As You Kink It

Because of serendipitous scheduling, I saw Kinky Boots on a matinee and the New York Shakespeare production of As You Like It that night.

Kinky Boots is about a guy who gets to say and do some things because he dresses up as a woman. As You Like It is about a woman who gets to say and do some things because she dresses up as a guy. Both productions feature songs by singer-songwriters (Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper; As You Like It, Shaina Taub). Seeing them on the same day reminded me that the heart of the theater (for me anyway) is the power of transformation.

In 1987, when I was story editor on a TV series, I worked with a director named Jonathan Sanger whose hobby was translating short stories from Portuguese. He let me read a couple of them. One of them made a particular impression on me. I told Jonathan, “I don’t know how to do it, but there is a great evening of theater in this.” Jonathan laughed as if I were amiably deranged. (I tend to see potential for theater pieces even in mashed potatoes.) In 1988, at Theater at St. Clement’s, a show based on that story opened under the direction of Julie Taymor. It was called Juan Darien. It opened in a Broadway version at Lincoln Center in 1996, which is where I saw it and felt the satisfaction of having been proven right. (The success of Juan Darien led Taymor to be hired to direct The Lion King.)

What was it about the short story that made me respond to it that way? “Juan Darien” by Horacio Quiroga is about a tiger cub, fleeing the hunter who killed his mother, who is turned into a human boy by the love of a human mother in order to protect him. Transformation again.

Which reminds me of one of the great influences on my thinking about theater – Viola Spolin, the extraordinary teacher who created the theater games that are the basis of improvisational theater. Many of her exercises, too, concern transformation.

I won’t bang on about this too long, but it seems to me that transformation is one of the things theater does better than any other story-telling medium. It’s not for nothing that Ovid’s Metamorphosis and the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm have provided the bases of so many enchanting productions. Certainly the big “ah” moment in Beauty and the Beast is when the Beast turns into the handsome prince (though, truth be told, most people I know prefer the Beast). Theater is metaphor to begin with, and the audience transforms what it sees by making a deal to believe. As Shakespeare has the Chorus say to us in the audience at the beginning of Henry V, “let us … [o]n your imaginary forces work.” For me, productions that most engage my imaginary forces work better than productions stuffed with detailed scenery and costumes.

Back to Kinky Boots and As You Like It. I saw the original production of the former when it premiered on Broadway in 2013. I like this production better because it’s scaled back a little and a more modest presentation (small house, smaller orchestra) suits the modesty of the tale better. The performances (Christian Douglas as Charlie, a man trying to save the family shoe factory, Callum Francis as Simon and his alter ego Lola, and Danielle Hope as Lauren, nursing a crush for Charlie) are all immaculate and serve the material well. Harvey Fierstein’s book tells the slight story breezily. This is my second encounter with Cyndi Lauper’s score, and, though some individual numbers land for me, most of the songs involve characters singing about things I already understand before they sing them, adding nothing much to the movement of the narrative. But the songs have catchy hooks and they allow the performers to hit impassioned high notes. That was more than enough for the audience around me. If you have family visiting from out of town and you can’t get tickets to Into the Woods, this is a pretty safe bet.

The As You Like It playing in Central Park is really a 90-minute condensation of Shakespeare’s play, and much of the playing time is given over to Shaina Taub’s catchy songs, some of which are sung by Taub (who in another bit of transformation, is playing Jaques). Produced in cooperation with a number of community groups, the stage is often filled with enthusiastic civilians, most of whom manage to perform their parts of Sonya Tayeh’s choreography with enthusiasm and sufficient coordination to charm. Any production of this play pretty much rises or falls on its Rosalind, and this production is particularly fortunate to feature Rebecca Naomi Jones, a Broadway star-in-waiting. She scores forcefully with a knockout Taub song, “Rosalind, Be Merry.”

This reminds me of another great Rosalind I saw. A Cheek by Jowl production that played BAM in 1994 featured a luminous Adrian Lester in the role. I’m going to venture a guess that Lester is the only actor who has triumphed playing both Rosalind and Othello. Lester has certainly to be counted one of the great transformational actors to have pulled that off.

