“American Buffalo” on Broadway

In 2001, I served on a grand jury. At one point, an ADA played for us a recording from a wiretap. It was a conversation between two members of a violent drug gang. One was assigning the other to kill the girlfriend of someone who had displeased him somehow. (The ADA assured us that the police spirited the woman to safety.) As part of the conversation, the boss told the would-be killer the address of his scheduled victim. It was somewhere in a remote area of Brooklyn. They got into a debate about how to get there. And they started arguing about directions, which roads might be clogged with traffic, how to deal with one-way streets in the neighborhood and the like. It went on for five minutes, and the debate got heated. They started calling each other names and questioning each other’s intelligence. We on the grand jury started to crack up. The ADA tried to keep a straight face, until it got too much for him, too, and he started to laugh.

These guys were obviously dangerous. They were also incredibly stupid. Were they more dangerous because they were stupid? Or did their stupidity somehow mute their dangerousness?

I couldn’t help but notice the close resemblance of this dialogue to passages in David Mamet’s American Buffalo.

I used to be friendly with David back when we were both getting started on the Chicago theater scene. Second City influenced both of us. David had worked there as a busboy and, to my eye and ear, and Sexual Perversity in Chicago is rather like a Second City show with a plot. And I couldn’t help but be influenced myself because I spent three years writing a book about the place, Something Wonderful Right Away. (Lanford Wilson told me he was also influenced by the nights he spent there; he incorporated a salute to Severn Darden into one of his plays.)

I can’t remember how I met David, but it must have been around 1975, because he was the reason I went to the opening night of the St. Nicholas Theater, a company he co-founded in Chicago. The show? American Buffalo. It had started as a second stage production of the Goodman and it was remounted with two of the original cast at St. Nicholas. The space was as narrow as a banana. The cast included Mike Nussbaum as Teach, JJ Johnson as Don (the play is dedicated to him) and WH Macy as the kid. I came out of it thinking it was a darn good American take on Harold Pinter. Later, David and Pinter would become close. I believe I’m correct that Glengarry Glen Ross is dedicated to Pinter, and Pinter directed some of David’s stuff in London.

I remember once having a conversation with David about Buffalo. He asked me, “What do you think it’s about?” I said that I thought it was a response to Watergate; the same kinds of rationalizations for illegal crap we heard on the Watergate tapes were invoked by Teach and Donny, but, because they have less access to college-educated language, the bullshit is more evident. He seemed to like that.

One of the great virtues of the very good current production is that it’s set in the almost-round (there’s a path at the west end of the stage through the front door) so that we feel as if we’re almost in the shop with the guys. This is considerably more effective than playing it in proscenium (thought it’s Ulu Grosbard’s proscenium production starring Robert Duvall that remains my favorite). Long-time Mamet associate Neil Pepe choreographs his actors precisely around the colorful trash with which designer Scott Pask has filled Donny’s shop. At times, Sam Rockell as Teach seems to be bouncing from prop to prop, looking for something that will answer a need he can’t articulate.

I think I remember David once saying that plays that presumed to teach audiences something were poppycock (or one of the other arcane words that would occasionally pop up in his conversation). I also think I remember him saying that plays should be “engines of delight.” A Google search doesn’t turn up confirmation of this, but the phrase stuck with me.  I gather from some of his more recent scripts that his thoughts on this may have evolved, since the past few I have seen seem to indeed have political agendas.

American Buffalo doesn’t presume to teach anything. Indeed Teach, the character, is a source of a steady stream of misinformation, self-justification, bad advice and paranoia. There is nothing to learn from him except the advisability of keeping distance between yourself and anyone like him.

I think there is little doubt that Teach and Donny voted for Trump (the kid didn’t vote at all). I must confess dismay to read of the David Mamet of today giving interviews defending Trump.

Plays sometimes separate themselves from their authors and attain lives independent of them.  Ya know?

