Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Hugo – short for huge letdown

Posted by metaphorical on 30 January 2012

Hugo’s ratings at Rotten Tomato—94% for the critics, but only 83% for audiences—is the first clue that all is not well inside this giant clockwork of a movie.

Look inside, and you’ll see a lots of gears that need oil—David Edelstein’s review for New York Magazine, for example, is counted as favorable, but to read it is to find more green splattered on the page than red. He concludes it by noting that Hugo tells his young friend Isabelle that

machines have no extra, unneeded parts, and if he were a piece of a machine he’d have a reason for being. We know, of course, that he is a piece of a machine: Scorsese’s Colossal Stupendous 3-D Thrill Generator. It’s not clear if the irony is intentional.

That hints at what Joe Morgenstern says directly, over at The Wall Street Journal:

thematic potency and cinematic virtuosity—the production was designed by Dante Ferretti and photographed by Robert Richardson—can’t conceal a deadly inertness at the film’s core.

That’s it exactly. The movie’s dialogue is so entirely on the nose, from beginning to end—as if it isn’t enough have Hugo explicitly say that people are machines and need to have a function, and he says it several times—with Isabelle finally replying, gee, maybe that’s what’s wrong with my dad. Doh! Marty, we got the point an hour ago when you made an automaton a central character in the movie.

Even the 3-D didn’t work for me. As it was supposed to, the effect heightened the distance between them when one person was closer to the audience than another, but the people themselves, especially the front person, looked like a cardboard cutout—two dimensional, in other words. And throughout, the 3-D was just plain distracting.

Then there’s the matter of the movie’s tutorials on the history of cinema. I can think of no one I would rather hear lecture on the subject than Martin Scorsese—and if he would deign to teach us, a thousand at a time in a big lecture hall at NYU for twelve bucks a night, sign me up for all of them. But I didn’t take the subway in the other direction to a theatre in the middle of Queens to watch Marty at his most didactic, channeled through the character of Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). You know that public service commercial that Scorsese does for film preservation? That’s most of the third-act plot in Hugo.

Finally, speaking of film school—Screenwriting 101 isn’t too early to learn a handy little rule of thumb: The protagonist has to resolve the biggest conflict—the crisis—by his own actions. James Bond can’t just sit there enchained by Blofield until Felix Leiter comes to rescue him, he has to escape by his own devices. But Hugo’s final salvation—I’m not really giving anything away, because it’s inconceivable that this movie not have a happy ending—comes as he stands hopelessly in the middle of the train station until Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) saves him.

I have no doubt that Hugo will enter the pantheon of great films, as The Departed did. If only the Academy had given Gangs of New York the Best Director title it arguably deserved, we wouldn’t have to keep rewarding Scorsese for the disappointing movies that have followed.

IMDb / Box Office Mojo / Rotten Tomatoes (94%/83%)

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2947-eH

Posted in language, pop culture, reviews, screenwriting, the arts, writing | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Big Heat: Fritz Lang’s Serpico

Posted by metaphorical on 11 January 2012

Straight-as-an-arrow police sergeant Dave Bannion has no truck with the corruption that surrounds him, until he finally has to team up with kept woman Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) to solve a crime and extract revenge.

The Big Heat, 1953

Police sergeant Glenn Ford is tough as nails, but has a heart of gold. Gloria Grahame is a kept woman, but has a heart of gold. Everyone else is a crook and a louse, except for the woman who works at the auto repair shop, and you can tell she’s a good egg because she walks with a cane.

The plot of The Big Heat is a straight line from the first scene to the end, with a single I-can’t-believe-they-did-that moment in the middle that’s telegraphed so thoroughly the they should save their money and put a first class stamp on it.

Still, even on an off day Fritz Lang can create eye candy out of nothing but lighting and camera angles. If you want to see Gloria Grahame when she has some real material to work with, go straight to In a Lonely Place. As for the other principal, he’s quite good here, but has there ever been a truly great Glenn Ford movie?

Posted in movies, reviews, screenwriting, the arts | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by metaphorical on 26 December 2011

Directed by David Schwimmer; Written by Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger; IMDb / RottenTomatoes / BoxOfficeMojo

“Trust” is a hard movie to watch; it isn’t so much enjoyed as experienced.

A 14-year-old girl, Annie, falls into a relationship on a teen website with a boy, Charlie, who’s 16, then 20, then 25, then, when they finally meet and end up in a motel room, 35. The police get called in fairly quickly, but it takes much longer for Annie to see him for what he is, a sexual predator of adolescent girls.

Roger Ebert’s one-liner in his top 20 films of the year, on which it occupies number 17, is “The bravest thing about David Schwimmer’s ‘Trust’ is that it doesn’t try to simplify.” That’s a fair statement. It doesn’t try to simplify Annie, nor her father Will (Clive Owen, brilliantly playing a role that has almost no place to go), nor even Charlie, who is all the more creepy for how normal he appears, and is never demonized even as the audience, like Will, wants to kill him for what he’s done to Annie and her entire family.

Nor does “Trust” take a simple path even in its structure. It has a plot point number 1, of sorts, but not a plot point number 2, not least because it doesn’t really have a protagonist (nor an antagonist, beyond the demons in Will’s mind and, eventually, Annie’s).

“Trust” strikes something like false notes only occasionally, as the characters all too often are able to articulate exactly what’s going on with them in a preternatural way, but when it happens in the climactic scene, the words fit the characters like gloves and they give the entire film a prefect resonance.

“Trust” is eminently worth enduring. I don’t see nearly as many movies as Ebert, but for me, too, it’s one of the best of the year.

Posted in pop culture, reviews, screenwriting, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: I Might Be Edgar Allan Poe

Posted by metaphorical on 28 August 2011

I Might Be Edgar Allan Poe
1h 20m
VENUE #17: Manhattan Theatre Source
Performance seen: Fri 26 @ 2:45

Rating: 10
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

I don’t know how Dawson Nichols came up with the show “I Might Be Edgar Allan Poe” but it’s fun—and might even be integral to its experience—to wonder that he did.

“I Might Be Edgar Allan Poe” apparently started life as a fully-cast radio drama, but as a one-man show it opens with a man writhing on the floor while reciting a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. He stops to chat a bit with the audience, leading to the moment when he utters the title phrase. “Oh,” he continues, “I know I’m not Edgar Allan Poe. Edgar Allan Poe is dead. I’m not Edgar Allan Poe.” And yet. It’s not the hesitation of an irrational person unsure he’s not Edgar Allan Poe. It’s that of a rational person presented by a strange set of circumstances that are best explained by a hypothesis he knows must be false. Plato asks in “The Republic” how a just man can live in an unjust polis. So too, how can a man be rational when he has the bad fortune to inhabit an irrational corner of the universe.

