Saturday, October 31, 2009

Oy, they were Jewish enough!

Before the Broadway revival of Neil Simon's play Brighton Beach Memoirs sadly closes tomorrow, there's something else I have to say. One aspect of the discussion about this terrific production disturbs me. It's shown up on the Broadway message boards and in at least one of the reviews.

Here's an example from All That Chat:

"I also happen to think David Cromer put together one of the most goyish casts I could imagine for a Jewish family. Accents were spotty, and I never felt these actors were a real family."

Critic John Simon mentioned the same thing in his review for Bloomberg News:

"What the evening sorely lacks is aromatic Jewish-American inflection and idiomatic gesticulation, somewhat deficient even in the original production, presumably from fear of being mistaken for patronizing caricature, instead of recognized as leavening authenticity."

Well, I find this argument offensive and bewildering. You don't think they were a real family? Fine. But don't base your opinion on a stereotype.

It's entirely possible to be Jewish without a thick Yiddish accent or wildly moving your arms around when you talk or having everyone yell at each other at the dinner table. Even in the 1930s, when Brighton Beach Memoirs takes place.

Trust me on this. I grew up with two Depression-era Jewish parents. And when I lived in Israel for a year, I learned that there's no "one way" to be Jewish.

What Cromer has done so effectively in directing the play is to strip away the excess - and I don't remember any exaggerated New England accents in his production of Our Town either. As Chris Jones says in his Chicago Tribune review, Cromer "rediscovers the actual, vulnerable Americans underneath."

As Kate Jerome, Laurie Metcalf isn't a stereotypical Jewish mother one generation removed from Eastern Europe - but that's the enormous strength of her performance.

When Eugene asks his mother why she doesn't buy a half-pound of butter instead of a quarter-pound at the store, she responds: "And suppose the house burned down this afternoon? Why do I need an extra quarter pound of butter?"

Yes, that's funny. But the way Metcalf says those lines it's not a joke. I understood that behind the quip was the very real insecurity of a Depression-era family struggling to make ends meet.

When Kate expresses her wariness of the Murphys across the street, I have to admit she reminded me a bit of my mother, who would always ask me before I brought a friend home from school whether they were Jewish. (A line of questioning that infuriated me!)

But when Kate tells her sister Blanche: "How many times have Stanely and Gene come home from school black and blue from the beatings they took from those Irish hooligans," I understood the real fear behind her wariness.

The same goes for Dennis Boutsikaris, who I think is terrific as family patriarch Jack Jerome.

Near the end of the play, he says about his son Stanley, "I want him to go to shul with me on Saturday. They stop going for three or four weeks, they forget their religion altogether." He acted and sounded authentically Jewish to me without stooping to caricature.

In fact, the original text, which doesn't contain any Yiddish at all, has Jack saying "temple," not "shul." Whoever made the change - Simon or Cromer - it's a brilliant touch that works perfectly. It's exactly the word Jack would have used and Boutsikaris nails it.

The issue of who should play which roles has come up a couple of times in the past few weeks regarding able-bodied actors taking on disabled characters.

The deaf community is upset that a hearing actor - Henry Stram - has been cast in the role of a deaf character in Carson McCullers' The Heart is A Lonely Hunter. And some advocates for the disabled expressed disappointment that a deaf/blind child wasn't picked over Abigail Breslin for the role of Helen Keller in the upcoming Broadway revival of The Miracle Worker.

To me, only criteria is whether or not an actor is believable in the role. The family onstage at Brighton Beach Memoirs seemed totally believable, regardless of the actual religious or ethnic background of the actors.

Despite the title of this blog post, there's not an oy or a vey in Brighton Beach Memoirs - and that's fine. A Jewish family - absolutely. But not one drowning in schmaltz. I'm just sad that more theatergoers won't have a chance to see them.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Where have all the Neil Simon fans gone?

I can't believe it. I saw the Broadway revival of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs a week ago tonight and now, a provisional closing notice has been posted for Sunday. Its companion, Broadway Bound, which I was so looking forward to seeing, has been canceled. I feel like crying.

Why can't a play with so much humor and heart, with a terrific cast, find an audience? I mean, newcomer Noah Robbins is hilarious and sweet as Simon's teenage alter ego, Eugene Morris Jerome. And Laurie Metcalf exudes so much strength in a memorable performance as his mother, Kate.

Last week, Brighton Beach Memoirs could fill just 61 percent of the 1,200 seats at the Nederlander Theatre, with an average paid admission of only $21. 32. With lackluster ticket sales, the producers simply couldn't justify spending any more money, a source told The New York Times.

The original production opened in 1983 and ran for three years, making a star out of Matthew Broderick, who garnered a Tony award. What happened this time?

Are fans of Neil Simon simply dying out and not being replaced, as David Edelstein implies in New York magazine? Edelstein admits that Simon's plays "connected with their audience on a level that theater almost never does anymore" but questions whether they can be made to seem fresh or new.

I disagree. I think director David Cromer brought a level of depth and understanding to Brighton Beach Memoirs that I wasn't expecting. The story of a struggling Jewish family during the Depression seemed so relevant. It wasn't at all an exercise in nostalgia. (And as I said in my review, you didn't have to be Jewish to relate.)

According to the most recent statistics from the League of American Theatre Producers, tourists purchased about 65 percent of the nearly 12.3 million tickets sold to Broadway shows. And foreign tourists comprised more than 15 percent of attendees.

That's great for the New York City economy but not so good for those of us who love plays and don't care whether or not there's a famous face in the cast.

President and Mrs. Obama's trip to see Joe Turner's Come and Gone in the spring is the exception to the rule - it seems like most people come to Broadway these days to see a musical or someone they recognize from movies or television.

