Theater Review: The Assembled Parties

Assembled parties.jpg

The playwright Richard Greenberg is a writer deserving of accolades. He has written over 25 plays, including hits like Take Me Out; beautiful scripts with lesser productions like Three Days of Rain; and the occasional flop like Breakfast at Tiffany’s which closed earlier this month. Happily, the praise bestowed on his new Broadway play, The Assembled Parties, has been nearly unanimous. But it felt unfinished to me, an amalgam of clever scenes and empathetic characters that had lost their way.

The Assembled Parties is a story about long-held secrets between family members, first in the early 80’s and later in the early aughts. Our attention is centered on the Bascovs, a refined, upper-class Manhattan family whom you would envy for their good looks and sprawling apartment if they weren’t so nice and welcoming. Julie Bascov, the beautiful mother played by Jessica Hecht, is a former actress who at 50-something hasn’t lost an ounce of youthful appeal. Her lilting voice and enunciated syllables suggest a well-bred upbringing, the same advantages she offers her two sons, Scotty and Timmy. We meet Julie before Christmas dinner, preparing crudités in the kitchen with Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), a bright but nervous law student and friend of Scotty’s who is staying with the Bascovs for the holiday.

It’s important to mention that everyone we meet here is Jewish. And while religion itself isn’t central to the play, it’s noteworthy that Christmas is the backdrop for this family gathering. It speaks not just to Julie and her husband Ben’s secularism, but also to their Jewish ancestry. (More on that in a minute.) The Bascovs’ dinner guests are Ben’s sister Faye, her husband Mort, and daughter Shelley, who are distinctly more Jewish…or rather Jewy, which implies the stereotypes without the religiosity. Jeff’s family (whom we don’t meet) seems to be more observant and less well-off, the combination of which deepens his awe of the Bascovs. A phone conversation to Jeff’s parents indicates that they’re spending the night with Chinese food and a movie, the recognizable cliché of Jews at Christmastime.

These multiple shades of Jewishness provide much of the comedy in Act I. Whether or not you pick up on the cultural references, you can’t miss Shelley’s Brooklyn-inflected accent, or Faye’s Yiddish-infused speech, which Judith Light nails at every turn. Faye is the opposite of Julie: she is salted herring to Julie’s caviar.

As the guests arrive and the Bascovs prepare dinner, we see the stage rotate to reveal more and more rooms in their palatial apartment. Ultimately, we arrive at the dining room where our appetites have been whetted by the many mysteries that hide behind the comedy: infidelity between spouses, long-standing rivalries, a brazen girlfriend we only hear about, and a ruby necklace whose ownership is in question.

The focus amid the din is Julie, and it is testament to Greenberg’s writing and to Hecht’s performance that we fall in love with her so immediately. Jeff visibly does too, and when he jokes with Scotty and says, “I’m in love with your mom,” it’s done with deliberate bro humor to mask any signs of sincerity. It’s easy for us to feel as Jeff does – we’re enamored by the Bascovs even as we don’t know them.

When the curtain rises after intermission, it’s clear that Julie Bascov (now in her 70’s) has slowed down with time. The set no longer rotates, and Julie’s lightness has become slow with older age. (Hecht’s ability to change her entire demeanor, posture, and walk over a 15-minute intermission is remarkable.) Jeff, whose relationship with the Bascovs has been ongoing if sporadic, has returned for another Christmas dinner. He is more resigned to life, less enchanted by law, and still, it would appear, in love with Julie.

Because the mysteries of Act I hang in the air, every conversation in the second act seems to hint at their revelation. This is where the play falls short. The secrets are revealed, but they don’t affect the story. What we learn is interesting but not reality changing. This play is ultimately Julie’s story: how she encounters every setback and challenge with positivity and grace. But I wish it had been Jeff’s story: the outsider looking in for twenty years. How he has loved Julie all this time while she loves him as a son.

The bigger issue I had with the play is why Greenberg portrays a Jewish family at Christmas dinner, not once but twice. Jewishness circles the play like tinsel and ornaments around an evergreen, but Greenberg doesn’t elucidate an important point: that there are distinct differences between prosperous German Jews like Julie and shtetl-associative Jews like Faye. It’s not simply for laughs that Julie is personified by sophistication and Faye by neuroses. Perhaps Greenberg assumes the audience will pick up on the reference points, but I think most will miss them. To have this play be more than about Julie’s charm – a topic many critics singled out in their praise – we need to understand why her culture and history matter. Conjoined with Julie’s gracefulness is her denial of anything bad: how she waves off bad events, people she’s lost, and any trace of her real heritage. We love Julie but we can’t get close to her. It’s an interesting but unresolved idea that Greenberg leaves on our plates as the play ends. An hour later I was hungry again.