“I Might Be Edgar Allan Poe” inspires just such philosophical thoughts—on madness, reality, and the power of art to get under the skin of an entire culture and stay there for 150 years. It’s impossible to listen to “The Tell-Tale Heart”—and yes, in the most forceful moments of a tour de force performance, Craig Mathers recites all of “The Tell-Tale Heart”—without remembering having read it, even if it were years and years ago.

As he does, the barriers between artist and art begin to dissolve. Remember back to the story. Madness is expressed with such power and intimacy that it’s impossible not to wonder how the author could be other than mad himself. We have been wondering for half the play whether its central character is other than mad, and as he recites it— even though, within the context of the play, it isn’t mad to be doing so—the equivalent question about him becomes insistent, and then finally answered.

The miracle of the play is that for a moment we even wonder this about the playwright. For a moment—just for a moment, but for that one long moment—madness is expressed with such power and intimacy by “I Might Be Edgar Allan Poe” that we wonder, how the author could be other than mad himself? This is powerful theatre.

We never wonder that about Mathers himself; indeed, it’s a tribute to his acting abilities that we never question his sanity. He is, instead, a perfect vessel for 80 minutes of fine madness.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: Noir

Posted by metaphorical on 27 August 2011


2h 0m (but see below)
VENUE #7: Connelly Theater
Performance seen: Thu 25 @ 8:45

Rating: 7
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

I liked “Noir.” I wanted to like it more. I wanted there to be more of it to like.

McQue (no first name), a big lug of a 1950s New York cop, is stymied in his ambition to advance beyond the level of detective, mainly held back by his jerk of a lieutenant, Norbert Grimes. McQue is also a little bit jealous of the department’s golden child, newly-made detective Clay Holden. Holden is in charge of an investigation of a sweet little murder, and McQue wants in on the case. Holden is also, though, involved in the very crime he’s investigating, thanks to a doll who’s not as innocent as she looks.

Here’s what I liked about “Noir.” (1) The central character of McQue, as likeable a private dick since Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep.” (2) The simplicity of the story—four characters: three cops and a dame. It’s all so efficient—a complete noir in an hour. Sweet.

Here’s what I didn’t like about about “Noir.” (1) McQue is far too likeable. The problem with “The Big Sleep”—and what makes it properly not a noir movie at all—is the lack of moral ambiguity in its central character. (2) The tight simplicity of the story. Part of the charm of noir is the convoluted plots. It’s possible to go too far—“Red Harvest” comes to mind, as does that all-McGuffin-all-the-time classic, “The Maltese Falcon”—but all things being equal, too much complexity is better than too little.

The two problems compound one another. McQue is not very believable as a big lug. For one thing, it’s made instantly and painfully clear in the first scene that he isn’t, and so it’s not believable that his lieutenant or anyone else thinks he is. Nor is it necessary for the story—it’s apparently his motivation for pushing himself into the case, which in turn explains how he’s on it, but is all this machinery needed? Couldn’t it have simply been his turn?

Given these limitations, Michael McCoy as McQue is perfect, from his voice to his physique. His character addresses the audience with knowing charm even as he addresses Grimes with contempt. I thought Andrew Dawson had some problems as Grimes, though they may be endemic to the part as written. The character spins long stories to make his points, rendering impossible the quick repartee we both expect from noir and get elsewhere (for example, when Grimes tells Clay, “You’re holding onto false hope,” Clay responds, “Is there another kind?”).

Author Stan Werse, an attorney in his 50s who started writing plays and screenplays less than a decade ago, does a generally wonderful job recreating the conventions of the genre, but he may need to make some tough choices between adhering to them or giving us characters with more complexity than an affectionate send-up can handle. Or maybe Werse just needs to go out a little bit further on the limb he has constructed.

If you were to plot the story’s complexity over time, it would slowly rise to about the 55 minute mark and then fall off a cliff. Five minutes later, it has wrapped up it’s entire plot in a single neat bow. The Fringe catalogue lists the show as running 120 minutes, not 60. Sometime between acceptance and performance, did Werse simplify the noir out of “Noir”?

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: When the Sky Breaks 3D

Posted by metaphorical on 27 August 2011

When the Sky Breaks 3D

1h 0m
VENUE #5: Dixon Place
Performance seen: Fri 26 @ 9:15

Rating: 7
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

On the Friday that turned out to be the last day of the Fringe, I was determined to see three shows, as I had on the Friday that the festival opened. That first night I saw COBU as the last show. It was a wise choice; the torrent of drumming and hip-hop dancing washed over the audience—the perfect thing to see at 9:45 pm. So last night I employed the COBU strategy and ended the evening with “When the Sky Breaks 3D,” a 3D-enhanced show by the Brooklyn-based hip-hop troupe Decadancetheatre.

Dance is already the most 3D of all the arts. As it turns out, when I put on the 3D glasses to best see 3D images being projected onto a back wall, the images popped forward in the way they’re supposed to, but the dancers in front of them flattened. Worse still, dance requires sharp lines, but, like the way a prism breaks up light, the 3D glasses turned the outlines of the dancers into rainbow blurs. In only one number, which featured complicated angular hand gestures (picture a hip-hop version of the sign language of the deaf), did that work to an advantage.

The 3D images consisted, as the show’s name would suggest, mainly of skylines and other cityscapes as seen looking upward. For me, the urban images served no particular purpose. I suppose cornfields would have been incongruous with the hip-hop music but they would have been no less integrated with the dance.

There were only a couple of points in the show that offered the hoped-for integration. In one, the dancers, facing away from the audience, run in slow motion through a beautiful blue sky. In my favorite piece, the finale, which was a sort of ecstatic urban rain dance, raindrops fell onto the dancers quite believably. In other numbers, however, the backdrop was ignorable or worse—occasionally images were faintly projected onto the dancers’ grey shirts.

There was little integration between the music and the dancing, either—nothing that went beyond matching steps to the beat, and one number, to Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” didn’t even do that. The audience didn’t seem to care one whit, though, as it rewarded break-dance body sculpture moves, poses, and spins with applause and whoops of glee—as it did for just about every number.