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Reviewing or Criticism?

I’m going to make a purely personal discrimination. It seems to me that reviews and pieces of criticism are different things.

A review exists to give the reader advice on whether or not the work being covered is worth attending. It is a consumer’s guide. If your taste matches a given reviewer’s, then you may have found a reliable guide, steering you away from evenings you will find tedious and recommending work you’re likely to enjoy. The better a guide a reviewer is to you, the better the reviewer. It seems to me that a review will be most valuable to you if you haven’t seen the work in question. For the most part, a review has less value if you have seen it because it likely won’t tell you something you don’t already know.

A piece of criticism, on the other hand, is of most value if you have seen the work in question. It assumes your knowledge of the work and enters into a dialogue with you. In my opinion (hell, all of this is my opinion), a great critic is not necessarily one with whom you agree. There are a number of critics with whom I’ve disagreed whose writing I nevertheless value. I think Robert Brustein has a big blind spot when it comes to appreciating musical theater, but his book, The Theatre of Revolt, has had a big influence on my thinking. So I value him as a critic, but not as a reviewer. (I doubt he cares.)

This has something to do with the guiding principles of this blog. There are dozens of people publishing online or in print opinions on every show that comes down the pike. I am not trying to be one of them. I don’t write about everything I see. I write when I think I can add something to the conversation. If a lot of other people have articulated well enough reactions I share, I don’t see the point of repeating these thoughts in other language.

I don’t entirely shrug off some of the reviewer’s function. If I see something that I think has been undervalued by most of my colleagues (it happens), I’ll recommend it.

But my primary impulse is to raise points I think haven’t been articulated elsewhere. Or to bring up bits of history that I think might enhance appreciating a work. My ideal audience is people who are as devoted to the theater is I am and who make an effort to see a lot and who get a kick out of batting around interpretations and insights.

So if I haven’t covered something, there are a couple reasons I might not have: 1) I may not have been invited. 2) I don’t think I have much to contribute that hasn’t been covered pretty well by others.

I do think I bring a perspective distinct from many of my colleagues by virtue of being primarily a dramatist. (I share this with David Spencer of Aisle Say and Michael Feingold, who alas isn’t covering as much as he used to.) I tend to look at how a work has been built and how it relates to other works, either by the same creators or by people who came before. I also try to avoid the lazy use of adjectives. (This is a carry-over from my ideas about playwriting. I think playwrights, too, should avoid adjectives. I think adjectives should occur in the audience’s mind.)

Also, although I’m primarily concerned with theater, I don’t want to be restricted to writing about it only. I love good stories, and I will pursue them in any medium in which I find them.

 

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“Plaza Suite”

Neil Simon wrote a lot of plays I admire and have watched with pleasure multiple times. But inevitably there are some that appeal to me more than others. I saw the original production of Plaza Suite. It was directed by Mike Nichols and starred George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton. I saw it from standing room. That’s how much I wanted to see it. After Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple and Little Me (which is tied with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as the funniest musical I know), I was a fan. But something about Plaza Suite struck me as sour when I first saw it and still does.

Seeing the revival at the Hudson Theater recently (starring Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker) clarified my problem: I intensely disliked all of the characters Broderick played. I didn’t dislike Broderick; I disliked the adulterous jerk, the crass Hollywood producer and the bullying father. I’m not saying that one has to like all of the characters in a play. Far from it. But when you’re watching something designed to make you laugh, it’s hard – in a bill of three plays – to feel such distaste for all three of the characters who drive the action.

Though I saw the original production more than 40 years ago, I do remember George C. Scott’s very different take on the three roles. His adulterer was clearly self-loathing, his producer was a blonde monster of narcissism and appetite, and his father’s rage bordered on the homicidal. In other words, though he may not have been playing sympathetic characters, he was dangerous, and danger can be compelling. Broderick is never dangerous. He specializes in characters who have never matured. He does his best work as the producer, making him overconfident and sly, and he has some marvelous bits of physical comedy courtesy shoes that refuse to muster traction with the carpets. Overall, though, I thought pegging all three characters on their immaturity was repetitious.

