shameless cross-promotion

well, it’s been a while. but dang if I don’t love this blog, so despite over a year between posts, I’m REVIVING the blog!

my decision, then, is this: while I will still be updating with reviews as much as my schedule permits, i will also be using this blog to (shamelessly) promote my own work, when it comes up! as a soon-to-be grad school graduate who (really, really!) wants to be a playwright, I hope you’ll indulge me sharing news of my own playwriting/acting/theatrical adventures.

first up: thesis reading! Please join me this thursday, may 16 at 4:30 pm at Theater for the New City for a reading of my NYU thesis play, Little Talks. it’s free! it’s absurd! it’s short! i worked damn hard on it and i got a FABULOUS cast of actors who are reading it. people who support the arts are, in my mind, freaking rock stars, so if you want to live out your rock-star dreams, join me in the east village on thursday.

Travel Trip Japan Capsule Hotel

Clybourne Park on Broadway

I’m going to go ahead and make a long story extremely short: I saw Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park on Broadway quite a while ago (over a month), I freaking loved it, and I posted nothing.  Because…uhm….I was busy.  Really busy.  I know, you guys – crazy thing that I am going through: I am often busy. Can you believe it?! I’m sure you can’t relate at all because I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who’s ever been busy in the history of everything.

Anyway, while my very reasonable and not-at-all-horseshit excuse of “busy” was a good one; nay, a great one, it wasn’t actually the reason I didn’t post about Clybourne Park.  I did such a good job not thinking about the post that I didn’t realize what the real reason was until last night, when I had to confront it head on.  It started as a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach which bloomed upwards into my tightening fists and clenching jaw.  (Which might be a slight exaggeration of the physical effects, but bear with me).  It was an ugly, stupid, pointless reason, one I think many artists can relate to, and one that I hate to experience because it shows me at my worst.  It came on full force during last night’s broadcast of the Tony Awards, when Clybourne Park was announced as winner of Best Play.  If you hadn’t already guessed it, my friends, my “reason” for not posting about Clybourne Park was jealousy.

I am so fucking jealous of Bruce Norris.

The truth of the matter is, Clybourne Park is a tremendously great play, and fully deserving of the Tony it won last night, as well as the Pulitzer Prize Mr. Norris won for it back in April 2011.  But perhaps because the tone, style, topic, and consistency of it lingers close to the type of play I aspire to write, I have had a crazy, psycho person reaction to its success.  The good news is I am possessed of no great power or authority, meaning I don’t have the means to drive to Bruce Norris’ house and go all Swimfan on him. (…bonus points if you got THAT reference). The bad news is, as a young theater artist who is simply. starting. out., I struggle constantly with fits of jealousy towards the many geniuses who are doing what I want to do, but doing it better and with more success.

It’s an interesting question, and one that I think about often – how do you “manage” the petty, personal reactions you have to demonstrations of others’ genius?  Personally, I don’t believe anyone who tells me that they never get jealous of their peers.  Having just completed the first year of an MFA program in dramatic writing, I can tell you that jealousy is par for the course when your day to day life is filled with dozens of people doing the same thing you’re doing, (and often doing it better).  It’s unavoidable.  Of course, I am thrilled for my classmates when they achieve success, but there’s always that small, stupid, evil voice inside that wonders why them and not me. (My voice, incidentally, is more whiny and obnoxious than downright evil; think: this).

It’s a pipe dream to expect to never get jealous, especially when pursuing a career as a writer or theater artist where public accolades are such an obvious benchmark of accomplishment, and such a common part of the experience. Knowing this, my goal has always been to manage my jealously, to acknowledge it, give it its due and then tell it to stop distracting me from the work at hand.  At the end of the day, it is both upsetting and comforting that there is such a fine line between jealousy and motivation.  I am just as often inspired by my peers (or, my heroes like Mr. Norris) as jealous of them. I want their success to embolden my own artistic risks, not paralyze me with envy.  Because ultimately, I’d rather live in a world where there’s an abundance of crap for me to be jealous of.  Think of the alternative.

As artists, we need to remember that we are not in competition with each other; rather, we are all part of a collaboration to create the fabric of culture around us.  I believe this with utmost conviction, because I believe there is no quota on fantastic theater in the world, no x-number of Playwright Spots or Actor Spots or Director Spots that can be filled before the rest of us are shut out.  The problem with fellowships and prizes and contests is that they can mislead us to believe the opposite — that there is only ONE play worthy of the $1000 prize, or the $100 prize, or even the $10 prize, and that the rest are somehow less significant or important.  Guess what: they’re not.   In fact, it’s that fixation on the nominal and outward trappings of “success” that helps foster the petty feelings of jealousy we all get. Every piece of art made with passion and thoughtfulness deserves to be celebrated as Clybourne Park was.  Just because someone doesn’t win a subjective (!!) award doesn’t mean that their effort was objectively less worthwhile. This might not be a view that everyone shares with me, and that’s fine, but I would not make theater if I didn’t fundamentally believe it myself.  What would be the point?  The subjectiveness of art and art appreciation is so comfortingly welcoming.  I would not want to be part of a community where value was so highly linked to a hierarchy.  While I appreciate much about the celebratory spirit of awards shows such as the Tonys, while I am deeply grateful for all the prizes and fellowships out there that enable artists to make art, those things in themselves are not art, nor are they essential for the creation of art.  I try not to let all that distract me from what I believe to be the true spirit of theater – the contract between artist and audience, that exchange of idea and emotion and offering that can happen whether or not statues are awarded or checks are given out.

So sincerely, congratulations to Clybourne Park on its Tony, and Mr. Norris on his Pulitzer prize.   You should not go see Clybourne Park because it won a Tony.  Rather, Clybourne Park won the Tony because it is an important play that you should go see. It’s a fine distinction, but a critically important one.

The tremendously talented Jeremy Shamos and Christina Kirk in Act 1 of Clybourne Park

I will let Mr. Ben Brantley tell you about the play, because he did a far better job than I ever could, and most of my blogging energy seems to have gone towards my longish and preachy rant about competition.  Suffice it to say that the content of this play (it imagines the previous and future tenants of the home purchased by the Younger family in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama, A Raisin in the Sun), the structure (Act 1 takes place in the 50s, before the previous tenants of the Younger family house move out, and Act 2 double casts the same actors in thematically significant parts as characters related to the house in 2012), and the writing (the “unease”, to borrow from Mr. Brantley, that Norris captures so well in his dramaturgy is exquisitely painful to listen to) are fan-fucking-tastic.  Not sure if you’ve all gotten the Theater Junkie metric, but “fan-fucking-tastic” is the highest praise I deliver to a play.

Damon Gupton, Annie Parisse, Crystal A. Dickinson and Jeremy Shamos in Act 2 of Clybourne Park

Thank you, Bruce Norris, for writing a play so good that it almost hurts me to praise it.  One that, once I get over my 6th grade girl self, is an inspiration, rather than a detriment, to the rest of us.  Thank you for unflinchingly achieving such success, and for widening, not narrowing, the field of theater.  I can only hope, one day, to follow in your footsteps.


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In Masks Outrageous and Austere at Culture Project

So, you know when you’re a kid, and you have that one grandparent.  We all know what I’m talking about here.  That one that sort of spouts nonsense but everyone kinda puts up with it, cuz hey, he’s old.  But then like, the older you get, the more uncomfortable it gets – because turns out grandma’s stories are not just crazy, they’re also kinda racist, and everyone shares an uncomfortable look around the dinner table when she goes off?  And like, you could say something, but what purpose would it really serve, because well…you know.  She’s old.  And kinda funny.  Like, when you don’t think too hard about it.  And every once and a while she hits on something actually profound, so if you listen to the stream of word babble long enough you might actually get something out of it?

Basically I had the theatrical version of that experience this past Saturday night at Culture Project’s production of In Masks Outrageous and Austere, Tennessee William’s final play, “completed” shortly before his death in 1983, and unproduced until now.

Why, you ask?  Such genius as Tennessee Williams – why in the world would any theater company not jump on the chance to produce his final work (excuse me, according to the promotional materials, his final “masterpiece”)?

That was the predominant question in my mind when I attended Saturday night’s show, one that was quickly and efficiently answered.  By 20 minutes into the show, it was clear – In Masks Outrageous and Austere is truly a Crazy Grandpa of a play.  This is no Streetcar Named Desire, people.  Nor is it a Glass Menagerie.  If we’re to assume all playwrights go through some evolutionary process as they move from work to work across their careers, then In Masks Outrageous and Austere marks, for Williams, a solid evolution to Boozeville and Crazytown.

