Spoiler Alert

If you haven’t seen Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Yesterday and intend to, now’s the time to stop reading.

If you have seen them, did you notice that both use the same plot gimmick for similar effect?

Hollywood posits that three members of the Manson family switch targets at the last minute and have the bad luck to tangle with Leonardo di Caprio and Brad Pitt, who terminate them with extreme prejudice. The result? Sharon Tate and her friends survive.

Yesterday posits that the whole Beatle phenomenon never happened, except somehow (don’t ask why) one guy remembers all their songs and introduces them to the world as his creations. The result? John Lennon was not murdered and the leading character encounters him as a philosophically cool older guy in his seventies doing art projects to amuse himself in obscurity.

So, in the alternate worlds that these films inhabit, figures who were murdered are spared, and the audience gets fleeting moments of wish fulfillment.

Of course, films have never been exactly reliable sources of history. Mississippi Burning was predicated on the laughable idea that the FBI was friendly to the civil rights movement in the Sixties. Words and Music, the musical bio of Rodgers and Hart, featured Mickey Rooney as a heterosexual Hart who died in part because of his unrequited love for Betty Garrett. And, to the dismay of the Dewey family, the film Hoodlum was partially predicated on the lie that Thomas E. Dewey was corrupt.

Distortion of history for dramatic purposes has a long history. Shakespeare maligned Richard III and made a hero out of the genocidal Henry V because the stories worked out better that way. Also, he was writing to entertain the family that had displaced Richard.

But I think the fact that two major films of the summer are unapologetic about plastering stickers of fantasy over notorious tragedies suggests a new willingness on the part of the audience to accept blatant fabrication for temporary satisfaction. Though in both cases, they know that what they are watching is entirely untrue, the audience applauds the lies as things they would prefer to believe, at least for the moment.

This brings me to our fabricator-in-chief. On a daily basis, through his tweets and his public statements, Trump actively pushes narratives that are at war with reality. I am going to assume that he knows that he is lying much of the time, or at least passing on dubious product. What is disturbing is that, unlike the audiences attending Hollywood and Yesterday who mostly know that they’re watching fabrications meant to be appreciated as such, a substantial part of Trump’s audience either doesn’t know or (worse) doesn’t care that what they’re being handed is false.

I’m not about to suggest that artists shouldn’t use whatever narrative tool that serves them in telling stories they want to tell. But I do think public servants should hew to a different standard. And I wonder if an audience in the habit of ingesting a regular diet of fabrications from their entertainment might be more vulnerable to believing fabrications from those who betray their obligation to tell the truth.

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Monstrous Women

“I think there’s something about monstrous women that’s fascinating. The villainesses. Villainesses are fantastic. We don’t see enough of them.” So said Moira Buffini in my conversation with her in my book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing. I have been thinking about that line a good deal lately.

Partially because Moira’s own play, Handbagged (which is in the final days of its run in New York at 59e59th Street), offers such a vivid example of what she described in her depiction of Margaret Thatcher. The play is about the tension between Queen Elizabeth II and Thatcher. Though Buffini has little use for royalty generally, Elizabeth is depicted as having a genuine concern for the people and uses her position to try to offset Thatcherism whenever she can. (Moira tells me that she spent a fair amount of time and effort researching this, so the play has a grounding in reality.) Audiences seem not to be able to get enough of Elizabeth. In addition to Moira, Peter Morgan has written a hit film, a hit play and a hit TV series about her, and Alan Bennett wrote a play and a short novel about her. Still, in Handbagged, it’s Thatcher who constantly steals focus. The queen is decent and empathetic. Thatcher is appalling. No contest.

I’m beginning this post from Chicago, where I packed my schedule with theatre. Two shows which particularly excited me were at a wonderful theatre complex in Wicker Park called The Den. Joel Drake Johnson’s Four Places concerns a brother and sister trying to cope with the emergency that is their aging parents’ marriage. Michael John LaChiusa’s Queen of the Mist is about a woman who, at 63 in 1901, climbed into a barrel, tumbled over Niagara Falls … and survived but didn’t get the payoff she expected. Four Places’ Peggy and Queen’s Annie are both big, self-dramatizing characters who would exhaust and enfuriate you in real life, but onstage they compel. They are played by two performers I’ve had the pleasure of following for decades of Chicago glory – Meg Thalken and Barbara E. Robertson. Their work is the equal of the performances that were recently given Tonys and Drama Desks in New York. Indeed, if Robertson had been nominated against the slate of “best actress in a musical” nominees, I wouldn’t have hesitated to give her my vote, and it would have been a toss-up for me between Thalken and Elaine May for “best actress.”

