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.

– Books + Theater = Heaven!
– TheaTour!: The Michigan Theater

A Broadway Detour in “Far From the Tree”

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon‘s brilliant, brick-heavy Far From the Tree is a book seemingly far removed from the world of theater. Subtitled “Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity,” it chronicles the pains and triumphs of people who create offspring profoundly different from themselves; Solomon’s categories of dissimilarity include deafness, criminality, transgenderism, and dwarfism, among others. His ultimate message in so much heartbreak is an uplifting one: most people, he says, can love any child, no matter how disabled; indeed, the pain in loving them is made all the greater for being so hard-won. “There is a psychic proximity in desolate times that happiness does not match,” Solomon writes, adding later, “The happy endings of tragedies have a dignity beyond the happy endings of comedies.” The book’s 700 pages demand a significant time investment, but I found it more than worth my while. It is the truest book I have read in quite some time.

But back to the stage—one of Solomon’s chapters is “Prodigies.” It intersects interestingly with the theater by profiling composer Scott Frankel, himself a former child prodigy. You probably know Frankel for his Grey Gardens score, but his work will be back on the boards this summer, when his Far From Heaven opens Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Frankel’s story of growing up different is fascinating, and I’ve included a few excerpts below. Here’s what Solomon writes:

Scott’s first piano teacher knew that Scott had a remarkable talent; Scott knew, too. “There’s something palpable when your abilities fill you with a divine sense of fate,” he said. “It instantly separates, even alienates you from your schoolmates.” Playing for his parents, “I began to think they liked me for what I could do, perhaps to the exclusion of who I was. The pressure made music an unsafe area. My partner and I had people over for lunch recently, and one asked me to play and I said, ‘No,’ and I sounded really rude, and I felt that rage again. I can’t shake it”…

When he told his parents he was gay, they were livid. “I resented the parochial affection,” he said. “You get the whole package. You can’t pick the shiny bits from the other bits.” In his twenties, Scott became so angry at his parents that he stopped writing music. “Their interest made me want to eat the baby,” he said, “to deprive them of something to pimp and market for their own purposes. Of course, it had the side effect of shooting myself, career-wise and ethos-wise, in the foot. I was completely unmoored, and nothing made sense anymore. All I had was drugs, sex, and therapy.” Scott went ten years without touching a piano. “Yet music kept encroaching. I would be near a piano and feel emotions I couldn’t shut out.” Finally, Scott began composing the musicals that propelled him to Broadway…

Read the whole book for the full story—it’s fascinating, tear-jerking stuff… and it just might offer enough material to bide the time to Far From Heaven‘s May premiere!

photo of Scott Frankel (below) by Zack DeZon

Wendy Wasserstein and Susan Sontag, on the page and onstage
— Billy Elliot, Trojan Horse?


What Would Clifford Odets Say?!

There’s some major title plagiarism on network TV these days. Oh, CBS…


Somewhere underground, Clifford Odets is pulling on his boxing gloves and shouting, “Strike! STRIKE!”

The theft is almost as galling as this one, committed by novelist Lauren Groff:

Arcadia Lauren Groff

We love you girl, but don’t go stepping on Tom Stoppard‘s toes.

It’s not as if these titles aren’t well known: Both plays have been recently revived to great acclaim on Broadway. Clearly, TV and books execs are counting on the ignorance of the general public. Such sadness!

Any other tales of stolen titles you can think of?

— SMASH: An Outsider’s Take
— #broadwayproblems

Cinderella of the Pacific Crest Trail

At the behest of Oprah, I recently read the new, bestselling memoir Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Wild tracks the author on an eleven-hundred-mile backpacking grunt across the Pacific Crest Trail in California, where her emotional demons are purged through the exorcism that is long-distance hiking.

Strayed’s dependent-yet-hate-filled relationship with her boots (they hurt like hell) is one of the book’s highlights, and when she loses half the crucial pair off a mountainside cliff, it’s almost too much for her (and readers!) to bear. “I let out a stunned gasp,” she writes. “My boot was gone. Actually gone.” This poor woman!, you think, reading. Hasn’t she suffered enough?