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“Hyprov”

I remember someone bringing up Whose Line Is It Anyway? to Del Close, the Chicago improvisational theater master. A student said something to Del about the players on the show flying without a net. Del retorted, “They may be flying without a net, but they’re only three inches off the ground.” I took that to mean that he thought the level of challenge on the show was something he didn’t take seriously.

I wrote the first book about the improvisational theatre movement, Something Wonderful Right Away. Published in 1978, it was an oral history featuring many of the leading early directors, theoreticians and players in a movement that began with the work of Viola Spolin in the Thirties, formed the basis of the Compass Players in Chicago in the mid-Fifties and, under the guidance of Paul Sills, flowered into an institution called Second City in the Sixties. Since then, I’ve tried to keep my eye open for new permutations of improvisational presentations.

Hyprov is certainly a new one on me. The idea is that players who have been hypnotized by Asad Mecci find themselves in situational set-ups to play with Whose Line star Colin Mochrie. Presumably, being under gives them easier access to the intuitive, making them more likely to go with spontaneous impulses. Since the players are not professional performers, the implicit conclusion of the evening is that a lot of non-pros have it within them to partner with a comedy star and hold their own if freed from inhibitions.

As I say, the assumption is the players are non-pros. But this is New York, there is a huge community of improvisationally-trained actors, and Mochrie is an icon in that world. I had a hunch that, though I believed they went under, a couple of the final four players the night I saw it had improvisational backgrounds. Inexperienced improvisers don’t usually come up with callbacks. And a couple of times Mecci cautioned a player to take their character more seriously.

The main interest for me was to watch Mochrie cope with whatever was thrown at him by this handful of players previously unknown to him. Without straining, he was able to assimilate just about anything offered up and maintain his balance. It was a performance marked by intelligence, grace and modesty. And yes, he was consistently funny.

My hunch is that the degree to which you’ll enjoy the evening will depend on what expectations you have for improvisation. If you want an amusing evening of quips, cleverness and spontaneous wit, you will be satisfied. (I expect Del would grant that this is at least six inches off the ground.) If you’re looking for an evening of improvisation that offers insights into the human condition, you’d be better off waiting for TJ and Dave to return to town.

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Watching a TV series reminds me of a play I saw in 2007

Watched an oddball but extremely affecting British miniseries on Britbox tonight called Don’t Forget the Driver starring Toby Jones (in two roles) and co-written by Jones and Tim Crouch. The plot concerns a bus driver in Bognor Regis who discovers, having taken his bus to Dunkirk (apparently you can ferry a bus across to France from the south coast of England) discovers an illegal alien has been smuggled into the country in his storage compartment. He further discovers that some bad guys in Bognor intend to keep her prisoner and traffick her. He seizes the opportunity to help her escape, and her presence in his life complicates every other aspect of his life. It’s part drama, part farce, sometimes suspenseful, sometimes outrageous. Jones makes big acting choices but they always seem to be grounded. He is matched beautifully with Claire Rushbrook, who I suppose I should have remembered from Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies. She has a quality that reminds me of the great Susan Lancashire.

Tim Crouch’s name struck me as familiar. And then I remembered I’d seen his play An Oak Tree at the Barrow Street Theater. Reading up on Crouch, he seems to be a guy who likes to explore provocative patches of the theater. Certainly “Don’t Forget the Driver” is not your usual TV fare, but it held me for six 30-minute episodes.

I looked in my files and found that I wrote a fair amount about An Oak Tree in an article in 2007. Here is what I wrote:

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“When Someone Gives You the Character” – Jeffrey Sweet

Del Close, Chicago’s legendary and eccentric improvisational director-guru, had a habit of dropping brilliance the way others pull their pockets inside out to expel crumbs. I spent a fair amount of time with him, and so picked up my share of these. One particular crumb has been rattling around in my mind a lot because of shows I’ve seen recently:

Character is not only what you, the actor, bring to the stage. It is also conferred upon you by the actors with whom you play.

In other words, the character you play isn’t only conveyed by what you do, it is also conveyed by how other actors playing characters treat you.

Case in point: I recently stopped by Second City to see Disposable Nation, the new revue playing on their second stage. As is true with all Second City shows, it was developed improvisationally by the company and it views contemporary American life and politics from a sardonic perspective. This edition of the show features a good deal of interaction between the cast and audience.

