Glenn Loney's Show Notes
March 28, 2001
by Sam Norkin.
Contact Glenn Loney via:
Editor, New York Theatre Wire.
 Anja Silja at BAM in "Makropulos Case"
 World War I "Bohème" at City Opera
 NYCO's New "Acis & Galatea"
 Smashing Skulls in Connemara
 Kenneth Lonergan's "Lobby Hero"
 John Patrick Shanley's "Cellini"
 "Ten Unknowns" at the Newhouse
 See the Stalker in "Boy Gets Girl"
 A Family of Cops in "Force Continuum"
 Imelda Marcos in "Dogeaters"
 "Nervous Hysteria" in "Miles Below Zero"
 "If It Was Easy"
 Reba McEntire IS Annie!
 Kleban/Price & "Class Act" Move to Broadway
 Lively "newyorkers" Revue
 Snoozing in "Suburb"
 Ryan's Hope: "Leaving Queens"
 The Big C: "Six Months to Live"
Glyndebourne's "The Makropulos Case" [*****]
THREE HUNDRED YEARS OLD - AND THEN SOME--Anja Silja as Emilia Marty in "The Makropulos Case" at BAM. Photo: ©Mike Hoban/2001.
My first experience of the talents of Anja Silja—recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—were at Bayreuth, where she made her Festival debut in 1960, under the masterful direction of the late Wieland Wagner.
She was soon to become not only almost his favorite Wagnerian soprano—Birgit Nilsson held that vocal height with no competition—but his lover as well.
This to the immense anguish and anger of his then wife, the late Gertrude Wagner—whom I came to know in her later, much-embittered years. It was a lasting Schadenfreude satisfaction to Gertrude that Wieland's divorce from her—which would leave him free to marry Silja—was granted on the day he died in hospital of a pulmonary embolism.
All this water-under-the-bridge is a preface to admitting that I never much admired Silja's voice, especially at the outset of her career. It seemed too thin, too shrill, but it certainly made her Senta something special. I found it almost painful when she sang Brünnhilde.
Nonetheless, as an actress, impersonating these demanding roles of classic Music-Theatre, Silja was always exciting, unusual, convincing. Comparisons have been made between Silja and Maria Callas as actor-singers, especially when Callas' voice was in serious decline. But Callas' "acting" was of a quite different kind.
On the evidence of Silja's Emilia Marty—in the Glyndebourne Opera production of Leos Janácek's The Makropulos Case—her voice has endured and matured impressively. She is now in her sixth decade and—to me, at least—she is singing and acting better than ever.
How many opera-divas over sixty still have such a slim silhouette? How many still look so young, so attractive, so "interesting"? And how many can still move on stage—in character, or not—with such dexterity, vitality, and animation?
Indeed, the effect of this Glyndebourne Festival production—brilliantly staged by Nikolaus Lehnhoff—was such that it would still have been very compelling, exciting theatre, even without the music!
When Marty—who is over 300 years old—comes off-stage to her dressing-room, she is wearing a fantastic Art Deco version of a Baroque Opera costume. With her flashing sun-ray diadem and an elegant panniered skirt, Marty/Silja could be a Ziegfeld Follies star in a fantastic confection by Erté!
Kudos to set & costume-designer Tobias Hoheisel, who recalled a more glamorous and "dressy" era in this production: Prague in the 1920s. Prague was in fact a center of innovation in art, design, and architecture at this time: from Jugendstil to Czech Cubism!
Something of that design-excitement was also captured in the almost metaphorical unit-set, with a mysterious curving corridor sweeping upward, at the opening lined with staggering stacks of old legal files.
Scene changes were effected with a broad downstage band which slowly moved the furniture & set-props from stage left to stage right, almost imperceptibly, so there was no break in mood, action, or dramatic tension.
Hoheisel also provided a symbolic winged statue and an upside-down grand-piano—which slowly descended part-way from the flies. Could the latter have represented the Demands of a Long Career in Music gradually oppressing not only Marty, but also warning off the young singer Kristina [Linda Tuvos]?
This stage-vision was much more effective than that at the Met, which mainly had to provide places where Jessye Norman could sit down to sing. But even that monumental production was marred—on what should have been the premiere—by the death of a legal clerk, falling off a ladder at the top of thirty-foot stack of legal file-drawers. Another notable Makropulos production was that America's John Conklin designed in Munich for the Bavarian State Opera. It required scene-changes, but they were artistically integrated.
Under the baton of David Atherton, Silja was ably supported by such acting-singing talents as Pär Lindskog, Jonathan Veira, Steven Page, and Steven Rooke.
Backgrounder Musings: It has become a truism that only younger opera-singers—especially Americans—are able to act as well as sing. The older breed, however powerful their voices and globe-girdling their celebrity, often could not convincingly embody the characters they sang.
Even some of the younger generation—Ben Heppner & Jane Eaglen as a super-hefty Tristan und Isolde duo, for instance—physically don't do much to aid audiences in the "Willing Suspension of Disbelief" so necessary for a complete Theatre-Experience.
For Music-Drama to have its maximum effect, from the time of Richard Wagner onward, great singing—while obviously greatly desired—is not enough. The actor-singers ideally should be the characters they are impersonating for their few hours on the stage.
After World War II, in the ruins of East Berlin, the opera-innovator Walter Felsenstein founded the Komische Oper on this principle. Voices were less important to him than acting ability.
For those who saw them, these Felsenstein productions remain unforgettable Music-theatre events. I was even fortunate enough to interview Felsenstein several times. And was astonished when I returned to teach & write in New York that Broadway's Hal Prince was also an admirer of Felsenstein's work—and a close personal friend, as well.
But at the Bayreuth Festival in the 1950s, Wieland & Wolfgang Wagner—the composer's grandsons and revivers of the festival after the devastations of World War II—still had to work with singers of the Old Breed.
Wieland surely found the acting-abilities and performance-instincts of Anja Silja a tremendous inspiration in his stagings.