I’ll admit – I was seriously psyched when we entered the theater on Saturday night.  The space is set up with the kind of theatrical presence that makes your stomach tighten and gives you goosebumps – it’s clearly installed, it is something, it promises a journey of some kind – good, bad, or indifferent, this play is gonna take you somewhere.  60 LED panels line the walls of the theater – mirrored walls and numerous actors dressed like 80s versions of futuristic secret service agents patrol in dark sunglasses, while funkazoidal music plays.  One of the actors speaks into a microphone, repeating, over and over, that they are “Gideons, here for your safety”.  Only the white sand along the aisles gives any indication of organicism; otherwise, the entire space feels futuristic, but in exactly the “1983” sense that crazy old Tennessee Williams would have been picturing it.  (“Crazy” and “old” meant with only the greatest affection, people.  After all, if the play is a grandparent, Williams feels like another one.  Or at least a kooky great uncle).

And then the play starts.  Quickly, I realized that with Masks, Tennessee Williams has taken the types of characters his always writes – deeply  disaffected yet deeply passionate, deeply drunk yet deeply verbose, and oh so Southern, and in this case also made them rich and put them in the world’s most bizarre setting.  Babe, a rich old heiress, and her younger husband Billy (and his lover Jerry), have been mysteriously kidnapped by the mysterious, taciturn “Gideons”.  Not entirely clear on who they are, although they work for some mysterious, powerful organization.  And they call themselves Gideons.  They did that a lot.  I spent a while thinking they were gay robots.  But now I think they were real people, and maybe…bisexual?

Robert Bietzel, Shirley Knight and Sam Underwood: Billy, Babe and Jerry. Just yer classic love triangle.

Anyway, Babe and Billy and Jerry are alarmed by the fact that they were kidnapped, and have turned up on a mysterious island, but only insofar as it gives them something to talk about sometimes.  Other times they talk about themselves, and their agony, and sex, and the love triangle that is old Babe, young Billy, and younger Jerry.  Also on the island is the opera singing Matron and her (maybe???) mentally challenged masturbating son who gets sodomized for gumdrops.  Course, I’m describing this play before it really got weird in Act 2, when the Matron’s ex-husband, a “big Black man” who literally cannot speak but grunts his feelings instead, shows up, with his – yup – dwarf translator.  Who he often lifts in the air, grunts to, and sets down to translate his frustrations.  And, oh yeah, SPOILER ALERT, at the end the Gideons kill Jerry and Billy for…some reason… and Babe kills herself by walking in the ocean, which she was terrified of before then.  For some reason.  And it turns out the Gideons were all “acting”? Although if you ask me, it seems not so much like acting if you murder people.  But they announce they were acting, so that was a big take-away for me, at least.

some people, doin some stuff

It was a big ol’ WTF.  According to the director’s note, in a 1981 interview, Tennesse Williams described the play as “important”, “extremely funny” and “bizarre as hell”.

Ummm, OK.  1/3, Tennessee.

Or, oh, I dunno.  Maybe 2/3.  Because when you write A Streetcar Named Desire, you’re basically earning yourself the right to be produced indefinitely, right?  Including the real cray-cray stuff that you write when you’re in your old, crazy, racist days?  It’s hard sometimes to take a play like this in as a young playwright in an MFA program, because I know that if I or any of my classmates were to show up with a draft like it, we’d be told (politely, but firmly) to come back when we had our heads on straight.  But then again, none of us are Tennessee Williams so…touche there.

And of course, the play is not without theme, poetry, and moments of insight.  The man was a genius, regardless of his mental state or crazy ass ideas.  And god bless the actors – they worked their butts off.  Shirley Knight, the famous stage actress who worked pretty extensively on Williams’ plays when he was alive, takes the role of Babe, and the scenes between her and the Matron, played awesomely by Alison Fraser, while long winded and seemingly random, do achieve moments of profundity.  And I mean, I’m always gonna give a touch more leeway to a play that drenches attractive men in water and sends them out on stage wearing nothing but speedos.  I mean, a girl’s got less to say when she has something nice to look at.  Just sayin’.

Shirley Knight and Alison Fraser at the show's opening

Clearly, death and government and love and homosexuality and definitions of madness are all themes in this strange, weird play.  And, honestly, for all accounts, I should hate it a lot more than I do.  Everything I’ve thus far described was maddening in its randomness; unsatisfyingly bizarre and kind of offensive – in terms of its attitude towards race,  physicality, and mental illness, for sure.  But the more I think of it, the more it reminds me of a crazy ol’ grandparent – nonsensical but never boring, cringe-worthy but entertaining as hell and hey, you gotta give it credit – entirely confident in its crazy.

My favorite sentence from David Schweizer’s Director’s Note was this one: “Though our production of In Masks Outrageous and Austere might seem like some kind of “take” on the play, I assure you it is not.”  It gave me a clear picture of Tennessee Williams – who, in all seriousness, suffered from depression and drug addiction in his final years – typing away excitedly, and perhaps finding some kind of legitimate respite from his challenging mental state in this work.  “There must be a translator, and he must be a dwarf!” Tennessee declares in my head, possessed and buoyed by a new sense of purpose.  Very good, Tennessee. Write your crazy play, and guess what?  We’ll produce it.  Why the fuck not.

Did I think the play was good?  Wow, no.  Not even a little.

But am I glad I saw it?

Yeah, in a way, I kinda loved it.  The same way I love my own crazy family – with a great deal of frustration, yes, but ultimately…hell, I’ll say it.  Love.

Oh Tennessee. Gotta love ya.

PS – Culture Project has a great flickr photostream of production photos – that I was somehow not able to leech for this article.  So check it out here, instead, if you’re interested!

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A Streetcar Named Desire at the Broadhurst Theater, or An Open Letter to the Lovely Folks Sitting Behind Me At Saturday’s Show

An Open Letter to the Lovely Folks Sitting Behind Me At Saturday’s Performance of A Streetcar Named Desire

Dear Lovely Folks Sitting Behind Me At Saturday’s Performance of A Streetcar Named Desire –

I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for making Saturday afternoon’s performance of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Broadhurst Theater such an exceptional experience.  When I purchased the tickets for this new revival running on Broadway for a limited time, (previews began April 3rd), I distinctly remember thinking “if only I could ALSO purchase tickets to a streaming line of commentary from a bunch of moronic assholes, to run concurrently with the production.”  Unfortunately, TDF was not offering this option as a ticket upgrade, so you can imagine my delight when the production began and you four began said streaming commentary.

I’ll admit, I was nervous you wouldn’t have the stamina to continue commenting for literally the entire production.  I feared you might need a break, might want to watch the show yourself, or might (god forbid), consider that perhaps there were others in the audience who didn’t want to watch a show with your commentary.  Thank god you were willing to engage with absolutely no one on the subject of absolutely everything for the absolute duration of the performance.

See, I like my theater to be as close to the “director’s commentary” version of a DVD as possible, in that I want to not really be able to hear or appreciate the film itself, and instead listen to someone else talking about it.

And I’ve always found myself wondering, when watching hours of director commentary of films on DVD, what it would be like if the commentator were not the director, or someone involved with the film in any capacity, but instead just a useless nobody with provincial, obvious, idiotic and offensive views about the film. I shall wonder no longer! Your provincial, obvious, idiotic and offensive views about A Streetcar Named Desire went above and beyond the call of duty in uselessness and offensiveness.  And the way you delivered them – so smug, so self-satisfied, so loud! – really added that je ne sais quoi that I was looking for in my disruptive theater-going experience.

Oh, did you want me to review the actual show? Would that I could, people. WOULD THAT I COULD.

I know, I’ve often complained in the past about the “motherfucking Broadway audience“, but it’s experiences like this one that really make me change my tune.  I can’t decide what my favorite moment of your commentary was – when you advised Stella not to “go down those stairs” (I can’t believe she didn’t listen to you!), when you repeatedly called Blanche “bipolar” (and I appreciated how much you repeated that one, see, I kept FORGETTING that you thought she was bipolar so hearing it an average of once every 2 minutes helped keep the opinion fresh in my mind).  Was it when you announced that the show was boring and you preferred musicals, or when you announced that Blair Underwood, who played Stanley, was your boyfriend, and admonished Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played Stella, for kissing him.  I mean – who could blame you!  I was glad to hear, too, that Blair Underwood was no longer your boyfriend after you saw him being physically abusive towards Daphne Rubin-Vega and Nicole Ari Parker, who played Blanche.  I hope he took the breakup well.  You’ll have to let me know how everything works out with that.

If I absolutely had to pick a favorite pearl of wisdom, however, I might say the moment when you pronounced Blanche’s rape fair, because she “teased too much.” I wasn’t sure how I felt about rape, before that moment – I guess I was under the mistaken impression that it was, like, wrong, or something?!? – but you really put it into perspective when you made that statement.  She really did tease too much, didn’t she!  Thank you for sharing your obviously rich and layered world view with me.  I know I didn’t ask for it, but you just knew. (Hey, kinda like Blanche when she gets raped, I guess! AMIRITE LADIES?!)

I also think the risk you took in contributing to the artistic vision of the show was fantastically bold and successful.  They really didn’t have enough of a soundscape, did they?!  Your addition of “Extended Noise That Sounded Like Several Large Bags of Popcorn Being Repeatedly Crinkled Inside A Larger Bag, Probably One Of Those Really Loud Plastic Bags They Give You At Bed Bath And Beyond” to nearly every scene added so much to my artistic appreciation of the show overall.

