“The Far Country,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and Revues

I should declare a conflict of interest. Lloyd Suh is a former student of mine. I have no idea what, if anything, he got from our classes a couple of decades ago at the New School, but he made a vivid impression on me at the time and I have followed his work with particular interest and pleasure.

His The Far Country (playing at the Atlantic Theater) is a rare thing–an intimate play on an epic subject: the strategies and tactics that arose in the Chinese community to cope with an 1882 law designed to keep Chinese from immigrating into the United States. What particularly strikes me is that Suh suggests that the patent racism and immorality of the law in turn generated corruption within the community it was enacted to oppress. A figure who easily earns the audience’s sympathy because of abuse suffered at the hands of American officialdom surprises and disappoints us when he has no hesitation about exploiting others in turn. Suh observes this with a cool, ironic tone, so it comes as a happy surprise when the last person in the chain of victimization turns out to act out of a reservoir of kindness. I’ve been thinking lately about how much drama these days is rooted in the assumption that human beings generally will disappoint, so it is moving for once to encounter a character who surprises by her compassion and generosity. In the middle of the larger, sadder tale Suh has to tell, he offers us a bit of hope. It’s a provocative play being given a crisp production by director Eric Ting.

Hope ultimately is in short supply in Merrily We Roll Along, the musical that composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer George Furth fashioned out of the 1934 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play of the same title. That is part of the show’s fascination and part of its problem.

One of the benefits of being a long-serving member of the Dramatists Guild Council (and on which Suh now serves) is that, over the years, I had regular encounters with writers I grew up admiring. When the musical version of Merrily was announced, I remember running into Sondheim before a meeting, and we got to talking about the opportunities the peculiar structure of the piece offered. (As you probably know, the show tells its story backward, beginning with the leading characters embittered in middle age and ending with them full of optimism at the end.) I remember saying to him, “Let me guess: some of the thematic material that sounds harsh at the beginning of the score will get simpler and less complicated till it emerges as purer and more openly melodic at the end.” Sondheim gave me a big grin and an exaggerated nod as if to say, “Oh, the fun I’m going to have!” And, yes, he did that, but he also did something I had not anticipated: he introduced songs by what would in an ordinary show be their reprises. (This is particularly effective in the case of the gorgeous “Not a Day Goes By,” which we first hear sung in anger by an embittered wife and then hear as a wedding pledge.) One of Sondheim’s key maxims is that “content dictates form,” and a choice like this in his score for Merrily exemplifies this.

But it is also why this show, which ends with the joyous and optimistic song, “Our Time,” is ultimately depressing. We know from the first scene where the road for the three main characters will lead – to alcoholism, adultery, and the betrayal of talent and relationships. As the show unfolds, the characters get younger and more charming and more endearing, but we can’t help but being reminded that at least two of them (Franklin, the composer, and Mary, the novelist and film critic) will end up lost and bitter.

I saw the original production of the musical in 1981 and, no, despite the marvelous score, that version didn’t work. It was director Hal Prince’s concept to have all of the characters played by young performers, so, as the show began, some were playing characters who were something like two decades older than their actual ages. It wasn’t quite Bugsy Malone, but those opening scenes lacked weight. In this production, directed by Maria Friedman, Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez and Daniel Radcliffe aren’t exactly grizzled, but they carry sufficient maturity to make us buy the early scenes featuring the older versions of their characters. (Radcliffe, who is actually the youngest of the three leading actors, first appears in the second scene, when everyone is three years younger than in scene one.) It also helps that the cast isn’t (as in Prince’s production) costumed in T-shirts with the characters’ names on them.

I still wrestle with the essential pessimism of the show. Merrily We Roll Along is a big, bouncy musical about the inevitability that most of our lives will nosedive into disappointment. (OK, Charlie Kringas, the playwright played by Radcliffe, ends up with a happy marriage and a hit play, but we don’t get to see that.) It’s hard to tap your toes to despair. At the end of his journey, having taken the measure of the difference between where he started and where he ended up and why, Franklin Shepard seems primed to respond by doing … not much.

