Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, at the Public Theater
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I've never seen anything quite like The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. A monologue from Mike Daisey, it demolishes theatre's imaginary "fourth wall" to directly challenge the audience. Its purpose is to entertain but also to provoke.

Daisey sits at a table with no props, no audio or visual aids except for some bars of white lights behind him that flash once in awhile. All he has is a glass of water and some sheets of legal-sized notepaper, which I didn't even see him referring to very often.

Interestingly, he uses a low-tech way to tell a high-tech story, mixing his history as an Apple fanboy with his experiences traveling to the factory in China where iPods, iPhones and iPads are assembled. You're just listening to him talk for nearly two hours - the oldest form of storytelling there is. The result is vivid and absorbing.

The centerpiece is Daisey's visit to the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China. Foxconn is the world's largest maker of electronic components and it works under contract for many companies, including Apple. There have been numerous reports about long workdays, injuries, cramped living conditions and a spate of suicides. He recounts it all in heart-wrenching detail.

Along the way, Daisey raises questions about Apple's closed operating system, which keeps a tight rein on developers, how we're all so eager to upgrade our software and hardware whenever a new version comes out - whether we need it or not. And he points out how ignorant we are of the conditions under which the gadgets we love are made.

To be honest, he isn't telling us anything we don't already know: Steve Jobs was arrogant, working in a factory is repetitive and mind-numbing and in the West, we've turned a blind eye toward how China treats its citizens. But the way he puts it together is compelling. I bought my first Apple product in 1990 and I've been a fangirl ever since, and it made me uneasy.

There were some elements of Daisey's storytelling that I didn't really like. The unrelenting f-bombs felt unnecessary. He had a habit of raising his voice at the beginning of a sentence then lowering it, which got a bit annoying. I know some of that is necessary. He's acting, not delivering a speech. But it made me wonder how much of his story was embellished. We're paying $80 for a ticket. We want drama, emotion, conflict.

I don't doubt that conditions in China are as bad as Daisey portrays them. But I couldn't believe that the Foxconn workers were so willing to talk to him (through an interpreter). China is, after all, a repressive, totalitarian country. And Daisey is a performer, not a journalist. Plays, like TV and movies, are allowed to take artistic liberties.

Daisey has performed this piece before and the engagement at the Public Theater was announced long before Jobs died earlier this month. I wondered whether he would soften his criticism of the Apple cofounder but he doesn't let up, saying that Jobs went to his death knowing about the conditions in the Chinese factory and did nothing. That felt a little harsh, like he was intentionally piling it on about someone who died so recently.

I don't think that The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs will make anyone stop buying Apple products. What's the alternative? Foxconn's clients include just about every maker of computers and cell phones. And the stock of those companies is likely in the mutual funds that are part of most of our retirement plans.

But Daisey is a great storyteller and he does what theatre should do: entertain, make you think, take you to a place you've never been. And when you leave, you get a sheet of paper with some suggestions for further steps you can take, including e-mail Apple CEO Tim Cook (

Daisey says that he focuses on Apple because it's an industry leader but he acknowledges that the issue goes deeper: "We do not like to think about our relationship with China and the true cost of our labor, but that silence can only exist if we are complicit with it."

By presenting the issue in such starkly human terms, Daisey accomplishes one thing with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: He made me think about where my stuff comes from in a way that I never had to do before.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Clybourne Park

Clybourne Park, at Trinity Repertory Company
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

How we talk about race - or avoid talking about it - is at the heart of Clybourne Park, a penetrating work by Bruce Norris that made me squirm in my seat and laugh harder than I have in a long time.

Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Clybourne Park is inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, about the black Younger family in 1950s Chicago. At the end of the play, which Trinity Rep staged in 2009, they're moving from their cramped apartment to a house in an all-white neighborhood.

Hansberry never identifies the white family who've sold their home to the Youngers, and that's where Norris fills in the gap. He tells their story and then in Act II, revisits the house 50 years later. What's changed is at times subtle, at times in your face, but always compelling.

When the play begins Russ and Bev are packing up for their move to the suburbs with help from their black housekeeper, Francine. Anne Scurria's Bev is flighty and talkative. Timothy Crowe's Russ is detached and irritable. There are hints about why they're leaving: a mention of a troubled son and no longer feeling welcome in the neighborhood.

