Friday, October 28, 2011

Media Morsels 10.28.11

  • Sorkin's New Job Writing About Jobs?
    According to a report on Collider, the incomparable Aaron Sorkin is in talks to write a Steve Jobs biopic. The film would be loosely based on a recent authorized biography penned by Walter Isaacson. Having worked with the word genius on The Social Network, Sony, who bought the rights to Isaacson's book, is looking to re-team with Sorkin. And Sorkin writing about Jobs isn't so out of left field: In a recent elegiac piece for The Daily Beast, Sorkin wrote about his intermittent phone relationship with Jobs. Since Aaron Sorkin is involved, you can be sure I'll let you know the moment more details are in place.

  • Matt Taibbi on Occupy Wall Street
    My favorite journalist, who, in recent years, has taken a slight break from the campaign trail and focused his attention on financial crises, has been chiming in on the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. (He is still covering politics, though: In the latest issue of the venerable magazine, he profiles Rick Perry.) He's writing eloquently both in Rolling Stone and on his Rollingstone.com blog. Here are some highlights:
  • Bloody Bloody Book of Mormon?
    Far from a spooky Mormon hell dream, we heard this week that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson writer-director Alex Timbers (whose Peter and the Starcatcher is headed to Broadway this spring!) is teaming up with The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q scribe Bobby Lopez and his wife, lyricist Kristen Anderson-Lopez. The three are collaborating on an original musical called Up Here. According to the announcement on Playbill.com, Lopez describes the musical as "kind of like Annie Hall meets Cirque du Soleil. It's a romantic comedy with a huge theatrical twist." Sounds like fun, right? Keep checking back for details!

    (Speaking of Bobby Lopez and The Book of Mormon, did you see this week's South Park episode? Lopez re-teamed with Matt Stone and Trey Parker to create a South Park, er, um, tribute to Broadway. The results are tawdry but hilarious! Watch here.)

  • The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
    You know why I love Jon Stewart and his daily show so much? Because boyfriend can throw down:
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Andrew Napolitano Extended Interview Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook
  • Award Season Update
    No, I don't have Oscar buzz - I have Tony news! It's only October and already, there's Tony talk. Here's the scoop:
    • As you may recall, the Tony Awards Administration Committee meets several times throughout the theatre season to rule on the eligibility of various productions and production elements. We learned, according to a Playbill.com article, that the Committee will hold its first meeting of the season next week, on November 3.

    • The two star-studded concerts that are bowing on Broadway this fall, Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway and An Evening with Patti LuPone and Inigo Montoya Mandy Patinkin, are not seeking Tony recognition. You may recall that a couple of years ago the Tony administration committee did away with the Special Event category, usually reserved for concerts such as these. Since then, concerts and one-man (or one-woman, as with Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking) shows have been eligible for nomination in the regular play and musical categories. But producers for both Hugh... and An Evening say the shows are "concert attractions and [we] do not plan to invite awards organizations." Visit Playbill.com for more details.

  • Dig This

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Asuncion

Jesse Eisenberg is best known as an actor, and especially for his acclaimed performance in last year’s The Social Network. With Asuncion, produced by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and playing by special arrangement at the Cherry Lane Theatre, Eisenberg pulls double duty, serving as both actor and playwright. And he’s pretty good at both.

Eisenberg’s Edgar lives with his friend Vinny (Justin Bartha), a Black Studies PhD candidate. Edgar is an unemployed journalist who is too liberal for his own good. (It’s a little difficult to decipher their relationship at first, but later this confusion comes to a head.) Edgar’s sycophantic behavior toward Vinny seems to suit both young men just fine, but their world is turned upside down when Edgar’s older brother, Stuart (Remy Auberjonois), drops in out of the blue and drops off his new Philippine bride, Asuncion (Camille Mana). Asuncion stays with Edgar and Vinny (without Stuart) for several days and forces both, though especially Edgar, to reflect on their beliefs.

Being too liberal for his own good and trying to be everyone’s white knight, Edgar assumes that Asuncion (which is Spanish for assumption) is a mail-order, sex-worker bride who his brother has purchased, and he continues to observe and record Asuncion’s every move throughout her stay so that he can write a story about her plight. The problem is that Edgar is so impressed with his liberalism that it gets in the way of his ability to actually get to know and learn something from his new sister-in-law.

I found this to be an interesting play, though I didn’t have a particularly strong reaction to it. Eisenberg (aided by director Kip Fagan) gets the comedic moments right, showing off a flair for witty writing. He also displays – as a writer – a love of language. In one exchange, Vinny says Asuncion is funny. Edgar asks him to describe her humor, asking if it’s witty or more observational. In an exchange with his brother, Edgar exclaims he has convictions. “No,” Stuart says, “you have opinions. That’s not the same thing.” This is a well-crafted play, written with careful attention to word choice. (Perhaps Eisenberg learned a thing or two about writing and word choice while working with master scribe Aaron Sorkin?)

