“The Glass Menagerie” at ART

Glass Menagerie Photo: Michael J. Lutch“The play is memory,” announces our narrator toward the outset of The Glass Menagerie. A twinge of regret in the back of his throat, he continues. “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” Pretty clear instructions for a director, no?

But most productions of this Tennessee Williams classic (at least the ones I’ve seen) don’t take Tom’s statement—“it is not realistic”—at face value. While they may veer towards something more heightened in a few characterizations, and in the delivery of Williams’s poetic writing, they are generally grounded in the cold, hard truth of the kitchen sink.

Not so John Tiffany’s production, at the American Repertory Theater in Boston. If you’ve read any of the pre-show publicity, you know that Mr. Tiffany and his designers (Bob Crowley on sets, Natasha Katz on lighting) have opted for a more unconventional look. The stage is a pair of honeycombed platforms atop a sea of black water, and behind the deck is another equally eerie abyss of blackness. From first glace, it is clear: your average Menagerie this is not.

Movement director Steven Hoggett ups the anti-realism ante by supplying fantastical little interstitial dances that knit various scenes together. A stylized flourish here, a shocking entrance there—like the design, it’s more the stuff of contemporary movement theater or experimental work than classic American drama.

And that’s what’s so right about this production. Its melding of classic psychological realism (those well-known scenes) and the best of new theatrical techniques (the design, the movement, the direction) yields something that feels shockingly current. I was so taken by the modernity of everything, the self-awareness of so much of the narration, that I went and checked the original text, wondering if Tiffany had altered any of the language to make it feel more 2013. But this doesn’t appear to be the case. His direction merely gives the proceedings the feel of something new.

That freshness also pervades every performance. Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith all match Tiffany’s freshness with their own, and you never for a moment doubt that what they’re doing is happening right now.

Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that this alloyed evening works so well. Williams directed it to be so from the start—remember that first quote? Maybe that’s what’s always exciting about Glass Menagerie, that from the first, Williams insists we braid old technique and new, past and present. With feet in two eras, the result is doubly strong, doubly potent.

(The production also makes incredibly effective use of underscoring. I wish it was a tool more commonly deployed—it seems such a useful tool in drawing audiences in.)

Photo (above) by Michael J. Lutch, below, by theater-words

The window-walls of ART are covered in letters Williams wrote his mother.

The window-walls of ART are covered in letters Williams wrote his mother, the model of Menagerie‘s Amanda.

Pippin at ART
Ye Olde Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


Boston, Part II: “Our Town”


“Cruel” is not a word usually liked to Our Town, that glorious, perfect play of the everyday and the cosmic. But it’s highly appropriate in the case of the Huntington Theatre’s current production, a revamp of David Cromer’s devastating, super successful staging previously seen in Chicago, New York, and L.A.

Playwright Thornton Wilder’s contention is that it’s nearly impossible for humans to appreciate their lives. “Saints and poet, maybe—they do some,” Wilder writes, but the rest of us are left floundering in “ignorance and blindness.” His play, then, serves as a wake-up call: Look at everything!, it cries, take it all in!

How, you ask, is that cruel?

It’s all in the actors.

Cromer has guided them to quick, plainspoken, totally unsentimental performances. They sit with nothing—words and scenes whizz by at an exhausting clip. Even at the gorgeously written finale, the big revelations play out even before they seem to have begun. Speeches that usually get a more thoughtful pace stampede out of view; you almost feel yourself reaching out, gasping for breath, “Wait, wait for me!”

This tactic is, in a word, cruel—if you love this play (as I do), you want to soak everything in, moment by moment. At the Huntington, you are totally denied this desire. Cromer refuses to meditate on things, instead hurrying unblinkingly to the final blackout. The delicious moments of transcendence only brush your tongue before getting yanked away. It’s frustrating. It’s exasperating.

And it’s wildly, brilliantly appropriate. Thanks to Cromer’s take, the play become a two-hour metaphor for a lifetime of hurried, unappreciated living; by forcing you into the agonizing position of harried observer, Cromer and Wilder shake you into self-awareness, into becoming an observer of both a play and your own life. In both this production and life, events zoom by, the next thing rolls along, then poof! another act, another year’s gone by.

Like a booming drum, this Our Town practically screams out into its final silence, Life is short. Moments disappear. Grab them by the horns.

“Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder, directed by David Cromer
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company

photo by T. Charles Erickson, pictured: Therese Plaehn, David Cromer, and Derrick Trumbly

Boston, Part I: “Pippin”

pippin American Repertory Theater ART Diane Paulus Matthew James Thomas

Theater tourism took me to Boston recently. Did Beantown deliver? Listen my children and you shall hear…

It’s gotta be where its spirit can run free, indeed: Over at the American Repertory TheaterDiane Paulus has reimagined the classic Pippin as circus fare performed by a troupe of acrobats and storytellers. Cue the bedazzled leotards! Setting this groovy, 70s musical thusly is an innovation—apparently no such directive exists in the original Stephen Schwartz/Roger O. Hirson material. (Yes, I did just out myself as a Pippin virgin.)

But Paulus’s concept feels so inevitable, so part and parcel of this furiously entertaining coming-of-age tale, that it’s hard to imagine the show any other way. After all, the material (presentational, narrated, whimsical) practically screams “kooky framing device!” Also, hiring real acrobats (Paulus has drafted members of the Québécois company Les 7 Doigts de la Main) lends the show a kind of storytelling WD-40. Whenever you think, wait–what? (and let’s be real, Pippin‘s dramaturgy can be a bit zany), those sexy tumblers slink onstage and lube the proceedings into a more abstract, magical light; their glow makes the storytelling sins seem less mortal. 

Sins aside, when the show works, it works. Andrea Martin is gloriously joyous (and dizzying) in “No Time at All.” Patina Miller delivers chill after chill in the opening number, “Magic to Do.” And Matthew James Thomas enshrines “Morning Glow” in the pantheon of great act 1 kickers. Time and time again, you think, “why aren’t all musicals this fun? this magical?”

For above all, this Pippin is thrillingly, heart-poundingly magical. The levitating bodies, the knife throwing, the impossible feats of balance—Paulus has taken the lyric “magic to do” literally, her stagecraft underscoring the transporting, fantastic, musical theater-ness of everything. All tuners aspire to this alchemy, but the rarity of the Pippin-induced rush I felt at ART is proof of how mysterious and elusive it is.

Thankfully, ART’s production is headed to Broadway, where lots of ink will surely spill over Paulus’s interpretation, her “take.” But ultimately, and to its credit, this revival is more than just a “concept.” It’s a show, a gosh-darn, full-blooded, mouth-gaping show.

Boston, Part II: “Our Town,” at the Huntington, will appear soon…!

photo by Michael J. Lutch

Patina Miller and company, photo by Michael J. Lutch

TheaTour!: The Byham Theatre

I’ve visited enough theaters over the course of this tour to notice a common historical narrative. (In case you’re just joining us, I’m on the road with the kid’s musical If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.) For virtually every vintage house we’ve played, the story has gone something like this:

  1. The theatre is built as an early 20th century Vaudeville house.
  2. With the post-Depression decline of Vaudeville and the rise of film, the theater starts showing movies, and eventually (for some) X-rated movies.
  3. As it enters the 1970’s, the theater starts to decay.
  4. By the mid to late 80’s, it’s in the crosshairs of the wrecking ball.
  5. BUT! A local arts group or wealthy philanthropist steps in, saves the space, and kick starts an extensive renovation.
  6. Live acts return! Woohoo!

With minor variations, this is the story of Altoona, PA’s Mishler Theatre, Frederick, MA’s Weinberg Center, Petersburg WV’s Smoot Theatre, and surely countless other houses across the country. It’s also the story of Pittsburgh PA’s Byham Theatre, the latest stop on my tour. Built in 1904, the Byham is like many a great Vaudeville house: It’s neo-Classical, swarming with cherubs, and lathered in luxurious red velvet.

But as steps number one through five (above) reveal, a more complicated (and interesting) history is just beneath the surface. For one, somewhere in the Byham’s decaying period, the theater’s boxes were removed from either side of the stage. In the photo below, note the wide, empty stretches next to the proscenium—that’s where those boxes used to perch.

Backstage, pairs of archways hint at this history. Now used for storage, they were originally used as the entryways to the seats of the rich and notable.

What’s more, a haunting staircase stage right leads to the crumbling, vacant shells hidden from the audience by that plaster. (Those spaces are stacked on top of the leftover archways.)

But not all the history has been covered up. A nice fresco decorates the swath of ceiling just above the proscenium. If the nymphs seem a little manly, that’s because female models were unavailable thanks to the Victorianism of the day. (Another possibly apocryphal story goes that the nymphs were originally painted as men, but thinking them too fey, patrons demanded a sex change.)

