The Close Up Archive
Present – 2004
All She Must Possess does not suggest that the Cone Collection was Etta’s work alone, but rather depicts it as the emanation of the entire community, including not only Etta Cone, but her sister Claribel, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude’s brother Leo, Alice Toklas, and the artists, for whom Matisse stands in as representative. It was out of that community’s joy in creation and discussions of it (Expressionism vs. Cubism, for instance) that the collection, a thing of transcendent value, is shown as having emerged, with Etta’s role as being the primary shaper of the final product. But the play is generous in giving all of these participants in the joint creation some “screen time” in which to demonstrate their contributions to the enterprise, whether it be Leo’s joie-de-vivre, Matisse’s artistic exuberance, Gertrude’s self-assuredness in exploring the limits of what speech can do, or even Alice’s bitchy possessiveness as Gertrude’s helpmeet.
Ben’s character may be a phony pastiche, and Elaine’s a confusing cypher, but in Elaine’s mother Mrs. Robinson, novelist Charles Webb struck gold. Bored, lecherous, alcoholic, deeply dishonest, vengeful, and possessed of a twisted motherly loyalty, she is real and vital and scary as hell. Dyana Neal’s Mrs. Robinson is pretty much perfect. She has the intimidating stare, the commanding manner, the resolute lack of curiosity about any aspect of the world aside from sex, tobacco, and alcohol, the maternal protectiveness, all down pat. If Anne Bancroft is looking down from heaven, she probably approves.
There seems to be a constant in Lynn Nottage’s plays: the reality that people of color and women do not get many breaks or many chances for happiness or fulfillment. Whatever they do achieve along these lines is both hard-won and partial. In fact, that constant reality of limits on the available economic opportunity and on the available happiness is precisely the theme of Intimate Apparel. Heroine Esther (Dawn Ursula), being both black and female, looks for fulfillment in love, in friendship, and in work (as a seamstress and lingerie maker), and it seems at the end that she has obtained about all of any of these that is on offer.
Most of all, perhaps, is the sense of the theater as a helter-skelter, seat-of-the-pants, totally precarious enterprise, in which people start out to cast or produce a show with no idea how it’s going to be completed, without necessarily even a script, and in which the way to make the final product viable, let alone successful, is, as the script keeps saying, a mystery.
The play has aged well. Women are, of course, still grappling with some of the issues that Heidi confronts. But it is not the specific issues that make the play last and lead me to predict that there will be revivals a century hence. One thing is for sure: the pop culture time-stamps like specific songs redolent of particular years will surely almost certainly elude our grandchildren. But the interplay between bright, somewhat idealistic people and their times is bound to continue, and stories about that interplay are bound to go on holding the attention.
Bruce Randolph Nelson’s portrayal of Monsieur Gallimard is authoritative: all the glibness of a would-be mandarin who cannot quite pull it off, a lyrical self-awareness that does not quite go far enough, and a touch of madness. Every line rang true.
Sally, as realized by Katherine Vary, is amazing to watch, as she constantly calculates what tactic, rhetorical, pugilistic, or personal, to employ next. When her bag of tricks appears empty to us, and apparently empty to her for a moment, she keeps coming up with one more and you can see her own delight and relief at her creativity as she yet again digs up something else.
Revivals with familiar faces certainly do sell. The biggest value proposition for such a production is probably one which, frankly, motivated me too somewhat: the ability to say “I saw [insert name of star]!” But is that really a good enough reason to sell so much old wine in old bottles when so much deserving younger wine goes undrunk?
Felix and Oscar could be black, but they could only be men. To be sure, in 1985, Neil Simon rewrote the play to make the leads, now named Florence and Olive, believably female, but it did require rewriting (out with the poker, in with Trivial Pursuit). Tony and Maria have to be a young male and a young female and must at least appear convincingly white and Hispanic, respectively, because their age, ethnicities, and genders are crucial to everything that happens in West Side Story. (Actually Maria was first played on the stage by Italian-American Carol Lawrence and on screen by Russian-American Natalie Wood.) Similarly, a female or juvenile Tevye is almost unthinkable.
