"On the Town": Finding the Tourist in Every Native New Yorker

The posters for “On the Town” partially give the show away. Three chipper-looking sailors pose with wide eyes beneath the words, “New York, New York, it’s a helluva town”. The image and quote – an opening line from the show’s first big number – convey the excitement of docking in New York City. But ten minutes into the performance, a more specific plot emerges: the reason for the sailors’ enthusiasm is that they have 24 hours to get laid. They are literally up all night to get lucky, to paraphrase a more recent lyric.

The central character is the earnest Gabey (Tony Yazbeck) who, soon after arriving, notices a poster of Miss Turnstiles, the NYC subway’s version of a beauty pageant queen, and is immediately drawn to her. With all of the single girls in the city for Gabey to hit on (and what woman would turn down a sailor) it’s a bit implausible that he’d devote his one day in town to finding someone he's never met. His fellow sailors Ozzie and Chip are less exacting in their pickup criteria: anyone with breasts will do. Lucky for them, the ladies they meet are quicker to hop into bed than they are, and the chemistry is good enough to merit a post-coitus evening out. Gabey eventually finds Miss Turnstiles, a girl named Ivy Smith, played by New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild. The attraction is mutual, but her demeaning job delays her from a date until Gabey’s final hour in the city. Alas for the sentimental heartthrob of the show, delayed sexual pleasure (or unattained as it turns out) is the price of finding requited love. Yazbeck plays Gabey as being utterly smitten with Ivy, though the quickness of his emotions made me wonder if he “falls in love” at every port where his ship docks. 

Leonard Bernstein’s score is upbeat and playful, especially paired with Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s lyrics, though not as complex or nuanced as “West Side Story” and “Candide”. Director John Rando seizes every opportunity for sexual humor (like one sailor holding a bag of groceries on his lap with a tall breadstick popping up in just the right spot). But the show’s prurience manages to be wholesome and inoffensive. That’s mainly due to the sexual confidence of the women and the romantic tilt of their encounters. Every ogle is well-received, every kiss consensual.

“On the Town” may be the most perfectly touristy musical on Broadway right now. It’s a feel-good show for starters – great numbers, solid performances, and an easy to package narrative – but on another level, it’s a musical that is essentially about tourists experiencing a day and night in New York. To explore the sights with them is to feel the limitless possibilities of the city. As they board the ship at the end of their stay, a new slew of sailors arrive, ready to take the town for a day. The show is lightweight, but the finale resonates. You depart the theater at 42nd street wanting to capture the city as well, even if you've lived here for years. 

photo credit: Joan Marcus

Posted on May 21, 2015 .

Review: An American in Paris

The Broadway production of “An American in Paris”, begins with a transition from darkness to color. World War II has just ended, the occupation of Paris has been lifted, and the city has begun to experience a rebirth. Nazi emblems disappear and a French flag emerges, so enormous that its red, white, and blue stripes overwhelm the stage.  

Barely ten minutes in, the musical – now on Broadway following its premiere in Paris – reveals its departure from the 1951 film in which the Technicolor backdrops and the charms of actor/choreographer Gene Kelly eclipse any awareness of history or reckoning with the state of Europe after the war.  

Like the film, the new musical of “An American in Paris”, features Gershwin’s symphonic work of the same title (which he wrote in 1928; he didn’t live long enough to see the film) as an extended dance sequence. The musical has a gorgeous score that includes several other Gershwin songs and orchestrations. Producer Stuart Oken, music director Rob Fisher, book writer Craig Lucas, and director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon have blended the melodies with dramatic scenes so seamlessly that it appears as though the musical has always existed this way.

As a result, the creative team achieves something paradoxical and brilliant. Their craftsmanship has led to a new musical that feels classic. The show is reminiscent of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show – an idea that Oken expressed when I interviewed him for an article in The New York Jewish Week. The presence of political and cultural shifts within a turbulent country conjures Rodgers and Hammerstein shows like “The Sound of Music” and “South Pacific”. And the significance of dance and movement to propel the story brings to mind scenes from "Oklahoma!"

“An American in Paris” feels so complete as a Gershwin musical, it's astounding that it was constructed in the last handful of years. To make a live performance that honors the original film and also achieves something entirely new is a major feat in any art form. It fills the gaps without faulting the earlier work.

Filling the gaps, as it were, relies on many creative innovations. Lucas’ script conveys what the film glosses over: that Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly’s character) is struggling to put the trauma of war behind him, that Lise is a Jewish girl whose parents were killed, that Henri Baurel and his family were resistance fighters who hid Lise in their home, and that Adam, the composer, is a war veteran like Jerry whose uses humor as a healing mechanism (rather than a shtick as actor Oscar Levant does onscreen). Lucas’ book occasionally teeters into “love conquers all” saccharine, but generally his dialogue is well-written. He creates a rich story where there could have simply been lighthearted filler between songs. 

Another major facet of the production is the set design by Bob Crowley. The city lights, boulevards, Sienne River, and opulent shops are vividly created with detailed backdrops and fly-in architecture. His clever use of sketch marks against a back screen to draw images of Paris is both visually alluring and narratively poignant. The sketches reflect Jerry’s avocation as a visual artist as well as a “redrawing” of Paris in the months after the war.

Christopher Wheeldon’s debut as a Broadway director and choreographer is very impressive. While his background is in the world of ballet, he proves he can build a nuanced story that balances its weight between song, dialogue, and dance. The show does feel very dance-heavy, particularly after the “American in Paris” ballet – which nears 20 minutes, but Wheeldon keeps the material fresh by alternating full company dance segments with romantic duets between Jerry and Lise.

Which brings me to the lead performer, Robert Fairchild. As Jerry, the show belongs to Fairchild who is a powerhouse of dancing ability, charisma, stage presence, and vocal ability. His physical beauty and dancer’s body only add to his list of superlatives. Leanne Cope (Lise), Max Von Essen (Henri), and Brandon Uranowitz (Adam) are impressive as well, delivering honest, empathic performances, and Veanne Cox (Mrs. Baurel) and Jill Paice (Milo Davenport) are especially good at portraying strong women whose steely demeanors mask fragile hearts. But when Fairchild is onstage, particularly when he’s dancing, I found it impossible to look elsewhere.  