But what was he to do with a human monument such as Nilsson? There was no way either she or Set Svanholm were going to move naturally and dynamically in character, to complement the tremendous emotional power of their voices singing Wagner's music.
What Wieland Wagner could have done for Heppner & Eaglen!
His brilliant solution—which came to be known as the New Bayreuth, or Neo-Bayreuth Style—was Licht-Regie. Instead of trying to get singers—untrained in acting-arts—to move as effectively and dramatically as stage-actors did, he moved the Lighting, not the performers.
Unfortunately, this eventually reached the point that the stage-picture—especially with Wieland's symbolic or abstract settings—was often very dark indeed. For his final Ring, it was suggested that—for all that the audience could see of the dragon Fafner, for instance—Wieland could just as well have left the curtain closed and played a Deutsche Gramophone recording of the opera.
This staging-style became so well-known—and widely copied—that the reigning New York Times' music-critic, Harold Schoenberg, customarily castigated any dark or moody opera-staging as "Bayreuthian."
If you don't know why Emilia Marty was able to have a series of opera-careers for more than 300 years, it's high time to check out Janácek's exciting opera when it's next at the Met.
Hint: Her father was a physician-alchemist, in the service of the Hermeticist & Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, who kept his imperial court in Prague, rather than Vienna.
Rudy sought a potion to give him Eternal Life. But you can never be too careful about drinking brews offered you by underpaid underlings, can you?
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Powerful New "La Bohème" at City Opera [*****]
LOVE IN A GARRET——Rodolfo & Mimi Discover Love in City Opera's new "Bohème."
Photo: ©Carol Rosegg/2001.
If you are one of those opera fans who believe you have already seen the definitive, revelatory production of Puccini's La Bohème, think again!
Even if your tolerance-level for opera is not very high—and you don't care if you never see Bohème again—you are in for a big surprise at Lincoln Center this Spring.
The New York City Opera's stunning new staging of this potent music-drama of Angst, Art, and Love in Paris long ago will surely seem like seeing—and hearing—it all for the First Time!
The main reason for this is not the musical excellence of the cast—though these NYCO debutants are outstanding—but rather the complete honesty, energy, involvement, and passion with which these wonderful young actor-singers embody Mimi, Rodolfo, Musetta, Marcello, and their friends.
The new talents are Rolando Villazon [Rodolfo], Maria Kanyova [Mimi], Alfredo Daza [Marcello], George Cordes [Colline], and Mel Ulrich [Schaunard]. They make these already famous characters their very own.
They live every moment of anguish, expectation, joy, frustration, failure, and loss. They listen to each other. No nuance of feeling, foreboding, or interaction is lost.
This is a remarkable example of the Illusion of the First Time. This is a rarity in any form of theatre, but especially in opera, where acting talent is sparse and performance-standards generally are not very high.
Their arias and duets don't seem calculated dramatic set-pieces—even though Puccini was obviously very clever in his dramaturgical calculations. Nor are they presented as World-Famed Operatic-War-Horse All-Time-Hits.
Instead, every aria, every, duet, every ensemble, seems to grow naturally—or even erupt—from the circumstances and passions of the immediate moment. The musical expression—rather than a purely verbal rant or gestural outburst of ecstasy—seems for once the absolutely right and true way to respond.
Credit for this amazing experience of a kind of Romantic Reality must go of course to the very impressive and attractive performers themselves.
But even more credit is due to the remarkably sensitive and ingenious stage-director, James Robinson. He is a talent to watch! Without his guidance and inspiration, some of the ensemble-acting effects would never have been realized.v That he and John Conklin have provided the supertitles is also a bonus, for many moments and details in Bohème which often go for nothing—or are totally lost—are now fully realized, both in the projected dialogue and in the arias and actions as performed onstage.
Most American audiences do not really understand much of Puccini's libretto—even when it's sung in English. When it is sung in Italian, many have to consult the program synopsis in the intermission to find out what's been happening. Unless, of course, they've already seen Bohème a lot…
One interesting example of the directorial attention to detail in this staging is the burning of Rodolfo's play-manuscript to heat their freezing Parisian garret. Often, the whole bundle of pages is dumped into the stove, and they sing.
Or it's thrown in—as it should be—in sections, but with no visible emotional reaction by Rodolfo and his friends to what they are destroying.
In fact, in the libretto, it goes into the flames by acts & scenes, with a sardonic satire of drama-criticism from Colline, the philosopher. In the new NYCO production, this is hilarious, even joyous.
And, in the final scene of weepy stage-pathos, in many a production Mimi's sorrowing friends customarily don't know what to do with themselves—or their hands—as they wait for her to die. And for the curtain to descend…
Not so at the New York State Theatre! The delicate personal interrelationships of those who will survive—the nuances of feeling and regret—are most affectingly realized. Against all operatic precedent of Bohème death-bed clichés, here Mimi dies for the First Time. And I wasn't the only one who wept…
Updating period operas is a risky business. It's also often totally unnecessary. Or it even can be a grossly misguided attempt to make the work "relevant." Whatever that may mean…
Robinson and his designers have set the story in the early days of World War I. Even Puccini did not set it in the time of its composition, but in the semi-romantic past of novelist Henry Murger's Scènes de la Vie de la Bohème.
The struggling young artists' sparse francs are imprinted with the image of King Louis-Philippe, currency that would not have survived until 1914. But that's a small historical glitch in the updating.
Nonetheless, an effective change of time or place needs to be dramatically valid all the way through a play or opera-production, not just a stunning surprise when the curtain first goes up.
Even though the original libretto does not have a major war as a powerful dramatic undercurrent, Robinson and his co-workers have contrived visually and textually to reinforce this. As the children frolic in the street outside the Café Momus, one wears a gas-mask.
In a military mini-parade, celebrating France's Glory in War, Parpignol marches alone, wearing a Death's-Head mask. Foreshadowing the hideous carnage ahead…
In the third act, at the customs post at the Port d'Enfer, instead of the customary city-gates, there is a huge locomotive engine dominating the stage-right downstage. It is at the end of the line: a possible scenic metaphor? Upstage left, by the entrance to the tavern, is a stack of empty coffins—waiting for shipment to the Front?