If by betraying her principles Scholl could prolong her life, as opposed to adhering to her principles, dying, and having no impact at all, which choice should she make? And this is not just her existential question: It is her interrogator Grunwald’s as well. It would appear that Grunwald has made the opposite choice. But has he? At the very end of the play, that question is reopened.
Welcome to Fear City, premiering at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, shambles along amiably, looking as if it has no more greater object than to be a loose black family dramedy set forty years ago. That is, until it dawns on you that the play’s ambition is to be nothing less than a snapshot of a time and place where a lot of things happened, and one vitally important thing, hip hop, came into being.
I do not read Marcantel as indicting religion as such; she shows us how much groundedness and understanding faith gives. Every faith needs, and has, its own ‘Ordnung,’ but in order to live fully and well, Marcantel seems to be saying, believers will always need to transcend it. And then, as the play hints, believers will also need to return to it. Every faith journey will thus be a work in progress, forever.
A two-fisted drama of ideas, The Niceties may well leave you devastated, and will certainly send you out talking. Itwill keep you thinking and probably angry, regardless of where you come down on the issues very articulately debated in it.
The group portrait of the youngsters (The Woman’s younger self, her partners in crime Zabby and Skinny Lynny, the callow young men who pursue them or whom they pursue, and The Woman’s big sister, aka The Favorite) in all their confusion, pain, and, most important, their exuberance and their desire to meet life head-on, even if they do not really know what that meeting will demand or entail, is the point.
The virtue of Byhalia, Mississippi lies precisely in its modesty. It prescribes no rules, apart from loving one another and telling the truth, for getting through a marital and race-inflected social crisis in a small town; it simply shows how one not-overwhelmingly admirable couple does it. And at that, the true secret here may just be the jokes. Those, and the blackout line at the very end of the play, which just may bring a lump to the throat.
The Therapist, embodied by Paul Diem, launched into a spirited evocation of the art of theater, which morphed into a vision of all life as a work of art. In that spirit, flags and funny hats were passed out to the congregation, as the Therapist stripped down to Superman skivvies and led the whole assemblage out onto Howard Street in a bacchanal, with a motorist honking in rhythm with the syncopation of Faith, and thence back to the theater.
The play makes no scruple that the marriage is a term forced upon France as part of a surrender, in order to bring about a dynastic consolidation. Nonetheless, I have never before seen the courtship scenes at the end of Act V presented other than as romantic comedy. Not here. Here Katherine visibly regards Henry with visceral distaste, is struggling not to be kissed by him, and the whole thing comes across as the prelude to a rape. (All without changing a line that I could determine.) Henry would be blind not to see how she feels about him, and his proceeding with a sunny demeanor and lines about his love for her, as he does, can only result from a profound lack of interest in her feelings. By now we recognize him as willing to do almost anything in pursuit of his own and his country’s interests, and not a nice guy.
Abortionist Hester has been required by the State to wear, publicly displayed on her breast, a brand of an A, which, it is explained, is both stigmatizing and a license to practice her profession. (Resemblances to a certain Nathaniel Hawthorne protagonist also named Hester are purely intentional.) Hester and her best friend, the self-characterized whore Canary Mary, struggle though their lives trapped between their poverty and their dreams — Hester’s to be reunited with her imprisoned son Boy, Mary’s to wrest the Mayor from his loveless marriage to The First Lady and marry him herself. The society in which they live has no plans to fulfill either dream. Like Brecht’s Mother Courage, however, Hester and Mary keep on surviving and keep on pursuing their dreams because they have no alternatives.
Each of these shows reinforces, then, the regard specifically female art and artists deserve. It might seem elementary and unnecessary (even patronizing) for these points to be made at this late date, but if they are being stated with such repetition on Broadway right now, it tells us something about contemporary audiences. Particularly when the points are being made by largely or exclusively female creative teams who may be pardoned a bit of an agenda, it would seem that a marker is being laid down. Parity of esteem is being freshly claimed. These works demonstrate that we will all be better off as the claim is more consistently honored.
Being a piece designed for an obvious seasonal window only, A Christmas Story is a bit like the town of Brigadoon, coming to life only during that window. That mayfly (all right, December fly) existence may be an asset. In a lyric from the show, “The moments come, the moments go, and just like that, the moment’s gone.” The verse is sung by Mother about the preciousness of holidays, but also about the preciousness of her boys’ fleeting childhoods, and that of the family’s moments together. Many of the best things gain their best quality from their transitory nature. This show may also prove the point.
