of this epically intimate new play should stay out: Annie Baker’s melancholy, spare style is frikkin’ awesome.

7. BETRAYAL, Broadway
The vitriol aimed at this fantastically sexy production was entirely unwarranted. Great play, great actors, great gay subtext.

8. DOMESTICATED, Lincoln Center Theater
A fantastic, no holds barred night at the theater. Bruce Norris’s provocative message went down easy thanks to the sheer entertainment value of the proceedings.

9. HANDS ON A HARDBODY, Broadway via La Jolla Playhouse
The show with the porno title was actually a sweet, tear-jerker of a Broadway musical. Buy the CD—the score is wonderful. Oh, and can I lead up the Alison Case fan club? K thanks.

10. HERE LIES LOVE, Public Theater
David Byrne, Alex Timbers and Annie-B Parson had a kick-ass, disco love child in this killer, environmental show. A musical to convert those who say they hate musicals!

(N.B.: PIPPIN and VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE would’ve definitely made the cut—with Andria Martin and Kristin Nielsen how could they not?!—but I saw them out of town in 2012, and rules are rules!)

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A great crop, no? Totally absent, however, are more formally experimental plays. The “riskier” shows I caught this year largely left me cold, and not just because more adventurous companies can’t pay heating bills. Here’s hoping next year’s list has a few cracked-out, crazy entries!

LET’S GET GOING, 2014!

TheaTour!: Loew’s Theater, Brooklyn

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Deep in Brooklyn sits the old Loew’s 46th Street Theater, a faded film palace now annexed by a furniture store. It’s beyond repair—and not beautiful enough to mourn—but still worth the peek I got on a recent Sunday.

Here’s how the space looks from the street…

photo 2 copy 2But here’s what you see once you convince the owners to let you back in the storeroom! (Would that all storerooms looked so cool…)

photo 3See what I mean about “beyond repair”? But also kind of ruin-porn beautiful…

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The space under the mezzanine is part of the furniture store, so it’s been walled off…

photo 2… but the balcony still exists, even if it’s very dimly lit.

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The space is interesting on closer inspection, too… and creepy!

photo 5I shut off the lights as I left, but one, lone bulb still shone from the stage. The space might be filled with furniture, littered with garbage, and crumbling from disrepair, but wonder of wonders… it’s still got a ghost light!

photo 4You, too can visit this crumbly-beautiful theater! It’s at 4515 New Utrecht Ave. in Brooklyn. Get a good book, hop on the subway, and make a day of it. Just don’t go on Saturday—per the area’s Hassidic population, the area totally shuts down on the Sabbath.

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GIMME GIMME MORE!
– TheaTour!: Clowes Memorial Hall
– #broadwayproblems

 

 

 

 

 

 

TheaTour!: The Mark Hellinger Theater

Mark Hellinger TheaterThe Mark Hellinger is the most beautiful theater on Broadway.

It hasn’t housed a show since 1989.

Sadness of sadnesses—I know. Despite this shockingly gorgeous interior…

Mark Hellinger Theater…despite this intricately designed and perfectly executed ornamentation…

Mark Hellinger Theater …despite this tremendously preserved craftsmanship…

Mark Hellinger Theater…despite all of this, the Mark Hellinger sees no dancing feet, no 11 o’clock numbers, no matinee ladies.

How can this be, you ask?

Once upon a dark time—the 1980’s!—the Nederlander Organization (then the owner of the Hellinger) leased, and in 1991 sold the space to the Times Square Church, which has operated the 1,600-seat jewel ever since. “It’s a question of economics,” Nederlander’s Arthur Rubin said at the time. “We can’t fill the theaters we have, and the city has not given us tax abatements when the theaters are dark.” With that, the one-time home of hits like My Fair Lady and Jesus Christ Superstar disappeared from the boards.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the Times Square Church has taken exquisite care of the space, and makes it open to the public. I took a self-guided tour between services on a recent Sunday and was thunderstruck at the theater’s glory.

Care to look around?

The theater’s plain exterior, on 51st Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue, belies the glories within.

Mark Hellinger TheaterMark Hellinger TheaterThere is one interesting outdoor feature, however. This fellow, one of a pair!

Mark Hellinger TheaterInterestingly, the theater’s entrance used to be on Broadway. But nowadays, entering on 51st, visitors enter into this blindingly beautiful lobby…

Mark Hellinger TheaterAbove everything hangs a chandelier…

Mark Hellinger Theater lobbyBut the true glory is inside, where the sumptuousness is unending. Click on the panorama below for a better view.