My only regret, I guess, is that you couldn’t somehow also contribute to my visual appreciation of the show.  But, as you were sitting behind me, I guess that wasn’t possible – instead I had to contend with viewing the incredibly rich and lush set, lit with absolute perfection by Edward Pierce.  It was stunning lights, harmonizing brilliantly with the set and costumes, and one of the few experiences unsoiled by your particular artistic vision.  I can only imagine how you would have added to it, if you could.  Ah well, I guess I shouldn’t get greedy – it’s just that your audio contribution was so stellar that I can’t help wanting more.*

Some people who apparently acted in this production.

I’ve been trying, repeatedly, to think of things to say about the production proper, beyond my quick shout out to the lights and set – but I’ll admit, my experience of A Streetcar Named Desire was so wholly taken up by your presence and contribution that I barely remember anything about the “actual show” (cue highly ironic air quotes and an expression of disdain).  Psh.  “Actual Show Schmactual Show, am I right?!” We both know that you guys were what we really paid money to hear. Sure, Blair Underwood did a pretty fabulous job as Stanley, and Nicole Ari Parker was very, very good as Blanche**, but who really cares?!  You guys really understood what this show was about – disruptive ramblings from assholes!  Isn’t that why we go to live theater in the first place?!  Isn’t that what “respect” for theater is really all about?!

So thank you; it’s people like you who remind me, so completely, of everything I love about the New York Theater scene.

Go fuck yourselves,

Sincerely,

Jessie

 

*Okay, so FOR THE RECORD, that paragraph is confusing because my comments on the light and set design is meant entirely sincerely, whereas, if you haven’t figured it out, all that stuff about the commentators is complete bullshit. But dang were the lights (sincerely!) great in this production!

**Same here — sincere props to these actors! I only wish I could have appreciated your talents without disruption…

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Blood Knot at Signature Theatre

I hesitated a lot before writing this review. Normally, as you may have noticed, I like to start my posts with some sort of super long and rambly anecdote that is supposed to transport you, reader, on a fascinating but seemingly unrelated literary journey before, with miraculous seamlessness, tying in beautifully to my ultimate point about whatever play I am “reviewing”. (Truth in advertising: I said “supposed to” — I realize that it inevitably goes on way too long and probably doesn’t connect at all as perfectly as I would hope).

However, I had a hard time determining my “ultimate point” with regards to Signature Theatre Company’s revival of Blood Knot, currently in production at their beautiful new theatre complex on west 42nd street, and directed by the esteemed playwright.

I’m not sure exactly what it was about this production that left me so ambivalent. Perhaps it was the subject matter – like all of Mr. Fugard’s plays, Blood Knot (his first) focuses on racial tension and divisions in apartheid stricken South Africa. Not a subject matter I have any personal familiarity with, and one, given its damaging social and political impact and extensive history, that seems to demand tremendous sensitivity from any dumb American (like mineself) who would dare “critique” a work of art about it on any serious level.

I’ll admit that I “checked in” with my “pals” over at the NY Times before formulating this blog post. (And by “checked in” I mean, visited the nytimes website, and by “pals” I mean I went to the same school as Ben Brantley, and once I watched a lecture that he delivered wherein he waxed poetic about the terrible, doomed future of American theater — so we’re basically best friends.) According to this well reasoned review from Charles Isherwood, the acting performances don’t quite do justice to the play’s intricate construction, and fail to create the emotional impact otherwise accessible from this play. As in, this production of Blood Knot didn’t make him feel as devastated as he knew the play is capable of.

Morris and Zach - worlds apart

Unlike Mr. Isherwood, I was unfamiliar with the play before seeing it at Signature, so I had no ideal standard with which to compare it. Instead, the performances of actors Coleman Domingo and Scott Shepherd were to be my first introduction to Blood Knot. A few of my peers, with whom I saw the production, unknowingly echoed Mr. Isherwood’s opinion – they too felt unmoved by the play’s end. The play tells the story of Morris and Zachariah, grown men who share a mother but, since they have different fathers, have very different skin tones, a distinction that made every social difference in South Africa when the play was written in 1961. Although Morris can pass for white (“is” white?), he lives with his brother after spending several years away, caring for him, potentially out of some sort of filial guilt. Like all of Athol Fugard’s plays, Blood Knot is a super slow build, with a first act that has often been criticized as “action-less” and overly expositiony. But, like all of Fugard’s plays, the end is an explosion of emotion, ideally one that has been painstakingly earned over the course of the previous 100 minutes.

Colman Domingo and Scott Shepherd

A ludicrously simplified cliff’s notes version of Blood Knot‘s “explosive ending” would be thus: the two brothers come to realize that incredible social striations of their society are, perhaps, more deeply ingrained than any fraternal love they share. The catalyst for this emotional journey is Zach’s pen pal relationship, started via a newspaper advertisement, with a woman who turns out to be white, and the tension between the brothers when they make this realization. (As a black man, for Zach to be communicating with a white women in such a way poses a great risk). Although this threat is eventually resolved, the issues and anxiety it raises in the brothers winds up taking over.

it's cool guys - see! they're pals in real life

I’ll hand it to Mr. Fugard, who directed the production (and PS — can we talk about how freaking badass it is for a playwright to direct his own production? And at age 79??) — the staging is awesome. The play is staged in Zach’s shack of a home, which is situated on a raised platform and filled with old furniture and random props. Zach and Morris spend most of the play on this platform, “inside”, sleeping, cooking, and going about their routines. However, a sort of “play” is established when, in an attempt to troubleshoot the problem with Zach’s penpal, they explore the idea of Morris posing as Zach and meeting her – as a white man, the social danger would be mitigated for Morris. To explore this plan, they have Morris “practice” acting like a white man, interacting with Zach not as his brother but as a socially recognized superior race. (For those of you cringing while reading this – yup, it was massively cringe-worthy). Eventually, the “game” takes over, and Zach, on some masochistic or perhaps combative impulse, encourages Morris to really practice. Inspired, he begins pitching the contents of his home off the platform – first, he throws kitchen supplies, then knick knacks, household items, and suddenly he’s knocking the furniture and walls right off. They crash to the stage floor, loud as hell, while Zach smiles maniacally, leaving a bare platform for Morris to practice being a bastard on.

It’s a super theatrical moment, entirely unexpected in what has previously been a super realistic play, and it’s impact was extraordinary: terrifying, exhilarating, and left me breathless with frightened anticipation. It’s moments like these, (like ones that I’ve lauded in other performances) that make theater so fucking awesome. It took so little – just seconds of clearing a platform – for the two actors to completely subvert the world they’d created. In the best way.

That was by far my favorite moment of Blood Knot. Looking back, I, like Isherwood and my fellow audience members, must admit that I’m not sure the play’s climax reached the emotional level established by such an incredible physical set up. After that moment, I was legitimately afraid that one of the men was going to kill the other. Spoiler alert: they don’t – but I think the text would suggest that the place the brothers get to is just as devastating. So why did I, like Isherwood, not quite feel that? Perhaps, as some of my peers suggested, it had to do with the characterizations – both Morris and Zach read as caricatures at times, more concerned with mugging to the audience or being comical than hitting emotional levels. But that might be an unfair, surface level critique. I will admit, though, that even after 2 and a half hours, I didn’t feel like I knew either of these men on a fundamental, deep level that one can often get to with characters in a really kick ass play. In fact, there was a lot I didn’t know – and wanted to – about their history; obviously, this is meant to be one of the plays biggest, and most slowly revealed, mysteries, but I guess the reveal didn’t give me enough, in the end. Whether this is the fault of the text or the performance I don’t know, having never seen another production of Blood Knot. All I can say is I would probably commit a capital crime for the opportunity to have seen Blood Knot when it first premiered, starring Fugard as Morris and Zakes Mokae, a crazy-badass South African actor who has killed it in basically every Fugard play since, as Zach. Or, the Off-Broadway premiere in 1964, starring JD Cannon as Morris and James Earl Jones as Zach.

A quick word on Signature, for those of you unfamiliar: they recently finished constructing the previously mentioned theatrical complex on W 42nd street, and it is GORGEOUS. Three theaters, a big bar/cafe, and massive bathrooms, which is worth mentioning for anyone who has ever waited on line to use the bathroom in a theater. (Read as: any woman who’s ever been to the theater). I heard, too, that they designed the theaters so that the actors are forced to exit through the lobby — nothing like forced socialization! — but it means that you often see directors, playwrights, and actors mingling in the common space as the shows get out. I’m not lying, people: this space is like a theater-lovers wet dream. It is VERY MUCH worth seeing a show here just to experience the space. Right now they’re performing Blood Knot, my previously reviewed Lady From Dubuque, and Katori Hall’s Hurt Village.

Staircase in the FRANK GEHRY designed complex. CASUAL.