In one sketch, the cast lines up downstage playing various participants in a wedding. The twist: the groom– call him Charlie – is a man selected from the audience. Further twist: it is a gay wedding. The revue’s performers step forward in turn and – building on information gleaned from a few short interchanges with the agreeable if slightly stunned participant (who, the night I saw it, was attending with his wife of three months) – speak warmly of the impending ceremony from their characters’ perspectives. One is a coworker who talks about the day Charlie came out of the closet. Another is the sister of the man Charlie was to marry. Another, the other groom.

Of course, the bit wouldn’t work if 1) the man in the audience weren’t good-natured enough to play along and 2) if the audience weren’t in on the joke that he’s being conferred an identity that is distinct from his real one. We simultaneously appreciate the jokes based on the situation of the wedding and the humor derived from the cast imposing a surprising role on a fellow audience member.

In another scene, one of the actors, playing a grade-school football coach, wades into the audience and invests various guys in the house with identities as hapless young teammates. He challenges first this man and that man for excuses for a woefully-played game. And the guys in the audience have to produce. They have to come up with reasons why they have fumbled this pass or failed to block that tackle. The comedy is generated by watching the performer integrate these responses into the scene he is playing.

In the Second City examples I cite, non-actors are put into the situation of having to play roles projected onto them. In An Oak Tree, British actor-writer named Tim Crouch is currently doing something similar with professional players. (As I write this, he’s playing it to acclaim in London.) Every night Crouch invites a new actor onto the stage to play with him. The actor arrives innocent of particulars of the event in which he is about to participate. He is not allowed to see the script, and Crouch is happier if he hasn’t read any of the reviews and so cannot anticipate the course of the show.

The evening has a dramatic premise: Crouch plays a traveling hypnotist traumatized by an auto accident in which he was the driver and in which a young girl has died. The hypnotist calls for a volunteer subject for his act and is startled to discover that the volunteer is the father of the girl. The father is not there for revenge, however, but to try to acquire some kind of understanding so that he can make peace with the loss of his child. The gimmick of hypnosis gives both Crouch and the guest actor license to speak in various voices and roles.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that I think this is a world-shaking play. But then I don’t think that its primary purpose is to be a play. Rather it is a nightly theatrical experiment in front of an audience. Crouch is fitted out with a microphone and the guest actor wears an earpiece so that Crouch may whisper instructions into the actor’s ear without the audience being privy. Sometimes, Crouch hands the actor a script so that he may cold-read a scene that of course Crouch has memorized. And sometimes Crouch issues instructions within the audience’s earshot.

The actors who performed with him last fall in New York included such varied and talented folk as Mike Myers, Richard Kind, Stephen Lang, F. Murray Abraham, Denis O’Hare and (gender-bendingly) Joan Allen, Alison Fraser and Judith Ivey. Some actors find the experience exhilarating, like driving at 70 through a fog at night with high beams on. They have to instantly incorporate and assimilate the bits of information Crouch provides them in order to create something like a consistent character. (They also have to trust completely that Crouch will not allow them to drive straight into a wall.) When asked by an actor how he could justify a piece of direction she had given him, director Elaine May once famously replied, “An actor’s job is to justify.” Performing in An Oak Tree, actors face an hour-long challenge to justify constantly.

There are some actors who find the experience disagreeable. One of my friends (whose name I’m not at liberty to disclose) e-mailed me later that he left the stage with a “slightly sour feeling.” He asked me my response to the piece. This (lightly edited) is some of what I e-mailed in reply:

“There were at least three levels going on at the same time, the ‘real’ you and Crouch, the so-called you and Crouch scripted by him (in which you gave each other compliments and reassurances he had written, so we knew that you weren’t the author of those compliments and reassurances and so didn’t necessarily believe them), and the dramatic action of the hypnotist and the father. There were constant collisions between these three levels, which were intriguing and unsettling, and, even though aspects were palpably artificial and manipulative, chunks still proved to be moving. (And yes, it is not too hard to be moving invoking the grief of a parent who has lost a child.) To some degree, I think the evening was about confronting the possibility of being moved by something we know is artificial and a bit bogus. Crouch wasn’t hiding the fact that it was manipulative. Part of what went on in the audience is that we were on your side and couldn’t help but be a little wary of the aspects of what he was doing that smelled of snake-oil salesmanship. But then I think he intended this.