Mark Hellinger TheaterThe boxes are worthy of the world’s starriest celebrities, dignitaries and the like.

Mark Hellinger TheaterThe Hellinger is not without quirks, though! On the far sides of the house are narrow, two-seat rows. As beautiful as they are, they’re also kind of hilarious. “Enjoy your date in the privacy of your own row,” you imagine a box office guy telling a customer. “You’ll love it!”

Mark Hellinger TheaterBut these photos only hint at the thrill of seeing the space in person. Drop by some afternoon and bathe in the gold-leaf patina of it all. (The church’s hours and can be found HERE.)

As for whether or not the Hellinger will ever again house plays or musicals, a 2010 Playbill.com article says that the answer, for the forseeable future at least, is no. Ah well. One wishes that, back in 1989, a less theatrical space had been volunteered to the church (the Minskoff, anyone?) but such was not to be.

Still: At least the Hellinger still exists. Shines. Sparkles.

Mark Hellinger TheaterAll photos by theater-words.

CLICK HERE to see all the AMAZING SPACES of TheaTour!

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Favorite Moment: FUN HOME

Fun Home Public Theater Michael CerverisThere’s a lot to love about Fun Home, the hot new musical down at the Public Theater. It’s got great material, a talented cast, the most beautiful set in town, and—wonder of wonders—very few projections! So, picking a “favorite moment” here is a terrible, Sophie’s Choice kind of conundrum.

And yet… hard decisions have to be made.

But before that, some background: Fun Home tells the true, growing-up story of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and is based on her fantastic graphic memoir of the same name. Both book and musical tell a swirling tale of family, growing up and sexuality. It’s deep, meaningful, fun stuff.

At the Public, three actresses play “Alison,” the narrator and protagonist. The eldest (Beth Malone) looks back at the story of her life by way of elementary- and college-aged versions of herself, played (perfectly) by Sydney Lucas and Alexandra Socha. Adult Alison struggles to reconcile her coming out and life-narrative with those of her father, a difficult, closeted gay man (Michael Cerveris).

The Three Alisons

The Three Alisons

My favorite moment of the show comes early, as adult Alison goes through an old box of heirlooms and, on the other side of the stage, child Alison does the same with her father and their own box. As Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron‘s wonderful musical plays, we gradually realize that the two boxes are, in fact, one and the same, here realized at different times in Alison’s life.

In an unobtrusive moment—one that could only happen in the theater—adult Alison and her father each reach into their respective boxes, and (cue the shivers) each pull out the same, silver coffee pot.

Incarnating this single pot twice, across decades, is a simple, Proustian way of saying everything about time, memory and history that no essay or description ever could. (Clearly, that’s not stopping me from trying!) Instantly, past is both infinitely removed and utterly of-this-moment; the object takes Alison back, but also emphasizes how far away that “back” is. I’m reminded of the wonderful line in The Glass Menagerie: “Time is the longest distance between two places.” Indeed—no more so than two places separated by a few feet of stage and a lifetime of experience.

This moment also illustrates unique power of simultaneous action, a device the theater shares with few other forms. Unlike a film, a play can stage two scenes and versions of the same character in direct physical proximity and have them interact. A few years ago director Michael Mayer spoke to the Times about this phenomenon in reference to his On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, praising it as “the beautiful theatrical gift of simultaneity.” Like Fun Home, Clear Day divided its protagonist between separate actors to (my opinion) brilliant effect, and thus let the audience in on a kind of dramatic irony: We got a perspective—wide, complex, funny—the characters never had, and got to see “self” interact with “self” in an imaginative, otherworldly and theatrical way. Fun Home does much the same, never more so than in this beautiful coffee pot moment.

Interestingly, simultaneity is also a prime feature of graphic novels, Fun Home’s form-of-origin. A caption “happens” alongside a picture; the resultant power can be in repeated emphasis (a picture illustrates what a caption describes), or in dissonance (a picture illustrates the opposite). Either way, the result equals more than the sum of the disparate parts.

In Fun Home’s coffee pot moment, the power is both one of repeated emphasis and one of dissonance: the pot, seen twice, shows how some things never change; Alison, also seen twice, shows how completely other things do.