So let’s see: we have byzantine complexity and unreal psychology. Doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would keep readers and theatergoers keep coming back. Yet somehow, almost inexplicably, this slightly pornographic extravaganza of obscurity and nastiness continues to claim our attention. Never mind why; some things just are that way.
Set in a high school where certain girls, banded together as The Carpenters, are in an anorexia/bulimia competition, where the intermediate prize is to date the hunky The Brad and the longer-term prize is death by malnutrition, the show follows the battle between the utterly unscrupulous uber-bitch Renee and fierce competitor Jeanine to succeed Monique, the late victor in these hunger games, as The Brad’s choice. Patty is ostensibly a competitor herself, but her real role in life is to serve as Renee’s wingwoman, and the dilemma constantly thrust upon her is whether to let her appetite (which generally wins out over her anorexic aspirations) and her sense of decency (constantly outraged by Renee’s deceptions) overrule what Renee wants her to do.
With Valerie David, we go through denial, being dragged into a breast cancer diagnosis the day before a new job, enduring chemotherapy, losing her hair, losing some friends who couldn’t cope, and undergoing radiation as the last phase of the treatment. We hear about the loneliness, the quest for “sympathy sex,” the impact of chemically-induced menopause, the loss of career opportunities and energy, the support of friends, struggles with body image, weight issues, and, perhaps most important, “the magic potion of improv,” from which this performance self-evidently grows. David has a comic’s timing, a turn for sketch artistry, and a standup comedian’s comfort with making discomforting confessions.
Regular Everyman-goers know Deborah Hazlett and BEth Hylton well. These veteran members of the Everyman repertory group have been sharing the stage for years. For Hazlett and Hylton to elicit laughter from an audience in a funny show is truly like taking candy from a baby. And even when you can see some of the risible situations coming from a long way off, you’re going to laugh. The pathos – and there is some, amidst the laughter – will go down easier because the overall setting is so much fun.
Anne, like Henry, is engaged in more than just affairs of the heart. She too ends up playing (and winning, on the best terms available to her) the game of thrones. Just before her arrest, she is offered a choice, which she recognizes lies between survival and legacy. Her choice of the latter is immediate, and has long-lasting positive effects, dwarfing those made by her ostensibly more powerful husband.
It is a safe bet that at every institution of secondary education with female students, there are Mean Girls. It is also a safe bet that there isn’t a reader who needs the term defined, because there probably isn’t a reader who hasn’t experienced Mean Girls – or been one of them. And one trait we know the Mean Girls all share is they make people want to kill them. The phrase has a jocular sound, and it should, because it isn’t meant quite literally. But it’s a fun conceit that someone might mean it quite literally.
Playwright Alison Gregory has tried to tell the Medea story twice simultaneously: once in a pseudo-Euripidean mode as a revenge tragedy, once as a modern disquisition on motherhood. Given that slaying one’s kids out of spite is not a common experience, do these pieces fit together? It is not an easy call.
There is so little movement, so few definitive changes in the lives of the characters over the one day the action covers; what was the secret sauce that gave the play its wide appeal? I credit two things: the banter, most of it delivered with an Irish lilt, and the cooking.
We can understand that Charles, the ship-charterer, is a black man who believes himself superior to all the black people who surround him. Playwright Christina Anderson’s remarks in the program suggest Charles is an exemplar of America’s notion of exceptionalism. Of course it is all a charade. Charles is an alcoholic and an emotionally abusive father, his hidden project is morally objectionable despite his outward religiosity, and he either commits murder in the course of the play or abets someone else’s crime. The spectacle of a man with these specific hypocrisies being deprived of control over his circumstances is accessible as a dramatic action and as a consideration of the underlying racial and social issues. And it works dramatically.
The point is not merely what they and we have been through, nor merely that plus what we’ve all learned by going through it in a particular time and place. Perhaps most important, 20th Century Blues (notwithstanding its title) addresses, from the inside and the outside, the universal experience of aging, an experience common to all times and places.