“An American in Paris” is well placed in the “feel-good musical” catalog of Broadway shows this season, and I have to admit that compared to other shows this year (cerebral dramas like “Disgraced”, form-shifting innovations like “An Octoroon” and complex musical works like “Fun Home” and “Hamilton”) a feel-good show can come across as a lightweight. But the creativity at work here should not be overlooked. “An American in Paris” is ultimately a story of renewal and it’s fitting how well the musical’s very form corresponds to that theme.  

photo credit: Angela Sterling

Posted on April 13, 2015 .

An Interview with Anna D. Shapiro

 

Anna D. Shapiro is one of my favorite theater directors. A versatile talent who helmed the Broadway productions of "August: Osage County", "The Motherfucker with the Hat", "This is Our Youth", "Of Mice and Men", and now "Fish in the Dark", Shapiro is exceptionally good at creating a balance onstage between the verbal and physical. I talked to the Tony winner and soon to be Steppenwolf artistic director during rehearsals for "Fish in the Dark" about Larry David's humor, Jewish line readings, and making the tragic funny.  

 

I watched an online presentation that you gave for Chicago Ideas Week in 2013 where you spoke about the playwright as the author of the play, the actor as the author of the night, and the director as the author of the event. Can you talk about finding that relationship to "Fish in the Dark" where Larry David is both writer and actor? 

Larry comes in with a whole culture. He’s been really formative in the culture of my humor. You can’t get too enchanted by a culture that you enjoy. You have to be able to step back and look at what is working and what doesn’t work. So you figure out what the writer is trying to do. And the great thing is that because of the depth of my exposure to the guy, we already had a big swath of shared space that he had created inadvertently by what he had made. So we meet at the stuff he’s made before to make the stuff he’s making now. 

You can’t venerate him too much because there has to be an equal playing field in the rehearsal room. 

That’s exactly right. And you have to be able to say, “You know what I think would be funnier.” And that’s scary the first few times you do it.”

I watched the Times Talk that Larry David did, and I was very amused during the Q and A portion. All of the people who asked questions were eager to show off their knowledge of “Seinfeld” and “Curb”. What’s your reaction to people who expect or want to see “Curb” when they come to “Fish in the Dark”?

I don’t think it’s that different from working with a playwright who’s written other plays. People expect something similar. They know the difference between going to an O’Neill play and going to a Neil Simon play. And if you went to an O’Neill play and all of a sudden it’s a Neil Simon play, you’d be understandably confused and probably disappointed. I think writers work in tropes. He’s not writing outside of his comfort zone – he’s writing right in the sweet spot of it. Just in a long form where the relationship to the viewer is very different. There are things that will be surprising but not in any kind of disorienting way. 

There’s a desire to see him. There’s something about what Larry has done. He’s such a complete presence. And he’s framed his character so well that just the sight of him is funny. And it is a character, because separate from that, he’s very elegant, handsome, he’s not the guy that you see on “Curb”, and yet they’re the same guy. 

Sort of an unfiltered version of what he’d really say.  

Or an unfiltered version of what we’d all say.

You had a similar experience with Chris Rock who had never acted onstage before when he starred in "The Motherfucker with the Hat". Did you have learning experiences from that production that you’re drawing from here?

Chris was coming into a new play that he didn't write, playing a character that he would not normally play (one of the reasons he wanted to do it). So there were many levels of learning, not just what it takes to be on stage in a different way than he’s used to, but also someone whose circumstances are so different than his own. So there was all of that going on. But he also does a lot more stand-up than Larry. So where his learning curve was really steep, another part of his learning curve was not steep. With Larry, it’s the mirror image. He’s playing a character he’s very comfortable playing, even though he is different, (I mean, he’s not the uncontrollable id, but it is a person he’s comfortable with), in language he wrote, in clothes that look like his clothes. And yet, he doesn’t do stand-up anymore. So he’s back in a relationship with the audience that’s very new. 

Have there been rewrites during the rehearsal process? 

Yeah, huge rewrites. There are the spitball changes, like “cut that out, try this instead.” Or an actor will make a pitch, and say, “I’m gonna try this and see if it works.” Or when I do it, it’s usually a structural thing, so I’ll run it by Larry and then we’ll put it on its feet and try it. So it’s constant motion toward a well-articulated goal. It’s very clear where he wants it to go. 

When the writer is in the room and you have difficulty with a certain line, the option is always on the table to change it. In a revival you can’t do that, you have to keep the line and find an access point for the actor to say it. 

Right. And that’s a fragile thing because it can seem cruel and arbitrary to an actor to tell them yes, they can change it, or no, they can’t. And your job as a director is to create an environment where they understand the decision.  

Do you think of this as an ensemble play? 

A hundred percent. I mean, when you think about “Curb” and “Seinfeld”, they are ensembles. And there are great moments when you feel like Larry is this master and he has put his wares around him and he’s standing there and something is unfolding that’s so unbelievably funny that his character is observing. He’s given the best lines to other people, he’s no fool. He’s not the only person you’ll remember when you see the show. 

During “Curb’s” best seasons, I thought of the show as dramaturgically perfect. What I mean is that every storyline that is introduced in every episode will have a thru line that also converges with other story lines that had nothing to do with each other at the beginning. Does this play have different threads that converge?

It does. It has a primary story but it has turns. It’s shockingly normal actually. He’s written a well-made play. It doesn’t go, “Don’t look at the story problem here while we make you laugh.” He cares a lot about things resolving. It’s a play about the death of someone and the first image is a bunch of people around a hospital bed, and every run-through we’ve done with an audience, people fall out laughing at the image. Somehow he strikes that balance. He finds that narrow ledge that allows you to look at really painful things and just see how ridiculous and human and shared the experience is. That’s what good plays do, they create shared space.