At the close, three of the comrades in arts have now donned French Army uniforms to become Comrades-in-Arms. Only the ardent placard-carrying Socialist Colline has refused to volunteer for the trenches of Douamont & Verdun.
Allen Moyer's set-designs are appropriately innovative—and strongly supportive of the text and dramatic action as well—in other scenes than the Locomotive terminus-setting.
Usually, the artists' garret—especially on great opera stages—seems as spacious as Grand Central Station. Not at NYCO! It's small and cramped, set at a slant on a raised wagon-stage.
When the painter Marcello complains that even the Red Sea is freezing over, in most productions, it is seldom visually clear what he's singing/talking about.
In Moyer's evocation of the garret, Marcello has filled all the visible walls with an immense mural of the Egyptian Desert and a very red, red Red Sea. On his easel is also a Pharaoh/Moses/Red Sea canvas partially painted. More paintings of this same scene are stacked against the wall. It is obviously his Egyptian Period. It's also a very amusing image—and metaphor—which is lost in most productions.
Instead of an elegant Empire or a Belle Époque decor for Café Momus, Moyer has provided a handsome indoor locale which verges on Jugendstil. They aren't sitting and dining out on the sidewalk. The transition between the street-scene and the cafe-action is provided by an enormous blazing-bulb "Café Momus" sign which descends to the stage-floor as a backdrop for the street-action. It then rises above the actual restaurant. Very ingenious and attractive!
Praise to lighting-designer Stephen Strawbridge and costume-designer James Schuette. And much praise to conductor George Manahan!
This stunning City Opera production was live-telecast on March 28 from Lincoln Center.
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"Acis & Galatea" Down by the River at NYCO [***]
RADIANT MOMENT——Handel's "Acis & Galatea" comes to life. Photo: ©Carol Rosegg/2001.
William Burden & Christine Brandes are in splendid voice as Handel's Acis & Galatea. They are mythical pastoral lovers, spawned by legend, immortalized by Ovid, and versified by John Gay and Alex Pope, among others.
Also excellent are John Tessier—as Damon, the Faithful-Shepherd Mr. Fix-It—and Dean Elzinga as Polyphemus, a Monster-Beast with a very dirty face and a heart of imitation-gold-wash, if not pure gold.
Polyphemus has a problem: he is desperate for love of the Goddess Galatea. But she is already deeply in love with Acis, an adoring if somewhat simple shepherd.
Unfortunately, Polyphemus is not the Ideal Blind-Date, though it might help him if Galatea were blind, so she couldn't see how immense, uncouth, and violent he is.
Polyphemus also has the wooing-ways of a Stalker-Giant. True, he can turn cartwheels, but how can that excuse the fact that he's both Cannibal & Savage?
So he does what brutish males are apt to do when they are spurned: He kills his rival, Acis, by throwing a huge stone down the mountain onto him.
Actually, that's not now very up-to-date male-behavior, is it? Even though Mark Lamos' production does try to be frivolously trendy.
If Polyphemus were the contemporary creation of a Feminist Playwright, however, his first course of action would be to slash Galatea, then rape her, and possibly finish off by suffocating her with her own panties. Then he might bugger Acis, or at least have a beer with him…
But no: he is a hand-me-down from Ovid, so Handel had to make-do with that legend. And a not-very-inspired libretto, crammed with obvious rhymes and fatuous imagery.
And there's yet another problem to reviving this work, especially as a staged opera: It is essentially so static, especially in its opening, that it works well enough as an oratorio. So one could save a lot of money on sets and costumes.
From the evidence on stage at the New York State Theatre, that seems to have been part of the revival-strategy: to save money, if not to present an oratorio.v Apparently Acis tends his sheep by a river, or near a beach, as all the handsome young country-folk are discovered at the outset in deck-chairs, tossing big beach-balls to each other. The men wear cute little sailor-caps and Casual Friday togs.
Against an undulating corrugated green backing, a small glittering hillock sits, adorned with three glittering trees and an immensely overweight reclining blue cherub. The Blue Boy must represent Eros—before the Pritikin Diet.
At the close, when Galatea uses her divine powers to revive the slain Acis—metamorphosing him into a flowing fountain—there's some rippling light on the set. And the cast seems either to be dusting the floor, looking for lost contact-lenses, or exulting in the wonderfully soothing Acis Water. Whatever…
But set-designer Paul Steinberg has lost a big opportunity here to create an astonishing piece of stage-magic—which could have been entirely in keeping with this Vogue Goes To Southampton Theme.v Steinberg's Best Shot in this fairly uninventive and visually bland production is the descending Giant TV Monitor, in which Polyphemus is first discovered.
To emphasize how much larger Polyphemus is than any of the Boys of Summer on stage, Steinberg has outfitted his Big Box with miniatures of the hillock, cherub, and the trees. So Polyphemus does look truly gigantic!
And when he steps out of his box and turns several cartwheels, he stops the show. This doesn't take much, however, for the dramatic stasis of much of the libretto shows its debt to Handelian oratorio, rather than to his highly stylized but emotionally powerful Italian operas.
Had Lamos and his design-team elected to produce "Acis & Galatea" as an elegant Georgian Masque, however, the stereotyped generalizations of characters, their clichéd expressions of passion, and the static plot could have proved positive pluses in an ingeniously stylized staging.
The Art Deco summer-resort overtones don't work. Lamos of course has often created stunning visual concepts for dramas & operas, both old & new. His City Opera "Butterfly" is Minimalist Magic!
But for "Acis," he really needed to borrow one of the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's delightful Baroque-Theatre sets as a picture-box frame for the action.
And then, if he still couldn't think of anything interesting & unusual—or dramatically & visually relevant—to have his cast do onstage, he could ask fellow-American David Alden to show him how he jazzes up Handel's operas for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.
The Through-Line of the fable and of Handel's score was, however, magisterially projected under the baton of Jane Glover.
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A Plethora of New Plays—
The Luck of the Irish & Irish-Americans!
McDonagh's "A Skull in Connemara" [*]
IRISH DIMWITS——Who stole the corpse in "Skull in Connemara"?
Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2001.
Unlike most people who have seen a Martin McDonagh drama set in Western Ireland's tiny Leenane—remember "The Beauty Queen of Leenane "?—I have actually been there. It's really not as primitive, nor its people as demented, as this award-winning, English-born, Irish playwright would have you believe.
You could probably find a pair of brothers as dotty as those Leenaners in his "Lonesome West" in the foothills of California. Or any trailer-court…
Not only has McDonagh created a Leenane Trilogy, but he's also dashed off an Aran Island triad. In the painfully laconic dialogue—not to overlook the often bizarre behaviors exhibited—of most of these scripts, there is more than merely a whiff of John Millington Synge. But his plays are more like homages to "Playboy of the Western World" than to the poetic "Riders To the Sea."
But in "Skull in Connemara," the laconic becomes catatonic. Conversational exchanges, such as they are, seem parodies of Beckett cross-bred with Pinter.
Do we need answers to such Major Dramatic Questions as: "Did he really kill his wife—and fake an auto-accident to cover it up?" Or: "Why isn't his wife's body down there in the grave in that rotted coffin?"
For some faithful Roundabout Theatre subscribers, it was quite enough to watch seven human skulls being smashed to bits on a kitchen table.
The drama critic for "The Observer" observed that the play was, as McDonagh's characters frequently say, "Shite." His review was actually a parody of the dialogue, which didn't sound very different from what was spoken onstage.
The usually ingenious and stylish set-designer David Gallo evoked an overwhelmingly soggy, cold, grayish-brownish gloom. The visual high—or low—point was the excavation of graves on stage, so the bones found therein could be tossed in the lake, to make room for new temporary tenants
[I could at least respond to this in a way. One of my Irish-American cousins illegally buried his father in my mother's cemetery-plot. Fortunately, she wasn't yet dead, but she did have the actual deed to the space. Another cousin, no friend of the usurping first, suggested we get a court-order to have Uncle Chester dug up and carted off somewhere else. But this was in California, not Leenane!]
In the great days of the Abbey Theatre—under William Butler Yeats—the Irish audience hated the kind of ethnic image McDonagh is reviving. Even from a master like Synge, and later from Sean O'Casey.
On occasion, the furious Dubliners would pelt the stage with potatoes. Today, they applaud McDonagh and gorge on Big Macs & Fries—instead of wasting their tubers on the actors.
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Lonergan's "Lobby Hero" [****]
YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOSE!——The "Lobby Hero" hears it straight.
Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2001.
In an odd way, Kenneth Lonergan's new play, "Lobby Hero," resembles those highly stylized neo-classic French dramas in which all the important physical action—especially scenes of violence & horror—takes place off-stage. Not only was this inspired by the example of the ancient Greek playwrights such as Aeschylus and Sophocles, but it was also dictated by the concept of Decorum.v In "Lobby Hero," however, there is very little decorum in the language of the four ingeniously interacting characters. Given the current vogue for the bloodiest, grossest possible scenes of violence & horror in film and on TV, by keeping these—and the steamy sex-sessions—off-stage, Lonergan may have ruined his chances for a quick movie-sale.
However, it's but the work of a few days conferencing to open all this New York Noir up to the fullest. Still, the play is much more effective—and very darkly comic—by having the more shuddering events merely described, not shown—as in Oedipus Rex or Medea—by "messengers."
This method is a lot more economical as well. It saves time lost on scene-changes, not to mention the huge budget needed to build and outfit the other unseen scenes. And the salaries of the other participants mentioned, even described, but never seen.
The Lobby Hero is Jeff [Glenn Fitzgerald], an amusing slacker with no long-term goals in life. He works the night-shift as the doorman-attendant of a rather cheesy Manhattan apartment-house.
His short-term goals are: not to get caught while sleeping on the job, and realizing masochistic sex-fantasies at the hands of dominant female cops.
When a pretty young patrolman rookie [Heather Burns] comes by with her own hero and police-partner, the sexy but arrogant Bill [Tate Donovan], Jeff cannot resist telling her that the man her cop has gone upstairs to see is actually a lady-resident rather generous with her favors.
Jeff's supervisor's brother has got himself into bad trouble: he may have helped kill a nurse rather brutally. William [Dion Graham] wants to help him out, but worries about lying to provide him with an alibi. He makes the mistake of asking Jeff's advice, in a roundabout way.
Unfortunately, Jeff is an amiable, even comic, chatterbox. And he badly wants to make points with the pretty police-woman. So, as in the great Greek tragedies, there is actually a lot of emotional and verbal action going on right on stage, even if no one is being beaten up.
Speaking of that, the girl-rookie, not knowing her own strength or the weight of her nightstick, has in fact probably blinded a drunk who charged her in a bar-fracas. Her patrol-buddy will get her off the hook, but she is furious that he, a family-man, is shagging upstairs and has already deceived her.
Yes, this will make a very good movie. Possibly a Major Motion-Picture. In the meantime, it's an up-to-date metropolitan comedy which ought to have a commercial transfer and a long run!
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Shanley's "Cellini" [***]
John Patrick Shanley's somewhat surreal reworking of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini also looks very much like a screen-treatment. It's certainly a far cry from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin!
If costume-flicks are not currently the rage, or Biopics of Lives of Famous Artists seem better suited to A&E-TV, there is enough lust for life and sexual variety in Shanley's view of the man who made the famous Salt-cellar to suck the suckers into the Multi-Plexes.
As flamboyantly played by Reg Rogers, Cellini is a swashbuckler in the old Errol Flynn mold—and, like Flynn, with a taste for both sexes. But he's also a sensitive, exacting artist, who doesn't mean to be patronized by patrons, dictated to by dictators, or humiliated even by the Pope.
The painter Carravaggio might have been an even more violent, flamboyant choice of Italian Renaissance swashbuckler-artist, but Michael Straight long ago dramatized his rages and excesses.
The visual and dramatic high point of the production at Second Stage Theatre was the successful casting, in one piece, of the great bronze Perseus for the Loggia in Florence. We saw the huge wooden frame hauled and mauled into place. We saw the wood thrown into the flames. We heard the cries and shouts, the omens of failure, the sudden rains…
What we didn't get to see, of course—not on that small stage!—was the actual still-smoking statue, freed from its mold. That should be the high point of the film.
Starring Johnny Depp, of course. With Julia Roberts as Cellini's mistress-model? Or maybe Jennifer Lopez or Penelope Cruz?
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Baitz's "Ten Unknowns" [*]
MEXICAN INTERLUDE——Donald Sutherland & Justin Kirk in "10 Unknowns."
Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2001.
Donald Sutherland is the main attraction in this shrill production of Jon Robin Baitz' new dramatic effort. And effortful and shrill it is, indeed. Fortunately, Sutherland is a sweetly secluded alcoholic, a failed painter, sipping as time passes by in Southern Mexico. Think of a little village near Oaxaca…
Long ago, however, in the heyday of WPA Post-Office Mural Art, he showed some promise. He was even included in a show of "Ten Unknowns."v Now a screaming-queen New York art-dealer proposes to "discover" him. To overcome the painter's refusal to become involved, he's sent Judd, his sometime junkie-lover, down to bring him round.
Truth is, he can't paint any longer. But Judd can—powerfully.
And there's a UC/Berkeley grad-student girl, looking for glass-frogs, thrown into the equation.
I had the feeling that these four people—or ones somewhat like them, in different situations—were well known to Baitz. And that he had an agenda regarding them that only a play could discharge.
That's also been the case with some of his other dramas.
Unfortunately, as realized as characters, both in the writing and the performances—except for Sutherland's performance, not his role—these people not only did not engage my interest or sympathy, they actively annoyed me.
Perhaps the play, as well as the forged paintings, should have been thrown in that lake?
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Gilman's "Boy Gets Girl" [***]
Yes, if you really give the matter some thought, most of our Romantic Movie-Comedies, going all the way back to the Twenties and Thirties, are essentially about Male Stalkers.
The vibrant, handsome, testosterone-charged hero glimpses a pretty young girl he's never seen before. And whom he doesn't even know. But he pursues her until she enthusiastically yelps: "Yes!"
This bothers playwright Rebecca Gilman, who also has an agenda, but not the one obsessing Jon Robin Baitz.
Against her momentary instinct to flee, Theresa [Mary Beth Fisher] decides to check out her blind-date. He's attractive, well-dressed, attentive. But he doesn't know who Edith Wharton is!
This of course alerts Theresa. If he has never heard of The House of Mirth, or The Age of Innocence, he cannot be Mr. Right! But he won't take No for an answer and floods her office with flowers.
Then he becomes verbally abusive, even trashing her apartment. Slashing her—or even murder—seem his next courtship options.
At the close, she has to take a new name and leave New York City forever to write sports stories in the Mile-High City. Denver, I think?
That is a very high price to pay for being the Victim —and not an inciter—of Sexual Harassment.
My advice to Rebecca and her concerned women-friends won't be of much use, I'm afraid. It's what I was always advised about getting to know nice people in a strange new city: "Go join the local Methodist Church!"
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Corthron's "Force Continuum" [*]
IS ANYONE LISTENING?——Patrolmen in trouble in "Force Continuum." Photo: ©Carol Rosegg/2001.
This play, produced by the Atlantic Theatre Company, obviously had honorable intentions. But it was sabotaged even before production. Not only by unnecessary and possibly deliberate confusions in the structure and characterizations, but also by fuzziness of focus.
Moving back and forth in time in a play is a risky business, even when the audience has a very clear idea of who is who, what's happening, and what is finally at stake. When it's all a structural—as well as a visual—puzzle, everyone is in trouble.
The second round of sabotage occurred when a number of roles were double, triple, and even quadruple-cast. A fake moustache or a toupee don't make that much difference when an inadequate actor is trying to impersonate several characters.
Kia Corthron seeks to show how the dedication of several generations of an African-American family to stalwart service on the police-force is rewarded. Even in the face of racial and neighborhood prejudice.
As some of the street-clothes were not all that distinctive—and the police uniforms certainly were not—I had difficulty figuring out which generation I was watching.
There were also too many generic characters, with generic names to match. Thus it was not at all easy to find anyone to relate to, let alone sympathize with.
When an asthmatic woman suffocates because the young black cop makes a bad mistake about her problems and then panics, this is potentially powerful stuff.
But it's one of those scenes Kenneth Lonergan has left offstage in "Lobby Hero." Maybe Corthron might like to have him help out as a Play-Doctor?
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Hagedorn's "Dogeaters" [***]
WALK A MILE IN MY SHOE!——Imelda Marcos in "Dogeaters."
Photo: ©Michal Daniel/2001.
Some critics have castigated Jessica Hagedorn for the way she's adapted her novel about culture and corruption in the Philippines under the Marcos Regime. It's framed like a popular TV variety-show, with a relentlessly smiling and stylishly-dressed duo of MC's introducing various political parodies, perverse sexual frissons, naked displays of power, violent abduction & assault, and blood-thirsty revolutionary plotting.
Brilliantly designed by David Gallo and deftly directed by Michael Greif, "Dogeaters" was, for me, a vital, engrossing work of theatre. Using both verbal and visual satire—pushed beyond parody to rude cartoons—it compressed an appalling era in Filipino politics into an edgy and admirably brief encounter.
Not that matters in Manila or Mindanao are much improved with the demise of President Marcos. Or the marginalization of the Indomitable, Unsinkable Madame Imelda.
