Tuesday, January 30, 2007

And every single one is better than Dreamgirls

Classic movie buffs, take note: TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" celebration begins Thursday! Here are some highlights I'm hoping to catch; check out the full schedule (a pdf, with the movies broken down by Oscar category) and let me know your picks!

Feb. 1, 10:30 AM - Brief Encounter (1945)
My "British Literature since 1945" professor screened this in college. Attendance wasn't mandatory; he just wanted to enhance our feel for the era. It's quiet and rich, and deeply adult (as in "mature," not "dirty") for 1945. It's based on a Noel Coward play, so I guess that's no surprise, but the overall seriousness might be. Nominated for direction, leading actress (Celia Johnson) and screenplay.

6:00 PM - The African Queen (1951)
I've seen it 3 times already and wouldn't mind going for a 4th. It's a great story, and the performances by Bogie (who won an Oscar) and Hepburn (who was nominated) are basically a master class. Be sure to catch the first 10 minutes; Robert Morley kills me every time.

Feb. 2, 5:00 PM - Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
The boyfriend's DVR, which (as a gift to me) is programmed to record anything with the keywords "Judy Garland," picked this up recently. Judy's non-singing, non-dancing, Oscar-nommed performance is not the only reason to watch this movie, although it might be the best one; Spencer Tracy (also nominated) is as excellent as ever, and the scene where Maximilian Schell switches from German to English, winning an Oscar in the process, is one of my top ten favorite movie moments. (Not that I actually have a list.) [ETA: Discussed at length here.]

Feb. 3, 4:00 AM - Two for the Seesaw (1962)
I've never seen this one, but it stars Shirley MacLaine and was directed by Robert Wise (3 years before The Sound of Music), with Oscar-nominated cinematography, so I have high hopes. Shirley MacLaine is good in everything.

Feb. 5, 12:00 PM - Sunset Boulevard (1950)
If you haven't seen this yet, now's your chance. Musical theatre fun fact: did you know Stephen Sondheim once planned to make this into a musical? Sometimes I dream about what that musical might have been like. And then I weep bitterly.

9:30 PM - The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Don't try to follow the plot -- some plots weren't meant to be followed. Just soak in the atmosphere. Once you've seen this best-picture winner, you'll know pretty much all you need to know about an entire genre.

Feb 7, 8:00 PM - Inherit the Wind (1960)
As Judy Garland fascinates in Judgment at Nuremberg, so Gene Kelly fascinates here. The movies also have matching best actor nominations for Spencer Tracy, and best black-and-white cinematography noms for Ernest Laszlo. The play will be on Broadway later this season, but will it have Gene Kelly? I think not.

Feb 8, 6:00 AM - A Free Soul (1931)
What do movie geeks mean when they talk about "pre-code" pictures? Why is Norma Shearer my favorite actress? Just how stupid would Clark Gable look without that skeevy mustache? This is the film to answer all your questions. Norma, definitely not wearing anything under that satin gown, scored an Oscar nom; Lionel Barrymore, haggard but still hammy, won.

6:00 PM - The Philadelphia Story (1940)
I hate Cary Grant and I always will. And I'm not sure I really like the story, when all is said and done. But I'm hard pressed to name a better, or funnier, screenplay, and anything directed by George Cukor is bound to be worth watching. Plus, I love Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey and Virginia Weidler so much -- always, but especially in this movie -- that I'm more than willing to overlook Cary's unctuous yet wooden presence. Stewart won the Oscar, as well he should have.

Feb 9, 8:00 PM - The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
My favorite of the Muppet movies (it won an Oscar for Joe Moss's music), and the source of my longstanding crush on Lonny Price. Watching it still makes me think, "Someday I want to live in that magical place called Manhattan!" And then I realize: ...Oh.

Feb 13, 11:45 AM - Harvey (1950)
More Oscar-nominated drunkenness from Jimmy Stewart, and a triumph for the theatre in Josephine Hull's Oscar win! Funny, heartwarming, memorable. You'll feel like a better person for having watched.

Feb 15, 2:15 AM - Camille (1936)
A Valentine's Day(ish) showing of this classic Garbo romance, which for years I knew only as "the movie they go to see at Radio City in Annie." It wasn't till this year that I realized Camille was directed by George Cukor; I caught a captivating half-hour on TCM once and have been hoping to see the rest ever since.

1:15 PM - Born Yesterday (1950)
Judy Holliday is incredible, and if your response to that is, "Who?" I insist that you see this movie. (Ditto if you're thinking, Wasn't Melanie Griffith in that?) Holliday won the Oscar; director Cukor was nominated, of course. [ETA: Discussed at length here.]

Feb 24, 6:30 AM - On The Waterfront (1954)
From a distance, this movie looked -- to quote Sars -- On the Boring as Hell. But I'm glad I checked it out anyway (and on the big screen, too!), because holy shit is this a good movie. It won 8 Oscars, including best picture, and was nominated for 4 more. Made me want to go to film school so I could spend the rest of my life writing papers about how good it is. Just thrilling.

8:00 PM - A Man for All Seasons (1966)
I have a deep devotion to St. Thomas More... but sometimes I think I'm really devoted to Robert Bolt's play about his life, and Paul Scofield's Oscar-winning performance in the film version. Catholic or not, do yourself a favor and check it out. Comes complete with bonus scene-stealing bloat from Orson Welles!

Feb 25, 2:00 PM - Gone With the Wind (1939)
Watch at least the first two hours; the rest is soapy and melodramatic (and still pretty great), but the first half is difficult to overpraise. Won 8 Oscars, including best director for Victor Fleming - but you and I know the best scenes were directed by my man George Cukor.

Feb 28, 12:00 AM - The Little Foxes (1941)
Another great film adaptation of a great play. The combination of director William Wyler and star Bette Davis will knock your socks off; Patricia Collinge and Teresa Wright also do their profession proud. 9 noms, including one for Lillian Hellman's screenplay.

March 2, 10:15 PM - Awakenings (1990)
Like most Penny Marshall films, this makes me cry every damn time. Think you hate Robin Williams? See this before you decide. Embarrassing admission: this was my introduction to the (Oscar-nominated) acting stylings of Robert De Niro, and now, whenever I see him in anything else, I can't quite shake the impression that he's playing a mentally handicapped person.

Seen on the subway this morning

A teenage boy in a yarmulke, reading Saint Augustine's Confessions. (See, the subway isn't always harrowing.)

Monday, January 29, 2007

Not one word apt, one player fitting

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I read the "Director's Note." Directors and academics are always claiming to have found The Best Approach to interpreting and/or performing Shakespeare, but it takes a special kind of pomposity to claim, as director Ike Schambelan does in his notes for the Theater by the Blind production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, that "this is a deeply revolutionary production, so entertaining and clear that you never want to see another Shakespeare that doesn't let him speak in his own form, his own voice."

Leaving the theatre two hours later, the boyfriend said to me, "He was right about one thing -- I never want to see another production of Shakespeare."

If it weren't for the claims made in that program note, and in an equally off-putting preshow announcement by TBTB co-artistic director Schambelan, I would feel a little bit bad reporting on the awfulness of this production. But I don't like being told that what I am about to see will be brilliant, even when it turns out to be true, and when it turns out to be anything but true, I'm not inclined to be charitable.

Schambelan's "revolutionary" approach involves double-casting -- hardly a new idea, especially when it comes to Midsummer, but Schambelan claims that his production has been cast (with a total of 6 actors) exactly as Shakespeare intended, a claim that is hard to credit once you've sat through the final scene, which here is much longer and much less funny than it ought to be, because the Athenians keep dashing offstage and coming back on as Mechanicals, and then dashing back offstage and coming back on again as Athenians. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In his preshow announcement, Schambelan informed us that since we were seeing a preview, we should expect things to go wrong. He added that, because of his revolutionary, just-as-Shakespeare-intended doubling scheme, entrances might be late or otherwise flubbed. Now, I would argue that you can either claim to be doing the best of all possible Midsummers or ask an audience to indulge the limitations of your approach to the script, but you can't do both (and I would further argue that professional standards discourage doing either).

Another of Schambelan's claims is that Shakespeare is best performed with no intermission or scene breaks. It's certainly true that "Shakespeare" and "3-hour running time" need not be synonymous, but if I may make one argument in favor of intermissions: they give the audience a chance to escape. I have been known to make a grateful dash for freedom at the intermission of a particularly awful play, but, try as I might, I could find no opportunity to escape from this one. The onstage action never stopped, and we were seated too far from the only entrance to the performance space to sneak out discreetly. Even so, I considered making a run for it when George Ashiotis (the blind co-artistic director of TBTB) was alone, or mostly alone, onstage, figuring he might not be too distracted by our obvious flight... but the cast occasionally used the theatre's only exit as a stage entrance, and I was afraid I'd run smack into an entering performer while beating a retreat. So I remained in my seat, despairing, for the entire two-hour nightmare. And yes, it lasts a full 2 hours, rather than the advertised 90 minutes. The extra running time might be due to Ashiotis's failure to learn his lines -- I don't think he got through a single speech without stumbling. And speaking of Ashiotis, artistic director he may be, but he is still by far the least charismatic performer in the cast, and yet he had somehow been cast as Bottom. A completely unfunny Bottom -- you can't tell me that is what Shakespeare intended.