Interestingly, Signature Theatre Company is known for producing American works – Blood Knot is their first production by a non-American playwright (stole that tidbit from Isherwood’s article – thanks Ish! See, I can call him that because we’re best friends. Just kidding….Please don’t sue me, Ish. I mean, Mr. Isherwood). Anyway, Blood Knot is definitely an interesting pick, especially for their inaugural season.

I won’t lie – I don’t entirely get it.

But you know what? I’m also not complaining.

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The Lady From Dubuque at Signature Theatre Company

The one thing about going to a pretentious liberal arts college (i love you, Swat, but we both know it’s true) is that you’re either gonna nosedive into pretentiousville forever, or else, almost miraculously, you develop a pretty good bullshit detector. I flatter myself to think I fall into the latter category. At least, as I’ve mentioned once or twice before on this blog, I’m pretty damn conscious of the presentation of pretentiousness and/or bullshit in theater. If The Epic Adventure that is a Swarthmore College Seminar Room taught me anything, it’s that nobody likes the asshole in the corner “drawing everyone’s attention” to “levels of hegemony, didacticism, or insert-other-smart-sounding-word-here.”

A particularly formative moment in my theater education occurred during one such seminar: Performance Theory, wherein we were exposed to a whole lot of global theatrical traditions.  One week, my professor screened a documentary about the collaboration between composer Phillip Glass and “Avant Garde” director Robert Wilson on their 1975 opera Einstein On the Beach. I do not remember the name of the documentary, nor do I remember much about it at all. (It may have been this one? No clue)  I do, however, remember getting solidly fed up with what seemed like an elephant’s dose of horseshit. For those of you unfamiliar with Robert Wilson, dude is super avant garde. For those of you unfamiliar with Einstein on the Beach, opera is super avant garde. (And here I, like everyone else on the planet who uses the phrase “avant garde”, am not entirely sure of its precise definition, but am spreading it liberally – er, like butter, or cream cheese, or vegemite, for all my aussie readers – over a blanket amount of theatrical behaviors that I’m not quite sure how else to qualify.)

The Opera is crazy long, upwards of 5 hours, and I remember watching shots of the 1975 performance involving crazily dressed dancers/singers slowly lowering their hands, singing high, random tones over and over, or staring at things while walking sideways, and uhm… that’s about it. The audience was invited to come and go from the theater at will, I guess because the show was super long, and didn’t contain anything even remotely resembling a narrative to hook people or (I conjecture, here), keep them from becoming comatose with boredom.

Wilson was interviewed plenty of times throughout the documentary, and I remember him sounding KINDA like a tool and absolutely brimming with elitist confidence. Now, if I were fair or a legitimate writer, before paraphrasing the following quote, I would actually re-watch the doc, find the declaration in question, and assure you all, dear readers, that what I am about to say was indeed fairly attibuted to the speaker I am about to attribute it to. However, I am neither fair nor a legitimate writer, simply a self-satisfied one, so instead I am going to blunder on and callously recount what I recall of Wilson’s most toolish answer. As I remember it, he said something along the line of “It’s not my job or responsibility to endow meaning in my own work” — that he just MAKES IT, and it’s up to an audience to endow it with meaning.

Uhm.

What.

The.

Fuck.

It was at that moment, in that seminar, that I was “out”, if you will. If there’s one thing that 4 years of college seminars will teach you, it’s that pretentiousness for its own sake is the absolute fucking WORST. Sitting in that seminar room, watching that documentary, I became apoplexic with rage that some random dude had the fucking GALL to waste thousands of peoples’ time on an inaccessibly weird 5 hour opera and then freely admit that he didn’t have any particular intent in mind when creating it. Like, Bro: I will seriously go to see just about anything, and give you just about as much time as you want me to, but you better have a fucking INTENT on what your creating for me. Otherwise it is quite literally a waste of everyone’s time.

Now of course, that rage, and to a certain extent, that opinion, was borne out of collegiate resentment for the most esoteric form of academia. And also, there’s the (extremely probable) fact that I might not even be remembering Mr. Wilson’s quote all that well. Plus, a ton of people really love that nonsense. And are perfectly happy imbuing any performance with meaning even if it’s creator had none in mind during it’s creation. It’s just my weird thing, being a theater-maker myself, and understanding all too well what it is to create something that MEANS something to you…somehow I just don’t go for directors or writers or creators who don’t also consider the audience/artist exchange a sacred one, wherein the artist has intent to communicate something meaningful, at least to him/herself, and in exchange the audience member opens her/himself up to that possibility.

Also, to continue to qualify (let’s call this level-headed maturity, and not cowardly fear of taking a bolder stand), this past fall, I would venture to say I made a certain amount of peace with Mr. Wilson when I attended his creation of Three Penny Opera, as performed by The Berliner Ensemble, at BAM. The show was so unbelievably visually stunning that I refuse to even consider that he didn’t have some sort of underlying emotional resonance/intellectual thrust for his directorial decisions. Check it out, and try not to at least develop a baseline respect for the guy as an incredible visual artist.

Anyway, to the matter at hand: My relationship with playwright Edward Albee is short, but it exists: a few months ago, he appeared as a surprise guest in one of my grad school classes. It was crazy – and one of those moments when you really understand how it can be physically possible to shit your pants from excitement. (I didn’t, I’m just saying I could finally understand how it could be possible). Mr. Albee was brilliant, insightful, and, like so many great talents, healthily pretentious. He lectured at us for a while about writing, about his process, and about Art In General. It was inspiring and intimidating. And I’d be lying if I didn’t get a bit of that Robert Wilson “Figure It Out” vibe from Albee, as well. There’s not a quote I could stamp down that confirmed it, but it felt like, the same way Robert Wilson seemed to sit back, cross him arms, and demand his audience “discover” the meaning he was too (lazy? busy? thoughtful?) to imbue into his own opera, Albee expects his audience to do a fair amount of the legwork, too.

oh Albee, you brilliant bastard.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love doing legwork. I once had a four hour conversation with a friend after seeing the play Arcadia together – man did we try to pull that apart. But underneath that conversation was the implicit understanding, on my part, that Tom Stoppard created Arcadia with a clear blueprint for his insanely intricate text: that he knew what it meant. Or, at the very least, that he was aiming to express an empathy for his audience, to share with them a wonder and confusion over things mutually not understood.

There’s a big difference, for me, between that “I don’t get this either but man am I gonna try and help us all figure it out” impulse behind a play, and what I dislike the most about the play The Lady From Dubuque. The play, revived this season at Signature Theater Company, has been getting spectacular reviews and almost constant extensions for its production. And while I can certainly appreciate a lot of the things critics have been lauding – the performances are strong, the set intricate, and the direction clear – I can’t get over what I find a fundamentally frustrating aspect of the writing.

what does it mean?? people, what does it mean??

The story of The Lady From Dubuque starts at a dinner party, like so many of Albee’s plays. Sam and Jo are hosting their friends, and the conversation, biting at first, ultimately bitter, winds up revealing that Jo is suffering terribly from a terminal illness. After their friends leave, Jo and Sam try to confront the unsurmountable fact of her incredible pain and impending death. She goes to bed, screaming in agony, and Act 1 ends with the sudden unexpected arrival of the mysterious Lady From Dubuque and her equally mysterious friend Oscar.

In Act 2, Elizabeth (the Lady From Dubuque) and Oscar confront Sam, ultimately leading to a complete crisis of identity in him. Elizabeth is ostensibly there to comfort Jo in her dying moments, but questions abound: who ARE Elizabeth and Oscar? Is Elizabeth Jo’s estranged mother? Some sort of Angel of Death? Robbers, thieves, someone else entirely? The questions torture Sam, who basically combusts with the effort of answering them. When Sam asks Elizabeth “Who Are You?” she fires back her own “Who are you??” When it becomes clear that he cannot answer that question, she counters that he can’t possibly be concerned with who she is if he doesn’t even know who he is.

who IS she?! no, really: who the eff is she?

When the play first premiered, critics contended it was a play about death. Albee countered, and always has, that it’s a play about identity. I would submit (and here’s a real revolutionary thought) that it’s definitely about both. In fact, for me, the most compelling bit of this play is the way Sam appears to completely lose any sense of his own identity in the crisis of his wife’s illness. The experience of caring for someone with a terminal disease – of confronting death in such a tangible, certain way – is bound to have a fascinating and devastating effect on one’s identity, and is powerful fodder for a play.  I think Albee’s take on it, and the way he shows Sam descend into complete crisis, is nothing short of brilliant.

However, The Lady From Dubuque pisses me off. The same way Wilson, sitting back in his dumb NYC apartment being interviewed for that dumb documentary pissed me off. To me, they’re two sides of the same coin — Albee has no fucking idea who Elizabeth, the lady from Dubuque, is, and invented her, as far as I’m concerned, purely as a contraption to provoke his audience’s curiosity. But here’s the rub: I don’t like for my curiosity to be provoked if there’s no possible way to have it satisfied. I don’t have a problem if a playwright doesn’t tell me something. I definitely don’t have a problem “answering” questions of a play myself. But I don’t much like being provoked merely for its own sake. I don’t much like having to do work that a playwright hasn’t bothered to do. For me, the subtle but essential distinction is whether or not Albee, the playwright, “decided” for himself who Elizabeth was. If he did, even if he never “told” me in his play, then I’m all in. But if, as I have always suspected was the case in this play, he simply added as many provocative but ultimately ambiguous clues to her identity to ensure that an audience member could NEVER know, then I just feel like I’m being fucked with.