It makes me think of the different connotations of the word “conclusion.” One meaning is the end of something – the last image, or word, or note of a work. Another meaning is what we come to believe as a result of our reasoning something through. In Merrily, what we come to believe is that if you betray your central ideals, you’re liable to make a mess of your life. But the final song in the show, its conclusion (save that short coda with Franklin Shepard left alone with his thoughts) is the song “Our Time,” which is hopeful and joyous. So, to my mind the two conclusions of Merrily are in opposition.

For historical reasons, I am particularly taken with the sequence set in 1961 in a Greenwich Village nightclub in which Franklin, Charlie and Franklin’s fiancée Beth perform a lightly satiric song called “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” about John F. Kennedy bringing his extended family to Washington, DC. At first listen, it seems like a pastiche of the sort of clever number that might have appeared in a Julius Monk revue. (If you don’t know who Julius Monk was, Google is your friend. If you like musical theater, you should know the part he played in many major writing and performing careers.) But then, a level of irony kicks in. The song is about how JFK will be followed by his brothers and children and extended family into a glorious new age of progressive governance. We smile indulgently at the gentle humor, and then we remember the tragedy that marked so many of the Kennedy lives. We see the shadows of what is to come that Franklin, Charlie and Beth can’t. Just as they can’t anticipate their own difficult futures, futures we have already glimpsed.

In this section, Sondheim and Furth reference the place such low-budget, light entertainments used to occupy in the New York theater scene. Many years ago, I had the occasion to talk briefly with Jerry Herman about how he managed to land the assignment of his first Broadway score. He told me that he did what the characters in Merrily do: he put up low-budget musical revues in Greenwich Village to showcase himself. It worked. The shows led to him being engaged to write the scores of first Milk and Honey and then Hello, Dolly! It wasn’t a strategy he invented. Some kids named Betty Comden and Adolph Green followed the same path more than a dozen years before when they created an act called The Revuers that led to them being engaged to write book and lyrics (and star in) On the Town.

Most of the major musical theater teams of the postwar era had experience in this arena. For years, every season saw a handful of young talent, usually nattily attired in coordinated suits and dresses and accompanied by a piano, cracking wise about sex, politics, and culture. (Check out the Chad Mitchell Trio’s version of a song called “Barry’s Boys,” mocking Goldwater conservatives. It originated in a Julius Monk show.) As the rock scene grew, the revue form faded away. The most famous venue, Upstairs at the Downstairs, just west of Fifth Avenue on 56th Street, closed in 1974 after thirty years.

I think musical theater lost something with the decline of this form. The revue (mostly off-Broadway, but occasionally on) trained developing writers in how to write tuneful, accessible songs tailored to the specific talents and personalities of their casts. It also trained them to know when they had made their point and to move on. Every season I see musicals whose writers would have profited from learning these lessons.

As I write this, I remember that I was part of a modest effort to revive the form. In 1977, I was part one of the writers of an off-Broadway entertainment made up of songs and sketches called The Present Tense that played in a long-gone space on the top floor of a hotel on West 73rd Street. It was produced by (believe it or not) Roger Ailes (who was deeply unpleasant even then) and directed by Stephen Rosenfield. Some very good people were in the cast and contributed material (one of our songs was by a promising guy named Alan Menken). It was probably most notable for introducing Lee S. Wilkof, who won a much-deserved Obie and went on to be the original Seymour in Alan’s Little Shop of Horrors and to direct a terrific film called No Pay, Nudity about the actor’s life in New York. And no, our effort did not succeed in reviving the form.

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Chasing Stories

If you took a census of all of the characters who are alive in my mind, it wouldn’t surprise me if the number reached into the thousands. Sherlock Holmes and Mama Rose, Clytemnestra and Walter Lee Younger, Jackie Brown and Zatoichi – leading, supporting and cameo characters reside uneasily in an ever-expanding repertory company and can be called forth instantly. Not to mention multiple versions of some characters. (Which Sherlock Holmes? Whose Mama Rose?)