I guess the issue is closer to what producer David Richenthal told The New York Times earlier in the week about casting Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller in a Broadway revival of The Miracle Worker:

“It’s simply na├»ve to think that in this day and age, you’ll be able to sell tickets to a play revival solely on the potential of the production to be a great show or on the potential for an unknown actress to give a breakthrough performance. I would consider it financially irresponsible to approach a major revival without making a serious effort to get a star.”

Hey, I'm not knocking it. Those tourists pay salaries and keep thousands of small businesses afloat. I love seeing musicals and big stars, too. But we're pretty close to the point where Broadway consists of musicals and limited runs of plays with celebrities.

As a fan of 20th century American drama who always hopes to discover a great performance by an actor who's unknown to me, that makes me sad.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

Way back on July 4, 2008, I wrote a blog post wishing Neil Simon a happy birthday and bemoaning the fact that while I'd seen most of the movie versions of his plays, I'd never seen one on stage.

Well, the theatre gods heard my prayers.

When it was announced that not one but two Simon revivals would open on Broadway this fall, with Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound playing in repertory, I was beside myself with anticipation.

Then I started to worry. Would the plays be too Jewish? Would they be Jewish enough? Would they seem outdated? Would Noah Robbins as Simon's alter ego Eugene Morris Jerome be as good as I imagined Matthew Broderick was in his Tony-winning performance in the original Brighton Beach Memoirs?

I'm happy to report that all of my anxiety was for naught.

Brighton Beach Memoirs, set in the late 1930s, is a semi-autobiographical account of the playwright's Brooklyn childhood. The Jerome family - Eugene, his older brother Stan, and parents Jack and Kate, share their home with Kate's widowed sister Blanche and her daughters, Laurie and Nora.

Just as director David Cromer did with Our Town off-Broadway, he brilliantly strips this play down to its essence: a warm, humorous portrait of a family scraping to get by during the Great Depression. They're absolutely Jewish but you don't have to be to appreciate their struggles, their humor and their hopes and fears.

Robbins is remarkable as the 15-year-old Eugene, obsessed with baseball and discovering girls, taking careful notes about his family in his journal for the play he hopes to write someday - if he doesn't play for the Yankees. He makes Simon's quips sound so natural. What a confident, winning performance from a 19-year-old in his Broadway debut.

Dennis Boutsikaris is wonderful as Jack Jerome, a gentle, understanding man who's in danger of wearing himself out providing for the seven people living under his roof.

And I loved Laurie Metcalf as Kate, who's not spouting one-liners but getting at the real emotion contained in those lines. She is an awesome Jewish mother. It's a role that would be so easy to overplay but Metcalf gets to the strength behind the stereotype.

As Blanche, Jessica Hecht has her hands full raising her two daughters, the rebellious teenager Nora, played by Alexandra Socha, and the sweet but sickly Laurie, played by Grace Bea Lawrence, while trying not to be a burden on her sister's family.

Some of my favorite scenes take place in the tiny second-floor bedroom Eugene shares with Santino Fontana's Stanley. They argue and confide in each other and clearly love each other. Listening to Stanley explain a thing or two about the facts of life to his little brother - and watching Eugene's reaction - is hysterical.

But as funny as this play is, it's also quite serious and moving at times. We know war is looming and everything that means for a Jewish family one generation removed from the old country. Under Cromer's direction, the talented cast adjusts seamlessly as emotions change.

Designer John Lee Beatty crams a lot into his set. I sat in the left orchestra, a few rows from the stage, which is a great vantage point for Eugene and Stanley's bedroom and the front door. While the dining room table is stage right, the cast did a good enough job of projecting that I didn't feel left out during the dinner scene.

Now, I'm even more excited to see Broadway Bound, which takes place a decade later. The cast includes Boutsikaris, Metcalf, Fontana and Hecht but with Josh Grisetti as the adult Eugene. Previews begin Nov. 18 and this time, I'm not nervous at all because I know it's in great hands.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Superior Donuts

Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

If August: Osage County examined the tangled relationships among family members then Tracy Letts' new Broadway play, Superior Donuts, tackles an equally complex subject - how we relate to each other as a community, as individuals, as Americans.

Like its Tony and Pulitzer-winning predecessor, Superior Donuts arrives in New York from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company with a superb Chicago cast. It has Letts' clever, razor-sharp dialogue along with a great deal of tenderness and wit and some very insightful social commentary.

Yes, this is a small-scale character study but oh, what characters!

There's a scene near the beginning of the play when Franco Wicks, who's just been hired to work at a downscale Chicago coffee shop, pulls out of his knapsack a stack of notebooks and legal pads that comprise his Great American Novel.

Until that point, I'd been laughing hard at the banter between Jon Michael Hill's Franco and Michael McKean's Arthur Przbyszewski, the ponytailed Vietnam-era draft evader who owns Superior Donuts, the shop started by his Polish immigrant parents.

But when this earnest young black man shows Arthur his novel and quotes the African-American poet Langston Hughes, my eyes got moist and Superior Donuts grabbed ahold of my heart. As long as I can remember I've loved putting words to paper, so I've got a big soft spot for stories about aspiring writers.

Of course, I've been watching McKean for years, starting with Laverne & Shirley and This is Spinal Tap. Sometimes it's hard to lose myself in a performance by an actor I know from movie or TV roles but he's terrific as a weary, cynical man who's been beaten down by life.

Hill, in his Broadway debut, is a revelation. He's amazing as Franco - sweet, eager, a bit brash and totally engaging.

And these two actors have such great chemistry. The way their relationship evolves as Franco's irrepressible enthusiasm meets Arthur's seemingly incurable pessimism is a treat to watch. This is a story that could easily have turned into a cliche but under Tina Landau's direction, it maintains an edge.

