Life Sucks

Once upon a time, when a musical opened on Broadway, it was common for a combo to release an LP (everybody remember what an LP is?) of jazz impressions of the score. Shelley Manne released Jazz Performances of Songs from Li’l Abner. Bobby Hackett released The Swingin’est Gals in Town featuring his takes on songs from Sweet Charity and Mame. And there were uncounted jazz explorations of West Side Story. The songs on these albums were recognizable – the basic tunes and the chords were there – but the tracks offered hip, colloquial transformations garnished with improvisations.

Life Sucks strikes me as the jazz album version of Uncle Vanya. Again, the basic tunes and structure are there, but playwright Aaron Posner has updated and reshaped the material to include meta-theatrical flourishes and contemporary riffs on themes that Chekhov dealt with in the original.

Generally, I get cranky with post-modern messing with the classics. Classics are classic for a reason, and they usually don’t need lesser contemporary talents to attempt to improve them. (Almost any contemporary talent compared to Chekhov is lesser.) But Posner isn’t trying to displace Uncle Vanya (which his actors addressing the audience in a prologue acknowledge is the better play), but engage many of the same concerns Chekhov did embracing contemporary language, which alternates between the frequent use of “fucking” as a modifier with genuinely expressive passages.

The best-known actor here is Austin Pendleton, playing the aging professor. Coming on the heels of his performance in Broadway’s Choir Boy, his off-Broadway direction of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays, I can’t help but wonder if he ever has a moment to himself to draw breath. At any rate, as someone who has watched Pendleton since his days with ACT and the original production of Fiddler on the Roof,  this strikes me as a high point in an astonishing career.

Also striking is Nadia Bowers as Ella, the professor’s wife, and the object of interest by much of the rest of the dramatis personae. At one point, breaking the fourth wall, she attempts to take a poll of how many in the audience would want to sleep with her. This reads more as an expression of her sense of exasperation than a desire to provoke. I prefer Posner’s version of this character to Chekhov’s. Certainly Ella is more assertive and funnier than Yelena, who has always tried my patience a little.

The rest of the cast (mostly people I can’t remember encountering before) is on the very high level Pendleton and Bowers set. Jeff Wise’s direction is among the season’s best.

Life Sucks is produced by the Wheelhouse Theater Company and is running at the Wild Project at 193 East 3rd St.





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Thoughts on Rosie’s Theater Kids

I accepted an invitation to attend a performance on Sunday of Rosie’s Theater Kids. Rosie is Rosie O’Donnell, who started the organization to introduce theater to kids in the New York area who might otherwise not be exposed to it (many of them children of color). I haven’t researched this in detail, but what started as a program to take a lot of kids to Broadway shows seems to have evolved into a program that brings a lot of kids into rooms with theater-makers to learn about acting, dancing, singing, etc. Some of those who performed and spoke at the Danny and Sylvia Kaye Theater talked about being involved for as much as seven years. Apparently some kids begin in grade school and continue with RT Kids (as it was sometimes referred to) until they graduate high school.

The presentation itself combined kids who clearly were of a professional caliber with kids who were less proficient but no less game. There were a fair number of up-tempo inspirational songs that broke into dance sequences. There were also a monologue, a tap dance for a group to music written in 10/4, and a novelty number – two young women started singing “He’s a Tramp” from Lady and the Tramp and were joined onstage by a large, well-trained dog who made well-timed contributions.

The part of the presentation that impressed me most? Members of the 2019 graduating class stepped forward and spoke of the colleges by which they were accepted and what they hoped to study. One of the commentators said that just about everybody who participates in Rosie’s program graduates high school and goes on to college. If true, it speaks to the value of studying theater in school, and supports the argument that all young people should have some experience collaborating with fellow students in putting on shows.

I am a good target for this kind of thinking since my experience in a high school where theater was important (Evanston Township High School in a Chicago suburb) had a lot to do with my 1) getting through high school with sanity intact and 2) having the confidence to quickly find my way into the professional world. (My first professional production was of a musical for which I wrote book, music and lyrics called Winging It!, a very free adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Birds. I was twenty and still in college when it was given as a special project by the Milwaukee Rep. And you’d have to threaten me with bodily harm to get me to show you the script and the score today.)