Is it a Jewish family? 

Oh yes. 

So I imagine there are rituals like shiva. 

Yeah. That’s been a fun part of it for me. There are a couple people in the cast who aren’t Jewish but are playing Jews, and Larry and I will have these moments where there will a line that to us is supposed to sound a certain way and then it comes out a different way.

Too goyish. 

Totally. And we’ll have open conversations like, “Can I give you the Jewish reading of that?”

One thing that I love about the plays you’ve directed is the physicality of them. You seem to know just the moments to make a scene go from verbal to physical. How does physicality play into this show? 

It’s very interesting to not have that vocabulary in a play because there’s very little [physicality]. Larry at one point said to me, “I’ve figured out something about my acting: I like leaning and sitting.” So it’s working with Larry and saying “Your caring has to move into your body. Because if you don’t move, you look like you don’t care." 

Last question: is adlibbing allowed? 

There are several sections that will be improvised. That was a concession of mine. Larry has said, “I just want you to know, if I’m getting big laughs I’m gonna keep going.” 

photo credits: Mike Coppola, Joan Marcus

Posted on April 2, 2015 .

An Interview with Ayad Akhtar

I first encountered the script for Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning play Disgraced in the pages of American Theatre magazine. I was amazed by the writing: tight and structured yet incendiary and thought-provoking in every line of dialogue. In each subsequent encounter with his work – his novel American Dervish; his play The Who and The What (which ran at Lincoln Center Theatre in the spring of 2014; the Broadway production of Disgraced; and most recently the New York Theatre Workshop run of his latest play The Invisible Hand – I’ve been continually impressed by his exploration of identity, religion, and culture – both Muslim and American. 

In an article for The Jewish Week, I wrote about the illuminating Jewish characters that surprisingly appear in Ahktar’s stories, as well as the myriad influences on his work. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

 

When I walked out of The Who and the What this spring, I remember feeling very grateful that there’s a playwright who can write about religious people without shrinking them. I’ve seen versions of Afzal [the Muslim father in the play] within my own community. He was very recognizable.

Tevye. 

Well, right. That’s the quintessential Jewish parent figure in theater.  

There’s a quote from William Faulker that writers often reference: to write, you need experience, observation, and imagination, but sometimes one can take the place of the others. How do you think those three are comprised in your work?

The characters in my work are taken from the observation of life and experience, I mean, certainly American Dervish is a version of my family. But I also want to tell a good story. How I draw from observation and experience has to do with what I want to do imaginatively. What I’m interested in is the movement from one point to another and the recognitions that happen along that path. That, to me, is the definition of drama. So what that requires are strong events, sometimes stronger than actually happen in life.

It’s also very clear that structure is at work. 

With Disgraced, I can tell you that’s what I was thinking about. I don’t know that it comes anywhere close, but I’m gonna make a comparison to Oedipus Rex, which is the purest dramatic structure there is. I don’t think Disgraced has that, but it’s trying to get there. Now we think of tragedy [in drama] as an enobling form whereas I think for the Greeks it was more of a visceral form. At Disgraced, the audience is very vocal, and that sense of participation is important to the physical experience that the audience is having.  

The night that I saw it, it almost seemed at the curtain call that the audience was clapping in slow motion, like they were physically still in the play. There’s so much packed into the show that it’s almost impossible to process it all upon leaving the theater.

Yeah, [they’re thinking] “What was that? That was a ride into a concrete median.” (laughs) 

I’m interested in how you first came across Jewish writers. I know your work has been impacted by them.

I had a middle school teacher and she gave us a [reading] list, and I for whatever reason chose The Chosen. I was enraptured. I felt like I had found my own people. They had all the same divisions in the community and the concerns with being holy and being righteous, and how that brought people into conflict and how it brought them happiness. I even got the texture of their life. And this is about Chasidic Jews in Brooklyn, not about a suburban kid in Milwaukee [where Akhtar grew up]. But somehow it was very familiar.  

Then I read The Promise and My Name is Asher Lev. [Potok] was the first writer I read all his books. I remember reading My Name is Asher Lev and getting to the end where [Asher] walks out of the gallery, and I thought, “This is my life.” I think I had some innate sense even before I even had a thought that I would become an artist that there was this division between the old world and my own life that that was irreconcilable and it was headed for some kind of rupture. 

Even though your parents were not active Mosque-goers.

My mom was devotional without being rigid about it. My dad became militantly…he’s basically like Amir [in Disgraced] now. He didn’t become that way until I got to college. Before that, he was more tolerant of it. But my mother’s sister was particularly devout and I had a close relationship with her. And I spent a lot of time around extended family, all of whom had varying gradations with identification with being good Muslims. That was one of the central questions of my childhood: how to be a good Muslim.

I college, I can’t remember how I came across Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, but it was the same sense of recognition in a different way. It was the refined literary me having the experience I had with Chaim Potok. And then the real experience in college was Woody Allen. Everything from “Love and Death” to “Husbands and Wives”.

Why do you think there’s so little in theater about religion? Is it as simple as audiences tend to be irreligious?

Well, maybe. I think the prevailing dramaturgical paradigms privilege certain subject matter. Directness is not as valued, and earnestness is not as valued. And issues of faith require earnest, direct technique. Because if you want to write about it, you have to find a different Archimedean point than ironic detachment.  

I think that faith is one of the important themes in American life, but it’s hard to find major writers writing about it. I mean even Chaim Potok – people do not speak of him in the same breath as the Roths and the Bellows. And Roth has made a career of writing in opposition to faith.

The character Isaac in Disgraced feels accessible to secular Jews – he intermarries, he eats pork – but he still seems to feel a personal attack when he’s called out as being a Jew. So there’s something visceral there. Nathan in American Dervish does as well, though he’s very willing to convert to Islam, something Jewish audiences might find less relatable.  

