BACK TO NEW YORK: On THE FRONT PAGE, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur

During the past year I’ve enjoyed two overnight hospital stays, my first since my tonsils were removed years ago.  The shoulder and knee replacements were successful and relatively painless, but they were immobilizing enough to preclude major travels.   When I was pretty much anchored  in recovery mode at home, I was asked many times just why was I so eager to go back to New York.  After all, I treasure this town and our quiet little neighborhood, shaded by real trees.  My bride of 52 years and the three four-legged creatures that mean the most to us are here, and we enjoy all the advantages of a great university town.  There are interesting people.  There are 25 movie screens, and more coming this year … (and some of them actually bring in good movies).  There are maybe a dozen producing theater companies doing good work within a short drive.  There are fine restaurants, concerts, games, lectures, film studios, and even a whole slew of ukulele players.   So the question remains:  Why New York?

hqdefaultThe question has many answers.  As an undergraduate, I was a one-hour bus ride from the city.  I would occasionally leave after class on Tuesdays. I’d catch a standing-room show that night, spend the night in an all-night movie theatre showing second run triple-features for $1.00. Awakened and thrown out of the theater at 4:00 a.m. I showered at Grand Central, breakfasted at the Horn & Hardart automat, and hit another movie or two before the Wednesday matinee.  I hit a third show that night before getting the late bus back to school.  For a grand total of about $75, and a few skipped classes, I could manage three Broadway plays, and four or five pretty good movies … even if I slept through two of them (and flunked a course or two).  Nonetheless, the pattern was set.

Later, in my early twenties,  I briefly lived in a tiny apartment on 72nd Street and 8th Avenue while working on a Masters degree at Columbia.  These days I still rarely miss an opportunity to walk by the place, drawn by nostalgia, regret, and no small amount of self-anger.  At the time, I didn’t have the funds, the time, the wits or the energy to take advantage of the readily available theatre scene I was living next door to.  Times have changed … so much in fact that my New York theatre habit is now roughly equivalent to my compulsion for dark chocolate.

Seeing seven excellent plays, mostly at discount prices, for only five nights in a New York City hotel room, is actually reasonably doable.   The energy, sounds and smell of the place get my blood pumping.   As any look back through my past seven years of play-blogging will attest, I’m certainly not opposed to Chicago, London, Shepherdstown WV, Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, or any of the other theatrical magnets of the world, when I can get there.  If New York and its noisy, vibrant, energetic theatre scene is no longer  a viable lifestyle for me, it still prods me to temporarily abandon my smug acceptance of all things comfortable … to come out and look around at the world.  It remains my #1 antidote to any dark waves of troubled powerlessness and considerable anger at the political scene.  For years, it has been my #1 travel target.

Back in 1969, I took the bus down to the city from Vermont for a long weekend primarily to see The Front Page, with Robert Ryan, Peggy Cass, Bert Convy and a whole lot of people I’d never heard of.  I loved it.  Written 40 years earlier, in 1928, by two ex-newspapermen, this felt like what we could call docudrama today: an authentic, gritty inside story on how a big city (Chicago) newsroom really operates in the face of a breaking story with potential violence – plenty of suspense and great dirty jokes.

img_0617The recent production, starring John Goodman, John Slattery, Jefferson Mays, Robert Morse and Nathan Lane, was anything but.  Yes, I did alter the order of the cast a bit just now, I believe deservedly so.  Nathan Lane, who is a damn good actor and a superb comedian, was disappointingly out of place in this production.  He doesn’t even enter until Act II. His insistence on doing his own comic schtick, typified by his routine of trying to move a heavy desk, was a distraction to the play as a whole.
It was like we all were expected to take time out from the virtual world of the play to laugh at Nathan Lane; and the more we laughed, the longer it went on.  I was surprised that director Jack O’Brian hadn’t fired him.  Of course, you don’t “fire” Nathan Lane.  He’d stay! … You’d go!

Others in the cast were not so offensively .  John Goodman, whom I’ve greatly admired since Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and  Cable TV’s terrific Treme, was a stunner, as I knew he would be, if not like this:  Standing 6’2″tall, svelte and lithe, he has whole new dimensions (pun intended) of acting ahead of him.  Shortly after completing  10 Cloverfield Lane, he apparently got tired of looking at himself in the mirror,  stopped eating “all the time,” got off sugar, began to exercise rigorously with a trainer, and quickly  lost over 100 pounds (without losing an ounce of his talent).  Equally outstanding were Slattery, late of Mad Men, and a barely recognizable Jefferson Mays (who has won recent Broadway kudos for both I Am My Own Wife and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder).  And in a wonderful if tiny  little role, there was another veteran of the Mad Men team, 85-year-old Robert Morse, having every bit as much fun as he had back in 1962, when I saw him play  J. Pierrepont Finch in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.