By the way, if Rosie O’Donnell herself was in attendance at Sunday’s performance, she kept a low profile. She didn’t take stage during the presentation, and I didn’t see her either in the audience or at a post-show reception. Too bad. I would have liked to have applauded what she’s built.

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After by Michael McKeever

At first, After, a play by Michael McKeever, is reminiscent of God of Carnage, the Yasmina Reza play about two sets of parents meeting to sort out a conflict involving their sons. Carnage, however, plays out in one act in real time, and the mostly comic play deals with how the parents are reduced to behavior not much more mature than that of their kids. After is built in three scenes, labeled “Before,” “During” and “After,” and the event to which those labels refer is a tragic act, an act of violence.

Under the direction of Joe Brancato and with an expert cast of five (in addition to the parents, the sister of one character is there in an attempt to act as mediator), the production is a precise piece of work. But it is a frustrating play because the script should have been better. I admire McKeever’s play, Daniel’s Husband (also directed by Brancato). It has a specificity of language that is lacking at key moments in After.

Let me speak to the larger issue.  The job of a playwright isn’t to be real.  It isn’t to write what characters would actually say in a given situation.  Most people in normal conversation commonly resort to stock phrases and reasoning you can see unfolding from a mile off.  After is filled with this kind  of real conversation.  It all sounds plausible, but too much of it is built on familiar tropes.  Dialogue shouldn’t sound real, it should sound realistic.  It should sound persuasively colloquial, but it should employ newly-minted language.  The audience shouldn’t be able to anticipate the next line (as I found myself doing successfully again and again during After).  It should be delighted by new insights, new imagery.

And it should not be subjected to characters explaining their feelings. My opinion: the audience is meant to figure out from the behavior of the characters what they are feeling. When you have characters label their emotions, you make the audience passive. If the scene is correctly written, no character ever needs to say, “I feel you have betrayed me” or the like.

After is a pretty good play that I wish it had gone through another draft to be the play I think it could be.

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Voices From the Past

To do the new edition of Something Wonderful Right Away, I had to have the text scanned and OCR’ed because I wrote the book before computers. So now I’m working my way, chapter-by-chapter, through the text to make corrections. It’s the closest reading of these chapters I’ve done since I was preparing the material for publication back in the Seventies.

This can’t help but excite a lot of feelings in me. For one thing, most of these people ended up staying in my life as friends, so the conversations are recordings of the beginnings of those friendships. They capture the connections made as we sparked each other to new thoughts and often made each other laugh. Occasionally, I find that I was acting in almost a therapist’s role because, as they talked to me, some of them began to articulate for the first time feelings about that part of their lives they had never really examined before. I can’t remember offhand who told me that he had never actually reflected much on his involvement in the early days of Second City, but the fact that it was going to be a book gave it a new value. “Wow, I was part of something significant enough that it’s the subject of a book!”

As part of the revision, at the end of each chapter (for anyone who doesn’t know the book, each chapter is an interview), I’m adding material about their life or work after the book came out. So far, each of those addenda includes the date of death. So I’m not only experiencing the illusion of them alive again, at the end of each conversation, I’m having to confront having lost someone. This is taking a toll I hadn’t anticipated.

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Second City and the President