The music was terrific throughout and there’s no having a bad time watching human forms in coordinated motion to it, but I think the 3D hindered the show at least as much as it enhanced it. Technologists have taken on the challenge of large-scale glasses-free 3D (it already works for handheld game devices); when it works not just for the living room but the dance stage as well, Decadancetheatre will really have something.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: Leonard Cohen Koans

Posted by metaphorical on 25 August 2011

leonard cohen koans

1h 15m
VENUE #15: Le Poisson Rouge
Performance seen: Tue 23 @ 7:15
Remaining performances: Fri 26 @ 8:30 Sat 27 @ 3

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

If you were going to select an artist to create a show “built from our personal responses to the essences of the stories being told in his work,” in which “the arrangements cross genres and are interwoven with selections of his poetry and prose,” it’s hard to imagine a more likely oeuvre than that of that iconoclastic poet, songwriter, raconteur, singer, and occasional mystic, Leonard Cohen.

I’m a bit of a Leonard Cohen fan. I’ve watched the documentary “I’m Your Man,” several times. His two songs on k.d. lang’s “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” are my favorites. I can remember the first time I ever heard “Suzanne.” I have a favorite version of “Hallelujah” (Rufus Wainwright’s).

And most importantly for a prose writer like me, Cohen writes like a writer. Despite everything that Sondheim says about the differences between lyrics and poetry, Cohen’s lyrics read like poetry, and, more than any other kind of poetry, they read like prose poems.

Who else could represent freedom with the image of “a drunk in a midnight choir”? Or a woman’s hair as having been woven on a loom “of smoke and gold and breathing”? Who writes songs infused with Biblical references—Jesus walking on the water, David, Babylon, and a man weakened when a woman cuts his hair—and blowjobs?

For that matter, how many Jewish Canadian songwriter-poets have a Zen master? And I didn’t really know that much about Cohen’s poetry or his philosophy. I looked forward to a show that connected the many chain links of such an artist. It would be like fusing the theatrical existentialism of “The Flies” with the academic existentialism of “Being and Nothingness.” But with music!

Unfortunately, music is just about all there was. Twelve songs in 75 minutes. That doesn’t leave much room for Ali Hughes and her Thieves to “explore the work of Leonard Cohen, infusing his poetry, prose and song with their intricate, and very personal, elixir,” as the Fringe description promised.

The songs themselves were terrific, and Hughes and her musical director, pianist, and all-around collaborator, Daryl Wallis, have reached into the Cohen oeuvre to pull out a bunch of lesser-known works, including only a few favorites and ignoring some others.

Four songs in the show (Avalanche, Winter Lady, Lady Midnight, and Feels So Good)—fully one-third of the twelve-song playlist—are not among the 31 songs in the album “The Essential Leonard Cohen.” And going the other way, of the album’s five most popular songs, as judged by iTunes, two weren’t in the show (“Hallelujah” and “Everybody Knows”), nor is the other k.d. lang cover, “Bird on the Wire.”

(Here’s the complete song list, at least the night I attended, as best I could get them commited to notes: The Guests / Avalanche / Dance Me To The End Of Love / Chelsea Hotel No. 2 / Sisters Of Mercy / Winter Lady / Lady Midnight / Famous Blue Raincoat / I’m Your Man / Suzanne / Feels So Good / If It Be Your Will.)

The show was essentially a cabaret act with a veneer of Cohen as interstitial material. A Zen koan started and ended the show (a single koan, with a 70-minute cliffhanger), another koan was related, a few random Cohen quotes, and a couple of lines of “Hallelujah” made their way into “Feels So Good,” medley-style. Other than that, it was all songs, all the time. Even the song selection itself seemed to favor the love songs of a cabaret act, instead of the more story-oriented songs of a philosopher-poet.

The part of the show that perhaps best followed its description was the very center. Hughes told a koan about a couple that elope and, years later, return to the home of her disapproving parents. It was followed by two of the most story-like songs of the evening, “Winter Lady” (which seems to contradict the koan), and “Lady Midnight” (which reinforces the question of the koan).

Musically, “Suzanne” was by far the most interesting. I could imagine a hundred other singers singing most of the songs in much the same way Hughes did, but on “Suzanne” her voice snaked through the lyrics in unique ways, for example going up instead of down when bridging the two parts of the line, “all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.”

“I’m Your Man” was even more successful. Throughout, the musicians were exceptional and the two thieves (Marty Thomas and Chris Dilley) sang flawlessly, but for this number, all five elements of the music matched perfectly: the piano, bass, drums, backup singers, and lead vocal.

Hughes herself has a beautiful voice, and made a striking appearance. A tall 30something honey blonde woman, she wore a black dinner jacket with just a leotard or camisole barely showing itself underneath, black stretch pants, and black high-heeled open-toe bowtie patent leather pumps. I was disappointed in “Leonard Cohen Koans” as a Fringe show, but I would see her cabaret any time.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: The Toughest Girl Alive! (Candye Kane)

Posted by metaphorical on 25 August 2011

The Toughest Girl Alive!

1h 50m
VENUE #15: Le Poisson Rouge
Performance seen: Tue 23 @ 9:15
Remaining performances: Fri 26 @ 5:45 Sat 27 @ 7:45

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

For most of her life, singer and sex star Candye Kane was told if she would just slim down she’d be perfect. As a longtime aficionado of the female form, I beg to differ. As a longtime aficionado of theatre, however, it’s pretty much dead on when it comes to her autobiographical show, “The Toughest Girl Alive!”: if the last half hour could go on a diet and exercise regimen, the show would be just about perfect.

Photo of Candye Kane by Marco HermanHere are some of the elements of her perfect show: Great singing (both country and western, and blues), great honesty, and a great story of genuine aspirations and enormous obstacles in the way of achieving them. Candye’s desires aren’t so unusual; she wants a singing career, and she wants love. Nor are the two unrelated. She explains (twice, for some reason) that when she was 6, she learned she could get people to like her by singing.

What’s unusual is two things. First, she’s almost completely uninhibited. She starts working at a young age on a sex phone line and soon is posing for girlie magazines. (I may have the order wrong—Candye unfortunately jumps around chronologically without much in the way of signposts along the way. I asked the three people I sat with, and they all had the same problem I did.) Second, she’s overweight, normally a problem in building a career in show business. She perseveres, however, and helps create a niche within the porn industry for large women.

The obstacles in Candye’s twin paths to music and love are epic. An abandoning father, an alternatingly loving and cruel step-father, exploitive photographers and producers, gang violence, teenage pregnancy, a suicide attempt, the premature birth of her son, drug dependencies, prostitution, abusive boyfriends, a music manager with a conflicting and unrealistic vision of her career, more pregnancies, and throughout, a psychologically abusive mother and physically abusive men.

There are also high moments as well—her first magazine cover (Juggs Magazine), high-paying stripping gigs, the health of her low-birth-weight son, relationships that work out, at least for a while, great friendships, and the way Candye gets closer and closer to a record deal with a major label, which provides a much-needed narrative thread through the ups and the downs. Also helpful were the many photographs of Candye throughout her varied career. Her extremely public life is documented in way that is common only now that we have cellphone cameras, blogs, and Facebook.

