Friday, September 25, 2009

Horror at Home

Seven years ago I attended a play at the Julia Miles theater called Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate) by Sarah Schulman. It was embarrassing for everyone involved, especially Jenny Bacon who had to get down on her knees and say strongly "but I'm a boy!" Years later author Sarah Schulman would write a letter to those involved in another one of her horrible plays that shouldn't have been produced (which received horrible reviews, of course) saying basically "the male critical establishment is trying to get me down" and I would think two things 1) how can i get involved in the lynching? and 2) i think Linda Winer is a woman. But, regardless, I share this with you because i have often thought back to how uncomfortably bad that play was. And it was co-produced by Playwrights Horizons, who has produced some good stuff over the years but also some really, really horrible stuff, as I suppose can be said of any company, though they've seemed to have more than their fare share of the horrible. As much as I have disliked some of the stuff Playwrights has put on since then, I believe they've finally outdone themselves in the embarrassment department with THE RETRIBUTIONISTS.

Yes, I know, I had heard it was horrible before I saw it. Why then did I see it? Well, because my mother likes supporting jews. She had read about it and wanted to see it and I, ever the good daughter, told her we would go. And during it, as to make me feel better that I was missing a party to sit through this thing, she said multiple times: "I still say the idea what good."

But, let's talk about how we get from what was an interesting idea for a play (I agree), to what is onstage now at Playwrights. No one is ever going to convince me that was a good script from the start--the underlying script was hackneyed and contrived and had so many things thrown in that I began to think Daniel Goldfarb was at one point inspired by Dr. Evil and Threesome. BUT I don't blame a reader thinking that the script had some potential and, with more development, could have been good(ish). I do blame someone for thinking it was ready to be produced on a major off-Broadway stage. That said, with a better production, more things could have been worked through in rehearsals. The play could have at least been somewhat refined. But, instead, all four leads were bad. I have heard Cristin Milioti is talented and maybe the others are somehow too (though I have more doubts about the rest of them), but then they were all miscast. Something. I can't tell you. The acting of the leads was just atrocious--the lead girl, Margarita Levieva, was particular bad, she even had a fake evil "ha" laugh at one point. Seriously. She did it in earnest. Adam Driver, playing a supposedly charismatic leader, had no charisma and grabbed around a train window. You can't do that--there is supposed to be a wall there! Come on! I fear Leigh Silverman may have just not worked with any of them. Like, maybe she showed up once, gave some minor notes and then said "do what you want. make a show." I can't think of any other reasoning behind the embarrassing thing I sat through. A good 20 people left at intermission. Four more came back but then couldn't actually get through the second act. Someone behind my loudly groaned twice--not because of a lesbian kiss or anything but because of the horrible performances and dialogue we were being bombarded with.

This performance I attended was being taped for the archives. Maybe it will show up in a "what not to do" class--I'm not sure what other function it would have. But I will say: shame on everyone involved. I think part (and just part) of the reason this play was done without requiring further pre-production development is that it is about jews and many jews go see things about jews and so those things tend to sell more tickets ahead of time. It's one thing to greenlight a comedy for those reasons, but to do it with a Holocaust story is tasteless.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

West End Girl

Let us all take a minute to applaud those involved with 39 Steps. Who ever thought it would have lasted this long? Seriously--it was an impressive feet to keep it chugging along. The producers clearly kept the break-even low and the press reps. did a great job getting Times stories. It's one of those rare transplant success stories. Everyone involved deserves our congratulations.

This leads me to my next topic, inspired by a recent Ken Davenport post on his blog. (Who, unrelated to what I am writing about now, has as his top post something that begins with: "Have you ever wondered where it all began? What started the discounting phenomenon? And more importantly . . . who started it?" all questions I can answer unequivocally with a "NO.") Ken posted an article that came to his attention from the London Evening Standard about how many people are investing in theater in London. Because, in times of recession, investing in theater is apparently not as risky as some other things. By some other things--does he mean the lottery? dog-fighting? buying art by someone selling in union square not because you like it but for investment purposes? Anyway, moving on, this raised a good point--that investing in theater in London is i think a better bet than investing in it here. Lower start-up costs and lower break-evens are among the factors that are involved. I remember watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in London with its 20 kids and thinking "we'll be lucky to get 10 in the States" and, indeed, the show cost more to mount here, but had less people involved. (Though please no one correct me on the 2 to 1 ratio because I'm just making that up and it may be exaggerated, as is my license.) But I wonder has anyone really done a side by side comparison? Profits for plays with under 5 actors on Broadway vs. profits for plays with under 5 actors in the West End? Because they do always seem to have more crap moving in and out there. I suppose if someone had attempted a study, we wouldn't necessarily trust their results. This is because they don't officially report grosses there, so an examiner would have to rely on producers' words, not always the most trustworthy things. But it's an interesting question... The article says only 1/3 of shows there lose money, which seems to me to be very low. I don't know. Ken?

