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!

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Trending Off-Broadway

Water By the Spoonful - photo by Richard Termine

Anyone else notice a few striking similarities between Water by the Spoonful and The Great God PanI know I’m late to the game with these Second Stage and Playwrights Horizons productions, both recently closed, but if they left any impression (and they probably did), you might recall these shared traits:

1. MOSAIC STORYTELLING
Rather than lead their audiences on clear, linear journeys, playwrights Quiara Alegría Hudes (Water) and Amy Herzog (Pan) opted for patchwork approaches. Many of their characters don’t intersect, instead leading concurrent narratives that only reflect each other in not entirely obvious ways. In both plays, this approach added to the texture and scale of the worlds represented, even if it left some theatergoers a little miffed.

2. GREENERY!
Designer Neil Patel (Water) let plants grow rampant over his boxy set, as did Mark Wendland (Pan) for his. (Wendland used photos of plants rather than imitations of the real thing.) In both productions, this jungle/forest feel suggested both beauty and a hint of menace. And that wasn’t all: Both sets also had a segmented, collage-y thing going, a visual representation that “mosaic storytelling.”

waterbythespoonful03.jpg.644x2000_q100

Water by the Spoonful, photo by Richard Termine

Great God Pan Playwrights Horizons

The Great God Pan

3. TONE
Water and Pan shared a style very much in vogue these days, that is, the quiet rhythm of everyday melancholia. And even when the volume turned up, the plays never strayed from this indie-film ethos, all quiet sadness and heartache.
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Of course, in terms of story and theme, these plays were quite different… Addiction and the internet were the stuff of Water, while memory and abuse was Pan’s focus. Still, when two of New York’s most acclaimed playwrights share at least this much, it might be time to pull out… oh yeah… the hashtag:

#trending, #offbroadway, #goodplays… you know what I’m talking about…

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YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
NO MORE FOCACCIA? — Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine
DRAMATIC, END OF PLAY SET CHANGE

Best of 2012!

Screen Shot 2012-12-27 at 2.05.29 PM

Listmakers rejoice! It’s time for the annual “BEST OF” catalogue! Buckets of theater got produced this year, and below are the Official Theater-Words Favorites. (Some publications distinguish between “best” and “favorite.” Not here. Calling something a “best” but not a “favorite”—or vice versa—is like pretending you’re not, y’know, a subjective human being.)

But first, some preemptive thoughts: This list is heavily skewed towards off-Broadway—only two Broadway shows appear—and only three musicals were thrilling enough to make the cut. Sad times for Broadway, sad times for musicals.

But not sad times for theater! The following shows were united by a moment-to-moment vitality and artistry; they were distinguished by the imaginative ways that vitality was expressed.

(BTW, on-the-road employment being what it is, this list is weighted towards the first half of the season. Apologies to the fall, but I just wasn’t around.)


And now, in roughly descending order…

 

1. THE BIG MEAL (Playwrights Horizons)
Without a doubt the best play of the year. Both theatrical and humane, Dan LeFrank’s family drama elevated the commonplace to the level of profound, rather like that most perfect of plays, Our Town.

 

2. PIPPIN (American Repertory Theater, in Boston)
Coss your fingers, New York—ART’s Pippin is spectacular, and you’d be lucky to have it. Equal parts ear-to-ear smiles and musical theater chills, this show was the most fun I’ve had at a tuner in years.

 

3. UNCLE VANYA (Soho Rep)
A super cool, immersive set invited the audience inside the living room of this beautifully acted play. As much a “happening” as a production.

 

4. FEBRUARY HOUSE (Public Theater)
Director Davis McCallum and company turned down the volume in this intimate off-Broadway musical about art and the world, to beautiful effect. Gabriel Kahane’s score made you eager for more.

 

5. CLYBOURNE PARK (Broadway via Playwrights Horizons)
It’s all been said before, but really, this intelligent time-travelling race relations play was a blast, and featured some of the dirtiest jokes ever.