Cool stuff. Cool stuff, indeed.

photos by Joan Marcus

Short & Sweet

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

Much of the buzz surrounding Canadian writer Alice Munro’s recent Nobel win came from her affinity for the short story, a form usually spurned as a kind of bastard stepchild of literature. Munro doesn’t write the long, drawn-out novels the Nobel committee (and many readers) generally prefer; her concise, concentrated narratives pack whole lives into paragraphs, sweeping movements into a few pages. The effect is often riveting and sort of eerie—at the end of a good one you think to yourself, how did she do that?—and so quickly! Munro’s brand of elegant economy isn’t usually rewarded, so her win here counts as a real achievement.

As in literature, the theater doesn’t generally hold brevity as a virtue. Popular marathon performances (Gatz, The Coast of Utopia, Life and Times) are extreme examples of a general bent: Ticket-buying audiences prefer like their theater served in hefty, 90-plus minute servings, thank you very much.

But there is real value—and fun!—to be found in much shorter pieces, plays no longer than 30ish minutes or so. I recently saw three such works in various stages of development under the collective title Ladder to the Moon at HERE, and stand behind their shortness: Size needn’t matter!

Ladder to the Moon Here Arts Center

The first of these playlets—Harold, I Hate You by Amanda Szeglowski—imagines a trio of Girl Scout-like gals traipsing through the woods, voicing their anxieties in counterpart to a disembodied voice in a tent. The girls’ worries run the gamut—they fret over everything from death-by-mulch-grinder to sleepover abandonment. Their movement is highly stylized and choreographed, as are their mostly expressionless, monotone speaking voices. Before you know it, the story is over… and the briefness of these collective conversations is part of what makes the play successful: Enhancement might’ve spoiled the creepy and anxious space so quickly conjured.

The second piece, Ghost Stories (a product of Tiny Little Band, Jerry Lieblich and Stefanie Abel Horowitz), also trades in the world of worries, this time through—duh—ghost stories. Three narrators beckon audience members onto the stage, gather them around small lamps, and tell spooky tales of the supernatural. We’re talking good old fashioned, gather-round-the-campfire ghost stories. There’s some commentary, but mostly it’s the scary goods told straight up… and it’s awesome. The simplicity of good storytellers telling good stories holds up spectacularly, and, because it doesn’t need to prop up a two-hour evening, can stay as spare as it needs to be.

Ryann Weir’s The Dinosaur Playthe final piece, tracks two disenchanted employees at a zoo. Layering on their depressing-beige uniforms, polishing visitors’ glasses and ultimately pausing for a treatise on dinosaurs, they wallow in the doldrums of their sad-sack lives. (In a particularly funny/sad moment, one employee explains why it’s “financially irresponsible” for the workers to stay in their low-paying jobs.) Again, the impact comes swiftly and needn’t wallow. Clarity comes in the quickly-formed setup, climax and resolution (such as it is) of the narrative.

One, twice, three times Ladder to the Moon proves you don’t need to drone on to make a point or an impact. In that spirit, I’ll stop now, toast brevity, and shut the hell up.

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Eat, Drink and be MERRILY!

merrily we roll alongIt’s always nerve-wracking to see a production that’s highly acclaimed. “Of course,” you think on the way to your seat, “the show can’t be all that” if “all that” is “extraordinary!” “revelatory!” “thrilling!” or any of the other other adjectives critics love to toss around like their so many cheap breadcrumbs. Very few evenings of theater really are extraordinary, revelatory or thrilling; better to be pleasantly surprised by something than resignedly disappointed.

So it was with an anxious heart I attended a screening of Merrily We Roll Along, the Sondheim/Furth classic recently on the West End, but available to New Yorkers in a one-night-only, video broadcast. This was the production Messers Brantley and Sondheim had crowned perfect; this was the one christened with more stars than an astrology chart. No way it could measure up, I thought.

What bliss is it to be wrong. Merrily, directed by Maria Friedman, is everything you’ve been told and more. The story of a doomed friendship—famously executed in reverse—is magnificently rendered with all the heart and intelligence a musical can muster, and the big themes of dreams, loyalty and regret shine in brilliantly dramatic fashion. This is in large part thanks to the extraordinary performances of Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley (my use “extraordinary” here is earned! Believe me!) Despite creating wholly separate, perfectly constructed portraits of their characters, these actors operate in the single, created universe of their friendship, a universe that’s entertaining and heartbreaking to peek into. Umbers strike an ideal balance between swagger and insecurity; Humbley turns the slow burn into something heartbreaking; Jenna Russell is (as in Sunday in the Park With George) incapable of doing anything dishonest. And how classy is it that they take their final bows together? That’s an “old friends” move, there.