Parker was more versatile than I expected. Though I think she would be well rid of her crummy husband, I felt for her abandonment. As the old girlfriend the producer lays siege to, she expressed her conflicting impulses with movements that frequently belied her words, and she coped with her husband and daughter’s idiocy in the third play with admirable self-possession.

I must report that the audience around me had a terrific time. So my reservations should be viewed as a minority report.

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“The Weissensee Saga”

It’s common for the author of historical fiction to want to cram in as many aspects of the period being covered as can be managed. Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance moves various branches of “Pug” Henry’s around the globe so as to be witness to as many aspects of WWII as possible. What his narrative loses in credibility it arguably gains in epic size.

The impulse is present in Weissensee, a German series available through the MHZ Choice streaming channel. In common with a number of the European series I’ve admired, Weissensee dramatizes a chunk of post-WWII history via a family’s involvement in a business. In other series, the businesses were a Berlin Dance Academy (German), The Restaurant (Swedish), and a company that manufactures early TVs (Kroniken). In Weissensee, the family business is the Stasi, the East German secret police force that, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, had the power to terrorize pretty much unchecked. A father and a son are big players in the Stasi – the father, Hans, attempting to promote more moderate policies and the son, Falk, being, well, a swine. A second son, Martin, is trying to balance love for his family with his desire to keep from being corrupted by association.

The plotting is Dickensian, which is to say that it is loaded with coincidences, contrivances and shocking revelations of relationships. We shrug when we learn that Oliver Twist happens to be the grandchild of the old gentleman who rescues him from the streets. We buy it because swallowing this whopper of a coincidence is the price we pay to enjoy the book. Weissensee is filled with similar whoppers (particularly in its fourth and last season), but I recommend it with enthusiasm in spite of this.

What makes Weissensee mostly great television is how it plays out variations of its main theme – how a society’s politics and the politics of domestic relationships shape each other. The Stasi being the chief defense of a corrupt society, it deals in betrayal, torture, violence and deception. These tactics trickle down into the way the leading characters of this series treat each other.

The first two seasons, deal with a world in which the Stasi operate unchecked. In the third season, the Berlin Wall comes down, and the series shows how easily many of these former warriors for Communism adapt their tactics in the service of the rapacious capitalism that springs up within weeks of the fall. The series is particularly strong juxtaposing the huge events of 1989-90 with the ethical challenges and hard choices individuals have to make. So yes, I shrugged off the whoppers and gave myself over to 24 episodes of vivid, provocative television. (I’d name members of the remarkable cast, but I doubt they’d mean much to most Americans. Or are there a lot of Jörg Hartmann fans in Vermont?)

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Lee Grant

One of the treats about living where I have (and do) on the upper west side is that, walking my dog, I kept (and keep) running into Lee walking her dog. We always stop and swap stories. One time, I saw her on the street, we chatted, and then I sat down at our local diner to continue reading a biography of Paddy Chayefsky, and there she was in the chapter on Middle of the Night. I mentioned that the next time I saw her, and she spoke warmly of the experience of working with Kim Novak whom she admired greatly for diving into the challenge of working with a community of mostly New York actors (with their own Stanislavsky-based way of working) and being so game to learn. The result, Lee thought, was Novak giving a performance unlike any other in her career, and one Lee and the other actors in the cast admired.
 
Lee is less than comfortable with the swamp of the internet. She talked a bit about some work she did that she couldn’t find copies of, and I was able to find some of it through searches, including The Neon Ceiling, which was one of her favorite projects. Both Criterion and Mubi have been showcasing her documentaries, and I binged them. She was decades ahead in some of her subject matter.
 