 

6. THE GREAT GOD PAN (Playwrights Horizons)
This was an odd, disarming play with a killer premise: a man learns he may have been molested as a child, but he remembers nothing. Did it happen? Does it matter? A seemingly slight play that stuck to your bones.

 

7. THE LYONS (Broadway via the Vineyard Theater)
Linda Lavin got lots of praise in Nicky Silver’s fantastic black comedy, but Michael Esper (and most everyone) was just as good. A great entertainment.

 

8. LOOK BACK IN ANGER (Roundabout Theater Company)
The claustrophobia and, yes, anger in this production were thrilling and eerie. A creative, uber-narrow set hit things home. Not a date show, to its credit.

 

9. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (City Center Encores!)
The Encores orchestra playing this Sondheim score was pretty unbeatable. And really—is there a better finale than “Our Time”? Not that I’m aware of.

 

10. AS YOU LIKE IT (The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park)
Daniel Sullivan’s production hit home the redemptive parts of this otherwise overproduced Shakespeare, making the play seem vital and generous.

 

So here’s to you, 2012! Glad to have you, here’s your coat, get home safe. Say hi to 2013 on the way out.

Detroit House

1.

“Can we take a look at the old theater?”

My friend and I were in downtown Detroit and had ventured into the lobby of something called the Michigan building. Visitors to town, we were unsure what kind of cajoling would be needed to let us into the crumbling theater that we’d heard was hidden inside.

“$20,” said the guard.

“Really?” Too high.

“$10.”

More like it—

“$5”

Sold—

“Just messing with y’all. It’s free—take the elevator the third floor, go right, then through the exit sign.”

2.

I’d read about this place on the Detroit blogs, blogs that sported cool urban-explorer names like “Faded Detroit,” and “detroitfunk.” These sites specialize in what’s become known as “ruin porn,” wistful photography that glorifies deterioration and degeneration. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, especially when it comes to theaters, so upon learning of this faded palace, I knew I had to make a visit.

The blogs had laid out the basics: Once a palatial, 4,000-seat house featuring the likes of the Marx Brothers, John Philip Sousa and Bob Hope, the Michigan had barely skirted demolition in the late ‘70s, but was converted into a garage when workers in the office building it’s in whined about inadequate parking. The result was a faint echo of the former glory, but some of the old magic, I heard, could still be found.

3.

As directed, my friend and I headed up, went right, made our way down some steps, through another door, and—

“Ahhhhhh—!!!!!!!”

There she was! A brick and plaster cavern, a frozen Rococo tent, the most absurd and fantastical parking lot known to man. The walls rippled Mars brown and red, grey and cement, faded gold and seasick green.

Heaven, in other words.

Navigating the 15-odd cars in hibernation, we found a spot in the center of the shell and pieced together what we could of the theater’s history. Three levels of parking had been installed at some point—we were on the top floor—so that explained our proximity to the glorious ceiling. Glancing up, we could see the gorgeously spoiled plasterwork almost intimately—a glyph here, a fleur-de-lis there.

We turned around, taking in the back of the house. There stood the stub of what must’ve been the balcony. There were the old corridors leading patrons to their seats. And there was what used to be the rooftop of the lobby.

The curve of the ceiling directed our eyes forward, to the proscenium. The concrete floors had cut off both of its legs, but the rounded top sat mostly undisturbed.

Beyond it lay the gap of the stage itself, a vast maw untouched by the parking lot, if not by the elements.

The water dripped and the sun shone through and flanks of rust and mold continued their slow crusade and I couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful. Why? Decay creates a mystical regret that makes us (or me, at least) feel curious and humbled and part of the Bigger Picture, no less guarded from the steady, wearying forces of time than the buildings around us. It’s like looking at the stars and feeling small and big at the same time, and knowing that The Answer, the simple answer, is right there, embedded in something physical just beyond your touch.

4.

Detroiters, of course, are starved for this kind of transcendence. We all know how the city has turned into a brittle chrysalis, how the jobs and the factories and the prosperity have vanished, how the public trust has gone sour. How plywood fills the windows of downtown office buildings. How traffic lights, if they work at all, blink the same eternal pulse: red black red black redblackredblack. How homes lost to foreclosure sprout trees like so many nursery gardens.