There was a template for Nathan in my own life. It’s a very odd situation for a Muslim artist to have found most of his inspiration and his roadmap from Jewish American artists. I’m always grappling with that conundrum. It’s a different kind of anxiety of influence. How much of this is really mine and how much is not mine, and how much of it can I make mine. So I think Nathan is the first fully fleshed-out attempt at that kind of internal dialogue. There will ideally, hopefully, be a sequel to American Dervish that will develop this further: Hayat [the story’s main character] will find his way back to Islam by working with a Kabbalistic master. So it’s this circuitous route.

Islam is really a gloss on Judaism. The Quran is in many ways a secondary source commenting on the Old Testament and then reworking sections. So when you look at it from the point of view of Harold Bloom, for example, we’re talking about Mohammed’s anxiety of influence with regard to Moses. And to make himself into a better Moses.  

While the The Invisible Hand and your 2005 film “The War Within” are about terrorists plots, most of your recent work – Disgraced, The Who and the What, and American Dervish – offer very different critiques of Islam, based more on the text of the Quran.  

All three are challenges to Quranic interpretation. 

And people have asked you in interviews if you’re concerned about reflecting a negative image of Islam. But the characters in most of your work are not talking about extremism or terrorism, per se. They just don’t want to feel diminished by religion.

I feel that Amir is grappling fundamentally with how to fit in. The idea that W.E.B. Du Bois has about double consciousness: the view a minority has of the majority’s perspective on it. I think that people expect me to be writing more from a place of double consciousness than I am. I don’t suffer from double consciousness. My experience is my experience…and I just write from that place. And then I find myself in this peculiar situation where people are reading my work and looking for clues to the quandary of double consciousness which is not present in American Dervish at all. It is there is Disgraced but in an unusual way because it’s not like I’m siding with Amir over the other characters.

Do you wonder how many people leave the theater after Disgraced ends and say, “So, is he saying that Islam is bad?”

I think it’s an invariable question. If you really sit with the experience you have, I don’t know how you can take Amir’s side and discount everything that has made you complicit with his downfall if you’re not Muslim. It feels like a sledgehammer but I think there’s a lot of subtlety there.  

If Amir had been upfront with his colleagues early on, would it have mattered that he was Muslim? I don’t imagine that it would have.

Yeah, it might not have. And that’s another dilemma. The concern that internal paranoia within the Muslim community might be exacerbating the situation.  

What is your feeling about Muslim Americans who are outspoken advocates, like Reza Aslan who is a frequent commentator on CNN?

That’s part of our cultural consciousness – that constant chatter, so if there isn’t somebody representing that pole... But I don’t feel that that’s an artistic project, it’s a public relations project. So a lot of people might think, “I heard about this guy with a weird name who won a Pulitzer. He’s into Muslim stuff. I guess we’ll find out that Muslims are good people.” That somehow an artistic project will modify in a positive way what they think. So, I love Reza, but that’s a different thing. 

Amir and Abe are complex and troubled Muslim characters, certainly more so than Hayat and Mina [characters from American Dervish] and the family in The Who and the What who are more lovable characters.

Somebody once told me, “I think your play is a litmus test. It’s telling an audience member where they are on the spectrum of their own tribal identifications.” I think that’s true. I don’t know that I have a message. I think there are certain meanings that are embedded in the text, but I don’t think you can come away thinking anything specific other than an interrogation of your own relationship to tribalism.

As a final question, I’m curious about the character of Emily, specifically her last lines. Was her interest in Islamic art truly sincere, or was it an outgrowth of being married to someone Muslim and wanting to find beauty in his culture? It seemed to raise a larger theme of being fascinated with cultures outside of your own experience, like the way you illuminate Jewish characters. Like Gershwin doing Porgy and Bess. What is your thought about portraying subject matter outside of your experience?

I think Emily’s last lines express the Western, non-Muslim frustration with the Muslim world which is something that you only see growing, tragically. That even those who wish to find meaning and beauty are having difficulty today. Emily compassionately walks away. The second part of your question is beautiful, I don’t know that I have an answer to it. I think I’m very conscious of the ways in which I can write about things that are not my experience or my place to write about. I’m sensitive to the boundaries. If I feel confident I’ll write about it. I also show my writing to a lot of people, so I get a lot of feedback.

It seems like you’re an avid rewriter.

I am. The inspiration comes in rewriting.

 

photo credit: Nina Subin


Posted on January 15, 2015 .

Voices from a Changing Theater J

In the fall of 2011, I visited Theater J in Washington DC to interview artistic director Ari Roth and attend a reading for the Voices from a Changing Middle East festival as part of an article I was writing for American Theatre magazine. Around that time, a fringe pro-Israel activist group known as COPMA (Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art) had made a few headlines by protesting Theater J, asserting that the theater and the Voices festival in particular put forth anti-Israel views. COPMA’S actions weren’t a pervasive threat to Roth’s position, per se, but they did arouse some worry among the staff and board of the DCJCC (the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, which is home to Theater J), especially when COPMA called upon major foundations to withdraw their financial support. The JCC’s new CEO, Carole Zawatsky, began to mediate with members of COPMA with the hope of easing tensions.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of these incidents would lead directly to Roth’s being fired a few days ago. The decision is upsetting on a few levels. Roth was Theater J’s visionary. Beyond creating art, he was genuinely interested in fostering productive dialogue. When he produced Return to Haifa, a play written by an Israeli writer that focused on the complications involved in Israel’s founding in 1948, he hosted a post-show talkback every night of the production. As he recalls, “Every talkback was good. Some nights, it was sublime.” Heated conversation never roiled him. He wanted to present theater in order to intrigue, excite, and engage audiences. The widespread response across the arts world following his firing – including an open letter to the DCJCC from artistic directors of theaters across the country – has expressed the danger in suppressing creativity freedom.

To be sure, Theater J never had full creative freedom. For an arts company to exist inside a community organization is to be beholden to the latter’s standards, in this case to produce plays that do not in any substantive way criticize Israel. Most theater companies don’t have to look over their shoulder in that way. It's because the JCC has to accommodate its board members and funders – many of whom likely hold right-wing views on Israel – that Theater J’s Voices festival seemed problematic (the yearly festival featured work by Palestinian writers and by Israeli writers who wrote from a left-wing perspective).

