Thursday, February 24, 2005

PS 122 Reassesses

Backstage has an article on the new Director of PS 122. The article and, it seems, PS 122 are asking some tought questions...

"Still, on the occasion of P.S. 122's 25th anniversary, the board has addressed the question of the organization's future. Is there any reason to continue? What distinguishes the institution from, say, cultural centers such as HERE, the Kitchen, and Dixon Place, all of which exist to help the emerging theatre and/or visual artist."

They have brought in a 30 year old Vallejo Gartner to address some of these issues. Gartner is stressing internationalism as one of the important ingredients in reinvigorating the avante-garde movement.

Charles Dennis(One of the founders of PS 122)..."acknowledges that Gantner brings an 'international flair' to the table: 'But I'm concerned that art in America has become an endangered species. Vallejo may not be in touch with the problems emerging artists are facing in this country. I'm concerned that his emphasis may be more on the international talent as opposed to local talent. I believe his challenge has to be nurturing the local artist and reaching out at a time when audiences are drawing away. It's not just economics and politics. It's technology that draws people away from performance.'

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

But I’ll Bet the Tickets are Still Full Price…

Last year, Newsday Critic Linda Winer said of the now accepted practice of Broadway shows hocking preview performances at full price, "I don’t think people should pay full price to watch practice."

Today the Chicago Sun-Times posted a short article about the Pre-Broadway tryout of Sweet Charity which will be coming to Boston in March.

The terminology in the article is a little strange if you think about it too much, which is what bloggers usually do…

"The official opening of "Sweet Charity," the Broadway-bound revival starring Christina Applegate and Denis O'Hare, has been postponed. The musical still plans to begin previews Thursday at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.."

But isn’t the whole run really a "preview?" In fact, the "official opening," won’t be until New York. Indeed, in the last paragraph the show’s press representative is quoted as saying,, "there are several major changes being made in terms of content and visuals. And these will not be the last changes to be made before the show opens in New York on April 21."

However, she does assure us that "There are no cast changes…" So we can be sure that at least people aren’t doing so badly that they need to be replaced. Whew!

(Side note: I wouldn’t mind seeing if Christina Applegate can pull this off, she is the one consistently wonderful comedic performer in a number of really, really bad comedy movies of the last few years.)

I saw Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Wilbur and while I did think it was a great night at the theatre, there were definitely rough spots during the performance that I am sure will be ironed out before it bows in New York. However, just like poor customer service, the idea of full priced previews, or "practice," is now commonplace. So for full price we get to see the rough spots.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The First Contrarian Strike at Arthur Miller!

Where does the Rubber Meet the Road?

Well, just as Marlon Brando couldn't survive the week of his death without the highbrows leaping in to stomp on his face, so goes the fate of Arthur Miller.

At least Miller got the pleasant experience of a warm weekend of praise for being what he was: One of our countries most known dramatists, and a very influential playwright. It is really not surprising that the first salvo was fired from the pages of the Wall Street Journal's opinion column. High profile contrarians of the highbrow persuasion seem to increasingly align themselves conservatively.

Terry Teachout gives us the gist right up front, and pulls no punches with the title "The Great Pretender." and his subtitle, "Arthur Miller Was Not Well-Liked, and for Good Reason."

It doesn't surprise me either that an article bashing Miller would use a line from Miller's most well known play, Death of A Salesman. Teachout uses Willy Loman's assertion that he was "well-liked in Boston" as a boot with which to kick the playwright into the grave.

It would be one thing if Teachout were making a purely artistic assessment on the entirety of Miller's work, but it becomes clear that when he must surmount the Death of Salesman problem, Teachout, like many others, falls to political and personal attack. I will give some credit because, unlike Robert Brustein, Teachout grudgingly acknowledges that Salesman will probably be timeless. However, he makes a few stabs at it with the typical critical charges of "sentimentalism."

Failing an ability to successfully lay out his argument against Salesman, or The Crucible, he falls to the latest fad of conservative criticism ...bringing up the personal politics:



"I wonder how much attention would now be paid to Miller if he hadn't married Monroe, and if the House Un-American Activities Committee hadn't made the mistake of subpoenaing him in 1956 to testify about his Communist ties (which
were extensive, though he always denied having been an actual party member), thereby bringing about his citation for contempt of Congress when he refused to 'name names.' The one made him a pop-culture footnote, the other a liberal icon."

Not only that, he goes further and tries to cut into a few other playwrights and critics through extension:



"Times have changed, and today's more stringently politicized critics and playwrights seem willing to overlook Miller's limitations because he thought as they do. 'As a political figure, he was a progressive man, but never doctrinaire,' Tony Kushner said last week. 'There was a simplicity, and humbleness, and decency in his work.'"
The most bizarre part of the column is that Teachout takes the Kushner quote out of context after displaying it to us in context. You see, Terry goes on to state how "Arthur Miller" was not humble, when Kushner has stated that their was a humbleness and decency in "his work."

A few paragraphs later, Teachout ends the article with an admittance of the power of Salesman:

"More important, 'Death of a Salesman' has a coarsely compulsive power that somehow manages to mask its aesthetic deficiencies, or at least render them momentarily palatable. That's the mystery of theater: It's all about what works,
and like it or not, "Death of a Salesman" works. But it's no 'Lear,' just as Arthur Miller was no Shakespeare, and anyone who thinks otherwise is as lead-eared as he was."

So we have to read through a snarky title, a bashing of a Man who worked till the day he died, and a lightly veiled attack on Tony Kushner's merits only to find out that Teachout's only real criticism is that while Death of Salesman is a powerful piece of theatre, Miller is no
Shakespeare?

It would appear that Mr. Teachout would be employing the same types of political preachiness and over-top activism of which he accuses Mr. Miller of having practiced.

I am a novice at theatre criticism and scholarship, but I have always thought that the highbrow charge of realism is a little misplaced when applied to Miller's work. When applied to Death of Salesman which uses ghosts, memories, and an expressionistic setting to gain its "coarsley compulsive power," I think the charges are way off-the mark.

The Death of Salesman problem is one that critics can't seem to convincingly evade. (They usually brush aside The Crucible, wrongly, as a dated reaction to McCarthyism.) Their arguments usually start strong, but eventually wind up in the same compromising conclusion: Death of Salesman may be a "good" play, but Arthur Miller is not a Great Playwright.

Genius is something that people have endeavored to explain, and its fleeting nature must prove maddening for artists. Do men and women of all nationalities and religions still continue to line up to see Salesman becuase they are "forced to read it in high school?" Or for that one play was Miller able to achieve genius.

John Heilpern in The New York Observer, writes just the kind of Arthur Miller farewell that may have Teachout pulling at his hair. Heilpern, (author of great collection of theatre essays and criticism titled How Good is David Mamet Anyway,) has always been able to precisely analyze the good and bad of both the British and American dramatic scene. He is always cautious of Anglophilia, and is very quick to point out advantages of American Drama.

He writes:

"There was nothing elitist about Arthur Miller or his plays. He was influenced by Ibsen and the Greeks, but he wrote from the gut, unafraid of the pull of honest emotion expressed by so-called ordinary folk. It’s why we could connect with his great dramas, for all family wars and disappointments and yearnings are universal."

I know that Heilpern is the first to admit, and to say that Shakespeare has not equal in the American canon, but he finds the decency to praise a craftsman who worked his entire life at plying his trade and was able to create something that, while maybe not aesthetically beautiful, was amazingly effective.

Perhaps traditional critical methods have not found a way to analyze Death of a Salesman, or the Crucible, maybe the secret of their power pushes too far into the realm of performance study which can end up being a maddening pursuit in itself.

