Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What not to do this weekend

I should have told you this before now, but better late than never: Saturn Returns, the new play by Noah Haidle now entering its last week Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center, is terrible. Just terrible. If you're entertaining the thought of going, please do yourself a favor and don't.

I loved Haidle's breakthrough play, Mr. Marmalade, when I read it in American Theatre magazine. I didn't think it was profound, but I did think it was hilarious, and I didn't see why it should have to be more than that. (Not everyone agreed, as we'll see below.) I passed on seeing the Roundabout production because I heard it was lousy and didn't do justice to the script. But I was excited about Haidle's talent and looking forward to this one... And I was extremely disappointed.

Saturn Returns has a relatively promising concept, as laid out in the program notes: "In astrology, Saturn is associated with three crucial turning points in a person's life: first at 27-30 years of age, then around 58-60, and the third and usually final time around 86-88." A good playwright might be able to build something really interesting on that idea. But there's nothing the least bit interesting about what Haidle did with it in this play. It feels like the first draft of a hastily written assignment for an undergraduate playwriting seminar: earnest, pleased with itself, totally underdeveloped and badly in need of revision.

Mr. Marmalade was a black comedy with a bracingly zany sensibility. This is not a comedy, alas; it's apparently supposed to be a romance, but there's nothing authentic about its sentimentality. There are occasional, distracting flareups of Haidle's quirkiness -- like one character's fondness for launching into setups for jokes that couldn't possibly culminate in satisfying punch lines. But none of that fits into the world of this play, which seems to want to be realistic (the staging, under director Nicholas Martin, certainly tries for naturalism), and all of the more straightfaced dialogue is tedious and patronizing. Even at a mere seventy-two minutes, Saturn Returns feels way too long. You will leave feeling sorry for John McMartin, who makes a heroic attempt to do something with his completely lifeless character, and for yourself for having wasted more than an hour hoping the play would come to life. There's a moment in the final scene, when the three actors who play the central character are onstage together, that seems poised to breathe life into the concept at last. But it's false hope. There's no payoff to this play.

I knew Saturn Returns had gotten an unfavorable review in the NYT, but I was surprised to find that Charles Isherwood had actually been far too indulgent. This play is slight and insignificant; it didn't deserve a handsome Lincoln Center production, and it didn't deserve as much attention as Isherwood gave it.

I am pleased, however, to see Isherwood is still asking the important questions:
The climax of the scenes between Gustin and Zephyr, who is encouraging her father to date because she is planning finally to leave home, on the cusp of 30, is undeniably wrenching but not quite believable. (And did people in Michigan really name daughters Zephyr in 1948?)
Why, no, they didn't! What an insightful criticism! Way to poke holes in the conceit of this play! Nothing gets past you, Ish! (Except perhaps the fact that Zephyr's father's name is "Gustin." How many Gustins do you know?)

The reason I paid no attention to the NYT review before I saw Saturn Returns for myself was that I remembered Isherwood's review of Mr. Marmalade. As I mentioned, I heard from other people that the Roundabout staging of that play was poor, so I skipped it. But I loved the play itself, and I thought Isherwood's review was astonishingly unfair, built entirely on criticisms like the one I just quoted. It was a classic example of Isherwood's tendency to criticize a play for not being what he thinks it should be, instead of considering what the author wanted it to be. In the case of Mr. Marmalade, Ish basically objected to Haidle's decision to write a comedy.
The play conjures in bright Crayola colors the precociously adult mindscape of little Lucy (played by the adult actress Mamie Gummer), a pigtailed New Jersey tot whose fantasy companion comes accessorized with personal assistant, bipolar disorder and cocaine problem. But Mr. Marmalade... never truly capitalizes on its provocative conceit...

Lucy's interior world is so patently incredible as the creation of a 4-year-old mind, however marinated in the scream-fests of daytime television and episodes of Law & Order: SVU, that the author never really even dips his toe into the painful emotional undercurrents beneath the play's antic comic surface. Instead, he settles too easily and too consistently for cheap laughs.