I’ve always been fascinated by people who invent themselves, and she’s definitely one of those rare ones. She was born Lyova Haskell Rosenthal, and did the name change that was pretty much required in those days to work in Hollywood (Kaminsky became Kaye, Tuvim became Holliday, Papiprofsky became Papp), but the reinvention extended beyond the name change. I am glad this documentary emphasizes that the blacklist applied to movies and television but that the theater was a professional refuge for many.
 
Oh, I found one TV production she was in that she had forgotten about — Three Plays by TennesseeWilliams, directed by Sidney Lumet. She and Ben Gazzara did a one act called “Mooney’s Kid Don’t Cry.” I gave her a DVD of the show, and when I ran into her next she laughed and said she realized WHY she had forgotten about it. She and Gazzara had rehearsed the play uneventfully with Lumet, but on live TV, something got into Gazzara and he started doing all sorts of things he had never done before — big Brandoish explosions. She said watching the DVD brought back the terror of being on live TV thinking, “What the fuck is he doing?” She remembered her panic and trying to cope and deal with the nonstop strangeness he was firing her way. “So,” she said to me dryly, “thank you for bringing that back.”

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SPACE DOGS and ENGLISH

It’s no surprise that American playwrights usually write plays set in America. It is a little surprising that three current off-Broadway plays by American playwrights are, in fact, set outside our borders. I wrote recently about Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic, set in Paris. Joining this are two very different off-Broadway offerings, Space Dogs and English.

Space Dogs (produced by the Manhattan Class Company) is set mostly in the Soviet Union during the cold war in the Fifties and Sixties. Nick Blaemire and Van Hughes co-wrote the show and comprise the cast. The presentation is loose and jokey, resorting to stuffed animals and accents out of Rocky and His Friends. But, underneath the rock music, the projections, the clowning and the puppetry, some serious themes percolate.

There are two leading characters. The human one is Sergei Korolev, an engineer picked by Soviet authorities to lead the Russian effort in space exploration. This high responsibility and honor went to him despite having barely escaped execution by Stalin in 1938. He lucked out and only served six years in a labor camp on a trumped-up charge of sabotage. (Stalin had a history of paranoia when it came to engineers. He thought if anyone was likely to overthrow him, it would be the engineers, so he disposed of or imprisoned a lot of them, until he reprieved the ones still alive to aid in World War II.) Korolev determined that the best way to test missiles was to use dogs as subjects. The dogs recruited were not laboratory-bred animals but homeless creatures who were presumed to have been toughened by their hard lives on the streets. The second leading character is one of these, a mutt named Laika. Laika’s mission was to help Soviet scientists determine if a living creature could survive being blasted into space. Unfortunately, once that was established, Laika’s usefulness was at an end. No provision was made for her safe return to the earth. I couldn’t help but see the parallel between Korolev and Laika – both valued only in terms of their usefulness to an authoritarian state.

Larger historical forces also loom over English by Sanaz Toossi (produced by the Atlantic Theater). Set in a classroom in Iran where English is being taught as a second language by Marjan, a woman who returned to Iran after years living in Manchester, England. She has four students, each with their own reason for studying. For one, the dive into English is made with enthusiasm, anticipating the range of expression that now will be open to her. For another, learning is a practical imperative, but it’s also a grudging surrender to what she sees as a culture that bullies others into acquiescence. Other ideas arise. Are you the same when speaking a second language? What is the gravitational pull of the nationality you were born into, and is it something you are moved to flee or embrace or, at different times, both?

For a work that is so intellectually alive, part of the accomplishment of Toossi’s script is that at no point do her characters feel as if they are primarily mouthpieces for her ideas. In a modestly-scaled play, she has written an epic.

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ALICE ADAMS — book and film

Finished reading Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams recently and watched George Stevens’s film adaptation. The racism in the book is dismaying but not entirely surprising for a book that was published in 1921.