Before I go on, let me be clear about one thing: I really, really wanted this play to be good. The mission of Theater by the Blind -- to create opportunities for and increase awareness of visually-impaired and otherwise disabled artists -- is a vital one, and if I could think of a single positive thing to say about this production, I would gladly say it. I wish, for example, that I could say this production gave me new insight (heh) into the imagery of eyes and seeing, sight and blindness, that Shakespeare employs throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream. I wish I could say that the presence of disabled actors onstage added new depth to the lovers' ruminations on beauty and their desire for independence. It certainly might have been so: Ann Marie Morelli played Hermia in a motorized wheelchair, and in a good production that would have added a deliciously dark subtext, as well as a novel comic touch, to the lovers' slapstick argument in Act 3, Scene 2. Think of the possibilities! Hermia, from her wheelchair, shrieking, "I am not yet so low / But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes." And Helena taunting her in return: "Your hands than mine are quicker for a fray; / My legs are longer, though, to run away." How wonderful in the imagination! And yet how dull onstage!

Midsummer is probably the funniest of Shakespeare's plays -- and maybe one of the funniest plays, period -- but you wouldn't know it from this production. Oh, you might amuse yourself, as I did, by listening for line readings indicating that the actor doesn't understand what he or she is saying -- you'll find plenty. But the director isn't content to let his actors simply misread their lines. In order to differentiate the rude mechanicals from the other characters (played as they were by the same actors, in not-at-all evocative costumes), Schambelan has the actors speaking their lines in heavy, completely random accents -- Peter Quince was Jamaican, Bottom was Slavic, etc. I only wish I were kidding. The actor playing Puck also adopts a different accent for each appearance, which I suppose was meant to be "funny." The costumes add nothing in the way of clarity or imagination; Schambelan is very proud of the actors' quick changes, but it would have been far more effective to simply dress everyone in black, rather than to have them change, however quickly, from one boring costume to another. The set design is equally boring, and the double casting requires all of the spell-casting and such to take place offstage, which makes the plot nearly impossible to follow. People are forever delivering their lines into the wings, or shouting from offstage (you are supposed to guess which character is talking, presumably, based on the accents). The action that does happen onstage is blocked so that much of it takes place in downstage corners of the playing area (it isn't exactly a "stage"), where the actors are all but hidden from view for anyone not in the front row. And as for the "9 songs" advertised? Let's just say we're working with a really loose definition of "song."

As I said above, the final scene, where the Athenians watch the mechanicals' production of "Pyramus and Thisbe," is interminable and totally unfunny, which is hard to believe, since it makes me laugh out loud on the page. Now that I think about it, though, I begin to wonder whether Schambelan's approach isn't successful after all. Describing his ("revolutionary") casting philosophy, he writes in his program notes, "The troupe doing the play-within-the-play is the whole troupe, so the piece snaps into focus." And it is true that, seen through the filter of the play-within-a-play, this production of Midsummer makes a perverse kind of sense. From the unnecessary prologue telling the audience how to interpret the play to the bad casting, incomplete memorization of lines, silly directorial choices and unfunny comedic touches, this production comes very close to suggesting what Midsummer would look like if it were performed entirely by Bottom and Co. So if that was the intention, TBTB has found success, and if, like Theseus, Duke of Athens, you are inclined to see a play you know will be terrible, you could hardly find a better candidate. "If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men" -- truer words were never spoken. But I myself take more after Hippolyta, in that "I love not to see wretchedness o'ercharged," and I must say, Puck's final apology to the audience -- "If we shadows have offended," etc. -- has never seemed so necessary, or so inadequate.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

You told Harpo to beat me?!

I saw the Broadway musical The Color Purple back when it was in previews (in November 2005), and the best thing about it was the cast. The show has an entirely nonwhite cast (or almost entirely, anyway -- if you can remember any white characters, let me know), and since great roles for black performers are still pretty rare on the Great White Way, the casting company (Bernard Telsey Casting, for the record) had an opportunity to bring a lot of new talent to Broadway. To their great credit, they took all the time they needed and looked outside the New York pool where necessary, and the result was a stage full of overwhelmingly talented performers, many making their Broadway debut and all singing, dancing and acting their hearts out. The show is fair-to-middling, but the energy coming from the stage (and, consequently, from the audience) made it a very positive experience for me.

The most exciting Broadway debut I witnessed was that of Felicia P. Fields, who played Sofia (the Oprah role, for those who've seen the movie). I walked out of there saying, If she doesn't win the Tony this year, there is no justice in the world. Well, she didn't win the Tony, and I admit I did not see, and still have not seen, The Drowsy Chaperone, so it is possible, just possible, that Beth Leavel deserved it more. But I still think Felicia was robbed. In any case, because of the way the show is written, Felicia is not only permitted but actually required to upstage the nominal "star" at every opportunity, so I suppose that has been some consolation. However, I am sad to read that she is leaving the show as of today. The good news is, she is staying in the role, so if you catch The Color Purple on tour, you have at least one thing to look forward to.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

...everybody look busy!

Last night the boyfriend and I tripped on down to the Village to see Your Secret Admirer, because we're just that kind of fun, young NYC couple. The set was very enjoyable -- they have a great sound to go with their great band name and great posters -- and Elvis Costello fans, which is probably most or all of you, should definitely check them out. The best part was, they played at 8:30, so we had our fun night out and still made it home for Law & Order at 10!

Today's subway entertainment: a middle-aged black woman with a heavy Caribbean accent singing spirituals, or maybe just one long spiritual, with not much talent but lots of passion. "Jesus is coming," she insisted. "Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming." The performance lasted most of the ride, and I started to wonder if she was making it up as she went along, until one of my fellow passengers started to sing along. Anyway, I'd still prefer a quiet car, but at least this woman's heart seemed to be in the right place (I cannot vouch for her mind). She didn't want to intimidate or assault anybody; she didn't even want money; she just wanted to save our souls. As we approached 96th St. she stopped singing and started preaching, and she was getting a bit emphatic toward the end there, paying special attention to the car's few African American passengers (who, to be fair, kind of asked for it by singing along with the refrain of her song). I escaped without incident. Maybe I looked saved already.

Her performance reminded me of the time Borat sang the national anthem of Kazakhstan at a Georgia minor-league baseball game, and so I looked that up on YouTube for your amusement. Don't say I never gave you anything!

Friday, January 26, 2007

They call it that 'cause of the electri-city!

Three old Office episodes don't quite add up to one new one, though I certainly didn't mind revisiting any of last night's reruns. (Did you realize there were 2 more eps on at 10:00? If my Mom hadn't tipped me off I'd never have noticed... and I still almost missed it! Pretty sneaky, NBC.) The power struggle in "The Coup" is so entertaining; the trick Michael plays on Dwight shows him simultaneously at his most intelligent and his least mature. And that scene where Dwight is in the diner with Jan? I've said it before and I'll say it again: Rainn Wilson should win every TV award for which he is eligible just for his performance in that one scene.

If you tuned in again at 10 you saw "Grief Counseling," notable for Pam's newly active role in office hijinks, and "Initiation," which is my least favorite episode of the season. The whole "Dwight lives on a beet farm" thing isn't very funny, in my opinion, and it undermines the other, less farfetched information we have about Dwight. (Like, on Valentine's Day, he gave Angela a key... to his beet farm? Where he lives with Mose and no indoor plumbing? Does anybody else find that distractingly unlikely?) Also not very funny: Ryan and plots that revolve around him. All the secondary stuff in that episode is great, though -- "This is pretzel day" -- and even if it weren't, it would all be worth it for the Jim/Pam phone conversation at the end. Watching that again, so many episodes later, was a great reminder of how much the unfolding storylines enhance my enjoyment of this show. That's pretty rare for a sitcom, when you think about it. Anyway, I still thought their whole conversation about Pam's one kitchen and all that was funny and sweet and everything this time around, but the first time I saw it, when it was the first contact Jim and Pam had had since their kiss the previous season? When Pam heard Jim's voice and said, "Oh my God," I think I also said "Oh my God." I was that wrapped up in it. I'm not proud to admit that, but there it is.