The most vivid characters drive the countless stories that also live in my mind. I consume stories at a furious rate. I plow through novels, biographies, histories and memoirs relentlessly. One of my current projects is reading through a three-volume set of 170 short stories published in The New Yorker from its founding to 1960. (I hope to finish by spring.) I subscribe to several streaming services and devour Danish thrillers, the National Theater’s videos, classic films and genre entries from Criterion and TCM, and much of the product of HBO, Showtime, Hulu and Britbox.

And plays. I vote for the Tony, Drama Desk and Hull-Warriner Awards, so I am invited to the theater a lot. There is no way to see everything, but I frequently catch four or five shows in a week.

So I read or see a lot of stories. And I think a lot about stories. About their power. About their purpose. (And about why I also write them.)

It’s a commonplace observation that we tend to understand our existence better when it’s organized in narratives. When we try to figure out why this or that happened, we are looking for causality – why this choice led to that consequence, how character influences result, or, conversely, how this event shapes that character. We understand much of our reality from patterns we absorb from the stories we encounter. Freud named the Oedipus syndrome after a Greek play. Reagan believed Miss Jane Pittman was a historical character. I would guess the understanding many of us have about legal procedure has been gleaned from endless hours of watching the different editions of Law and Order.

This is a roundabout way of my saying I think stories matter. And I think how you tell stories matters. To create a story is to attempt to fashion a pattern or order out of the onslaught of seemingly random events and impressions we get battered by in reality. Even a story that devastates offers the comfort that at least what happens makes sense.

So I get cranky when storytellers don’t bother to tell a story coherently.

Which brings me first to the Bedlam Theater. I’m a fan. I mark their productions of Saint Joan, Sense and Sensibility and Pygmalion among the more exciting events in my career of theater-going. So I was delighted to be invited to their recent brace of offerings, Hedda Gabler and The Winter’s Tale. Their Hedda rang a few changes on traditional stagings, but it still told of a woman living in a society in which she has few rights and outlets who turns her frustration into destruction. Susannah Millonzi’s take on the title character reminded me of Christopher Walken’s take on Iago in a Central Park production of Othello. Early on, he signaled to us he was a modern guy whose values were more in synch with the contemporary audience watching him and further, “I mean, really, isn’t pretty much everyone else in this play kind of a square? Ya know? Don’t they kind of deserve what they get?” Millonzi’s Hedda similarly was a woman born in the wrong time period, and with her slouchy body language she carried herself differently than everybody else on the stage. It was a strong choice and it worked.

I had a problem with The Winter’s Tale. As much as I enjoyed aspects of all of the performances and many of director/actor’s Eric Tucker’s choices, I knew that if this were my first encounter with this play, I probably would not be able to follow the story. (I felt similarly about his take on Peter Pan.) I think it’s a storyteller’s first responsibility to tell the story clearly. Tucker certainly can do it when he cares to.

Sometimes the problem is in a production. For instance, Ivo Van Hove’s take on The Crucible made no damn sense. If witches aren’t real, then what the hell was that girl doing flying on a chair in mid-air?

(And while I’m talking about things that fly, what in the hell happened to Doctor Who during Jodie Whitaker’s tenure? She is such a joyous and engaging performer, it was infuriating to see her stuck in the muddle of Chris Chibnall’s chaotic scripts. OK, detour over.)

A story that doesn’t quite make sense is like a carpet that refuses to lie flat. It might almost make sense, but if there is a chunk that still doesn’t lie flat, no matter its virtues, it still annoys. As charmed and diverted as I was by much of The Gett by Liba Vaynberg (presented by the Rattlestick Theater), her carpet refused to lie flat.