In his new book, Letters to a Young Actor, Robert Brustein warns actors against trusting any type of theatrical criticism which ventures into "performance theory," and he doesn't get much argument from me. But without pushing the boundaries of critical standards, are we consigning, too easily, a work like Death of Salesman to mere sentimentality, and a craftsman like Miller to hackdom?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Cultivating Critics

From where will our next theatre critics emerge? If some people had their way, they would continue to come from the restaraunt pages.

But in a more serious response to the question, the Village Voice is launching a new monthly roundup of criticism from students at the more prestigious Drama Programs in the "commutable" area of New York City. (Lucky for ART Institute Student Stella Gorlin that we have the Acela, so she gets to contribute.)

The first entry can be found here:
http://www.villagevoice.com/theater/0507,wits,61020,11.html

The Voice states in its intro to the series: "In an era of the theater review as consumer report, our mission is obvious: To expand the theatrical conversation by providing a venue for the next generation of serious theater critics."

The monthly section is called University Wits and this month the critics tackle Richard Foreman's newest play, The Gods are Pounding My Head (AKA Lumberjack Messiah.)

One refreshing thing I noticed right off was the great sense of enthusiasm in the reviews. And note that even in Mark (Yale Drama) Blankenship's mixed review, he goes out of his way to praise what the effort and intentions are.

I am interested if the positive nature of these reviews would be called "cheerleading" by critics such as Bill Marx of WBUR.

The Village Voice offers up this as a forum for the next generation of "serious critics," and I wonder how long it will take these young critics to be jaded.
  • Will they be consigned to lonely Dramaturgy offices?
  • Will their critical skills and budding insights be eventually contorted into masturbatory scholarly argument in obscure theatrical journals.
  • Will they be beaten down by the capsulization pressures of commercial publications?
  • Will they eventually only be seen on a local cable access channel?
  • Will they become Software Marketing Specialists who can write one hell of an advertising copy.

I hope not.


My modest proposal is for them to start laying groundwork for an internet consortium of theatrical criticism.

Anglophile Alert!

Liza Weisstuch of WBUR seems smitten with the English Theatre of late.

"American theaters wary of commenting on current events, take note."

I love the way critics keep goading the American Theatre as if they are a bunch of scared weaklings. It is a little unfair to compare the state of American Drama to that of it's heavily subsidized counterpart across the Atlantic.

Perhaps some leader from the theatre community will stand up to the charges. Or maybe we have no defense?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

How Will Trumbo Be Greeted?

It will be interesting to see how much the recent lionizing of Reagan, the ascendency of conservative ideology, and renewed calls for a "logical and rational" arguments for internment by such offensive columnists as Michelle Malkin, (who wrote the recent book, "In Defense of Internment,") have filtered down into the general critical consciousness. More interesting will be to see if is under the false classification of original thinking. Some of this is a result of Contrarianism gone haywire. There is a long road from George Orwell to Christopher Hitchens to Michael Savage, and it is littered with jettisoned integrity.

In 2003, Mark Steyn, a conservative reviewer I read quite a bit, wrote a review of Trumbo that was dripping with so much McCarthy- loving, communist-hating talking points that it smelled like Anne Coulter's perfume. (And yes, I am aware that McCarthy did not persecute Dalton Trumbo.)

Mark Steyn later that year wrote a good "In Memoriam" piece on Elia Kazan, in the Atlantic Monthly, praising the Director's masterpiece On the Waterfront as the declaration of a stand against not only the brutish thugs of Johnny Friendly's dockside gang, but also the thuggery of communism and its resultant genocidal travesties. Indeed, anyone of my generation who has any romantic notions of communism in practice should check out The Black Book of Communism from the Library, or better yet, buy it to have in their home as a reminder.

However, what I found fascinating while watching a preview performance of Trumbo was the fact that "thuggery" is used as a term by Trumbo. And not in referring to his own predicament of being blacklisted, but rather that of his daughter, who has been ostracized at her public school by not only the students, but by forces from within the PTA and the Blue Birds. Dalton Trumbo's letter to the Principal of his daughters' school ends in sarcastic gratitude to the educational administration for introducing his daughter to "barbarism." Another piece in the play speaks directly to "informers' like Elia Kazan, when Trumbo makes the clarifying statement that, "I know of no one who turned informer for anything other than personal gain."

Contrarian thought, however, is dismissive of these arguments as an obfuscation of the truth. In the eyes of the conservative ideologists Trumbo is still to be blacklisted.

Mark Steyn says:"Though the play won’t tell you the answer to that famous question – 'Are you now or have you ever…?' – the answer is: yes, he was. The more interesting question is: How do you feel about getting one of the great moral questions of the century wrong?"

For conservatives, it is game, set, match. Trumbo must be silenced, the rationale goes, because the communist party proved to be, well, horrific.

Brian Dennehy has pointed out a distinction between this time and that time. In a Cambridge Chronicle interview last week, Brian Dennehy said, "Look at Michael Moore. He made $250 million saying what he damn well pleased. ['Fahrenheit 9/11'] was hardly a documentary; it was a piece of propaganda. And I don't have an objection to that. The point is he was hardly punished for his opinion.... The people who try to make analogies between that period (the Blacklist) and this period are not being honest. It's not the same."

But a few sentences later Dennehy says, "And I don't want people to think 'Trumbo' is a history lesson. It's great theater. But it's also a learning experience, and that's what theater should be all about."

I agree to a point with Mr. Dennehy, but he seems to want to have it both ways: He thinks the play is monumentally important as a learning experience, but does he really want us to see it as a learning experience that has no application?

In the end Trumbo is not a play. It is theatre though, and it contains one of the most interesting characters you will see in years.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Moonlight Room brings out the torture of our Second Class City Mentality.

Well, The Moonlight Room has cruised off Off-Broadway and into Boston, riding a dizzying critical reception in New York City.

Yes, struggling playwrights I give you permission to envy Tristine Skyler. 32 years old and her first play hit the Best Play list of the New York Times in 2003. Wow! You can read Clive Barnes original review here. This was followed by a succession of good, if not glowing reviews.

At the time the descriptions in the reviews made the play seem very cliché and, well, something like Lifetime Network crossed with Dawson’s Creek. However, most of those reviews seemed to say, "Yes, it has that type of structure, but don’t be fooled, this is a powerful play with much to say." And to top it all off Paul Dagienault’s Artistic Director’s notes in the program seem to say the exact same thing.

Well the Boston Broadsheets and Tabloids have spilled their ink, and they released their top dogs on this fresh piece of meat. Though it is a little depressing that Ed and Terry didn’t find their way to the Lyric for Glass Menagerie, I think that theatre artists who are writing new work in Boston can take a little heart in the fact that Tennessee Williams now gets the stringers, but Tristine Skyler, (whom some people might remember from Blair Witch II: Book of Shadows,) and Doug Wright get the chiefs. It shows the hunger they have for new work, for something different.

Or maybe it shows a slavish obligation to bow down to the droolings of New York Critics. I am trying to be a Glass half-full person, so I will just say to playwrights what one great actress said about going on auditions: "Remember, they want you to be good!"

That advice pass on to most of us. Skyler, however, isn't so lucky. Her play is destined to not be able to be enjoyed for what it is. It is, instead, a touchpoint for reviewers to air greivanances, or to outright hate.

First off, I would like everybody to remember that The Globe and The Herald were calling for more productions of New York approved Off- Broadway hits just as this past fall.

One positive thing to be detected from looking at the reviews of The Moonlight Room, is that some of our critics demonstrate a fascinating ability to apologize for the play. Which is extremely nice of them, considering some of the reviews I have read of local efforts that have more than had their "heart in the right place," but, alas, the critics felt they needed to exert some tough love in those instances.