Anyway, speaking of initiation, I hope all my Scranton readers have seen "Lazy Scranton." And even if you have, it certainly wouldn't hurt your civic pride to watch it again (it's got a little bit of a zing to it!). From there you can explore the official Office site, if you wish, but I don't recommend it. It's surprisingly lame. And speaking of surprisingly lame, I watched 15 minutes of Ugly Betty last night, and, wow, I was right. It's not nearly as good a show as The Office. My problem wasn't so much the writing, which isn't really clever but comes close now and then, but the pace, which is far too slow. If you're going to lean on every joke until you're really sure we've gotten it, why not just have a laugh track already?

What do you think? Am I missing some crucial element of Betty's charm? Did you have a favorite moment in last night's Dunder Mifflin feast?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Maybe I should just think of it as a live theatre event

I told you, back when I started this here blog, that I might be posting about weird subway encounters from time to time, and I said that because I knew, sooner or later, some unpleasant subway situation would burn itself into my brain, and the only way to get it out would be to blog about it. So, a warning: anger follows.

Yesterday morning I was riding an uptown 1 train with just a handful of passengers in the car -- everybody sitting, and there were still lots of seats. I was reading last week's New Yorker (I was right in the middle of that article about the color consultant, the one that starts out really fun but ends up being mostly about industrial siding, which couldn't be less interesting), but as the doors closed at 72nd Street, I heard: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to disturb you..."

I don't know about the rest of you, but when I hear the beginning of a panhandling spiel, I do a quick mental assessment (without looking up, if possible): How easy will this person be to ignore? Or, to put it another way, How likely is it that this person will become confrontational before we get to the next stop? This particular guy looked kind of familiar, and maybe you've seen him too: white guy, short, dark hair, probably in his 40s; dirty, obviously, and kind of wild-eyed. Something about the way he was talking set off alarm bells -- his pitch was loud, fast and nervous, and he was pacing up and down the car while he talked. The words were pretty typical -- "Any food you can spare, or if you don't have food, if you can spare some change, even a penny will help" -- but where most panhandlers shoot for "pathetic" and/or "grateful" in their delivery, his tone was oddly impatient, even hostile, as though we were wasting his time by refusing to surrender the food we had hidden on our persons. This made me nervous, and I considered bailing at the next stop, but he hadn't done anything too out of the ordinary by the time we arrived at 79th street, and I didn't want to wait for another train, so I kept staring at my magazine and hoping he would go away. The train pulled out and he finished working the car, having collected whatever he was going to get. Then, without warning, he approached 2 women who were sitting across from me. They were a mother and daughter, maybe 60 and 30, and as far as I know they had done nothing to attract this man's attention. But he leaned over them until his face was inches from theirs and treated them to a long and vile tirade. I couldn't hear everything he said, but I could tell from the words he emphasized that it was violent, sexual, and generally disgusting. The women stared straight ahead, pretending not to notice him, which is almost definitely what I would have done in their shoes. Having said his piece, he strolled down to the end of the car, said something similarly crazy (but much more polite) to a white-haired man sitting near the door, and then walked back along the length of the car, muttering something about how it was "his stop," and disembarked at 86th Street.

Act two started when the doors shut behind him, and the younger woman came to life. "Did you hear what he said to us?!" she asked the old man at the end of the car, who just shrugged. She turned her attention to the man sitting across from her (and a few seats down from me), and asked him, "Did you hear what he said?!" That man didn't answer audibly, either, which I found extremely provoking. "I would have punched him in the face if he weren't obviously crazy," she said; still no response from the man next to me (other than a "whaddaya-gonna-do" shrug). Not even a "Me too." I'd like to think that, if I were a young and able-bodied man, I would have come to the women's rescue while they were actually being harrassed; probably just a "Do you have a problem with these ladies?" delivered with the proper emphasis would have been enough to make the guy back off. But even if that's not true -- even if a male me would still have just sat there, pretending not to notice what was going on and trying to avoid being cursed at/spat upon/stabbed in turn -- I would at least be willing to acknowledge, once out of danger, that what had just happened was horrifying and unacceptable and unfair, if only to redeem the honor of men in general. Maybe this guy was ashamed of himself for not doing anything, or maybe he was afraid to "get involved," but the whole thing was making me fume. I was about to say so, but then the woman turned back to her mother, who was shushing her, to argue. This might be a good time to mention that these women were Asian; I don't know if that has anything to do with the mother's reaction, but for whatever reason, she felt strongly that her daughter should not be making a fuss. You know, let's all just put this unpleasantness behind us. This made me even more angry, but I didn't want to get between them. They argued about that until the train reached my stop, and I got off the train wondering what, if anything, I could have done differently, and whether I can take anything but resentment away from the experience.

I am absolutely certain that, if those 2 women had been accompanied by a man, the crazy panhandler guy would not have harrassed them. He wasn't that crazy; he was a predator who knew an opportunity when he saw one. And who guessed, correctly and probably based on past experience, that none of the other passengers would interfere. The other thing I know for sure is that if I had gotten off at 72nd Street, like my brain was telling me to, I would have avoided witnessing the whole ugly scene. So does that mean, from now on, knowing what I do, I should never ride the subway without a man to protect me? Or, if I must, I should be sure to give myself an extra 15 minutes to get where I'm going, so I can afford to switch trains whenever things are looking a bit dodgy? I hope you can appreciate why I'm not really satisfied with those conclusions.

From time to time I hear people complain about the draconian authority of the transit police: they fined me for putting my feet on a seat; they gave me a ticket for having my bike on a train even though it was totally empty; etc. But I have witnessed situations like the one I just described many times, and never once has a police officer been around to intervene. So I want to know what lines they're actually policing, because it isn't the ones I ride. However, whether or not they're around to enforce the rules, I do know that there is a rule against subway panhandling. And that's because panhandlers make the subway not just uncomfortable, but unsafe. So I don't give money to anybody on the subway, regardless of their talent or sob story. That seems responsible, but it doesn't really do anything about the problem of men victimizing women, for kicks, because they know they can get away with it. It doesn't alleviate any of the fear and frustration those 2 women are now carrying around. So what's the answer? A return to "women only" subway cars (which they have in other countries, I am told)? Do you New Yorkers have a coping mechanism for these situations? Have you been victimized, and/or have you fought back? I would really love to hear about it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What is golden, and implies consent?

I took a popular lecture course in college called "Nature and Human Nature in the Middle Ages." The class was popular for two reasons: one, it was team-taught by two very charismatic professors, and two, the readings were fun. This might come as a surprise to anyone who has made the necessary pilgrimage through at least a few of The Canterbury Tales, since - alack and weladay - for all his ribaldry, Chaucer can be a bit of a slog. And if you try to level the path by updating the English, as was done in my high school's dumbed-down edition of the Tales, you remove the only real reason to bother with Chaucer in the first place. However, many of the Medieval poems and stories we read in this particular course had been translated with brio into modern English, and they turned out to be extremely absorbing, often rather scatalogical tales of chivalry and courtship and mythical beasts. I enjoyed doing the reading assignments so much I felt like I was cheating, a little bit, by counting it as a class; when the class was over, I saved all my books so that I could return to them when I graduated and had time for leisure reading. I never did follow through on that, I now realize, but perhaps someday they'll make good bedtime stories for my kids?

One of the key concepts that those two charismatic professors tried to communicate about "Human Nature in the Middle Ages" was that the people of the Middle Ages weren't so very different from us. We enlightened 20th-century folks might think we invented the concept of gender studies, for example, but the anonymous author of Silence, a twelfth-century French narrative poem about a girl raised as a boy and her confusing (and confused) adventures, was way ahead of us. I bring all this up because Silence was adapted for the stage by Moira Buffini, and it won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (for the best play written in English by a woman... but you knew that already, didn't you?) in 1999. I confess that I would not have known this if it were not for The Roundtable Ensemble's current production of Silence, but this is a chance to make up for not knowing anything about this apparently important woman playwright, and I figured, if the play is half as entertaining as the poem, it would be worth seeing.

There is something refreshingly old-fashioned in the way Silence tells its story, start to finish, with no metatheatrical digressions or ironic asides to the audience. There are moments, here and there, where Buffini leans a little too hard on the Womyn's Issues in play, but for the most part she lets the story speak for itself, and in her hands it speaks very beautifully. In this production, though, it speaks a little too seriously: the performances are all excellent, and gratifyingly sincere (especially a very strong Greg Hildreth as Roger, the priest), but a lighter touch from director Suzanne Agins would have helped to keep things lively, especially during the draggy second act. Kelly Hutchinson, beautiful and regal and appealingly contemporary as Ymma (pronounced "Emma" - and may I take this opportunity to say that, unless your first language is Medieval French, it is not okay to name your child Ymma-pronounced-"Emma," so don't get any ideas) reminded me of Robin Wright (Penn) as Princess Buttercup in The Princess Bride, but not quite enough. The Artistic Director's note in the program describes the show as "hilarious," but I remember the poem as being a lot more fun than this.