The larger issue as I see it is that it is increasingly difficult to be liberal and pro-Israel. Many right-wing Jews would disagree with me on this, but I believe Roth is deeply supportive of Israel. Choosing plays that grapple with how Israel was founded or that offer a empathetic viewpoint on a Palestinian character do not amount to anti-Israel sentiments. It's very disheartening that right-wing support of Israel (unyielding approval for every military action, a startling lack of sympathy for Palestinians who suffer) is often viewed as the only valid way to support Israel. And conversely that siding with liberals on social and economic issues means rejecting Israel entirely. 

And still, I'm sympathetic to the tight position that JCC's staff and board found themselves in. I grew up going to that JCC and have a lot of positive memories there. While I don’t agree with their decision, I do appreciate how hard it must be for a religious organization to balance opposing views. Roth may embrace controversial subjects, but the JCC understandably prefers to keep things calm. Of course, in their effort to do so, they may have damaged Theater J irrevocably: several artists have already pledged not to work there, and the JCC will have a hard time hiring a new artistic director who is on board with their strictures.  

As for Roth, there is a new company, Mosaic Theater Company, to build. I hope audiences flock there.

 

 

 

Posted on December 22, 2014 .

"Youth" Depicted but Unexplored

This is Our Youth_Broadway_review.jpg

This is Our Youth treads familiar ground. It depicts that bewildering phase of adolescence when ‘kid’, ‘teen’, and ‘adult’ are all appropriate identifiers, when inurement to life’s disappointments coexists with childlike cravings for unadulterated happiness. It is an anti-coming-of-age story where the protagonists don’t necessary learn anything. First produced in 1996,This is Our Youth was Kenneth Lonergan’s launch pad, fomenting his career as a playwright and filmmaker. The play has been widely praised, and its revival this year (first in Chicago and now on Broadway) has been celebrated by nearly every critic in New York.

Youth is not a plot-driven story; it is a day in the life of vulnerable Warren, his domineering friend Dennis and his elusive crush, Jessica. Warren’s been kicked out of his parents’ house for his pot habit, and, after stealing fifteen grand from his father, arrives at Dennis’ apartment in search of somewhere to sleep and (more generally) a happier existence. The events that follow include buying and selling drugs, pawning Warren's toy collection, and wooing Jessica – each clumsily strategized and mostly ending in disappointment.

The fact that not much happens is not an outright problem, per se. Anna D. Shapiro’s direction packs physicality and tension into each moment, whether it’s a destructive football toss, a boyish wrestling match, a sprayed plate of cocaine, or a spontaneous dance. She makes the play pulsate. But while the lack of action isn’t a flaw, the lack of ideas is, and I kept wondering if Lonergan was trying to say anything larger than “here are three directionless people at the cusp of adulthood.”

The most illuminating idea, as I saw it, comes from Jessica in Act I. She arrives at Dennis’ apartment to the delight of Warren, and as Warren tries to flirt with her, they begin to have an argument about identity. The topic at hand is whether personalities are fixed throughout life, and Jessica argues that they change entirely, almost unrecognizably. The free-loving activists of the 60s become the Reagan-supporting lawyers of the 80s, she says. More so, if we were to find a letter that we wrote years earlier, it would contain emotions, details and beliefs that are foreign to ones we have later in life.

The idea is a poignant one for young adults who hold thoughts passionately though not long term. I awaited the follow-through of this sentiment in the second act, but frustratingly it never came. The final note of the play is simply that Warren lacks connection to anyone: not to his parents, who ostracize him emotionally and physically; not to Jessica, who leaves Warren wondering if she wants him or just self-affirmation; and not to Dennis, who keeps Warren as a close friend because his abuse of Warren goes unchecked.

It’s testament to the cast that so much pathos rises out of an energetic but bleak script. Kieran Culkin is a perfect asshole in the role of Dennis (his abrasiveness is reminiscent of his great performance in Igby Goes Down years ago) and while the play spends too long on Dennis’ uncontrolled anger, Culkin commits wholeheartedly to it. Tavi Gevinson (Jessica) speaks her lines a bit too theatrically but authentically portrays the mixed bag of confidence and delusion specific to those who know they’re desirable but don’t know how to handle it. Most memorable is Michael Cera who – though he seems to reprise the same sensitive role repeatedly – plunges deep into the pain of Warren and makes him endearing, funny, and heartbreaking. 

Another redeemer is the set. Created by Todd Rosenthal, it centers on the interior of Dennis’ apartment, cluttered and style-less with touches of the early 80s like the extra-long extension cord on his beige telephone. The exterior of the apartment – an old white brick façade – rises high toward the proscenium to meet to gaze of audience members in the balcony. The building – not rundown, but not upscale either – feels like anyone’s first New York apartment. It may not be glamorous, but just being there feels grown up.

It reminded me of a line Shoshanna says on Girls when she walks into Hannah’s apartment: “Um, seriously though, I like really think that the best years of your life are like totally gonna happen here.” Like GirlsThis is Our Youth presents the chasm between the desired life and life as it is. It's a great point of takeoff. Sadly, the play never leaves the ground.

Posted on September 30, 2014 .

Hedwig and the Battle Between Story and Experience

The drag rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been a cult sensation in each of its incarnations – first as a downtown musical, then a film, and now a Broadway show. On a recent night when I saw a performance, I wasn’t surprised to see (and hear) the formidable presence of superfans. No sooner would the intro notes to a song play than the crowd would erupt in cheers, some crooning the opening bars. One woman in my section wore what looked to be a handmade poncho covered in patchwork images of Neil Patrick Harris. Cleary not a first-timer.