The Gett is about a Jewish-American woman who is haunted by the presence in her mind of the husband she has recently divorced. The central question of the play is if she’s going to get over him and how. After the prologue, in a flashback, Ida (pronounced Eeda, which is important) gets stuck in an elevator with a smart guy with a motormouth carrying a take-out order of Chinese food who calls himself Baal. For some reason, within two minutes he’s telling her he’s circumcised (more or less). Why she finds this so attractive as to swiftly move in with and marry him is beyond me. (Most people I know stuck in an elevator with someone who started talking about their genitalia would probably move to the far corner of the elevator and hope they had the foresight to pack pepper spray.) By the second scene, they are divorced. I was mystified by what brought them together, and I was mystified by what tore them apart.

Ida keeps being haunted by Baal as she deals with a variety of other men, including a couple of boyfriend possibilities. He keeps popping up as a fantasy figure in her scenes with other people. You would glean from this that her objective might be to figure out a way of getting rid of him. But instead, it is he who, for reasons insufficiently articulated, suddenly contacts her with the announcement he wants to get a gett. There’s a real-world reason for this as a plot development Vaynberg would employ: a gett (a kind of emphatic spiritual divorce for Jews) may only be initiated by the husband. But, as a matter of dramatic logic, this doesn’t make much sense as Vaynberg has written it. We haven’t seen him haunted by her, after all. Now, if she persuaded him to seek a gett and he acquiesced, that would track with what Vaynberg has established.

I deal with this at length because, in spite of this reservation, Vaynberg strikes me as a real talent, both as a writer and performer (she plays Ida). For those of us who felt cruelly deprived when Wendy Wasserstein was abruptly taken from this world, Vaynberg has some of Wasserstein’s strengths. It’s not just that she writes a beautifully specific Jewish mom reminiscent of Wasserstein’s Isn’t It Romantic?, it’s that she possesses a similar wit and a grudging affection for the people she satirizes. Mom, by the way, is played by Jennifer Westfeldt, herself a gifted writer-performer. As irritated as I am by aspects of The Gett, Vaynerg is on a list of writers I’m eager to follow.

While I’m on the subject of storytelling, I’d like to mention how gratifying Mike Birbiglia’s new show, The Old Man and the Pool, is. I have heard people laugh harder, and I have heard comedy that cuts deeper, but I don’t know when I have witnessed a performance in which an audience has laughed more. Quite an accomplishment given that it’s ultimately an essay on mortality, a subject that doesn’t usually prompt me to chuckle.

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“Raisin in the Sun” at the Public

The first grown-up straight play I remember seeing was Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in Chicago. I didn’t see it the first time it played Chicago, when it stopped there on its way to Broadway in February 1959 and, to the surprise of its author, received a rave review in the Chicago Tribune from the often-acerbic Claudia Cassidy. Raisin opened on Broadway a little later and was an enormous hit. In the summer of 1960, a film version was shot. It had not been released, though, when I went to see its return engagement at the Blackstone Theatre in early 1961 as a theater-mad kid. (The film, directed by Daniel Petrie, was released in May, 1961.) I remember little about the experience except that I was riveted. Being ten years old at the time, I doubt I understood the political or social context much. I probably just hooked into the emotion.

But, from what I’ve read in various memoirs and histories, the Raisin I saw was different from the one that played in Chicago two years before. The first run had featured Sidney Poitier as the star and McNeil had supporting billing. Billing be damned, McNeil thought her character, Lena Younger, was the leading character in the play, and she and Poitier were on hostile terms for much of the time they worked together (including when they made the film). Poitier had gone back to being a movie star by the time I saw the play at the Blackstone. And then it was “Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun” with all of the other actors listed in the same sized typed as supporting players under the title. The story is that McNeil’s performance was fueled by the spirit of retribution. There is a moment when Lena slaps her daughter Beneatha for doubting the existence of God. McNeil never bothered to learn how to do a stage slap, and night after night she actually slapped Diana Sands across the face to the point at which Sands threatened to bring her up on Equity charges.

As I’ve mentioned, whose play Raisin is has been a matter of debate from the start. Poitier believed it was Walter Lee’s, that the script described the journey of the character from impatience and immaturity to the point where he stood up to the bigotry of the whites trying to keep him and his family from moving into Clybourne Park. McNeil was just as certain that the story was about Lena’s drive to get her family out of the ghetto and into a decent house.