Like the astronaut in Planet of the Apes, Doug finds himself transported to a world which bears great similarities to ours, but which has a fundamentally altered civilization. In this world, blacks comprise not merely the dominant race, but indeed apparently the exclusive one, speaking a language which bears no resemblance to ours. This is awkward for white-skinned, English-speaking Doug. As quickly becomes apparent, Doug’s difference in language and looks from the dominant populace results in his being enslaved and/or treated as a pet (take your pick), and made a wedding gift. That’s where the audience first encounters him, after we witness the ceremony. It is no accident that the ceremony comes first; it gives us a chance to take in the resplendence of the scene. The costumes, the makeup, the music and sound effects, and especially the scenery are magnificent. This is a highly developed society, if one that is in certain ways barbaric, and its usages are of the utmost importance.
If you love Love Letters, if you want to Oliver and Jennifer again (sort of), or you just want to see two old professionals having gentle fun together, this show’s for you.
I know a gripping mythos when I see one. This is the real deal. If you have the kind of imagination that responds to graphic novels and Game of Thrones, this one is for you. You will find yourself transported for three hours into a world completely different from our own, but it is nevertheless detailed, dramatically coherent, and totally absorbing.
Fever Dream: Streetcar...
Morisseau’s explanation of the Detroit riots makes a lot of sense, and resonates with my understanding of what happened last year in Baltimore. Morisseau’s thesis is that the black citizens of Detroit were not crazy, just reacting to an ongoing culture of police abuse, and that abusive police and military responses were to blame for most of what went wrong once the spark of protest had been struck by the raid of an unlicensed after-hours drinking club known as a ‘blind pig.’
There is no perfect way to realize Shakespeare’s vision, but employing an all-female cast is apt to be among the less successful ways. In the alternative, you can say the hell with realizing Shakespeare’s vision, and simply have fun with your own. And that, I think, is the approach that director Wendy C. Goldberg has chosen to pursue at Center Stage
If you view this production as an entertainment for those whose taste runs to Mad Max, to Rocky Horror, and to the movies of Quentin Tarantino (none of which I’m knocking, but let’s not call them Shakespeare), then this may be a lark for you.
The America depicted here is a place of quests: Father’s for the unknown horizon, Tateh’s for a land where he and his daughter can prosper, Coalhouse’s for reuniting with Sarah and raising his son in a world where blacks are regarded and treated as equals. To these quests might be added two more: Younger Brother’s for some ideal he can build a life around and Mother’s, a quieter one, to nurture a family, whatever contours her decency and generosity cause it to assume. And all of these quests are played out among the novelties and sensations of an exuberant American decade: among the things which will figure in the plot are Henry Ford’s Model T, J.P. Morgan’s library of priceless incunabula, the notorious charms of uber-courtesan Evelyn Nesbit, and the antics of escape artist Harry Houdini.
Take the basic problems presented in Brassed Off, Local Hero, and The Full Monty, i.e. the deindustrialization of Britain and resulting working-class unemployment, observe those problems with the wry humor of those films, add drag performers from La Cage Aux Folles, a sensitive trans person of color from The Crying Game, a “love thyself” theme from Hairspray, and a romance between factory boss and subordinate straight out of Pajama Game. Stir well, and voilà!, you have a tale of a band of shoe workers and their manager who resist the oblivion that awaits British manufacturing by switching from ordinary cobbling to fabricating a line of sexy boots for drag performers
I was struck by how much of the subject-matter of An Inspector Calls resonated today, despite the play being a product of the 1940s set just before the First World War. For instance, there is Priestley’s approach to what we now call a “living wage.” A complementary up-to-date theme is the frequently unconscious nature of privilege. If Noel Coward and Bertolt Brecht had collaborated, they might have given us this very play.
Whitney and Max have been compelled by their mental disorders to turn their backs on the real world, and on the actual human connections available to them with friends and family, to obsess instead about imaginary worlds of their own making. But for each of them, their world, however artistic and creative, is also of a place of some danger. When medicine begins to cure them, they must compare the value of a sane life with love but without creativity and an insane life with creativity but without love.
