Saturday, June 27, 2009

"Make it gay"

I found something funny in the Commonweal magazine archives, which you can see over at dotCommonweal. I don't want to ruin it, but let's just say it involves the phrase "Coke party for the youngsters." Catholics in the 1950s weren't as uptight as you think!

The man in the mirror

I'm already sick of hearing about Michael Jackson. But one thing I can say about his death is that it has brought together the nation by giving us an opportunity to stare at pictures of the man, compare the recent shots to the ones from his childhood, and collectively ask ourselves, "What the hell happened?" (And aren't you glad you don't have to watch him get old? I am.)

Perhaps the most compact and culturally layered treatment of this theme comes from the Wall Street Journal's "Speakeasy" blog, which today is featuring a look at how MJ's "hedcuts" have changed through the years. (H/t CJR's The Kicker.) Truly spooky. As a bonus, there's this sentence, which says so much... "According to research database ProQuest, Jackson was first mentioned in The Wall Street Journal in a Sept. 25, 1980 article entitled 'Record Buyers Remain Loyal To Black Music.'"

P.S. Also: Holy crap, the sky last night!

Friday, June 26, 2009

You've got a place to go

I know I'm supposed to say something about the death of Michael Jackson, and what he meant to me, but honestly, I don't have an emotional reaction to record. I, uh, like some Jackson 5 songs, and about half of Thriller is good, and I've always been amused by his Paul McCartney duets. And I didn't know "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" and "Smooth Criminal" were MJ songs until a couple years ago, but finding that out increased my regard for the man tenfold, because those songs are cool. But I am a touch too young, or just a touch too out-of-touch, for Michael Jackson to really loom large in my legend. (There was a girl in my high school who was utterly devoted to MJ, but the rest of us thought this was bizarre. Like being a huge fan of cockroaches. It was the mid-90s, after all, and MJ was becoming increasingly difficult to look at. This girl took it very personally if you said so, though. She loved the middle-aged Michael the way the young Michael loved Ben.)

So you should go read my friend Marla's blog instead, because she has the best Michael-Jackson-related story I've ever heard.

I was planning to celebrate Mr. Jackson's memory by watching my favorite You Tube video -- the one of the walrus dancing to "Smooth Criminal." But I see now that "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Warner Music Group." Booooo, Warner Music Group. It wasn't even the whole song! Oh well. I'll have to go do my own awkward dance, in tribute. Who wants to join?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Tony telecast 2009

As I mentioned, I was less than enthusiastic about this year's Tony Award contenders. I haven't even seen any of the Best Musical nominees -- and worse, I don't particularly want to, even now. But I still watched, of course, and I found the telecast more enjoyable than I expected. This year it seemed to have a split personality: more pandering and embarrassing than ever when it came to musicals (and musical numbers), but at the same time rather dignified and not as desperate to impress as it has seemed in the past. Maybe that's because there were so many widely-known screen actors on Broadway this year, or maybe they just committed to not apologizing for honoring theatre as an art in its own right. But if it weren't for the fact that I turned off the television feeling thoroughly depressed about the state of the modern musical, I would have to give this year's Tony broadcast high marks. Since we couldn't watch together, I offer my traditional Restricted View recap.

Monday, June 1, 2009

God of Carnage and August: Osage County, reviewed

In the June 5 issue of Commonweal -- just in time for the Tonys! -- I review Yasmina Reza's new play God of Carnage, alongside its neighbor on 45th Street, Tracy Letts's August: Osage County. I thought it would be interesting to discuss last year's Best Play winner alongside this year's favorite, especially since August represented a major departure from the formula for success that Reza established back in 1998 with Art. My review is available online for all you nonsubscribers. Here's a taste:
At first God of Carnage pits one couple against the other; then it shifts to a battle of the sexes, with wives aligned against husbands. By the end, each character is alienated, feeling betrayed even by his or her own spouse. “You force yourself to rise above petty-mindedness and you end up humiliated. On your own,” Veronica sulks. Her husband (James Gandolfini) replies gloomily, “We’re always on our own. Everywhere.”

...It is difficult to say whether Reza really believes any of this, and it seems almost beside the point to ask. The play is so thoroughly entertaining that it doesn’t need to be convincing. Reza manages a number of hilarious surprises, and some artful bons mots, as the couples’ predictable conflict unfolds. God of Carnage is a superficial but highly amusing dance of ideas, brought to vivid life by a uniformly excellent cast....

Where God of Carnage is an intellectual diversion, August: Osage County is an emotional workout. Letts’s play is a portrait of a family whose dysfunction takes on every conceivable form: sibling rivalry, suicide, addiction, adultery, incest, jealousy, and greed. The plot is a series of shocking revelations, but nothing that transpires among the Weston siblings and in-laws is quite as astonishing as the cruelty with which the ailing matriarch, Violet, eviscerates her children....

August is more authentic and more satisfying than God of Carnage, but in the end it is not much more profound. The endless, hysterical miseries of the Westons seem constructed to defeat the idea that human fates are determined by any divinity, even a savage one. The play is compelling not because it offers any insights, but because its characters and their suffering are so immediate and real.
Read the whole thing for more on how I think the two plays resonate, and how they differ.