Enough about the people.  How about the play?  Obviously I was prepared to love it as much as I had back in 1969.  I didn’t.  And it wasn’t all Lane’s fault.  In 2016, the play was badly dated, patently offensive to women, dismissive of its audience, trite, full of bad old inside jokes, and just plain corny as all get-out.  It’s all been done much more convincingly, notably by TV’s The Newsroom.   No one seemed too sure of just why they were remounting The Front Page, except as a vehicle for star power, which did after all work: Previews for the limited run began last year on September 20, and the play closed January 29, 2017, having packed ’em in.  In that short amount of time, it apparently managed to pay back all its investors and then some.  Guess that makes mine a distinct minority opinion.  If you missed it, take heart:  You just squirreled away about one sixth the price of a Hamilton ticket down the road.

Five more of the seven plays I saw on December’s trip have also closed:  Santasia, Falsettos, The Encounter, Dead Poets Society, and Love, Love, Love!   It was an eclectic and entirely satisfactory mix, and coming up, I’ll be exploring them all.  Up next though, I’ll talk about the one survivor of the seven, the loud and rowdy School of Rock.

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A BREAK FOR A PLUG: The Comedy of Errors

A Hearty WELCOME to a bunch of new readers, and my humble apologies to my regular followers for my long delay in entries.  This next batch of blogs describing recent New York theatrical ventures has been a long time coming. Since September, I’ve been suffering through weeks of soothing and loving care at home in beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia. I was growing sufficiently recovered from both knee and shoulder replacements in the same year, and exhausted by the unavoidable political fear-mongering on TV and in conversation.  Even compressing all five seasons of Breaking Bad into five weeks did little for me.

Impatient with the patience around me, I was itching to get a renewal on life in the big city.  So in early December, I finally made a run for it.  I robbed the budget, deserted my faithful wife  two favorite dogs and one cat, hopped the  train directly from Charlottesville to Penn Station, and managed to squeeze in seven New York shows in five nights. It wasn’t a record, but it did the trick.

However, before I get to them, I beg your patience for a small breach in tradition: a plug in favor of the home team in Charlottesville.  There is an extraordinarily lively theatre scene here, for a university town of less than 50,000.  Because I am one small part of it, I’ve chosen in the past to remain locally neutral.  In my commentaries, I have not yet ever discussed regional productions, including some I’ve directed or in which I’ve acted.  However, this one is a one-shot deal, and it promises to be so much fun I felt it was part of my responsibility to throw some audiences at it.  I’ve not yet seen it , nor am I in any way connected to the project, a directorial effort by my friend Boomie Pedersen.

Many moons ago, Boomie’s undergraduate degree came from the same source as my own (from many more moons ago).  She is a highly respected, consummate theatre pro, and Artistic Director of the Hamner Theater in Nelson County, Virginia.    She has never stopped learning her craft.  img_0615The play is her own Adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, produced in partial fulfillment of the requirements for her MFA in Theatre Education, at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.  Both the production company and the ten-man cast are referenced above the title:  GOMDS [Grumpy Old Men Doing Shakespeare).  That’s my age range:  Gotta see it!  It opens this Friday, February 17, and closes on March 11.  Altogether, there are eight performances in Charlottesville and Richmond.  If you’re nearby and interested, take your pick!  For details: (434) 960-5936.

To be continued tomorrow!  New York!  I promise!

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THE KING AND I: An Addendum both Personal and Historical

Readers looking for specific responses to the recent Lincoln Center production of The King and I would do well to read my August 29 posting below.  But I guess I’m not through with this play yet.  And clearly, I’m  not alone.  It remains a worldwide phenomenon.  I want to explore some history of the play, and how one musical came to be such a fascination for me and so many others, despite its being a rather dreary non-love story about two reasonably unlikable people.  I confess that, ironically, my real opinion is that it’s too long, ends badly, and as a play is far from my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein creation.  Yet I continue to listen, sing, hum, and whistle my way through that magnificent music, and I will surely trundle up to Washington, misty-eyed and open-jawed once again, to see The King and I when it arrives on tour. This post is an exploration of how that could be so. I hope it will be a blend of historical perspective on the play itself, and a personal memoir and journal of whatever it is that attaches us at the hip like a chemical addiction.  Just why is it that some experiences, both pleasant and not so pleasant, can take hold of us early in our personal evolution as human beings, and will not let us go – ever?