This is the roiling landscape Lisa D’Amour chose for her Pulizer Prize finalist of a play, Detroit, seen earlier this fall at Playwrights Horizons.

Walking around the Michigan Theater it was impossible not to think of D’Amour’s play, a play that culminates in the destruction of a house. Taking in the Michigan’s slow demise, I wondered, are its remains so different from the charred beams and joists of D’Amour’s play?

Not really, if only for the delightful happenstance that theaters are often referred to as, well, houses. I love this: What word could be more appropriate for spaces that soothe and rattle, welcome and surprise, nurture and madden?

So there we stood, my friend and I, in a crumbling Detroit house, acting as its small, temporary family.

Of course, a family turns a house into something else entirely.

A home.

There might only have been two of us, but in that moment, we filled the Michigan. She was a full house. A full home.

Feminism to the Rescue?

Catherine don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ babies. She’s got the career thing down, but as for family life and reproductive bliss, well, that’s another story. She’s never wanted that stuff, but now that she’s facing her mother’s mortality, the otherwise protective warmth of her impressive CV is feeling a little inadequate.

Gwen, on the other hand, is all too intimately acquainted with the world of infant feces and babysitter drama. A grad school frenemy of Catherine’s, Gwen chose love over work… and hates most every minute of it.

Such is the “Trading Spaces” setup of Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, a comedy of envy animated by the tenets of feminism, now premiering at Playwrights Horizons. A thinking woman’s rom-com with detours into the classroom (thank you, Ms. Gionfriddo, for the concise and clarifying women’s movement summary!), Rapture, Blister, Burn humorously charts the failure of feminism to satisfy either the career woman or the homemaker. As Catherine and Gwen eye each other’s territory and greedily venture therein, the quest for good living feels ever more Sisyphean and futile. It seems that everyone—career woman, mom, and every variation in between—is, well, fucked.

It’s a quandary echoed in State of Wonder, the 2011 novel by Ann Patchett. Although that book’s forays into the thorny back country of feminism are far less explicitly spelled out than those in Ms. Gionfriddo’s play, State of Wonder asks with equal vigor, “how should we then live?” The novel centers around a female, American researcher working in bowels of the Amazon on a miracle drug that would extend fertility far into menopause. If successful, it would allow women into their ‘70s to conceive; one character calls it “the Lost Horizon of American ovaries.”

At first glance, the ethics of such a drug seem self-evident—it would be the height of female empowerment, right? Given the means to extend one’s biological clock almost indefinitely, a woman could be free to, say, forge a successful career uninterrupted by pregnancy, then pop out a few juniors easy as pie. She could plan complete work and home lives.

And yet—isn’t childbearing the historical centerpiece of female subjugation? In some (many?) hands, mightn’t the drug become a step back? In State of Wonder, the cynics joke that the fertility pill would create a horror show of unending reproduction, rendering women deferent, baby-making cows, from adolescence to grave. The treatment might spell nothing more than a trip back to the dark ages, a perverse romp into the medieval territory where being a woman means being pregnant.

It’s fun to consider what this miracle drug would mean to the characters of Rapture, Blister, Burn. Would Gwen have stayed the career course and delayed her marriage if a fertility pill were available? And would Catherine feel the same vocational angst and need for a man if there existed the assurance that her eggs were never going to deteriorate? With a pill around, the thinking might go, the two women wouldn’t need to choose between paths. They could have it all, whenever they wanted.

But my guess is that both women would behave similarly with or without a pill. As written, each woman’s troubles seem more about men than childbearing. Catherine probably does want children, but what she really, immediately wants is Gwen’s husband. And Gwen doesn’t seem as interested in postponing children as in getting out of the damn house. On reflection, it appears that what Gwen and Catherine could really use isn’t baby-on-demand, but man-on-demand.

Sorry girls, but there’s no pill—fictional or otherwise—for that.