And by god, I don’t like being fucked with at the theater. I don’t like when an artist basically sits back and says “haha, deal with it: you’re never gonna figure this out…but I hope you spend hours and hours worrying about it.” Like, dude: no. I’m not gonna waste a second of my time fixating on a question if I feel like your only purpose in posing it was to pose it. Not to express a mutual frustration with unanswerable questions. Because guess what: Albee could VERY EASILY answer the question of who the lady from Dubuque is. HE MADE HER UP. HE CAN MAKE UP AN ANSWER, without sacrificing any of the best stuff in this play.

There’s no empathy is being deliberately cagey; there’s simply, if you ask me, arrogance. It take a whole lot of balls to write this play, and not the good kind. The obnoxious kind. The egotistical kind. The patronizing kind. There is nothing worse than being talked DOWN to, and the attitude it takes to create deliberately (and POINTLESSLY!) unanswerable questions is distinctly “talk downable”.

Pshew. Got that out of my system. Deep breaths, Jessie.

Listen, for all my ranting, I know that I can probably just go suck an egg. (That’s an expression, right?) People are loving this play, Albee is arguably the most celebrated American playwright of our time, his plays get performed absolutely everywhere, and I write a blog that gets a healthy 10 readers a day. So like, shut up, me. I never said my opinions weren’t subjective. I also never said that Edward Albee wasn’t a genius, and I never said I wasn’t glad to have seen The Lady From Dubuque. I never said I don’t respect him, tremendously, as a writer.

However, I can’t help feeling like, at the end of the day, I like feeling that playwrights are with me, not against me. That they’re on my side. That they, like, me, are completely overwhelmed by This Crazy Thing Called Life, and Its Crazy Cousin Death, and their attempts to write plays are simply that, attempts to get a little bit closer to something that can help us all survive – and thrive – in the human experience. That, rather than make us maddened or confused, they’re on our side.

At the very least, that’s the kind of theater I want to make.

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Look Back in Anger at the Laura Pels Theater (Roundabout Theater Company)

There’s a fantastic (read as: terrible) story in my family of That Time We Went To See A Production Of Twelve Angry Men. It was a while back – at some point when I was old enough to know how much I loved theater but also young enough to be fabulously emotionally immature (as opposed, of course, to my complete emotional maturity now. yikes.)

We were late. Mad late. As anyone who knows me now knows, this is no big surprise, but I promise you – when it comes to theater, I’ll fight as hard as I can against my natural lazy/late impulses to be on time. Because, if you ask me (and I know you did), there is Absolutely Nothing Worse than being late to a theatrical performance.

In the case of Twelve Angry Men, it was one of those ridiculous, emotionally strung out sequences where, running to the theater, all intellectual parts of myself knew that there is no chance of arriving on time, but something about the act of running couldn’t be stopped – logic was abandoned with the first, I’m-Super-Out-Of-Shape pant, until the running became an anxious expression all its own.

We didn’t make it. Sweaty and panting, we arrived at the theater a solid 10 unforgivable minutes into the start of the performance. Frustrated but not beaten, my parents prepared to allow an usher to lead us in. Which, in turn, ushered in the Jessie-Is-Way-Too-Old-To-Have-A-Temper-Tantrum-But-Is-Having-One-Anyway-Just-Go-With-It-Oh-Wait-Don’t-Because-This-Is-A-Preteen-Yes-Preteen-Literally-Having-A-Meltdown-In-The-Lobby-Of-A-Theater. To me, it was inconceivable to enter the theater 10 minutes late. I actually began sobbing at the thought. As far as I’m concerned, it puts me square in the ranks of those jerk theater goers I love to bitch about.  I imagined the shocked, judgmental looks of the hacks who were, at the very least, able to arrive at the show on time; the inconvenient grunts as people shifted resentfully. As my nightmare took over, I saw the actors, on the stage, stopping their performance to boo and jeer at the fools who didn’t even have enough of a modicum of respect to arrive at the scheduled performance time.

Was it rational? Hells to the no. But is it a glimpse into the way my anxiety-ridden, easily guilted brain works? For sure. It was a learning experience for my parents, too — from this point on, they understood my rational need irrational psychosis re: getting to shows on time. It led to a few panicked moments where my mother, stuck in traffic somewhere, recklessly pulled over so that I could jump out of a car and sprint the last couple blocks to a theater.

(**Idea for new exercise program: Constantly be late for shows. Literally the only running I ever do. Might have a permanent damaging effect on my nerves, though)

So, if you take anything from the last 416 words, let it be this: I fucking HATE being late to shows.

As anyone who’s ever lived in New York City knows, subways are fun things on the weekends. On the weekdays, the pressure of thousands (millions? no idea) of commuters tends to force at least a baseline of reliability, but on the weekends all bets are off. No disrespect to the hardworking folks at the MTA, who I’m sure get a lot of good construction done on the weekends, but sometimes it seems like they wait for Saturday and Sunday to just have fun fucking with people. Oh, you wanted to go to Williamsburg? Sorry, the L’s not running. At all. Did we not tell you that? Yeah…also, we’re gonna cut some other trains while we’re at it. Hey people who live in the outer boroughs! Someone told us that you guys like to get into Manhattan sometimes, too!?! Sorry, didn’t even occur to us…

If you’re a smart and dedicated reader, you’re probably starting to get a sense of where this is all going. Somehow, the lack of reliability on weekend NYC subways and my hatred of being late to shows is about to collide, right?!

Right. RIGHT.

Last Saturday, I think my brain checked out for a few hours, because I wound up leaving myself a woefully inadequate amount of time to get from Wall Street to midtown for Roundabout’s performance of Look Back In AngerLet’s call it temporary insanity. All I know is I found myself waiting for the 1 to arrive when the countdown clock (again, I assume just to enjoy toying with me), suddenly displayed the word DELAY instead of a number of minutes before the next train arrived.

Not to overdramatize, but…hang on! It’s my blog. And I’m dramatic! I will most definitely be overdramatizing! It was as though my heart dropped out of its chest sack. (“Chest sack”, that’s a thing, right? Listen. I never said I was in medical school). If anything can send me into an unearned, unnecessary mental spiral, it is something like that. When the (packed) train finally did arrive, and I mentally calculated how fast I was going to have to run from the 42nd street subway station, the shakes, and (god, I’m embarrassing), the tears started, too. It’s just SO. Damn. Disrespectful. To Be Late! And to make matters worse, yours truly had bought the tickets for someone who was waiting at the box office, who, without my ID, couldn’t even pick up the tickets for himself. Not only did my theater-going experience hang in the balance, but so did the theater going experience of an additional innocent. The stakes, my friends, could not have been higher.

Spoiler alert: I’m writing the blog entry about the show. I made it. After 5 blocks of terrible, I-really-should-start-an-actual-exercise-routine-and-not-count-simply-on-being-late-to-shows-once-a-month running, I showed up at the box office and was treated to no more than a few admonishing looks from ushers (although, that might have been the visual shock my pasty, sweaty, panting body, not the late-ness). Seats were taken just a few minutes before curtain, and BOY, WAS I IN THE MENTAL SPACE TO ENJOY A SHOW!

That’s a lie. The actual point of everything I’ve written thus far was that, when I showed up to Look Back In Anger last saturday night, I could not have been in LESS of a mood to see a show. I had cold sweats, I was anxious, I was feeling a lot less relief than I should have (and mostly just residual anxiety) about “just making it”, and of course, I was having flashbacks to an inappropriately-aged preteen crying in the lobby of Twelve Angry Men. One of my best moments.

There’s a point in here, somewhere, and it’s this: it was going to take a hell of a lot for me to be engaged with a show at that point.

So the fact that I now tell you that Look Back in Anger was, by far, one of the greatest productions I’ve seen in recent memory, should mean something.

Within minutes, all thoughts of theater-going lateness were forgotten. I was completely absorbed in what was a fucking fantastic production of John Osborne’s 1956 play. Good on you, Roundabout.

See this play. See it see it see it see it.

Look Back In Anger is one of those plays I’d heard of – I knew Osborne was British, part of the Angry Young Men crew – but never studied or focused on in any major way. It’s a play that most theater folks are aware of, at least peripherally, as being Important and Significant, if not slightly, well, forgettable.

The play is a relationship story, written by a postwar generation that was feeling slightly disillusioned with the state of the world after WWII. Allison and Jimmy are married, but Jimmy’s angsty frustration with his lot in life and Allison’s impassiveness in the face of it make for troubled times between the two. It’s aggravated by the presence of Cliff, a friend of Jimmy’s who Allison enjoys cuddling with and kissing in front of her husband (yeah…). When Allison’s friend Helena shows up, who Jimmy just happens to hate, things get cray-cray. Couples are scrambled up and remade. Angst is angst-ed about. Passion, frustration, boredom and apathy all sort of converge in one emotion filled, shitty apartment just like hundreds of thousands of similar shitty apartments in England in 1956. Or, perhaps, in New York City in 2012.

Adam Driver and Matthew Rhys

It would not be an understatement to say that nearly everything about this play felt like it was speaking directly to “me”, to “my generation”. I think the play’s strength is that I would not be alone in feeling that way — most likely the older members of the audience got a lot out of it, too. But director Sam Gold’s production felt like it was keying in perfectly to something essential in the frustration that, well, all young people, and especially young people inhabiting troubling peripherally “unstable” times feel. This play takes a very, very personal story – there is nothing more personal than a 4 person relationship drama – but uses it to key into an essential, universal frustration of an entire generation…and, subsequently, a generation decades after it.

Matthew Rhys, Adam Driver, and Sarah Goldberg

It must have been thrilling, in the 50s, to go to the theatre and see a play that you felt was speaking directly to you. To hear a playwright, actors, a director, saying “yeah, we get it. Life feels long and boring and purposeless sometimes and you feel immeasurably frustrated to have been born in a generation so close to so much but so passively far from everything.” It must have felt a lot like I felt, last Saturday night, when I went to Roundabout Theater Co’s production of this play, and realized that over 50 years ago John Osborne so perfectly captured such a compelling moment in time that, it turns out, would be hyper relevant so many years down the line.

And oh yeah — the freaking actors freaking killed it. (You can tell when I’m getting passionate about something, by the way, because of how liberally I’ll begin to use the words “freaking” and “fucking”). I don’t flatter myself to assume anyone of importance is reading this blog, but regardless, just for kicks, maybe, I have to give a massive shout out to Adam Driver, Charlotte Parry, Sarah Goldberg, and Matthew Rhys, who made up this phenomenal cast. Sometimes I see a play and I think “well, the person who wrote it was smart, and the director seems smart, and those actors…uhm. are pretty? and good at memorizing lines?” And sometimes, the best times, I see a play and think “Those actors fucking get it.” Like, the way the chicks in this tumblr fucking get it (I love that tumblr). These actors, in case you were wondering, FUCKING GET IT.

oh hey charlotte parry. you killed it.

I have to end this blog on a sad note. Here’s why theater in New York is gut wrenching. I saw what I think is one of the greatest productions in this city of 2012 (IMHO), a production so good, it was able to pull me out of my Late Arrival Mental Breakdown….and the house wasn’t even full. Wasn’t even CLOSE to full. And the average age of the audience was probs like…68. Or 69. I mean, god bless old people, because they freaking GO to theater, but young people! Where are you!? Roundabout, especially, works hard as hell to make their stuff accessible – witness hiptix, their $20 ticket program for people under 30. THEY COULD NOT MAKE THIS ANY EASIER FOR US. Please, if you are reading this, and you are even the slightest bit interested, GO SEE LOOK BACK IN ANGER. It’s awesome. It’s everything that theater should be: present, compelling, provocative, urgent, beautiful and exciting. You literally could ask for nothing more.

Except, perhaps, for reliable weekend subway service in New York City. But now I’m just getting greedy.

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How I Learned to Drive at Second Stage

Anecdotally, I’ve found that How I Learned to Drive is a play that most people – or at least, most theater students – read before seeing. One reason for that: from an organizational standpoint, it’s an incredibly well constructed play that anyone pursuing theater should read to understand the brilliance of playwright Paula Vogel’s dramaturgy. Ms. Vogel takes a linear story – of Lil’ Bit, the protagonist’s, relationship with her Uncle Peck – and restacks its scenes out of chronological order. Lil Bit is 17, then 11, then 19, etc etc etc.

One of the first handouts I got in one of the first grad school classes I took re-structured the scenes, putting them back into chronological order. The result was a play that was utterly different, and the lesson – that structure is everything – was well learned. And in the case of How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel needed all the structural help she could get to make her story palatable. Which leads me into the second reason this play is more often read than seen: it’s just not staged that often. Because my god, is it a “tough” play. It’s one of those plays about one of those issues that people just don’t like to spend 90 minutes of their Friday nights dissecting. It’s a play about pedophilia.

Any play that attempts to tackle such a Big Issue must do so with great sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Even plays that “succeed” to any extent, like this one (which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), will inevitably be attacked as being too SOMETHING – insensitive, sensitive, “favoring” of a certain character, sensationalist…the list goes on and on. Because going to a play like How I Learned to Drive is never “fun”, or entertainment in the way a blockbuster musical would be. Rather, it’s an experience that’s much more difficult, but ideally still provides some sort of catharsis while packing a hell of an emotional punch. In the case of this Second Stage revival of How I Learned to Drive, this is true on both counts.

Elizabeth Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz in the Second Stage Production of How I Learned to Drive

I’m sorry to say that How I Learned to Drive is not the only theatrical production I’ve ever seen about molestation and pedophilia. On the other end of the spectrum, I once saw a very, very unfortunate musical on the topic. Yup, you heard me: musical. No, it wasn’t bright and flashy and offensive in the way you might be fearing, but at it’s worst, it was surface level, a bit crass, and entirely alienating.  God knows the actors worked their hearts out, but somehow breaking into song before engaging in a horrifying act of sexual incongruity just didn’t seem to strike the right emotional chord. Ever. For better or worse, this musical (which will remain unnamed in this post, I think, for the sake of propriety), is now a benchmark and point of comparison on all my current and future Big Issue theatrical excursions, and proved a good foil to my experience watching How I Learned to Drive.

As I mentioned, the play revolves around a story between Lil’ Bit and her Uncle Peck, who start a sexual (or at least, sexually inappropriate) relationship when she’s 11 that extends until she goes to college. In skipping around between the years, How I Learned to Drive attempts to provide emotional respite between the darker scenes with comedic monologues and scenes featuring Lil’ Bit’s wacky family; moments that struck me as hollowly ironic and depressing given the intensity of the sexual crime Lil Bit’s family was willfully ignorant of.

In the case of this Second Stage production, too, I found the play’s moments of comedy awkward and uncomfortable, although I might have been in the minority in thinking so. The audience around me certainly laughed; but again, don’t get me started on obnoxious and incongruous audience reactions to crap, ugh. In the same way, the design choice to have a colorful – and at times almost cartoonish – set came across as bizarre and discomfiting, but perhaps on both counts this was actually appropriate and well executed. After all, we are talking about a protagonist who’s under 15 for half the production; a child who is tragically thrust into an adult world. If the bright colors of the set or the charicatured portrayal of Lil Bit’s “wacky” family is meant to remind us of her “stolen” youth, then good on you, Second Stage. (Although in that sense, I suppose I’ll be giving them credit for anything about the production that came across as weird or uncomfortable…because uhm…pedophilia is WEIRD AND UNCOMFORTABLE.)

Lil' Bit's "hilarious" family

Without question, for me, the most devastating moment of How I Learned to Drive comes at the end. Ms. Vogel waits until the play’s penultimate scene to show us the first sexual encounter between Lil Bit and her uncle – on a road trip when she is only 11. After hours of driving, Uncle Peck asks Lil Bit if she wants to drive (the theme of driving, and driving as delivering agency and power, is pervasive throughout the play….you know, if the title didn’t already give that one away). When she excitedly says yes, but bemoans the fact that she’s too small for her feet to reach the pedals, he offers to sit her on his lap – so that he can control the accelerator while she holds the wheel. As she keeps her hands dutifully on 9 and 3, grinning ear to ear at the thrill of the experience, he sneaks his own up her shirt, pawing at her chest. Her excitement instantly dissolves to panic, and when she asks him to stop, he insists on a few more moments. It’s a disgusting and disquieting scene. But it’s actually not the “most devastating moment” that I was referring to.

No, the scene that hurts me the hardest comes right before that one, when Lil Bit, still 11, is begging her mother for permission to go on that ill fated car trip. In maybe the only scene where the mother comes across as a reasonable human being, and not an overblown charicature, she refuses Lil Bit’s initial whining, insisting that she “doesn’t like the way your Uncle looks at you” and that it’s “inappropriate” for a young girl and a grown man to be on a car trip alone for so many hours. (By the way, if its any consolation to those of you who don’t know the play, Uncle Peck is related to Lil Bit only by marriage – he is not a blood relative. If that makes it…uhm…”better”?)

Anyway, Lil Bit insists. I mean – she’s 11! Her uncle, who she loves, offered to take her to the beach! Of course she wants to go! And, with persistent whining, she manages to wear her mother down, but before her mother consents, she turns and delivers the line that will make my gut wrench in horror literally every time I hear it. “Alright, but I’m warning you – if anything happens – I’ll hold you responsible.”