                                 The Evolution of Me and The King and I 

Anna Leonowens circa 1860

Anna Leonowens
circa 1860

In 1862, Anna Leonowens, a recently widowed British school teacher, accepted a request to come to Siam to teach the 39 wives and 82 children of King Mongkut. She brought with her her then six-year-old son Louis.   During their almost six years in Bangkok, Anna kept copious notes and later produced two memoirs describing her experiences there and her various skirmishes with the king. Many of them, unchanged, remain an integral part of the script for The King and I, including the conflicted nature of a king eager to preserve his own power and traditions, and equally as eager to bring his country into the modern age of science and western civilization. In 1944, Margaret Landon, an American writer, wrote Anna and the King of Siam, a successful novel based on the Leonowens memoirs.

Two years later, director John Cromwell turned the novel into a movie with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison (as you can see, complete with a beautifully groomed head of hair).

Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, in the 1946 film, Anna and the King of Siam

Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, in the 1946 film, Anna and the King of Siam

And that’s where I suspect I first heard of the king of Siam, the first corner  piece of the puzzle needed to solve my mysterious attachment to The King and I.  I don’t remember it of course (I was seven at the time). But little seeds grow big food! Turns out, my mom was a huge fan of Irene Dunne, a beautiful megastar actress-singer in the 30’s-40’s. I remember once being with Mom at an airport, when Irene emerged and quickly climbed into the back of a limo. Mom instantly morphed into a teenage movie fanatic and charged over to ask if she could take her picture. The response? “It would be a far better photograph, Dear, if you took the cap off your camera lens,” as she rolled up the window.   After that, I’m quite sure that Irene Dunne and Anna and the King were frequent topics of conversation in my household in the late 40’s.

Gertrude Lawrence

Gertrude Lawrence

It turns out that Rodgers and Hammerstein were familiar with the book, but were not interested in turning the story into a musical until they saw the movie. From the start, The King and I was essentially created as a star vehicle for the veteran British singer, Gertrude Lawrence, hugely popular in her day, if legendary for being difficult to work with. By then, her vocal skills had already begun to fade, and Rodgers’ simple but beautiful tunes were composed to accommodate her reduced range. Nonetheless, when The King and I opened on Broadway on March 29, 1951, she would become the instant talk of the town and a Tony winner for her comeback role as Anna. Sadly, her success was short-lived. It was not an easy role for a 52-year-old woman: Eight times a week she carried around 75 pounds of costume as she danced her way through an arduous 3¾ -hour performance, later trimmed to just under 3 hours. On August 16, 1952, she collapsed backstage after a matinee performance, and died on September 6, of a previously undetected cancer of the liver and abdomen.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had wanted the movie’s Rex Harrison to play the king, but he wasn’t available. So when young folk singer and TV Director Yul Brynner showed up to audition, bald and glowering, he got the part.

Yul Brynner in Anna and the King of Siam,

Yul Brynner in Anna and the King of Siam, 1972

His name was not even on the marquis under Lawrence’s when the show opened. But by the time it closed, a record-setting three years later, Brynner was the star.  And he had missed very few of its 1,265 performances.

In addition to his other work on stage and screen, for the next thirty-three years he would go on to play the role he had originated. I believe I finally saw the show with my folks at the National Theatre in Washington in late 1954, with Brynner still toughing it out on tour. Over thirty years later, in the spring of 1985, he was back on Broadway yet again. So of course, my wife and I took our own kids, ages 8 and 11, up to New York so they could experience the real thing. Later that year, on June 30, Yul Brynner gave his 4,625th and final performance as the King of Siam.  On the tenth of October, he died of lung cancer, just as he had long expected to do.

kingiobpBut back to 1951: I had missed out on all of the early excitement surrounding the opening of The King and I. I was out of the country, acquiring another subtle cog in the wheel of my fascination with the play and the story. As anyone who has spent any part of his or her childhood outside our American shores will tell you, perspectives change radically. Experience in a foreign land is an eye-opening life-changer. In 1950, my dad was an aviation expert with the Civil Aeronautics Administration (An early version of the FAA). As I understood it, he went on loan to the State Department for the purpose of supervising the conversion and delivery of our wartime transport planes to the budding Air France fleet.

But what that meant for me was two years of living in Paris … where the local kids went to school in “dresses.”  Well ok,  not really. I was told they were actually very practical blue smocks, a traditional school “uniform,”  designed to keep street clothes relatively clean. Furthermore, they all spoke French!  Still, no way was I going timages-1o wear a “dress” to school!  And unable to speak a word of French, I flat out refused to go to a perfectly good neighborhood French school. Sadly, the spoiled brat in me won out. But unfortunately, some good parental research also ruled out the American school, whose reputation at the time was a bit unsavory. Consequentially, I had to agree to attend an English-speaking boarding school on the far side of the city. Bad choice on my part: It was an overcrowded school in the Dickensian tradition, replete with uncouth sanitary conditions, where classroom misbehavior resulted in bloody knuckles dealt by the rulers of irate red-headed Englishmen. And the playground was a war zone. Oh the things my parents never knew!

