Steam Heat: “Picnic”

The hottest line on Broadway is… drumroll please…

Picnic Maggie Grace Sebastian Stan Ellen Burstyn William Inge Sam Gold Roundabout Theatre Company

“We’re not goin’ on no goddam picnic.”


(I think Ellen Burstyn, left, agrees with me.)

photo by Joan Marcus.


Roundabout Does a Roundabout

I’m pretty much definitely the only person who finds this interesting (am I? am I?), but it seems that the Roundabout Theatre Company is doing a bit of rebranding. Witness the swanky new poster pasted on 44th Street…


Cool, right? It feels current, stylish, casually affluent. The abstract-y comedy/drama masks, the mod coloring, the artful nod to diversity, the focus on YOU (“exposing you,” “introducing you,” “it’s about you”)–it’s a far cry from the more traditional lettering more commonly associated with this reputable, classics-heavy company:


Does this advertising shift herald a new programming focus?

Time shall tell…

Poster Analysis: “Anything Goes”
Poster Implants

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.

The Jake Gyllenhaal Chronicles

What is JG shouting in this scene of his new play, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet?

Um, do you really need to ask?

“We are NEVER EVER EVER getting back together!!
You go talk to your friends talk to my friends talk to me…
But we are NEVER EVER EVER EVER getting back together!”

This is exhausting.

Poster Analysis: “Anything Goes”

As anyone who took a taxi in the past year knows, Sutton Foster was the beginning and the end of the marketing for Roundabout’s Anything Goes. Photographed for that show’s poster, heels up with a cheeky grin, Foster was everywhere.

But seasons change: Now that Foster is stuck on TV (thank you, “Bunheads”) and Stephanie J. Block is click-clacketting her way through Reno Sweeney’s paces, what’s become of those old shots?

One word: paint.

Let me take you back. Here’s a “Foster-era” poster:

But this is the image currently adorning the Stephen Sondheim Theatre:

Notice anything different?

The second figure—while just as lithe and rambunctious as the original—is more “Foster-esque” than “Foster.” Yes, she’s a white sailor with an admirable waistline, but she’s not fully Sutton Foster. By rendering Foster’s image in paint instead of photo, the specificity of the show’s original star gives way to something more general and flexible. Any number of performers look sort of like the second image; there’s only one that looks like the first.

As always, it’s interesting watching a hit show find its sea legs without its deal-making, original star. Here’s wishing Stephanie J. Block and all future Renos best of luck—they might not get the ol’ camera treatment, but what was good enough for Van Gogh sure is good enough for me.

“Brothers and Sisters:” LIVE!

Rachel Griffiths and Matthew Rhys on "Brothers and Sisters"

Fans of TV’s “Brothers and Sisters”—yours truly included—now have a thrilling double shot at catching Matthew Rhys (“Scotty”) or Rachel Griffiths (“Sarah”) live and in the flesh. Rhys trades sweetness for sting in Look Back in Anger, at the Roundabout, while Griffiths rides a tell-all memoir to Broadway in Other Desert Cities. TV celebs don’t usually make good by their stage roles, but this situation is different. Why?

1- Griffiths and Rhys earned theater cred before going to Hollywood;
2- they’re perfect for their parts; and,
3- “Brothers and Sisters” was just that good. Sue me.

Griffiths had this to say about doing theater: “It really is our penance for taking the money in television. I’m a Roman Catholic, and [Rhys] is a Welsh Methodist. You must repent. Got to go kneel in the cathedral of the theater.” (NY Times, 1/19/12)

Repentance, then, involves a lot of fury and despair: Both Other Desert Cities and Look Back in Anger light huge fires under fraught family fracas, then bathe in the ensuing sparks. “Jimmy,” Rhys’ character, is cooped up in a 1950s London flat and endlessly condemns the world on personal and political levels. “Brooke” (Griffiths), a writer, is unsure about exposing the secrets of her Palm Springs family and dances around her right-wing parents like an anxious minesweeper. In both plays, tears are shed, papers are thrown, souls are burned. And yes, it’s all pretty wonderful.

[Read more…]

Real Rebels Don’t Take Corporate Cash

The Guggenheim recently closed a fun retrospective of the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. In it, hundreds of odd sculptural items hung from the museum’s ceiling at varying heights, gradually revealing themselves on the trek up the Guggenheim’s classic spiral ramp. From the child-size Hitler to the fake pigeons and animal skeletons, it was a kooky, enjoyable exhibit largely for its silly strangeness.

The artist and the Guggenheim didn’t see it that way, though. Their vision of the work was “bolder” and more “political:” “Cattelan creates unsettlingly veristic sculptures that reveal contradictions at the core of today’s society,” wrote the show’s curators. “While bold and irreverent, the work is also deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and the abuse of power.”

All brought to you by Citibank, Xerox and dozens of other season sponsors.

How exactly is one supposed to take a “scathing critique of authority” seriously when it’s sponsored by cash from global banks and multinational corporations? It’s not that there isn’t an appropriate way to handle sponsorship—artists have had patrons for centuries—but the overwhelmingly vague petulance with which contemporary visual artists shroud their work always positions The Man as the winner, especially when artists call their work political. Nipping the hand that feeds them only highlights who is really calling the shots.

In The Road to Mecca, Roundabout’s Broadway revival of the 1988 Athol Fugard play, Rosemary Harris plays an eccentric South African artist whose bizarre, concrete sculptures have earned her the disdain and irritation of her neighbors. [Read more…]

Here Come the Royals! Report from Opening Night

For my money, a Broadway opening is the next best thing to a Royal Wedding. No, there isn’t a chariot or any chintzy memorabilia, but as my first-night experience at “The People in the Picture” proves, Broadway premiers have an undeniable allure and, yes, sense of royalty.

The reigning monarch at this particular kingdom was our own Kate Middleton, theater star Donna Murphy. Headlining “People” as a Holocaust survivor splinched between two eras, Murphy filled Roundabout’s Studio 54 with a tri-generational look at ancestry, sacrifice, and passing things on.

As serfs of the rear mezzanine, my friends and I dutifully followed our post-show instructions and headed directly to the premier party at the Marriot. Feasting on delectables like fried chickpeas, sautéed shrimp, and mashed potatoes, we all wondered one thing: When would our queen arrive? Where was Donna?

Keep Reading…

Theater Terroir

photo from

In theater, venue is destiny. A play exists acutely, sometimes gloriously, in a specific, unrepeatable place. Different spaces make different demands of performers and audience members; what comes of those particularities greatly informs a show and becomes an inseparable part of a theatergoing experience.

David West Read’s new play, “The Dream of the Burning Boy,” is recent proof of this dictum. Now playing at Roundabout’s black box as part of the “Underground” series, “Dream’s” super-intimate house renders quietness a virtue of the highest degree. When a teacher (Reed Birney) and a student (Josh Caras) spar over an English paper (“Losing My Virgil-itly”), the tiny space allows them to speak at normal, sometimes exceedingly small, levels. That style, in turn, imprints itself into the DNA of the show and becomes an inexorable part of the play’s experience.

[Read more…]

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