An Interview with Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance.jpg

For the April issue of American Theatre magazine, I interviewed actor Mark Rylance about his new play, Nice Fish, currently making its world-premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. At the time of the interview, the play was still in development, so we talked mostly about Rylance’s inspiration and the play’s language.

Nice Fish blends dialogue written by Rylance with monologues (or rather, poems) by Minnesotan prose poet Louis Jenkins. A longtime fan of Jenkins’ work, Rylance has quoted such poems at dinners, events, and – most famously – at the Tony Awards in 2008 and 2011 in lieu of acceptance speeches. Watch his 2011 Tony speech HERE.

Nice Fish portrays ice fishermen in Minnesota on the last day of the fishing season. In addition to co-writing the script, Rylance also co-directs with his wife, Claire van Kampen, and stars in the production. Here is an excerpt of our conversation:

I watched an interview that you gave after winning your second Tony award where you were asked if the acceptance speech was your own composition. You replied that you couldn’t write something that good.

(laughs) Probably not.

What was your initial inspiration to combine your words with Jenkins’ words?

I think the initial inspiration came when I noticed Robert Bly’s forward to Louis’ first book of poetry, and Robert identified what he felt was an adult voice running through the poems and also a child’s voice. One voice that was cynical and another that was imaginative. That was the beginning, and I thought maybe these two fisherman might say these words to each other. I don’t know where I got the idea of ice fishermen…. Oh that’s right, there was a funny recording I heard about Minnesota people and how they talk in non-sequiturs. They don’t pick up on what the other has said. Maybe it’s the isolation of the long winters or something.

How much did that Midwestern sensibility tie into your own adolescence in Wisconsin and thinking back on your childhood there?

That’s what it’s about for me. That’s the memory I play on. The long winters in Wisconsin. When I was doing Boeing Boeing [on Broadway] we did a workshop with Matthew Cowles, Christine Baranski’s husband, and I playing the two fishermen. It was about 45 minutes long with just Louis’ poems, no other dialogue. From that I set about wanting it to be a fuller evening with three acts. And then I started to write and imagine the other characters.

Is the non-sequitur style of conversation retained in this version?

Yes, to some degree. Their speech picks up some detail of what the other person has said. One person might be talking about a girlfriend and saying, “I waited for her outside the red house where she lived,” and then he might go on for a few sentences about her. And then the other speaker might say, “I lived in a red house once.”

That almost has an absurdist air to it.

There are absurdist turns in Louis’ poems, it’s true. The ingredients are so recognizable that you don’t see the absurdist thing coming. It’s an ongoing process to make my dialogue marry with his language. For instance, he never swears in his poems, and I’ll sometimes put that in to make something more dramatic, but I’ve just recently taken all that out.

Is it clear when the dialogue shifts from your words to his poems?

Well, hopefully it blends. But the poems tend to be a one-minute speech about something, whereas my dialogue goes back and forth.

I like the idea of collaboration. I like the fact that Shakespeare collaborated. And I expect the collaboration to carry on when the actors join. Most of them are local Minnesotan actors, so I think they’ll correct me on my syntax.

What do you think people think of when they think about ice fishing? What does it mean to a local audience?

I wanted to create [Nice Fish] in Minnesota so that people coming to the play would know about ice fishing and that environment. There’s something magical about being suspended on eight or nine inches of ice. There’s the sense that it won’t last. Hopefully we’re reflecting something truthfully, recognizably.

I’m hoping that the play is more universal than just for a local audience, but this is certainly their environment and their sense of humor. That Northern sense of humor has been in my ear a lot. I remember a Minnesotan man once saying to me, “If a man from Wisconsin tells you a joke, you don’t laugh until a week later.” They’re very dry.  I certainly found that when I came to London, my humor was not recognizable.

But your point about why people go out on the ice and build these little huts. What are they escaping for and what experience do they want to have? These are all quite useful things.

Are you hoping to have a set that evokes a realistic setting or a metaphorical setting?

I hope the set will be like Louis’ poems. They’re made up of real things, but they have the ability to be surprisingly expansive. It’s a wonderful setting – this icy lake with trees in the distance. As we’ve worked on it, I’ve realized that the character of Mother Nature is very expressive in my imagination – wind and snow and aurora borealis. I certainly remember that about the Midwest as compared to London. One is much more aware of the elements.