Everything else is equally right. A story that shouldn’t add up—and, if you’re a believer of conventional wisdom, never has—comes together perfectly here in this focused production. It somehow manages to have it both ways, being equal parts hopeful and despairing… try and figure that balancing act out if you can, because I can’t!

It’s absolutely criminal this production hasn’t made its way to New York. Perhaps the Gulf Stream can take a cue from Merrily and blow in reverse, with this production safely carried on its back to our shores.

photo by Alastair Muir

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Let’s Chat! With Nikole Beckwith @ Colt Coeur

HEY Y’ALL! theater-words is back! After a summer hiatus, it’s time to dust the footlights… so LET’S GO!

photo by Dave Thomas Brown

photo by Dave Thomas Brown

First up for the fall is Colt Coeur’s Everything Is Ours, the funny/sad story of a sorta happy couple facing a very unexpected new member. (Favorite line: “I’m not crying — my eyes are allergic to feelings.”) Artistic Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt helms the production which runs thru September 21st at HERE. (You may remember the interview Campbell-Holt gave theater-words for Colt Couer’s last show — it’s a great read available HERE.)

Everything Is Ours playwright Nikole Beckwith was nice enough to answer some questions about her current play, as well as London vs. New York and what to see this season. Check it out…

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What was the inspiration for Everything is Ours?
I sat down to write it because I wanted to write the play that I most wanted to be in. Also, I learned from my mom that you are never really ready to have kids and I learned from my youngest sister that you are never really ready to be one, either.

In the play, an egg donor is presented with her biological daughter, and asked to take her in. If you were in a similar situation, what would you do?
Probably what happens in the play. I’d like to think I can rise to any occasion. With comedic timing.

The design is very striking in its off-kilter way. Did you always envision the set that way, or did it come in collaboration with set designer John McDermott?
I didn’t talk with John before the show, but I’m sure Adrienne did. A close friend of mine came to first preview and said, “It looks just like your first apartment in New York,” (where I lived when I wrote the play), and though I hadn’t thought about it before, she was right. The colors and feeling were very much the same, though my apartment didn’t have additions or tilted/odd sized doors. So John is just a very intuitive designer.  And a fair amount of the set dressing comes from my own home.

What is it like to work with Colt Coeur?
It’s great and exciting. They work really hard and really fast. I think we rehearsed two weeks for this show, and they built that set in two days — it’s crazy. They really go for it. And they are all also very charming and nice to be around, which is equally as important if you ask me. The cast and creatives and behind the scenes are all terrific human beings, putting so much of themselves into this work. It’s wonderful to be a part of.

You’ve done some work in London. What is it like to be a playwright over there versus in the States?
Theater happens so fast there. I wrote a play [Seven Sisters] at the National Theatre Studio January – March, and by May it was slotted to premier at the Royal Court Theatre in July. The RC came to The Studio, saw the reading, and programmed it based on the reading. They don’t have the same development culture we have; they like a play, they do it. Also, everyone sees plays there, everyone. Theater is much more a part of their pop culture and national identity than it is for us. They devour plays the way we devour movies and television. So, being a playwright in London feels a bit like being a part of a much bigger picture.

You write/draw comics in addition to plays. Are the skills needed for one similar to those needed for the other?
Kind of. It’s telling a story in a finite amount of time. It’s actually more similar to film than it is playwriting because the writing of it is so visual and you are telling the viewer where to look and what to see. Whereas on stage one audience member can have a completely different experience than the person next to them, based on what jumps out at them, who they are watching and how. When I’m writing a comic or a film, I give you your window and open it only as much as I want to. When I write a play, I leave the door wide open.

Seen any good theater lately?
MR BURNS at Playwrights Horizons. It is huge, and scary and true, while also being magical and funny and almost other worldly. But we are that world. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Find more info about Everything is Ours HERE.