Toward the end of the show, unfortunately, Candye begins to preach to the audience, against the censorship of large breasts, the anti-choice movement, and the criminalization of sex work (“We should outlaw poverty, not prostitution”), to name just three occasions when Candye breaks faith with the particulars of her story. It’s not only untheatrical and counterproductive, it also serves no purpose. The audience has no trouble drawing these lessons from Candye’s wayward life.

This represents the only major flaw in an otherwise stellar show. The minor flaws include the hard-to-follow chronology, and a similar difficulty in sometimes understanding who is who. Scenes from Candye’s life are enacted by her with the aid of two excellent singer-actors, Robert Kirk and Bethany Slomka. They necessarily represent many people over the course of Candye’s life story, but the two women in particular jump from person to person like body-snatchers being chased through a crowd. In one scene, for example, Candye plays herself until Slomka says, “Your mother and I,” at which point we’re supposed to understand that Slomka is Candye’s grandmother and Candye is now her own mother. (At least, that’s what I think happened.)

Kirk and Slomka have beautiful voices and do an excellent job of distinguishing by gesture, volume, and accent the many people they’re portraying. The live band (bass and lead guitar, drums, and keyboards) was excellent as well. Much praise is also due Javier Velasco, who wrote the story. It’s common in publishing that an autobiographical story is written by someone else, but rare in theatre. Here, as there, it seems to be a good idea. The story is well shaped and has a powerful arc.

Candye is a terrific singer in both her genres, and something like this show would easily work well as cabaret with the story reduced to patter—especially easy to imagine in the lounge atmosphere of Le Poisson Rouge. As a full-blown narrative, though, it’s perfect for the Fringe.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in playwriting, pop culture, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: Wilhelmstrasse

Posted by metaphorical on 24 August 2011


1h 55m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Wed 24 @ 4:15
Remaining performance: Fri 26 @ 2

Rating: 6
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

Here’s a description of the show that it seems Stuart Caldwell wanted to write in “Wilhemstrasse”:

A 1990s friendship between a Samuel, a New York Jewish man and Rica, a German woman, never tips into romance in this story that moves forward toward its dramatic and backward to its beginning, as the differences pulling them apart prove stronger than the attraction that pulls them together.

Here’s the show as Caldwell himself describes it in his Fringenyc.org description:

A provocative relationship between a beautiful German girl and sarcastic New York Jew probes art, sexless love and the struggle to comprehend the Holocaust and its enduring stigma. Part travelogue, part polemic on identity, religion and the Past’s binding ties.

I trust it’s obvious that that’s not a show, nor would it be even if the relationship were provocative (which it isn’t), even if the guy were sufficiently sarcastic (he isn’t), and even if the show probed art and sexless love (which it doesn’t and doesn’t).

Before I create the impression that I hated this show, which I didn’t, let me first say it fills me mostly with frustration at what it could have been. The idea of the show is fine: a two person play in which a Jewish man’s inability to forgive the Germans for their Nazi past is embodied in his inability to regard a German woman he cares deeply for more as an individual person than a member of the German people.

There, are, however, a couple of other constraints that Caldwell placed on his story, and they prove to be its undoing.

First is that this is not a romantic relationship. It’s all fine and well for Caldwell to want to explore friendship instead of romance, but the problem then becomes, what’s at stake for these two people? Samuel seems to want a romance, though with an uncertain intensity of desire—by which I mean, we never really know how much he wants it (and by the way, I suspect we don’t because Caldwell himself doesn’t know)—and she unequivocally doesn’t want it.

Worse, because the story unfolds forward and backward in alternating scenes, with the penultimate scene being their last time together, and the final scene being the time they met, the play starts in the middle and we instantly know that there will be no romance for them.

So what’s left? Some kind of friendship. But to sustain a two-hour show such as this one, it has to face obstacles, and they must want it very much.

Here again, Caldwell’s decision to tell the story forward and backward compounds his problems. The scene that clearly shows the wit, charm, regard, and growing affection between them falls in the second act; then too, the obstacles are all in his head. They are internal to him, making them literally invisible to us, and they leave her out of the conflict except to be its object. Rica never, for example, has to make a choice—say, one between her prestigious and exciting lawyering job at the Volkwagen company that employed slave labor in the Nazi era and now is dragging its heels over reparations, and her growing love for Samuel.

As the beginning of this review might suggest, my reaction to this play in its first couple of scenes was a fairly violent hostility, and I came within an inch of the exit at the intermission. My initial thought was to blame the actors, specifically Nick Masson as Samuel. His every line was preceded by a pause, or followed by one, and often both occurred in the same piece of dialogue.

I still think Masson is wrong for the part, but I don’t think that’s the bigger share of the problem. Frankly, the acting in the Fringe is almost uniformly fine or better, and actors are invariably held back from better performances by the limitations of their material. Sure enough, my inclination now is to blame the play. Masson is fine whenever a scene has some rising beats of conflict. Most of the time, he just doesn’t have anywhere to go.

Giordona Aviv seems a very good actress—again, as much as she can be with a part that ought to be filled with a protagonist’s actions and dilemmas, but instead is mostly standing around watching the Samuel character wrestle with the demons in his head.

In the end, I’m glad I stuck it out. There are some good moments in this play, and they’re almost all in the second act. The storyline ends with a whimper, not a bang, but then, there weren’t many bangs along the way.

It’s a pity. The basic idea of the play still seems sound to me. But sometimes you need to let your basic chrysalis of an idea shed the cocoon of whatever other ideas you had, and fly where it wants. If the impetus was autobiographical, as several theatregoers around me hypothesized, then sometimes you have let go of that as well.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: Felony Friday

Posted by metaphorical on 22 August 2011

Felony Friday

2h 15m
VENUE #7: Connelly Theater
Performance seen: Sat 20 @ 7:15
Remaining performances: Wed 24 @ 9:15 Sat 27 @ 4 Sun 28 @ 3:30

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

Few plays, at the Fringe or elsewhere, approach complicated themes, like the ambiguous nature of evil, or man’s eternal quest for salvation, with as much confidence as “Felony Friday.”

Paul Giaciomatti, scion of a New York crime family, finds himself locked up for the weekend after cops plant drugs in the trunk of his smashed-up car on a Friday night. It seems Paul and his cousin Tony have been reducing the number of the devil’s minions by killing killers and rapists, a la Murder, Inc. Their latest victim is Jack, a corrupt cop who raped Paul’s cousin Angela, and it’s in Jack’s body that Paul is visited by one of the devil’s top lieutenants.