I have to confess that when I first watched the film of Hedwig, I couldn’t get past the first 45 minutes. The story was – and I think still is – ridiculously far-fetched. An East-German boy discovers rock music, experiences a botched sex-change operation, moves to America, and becomes a pop singer only to have his songs stolen by his young creative partner (and momentary lover) for whom he babysat. What redeems the show, and what made me want to see it on stage, is the music. Composed and written by Stephen Trask, Hedwig’s score sounds even better live. His songs are catchy, energized, and uplifting all at once. And each is soulful enough to emotionally transport the audience, especially when performed by an actor as talented and magnetic as Neil Patrick Harris. (I had the pleasure of seeing Harris on his last night in the role.) 

The music is so good that, ultimately, it manages to eclipse the narrative missteps throughout the show. (Even within Hedwig's bizarre world, there are several moments and that are off and implausible.) For example, the concept that director Michael Mayer creates for the Broadway production involves Hedwig performing a one-night concert at the Belasco Theatre, the actual theater where the show is playing. But Hedwig is supposed to be a flop who has no fame to speak of. She would never perform at the Belasco, certainly not to the thunderous applause that NPH receives while playing her. So the meta-story in which Mayer couches the plot doesn't hold. And the show gets further derailed from there, culminating in a final scene where it's not clear whether Hedwig transforms into another character or instead if we're suddenly in the presence of that other character. I'm guessing Mayer wants that ambiguity, but why, I couldn’t say.

In any case, the fan-abundant audience didn’t seem thrown by the non-sequitors, I suspect because the themes of self-acceptance spoke louder than the narrative hiccups. More so, the show’s finale is triumphant, with a beautiful star-filled visual and with Harris shedding his wig and makeup. 

Leaving the theater that night, it occurred to me that Hedwig is part of a larger category of musicals: shows that succeed by taking audiences on an emotional trip. These musicals brim with feeling and ensure that the viewer feels something, regardless of whether the plot is meandering or nonexistent. Hair is a classic example. So is A Chorus Line. These are iconic musicals, with memorable runs and multiple revivals. The fact that these musicals encourage the viewer to feel more than think, does not imply that there isn't great ingenuity at work. They are meant to tap into a specific experience that is entertaining to watch and personally meaningful to contemplate. Hedwig manages to fall short as a story but succeed as an experience. It is in many ways the opposite of what a play sets out to do. 

 

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich

Posted on September 11, 2014 .

Danny Burstein talks Cabaret and Jewish Theater

Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall's revival of Cabaret (which opened on Broadway in 1998) imagined the Kander & Ebb musical so inventively that many theatergoers - including those familiar with the film and previous Broadway incarnations - found it to be the definitive production of the musical.

The show is back on Broadway with the same direction but an entirely new cast (save for Alan Cumming as the Emcee, and Kristin Olness as Kit Kat girl Helga). While the look and feel of the show is mostly consistent with its last run, the actors find new dimension, invigorating their characters with unique energy. One to look out for is Danny Burstein, a Broadway regular who plays the endearing Jewish fruit salesman, Herr Schultz. I spoke with Burstein for a profile in The Jewish Week about preparing for this role, mastering a German accent, and the meaning of Jewish Theater. 

Anyone who has seen a version of the musical “Cabaret” will recall the dazzling, provocative world of the Kit Kat Club, a fictional nightclub in pre-World War II Berlin. At the top of the show, a vivacious emcee, originated by Joel Grey, beckons us inside enticingly. “We have no troubles here!” he promises. “Here, life is beautiful.”

The iconic musical, created by Kander and Ebb with book writer Joe Masteroff, offers an intoxicating glimpse into Weimar decadence. The Kit Kat Club’s star performer, Sally Bowles, and her paramour, an American novelist named Cliff, appear to be almost fantastical, offering each other — and the audience — a taste of wish fulfillment. But there is a second narrative in “Cabaret,” a subtler presence that is equally essential to the work. It is the story of a Jewish character, the show’s only one, who personally experiences Germany’s shifting tide.

 

Continue the article at The Jewish Week.

 

photo credit: Joan Marcus

 

 

Posted on May 20, 2014 .

Journalist Lawrence Wright Reimagines the Camp David Accords Onstage

Lawrence Wright has no need for a second career. The veteran journalist writes for the New Yorker, travels regularly, and devotes years to his nonfiction books which reliably become best-sellers – like his 2013 expose of Scientology, Going Clear, and his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower, which investigated the history of Al-Qaeda. 

And yet, he stumbled upon playwriting years ago and fell in love. This month, Wright will present his sixth play, Camp David, about the historic Camp David Accords in 1978 that established a lasting peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. (Camp David runs at Arena Stage in Washington DC through May 4th.)

I spoke to the indefatigable writer about historical drama, the Middle East, and the subject of his next book. My article on Lawrence Wright and Camp David is featured in the April issue of American Theatre

(Camp David stars Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter, Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter, Ron Rifkin as Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and Khaled Nabawy as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. )

  

In your three previous plays, there has been a journalist onstage, either you playing yourself or an actor playing a fictional journalist. In each of these works, the journalist figure has been instrumental in propelling the narrative. Camp David, on the other hand, features four historical figures and no presence of a journalist. How does this represent a new writing experience for you? 

I think that’s a good observation. To some extent my previous work has been a transition into theater. In 1992, I saw Fires in the Mirror at the Public Theater, Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show. And what was so striking to me was that she married journalism and theater together, and I didn’t know that could be done. I was electrified by that and I thought there’s something there for me. 

After I finished The Looming Tower, I did a one-man show for the New Yorker festival [My Trip to Al-Qaeda]. In that case, I WAS the journalist; I was presenting my experience. And I did the same thing with The Human Scale. And in a way, I did the same thing with Fallaci because there two journalists struggling over the truth. So for me it was a big deal to take that figure out . The journalist had always been my entry into the narrative.  

You’ve spoken previously about the idea of the “donkey” – the figure or character that carries the audience into the story. Does Camp David have one? 

Not exactly, there’s not an outsider in this. The only person who is to some extent the audience’s representative is Rosalynn. Her job is to make peace among the peacemakers. 