The plus side was that the little “Denny International School” was populated by students with different eye shapes and skin colors, speaking strange languages, worshipping different Gods, talking of different cultures and traditions. There were French kids whose parents wanted them to learn English fast; there were war orphans; there were the sons and daughters of diplomats from all over the world. Some were wackos, others dedicated athletic or intellectual types –the full spectrum of pre-adolescent worldly humanity. Naturally, we quickly formed defensive gangs for the purpose of recess survival, without regard to any of the above features. My three very best friends, my most trustworthy allies, were John Maung, from Burma, Saïd Dehlavi from Pakistan, and Octavio Maloles, from the Philippines. I’ve often wondered what has happened to them as adults. One of these days, maybe I’ll try a search and ….

By the time we came back home to the U.S. in the summer of 1952, I was a 12-year-old committed internationalist, with a keen interest in what went on in the rest of the world, and how it was different, and how we humans were still all the same. And I knew from my friends that Burma (which in 1989 became Myanmar) was next to the Kingdom of Siam, which had already become Thailand, and was also next to China, which was next to the newly formed dominion of Pakistan, and also next to Korea, where people, including Americans, were getting killed.  And furthermore … I spoke fluent French!

By then, the family owned the 33⅓ lp original cast album of The King and I, which I already had largely memorized. I still have it. After all, the story was set in Siam, now Thailand, which was next door to Burma, which … “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.” That whole part of the globe belonged to my best friends.  Just as Paris now belonged to me.

Rita Moreno as Tuptim, and Deborah Kerr as Anna Leonowens in the 1956, 20th Century Fox film of The King and I

Rita Moreno as Tuptim, and Deborah Kerr as Anna Leonowens in the 1956, 20th Century Fox film of The King and I

The movie of the musical came out in 1956, in Cinemascope even. It stars Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, and as we would all later find out, the unacknowledged, dubbed-in voice of the inimitable late Marni Nixon, one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets. If you look hard you might also recognize the talented and very young Rita Moreno, as Tuptim. The screenplay by Ernest Lehman and Hammerstein was now trimmed to 2¼ hours. A beautifully rendered 50th Anniversary CD of the film, minus the overture, remains available. You have to grit your teeth through the blatant racism and sexism, but the sets and costumes are glorious, and the music … Well, yes. The music!

The King and I may not be as well known as other Rodgers & Hammerstein hits. It’s got a huge cast, expensive to produce; it’s a more exotic locale than most Americans were used to, and it has neither a classic love story nor a “lived-happily-ever-after” ending. The king dies in the end, which ironically is the only major plot difference from the real story, aside from omitting the brutal torture and punishment of the runaway slaves. Historically, King Mongkut did not die until 1868, when Anna was back in England. He had been a dangerous autocrat, who bore little resemblance to the more or less likable buffoon customarily portrayed in The King and I, and he most certainly was neither a ”nice guy” nor a romantic.

King Mongkut of Siam and one of his thirty-nine wives

King Mongkut of Siam and one of his thirty-nine wives

Nonetheless, despite all objections, The King and I retains an ongoing global fascination. It has spawned a radio show, a TV series, and at least four films. It has been translated into dozens of languages. Doubtlessly, there have been thousands of theatrical productions mounted in every corner of the world, with the exception of Thailand itself, whose government censors have regarded the whole story as a myth.

So many stories. So many associations. But there is one more piece of personal history needed to complete this jigsaw puzzle, one which reinforced and cemented my affection for Rodgers and Hammerstein and The King and I for 64 years. In the summer of 1957, I was working at a summer camp on Cape Cod.  I was recruited to play the King for our annual abbreviated musical adaptation – my first featured musical role.  … And WE got the play down to 75 minutes.  On the night before the one and only performance, I was “cruelly” awakened somewhere around 3:00a.m., by five of my fellow counselor/cast mates, and pinned to the floor while they took an electric razor to my head … “so’s I would look like the ‘real’ king.” My protestations that the “real” king had plenty of hair did nothing to deter them.  There’s a picture somewhere, or was: “Come on, guys… This is not funny!!!”

On the other hand, yes it was.