Speaking of things I don't know about, I'm back on sexism. Now Philip Boroff has implied that Charlotte St. Martin maybe gets paid less than Jed Bernstein did because she is a woman. Umm, again, Wellesley girl speaking here, someone who completely believes that women are paid less than men simply because they are women, but, GIVE ME A BREAK! What about the fact that they are both overpaid? What about the fact that she knew nothing about theater when she started? You can say a lot of bad things about Jed, but I feel fairly safe in saying he could name all the Sondheim shows (or would at least recognize their names).

OK, I need to rest from ranting. I will end on a happy note--I am super-psyched to see A Little Night Music. Seriously. Can't wait. I love revivals if for no other reason than i get to hear my friends Billy and Don complaining about what is wrong with the production that wasn't wrong with the original.

Friday, September 18, 2009

I Like to Complain

I refuse to comment on the Avenue Q move, I could, but I could also comment on Jon & Kate and I don't because, it's not worth it for me to add to the discussion. So I told you all that I would comment on the unsurprising rise of Jordan Roth, right? That I can/will do... in brief. I have known Jordan for quite a while. I appreciate his kindness towards me in recent years and the effort he has put in at Jujamcyn re: Givenik (which is a great thing I was very happy to sign up The Al D. Rodriguez Liver Foundation on). But I'm very wary of spin. It's great that a younger person is heading up a theater organization--I hope he is hugely successful. But I did note that the coverage sort of glossed over the "purchase" part of the story and Jordan's less-than-stellar track record as a producer. I didn't even remember he produced The Karaoke Show--and I still don't remember what The Karaoke Show was--until I read his American Theatre Web bio (which says: "He was graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University," which I thought was incorrect but is apparently just a traditional way of writing such things). Anyway, all that said, Jordan is a popular figure in the theater now and I like Jordan and I wish him success. I just like a big picture...Of course, nepotism is in full bloom over at Nederlander and the Shuberts, well, whatevs, so Jordan has a shot at out-shining those groups. If Jujamcyn does great things during his tenure, maybe people will write about him without mentioning his rich parents. One can hope.

So--I know this happened weeks ago--but Kerry Butler only doing 6 performances in Rock of Ages? Come on... And I know Amy Spanger didn't even do that many, but then again she also claimed The Wedding Singer was grueling, so, you can't judge by her. I know that there are those out there that are going to say these songs are super hard to sing, but, yeah, I really don't think that character has as hard a time as Kim in Miss Saigon. I mean, I'd rather people say they are not going to be there than just not show up (like half the other actors in the industry are doing all the time now), but I still wonder what happened to the days the same person showed up and belted out songs eight performances a week. I even think those were the days of less amplification and therefore more belting. But, anyway...

Yesterday, I attended the press conference for the announcement of the winners of the Steinberg Playwright Award (also referred to as 'the mimi,' which I have to honestly tell you kept making me think of Mimi Le Duck and that horribly misguided off-broadway staging of it). Congrats to the three winners, this post isn't about them though. Something happened at the press conference that annoyed me. A journalist (whose work I believe I've mentioned here before in a non-flattering way, but who shall remain nameless now) asked why there had "never" been any female winners of the award. Now, this is only the second year of the award. Last year, it was only given to one person, Tony Kushner, and this year to three. I was so taken aback by this question that I actually turned around and asked someone on the press team to confirm for me that this was just the second year. Eduardo Machado, who is on the award's advisory committee, stood up and gave a great answer about how good playwriting isn't about gender or race. But THEN someone from the board felt the need to get up and justify the fact that there was no woman on the list. This person informed the journalist that the advisory committee had been concerned about this topic and had thought hard about it and consulted the board about this matter. I am all for women's rights--I hope for the day when the Tonys feature as many female authors as male authors. I mean, I am a Wellesley girl. But we're not talking that these people have given 50, or even 10, awards and none have gone to women, we're talking about 4 males. Four. That's not a huge pattern of discrimination. This is like when all those articles about women playwrights came out supporting bad--or at the very most mediocre--plays just because they were written by women. I'm a huge Lynn Nottage fan--I think she is one of the most talented playwrights being produced today. I think Ruined was the best play I saw this year. I hope she gets the Mimi next year, maybe she will. But I don't think the committee should pay special attention to her because she is a black woman. If they don't like her body of work as much as I do, they can give their award to someone else they enjoy more, even if that is a guy. I don't think like Theresa Rebeck deserves this award. And I genuinely don't think it should be discussed in gender contexts at this stage. Yes, there is sometimes a need to look at something and say, "Wow, there have been 67 men and only 3 women recipients, there may be an issue here." If it rises to that degree, then I'd question it. Totally. And there is no bright line rule to when it rises to a degree that is questionable, but I'd have to say that, the Steinberg Playwright Award isn't there yet. Bringing up the gender issue now cheapens the process. It's why when women do achieve things they are often said only to get it because they are female. It's wrong.