One character appears in both plays and Mauro Hantman reprises his earlier Trinity Rep role as Karl Lindner, the neighborhood association representative. In A Raisin in the Sun, he offers the Youngers money to back out of the move but they refuse. In Clybourne Park, Norris has Lindner trying to persuade Russ to renege on the sale.

Norris resists the temptation to make Karl a stock villain. He acts out of fear - talking ominously about falling property values. And he would never consider himself racist, just realistic: Don't people want to be with their own kind? His very pregnant wife Betsy, played by Rachael Warren, is deaf, the perfect metaphor for a play in which people have difficulty communicating.

To bolster his case, he turns to Francine and her husband Albert, trying to get them to admit that a black family wouldn't be comfortable in Clybourne Park. It's not due to racism, of course, but because, Karl assumes, the local supermarket doesn't carry the food they eat. (He's aided in his spurious arguments by Tommie Dickie's Jim, a minister who isn't acting very Christian.)

As Albert, Joe Wilson Jr. reacts with a wry, seething humor to Karl's browbeating. But Mia Ellis' Francine is more taciturn and wary, not really knowing how to respond, how truthful she can be. The expression on her face, her body language, so clearly showed her discomfort. Listening to her being treated by Karl almost as a child was painful to watch. I just felt for her.

In Act II, we learn what's happened in the intervening half century.

In 2009, Clybourne Park is a black neighborhood that's being gentrified. White professionals are moving in and rehabilitating houses that have fallen into disrepair. The family owned Gelman's market is long gone, first replaced by a Super Value that also closed and now, it almost goes without saying, by a Whole Foods. Even the language is different: we've gone from "colored people" to "people of color."

Hantman and Warren are Lindsey and Steve, a young couple expecting their first child. They've bought the Younger home and are planning to tear it down and build from scratch. Wilson and Ellis are Lena and Kevin, also young professionals with deep roots in the neighborhood. (Lina is related to the Youngers). Scurria is Kathy, a real-estate lawyer and the Lindners' daughter. They left for the suburbs when she was born.

Clearly a lot has changed in 50 years and Norris illuminates that so well through his characters. The contrasts are fascinating: the blacks are empowered, the women are working professionals. It's the white male who feels under the microscope, his every word scrutinized. As nasty as Karl is, Steve seems more insufferable. Ellis, a student in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program, is especially impressive in this switch. Her whole demeanor is different from Francine to Lena. She's really transformed.

But as Norris shows, race is still a minefield to be carefully navigated.

Lena is wary of the white newcomers, struggling to explain the history in these houses that they're so quick to tear down. Lindsey, so earnest, explains that she wants to be part of the neighborhood. Steve bristles at his motives being questioned. They both mention all of their black friends. The word "racism" is bandied about. (Softly, of course.)

Finally, everyone lets go of their inhibitions and when that happens, well, I can't remember the last time I've laughed so hard. It was horribly offensive but at the same time, hysterical and riveting. I couldn't help myself. All I could think was, how telling that this is the point at which blacks and whites talk openly with each other, when that veneer of civility is cracked.

I've seen a few plays that try to deal with race in America but none has done it as effectively as Clybourne Park. Norris' characters seemed real to me, not caricatures created to make a political statement. I'm sure in my own sincere, well-meaning white liberal way I've sounded like Lindsey on more than one occasion.

And while their intentions are miles apart, Karl and Lena do raise the same, provocative question about why we live where we live. We may work in diverse offices but how many of us go home to largely segregated communities and social lives?

Norris ends Clybourne Park where it started, with Bev and Russ. For all of our focus on the bigger issues of race and class and changing neighborhoods, he doesn't let us forget that this is a highly personal story.

We're lucky that Trinity Rep's artistic director, Curt Columbus, worked with Norris in Chicago and was able to snag Clybourne Park for its New England premiere. This is a superb production of a terrific new American play. To see it in an intimate theatre of under 300 seats is something you shouldn't miss.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Relatively Speaking

Relatively Speaking, at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****

I was looking forward to the three one-act comedies that make up Relatively Speaking for two reasons: Elaine May's George Is Dead featured Marlo Thomas and Woody Allen's Honeymoon Motel because, well, it's by Woody Allen!

The third, Talking Cure, by Ethan Coen, was more of a roll of the dice. I've enjoyed some of the Coen brothers' quirky movies and they've written some great screenplays, including the Oscar-winning Fargo. So the odds are pretty good that it'll be funny, right?