But they have platforms created by Johnson and LaChiusa: parts that tap into big emotions and give us women who show no regret about overstepping the traditional boundaries of behavior usually assigned to female characters.

One of the ironies of the historical moment we’re in is that, with all of the attention paid to women in contemporary society, so many dramatists (of both genders) have chosen to depict women as victims rather than the driving forces of stories. Much of our national conversation lately has been about the wretched behavior of men, and the recent season reflected this by giving us a parade of thugs, bullies, killers, narcissists and cheats. Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird stood out because he was the rare well-meaning (if initially naive) man who strove to do the right thing. The women in many of these plays had to defend themselves from the guys.

Not that that’s the whole picture. Three of the six women nominated for 2019 Tony Awards for leading actress played driven, dynamic characters in scripts new to Broadway. All three were drawn from life – Laurie Metcalf as an alternate version of Hillary Clinton in Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton, Janet McTeer as Sara Bernhardt in Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, and Heidi Schreck as herself in her own script, What the Constitution Means to Me. Clinton has made a career out of vaulting over barriers, Rebeck’s version of Bernhardt is both a sexual and an artistic rebel, and Schreck’s show is predicated on defying political and personal convention.

A few other women got to play what Janet McTeer termed “baddasses.” In Abby Rosebrock’s Blue Ridge, Marin Ireland played a school teacher with rage issues in a halfway house, and in Sharr White’s The True, Edie Falco played a hard-driving political operative working behind-the-scenes (as a woman had to) in Albany in 1977. They were two of the season’s most vivid performances, and, if they weren’t quite the villainesses Moira Buffini relishes, they assaulted boundaries with gusto.

And I guess I’m hoping for more. While it’s important to pay attention to those who have been treated badly, there is a special pleasure in watching Edward Albee’s Martha, Tennessee Williams’s Blanche, Tracy Letts’s Vi, Lillian Hellman’s Regina and Gypsy’s Mama Rose let loose and remind us that bad behavior is not limited to one gender. Even as these characters sometimes appall us, they are pretty damn entertaining.

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Terrence McNally Documentary on AMERICAN MASTERS

Having been involved in NY theatre since 1967, watching Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life stirred up decades of memories. Some of them involve Terrence. I can’t claim to be a close friend, but he and his work have been a constant presence for decades.

He probably doesn’t remember it, but I played organ for the off-off-Broadway production of his play about alcoholic country-western singers, Whiskey at St. Clement’s.

The first show I ever saw at Yale Rep was a play of his called The Tubs which featured my Second City friend Anthony Holland. It was set in a gay bath house and, though it had funny passages, it was a fairly somber play about isolation. Terrence subsequently rewrote it as a flat-out farce, The Ritz. (Robert Brustein, the producer at Yale at the time, harrumphed at its transformation into something more audience-friendly.)

I was at a playwrights conference in North Carolina when a draft of (I think) the first act of Love! Valour! Compassion! was first read. Even that early taste suggested it would be a major play.

One night, I found myself passing a diner on West 23rd Street and saw him and Wendy Wasserstein through the window. I waved, and they signaled I should come in and join them. We talked theatre, of course. I thought, “Isn’t that cool, big-deal playwrights still shmooze and debate over coffee!” I had no sense they were involved. (I didn’t learn that until I read the biography of Wendy. According to that, Terrence was game to go public with their relationship, but Wendy was not.)

In 2001, Terrence and I were both in Chicago putting up new plays. I seem to remember that at the time he hadn’t had much experience with the town, so, since I consider myself a Chicago boy, I thought it would be appropriate to invite him to dinner at the Four Farthings and give him a little background about the history of the theatre scene there. After dinner, we walked south through the Triangle neighborhood and ended up in the lobby of Second City, which I thought might be meaningful to him given his connection with Elaine May. (You may remember I wrote a book about the history of Second City called Something Wonderful Right Away.) We ran into a guy there who invited us to a musical he had written; it was being given a performance late that night in the studio theatre at Chicago Shakespeare. Under his breath, Terrence asked me if we actually wanted to do that, and I told him I knew the guy as a pianist for Second City and thought he was talented. So we went to see what was later titled Melancholy Baby, a show about second-rate Broadway songwriters trying to make a musical out of Hamlet featuring Jack McBreyer as Hamlet and Alexandra Billings as Gertrude. We laughed our asses off. The guy who invited us was Jeff Richmond, who, with his wife, Tina Fey, later wrote the musical Mean Girls.