The good stuff in it is very good indeed. It’s about how class distinctions play out in a small industrial town in the midwest, and how the attitudes and snobberies of the parents affect their kids, who often perpetuate younger versions of their parents’ cruelty. Alice has a good heart, but she so wants to be in a sophisticated set that her family’s financial circumstances can’t support. When she meets a rich young man who seems genuinely interested in her, she can’t keep from pretending to him that she is from a higher caste. (You get the feeling that he isn’t fooled for a second but doesn’t much mind.)

The film features Katharine Hepburn and she’s glorious in the role — alternately irritating and endearing. As for the screenplay (by Dorothy Yost, Mortimer Offner and Jane Murfin), it tightens up the story and in some aspects improves on the original. There is a new scene in which Alice takes the lead in confronting her father’s angry boss and turns him around which is appreciably better than the one in the book in which she says only a few words as the boss talks himself back to sense. It has the happy effect of having Alice take responsibility for a difficult situation and signals her arrival at a new level of maturity. Alas, the film tacks on an persuasive happy ending (she lands the rich guy) which undercuts Tarkington’s more realistic one of her giving up on the romance and climbing the stairs to a school where she will learn some marketable skills.

The film also doesn’t attempt to convey something important to Tarkington — how the pell-mell industrialization of the town is covering it and everyone in it in soot and fumes. Part of Tarkington’s point is that the nouveau-riche wealth oppressing the Adamses is a by-product of this stink. Yes, even wealth can’t keep the rich from suffering from it, but it doesn’t seem fair that the poor — not being enriched by industry — should also have to suffer. Tarkington won a Pulitzer for this, and also for his more famous and I think better novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, the basis of the Orson Welles movie which, even in its truncated form, contains passages about as good as anything put on film. (Very few American novelists won more than one Pulitzer for fiction – the others are Colson Whitehead, William Faulkner and John Updike. Pretty exclusive company.)  If Alice Adams is a wry comedy on how a modern economy shapes personal lives (from the perspective a lower-middle class family), Ambersons is almost operatic in describing how a rich family goes into a steep decline for the same reasons.

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Thoughts on “Prayer For the French Republic”

At a time when we’ve gotten used to tasty 90-minute hors d’oeuvres, it’s exhilarating to encounter a play with enough on its mind to hold the attention for three hours (including two 10-minute intermissions). Joshua Harmon’s Prayer For the French Republic (immaculately directed by David Cromer at Manhattan Theater Club’s off-Broadway house) is a full meal concerning a French-Jewish family whose business for generations has been making and selling pianos. Actually, the play deals with the family at two different points – in 1944-46, as an elderly couple hide till Paris is liberated and wait to see which of their family has survived, and 2016-17, when some of their descendants decide what steps to take in the face of the increased antisemitism in modern France.

We’re supposed to assume the characters are speaking French, but, of course, they play it in English, and conversational English at that. This can’t help but remind the audience of the parallels between what was happening in recent years in France (the increasing influence of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing faction) and here (Trump and his apparent alliance with white supremacists and fascists here). The family in Harmon’s play, weighing the competing claims of being Jewish and being French, contemplate fleeing. How many in the US looked at Trump’s election as a signal that we might not be safe in this country?

The perspectives of the modern family are highlighted by contrast by that of an American relative (who speaks good French) who becomes a constant presence in their house during her year of study in France. She brings with her a distaste for Netanyahu’s policies which is only a little less intense than the family’s distaste for Le Pen. This sets up long swatches of compelling, impassioned dialogue between people who manage to care about each other even as they heatedly disagree.

I’m not going to fill a paragraph with appropriate individual adjectives for the large and excellent cast beyond mentioning the Betsy Aidem expresses an irony and intellectual rigor reminiscent of Elaine May (with whom Cromer acted in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery).