There have been a few articles about how Robert O’Hara, the director of the current revival at the Public Theater, feels that the play belongs to all three leading women in the story (the other two being Walter Lee’s sister, Beneatha, and his wife, Ruth). He has made the point that Walter Lee begins no scenes but comes into scenes that have been started by the women. These articles suggest that his production of Raisin is a radical re-imagining of the play.

Not really. There are some expressionistic flourishes (some of which work better than others), but mostly this is a solidly-acted, mostly naturalistic production.

The biggest change is in the rhythm in which the play is performed. Years ago, Jonathan Miller, without cutting a word of the text, cut a half hour off the running time of his production of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night by having the characters talk over each other a lot. His rationale was that the issues the Tyrones brought up had probably been brought up many times before, so there was no reason for the characters to listen respectfully to things they already had heard. Director Robert O’Hara has this Raisin company play similarly, speaking over each other as people in the middle of heated discussions rehashing old business do. Does this work? Yes. Beautifully.

My particular interest in this production is rooted in my long-term admiration of and friendship for Tonya Pinkins. (No pretense of objectivity here. I think she’s a wonder.) Pinkins played Lena once before as a guest artist in a university production, but the experience left a sour taste in her mouth. Here she has the chance to do it right, and she seizes it. Her Lena has her share of the sentiment and wisdom that led George C. Wolfe to satirize the character in “The Last Mama on the Couch Play.” But it also has a ferocious side that justifies Beneatha calling her a tyrant; when Beneatha makes a crack about the non-existence of God, Pinkins not only slaps her (the moment that brought McNeil and Sands to conflict in Chicago), she brings her to her knees. (Incidentally, she is not the only one to discipline a child physically. At another point, we know that Ruth is going offstage to paddle Travis–reluctantly, but she feels she has to do it. The play takes place at a time when we had fewer concerns about corporal punishment.)

I’ve seen several productions of videos of Raisin over the years. Some of what some think are innovations in this production I have seen before. The restoration of the scene with Mrs. Johnson, the conservative neighbor down the hall, was a feature of the compelling TV version starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle (available on YouTube here.) And bringing back Lena’s husband as a ghost was a feature of the production I saw at the Huntington Stage in Boston in 2013. I think Mrs. Johnson’s presence helps us understand another aspect of Lena and so is a useful addition. But I think, as I thought in 2013, that the ghost has the effect of cutting up food into baby bites for the audience, making obvious something that would be better left to the imagination.

One other thought occurs to me as I recall the several productions of this play I have seen: Walter Lee’s journey means something profoundly different depending on how he is cast. As viewed in the film (which reportedly is a pretty accurate recording of Lloyd Richards’s original stage production, though Richards’s name appears nowhere in the credits), Poitier speaks with almost Shakespearean diction, particularly when he drunkenly parodies the African world Beneatha is exploring. Beneatha’s sometimes suitor, George Murchison, mocks Walter Lee by calling him Prometheus (a reference Walter Lee doesn’t understand), but, like Poitier, both Danny Glover and Denzel Washington gave performances that resonated with that god’s power – their Walter Lees were huge spirits that the walls barely contain. Sean Combs’s interpretation (both onstage and in his more refined TV film performance) to me emphasized the character’s immaturity and impetuousness; when, at the end, Lena (played by Phylicia Rashad) said to Ruth that, by defying the white representative of Clybourne Park, “He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he?”, the line suggested that part of what she meant was reaching adulthood.

Francois Battiste’s take on Walter Lee does not make the claim that he is an extraordinary man trapped in limiting circumstances, nor does it make him a man-child. He’s a grown man chafing against both the barriers imposed by society and having to defer into his adulthood to the parents he has spent his life living with. As much as I’ve admired most of the previous productions I’ve seen of Raisin, O’Hara’s production strikes me as being a particularly vivid depiction of the politics of the family. And part of the value of this production lies in the fact that nobody among the four leads seems to have exclusive possession of what is right.