 

 

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Lincoln Center’s Production of THE KING AND I

Last spring, after a long and mostly boring recovery from a January knee replacement, off I went on my customary biannual theatre binge in New York. I was eager to find plays that would be challenging, leave me excited, thinking, questioning. Picking from the discount listers, I deliberately chose The Crucible, The Effect, The Father, The Humans, Prodigal Son, and Blackbird (all discussed in previous posts below). And then, just for nostalgia’s sake, I added in The King and I. Turns out, all but two turned out to be Tony Award winners. (The exceptions were off-Broadway’s Prodigal Son, and The Effect, which should have had their turns at the Obies.)  More importantly, all seven were challenging, perceptive, excellent theatre, just what I was in the mood for. And every one of them offered a personal attachment to me, whether a familiar moral or political argument, a reference point for the workings of my own aging mind, or a poignant memory of my own experiences in the classroom.

But everyone wanted to know: What was my very favorite of the shows I’d managed to squeeze in? The answer, of all things: The King and I.  Ironic, isn’t it?  A safe old Rodgers and Hammerstein revival?  Challenging, thinking, questioning, and beautiful?  It closed at New York’s Lincoln Center on June 26, after 1¼ years and 538 performances. However, there is a planned national tour in the works.  Audiences are not done with this one yet. So just for fun, I want to spend this and my next post chatting about it.

IMG_0297 (1)

Those of you who are my regular readers know by now that I make no claims and expend no effort towards objectivity. Quite simply, this is a show I have always loved, and would see repeatedly wherever I could find a decent production. This is Rodgers and Hammerstein at their very best, working together on something very new and different from their previous work. Without a “happily-ever-after” love story, it’s perhaps less often produced, less accessible and more exotic than their more familiar Oklahoma, South Pacific, and Sound of Music. But this is music I have listened repeatedly to all my life. This is music I used to sing, once on a camp stage, and in thousands of showers. I can recite lyrics even now, from Hello Young Lovers, Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You, Shall We DanceA Puzzlement, and more.

However, if I anticipated going to a favorite mushy, nostalgic old love story purely for escapist entertainment, a break from my other more thought-provoking plays of the week, I was mistaken. This was a brand new King and I, more like a “king-of-the-mountain’ competition than a love story. This was by far the most lush, sumptuous and extravagant of anything I’ve ever seen in traditional American Musical Theatre. A break-the-bank budget allowed for more than fifty actors, and gorgeous costumes and sets: huge, golden, cleverly designed and engineered miracles of stagecraft. From my fourth row bargain seat on the side of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the prow of the ship bringing Anna Leonowens to Siam emerged from the wings to loom impressively over my head as it docked.

Super director Bartlett Sher (six Tony nominations in the past ten years) and his team made an active choice to explore the enigmatic duality of human nature. Their focus on historical accuracy, interculturalism, sexism, feminism, and sexual slavery was carefully staged to challenge the audience’s own preconceptions, and to call undeniable attention to the certainty that human cruelty and shortsightedness remain our concern in today’s “civilized” multicultural world. It’s contemporary relevance is clear. Still, it is in no way “preachy.” It’s a complex beautifully told story about attempts to break down such barriers, some successful, others not.

I like to think that no matter how magnificent the costumes and the sets, it’s the people we come to see, and Sher sought out the best for his reconsideration of this classic. He had worked many times with superstar Kelli O’Hara, notably eight years ago on the same stage, in his award-winning South Pacific. And he chose Japanese movie star Ken Watanabe  (The Last Samurai) to play King Mongkut.

Watanabe had been forced to leave the cast for emergency surgery and treatment for stomach cancer, but he was able to return to the role shortly before I saw the show. His performance was solid, and very effective, a self-contradictory man determined to retain control over a kingdom he badly wants to usher into modern civilization. O’Hara played a strong teacher, demanding of personal and professional respect, and yet at the same time charmed by the king and his eighty some children whom she was charged to educate.

The music, of course, was as good as it gets. The choral numbers and choreography were beautifully sung and staged. Three of the songs were particularly convincing, and beautifully rendered completely in character: The King’s Number One Wife, Lady Thiang (Ruthie Ann Miles), sang “Something Wonderful” as if the music were an integral part of the natural Thai language, and her satirical “Western People Funny” turned some cartoonishly racist lyrics into a national anthem of oriental pride. And with the powerful operatic voices of the “young lovers” Tuptim and Lun Tha (Ashey Park and Conrad Ricamora), “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” became convincingly passionate serenades, tinged with desperation and fear.

The casting of the two stars was a publicist’s dream. Watanabe was far more dangerous a king than an adorable one, and his take created new extremes of tension between himself and Anna. Their “Shall We Dance” quickly shifted from fun to manic, leaving Anna with a “What-the-hell-have-I-done?” expression on her face, and adding a whole new context to the more traditional romantic waltz. Still, the king’s bravado was consistently undercut with an extraordinary vulnerability, especially in one of my favorite numbers, “Puzzlement,” in which he questions his own wisdom, power, and place in the world.