Do you find your accent returning when you come back to the Midwest?

Yeah, I do. Not just the accent, but a character in me too. I get a flash of being eighteen again. It was a big thing to leave the Midwest at eighteen and come to London, having very little conception in our family that any such thing would ever happen. But we all thought we were English. We used to have tea parties on the fourth of July. When I came to England I knew so little about the rest of the world. Everyone was quite politicized and well read in London. Coming out of high school, I wasn’t awake to very much at all apart from Shakespeare and plays that I had done. So when I go back to the Midwest, I feel an enormous weight come off my shoulders.

Photo credit: Mike Habermann

Classic Stage Company: Everything Old is New Again

Passion_CSC

How do you make the classics feel fresh? One option: find innovative ways to stage them. Another option: expand the definition of “classics”. The fact of Classic Stage Company’s continued relevance, appeal, and durability within Off-Broadway theater is due to a smart combination of the two…not to mention casting Peter Sarsgaard, Bebe Neuwirth, and John Turturro. In 2011, I interviewed artistic director Brian Kulick on the eve of CSC’s world-premiere of Unnatural Acts, a based-on-real-events portrayal of Harvard’s underground gay community in the 1920’s. Co-conceived by director Tony Speciale and collaboratively written by members of the Plastic Theatre that same year, the play seemed like an unusual selection for a theater dedicated to classic drama. So I asked Kulick how he defines the term. He responded, “A classic is a play that refuses to stop resonating.”

In Kulick’s hands, CSC is benefitting from that broad interpretation. Currently on stage is Stephen Sondheim's Passion – the first New York revival of the musical and the first musical ever to be staged at the downtown theater. Frequent Sondheim collaborator John Doyle directs this production, though instead of having actors play instruments (as in previous Doyle-Sondheim productions), the nine-member orchestra is perched above the stage.

The placement of musicians doesn’t ostensibly have anything to do with Passion, but I found it to be another example of CSC’s continued reinvention. Because there is no room onstage to set up an orchestra, CSC converted its second floor office space into an “orchestra pit” and broke through the walls to expose the area to the audience below. Seeing an elevated orchestra heightens the audience's awareness of the musician as storyteller, particularly for a narrative composer like Sondheim. Space constraints lead to a new musical format = creativity borne out of necessity.

Director John Doyle’s work also benefits from this format. Doyle is often referred to as a minimalist, but I don’t believe that’s his exact intention. It’s more that he gets to the heart of the story and dismisses the pomp that can accompany big musicals. A few weeks before seeing Passion, I went to a panel discussion at WNYC’s Greene Space with Stephen Sondheim. John Doyle, and the lead cast members of the show. Doyle remarked that what is taken to be his creative style in actuality stems from spending years directing small-budget shows where money was scarce. “I got used to working with minimal resources,” he said. “I do everything I can not to get in the way of the story.” That method has stuck with him. The set in Doyle’s revival is a bare black marble floor with two gilded mirrors and light sconces against a back wall. The sparseness transfers our focus to the characters.

This production shows the beauty of Passion – how love transforms its shape and how it transfers its recipient. The cast, Melissa Errico, Judy Kuhn, and an amazing Ryan Silverman were transporting without falling into melodrama. It wouldn’t be surprising if musicals become a regular occurrence at CSC; this version of Passion is an auspicious first go at it. I would agree with Kulick that any great work of art refuses to stop resonating. Evidently, it pays to dust off the classics.

The Soul of Laramie

Laramie Project

What The Laramie Project aspires to is remarkable. An enacted investigation into the killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard, the play and its performers achieve what Juilliard President Joseph Polisi once called “the artist as citizen”, the use of art to advocate for a better society. Just five weeks after Shepard was brutally beaten on October 6, 1998, the Tectonic Theater Project, led by director Moisés Kaufman, went to Laramie, Wyoming to ask questions and collect information, forging a work of art that has arguably become the most comprehensive study of Shepard’s murder. On stage now at BAM and performed in repertory with The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, the full work offers nearly five hours of first-person accounts, performed by Tectonic company members, that shed light on the local community, the perception of gays, and the redefining of hate crimes.

TheLaramie Project is so widely acclaimed and its subject matter is so inherently heartrending, that I was surprised by how lackluster the production was. There are many powerful revelations in the work – about the trial, the transition of Mrs. Shepard from private mother to fearless advocate, and the way the media tried to downplay homosexuality as a primary cause of the crime. But each one was presented as a direct address to the audience, as though reading quotations from an article. The breadth of interviews was impressive. But where was the play? It somehow got lost in the documentary.