Without a doubt, this line is for me the most awful of the play, and provides the genesis for so much of the complicated guilt and love Lil’ Bit struggles with perpetually throughout How I Learned to Drive. When a mother quite literally pre-warns her 11-year-old daughter that the crime that is going to be committed against her is HER FAULT…yikes. For me, this line certainly helps explain the comic characterization of Lil Bit’s family, as well as the awkward humor of the play and the crayola aesthetic of the Second Stage production – if we are to see this play as “created” by an older Lil Bit (her older self narrates throughout) – the entire tone of frozen but skewed cartoonism is evidence of a psyche that is forever trapped in the confusion and guilt of an 11 year old who has experienced a lifetime’s worth of emotionally manipulative trauma.

The set's bright colors and almost cartoon-y aesthetic felt...incongruous, to say the least

When it comes to this play, certainly the performance of the actress playing Lil Bit is important, but even more so, the performance of the actor playing Uncle Peck is crucial. After all, it is his character that is the most impossible to like, that is the easiest to dismiss and deplore. But, if he were meant to be so one-dimensional, why bother writing him into a play? Or, for that matter, why bother writing the play at all? “Pedophilia is bad” is not exactly a lesson that I think we NEED from our theater. It’s more a Captain Obvious Statement-Of-The-Month. Elizabeth Reaser, who plays Lil Bit, is good — she grows on you, for sure, but honestly, it was the performance of Norbert Leo Butz that I was most curious to see.

Yes, for those of you who recognize the name, that is Norbert Leo Butz, Broadway “darling”, of Catch Me If You Can and Wicked fame. This is a guy who sang a song about farts in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I just did a google search for him, and one of the first articles I found, about his role as Fiyero in the original cast of Wicked, bore the headline “Fiyero’s Tight Pants Led to Norbert Leo Butz’ Love Connection.” Basically, this is not a bro you’d expect to perform a serious role. Especially this serious role. Also, for literally no apparent reason, I have a pointlessly aggressive hatred for Norbert Leo Butz. Again, no reason for it. He annoyed me in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and, for funzos, I have dutifully harbored that annoyance ever since. Basically, I was prepared to watch this play and then shit all over his performance on this blog. You know, it’s the little things…

And yet, I cannot. Unfortunately. After sitting on it for a few nights, I’ve realized that Norbert Leo Butz’ performance in this role was actually pretty exceptional. Any choices an actor makes as Peck are bound to annoy someone somewhere, simply given the controversial nature of the character, but Butz’ bold choice of playing a Peck who seemed awkward, even bumbling, and painfully self-aware of his behavior, is, I feel, just the kind of anxiety-producing performance this play thrives upon. He made himself somewhat hard to hate, I must say.

alright butz. you win this time...

I’ve spoken to several people who, for that very same reason, took issue with Mr. Butz’ performance. It’s easy to talk abstractly about Paula Vogel’s presumed goal of depicting Peck in a frustratingly sympathetic way, but it turns out that gets pretty hard to take when its real bodies in real time performing such really terrible actions. I, too, initially wanted Peck to be dirtier, meaner, less conflicted and more awful and thus, importantly, easier to dismiss in disgust, but that would have made for a How I Learned to Drive that was a whole lot easier to take overall. Throughout the performance, I heard a few audience members clucking self-consciously in disapproval of various scenes, but not that many, because honestly, every scene in the play is the awful confluence of two sadly desperate, desperately sad characters finding a weird, conflicted peace with each other while at the same time hurting each other deeply. It’s fucking complicated, man! And Norbert Leo Butz, god love him, works hard to make us feel the depth of that complication as much as possible.

A few people have asked me what I “thought” of How I Learned to Drive since I saw it on Thursday night. It’s been a tough question to answer. I mean…I thought it was awful. But that’s mostly because pedophilia is awful, and watching emotional manipulation wrap its vicegrip around a victim is never “fun”. I wouldn’t say, in that sense, that my experience at the show was by any means “enjoyable”. However, it sure was cathartic – Ms. Vogel gives her protagonist some redemption. As I mentioned before, for Lil Bit, learning to drive (which, ironically, is something her Uncle teaches her – and teaches her well), represents the ultimate in empowerment. Whenever she talks about driving – “flooring it” – she gains a confidence and agency that is truly satisfying to watch. A small moment of victory in an otherwise terrifically challenging play. So no, I didn’t have “fun” at How I Learned to Drive, but I sure am glad I saw it, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

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Outside People at the Vineyard Theatre (Naked Angels)*

There’s this great bit in the NBC show 30 Rock (yeah…tried to find the clip for y’all, but as people who know me know, I am an epic fail when it comes to this new-fangled “internet” thing the young people are all excited about these days). Anyway, it’s Season 1, Episode 10 (“The Rural Juror”, for the true fans), and Tina Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, is struggling with how to deal with the fact that her good friend Jenna (Jane Krakowski) has just made a terrible TV movie. When Pete asks her what she’s going to do, she explains: “Same thing I’ve always done when she’s in something terrible. Think of one thing nice to say and then … hug her.”

Cut to three flashbacks: 1996: Jenna has just performed in The Jenna Chronicles: A One Womyn Show. “You looked so beautiful!” Liz says.

1997: Jenna has just performed in Con Air: The Musical. “The lighting was REALLY neat!” Liz says.

And in 2000, when Jenna is leaving a Freestyle Rap Contest, Liz gushes that “the programs were REALLY easy to read!”

This clip rocks. Mostly because it’s SO TRUE. Historically, I’ve always known when my productions haven’t been home runs because generally my poor family will, upon seeing me after a show, generally lead off with a pointlessly specific question (“Hey! –Why’d you have that character enter AFTER that other character but then not say anything for 5 or 6 lines before sitting on that chair in that part right before the end of Act 1?”), or go the Liz Lemon route, and compliment something obscure and random (“LOVED that one character’s name.”)

Now, the important clarification for me in all of this is that I’ve always felt that initial, random burst of specificity to be indicative, not just of dislike, but, more dangerously, of boredom. What I’m not talking about here is offensive theater. Or offensively bad theater. Offensively bad theater leads to awkward Jenna/Liz encounters, but also hilarious 30 rock clips.  Or, if you’re me, offensive theater leads to great passionate bursts of verbose raging to whatever poor schmuck happens to be within shouting distance.

For example: I have a temptestuous relationship with David Mamet. He doesn’t know this, of course, because we’ve never met, but in my mind our relationship is fraught and passionate and mostly angry. I don’t especially like him, mostly because I’ve always labored under the assumption that he doesn’t like me (what with my vagina and all)…and a few years back, when I saw his play Race on Broadway, boy did I have things to say about it. Unfortunately, Blogpocalypse (the nickname I just came up with for this blog and that I will probably never use again after this moment) was on hiatus at the moment, because MAN could I have done some damage on a review. I fucking HATED that play. I found it offensive on so many levels. As soon as the curtain closed, I was ranting. I don’t think I came up for air until a few days later – I would literally go to sleep and wake up with new ideas or ways of explaining why I thought it was terrible.

If I can say one thing for Mamet, which has ALWAYS been the case with my tortured relationship with Mamet, he gets me going.

And in theater, to a certain extent, that’s as important as the cathartic, beautiful, invigorating stuff. Well, if not “as important”, at the very least “of importance.” It’s GREAT to be provoked sometimes. It’s all a part of the convoluted, chaotic conversation that is theater ($5 alliteration there!). It ensures that we “stay awake”, if you will, in a cultural conversation. It often inspires us to create some of our best work – it certainly pushes us creatively. If we’re not challenged – if someone doesn’t show up and shove all of the things we find sacred and important in our faces – we’ll never be forced to defend our views and can risk becoming … complacent. The deadliest of things.

Honestly, in the world of theater, I’d rather be infuriated than bored. Or unmoved. Or, as I like to call it, “meh”ed.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of theater out there that qualifies as solidly “meh”. This is the theater that would prompt a pointed but useless question from my mom about blocking or program order. When watching it you tend to spend more time sneaking glances at your watch than looking at the stage (or, if you’re me, cursing the fact that you no longer wear a watch and instead use a cell phone which is ACTUALLY illegal to access during a show in NYC.) As Peter Brook would say, this is Deadly Theater. And it is the worst.

Can you tell where I’m going with this yet? Can you tell I don’t want to get there? I think I realized a few paragraphs ago that I make a pretty lame “reviewer”. The thought of trashing someone’s performance is painful to me, because I get how much blood, sweat, and tears goes into a show. In fact, I’ve already ranted about this very issue. In truth, Outside People at the Vineyard theater was a solid show. There was nothing wildly offensive about it, and the production values were pretty great. The actors worked hard. The writing was tight. The story was a solid narrative that moved nicely. The “issues” that it dealt with were important. And yet. And yet. And yet.

this was a show. i saw this show. those are things that happened.

I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy post to write, because Outside People, for me, wasn’t an easy show to talk about. And THAT’s a big deal for me. Normally, as you know, I can go on ad nauseum on the subject of theater. Like, any theater. And yet, when this show ended, I distinctly remember that my first thought was finding a bathroom, my second thought was finding dessert, and my third, tepid thought, which arrived much later than the first two, was talking about the performance.  And what did I have to say?