Lucy's lexicon is too sophisticated to suggest random imprinting from endless hours of television consumption, to begin with. ...With her knowledge of interns and brunch and the menu at Nobu, Lucy's vocabulary is littered with such references planted to serve as punch lines. How to explain this urbanity, when her distracted single mom appears to work as a waitress in a diner? (Never mind the distasteful implication that neglectful mothering is endemic to the working classes.)
That last line is itself a completely unfair criticism (and you're one to talk, Mr. "People in 1940s Michigan were obviously pedestrian and uncreative"). But I'd like to focus on the central complaint here: 4-year-olds don't know about Nobu! They don't use big words! Oh, and people in the 1930s didn't name their kids "Zephyr"! Oh, and hello, Eugene Ionesco, human beings can't turn into rhinoceroses! And, AND, if Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona, how come everyone speaks English?!

Obviously Charles Isherwood is not completely unfamiliar with the conventions of the stage. So how to explain what possesses him to write nonsense like that? To me it reads as an arbitrary dislike of the playwright.
In between the tea parties and naughty games of doctor, Lucy carries on so many complex conversations about concepts (suicide, infidelity) blatantly beyond a 4-year-old's intellectual capacity that her nightmare world retains no grip on our imaginations or our emotions. It is too palpably shaped by the playwright, not by his character.

...In exaggerating Lucy's self-inflicted emotional torture to spark spasms of nervous laughter, Mr. Haidle sacrifices the chance to explore his dark subject matter honestly. And you don't have to be a prig to wish that a playwright dealing with the idea of children's suffering would demonstrate an awareness that the subject is sadly not as far-fetched as the loopy tone would suggest.
No, you don't have to be a prig. But Mr. Marmalade is a comedy, and you do have to be a pretty perversely irresponsible critic to write your entire review about how you would have prefered it to be something else. It may be legitimate to criticize a play for being "too palpably shaped by the playwright." But Isherwood is really criticizing this play for being "too palpably shaped by the playwright instead of by ME."

Maybe someone gave Ish a talking-to about this, and maybe that's why he went out of his way to take Saturn Returns seriously when it deserved nothing more than a disapproving finger-wag.

Michael Feingold, on the other hand, gave Saturn exactly that, and instead of waiting till I had ten minutes to write about it myself I should have just linked you to his review weeks ago. It says all that needs to be said:
If Noah Haidle's Saturn Returns... has any dramatic point, it's hard to perceive. Saturn, a slow-moving planet, supposedly produces a changed consciousness of life when it enters your astrological chart, about once every 30 years. But Haidle's hero—played by three fine actors at 28, 58, and 88, respectively—remains the same stodgy, sardonic, otherwise traitless person throughout, while one appealing actress, Rosie Benton, tries to nudge change out of him as his wife, daughter, and home health aide. Short (75 minutes), slight, and sentimental, the play's tidy cleverness seems as vapid as its hero, making the resources expended on it seem a more shocking waste than those poured, however erratically, into Faust or Billy Elliot.
For what it's worth, Feingold hated Mr. Marmalade too, and his criticisms weren't so different from Isherwood's. But they were far more intelligent.

Friday, December 26, 2008

R.I.P. Harold Pinter

I'd been thinking about Harold Pinter quite a bit lately, while working on my review of American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow. To say that David Mamet was influenced by Pinter is an understatement; the line from one to the other -- say, from The Caretaker to American Buffalo -- is direct and easy to discern. They are masters of an approach I can only describe as stylized naturalism. They're hilariously funny, but it's not quite right in most cases to call their plays comedies. And they both use simple dramatic structures to present complex moral (or amoral) landscapes and insights (and, in light of that, both prove surprisingly unsubtle political commentators). This description of Pinter's work, from the Nobel Prize citation (quoted in the AP obituary), could just as easily apply to Mamet:
"Pinter restored theater to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretense crumbles," the Nobel Academy said when it announced Pinter's award. "With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution."
I spent a semester studying in London, and my "Modern British Drama" course was fortunate to coincide with a West End revival of The Caretaker starring a splendid Michael Gambon and the National Theatre's staging of Pinter's Remembrance of Things Past. The latter was a heady, intimidating prospect -- Proust and Pinter in one go! -- not to mention fodder for lots of "Summarize Proust Competition" jokes. But the production was more accessible than you might imagine. It was a dreamy, impressionistic play that left me wanting to tackle the original text (which I haven't yet done). On the whole, as I recall, Pinter stayed out of Proust's way.