Arthur's donut shop is located in a Chicago neighborhood that city planners might call "in transition." A Starbucks has opened nearby. The local video store owner and entrepreneur, a Russian immigrant named Max Tarasov, played by the hilarious Yasen Peyankov, is preparing to take on a Best Buy.

As James Schuette's set design perfectly conveys, Superior Donuts is one small business that's hardly prepared to compete with the gigantic chains. The paint on the radiator is peeling, the linoleum floor is worn, there's gum stuck under the tables and the ceiling tiles are filthy. The place looks greasy and unappetizing.

Once Franco comes along well, he has plenty of ideas - healthier food, bran muffins maybe, and poetry nights to attract a younger crowd. There's a hilarious scene where he tries his hand at making donuts. Arthur is skeptical, to say the least, about Franco's big plans.

While Arthur doesn't have many customers his regulars do make up a little community. There are the two beat cops - Kate Buddeke's Randy Osteen is a little flirtatious with Arthur and James Vincent Meredith's James Hailey is a delightfully nerdy Star Trek fan. Jane Alderman is great as a bewildered, slightly daffy bag lady.

One of the things I loved about August: Osage County was the way Letts illuminated the lives of women, demonstrating all of the pressures of being a wife, mother and daughter in a way that seemed so true to life.

With Superior Donuts, he does something else that I appreciate: he creates a young African-American male who's not a wisecracking character from a TV sitcom or a wanna-be rapper or professional athlete. It's tragic that we don't take as much care with smart, ambitious young men like Franco as we do with the teenagers who have a great jump shot.

Ironically, Franco urges Arthur to take off his Grateful Dead T-shirt and cut off his ponytail. (The only people who should wear ponytails are girls and ponies, he advises him.) Because sadly Franco, with his heavy winter coat, knit cap, baggy pants and unlaced boots, is just as likely to be judged.

But both Arthur and Franco defy expectations.

Franco's not someone you should be crossing the street to avoid out of fear. And Arthur, whose father called him a coward for going to Canada instead of Vietnam, isn't a man to run from a fight. He proves that by tangling with the mobster, played by Robert Maffia, who's trying to collect a debt Franco owes.

At one point, Superior Donuts brings out the biggest collective gasp I've ever heard from an audience. That's because the more you know about Arthur and Franco, the more you care about them and the more you root for them.

If it's not too much to ask, I wish Tracy Letts would return to Superior Donuts for a sequel in a decade or so. Because I really want to find out how they're doing, how America is doing.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Avenue Q

Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

Even though I graduated from college sometime in the last century, I still remember what it was like: the ink barely dry on my diploma, settling into my first (low-paying) job and my first lousy apartment, my first loan payment due in a matter of months. Oh, the memories.

But I never had the experience of living in a neighborhood like Avenue Q, which is where you end up if you take a very wrong turn off of Sesame Street. (And I mean wrong - despite the presence of puppets, this is not for children.)

So the musical, which tells the story of Princeton, a new college grad who's trying to find his purpose in life, did resonate when I saw it on tour at the Providence Performing Arts Center. It's funny and appealing and overall, pretty entertaining.

Like most of Avenue Q's residents, Princeton is portrayed by an actor manipulating a puppet. (In this case, Brent Michael DiRoma, who also plays Rod, the closeted Republican investment banker puppet.)

There are non-puppet characters, too, including a would-be comedian named Brian played by Tim Kornblum. His girlfriend, Christmas Eve, is played by Lisa Helmi Johanson, a therapist who speaks with a think Asian accent. The superintendent of the building where Avenue Q takes place is Gary Coleman, played by Nigel Jamaal Clark. (Yes, "the" Gary Coleman.)

Jeff Whitty's book is mostly a boy-meets-girl story. Princeton meets and falls in love with the very sweet and idealistic Kate Monster, played by Jacqueline Grabois. Yes, it's clever and there are plot twists.

For me, the puppets, designed by Rick Lyon, are what give the 2004 Tony winner for best musical, book and score a big chunk of its appeal and originality. (I still think Wicked was robbed that year but in fairness, my theatergoing companion felt Avenue Q had the more universal themes.)

I don't think the musical always hits its mark. Rod's being in the closet and struggling to accept the fact that he's gay is a serious issue. There's a transition from a funny scene to one involving Rod that I think was supposed to be funny but I just found it jarring and sad.

Don't get me wrong - I laughed a lot during Avenue Q, even at some of the more crude and juvenile humor. There are some hilarious songs, by composers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx.

Take "The Internet is for Porn." I mean, how true is that, right? (Not that I know from personal experience. I'm just guessing.) Yes, it's crude but it's also very funny, especially because it involves a giant furry puppet named Trekkie Monster. I howled at one lyric that I'm too embarrassed to repeat.

The video projections that recall Sesame Street episodes are truly inspired. And like I said, the puppets are great - especially Trekkie Monster, a Mae West-like Lucy the Slut and the "bad idea" bears, who I think are the Care Bears' evil twins. The cast does a great job of focusing your attention on the puppets, not on them.

I loved the dilapidated New York City brownstone designed by Anna Louizos and Howell Binkley's lighting that captured the passage of time from day to evening to dawn so well. (They also did a similar set and lighting for another New York City musical, In the Heights.)

So, while there was a lot to like and I really was entertained, I felt that Avenue Q did go overboard at times. For example, Christmas Eve and her stereotypical Asian accent wore thin. (Sometimes I had trouble understanding her, too.) The song "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" didn't do a lot for me.