Well, there's no polite way to say this: Coen's contribution was the worst thing I've ever seen onstage. I'm hesitant to even call the 30-minute Talking Cure a play because that would imply something actually happening. This was more like two extended scenes that went nowhere.

In the first scene, a psychiatrist, played by Jason Kravits, is talking to a man (Danny Hoch) who's committed a violent crime. I think the second scene is supposed to show us the origin of his anger and violence - his parents are arguing at the dinner table while his mother is pregnant.

The parents at the early preview I saw were played by Fred Melamed and Katherine Borowitz. Now I'm going use a spoiler alert here: Their conversation consisted of, basically, yelling "Hitler" at each other. It went something like this: (and I'm paraphrasing): "If Hitler and Eva Braun came to dinner, you'd cook a real meal!"

I understand invoking the Nazis for shock value or dark humor but this wasn't either. Frankly, it was embarrassing. Godwin's Law applies to theatre as well as the Internet. I'm not surprised that Melamed left the production earlier this month partly over differences with Coen. Talking Cure is ridiculous, juvenile and pointless. It's a shame that the producers couldn't have found something more worthwhile from a more deserving playwright.

Ok, end of rant. Luckily the next two plays got successively better.

Next up was George Is Dead, which I liked quite a bit, although it could have used some trimming. This was the first time I'd seen anything onstage by May, a veteran actress and screenwriter and one half of the comedy team Nichols and May, from the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Thomas played Doreen, a wealthy woman whose husband has just died while on a trip to Colorado. Bereft, she ends up at the New York City apartment of her beloved childhood nanny's daughter, played by Lisa Emery. Apparently, the nanny did everything for Doreen and she expects her daughter Carla to do likewise.

Thomas was almost unrecognizable in blond wig. Her voice was raspier than I remembered from That Girl. But she still has a great comic touch as a pampered, childlike woman. Emery was terrific as Carla, clearly drained by this unexpected visitor, trying to cope with her incessant demands, as well as deal with the needs of her own mother and husband. They both created memorable characters.

After intermission came Honeymoon Motel, the play I was most looking forward to seeing. I've been a Woody Allen fan ever since I was a teenager, back when he was really witty and original. Annie Hall is my second favorite movie of all time, topped only by Casablanca. Nearly 35 years later, the scenes and jokes are still vivid.

Honeymoon Motel takes place in the honeymoon suite of a cheap-looking motel after a Jewish wedding has disintegrated into chaos. The bride and groom, their parents, a rabbi, are all there, along with a few others I've probably forgotten. Even a pizza delivery guy shows up.

I don't want to give too much away but it's typical Woody Allen shtick: an outrageous situation filled with one-liners, self-deprecating Jewish humor and lots of arguing. And everyone was funny, especially Steve Guttenberg as the groom's stepfather, who's the source of all the tsuris. It was pretty thrilling to see Julie Kavner as the bride's mother. (Whenever she spoke I couldn't help but hear a little Marge Simpson.)

Usually I eat this stuff up - and Honeymoon Motel was my favorite of the three. I did laugh but to be honest, it was pretty boilerplate Woody Allen, nowhere near as good as his best movies and devoid of any memorable lines. I felt like it was something he could have dashed off in a couple hours, or maybe had in a drawer somewhere as a short story, ready to send to The New Yorker until Broadway beckoned.

So unless you're a Woody Allen completist - which I guess I am - or you have an incredible desire to see Marlo Thomas - me again - I would skip Relatively Speaking. Although even I wonder whether I should have picked something else.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Mountaintop

The Mountaintop, at Broadway's Jacobs Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

When he was governor of New York, I once heard Mario Cuomo read a story to students at an elementary school. It was about two animals, one very large and the other very small. The moral: it's not your size that matters but what's in your head and in your heart.

Cuomo then asked the children, who were probably in the first or second grade, whether Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been big men. They answered, in unison, "Noooooo!" Clearly, they got the lesson - or they had been well prepped by their teachers.

If any of those now adults happen to see The Mountaintop, one thing might puzzle them - Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is over 6 feet tall. However they would certainly appreciate the message in Katori Hall's play, which draws a compelling portrait of the civil-rights leader not as a larger-than-life figure but as a man.

The Mountaintop takes the form of an imagined conversation between King and a maid in his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the final night of his life. Hall's writing is conversational, graceful and honest. She's tackling a tough subject - the private thoughts of a revered figure - and she does it in a way that does not diminish him or his legacy.