When I was reading Rosalynn’s memoir, she mentioned that she kept a diary at Camp David. So when I went to Plains, Georgia, I said, “Mrs. Carter, it would sure help if I could look at it” and I kept pestering Gerald Rafshoon [Carter’s director of communications and current producer of Camp David] to ask President Carter. Then, one day in the mail I got a manila envelope and there was her diary. 

There have been many attempts to broker peace between Israel and surrounding Arab nations. What do you think made Camp David effective? 

That’s an important question because it’s what the play addresses. Camp David was three religious men trying to solve a problem that religion had caused in the first place. 

It’s never been duplicated. It was uniquely successful, and yet it was constantly on the verge of collapse. It’s three leaders leaving their affairs of state behind to solve this problem that’s almost insoluble. Carter was the key to it but he had to become a different person. Within the first few hours of Begin and Sadat meeting, they hated each other so much that Carter had to keep them separated. He had to improvise and create his own plan for peace. 

Do you think he came out of it a changed president? 

Yeah. It was too late to salvage his presidency though.  

What do you think is the collective memory today on Carter’s presidency? 

Carter is perceived as a failed president. I think when he left office he was so unpopular that nobody wanted to give him credit for the great thing he did. And of course he was running against one of the most formidable candidates in modern times. He suffered by comparison. But there are things that got him elected in the first place that people have come to forget. He was a redemptive figure in the south. He had made race relations his signature achievement in Georgia, and he came into the presidency with the same idea. 

Going back to a point you made about the three men being religious, you wrote in The Looming Tower that religious belief is more influential than political belief in affecting people’s actions. 

In the case of Carter, Begin, and Sadat, that was extremely true. Carter and Sadat were both pious men. And Begin was very ethnically oriented toward his Judaism. For Sadat, it was only his religious belief that gave him the courage to break with the Arab world in its rejection of Israel. When Carter got to the White House, making peace in the Middle East was at the top of his political agenda. And in my opinion, it was almost entirely religiously motivated. 

It’s impossible to discuss Camp David without looking at the previous wars between Israel and Egypt. In the Six Day War in 1967, Egypt’s military was decimated in the first day, which was an astounding victory for Israel. And once Egypt’s military failed, the other Arab nations involved in the war quickly followed suit. 

Another thing about that war – both the Arabs and Jews came to similar conclusions [about God]. In Egypt there was the feeling that “God is not on our side.” And the radical element of Islam was empowered by the defeat. You see far more radical groups than the Muslim Brothers begin to emerge. In Israel, there was a sense of jubilation, that “this is God’s will”. And the rise of the ultra-Orthodox began to rise. So the ’67 war was really a seminal event. 

As a Jewish person who has spent time in Israel and lived there for a year, I’ve heard the continual narrative that Israel is simultaneously mighty and mortally susceptible. Maybe it’s the perpetual Jewish narrative. Do you think that Begin went into the peace talks with that dual mindset? 

Oh absolutely. As you observed, Israel at times feels invulnerable and also on the brink of existential loss. In Begin’s experience, a third of the Jewish people had been exterminated. He felt that he had in his hands the future of the Jewish people. Israelis felt invulnerable after the ’67 war, but then came ’73 [the Yom Kippur War], and although with American assistance it recovered, Israel’s faith in itself was shaken and there was a stronger motivation to achieve peace. 

Why was Palestinian statehood unattainable at Camp David? 

The Camp David Accords actually do accommodate the autonomy talks that should have led to some sort of resolution. But they were never completed. And of course there were no Palestinian representatives present at Camp David. The PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] was regarded as a terrorist organization, and there was no other authorized representative of the Palestinian people. So Sadat took it on, but he didn’t have the authority to make peace with the Palestinians. 

The Accords are two separate frameworks – the treaty between Israel and Egypt, and the autonomy talks for the Palestinians. They were supposed to be linked together, but the second portion was never put into practice. At some point it became clear to Carter that he couldn’t get everything, and he put the Palestinian issue aside. Carter thought he had gotten Begin to agree that there would be no more settlements in the West Bank. 

And then Begin promoted new settlements right after. 

Almost immediately. And Carter’s never forgiven him for it. And neither did Begin forgive Carter. The last time Carter went to Israel when Begin was still alive, Begin refused to see him. 

That’s amazing given the experience they went through together. 

And Carter is loathed in Israel as you know. And yet, Ezer Weizman [President of Israel in the 1990s and former commander of the Israeli Air Force] said no American president has given more to Israel than Carter because he gave them peace. 

How do you think the treaty is viewed today by Egyptians? 

Well, on both sides it’s an unloved treaty, and yet essential. In Egypt, there’s been a cold peace with Israel. It’s not a friendly peace, but it’s endured for 36 years now. Egypt was spending an extraordinary amount of its economy on military and since then it has been allowed to develop its economy in a more normal fashion. 

After visiting the Camp David archives and conducting research and interviews, have you incorporated specific quotes into the script? 

Oh yeah. I tried as much as possible to find the language that they used. I always ask, what were the words that they used.  

Your research process for this play has been incredibly thorough. What I find fascinating is that the parts that are invented come from so much immersion in the subject matter that they have the feeling of realness. 

Thank you. I come from the nonfiction world and I’m wedded to the idea that reality is more interesting than fantasy. My challenge as a writer is to take what I know to be real and imagine the rest, to make the connections that put these real bits together. And it’s easier for me to do that when I’m steeped in the material. It’s thrilling to be able to take this canvas and bring something back to life. 

There’s a couple lessons from Camp David: one is that there are no perfect partners for peace. They were just as intransigent and oppositional as our leaders are these days and yet peace was accomplished. And another thing was that it didn’t have anything to do with timing. Oftentimes people will say, “the deal’s not ripe, it’s not ready to be achieved”, but that was just as true then. 

I heard you’re at work on another book. What is this one about?

It’s about Camp David! When I finished the play, I thought that the book I would have based the play on doesn’t exist and I had already done a considerable amount of research. It’s issues that I’ve been interested in as a chronicler of the Middle East, and everything was on the table at Camp David.

 

 Photo credit: Kenny Braun

Posted on April 2, 2014 .