The others in the lockup include a transvestite hooker and his john; BBI, an ex-boxer; and a hippie dude replete with a Castaway/Gump beard, a joke that is exploited endlessly, mostly to good effect.

After a reasonably brief prolegomenon in which each character is introduced with a moment in the spotlight, the real action begins with the arrival of Jack, played brilliantly by the play’s author. I don’t know if Scott Decker does as well with roles he doesn’t himself create; if he does, I want to see everything he ever performs in.

Unfortunately, the play’s second act goes much like the first, except that it takes much longer for Jack to return on stage, a digression that feels yet longer still because this time around we’ve already been privy to Decker’s magnetic pull and are impatient for its return.

The digression consists of little more than an extended, and quite tired, riff on race relations and the words we use for race, occasioned by the twin introduction to the lockup of a new inmate, CJ, and Paul’s cousin Tony, who has contrived to get himself locked up in order to help Paul battle Jack. The play comes to a grinding halt as we consider the reasons blacks can use the n-word while whites cannot. Yawn.

All of the actors stumbled over their lines in this performance, especially John Amos as BBI, the ex-boxer. While the inevitable kinks of opening night surely played a part—in Amos’s case especially, because he came to the play only a few weeks earlier—I think there was another reason.

The worst stumbles occurred in this first half of Act II and I think it’s precisely because the material is so aimless. The cast, led by Joe Wissler as Paul, is uniformly excellent, and Amos in particular is a fine actor who surely would have no trouble memorizing a relatively small part. But without any beats to go on, some of the lines sound similar to others, and it must be easy to get lost.

Better would be to just lose the additional character, CJ (well played by Jas AndersonJaime Smith), get Tony into the action right away, find some other, less artificial way to engage BBI in the story, and get Jack back on stage quickly.

If, in the course of losing this mostly useless material, the play shed a few of its 135 minutes, so much the better—indeed, it could be tighter all around. For example, there’s a terrific set of jokes early on riffing on nicknames in general and prison nicknames in particular. But then it’s dropped—Paul is never even referred to by the new name he has negotiated for himself. A play is not a novel. These kinds of digressions are self-indulgent luxuries that can’t be allowed to make the editorial cut. Every gun, not just the one above the mantel, has to go off.

When the play finally shifts out of neutral, it picks up speed quickly, and by the end is flying down the highway as quickly as it did in most of Act I. The action builds nicely, the revelations explode as they should, and the ending is one of those shocks that come as no surprise. It also left me thinking, as it intended to, about retribution and redemption.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | 2 Comments »

Fringe 2011 Review: Yeast Nation

Posted by metaphorical on 21 August 2011

Yeast Nation (the triumph of life)

2h 30m
VENUE #9: The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance reviewed: Sun 21 @ 2:15
Remaining shows: Mon 22 @ 8:15 Tue 23 @ 8 Thu 25 @ 2

Rating: 10
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“Yeast Nation” is nothing like “Urinetown,” yet it’s destined to be the next “Urinetown.”

Like “Urinetown” it’s an absurd story requiring a simple disbelief easily suspended, and, like “Urinetown,” once suspended, the plot hangs together surprisingly well. (“Urinetown” in particular is as complicated and tight a story as “The Sting” or “Three Days of the Condor”; Yeast Nation gets its science all wrong but freely self-comments to that effect, hilariously.)

The story is of the first colony of yeast—and therefore the first life forms on Earth— living in the ocean, three billion years ago.

The yeast have overdivided, so they are low on salt, their only food (I know, and they know, there are no hydrocarbons in salt) and so the first and eldest, and therefore king, yeast has decreed that they avoid any further (asexual) reproduction; nor are they allowed to travel beyond their prescribed salt-hunting boundaries, nor shall they float to the surface. In a hilarious song, the king extols the virtues of stasis. Yet of course, as in all societies, the center cannot hold and, in Act II, anarchy is loosed upon the yeast world—forbidden asexual reproduction, sibling rivalry, Goneril-like treachery, and treasonous floating to the surface.

Why is the first yeast therefore king? It would have been an interesting question for “Yeast Nation” to explore: What would be the human correlates of a yeast colony’s social structures? “Yeast Nation” goes another way. It dresses the yeasts in togas and robes and a group of them function as a Greek chorus led by Jan the Unknown (one of the conceits of the show is that every character is named Jan—the Elder, the Second, the Sly, the Wiser, etc.).

Rather than concern itself with social structures (as “Urinetown” did) “Yeast Nation” takes on other, arguably broader, themes, notably love. Socrates, in “The Symposium” and elsewhere, proffers the theory that humans originally were male and female combined; having been separated, we spend our lives searching for our other half. In “Yeast Nation” love newly unifies hitherto unjoined entities, it brings together the show’s romantic couples, and it’s the force of nature that impels single-celled organisms to become multi-cellular ones (and yes, that’s yet more crackpot science, as the show acknowledges).

The show’s plot contains jealousies and betrayals of Shakespearean proportion (and more than a few Shakespearean references) but mostly cuts out the middlemen and mines the same mythologies as the Bard did. Jan the Unknown, for example is a sort of Tirelas, that is, a blind prophetess (Harriet Harris, brilliantly).

In one of the show’s many hilarious apologias, “Yeast Nation” notes how badly the Earth’s currently-dominant species is messing things up, and speculates, “If science can’t save them, perhaps a piece of biohistorical musical theatre can.”

If “Urinetown” represented a biocultural future, “Yeast Nation” is exactly the opposite, a bioanthropomorphic past. But Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s new show shares an important quality with the old one: a New York Fringe run that will propel it to further much-deserved success.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | 2 Comments »

Fringe 2011 Review: Virgie

Posted by metaphorical on 20 August 2011


1h 0m
VENUE #13: Bowery Poetry Club
Performance reviewed: Fri 19 @ 6:30
Remaining performances: Wed 24 @ 9:30 Sat 27 @ 2

Rating: 6
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

What is it about Australians? Are they disinterested by stories?

Vergie is a reconstruction of the life of “a little-known female actor, Virgie Vivienne, who brought Shakespeare to the desert in the 1890s.” according to a program note. She is, unfortunately, almost as little known to us after the show as before. As the notes continues, the show “tracks her life through Australia and Europe, love, tragedy, and of course, theatre.” As it turns out, that’s an excellent and revealing choice of words.