Blending research with provocative storytelling is an incredible challenge. The best recent example I’ve seen is How to Survive a Plague, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the AIDS crisis and the pursuit of effective treatment among activist groups. Director David France presents an overwhelming amount of historical data and documentary footage, but he finds a soul within the film as well. It felt disappointing both nights at BAM that a work so well-assembled, based on events so heartbreaking, would come across as dryly as it did.

Christopher Shinn, the Pulitzer Prize finalist, pinpoints desire as the missing element in The Laramie Project. For a study so in-depth about a gay man, the play doesn’t discuss desire in the gay community – attraction, relationships, sex both intimate and casual. That absence propelled Shinn to write a new play as “a response to all [The Laramie Project] avoids”, he told me. The new play, Teddy Ferrara, is currently onstage through March 3rd at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The play, which confronts gay college students who come to terms with the suicide of a withdrawn gay freshman, seems to be linked to the suicide of gay college student Tyler Clementi in 2010. But Shinn’s ambitions are more expansive. He explores gay sexuality in all of its complexities, from the dynamics of committed relationships to the expectation that gay men will cheat. “It asks the audience to enter on the level of desire,” Shinn says.

Of course, the narrative of Teddy Ferrara is vastly different from The Laramie Project. But talking to Shinn about how The Laramie Project inspired him to write a new play affirmed what I felt was missing, despite the Tectonic Theater Project’s many talents. The people we meet in Laramieare certainly impassioned; it’s just the storytelling that isn’t.

What Draws a Black Audience

Chris-Rock_2

This past weekend I saw Outcry at JACK, the storefront performance space in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Written by Thais Francis, the show is an expression of grief and anger at the innocent black men who have been killed for no other cause than racial profiling. My friend Kelley Girod who produced the show termed it “more of an event than a play.” Slain figures like Emmett Till (killed in 1955) and Trayvon Martin (killed in 2012) find themselves in the same place. Heaven, maybe. The show runs through February 17th and is worth seeing. While the script gets clumsy at times, and Thais is inclined to use diary-worthy lines like, “when it’s real, it’s forever”, the idea to combine the lives and deaths of these innocent souls is powerful. Also powerful was seeing great diversity in the audience. It’s not common at the theater.

Kelley, a black playwright and producer, has thought a lot about what attracts black audiences. We talked after the show about Broadway productions that have appealed to people of color and the various reasons why. Most notable are the plays that focus on black characters (like The Color Purple), especially when they feature prominent actors (like The Mountaintop). There are also shows that happen to have a black celebrity (like Chris Rock in Motherfucker with the Hat). Interestingly, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess had a surprisingly small African American turnout. Maybe the opera struck prospective audiences as being dated. Or maybe Audra McDonald’s celebrity is only a draw for audiences that already love musicals.

For four years, Kelley has produced The Fire This Time Festival – a presentation of plays by writers of African and African American descent. The initial idea was to support – and create an outlet for – black writers. And to combat the idea that a black playwright “has to write a play that has black themes, like overcoming slavery,” she says. “If the play is written by a black playwright, then it will relate to a black experience in some way.” As a result, The Fire This Time covers a wide variety of subjects, some racially themed, others not at all. It keeps the festival eclectic, though Kelley admits that a show like Outcry has an easier time raising funds. There is a greater sense of urgency for investors precisely because the black themes are so prominent.

When I saw Motherfucker with the Hat and noticed how many black people were in the audience, my thought was that it stemmed from the desire to see Chris Rock on Broadway. And that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps the presence of black actors – famous or not – is the strongest factor. Regardless of the narrative, audiences of any race want to see an element of themselves onstage.

Art in a Damaged World

When your chosen field is the arts – creating it, performing it, or writing about it – the entire pursuit can feel reduced to luxury or whim after an event as horrific as the elementary school shooting in Sandy Hook. Because the arts are so inextricably linked to observing the world and people’s experiences in it, because telling stories is a direct conduit to creating empathy, there is the collective notion that artists do it out of love and a sense of purpose. But experiencing the arts is essentially a luxury. Even when the work portrays people coping with poverty or violence or hardship, those in the audience usually aren’t. Besides the occasional free installment, the arts are available to ticket buyers; they appeal to individuals whose basic needs have more than been met. I’m not sure whether there is a different role for artists following disaster. Generally speaking, they should be good citizens like anyone else. They should find ways to donate, to comfort, to advocate for better policy. But artists also have a unique opportunity to sustain the relevance of troubling events though their work. To make it meaningful to people, to not let those events fade into history.