Sharp writing and strong performances from all lead to a rather ambivalent ending. I like that it ended in a naturalistic, slice-of-life way, rather than with some wordy and cumbersome falling action. It’s actually a rather brave, untidy way to end a play, and it happens to make sense for the characters. (It might not have made sense to some audience members, though. After the blackout, there was a murmur of hesitation as several audiences members tried to figure out whether or not that was, in fact, the ending.)

I don’t think Asuncion is a must see and I don’t think it has broad appeal. But for lovers of language and for liberals who roll their eyes at Liberals, this off-Broadway offering makes for an interesting and mostly entertaining evening of theatre.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit rattlestick.org.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Joe Iconis Interview, Part Two

Last week I brought you the first installment of my interview with writer Joe Iconis. Here's part two, in which we find out what Sondheim’s heart, William Finn’s guts and Kander & Ebb’s swagger have in common. Plus, Joe talks about his artistic and personal heroes.

(Find the first part here, and check back next week for the final installment.

Art and commerce. Mutually exclusive, one evilly necessitates the other or some combination therein? (Can there be true artistic expression within commercial constraints?)

I think there are magical situations where art and commerce can coexist. Certainly, most of the big musicals of the past ten years have been both commercial and artistic successes. I mean, look at Book Of Mormon—that show remains completely true to itself and there’s nothing about it that feels “corporatized” or homogenized to [help it] succeed commercially. I think that the theatergoing audience is proving more and more that they are open to seeing groundbreaking, off the beaten path work. I think it’s just a matter of producers having enough faith in that to take chances and trust the artists (and the audiences).

Of course, for every Book of Mormon there are ten hit musicals that feel like they were created by a committee and a million great musicals that are critical and commercial flops. So I don’t think it’s as simple as If You Build It They Will Come. But I’d like to believe that Broadway is still a place where the Sweeney Todds and the Falsettos of tomorrow can open and thrive.


Let’s analyze the state of theatre and music these days. We’re seeing more and more adaptations in theatre, as well as lots of revivals. Is this necessarily a bad thing? The music world is inundated with disposable, auto-tune created noise. Does anything rock anymore? What about today’s art turns you on?

Like anything, adaptations are great when there’s a reason for them to exist. Take a show like Hairspray—I think its amazing. [It’s] a really wonderful piece of popular theater that actually has something to say. In that case, I think you could really feel that [songwriting team] Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman needed to tell that story. But there are so many other adaptations of hit movies where you watch them and think, “Why?”

And then it all kind of feeds into this idea of “the audience will only go to see properties that they are familiar with.” “People only see shows with recognizable titles.” That’s when things start getting dangerous. Because while I think that audiences are really capable of enjoying or supporting new work, we’re not doing them any favors by putting our efforts behind these (shitty/easy) adaptations of blockbuster movies and jukebox musicals. Because then you’ve got a situation where if people are given a choice between going to see a show they’ve never heard of before or a known property, they’re probably gonna choose the known property—especially when it costs so damn much to see a show these days.

The idea of “taking a chance” on something new is going away, and that’s very hard for me to digest. Even back when I was a kid in the 80s and 90s, you could still “discover” a show. The first time I heard about [Hedwig and the Angry Inch] was through my S.A.T. tutor. I went to see it with my aunt and we had no idea what to expect. We were surprised and it was amazing. Nowadays, you have to go out of your way to be surprised by a show. The new ad campaign of Mamma Mia! centers around the tagline: “You already know you’re gonna love it!” The first time I saw that on a billboard on 44th street, I almost threw up. I think it’s that thinking that is the real monster—it’s what’s going to kill Broadway if we aren’t careful. I think the tagline of Mamma Mia! is far more dangerous than the show itself. You already know you’re gonna love it? Fuck you.

Reeve Carney recently said, “It’s scary to think that a generation of potential future world leaders [is] responsible for what’s currently happening [on] the Billboard charts.” What role does art (theatre, music, et al.) play in society, and how is artistic expression, or lack thereof, shaping our future?

Oh, I don’t know. The music business is [in] a state of absolute upheaval these days. I think that the Billboard charts used to be representative of what America was listening to, but I don’t necessarily know if that’s the case anymore. Of course, acts like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and whoever else are ridiculously popular, and you can argue their artistic merits all you want, but there’s always been horrible pop music out there in the world.

While there are pluses and minuses, of course, the incredible thing the internet has done [is change] the way people receive music. There’s so much out there and, in a certain way, everyone is on an even playing field. It’s so easy to share music with friends. Critically acclaimed indie bands like Arcade Fire or Bon Iver or Mumford & Sons have benefited from this. Those are bands who have sort of catapulted to success because of this new way people are discovering music. I don’t think any of those guys could have been as big as they are ten years ago. … In short, I think that there are plenty of incredible artists out there making music and affecting people, they just might not be the names that are on the top of the Billboard chart.