Tony Picks #4 & 5: Matthew James Thomas & Rachel Bay Jones

Pippin Rachel Bay Jones Matthew James Thomas

Matthew James Thomas & Rachel Bay Jones, Pippin

Ok, ok, they’re not actually nominated, but whatever: Rachel Bay Jones and Matthew James Thomas are wonderful in Pippin, and gosh darnit, they should be among the officially honored. Why? Because both manage to delivery thoroughly quirky, individual performances in the mega-watt machinery of a big Broadway musical—no small feat, indeed! For Thomas, this means his giggly sense of fun never gets lost; for Jones, it’s all about her particular, indescribable MO (you know what I’m taking about if you’ve seen the show). Their way with the material is unrepeatable and—in the very best sense—totally whimsical. I’m reminded of Jones’s wonderfully strange delivery of the line, “I was putting on my eyelash.” Pretty straightforward on the page, but fabulously odd as said by Jones. Thomas, too, is magnetic for how completely he does “his thing,” especially in his sweet interactions with his grandmother. These wonderful actors remind us that it is performers’ particularities rather than their “regularities” that make them most interesting.

Tony Pick #3: Tony Shalhoub

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Tony Shalhoub, Golden Boy
As a distraught, immigrant Italian father in this Odets oldie, Tony Shalhoub used a pitch-perfect accent as a direct channel to the pathos of his character. Shalhoub’s way around extended vowels and clattering consonants somehow make the role emotionally true; he used every Italian cadence and lifted phrase as another display of his character’s psychology, and the collective thrust was beautiful. If there’s any justice on Broadway, it’s Tony time for this real-life Tony!

Tony Pick #2: Lauren Ward

Matilda Broadway

Milly Shapiro, Bertie Carvel and Lauren Ward

The second act of Matilda reduced me to a blubbering snot-mess, in large part because of the title character’s touching relationship with her teacher, Miss Honey. The cross-generational bond is the heart of the show, and Lauren Ward as Miss Honey makes it work perfectly with easygoing, beautifully sung soul. The way she charts her symbiotic relationship with Matilda is expert and sensitive: Frightened, she and Matilda look to each other for strength, and in so doing receive it. It’s crazy moving, as is Ward’s simple and perfect delivery of my new favorite show tune, “My House,” itself a perfect pean to being satisfied with simple things. To boot, the show’s final sight—Ward cartwheeling into the sunset with Matilda—crystallizes all that is good about Ward and this production: their sincerity, their whimsy, and their sense of heart.

Photo by Sara Krulwich

Tony Pick #1: Kristine Nielsen

Maybe I’m just on an end-of-season, Matilda-inspired high, but Broadway seemed particularly smoosh-smashed with some truly noteworthy performances this year. As Tonys are approaching, it’s time to write about them! Let’s get started with the ultimate highlight…

Tony Pick #1: Kristine Nielsen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Kristine Nielsen

“Brilliant! Heartbreaking! Genius!” Critics like to throw these words around, even if they’re not always appropriate. But when the actress is Kristin Nielsen and the play is Vanya and Sonia, such distinctions are actually accurate: She is brilliant; she is heartbreaking; she is a genius. A great synthesizer of the tragic and the comic, Nielsen uses her extraordinary vocal and physical technique in the service of something almost frighteningly, hilariously real in this beautiful, funny play. Tony folk, I beg of you: Vote early and vote often for what is unquestionably the performance of the year.

Read more about Nielsen in Vanya here.

That Time Julie Andrews Spoke at My Brother’s Graduation

Julie Andrews Colorado College Boulder Graduation

Every year or six it’s important to leave New York—one can only stand so much of $7 cereal and the G train, after all. Last week I took one such sojourn to my brother’s college graduation in Boulder, Colorado. Here, I thought, was my chance to leave behind Mr. Man Hattan. To clear the head. To consider—very briefly—matters beyond the footlights. Sure, Sondheim’s “Our Time” might flit through my mind at The Big Event, but that moment would pass, and I would soon be thinking on, well, whatever it is non-theater people think on.

And then I learned that the graduation speaker was to be Julie Andrews.

Not kidding.

At first I thought I was being had. “Right,” I said to myself. “Julie Andrews? Who’s her date, Richard Burton? Rex Harrison?”

But the joke was on me: Apparently Dame Julie had some connection to the University, and, in a remarkable coup, had been roped into delivering the annual basket of “go get ‘em” pleasantries.

(The theater will find you, people, even if you fly four hours to the foothills of the Flatiron Range. It will find you.)

Graduation morning dawned blue and overture-worthy. Walking towards the ceremony, to be held in the football stadium, I glanced up at the mountains that cradled the city and I wondered—was Julie up there, crooning “The Hills Are Alive”? Or, I considered, passing the marijuana shops, was she there, selling loverly “flowers”? In other words, was it a Sound of Music day or a My Fair Lady day? A Victor/Victoria morning or a Boy Friend one? Which Julie were we going to get?