Otherwise, it’s been mostly friendly hellos as we run into each other in the theatre, and the occasional email of congratulations.

The film, which will shortly run on the American Masters series, is filled with images of friends and lovers and the community it’s a treat to be a part of. Some of it is a little painful to watch. There’s Marin Mazzie talking about working with Terrence on Ragtime, and I think of the last time I saw her, which was in the lobby of CSC after her performance in a play by Terrence called Fire and Air. She radiated joy (as usual) and we talked briefly about a project that we’d been kicking around doing together. I was blind-sided by her death. In retrospect, I think she knew that it was the last conversation we would have.

There’s also a clip of Terrence sharing a stage on a panel with Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson, both friends and both gone (and both in my book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing).

“Jesu, the days that we have seen.” “No more of that, Master Shallow.”

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Uptown/Downtown

There is a kind of civil war going on on Broadway this season. On one side are the traditional and established parties–the commercial producers, the movie companies, the establishment non-profits that account for the bulk of the productions mounted each year. Call them the uptown gang. On the other side are the more unruly types who are frequently more political and edgier and who are used to working on small stages in remote corners of the city. The downtown gang.

The chief rivals for Best Play are The Ferryman–a three-act blockbuster Broadway production with a company of 35–and What the Constitution Means to Me–a 90-minute piece featuring three performers that is less a traditional play than an autobiographic monologue with contributions from two additional actors. Though I have my reservations about The Ferryman (it includes practically every trope that has ever appeared in an Irish play), it nevertheless has a gallery of engaging characters and a compelling story. It is a marvelous construction that holds an audience utterly captive for more than three hours. Uptown producing on a high level. Constitution speaks directly to our moment, requiring the audience to seriously consider if the foundational document of our country is in need of reform or complete overhaul. Totally downtown.

Constitution played the New York Theatre Workshop before coming to Broadway. So did Hadestown, the downtown entry for Best Musical. My hunch is that its chief competition is an accomplished stage adaptation of the classic movie comedy, Tootsie. Tootsie is filled to overflowing with funny lines, bouncy songs, and big performances in the old Broadway tradition.

All of the nominated revivals of straight plays are from managements with long histories on Broadway.

But the two shows nominated for Best Revival of a Musical offer a study in contrasts. Kiss Me, Kate has been modestly revised for a contemporary audience (the lyric that from Shakespeare that began, “I am ashamed that women are so simple” is now “I am ashamed that people are so simple), but it is securely within the tradition of previous stagings. The Oklahoma! directed by Daniel Fish looks like no production of it you’ve ever seen. It is staged in three-quarters with the playing area defined by picnic tables, the orchestra has been replaced by a country-western band, and no effort is made to invoke the period in which the story is set. Instead, Curly often plugs in a guitar to sing, and use is made of video when the stage is thrown into darkness for the smokehouse scene. The original production of Oklahoma! opened during World War II and was meant to remind the audience of the values Americans were fighting for–neighborliness, true love, picnics. This production suggests that there was a lot of violence and hypocrisy not openly acknowledged in the story. The show’s putative hero turns out to be a killer and the cheerful neighbors choose to be accessories. A downtown perspective if there ever was one.

I’m betting that at least two out of the three cases, the downtown gang will prevail. It’s not just that the shows themselves are bracing and refreshing, it’s that the voters have largely grown up in a theatre that was transformed by the downtown artists that began revolutions in the Sixties and continued to define themselves in opposition to traditional Broadway-style productions. We see this in other productions. Gary is a downtown play with an uptown budget and Sam Gold’s take on King Lear is meant to challenge traditional stagings not only in casting women in what are usually male roles but in its aggressive anachronisms.

I don’t have a concluding sentence. Do I need one?

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Patterns

Maybe one of the differences between a blog entry and an essay is that an essay should be a shapely, elegant composition.  With, you know, a structure, a build. The final sentence should give the reader a sense of arriving at a destination. A blog–as I see it–can be jottings of things that occur to you without much development or elaboration.