The production and design elements also fail to set any particular mood or frame the story in any coherent way: the costumes are very good, the set and lighting design are fine, and the music is bad, but at no point do they seem to be working together, and so they give little support to the actors - who, it bears repeating, are excellent. There is a thrill in reading something written many hundreds of years ago and finding it still alive and relevant; there is a similar thrill in witnessing so many good and intelligent young actors bringing a story to life before you on one small stage. That alone is reason enough to see Silence.

For a change, my view was in no way restricted - the theatre (above the police station on West 54th St.) is small and the audience was smaller. But what a strange audience it was. Aside from a group of people who were clearly friends of one of the actors, and who giggled every time he appeared, my fellow audience members seemed so disconnected from what was happening onstage that I began to wonder whether I'd stumbled into a special performance for the catatonic. I was the only one in the room who applauded when the lights went down at the end of the first act; when the lights came up in the house, the people around me were confused about whether or not the play was over. A couple behind me finally settled on No, it's just intermission, but the man decided he was "bored" (he announced this loudly, twice), so they left anyway. The people next to them stayed in their seats until the second act started; 60 seconds into the first scene, they all got up, noisily, and left. And then, 2 minutes after that, they all came back, just as noisily. ...I don't know. Then two women from that same group had this conversation, re: one of the actors onstage:

"What's he got on his feet?"

The audience didn't seem hostile, just completely uninvolved; it was as though the stage manager went to a nearby McDonald's and talked all the people killing time there into sitting around in the theatre instead. So, if you happen to be one of the 6 excellent actors (Hildreth, Hutchinson, Helen Coxe, Chris Kipiniak, Makela Spielman and Joe Plummer) who performed for that weirdly unresponsive audience last night, I apologize. It wasn't you, it was us. (And by "us" I mean "everybody but me." Naturally.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Wah-wah wee-wah!

I'm not surprised to learn that Dreamgirls wasn't nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, since, hype notwithstanding, it wasn't a very good movie. Jennifer Hudson did give a pretty good performance, although she's not an especially good actress, so I don't begrudge her the Oscar nomination (or the Golden Globe she already won), but her career options are probably pretty limited whether she wins or not. Every few years we start hearing about how the Hollywood musical is back! But I'm not holding my breath. I guess there are still a few musical biopics to be made, though, and so I'll look for Jennifer to star in Billie in 2009. (After that, how about a movie about the Supremes? I hear they have a pretty good backstory!)

I'm also not surprised that Sacha Baron Cohen didn't get an Oscar nod, but I was thrilled to see him win the Golden Globe. I was sick of hearing about Borat long before I finally saw it, but in all the analyses I read of Baron Cohen's art - racist or progressive? crude or cerebral? significant or silly? - I never saw anyone paying much attention to the quality of his performance. It is an absolute joy to watch Baron Cohen embody the character of Borat, and that's true regardless of what he's saying, or whether a given scene is scripted. He had me laughing every time he crossed the screen with his awkward pants-too-tight gait. And the best part of his in-character appearance on Letterman was his entrance: just watch him sit down.

Having seen Baron Cohen in character as Ali G or Bruno, whose physical presences are completely different and just as fully realized, makes his performance as Borat all the more remarkable. So I thank the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for not being too snobby to recognize the year's most committed performance. I'm not sure the award will do Cohen much more good than it will do Hudson - obviously "Borat" can't take people by surprise anymore, and I don't think I'd want to see the character in an entirely scripted format. But any other character he creates would be worth seeing. And I wouldn't mind seeing more of Cohen out of costume. I feel a little weird thinking it while watching that acceptance speech, but it must be said: the man is handsome.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Doing the math

Full disclosure: Kathryn Walat is a friend of mine. So when I went to see the Women's Project production (and world premiere!) of her play Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen, I wasn't at my most hypercritical. That said, now that I have seen it, I feel a little bit like I'm bragging when I mention (did I mention?) that Kate and I are friends. Becauseand I didn't know this for sure until I saw this showshe's quite a good playwright. And in VM:MTQ she has managed to write a comedy about high school students that is fully aware of the absurdities inherent in that world, but also somehow respectful of the high school experience. I always feel like, when adults write about teenagers, the teens end up trivialized and caricatured, or else overdramatized and oversexed (and sometimes both at once). But I think Kate gets it just right here; the comedy is broad, but the details felt true to my high school experience. Of course, neither Kate nor myself is so terribly far away from our high school days, but this play reminded me of things I'd forgotten, like elaborately folded notes, and the choreography of seeing this person in that stairwell between this class and that one, and the social implications of having a driver's license, and the major significance of grade level (how much better to be a sophomore than a freshman, and yet, how far below the seniors you remain!). And while I can look at all that now and realize it's silly, I know it wasn't silly to me at the time, and I didn't think the characters in this play were silly because all that mattered to them. They're just in high school, and that's what being in high school is like.

The show is not only funny and honest, but also family-friendly, another impressive feat, since it doesn't feel like anyone compromised themselves to make that possible. The production is good from every anglegreat set, great costumes, great soundand the cast is likeable and convincing (they really look like teenagers!). Adam Farabee is especially good as the sweet and geeky freshman Jimmy. And Jessi Campbell seems completely at ease, physically, in the title role, so it blew my mind a bit when I realized she was also the title character in last year's Inky (by Rinne Groff, also at Women's Project). That show called for an entirely different kind of physical presence, all awkward ungainliness where this character is the embodiment of perky confidence, and Campbell was equally convincing as both.

VM:MTQ made me glad I'm not still in high school, but at the same time a little nostalgic for my high school days. (For me it was speech and debate, not math team, but the cultures aren't so far apart.) Fortunately, unlike high school, this play only lasts 2 hours, and it's well worth your time!

P.S. You can hear Kate saying insightful and intelligent things about the play on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Today's subway sighting

The great Dana Ivey! I feel like I've seen her onstage many many times, although now that I think about it, the list isn't that long: The Rivals, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and recordings of Sunday in the Park with George. (Her second-act appearance makes the double-casting gimmick totally worthwhile.) For a while I was convinced I had seen her in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, but it turned out I just imagined it (I saw both of her replacements). On the other hand, I have seen more of her film and TV appearances than I realized, and if the same is true for you then I expect you'll agree that she was by far the best thing about Addams Family Values.

Anyway, there we were, both standing at opposite ends of the car, and I had to wonder: how do you not give Dana Ivey your seat? Even if you didn't recognize herand I realize that she falls into the category of "famous to me"doesn't she look like someone you'd give up your seat for? Not because she's old, understand, but because she's regal. And she looks a little like she might scold you for your bad manners if you don't show some respect.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Photographic proof

Mom and me with very tall Good Morning America host Robin Roberts, who very nicely stayed for a few minutes after the taping to pose for pictures with her many fans. Although I have been indoors for 2 hours at this point, I am still wearing my scarf, because I am still cold from standing outside the studio for 40 minutes. I did remove my hat, but after reviewing this picture I can see that I probably shouldn't have.

Maybe you should estimate me.

No update yesterdaymy apologies to all who stopped by! It was a busy day, but it ended, as all good Thursdays do, with a new episode of The Office. A Scranton native, I watched the premiere of the U.S. Office out of a sense of hometown obligation, but with low expectations... and since then I've been a religiously observant fan. I could talk for hours about just what it is that makes the show so enjoyable, but right now I will focus on one thing: the cast. Anyone who loves theatre is familiar with the thrill you get from witnessing a truly great performance onstage; I get a similar thrill every week from watching Steve Carrell as Michael Scott. The last two episodes have found Michael in the unusual position of the Annoyed, rather than the Annoyer, which is a brilliant move on the writers' part. On the surface, he has had less to do, but because the character has been so fully realized by Carrell up to this point, it is fascinating just to see him reacting in a new, but still totally in-character, way to his new situation. To see Michael saying "Stop! Just stop! You're going to drive me crazy!" to someone else is indescribably delicious. (Having him ask the camera, "How can a person have so little self-awareness?" was a bit too on-the-nose, I thought, but fortunately it was paired with a very funny visual gag.) Ed Helms is also giving a virtuoso performancebut am I alone in hoping that his character's arc is nearing its end? I can only take so much of Andy and his irredeemable douche-iness; I can't imagine that character ever moving me, the way Dwight and Angela did when their eyes filled with tears (in separate contexts!). Anyone can play a sitcom weirdo, but to bring such multidimensionality to a character like Angela is true artistry. Meanwhile, John Krasinski is so consistently wonderful that I don't even notice it anymore, but what other sitcomwhat drama, for that mattercan offer a moment as affecting and real as that moment when (spoiler alert!) a sheepish Jim responded to Karen's "Do you still have feelings for her?" with a barely imperceptible nod? And Jenna Fischer, who I sometimes think is really the star of the show, keeps finding new ways to make Pam come alive, in her quiet, endearing, totally honest way. (And that's not just my shirt talking.)