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Rapture, Blister, Burn
by Gina Gionfriddo, directed by Peter DuBois
Playwrights Horizons, through June 24

Pictured: Beth Dixon and Amy Brennaman. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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.

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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.

The Grandma Plays

Call Grandma!

That’s the parting impulse you’re likely to feel after two new off-Broadway plays, The Big Meal (Playwrights Horizons) and 4000 Miles (Lincoln Center Theatre). Like that old chestnut Our Town, these plays key into the transcendent power of everyday and regular family love. They are about The Big Themes, and they’re sure to send you to your phone: I love you, Grandma!

The Big Meal, by Dan LeFranc, accesses this pathos through a parade of actors who alternate as various members of one family; characters “grow old” as progressively aged performers assume the parts. It’s a terrifically moving device that highlights both the impermanence of everything and the comforting continuity of reproduction. The “story” is nothing more than the inevitable drama in a potpourri of family dinners, but the collective impact of all that “ordinary” is, well, extraordinary.

Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is more formally straightforward but no less emotionally potent. In it, college-aged Leo sets up camp in his grandmother Vera’s Greenwich Village pad. A youthful shot of scruff in a menagerie of fogeyism, he is in mourning for newly-deceased friend. The “4000 miles” of the title refer to a bike trip Leo has made, but they might as well signify the distance between Leo and Vera, a distance narrowed by scene after scene of awkwardness, frustration, then leisure and love.

Family drama really is the driving force of so many great American plays, and these writers continue that tradition in new, exciting ways. As the reviewers say, they’ve written something for everyone: You, Grandma, and everyone in between.

photo of The Big Meal by Joan Marcus

No More Focaccia?

In Jordan Harrison’s “Maple and Vine,”

“Here are some things you’ve never heard of:
Hummus.
Baba Ganoush.
Falafel.
Focaccia
Ciabatta
Whole grain bread.”

Contemporary New Yorkers Kathy and Ryu, who were “happy in a tranquilized sort of way,” have quit their Manhattan digs for a permanent slice of 1950s heaven. Their new home, the “Society of Dynamic Obsolescence” (SDO), is a willfully backwards re-enactment zone where it’s eternally 1955. Naturally, some sacrifices have had to be made.

[Read more…]

Two New Plays: Of Church and Theater

Would that all family talks were so well lit. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

There’s a mythical, religious undertone in two new shows off-Broadway, “Go Back to Where You Are” (at Playwrights Horizons), and “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” (at the Public).

“Go Back,” written by and starring David Greenspan, is a breezy breath of a play, a stream-of-conscious trip to Montauk by way of ancient Greece. Greenspan plays a displaced actor from BC times, one who probably “originated roles” in “world premieres” of plays like “Oedipus Rex” and “Medea.” (!) In true Greenspan, shape-shifting fashion, he assumes two contemporary personalities — the first, a depressed lover; the second, a dowdy, British librarian.

[Read more…]

Birneys Horizons

"See me, feel me, touch me, heal me!" Michelle Pawk and Reed Birney; photo by Joan Marcus

WHAT:

Reed Birney in “A Small Fire” at Playwrights Horizons.

WHY?

After a heartbreaking turn in last year’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” (postmodernism’s theater games take on “A Chorus Line”) Birney is back at Playwrights Horizons in Adam Bock’s “A Small Fire.” Birney plays the husband of a woman who slowly loses her sense of smell, taste, sight, and hearing. (She can have sex we discover. Them’s some brave actors!)

Birney isn’t the center of the piece, but as always, he’s overflowing with heart, empathy, humor, and spontaneity. He effortlessly replicates the thoughts, gestures, and emotions that ultimately define us as regular people. You just feel for the guy.

I’m a fan, and you should be too! Thankfully, Birney seems to be constantly employed. Look for him in Roundabout’s “Dream of the Burning Boy” starting in February.

[POSTSCRIPT]

Playwrights Horizons seems to have misplaced an apostrophe – has anyone seen it? That menace behind the film “Two Weeks Notice” is probably to blame. Until then, the playwrights won’t have any horizons, they’ll just, y’know, be stationed next to them. Such a shame.

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