Happy New Year to all my fellow jews! I shall be back next week.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I've Missed You All

Well, here I am. My loyal readers know I haven't posted in a very long time--the reason being I simply didn't have the desire to do it after all the loss that happened in my private life. But I have been keeping up.

I've seen a lot recently... And I'll start by commenting on The First Wives Club. I met/spoke to one of the producers of the show shortly before it was announced that they had hired Francesco Zambello to direct. He boasted about the "red hot" director they were in negotiations with. Of course, this is before anyone saw The Little Mermaid. This is when people thought Disney must know something the rest of us didn't about Zambello's ability to direct mainstream musicals. Now--I am going to detour a little bit here. I often wonder why producers continue to think it's easy to direct a musical comedy. I had this argument with some people involved with 9 to 5. Producer Bob Greenblatt only wanted Joe Mantello (who he went to high school with)--Mantello wasn't always eager to do it, but Greenblatt so wanted him. Joe Mantello has done some good things, but, he's not known for his jovial spirit. Why was there this insistence that he would be so great at directing a big budget musical comedy? The same thing with Zambello... She knows how to direct certain things, but I am not sure why anyone thought she would be a huge musical comedy director. I see why Disney hired her--she and her team were known in opera circles for being good with striking visual images and The Little Mermaid was something that seemed to need astounding visuals. We know how that turned out, but it was an attempt on their part to do something creative. That said, why anyone else hired her is a mystery to me. What about her resume screamed Little House on the Prairie? What screamed any mainstream musical?! Even if The Little Mermaid was a hit, I'm not sure anyone would want to be Zambello's Green Bird, but at least if The Little Mermaid was a hit there would be some legitimate reason to support her. Now, there is the theory that goes you have to take a risk sometimes, these other producers were taking a risk on her. But, the thing is, Disney was already taking that risk, so I am not sure I wouldn't have waited to see whether it paid off before taking my own risk on the same person.

OK, back to The First Wives Club. It's not good. There are some good tunes and Rupert Holmes did an okay job, I just can't point to one thing I really liked. It was HORRIBLY directed. Or not directed actually. The producers know this and now Zambello is gone and they plan on mounting the show at another regional with a new director. We'll see if it happens, but that is the plan.

I also finally saw West Side Story recently, which I was super excited to see. I was very grateful to be going. It actually ended up to be only my second experience with a mid-performance stop--it was halted for ten minutes do to technical problems. But I wasn't phased by that and I was happy the whole cast was there. I must admit I had mixed feelings about the language change a few weeks ago. On one hand, I am against compromising a director's artistic vision this late in the game just to pander to audiences. On the other hand, I don't speak/understand any Spanish. Not having seen it when all three songs were in Spanish, I can't comment on that version. (I do hate when people comment negatively on things they haven't seen--my friend Billy knows this more than anyone.) But I will say I find the one song in Spanish sort of bizarre. Why that one? Because it's Maria alone with her friends? But then 'America' too is Jet-less.... I don't get it. And I found it odd. Yes, I know what they were singing, because I know the lyrics to the songs in West Side Story, but I am fairly confident everyone does not. Just printing the lyrics in the Playbill doesn't negate the problem because no one wants to read the Playbill as the show is going on. I know the Spanish is supposed to make it more authentic, but we all know it is not authentic. It's a musical. This goes back to me whole "I don't care if Mama Rose was small in real life" argument.

Is this enough for my return post? I think I'll wait until next time to comment on the promotion of Jordan Roth, which was the least surprising thing to happen since In My Life closed.

I shall end with a very heartfelt thank you to those of you who have donated to the liver cancer charity we set up in my friend's honor. I was going to send you all my own personal thank you notes, but it was not clear which people donated from here and which people donated for another reason.