Plus, I saw the show at a theatre that seats about 3,000 people. That's much bigger than the John Golden Theatre, where it played on Broadway for six years before closing last month. It's enormous compared with the musical's new off-Broadway home, New World Stages. I think Avenue Q may lose something in a larger space. (For one thing, in a smaller space you could see the puppets' faces a lot better.)

And speaking of overboard let me tell you, a little hot and heavy puppet sex goes a long way.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why I could never really hate Hamlet

While I was driving around doing errands today I listened to a very entertaining Downstage Center interview with playwright Paul Rudnick.

He relates, in vivid detail, the story behind his romantic comedy I Hate Hamlet, which ran at the Walter Kerr Theatre for three months in 1991. It's certainly one of the more bizarre stories of a star-crossed Broadway production that I've heard.

And while I've never seen it, you could say that I Hate Hamlet has played a very indirect role in my life.

The play got mixed reviews, including a lukewarm one from Frank Rich in The New York Times, who says that while there are some laughs and some good performances, Rudnick can't quite "recall the screwy comic style" that he's trying to achieve.

But I think the premise sounds pretty funny - a TV actor moves to New York to take on the greatest male theatrical role - Hamlet. The only problem is, he hates Hamlet and summons the ghost of John Barrymore, who once lived in his apartment, for support and guidance.

The actor Andrew Rally was played by Evan Handler, who would later be so sweet and funny as Charlotte's divorce-lawyer husband, Harry Goldenblatt, in Sex and the City. And Scottish actor Nicol Williamson portrayed the ghost of John Barrymore.

Things didn't end well between them. During a swordplay scene, Williamson stabbed Handler in the buttocks. Handler walked off the stage and left the play. He wanted to bring Williamson and the production up on charges. Incredibly, Williamson wasn't fired. It turned out to be Handler's last Broadway role thus far.

Many years later, Rudnick wrote about the history of I Hate Hamlet for The New Yorker, including this very telling section about an introductory lunch with Williamson at a midtown Manhattan restaurant:

"He beguiled everyone with tales of beautiful women, show business, and air travel. He was an incipient tyrant, an Amin or an Evita, caught at an early stage, where charm was of the essence in crafting a grateful, adoring cult. Clearly, here was Barrymore.

"After many hours, as the group departed, Nicol slung a long arm over my shoulders and said, 'Dear fellow, I know you’ve heard tattle, but don’t believe a word. I’m in top, fighting form. And I haven’t touched a drop in over a year.'

"I chose to believe it, despite a quick backward glance at the table, which held a brandy snifter, a wine bottle, and a beer mug, all of which had been recently emptied into Nicol."

Now, you're wondering how this relates to me.

I Hate Hamlet did garner a Tony nomination, for Adam Arkin for Best Featured Actor in a Play. But the award that year went to Kevin Spacey, for Lost in Yonkers.

Who knows, if I Hate Hamlet had been better received, maybe Arkin would have won. Maybe Kevin Spacey wouldn't have gone on to movies and get his two Oscars and make his Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea, which so captured my attention and changed my life for good.

But he did win and as Shakespeare said, all's well that ends well.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Learning about Broadway's nonprofits

A few things surprised me when I started going to the theatre in New York - and I'm not even talking about the price of tickets to a Broadway show.

One was the fact that very few theatres are located on Broadway. Second, many are fairly small, especially the orchestra sections.

And third, I didn't realize the large role played by three nonprofits: Roundabout, the Manhattan Theatre Club and Lincoln Center. Together, they operate 5 of the 40 Broadway venues. (I'm not sure if Circle in the Square is a nonprofit.)

MTC's mission is to produce a season "as broad and diverse as New York itself" while nurturing new talent and reaching out to younger audiences.

Roundabout's mission is to reenergize classic plays and musicals while developing new works to "embody the crossroads of American theatre."

Lincoln Center says it observes the mandate of founder John D. Rockefeller 3rd: "the arts not for the privileged few, but for the many." And it's guided by the motto: "Good Plays, Popular Prices."

For me, it's been a mixed bag.

I loved the Lincoln Center productions of South Pacific, Dividing the Estate and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. I thought Roundabout's 110 in the Shade was really enjoyable and it was my first time seeing the amazing Audra McDonald.

On the other hand, I wasn't energized by Roundabout's Waiting for Godot. MTC's LoveMusik was disappointing, too, but this week they'll get another chance when I see The Royal Family, which has gotten terrific reviews.

(And the tickets don't cost any less than commercially produced Broadway shows, so I'm not sure where that Lincoln Center mandate of arts for the many at popular prices fits in.)

But I'm hardly an expert on this subject, so over the weekend I listened to Downstage Center interviews from 2008 with artistic directors Lynne Meadow of MTC and Todd Haimes of Roundabout.

They were both good although Meadow is more lively, talking about how she caught the theatre bug growing up in New Haven Conn., and her fight to get into Yale Drama School. And they both discussed the balancing act between doing innovative work and keeping their subscribers happy.

Haimes, who comes from a business background, makes an interesting comment about the difference between the commercial and nonprofit worlds. (It's even more interesting considering that Roundabout's Bye Bye Birdie is selling tickets through April despite a critical drubbing.)

Here's part of what he said:

"I feel more pressure than ever to have stars because they do sell single tickets and we have to sell a lot of single tickets.

"And at a not-for-profit I not only feel pressure to have stars but I feel pressure to have stars who are great theatre actors because in the commercial theater - and I won't mention any names - you can get away with having a star who is famous but not a great theatre actor and get bad reviews and sell all the tickets and have it be considred a success because you made money.

In the not-for-profit theatre, that's not a success, that's what's called a failure. In the not-for-profit theatre what's a success is doing really fine work."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Megan Mullally at the stage door

I'm sure Megan Mullally is a very nice person and she's quite the trouper, appearing in The Receptionist in Los Angeles with a cast on her wrist after being in a car accident.