Renee Newman-Storen has done an admirable job researching Virgie’s life, “sourced,” she says, “from textbooks, literature from the era, newspaper articles, theatre reviews, and oral histories….” Unfortunately most of Virgie’s footprints through the historical record consist of theatrical reviews in Australian newspapers and they make by far the greater part of Newman-Storen’s script. Having Virgie read her own notices with demure pride may help us track Virgie through the desert, but it’s not much as drama goes.

The program note goes on to promise, “…and original writing connecting what we don’t know and who I think Virgie might have been.” There’s far to little of that, and rather than actually connect Virgie’s dots Newman-Storen engages in the interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying, device of representing gaps in the historical record as lapses of Virgie’s memory. We get in fact only three or four scenes, one with a syphilitic gold miner and the others with a brothel madame with the obligatory heart of gold. Though we’re told Vergie is very close to her mother and follows her everywhere, she isn’t represented in scenes nor is she even described except for her age and date of death. Likewise unrepresented are Virgie’s husband as well as a man who she sues for breach of (marital) promise.

Newman-Storen is a terrific physical actor with a charming manner whose repetoire includes a spot-on ability to portray a camel. As a fellow writer I understand her fascination with Virgie and I admire her unwillingness to distort the historical record but I wish she had asked herself if, in the absence of artifice, there’s any story here to tell.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: The Day the Sky Turned Black

Posted by metaphorical on 20 August 2011

The Day the Sky Turned Black

0h 55m
VENUE #10: IATI Theater
Performance seen: Fri 19 @ 3:30
Remaining performances: Wed 24 @ 9:15 Sat 27 @ 2 Sun 28 @ 4:45

Rating: 3
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

When tragedy strikes, we seek news; afterward, we crave narrative. Journalists have been late to the story party, at least compared to playwrights, who have been explaining tragedies with stories at least since Sophocles.

So it’s odd that “The Day the Sky Turned Black” manages to convey almost as much information, but not nearly as much affect, as a newspaper or magazine feature article that would take half the time to read.

“The Day” tries to tell the story of the 2009 Australian “Black Saturday” bushfires through five voices: a 6-year-old boy; a mother whose son was one of several arsonists responsible for the severity of the tragedy, which killed 173 people; an older woman widowed by the fire; a schoolteacher who survived, though her home and neighbors did not; and a journalist.

According to a program note, the representation of the journalist is taken “verbatim” from interviews, while the other characters are fictional. This seems a bit odd as well, because the journalist’s speeches are completely banal, while the others are all reasonably affecting.

The stories are told sequentially in monologue, generally in the order given above, in four rounds: before, during, after, and one year later. Except for the journalist’s, they eventually evoke our interest and concern, but for me this didn’t happen until round 3. Given the show’s structure, the earlier rounds are necessary, but the halfway mark is a long time to wait to start caring. That’s why we have narrative structures—single protagonists around whom we fashion a story, or some other point of connection. (It will turn out that the family of the older woman lives down the street from the 6-year-old boy, but we don’t learn that until round 4 and it has no importance to the play.)

If we’re going to ask ourselves why the playwright chose a structure that sucked half the life out of the 55 minutes she alloted herself, we might as well consider some other uncomfortable questions as well.

Why these five stories? If playwright Ali Kennedy Scott wanted to tell “an inspiring story of courage” why are all the characters in the play survivors? And why are there no firefighting stories, the logical place to look for acts of courage?

Perhaps it’s because rather than focus on stories of courage, much of the Australian media has dwelt on how the authorities fell down on the job on Black Saturday. Six months after the tragedy, for example, the Sydney News Herald reported,

As evidence before the Bushfires Royal Commission has spelt out in excruciating detail, failure was everywhere. Command, control and effective communication are the pillars of any military operation. The Country Fire Authority, with its brigades, captains and lieutenants, fits neatly into that mould. Yet none of it worked.

Scott briefly takes to task Victoria state officials for, of all things, failed to monitor potential arsonists, but she has otherwise chosen to tell us, at least by omission, a children’s tale that’s either poorly researched or deliberately propagandistic.

It takes but a minute’s googling to learn that, but that brings us back to those pesky journalists. If they’ve finally learned how to tell a story, have dramaturges forgotten?

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies

Posted by metaphorical on 19 August 2011

Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies

1h 10m
VENUE #3: CSV Kabayitos
Performance seen: Thu 18 @ 5
Remaining Performances: Thu 25 @ 9 Sun 28 @ 4:15

Rating: 5
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

In the first minutes of “Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies” Jessica Sherr as Bette Davis sits down at a dressing table and, with very deliberate motions, removes her earrings and necklace, places them in a jewelry box, closes the box, takes off her evening gown, lays it over a chair, and lights a cigarette.

It’s all very careful and convincing. Except that Sherr smokes the cigarette like a nonsmoker. That wouldn’t be so bad in another show, but smoking was raised to an art form by Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, and the apotheosis of smoking, the sine qua non of smoking scenes, takes place in a Bette Davis movie (1942’s Now, Voyager).

For me, this was exactly “Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies”—a show of a few hits and more than few misses. The hair? Perfect. The accent? Quite good. The use of language? Fine, until at about 10 minutes in, she says “you’re pushing my buttons,” a phrase that has zero instances in Google’s Ngram Viewer until 1972.

The show takes place more or less in real time, an hour of Bette’s life on the night of the 1939 Academy Awards. Bette has left the award show, but her mother is still sitting at the Warner Bros. table (nice touch of accuracy there; they still sat at tables in 1939) and updates her through several phone calls. Bette, nominated for “Dark Victory,” knows she will lose to Vivian Leigh in “Gone With the Wind.”

The show slips back and forth between Bette in monologue and her acting out her half of key moments in her life, such as arguing with Jack Warner, who won’t lend her out for “Gone With the Wind.” That argument is a bit of an odd choice, because Warner had his own scheme for getting Bette into the Scarlett role (a scheme David O. Selznick ultimately rejected in favor of one with MGM) but more importantly, these arguments can unfortunately never become real scenes, because Sherr gives us only Bette’s side of these scenes, with pauses for Bette’s interlocutor. The pace of the show suffers greatly.

The pace suffers as well because most of the scenes never rise in conflict. A three-way scene between Bette, Jack Warner, and Busby Berkeley, was a welcome exception.

There were some other things to like in this show, to be sure. Bette always seems to lose her arguments and then in the next scene we see she got her way; it’s all delightfully understated. Between phone calls from her mother, Bette idly rehearses a line from “Juarez”; not only is her focus on a single line engagingly funny, but that movie came out that June—it’s quite believable that she would have to be on the set early the next day, and generally speaking, the show seems very well researched. Finally, the ending of the show reverses the actions in the beginning (minus the bungled cigarette smoking) in a very satisfying way.