It’s a great part of the story, but not only does it make for good reading, it elevates Wild to the level of fairy tale. Indeed, watching the Public Theater’s outdoor production of Into the Woods, the Sondheim/Lapine fairy tale mashup of a musical, Wild came to me in a medium-transcending thunderclap.

Strayed, I instantly realized, is a latter day Cinderella.

Hobbling along the pathway to a better life, both she and Cinderella lead lives of despair and pain; both she and Cinderella are utterly alone; both she and Cinderella face a climactic moment of “one-shoedeness.” 

Indeed, Strayed’s description of herself might as well be a summation of Cinderella: “I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world.”

Fortunately, Strayed manages to moor herself by the end of the book, as does the Cinderella of Into the Woods. Both go to the mountaintop, learn big, soulful lessons, and emerge equipped to re-enter real life. Whether it’s in the bipolar range between personal loss and shocking natural beauty (Strayed), or in that same expanse between endless housework and princess living (Cinderella), each realizes that equilibrium lives somewhere towards the middle.

As Cinderella sings to her prince, “My father’s house was a nightmare/ Your house was a dream/ Now I want something in between.” The highs and lows make for good storytelling, but living, breathing people need to split the difference.

As for me—and probably you?—I’m tempted by those extremes… tempted, just as long as I don’t have to put on those boots.

But Strayed and Cinderella shoved on their boots and slippers, no messing around.

And perhaps that’s their biggest shared trait of all:


photo by Joan Marcus

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
Knopf, 336pp

Into the Woods, Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
at the Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park
directed by Timothy Sheader, Co-Directed by Liam Steel

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.

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 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.

Books + Theater = Heaven

A bookstore in an old theater? It doesn’t get much better than that. Behold, Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Thanks to The Little Design Stall for digging up these gorgeous images.)


Dramatic, End-of-Play Set Change

Theresa Rebeck's "Seminar," on Broadway

Trendsetting alert!

Seminar is the latest straight play to employ a scenic device popular around town these days: The Dramatic, End-of-Play Set Change. A DEOPSC (as it is popularly known) occurs at a climactic storytelling moment when a formerly unchanging set disappears or unexpectedly moves, thus expensively symbolizing Momentous Change and Revelation.

In Seminar, the DEOPSC occurrs when Lily Rabe’s rent-controlled palace evaporates into the flies to expose Alan Rickman’s beautifully book-stuffed, downtown pad. True to form, “ahhhhh!!!” goes the scenery-starved audience.

Other DEOPSC’s from recent memory have appeared in:

The Mountaintop (disappearing hotel rooms!)
In the Wake (receding apartments!)
Close Up Space (evaporating offices!)

Any others you can think of?

JK Rowling Loves Stephen Sondheim

"Merrily We Roll Along" = "Harry Potter"

Try this one on for size:

Merrily We Roll Along is the Harry Potter of musicals.

Stop that eyerolling!

Ok, ok, there’s no wand action in the legendary Sondheim flop (now at Encores!), but Merrily and Harry share some telling similarities, most importantly this: they both star an intrepid trio of perfectly matching personalities.

Hear me out!

Merrily’s Frank Shepard lines up perfectly with Harry Potter himself—he’s charismatic, talented—the “leading man.” Charley, then, is Ron, all funny best-friend and second fiddle. And Mary is Hermione, a bookish shot of estrogen brokering peace whenever need be.

But that’s not all! Hermione/Mary also secretly pines for Ron/Charley (though only in Harry Potter does that romance blossom). And Hogwarts, Harry‘s wizarding school, functions much like New York City in Merrily: It’s a place to make your way in the world, to escape danger and to do grand adventures with your friends.

Clearly, JK Rowling is a Merrily fanatic and thought she’d make a stab at fixing the famously flawed show on her own terms.


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