When the episode was over, the boyfriend and I experienced the usual bereft feeling, that sinking sensation of "Man, next Thursday is so far away!", which we tried to alleviate by watching a recorded-and-saved episode of Arrested Development. I said when I started this blog that I might sometimes get something wrong and/or revise an opinion, but I will accept no challenges to this statement: No television program has ever had a better ensemble cast than that assembled for Arrested Development. If I started giving individual examples of excellence on that show, I would be here all day. Instead, I invite your comments: Do you have a favorite Office cast member? Do you agree about Arrested? Do you dare disagree with me about either? The lines are open! (And if you're here for the theatre talk, I promise I'll have more theatre to write about soon!)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Mommy, is that the real Captain Feathersword?

It is cold in New York this morning. I mean cold. The kind of cold where you take a taxi even if you're just going 3 blocks. And I would know, because my mom and I were up bright and early make that dark and earlyto attend a taping of Good Morning America. We arrived, as instructed, at 6:15, but they neglected to tell us that we'd be standing in line outside the studio until 6:54, when they finally let us in. We passed the time watching the Wiggles rehearse through the windows and wondering if our toes would fall off. (I was also wondering why there seemed to be 5 Wiggles. And why seeing them out of costume was so very unsettling.) At last the doors were opened, and for the next 2 hours we stood in the audience area, off to the side, and watched the show. Only some of the segments, like the weather, are actually taped in front of an audience (whose presence is far from essential), but it was interesting to watch the rest on the monitors, and compare what Robin Roberts and Diane Sawyer were actually saying to what was scrolling past them on the teleprompter. And my goodness, that weather guy has fabulous dimples, does he not?

Denise Brown appeared on the program, expressing her outrage about whatever the latest development is in the O.J. Simpson If I Did It situation (even she didn't seem sure what it was, exactly, she was upset about). She was not interviewed in front of us, but she did come by later to enjoy the Wiggles. And I swear Diane Sawyer said, in an earlier teaser, that "Nicole Brown Simpson" would be appearing on the show. Now that would be an interesting twist.

While that was happening elsewhere, the room was filling up with kids, many of them wearing or toting Wiggles paraphernalia. One little boy in a pirate hat said forlornly, "Captain Feathersword is not here?" And I said to myself, good heavens, that mysterious fifth Wiggle was Captain Feathersword! I'd never have known him without his eye patch!

Then little Bindi Irwin entered the studio with her khaki-clad mom, Terri, to promote their "G'Day USA" tour. I am uncomfortable with the idea of this little girl's celebrity, but I have to say she seemed a pleasant and very self-possessed little tyke, with no creepy Professional Kid vibe. (Watch the video to see an example of the kind of Professional Kid who makes me squirm, about 4 minutes in; you will know her by her too-trendy velvet hat. You will also hear some impatient tots in the background, shrieking to amuse themselves in the absence of the Wiggles.) Perhaps it is just the mother-and-daughter bad haircuts that makes me think she might grow up normal after all. And here I was going to say something disapproving about her nameBindi Sue?—but then I learned, via Wikipedia, that she is named for her father's "favorite crocodile" (Bindi) and "trusty dog" (Sue). So obviously I'm not going to question that.

Finally it was time for the Wiggles to perform! They came back, in costume this time, and did a few quiet numbers off-camera to warm up/occupy the assembled children. So yes, I can confirm that at least one of them can actually play the guitar, and they also seem to genuinely like kids, god bless 'em. The younger kids were starstruck into total silence, but there were some 4- and 5-year-olds who were very, very into the whole thing. One little boy (he's front-and-center in the red-and-white striped shirt, if you watch the video) never took his eyes off the stage, even when the Wiggles were talking to the producers; he was patiently awaiting orders ("Everybody clap," "Hands in the air," etc.), and he followed them to the letter. If any of the (surprisingly not-young) remaining original Wiggles decide to pack it in, this kid could probably take over. I surprised myself by knowing all of the songs they played, including "Can You Point Your Fingers and Do the Twist?" (can I!), which is right up there with "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" on my list of favorite song titles. and during their warmup they did my favorite Wiggles song, "Hot Potato," so I went home happy.

And when it was all over, Mom and I posed for a picture with Robin Roberts! We didn't have a camera, but a nice couple offered us theirs and promised to email us the picture, so if they follow through I will post it here as proof. And on the way home, in the "exciting only to me" category, we saw Tom Everett Scott (star of The Little Dog Laughed) on the subway!

So it was a fun day, but the next time I see a live taping, it will be in warmer weather, and I'll pick a show that has seats for the audience. And, most importantly, a show that doesn't go on the air till at least 9. I think it's time for me to take a nap now. Sing it with me, Wiggles fans: Mollsy now will sleep (shh shh shh!).

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

My exciting life

Did you watch the Golden Globes? I was at work, copy-editing into the wee hours, and so I heard a lot about the Globes, but didn't get to watch myself. Actually, that's not true; I saw a lot of the broadcast, which was playing all evening on many TV sets around the office, but I couldn't hear anything. So I am left with many questions: Was Sacha Baron Cohen funny? Was Helen Mirren gracious? Did Eddie Murphy encourage viewers to rush out and see his other current film?* Can it be possible that Ugly Betty is anywhere near as good a show as The Office? I wait for YouTube to answer these questions for me. (Except for the one about Ugly Betty, because I have to assume the answer is No.)

Updates will be light today and tomorrow, because today I am working on an actual, paying assignment (about which all you musical theatre geeks should be exciteddetails to follow). And then I'll be hitting the sack as early as possible, because tomorrow morning my mom and I are attending a taping of Good Morning America (it's her Christmas present). I haven't seen GMA in years, probably since the era of Joan Lunden and Charlie Gibson, so I'm not really sure what to expect, but I do know that we are expected to report to the studio very, very early tomorrow morning. I may decide not to go to sleep at all. In fact, we have been encouraged to bring "clever signs," so I may stay up all night crafting something that is sure to get me on camera. What should it say? Should it be some sort of phrase that spells out the network's call letters, like the ones I see people holding at sporting events? I am open to suggestions. (Extra points if your suggestion spells "ABC" or "GMA.")

I learned only this week that Mom and I will be lucky enough to see a live performance by... The Wiggles! Gosh, it's a good thing we didn't have tickets for today, when we would have been forced to sit through a performance by Diana Ross instead. Way to randomly pick a date, Mollie.

*A few days ago I passed a bus-stop poster for this movie, and for some reason my eyes misread the star's name as "Donna Murphy." So I amused myself for several blocks imagining a comedy that would star Donna Murphy opposite Eddie Murphy. It would have something for everyone!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Beatrix Potter and the dignified biopic

I didn't expect to like Miss Potter as much as I ultimately did. Going in, I knew next to nothing about Beatrix Potter's life, and nothing in her books, or in the previews I saw for this movie, suggested that her life story would be particularly worth telling. But credit goes to Richard Maltby Jr. for recognizing that there is an interesting, if gentle, story here, and credit goes to everyone else involved for ensuring that it is so well toldalthough I could have done without all the twee animation and precocious storytelling and too-literal talking-to-the-animals. Peter Rabbit and co. literally scamper through this movie, threatening to weigh it down with too much whimsy every time it starts to come into its own dramatically. The setting may be Edwardian London, but this isn't Mary Poppins, and I'd have preferred to see Potter depicted as richly creative, rather than mildly schizophrenic. Fewer hallucinations, and a little less eye-twinkling and nose-wrinkling, might have helped to support the notion that she was a competent professional, unfairly dismissed by her family; as depicted here, she seems like exactly the sort of relative you'd want to keep out of the public eye, for her own good. Also, I was annoyed by the suggestion (in flashbacks) that Potter's artistic abilities were fully formed by the time she was ten years old; surely her childhood sketches of Jemima Puddle-Duck and co. could look a bit rougher than the professionally printed versions?