Something [else] the internet has done is [it’s] given everybody (in particular, Young People) a platform. Anyone with a camera and a computer now has a stage with an audience of God-Knows-How-Many people. I love the fact that some kid in their bedroom in the middle of nowhere can write a song, record it, and have it become the most popular song in the world. Just the idea of that is empowering, and I’d really like to believe that it's an idea that will inspire a new generation of writers/performers/whatevers.

Who are some of your artistic and personal heroes? Do you notice a common thread? Can you articulate what it is you like about them, or what it is about them that you aspire to?

ROBERT ALTMAN. My biggest influence. His movies changed the way I thought about art, plain and simple. Stylistically they are so different from one another—from straightforward documentary-like domestic dramas to insanely theatrical, hyper-stylized fantasies. But regardless of the world they live in, his characters are always so human, so real, so relatable. I love that his movies are populated with these everyday, seemingly unremarkable people and their tiny little problems. Of course, their tiny little problems are the things that we all go through in our lives so everything feels huge. That’s something that I return to time and time again in my writing. If I’ve got a “voice,” it stems from that—dissecting and dramatizing the little moments in life that wouldn’t normally seem worthy of attention.

Aside from that, I love the way he lived his life. I love how much he appreciated actors, how he collaborated with fellow artists, and how he believed that the team he put together was a family. Everyone says his film sets were like a party and everyone, from the big stars to the interns, had a seat at the table. He was a stubborn, strong, crazy, humongous personality and he serves as a constant source of inspiration. He worked consistently until the day he died. Never took a break, never retired. That’s what I wanna do.

DOLLY PARTON. I just flat-out love her songs. Her craft, her humor, her hooks. The songs are so deceptively smart. Her ability to tell a story, establish a character, and create a dramatic arc would be impressive in and of itself, but she makes everything sound so simple that you don’t even realize how much information she’s packing into this little space. The song is [over] and you think: “Holy Shit! I’m crying! How did that happen?!” It’s like getting kissed on the cheek by someone and then going home and realizing that you’re pregnant.

SONDHEIM, WILLIAM FINN, KANDER & EBB. I guess those [are] my biggies, musical theater wise. They are all geniuses in their own ways and tons have been written about all of them. In general, I think I respond to Sondheim’s heart, William Finn’s guts, and Kander & Ebb’s swagger.

THE MUPPETS. They have informed my sensibility in huge ways. They are ragtag, wise, childish, passionate, silly, serious, furry, and brave. I want to be all of those things.

MY FAMILY. They have tolerated and supported me for thirty years and all of my good traits came from them.

In no particular order, my other biggies [include]: Shel Silverstein, Harry Nilsson, Hunter S. Thompson, Elton John, Quentin Tarantino, The White Stripes, Walt Disney, Paul Thomas Anderson, The Rolling Stones, Pee-Wee Herman, Annie Golden, John Goodman. The list goes on and on and on.


For more information about Joe Iconis, visit mrjoeiconis.com.

And check back next week for the final installment, which will include Joe's responses to Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire and Inside the Actor's Studio's Bernard Pivot Questionnaire. (Find the first installment here.)

A huge thank you to Joe Iconis for his thoughtful answers. And now, here's another heart-wrenching song from his repertoire. This is "Lisa."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Blue Flower

Dadaism is a theatrical form that had a heyday beginning in the early part of the last century. It’s meant to be chaotic and kick “viewers” out of their comfort zones. Remnants of Dada can be found in avant-garde performance art pieces. It’s not particularly my cup of tea, which is probably why I didn’t really like Second Stage’s production of the original musical, The Blue Flower.

This musical, written by Jim Bauer and Ruth Bauer, and directed here by Will Pomerantz, focuses on artists and scientists over a period of time, beginning before the Great War and leading up to World War II. It’s told in a flashback, with lots of narration. There are all sorts of characters (in the figurative sense) and more than a little bit of chaos. (It struck me as the kind of musical auteur writer/director Rian Johnson (The Brothers Bloom) would make if he wrote a musical.)

The story about relationships, first a two-sided bromance, then a love triangle and then a bunch of different configurations, is interesting but too familiar to be compelling. And the narration (used both to move along the story and also in lieu of super titles – the main character, Max (Marc Kudisch) speaks in his own made up gibberish) took away from any character development that might have been there. It was very difficult to become invested in these characters and care about what happened to them. I suppose this is part of the point of the art form – you disassociate from the emotion to focus on the message – but it didn’t work for me.

Bringing The Blue Flower to life is a mixed bag of a cast. Marc Kudisch has a wonderful voice, which he shows off here. He also shows off a zest for letting loose and doing schticky bits. As Maria, Teal Wicks was forgettable. She lacks stage presence, and she always seemed to disappear on stage. She has a nice voice, but I only noticed her when the direction forced my attention toward her. Sebastian Arcelus impressed at Franz. I had never seen Arcelus on stage before, but I liked his voice, and thought he presented one of the few fully formed characters in the show.

This is an ambitious production for Second Stage, using paintings/collages, film segments (to better effect than in All New People) and an orchestra on stage. Though I didn’t care for the ride, I can appreciate the nuts and bolts used to create the carnival. Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design offers a fairly bare bones playground for the cast (which also includes Meghan McGeary, Joseph Medeiros, Julia Osborne and Graham Rowat), and Aaron Rhyne’s projection design helps to meld the theatre elements with the filmed ones.

Credit must also be given to the composers. I was pleasantly surprised that in this musical, the original music actually sounded original, and not derivative. As we neared the end of act one, I thought the score had a bit of a multiple personality disorder, but by the end of the show I realized its “mood swings” were timed with specific plot turns, and therefore made sense.

The Blue Flower is an experimental piece of theatre. I think it’s good that such theatre is being put on stage, and, again, I can appreciate and recognize the craft – I just didn’t take to it.

For more information, visit 2st.com.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

We Live Here


Zoe Kazan is an artist best known for her work as an actor, but this fall, Kazan is represented on the boards with a play she wrote. We Live Here, directed by the estimable Sam Gold and produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, checks in on the Bateman family in the days leading up to one of the daughter’s wedding. It represents a good effort in playwriting, but it’s not such a good play.

The basic plot is familiar enough and, in a generic form, is already rife with dramatic intrigue, which makes some of Kazan’s plot points all the more eye-roll inducing. Allie Bateman (Jessica Collins), whose full first name is Althea, is getting married to Sandy (Jeremy Shamos). They’re at the Batemans‘ where mom Maggie (Amy Irving) and dad Lawrence (Mark Blum) are awaiting the arrival of their other daughter, Dinah (Betty Gilpin). The moment Dinah arrives, you know something’s up and that the sisterly relationship between her and Allie is not so great. But things really get shaken up when Daniel (Oscar Isaac) shows up at Dinah’s invitation. Daniel used to date Allie’s deceased twin sister, Andy, and is now, some 15 years later, dating Dinah, who is 11 years his junior.

Sound a little confusing? It can be. My friend who attended with me turned to me at intermission and said, “I’m confused.” We then spent the better part of intermission sorting through the tumultuous relationships. (Perhaps things would have been easier to understand if we had a better view of the full stage. John Lee Beatty's scenic design closed off far stages left and right to anyone sitting in far house left or right.)

The soap opera connections aside, my two biggest gripes with the play are that (1) where we ended up in the second act isn’t where it looked like we were headed in the first act; and (2) I could see the effort in the writing and structure.

The first act seemed to be building toward a showdown between the two sisters. This made sense to me, as everything I’d read about this play quoted Kazan as saying that this is a play about sisters. However, in the second act, the climax and by extension the juiciest dramatic action dealt with mother-daughter relationships, not sisterly ones. Moreover, the second act didn’t need to be a second act. The first scene was an unnecessary flashback, telling us nothing and developing the characters not a bit. We learn nothing in the flashback that isn’t spoken about in the second scene, set in present day. Had they cut the flashback, this could have been an intermission-less 90-minute(ish) play, and perhaps then the climax would have felt more natural.

I say that, but I’m actually not so sure, given all the other contrivances throughout the play. There were lots of discussions and plot points thrown in that felt like Kazan was shouting, “Watch, I can write dramatic stuff,” or, “Look how smart I am!” And other discussions or plot points were woven in so poorly that I couldn’t help but recognize them as devices, rather than story progression. (For example: Dad Lawrence discussing the Aristotelian concept of hamartia, a tragic hero. This overtly foreshadowed the showdown in the second act.)

Trying to tackle the play is a game cast, though some excelled more than others. Amy Irving seemed to mistake volume for strength, and Jessica Collins’s Allie wasn’t particularly layered, but Jeremy Shamos (excellent in Clybourne Park and Animals Out of Paper) was likable as Sandy, bringing an ease, charm and sense of realness to a role that could have easily been caricature.

Guiding the cast was in-demand director Sam Gold (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens, et al.). Here, he once again shows off his knack for timing. There’s a moment when Allie is sitting on the couch and Dinah is about to go up the stairs. Instead of racing up those stairs, Gold has her linger over Allie’s shoulder for a moment, letting the relationship really sink in. It’s a small moment but it has a significant impact.


We Live Here is playing at Manhattan Theatre Club through November 6. Visit mtc-nyc.org for more information.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Media Morsels 10.21.11


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Joe Iconis Interview, Part One

Joe Iconis likes to silently hug people.

Besides that, Iconis is a prolific musical theatre writer. His
Bloodsong of Love will receive an industry-only workshop this fall; he and the family are putting together a spook-tacular Halloween jamboree; and you can rock out 24/7 to the Original Cast Recording of Things to Ruin, Iconis's song cycle which has played several venues throughout New York City.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the talented artist, and here I'm pleased to bring you part one of the interview. Check back next week for part two.

Talk about your song writing process. What generally comes first, a lyric, the music or an idea, or can they not be separated? Moreover, as William Miller asks in Almost Famous, “Do you have to be in love to write a love song? Do you have to be sad to write a sad song?” Finally, do you find joy in writing even when you’re “on deadline”?

I’ve always wanted to be interviewed by William Miller. Great kid. My process changes depending on what I’m writing. Usually, I’ll start with an idea and from that will come some sort of hook. A lot of times there’s music implied. From there, I’ll write on a pad or sit at the piano or pace around my apartment like a lunatic. …Writing for me is usually messy, and huge, and epic. Usually, as the song or the scene gets more and more focused, I’ll get more and more still and planted in one place—which is either at a piano or at a Dunkin Donuts. I like writing in public places; it keeps me stimulated and keeps me from falling asleep at my computer or looking at porn.

Writing is sometimes joyful for me, but to be honest, rewriting is usually the most fun. Getting stuff down on paper initially can be terribly hard and frustrating. But once I’ve got something to work with, then it’s a party. When I’m writing on a deadline, it’s always a tough experience, but it’s also the best way for me to get myself to generate material. A deadline is a great motivator and/or kick in the pants.

As far as inspiration goes, most of my writing comes out of something [personal] I’m going through but it’s usually not cut and dry. I’ve written so many overtly personal songs, but nine times out of ten they aren’t about the thing they appear to be about. It’s funny: so often after…I’ve done a song that’s clearly about me, people will come up and say that they know the person I was writing about or something. Most of the time they’re totally wrong! But it doesn’t really matter anyway—I know all the answers to my songs, but I’d never be so presumptuous as to tell people how they’re supposed to react to my work or what they’re supposed to take from it.

Do you remember hearing your favorite song (current or all-time) for the first time? What was going on and what was it you responded to?

My favorite song is “Crying” by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson. The first time I heard it was when my grandfather played me a video of k.d. Lang and Orbison singing it. I loved it and it’s a song that I’ve always associated with my gramps (he died when I was a senior in high school). Aside from the personal ties I have to it, I really think it’s a glorious piece of pop music. I love how it’s so simple and tight, and how it allows the singer to go from this tiny place to this huge, wrought, lovelorn wail.


Discuss the high you get from performing. Do you feel you connect with the audience when you’re playing, or does that only happen for you before and after shows? What’s the energy like, from you perspective, on stage?

Before a show I’m jittery and insane. In spite of that, I love to speak to people and get a sense of the room I’m playing in. I hate being backstage before a show. It makes me feel nervous and disconnected. I’ve got ants in my pants so I’m no good at standing still. I like to know who is in the room, and I like there to be no barrier between the stage and the house. It can’t always happen, but the most magical moments during shows are those moments of connection—either with the people on the stage or people in the audience. I like to look at audience members right in the eyes.

After the show, I feel a connection too, but a lot of times I’m too exhausted mentally and physically to really have conversations. People come to the bar after shows and want to talk to me about ten million things, and I love that they do, but half the time I don’t even know what I’m saying. What I really want to do is just eat food and silently hug people. But I guess it’s hard to tell strangers that you want to do that to them.

What do you hope to have accomplished, or hope to be productively working toward, seven years from now?

I’d like to have a commercial production of one of my shows happen in New York at some point soon-ish. If we’re talking about Dreaming Big, that would happen on Broadway. In a perfect world, it would be a show that I believe in, and one that features these amazing artists I’ve been collaborating with for the past couple years. I’d also like to be working on ten other projects. I always wanna be working on the Next thing.

Is there a creative pinnacle for you? Or a creative nirvana?
Oh, I don’t know. I think if I ever reach it, I won’t know that I did. I hope I don’t. I always wanna feel like I’ll get it right the next time. I just want to keep trying to do the best work I can and if its successful great, and if its not, oh well.

Will you ever be satisfied with your work, in part or whole? Explain.
It depends. I think because theater is a living, breathing thing, there is a sense that work can always be growing or changing. I’ll occasionally have a moment where a great actor will be performing something I’ve written and I’ll think: “Ooh, ok. That’s as good as I’m ever gonna be. I will never be better than that.” Those moments are nice. They are little pats on the back. But that’s all. I think if I ever feel “satisfied” with my work or myself, I’ll be done.

For more information about Joe Iconis, visit mrjoeiconis.com. A huge thank you to Joe Iconis for taking the time talk with me. And now, I leave you with a favorite Iconis tune, "Rosalie."




(Read part two and part three of my interview with Joe Iconis.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Media Morsels 10.14.11

  • West Side Story Back on the Big Screen
    Fans of the seminal musical will thrill to know that in honor of the movie's 50th anniversary, West Side Story will be screened in movie theaters nationwide on Wednesday, November 9, at 7pm. Though it began life on stage, many folks know West Side Story from its movie adaptation, starring Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood as the star cross'd Tony and Maria. (Rita Moreno played Anita, once again tackling on screen a role originated on stage by Chita Rivera.) This is one of those Fathom, one-night, one-time events, so read the press release for more details.

  • The Muppets
    You know that The Muppets, the new Muppet movie from Jason Segel, is coming to theaters next month, right? Well, they just released the track listing for the movie's soundtrack and it looks awesome. Included on the album are old Muppet standards, like "Mahna Mahna," brand new sure-to-be Muppet standards and Muppet covers of pop songs, like "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Visit indiewire.com for the full track listing, and then check out the latest trailer below:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Lyons


When I walked into the Vineyard Theatre to see Nicky Silver’s new play, The Lyons, I noticed that the house music was jazzy but mostly reminiscent of TV sitcom theme music. I then noticed that the “curtain” for the show was a black screen with “The Lyons” emblazoned on it. Finally, I saw that the play was broken up into two acts, the second of which had three scenes. The first act and act two’s three scenes all had titles, as would a sitcom episode.

This all turned out to be fitting: The Lyons does play a bit like a sitcom, and is one of Silver’s most laugh-out-loud funny plays. It’s dark comedy, to be sure, but very funny, nonetheless, as we watch the Lyon family duke it out to see who becomes king of the hospital room.

At rise, Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa) is in a hospital bed and his wife, Rita (Linda Lavin), is chattering on about how she wants to redecorate their 30-year old living room. Ben and Rita’s adult children come to visit: Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant) is divorced with two children, and is also a recovering alcoholic. Curtis (Michael Esper) is gay and talks about his partner of three years, Peter. (Later, we’ll meet a Nurse (Brenda Pressley) and Brian (Gregory Wooddell), a real estate agent.)

The Lyons is a witty, funny and well played tale of family dynamics. Mark Brokaw’s direction is perfect, pacing the play so that the exact right moments are punctuated. Allen Moyer’s simple scenic design is clean (and, in the hospital room, rightly antiseptic) and makes up a nice jungle gym on which the Lyons can play. Adding to the mood is David Lander’s lighting design, which is subtle and effective.

I was rather unimpressed with the previous Nicky Silver play I saw, Three Changes, so I wasn’t sure what to expect here. Pleasantly (though it’s a dark comedy and deals with matters of life and death), I found this to be smartly written, and I felt like I knew the Lyons. Silver wrote in what sounded to me like real voices, and I was instantly hooked when Rita Lyons blurts out this permeating syllogism: “If you quit, you’re a quitter. But if you fight, then you’re a fighter.” How insightful! I was heartily laughing at the snappy dialogue (alongside playwright Silver, who happened to be sitting next to me) and, later, I was fully engrossed and listening intensely as the family dealt with more dramatic matters.

Making up the family is a great foursome. Latessa does a lot, though he is confined to a hospital bed, and offers a funny and sympathetic portrait of a cantankerous old man about to face death. Grant is able as Lisa, the fragile Lyons daughter. Lisa’s fragility could make her seem whiney or grating, but Grant strikes a fine balance so Lisa is neither of those things.

Michael Esper impresses as a lonely young man. Curtis is looking for companionship yet he constantly pushes away the people who are actually in his life. Esper transforms into the character; actually, it’s more accurate to say he transforms into the person, as, in Esper’s hands, Curtis is a living, breathing man. Esper (from American Idiot and most recently on the boards in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures) brings an appropriate guardedness to Curtis, which makes it all the more powerful when he allows himself to be vulnerable and break down.

But the star is the great Linda Lavin as the Lyons matriarch. As brought to life by Lavin, Rita is a sharp-tongued dynamo, and she won’t let you forget it. Lavin’s inflections and spot-on line readings allow her to blabber on and on about ice-blue paint or a Marrakesh-themed living room without being boring. Instead, the audience and I relished every one of Rita’s benign proposals. Moreover, Rita’s observations are not without acid, and Lavin flung each verbal harpoon with zest. She portrayed a teacher in Collected Stories a couple of seasons ago, and it’s fair to say she’s playing teacher here, too, giving a master class to everyone in the audience.


For more information and to purchase tickets, visit vineyardtheatre.org.

Bonuses:

Production stills taken by Carol Rosegg. Visit Broadwayworld.com for more.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Ides of March

“Integrity matters. Dignity matters.” That’s what Governor Mike Morris, the candidate in The Ides of March, believes. But is there really a place for either in politics, and specifically in elections?

The Ides of March focuses on Stephen (Ryan Gosling), a wunderkind press secretary, who is working with his mentor, Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), as the two try to make Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) the Democratic nominee for president. (The film takes place over the course of about a week in March - during the primary season - in the battleground state of Ohio.) Stephen’s loyalties are tested when a rival campaign manager, Tom (Paul Giamatti) tries to poach Stephen. And, since this is politics, there’s an attractive intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), thrown into the mix.

It’s an intriguing set up, though I came to it with a biased point of view: The Ides of March, directed by Clooney, is adapted from Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North. Willimon, when he was in his early twenties, worked for Howard Dean, and in both his play and this movie, it’s difficult to overlook the similarities between the Dean and Morris campaign. I saw Farragut North in fall 2008, when it had its New York premiere at the Atlantic Theater. (My dear John Gallagher, Jr., played Stephen.) So much like someone who read the book before seeing the movie, I can’t review the movie based solely on its own merits.

To go into great detail about the differences between Farragut North and The Ides of March would be to give too much away. (I will say that my biggest gripe is that The Ides of March took some unnecessarily dark turns that, even without knowing the source material, I would be inclined to think of as a tad melodramatic.) Suffice it to say that the main difference between Farragut North and The Ides of March (which is adapted for the screen by Willimon, Clooney and his writing and producing partner Grant Heslov) is that Farragut North is about politics and The Ides of March is about loyalty. (Given this distinction, the respective titles are actually quite appropriate.)

This distinction is most clearly laid out in the ending, but so as to not spoil the film for anyone, I’ll give you another example. After some political maneuvers, Paul gives Stephen a lecture about loyalty and trust. Stephen has messed up and he apologizes by telling Paul he made a mistake. Paul bristles and responds, “You didn’t make a mistake. You made a choice.” The lesson being that making a mistake is a political misstep. Making a choice is a betrayal.

Another big difference - perhaps the difference with the biggest impact on the storyline and plot points - is that in The Ides of March, Governor Morris is a an actual character, one who interacts with the others, rather than just a face on a poster, as in Farragut North.

Including the candidate changed the tone of the story, and it also allowed Clooney to create his own Bartlet. (Hmm... maybe Clooney, Heslov and Aaron Sorkin should write some sort of political fantasy tale!) Morris is almost impossibly idealistic. Like Robert Redford at the beginning of The Candidate, he says what he believes and not necessarily what Paul or Stephen would like him to say. Morris fancies himself above spin. And he espouses several truly progressive ideals, like taking religion out of governance and publicly and staunchly supporting marriage equality. It’s refreshing to hear a “candidate” be so frank, and for this liberal reviewer it’s also exciting to hear a “candidate” speak to my values. Do you think such a candidate could actually get elected? If Governor Mike Morris was running in 2012 (and if we didn’t have an incumbent Democratic candidate) would you vote for him?*

The best thing about this political thriller, though, is the terrific ensemble. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are reliably good here, and The Social Network’s Max Minghella is effective here in a smaller supporting role. Marisa Tomei, an longtime favorite of mine, makes the most of a supporting role, one that proved much more pivotal in Farragut North. She plays Ida, a New York Times reporter following the campaign. And, of course, George Clooney is charismatic and convincing as the candidate every liberal wishes would run.

Now, when I first heard the casting, I was disappointed by the inclusion of Evan Rachel Wood. I’ve never really cared for her previous performances so I was concerned that she would bring her often pretentious air to this. I was pleasantly surprised, however, with her strong performance. Molly is far from a know-nothing, green intern; instead, Wood imbues Molly with maturity and confidence. Wood’s Molly skillfully asserts her place in the boys’ club as Wood goes toe to toe with the films great male actors, particularly Gosling.

Ryan Gosling turns in yet another fantastic performance. There are moments when he looks appropriately possessed. His eyes widen and then freeze, as Stephen tries to conceal his terror. There’s another moment when Stephen is all swagger, but a single, slight eye flinch from Gosling lets the audience know Stephen is vulnerable. My favorite moments, though, are the ones which find Stephen flirting with Molly because Gosling actually smiles! Generally, Gosling plays characters who are stoic or pouty - rarely cracking a smile on screen (like in the recent Drive). But here, Gosling’s Stephen allows himself to mix a little pleasure with business, and his delight shows through as Gosling lets us see those pearly whites.

So can there be integrity and/or dignity in politics and elections? I’m not sure. But as the 2012 primary season gets (prematurely) underway, it’s definitely interesting to watch back-room, political infighting, especially infighting that doesn’t have real-life economic or civil rights implications.

*(By the way, many states are making changes to their voting laws; make sure you are registered and that you know what kind of identification is needed at your polling place. Visit your state’s Department of Elections website, usually found by going to yourstatehere.gov.)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

City Ballet: 2&3 Part Inventions; Liturgy; La Sonnambula; and Fearful Symmetries

We had a four-piece, mixed repertoire on Saturday afternoon at New York City Ballet, with all four of City Ballet’s major choreographers represented: 2 & 3 Part Inventions, by Jerome Robbins; Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy; the Balanchine narrative, La Sonnambula; and Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins’s Fearful Symmetries.

2 & 3 Part Inventions is set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s piano studies, written, according to repertory notes, "to help [Bach’s] son in the playing and handling of two- and three-part pieces.” Somewhat following suit, Robbins choreographed this piece in 1994 for the School of American Ballet’s annual Workshop Performance. And the execution of the ballet continues the learning theme: the soloists and corps de ballet members dancing the ballet seem not quite ready for prime time. All eight dancers could stand to work on their sharpness and precision.

As for the ballet itself, it is Robbins-esque in the way the movements show the music, something I’ve always loved about his choreography. It is unlike many of my favorite Robbins ballets, though, in its classicism and elegance. It’s a very pretty and pleasant ballet (I liked it more this time than the first time I saw it), a nice combination of Robbins’s rhythmic choreography and classic, graceful ballet moves.

Next was Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy, a powerful pas de deux set to Arvo Part’s Fratres. Wendy Whelan, dancing a role she created when the ballet premiered in 2003, is partnered by soloist Craig Hall (her partner in Wheeldon’s After the Rain), and the two are nothing short of exquisite.

Liturgy begins with a series of repetitions, as if the dancers were repeating a prayer over and over and over again until it sinks in. As we move into the middle section, it’s almost as if Hall is the liturgy and Whelan is the spiritual seeker, working the liturgy to unlock its many interpretations. Together, they work like one body. In Holly Hynes’s costumes, Hall looks like the blood and Whelan is the muscle. (The opening tableau, aided by Mark Stanley’s lighting design, shows off Whelan’s sculpted arms.) Finally, in the closing moments of Liturgy, we go back to the repetition; like Whelan and Hall are going back to basics with new found meaning. The whole theme which I’m inferring reminds me of The Giving Tree: the liturgy is always there for the seeker, no matter what you do or how you use it.

Craig Hall proves a fantastic partner for Wendy Whelan. He is solid - being her rock and steadfastly guiding her as she takes over the stage. For her part, Whelen is rich with grace and skill and radiance. She is truly a breathtaking dancer.

One of the most exciting things about watching a Wheeldon ballet is seeing the incredible poses his dancers strike. It’s almost as if Wheeldon is testing the limits of contortions. Liturgy is yet another powerful and moving piece from Wheeldon, on par with the emotional and evocative After the Rain.

The third piece on Saturday afternoon was La Sonnambula, which I saw for the second time just a few weeks ago. Saturday’s cast was the same as the first time I saw it, with Jennie Somogyi as the Coquette; Robert Fairchild as The Poet; and Janie Taylor as The Sleepwalker. Having seen it twice in recent months, I don’t have much to report, except, now I can highlight some differences in dancers’ performances. As compared to Whelan and Sebastien Marcovici as the Sleepwalker and Poet, Taylor and Fairchild are much lighter and playful. Taylor is more ethereal than Whelan, due in no small part to Taylor’s long, blond wavy hair. And as the Poet, Fairchild brings an endearing sense of wonderment to the role, looking truly enchanted as he discovers the Sleepwalker.


The final piece on the docket was Fearful Symmetries, in which Peter Martins once again choreographs to John Adams’s music. (Repertory notes state that Fearful Symmetries is the second Martins-Adams ballet.) Here the company is led by Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay; Tiler Peck and Taylor Stanley; and Lauren King and Troy Schumacher. With its red and blue color scheme and constant motion, Fearful Symmetries reminded me a great deal of Wheeldon’s Mercurial Manoeuvres.

Concentrating on the score, you could hear the title coming alive. Certainly the symmetry was apparent in the balance of sounds, first loud then soft, then repeated. And the fearful part of the equation was evident in what sounded like organs. The chords reminded me of underscoring I might hear in a horror movie: Loud, sharp and piercing.

The highlight of Fearful Symmetries was watching Tiler Peck and Sterling Hyltin execute Peter Martins’s moves. Peck was intense and purposeful while Hyltin was cooly sultry. Both ladies are incredible dancers and the passion they bring to any role they dance makes them a joy to watch.


That concludes City Ballet's fall season. Be sure to visit nycballet.com for information about The Nutcracker and the company's winter and spring performances.