I’m working on a new edition of Something Wonderful Right Away.  Here’s an excerpt of a new passage:
The satiric voices that first were heard at Second City once made mock from the sidelines.  Today, satiric comment from Second City alumni is often at the center of the public dialogue.  This is particularly evident in the relationship between alumni and the presidency.
The White House Correspondents Dinner was traditionally the occasion for gentle spoofing of the sitting president, but Stephen Colbert’s performance in front of George W. Bush at the 2006 edition was decidedly ungentle.  Under the guise of praising Bush, Colbert (who trained and worked at Second City in the early nineties) meticulously deconstructed the mendacity under Bush’s public show of amiability.  As Bush was known to go to great effort to shield himself from discouraging words, the routine made headlines, including widespread criticism from conservative pundits who attacked Colbert for ridiculing the president to his face.  Playwright Christopher Durang compared the performance to Hamlet presenting The Murder of Gonzalgo in front of Claudius.  Some years later, another Second City alum, Adam McKay, made a feature film called Vice that did a thorough demolition job on Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney.  The movie was nominated for an Oscar for best picture and McKay was nominated for his screenplay and direction.  Alum Steve Carrell (whom Colbert had once understudied at Second City) played former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The president who followed Bush, Barack Obama, hailed from Chicago and he and his wife, Michelle, had been part of Second City’s audience.  One Second City performer, Keegan-Michael Key, made a specialty of playing Obama in sketches onstage and on TV.  As part of the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner, Key performed a routine with the president in which he played the Obama’s “anger translator,” articulating the irritation that Obama himself was famously too cool to express in public.  (Obama also did comic bits on TV with Colbert.)
These days, the New York Times deems Colbert’s political commentary sufficiently newsworthy as to report on it regularly.  Saturday Night Live, whose actors and writers frequently are replenished with Second City alumni, also regularly makes news with its attacks on the current administration.  Donald Trump has complained publicly about both Colbert and SNL, darkly suggesting that he might try to find some way of punishing them for being mean to him.
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On the Trail of Juano Hernandez

Since becoming a fan of Juano Hernandez through Intruder in the Dust and The Breaking Point, I have my DVR set to record anything he’s listed as appearing in. Which is how I ended up watching an oddball movie directed by Mark Robson and written by Don Mankiewicz called Trial. (No relation to The Trial or Kafka.)

It’s set in a Southern California town. A Mexican kid named Angel Sanchez is on trial for murder. A big-name attorney played by Arthur Kennedy hires a law professor with little trial experience played by Glenn Ford to take on courtroom duties while he (Kennedy) raises money to finance the defense. Ford begins to realize that Kennedy is really a Communist using the case as an excuse to bring in tons of money for the party’s purposes. He also realizes that Kennedy would rather Ford lose the case so that Angel can be a martyr to the cause to be further exploited for fund-raising.

This reminded me of the Scottsboro Boys case and the charge that was frequently leveled at the Communist Party for how that turned out. The NAACP was ready to bring Clarence Darrow in, but the Party made a successful bid to the Boys’ parents that they would be more effective, so the NAACP was sent packing. Of course, they weren’t effective at all and, after being convicted, the Boys spent years in prison for something that they didn’t do. I’m betting that this was an inspiration for the novel that Trial is based on.

Certainly, I enjoyed comparing it to the other stories about white lawyers concerned with cases involving race I’ve seen or read lately – To Kill a Mockingbird (both film and play) and Intruder in the Dust (film and book). In the film of Intruder, Juano Hernandez is the defendant. In Trial, in what was a notable piece of casting for the time, he played the judge. And much is made of him being a black judge. (I read somewhere that he was the first black judge portrayed in a studio feature.) Hernandez gets co-starring billing, but he’s certainly one of the leads. In fact, he’s the last person we see in the film. He is a commanding, articulate figure who doesn’t take any shit. One amusing scene has him in chambers with Glenn Ford’s character, referring to Ford as “boy” a couple of times. I can’t imagine this was unintentional.

Though a Communist is the villain, reference is also made to a state version of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the head of that organization is also referred to as a charlatan and a villain. Many of the people involved in the film were very public liberals at the time, so this was evidently meant to be viewed as a statement by anti-Communist liberals: “Just because we’re one the left doesn’t mean we’re red.”

It’s a clumsy movie and some of the plot developments are unpersuasive. (Nobody would be convicted of first degree murder on the evidence presented!) But the racial politics are interesting for the mid-fifties. Also unusual is Dorothy McGuire playing a sympathetic woman who is more sexually experienced and aggressive than women were in the standard studio fare of the time.