And last but certainly not least, there was Kelli O’Hara, often deservedly dubbed the queen of Broadway musicals. I had seen her work in South Pacific and Light in the Piazza, and was suitably impressed with both her beautiful voice and her strong sense of character. She fully deserves all the kudos and awards she has earned.  However, I must confess to disappointment in the space where her two talents meet up. I’m not sure whether it’s her choice or the director’s (Sher again in both productions), but there seems to be a less than subtle line of demarcation between when she occupies a role, and when she sings a song. It’s an operatic tradition for the soprano to step forward to sing an aria directly facing the audience. But what I have always loved about American musical theatre is that lyric and music flow smoothly out of dialogue and character, thus heightening the intent. To me, especially with today’s use of body mikes and sound control, dropping character and singing frontally to the audience seems a distraction from such a flow, as well as an indulgent bow to ego. I truly hope such practice is a throwback Sher/O’Hara quirk, and not a sign of a retro trend.  It was my one and only objection to an otherwise near perfect production.

 

UP NEXT: The King and I, a Personal Historical Addendum

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John Patrick Shanley’s PRODIGAL SON

Prodigal Son opened in January, off-Broadway in the Manhattan Theatre Club at the New York City Center.  MTC had also produced The Father, with Frank Langella (Read my comments in the June 8 entry below.) After a brief extension, for which I was very grateful, Prodigal Son closed on March 27th, and I was able to be there for its final performance. It was both written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, author of the film Moonstruck, the Tony-nominated Outside Mullingar, and Doubt, which won both a Pulitzer and a Tony for best new play in 2005. The man has been around the block, and he can pretty much be counted on for terrific dialogue and complex moral explorations. My cup of tea.

IMG_0294 (1)Shanley has revealed that the play is almost entirely autobiographical, including many unchanged names and detailed conversations he recalled from his own youth. Set in 1965, it is the story of a very bright, very rebellious fifteen-year-old renegade from the Bronx (Timothée Chalamet), who gets a “lucky” break by being awarded a scholarship to an exclusive New Hampshire boarding school. Despite his superior intellect and highly polished writing skills, he spends his two years there constantly on the verge of being sacked, because he is also a thoroughly unlikable liar, a thief, a bully, and an egotistical snob. But … he has charm.

Also in the picture is Alan Hoffman, the dedicated teacher played by Robert Sean Leonard, who is determined to make the boy succeed, graduate, and go off to college with a prestigious scholarship. Many of us remember Leonard’s 1989 film debut on the other side of the desk in Dead Poets Society, as preppie Neil Perry, opposite Robin Williams’ crack performance as the unorthodox Mr. Keating.  Since then, he has had a highly respected if often unrecognized career on both stage and screen, including a seven-year run as Dr. James Wilson in House.   Like Dead PoetsProdigal Son  is also devoted to the duel between two strong-willed individuals, teacher and student, trapped by the business of education.

In 1965, I was fresh off my first year of teaching, in a somewhat less prestigious partial-boarding school across the Connecticut River in Vermont. In that year, I too took an interest in turning around the life of one particularly bright student who had had some bad breaks. I am very familiar, both with the frustrations and disappointments, and with the joy and pride in the small triumphs that can come with such an effort. There are thousands of stubborn, obsessed, brilliant teachers, mentors, coaches and parents all over the world faced with just such challenges. And at its core, Prodigal Son is a tribute to them all.

Shanley’s alter-ego is Jim Quinn, possibly the only fictionalized name in the play. Trusting the playwright when he reveals in the program that this is all true, we know from the get-go that Jim is going to turn out just fine, one way or another, because Shanley did. And it’s a major tribute to the author and the two principal actors that we are kept in suspense for the full hour and a half of the play. Chalamet is an astounding young actor, and well worth seeking out on film or stage. I recognized him from the bit role he played briefly in the TV series Homeland, before they blew him up.   In Prodigal Son he brings into sharp focus the full scope of adolescent anger and angst, the weird and wry mix of cockiness and insecurity, and the familiar disdain for the ordered world of adults that we associate with street-wise kids who have had few breaks. And Robert Sean Leonard is his perfectly matched foil.

There is an ongoing common dilemma with narratives that struggle to be accurately biographical or autobiographical. How close must a playwright stay to the truth? Must all details be as accurate as possible? Or is there an implicit license to distort stories, make up events, and invent situations just to make the play work, to give it dramatic appeal beyond the more mundane history of real life? Or on the other hand, is there some obligation for a playwright to stick to the truth of what happened, even at the expense of dramatic structure, even if it hurts the play?