What has been reported about actual events is occasionally even more bizarre than Hagedorn's reconstructions. It's said, for instance, that Mme. Marcos gave a birthday-party for her deceased husband—which he attended, standing up, frozen in his coffin. She is said to have remarked: "I like him much better this way."
Whatever handsome gifts she may have showered on Our American Vampire, George Hamilton, he must certainly have earned them.
Nonetheless, I always say: "No one dares to criticize Imelda Marcos until he's walked a mile in all of her shoes!" So there!
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Derfner's "Miles Below Zero" [**]
You may have "Nervous Hysteria" and not even know it. You can certainly contract it from watching too much HBO TV. Or from seeing plays about Male Stalkers who won't stop sending flowers.
In the 19th century, some of the cures proposed for "Neurasthenia" were bizarre, often sadistic. Of course they were devised and prescribed by male medical doctors, or Homeopathic Quacks.
These arrogant experts hadn't a clue. Freud thought he was onto something, but he didn't quite understand that he, his fellow doctors, husbands, fathers, and men in general were the Problem.
And if the victim's father, husband, or sons were adoring and caring, that often only made matters worse. That apparently was the case with the author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the definitive horror-story of a cure, "The Yellow Wallpaper." Could she have been an ancestor of Rebecca Gilman?
Only when Gilman left her husband for a respite in Pasadena, of all places, did she seem to recover and become phenomenally productive. The inference is clear. As it also is in Richard Helfer's drama about the Anti-Slavery Grimke Sisters—recently given a staged-reading in costume at the Morgan Library.
For much of the 19th century, when "Nervous Hysteria" was frequently diagnosed, it never occurred to anyone that the traditional gender-assignment of life-roles was subconsciously harmful to women who longed for greater fulfillment than that of mother and home-maker. They often were silently, even unknowingly, hysterical because they could not, in such a world, take up the challenges that men faced.
Even when an extraordinarily intelligent and talented woman's menfolk were thoughtful, reasonable, loving, and caring, the complaint was often made worse. The men hoped for a recovery so the woman could get back to the kitchen and the laundry. The last thing they needed was a Social Reformer or a Suffragette.
Tessa Leigh Derfner has effectively presented Charlotte Gilman's own experience with this "disease," and her efforts to cure herself. It is rather like a monodrama, with Gilman's lines taken from her own writings. But it is enhanced, enlarged, backed-up by a Chorus of three women and two men who represent characters in Gilman's saga, as well as offering commentary on the events.
This interesting production has been playing in repertory at the Queens Company with Aphra Behn's "The Rover." This is a lusty Restoration bodice-ripper which dared to indict male arrogance and infidelity for predominantly male audiences. The wonder is that it was written, not by Wycherley or Congreve, but by a woman. What's more, by the first woman to make a living as a professional author & playwright!
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Lane & Morehouse III's "If It Was Easy…" [-**]
The illustrious name of drama critic and social arbiter Ward Morehouse was once one, as they say, To Conjure With. Unfortunately, the elder Morehouse's theatrical savvy doesn't seem to have trickled-down to Morehouse III.
"If It Was Easy…" is not only a deliberately ungrammatical title: It's also the name of a dreadfully unfunny would-be comedy that should have never gone beyond a staged-reading. If that… A silent reading by an office-temp should have been sufficient.
The joke of the title is that an epically dishonest & unqualified Broadway producer knows the correct word is "were." Isn't that a gasser!
But it's not just the script that's awful. The performances are so self-conscious, awkward, and hammy that they make this staging look like the rankest of amateur performances.
It looks like an amateur amateur-production of George Kelly's "The Torchbearers," which itself is meant to be a hilarious parody of Community Theatre pretensions.
I was especially sorry to see the once estimable Tom Ligon step in as a drunken stumble-bum of an actor. Times must really be bad out there if a performer with solid credits is engaged only as an Understudy.
The best that can be said of most new—and resoundingly minor—efforts at stage-comedy is that they could have a further life in college & community theatre. I wouldn't wish that fate on any of those ensembles: This Play Is Not the Thing!
It was directed by Morehouse's co-author, Stewart F. Lane. Or maybe it's really Lane's original script, with Morehouse only play-doctoring? Call in the Paramedics!
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Musicals Old & New—
Reba McEntire's "Annie Get Your Gun" [*****]
REBA McENTIRE CAN DO ANYTHING BETTER THAN ALMOST ANYONE!
Photo: ©Carol Rosegg/2001.
At the Marquis, "Annie Get Your Gun" looks like a brand-new show! It certainly looks brighter in the lighting, bolder in the coloring, livelier in the performances.
But what really lights up the sky is Reba McEntire as Annie. She is the Real Thing!
And audiences flocking to the Marquis—even on a snowy Tuesday evening—certainly recognize that fact. And know how to show their appreciation: with ovation after ovation.
It was also clear that many already knew Reba as a Country & Western star and a most interesting film actress. Members of her Fan Club are turning out in droves.
When I first saw this revival—when it opened on Broadway, with Bernadette Peters—it looked to me very much like a somewhat shopworn bus & truck production. And, in truth, it had been around a bit already. Bernadette—bless her!—worked very hard, but she couldn't make this role her own.
Not that the shadow or spirit of Ethel Merman was hovering, but that, in her own terms, she couldn't quite get the hang of it all. Irving Berlin was certainly no Grand Ole Opry composer, but he did get the hang of it.
And Reba McEntire is to the manner—not manor—born. After she chatted with a group from the American Theatre Critics Association at a Sardi's Celebrity Luncheon recently, I knew I had to see her Annie.
For Reba, to speak in a lilting and animated Country & Western accent, is only "Doin' what comes naturally…" She told us she comes from a tiny Oklahoma town, population 18!
At Sardi's, she was partnered by her stage-partner, Brent Barrett, the new Frank Butler. Offstage, he is a handsome charmer. Onstage, he's even more so, with a terrific voice as well.
It may seem quite a leap from playing the villainous Scar, in Julie Taymor's "Lion King," but Brent has made it with an easy stride. The chemistry between this duo onstage is dynamic & volatile.
There's a new CD with Reba singing three songs. But this isn't enough. What's needed is an entirely new CD of the entire show, including Brent Barrett, Larry Storch, Conrad John Schuck, and the rest of the admirable cast. How about a video?
"Annie" is now like a whole new show that's just opened. Don't Miss It!
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Ed Kleban & Friends' "A Class Act" [****]
STRUTTING THEIR STUFF——A classy routine from "A Class Act." Photo: ©Joan Marcus/2001.
Those critics who thought they could pass up the Broadway opening of "A Class Act"—because they'd already seen it at the Manhattan Theatre Club on its tiny second-stage—will be missing out. They are passing up a larger experience of the sad saga of composer/lyricist Ed Kleban's problematic personal & professional life.
Kleban was a notoriously difficult & contentious personality. But he was also unquestionably gifted, both as composer and lyricist. His public Claim-to-Fame remains his lively, satiric lyrics for "A Chorus Line."
His other songs, shows, and dreams went largely unrealized, even forgotten.
Except among a loyal group of friends, some of whom have done him this wonderful honor of putting his life & work in an exciting, gripping new musical-theatre context.
And Lonny Price—who also staged—has embodied Kleban in a wonderfully warm—if prickly, nebbishy—way that ought to make Ed's soul soar even higher. He's a Woody Allen character come to life.
At last some of Kleban's admirable songs have come into their own.
Even if the whole show is presented in the context of a Memorial Service, with Kleban's ashes in a downstage spotlighted Wedgewood Urn. But this is not an extended Wake, nor a depressing evening in the theatre. Quite the contrary!
Like the long-running, world-girdling revival of "Chicago," this is a bare-bones production. "Chicago," as now played at home and abroad, looks substantially the way it did at City Center in a brief "Encores" semi-staged revival.
"A Class Act" was also—of necessity, considering the minimal space at MTC—minimally set and costumed. But this very spareness translates well—and fairly economically—to the small stage of the Ambassador Theatre.
But the performances and the choreography have been "opened up," to visual and emotional advantage. Naturally, there is a CD, which many fans of musicals will want to have.
As I noted when I wrote about "A Class Act" at the MTC, Lehman Engel—who figures prominently in the musical, as Ed Kleban's mentor & occasional tormentor—invited me, as a journalist/critic, to sit in on some BMI Musical Comedy Workshop sessions. So this increased my interest in the background of the show.
But anyone who loves musicals will want to know how the process works—or, more often, as in Kleban's case, doesn't work.
On Broadway press-night, I sat near my old friend, CUNY colleague, and fellow Outer Critics Circle Awards-Nominator, Mario Fratti. Mario had won his spurs in the BMI Workshop, working with composer Maury Yeston.
A native Italian, Mario had won from Federico Fellini the rights to make a musical from "8 1/2." I still think Mario's book for the resultant musical—now known as "Nine"—is admirable.
At that time, so did some really important Movers & Shakers in the Arts.
The duo won the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award to encourage creation of new musicals. On a very cold, snowy February morning, I was invited, as press, to attend the conferring of the award—AND THE CHECK—at Ellen Stewart's LaMaMa ETC.
Edward Albee was there, as president of one of those august groups with titles like American Academy of Arts & Letters, or some such. So was Mary Rodgers, daughter of the donor and a musical composer in her own right: "Once Upon a Mattress."
A tall, distinguished lady, in a heavy winter coat, gave me a cup of bitter coffee. She apologized that there was no cream. She introduced herself as Barbara Tuchman. Amazed at meeting one of my writing-idols, I blurted: "I just couldn't put down 'A Distant Mirror'!"
She looked at me with a doubtful but amused expression: "I can hardly believe that. It weighs a ton. It's very easy to put down."
In the end, it was Mario who was put down, and by his mentor, Lehman Engel.
In the interim, before Broadway, Engel convinced Yeston that the show really needed a new, different libretto. This was duly provided by Arthur Kopit, of "Indians" fame.
Fortunately, as holder of the rights to the film, Mario didn't lose out on a share of the royalties! And, as he's also a prolific playwright—he even wrote a trendy musical about Patty Hearst being kidnapped by Cinque & the Symbionese Liberation Army—as well as a Professor at Hunter College, he is in a position to be very generous in advising and supporting young hopefuls.
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From the hilarity in the audience and the infectious vitality & ingenuity on the semi-arena stage at Manhattan Theatre Club, "newyorkers" looks very much like another commercial transfer for not-for-profit MTC
Only a short while ago, "A Class Act" was delighting the public on the same stage. Now it's on Broadway—just like MTC's "Proof" and "Tale of the Allergist's Wife."
"newyorkers" is rather like a Gerard Alessandrini musical-spoof. But its creators, Stephen Weiner & Glenn Slater, have forbidden Broadway to take over this charming little revue of Manhattan foibles, fetishes, and fantasies.
Like "Forbidden Broadway," however, it's a small-scale cabaret-style show and would transfer best to an intimate Off-Broadway commercial house. Its humor is also Inside-Stuff. It might not be instantly comprehensible to Out-of-Towners. Especially those who insist they don't understand why anyone would want to live here.
Weiner's melodies are catchy and are made even more so with the witty lyrics of Slater. But these songs look & sound much more satiric & ingenious, thanks to Christopher Ashley's genius for making a each song into an often devastating mini-drama about New York & New Yorkers.
Daniel Pelzig's deft & satiric choreography adds hilarious visual impact to many of these musical parodies. Mayor Rudy's Dancing Cops are a special delight. David Woolard's handsome—but occasionally satiric—costumes underscore the comic effects.
Among his best efforts are Miss Liberty—who's in love with the Empire State Building—and a pair of self-acknowledged "Starfuckers."
The entire ensemble is so dynamic, talented, and versatile, it's not fair to single anyone out. They are Stephen DeRosa, Jerry Dixon, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Pamela Isaacs, Liz Larsen, & Priscilla Lopez.