Mostly, I was impressed by a lighting cue in the first scene. Yup.

The 4-character play takes place in China, where Malcolm has just arrived to ostensibly help out his former college friend David with a new business. Things get complicated, however, when he falls for Xiao Mei, one of David’s employees, and a lot of pressing and compelling issues of citizenship, loyalty, personhood, connection, cultural/gendered/class barriers, and ethnicity are raised.

David, who is trying to recruit his buddy Malcolm

So why, then, was all I could think about the lighting cue from the first scene? It takes place in the back room of a club, where David, Malcolm, Xiao Mei and David’s pseudo-girlfriend Samanya are kicking it. From time to time, characters would exit to the main room of the club, and immediately after leaving the stage, this fantastic side light would illuminate, perfectly giving the impression of light spilling out from the club as though a “door” were being opened. Great “magic”, to reference the discussion from my previous post. It was cool.

the scene of the Cool Light Cue

But it was also specific. And random. And not especially pertinent to the rest of the play.

We tried – my companion and I – we really tried to stay on topic and discuss the play like Smart Adults. I brought up how grateful I was that, despite a “comical” (and yes, quotes used deliberately there) moment in Scene 2, the whole play did not become a herpes farce. He lauded the impact of one very cool scene between David and Xiao Mei that was delivered entirely in Chinese. (Despite the impressive language barrier, we “got” it. Another great theatrical moment.) But, almost without realizing it, we constantly wound up digressing – suddenly we were speculating on the cost of the show, then the cost of renting a space around union square…the number of lighting instruments in the theater, etc. (OK, the light stuff was mostly me. I’m kind of a lighting nerd these days).

The truth is, Outside People is a show that, objectively speaking, I would concede is “important”. It represents a stream of solid, contemporary, “youthful” (to apply a bland generalization) theater that probably appeals and would ring significant and important to a vast group of people. But for whatever reason, this one just didn’t do it for me. I don’t know exactly what it was – hard to pinpoint one fault. Just a matter of taste, I guess, of chemistry between show and audience. All of which I say with absolutely no disrespect to the doubtless countless people who worked very hard on this production. Sometimes…it doesn’t happen. I left the theater completely unaroused one way or another. To which I can only say: ah well.

Can’t win ’em all.

And so, simply: on to the next theatrical adventure…

*My apologies. Another show that is no longer running, reviewed for your…benefit?

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The Ugly One at Soho Rep

I am going to start this post by doing something ever-so-slightly out of character*:  Imma quote someone else’s article. Is that just too gauche? Well, regardless, when I was doing a bit of internet browsing to find good pictures for this post on The Ugly One, which opened February 1st at Soho Rep, I came across this great NY Times article about the show, which had a fantastic quote from director Daniel Aukin. When asked about The Ugly One, he said the following:

“This is not a play you would watch and say, ‘Oh, this should be a movie,’ ” Mr. Aukin said. “He’s playing with so many things that are unique to theater, that aren’t available in other media.”

For those of you who don’t know (who am I kidding…there can’t be many of you who don’t, given that I’m fairly certain the population of my readers is composed entirely of friends), I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 6 months thinking about plays and movies. Individually, as separate entities, sure, but also together. As in, what defines them? What makes each its own unique art form? What does each have to offer the viewer/spectator that the other cannot? Has the sudden prevalence of one (film) in culture made moot the longer standing, and some would say, now archaic and inaccessible existence of the other?

It’s very hard to want to be a writer. It’s also pretty stupid, given the insane challenge that playwrights face, as well as the cuthroat nature of the film industry. And yet, I and a couple dozen other passionate idiots just couldn’t leave well enough alone, and find ourselves knee-deep in the challenges of a 2 year dramatic writing program in the fantastic city of New York. What’s great about this program is that we get to write all the time. What’s terrible about this program is that we have to write all the time. While the program is 3-fold, teaching and refining skills in writing for TV, Film, and Stage, it’s film and theater that most often come into conflict with each other, given, I guess, the inherent similarities between the two. And even as a die-hard theater nerd (till the day that I die, yo!), it’s hard not to see the appeal in film as a medium. For one, there’s its seemingly limitless visual potential and uh, OH YEAH, there’s also the fact that sometimes people give you money to write movie stuff. Or so they tell me. And then you can use that money to do things like pay your rent and buy food. As someone who’s sunk more of her own money into self-made theatrical creations than I’d care to admit, the idea of a writing career in which the writer is PAID reaches the realms of Xanadu-like fantasy.

And let’s face it – film is affordable and accessible in a way that theater simply isn’t. Those who call theater a dying art, while officially and forever my worst enemies, aren’t coming up with this hateful theory out of thin air. Theater’s appeal is…sometimes harder to grasp, let’s say, than that of its sister, Film, or its super cool cousin TV.

And that, my friends, is why when a show like The Ugly One comes along, which, as Mr. Aukin so eloquently describes, so perfectly grasps onto those urgent, fabulous things that make theater theater, I get happy. Just…happy. Happy that plays like this are being produced, and happy that people are paying money to see them. Because those people are in for some of the most delightful treats theater has to offer.

Wit and Follies this was not. (Yeah, I just linked my own posts again. I’m classy like that). Soho Rep has, well…a “rep” in this city for performing on the more cutting edge of the theatrical spectrum. They’re a “leading hub for contemporary theater in New York City….producing some of the most groundbreaking theater…a “hot house” for daring, intrinsically theatrical excellence.” (from their website, if you hadn’t guessed). For those of you who like your theater on the experimental side of things, this is a great place to check out…regularly. (I recall a performance of Sarah Kane’s Blasted there that was the Oscars of disturbing. Is that a coherent analogy? Probably not, but let’s put it this way: it was very, very, VERY disturbing. Like, a dude sucked another dude’s eyes out and then this person ate a baby disturbing….Whoops. Should I have said “spoiler alert”?)

the red "ugly one" is the ugliest one...

Anyway, as far as plays go, Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One is a very simple enterprise. It’s the kind of “story” that can be told in very few words – an “elegant” concept in that regard, almost fable or parable-esque. At the play’s open, the main character Lette discovers that, much to his surprise, he’s crazy ugly. He’s spent most of his life unaware, but when he’s denied the opportunity to present his invention at a conference, his boss is forced to admit to him that it’s his hideous looks that are holding him back. So, he does what any reasonable human being who just found out they’d spent the bulk of their life living in ignorance of their grotesque face would do – he signs up for dangerous, experimental facial reconstructive surgery. And it goes well! He’s super hot now! And yet – here’s the rub – turns out it goes a little too well. He’s so very good looking that men all over start electing to have the (his?) same face put on them, and suddenly he finds himself well, everywhere. And…hilarity, or chaos, or tragedy, (depending on your perspective, I guess), ensues. (Personally, I’d go with a bit of all three.)

It’s a simple enough concept. Done with four fabulously talented actors and one fairly stark set, in a fairly small theater. Period. Done. End of story. And here, my friends, is where the production values end and the theatrical magic begins.

Only in a space that small with a cast that small and a script that straightforward could such magic happen. And magic it was – Alfredo Narciso, who plays Lette, starts and ends the play with the same face. And, oh yeah, it doesn’t change in the middle, either. And yet, here’s what’s SO FREAKING AWESOME about theater (note to self: WHATS SO FREAKING AWESOME ABOUT THEATER = New blog title??) — we bought it. When Lette wraps his face in gauze while the doctor and his assistant, neither of whom actually act out “surgery”, but who rather stand by microphones, commenting as though they were performing surgery while hyper disturbing “surgical sound cues” play, the audience is there. We flinch at the trill of a hacksaw, even though there is no hacksaw to be seen on the stage. And, a scene later, when Lette finally removes the gauze, we sit on the edge of our seats, curious to see his “new face” even though logic insists – correctly – that it looks exactly the same as the face he’d wrapped up a moment before.

This dude: grotesque monster or the height of attractiveness?

But, because his wife and the doctor were besides themselves with joy, it was handsome. The same way we accepted it as hideous only a scene before when the rest of the actors said as much. Not because we’re idiots (well, OK, can’t speak for everyone in the theater), but because in theater, a good audience is fucking involved. Present. Active participants in their own experience. A good audience will work with the actors, with the playwright, with the director, to create whatever fantasy has been suggested. Such is the ritual of theater, of a bunch of people in a room sharing something with a bunch of other people. Such is its magic. And such is why, for me, theater can never be obsolete.

In a way, The Ugly One was the perfect show for me to see after Wit. To compare the two is to compare fire hydrants to lampshades (don’t ask, just the nouns that came into my head when I got to that part in the sentence), and that’s not my goal. Rather, it was a friendly reminder that even without the budget and the big names and the bright lights of Broadway, magical stuff can happen and is happening in small spaces with groups of people enjoying stories told by other groups of people. And to repeat: it makes me happy.

 

*Yes, I appreciate the irony of having a blog “character” when I have less than a dozen posts.

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