The success of PUSSY RIOT rests upon what author Barbara Hammond gets right. This includes a recreation of an actual Pussy Riot provocation/performance; excerpts from the Russian government’s show trial which rely largely on the actual words of the defendants, lawyers, and judge; and the language and attitudes of the authorities, especially the police and the judiciary, which are notorious. And overarching these, the show nails the crisis of authority and legitimacy for the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church a crisis the Pussy Riot protestors helped exacerbate for a while to an acuteness sharper than even the play conveys.
The action, from the shadowy world of religious cults and deprogrammers, takes place in the ruins of a derelict motel, where distraught mother Kate (Tasha Lawrence) has been brought by Stine (Lee Sellars), a supposed specialist in reuniting abandoned parents with cult-brainwashed youngsters. Stine intends (so he says) to abduct Kate’s daughter from the cult’s commune and work with her here. The shockingly scuzzy room tells us immediately is that something is terribly wrong with Kate and Stine’s scheme. So does a financial fact revealed in the early going. In the course of the play, we find out what that something and several other somethings are.
The overall effect is a bit like a fireworks display, with loud fun things happening more or less continually. It is not profound, a quality seldom looked for in shaggy dog stories, but the tale at its heart, a whimsical family drama, is sturdy enough, and perhaps the place where a more genuine feminism is lurking than may be found in the odd evocation of fashion.
Linguistic Marriage Counseling and Character Acting in a Comic Soufflé: THE FULL CATASTROPHE at Contemporary American Theater Festival
For a weightless and elegant good time, it would be hard to beat The Full Catastrophe, by Michael Weller, at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. There is not one thing in the story to tether it to reality, or trouble us with any true sense of its characters being in any kind of jeopardy, and the presentation of the whole farrago, under Ed Herendeen’s direction, is smooth and amiable. This play is best consumed at the end of one’s visit to this year’s Festival, after sampling the weightier and more nutritional fare.
The characters are all compelled by circumstances to go back into the woods, and this time they encounter there such things as infidelity, divorce, the death of parents, the death of children, abandonment, catastrophe – and overarching this the absence of a narration (the narrator becomes a casualty) or any other authoritative guidance as to the choices that need to be made. As one of the characters observes: ‘The path has strayed from you.’ The unsettling conclusion: ‘You decide what’s right / You decide what’s good.’ This is all incredibly sad and confusing, not to mention frightening, and yet as the core of surviving characters gels, so does the indomitability of the human spirit they evince.
The Pillow Book takes off from the current vogue of non-consecutive story-telling; everyone wants to emulate the mystification of Pulp Fiction, with its sudden reveals of not only what will happen, but of what did happen. And recently there has been an additional vogue, which I call Cubistic story-telling, in which the characters and their lives turn out multiple ways, without an authoritative single story line. The approaches can also be combined. Such works always make the viewer struggle to follow the conflicting and shuffled storylines, but seldom leave the viewer in the dust. The dust, however, is where Anna Moench’s The Pillow Book will leave you. The more is the pity. Anna Moench writes beautifully, and the acting and directing in this collaboration of two interesting fringe companies is uniformly good. But the conflicting storylines shred each other.
There is a kind of magic which will exorcise the problems of Blithe Spirit, and let us not notice them. This production cruises and coasts on the farcical elements and the bickering and Mme. Arcati’s eccentricities, and in so doing it certainly keeps the audience laughing. But it does not dispel the sour taste engendered by Coward’s acerbic view of genteel British marriage lingering at the end.
Even though the historical Marley was probably mainly thinking about apartheid when he sang these words, you could not possibly sing them on a Baltimore stage these days without making the audience think of events closer to home. Bob Marley, very self-consciously a prophet, sang for his moment, but he sang as well for the ages, which includes our own. Center Stage could not have bought Bob Marley’s topicality, but it could earn it, and did. One could believe it really was Marley up there, singing right to us.
There are times it’s hard to credit that 1776 is even a musical. In this retelling of the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence, there is some singing and some dancing, and even some laughs, but little effort to follow the tried-and-true path to rousing musical success. This is fundamentally a tale of a group of men sitting in a room debating, and Peter Stone, author of the book, gives us – a group of men sitting in a room debating. And yet the work has considerable power and appeal, and it is not strange either that it won the Tony for Best Musical in 1969, or that Toby’s has revived it.