Silly me. An hour later, as Julie ascended to her throne/podium, the answer became clear: Today was a Camelot day, and Julie, oh Julie, was our beloved Guinevere. How could it be otherwise? It was, you see, a cheery morn in this Lusty Month of May.

“I LOVE YOU JULIE,” someone screamed from the crowd as we rose to our feet. We love you, too, our hoots concurred. We love you too!

Who knew the Colorado set was so discerning?

“Thank you,” she said, quieting the crowd, “thank you.” Then—

It’s all a Julie blur. Sorry.

There was something about overcoming adversity (egregiously overlooked! the botched operation!) and the importance of the arts, as well as brilliant lines about “my signature turn” and how “the hills truly are alive with the class of 2013,” but I was too taken with her regal poise and the mere Fact of Julie Andrews to remember much more.

Because here’s the thing about Ms. Andrews: Girl knows how to work a crowd. Seriously. Though you’ll never meet a more gentlewomanly creature on God’s green earth, Julie owned us with the strength of an iron fist—a fist draped in dainty blue satin sashes, but a fist, nonetheless. Never once was our applause allowed to get in the way of her message, never once were we anywhere but the uber-competent palm of her hand.

Such control is a miracle to behold, and renders message almost irrelevant. The way she said what she said was the meaning of what she said. Not to get all modernistic… but it really was.

So thanks, Julie. Thanks for spoiling my theater hiatus. I’m not going to spout that line about the world, and how it’s a stage—not gonna do it—but such, it seems, is the truth. You can’t, it seems, escape the theater.

And if Julie Andrews is involved, it turns out, you won’t want to.

In the Office with BULL and CORE VALUES

Core Values Ars NovaThose who can’t get enough of cubicles, memos and water coolers during the work week will be excited to learn of Core Values and Bull, two new Off Broadway productions about the peaks and valleys (but mostly valleys) of nine-to-five living. In ways quiet and vicious, these dramadies remind us that bloodlust and existential agony don’t check themselves at the office door; no, that’s where they parade in, take up shop, and feel right at home.

Ars Nova’s Core Values, by Steven Levenson and directed by Carolyn Cantor, gets at papercut drama with the kind of funny/sad mumblecorp-speak popularized by Annie Baker. When a sad sack loser-boss (Reed Birney) summons his meager travel agency staff for an in-house weekend “retreat,” trust falls and brainstorming sessions don’t quite have the desired effects, and  takeout Dunkin’ Donuts can’t sugarcoat the sense of loss present in each character’s life. In Mr. Levenson’s world, the office is the nexus of politely disguised melancholia and cringey, awkward humor, sort of like TVs “The Office” with a bigger dollop of ache.

Bull makes no such stab at delicacy. This companion piece to last year’s Cock, also by Mike Bartlett, is all knives, all the time. The setup: In a nightmare of a conference room, several yopros ream out a weaker third member while they wait for a client. We’re talking verbal annihilation, intimidation and, yes, physical violence. The proceedings are deliberately over-the-top—by making caricatures out of his characters, Bartlett seems to be drawing focus to the Darwinian impulses we might normally surpress. All it takes is a little rattling, and zing—the fangs are be bared, he seems to say. Soutra Gilmour‘s set, an in-the-round affair meant to look rather like a bull ring, makes the metaphor real and nails down the production’s point: people in suits are latter-day gladiators. (The show, by the way, is directed by Claire Lizzimore at 59E59.)

Bull 59e59

I found Core Values to be the more persuasive and involving of the plays; the humorous sympathy Mr. Levenson lends his all-too-human characters is as endearing as Bull’s high style fracas is distancing. Then again, maybe I’ve worked in too many nice people offices. Perhaps the hounds of Bull are real, are out there, and I’ve simply never crossed their paths…

Photos by Sara Krulwich

A Scott Rudin, Patrick Healy Kerfluffle

Whoa! Producer Scott Rudin has some fightin’ words for New York Times journalist Patrick Healy in today’s ABCs.

Scott Rudin Patrick Healy Testament of MaryPresumably the tiff has something to do with this interview Healy conducted with Testament of Mary playwright Colm Tobin. Perhaps Rudin chafted at Healy’s contention that The Book of Mormon, another Rudin show, was somehow financing MaryWhat do you think?

 

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