As I mentioned, the family’s business is selling pianos, and the image of the piano as an instrument of beauty and harmony stands in contrast to much of the brutality of the history the family has had to cope with. As it happens, a number of the foreign-language TV shows I watched while waiting out the pandemic have similarly viewed the politics of their countries of origin through the businesses the leading characters run.

My wife and I are currently about halfway through the Danish series, Kroniken, which concerns the arrival of the TV industry in Denmark beginning in 1949 and continues through 1972. (I just read that a sequel series is about to run in Denmark.) One of the leading characters is a Social Democrat politician married to a woman whose father’s industrial policies are in conflict with much of what he holds dear. (I’m sorry, this is not available for streaming in the United States yet. I ordered discs from Denmark.)

The Restaurant (original title, Vår tid är nu or Our Time is Now–available through AMC+) is about a family that tries to rehabilitate a restaurant that was popular with the Nazis during WWII. One of the women who begins by waiting tables ends up becoming a major figure fighting for change in the government.

Berlin Dance School (original title, Ku’damm 56–available through the Masterpiece subchannel on Amazon Prime) is about a family-owned enterprise that has to evolve from teaching the waltz and the foxtrot to coping with the invasion of American rock-n-roll; the after-stench of fascism is everywhere and the conflicts are not strictly about music.

And then there’s the sunny and smart Seaside Hotel (original title, Badehotellet–also available through Masterpiece), which takes a Danish holiday hotel from the late twenties onward. Word is, the next series will deal with Denmark in 1945. I cannot see how it can help but touch on the Danes’ nationwide collaboration to save the Jewish population in the final days of the war.

All of these are fine. Whether Joshua Harmon knows it or not, he has joined their company. And indeed, his play offers plenty of room to be spun off into a similar series.

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Richard Christiansen

I wrote a piece for American Theatre about the late, great Richard Christiansen, a critic who had a major part in the Chicago theater renaissance.  And also a friend of mine.

Here’s the link — Remembering Richard Christiansen

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“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” – sort of

The program that comes with the off-Broadway production at the Minetta Lane Theater says the play on offer is Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill. And it’s true that every word spoken on the stage is by O’Neill.

It’s also true that it’s about half the length of normal productions (something that the estate approved).

So, is it really Long Day’s Journey Into Night?

The real Long Day’s Journey is about a lot of things that this version is not. For one thing, if you move it from when it was originally set – August, 1912 – much of O’Neill’s social commentary is gone. This is a very Irish play, and it’s set at a time when fierce anti-Irish sentiment was still fresh in mind. Much of James Tyrone’s life has been about denying where in the system he was born. “I got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife,” he says. From the deepest poverty, he reinvented himself as a prince of Shakespeare, turning himself into a faux-aristocrat by acquiring a posh accent and invoking classical rhythms and phrases in his extemporaneous speech.

The play O’Neill wrote is a war of language. In contrast to the stentorian pronouncements of their father, his sons constantly use slang and reference literature that the father finds appalling. And they twist his precious Shakespeare to mock him (“the Moor, I know his trumpet”).

All that is gone in this version.

Indeed, the whole theatrical system that sustained James Tyrone as a star for years in a single play no longer exists in this country, so his career in this updated version makes no sense. Today, if someone were going to throw away their career as a serious actor, it’s more likely they would get stuck for dozens of years making big money playing a crime-fighter in one of the crappier TV series. But director O’Hara can’t do this because I’m sure the agreement with the estate specifies that all the language must be O’Neill’s.

O’Hara has edited and collaborated on design elements to bring to mind current concerns – covid and the opioid crisis in particular. But I’m betting that most people watching a traditionally-set production would have thought of these parallels on their own. In making the implicit explicit, O’Hara (unintentionally, I’m sure) is condescending to the audience.

In sum, if I were introducing someone to the play, this is not the production I’d want them to see.

On the other hand, if you know the play already, I recommend it. This may be your only chance to see Elizabeth Marvel take a crack at playing Mary Tyrone and that’s not to be passed up.

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