On the morning of December 14th, before learning the details of the Newtown shooting, I heard a news program about a proposition that governor Rick Scott has made for state universities in Florida. He advocates that Florida schools offer lower tuition for business-oriented majors and higher tuition for majors that are deemed less so: English, history, political science, philosophy, and theater. Though a student pursuing philosophy will likely have a lower paying job than, say, a student pursuing finance and would benefit from lower tuition, Scott asserts that individuals who do not directly improve Florida’s economy should pay the price, so to speak. Needless to say, the news was disappointing to hear, not only because it seems unfair to force students to pay higher tuition for fields that interest them, but also because the proposition suggests that understanding the world, its history, its sociological make up, how people function, and how we understand one another has little value.

We could use more empathy, a state of mind that naturally emerges from reading fiction, seeing theater, even studying political science in that it broadens our awareness of different communities and populations. The Public Theater’s artistic director Oscar Eustis has spoken about the importance of empathy, saying, “What is necessary in theater is also what is necessary in a functioning democracy.”

People have all sorts of solutions to the gun debate. My thoughts are that 1) a gun should be at least as hard to obtain as a driver’s license, and 2) that our health system should treat mental illness as seriously as it treats cancer. My choice for third is a more vague proposal and more wishful: that we create a more empathetic society where people recognize the dignity in others, even with whom they adamantly disagree. The economy may benefit from individuals with finance skills, but the world benefits from tolerance.

When I first began my MFA program in theater at Columbia, it was just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina. At our orientation, the dean spoke to the incoming class, remarking that it can be hard to justify having a life in the arts when there are so many basic human needs that first need to be met. He then said something that has stuck with me. “The arts are the last essential thing we need as a society. But they are essential.” There needn’t be any delusion that art solves the ills of this world. But neither should we underestimate its potential to inspire compassion, to restore dignity, to heal, to heal.

Theater Review: The Twenty-Seventh Man

Twenty-Seventh Man

Nathan Englander’s first collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, is one of my favorite books ever. I’m not sure if ‘Jewish American Literature’ is still a real genre in the Henry Roth sense of the term, but, if so, Englander is surely a Jewish writer. For someone who is said to have left religious practice years ago, he still has a deeply Jewish soul. And the threads of Jewish thought and identity are looped into every story he writes. The Twenty-Seventh Man, his first story in that collection and now his first play, onstage currently at the Public Theater, is a requiem for the great Yiddish writers in post-WWII Russia who were selectively sentenced to execution by Stalin’s regime. In a jail cell that feels believably stifling, as though “lack of air flow” was part of the set description, we meet Englander’s imagined luminaries, each a Jew and each a legend of the written word.

As the writers discuss their work, their language, and the cause of their incarceration, a new prisoner arrives, this one a near teenager whose name – Pinchas Pelovits – strikes no familiar chords as a recognizable writer. Pelovits, the twenty-seventh man to be selected, is unlike the others: he is anonymous and unpublished. But he is, he assures us, a writer. His presence in the cell is the mystery of the play, and as the other men curiously question his identity, Englander brings to light how writers measure their worth: by sustaining the lifelong ritual of writing and by creating an audience of readers. Pelovits’ elation in sharing the same room as the writers he most admires is the poignant paradox of the work. It is his one chance to share a story of his own with them.

The story Pelovits writes in prison is my favorite part of the play, and I almost wish I could make everyone in the audience read Englander’s original story before seeing the production because the story needs time and potentially a reread to resonate. What Englander arrives at is that the dead cannot be remembered – their lives and their actions have no sanctification – unless those who live make their memory significant. It’s an idea whose brilliance is almost eclipsed by its simplicity.

Barry Edelstein’s direction – maybe his last at the Public Theater and certainly his last in New York for a while as he sets up a new home at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre – was so arresting that the audience seemed to hold its breath collectively after the play’s final scene before applause took over like a welcome catharsis.

Englander’s writing has kept me company a lot this year. I read his new collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, as soon as it came out, and I used his new translation of the haggadah on Passover. The haggadah had received some mixed reviews, but what I loved about it was the way Englander made some of the most ordinary and familiar phrases come alive. One example was “eloheinu” which is typically translated as “our God” but which Englander translates as “God of us”. In doing so, he offers a new lens through which to view the human/God relationship, transferring any sense of ownership away from us. Whether or not that phrase works for you, it likely makes you think. It makes the speaker take pause and reconsider the meaning of familiar words. That ability is evident in so much of Englander’s work. He encourages us to rethink the things we know. Isn’t that what the best writers do?