This portrait of Bette Davis well captures her look, her sound, her meticulousness, and her iron-willed determination. Too bad it couldn’t also mirror pace of a woman who made four movies in a single year or the rapid-fire dialogue that made movies of the 30s and 40s so enjoyable to those of us who love them.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: Fourteen Flights

Posted by metaphorical on 18 August 2011

Fourteen Flights

2h 30m
VENUE #3: CSV Kabayitos
Performance seen: Wed 17 @ 8
Remaining performances: Sun 21 @ 4 Mon 22 @ 4:15 Fri 26 @ 8:45 Sat 27 @ 4:45

Rating: 10
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“Fourteen Flights” is an extraordinary show. The writing, with the rhythms of Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” and the situational intensity of Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad,” demands an exceptional level acting and direction. Great architecture demands great engineering; fortunately, the cast and crew here are theatrical engineers of the highest caliber.

The play is at once very simple and very complex. Two airline pilots will have a near-death flight experience (for themselves; thirteen passengers will die) in Act II. Act I consists of their backstories, related more for the audience than through interactions between them; in fact, at times they take a role of interacting with the other on behalf of some character in that person’s life (ex-wife, son, etc.).

Some of these stories are told two three at a time, with the other pilot also relating some story. It’s not hard to follow, but the details often don’t matter so much as the poetry of the words and the shape of the lives that are reconstructed. Scenes rise and fall like waves crashing on the beach.

The two pilots reach the brink of their existences in the first two acts. In the third, one goes over the brink, the other pulls back, as if there were a throttle to his life.

It’s hard to convey just how extraordinary a job Jared Houseman and Matt Macnelly do as the two pilots. (Maurice Williams is also excellent in a small role: two scenes that bookend the play.) One of the reasons I looked forward to “Fourteen Flights” as much as I did was the knowledge that it was the same company as last year’s “Art of Attack,” perhaps my favorite show in the 2010 Fringe. Halfway through watching “Fourteen Flights” I realized I must have confused two plays—something else must be this year’s play by the “Art of Attack” guys, because those actors were nowhere to be seen. In fact, though, that’s just a mark of how deeply Houseman, who last year won himself an Excellence In Performance By An Actor Award, buries himself in his roles. And yet, this year, I liked Macnelly’s performance even better.

As for the story, it would be easy to believe that playwright Ryan Campbell has no overarching message here. If there is one, it’s that life is what we make of it, except when fate intervenes, and success—or even survival—can break a man just as easily as defeat. How many of the people around us leading the life of the golden child have simply never been tested? It’s a question extraordinarily asked and answered in “Fourteen Flights.”

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: 22 Stories

Posted by metaphorical on 18 August 2011

22 Stories

0h 45m
VENUE #10: IATI Theater
Performance seen: Fri 12 @ 9:15 Wed 17 @ 5:45
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 2 Sun 21 @ noon Fri 26 @ 7 Sun 28 @ 3:15

Rating: 7
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

Earlier this year I interviewed the 14-year-old software programmer whose game hit #1 at the iPhone app store, unseating the enormously popular Angry Birds. His responses were mundane, almost banal (“Was it hard to create an Android version?” “No, there’s a library for that”), but every moment of the interview was colored by the fact that he was only 14.

It would be a mistake to look at “22 Stories” without keeping in mind that it’s written by a 17-year-old, Sofia Johnson, about a pair of 17-year-old fraternal twins, Nicole, the survivor, and Natasha, who has killed herself (we learn this in the first couple of minutes).

There’s a danger of condescension to that, to be sure, so let me say right up front that this is better than a lot of plays, indeed, better than a lot of plays that are in this year’s Fringe.

But some moments, such as a scene in which Nicole’s school principal offers her extra time for her assignments and grief counseling, both of which Nicole angrily rejects, are best seen in light of the playwright’s age: The principal’s words are at once perfectly reasonable and absolutely fatuous and unbearable, and they ring true as exactly how an angry and upset 17-year-old hears and sees the world around her. The same authentic ear for words and emotion is reflected in a couple of the flashback scenes between the two sisters.

The flashback scenes comprise about a third of this 45-minute play, the remainder being a handful of scenes that move forward in Nicole’s life with her mother, her principal, and two of Natasha’s friends, and a number of speeches in which Nicole explains her life to the audience.

The division of the story into almost equal parts monologue and action inevitably results in a lot of exposition. The monologues might have been a good way for a playwright to get into a story, and it’s common in writing anything, whether it’s a play, a novel, or a personal essay, for the early drafts to have a lot of exposition and on-the-nose dialogue; the main job of the subsequent rewrites is to turn as much of it as possible into scenes and subtext.

With more active scenes, perhaps Johnson could have written herself out of another corner her play’s structure paints her into—Nicole ends up striking mostly a single pair of notes, anger and regret, and so it becomes increasingly hard for the conflicts to build as the play progresses. (Along similar lines, the characters of Maddie and Darius could have been more sympathetic—and while I’m at it, I’ll say Darius would make more sense if he were not obviously gay.)

A couple of production notes as well: The cots that well serve the flashback scenes between the sisters ill serve some other scenes, notably those between Nicole and the school principal; and items get thrown onto the floor that are hard to remove, given the absence of breaks between scenes.

I thought Alexandra Jennings did a terrific job as Nicole; my wife preferred the equally terrific Juliette Monaco as Natasha. I thought the difference between the two performances had mostly to do with the fact that though the Natasha role is smaller, it gets to express a wider range of emotion.

These are quibbles, though, in a fundamentally sound and satisfying play, and I hope Johnson feels all the pride she deserves in her achievement. There are plenty of plays written by playwrights twice her age that aren’t half as good.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: Whale Song

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

Whale Song or: Learning to Live With Mobyphobia

1h 15m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Sun 14 @ 2:15
Remaining performances: Thu 18 @ 2 Mon 22 @ 6 Wed 24 @ 7 Sat 27 @ 9:30

Rating: 5
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“Whale Song” is a perfectly okay play about overcoming grief. I would ascribe to it a more definite idea or purpose but I’m not sure it has one. If—and unfortunately only if—you’re suffering from recent grief and think a play would help, I heartily recommend it.

As the show begins, Maya, a young New York schoolteacher, addresses her class of four year olds in increasingly inappropriate ways. It quickly comes out that she has recently lost her father.

The father, it also quickly comes out, died in an unusual way that involves whales. Meanwhile, Maya can’t return phone calls and instead spends her time obsessively watching the TV news about a whale that has accidentally—or was it????—swam up the Hudson.