Long may they run!
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Javerbaum & Cohen's "Suburb" [*]
This Run-of-the-Mall show is the Artistic Antithesis to "newyorkers." Forget about dazzling wit or searing satire. Think Normal. Think Home-Depot. Think Wal-Mart. Think Cliché.
One of the problems of the old BMI Workshops, as it then seemed to me, was that Lehman Engel was determined to keep alive a musical-theatre formula that was already becoming passé.
He was adamant about the varied forms of songs which belonged in an effective Broadway Musical. As the current "A Class Act" amusingly demonstrates, Lehman loved the "Charm Song." As well as the Comedy Ballad, enshrined by Rodgers & Hammerstein in service of such characters as Ado Annie.
Although Lehman admitted Steve Sondheim's genius and innovation, he condemned his disregard for conventional lyric rhyme-schemes. As well as Sondheim's failure to write show-stopping hits which could then become free-standing singles. The kind of songs featured long ago on "Your Hit Parade."
"Send in the Clowns" obviously was the Sondheim Exception which proved the Engel Rule.
Lehman believed it was not only possible, but desirable, to write songs which would reveal character, create atmosphere, and advance the plot. And still become really popular hits—without disappearing into the fabric of the musical in production.
He did admit, however, that this was becoming almost impossible.
In the Good Old Days, almost every family above the Poverty Level had a piano. Broadway & Movie Musical hits were immediately available in sheet-music. Even my own fiercely Protestant mother, who detested the theatre—to which she had never been, owing to its Known Evils—bought the music and memorized the songs.
Shellac singles were spinning on everyone's old Victrolas.
Current hits were played over & over on radio. The Lucky Strike Hit Parade could make you sick of the songs. When it was translated to TV, every week that a song remained in the Top Ten, it had to have a New Look or dramatic setting.
All this was changing, disappearing, even as Sondheim was emerging.
Now, here are David Javerbaum & Robert S. Cohen with "Suburb," recently showcased at York Theatre. It is conventionally described as "A New Musical Comedy."
But it is nothing of the sort. It is as old-fashioned as can be. But in Lehman's time, it wouldn't have made the grade, even in the BMI Workshop.
Its Charm Songs and Comic Ballads—if that's what they are supposed to be—are utterly conventional and verbally uninteresting. The entire show—concept, book, lyrics, and score—is dismally derivative.
If cute songs about The Mall, Backyard Barbecues, Basement Rumpus-Rooms, Metropolitan Commutes, and the like promise big Comic—or Nostalgic—Potential for you, then this is definitely the show for your Community Theatre.
But not for grown-up "newyorkers"
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Ryan's Hope: "Leaving Queens" [***]
Only the on-going obligations of Political Correctness nudge me to witness yet another "Women's Play." Good writing & good performances should stand for themselves, not beg for special consideration—or Special Audiences—because of their Special Agendas.
Nonetheless, I've often been impressed with the dramas and productions at the Women's Project Theatre.
But the idea of a new woman's play about "Leaving Queens"—and a musical, at that—didn't prove an immediate magnet. Especially as it was described as "a new musical about Irish Roots and new beginnings."
I suspected there might be at least two plays involved: the Irish Girlhood Issue and the New Woman Issue. I was not entirely wrong in that suspicion.
But playwright & lyricist Kate Moira Ryan has a powerful experience to share. And her heroine has a lot of Old Baggage to get rid of…
In her interesting work, there are overtones of Frank D. Gilroy's "The Subject Was Roses," now in rep at the Jean Cocteau.
Growing up Irish-American—especially in the Boroughs—obviously was no fun. Not like being in an Extended Italian-American Family. For Gilroy, the problem was a nagging dad who could never be pleased, placated, or known.
For Ryan's heroine, Megan Grant, the familial nag is her mother. Virtually falling into a career as a photographer gives Megan the purpose and the sense of self-worth she so sorely needed.
Her story would be interesting, even without songs—with music by Kim D. Sherman. But a number of the numbers are so inventive, so effective, that they seem to belong to a different show about the same biographical materials.
Thus, the dramatic effect, while often compelling, is ultimately confused, even unfocused. This could become an innovative musical, but some of the biography and family trauma needs to be stripped out.
Perhaps my special interest is not in being Political Correct here. But rather that I responded to Ryan & Sherman's intriguing creation both as an Irish-American and as a photographer—whose large Infotography ArtsArchive is soon to be on deposit in the Photography Collection of the Research Libraries of the NYPL at 42nd Street & Fifth Avenue.
Note: Willa Cather's masterpiece, "O Pioneers!," with music again by Kim D. Sherman, will be produced by the Women's Project the first two weeks in May.
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Noack's "Six Months To Live" [***]
BREAST-CANCER DEATH-SENTENCE——Karim Noak dances to life. Photo: ©Susan Stava/2001.
Karim Noack, a dancer/choreographer, was told she had Breast Cancer—and that she had six months to live.
Obviously she's a feisty fighter, as she's still here, some six years after the medical Death Sentence. She's still dancing, prancing, advocating, and proselytizing.
Drastic surgeries and devastating chemotherapies, she soon discovered, were more likely to kill her than the Big C. Another case of the Cure being almost worse than the Cause.
Noack—who stars in her self-dramatizing narrative in music & dance—believes she's been spared so far by her fervent Belief in Life and her strong Sense of Humor in Adversity.
Dance & Exercise have clearly been important physical therapies for Noack. But some New Age interests and rituals have also been central to Noack's survival. In addition to flamencos, tangos, rumbas, and other forms of Latino-African dance & song, Noack offers her personal Healing Ceremony, the "San Lazaro" dance, related to Voodoo culture.
She was strongly supported at LaMaMa with a large company of dancers & musicians. This is a show which would be expensive to tour—given the size of the ensemble in the East Village—but it should have great appeal on tour, especially on the college-circuit.[Loney]
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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2001. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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