In this Los Angeles Times story, Mullally talks about the pressure she felt being on Broadway in Young Frankenstein:

“Since I was the most recognizable name in the show, I always felt like, oh, God. I can never get sick or miss a show, because there were Will & Grace fans flying in from all over the world to see that. And I always thought, what if I miss a show and a guy came from India or a lot of people came from Finland, South American countries, everywhere.

She certainly was in the musical the night I saw it, no beef there. But I do have to take issue with this next statement from Mullally:

"I’d go out and sign autographs every night and go, if I hadn’t been there tonight and you’d come all the way from Russia, that would have been a real bummer.”

Well, I didn't come that far but I did wait outside the Hilton Theatre stage door for quite awhile on a chilly fall night, Playbill and Sharpie in hand, and she never materialized.

It wasn't a huge disappointment. I was there because I love the movie Young Frankenstein, not because I was a big Will & Grace fan.

I got a picture and chatted briefly with the wonderful Christopher Fitzgerald. I had a chance to tell Andrea Martin how funny she was in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I also met Sutton Foster and Fred Applegate.

What bothers me is that there are performers who do go above and beyond to sign autographs. Some of them, like Alice Ripley, spend an incredible amount of time talking to people.

So please, don't say you were at the stage door every night greeting your adoring fans out of your great sense of obligation when you weren't.

I'll give Mullally the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she was feeling under the weather. Maybe she had out-of-town guests or she had to be someplace early the next morning. Perhaps that was the only night she missed and it just slipped her mind.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Playwright Steven Dietz, for beginners

When Trinity Repertory Company announced its 2009-2010 season and I saw that a play by Steven Dietz was included my first reaction was, "Who?"

And that surprised me, because even though I haven't been a regular theatergoer for that long, I like to think that I recognize the names of most well-known playwrights.

Previews begin tonight at Trinity Rep for his romantic comedy Shooting Star. It features Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson, a real-life married couple, portraying two former lovers who meet unexpectedly in a snowbound airport. The play runs through Nov. 22.

And despite my ignorance, Dietz is a prolific playwright. Shooting Star, from 2008, is his 31st play to be produced. This article calls him "arguably one of the most widely produced living playwrights in the country" and notes that his "well-made plays - tight and polished" are suited to regional theatre.

He's been able to earn a living doing something he loves, no small feat for a playwright:

"I've never written a hit play. I've never written a masterpiece. And when colleagues of mine had those moments, oh, man am I envious," he says with a chortle and a wide smile. "But the flip side of all that is that I have a career (as a playwright). The art form and the deadline business of the art form has let me - or forced me - to write a lot of plays."

Among his most produced plays are Lonely Planet, about the AIDS epidemic, and God's Country, about the role of a white supremacist group in the murder of Denver talk-show host Alan Berg. He's also written plays about Sherlock Holmes (Love to see that one!) and Dracula (No thanks!)

Dietz, 51, grew up in Denver and graduated from the University of Northern Colorado. He moved to Minneapolis after college, where he honed his craft at the Playwrights' Center. From 1991 to 2006 he was based in Seattle, and now divides his time between there and Austin, Texas, where he teaches at the University of Texas.

In 2004, he talked to Playbill about the virtues of not being a New York-based writer:

"As much as I wanted my early plays to have a big New York success, the very fact that they didn't — or more importantly, didn't go to New York and get hammered — meant that I got to write my next play, and my next play. So I feel like I've had this 20-year apprenticeship. I've gotten to learn my craft."

Dietz is also familiar to readers of American Theatre magazine, which published his Audience Manifesto. It says, in part:

"Tell your theatre that you're ready for anything, and that you plan to let them know exactly what you think of it, good or bad. Getting your money's worth is not good enough. Get your heart and mind's worth. As artists and audiences, together we share the theatre. Together we share this grand, eloquent, messy, unpredictable experiment. Let's revel in that."

I especially like that line about getting your money's worth isn't enough. He's right, it's about getting your heart's and mind's worth. It's about something that makes you think or moves you. Hopefully, it does both.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later

I played a little role in making theatre history last night when I attended a staged reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later in Providence, performed by students in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program.

This is an epilogue to The Laramie Project, the play that examines the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming who was tied to a fence, beaten and left to die.

Members of New York's Tectonic Theater Project created that earlier work by going to Laramie and interviewing people with a connection to the case, who knew Shepard, or were just ordinary citizens, gay and straight. In 2008, they returned to Laramie to see what had changed.

The result was The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, presented on the same night - the anniversary of Shepard's death - in 150 venues across the country and around the world. It was incredible to be part of such a unique and powerful experience. The words "theatre community" have never seemed so real.

The 16 actors, dressed in jeans and black shirts, sat on folding chairs arranged in a gently curved semicircle, scripts on music stands in front of them. Sometimes they'd stand while reading their lines, other times they were seated. They all played multiple characters and a narrator introduced them.

At a very informative talkback afterward, Trinity Repertory Company's artistic director, Curt Columbus, compared the play to Our Town, and I can definitely see the similarity. There's no set or props. What you hear are the words of real people, culled from interviews with the Tectonic members. (Beware, there are spoilers from here on out.)

Laramie residents with no connection to the case were either tired of hearing about the murder or felt that what their community had done to remember Shepard was enough. Some cited a report on ABC's 20/20 that it wasn't a hate crime but a robbery or drug deal gone bad.

The university seemed halfhearted in its response. It's not that they've ignored the murder. We learn that there's a memorial bench to Shepard on campus and more courses on gender identity and a social justice symposium named in his honor.