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A New “1776”

I’m going to guess I’m not the only person who learned about the triangle trade from a musical. Late in the action of the show of 1776, a delegate to the Continental Congress from South Carolina named Edward Rutledge reacts to his northern colleagues’ concern for black people held in bondage in the south by reminding them that a lot of northern fortunes were based on bringing the slaves over. He sings, “Molasses to Rum.” It is a savage number, boiling with sarcasm, very close to an aria. It is the best number in Sherman Edwards’s score. In the original stage production and in the faithful film version, it is a tour de force solo piece. I remember the impact of Clifford David’s performance on the Saturday matinee I saw it, the day before the show opened and surprised the smartasses of Broadway by becoming a smash hit. It was a showstopper for a character we all hated. The heightened lighting burned into our eyes the image of Rutledge standing on a congressional desk imitating an auctioneer selling human beings. (You can see an effective replica in the film with John Cullum playing Rutledge here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeuaTpH6Ck0&ab_channel=PlayNowPlayL8tr)

The new revival at the Roundabout doesn’t trust that a great solo performer singing this powerful song will carry it off. The directors, Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page, bring others into the number, including turning the black performers in the show into figures on the auction block. This heavy-handedness blunts the effectiveness of the number. In their effort to reinvent the show, Paulus and Page meddle with this song and several others, underscoring the points they want to make, points that the audience would have understood without being bludgeoned.

Paulus and Page have a workable idea: to stage a show all of whose characters but two are male with female or non-binary performers, many of them people of color, and to rely on the transformational talent of the cast to make the audience invest in the machinations behind the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. I think the idea is enough. We in the audience would have been perfectly capable of figuring out the ironies. If Sara Porkalob had been permitted to sing “Molasses to Rum” solo as originally written, we would certainly have put together that her character was singing to a John Adams played by Crystal Lucas-Perry, and we would have registered that Lucas-Perry is a black woman. We would have been allowed to consider the possibility that the ancestors of this performer might well have been brought over on one of the ships the song describes. We would have been allowed to own this realization, to have felt a collaborator in creating a meaning of the sequence for ourselves.

Is 1776 a masterpiece? Not quite. Peter Stone’s book is a remarkable organization of material and Sherman Edwards’s music is melodious, frequently witty and occasionally lushly romantic. On the other hand, Edwards’s lyrics are a very mixed bag. “Molasses to Rum” and “Mama, Look Sharp” are powerful and lean and poetic. But “I’ve been presented with a new son by the noble stork,” a line cooked up to rhyme with “New York,” is just one of several lines in the show that induce cringes. Still, the whole ends up being considerably greater than the parts, and if some of the history is distorted to make the pieces fit, the depiction of coercion and compromise as part of the process of government resonates with contemporary poitical wrangling. “Traditional” history books teach the creation of this country as a shining accomplishment. 1776, in whatever version, reminds us that many of the battles we continue to fight today have their roots in the flaws and hypocrisy that were present at the start.

I think Paulus and Page would have done better to cast brilliantly and stage the story cleanly without the heavy-handed embellishments. There was one point toward the end of the show when Patrena Murray, playing Benjamin Franklin, apparently was directed to give a key line with great arm-waving gestures. I thought in that moment, “The line is strong enough. It doesn’t need punching up. If Murray had just been allowed to say it simply, it would have been more powerful.” That in microcosm is my response to much of the production.

I was glad to see it nonetheless. Crystal Lucas-Perry makes a strong, determined John Adams, and Carolee Carmello is a ferocious John Dickinson. Though I miss the grace of Eddie Sauter’s original orchestrations, the new vocal charts by AnnMarie Milazzo are frequently ravishing. If I want to revisit elements of the original show (like the dance music in “He Plays the Violin”), I can always pull out my DVD of the film directed by Peter Hunt (who also staged the original Broadway production). One day I hope someone will try this casting concept without the overt editorializing. I have a hunch it would work just fine.

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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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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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