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“Mockingbird” — Stage and Screen

Kristine and I just watched the film version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird a few days after seeing the play. The differences between the film and the stage play are instructive. In the film, the Finches’ housekeeper, Calpurnia, has maybe ten lines. In Sorkin’s play, she is one of the leading figures. Sorkin’s Calpurnia is more like the sharp, observent, simmering Calpurnia in Harper Lee’s other novel, Go Set a Watchman, which, ironically, Lee wrote before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman got mostly mixed reviews, but I think it’s two-thirds of a very good book. (I felt it fell down in its last third.)
Often how a story is told, retold or adapted has to do with the perceived audience or the times. Last year I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and marveled at what a tough, uncompromising piece of work it is. The film version, though well done (directed by Elia Kazan), was softened considerably for the general public. In the original novel, Betty Smith didn’t hesitate to portray the poverty and ugliness of much of the Nolan family’s life. The movie is sentimental almost to the point of nostalgia. From what I can tell, the musical (which Smith helped write) is softer still.
So, something similar has happened to Mockingbird, though Sorkin obviously feels that the story for today had to be tougher than the film, and, for that matter, the novel. I have a few quibbles with lines that don’t sit right (I doubt Bob Ewell would say, “Don’t condescend to me,” or that people were talking about passive-aggression in the 1930s), but there are some canny expansions.
One striking thing I noticed is the differences in how Atticus comes to take Tom Robinson’s case. In the book, Atticus briefly says that Judge Taylor told him, “You’re it,” and assigned him to the defense. For the movie, Horton Foote wrote a scene in which the judge stops by the house and tells Atticus he wants him to take the case. Atticus barely hesitates before saying yes. In Sorkin’s version, the encounter is one of the play’s major scenes. The judge knows the case against Robinson is bullshit and he wants Atticus in there so that there is a chance that Robinson will be acquitted on the merits of the evidence (or lack of) and justice will be served through due process. Atticus resists the appointment, but the judge pretty much compels him to take it as a matter of honor. Atticus and the judge are clearly in league in Sorkin’s version. They may not be flaming liberals by contemporary standards, but they have political convictions that set them apart in that town in the 1930s.
I’ve written before about a novel (and a film) which preceded Mockingbird by more than a decade — William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. Like Mockingbird, it’s about a white lawyer in a small Southern defending an innocent black man on a capital charge, and, like Mockingbird, much of it is related from the perspective of a child who idolizes the lawyer. But Faulkner’s version is tougher. Unlike Tom Robinson, who is a saintly, innocent figure, painfully courteous, Lucas Beauchamp is proud and will defer to nobody. He also doesn’t bother protesting his innocence to his white lawyer, Gavin Stevens. It is Stevens’s nephew whom Beauchamp trusts and collaborates with, and it is by the boy’s efforts (acting under instructions from Beauchamp) and the courage of an old white woman (obliquely related to Beauchamp’s late wife) that Beauchamp’s innocence is proved and the real guilty party uncovered. At the end, when Stevens asks Beauchamp why he didn’t tell him the truth about being innocent, the answer he gets is, “Would you have believed me?” Faulkner is saying that, despite Stevens’ undoubted decent sympathies, he’s still part of the problem. The hope lies in the fact that Stevens actually realizes this himself.  He awakens to some of his own prejudices.
I have no doubt that Lee knew Intruder in the Dust. At one point she made a comment about how her town was filling up with people like the Snopes family, and the Snopeses were characters from Faulkner. Whether consciously or not, I think Intruder influenced Mockingbird.

The filmmakers of Mockingbird had hoped to shoot it in Lee’s home town, Monroeville, Alabama, but the town had been so modernized in the years since the story was set that they had to settle for creating an idealized version in Hollywood. The film of Intruder in the Dust, however, was shot in Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner’s home town, on the locations Faulkner had envisioned as he was writing the book. (Faulkner acted as a location scout for the film, in fact, and was very pleased with the way it turned out.) The use of Oxford is one of the great assets of the film, because with the town came hundreds of the townspeople. Their faces during a mob scene are terrifyingly authentic.

But I’m straying from my original thought: that the film and stage adaptations of Mockingbird are the products of two different writers, Horton Foote and Aaron Sorkin, and the differences speak not just to their differences as dramatists but also to the audiences they expected to engage.  And those differences tell us a little something about changes in the audience in the intervening half century or so.
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