So here are a couple of things that occur to me about this season:

Shakespeare. In Be More Chill, a high school is putting on a post-apocalyptic adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Tootsie, the project Dorothy Michaels is cast in is a sequel to Romeo and Juliet. Gary is a sequel to Titus Andronicus. I have still to see Tootsie and Gary (I’ve heard good things about both), but do you think maybe, after this season, we can give the fucking around with Shakespeare joke a rest for a little while?  (Notice that I’m not mentioning Kiss Me, Kate because it’s a revival.)

Lanford Wilson’s Burn This and Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. An emotionally-withdrawn woman finds herself besieged by a volcanically emotional guy who can cook and they have great sex while the woman tries to figure out what she really wants. Both plays. They both premiered in 1987, they both were revived in 2002, and now both are playing on Broadway. I must say I was especially moved by the note in the Burn This program by McNally.

If this were an essay I would go on. It’s not an essay.

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Bad Behavior

Richard in Richard III is intended to be a villain. Shakespeare paints him as evil on legs. And yet, we get impatient when he’s off the stage. Clarence has a long speech filled with poetry. Yes, yes, beautiful, but could you wrap it up and bring the monstrous brother on again? Richard’s treatment of the women in the play? Appalling. And clearly Shakespeare expected the perverse members of the audience to enjoy it. Richard seduces Anne, the widow of a man he has killed. Once she is gone, he marvels at how credulous she is. “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?/Was ever woman in this humor won?” The audience usually laughs.

The audience frequently laughs with Iago, too. I remember seeing a production of Othello with Christopher Walken in the role. Walken quickly made common cause with the audience as if to say, “The rules these others are playing by are so square. We’re hipper than that, aren’t we? We’re modern.” On some level, he suggested that Othello and Desdemona deserve what they get because they believe in such dated crap as fidelity and honor. Again appalling. But how many times have you see a production in which Iago hasn’t run off with the evening?

One of my favorite Restoration comedies is William Congreve’s The Double-Dealer, which begins (like Richard III) with the villain, the well-named Maskwell, addressing the audience with a frank confession of his villainy and his intention to screw over everybody in the play. Ultimately he is thwarted, but he has a long run of doing damage to the more virtuous people onstage, and his hypocrisy and cynicism are both horrifyng and funny. And appalling yet again.

Taking this to modern drama, we have Stanley in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. One of the things that reportedly dismayed Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy was that some in the audience quite evidently were on Stanley’s side in taking down Blanche. John Osborne took it a step farther. When he wrote what I believe is his response to Streetcar, Look Back in Anger, he clearly meant for our sympathies to be with the abusive Jimmy Porter. Yes, he behaves badly, but underneath he is honest, sensitive, and that makes up for so many petty failings.  Right?

A few dramatists took early shots at these guys.  The Wheelhouse Theater company recently revived Kurt Vonnegut’s play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which was an attack on the Hemingway model of masculinity. The original production in 1970 did well enough (well enough to be made into an obscure film starring Rod Steiger) but the play itself was largely forgotten until Wheelhouse gave it an efficient staging. I have always found the script to be a little too self-conscious, but there’s no denying that Vonnegut was early to arrive at laughing at this kind of guy rather than with him. Another notable critique of the rogue male came a year later c/o Jules Feiffer’s script for the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge (it was originally written as a play; director Mike Nichols decided to take it straight to the screen), in which that cinematic personification of the rogue male, Jack Nicholson, ultimately can only get it up in the last scene if the hooker played by Rita Moreno engages him in fantasy games.

I find it intriguing that 48 years later, Feiffer’s daughter, Halley, has created her own spin on the rogue male and why a smart woman (one who writes for The New Yorker!) would fall for him in a play called The Pain of My Own Belligerence. (I note that Halley’s gifted mother, Jenny Allen, actually does write for The New Yorker.) The character Hamish Linklater plays, Guy, is even more radioactively alarming than the one Nicholson played, openly copping to his own sociopathology. Halley stars as Cat, the target of Guy’s attentions. The first of the play’s three scenes is a marvel of writing and playing, a dance of advances, retreats, mock punches and real bites. Clearly, Halley doesn’t think much progress has been made in the half century since her father first explored the topic. (The rest of the play is also strong, if a shade less intense.)

There are a few non-toxic men onstage this season. Atticus Finch, for one (in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird). Give me a few minutes and I probably can come up with a few others. OK, I liked some of the guys in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman (though the villain is a nasty piece of work). As for the two leading sort-of sympathetic male figures in the stage adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, one is a raving lunatic and the other is pathetically chasing his fading youth in an adulterous affair.