History is fact.  Plays are stories.  To a dramatic artist, it’s very tempting, often very necessary, to distort history.  It happens all the time.    But I’m going to guess that just the opposite may have happened this time. At the very end of the play, Hoffman subtly reveals an untoward physical attraction to young Quinn that turns upside down everything the play has been about from the get-go, converting it into a ninety-minute shaggy dog story. I don’t know whether John Patrick Shanley was himself actually the victim of a sexual advance by his teacher, but other than an overwhelming urge to tell the truth, I can’t think of any reason to turn the play on its ear by introducing a whole new theme that remains unresolved.  Up to five minutes before the final curtain, this was NOT a play about a pederast. If it was intended to be, then I missed something very important, and I learned nothing about either character relating to their central relationship, intentions, or needs.  Not that Shanley couldn’t have written such a play if he had chosen to.  But to suggest that that was the secret that has driven the action does a major disservice to this play.

Still, Prodigal Son remains an engaging 99% of a fine play about the universal struggle to save a life, to communicate, to connect ideas, and to inspire. I’m sure it will make frequent appearances in regional and school theatre seasons. It should generate some hot discussions, and it would make excellent fodder for a fine movie.  I look forward to seeing future revisions and productions.

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On David Harrower’s BLACKBIRD

Blackbird closed on the night before the Tony Awards ceremony, after an eighteen-week limited run on Broadway. But it’s been around for quite a while, and will undoubtedly continue to shock audiences for some time to come. David Harrower was originally commissioned to write it for the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival, and that immediately generated over 40 productions world-wide.  Among them was a 2007 off-Broadway run at The Manhattan Theatre Club directed by Joe Mantello, with Jeff Daniels (Purple Rose of Cairo, The Squid and the Whale, etc.) and Alison Pill, who would go on to work together again in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.

I missed that production, but as an avid Jeff Daniels fan (with the possible exception of the Dumb and Dumber excursions, which everybody else apparently loves). I wasn’t about to miss his first Broadway run since the 2009 production of Yasmina Reza’s  God of Carnage.  He had played two roles at different times in that one, for the first of which he was also nominated for a Best Actor Tony, along with the rest of the original cast.  And now, it seems Daniels just couldn’t let Blackbird go.  Helmed again by Mantello, this time around he was paired with Michelle Williams as his nemesis.IMG_0289

Word of mouth and the initial reviews raved that Blackbird was perhaps the most intense  play of the Broadway season, echoing the 2007 excitement over the play. It picked up three Tony nominations, one for each actor and one for Best Revival of a Play, in addition to the Olivier and other recognition it had earned abroad.

As almost everyone knows by now, Blackbird  concerns one of modern civilization’s  most abhorrent taboos. It is the story of Una, a twenty-seven year old woman who returns to confront the man who had seduced her when she was twelve years old. The two of them ran off together at the time.  Ray was eventually caught, convicted and sent to prison. Fifteen years later, he has established a new identity and is comfortably settled in a steady office job … until Una tracks him down. A long and harrowing verbal duel ensues, in which excuses, pretensions, assumptions and some surprising reversals are revealed.  It’s an embarrassing, complicated, difficult, and awkward path they must walk together. And at the same time, they must both somehow earn the sympathy of the audience, horrified by the subject but entranced by what is essentially a tragic love story. Not an easy task. Daniels claims it was the most difficult role he has ever undertaken.

Both performances were intense, and demanded a huge emotional investment. As Daniels has said in interviews, the play begins badly, and ends badly. During the curtain calls, etched into his face was a grim combination of exhaustion and loathing, along with his gratitude for the inevitable standing ovation. He is no stranger to awards and applause, but it was very evident that this play “got to him,” as it has to audiences everywhere, in a way that few others do.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that performances like these must originate in the minds of playwrights.  Harrower based his play on the true story of Toby Studebaker, an American ex-marine who seduced and ran off with a 12 year-old British girl, and spent five years in prison, with an even longer sentence awaiting him in the U.S.  But the Scottish playwright has converted a tawdry and sensationalist news story into a universal exploration into the baseness of human behavior and the “justifications” we invent to forgive ourselves. It’s quite a ride.

A side note: If you missed the play, hang on; I’m quite sure it will be a prime pick with regional theatres in the coming months. And the film version, renamed as Una, will be released later this year, with Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn playing Una and Ray.

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On Stephen Karam’s THE HUMANS

You went to New York and you didn’t see Hamilton? You went to see The Humans? A little contemporary dramedy about a typical dysfunctional family, which rode onto Broadway at a time when audiences are consumed with big budget musicals featuring upbeat scores, body mikes, and wild spectacle?