Theater Review: Modern Terrorism

Modern Terrorism_second stage

Those who feel that theater doesn’t take risks probably haven’t seen Modern Terrorism. A four-door farce meets Jihadist suicide mission, the play is equal parts comedic and chilling. What it does best is portray how in the midst of plotting an attack, the habits of terrorists are familiar and so very much like our own. They rent Zipcars, make playlists, complain about FedEx, eat Rice Krispies, and reference scenes from “Star Wars”. The play’s subtitle, “They Who Want to Kill Us, and How We Learn to Love Them”, has resonance in those moments of familiarity. And while loving a terrorist may seem too outlandish to consider, playwright Jon Kern encourages us to spend time with them before we judge. The most affable one we meet in the sparse Ikea-furnished apartment that serves as their plotting cell is Rahim, a sweet-faced, good-natured young man who incongruously is the mission’s suicide bomber. Played by Indian actor Utkarsh Ambudkar (also known from the improv group Freestyle Love Supreme and a capella film “Pitch Perfect”), Rahim is driven more by a craving for approval than any overarching animosity toward Americans. Also plotting the mission is Yalda whose antipathy toward America began when her husband was accidentally killed by a drone on their wedding day. The third terrorist, Qala, a Somalian, stands apart from Rahim and Yalda because he acts out of visceral ideology rather than personal motivation. As a result, he’s the only character onstage who provokes more fear than empathy.

Much of the play’s comic relief rests on the only non-terrorist and the only white guy. Kern cleverly chooses to make the character who has the most in common with the audience a wayward stoner type: not quite the paragon of American exceptionalism. Jerome (or 3A as his extremist neighbors call him in an effort to dehumanize) stumbles upon their plot, and while acknowledging that he has become a liability, finds himself surprisingly enticed by the hyper-focused, ambition-oriented spirit of terrorists. He even makes himself useful to their operation by buying huge quantities of propane without raising suspicions. Because white crazies remarkably don’t arouse suspicion.

For his part, Jerome does dispense a few pearls of wisdom to his new compatriots. He notes that while terrorist acts shake us up as a nation, they don’t bring down the whole country. What does bring down the whole country, he posits? Goldman Sachs.

The play, for all its darkness, is really funny. Kern lightens the mood by mocking the very notion of suicide bombers. Rahim expresses the hope that nothing bad happens to him today so that he can die as scheduled tomorrow. Admittedly, some viewers may be put off by the show’s unbearable lightness. But I think it would be a mistake to think that Peter Dubois’ direction intends to ridicule a serious situation. There’s an air of absurdism to the work. We laugh amidst nervousness, between moments of held breath and heavy sigh.

Kern’s brilliance is his decision to place two key moments off stage: Rahim’s first bombing attempt and Qala’s fiery exit toward a swarm of police (the final scene of the play). In both cases, we don’t know exactly what happens. And I think that confusion is the whole point. Most of us will never understand a terrorist’s mindset. And it’s cathartic to leave the theater remembering that.

Theater Review: Annie

Annie_broadway 2012

Attired in dressy clothes and perched atop seats priced at $100, the girls and boys in the audience at the Palace Theatre, where the third incarnation of Annie is currently in production, may not be personally acquainted with the school of hard knocks. Glancing around the theater at the show’s end, I counted the booster seats, which the theater supplies for its smallest audience members, and was amazed at how many little kids had the good fortune of seeing the show. The politics of 1930s Depression-laden America may fly over the heads of young viewers, but that’s beside the point. Annie is a foremost a story of wish fulfillment. And its big-hearted, big-belted songs are anthems of optimism.

I had forgotten how much political content the play held, from the ironic dedication to President Hoover, (“We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover”) to the manifest distinctions between the conservative Daddy Warbucks and the liberal FDR. The political milieu, which director James Lapine emphasizes both dramatically and comically, gave the production its necessary heft beyond Annie’s fantasy storyline. The only instance when the political element teetered too far into schlock was a scene featuring President Roosevelt’s cabinet in discussion of how to ameliorate the country’s economic woes. Annie begins to sing, “Tomorrow” and suddenly she’s standing on the desk in the oval office, thus motivating FDR to introduce the New Deal. He motions for his staff to join in song, calling in the direction of Mr. Warbucks, “You too, Republicans!” It was a hokey but comical moment that dipped precipitously into camp once the Secretary of the Treasury brought out the jazz hands.