Beyond the house is a lovely lobby. One of the first things you notice is that many of the ornate lighting fixtures prominently display their bulbs. Turns out electric lighting was a novelty back at the turn of the (other) century, and bulbs were flaunted rather than masked.

Before adopting its present moniker (adopted in 1995), the Byham was known as the Fulton, and earlier, the Gayety. The proof in this mosaic, unearthed during a renovation, greets theatergoers in the theater’s entryway.

Though it first opened on Halloween night and seats 1,313, the Byham is anything but unlucky. That it’s survived steps one through four is testament to Pittsburgh and, y’know, the power of art.

TheatreWorksUSA, the producer of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, does not endorse the opinions here reflected.

All photos by

TheaTour!: The Smoot Theatre

Just off the shore of the Ohio River in Petersburg, West Virginia sits the beautiful Smoot Theatre, where I made a recent stop with my touring compatriots. (You may remember that I’m part of a traveling kid’s show—read more here and here.) The Smoot impressed us all with its classy historicity.

One of the first things you’ll notice in the Smoot is the intensity of the mezzanine’s rake. It’s quite steep, so much so that a local theater op told me “people always get dizzy up there.” Good thing, then, that there’s a unique, wooden railing bordering the lower edge of the level. Also worth noting are the colors of the seats. It’s hard to make it out in my shoddy iPhone photos, but those in the mezzanine and the front of the orchestra are red, while those to the rear of the orchestra are blue. Kooky but fun, huh?

See what I mean about  the rake? Watch your step, indeed!

The stage has remained untouched since the Smoot opened in 1926, and (unlike most decks) is unpainted. Interestingly, it’s made out of two different materials: hardwood is farther downstage, while softer wood is upstage. Why? It’s easier to secure sets to the softer wood.

Like most Vaudeville houses that saw fortunes decline in the years following the depression, a movie studio (Warner Bros. in this case) bought the theater and turned it into a film house. Though the theater has now returned to legitimacy (after a close encounter with demolition in 1989), the beautiful, antique projectors still point to the stage from a booth at the rear of the mezzanine.

As a movie palace, the Smoot made use of the Vitaphone, a contraption that heralded the end of silent film and the birth of the “talkies.” (The Vitaphone, as any theater geek knows, is a key plot point in Kaufman and Hart’s classic Once in a Lifetime: “He first turned down the Vitaphone!” Anyone?) In a great move, the folks at the Smoot recently repainted this “sensational” advertisement:

Backstage are some nice relics…

…and the dressing rooms (separated by the original brick—no plaster, thank you very much!) are wonderfully romantic.

All in all, she’s a beaut, so much so that all of us onstage felt like we were on Broadway—the space somehow elevates you, makes you feel like what you’re doing matters.

Good stuff all around.


TheatreWorksUSA, the producer of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, does not endorse the opinions here reflected.

All photos by

TheaTour!: The Weinberg Center

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie continues its grand parade through the Eastern US and Midwest, and recently played the beautiful, historic Weinberg Center in Frederick, Maryland. (Check out Mouse/Cookie‘s first stop here.) Elegantly preserved and maintained, Frederick is a plumb of a town, all brick townhouses and human-sized scale, and its local chez du theatre, The Weinberg Center, matches this aesthetic perfectly.

The Weinberg’s façade is classic and inviting, and welcomes patrons into a passageway that opens up into a spacious lobby and house. It’s the kind of “bottleneck” construction many New York theater builders used on expensive 42nd Street, where a small marquis and entryway would lead to a theater actually situated on 41st or 43rd Street. (The American Airlines and New Amsterdam Theaters are good examples of this.)

Inside, 1,500 seats are split between a vast orchestra and a smaller mezzanine; simple yet pretty murals line the walls. Playing the space, you’re struck by the “shoebox” nature of its architecture: it’s much longer than it is wide.

The stage door is appropriately Rent-tastic, and makes for appropriately ego-inflating coming and going.

When the building first opened in 1926 (it was then called the Tivoli Theater), the Frederick Daily News announced, “Frederick may indeed feel proud of her handsome new theatre… The erection of such a beautiful amusement house is in itself a tribute to the community. It demonstrates in a most outstanding way the faith that a great theatrical organization has in the future of our city.” (Source.)

That faith, it seems, has been borne out.


(This writeup, by the way, does not represent the opinions of TheatreWorksUSA, the producer of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.)

All photos by theater-words.