This isn't a biography, so you won't hear about the Montgomery bus boycott or any of the other defining events in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans. But you will hear King talk on the phone to his wife and children, his anguish at growing violence, his concern about the plight of the poor and his opposition to the Vietnam War.

Initially I had mixed feelings about Jackson, mostly due to his age. He's 62 and King was 39 when he was assassinated. He's bigger than King and he doesn't sound like him. (Although come to think of it, how often have we heard King's regular speaking voice?)

Well Jackson won me over, and I only saw the third preview. I never felt like I was seeing an icon but always a flesh-and-blood human being. His King is flirtatious and playful, tender when talking about his family. (I met Coretta Scott King briefly when I was in high school, in 1976, and I could just imagine her on the other end of the phone.)

But he's also facing criticism for speaking out against the war. He knows the FBI is following his every move. He's weary and worried about who would carry on his work should something happen to him. You can tell from his voice the toll that all of this has taken.

As Camae, the maid who brings King a cup of coffee and stays to talk, Angela Bassett is a powerhouse. Hall is from Memphis and the character is loosely based on her mother, who was forbidden from attending King's final, prophetic Mountaintop speech and always regretted it.

Bassett's performance is wonderfully layered. Sometimes actors I know from the movies don't always translate well to the theatre but she has a commanding presence onstage. She's clearly at home in both places.

She's deferential at first, a bit shy and even motherly. But she's also sexy, spunky, a bit teasing and unafraid to speak her mind. There's a thrilling, and hilarious, scene when she stands on the bed and gives the sermon that she thinks King should deliver.

Without giving anything away, when Camae's purpose is revealed it's a startling moment that could be maudlin but Bassett handles it with tremendous care.

The play consists of Jackson and Bassett talking in a motel room for nearly two hours and you'd think that might not hold your attention but they work off of each other well, their interaction seems so natural. They're absolutely riveting.

There are some beautiful passages, like when King says that fear is his best friend and the reason he gets up in the morning: "I know that if I'm still afraid, then I am still alive." Even though we know it ends sadly, there are surprising flashes of humor. And Kenny Leon's direction has paced this work so well. It never lags.

At first, it was jarring to see King in such a private setting. But at the same time, it was fascinating and really drew me in. Although I've read books about the civil-rights movement and a biography of King, this was different. It was so personal.

I have to mention that there is some swearing, but Hall doesn't overdo it by any means. What made me more uneasy was King's use of a racial epithet. I had a chance to ask her about it afterward and she told me she'd spoken with his advisers and it was accurate. And it's not said in a mean-spirited way. She's done her homework and I respect her for that.

It's always tricky to put words in the mouth of a real person but what I took away from The Mountaintop was a portrait of a man who, even in private, remains true to his core values.

He may be tired and smoke and cuss occasionally and express doubt and flirt with a pretty woman but he's clearly devoted to his wife and children, committed to nonviolence and equality. When Camae makes a homophobic remark he immediately rebukes her, saying in effect that we are all God's children. (And lest you think this is an example of revisionist history, it's not.)

And no matter how weary, he's not giving up. He talks about planning a poor people's campaign. (King had returned to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. An earlier rally, in late March, ended in disaster with looting and a young man killed by the police.)

Martin Luther King is arguably the most important American of the second half of the 20th century. And yet in our popular imagination, he's too often reduced to a 30-second clip of the "I have a dream" speech that's played every year on the federal holiday in January commemorating his birth.

I think Hall's point is that by turning King into a saintly figure we're doing him and ourselves a disservice. We're reducing him to a caricature - no matter now noble. And we're absolving ourselves of any responsibility to make our communities better. After all, what could we mere mortals do by comparison?

The truth is, King was not super human, simply a man who wanted to be a minister of a small church but for whom God had other plans. Like him, we all have the obligation - and the ability - to be a drum major for justice.

The Mountaintop
includes a terrific projection design by David Gallo, who also re-created King's room at the Lorraine Motel. I sat there stunned. It was an absorbing look at how far we've come since his death and how far we have to go.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

When I found out yesterday - reading a news bulletin on my iMac - that Apple cofounder Steve Jobs had died, it hit me hard.

It's not just that Jobs passed away much too young, at age 56 of pancreatic cancer. Thinking about what all of those sleek and shiny iMacs, iPods and iPhones have allowed me to do in the 21 years since I purchased my first Apple computer is mind-boggling.