Among the adults in the audience, it’s a safe gamble that nearly everyone knows the story and music, either from the original 1977 production, its revival in 1997, or its film version, released in 1982.  We have our expectation of how Annie will look and how Miss Hannigan will talk. The greatest accomplishment for Lapine is that he gets so much personality and nuance from each actor that, in less talented hands, might be reduced to caricature. The show doesn’t rest on Annie alone, but 11-year old Lilla Crawford, who fills the role, carries so much of the performance on her small frame. Her voice has clearly benefitted from vocal training while retaining that purity of emotion that happens when an actress connects to her lyrics. She also blends youthful earnestness with the necessary hardscrabble roughness that lends believability to her character. Spitting into her hand before shaking Daddy Warbucks' hand is a welcome touch, especially when he does the same.

The other cast members give equally multi-faceted performances. As Miss Hannigan, Katie Finneran projects more than a cantankerous orphanage keeper; she is a woman who clings to her last hopes of being happy and desirable to men. As Daddy Warbucks, Anthony Warlow conveys much more than a stodgy stiff-nosed billionaire; he is a man in search of meaningful relationships who carries the memory of his own scrappy youth. And the actresses who fill the roles of the orphan girls are more than Dickensian street urchins who sing about misfortune. They are little comediennes who will gladly steal a laugh as willingly as they steal Miss Hannigan's things. Emily Rosenfeld who plays the littlest orphan Molly is a miniature Mary Tyler Moore with a precocious knack for physical comedy, especially when she puts on Miss Hannigan’s bra and stuffs it full with scarves while singing “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”.

Much of these nuanced portrayals owe thanks to Andy Blankenbeuhler’s choreography. You would never guess this is the same choreographer whose pop and locks are on display a few blocks away at Bring It On: The Musical. The breadth of his work is testament to dance as an element of storytelling.

What we love ultimately about Annie is that having wealth, while undeniably fabulous, pales next to having a family. The whole 5th Avenue penthouse/two-story crystal chandelier (which is impressive, by the way) is for our pleasure far more than it is for Annie’s. We believe that her greatest happiness is in having a loving parent. Though the opportunity for upward mobility in troubled times is something we too can all embrace. You too, Republicans.

From Experimental to Risky

Summer theater enjoys a certain freedom. The Tony awards season is long past, allowing a welcome remove from awards bidding and the politics that come with it. In other words, plays needn’t have a larger objective than to excite audiences. This is also the season of the theater festival. There are lots of them, the farther off Broadway, the better. In June there was ANT Fest at Ars Nova. In July, there’s the undergroundzero Festival; NYMF (dedicated specifically to musicals); and East to Edinburgh. August will bring the NYC Fringe, the largest festival of its kind in North America. All of these festivals celebrate art that is bold and risk-taking. Yet all seem to have a strange relationship with the word “experimental”, that oft-used, amorphous term that means anything from boundary-pushing to esoteric. Why are some artists, arts companies, and arts festivals reluctant to call themselves “experimental”, even when their work seems to fit the description? It may be that calling yourself “experimental” implies pretentiousness, but, more than that, I think it suggests that a work be known for its otherness. Paul Bargetto, the artistic director of the undergroundzero Festival, who admits to having a mixed relationship with the word, says that the term is used unnecessarily in American theater. In European countries, he says, what we call experimental theater is simply called “theater”. Or “theatre”.

Frequently, when we think of a work as experimental, what comes to mind are the ways in which its form diverges from the norm. Perhaps the show is performed in an unconventional, site-specific location; Or the performance blends multi-media like video or projections alongside the actors. Or the work eliminates the fourth wall between actor and audience, inviting the viewer to participate as a performer. But none of these are new inventions. The Wooster Group has incorporated video projection into its theatrical work for years. And the Living Theatre has embraced audience interaction since its founding in 1947. Are those experimental techniques still experimental?

I have found that “experimental” is as limiting a word as “risk-taking”, another term used frequently in the conversation about theater. Theater critics and bloggers often bemoan the state of American theater for not taking enough risks. If what they mean is that theater should be penetrative, not simply pleasant and entertaining, then I readily agree. Director, actor, and playwright Andre Gregory said this in an article in the Guardian last winter: “Passive theater doesn’t force you or seduce you or charm you into asking questions. [It] tells you what to look at onstage, and when you come out, you say, ‘Gee, that was good!’ or ‘Harry Sterns sang that song well!’ Active theater demands that you ask serious, challenging questions of your own life, the culture, and the society we live in.”