“And then there was the contrast between his highly-prepared, somewhat hammy and melodramatic performance and your more spontaneous, naturalistic instincts, which I think he also intended.

“I would guess that you are not alone among the actors who have played it not feeling fulfilled by it. But then some actors love to work with Mike Leigh, and some don’t. Though he has determined the story of a film before he begins production, Leigh (director of the films Secret and Lies, Naked, and Vera Drake) never gives his actors scripts but rather shoots the story in chronological order. Each morning, the actors are told the premise of the scene they are going to work on that day, they improvise under his guidance, and then a polished version of their improvisation is filmed. Normally, when you do a play or movie, you have access to the whole script so that you can work on the overall arc of your character’s journey. Leigh doesn’t want his cast to do that work. He likes to keep the actor as ignorant of the future as the character is. This way he can avoid the phenomenon of the actor playing the end of the script, anticipating the conclusion of the journey.

“Some find this methodology takes away much of what satisfies them as actors — the challenge of crafting the shape of a performance. There are some great actors who refuse to work with Mike Leigh for just this reason; they don’t like being manipulated. On the other hand, there are some who trust him thoroughly and have done some of their best work with him — Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Brenda Blethyn, etc.

“I think what Crouch is doing is very much like what Leigh is doing. You didn’t enjoy yourself performing last night, and I suspect you wouldn’t want to work with Leigh.

“But sometimes what is an unhappy and unsatisfying experience for an actor is very exciting for an audience. The fact that you weren’t happy doesn’t take away from my finding it very exciting to watch you make instant choices and adjustments and find ways to undercut and play in counterpoint to Crouch’s hamminess. Out front, it was pretty dazzling. The paradox is that, though you had all these artificial hedges on all sides of you, you still did stuff that only you, specifically, could do, and it really turned out to be your evening. We in the audience knew Crouch was going to be OK because he wrote it and was controlling the event. He had the security that comes from having done this piece a hundred times or so before. So the fascination was in watching what you did. There was a bit of a David and Goliath dynamic here; you were the evening’s David and did indeed emerge with honor.

“None of this contradicts your feeling that it’s artificial and manipulative. Part of what makes it a successful evening is that it works even though the audience is never for a moment unaware of the contrivances.”

I can’t help but wonder what Del would have made of the evening. I suspect he would have casually characterized it as flashy bull and then spent the rest of the evening discussing its philosophical implications. Whether one likes what Crouch does or not, one cannot leave the show without being moved to explore the nature of identity onstage.

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Review: “Heart” with Jade Anouka

If you saw Phyllida Lloyd’s series of Shakespeare productions set in a women’s prison you likely remember what an arresting impression Jade Anouka made as Mark Antony and Hotspur. She has returned to New York in a solo piece called Heart as part of Audible’s series at the Minetta Lane Theater.

The lights come up and she’s still arresting, in utter command of an expressive body and voice. Alas, what she’s not in command of is her text. The piece is autobiographic and it goes from her description of a disastrous early marriage through a journey of self-discovery to a hard-won, stable relationship with a woman. Along the way, she worries that if her private life becomes public it will limit her casting opportunities.

The problem is that she evaluates everything for us. Instead of being content to present scenes from her life, she insists on analyzing the meaning of the scenes in detail, sprinkled with an abundance of adjectives. She leaves nothing for us to figure out, rendering the audience passive. And there is whiff of self-congratulation (building to a couple of cues for the audience to applaud news about her life) that is off-putting. I wish director Ola Ince had urged her to be more trusting of the audience’s ability to come to their own conclusions and to embrace her without overtly asking.

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“Winter Adé”

On an impulse, I watched Helke Misselwitz’ documentary, Winter Adé on Mubi streaming. The film is mostly a collection of interviews by the director of women in East Germany.

The interviewees are of various ages. Two teenagers who don’t want to live the life the country has mapped out for them and so choose to raise a little modest hell were interviewed just before they were shunted into juvenile correction programs. Another woman talks about drawing around her both her biological children and other kids who look to her for love they’re not getting in their homes. (One of her son’s ex-girlfriends becomes a virtual daughter.) Another woman talks about not pursuing a sustained relationship with a partner because of her sense that her primary reason for living is to work with at-risk children. Another has spent years walking around a factory with a mallet to whack flues to keep dust that might cause fires from being caked on the inside. The litany of mostly soul-deadening jobs in a society of limited opportunity is heart-breaking, but the fortitude and humor of most of those interviewed keep the film from being depressing.

Most memorable is a sequence focusing on an 83-year-old woman named Margarete Busse celebrating her diamond anniversary with her husband Herman. In a long group shot, first her children raise their hands, then her grandchildren raise their hands, and then their great-grandchildren raise their hands. All heart-warming and jolly. Except she is interviewed in a private session and reveals she only married Herman because of the bad luck of getting pregnant by him fifty years ago. And, as she continues to talk, you realize that Herman is a bastard who bullied her and cheated on her. As she expresses her regret at having spent her life with him, she hears the sound of him entering the apartment. She tells the interviewer they’ll have to stop or she’ll have a problem. Yipes.

The film was released in 1988, a year or so before the Berlin Wall came down. (There is no hint in the film that this is in the offing.) There is very little overtly political content, but a sense of shabbiness as a national motif pervades. I was particularly interested in this because Kristine and I recently watched a compelling German TV series called Weissensee about life in East Germany before, during and after the fall of the Wall from the perspective of a family involved with the Stasi, the East German secret police force. Weissensee and Winter Adé are holding a conversation in my head.

Oh, and the black-and-white cinematography by Thomas Plenert features one indelible image after another, caught on the fly.

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“The Bedwetter” and “Mr. Saturday Night”

Two new musicals are co-written by people who came to fame via stand-up comedy. Mr. Saturday Night, the Billy Crystal vehicle (which he co-wrote with Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, composer Jason Robert Brown and lyricist Amanda Green) is about a comic’s life post-fame. The Bedwetter, which Sarah Silverman co-wrote with Joshua Harmon and the late composer Adam Schlesinger, ends with the autobiographical character making her first appearance as a comic in front of an audience. As you might gather from the title, Silverman’s show pays a lot of attention to pee. Crystal’s show, too, doesn’t shy away from poop and pee jokes. As much as we may yearn to focus our lives on higher things–truth, beauty, art, wisdom, justice, etc.–we can’t get away from the fact that every few hours we have to acknowledge the needs of the body and expel stuff.

Both shows also remind us that family is usually part of the package. As British poet Philip Larkin famously wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”

Being a parent, Buddy Young, Jr., the aging comic Crystal plays, mostly is charged by the show with fucking up his daughter, Susan (Shoshana Bean), as well as doing incidental damage to his wife, Elaine (Randy Graff) and brother, Stan (David Paymer). Happily, given a chance to restart his career, he also seizes the chance to reset his relationships. The fact that he and the cast have tuneful, witty songs to sing helps us ride over his obsession with making every encounter serve his wants and needs.

The ways in which parents’ behavior can fuck up a child are particularly emphasized in The Bedwetter. It doesn’t worry Sarah’s retail merchant father Donny (Darren Goldstein) that telling her filthy jokes (which she often doesn’t understand) might lead to difficulties in school. And the chronic depression of her mother, Beth Ann (Caissie Levy), unable to get out of bed in the wake of divorce, surely has something to do with the depression young Sarah (Zoe Glick) finds herself slammed with. A bonus is that her grandmother (Bebe Neuwirth) has trained her to make her a never-ending stream of Manhattans. (Sister Laura, played by Emily Zimmerman, could pass as relatively undamaged.)

Despite the rawness of the jokes and the calculated outrageousness of some of the songs (eg., Donny, upon meeting some of Sarah’s schoolmates, sings a toe-tapping, fantasy tune called “I Fucked Your Mothers”), the overall effect of The Bedwetter is affirmative. Mostly people survive. (Well, OK, a minor character doesn’t. I mean, there’s no guarantee, but the odds tend to be with you.)

And both shows also celebrate the magical healing properties of television. Buddy’s road to a renewed career and life is via commercials and talk shows. Young Sarah is given an unexpected boost when the beauty queen, Miss New Hampshire (Ashley Blanchet), uses her appearance on a talk show to (improbably) announce that she, too, was once a bedwetter.

Which leads me to think, if I could just find a sponsor …

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Telling it Clearly — “Macbeth” vs. “Cyrano”

I’m a story guy. I think the roots of the theater lie in people sharing stories.

I’ve written before about a conversation I had in the mid-Seventies with novelist Louis L’Amour that influenced my thinking. He described how Native Americans, upon their return from a hunt or a battle, knew it was part of their responsibility to share accounts of what they had participated in or witnessed. Not having access to written language, they got their community together to relate these stories by performing them. Sharing these stories, they simultaneously fulfilled the functions of actors and journalists.

Yes, there are theatrical events which de-emphasize stories, but for the most part we go to the theater to witness actors sharing narratives.

So I hold one of the highest obligations of a production to be that it make sure that the narrative is clear.

I saw a production recently in which all of the language was the author’s, but the story (and thus the writer’s intent) was muddy. Shortly after that, I saw another production in which a contemporary writer had taken a classic text and utterly translated it into a contemporary idiom; though the language was quite different, the story was clear, and I think the original writer’s intentions came through brilliantly.

OK, specifics:

The first production I’m referring to is Sam Gold’s production of Macbeth. He has a terrific cast, headed by Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga, and the script is one of the most reliable in the canon. But, as I was watching it, I wondered, “If I were seeing this play for the first time, would I understand the story?” And I don’t think I would. I would get some of the major events (it’s hard to miss the murder of the king). But I doubt I’d track some of the subtler points. I had no such problem with Gold’s production of Othello set in an army barracks in which Craig was a memorable Iago. I just think this time Gold swung and missed.

The second production? A version of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac as rewritten by Martin Crimp presented at the Harvey by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. At the beginning of the evening, a projection tells us it’s 1640, but the rest of the evening features the ensemble grabbing microphones and frequently breaking out into obscenity-laced rap.

What’s more, a lot of the trappings we associate with Cyrano are not present. There isn’t a plume in sight. A furious duel is fought, but without rapiers. The famous balcony scene is played not on a balcony but on four chairs that could have been purloined from an upper West Side kitchen. And, most pointedly (small joke), James McAvoy’s Cyrano doesn’t have the standard-issue nose. The nose and much of the rest of the world are referred to in the text, but they are not realistically depicted. The characters talk about how big Cyrano’s nose is, but it’s our job to imagine it.

It wouldn’t have surprised me if this Cyrano had been created in a post-pandemic world. The several passages in which actors in conversation faced downstage and spoke directly at the audience reminded me of the Zoom productions at the beginning of lockdown which featured actors in separate boxes facing forward as they played scenes. It was a convention most of us quickly got used to. As it happens, this Cyrano was playing when the lockdown came (in fact, I had tickets for a performance that was never given in 2020). But I think being forced to abandon conventional spacial relationships and costuming, lighting, etc. when putting up or watching productions on our monitors may have had the effect of making theater-makers and audiences realize afresh that theater doesn’t have to counterfeit reality. If you’ve organized your production with care, give us the elements and we in the audience can usually be counted on to do the work of putting the pieces together and making it coherent.

And that is part of the great pleasure of this Cyrano. Director Jamie Lloyd trusts us to see Cyrano’s nose without fitting James McAvoy with one. He trusts us to imagine the balcony. He makes the terms of his contract with us in the audience so concrete that, even minus the traditional trappings, the story does indeed stay clear. It helps that his company is a uniformly strong one. Evelyn Miller makes a particularly dynamic Roxanne; freed of the usual gowns and wigs and equipped with her own share of casual obscenities, she emerges clearly as Cyrano’s spiritual and intellectual match. At times their banter approaches the playfulness of Beatrice and Benedick.

A number of high-profile directors have been engaged in recent years in bold reconceptions of classics. Ivo Van Hove has a mixed record. His A View From the Bridge was a triumph; his Streetcar Named Desire did fatal damage to Tennessee Williams’s subtext. As I said above, Sam Gold gave us a first-rate Othello but here stumbles with Macbeth, as I believe he did with Look Back in Anger. So far I’ve seen two productions directed by Jamie Lloyd – this compelling Cyrano and his fluid take on Betrayal, one of the best productions of Pinter in my experience. It’s not a competition, but …

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“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, 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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