But these complaints were about what I expected from Miss Potterthe surprise for me was how much I enjoyed the movie anyway. It is so refreshingly sweet and simplea true "family" film, not a wisecrack in sight; you could take your seven-year-old and your great-grandmother to it without ever blushing, which is more than I can say for Shrek 3 (I'm guessing), and the best part is, all of you would thoroughly enjoy it. And whenever the silliness with the animated animals started to push me away, I was drawn back in by the bracing realism of the actors' appearances. Most period films take care that their actors be perfectly made up, like china dolls; in this case, Renée Zellweger looked like she did her hair herself, and wore no makeup at all. In other words, she looked like an actual person, a great asset considering she was playing an actual person. In the first twenty minutes or so, her Beatrix is a very likeable, if not very remarkable, and slightly daffy woman; Zellweger supplies her with depth beyond what the script implies. The real-life Potter was, apparently, shy, and her suitor, played very endearingly by Ewan McGregor, is likewise shy, and so they go for many shy walks and smile shyly at each other, and just when you begin to worry that maybe Beatrix Potter's life wasn't interesting enough to qualify for the major-motion-picture treatment after all, the camera finds Emily Watson, even more unkempt and flushed than Zellweger, whose wonderful performance provides exactly the burst of life the movie needs. Her character is also an eccentric, but Watson makes her the most believable in the entire film, and the two women's scenes together are intelligent enough to make you forget that, elsewhere in the movie, an animated duck wearing a sunbonnet shook its behind at you.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

That's the one with email, right?

Last night the boyfriend and I were in the mood for some Law & Order, as we so often are, so we set about choosing an episode from his DVR's extensive queue. Ideally, we will find at least one that neither of us has seen (recently), but it's not always easy to make that call based on the one-sentence summaries. I don't know who writes these things, but they often try to cheat and base their plot summary on just the pre-credits teaser. So sometimes they're wildly off the mark, and sometimes they're just unhelpfully general: "A jogger finds a body in Central Park." Gee, thanks. (Weirdly, other times they give away plot twists that happen 30 minutes in, thus ruining the episode. Go figure.)

Last night we settled on an episode whose summary was something like, "Curtis searches the internet for witnesses to a collegian's murder." (Believe it or not, the "collegian" in question went to NYU, not Hudson! Perhaps Hudson U. had not yet entered the L&O universe?) That didn't tell us much, but we decided to go with it for one important reason: Curtis and Serena Southerlyn did not overlap. Nothing ruins an episode faster than the unanticipated appearance of Elisabeth Rohm! As it turned out, I had seen this episode before, but I didn't remember what happened, so we stuck with it. And I'm so glad, because I haven't laughed so hard since the infamous "Is this because I'm a lesbian?" incident of 2005.

You see, this episode, "Rebels," was Benjamin Bratt's second, which means it originally aired in 1995, right around the time ordinary folks first started hearing about this mysterious "internet." Lennie Briscoe was suspicious of "computers" and "electronic mail" and all that kid stuff, and apparently the writers didn't know much more than Lennie about the whole thing. The "collegiate" victim, Tommy, was murdered in a biker bar, where he had arranged to meet someone with a motorcycle to sell. L33t hax0r Rey figured this out by going to the victim's dorm room and looking at his email. As Lennie scoffed, Rey read aloud from the screen: "Five P.M. yesterday. Meet me tonight at 10 at Stroker's, where someone, possibly me, will murder you. Axel." (Obviously I'm paraphrasing the content of the message.) All that would have been okay, but then the camera cut to a shot of the computer screen, displaying what looked like a Microsoft Word documenta few words, in a large font, against a white background. It read:

>To: Tommy Bell (46458632.servername.com)
>Five P.M.


We paused the TV, and oh, how we laughed. "Look at the email address! It doesn't even have an @!" we giggled. "And at the top it just says 'E-mail,'" we howled. Every time I calmed down, I would look at where it said "Five P.M. Yesterday" and start laughing all over again.

Not understanding how the internet actually works didn't stop the writers from building the whole investigation around it! The desks in the police station didn't have their own PC's back in 1995, but Rey had a laptopand it was apparently a magical laptop, because he was able to check his email from the squad car. And when he used his magical laptop to email the suspectoh, yes, they showed the screen againhe just typed his message onto a blank white screen, and then the reply showed up on the same blank white screen, with no headers or anything.

I swear. And the funny thing was, up to the point where they showed the "email" on the kid's computer, the episode didn't feel that dated. Oh, sure, S. Epatha's hairdo wasn't the most up-to-date look she's ever sported, but otherwise everything held up okay. So how funny, and how mind-blowing, to realize that 12 years ago, no one involved with the making of this show had any idea how email worked, or what it looked like. Or felt that it mattered enough to find out.

Tell me why

I had this dream... it was the late '70s, and I was watching a show that was like Jesus Christ Superstar crossed with The Lawrence Welk Show, but with Beatles songs and political commentary. It was so horrible! And then I realized it wasn't a dream. Beatles fans, Ted Neeley fans, and anyone who's ever suspected that Rolling Stone is not as cool as it pretends to be must head over to The Dizzies and check this out. And hang in there, because it keeps getting better.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Cleanliness is next to emptiness

I am a great believer in drama-as-literature, but I am nevertheless suspicious of playwrights who are unusually fussy about how their work looks in print. I would say Sarah Ruhl is one such playwright. Her stage directions, for example, tend to break down the page, in semi-verse, so that in publication,

A scene from one of her plays
looks like a page
from an undergraduate literary magazine.

In my opinion,
this is annoying.

I guess there's nothing wrong with poetic stage directions, or whimsical scene titles, or highly individualized spelling and punctuation—a playwright is entitled to embellish his/her work with rickrack as much as any other writer. But after a certain point, I start to think all this attention to how the play looks on the page might mean the author is paying too little attention to how it works on the stage. Which is, after all, the point.

As I say, this may not be a fair assumption, and Ruhl has a good reputation as a playwright (to put it mildly). On the page, The Clean House struck me as lightweight and a little too pleased with itself, but even the most carefully edited manuscript can't recreate a performance, and I've had plenty of experiences where something that seemed pedestrian in print translated to a powerful experience in the theatre. So I thought maybe all these idiosyncrasies were actually beneficial to the actor and director, in some way I couldn't anticipate; at any rate, I figured, the textual tics wouldn't get between me and the play if I saw it in production. So I was excited about the Lincoln Center production of The Clean House; this was a chance to evaluate the play in its proper context, on the stage, where the stage directions were someone else's problem entirely.

Sort of like Snakes on a Plane, except with a "scandal" and "notes"

I have only one complaint about Notes on a Scandal, and that is: Philip Glass needs to back the hell off. At least seven different times while watching this movie, I found myself thinking, "Okay, Philip Glass, we freaking hear you already." Despite what he and Fox Searchlight would have you believe, this is not a scenery-chewing thriller; it's something subtler and more satisfying than that. Not that Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett hold back, mind youthey give two terrific performances in a tight, smart movie that made me anxious to read the book. I won't waste your time with more notes on Notes on a Scandal. Just go see it.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

You are all mad

Ladies and gentlemen, as you entered the theatre this afternoon, you may have noticed the sign in the lobby asking you to please turn off all cell phones and electronic devices. Perhaps you also noticed the insert in your program, again reminding you to turn off your cell phone. And surely you heard the announcement that was made just before the play began, which once more reminded you to turn off your cell phone. Apparently all this has confused you, so I would like to clarify: when you go to the theatre, you are expected to turn off your cell phone. It's not a suggestion, it's a requirement. And you are not exempted just because you don't know how to operate your phone; ask someone under 70 to show you how to turn off the ringer.

While we're on the subject, I want to clear up one other tiny area of confusion: the actors on the stage? The people you've paid a lot of money to see? They are actually here, in person. Real live people, doing their jobs in this very room, a mere 10 yards away from where you sit. They are not on a screen, like Kramer and Jerry. They are not animatronic robots, like in Disney's Hall of Presidents. They are actual people. With that in mind, enjoy the show.

...Sigh. Yesterday I attended a matinee of The Clean House, at Lincoln Center's Newhouse Theater, which I'll review in a forthcoming post. If you take a moment to picture the kind of people likely to turn up to a Wednesday matinee at Lincoln Center, I think you'll agree that a certain amount of uncouth audience behavior must be expected. I was prepared to hear people loudly repeating jokes to their seat partners, or loudly asking their partners to repeat a joke they didn't catch. I was prepared for the occasional cell phone or beeping watch to interrupt the silence, in spite of the many warnings regarding same. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened during Act II. It was, of course, a climactic moment; Jill Clayburgh and Blair Brown were onstage, staring each other down, at the height of a dramatic confrontation, when... bleebleeblee! bleebleeblee! A cell phone. Some fumbling, much tsk-ing and turning around and staring and so on. The actors pretended not to notice. And then a voice, loud enough for everyone in the theatre to hear, says: "I can't talk now! I'm at a play."

Ladies and gentlemen, this person answered the phone. Some details, so you can picture the scene: the Newhouse is an intimate house, about 300 seats, with a thrust stage. Because there's no proscenium, the audience is always partially lit, and this person was sitting in the very last row of the center section, so everyone else in the theatre could see her. (I think it was a her.) And at this point everyone (including, I would imagine, the 2 actors onstage, who were already facing in that direction) turned to get a good look at her. How, we wondered, could we have spent all this time in the company of someone so dangerously stupid, and not realized it?