I would call that good, smart theater, which may or may not be “risk-taking”. The two best plays I saw this spring – 4000 Miles and Tribes – were thought-provoking and beautifully written and acted. The term “risk-taking” didn’t come to mind in either show, but I found both works to be transporting and powerful.   Tribes, in portraying a deaf man within a hearing family, explores the expansiveness and the limitations of sign language. It was incredibly evocative in a way I had never experienced onstage before. 4000 Miles examined an intergenerational relationship in a way that was poignant without ever once becoming saccharine.

I’ve always admired theater that assumes the audience is smart and perceptive. Ditto for TV shows and films. Maybe that’s the key, whether the show is a large Broadway production, or Tribes at the Barrow Street Theatre, or an undergroundzero show performed in a storefront space in Bushwick. Good theater assumes the viewer will be attentive enough to meet the work halfway, not simply sit back and receive.

Who Said “Girls” Aren’t Funny

Girls_HBO

If there’s one downside to the multitude of journalists and bloggers that saturate the cultural landscape, it’s the torrential downpour of declarations about new television shows that have barely gotten off the ground. Television, unlike film, can take its time, creating long and winding arcs for its characters that span seasons. But that doesn’t stop anyone from making sweeping statements about a new show after the first three episodes or even just the pilot. I present for you an abridged version of critics’ responses (and those who love posting in the comments section) about HBO’s “Girls”: “Its portrayal of sex is revolutionary!” “Who cares? It’s racist!” “It only portrays the privileged upper class.” “I know! It’s so true to my life.”

And it’s following this wave of praise and criticism that I deem this moment a good time to weigh in. While “Girls” aims to speak contemplatively about the self-searching of twenty-somethings, the show is first and foremost a comedy, one in which audiences will feel closer to the characters by laughing at them than by empathizing. I don’t think the show needs to assert how REAL it is. Those glimpses of real experience will peek through the comedic moments of Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa who are naïve, entitled, clueless, and self-absorbed respectively. To the extent that we’ve been there, or if you’re twenty-four, maybe you ARE there, there’s the camaraderie of shared experience in the realm of guys, friends, and work. But the truisms portrayed in each episode only work if they don’t take themselves too dramatically. They only work if we know that Lena Dunham is laughing at the girls, and herself, along with us.

The show does have some great writing, and in the best scenes so far Dunham displays her knack for comedic rhythm. Taken from the scene where her character Hannah has an uncomfortable reunion with ex-boyfriend Elijah:

“I’m not going to let you have the last word.” “Nice to see you, your dad’s gay.”

As well as her penchant for witty observations like Marnie’s response to Hannah’s goth-like sexy outfit. “Is it some kind of solstice?”

But just as much – and particularly in Episode 5 this week – Dunham showcases raw dialogue and awkward guy/girl interactions that typify less scripted, less funny shows. When “Girls” comes across as trying to illuminate the experience of young women, it starts to blend in with any other show about girls making it in New York. But to be hilarious and incisive, it needs to be well crafted and deliberately funny, especially when we’ve seen Dunham do it so well.

Emily Nussbaum wrote a great piece in New York magazine that praised “Girls” as revolutionary, but it’s hard to think of it as such when the set up is so recognizable: a woman searches to find herself and love in the process in the city of New York. What feels actually revolutionary to me is Dunham herself. That she is the comedian who is willing to make herself the punch line. That she doesn’t fit most men’s and women’s perception of beautiful, but that’s no reason for her to play the comical best friend to the pretty star, like Rosie O’ Donnell to Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. No, Dunham is the star with a pretty best friend, and, she has every reason to believe that she deserves a great sex life and a purposeful career, even if she tends to embarrass herself in pursuit of both. Self-deprecation is, after all, a tenet of the comedian’s playbook. As Dunham says in a commentary segment on HBO’s site, Hannah has “a mix of complete self-confidence and no self worth: the trademark of most twenty-four year-old girls and most Jewish comedians.”

What I find refreshing about the creation of Girls” –  where Dunham is the writer, director, and star  –  is the conviction that women can make it happen, on their own, at whatever age, with whatever God-given talents they have. Like Tina Fey before her, Dunham has the smarts, self-awareness, and confidence to write and play a character so misguided. Yet unlike Fey, or Liz Lemon specifically, Dunham’s Hannah expects that a guy will want her sexually and wants it just as much herself.

Every week, I await the next episode, but I always hope to laugh more than to contemplate. Maybe that’s simply because I’m looking at twenty-four in retrospect. But I think more so because a well-tread genre needs to feel new.