The Bridges of Madison County: Film adaptations make great musicals. No wait, they're bad.

Bridges of Madison County_Broadway Musical.jpg

The Bridges of Madison County opens with a solo. With the exception of Oklahoma!, musicals do not usually do well to begin with one actor singing alone onstage. The structure of musicals (which is surprisingly consistent among vastly different shows) tends to place a solo number as the second or third song, after we’ve had a chance to meet the main characters and become acquainted with the central backstory of the show.

In this work, we are introduced at the start to Francesca, the Italian woman who left her home in Naples to become a housewife to Bud, an ex-soldier from rural Iowa. When we meet her family in the next scene – husband Bud and two teenage kids – we already know about Francesca’s journey to America and how, despite the years past, she doesn’t feel quite at home or quite herself. It isn’t a great dramatic set-up – in other words, there isn’t much at stake – but what it does is orient the story entirely from Francesca’s perspective. And it helps when that character is played by an actress as formidable as Kelli O’Hara.

O’Hara is a director’s dream, as the show’s director, Bartlett Sher, would likely attest. (Sher directed her twice before, in South Pacific and A Light in the Piazza.) O’Hara simply illuminates the stage, due as much to her lovely, expansive voice and physical beauty as to an uncanny ability to radiate sincerity in every scene. There is nary an ironic or subversive note in O’Hara’s performances, which makes her a near perfect choice for the veritable tear-jerker that is Madison County.

When The Bridges of Madison County was published as a novel in 1992, it ignited a passion in readers. Its popularity might be compared to the current captivation with Fifty Shades of Grey, except that Madison County offered a fantasy beyond sexual abandon. Deep, soul-reaching love is just as much the source of passion for its lovers. [After writing this, I noticed that Ben Brantley made the same analogy in his review. Either we’re thinking similarly, or it’s an obvious comparison.] The central relationship in Madison County is between Francesca and a handsome photographer named Robert Kincaid who visits Madison County on an assignment to photograph the area’s historic covered bridges. An immediate spark ignites between them and they begin a brief but intense relationship while Bud and the kids are away at a state fair. A movie adaptation in 1995, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, was also a huge hit, and it’s not surprising that the next incarnation would be a musical. The grand emotional scale is just right for the heightened form of musicals, not to mention that nowadays every Hollywood production company has a Broadway division, eager to adapt the next high-grossing film.

The Broadway production of Madison County, which ran last summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival, features a score by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Marsha Norman, each a seasoned musical writer. In their partnership, those grand emotions that made the novel and film memorable transfer believably through song and dialogue. Steven Pasquale, imbued with a powerful singing voice and chiseled bone structure, stars as Robert, ensuring that Francesca’s reasons for having an extra-marital affair are well understood if not justified. Pasquale and O’Hara collaborated previously (on the musical Far From Heaven) and their onstage chemistry is authentic and palpable. All of these elements work together and convey a heartfelt love story where it could easily have been contrived or saccharine.

The show also finds room for laughs, very much needed in a work this heart-tugging. One comic moment happens early on in a frenetic family scene. As Bud and the kids get ready to leave the house for their drive to the state fair, Bud spills a package of ice all over the floor. It happens suddenly, making me, and I imagine others in the audience, wonder if it had been an accident. A moment later, in sung conversation, Bud asks how Francesca will spend the upcoming days without him. Francesca mentions a few things, then adds, “Or I might spend three days cleaning up this ice.” Staged, indeed, but delivered cleverly toward a joke. The line also indicates how resigned Francesca has become to a life of housework.

The balance of humor to gravitas owes much to Director Bartlett Sher who does impressive work here. His last Broadway production was Golden Boy, Clifford Odets' beautiful and underrated play about an Italian-American teenager who trades in his violin for boxing gloves. Sher is a master at creating a swell of emotion onstage. Bridges could easily be a schmaltzy sap-fest. But it wasn't. The one change I’d suggest would be to shift the focus toward Robert. He is the traveler in search of purpose, and the experience of meeting Francesca is life-changing for him. Francesca, by contrast, has a rather complete life already – it may not be passion-filled, but it does include a husband and two children who love her. 

There was much to enjoy and even love about this production, and yet, I left the theater wondering, "Why was this made into a musical?" The fact remains that if you put a talented composer, writer, director, and pair of actors in a room together, they'll likely emerge with something beautiful. But there's something about adapting a major motion picture that feels so unnecessary, so redundant. Unless, of course, the vision is vastly different in its use of theatricality. Adaptations of novels are quite different, partly because fewer people read books than see movies, but also because the experience of reading is private and quiet; a staged performance therefore has the opportunity to offer a live interpretation of the written word. In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir that found its musical incarnation at the Public Theater this year, the creative team of Janeane Tesori, Lisa Kron, and Sam Gold envisioned a musical that held the emotional core of the book while depicting the narrative in a completely original way.

Adaptations have for decades been a life force in theater. In fact, most of the long-running, influential Broadway shows have been adaptations, from Cats to Fiddler on the Roof to RENT. But the Hollywood takeover of Broadway has made adaptations – particularly of movies – the norm, unintentionally crowding out new work. Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt are about to debut their second original musical, If/Then, following the success of their first (the Pulitzer-Prize winning Next to Normal). Kitt and Yorkey prove that audiences will embrace new work if the talent is there. Marsha Norman has all but rejected new musicals, asserting that audiences want something they already know. I'll admit that a recognizable movie title may be an easier sell, but I think audiences are just as on board for a great story with beautiful music. Jason Robert Brown does deliver on that front. His powerful duet “One Second and Million Miles” feels as emotionally riveted as the final song of his previous work, The Last Five Years, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow”. His composing talent is undeniable as is his ability to write new musicals. There's no argument that films are great and that some musicals adapted from films are beautiful. But they're overwhelming Broadway. There are great composer and lyricists writing new work right now if we look past the dizzying list of musicals lifted from films we already know.

 

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich

Posted on March 10, 2014 .