I took a class in college on the computer programming language BASIC and it was not a wise move. So back in December 1990, the thought of owning a personal computer was daunting. But Apple made it easy and elegant and fun.

Here's a brief trip through my Apple fangirl history:

Macintosh Classic: Truthfully, I couldn't do much with it. The World Wide Web hadn't even been born yet. I played a lot of games: Railroad Tycoon, Sim City, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. If they made an Apple version, I bought it. You couldn't be too choosy.

Macintosh Performa. This was a big step up, it had a bigger monitor and I think it was color. I was on Prodigy for awhile, then America Online. It was considered much too scary to go onto the Internet without someone holding your hand. And remember newsgroups? Are they still around? I used to read them a lot.

PowerBook: My first laptop, which I bought when I moved to Israel for a year. I remember the thrill at finding my first freelance article online. I realized that my audience wasn't limited to people who had a physical product in front of them. Anyone, anywhere in the world could read something that I'd written.

iMac: My first "i" purchase. Goodbye floppy drive, hello CD-ROM. This was where I first uploaded my entire music collection onto iTunes, then onto my first iPod, downloaded my first podcasts, wrote my first blog posts. I got a good 10 years worth of use out of it before it just got too slow.

iPhone: I never thought I'd need to carry around a personal computer in my pocket. Then for a couple of weeks this year, I was housebound without Internet or cable. I used it for e-mail, to check Twitter and Facebook. I read the New York Times, listened to music and streamed movies. It was my link to the outside world.

Like I wrote in August when Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO, his genius was in coming up with products that you never think you'll want but once you have them, you can't imagine ever living without them.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Circle Mirror Transformation

Circle Mirror Transformation, at the Gamm Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

At the beginning of Circle Mirror Transformation, which takes place in an acting class at a community center in a small Vermont town, I felt like I wasn't really getting the joke.

For example, when the play begins five people are lying on the floor. Each shouts out a number from one to 10, in numerical order. Except there's no determined speaking order. If two people say the same number at the same time, they have to start over.

Sure it was funny but what was it all about? I took a drama class in junior high school and I don't remember doing anything like that. I was a little worried that the play would be too insider-ish, that some of the satire about studying acting would be lost on me.

Luckily, playwright Annie Baker turns out to have a gift for storytelling. While some of the acting exercises baffled me, I was drawn in by the characters she's created. I liked the way Baker gradually peeled back layers to reveal more about the students and their teacher. This isn't the deepest work but it's an absorbing one.

Theresa, (Karen Carpenter) attractive and a bit flighty, is an actress who's moved from New York City to start a new career and escape a bad relationship; Schultz, (Normand Beauregard) is divorced and lonely, pining for the house he had to give his ex-wife in the settlement; Marty (Wendy Overly) is the motherly, enthusiastic teacher; and James (Jim O'Brien) is Marty's affable husband.

But my favorite was Amanda Ruggiero's Lauren, who takes the class hoping it'll give her an edge when she auditions for her high school production of West Side Story. Ruggiero has a teenager's sullen disdain down to perfection.

Circle Mirror Transformation has a running time of 1 hour, 45 minutes, without an intermission. There's only one set, a room in the community center. It looks like a dance studio, with mirrors and a barre at either end.

The play consists mostly of relatively short scenes, either during the class or between the characters beforehand and afterward. I think that brevity serves the story very well. Director Rachel Walshe keeps things moving along at a snappy pace and I never felt that it dragged.

As part of the class, each student has to tell something about themselves and later, another student retells their story, using their voice and mannerisms. Marty gets to "be" Lauren and she's just hilarious, really spot-in in her impersonation of a teenager. On the other hand, when Schultz portrays Theresa, it's poignant because you know he's smitten with her.

One exercise I did find a little hard to believe was when Marty asks the students to write a personal secret on a piece of paper, then everyone in the class picks one and reads it aloud. Maybe because I'm more guarded and cynical, I can't imagine anyone ever actually agreeing to do that. (And some of the characters are more honest than others.)

Circle Mirror Transformation is part of trilogy that Baker set in the fictional town of Shirley, Vt. I'd love to see the two other plays. She has a great feel for the way people talk - her dialogue always sounds real, never forced. And she understands the pace of life in a small New England college town since she's from one herself, Amherst, Mass.

My only criticism is that the people in this class seem to have a lot going on, maybe too much to be totally believable. Still, they held my interest. As we see how they've kept things hidden beneath the surface, it made me think of all the "acting" that we do in our everyday lives.