TheaTour!: The Mishler Theatre

I generally try to keep myself and my personal experiences as far away from this blog as possible. After all, there are more enough self-obsessed Internet “writers” to go around, so why add my voice to the whiny chorus?

But grant me this moment of divulsion! In addition to curating this blog, I perform, and my current gig is taking me on a whirlwind tour of the American Northeast, Midwest, and Canada. The show in question is based on that classic children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and is produced by TheatreWorksUSA. (By the way, the opinions reflected herein do not represent those of TheatreWorksUSA or its employees. Gosh, that was fun, wasn’t it?)

The madcap pace of life on the road is an awesome hoot, and a major part of that fun is the sheer volume of new spaces to which we are exposed. A single week can contain several different theaters, all of varying history and style. For a theater nerd like me (and you, I presume? I mean, why else would you be here?) it’s a thrilling chocolate-box grab-bag of architectural treats and surprises.

Living in New York, one quickly becomes familiar with the major (and not-so-major) venues that speckle town. And, New York provincialism being what it is, the idea that those theaters constitute the entirety of the American theater inevitably infects even the most openminded theatergoer.

But nothing could be farther from the truth. Turns out that unsung theaters gems dot our land’s Interstates, back roads, and small towns. And: I am here to tell you about them! With that, I hereby begin the oh-so-exciting “TheaTour!” series. (Exclamation points enliven even the dullest of topics. Right, Oliver!, Oklahoma!, and Snoopy!!!?)

Today’s entree is the spectacular Mishler Theatre, Altoona, PA’s glorious take on the classic, Broadway space of the early 20th Century. We of Mouse/Cookie were fortunate enough to open our show at this treasure, and boy did we enjoy it, from one sumptuousness wing to the other.

Some history: According to the Mishler employees nice enough to show me around, the theater was a holdout from the Vaudeville Circuit. But like many a 42nd Street space, legit performance eventually gave way to the grime and sleaze of movies, then X-rated fare. The theater was slated for demolition in 1965, but local arts groups purchased the space a spruced it up with an exquisite refurbishment.

Here are some shots of the theater’s current state. First, note the elegant draping of the orchestra pit and the ornate, cherub-y boxes. (Don’t even think about trying to sit there during a show—are all privately owned.)

The superior plasterwork is also worth checking out.

The view from the mezzanine is pretty great. (The balcony, used mostly for tech purposes, is set with wooden planks instead of the red seats used everywhere else.)

Then there’s the chandelier, which was purchased in New York or Hollywood—the story varies based on which local is giving you the history

Backstage, a vintage hemp system runs the flies. Our tech supervisor assured us it’s a bitch to operate, but boy does it set this nerdy heart aflutter.

And then there’s the exterior: classic, classy, appropriate.

Stunning, right?

The Mishler crew assured us that the theater is most definitely haunted. Would that I, too, could wander such beautiful halls in the next life…

Favorite Moment: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

Sometimes, dead silence is the loudest applause.

Indeed, the best moments in theatergoing—staggering moments, spine-tingling moments—often cast a heavy, suspended quiet, not a clappy rumble. There sits the audience, overwhelmed and totally involved, the noisy slapping of hands the last of its concerns.

Such an earned, weighted silence came towards the end of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the rollicking and sweet and beautiful new comedy now at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, soon to greet New Yorkers at Lincoln Center Theater. Kristine Nielsen, playing the frustrated, underloved Sonia, gets a quietly soaring moment that, at the performance I attended, sucked the wind out of the theater. Having attended a costume party the night before, and having been a smash success as “Maggie Smith,” and having finally—finally!—stepped out of the shadow of her movie star sister (Masha, Sigourney Weaver), Sonia fields a phone call from a man who is asking her out.

That’s never happened before.

Sonia handles the man with her typical self-depricating fatalism: No, no, she can’t see him Saturday, so sorry. She’s busy. Yes, she’s quite busy.

Another door shut.

They keep talking.

But… but…

She pauses, jokes, “rechecks her planner.” Maybe, well, maybe.

No, not maybe, yes.

As handled by Nielsen, the moment is momentous and heartbreaking. A woman is offered a surprise gift, and, fighting habit and comfort, says yes.

And when the phone monologue ends, you don’t clap. No, what you’ve witnessed is too intimate for that.

You just sit.

What could be better?

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang
Directed by Nicholas Martin
McCarter Theatre, through October 14

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Pictured: Shalita Grant, Kristine Nielsen and David Hyde Pierce

Wacky Times in Search of McPhee

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


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.”


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

Opening night?


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.


“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…?

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

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