I love musicals too; really I do … There’s just something irresistible about Rogers & Hammerstein and many of their heirs that has been in my blood forever. Okay, I admit to having gone through brief periods of abstention from musicals, when I was too easily offended if someone opened her mouth in song and destroyed “the moment.” I mean, who does that? … But I’m older now. I like musicals.

Still, my first choices usually run mostly in the low-key, truth-revealing little plays that ask me to join in exploring the quandaries of being a human being.   So when picking the agenda (and the budget) for my seven-plays-in-four-nights of New York theatre this spring, a play that was actually titled The Humans promised to tell me something about me and my species . And that was just too hard to resist, even before it earned all those kudos: rave reviews,  a Pulitzer nomination, and “Best Play” awards by the Tonys, The NY Drama Critics, the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama League, the Drama Desk, etc. Pretty impressive!

But what is The Humans, after all?   A family is gathered together under protest for a bare-bones, paper plate Thanksgiving dinner at daughter’s bare basement level pad in Chinatown. On the surface, this appears to be “just another” holiday-family-reunion-kitchen-sink story, featuring a relatively unknown cast (except for Mom and Dad, played by old favorite Jane Houdyshell, and Reed Birney, both of whom have been around on- and off-Broadway and on film and TV long enough to feel like relatives). However, “just another…” doesn’t really apply here.

IMG_0290Playwright Stephen Karam is no newcomer to the New York stage either. He also wrote Speech and Debate, and Sons of the Prophet (which earned him his first Pulitzer nomination). But he was himself surprised to find this play had made it to Broadway at all, never mind garnering so much praise along the way. Commissioned by the Roundabout Theatre folks, arguably the best nonprofit theater company in the country, it opened two years ago at Chicago’s American Theater Company, quickly moved just last Fall to their off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre, and then immediately boosted up to the Helen Hayes on Broadway.

As it turns out, The Humans is NOT about your typical dysfunctional family, where members aim sharply pointed clever lines at each other, rising to a climax where all the shams are exposed and everyone is destroyed and storms out of the room never to speak again. Or else somebody kills somebody.

According to Karam, The Humans began with “What’s keeping me up at night?”   Turns out to be just what’s keeping most of us up at night: Will I lose my job? Can I pay my rent?   Will anyone figure out who I really am? Will my marriage survive? Am I an alcoholic? Am I losing my mind? Among the six person cast is Grandmother, lost to Alzheimer’s, and a family member for each of the above fears and then some. And what is such a delicious surprise is that the dysfunction actually works. Despite the fear and the hurt, the distrust and the disappointment, this family actually functions. Painful emotional outbursts are inflicted, absorbed, and remarkably, in a demonstration of human resilience, life goes on. We take what’s given to us, we feel the disappointment in ourselves and each other, and we go on in the hope that things will get better. And, just maybe, they will.

The fear that they won’t, of course, never goes away. There are always the unexplained things that go bump in the night (which in this case occasionally scared the wits out of the audience). There is the constant unknown that we are lost in darkness, which is especially exploited at the end of the play, a curious throwback to the thriller/horror genre. Left alone after the Thanksgiving “feast,” during a full power outage, armed only with a lantern, Mr. Birney’s frightened character climbs into the dark at the top of the spiral staircase to seek the way out of his daughter’s seedy duplex. What kind of scary monster awaits him? A thug?   A wild animal? A mad killer?  Or worse: another day of struggling for his own and his family’s survival?

The Humans itself goes on with defiant resilience. It was expected to close this month at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Instead, boosted by its four Tony Awards, it will turn around and reopen a block away at the Gerald Schoenfeld on August 9. The box office is selling tickets thru the end of the year.

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NEXT TIME: Blackbird, and then the last two of my spring splurges in New York: John Patrick Shanley’s autobiographical Prodigal Son, and finally, the pièce de résistance, the  brilliant Lincoln Center production of The King and I. I told you. I have Rogers and Hammerstein in my blood.

A recent trip accompanying my wife to Chicago afforded me the opportunity to see two brilliant productions in the windy city that this journal will also explore: The Goodman Theatre’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Lorraine Hansberry’s too-often overlooked second play; and up at the ever inventive Steppenwolf, Mary Page Marlowe, a brand new play by Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, Superior Donuts).

We leave next week for the beautiful, welcoming little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Ontario’s wine country. It has recently become a favorite vacation destination for both my wife and myself, a chance to get outside our borders and look back to see who we are in America. It’s a great place for fine wine and friendly conversation. And it also manages, without excessive commercialism, to host the annual Shaw Festival, the second largest repertory theatre company in North America. I’ll tell you all about it.

So obviously there is much more coming. Be sure to sign up at the top right corner of this entry to receive notice whenever I make a new post. And PLEASE feel free to express opinions, arguments, and comments below. Select “Reply” and speak your piece.

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