I loved The Caretaker. We had excellent seats, right up front, and I remember finding Sir Michael Gambon's tramp so convincingly filthy that I kept expecting to be overwhelmed by his odor. Seeing that play was one of those gratifying moments when you encounter a giant and find his reputation for greatness entirely deserved. Sometimes, with the benefit of several decades' innovation standing between you, it's hard to understand why a given artist is considered pioneering or influential. I had no such difficulty with Pinter.

I didn't quite know what to make of The Homecoming when I saw it this year on Broadway (which is one reason there's no Restricted Review). Eve Best was extraordinary; Ian MacShane was arresting; Michael McKean was affecting; and Raul Esparza gave his usual "intense," "look-how-hard I'm-acting" performance. The play was unsettling, which I think is the point. For once it was oddly gratifying, rather than irritating, to experience a play as part of a Wednesday matinee audience (and not just because it gave me the opportunity to sing, "a matinee, a Pinter play!" in my head for a week). It was almost like seeing it for the first time... in the 1960s. Most of the retirees and bewildered tourists around me knew very little about the play and had no clue what to expect, and since I didn't know it either, it made for an especially authentic experience. The people around me literally gasped in shock every few minutes throughout the second act. I think Pinter's plays will be shaking people up for a while yet.

The New York Times obituary is a good holiday read -- the overview of Pinter's career is helpful, and as you might imagine, the details of his personal life are choice and juicy. Farewell, Hal, and thanks for everything.

[Photo by Ivan Kyncl, from]

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

That's one solution

Last year I wondered what I should do with all the "special gifts" Catholic Relief Services kept sending me. Well, I haven't received one of those mailers since -- perhaps CRS finally took me off their list (the power of blogging your complaints?). Or maybe I just fooled them by moving to a new address (in which case, Shh, don't tell them!). But other people keep landing here at Restricted View by googling terms like "guardian angel coin," presumably in search of a solution to the very same problem. And now, at last, Time magazine offers a suggestion: You can give them to Barack!

You'll find a different photo on page 85 of the current issue of Time. It's the same hands holding the same objects, give or take a few, but the trinkets are spread out more, and several are identified with captions. The guardian angel coin is much easier to pick out in that shot -- it doesn't get an ID, but you and I know where it came from. And now I'll know what to do if I start getting them again. Just save them for the next time I meet a world leader in need of luck.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Did someone say 'mercurial'?

I probably shouldn't be all "Oh, the holidays are just so busy" this year, considering I am not at all busy compared to this time last year. I hardly remember Christmas 2007 as such. In my panicked prebridal state, December 25 was mostly just "three weeks till the wedding!" This year I am planning no big celebrations, preparing no seating charts... Just working and shopping and doing the usual end-of-year scramble. Which, I am sorry, has not left much energy for blogging.

Last week, on my way home from work, I took a crowded subway and ended up sitting right next to... Boyd Gaines! Can you imagine?! That's how busy I've been; I have an exciting stage-actor encounter and I can't even be bothered to tell you all about it. Mr. Gaines was, I presume, on his way to work in the hit musical PATTI LUPONE GYPSY. (If you must click that link, make sure the volume is turned way down, or you'll be sorry.) And, in case you were wondering, that Herbie mustache is real.

I haven't been neglecting the theatre, but I have been neglecting to tell you about it! In the past month I've seen both American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow, because I had the bright idea to do a review of both for the magazine. Well, American Buffalo announced its closing the day after I saw it -- so much for that. And then, yesterday, as I was finalizing my review, this whole Jeremy Piven situation screwed things up even more! Piven!!!

The audience I saw Speed-the-Plow with was the youngest, hippest Broadway audience I've seen in a long time. Everyone around me was buzzing about Entourage and Mad Men while we waited for the show to start. (Well, except for the dude next to me, who was preoccupied with taking up as much room as he could with his coat, umbrella, laptop bag, and unreasonably wide-spread legs, because of course I'm going to sit next to the guy who thinks his personal space is being compromised if someone occupies the seat next to him.) So that was encouraging: young people at the theatre! I don't know what all those folks thought of the play, but I can tell you that Mr. Piven was very good in it, so if that's what they were coming to see they certainly weren't disappointed.

I wasn't there the night Raul Esparza favored the audience with a song (and I'm really sort of thankful for that), but the scolding-of-latecomers described in the NYT's account squares with my experience. The night I saw S-t-P, a few people in the orchestra section (including Mr. Sprawly next to me -- of course) got up during the blackout before the third scene. So after the bows, Piven motioned for the audience to be quiet and addressed a woman in the third row: "You got up to go to the bathroom during the show. It's a 72-minute show. You couldn't wait?" Hee. I should have some sympathy, what with that one time I got sick and almost hurled during a show. Maybe it was an emergency. But this was the woman's response: "I could still hear you on the speakers!" "Oh, great," Piven said. "We'll give you a recording; you can listen to it on your way home."

Anyway. I'm sorry he's gone, but I bet Norbert Leo Butz will be just as good -- in fact, I kind of want to see it again. As for the "high levels of mercury," it is my understanding that mercury poisoning is actually a real and serious condition, so I probably shouldn't make fun of it, but... You have to admit, it does make for a pretty humorous press release. It certainly beats "exhaustion." The Playbill Online report read like a spoof article, especially the long quote from Piven's doctor to Variety. "We're not sure if this is from his diet, which is high in fish, or Chinese herbs, which he's been a fan of in the past, or a combination of both."

Of course, the best response came from Mamet and has been requoted everywhere, so why not here: "I talked to Jeremy on the phone and he told me that he discovered that he had a very high level of mercury. So my understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer." Ladies and gentlemen, the master of his art, David Mamet FTW.

Too bad Mamet wasn't around to talk to the New York Times about the fortunes of the Roundabout's latest musical-theatre project. He could have given Todd Haimes a few pointers on how not to make things worse when you talk to the press. Did you see the article -- excuse me, the "Broadway memo" -- about how this new production of Pal Joey is, er, not going well? Normally I'd be like, "Oh, who cares," because I really don't. Leave the whisper campaigns to Michael Riedel. But I read the story and couldn't help wondering if Haimes was trying to sabotage the show. If the NYT is writing an article about how your show looks like it might suck, and they give you, the artistic director, a chance to comment, and you can't muster anything more than tepid enthusiasm, it might be better not to return their call. "The backstage work and the audience reaction — both positive — have been very different from the public experience in the Internet theater chat rooms and elsewhere, which has given this show bad word of mouth. I will say for myself, I feel like the production is going really well.” Oh, boy, I will just rush right out and get my tickets!

Even better was this part about the replacement of Christian Hoff:
Mr. Haimes declined to respond directly about whether he had been concerned about Mr. Hoff’s dancing.

“You know what, I don’t think any of this is anyone’s business,” Mr. Haimes said. “The entire world economy is falling apart, and many nonprofit theaters are facing grave financial issues. My feeling is Christian Hoff is an absolutely lovely man, and discussing this only hurts Christian.”
Boy, it's a good thing Mr. Haimes declined to respond directly! Wouldn't want to "hurt Christian"! Let's see, how could you have avoided giving the impression that you actually do want to "hurt Christian"? Maybe by giving a defensive nonresponse invoking "the entire world economy" and conspicuously failing to say anything even vaguely positive about the performer's abilities... Or maybe, rather than helping the paper create such profoundly negative buzz that it renders the next day's very negative review redundant -- maybe you could just say "No comment." Something to try next time.