After a moment, the actors continued on as if nothing had happened, which disappointed me. There's a lot to be said for being professional, and facing the rudeness of any audience is an act of great heroism in my book. But when the audience member's behavior goes so far beyond inconsiderate, and when the distraction is so monumental, I think the only appropriate thing to do is to stop the show and acknowledge it. What wouldn't I have given to see Blair Brown drop character, shade her eyes and say, "Are you fucking kidding me?!" Even just an icy "Does anyone else need to make a call?" would have been great. Anything to drive home the fact that theatre is a live event, a shared experience, and that this particular shared experience had been inexcusably damaged by one idiot who didn't even realize that she'd done anything wrong. Maybe getting a reaction from the stage would have shocked this lady into realizing that, Good heavens! I'm not home watching TV! Maybe the shame of being dressed down by Blair Brown would have helped her to remember to leave her damn phone home next time. Or maybe not. But at least it would have released the tension for the rest of us, and allowed us to take a collective breath before refocusing our attention on the play-in-progress. Instead, the resentment just festered, palpably, for the rest of the performance, and at the curtain call I imagined that I could see the cast trying their best not to glare at us all. Who could blame them?

I saw the great Brian Murray in Hobson's Choice a few years back, at the Atlantic, another intimate Off-Broadway house. He, too, was right in the middle of a big onstage argument when a phone rang, and without breaking his stride, he yelled, "Stop it!" right at the actor he was in the middle of berating. Then he slowly turned to glare into the house, and I realized with a thrill that he was talking to us! The phone was silenced, everyone (except, presumably, the offending patron) applauded, and the play continued. And I'm pretty sure it didn't happen again. I'm quite sure that that particular person never forgot to turn off his or her phone again. After the show, I had the opportunity to speak to him briefly, and I told him how well I thought he'd handled the situation. He'd forgotten all about it by that point; it took him a moment to recall what I was talking about. He handled it and moved on, but for me it was a thrilling and memorable only-in-the-theatre experience. Whereas yesterday, hours after I left Lincoln Center, I was still fuming about the moron who got away with answering her phone, for chrissakes, in the middle of a play I wasn't even particularly enjoying. So, stage actors of the world, for what it's worth: I advocate the direct approach.

Anyone else have an opinion, or an even more shocking tale of audience idiocy? It might make me feel better.

P.S. A big hello and welcome to my visitors from A Tiny Revolution and the Dizzies! And anywhere else you may have come from. I hope you're glad you stopped by.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

And I am telling you I'm not sure what all the hype is about

Believe it or not, there are gaps in my musical-theatre knowledge base, and Dreamgirls is one of them. Before I saw the movie last night, I knew only the basic story, and one of the songsno prizes for guessing which one. I was actually fortunate enough to see Jennifer Holliday perform that song, or a cutting from that song, live at the 1998 Tony Awards (I was in the audience), as part of a "salute to divas" opening number that also included Patti LuPone and Betty Buckley. Until that moment I had never even heard of Jennifer Holliday, but with just 30 seconds of "And I Am Telling You..." she blew everybody else off the stage.

Now I have seen the much-hyped film version of the show, and if, like me, you are mostly unfamiliar with the source material, let me assure you that there is a reason you only know one song from Dreamgirls. And I'm not sure the movie is worth seeing just on the strength of that one really good song.

Oh, the story is a great one, no doubt about that. But it's not very well told, is it? I mean, the story-songs are embarrassing. I cringed my way through "Family," and as the lyrics got worse and worse, I wondered, why didn't they just cut this song? Until they reprised ittwice! And the "numbers," while less embarrassing, aren't much better. They all sound more or less alike, so that even the ones that supposedly take place in the early 60s feel and sound like they were written in the late 70s. And the fact that they're all basically interchangeable makes it hard for me to believe that Curtis would bother to "steal" C.C.'s songsnot once, but twicewhen he could probably write one just as disposable himself.

But it isn't just the source material that's a problem here. The screenplay seems determined not to take advantage of the fact that, in a movie, you have opportunities for character development that you don't have on a stage. The characters here have almost no chance to establish themselves; the only way you know they are supposed to be in relationships with each other is that they sometimes come right out and tell you. "Curtis is supposed to love me!" Is he? Because I had no clue. It's hard to feel the sting of Effie's betrayal when you have no evidence (besides the oft-repeated insistence that "We are a family") that she or anyone else is particularly invested in the whole mess to begin with.

The performances: well, dork that I am, I went into this looking forward to seeing Anika Noni Rose. Never saw Jennifer Hudson on American Idol (I've never seen Idol at all), and I don't know that I've seen Beyoncé in anything other than a still photograph. Anika was great, but if you saw Caroline, or Change you already knew that. Beyoncé impressed me; she's no Meryl Streep, but she seems comfortable enough in front of the camera, and she did a great job being beautiful, which is Deena's main responsibility. Jennifer Hudson can certainly sing, but those who have been hailing her arrival as a capital-s Star are being a little too kind. Her acting is endearingly amateurishshe's not hard to watch, but she's got some work to do. And even careful editing of the Dreams' numbers can't hide the fact that, compared to Rose and Beyoncé, Hudson is no professional. Again, she's not bad, but her dance moves aren't as sharp, her posture isn't as neat, her dreamy-eyed expression isn't as confident. If you walked into this movie having never seen any of the women before, and knowing only that one of them was plucked from the American Idol amateur talent pool, you would have no trouble guessing which one. Because of thisand because, as I mentioned above, the story is so ill-toldEffie's being fired from the group doesn't seem totally unjust. Meanwhile, Jamie Foxx is fine until he has to sing; then he becomes self-conscious and palpably uncomfortable. (You'll notice that they cut away from him for almost all of his big second-act song, "When I First Saw You," instead taking the opportunity to offer yet more evidence that Beyoncé is attractive.) Eddie Murphy is quite good, good enough to make the script seem even more corny than it would without him. And there are some fun cameos: Jaleel White, trying (and not really succeeding) to hide his Urkel-ness under a coat of smarm; John Lithgow and John Krasinski, whose double-cameo made me gasp, twice, so shocking was the sudden intrusion of whiteness (and Lithgow's wig!).

"And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is my all-time favorite song title. It's so ludicrously unwieldy, and it's attached to a song that is so surprisingly powerful. But here it left me cold, I have to admit. It's not that Hudson is over-the-topshe's many notches below Holliday on the histrionics scalebut the sequence makes plain the difference between hearing the song performed live, when the straining and the modulating and the naked desperation are all part of a thrilling, in-the-moment experience, and seeing it performed in a movie, when the stomach-clutching and foot-stomping are just part of a lip-synching routine, which comes as the climax of a not-very-convincing musical argument. You know there's no real reason for the performer to look like she's giving the song her all, and so it's faintly embarrassing to watch. (So is this, for the first three minutes or so, but at least it pays off.)

The "numbers" come closer to capturing the excitement of live theatre, and some of the dance routines are colorful enough to hide the lameness of the songs. But plot point after plot point appears and passes by without any dramatic impact, and after a while it's all very frustrating: I want to care! Why don't I care?! Then, just when it starts to seem like Dreamgirls will never leave you, you finally arrive at the best part of the movie: the closing credits. I'm not just being snarky here; the credits are actually very well designed, much more intelligent and exciting than anything in the film itself. (Except for the costumes; that's one Oscar this movie should have locked up.) I am happy to see that people are enjoying this movie, because it seems like it's good for the theatre in some vague way, but as far as I can see, it's far from a masterpiece of stage or screen. Sorry to kill the dream.

Have you seen it? What did you think?

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Restoration hard-to-watch

Quick, what’s your favorite Restoration comedy? I’ll wait while you decide.

If you haven’t yet acquainted yourself with the genreand in my experience, not very many people haveit's not too late to start! Restoration-era English drama has a bit of a bad reputation, where it has any reputation at all; it isn’t Shakespeare and it isn’t Shaw, so why bother with it? This is really a shame, especially for people interested in the theatre. As comedy, it’s very funny, often funnier than Shakespeare. In place of those baffling “wise fools,” with their incomprehensible jokes and long-forgotten popular songs, Restoration comedies give us proto-Wildean wits in fantastic wigs. And Restoration drama offers a fascinating and usually very accessible portrait of a time that is, historically and socially, very interesting indeed. Plus, if you’re at all curious about how the English-language theatre got from Shakespeare to Shaw, you can read through an anthology of Restoration plays and watch conventions changingprologues and epilogues start out earnest, turn ironic, and slowly fall away; prose overtakes poetry, as content trumps form; female actors (and even writers) offer new perspectives and possibilities.