But members of the university's board of trustees have dragged their feet on offering domestic partner benefits to gay and lesbian employees. They don't seem to understand that treating all of their employees equally, fairly and with dignity would be the best and highest way to honor Matthew Shepard.

The closer you get - we hear from the police who investigated the murder, people who knew Shepard, gay and lesbian citizens of Laramie - you realize the extent to which these wounds are still open and raw.

When I watched the HBO movie based on The Laramie Project, I turned down the volume when Shepard's injuries were described. I just couldn't listen. Last night, I couldn't tune out and I felt like I was going to faint while listening to Darien Johnson, the actor who plays investigator Rob Debree. Reggie Fluty (played by Ruth Coughlin), the now-retired police officer who found Shepard, says, if you'd seen him, you wouldn't doubt that this was a hate crime.

I remembered Jonas Slonaker from the movie talking about how much he loved Wyoming but also the fear that he felt as a gay man after Shepard's murder. Slonaker, played by Will Austin, now has a partner and a job at the university where he's out and accepted. But he's cautious and knows that if he worked somewhere else, it would be different. Every gay person, he says, has to find that safe pocket.

That's not to say there hasn't been progress.

Cathy Connolly, a university professor, was elected in 2008 to the state House of Representatives, becoming Wyoming's first openly gay legislator. In the play's most moving section, Connolly, played by Lauren Lubow, talks about the successful fight to defeat a proposed amendment to the state's constitution defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.

Unexpected support comes from a conservative Republican colleague, Rep. Pat Childers, (played by Tommy Dickie) who discloses during the debate that one of his daughters is a lesbian. "Folks, till my dying breath there isn't anybody in this country who could say that she is a terrible person, or someone that needs to have their rights restricted."

Members of Tectonic also conducted interviews with Shepard's killers, Aaron McKinney, played by Charlie Thurston, and Russell Henderson, played by Tyler Weeks.

McKinney especially is chilling for the casual way in which he speaks about the murder, not really showing any remorse, saying that he doesn't remember much about it. He tells the interviewer that he's been reading up on Nazi Germany and he's very proud of his tattoos, including the swastika, which he reckons might prevent him from visiting Germany if he should ever get out of prison.

We also hear from Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, (played by Mary C. Davis) who has become a tireless advocate for expanding hate-crimes legislation to include people targeted because of their sexual orientation. The measure, as the play notes, still has not become law. (Although it passed the House last week.)

Shepard says that people ask her why she simply doesn't let her son go, which strikes me as offensive. She responds that it's her way of keeping Matthew alive. Since there are still hate crimes, still people being victimized because of their sexual orientation, of course we need her advocacy. It's a reminder of the terrible human toll of homophobia, of all forms of bigotry.

Kudos to Trinity Rep and the Brown MFA program for presenting this work. Here are the students who participated: Will Austin, Phillipe Bowgen, Tommy Dickie, Brough Hanson, Kevaughn Harvey, Lovell Holder, Darien Johnson, Ricky Oliver, Charlie Thurston, Tyler Weeks, Ruth Coughlin, Mary C. Davis, Mia Ellis, Caroline Kaplan, Alexandra Lawrence and Lauren Lubow. The performance was directed by Shana Gozansky and the stage manager was Tammy Kinney.

The students did a great job in making this work so compelling and I'm looking forward to seeing them onstage in Trinity Rep productions over the next several years.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Revisiting The Laramie Project

Monday is normally a dark night for theatres in the United States but tonight is different.

An extraordinary event will take place when more than 150 theatres present a staged reading of the same work - The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, an 80-minute epilogue to the play about the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Today marks the 11th anniversary of Shepard's death. The 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, targeted by his killers because he was gay, was tied to a fence, beaten and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie in October 1998.

Five weeks later, members of New York's Tectonic Theater Project, including cofounder Moises Kaufman, traveled to Wyoming to interview people who knew Shepard or were connected with the case or were just ordinary citizens, straight and gay.

After a year, the transcripts were turned into the play The Laramie Project, which opened off-Broadway in 2000. It later became an HBO movie, which I watched last year.

It's a horrific story and heartbreaking to hear gay and lesbian citizens talk about how they lived quietly, in fear, before the death of Matthew Shepard. And it's also inspiring to hear how his death galvanized them, along with many straight Wyoming citizens, to speak out against homophobia, no matter what the consequences. But there are also interviews with others who seem totally unaware of their bigotry.

In 2008, Kaufman and Tectonic returned to Laramie for more interviews. They also spoke with Matthew's mother Judy Shepard, and Aaron McKinney, one of the men convicted of his murder. The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later is the result.

"We went there with a hypothesis that there would have been great change, and that was correct," Kaufman told the Los Angeles Times. "Whether the change is for better or worse or both is what people will see when they come to the show."

Greg Reiner, Tectonic's executive director, says interest in the epilogue demonstrates the power of Matthew Shepard's story "as part of our collective history and as a lesson to all about homophobia, what is means to be gay in a small town and how stories must be re-told to ensure that the legacy of these kinds of incidents is correct."

In Rhode Island, the play will be presented by students in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program at 7 p.m. at the Pell Chafee Performance Center, 87 Empire St., Providence; by Brown University undergraduates at the Leeds Theatre on campus at 8 p.m.; and at the University of Rhode Island's Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, Kingston, at 8 p.m. All are free and open to the public.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A straight girl speaks out for equality

I wish I could be in Washington, D.C., tomorrow for the National Equality March, to show my support for the friends who have done so much to enrich my life.

The goal of the march is simple: equal protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states.

And we are making progress. On Thursday, the House passed a bill that would broaden the definition of hate crimes to include attacks based on sexual orientation.

But there's more work to be done, including repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", which would allow gay and lesbian members of the military who serve their country bravely to serve it openly.

We need to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act so that gay and lesbian couples can have the same benefits and protections as their straight counterparts. We need to advance marriage equality and protect it in places where it's under attack, most notably this fall in Maine.

I'm speaking out on my blog, as I've done in the past, because this is not gay issue, it's an American issue, an issue of fairness. No one in this country should be denied equal rights because of the way they were born - whether they're gay or lesbian or black or Hispanic or Asian or a woman.

I can't be silent because silence implies consent.

Simply put, I can't tell my friends who are gay and lesbian that they're second-class citizens, that they aren't entitled to the same rights and protections I have. We're talking about good people, hardworking, productive, taxpaying citizens, people with the best family values I know. They're people I love and admire and I want the world for them.

I know there's been a split among gay-rights advocates about the wisdom of focusing attention on the federal government instead of concentrating efforts in individual states but I don't think it's an either/or situation.

We need both efforts because no one should have to wait for their civil rights at any place or at any level - in the workplace, at school, in their community, state or nation.

Tonight, President Obama will address the Human Rights Campaign dinner. I'd like to remind him of what another African-American recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail:

"For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

Friday, October 9, 2009

A bravo for Tony Roberts

I want to send out a heartfelt bravo to Tony Roberts, who was back in The Royal Family for opening night Thursday at Broadway's Friedman Theatre, four days after suffering a minor seizure onstage.

I'm sure Roberts must have felt a little nervous about being in the same place where he fell ill, but he's a trouper and an inspiration. I'm so glad he's doing well and able to return to something he loves so much.

It would have been completely understandable if the 69-year-old actor had taken a week off after a scare like that, or even left the show altogether. But according to The New York Times, Roberts is back for the duration of the Manhattan Theatre Club production, which runs through Nov. 29.

Lynne Meadow, MTC's artistic director, told the Times, “It was pretty amazing to have him back so quickly, and the audience’s response to him and to the production were ecstatic. It was one of the great opening nights in the theater that I ever attended.”

Of course I know Roberts from his movie roles - Annie Hall is one of my all-time favorite films. He's one of the reasons I'm excited about the Broadway revival of this 1927 play about a theatrical clan.

And even more exciting - I'm seeing The Royal Family on Oct. 22. Did you know that happens to be Roberts' 70th birthday? I just hope it's not a night he decides to take off!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Hurricane of 1938, set to music

The Hurricane of 1938 was the costliest, most powerful and deadliest storm in New England history - nearly 700 people killed, wind gusts of up to 186 mph, 8,000 homes destroyed - and now, it's a musical.

Hurricane, which debuted last month at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, is about the southern Rhode Island community of Napatree Point that was wiped out when the storm struck on Sept. 21, 1938. Fifteen people were killed and all of the approximately 40 houses on the spit of land were destroyed.

The book, by Michael Holland and Eric Bernat, tells the story of how unsuspecting citizens went about their daily lives while a lone weather forecaster tried in vain to alert his superiors to the impending disaster.

I know it sounds little melodramatic but sadly, it's true.

A 28-year-old junior forecaster named Charles Pierce correctly predicted that the storm would touch down on land, not curve out to sea. He was overruled by senior forecasters who decided against issuing a hurricane warning because they didn't think one was likely in New England.

While the musical, which features Holland's score of Depression-era pop, folk songs and sea chanties, is set in the 1930s, he's aiming for something more than a history lesson. The show is described as "a testament to hope, endurance, rebirth and survival."

Holland, who grew up in Connecticut, tells The New York Times that he remembers his grandmother and other family members talking about the hurricane.

And if you're thinking he's going for some deeper meaning here, you'd be correct. Holland definitely sees parallels between what happened in Rhode Island in 1938 and the government's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005:

"There are a lot of similarities. The preparation wasn’t what it could have been. After the 1938 hurricane, the government said it was a freak storm, when in fact someone had predicted it. They sloughed off their responsibility to the 600 or 700 people who were killed."

You have three more chances to see Hurricane, on Oct. 9 at 5 p.m., Oct. 10 at 9 p.m. and Oct. 13 at 5 p.m. at the Theatre at St. Clements.

Unfortunately, I can't get to New York but it sounds interesting. I like it when musical theatre tackles serious, difficult subjects. Plus, there aren't that many musicals set in Rhode Island - in fact, this may be the only one.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My Broadway dance card is full

The hotel reservation has been made, the tickets have been purchased and in just a few weeks I'll be making my 2009-2010 Broadway debut!

Here's the lineup: The Royal Family, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Finian's Rainbow, A Steady Rain, Superior Donuts and Ragtime.

Four were no-brainers. I had Brighton Beach Memoirs, A Steady Rain, Superior Donuts and Ragtime on my must-see list. But the other two were more of a toss-up.

I picked The Royal Family, about a 1920s theatrical clan based on the Barrymores, when enthusiastic reports started coming in from friends who'd seen the play.

I was also excited about seeing Tony Roberts, since Annie Hall is one of my favorite movies. Roberts has been out since suffered a minor seizure onstage Sunday. But thankfully, he's feeling great and looking forward to returning.

The last slot was tougher. I wanted to finally see Wicked on Broadway, especially with Tony winner Rondi Reed playing Madame Morrible. But I was afraid the seats wouldn't be that great and there are always so many tempting new shows.

So, I went with Finian's Rainbow despite the fact that my fellow bloggers were split over the concert version presented by Encores in March. Why did I decide to give the musical a shot? The cast was a big part of it.

I've seen two of the actors before, Kate Baldwin in the Huntington Theatre Company's She Loves Me and Christopher Fitzgerald on Broadway in Young Frankenstein, and I loved them both. Two others, Tony winner Jim Norton and Cheyenne Jackson, I want to see.

Plus, since Finian's Rainbow will be in previews, I took advantage of a discount at Playbill and got an orchestra seat for $55. You can't beat that!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

It's 1957 in Fences, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sixth chapter of August Wilson's 10-play cycle chronicling 20th century African-American life. This was the year nine black students integrated Little Rock's Central High School and Hank Aaron's home run clinched the pennant for the Milwaukee Braves.

Change is coming but in this compelling production at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, directed by Kenny Leon, Wilson shows us how difficult it can be to break with the past.

As Troy Maxson, the play's main character, John Beasley is a commanding presence. He's a burly 53-year-old Pittsburgh garbage collector whose life experiences have made him hard and bitter. He can be funny and loving and cruel and thoughtless. He drinks too much and fools around but he has a deep sense of obligation toward his family.

And the supporting cast is equally terrific, including Crystal Fox, powerful in an understated way as Maxson's long-suffering wife, Rose, who tries to keep her family together; Warner Miller as his teenage son Cory, yearning for his father's approval; a very sweet Bill Nunn as his brother Gabriel, who suffered a head wound in World War II and believes he's the angel Gabriel; Brandon J. Dirden as his freewheeling older son Lyons; and Eugene Lee as Maxson's easygoing buddy Jim Bono, who often tries to talk some sense into his friend.

This is my second August Wilson play. I saw Joe Turner's Come and Gone, set in 1911, on Broadway in June. While I enjoyed that one a little more - it seemed to move a bit faster - Troy Maxson is one of the most complex and interesting of Wilson's characters that I've seen so far.

Maxson once played baseball in the Negro League but missed out on the game's integration, a fact that's central to this story. He angrily denies Cory a chance to meet with a college football recruiter because "the white man ain't gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway."

At first, I couldn't understand why the son of a sharecropper wouldn't be thrilled at the prospect of his son winning a scholarship. But this was a time when a college degree was no guarantee of success for a black man in America, when black men were only allowed to work on the backs of garbage trucks in Pittsburgh, not drive them. (And even when they finally do get to drive them, it can be lonely up front.)

Even the set design, by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, a two-story brick house set in the back of an alley, with a small dirt yard, gives the impression that this is a closed-off, separate world.

Behind Maxson's anger, his harshness, is a desire to protect his son in the only way he knows how, the only way he can imagine. He wants Cory to learn a trade - building houses or fixing cars, "that way you have something can't nobody take away from you."

In some ways, this is a story about a generational shift. To men of Maxson's generation who came through the Great Depression, the purpose of work was to provide for your family. Whether or not you liked your job didn't enter into the equation.

Near the end of the play, Rose tells Cory: "Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn't ... and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was. I don't know if he was right or wrong ... but I do know he meant to do more good than he meant to do harm."

Wilson is an absorbing storyteller who explores African-American history without seeming forced or preachy. Maxson isn't a one-dimensional tyrant or a stereotypical "angry black man." As the play went on, layers were added and I understood more of what made him so unique, so flawed, so human.

The Huntington had a long relationship with Wilson, who died of liver cancer in 2005. In the theatre's Limelight magazine, there's a list of the plays in the century cycle and the season each was staged - except one, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, set in 1920s Chicago, which is "upcoming."

You know I'll be there.

Meanwhile, you've got one week left to see Fences, which closes Oct. 11.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Today, Fences at the Huntington

My 2009-2010 theatergoing season kicks off today with a trip to Boston for August Wilson's Fences, at the Huntington Theatre Company.

I saw my first August Wilson play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, on Broadway in May and I loved it. There's just something about the characters, the storytelling, that I found so compelling. It really drew me in.

Like most of the plays in Wilson's Century Cycle chronicling African-American life, Fences takes place in Pittsburgh. But the story is set in 1957, some 46 years after after Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

Written in 1983 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it tells the story of a former Negro leagues baseball player named Troy Maxson and his family.

The director is Kenny Leon, who worked with Wilson on many of his plays. I didn't realize that the Huntington, too, had a lengthy partnership with the playwright, up until his death in 2005. Here's an interview with Leon from The Boston Globe.

And here's a behind-the-scenes look at the production:

Unusual for me, I've actually tried to exercise some restraint and stay away from the reviews. But from what little I've read, this production is getting some terrific buzz and I'm really excited about seeing it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

When Exodus became Ari

It's the greatest feeling when someone comes across an old blog post in which you've asked a question - and answers it!

Yesterday I received a nice although, sadly, anonymous comment on a blog post I wrote about a musical based on the Leon Uris novel Exodus, titled Ari. The show opened on Broadway in January 1971 and closed a couple weeks later.

Uris adapted his 1958 bestseller for the stage and wrote the lyrics. I mentioned that I hadn't been able to find out anything about Walt Smith, who composed the music. Well, a reader filled me in.

"The man who composed the music for Ari, Walt Smith, is a jazz pianist currently living on the Western Slope of Colorado. He has received some national acclaim as a fine live jazz performer."

Smith and Uris were close friends and Ari was apparently the only musical theatre project he worked on. I did a little Googling and came up with an interview in which Smith briefly mentions the musical.

“In those days it was called ‘Ari’ — you didn’t call a musical by the same name as the novel.”

Wow, times have changed.

Today, everyone connected with the show wants to make sure you know their musical came from the novel or, more likely, the movie. So Ragtime the book is Ragtime the musical. They didn't change it to Coalhouse. (Good move!)

Sometimes the name change is an improvement: Oklahoma!, which opened on Broadway in 1943, was based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs.

My friend Kevin, the Theatre Aficionado at Large, told me about the short-lived 1966 Broadway musical A Time for Singing, based on the novel How Green Was My Valley. In my humble opinion, that name change was not an improvement.