The truth is, we seem to be at a point when figures of masculine virtue in serious drama are pretty rare. The husband of the character Tyne Daly played in Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs is a menacing brute. The head of the halfway house in which Marin Ireland’s character takes shelter in Abby Rosebrock’s Blue Ridge is a hypocrite abusing his position of authority. The rich art collector played by Alan Cumming in Jeremy O. Harris’s Daddy is a charming predator. And the people responsible for the faltering organizing document of our country, as described in Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, were a batch of propertied white guys who owned slaves. (I have still to see the stage versions of Rupert Murdoch and Bill Clinton in Ink and Hillary and Clinton.)

Hell, even the title character in Tim Blake Nelson’s Socrates–a classic heroic figure if there ever was one–is oblivious to the needs of his wife and family.

But maybe all of this isn’t surprising given the unappetizing lump in the Oval Office. Ya think?

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Wandering Through History

Sometimes I think of the past as a huge black box, and any time you read a book of history or a biography or a historical novel it’s like shining a concentrated beam of light through that darkness, briefly bringing to light what is in its path. Other beams may come from a movie or play or TV series.

Lately I have been having fun reading simultaneously two books that take place within years of each other. Meyer Levin’s novel, The Old Bunch, concerns a group of Jewish kids growing up on Chicago’s west side in the Twenties and facing early adulthood in the Thirties. I’ve also been reading Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd stories, a series of 11 novels concerning the illegitimate son of a New England munitions manufacturer who is raised in Europe by his free-spirited mother and, because he becomes an art dealer, has access to many of the leading political and cultural figures of the time. In the book I’m reading now, A World to Win, Lanny is continuing to pretend to vaguely right-wing sympathies so that he can report back to FDR what is going on in those circles. In The Old Bunch, the characters talk about what an anti-Semitic bastard Henry Ford is (Ford was still very much alive when the book came out); in World, Lanny meets Ford to take his measure for FDR. In The Old Bunch, the gang deals with the effects of the Depression on their personal lives and businesses. In the Lanny Budd books, Sinclair offers a view of how the Depression disrupts Europe and hastens WWII.

These books can’t help but bounce off my memory of Voices of Protest, Alan Brinkley’s double portrait of Father Coughlin and Huey Long. (Lanny meets Coughlin in one of Sinclair’s novels.) And, of course, reading about Coughlin and Long can’t help but remind me of the thug in the White House, who similarly used populism to accrue power. (Long may have ultimately been something of a gangster, but you have to credit him with having built schools, hospitals and roads that brought Louisiana into the twentieth century. A crook, yes, but he left a legacy of having done more of value than most of the other southern governors.)

Netflix has also been offering some unconventional views of history. I am a big fan of Babylon Berlin, a German series set in Berlin in 1929 which throws together Stalinists, Trotskyites, gangsters and the early stirrings of the Nazis to make an intoxicatingly toxic brew. Since most of Berlin was destroyed during WWII, the show is a recreation of the city that had to be researched in old books, newsreels and photos. (I wrote a play at the end of the war called Berlin ‘45. When I thought vaguely of flying over to look around, a friend familiar with the town said, “Why? You won’t see anything there left of the world you’re writing about.”) It’s a world Lanny would have known well. In fact, when in Berlin Lanny usually stays in the Hotel Adlon, which I could picture with some specificity having seen a very good German 2016 miniseries (available on Amazon streaming) called, yes, Hotel Adlon.

Another Netflix offering I’ve started watching is a new British series called Traitors. It is about a young woman with Tory sympathies (played by Emma Appleton) who is manipulated into spying on the British government for a rogue American agent (Michael Stuhlbarg). The story has its share of intrigue and murders, but I’m most taken with the vivid picture of post-war Britain, particularly the split between the Tories–shocked that Winston Churchill was thrown out of office as the war was ending–and Labour supporters, the non-aristocratic people who hope postwar politics will actually do something by way of housing, education and health. These impressions in turn link up with the comedies Ealing Studios put up which focused on how a lot of the common people copes with scarcity and change.

And then I start thinking about John Osborne and Jimmy Porter and Suez and the arrival of the Beyond the Fringe gang and John le Carré and the Beatles and … The associations don’t end.  The various stories insist on chattering in an endless dialogue in my head.

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