Through a quick series of phone messages that emphasize Maya’s psychic isolation, we’re introduced to her sister in Florida, her boyfriend, and a drummer dude she wants to hire for obscure but ultimately unimportant reasons.

None of it has much importance. The relationship to the boyfriend can’t endure, the sister is only as supportive and helpful as one can be through occasional phone calls, the drummer understands her best and least meaningfully. They each ultimately add up to little more than plot devices, such as the plot is; their own needs are limited and predictable and don’t come into conflict with Maya’s, which in turn add up to little more than an inchoate desire to understand her father’s death and whether she herself is crazy. It’s not really enough to drive a whale up the Hudson—or a plot toward a climax.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: Life Insurance

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

Life Insurance
“A motorcycle crash on a rural Virginia road. An overeager volunteer firefighter, a bitter standardized test instructor, and a stoic salesman must confront the American dream. Death. Birth. Sacrifice. Office supplies.”

0h 37m
VENUE #17: Manhattan Theatre Source
Performance seen: Sun 14 @ 4
Remaining performances: Thu 18 @ 6:15 Fri 19 @ 9 Wed 24 @ 2 Sat 27 @ 12

Rating: 9
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“Life Insurance” is a clever inquiry into the circumstances of a motorcycle death on a Virginia country road and other questions about how much control we have over our lives in the face of fate and the actions, capricious and otherwise, of others.

The life insurance agent who paid a sales call to the deceased shortly before his demise, the former college teacher who first called 911, and the born-again first responder first on the scene tell their disparate, overlapping stories in alternating bursts.

Comparisons between this show and the movie “Crash”—in subject matter as well as the random joining of lives—are inevitable but not entirely apposite, given the vast differences between theatre and film in general and the specific fact that one actor plays all three parts.

Joel Jones, who also wrote this play, does a superb job capturing the three characters and moving between them. The program notes say the show began “as a single-character monologue in a bar in Charlottesville, Va.” One has the idea—and not just because the insurance agent continually sips from a rocks glass—that it was also, as so many good plays are, conceived in a bar. But the addition of the other two characters played by the same actor not only distinguishes it from “Crash” but surely more than triples the play’s considerable power, if not its initial impact.

This is a show that seemed to end with a whimper, but it’s the whimper of a mutt that followed me onto the subway, into my home, and perhaps even delayed my sleep. I don’t remember “Crash” keeping me up late at all.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: 74 Minutes of Stereo Radio Theater

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

74 Minutes of Stereo Radio Theater

1h 15m
VENUE #18: The Studio at Cherry Lane Theatre
Performance seen: Sat 13 @ 5:15
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 7 Tue 23 @ 8:45 Thu 25 @ 7 Sat 27 @ 5 Sun 28 @ 2

Rating: 9
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

If you want 74 minutes of pristine hilarity, you could hardly do better than to seek out “74 Minutes of Stereo Radio Theatre.”

This two-person show consists of eight hilarious vignettes: a game of desert island (pick one book, CD, food, person) that goes horribly wrong and right; a chance encounter on the street of two friends who decide to have a doomed love affair; a delusional tribal chieftan and his loyal and infinitely wiser advisor; a nervous new patient and her psychiatrist as they explore the voices of a large Jewish family in her head; a taping of a TV chef and her passive-aggressive mother; a bachelor showing an amorous young woman his collection of macaroni & cheese; a challenging job interview for a coveted position of gong ringer; and two teenagers who work in a trendy clothing chain store.

The last was expendable (and the gong ringer would have been a great—pardon the word—note to end on) but the first seven were thoroughly charming—in some cases surprisingly so. When the lights arose on the tribal chieftan I was sure I would hate the tired stereotype, yet it might have been my favorite segment. I teach my writing students that you need to exorcise clichés, except for the occasions when you turn them inside out, making them fresh again.

Or my favorite might have been the game of desert island—a textbook example for my students of building a scene with rising beats. The piece depends entirely on the timing of the machine-gun animus-laden repartee, a challenge the multitalented Maureen Fitzgerald (who also wrote the show) and Andrew Shulman (who directed it) met with surpassing ease.

Or my favorite might have been the gong ringer—a classically simple absurdist idea brilliantly executed, in which a ridiculously wealthy and eccentric mansion-owner more than meets his match in an revisionist scholar and exponent of a preposterous art form.

Shulman makes the most of his considerable acting abilities to turn another absurdist character—owner of the world’s largest collection of macaroni & cheese—into a sympathetic—albeit pathetic—potential boyfriend. It would be hard to pin Fitzgerald down to the vignette I liked most for her acting, and likewise for her writing—there’s just too much to choose from.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Fringe 2011 Review: The Eternal Husband

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

The Eternal Husband

1h 15m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Sat 13 @ 2:45
Remaining performances: Wed 17 @ 3:45 Sun 21 @ 6 Fri 26 @ 9

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

The conceit of author and director Nat Cassidy’s loose adaptation of the novella of the same name is that Dostoevsky was the Raymond Chandler of his day. While I can’t speak to the fealty of the adaptation, the detective at the center of “The Eternal Husband” is indeed close kin to Philip Marlowe.

The detective, Younger Man, well played by Arthur Aulisi, is haunted by his past and by an unfamiliar older man who he thinks is following him. Older Man turns out to be the husband of a woman Younger Man had an affair with nine years earlier.

All the roles are well played, especially, I thought, that of Claudia (Karen Sternberg), a friend and former lover to Younger Man. Elyse Mitro’s adulterous and castrating Natalya is eminently believable as the sort of woman an eternal husband is drawn to, as a moth to the flame. Charles Gerber, a terrific actor, seemed less prepared for the role of Older Man than the other three, though the contrast between the meandering early scenes between the two men on the one hand and the crisp banter of Sternberg’s scenes with Aulisi on the other surely had more to do with the quality of the dialogue than the quantity of rehearsal time.

I can’t say whether noir is a particularly strong undercurrent in this year’s Fringe, or if the perception that it is merely reflects the selection biases of this reviewer, but certainly, as our society becomes ever more pragmatic and job oriented, conventional and utilitarian—more math-and-reading, yet with ever-less history and literature to calculate and read—our artists will, as they have in every age, ask the counterintuitive and countercultural questions. In this age, that means the existential ones.

For after all, Cassidy’s conceit, which is (his program notes notwithstanding) by no means uniquely his, is well founded. Good noir, like existentialism, blurs the bounds between reality and imagination, and it is surely no coincidence that not only were Dostoevsky and Nietzsche writing their seminal works contemporaneously, so were Sartre and Chandler, Camus and Cain. That would make The Eternal Husband noir to the nth.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

Posted in language, playwriting, reviews, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »