Thursday, September 30, 2010

Allen Ginsberg, Howl and me

I had two very brief encounters with Allen Ginsberg, so I'm really looking forward to seeing James Franco portray the Beat Generation poet in the movie Howl.

Despite the signature and address on the title page, that's not Ginsberg's personal copy of Howl, it's mine. I interviewed him, over the phone, in 1989, in advance of a lecture at Syracuse University.

I don't remember anything about it except that I was nervous and he was very easy to talk to, apologizing for ending our conversation because the composer Philip Glass had arrived and they were going to make some music.

Afterward, I went to Ginsburg's lecture and introduced myself. He autographed the copy of Howl that I'd bought at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and even dated it, which was neat.

He asked me to send him a copy of my article and for some reason, I told him to just write his address in the book. I thought it would be a street address, so I was a little disappointed when it turned out to be a post office box.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rolling with Detroit 1-8-7

One of the (many) things I love about going to the theatre in New York is a chance to see actors whose work I've enjoyed in movies and on TV. It's a thrill to see them up close and personal.

But tonight, I'm excited for the opposite reason. I'll be watching Detroit 1-8-7 (ABC, 10 p.m.) to see Jon Michael Hill, who made an impressive Broadway debut last fall in Tracy Letts' play Superior Donuts.

I loved the play and Hill's engaging portrayal of a streetwise teenager with literary aspirations, which garnered him a Tony nomination. So I'm looking forward to the TV debut of a fine young stage actor and Steppenwolf Theatre Company member.

And even better, he's paired in this cop drama with Michael Imperioli, who was terrific as mobster Christopher Moltisanti on The Sopranos, one of my favorite TV series.

Imperioli's character is on the right side of the law this time, as Detective Louis Fitch, a veteran of the homicide squad. Hill is his new-to-homicide partner, Detective Damon Washington.

It'll be interesting to watch both of these actors tackle roles very different from the ones I've seen them in before. I'm hoping they'll make a great team solving crimes and bringing bad guys to justice in the Motor City.

I don't know if a theatre saying is appropriate but break a leg, Jon!

Monday, September 20, 2010


Camelot, at Trinity Rep
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

It's Sept. 27, 1940, the middle of the Blitz. To escape German bombing raids, 117,000 London residents have taken refuge in tube stations deep underground, including one where a troupe of actors is putting on Camelot.

This is a Camelot that tells the story of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table without castles or medieval costumes. The actors wear 1940s-era street clothes and set designer Eugene Lee has built a dark and dingy train platform cluttered with mismatched furniture. A five-piece band tucked in a corner provides the music.

I have to give artistic director Curt Columbus credit for coming up with a fresh concept for a 50-year-old musical to open Trinity Rep's season.

But I realize Camelot's shortcomings: the plot is a little convoluted and in between the songs the story can drag. It's a 2 hour and 40 minute show and at times, I really felt the length.

Luckily, I enjoyed the performances and the humor that infuses this production.

Stephen Thorne was appealing as King Arthur, a reluctant monarch who establishes the Round Table, with its ideals of honor and justice, "to fight for right, not might." Rebecca Gibel made for a glamorous, self-assured Queen Guenevere and Joe Wilson Jr. was terrific as the charming but pretentious Frenchman Lancelot.

And I've always loved Lerner and Loewe's score: "If Ever I Would Leave You" and "Camelot" are especially beautiful. Wilson was hilarious with "C'est Moi," arriving on a motorbike, bounding into the audience and handing out 8 x 11 glossies of himself.

For Americans, Camelot, which opened on Broadway in 1960 and ran for 873 performances, has become indelibly connected to the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

But the musical is based on T.H. White's The Once and Future King, written between 1938 and 1941. Columbus says White "was using Arthur, Merlyn, Guenevere, and Lancelot as voices of civilization and hope for the continuance of British identity in the face of the German onslaught at the beginning of the Second World War."

That point is brought home through a newsreel featuring British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the WWII-era posters that line the wall of the subway platform, sounds of bombs overhead that occasionally cause plaster to fall from the ceiling.

Despite all that, with one exception I didn't feel much of an emotional tug during Camelot, a sense that this musical was being put on during a terrifying, devastating time. I don't know, maybe in return for giving up the majesty I was expecting a little more Blitz spirit.

The exception was the final scene, which was beautifully staged and had me close to tears. Still even then, hearing Arthur's iconic words I wasn't thinking of the perseverance of the British people but of a young president cut down and a nation plunged into mourning.

Maybe that other connection is simply too ingrained.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Broadway wish list: fall 2010

I love this time of year, when every book and movie, TV series and CD, play and musical has the potential to be a hit.

I'll only be able to see a handful of shows in New York City and not nearly enough off Broadway. But you have to start somewhere, so here are the Broadway shows at the top of my wish list:

La Bete:
A comedy in rhyming couplets inspired by Moliere? I'm there. This is my chance to see Mark Rylance, whose Tony-winning turn in Boeing Boeing I missed. And it's been 3 1/2 years since I last saw David Hyde Pierce on Broadway, in his Tony-winning performance in Curtains. Much too long.

The Pitmen Painters:
Maybe it's because I loved How Green Was My Valley, or the fact that I've been in a coal mine, but I'm very interested in Lee Hall's play about a group of British miners in the 1930s who discover their artistic side. Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, knows the terrain. New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr, who saw it in London, put The Pitmen Painters on his list of the 10 best plays of 2008.

Brief Encounter:
I've never seen the 1945 British movie, directed by David Lean, with a screenplay by Noel Coward. And I'm not a big Coward fan. Still, I like innovative work and this play, from Britain's Kneehigh Theatre, sounds so intriguing for the way it incorporates film footage into the action onstage. I can't even imagine what it'll be like.

The Scottsboro Boys:
The reviews from the pre-Broadway engagement at the Guthrie Theater have been glowing. It's got a score by Kander and Ebb. The cast includes John Cullum and Colman Domingo, both of whom I've enjoyed onstage. And I'm so curious to see how this shameful episode in American history is told through music.

A Free Man of Color:
I've read a little bit about the time in which John Guare's play occurs and it's fascinating. New Orleans in 1801, before the Louisiana Purchase, was a freewheeling place, where racial strictures were much less rigid. Jeffrey Wright plays the title character, whose life will be upended when the city is transferred from French to American sovereignty.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown:
I could not be more excited about a cast - Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti, both of whom I adored in Gypsy, plus Sherie Rene Scott and Brian Stokes Mitchell, whom I've never seen. And the musical is based on a Pedro Almodovar movie that I haven't seen, so it'll all be new to me. Plus, haven't we all been on the verge of a nervous breakdown at one time or another?

Of course there's more I'd love to see. I missed Time Stands Still with Laura Linney, so I'm hoping to catch the return engagement. And I want to see Spider-Man Turn off the Dark, but since previews don't begin until mid-November, I'll wait until they get that flying down pat.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sondheim tonight!

Broadway's Henry Miller's Theatre officially becomes the Stephen Sondheim Theatre this evening with the lighting of the marquee on 43rd Street.

A group of Sondheim devotees made the renaming possible with a donation to the Roundabout Theatre Company, which operates the venue, in honor of the composer's 80th birthday.

Unfortunately, I can't be there for the ceremony but as a fan, I'd like to add my congratulations on this long-overdue recognition. I can't wait to see my first show at the Sondheim.

I have many favorite Sondheim songs and musicals but I'm very partial to Sweeney Todd and I love the clever wordplay in "A Little Priest." Despite the grim subject matter, I can't help but smile at Mr. Sondheim's wit.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Glengarry Glen Ross

Glengarry Glen Ross, at the Gamm Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

Glengarry Glen Ross has all the trademarks of a David Mamet play: staccato dialogue, lots of profanity, brimming with testosterone. And then there was something I didn't expect: I felt a great deal of empathy.

Mamet's Chicago real estate salesmen, desperate for the "good leads" on buyers for their dubious property, play fast and loose with legal and ethical business practices. I'm not sure I'd want to be in the same office with them.

Yet, there's something that touched me about these men who are trying to make a living in the world they know best. Glengarry Glen Ross encompasses the breadth of working life - from the young guy on his way up, to the hotshot in his prime, to the veteran who simply can't hack it anymore.

Tightly directed by Fred Sullivan Jr., the Gamm Theatre's production is very funny but with a sharp edge. Sullivan never lets a moment or a gesture go to waste. It's just as interesting to watch the characters who aren't talking as the ones who are.

The first act, which whizzes by, consists of three conversations in a Chinese restaurant in which we get to know the salesmen.

Sam Babbitt as Shelly "the Machine" Levene, years past his glory days, is heartbreaking. He practically begs Williamson, the office manager played by Marc Dante Mancini, for a list of prospects. Mancini is wonderfully expressive as he listens, getting more and more annoyed with a man old enough to be his father.

Then there's Dave Moss (Tom Gleadow) and George Aronow (Chuck Reifler), conniving to get their hands on the same leads. The fast-paced back-and-forth as they discuss their plan is classic Mamet and they pull it off beautifully.

Finally, we meet Ricky Roma (Tony Estrella), leader in the office contest to win a Cadillac for racking up the most sales. Estrella's Roma is so smooth and confident as he identifies a potential target, James Lingk (a mild-mannered Kelby Akin). It was riveting to watch him strike up a conversation that didn't seem to be about much of anything - then move in for the sell.

The second act takes place in the dilapidated real estate office. It's clear from Patrick Lynch's set design that these salesmen are not exactly masters of their universe. They work in cramped quarters with ancient metal desks and cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling.

They gloat over closing a sale like they've hit a game-winning home run. They're also bigoted and profane, duplicitous, cocky and at the same time, at the mercy of Williamson, the youngest man in the office, for their livelihoods.

My own brief stint in sales consisted of selling subscriptions to The Boston Globe over the phone while I was in college. I only did it for about a month. Cold-calling people to get them to buy something is a tough way to make a living.

And while Mamet's play was written in the 1980s, it certainly resonates in the United States of 2010. It made me think of all the people in foreclosure after being enticed to buy homes that they couldn't afford.

With a compelling story and characters who seem real, this is the Mamet I've been looking for but didn't find the previous two times I've seen his work onstage.

For anyone who's ever held a job, anyone who's ever been on either end of the buying or selling equation - in other words, all of us, there's a lot in Glengarry Glen Ross that resonates.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

At the Pentagon, remembering 9/11

One thing I didn't mention when I wrote about my trip to Washington, D.C., is that a friend took me to see the very moving Sept. 11 memorial at the Pentagon.

This was my first time on the grounds of the Pentagon, so it was interesting just from that perspective. The memorial is a place for quiet reflection and honors each of the victims. It's a simple design, yet one that contains levels of meaning.

Completed in 2008, the memorial is adjacent to the side of the building where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed about a half-hour after takeoff from Dulles Airport. You can see that the Indiana limestone used in the repairs is a slightly different shade.

Designed by Keith Kaseman and Julie Beckman, it consists of 184 benches, each cantilevered over a pool of water and illuminated at night, and inscribed with the name of a victim. They're arranged according to the age - the oldest was born in 1930 and the youngest in 1998.

For some reason I had thought the memorial was only for people who worked at the Pentagon, so I asked my friend whether there had been a daycare center. He said no, it was for all the victims, those on the plane as well.

That really touched me - civilians and military personnel, adults and children who were on the plane, all remembered together. And the memorial is open to all - 24 hours a day, no security checkpoint to go through to get on the Pentagon grounds.

Fifty-nine of the benches face one way and 125 the opposite way, depending on whether the person was on the plane or at the Pentagon that morning.

"When visiting a unit dedicated to a victim who was in the Pentagon, the visitor will see their engraved name and the Pentagon in the same view," Beckman told the Bryn Mawr alumnae magazine. "Conversely, one will see the engraved name of a victim on flight 77 with the sky."

In an interview with The Washington Post about building the memorial, Kaseman said that visitors won't find any brochures or interpretive material because the terror attacks were an attack on freedom of thought. (Although if my friend hadn't known the background, a lot of the deeper meaning would have escaped me.)

"We wanted to invite people to think but not tell them how to think or what to feel," Kaseman said. "The memorial gives you enough of a story to set you on your own process of discovery and interpretation."

Here's a CBS News segment on the memorial, including interviews with the designers:

Friday, September 10, 2010

From Spider-Man's Reeve Carney, Good Morning America!

I'll admit that hearing a song out of context is not the best way to sell a Broadway show. Still, I was underwhelmed by the debut of a song from Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark on Good Morning America.

First of all, the cameras should have taken us inside the Foxwoods Theatre for a tour and an interview with director Julie Taymor. Having her sitting in the GMA studio, holding still photographs of the set and costumes on her lap, didn't do much to convey the tremendous scope of this production.

I mean, according to an interview in The New York Times with lead producer Michael Cohl, the musical has a price tag of $60 million, making it the most expensive show in Broadway history. C'mon, show me how spectacular that set looks. Make me think I need to get my ticket now.

(Interestingly, the article notes that Cohl got his big break as chief promoter for the Rolling Stones "Steel Wheels" tour, which I saw in Syracuse in 1989. I remember it was a big deal - everyone I know went - and I think I still have my bootleg T-shirt somewhere.)

There are two reasons I'm interested in Spider-Man. One is Taymor, whose work on The Lion King I loved. And the other is the music, written by Bono and The Edge, from U2, a band I love (at least their early stuff).

The musical's Peter Parker, Reeve Carney, performed "Boy Falls From The Sky,'' backed by his band, Carney.

It was different from a traditional show tune and I like the idea of mixing up the sound on Broadway. There ought to be all different kinds of music on the Great White Way.

But it struck me as a generic slow rock song from a slight twentysomething with his hair falling in his eyes. Plus, Carney was slurring the lyrics so much that I could hardly understand them. And he's not exactly a commanding presence onstage. Hope he's got enough stamina for eight shows a week.

You can watch his performance here:

Having a national television audience, I was hoping the creative team would come up with something a little more jaw-dropping than what I saw. Don't get me wrong, I'm still interested. But I think they hit a single when they should have been trying for a home run.

Spider-Man begins previews Nov. 14 and opens Dec. 21.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Giving Mamet another chance

After a month off, my fall theatergoing starts this weekend. I'm heading back to the profane, cynical world of playwright David Mamet for Glengarry Glen Ross at the Gamm Theatre.

I've said before that I think Mamet has become less interested in writing a compelling narrative than in bludgeoning the audience with his views on politics or culture or the society in which we live.

My previous two Mamet outings, Speed-the-Plow and Race on Broadway, were disappointing for that reason. Neither his characters nor the situations they were in seemed wholly believable.

(Although I did love Raul Esparza's take on a desperate Hollywood producer in Speed-the-Plow.)

But I have hopes that the third time will be the charm, because I enjoyed the 1992 movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross.

It has a terrific cast including Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce, Ed Harris, Al Pacino and of course, Kevin Spacey, delivering the line: Will you go to lunch? (With you Kevin, anytime!)

The Pulitzer-winning Glengarry Glen Ross was first produced on Broadway in 1984. I think that was a time, before Speed-the-Plow and Race, when Mamet was still interested in telling a story. His small-time Chicago real estate agents, willing to do anything to make a sale, seemed real.

Bottom line - I don't mind a playwright's view of the world onstage but diatribes bore me. You've got to tell me a story. That's why I'm sitting in the theatre. So one more chance for you, David Mamet.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Jerry Zaks on theatre and religion

I'm catching up with the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center interviews and I love this quote from director Jerry Zaks as he talked about the 1992 Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls:

"The most important thing to me in any of these productions is the transmission of joy of some sort, or some sort of ecstatic experience.

"In temple when I was a kid, the happiest moment was at the end of service - a) because it was the end of the service but b) because everyone stood up and sang and it was ecstatic. We sang, and it was joyous.

"I've always wanted my productions to perform the same function as going to a good service would. Now, I'm not comparing faith in God with the theatre but you know what, sometimes I think it's more powerful."

While it's been a long time since I've attended synagogue regularly, I know what Zaks is talking about - I remember the melodies from childhood. There's something about singing in unison that's joyous and truly gives you a sense of community.

Of course theatre usually isn't participatory in the same way as a religious service - although going up on stage at the Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway at the end of Hair certainly was an ecstatic experience for me.

I've had other powerful moments at the theatre that I'd compare to a religious experience.

I was in tears hearing "For Good" the first time I saw Wicked, on tour. And Patti LuPone's "Everything's Coming Up Roses" in Gypsy at City Center was rapturous - the only time I've been part of a mid-show standing ovation.

There's something about being at a live performance that you can't replicate watching a movie at the multiplex or sitting at home on the couch with the remote.