I mention all this because there is a new production of one of the 17th century’s funniest plays, William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, on in New York right now, and I only wish I could recommend it to you. Unfortunately, three minutes into the performance I saw last night, I found myself thinking, “I’d rather be rereading this at home,” and the best thing I can say about the production is that it made me want to dig out my Restoration Drama textbook from college. (Hi, Professor Hoxby!)

I can’t blame the HoNkbarK folks (isn’t it indulgent of me to include those random caps?) for wanting to produce this play, and their hearts seem to be in the right place. The set design is witty, the costumes look great, and the live music is a nice touch (my compliments to whoever decided to arrange “Satisfaction” for harpsichord). But directors, take note: Restoration comedies come with plenty of artifice already built inthe character names in this one include “Pinchwife,” “Fidget” and “Squeamish”and 350 years have put a dangerous amount of distance between play and audience. So piling on the stylistic flourishes seems to me to be exactly the wrong approach in producing a play like this onethe satire ends up buried beneath the ruffles.

In this case, the director seems to have focused more on how fluidly the actors handle their props (fans for the ladies, walking sticks for the men) than on how clearly they tell the story. This is too bad, because a little trust in the script would have gone a long way. The Country Wife is heartless, unsentimental and very provocative. Wycherley builds his entire plot on the presumption that morality is a fantasy, and what passes for innocence is really just ignorance; that fidelity is impossible, and the expectation of virtue is the profoundest kind of foolishness. If you must adhere to puritanical concepts of virtue and honor, the play argues, then it is up to you to deceive yourself into believing that honor exists. Listening to the characters debate these points can be exhilaratingthey are as stunningly amoral as any of Neil LaBute’s or Martin McDonagh’s inventions. The first line of the play (not counting the prologue, which is left out here), spoken by the rake Horner (yes, as in, “…I just met her!”), hits the audience like a bucket of cold water: “A Quack is as fit for a Pimp, as a Midwife for a Bawd; they are still but in their way, both helpers of nature.” Never mind the point he’s making; hearing the word “pimp” from a guy in tights is enough to make you sit up straight. The play is also packed with metatheatrical commentary; When Wycherley isn’t making fun of people who ruin his plays by talking through them, he’s making fun of theatre itself for being no competition for the excitement of real-life London. But here, the jokes miss their target in almost every case, and the constant references to theatre and theatregoers only point up the lameness of this particular interpretation of the play.

The performances are also distractingly uneven; some are quite good, and some are so bad they’re embarrassing. Everyone is doing his or her own idea of an appropriate accent, which gives the impression that the actors never rehearsed together before beginning the run. They also seem to be responsible for applying their own makeup, so that some actors are wearing almost none (nor should they be, in a theatre where the back row isn’t 20 feet from the stage), while others are made up as if they were about to go onstage in a 60,000-seat amphitheater. The effect is very Red, White and Blaine.

I was hoping I'd have better news for you today. But, as I said, I left determined to reacquaint myself with the Restoration stage, even if only on the page, and I encourage you to do the same (the full text of the play is here; a great deal more information than anyone could require is here). I promise, it’s more fun than you think!

Monday, January 8, 2007

A game for all you geeks

In light of the success of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, and the possibility that the new Grease: You're the One That I Want will be equally popular, I'm preparing myself for the possibility that this will become a bona fide trend by making up titles for future editions. Here are a few I've come up withcan you do better?

  • The King and I: Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?
  • A Chorus Line: God I Hope I Get It*
  • Death of a Salesman: Attention Must Be Paid
  • Oliver!: Consider Yourself Part of the Furniture
  • Follies: The God-Why-Won't-You-Cast-Me Blues
  • Lear: Every Inch a King!
  • The Last Five Years: If I Don't Get a Callback I Can Go to Crate & Barrel With Mom and Buy a Couch
  • Damn Yankees: Whatever America Wants, America Gets!
  • The Music Man: There's Nothing Halfway About the Reality Show Way to Cast You, if We Cast You (Which We May Not Do at All)

*Too obvious, I know. But I included it anyway because it would result in two revivals of A Chorus Line running on Broadway at the same time, which would be even more superfluous than another revival of Grease.

You better shape up

Did you watch You're the One That I Want last night? The prospect of seeing Kathleen Marshall on TV, raised to Paula Abdul status, was almost enough to make me tune in, but then I remembered that Billy Bush was the host, and the 90 seconds I saw of him on the Oscars preshow a few years back was enough Billy to last me a lifetime. Plus, try as I might, I just can't get excited about another Broadway outing for Grease. Especially since this show seems to be more about the movie than the stage propertythe title song, for example, was added for the movie (although I suppose it probably showed up in the last Broadway revival of Grease), and the publicity stills for the program have the auditioners dressed in the weird costumes Travolta and ON-J wore for that last scene. Which aren't really what I picture when I think of Grease, but whatever. The whole "we'll be recreating the movie onstage!" premise doesn't bother me all that much, since the line between movies and Broadway is already pretty blurry, and the artistic integrity of Grease is not that sacred. But I do wonder if that was also the case with the British prototype, the even-more-awkwardly-titled How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?. Because the film and stage versions of The Sound of Music are vastly different worlds, and it would be awkward to show up to the stage show expecting the movie.

Great, now I have "You're the One..." stuck in my head. I submit that it is the best song in the movie. Who will say nay?

Saturday, January 6, 2007

What's the use of wondrin'?

It has taken me many weeks to get used to the fact that Law & Order (original flavor) is now on Friday nights. I liked it better on Wednesdays; it seemed like I often found myself in the mood for some just-short-of-mindless TV entertainment at 10:00 on a Wednesday night, and I was always glad to see Sam Waterston and S. Epatha (and, to a lesser extent, the other regulars), ready to keep me company just when I needed them the most. But I have less patience for the blandness of the original Law & Order (as compared to my drug of choice, the much spicier, though sadly now irretrievably off-the-rails, SVU) on Fridays. Still, last night the boyfriend and I found ourselves sitting in front of the television just as a new L&O was about to come on, and so we watched. And I realized (not for the first time) that this show has become, for me, like a bad relationship in which I am hopelessly mired. Every time I tune in, hoping to recapture the magic of the old days, I spend the whole hour thinking about how terrible Milena Govich is (seriously, have you ever seen anyone less comfortable in a role?) and how she needs to stop it with the henleys and the funny walk already, and how the plots are getting more and more outlandish and twist-heavy, and the courtroom arguments are becoming less and less interesting…and yet I can’t quite convince myself to walk away and not look back, because I keep remembering the good times we used to have. NBC is going to have to cancel the show to break me out of this self-destructive cycle, because I’ll keep watching as long as they keep stringing me along. Even the once-lively Television Without Pity forums for the franchise are dull and unsatisfying now; it’s hardly worth the effort to snark. So I guess the whole reason I wrote this post is just to say to Dick Wolf and NBC: don’t think, just because I keep watching your show, that I haven’t noticed the downward slide, and in particular the insulting badness of Milena Govich. Believe me, I’d stop watching if I could.

There is at least one aspect of L&O-viewing that remains pleasurable, and that is spotting stage actors in the credits and/or in their one-scene appearances. I feel so wonkish! But tell me, readers, do you have the same dependency issues? And do you hate Detective SugarTits (as I call her)* as much as I do? I’d feel better knowing I’m not alone…

*In the interest of clarity, I feel compelled to add that I did not make this nickname up; Chevy Chase actually called her "sugartits" in a recent "gosh, what headline could this be ripped from?" episode. I presume he was referring to the way she carries herself -- that is, awkwardly, so as to thrust her cute-but-I've-seen-cuter boobs into every shot.

Friday, January 5, 2007

...Me as King Lear

I know they say that by the time you're chronologically old enough to play Lear, you're likely to be too old to summon the energy the role requires. But it still seems a bit perverse to have someone as young as Kevin Kline playing the old king. I like the sound of this Sondheim score, though! Starobin, as you geeks probably already know, is the orchestrator he worked with on Sunday in the Park with George and Assassins. And I don't think we need to go into director James Lapine's credits working with Sondheim. So I'm looking forward, even though I expect the run to sell out the day the tickets go on sale.

Speaking of Off-Broadway successes, The Little Dog Laughed will be ending its Broadway run Feb. 18. Still plenty of time to see it if you're interested!

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Where's the loose connection?

As you know, finding ways to see theatre without going broke is my main hobby. But there’s one show currently on Broadway that I wanted to see so much, I finally broke down and paid for it. For all you Sondheim lovers, here’s my long and cranky review of John Doyle’s Company—one more in the never-ending parade of things that should be great but aren’t. Maybe I should change the title of my blog?