For instance, Ed Siegel called Boston Theatreworks production of Conspiracy of Memory, last year, "TV movie mush," but here he concludes of this Moonlight Room that it is "an appealing, though not a theatrically exciting, place to pull up a chair."

Man, it must be tough. I admired Ed Siegel during the Critics Panel at the Huntington last year when he said he felt, "that if I call them as I see them, in the end that is the best thing for the readers and the theatre." Can’t argue with that. But his whole review is a strange waffling of arguments. A tortured sole struggling with something.

Examine the following paragraph:

"For all its virtues, the play lacks any overarching vision. It isn't the playwright's job to prescribe any social antidote to her characters' malaise, but alienation has been with us for so long that merely showing it in action, no matter how good the dialogue, is not enough."


Sort of like the Smeagol and Deagol thing in Lord of the Rings.

Evil Chief Critic: Must Bash play.

Good Chief Critic: But New York Critics says it is good!

Evil Chief Critic: But I feel as if Meredith Baxter Birney should be in it…

Good Chief Critic: But a hot young actress/filmmaker, who may win a Sundance Award wrote it.

It is all right, Mr. Seigel, we all enjoy a good Lifetime Network Movie now and then. It is O.K. Hey, they have kept Nancy McKeon on the air for a long time, and though I am no big Tori Spelling fan, did you ever catch her in The Alibi?I love the ski chase at the end.

Carolyn Clay, of the Boston Phoenix, has similar troubles when she seems to be trying to find a place to place this work, but with some outrageous place markers:

"Much of this dialogue is funny and incisive, holding a mirror up to urban teen communication the way Mamet does to the profane, inarticulate pontification of macho males."

Or…

"On that level, the play is like ER caught in a sandwich between Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth and Beckett."

Beckett, Mamet, Lonergan, O’Neill and even Inge show up in this review. Is Ms. Clay really that intrigued by the play? She does ask the important question though:

"But is this really one of the best plays of 2003, as deemed by the New York Times following its Off Broadway success?"

…and provides an answer:

"I’d say that The Moonlight Room must have been up against the dramaturgical equivalent of some pretty small vats of Ragú."

It’s funny that Ms. Clay’s default position is not disagreement with the Times, but rather an assumption that the quality of work in New York must have been bad.

Terry Byrne, the Herald ’s reviewer appeared to have lost patience with the aimlessness of the script, and let’s loose with three big snark shells:

A: "But playwright Tristine Skyler runs out of ideas quickly, and starts to pad her script with cliches right out of The Parent Trap."

B: "even those who are past their teen years may find themselves zoning out and thinking about which tunes to download to their iPods."

C: "The title, in case you're wondering, is an oblique reference to a happy Upper East Side Manhattan household, wealthy enough to have an apartment with a room facing the East River where the moon shines in. (Did your crap detector just go off, too?)"

Bill Marx of WBUR seems to have held off a bit on filing his review because he knew the direction he wanted to go. It appears he is referring to the reviews I listed above when he starts off his assessment:

"Some scripts aren't compelling drama -- except for what they tell us about where the theater is headed. And the feebleness of "The Moonlight Room" is symptomatic of where playwriting is going, with the complicity of undemanding critics."

He uses the review space to make a statement about how playwrighting is going, and he gives the predictable shiv to Boston theatre in general: "Meanwhile, the growth of stage activity in Boston has generated talk comparing the city's theater scene with those in Chicago and New York. For that to be true, our companies have to wean themselves from grabbing the latest off-Broadway hit the "The New York Times" raved about. Or the big talk is just a lot of moonshine."

Yes, there is a lot of complicity to go around, Mr. Marx. Anyone can go to the WBUR website and still see that you picked "The Moonlight Room," as a play to see this February. Also you have "Blue/Orange" listed, and I am sure you have seen the difference in critical reception Blue/Orange received from its London Premiere and its Atlantic Theatre Company debut in New York City last year. Next time you write a review like this you may want to include a mea culpa.